History occasionally accelerates with unexpected speed as its slow, subterranean motions suddenly erupt into surges of change, sparked by an event whose ordinariness suddenly acquires an extraordinary potency out of a unique confluence of forces. The triggers of course vary, but there is a particular poignancy that comes with the incendiary intimacy of individual murders. Such killings strike a powerful emotional and cognitive chord in the human imagination in a way that mass murders may not, as their sheer scale congeals into mind-numbing abstractions.
The public execution of George Floyd, with its casual performance of suffocating and snuffing life out of the black body became a frightful spectral presence in the minds of tens of millions of people in the United States and around the world. It captured with terrifying clarity the utter depravity and degradation of a black life that validated the humanistic and historic demands of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The spontaneous demonstrations that erupted across every state and in hundreds of cities and towns in the United States — including some with small black populations and even among those infamous for harbouring white supremacy movements and militias — quickly turned into the nation’s largest and most widespread protest movement against systemic racism since the 1960s, and some claim in American history. It brought both the country and the shambolic Trump presidency to an inflection point.
The uprising over Floyd’s murder derived its fiery multiracial and multigenerational rage from the coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately devastated the lives and livelihoods of black and poor people. It tapped into the surplus time and energies of people seeking release from the isolating suffocations of anti-COVID-19 lockdowns. It also benefitted from the inept and provocative responses of racist politicians and police forces. Further, it was catalysed by the persistent struggles of longstanding activists and social movements.
Assassinations as Historical Inflections
Assassinations have served to trigger major events throughout history. Think of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. This event helped ignite World War I by prying open long-simmering nationalist and imperialist rivalries in Europe. The conflicts were engendered by, and coalesced around, rival alliances that catapulted the world into an unprecedented conflagration.
Think of the brutal lynching of 14 year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi on 28 August 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The photographs of his mutilated body served to galvanise the American civil rights movement by inflaming age-old grievances and agitation against systemic racism and white supremacy, and the country’s North-South divide, overlaid by the global reverberations of Cold War superpower rivalries and decolonisation struggles in Africa and Asia.
Think of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, on 17 December 2010, in protest against state repression and economic distress for young people. It provoked the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring against the autocratic and corrupt ruling coalitions in North Africa, other parts of Africa, Asia and South America, adding fuel to the democratic wave unleashed by the end of the Cold War. Elsewhere in North America and Europe the Arab Spring inspired the Occupy movement.
However, the Arab Spring soon turned into the Arab Winter, pushed back by counter-revolutions comprising resurgent Islamism, the reinstatement of military rule in Egypt, descent into autocracy in Turkey, and ferocious civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. As for the victories of the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s, they remained limited and provoked a racist backlash. The Republican Party embarked on the “Southern Strategy” of courting white racists, and systemic racism and white supremacy were propped up with new structural and ideological scaffolding. For its part, World War I led to the consolidation of colonialism in Africa and Asia, reaped the whirlwinds of fascism and Stalinism in Europe, and unleashed the spectre of economic devastation that culminated in the Great Depression.
In short, revolutionary moments generate complex and contradictory futures in which progress is often checkmated by reversals, underscoring the fact that history is a dialectical process. The racist backlash against Obama that led to Trump’s election seems to have succeeded in creating an anti-racist backlash.
The Floyd moment in which the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining traction in the US and around the world will not be an exception. Progress will be made in chipping away at some of the practices, symbols, and performances of anti-black racism, but the fundamental structures of white supremacy are likely to survive and mutate.
In the Shadows of 1968
The American uprising of 2020 shares some parallels and connections to the uprising of 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King. The script of 1968 remains — notwithstanding some progress — in so far as the protests sprang from the deep well of institutionalised racism, economic inequality, social despair, political disenfranchisement, and the dehumanising terrors of police brutality and constant denigration of blackness in the national imaginary.
The road to 2020 was paved with the legacies of 1968. As Peniel Joseph, a renowned African American historian writes in The Washington Post, “The flames that engulfed large portions of America during the 1960s helped to extinguish the promise of the Great Society by turning the War on Poverty into a dehumanizing war against poor black communities. America has, in the ensuing five decades, deployed state of the art technology to criminalize, surveil, arrest, incarcerate, segregate and punish black communities. Floyd’s death represents the culmination of these political and policy decisions to choose punishment over empathy, to fund prisons over education and housing and to promote fear of black bodies over racial justice”.
In short, revolutionary moments generate complex and contradictory futures in which progress is often checkmated by reversals, underscoring the fact that history is a dialectical process. The racist backlash against Obama that led to Trump’s election seems to have succeeded in creating an anti-racist backlash.
The America of King’s dream of racial equality and social justice not only remained deferred, but was actively sabotaged by the courts, politicians, and business. The landmark legislative achievements of the civil rights movements, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 wilted as the prison industrial complex, deepening socioeconomic inequalities, and social despair among the poor, both black and white, exploded.
Since 1968, there have been periodic eruptions of protests, most memorably the 1992 Los Angeles uprising following the acquittal of four police officers charged with the widely publicised beating of Rodney King, and the 2014 uprising that began after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a police officer. After each uprising, police, judicial and other reforms were announced, but they largely gathered dust as the protests faded into memory until the next eruption elsewhere.
Only history will tell if the 2020 uprising is different, a transformative watershed in the long history of protests against systemic racism and police brutality. Some are doubtful, others more hopeful. A sample of the divergent opinions can be found among two dozen experts convened by Politico magazine.
Those who doubt that the Floyd protests represent an inflection point worry about the challenges of sustaining the momentum of protest, dynamic grassroots organising and cohesive leadership and unity around a clear set of goals, as well as the powers of state suppression and repression in the reactionary name of “law and order”. Further, hyper-partisanship is more glaring today than ever, facilitated by political polarisation and media fragmentation that make reconciliation difficult.
Those who are more hopeful about the positive impact of the uprising point to the nationwide scale of the protests, the ubiquity of video images of police brutality, and the fact that the protests are occurring in the face of a pandemic and mass unemployment that have disproportionately ravaged people of colour. Moreover, the presence of an outrageously racist, divisive and authoritarian-minded president has increasingly alienated moderate whites.
Many believe the expansive geography of the protests portends its historical significance. In the 1960s, “most protests were held in major cities and on college campuses — and most Americans saw them on the television news”. The 2020 uprising is different. “National media focuses on the big demonstrations and protest policing in major cities, but they have not picked up on a different phenomenon that may have major long-term consequences for politics. Protests over racism and #BlackLivesMatter are spreading across the country — including in small towns with deeply conservative politics. Altogether, according to some counts, the Floyd protests occurred in 1,280 places.
The Floyd moment in which the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining traction in the US and around the world will not be an exception. Progress will be made in chipping away at some of the practices, symbols, and performances of anti-black racism, but the fundamental structures of white supremacy are likely to survive and mutate.
If current polls are to be believed to be harbingers of the future possibilities for transformation, according to The New York Times, “support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm. By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began”.
The paper continues, “A Monmouth University poll found that 76 percent of Americans consider racism and discrimination a ‘big problem,’ up 26 points from 2015. The poll found that 57 percent of voters thought the anger behind the demonstrations was fully justified, while a further 21 percent called it somewhat justified. Polls show that a majority of Americans believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans, and that there’s a lot of discrimination against black Americans in society. Back in 2013, when Black Lives Matter began, a majority of voters disagreed with all of these statements”.
In short, the 2020 uprising seems to represent progress over 1968 in the scale of its multiracial composition and breadth of demands for racial justice. It suggests white America and other Americans of colour are coming to understand the depth and scope of unrelenting black pain under institutional racism and white supremacy. In the words of Alex Thompson in Politico, “The killing of George Floyd has prompted a reckoning with racism not only for Joe Biden, but for a wide swath of white America,” which he argues could reshape the 2020 elections.
However, given the history of the United States, doubts remain whether this moment represents a defining turning point. The road towards racial equality and justice will continue to be bumpy because what is at stake is the entire system of racial capitalism that reproduces white supremacy, not just its manifestations evident in heinous practices such as police brutality.
What is certain is that the terrain of American race relations is shifting. Floyd’s death has spearheaded the country’s largest and broadest anti-racist movement and made Black Lives Matter an acceptable slogan and not the dreaded and derided radical idea it once was. Behind the movement’s new-found traction lie six long years of tireless work by its activists.
On the Trails of Slavery
The modern world was created by the triangular slave trade between Africa, Europe, and the Americas. These continents have been linked ever since by the historical geographies and political economies of exploitation and struggle. The US uprising inspired worldwide protests. This reflected the ubiquity of both America as a superpower with an outsize presence in the global imagination and almost universal anti-black racism born out of the Atlantic slave trade that created the modern world.
The protests tapped into growing recognition in many western countries that racism is a problem. According to The Economist, “The share of Americans who see racial discrimination in their country as a big problem has risen from 51% in January 2015 to 76% now. A YouGov poll last week found that 52% of Britons think British society is fairly or very racist, a big rise from similar polls in the past. In 2018, 77% of the French thought France needed to fight racism, up from 59% in 2002. Pew Research found last year that in most countries healthy majorities welcome racial diversity”.
The unprecedented scale of the protests in the US provoked confrontations between the obdurate and callous Trump administration and city mayors and state governors around the country. It produced iconic moments and images. Most graphically, in an act of political pornography and vandalism, there was the picture of Trump awkwardly holding a bible in front of a church after the National Guard had forcibly cleared peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Square using teargas and rubber bullets. The mayor of Washington responded by painting and ceremonially naming two blocks of the street to the White House Black Lives Matter Plaza. The newly extended perimeter from the White House was turned into an exuberant makeshift exhibition of resistance art, posters, and graffiti.
The America of King’s dream of racial equality and social justice not only remained deferred, but was actively sabotaged by the courts, politicians, and business
Trump’s overreaction triggered a powerful backlash. Widely condemned for accompanying the president to his ill-fated photo-op, the Defense Secretary and Chief of Staff apologised. Several former military leaders expressed disgust and alarm. John Allen, former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, warned: “The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment”.
Other retired military leaders sought to depoliticise their beloved Pentagon from the clutches of the aspiring draft-dodging autocrat. They included John Mattis, who served as Trump’s own Defense Secretary, and Colin Powell, a former Chief of Staff and Secretary of State, who accused Trump of unprecedented divisiveness. The Pentagon promised to review the conduct of the National Guard against the protests. Former presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama expressed their misgivings, and some Republican politicians nervously tried to distance themselves from a president who increasingly looked like a deranged dictator in the mold of the despots he clearly admires and envies.
Before long, anti-racist struggles and protests spread to countries with their own troubled histories of anti-black racism, from Canada to Brazil in the Americas, the former colonial powers of Europe, and the outposts of European settler colonialism in Australasia. Electrifying images were beamed on television stations and social media around the world. A sample can be seen in The Atlantic “Images from a Worldwide Protest Movement”.
In each country and city where the Floyd protests took place, parallels were drawn with local histories of anti-black racism, social injustice, exclusion and marginalisation. The demonstrations and marches were organized by local groups of the Black Lives Matter movement, political and civil society activists, and local groups that had long fought against all forms of exclusion and discrimination. The protests often took place in front of US embassies, national parliaments, public squares, as well as in front of detested statues and monuments to slavery, imperialism and colonialism, and along major thoroughfares.
American diplomats found it galling for the US to be the target of human rights protests around the world as the specious cocoon of democratic exceptionalism spectacularly burst. The New York Times observed, “Diplomats Struggle to Defend Democracy Abroad Amid Crises at Home . . . In private conversations and social media posts… [they] expressed outrage after the killing of George Floyd and President Trump’s push to send the military to quell demonstrations. Diplomats say that the violence has undercut their criticisms of foreign autocrats and called into question the moral authority the United States tries to project as it promotes democracy and demands civil liberties and freedoms across the world”.
The Americas harbour the largest population of the African diaspora mostly descended from enslaved Africans. While there have been some national differences in the constructions of racial identities, since the 16th century the black experience across the region has been uniformly exploitative and oppressive, characterised by slavery, institutionalised racism, exclusion, and police brutality.
Canada — which likes to see itself as the gentler face of North America — is no exception. The country has an ugly history of anti-black racism and genocidal brutality against the indigenous people. Not surprisingly, the uprising in the US resonated in all the country’s provinces and major cities from Halifax, Sydney and Yarmouth in Nova Scotia, where the black loyalists from the American War of Independence settled, to Fredericton, Moncton and Sackville in New Brunswick, St. John’s in Newfoundland, and several cities in Quebec including Montreal, Quebec City and Sherbrooke. Huge protests also took place across Ontario in such cities as Barrie, Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Toronto, and Windsor, and in the western provinces of Alberta (Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethridge), British Columbia (Vancouver and Victoria and other cities), Manitoba (Winnipeg), and Saskatchewan (Saskatoon and Regina).
However, given the history of the United States, doubts remain whether this moment represents a defining turning point. The road towards racial equality and justice will continue to be bumpy because what is at stake is the entire system of racial capitalism that reproduces white supremacy, not just its manifestations evident in heinous practices such as police brutality.
Unknown to many people is the fact that Mexico has an African diaspora population and that racism is deeply entrenched despite the myths of mestizaje, or racial mixing. White Mexicans have dominated the country and marginalised the indigenous people and African descendants for centuries. Protests and vigils occurred in Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Xalapa. They spread to South America from Argentina (Buenos Aires) that whitened itself in the 19th century through a campaign of black extermination, to Brazil (Curitiba, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo), the country with the largest African diaspora in the world and a horrible history of systemic racism despite the cruel myth of racial democracy, as well as Ecuador (Quito), and Colombia (Bogotá), another country with a massive African diaspora presence.
In the Caribbean, most of the islands have majority African descended populations. Historically, the region’s intellectual-activists played a crucial role in the development of Pan-Africanism. Migration from the region in the 19th and 20th centuries to South and North America and Europe has given its inhabitants intricate global connections so that developments in these regions reverberate with political immediacy. Protests took place in Bermuda, in Kingston, Jamaica, and in Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago.
The protests particularly resonated in Europe with its colonial histories, and failures to integrate recent waves of migrants and refugees from its imperial outposts in Africa and Asia. The black British journalist and academic, Gary Younge, brilliantly dissects the resonance of the American uprising. “Europe’s identification with black America, particularly during times of crisis, resistance and trauma, has a long and complex history. It is fuelled in no small part by traditions of internationalism and anti-racism on the European left, where the likes of Paul Robesson, Richard Wright and Audre Lorde would find an ideological – and, at times, literal – home”.
However, he continues, “this tradition of political identification with black America also leaves significant space for the European continent’s inferiority complex, as it seeks to shroud its relative military and economic weakness in relation to America with a moral confidence that conveniently ignores both its colonial past and its own racist present. From the vantage point of a continent that both resents and covets American power, and is in no position to do anything about it, African Americans represent to many Europeans a redemptive force: the living proof that the US is not all it claims to be, and that it could be so much greater than it is”.
Britain and France, the former colonial superpowers, became the epicenters of large protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and in pursuit of local anti-racism and social justice struggles. Predictably, right-wing politicians and the punditocracy dismissed the solidarity protests claiming, as British black historian, David Olusoga, noted, “The US situation is unique in both its depth and ferocity, they say, so that no parallels can be drawn with the situation in Britain. The smoke-and-mirrors aspect of this argument is that it attempts to focus attention solely on police violence, rather than the racism that inspired it”, which is prevalent in Britain and across Europe.
Olusoga notes that this argument has an old history going back to 1807 “with the abolition of the slave trade and picked up steam three decades later with the end of British slavery, twin events that marked the beginning of 200 years of moral posturing and historical amnesia”. In Britain, demonstrations broke out from May 28 and for the next two weeks roiled all the major cities including London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Brighton, Belfast, Oxford, Cardiff, Newcastle, Sheffield, Hastings, Glasgow, Coventry, Nottingham, Carlisle, Middlesbrough, and Wolverhampton. Some believed this marked a turning point in the UK as, in the words of The Guardian, “demands for racial justice now have a new and unstoppable urgency”.
France suffers from a pernicious tradition of colonial denial and amnesia, clothed in facetious fidelity to universal values, which it rationalised at the height of empire with the myth of assimilation. But the country has its own history of police brutality and killings of black people. It was rocked by unrest in Paris, Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse during which protesters invoked George Floyd and their own black martyrs to French racism.
The cities of other former colonial powers were not spared. In Belgium there were widespread protests in Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Hasselt, Leuven, Liège, and Ostend. Germany was another centre that saw demonstrations by thousands of people in more than two dozen cities including Berlin, Bonn, Cologne, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hannover, Leipzig, Munich, Nuremberg, and Stuttgart. Italy was engulfed by protests in two dozen cities including Bologna, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Rome, Turin, and Verona. In Portugal, the last imperial power to be booted out of Africa, thousands of people marched in Lisbon and Porto. Spain, whose African colonial empire was the smallest, a dozen cities witnessed protests including Barcelona and Madrid.
Protests spread to other European countries that had been involved in establishing slave trading forts or colonial settlements across the western seaboard of the African continent. In Denmark, whose slave forts dot the coastline of modern Ghana, hundreds and thousands of people gathered and marched in Aalborg, Aarhus, Copenhagen and Odense. In the Netherlands, the country that gave South Africa its Afrikaner architects of apartheid, solidarity vigils and protests took place from June 1 for the next fortnight in several cities including Amsterdam, Breda, Eindhoven, Leeuwarden, Maastricht, Rotterdam, Utrecht, The Hague, and Tilburg. In Norway, a country that was unified with Denmark during the era of the slave trade, protesters marched in Bergen, Kristiansan, Oslo, and Tromsø.
Such has been the global reach of the uprising against racism and police brutality that other European countries were caught in the turbulence. In Vienna, Austria, more than 50,000 people marched on June 4. Large protests also took place in Sweden in the cities of Gothenburg, Malmö, and Stockholm, while in Switzerland they occurred in Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, and Zürich. Smaller protest marches also took place in Sofia in Bulgaria, Zagreb in Croatia, Nicosia in Cyprus, Prague in the Czech Republic, Helsinki in Finland, Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece, Budapest in Hungary, Reykjavík in Iceland, Cord, Dublin and Limerick in Ireland, Pristina in Kosovo, Vilnius in Lithuania, Luxembourg, Valletta in Malta, Podgorica in Montenegro, Kraków, Poznań and Warsaw in Poland, Bucharest in Romania, Belgrade in Serbia, and Bratislava in Slovakia.
Asia became another theater of Floyd protests although not on the scale of the Atlantic world except for Australia, a settler colony with a notorious history of systemic racism and police brutality against the indigenous people, and Asian and African immigrants. The protests in Brisbane and Sydney attracted tens of thousands of people, and sizable numbers took part in other Australian cities from Canberra, the capital, to Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth.
Hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of people protested in Japan (Tokyo and Osaka), Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea (Seoul), India (Kolkata), Pakistan (Karachi), Sri Lanka (Colombo), the Philippines (Quezon City), Thailand (Bangkok), Kazakhstan (Almaty and other cities), Armenia (Yerevan), Georgia (Tbilisi), Iran (Tehran), Israel (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa) — led by Israelis of African origin who face racism and disproportionate police arrests — Lebanon (Beirut), and Palestine (Bethlehem).
The protests in the United States and around the world focused on a broadly similar range of targets. First, law enforcement agencies that uphold the system of racial capitalism that marginalises and disempowers black people. Second, the symbols of white supremacy embodied in the public commemorations that honour the perpetrators of enslavement, colonisation, and plunder. Third, private institutions, organisations, and corporations that tolerate and reproduce racial inequalities.
Ironically, it was in Africa where protests over Floyd’s death were relatively muted. To be sure, there were some demonstrations often involving dozens or hundreds of people in several countries such as Ghana (Accra), Kenya (Nairobi), Liberia (Monrovia), Nigeria (Abuja), Senegal (Dakar), South Africa (Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria), Tunisia (Tunis), and Uganda (Kampala). More extensive and powerful expressions of solidarity were vented in petitions by activists, intellectuals, and artists (I participated in one called “We Cannot Remain Silent”), and especially on social media, according to Nana Osei-Opare writing in the Washington Post. This intriguing phenomenon reflects three complex factors.
First, in spite of Pan-Africanist rhetoric among African leaders and intellectuals, it reflects an enduring disconnect between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. It is borne out of limited engagements that ordinarily would emanate through the educational system and other forms of positive mutual exposure. Instead, there is an overexposure to negative stereotypes in the media that often traffic Eurocentric constructs and tropes on both sides of the other’s “civilisational” lack. More deeply, the unknowing of the diaspora, the willful ignorance of its tribulations, elides Africa’s complicity in the very creation of the Atlantic diasporas through the slave trade.
Second, is the ambivalent postcolonial mindset rooted in the colonial denial of African humanity and historicity. It is a miscognition that simultaneously breeds resentment of the empire and craving of its prowess. This generates a strange desire to be embraced and absorbed into the empire’s imagined superiority and advancement enveloped in the whiteness that the colonised strives for but, like Sisyphus, is destined never to attain, thereby inducing a state of perpetual self-doubt and self-denial. This fosters both envy of the diaspora ensconced in the heart of empire and blindness to its plight, a slippery disposition that engenders a deficit of sympathy and often slides into blaming the victim.
Third, there is what I would call the shortage of surplus political capital for solidarity, the dispositions to accommodate transnational diaspora struggles. Surplus capital can be externalised for better or ill as evident in the impetus for new imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Save for their elites, many African communities in their protean daily lives, now made infinitely worse by the coronavirus pandemic, are fettered by debilitating economic, political, and social conditions and perpetual struggles against often autocratic regimes or illiberal democracies whose law enforcement agencies have retained the deformities of colonial state violence and repression.
Reclaiming Public Memory
The monuments that have become the focus of public protests, accompanied by demands for more accurate, holistic and inclusive historical representations, are part of the struggles for liberating highly sanitised and racialised public spaces and memories. The protesters seek to insert African-descended peoples and their invaluable contributions in the national and regional histories of Euroamerica.
The removal and desecration of racist monuments offer a powerful rebuke against the brazen glorification of imperial and colonial conquests, exploitation, and oppression. These acts of iconographic liberation strike at the willful production of ignorance and limited understanding about the unsavory histories that made Euroamerica through the educational system, popular histories, and films and television. They have been targeted for decades as offensive symbols and reminders of slavery and racial oppression.
The conversations forced by the assault on racist monuments provoke much-needed historical reckoning and accounting for the persistent racial inequalities, injustices, and hierarchies bequeathed by enslavement, colonialism, and empire. They help dismember contemporary constructions of belonging and citizenship, of who constitutes and can enjoy the rights of the social and political community of the nation-state in Europe and the settler societies of the Americas and Australasia.
In the US, the removal of the statues and symbols of the renegade losers of the civil war who fought to retain slavery has intensified and reached the hallowed halls of Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged the removal of 11 statues representing Confederate leaders and soldiers, noting that the “statues pay homage to hate, not heritage”. The Pentagon announced its willingness to rename military bases associated with Confederate figures, a move that was endorsed by the Republican-controlled Senate despite Trump’s expressed opposition.
The scale of the task is huge as there are about 1,800 Confederate symbols across the US (776 of which are monuments), and only 141 (61 of them monuments) have been removed, and seven are pending removal. For their part, “the Navy and Marine Corps announced that they will ban the display of the Confederate flag at their facilities and events. Church symbols have not been exempt. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention “called for the retirement of a gavel that carries the name of a 19th-century Southern Baptist leader who was a slaveholder and led the convention in support of the Confederacy”. He proceeded to say “‘black lives matter’ six times in his presidential address”.
In Britain, protesters toppled the statues of slave traders including Edward Colston in Bristol, and Robert Milligan in London. City councils under the Labour Party led by the capital, London, announced their intention to set up commissions to review sculptures, buildings and street names associated with slavers, while Conservative councils came under increased pressure to do the same. Activists hoped the toppling of the public memorialisations of the symbols of slavery and colonialism would force the country to confront the sordid historical injustices that had shaped it.
Several institutions including hospitals and universities also began the process or conversations to remove historical figures associated with the slave trade. Calls intensified for the disposal of the notorious imperialist Cecil Rhodes, a campaign that began in 2016 on the heels of the RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town, and racist icons of the British establishment such as Winston Churchill and Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouts movement. But Catherine Bennet cynically that, “As statues of slave traders are torn down, their heirs sit untouched in the Lords”.
In Belgium the statue of King Leopold II of Belgium, the architect of one of the worst genocides of the 20th century that decimated 10 million people in the Congo, was removed in Antwerp. In Spain debate was rekindled for the removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona — which some councilors had voted for in 2016 — for its glorification of the conquest of the Americas and for its replacement by a memorial of those who resisted imperialism and the oppression and segregation of the indigenous people and enslaved Africans and their descendants.
The removal of the statues of slave traders and imperialists in Europe is a homage to the unfinished project of decolonisation that began after World War II. The struggle over historical memory, constructions, and emblems is about the legacies of the past that disfigure the present and threaten to burden the future if reckoning and resolution continue to be postponed. The refusal to deal with the past and its stifling shadows on contemporary society is infantile and an ingrained part of the repertoire of anti-black racism in the Americas, Europe, and elsewhere. Removing statues is of course a symbolic act, but symbols matter. As Eusebius McKaiser reminds us, “We know from South Africa that toppling statues is no silver bullet – but it’s a start”.
Thus, at stake in the political and discursive struggles over the statues is collective public denial or willingness to reckon honestly with the complicated and messy histories and persistent legacies of slavery and empire, to dismantle false national mythologies and self-righteous delusions that breed shameless hypocrisies and perpetuate human rights abuses. Many of the contested statues were created decades or even centuries after the individuals or events their creators sought to glorify (in the US the Confederate monuments were created as part of the revisionist romanticisation of the “Lost Cause”). This underscores the fact that they were built to augment the arsenal of selective political constructs in the ignominious service of white supremacy.
The struggles to reclaim public spaces and historical memory from the accretion of generations of racist practices and ideologies is leading powerful institutions and individuals to embrace performative anti-racist activism that does not cost them much but serves to burnish their brands. The growing traction of the Black Lives Matter movement in public opinion has raised the opportunity costs of casual anti-black racism as a majority of Americans have increasingly come to believe that racism is a problem in the US.
This moment has ironically been facilitated by Trump’s presidency, which is characterised by unabashed racism, dizzying incompetence, authoritarian impulses, and perpetual chaos. Trump has succeeded in accelerating the erosion of the conservatism he was elected to protect from the country’s changing demographics and liberal drift. Thus, the Trump administration, which emerged out of a racist backlash against the Obama presidency, has helped both to reinforce and upend systemic racism and white supremacy.
Trump simultaneously brought racism out of the post-civil rights closet and made racism increasingly embarrassing to the so-called middle America of moderate whites and unacceptable to younger white Americans more exposed to multiracial experiences and expectations, not least because of the symbolic possibilities of the Obama presidency notwithstanding all its limitations. The national uprising has been remarkably multiracial, far more than the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. It has been dominated by young people, as revolutionary moments tend to be.
Trump’s victory often obscures the fact that the shifts in racial attitudes began earlier. One observer contends that “For all the attention paid to the politics of the far right in the Trump era, the biggest shift in American politics is happening somewhere else entirely”, namely, in the move to the left of white liberals on questions of race, racism and other priorities of the Democratic coalition such as immigration reform. He calls it the “Great Awokening” that began with the 2014 protests in Ferguson. “Opinion leaders often miss the scale and recency of these changes because progressive elites have espoused racial liberalism for a long time”.
A poll published on 9 June 2020 found that “nearly two-thirds of Americans, including 57% of whites, are ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about systemic racism”. It is this shift in public opinion that makes performative support for anti-racism more imperative for more constituencies and actors in the public and private sphere, from corporations to the media, sports and academe. The New York Times puts it pithily, “From Cosmetics to NASCAR, Calls for Racial Justice Are Spreading. What started as a renewed push for police reform has now touched seemingly every aspect of American life”.
Racist behaviours and statements that would previously have been ignored increasingly threatened the careers and social standing of their perpetrators as the opprobrium for anti-black racism rose. It became a season of apologies from media personalities, sports figures, university professors, publishers, and film directors, for the offensive statements they had made in the past or following Floyd’s horrific killing.
The public imagination was especially captured by the apologies and the affirmations that Black Lives Matter by sports figures. The NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated, “We the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people”. He went on to stress, “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest”. Confronted by criticism that he did not mention Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who popularised kneeling during the national anthem as a form of protest against police brutality, he later did so and appealed for Kaepernick’s reinstatement. NASCAR, especially popular among Southern whites, announced the banning at its events of Confederate flags — a despised symbol among African Americans — which it had discouraged since 2015 to no avail.
Apologies and protests spread to the rarefied white-dominated world of fashion as the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, apologised for publishing hurtful or intolerant stories and not hiring enough people of colour. The editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned “after an article with the headline ‘Buildings Matter, Too,’ on the effects of civil unrest on the city’s buildings, led to a walkout by dozens of staff members”.
For their part, “more than 300 leading stage artists signed a letter decrying racial inequality in the world of ‘White American theater’”. Some musicians converted to the new anti-racist tune: “Lady Antebellum, the Grammy-winning country music trio behind one of the highest-selling country songs of all time, is dropping the “antebellum” from its name”, wrote The Washington Post. The cinematic arts also saw the light. Television shows, such as Cops, and films, such as Gone with the Wind, that glorify police violence and elide the brutalities of slavery, were terminated or removed from streaming. However, critics maintained that censoring old films and TV shows was not enough; what mattered was employing more people of colour in the industry.
Restiveness among technology companies also became evident. The announcement by IBM and Amazon that they were withdrawing their face recognition technology from use by police forces in racial profiling and mass surveillance was widely hailed in some quarters. In the meantime, “More than 200 Microsoft employees have signed a letter calling on the company to stop supplying software to law enforcement agencies; to support efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department; and to join a call for the mayor of Seattle, Jenny Durkan, to resign. The signers are a tiny fraction of Microsoft’s more than 140,000 employees. But the letter is another sign of increasing activism by employees at major technology companies on a range of political issues, which executives have been forced to address — if only to explain why they would not comply with workers’ requests”.
Performative anti-racist solidarity was also expressed in other countries, although to a more limited extent. In Britain, the tea-obsessed nation paid attention when “Top U.K. Tea Brands Urge #Solidaritea With Anti-Racism Protests”, to quote a headline from a story in The New York Times. The story noted that a series of tea companies doubled down following right-wing complaints about businesses’ support for Black Lives Matter.
Clearly, as silence on race increasingly ceased to be an option, American companies and institutions fell over each other to proclaim their support for Black Lives Matter. Anti-racism suddenly became a badge of honour for companies eager to burnish their brands under America’s emerging new normal. Corporate America proudly wore its newly acquired conscience on its malleable sleeves.
The bandwagon expanded by the day and encompassed every sector as noted in the following partial list. Automobile industry: BMW, General Motors, Lexus, Mercedes Benz, and Porsche. Banking and finance: American Express, Barclays Bank, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, MasterCard, Wells Fargo. Delivery services: FedEx, and DHL. Film and Television: The Academy, Cartoon Network, DIRECTV, Disney, ESPN, HBO, Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Fox, Hulu, IMAX, Netflix, Showtime, STARZ, Star Wars, Warner Bros, and YouTube. Gaming: Astro Gaming, GameSpot, Nintendo, PlayStation, Pokémon, XBox, Sony, Nintendo, EA, Ubisoft, Take-Two, Square Enix, Riot Games, Rockster Games, Bethesda, and Capcom.
Health and Insurance: MetLife, New York Life, UnitedHealth Group. Food and Beverages: Ben & Jerry’s, Burger King, Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Doritos, Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Gatorade, Popeyes Chicken, McDonald’s, Pop Tarts, Red Lobster, Subway, Starbucks Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. Music and performance: Atlantic Records, Billboard, Capitol Records, Virgin Records, Warner Records, and Metropolitan Opera. Oil and gas: BP. Pharmaceuticals and pharmacies: Bauer, CVS, Merck, and Pfizer. Publishing: Condé Nast.
Retail and grocery stores: American Apparel, Adidas, Armani, Burberry, Foot Locker, Gap, H&M, Home Depot, Huckberry, IKEA, Lacoste, Levi’s, Nike, Nordstrom, Reebok, Proctor & Gamble, PUMA, Target, Vans, Versace, Zara, Lowe’s, Sephora, and Tesco. Sports: NASCAR, and NFL. Technology and e-commerce: Apple, Cisco, Dell, Dropbox, eBay, Facebook, Google, HP, Inivision, IBM, Intel, Lenovo, LinkedIn, McAfee, Microsoft, Mozilla, Qualcomm, Reddit, Snapchat, Salesforce, Shopify, Spotify, TikTok, Tinder, Tumblr, Twitter, and Zoom. Telecommunications: AT&T, Verizon, TMobile. Transport: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Lyft, and Uber.
The flood of corporate anti-racist statements was often accompanied by donations to venerable civil rights organisations such as the NAACP, Urban League, and National Action Network, and other groups fighting racial inequality. They also made vague promises to promote diversity and inclusion in their own companies without spelling out meaningful enforcement mechanisms. The donations tended to be largely token, but some were sizable. For example, SoftBank allocated of $100 million to invest in minority entrepreneurs, while “PayPal, Apple and YouTube collectively pledged $730 million to racial justice and equity efforts”. Estée Lauder, the cosmetics giant, raised its donation from $1 million to $5 million when its initial offer was derided by employees who compared it unfavorably to Mr. Lauder’s far more generous donations to Trump.
Many corporate executives saw the anti-racism cause as part of their corporate social responsibility, which for some amounted to political corporate social responsibility. In 2019, 181 US corporations signed a revised statement on the purpose of a corporation, issued by Business Roundtable. The corporate executives committed to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders by “Delivering value to our customers”, “Investing in our employees”, “Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers”, “Supporting the communities in which we work”, and “Generating long-term value for shareholders”.
While welcoming pledges by corporations to engage in anti-discrimination efforts and programmes to support black businesses and communities, many black corporate leaders and civil rights activists remained skeptical as noted in a long article in The New York Times, entitled “Corporate America Has Failed Black America”. They emphasised the need to tie executive pay to diversity metrics, which a few companies such as Microsoft, Intel and Johnson & Johnson had embraced.
By and large, critics of corporate America were not impressed by its performative anti-racism. They bemoaned the glaring gap between its fluffy anti-racist rhetoric and the reality of entrenched racist practices in most American companies. Some of the advice given to companies by their cheerleaders exacted little cost. One corporate sympathiser urged them to expand their relationships with historically black colleges and universities, advertise more openly, create diverse interview panels at all levels, provide extensive sensitive training for all employees, and set the tone for inclusion at the top.
The Economist contended, “Good intentions of bosses aside, untangling the problem of race and corporate America requires addressing four questions. First, what is the evidence that blacks are disadvantaged in the workplace? Second, how much is business to blame rather than society as a whole? Third, do any such disadvantages impact how businesses perform? And finally, what if anything can business do to improve matters?”
Its answer to all four questions underscored the prevalence of systemic racism and black under-representation throughout American business. It concludes, “Experts recommend creating a diversity strategy specifically for black employees, implementing clear and consistent standards for promotion and securing a firm commitment from the top to overcome bias among middle managers . . . That points to the importance of metrics and measurement”.
The rhetorical anti-racist bandwagon grew with breathtaking speed that confounded many people. Unhinged white conservatives bemoaned the trend, redoubled their virulent attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement and denounced the protesters as rioters and even domestic terrorists. Anguished white liberals shed their silence and commiserated with each other about racism and inundated their black colleagues with outpourings of sympathy, support and queries, which some blacks welcomed and others disdained. The latter resented the added burden of cleansing white consciences.
For their part, African Americans seized this rare opportunity to be heard by the wider society, unleashing an avalanche of tales of painful and often harrowing experiences with racism in their daily lives which they often hide from their white colleagues. New social media tags were created, such as #BlackInTheIvory that has been deluged by stories of the marginalisation, isolation, devaluation, frustration, and hostility experienced by black academics. Sales of books on race and racism, many by black authors, skyrocketed. The uprising also inspired thousands of people in the US and around the world to create powerful art. From “street murals near the White House to editorial comics created near where Floyd died, artists are delivering political messages through often stark imagery”.
The battles over racism and the protests raged on social media, the public square of the digital age. They engulfed platforms often not in the public eye. For example, as reported by The New York Times, “Upper East Side Mom Group Implodes Over Accusations of Racism and Censorship. A large Facebook parenting group temporarily shut down after silencing black members. Now new groups for parents are forming that are explicitly anti-racist.”
Trouble in the Ivory Tower
Colleges and universities were embroiled in the sprawling national crisis, although closures of campuses in response to the coronavirus pandemic saved them from protests on their own campuses and in university towns. Linda Ellis warns in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 12, 2020) that, “For Colleges, Protests Over Racism May Put Everything On the Line”. She predicts the reckoning will come once colleges and universities reopen and as students return to campuses, already energised by the national uprising triggered by Floyd’s horrific killing.
Many universities issued statements expressing sympathy, pain, even support for Black Lives Matter. Predictably, the statements vary in length, depth and breadth. Many were formulaic and fluffy, written by communication departments afraid of antagonising powerful donors, state lawmakers, and alumni. They invoke the role of the university as a positive force in society, forgetting the fact that American universities and education in general have been integral to the production and reproduction of the structures and ideologies of systemic racism.
As numerous studies have shown, building on Craig Steven Wilder’s groundbreaking Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, many of the renowned Ivy League universities were founded by or with resources from slave owners and slave traders. Over the generations, the ideologies and practices of anti-black racism have been concocted, refined and sanctified in the academy. Black history, contributions, concerns, interests and experiences are routinely excluded and devalorised in the American academy.
The constant assaults and surveillance of racism in the white academy is for black students and faculty are draining and exhausting. Some succumb to the stresses of racial battle fatigue and become less productive and alienated from a vocation they had chosen with such passion and expectation. They become retired on the job in that they check out and go through the motions of their jobs. Others persist and become adept at concealing the pain, humiliation, and hostility they often face. However, professional progress offers no immunity. In fact, the higher one rises, the more one is surveilled in the fishbowl of systemic racism that permeates American academic cultures and institutions.
African American students and academics are grossly underrepresented in the prestigious universities, programmes, and fellowships, while black-centred knowledges are often filtered out from the holy grail of academic publications, journals, grants, and conferences. There are of course differences according to discipline and field. The situation in the sciences is particularly egregious.
On June 10 2020, almost 6,000 scientists and academicians participated in a one-day strike. The event was organised under various hashtags, including #Strike4BlackLives, #ShutDownStem and #ShutDownAcademia, by scientists who complained about pervasive racism in science. Besides classes, several leading scientific journals, such as Nature, Science, Physical Review Letters and arXiv, cancelled activities that day.
Protests spread to some academic journals and their editors. For example, after writing a tone-deaf tweet criticising the Black Lives Matter movement as “flat earthers”, an array of economists that included the former chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, and Paul Krugman, a Nobel prize winner, called for the resignation of Harald Uhlig, the editor of Political Economy Review. In the US economics as a field is white male-dominated, which has led to the devaluation of research and publications by women and blacks and on gender and race.
I can relate to the challenges faced by African Americans in the academy. As a college dean and an academic vice president at predominantly white universities in California and Connecticut, respectively, I was subject to doubt and disrespect that none of my colleagues in similar positions experienced. As is all too common, I was the first black person to occupy those positions. Earlier in my career when I served as director of one of the largest centers for African Studies at a Research 1 university in the Midwest, I witnessed the exclusion of Africans and African Americans in the study of their own ancestral continent, Africa.
It became too much for me and, fortunately, I was able to flee to Kenya. I often commiserate with my friends and colleagues that I left behind, some of who have risen to higher positions as deans, provosts, and presidents. They continue to walk the fine line of racial discrimination and exclusion in the American academy. In the aftermath of the uprising many of them have courageously stepped up to denounce systemic racism and call for honest dialogue and real change on their own campuses and share their pernicious experiences with racism as black men and women.
Taming Law Enforcement
A key demand of the protesters has been the urgent need to address systemic police brutality, racial bias, misconduct, and unaccountability. The evidence of racism in the criminal justice system is overwhelming as an exhaustive list of studies in The Washington Post shows. As if to prove the Black Lives Matter movement right, the police reacted to the demonstrators with excessive force and brutality that resulted in 11 deaths and nearly 10,000 arrests within a fortnight. This galvanised the protest movement even further. The public and elected leaders could no longer ignore police behaving as an invading army and the armour of police untouchability began to crack.
To be sure, there were occasional scenes of police officers kneeling in solidarity withthe protesters. Some African American police chiefs — who are always caught between their racial identity and police fraternity — shared their agonies, dilemmas, challenges, and frustrations in trying to change their departments from within and reconcile their personal and professional, private and public lives.
Police Departments across the country came under pressure to review their policies and practices as public agitation for comprehensive police reform mounted. City councils, state assemblies, and Congress were forced to begin enacting long-standing demands and legislation banning grievous repressive practices and promoting police reform. For some, more radical measures were needed, and they adopted the slogan “Defund the Police”. The Center for Community Change Action framed the much-needed restructuring in terms of redistribution for reconstruction, taking funds from law enforcement to improve health care, education, and other social services and opportunities in communities of colour.
In the House of Representatives, Democrats unveiled the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 whose provisions included requiring police to use body and dashboard cameras, restricting the transfer of military equipment to police, prohibiting chokeholds and unannounced raids through the issuance of no-knock warrants, enhancing police accountability by restricting the application of the qualified immunity doctrine that makes it difficult to prosecute law enforcement personnel, establishing a federal registry of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary actions, granting power to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to issue subpoenas to police departments with a pattern and practice of bias or misconduct, and requiring state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding to adopt anti-discrimination policies and training programmes.
Republicans were caught flat-footed. The New York Times noted that, “Having long fashioned themselves as the party of law and order, Republicans have been startled by the speed and extent to which public opinion has shifted under their feet in recent days after the killings of unarmed black Americans by the police and the protests that have followed. The abrupt turn has placed them on the defensive”. They charged the only black Republican Senator, Tim Scott, to draft their own bill on police reform.
On 17 June 2020, Republicans “unveiled a policing reform bill that would discourage, but not ban, tactics such as chokeholds and no-knock warrants, offering a competing approach to legislation being advanced by House Democrats that includes more directives from Washington. The Republican proposal, which Senate leaders said would be considered on the floor next week, veers away from mandating certain policing practices, as the Democratic plan does . . . Prospects for reaching common ground in the coming weeks remain unclear”. The stage was set for a legislative brawl between the two parties, whose outcome was unpredictable.
Under mounting pressure, President Trump had issued an executive order the previous day. He offered tepid “support for curtailing police abuses while reiterating a hard line on law and order”, reported The Wall Street Journal. The order “has three main components: establishing an independent credentialing process to spur departments to adopt the most modern use-of-force practices; creation of a database to track abusive officers that can be shared among different departments; and placing social service workers to accompany officers on nonviolent response calls to deal with issues such as drug addiction and homelessness. Chokeholds would be banned under the recommended standards, Mr. Trump said, unless an officer’s life is at risk”.
Within two weeks of the national uprising following Floyd’s death, several states and cities had enacted legislation to reform the police services along some of the lines of the Democratic bill in Congress. The New York state assembly passed a bill allowing felony charges to be brought against police using chokehold or similar restraint, and for the release of disciplinary records of individual police officers, firefighters or corrections officers without their written consent. The governor ordered all police departments to develop and obtain approvals for reform plans by April 1 2021 in order to remain eligible for state funding, while the mayor of New York City announced plans to shift some funds from the police department’s $6 billion budget to other services.
Los Angeles cut funding by US$150 million from its police department. In Seattle, the mayor promised to invest US$100 million in the Seattle Black Commission for community-driven programmes for black youths and adults. The Minneapolis City Council voted overwhelmingly to abolish the police department. In Louisville, Kentucky, the City Council unanimously passed “Breonna’s Law” that banned the use of “no-knock” warrants, named after Breonna Taylor who was killed in her own home. In Washington DC the City Council also banned the use of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse protesters.
Some critics maintain focusing on the police is not enough. In the words of Charles Blow, “But, these bills, if they pass as conceived, would basically punish the system’s soldiers without altering the system itself. These bills would make the officers the fall guy for their bad behaviour while doing little to condemn or even address the savagery and voraciousness of the system that required their service. This country has established a system of supreme inequity, with racial inequity being a primary form, and used the police to protect the wealth that the system generated for some and to control the outrages and outbursts of those opposed to it and oppressed by it. We need more than performative symbols of solidarity. We need more than narrow, chaste legislation”.
The slogan “Defund the Police” turned into a battle cry for the supporters and opponents of comprehensive police reform. For its proponents this is a demand for a fundamental reimagining and restructuring of American law enforcement from its roots in the systemic racism and white supremacy of slave patrols that evolved into the gendarmes of Jim Crow and subsequent crackdowns on black protests and the highly racialised “War on Drugs.”
The critics argue that the nearly US$100 billion spent on law enforcement could be used, to quote Paige Fernandez, the Policing Policy Advisor of the American Liberties Union, writing in Cosmopolitan, to fund “more helpful services like job training, counseling, and violence-prevention programs . . . Funneling so many resources into law enforcement instead of education, affordable housing, and accessible health care has caused significant harm to communities”.
The author reminds her readers that, “Much of the work police do is merely engage in the daily harassment of Black communities for minor crimes or crimes of poverty that shouldn’t be criminalized in the first place. Consider this: Out of the 10.3 million arrests made per year, only 5 percent are for the most serious offenses, including murder, rape, and aggravated assault. These are the ones that truly threaten public safety . . . That means that police spend the most resources going after minor incidents that actually don’t threaten everyday life but do lead to mass criminalisation and incarceration”.
The brutality of police forces escalated with their militarisation, a process that accelerated, writes Simon Tisdall in The Guardian, in response to “the 9/11 attacks, when George W Bush plunged the country into a state of perpetual war. Paradoxically, his ‘global war on terror’ intensified international and domestic insecurity. It sparked a huge, parallel expansion in the powers and reach of the homeland security apparatus. As Pentagon spending grew to a whopping $738bn this year, total police and prison budgets have also soared, reaching $194bn in 2017. About 18,000 law enforcement agencies employ 800,000 officers nationwide. Many are armed to the teeth”. In short, the crisis of policing in the US flows from the devil’s brew of entrenched racism, excessive militarism, xenophobic nationalism, and imperial decline.
Transforming Racial Capitalism
Many leaders and opinion makers in political, business, media, and academic circles promote legislative and policy solutions as antidotes to systemic racism. However, anti-black racism has persisted despite the enactment of a myriad of laws and policies since the 1960s. White supremacy and its pathological disdain for black people, black bodies, and black humanity emanates from deep cultural and cognitive spaces that lie beyond the reach of well-crafted legislation and policy pronouncements.
In short, the struggle to eradicate systemic racism and white supremacy has to transcend police reform and electoral politics. After all, racial bias, violence, and inequality have persisted under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, including Obama’s own, and under black leaders in state assemblies and black mayors in cities. Thus, for young African Americans who have grown up in cities and in a country with thousands of elected black officials compared to the 1960s, the promises of electoral politics do not carry the same transformative appeal.
As in Africa following decolonisation, achieving political representation, a worthy goal in itself, is inadequate for the herculean task of fundamentally changing the structures of economic and political power and systemic racism in the United States. The younger generations demand, and are seeking to build, a new black and national politics of accountability and transformation.
The complicity of Democratic presidents, senators, and congressmen and congresswomen in the construction of the prison-industrial complex since the 1980s is all too well known. President Clinton’s crime and welfare reform legislation fueled mass black incarceration and impoverishment. For his part, President Obama failed to meet the radical expectations placed on his administration in terms of reforming the criminal justice system, reducing economic inequalities, and curtailing the corporate power that engendered the Great Recession. Whereas Clinton passed draconian immigration law, Obama’s deportation of undocumented immigrants reached record levels.
Fundamental change requires a much broader and bolder vision and an expansive and inclusive politics. It has to transcend the paralysing dogmas of neo-liberalism and encompass transforming the multiple structural pillars and cultural dynamics of racial capitalism, as well as building new multiracial and class coalitions and alliances. There is no shortage of blueprints for a different future from America’s radical thinkers and activists committed to building a future envisaged in Martin Luther King’s dream of a “beloved community” based on the pillars of economic and social justice free from poverty, discrimination, and violence.
Danielle Allen suggests creating a new national compact that encompasses some of the following elements: expanding the House of Representatives, adopting ranked-choice voting, instituting universal voting and instant voter registration for all eligible Americans, establishing an expectation of national service by all Americans, limiting Supreme Court justices to 18-year terms, building civic media to counteract the challenges introduced by social media, finding honest ways to tell the nation’s story, and increasing “resources and resolve for community leadership, civic education and an American culture of shared commitment to constitutional democracy and one another”.
In the magazine, Harvard Gazette, a group of six of the university’s faculty members discuss “how best to convert the energy of this moment into meaningful and lasting change”. Some explicitly support or echo the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. More specifically, they variously propose a serious reckoning of the foundational exclusions of African Americans and Native Americans; the pursuit of economic democracy; the need for a new Voting Rights act and a a Third Reconstruction involving “a fundamental reconsideration of our Constitution, systems, institutions, and practices to uphold human rights and ensure equal opportunity for all”. Centring black women in the struggle for collective liberation is imperative, and for the university itself “to move beyond the rhetoric of ‘diversity and inclusion’ and become anti-racist”.
Michele Alexander, the author of the influential book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, admonishes the nation in The New York Times. “America, This is Your Chance. We must get it right this time or risk losing our democracy forever”. She implores the country’s diverse citizens, “We must face our racial history and our racial present”, “We must reimagine justice” beyond tinkering with token or unsustainable fixes, “We must fight for economic justice” by transforming the economic system, and embracing one based on economic justice.
For some, economic justice also entails reparations, an issue that is gaining some traction. The reparations movement has a long history, but it has remained on the fringes of American intellectual and political discourse. An influential essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the African American writer who some regard as a successor to the great James Baldwin, “The Case for Reparations” published in The Atlantic in June 2014, brought the issue to the mainstream media. He argues powerfully, “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole”.
The data on what America owes African Americans is damning. In her book, The Color of Money, Mehrsa Baradaran offers a bleak assessment of the racial wealth gap and the limits of community self-help. She shows that in 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the black community owned 0.5 per cent of the country’s wealth. More than 150 years later this rose to a paltry 1 per cent! In a recent interview, she argues, America has repeatedly violated its promises of equal protection, equality and equality to African Americans. To quote her, “I teach contract law”, she states, “When you break a contract, you pay damages. We’ve broken the contract with Black America . . . We embedded racism into policy. And how do you get that out. How do you fix that? I think reparations is the only answer . . . And I think a process of reparations should involve truth and reconciliation. We have the funds. We saw this with the coronavirus. Over a weekend, the Fed infused trillions of dollars into the repo markets and into the economy. We don’t have limits of resources. We have limits of empathy and imagination”.
The need for white involvement in the anti-racist movement is well understood. No less critical is building strong multiracial alliances among America’s racial minorities, who collectively will in a couple of decades become the country’s majority. Each minority group has its own complex history and positioning in the country’s racial hierarchy and political economy. Particularly divisive has been the model minority myth applied to Asians, which some Asian Americans have embraced and internalised. It was constructed, and serves, to distance them from African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
Differentiation and distanciation from African Americans is the ritual of passage to Americanisation by every migrant group in the United States. Successive waves of Europeans from Irish, Italian, Slavic, and Jewish backgrounds were initially not considered white, but were eventually absorbed into whiteness, a process that often entailed socialisation into American racism. Asians, whose migration to the United States increased following changes in migration law due to the civil rights movement, have reveled in being called a model minority. Even immigrant Latin Americans and Africans seek dubious solace in their foreignness, in not being African American until they are brutalised by systemic racism and white supremacy. The 2020 uprising has brought a lot of soul searching for every racial group in the United States in terms of where they stand in the country’s enduring racial quagmire.
The national uprising has emboldened Asian American activists to call for solidarity with African Americans in struggles against systemic racism and white supremacy. Marina Fang notes, “George Floyd’s death has galvanized some Asian Americans to try to start conversations with their families about anti-Black racism” and build solidarity with Black communities. “Anti-Black racism in Asian communities is tied to the ‘model minority’ myth, which white political leaders, particularly in response to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, wielded in order to drive a wedge between Asian Americans and other people of color”.
Writing in The Washington Post, Prabal Gurung echoes the same sentiments, “It’s time for Asian Americans to shed the ‘model minority’ myth and stand for George Floyd”. He stresses, “Beyond simple divestment and rejection of our own trope, we must also actively combat anti-blackness — especially within the Asian community . . . To break from this cycle, we must begin by asking: Who benefits when minority groups fight each other or are apathetic to one another’s struggles? . . . It is time for us to stand in solidarity with black communities whose sacrifices led to the civil rights and privileges we benefit from”.
The Washington Post reported during the protests, “Many Asian Americans say they feel a need to show solidarity with black protesters . . . Asians have their own history of American discrimination from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the slurs and boycotts Asian American restaurant and business owners have faced during the coronavirus pandemic”. One Asian American protestor “said his generation is well aware that the success Asians have achieved in the United States is owed directly to black protesters in the 1950s and 1960s and is built “on the backs of those black leaders of the civil rights movement”.
The uprising has also forced many whites to accept that silence is complicity and to confess their ignorance about the depths of American racism. David Axelrod, the chief strategist for President Obama’s campaigns and senior advisor in the Obama White House, puts it poignantly in The Washington Post, “I thought I understood issues of race. I was wrong”. He goes on to state, “Despite my work, I was too often oblivious — or at least inattentive — to the everyday mistreatment of people of color, including friends and colleagues, in ways large and small. Although I was reporting on the issues of police brutality and unequal justice as a journalist, I didn’t experience it. My kids didn’t experience it. And I never really engaged my black friends and colleagues about their own experiences. I never asked, so far as I can remember, about their own interactions with police or their fears for their children”.
It is worth quoting Axelrod’s conclusion: “A lot of white Americans thought they understood. But the underlying legacy of racism still remains. The laws that were passed were hard-won and important, but they didn’t eliminate deeply ingrained biases and layers of discriminatory practices and policies that mock the ideal of equality. The election of a black president was a watershed event in our history that struck at the heart of the racist creed. But it didn’t end racism. In fact, it provoked a backlash that empowered a racist demagogue and new policies meant to further embed structural barriers to full citizenship for black Americans”.
This is an example of what the philosopher, Charles W. Mills, my former colleague at the University of Illinois at Chicago calls, “white ignorance”. He defines it as a historically constructed group-based cognitive tendency and moral disposition of non-knowing, of motivated irrationality. It is a perversely deforming outlook causally linked to white normativity and white privilege, in which white perception and categorisation, social memory and social amnesia are privileged, and non-white experiences and racial group interests are derogated.
White ignorance, Mills insists, is not confined to whites and is global in so far as the modern world was created by European imperialism and colonialism. It is a foundational miscognition that permeates perceptions, conceptions and theorisations in descriptive, popular and scholarly discourses. In his book, States of Denial, Stanley Cohen calls it “denial”, the willful act of not wanting to know, wearing blinders, turning a blind eye, blocking out, and of evading and avoiding unpleasant realities and horrific atrocities by the perpetrators and by bystanders of repression.
An often ignored site for the anti-racist struggle is the role of organised labour. In the US trade unions have declined precipitously. In the last four decades union membership fell by half from 20.1 per cent of workers in 1983 (17.7 million) to 10.3 per cent in 2019 (14.6 million). This helped reduce the capacity of the working class to organise against capital in the first instance, and to build multiracial coalitions and mobilise against the economic, political, and social system of racial capitalism. Deprived or divorced from collective class organisation and struggle, working people have been demobilised by capital and the political class. To be sure, in the United States the configurations of capital, labour, and politics have always been fractionalised, not least by the sheer scale of the demographics and ideologies of race.
As I noted in my earlier studies on labour movements after World War II, American trade unions at home and abroad were notoriously racist. However, the assault against organised labour accelerated in the post-civil rights era, as race was weaponised to camouflage the devaluation of labour under neo-liberalism. The “Southern Strategy” started peeling away white workers from the Democratic coalition. The rise of the “Reagan Democrats” culminated in the capture of demoralised and deradicalised white workers by Trump’s unabashedly racist insurgency.
In short, the anti-racist movement must find a way of mobilising the white working class, of aligning class, race, and gender for progressive change. More immediately, the labour movement, as Dave Jamieson notes, “faces a reckoning over police unions”. He notes that “police unions make a small slice of the AFL-CIO, but progressive members are increasingly uncomfortable associating with them”. Angered by police brutality, some labour leaders have called for cutting ties with police unions, increasing their transparency and accountability, and curtailing their funding and political power over both the Republican and Democratic parties.
The importance of transracial solidarity for working people is essential because the struggle is not just against racism, or just against capitalism, living in splendid isolation from each other, but against both in their articulation as racial capitalism. Race, class, gender and other social inscriptions are not competitive but complimentary categories of social and political identity and practice. They constitute interlocking structural, political, and representational processes that under racial capitalism reflect and reproduce deformed institutions and pathological social relations. The African American scholar and public intellectual, Kimberlé Crenshaw, calls this intersectionality, which offers more nuanced and complex analyses of systemic racism and white supremacy than the binaries of race and class and the isolated categories of race, class, and gender.
The concept of racial capitalism captures the interlocking nature of the capitalist system, patriarchy, and white supremacy. As Michael Dawson succinctly argues, each of these three systems of domination have “their own internal logics, which include sources of resistance”.” This means that “victories against one system of domination have the potential, too often unrealized, to undermine the other”. In its development racial capitalism undergoes historical shifts as the regimes of articulation of its constituent parts change. The question that arises with the 2020 national uprising is the extent to which it has pried open the contradictions between the three systems of domination.
The concept of racial capitalism captures the interlocking nature of the capitalist system, patriarchy, and white supremacy. As Michael Dawson succinctly argues, each of these three systems of domination have “their own internal logics, which include sources of resistance
The modern world system was created in the transatlantic world, including in the United States, by racial capitalism through the genocide of the native peoples, enslavement of Africans, and settler colonialism. Racism and patriarchy were integral to the extraction of value by white capitalists from both black and white workers, whose class solidarity was always undercut by white supremacy. Since the onset of neo-liberalism following the end of the long post-war boom in the 1970s, the wages of whiteness have precipitously declined as evident in stagnant incomes, a shrinking middle class, and rising inequalities. The prolonged capitalistic crises of accumulation and legitimacy, exacerbated by the Great Recession, produced the mobilisation of disaffected white working and middle classes by the insurgencies of rightwing populism embodied by Trump in 2016 and by the forces for social justice represented by the 2020 national uprising.
Thus, what is at stake goes beyond the reform of America’s law enforcement agencies and performative anti-racism. It is about the transformation of racial capitalism. Given the enormous stakes involved, and the depth and breadth of the economic, political, social and racial structures of domination, the struggle will be long and hard indeed. But the 2020 uprising has opened new doors of possibility.
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9/11: The Day That Changed America and the World Order
Twenty years later, the US has little to show for its massive investment of trillions of dollars and the countless lives lost. Its defeat in Afghanistan may yet prove more consequential than 9/11.
It was surreal, almost unbelievable in its audacity. Incredulous images of brazen and coordinated terrorist attacks blazoned television screens around the world. The post-Cold War lone and increasingly lonely superpower was profoundly shaken, stunned, and humbled. It was an attack that was destined to unleash dangerous disruptions and destabilize the global order. That was 9/11, whose twentieth anniversary fell this weekend.
Popular emotions that day and in the days and weeks and months that followed exhibited fear, panic, anger, frustration, bewilderment, helplessness, and loss. Subsequent studies have shown that in the early hours of the terrorist attacks confusion and apprehension reigned even at the highest levels of government. However, before long it gave way to an all-encompassing overreaction and miscalculation that set the US on a catastrophic path.
The road to ruin over the next twenty years was paved in those early days after 9/11 in an unholy contract of incendiary expectations by the public and politicians born out of trauma and hubris. There was the nation’s atavistic craving for a bold response, and the leaders’ quest for a millennial mission to combat a new and formidable global evil. The Bush administration was given a blank check to craft a muscular invasion to teach the terrorists and their sponsors an unforgettable lesson of America’s lethal power and unequalled global reach.
Like most people over thirty, I remember that day vividly as if it was yesterday. I was on my first, and so far only sabbatical in my academic year. As a result, I used to work long into the night and wake up late in the morning. So I was surprised when I got a sudden call from my wife who was driving to campus to teach. Frantically, she told me the news was reporting unprecedented terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Virginia, and that a passenger plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. There was personal anguish in her voice: her father worked at the Pentagon. I jumped out of bed, stiffened up, and braced myself. Efforts to get hold of her mother had failed because the lines were busy, and she couldn’t get through.
When she eventually did, and to her eternal relief and that of the entire family, my mother-in-law reported that she had received a call from her husband. She said he was fine. He had reported to work later than normal because he had a medical appointment that morning. That was how he survived, as the wing of the Pentagon that was attacked was where he worked. However, he lost many colleagues and friends. Such is the capriciousness of life, survival, and death in the wanton assaults of mass terrorism.
For the rest of that day and in the dizzying aftermath, I read and listened to American politicians, pundits, and scholars trying to make sense of the calamity. The outrage and incredulity were overwhelming, and the desire for crushing retribution against the perpetrators palpable. The dominant narrative was one of unflinching and unreflexive national sanctimoniousness; America was attacked by the terrorists for its way of life, for being what it was, the world’s unrivalled superpower, a shining nation on the hill, a paragon of civilization, democracy, and freedom.
Critics of the country’s unsavoury domestic realities of rampant racism, persistent social exclusion, and deepening inequalities, and its unrelenting history of imperial aggression and military interventions abroad were drowned out in the clamour for revenge, in the collective psychosis of a wounded pompous nation.
9/11 presented a historic shock to America’s sense of security and power, and created conditions for profound changes in American politics, economy, and society, and in the global political economy. It can be argued that it contributed to recessions of democracy in the US itself, and in other parts of the world including Africa, in so far as it led to increased weaponization of religious, ethnic, cultural, national, and regional identities, as well as the militarization and securitization of politics and state power. America’s preoccupation with the ill-conceived, destructive, and costly “war on terror” accelerated its demise as a superpower, and facilitated the resurgence of Russia and the rise of China.
Of course, not every development since 9/11 can be attributed to this momentous event. As historians know only too well, causation is not always easy to establish in the messy flows of historical change. While cause and effect lack mathematical precision in humanity’s perpetual historical dramas, they reflect probabilities based on the preponderance of existing evidence. That is why historical interpretations are always provisional, subject to the refinement of new research and evidence, theoretical and analytical framing.
America’s preoccupation with the ill-conceived, destructive, and costly “war on terror” accelerated its demise as a superpower.
However, it cannot be doubted that the trajectories of American and global histories since 9/11 reflect the latter’s direct and indirect effects, in which old trends were reinforced and reoriented, new ones fostered and foreclosed, and the imperatives and orbits of change reconstituted in complex and contradictory ways.
In an edited book I published in 2008, The Roots of African Conflicts, I noted in the introductory chapter entitled “The Causes & Costs of War in Africa: From Liberation Struggles to the ‘War on Terror’” that this war combined elements of imperial wars, inter-state wars, intra-state wars and international wars analysed extensively in the chapter and parts of the book. It was occurring in the context of four conjuctures at the turn of the twenty-first century, namely, globalization, regionalization, democratization, and the end of the Cold War.
I argued that the US “war on terror” reflected the impulses and conundrum of a hyperpower. America’s hysterical unilateralism, which was increasingly opposed even by its European allies, represented an attempt to recentre its global hegemony around military prowess in which the US remained unmatched. It was engendered by imperial hubris, the arrogance of hyperpower, and a false sense of exceptionalism, a mystical belief in the country’s manifest destiny.
I noted the costs of the war were already high within the United States itself. It threatened the civil liberties of its citizens and immigrants in which Muslims and people of “Middle Eastern” appearance were targeted for racist attacks. The nations identified as rogue states were earmarked for crippling sanctions, sabotage and proxy wars. In the treacherous war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq it left a trail of destruction in terms of deaths and displacement for millions of people, social dislocation, economic devastation, and severe damage to the infrastructures of political stability and sovereignty.
More than a decade and a half after I wrote my critique of the “war on terror”, its horrendous costs on the US itself and on the rest of the world are much clearer than ever. Some of the sharpest critiques have come from American scholars and commentators for whom the “forever wars” were a disaster and miscalculation of historic proportions. Reading the media reports and academic articles in the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been struck by many of the critical and exculpatory reflections and retrospectives.
Hindsight is indeed 20/20; academics and pundits are notoriously subject to amnesia in their wilful tendency to retract previous positions as a homage to their perpetual insightfulness. Predictably, there are those who remain defensive of America’s response to 9/11. Writing in September 2011, one dismissed what he called the five myths of 9/11: that the possibility of hijacked airliners crashing into buildings was unimaginable; the attacks represented a strategic success for al-Qaeda; Washington overreacted; a nuclear terrorist attack is an inevitability; and civil liberties were decimated after the attacks.
Marking the 20th anniversary, another commentator maintains that America’s forever wars must go on because terrorism has not been vanquished. “Ending America’s deployment in Afghanistan is a significant change. But terrorism, whether from jihadists, white nationalists, or other sources, is part of life for the indefinite future, and some sort of government response is as well. The forever war goes on forever. The question isn’t whether we should carry it out—it’s how.”
Some of the sharpest critiques have come from American scholars and commentators for whom the “forever wars” were a disaster and miscalculation of historic proportions.
To understand the traumatic impact of 9/11 on the US, and its disastrous overreaction, it is helpful to note that in its history, the American homeland had largely been insulated from foreign aggression. The rare exceptions include the British invasion in the War of 1812 and the Japanese military strike on Pearl Harbour in Honolulu, Hawaii in December 1941 that prompted the US to formally enter World War II.
Given this history, and America’s post-Cold War triumphalism, 9/11 was inconceivable to most Americans and to much of the world. Initially, the terrorist attacks generated national solidarity and international sympathy. However, both quickly dissipated because of America’s overweening pursuit of a vengeful, misguided, haughty, and obtuse “war on terror”, which was accompanied by derisory and doomed neo-colonial nation-building ambitions that were dangerously out of sync in a postcolonial world.
It can be argued that 9/11 profoundly transformed American domestic politics, the country’s economy, and its international relations. The puncturing of the bubble of geographical invulnerability and imperial hubris left deep political and psychic pain. The terrorist attacks prompted an overhaul of the country’s intelligence and law-enforcement systems, which led to an almost Orwellian reconceptualization of “homeland security” and formation of a new federal department by that name.
The new department, the largest created since World War II, transformed immigration and border patrols. It perilously conflated intelligence, immigration, and policing, and helped fabricate a link between immigration and terrorism. It also facilitated the militarization of policing in local and state jurisdictions as part of a vast and amorphous war on domestic and international terrorism. Using its new counter-insurgence powers, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency went to work. According to one report, in the British paper The Guardian, “In 2005, it carried out 1,300 raids against businesses employing undocumented immigrants; the next year there were 44,000.”
By 2014, the national security apparatus comprised more than 5 million people with security clearances, or 1.5 per cent of the country’s population, which risked, a story in The Washington Post noted, “making the nation’s secrets less, well, secret.” Security and surveillance seeped into mundane everyday tasks from checks at airports to entry at sporting and entertainment events.
The puncturing of the bubble of geographical invulnerability and imperial hubris left deep political and psychic pain.
As happens in the dialectical march of history, enhanced state surveillance including aggressive policing fomented the countervailing struggles on both the right and left of the political spectrum. On the progressive side was the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and rejuvenated gender equality and immigrants’ rights activists, and on the reactionary side were white supremacist militias and agitators including those who carried the unprecedented violent attack on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. The latter were supporters of defeated President Trump who invaded the sanctuaries of Congress to protest the formal certification of Joe Biden’s election to the presidency.
Indeed, as The Washington Post columnist, Colbert King recently reminded us, “Looking back, terrorist attacks have been virtually unrelenting since that September day when our world was turned upside down. The difference, however, is that so much of today’s terrorism is homegrown. . . . The broad numbers tell a small part of the story. For example, from fiscal 2015 through fiscal 2019, approximately 846 domestic terrorism subjects were arrested by or in coordination with the FBI. . . . The litany of domestic terrorism attacks manifests an ideological hatred of social justice as virulent as the Taliban’s detestation of Western values of freedom and truth. The domestic terrorists who invaded and degraded the Capitol are being rebranded as patriots by Trump and his cultists, who perpetuate the lie that the presidential election was rigged and stolen from him.”
Thus, such is the racialization of American citizenship and patriotism, and the country’s dangerous spiral into partisanship and polarization that domestic white terrorists are tolerated by significant segments of society and the political establishment, as is evident in the strenuous efforts by the Republicans to frustrate Congressional investigation into the January 6 attack on Congress.
In September 2001, incredulity at the foreign terrorist attacks exacerbated the erosion of popular trust in the competence of the political class that had been growing since the restive 1960s and crested with Watergate in the 1970s, and intensified in the rising political partisanship of the 1990s. Conspiracy theories about 9/11 rapidly proliferated, fuelling the descent of American politics and public discourse into paranoia, which was to be turbocharged as the old media splintered into angry ideological solitudes and the new media incentivized incivility, solipsism, and fake news. 9/11 accelerated the erosion of American democracy by reinforcing popular fury and rising distrust of elites and expertise, which facilitated the rise of the disruptive and destructive populism of Trump.
9/11 offered a historic opportunity to seek and sanctify a new external enemy in the continuous search for a durable foreign foe to sustain the creaking machinery of the military, industrial, media and ideological complexes of the old Cold War. The US settled not a national superpower, as there was none, notwithstanding the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but on a religion, Islam. Islamophobia tapped into the deep recesses in the Euro-American imaginary of civilizational antagonisms and anxieties between the supposedly separate worlds of the Christian West and Muslim East, constructs that elided their shared historical, spatial, and demographic affinities.
After 9/11, Muslims and their racialized affinities among Arabs and South Asians joined America’s intolerant tent of otherness that had historically concentrated on Black people. One heard perverse relief among Blacks that they were no longer the only ones subject to America’s eternal racial surveillance and subjugation. The expanding pool of America’s undesirable and undeserving racial others reflected growing anxieties by segments of the white population about their declining demographic, political and sociocultural weight, and the erosion of the hegemonic conceits and privileges of whiteness.
9/11 accelerated the erosion of American democracy by reinforcing popular fury and rising distrust of elites and expertise.
This helped fuel the Trumpist populist reactionary upsurge and the assault on democracy by the Republican Party. In the late 1960s, the party devised the Southern Strategy to counter and reverse the limited redress of the civil rights movement. 9/11 allowed the party to shed its camouflage as a national party and unapologetically adorn its white nativist and chauvinistic garbs. So it was that a country which went to war after 9/11 purportedly “united in defense of its values and way life,” emerged twenty years later “at war with itself, its democracy threatened from within in a way Osama bin Laden never managed.”
The economic effects of the misguided “war on terror” and its imperilled “nation building” efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq were also significant. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union and its socialist empire in central and Eastern Europe, there were expectations of an economic dividend from cuts in excessive military expenditures. The pursuit of military cuts came to a screeching halt with 9/11.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11 Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winner for economics, noted ruefully that Bush’s “was the first war in history paid for entirely on credit. . . . Increased defense spending, together with the Bush tax cuts, is a key reason why America went from a fiscal surplus of 2% of GDP when Bush was elected to its parlous deficit and debt position today. . . . Moreover, as Bilmes and I argued in our book The Three Trillion Dollar War, the wars contributed to America’s macroeconomic weaknesses, which exacerbated its deficits and debt burden. Then, as now, disruption in the Middle East led to higher oil prices, forcing Americans to spend money on oil imports that they otherwise could have spent buying goods produced in the US. . . .”
He continued, “But then the US Federal Reserve hid these weaknesses by engineering a housing bubble that led to a consumption boom.” The latter helped trigger the financial crisis that resulted in the Great Recession of 2008-2009. He concluded that these wars had undermined America’s and the world’s security beyond Bin Laden’s wildest dreams.
The costs of the “forever wars” escalated over the next decade. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, from 2001 to 2020 the US security apparatuses spent US$230 billion a year, for a total of US$5.4 trillion, on these dubious efforts. While this represented only 1 per cent of the country’s GDP, the wars continued to be funded by debt, further weakening the American economy. The Great Recession of 2008-09 added its corrosive effects, all of which fermented the rise of contemporary American populism.
Thanks to these twin economic assaults, the US largely abandoned investing in the country’s physical and social infrastructure that has become more apparent and a drag on economic growth and the wellbeing for tens of millions of Americans who have slid from the middle class or are barely hanging onto it. This has happened in the face of the spectacular and almost unprecedented rise of China as America’s economic and strategic rival that the former Soviet Union never was.
The jingoism of America’s “war on terror” quickly became apparent soon after 9/11. The architect of America’s twenty-year calamitous imbroglio, the “forever wars,” President George W Bush, who had found his swagger from his limp victory in the hanging chads of Florida, brashly warned America’s allies and adversaries alike: “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”
Through this uncompromising imperial adventure in the treacherous geopolitical quicksands of the Middle East, including “the graveyard of empires,” Afghanistan, the US succeeded in squandering the global sympathy and support it had garnered in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 not only from its strategic rivals but also from its Western allies. The notable exception was the supplicant British government under “Bush’s poodle”, Prime Minister Tony Blair, desperately clinging to the dubious loyalty and self-aggrandizing myth of a “special relationship”.
The neglect of international diplomacy in America’s post-9/11 politics of vengeance was of course not new. It acquired its implacable brazenness from the country’s post-Cold War triumphalism as the lone superpower, which served to turn it into a lonely superpower. 9/11 accelerated the gradual slide for the US from the pedestal of global power as diplomacy and soft power were subsumed by demonstrative and bellicose military prowess.
The disregard for diplomacy began following the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. In the words of Jonathan Powell that are worth quoting at length, “The principal failure in Afghanistan was, rather, to fail to learn, from our previous struggles with terrorism, that you only get to a lasting peace when you have an inclusive negotiation – not when you try to impose a settlement by force. . . . The first missed opportunity was 2002-04. . . . After the Taliban collapsed, they sued for peace. Instead of engaging them in an inclusive process and giving them a stake in the new Afghanistan, the Americans continued to pursue them, and they returned to fighting. . . . There were repeated concrete opportunities to start negotiations with the Taliban from then on – at a time when they were much weaker than today and open to a settlement – but political leaders were too squeamish to be seen publicly dealing with a terrorist group. . . . We have to rethink our strategy unless we want to spend the next 20 years making the same mistakes over and over again. Wars don’t end for good until you talk to the men with the guns.”
The all-encompassing counter-terrorism strategy adopted after 9/11 bolstered American fixation with military intervention and solutions to complex problems in various regional arenas including the combustible Middle East. In an increasingly polarized capital and nation, only the Defense Department received almost universal support in Congressional budget appropriations and national public opinion. Consequently, the Pentagon accounts for half of the federal government’s discretionary spending. In 2020, military expenditure in the US reached US$778 billion, higher than the US$703.6 billion spent by the next nine leading countries in terms of military expenditure, namely, China (US$252 billion), India (US$72.9 billion), Russia (US$61.7 billion), United Kingdom (US$59.2 billion), Saudi Arabia (US$57.5 billion), Germany (US$52.6 billion), France (US$52.7 billion), Japan (US$49.1 billion) and South Korea (US$45.7 billion).
Under the national delirium of 9/11, the clamour for retribution was deafening as evident in Congress and the media. In the United States Senate, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the perpetrators of 9/11, which became law on 18 September 2001, nine days after the terrorist attacks, was approved by 98, none against, and two did not vote. In the House of Representatives, the vote tally was 420 ayes, 1 nay (the courageous Barbara Lee of California), and 10 not voting.
9/11 accelerated the gradual slide for the US from the pedestal of global power as diplomacy and soft power were subsumed by demonstrative and bellicose military prowess.
By the time the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 was taken in the two houses of Congress, and became law on 16 October 2002, the ranks of cooler heads had begun to expand but not enough to put a dent on the mad scramble to expand the “war on terror”. In the House of Representatives 296 voted yes, 133 against, and three did not vote, while in the Senate the vote was 77 for and 23 against.
Beginning with Bush, and for subsequent American presidents, the law became an instrument of militarized foreign policy to launch attacks against various targets. Over the next two decades, “the 2001 AUMF has been invoked more than 40 times to justify military operations in 18 countries, against groups who had nothing to do with 9/11 or al-Qaida. And those are just the operations that the public knows about.”
Almost twenty years later, on 17 June 2021, the House voted 268-161 to repeal the authorization of 2002. By then, it had of course become clear that the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq were destined to become a monumental disaster and defeat in the history of the United States that has sapped the country of its trust, treasure, and global standing and power. But revoking the law did not promise to end the militarized reflexes of counter-insurgence it had engendered.
The “forever wars” consumed and sapped the energies of all administrations after 2001, from Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden. As the wars lost popular support in the US, aspiring politicians hoisted their fortunes on proclaiming their opposition. Opposition to the Iraq war was a key plank of Obama’s electoral appeal, and the pledge to end these wars animated the campaigns of all three of Bush’s successors. The logic of counterterrorism persisted even under the Obama administration that retired the phrase “war on terror” but not its practices; it expanded drone warfare by authorizing an estimated 542 drone strikes which killed 3,797 people, including 324 civilians.
The Trump Administration signed a virtual surrender pact, a “peace agreement,” with the Taliban on 29 February 2020, that was unanimously supported by the UN Security Council. Under the agreement, NATO undertook to gradually withdraw its forces and all remaining troops by 1 May 2021, while the Taliban pledged to prevent al-Qaeda from operating in areas it controlled and to continue talks with the Afghan government that was excluded from the Doha negotiations between the US and the Taliban.
The “forever wars” consumed and sapped the energies of all administrations after 2001, from Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden.
Following the signing of the Doha Agreement, the Taliban insurgency intensified, and the incoming Biden administration indicated it would honour the commitment of the Trump administration for a complete withdrawal, save for a minor extension from 1 May to 31 August 2021. Two weeks before the American deadline, on 15 August 2021, Taliban forces captured Kabul as the Afghan military and government melted away in a spectacular collapse. A humiliated United States and its British lackey scrambled to evacuate their embassies, staff, citizens, and Afghan collaborators.
Thus, despite having the world’s third largest military, and the most technologically advanced and best funded, the US failed to prevail in the “forever wars”. It was routed by the ill-equipped and religiously fanatical Taliban, just like a generation earlier it had been hounded out of Vietnam by vastly outgunned and fiercely determined local communist adversaries. Some among America’s security elites, armchair think tanks, and pundits turned their outrage on Biden whose execution of the final withdrawal they faulted for its chaos and for bringing national shame, notwithstanding overwhelming public support for it.
Underlying their discomfiture was the fact that Biden’s logic, a long-standing member of the political establishment, “carried a rebuke of the more expansive aims of the post-9/11 project that had shaped the service, careers, and commentary of so many people,” writes Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration from 2009-2017. He concludes, “In short, Biden’s decision exposed the cavernous gap between the national security establishment and the public, and forced a recognition that there is going to be no victory in a ‘war on terror’ too infused with the trauma and triumphalism of the immediate post-9/11 moment.”
The predictable failure of the American imperial mission in Afghanistan and Iraq left behind wanton destruction of lives and society in the two countries and elsewhere where the “war on terror” was waged. The resistance to America’s imperial aggression, including that by the eventually victorious Taliban, was in part fanned and sustained by the indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations, the dereliction of imperial invaders in understanding and engaging local communities, and the sheer historical reality that imperial invasions and “nation building” projects are relics of a bygone era and cannot succeed in the post-colonial world.
Reflections by the director of Yale’s International Leadership Center capture the costly ignorance of delusional imperial adventures. “Our leaders repeatedly told us that we were heroes, selflessly serving over there to keep Americans safe in their beds over here. They spoke with fervor about freedom, about the exceptional American democratic system and our generosity in building Iraq. But we knew so little about the history of the country. . . . No one mentioned that the locals might not be passive recipients of our benevolence, or that early elections and a quickly drafted constitution might not achieve national consensus but rather exacerbate divisions in Iraq society. The dismantling of the Iraq state led to the country’s descent into civil war.”
The global implications of the “war on terror” were far reaching. In the region itself, Iran and Pakistan were strengthened. Iran achieved a level of influence in Iraq and in several parts of the region that seemed inconceivable at the end of the protracted and devastating 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War that left behind mass destruction for hundreds of thousands of people and the economies of the two countries. For its part, Pakistan’s hand in Afghanistan was strengthened.
In the meantime, new jihadist movements emerged from the wreckage of 9/11 superimposed on long-standing sectarian and ideological conflicts that provoked more havoc in the Middle East, and already unstable adjacent regions in Asia and Africa. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Africa’s geopolitical stock for Euro-America began to rise bolstered by China’s expanding engagements with the continent and the “war on terror”. On the latter, the US became increasingly concerned about the growth of jihadist movements, and the apparent vulnerability of fragile states as potential sanctuaries of global terrorist networks.
As I’ve noted in a series of articles, US foreign policies towards Africa since independence have veered between humanitarian and security imperatives. The humanitarian perspective perceives Africa as a zone of humanitarian disasters in need of constant Western social welfare assistance and interventions. It also focuses on Africa’s apparent need for human rights modelled on idealized Western principles that never prevented Euro-America from perpetrating the barbarities of slavery, colonialism, the two World Wars, other imperial wars, and genocides, including the Holocaust.
Under the security imperative, Africa is a site of proxy cold and hot wars among the great powers. In the days of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union competed for friends and fought foes on the continent. In the “war on terror”, Africa emerged as a zone of Islamic radicalization and terrorism. It was not lost that in 1998, three years before 9/11, US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked. Suddenly, Africa’s strategic importance, which had declined precipitously after the end of the Cold War, rose, and the security paradigm came to complement, compete, and conflict with the humanitarian paradigm as US Africa policy achieved a new strategic coherence.
The cornerstone of the new policy is AFRICOM, which was created out of various regional military programmes and initiatives established in the early 2000s, such as the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn Africa, and the Pan-Sahel Initiative, both established in 2002 to combat terrorism. It began its operations in October 2007. Prior to AFRICOM’s establishment, the military had divided up its oversight of African affairs among the U.S. European Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany; the U.S. Central Command, based in Tampa, Florida; and the U.S. Pacific Command, based in Hawaii.
In the meantime, the “war on terror” provided alibis for African governments, as elsewhere, to violate or vitiate human rights commitments and to tighten asylum laws and policies. At the same time, military transfers to countries with poor human rights records increased. Many an African state rushed to pass broadly, badly or cynically worded anti-terrorism laws and other draconian procedural measures, and to set up special courts or allow special rules of evidence that violated fair trial rights, which they used to limit civil rights and freedoms, and to harass, intimidate, and imprison and crackdown on political opponents. This helped to strengthen or restore a culture of impunity among the security forces in many countries.
Africa’s geopolitical stock for Euro-America began to rise bolstered by China’s expanding engagements with the continent and the “war on terror”.
In addition to the restrictions on political and civil rights among Africa’s autocracies and fledgling democracies, the subordination of human rights concerns to anti-terrorism priorities, the “war on terror” exacerbated pre-existing political tensions between Muslim and Christian populations in several countries and turned them increasingly violent. In the twenty years following its launch, jihadist groups in Africa grew considerably and threatened vast swathes of the continent from Northern Africa to the Sahel to the Horn of Africa to Mozambique.
According to a recent paper by Alexandre Marc, the Global Terrorism Index shows that “deaths linked to terrorist attacks declined by 59% between 2014 and 2019 — to a total of 13,826 — with most of them connected to countries with jihadi insurrections. However, in many places across Africa, deaths have risen dramatically. . . . Violent jihadi groups are thriving in Africa and in some cases expanding across borders. However, no states are at immediate risk of collapse as happened in Afghanistan.”
If much of Africa benefited little from the US-led global war on terrorism, it is generally agreed China reaped strategic benefits from America’s preoccupation in Afghanistan and Iraq that consumed the latter’s diplomatic, financial, and moral capital. China has grown exponentially over the past twenty years and its infrastructure has undergone massive modernization even as that in the US has deteriorated. In 2001, “the Chinese economy represented only 7% of the world GDP, it will reach the end of the year  with a share of almost 18%, and surpassing the USA. It was also during this period that China became the biggest trading partner of more than one hundred countries around the world, advancing on regions that had been ‘abandoned’ by American diplomacy.”
As elsewhere, China adopted the narrative of the “war on terror” to silence local dissidents and “to criminalize Uyghur ethnicity in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’ and ‘de-extremification.” The Chinese Communist Party “now had a convenient frame to trace all violence to an ‘international terrorist organization’ and connect Uyghur religious, cultural and linguistic revivals to ‘separatism.’ Prior to 9/11, Chinese authorities had depicted Xinjiang as prey to only sporadic separatist violence. An official Chinese government White Paper published in January 2002 upended that narrative by alleging that Xinjiang was beset by al-Qaeda-linked terror groups. Their intent, they argued, was the violent transformation of Xinjiang into an independent ‘East Turkistan.’”
The United States went along with that. “Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in September 2002 officially designated ETIM a terrorist entity. The U.S. Treasury Department bolstered that allegation by attributing solely to ETIM the same terror incident data, (“over 200 acts of terrorism, resulting in at least 162 deaths and over 440 injuries”) that the Chinese government’s January 2002 White Paper had attributed to various terrorist groups. That blanket acceptance of the Chinese government’s Xinjiang terrorism narrative was nothing less than a diplomatic quid pro quo, Boucher said. “It was done to help gain China’s support for invading Iraq. . . .”
Similarly, America’s “war on terror” gave Russia the space to begin flexing its muscles. Initially, it appeared relations between the US and Russia could be improved by sharing common cause against Islamic extremism. Russia even shared intelligence on Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union had been defeated more than a decade earlier. But the honeymoon, which coincided with Vladimir Putin’s ascension to power, proved short-lived.
It is generally agreed China reaped strategic benefits from America’s preoccupation in Afghanistan and Iraq that consumed the latter’s diplomatic, financial, and moral capital.
According to Angela Stent, American and Russian “expectations from the new partnership were seriously mismatched. An alliance based on one limited goal — to defeat the Taliban — began to fray shortly after they were routed. The Bush administration’s expectations of the partnership were limited.” It believed that in return for Moscow’s assistance in the war on terror, “it had enhanced Russian security by ‘cleaning up its backyard’ and reducing the terrorist threat to the country. The administration was prepared to stay silent about the ongoing war in Chechnya and to work with Russia on the modernization of its economy and energy sector and promote its admission to the World Trade Organization.”
For his part, Putin had more extensive expectations, to have an “equal partnership of unequals,” to secure “U.S. recognition of Russia as a great power with the right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. Putin also sought a U.S. commitment to eschew any further eastern enlargement of NATO. From Putin’s point of view, the U.S. failed to fulfill its part of the post-9/11 bargain.”
Nevertheless, during the twenty years of America’s “forever wars” Russia recovered from the difficult and humiliating post-Soviet decade of domestic and international weakness. It pursued its own ruthless counter-insurgency strategy in the North Caucasus using language from the American playbook despite the differences. It also began to flex its muscles in the “near abroad”, culminating in the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
The US “war on terror” and its execution that abnegated international law and embraced a culture of gratuitous torture and extraordinary renditions severely eroded America’s political and moral stature and pretensions. The enduring contradictions and hypocrisies of American foreign policy rekindled its Cold War propensities for unholy alliances with ruthless regimes that eagerly relabelled their opponents terrorists.
While the majority of the 9/11 attackers were from Saudi Arabia, the antediluvian and autocratic Saudi regime continued to be a staunch ally of the United States. Similarly, in Egypt the US assiduously coddled the authoritarian regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that seized power from the short-lived government of President Mohamed Morsi that emerged out of the Arab Spring that electrified the world for a couple of years from December 2010.
For the so-called international community, the US-led “war on terror” undermined international law, the United Nations, and global security and disarmament, galvanized terrorist groups, diverted much-needed resources for development, and promoted human rights abuses by providing governments throughout the world with a new license for torture and abuse of opponents and prisoners. In my book mentioned earlier, I quoted the Council on Foreign Relations, which noted in 2002, that the US was increasingly regarded as “arrogant, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and contemptuous of others.” A report by Human Rights Watch in 2005 singled out the US as a major factor in eroding the global human rights system.
Twenty years after 9/11, the US has little to show for its massive investment of trillions of dollars and the countless lives lost. Writing in The Atlantic magazine on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Ali Soufan contends, “U.S. influence has been systematically dismantled across much of the Muslim world, a process abetted by America’s own mistakes. Sadly, much of this was foreseen by the very terrorists who carried out those attacks.”
Soufan notes, “The United States today does not have so much as an embassy in Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Syria, or Yemen. It demonstrably has little influence over nominal allies such as Pakistan, which has been aiding the Taliban for decades, and Saudi Arabia, which has prolonged the conflict in Yemen. In Iraq, where almost 5,000 U.S. and allied troops have died since 2003, America must endure the spectacle of political leaders flaunting their membership in Iranian-backed groups, some of which the U.S. considers terrorist organizations.”
A report by Human Rights Watch in 2005 singled out the US as a major factor in eroding the global human rights system.
The day after 9/11, the French newspaper Le Monde declared, “In this tragic moment, when words seem so inadequate to express the shock people feel, the first thing that comes to mind is: We are all Americans!” Now that the folly of the “forever wars” is abundantly clear, can Americans learn to say and believe, “We’re an integral part of the world,” neither immune from the perils and ills of the world, nor endowed with exceptional gifts to solve them by themselves. Rather, to commit to righting the massive wrongs of its own society, its enduring injustices and inequalities, with the humility, graciousness, reflexivity, and self-confidence of a country that practices what it preaches.
Can America ever embrace the hospitality of radical openness to otherness at home and abroad? American history is not encouraging. If the United States wants to be taken seriously as a bastion and beacon of democracy, it must begin by practicing democracy. This would entail establishing a truly inclusive multiracial and multicultural polity, abandoning the antiquated electoral college system through which the president is elected that gives disproportionate power to predominantly white small and rural states, getting rid of gerrymandering that manipulates electoral districts and caters to partisan extremists, and stopping the cancer of voter suppression aimed at disenfranchising Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities.
When I returned to my work as Director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 2002, following the end of my sabbatical, I found the debates of the 1990s about the relevance of area studies had been buried with 9/11. Now, it was understood, as it was when the area studies project began after World War II, that knowledges of specific regional, national and local histories, as well as languages and cultures, were imperative for informed and effective foreign policy, that fancy globalization generalizations and models were not a substitute for deep immersion in area studies knowledges.
If the United States wants to be taken seriously as a bastion and beacon of democracy, it must begin by practicing democracy.
However, area studies were now increasingly subordinated to the security imperatives of the war on terror, reprising the epistemic logic of the Cold War years. Special emphasis was placed on Arabic and Islam. This shift brought its own challenges that area studies programmes and specialists were forced to deal with. Thus, the academy, including the marginalized enclave of area studies, did not escape the suffocating tentacles of 9/11 that cast its shadow on every aspect of American politics, society, economy, and daily life.
Whither the future? A friend of mine in Nairobi, John Githongo, an astute observer of African and global affairs and the founder of the popular and discerning online magazine, The Elephant, wrote me to say, “America’s defeat in Afghanistan may yet prove more consequential than 9/11”. That is indeed a possibility. Only time will tell.
Negotiated Democracy, Mediated Elections and Political Legitimacy
What has taken place in northern Kenya during the last two general elections is not democracy but merely an electoral process that can be best described as “mediated elections”.
The speed with which negotiated democracy has spread in Northern Kenya since 2013 has seen others calling for it to be embraced at the national level as an antidote to the fractious and fraught national politics. Its opponents call the formula a disguised form of dictatorship. However, two events two months apart, the coronation of Abdul Haji in Garissa, and the impeachment of Wajir Governor Mohamed Abdi, reveal both the promise and the peril of uncritically embracing negotiated democracy. Eight years since its adoption, has negotiated democracy delivered goods in northern Kenya?
In March 2021, Abdul Haji was (s)elected “unopposed” as the Garissa County Senator, by communal consensus. The seat, which fell vacant following the death of veteran politician Yusuf Haji, attracted 16 candidates in the by-election.
In an ethnically diverse county with competing clan interests and political balancing at play, pulling off such a consensus required solid back-room negotiations. At the party level, the Sultans (clan leaders) and the council of elders prevailed, ending with a single unopposed candidate.
In one fell swoop, campaign finance was made redundant. Polarising debates were done away with; in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, large gatherings became unnecessary. The drama of national party politics was effectively brought to an end.
But even with the above benefits, consensus voting took away the necessary public scrutiny of the candidate—a central consideration in electoral democracies. So, Abdul Haji was sworn in as the Garissa Senator without giving the public a chance to scrutinise his policies, personality, ideologies, and experience.
Pulling off such a feat is an arduous task that harkens back to the old KANU days. At the height of KANU’s power, party mandarins got 14 candidates to stand unopposed in 1988 and 8 in the 1997 elections.
Abdul Haji was (s)elected unopposed, not because there were no other contestants—there were 16 others interested in the same seat—but because of the intervention of the council of elders.
The two major points that are taken into consideration in settling on a candidate in negotiated democracy are their experience and their public standing, a euphemism for whether enough people know them. Abdul Hajj ticked both boxes; he comes from an influential and moneyed family.
Two months later, news of the successful impeachment of Wajir Governor Mohamed Abdi on grounds of “gross misconduct” dominated the political landscape in the north. Mohamed Abdi was a career civil servant. He went from being a teacher, to an education officer, a member of parliament, an assistant minister, a cabinet minister, and an ambassador, before finally becoming governor.
Before his impeachment, Mohamed Abdi had narrowly survived an attempt to nullify his election through a court case on the grounds that he lacked the requisite academic qualifications, and accusations of gross misconduct and poor service delivery. Abdi convinced the court of appeal that not having academic papers did not impede his service delivery, but he was unable to save himself from an ignominious end.
The impeachment ended the messy political life of Mohammed Abdi and revealed disgraceful details—his wife was allegedly the one running the county government and he was just the puppet of her whims.
If they were to be judged by similar rigorous standards, most northern Kenya governors would be impeached. However, most of them are protected by negotiated democracy. Mohamed Abdi’s election followed the negotiated democracy model and was thus part of a complex ethnopolitical calculation.
Abdi’s impeachment was followed by utter silence except from his lawyers and a few sub-clan elders. His censure and the silence that followed vindicates those who complain that negotiated democracy sacrifices merit and conflates power with good leadership.
Consensus voting has been effectively used in the teachers’ union elections in Marsabit County. An alliance of teachers from the Rendille, Gabra and Burji communities (REGABU) have effectively rotated the teacher’s union leadership among themselves since 1998. During the union’s elections held on 17 February 2016, no ballot was cast for the more than 10 positions. It was a curious sight; one teacher proposed, another seconded and a third confirmed. There was no opposition at all.
The same REGABU model was used in the 2013 general elections and proved effective. Ambassador Ukur Yatani, the then Marsabit Governor and current Finance Cabinet Secretary stood before the REGABU teachers and proclaimed that he was the primary beneficiary of the REGABU alliance.
His censure and the silence that followed vindicates those who complain that negotiated democracy sacrifices merit and conflates power with good leadership.
Yatani extolled the virtues of the alliance, terming it the best model of a modern democracy with an unwritten constitution that has stood the test of time. He described the coalition as “an incubator of democracy” and “a laboratory of African democracy”.
Its adoption in the political arena was received with uncritical admiration since it came at a time of democratic reversals globally; negotiated democracy sounded like the antidote. The concept was novel to many; media personalities even asked if it could be applied in other counties or even at the national level.
Ukur’s assessment of REGABU as a laboratory or an incubator was apt. It was experimental at the electoral politics level. The 20-year consistency and effectiveness in Marsabit’s Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) elections could not be reproduced with the same efficiency in the more aggressive electoral politics, especially considering the power and resources that came with those positions. Haji’s unopposed (s)election was thus a rare, near-perfect actualisation of the intention of negotiated democracy.
But lurking behind this was a transactional dynamic tended by elite capture and sanitised by the council of elders. Abdul Haji’s unopposed selection was not an anomaly but an accepted and central condition of this elite capture.
Negotiated democracy has prevailed in the last two general elections in northern Kenya. Its proponents and supporters regard it as a pragmatic association of local interests. At the same time, its strongest critics argue that negotiated democracy is a sanitised system of impunity, with no foundational democratic ethos or ideological framework.
Negotiated democracy is similar in design to popular democracy or the one-party democracy that characterised the quasi-authoritarian military and one-party regimes of the 70s and 80s.
To call what is happening “democracy” is to elevate it to a higher plane of transactions, to cloak it in an acceptable robe. A better term for what is happening would be “mediated elections”; the elites mediate, and the elders are just a prop in the mediation. There is no term for an electoral process that commingles selection and elections; the elders select, and the masses elect the candidate.
The arguments of those who support negotiated democracy
There is no doubt about the effective contribution of negotiated democracy in reducing the high stakes that make the contest for parliamentary seats a zero-sum game. Everyone goes home with something, but merit and individual agency are sacrificed.
Speaking about Ali Roba’s defiance of the Garri council of elders Billow Kerrow said,
“He also knows that they plucked him out of nowhere in 2013 and gave him that opportunity against some very serious candidates who had experience, who had a name in the society. . . In fact, one of them could not take it, and he ran against him, and he lost.”
The genesis of negotiated democracy in Mandera harkens back to 2010 where a community charter was drawn to put a stop to the divisions among Garri’s 20 clans so as not to lose electoral posts to other communities.
Since then, negotiated democracy, like a genie out of the bottle, is sweeping across the north.
As one of the most prominent supporters of negotiated democracy, Billow Kerrow mentions how it did away with campaign expenditure, giving the example of a constituency in Mandera where two “families” spent over KSh200 million in electoral campaigns. He also argues that negotiated democracy limits frictions and tensions between and within the clans. That it ensures everyone is brought on board and thus encourages harmony, cohesion, and unity.
Its strongest critics argue that negotiated democracy is a sanitised system of impunity, with no foundational democratic ethos or ideological framework.
It has been said that negotiated democracy makes it easier for communities to engage with political parties. “In 2013, Jubilee negotiated with the council of elders directly as a bloc. It’s easier for the party, and it’s easier for the clan since their power of negotiation is stronger than when an individual goes to a party.”
Some have also argued that negotiated democracy is important if considered alongside communities’ brief lifetime under a self-governing state. According to Ahmed Ibrahim Abass, Ijara MP, “Our democracy is not mature enough for one to be elected based on policies and ideologies.” This point is echoed by Wajir South MP Dr Omar Mahmud, “You are expecting me to stand up when I am baby, I need to crawl first. [Since] 53 years of Kenya’s independence is just about a year ago for us, allow the people to reach a level [where they can choose wisely].”
Negotiated democracy assumes that each clan will give their best after reviewing the lists of names submitted to them. Despite the length of negotiations, this is a naïve and wishful assumption.
The critics of negotiated democracy
Perhaps the strongest critic of negotiated democracy is Dr Salah Abdi Sheikh, who says that the model does not allow people to express themselves as individuals but only as a group, and that it has created a situation where there is intimidation of entire groups, including women, who are put in a box and forced to take a predetermined position.
For Salah Abdi Sheikh this is not democracy but clan consensus. “Kenya is a constitutional democracy yet northern Kenya is pretending to be a failed state, pretending that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) does not exist or that there are no political parties”. Abdi Sheikh says that negotiated democracy is the worst form of dictatorship that has created automatons out of voters who go to the voting booth without thinking about the ability of the person they are going to vote for.
Women and youth, who make up 75 per cent of the population, are left out by a system of patronage where a few people with money and coming from big clans impose their interests on the community. This “disenfranchises everybody else; the youth, the minorities and the women.”
Negotiated democracy, it has been observed, does not bring about the expected harmony. This is a crucial point to note as in Marsabit alone, and despite its version of negotiated democracy, almost 250 people have died following clan conflicts over the past five years.
No doubt negotiated democracy can be a stabilising factor when it is tweaked and institutionalised. But as it is, cohesion and harmony, its central raison d’être, were just good intentions. Still, the real intention lurking in the background is the quick, cheap, and easy entry of moneyed interests into political office by removing competition from elections and making the returns on political investment a sure bet.
The pastoralist region
By increasing the currency of subnational politics, especially in northern Kenya, which was only nominally under the central government’s control, devolution has fundamentally altered how politics is conducted. The level of participation in the electoral process in northern Kenya shows a heightened civic interest in Kenya’s politics, a move away from the political disillusionment and apathy that characterised the pre-devolution days.
“Kenya is a constitutional democracy yet northern Kenya is pretending to be a failed state.”
Apart from breaking the region’s old political autonomy imposed by distance from the centre and national policy that marginalized the region, a major political reorganization is happening.
At the Pastoralist Leadership Summit held in Garissa in 2018, the enormity of the political change in post-devolution northern Kenya was on full display. The Frontier Counties Development Council had “15 Governors, 84 MPs, 21 Senators, 15 Deputy Governors, 15 County Assembly Speakers, 500 MCAs” at the summit. Apart from raising the political stakes, these numbers have significant material consequences.
Love or despair?
Those who stepped aside, like Senator Billow Kerrow, claimed that negotiated democracy “enhances that internal equity within our community, which has encouraged the unity of the community, and it is through this unity that we were able to move from one parliamentary seat in 2017 to 8 parliamentary seats in 2013.”
This was an important point to note. Since negotiated democracy only made elections a mere formality, votes could be transferred to constituencies like Mandera North that did not have majority Garre clan votes. Through this transfer of votes, more and more parliamentary seats were captured. By transferring votes from other regions, Garre could keep Degodia in check. Do minorities have any place in this expansionist clan vision? The question has been deliberately left unanswered.
“Many of those not selected by the elders – including five incumbent MPs – duly stood down to allow other clan-mates to replace them, rather than risking splitting the clan vote and allowing the “other side in.”
In 2016, the Garre council of elders shocked all political incumbents by asking them not to seek re-election in the 2017 general elections. With this declaration the council of elders had punched way above their station. It immediately sparked controversy. Another set of elders emerged and dismissed the council of elders. Most of the incumbents ganged up against the council of elders save politicians like Senator Billow Kerrow, who stepped down.
These events made the 2017 general election in Mandera an interesting inflection point for negotiated democracy since it put on trial the two core principles at the heart of negotiated democracy, which are a pledge to abide by the council of elders’ decision and penalties for defying it.
When the council of elders asked all the thirty-plus office bearers in Mandera not to seek re-election. The elders’ intention was to reduce electoral offices to one-term affairs so as to reduce the waiting time for all the clans to occupy the office. But those in office thought otherwise, Ali Roba said.
“The elders have no say now that we as the leaders of Mandera are together.” He went on to demonstrate the elders’ reduced role by winning the 2017 Mandera gubernatorial seat. Others also went all the way to the ballot box in defiance of the elders, with some losing and others successful.
Reduced cultural and political esteem
Like other councils of elders elsewhere across northern Kenya, the Garre council of elders had come down in esteem. The levels of corruption witnessed across the region in the first five years of devolution had tainted them.
It would seem that the legitimacy of the councils of elders and the initial euphoria of the early days has been almost worn out.
The council of elders drew much of their authority from the political class through elaborate tactics; clan elders were summoned to the governors’ residences and given allowances even as certain caveats were whispered in their ears. Some rebranded as contractors who, instead of safeguarding their traditional systems, followed self-seeking ends. With the billions of new county money, nothing is sacred; everything can be and is roped into the transactional dynamics of local politics.
The new political class resurrected age-old customs and edited their operational DNA by bending the traditional processes to the whims of their political objectives.
The council of elders resorted to overbearing means like uttering traditional curses or citing Quranic verses like Al Fatiha to quell the dissatisfaction of those who were forced to withdraw their candidacies. Others even ex-communicated their subjects in a bid to maintain a semblance of control.
In Marsabit, the Burji elders excommunicated at least 100 people saying they had not voted for a candidate of the elders’ choice in 2013, causing severe fissures in Burji unity. Democratic independence in voting was presented as competition against communal interests. Internally factions emerged, externally lines hardened.
Considerations about which clan gets elected are cascaded into considerations about the appointment of County Executive Committee members, Chief Officers and even directors within the departments. It takes very long to sack or replace an incompetent CEC, CO or Director because of a reluctance to ruffle the feathers and interests of clan X or Y. When the clans have no qualified person for the position the post remains vacant, as is the case with the Marsabit Public Service Board Secretary who has been in an acting capacity for almost three years. It took several years to appoint CECs and COs in the Isiolo County Government.
Coupled with this, negotiated democracy merges all the different office bearers into one team held together by their inter-linked, clan-based elections or appointments. The line between county executive and county assembly is indecipherable. The scrutiny needed from the county assembly is no longer possible; Members of Parliament, Senators and Women representatives are all in the same team. They rose to power together and it seems they are committed to going down together. This is partly why the council of elders in Mandera wanted to send home before the 2017 election all those they had selected as nominees and later elected to power in 2013; their failure was collective. In Wajir, the Members of Parliament, Members of the County Assembly, the Senator, the Speaker of the County Assembly and even the Deputy Governor withdrew their support for the Governor only five months to the last general elections, citing service delivery. This last-ditch effort was a political move.
The new political class resurrected age-old customs and edited their operational DNA by bending the traditional processes to the whims of their political objectives.
In most northern Kenya counties that have embraced negotiated democracy, opposition politics is practically non-existent, especially where ethnic alliances failed to secure seats; they disintegrated faster than they were constituted. In Marsabit for example, the REGABU alliance was a formidable political force that could easily counter the excesses of the political class, and whose 20-year dominance over the politics of the teacher’s union could provide a counterbalance to the excesses of the Marsabit Governor. But after failing to secure a second term in office, the REGABU alliance disintegrated leaving a political vacuum in its wake. Groups which come together to achieve common goals easily become disenfranchised when their goals are not reached.
In Mandera, immediately after the council of elders lost to Ali Roba, the opposition disbanded and vanished into thin air, giving the governor free reign in how he conducts his politics.
The past eight years have revealed that the negotiated democracy model is deeply and inherently flawed. Opposition politics that provide the controls needed to curtail the wanton corruption and sleaze in public service seem to have vanished. (See here the EACC statistics for corruption levels in the north.)
Yet, the role played by elders in upholding poor service delivery has not been questioned. The traditional council of elders did not understand the inner workings of the county, and hence their post-election role has been reduced to one of spectators who are used to prop up the legitimacy of the governor. If they put the politicians in office by endorsing them, it was only logical that they also played some scrutinizing role, but this has not been undertaken effectively.
In most northern Kenya counties, which have embraced negotiated democracy, opposition politics is practically non-existent.
In the Borana traditional system, two institutions are involved in the Gada separation of powers; one is a ritual office and the other a political one. “The ritual is led by men who have authority to bless (Ebba). They are distinguished from political leaders who have the power to decide (Mura), to punish, or to curse (Abarsa).”
In his book Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System, Asmarom Legesse says the Oromo constitution has “fundamental ideas that are not fully developed in Western democratic traditions. They include the period of testing of elected leaders, the methods of distributing power across generations, the alliance of alternate groups, the method of staggering succession that reduces the convergence of destabilising events, and the conversion of hierarchies into balanced oppositions.”
Yet the traditional institution of the Aba Gada seems to have bestowed powers and traditional legitimacy on a politician operating in a political system that does not have any of these controls. The elders have been left without the civic responsibility of keeping the politician in check by demanding transparency and accountability while the endorsement of the Gada has imbued the leader with a traditional and mystical legitimacy.
The impeachment of the Wajir governor was thus an essential political development in northern Kenya.
The perceived reduction of ethnic contest and conflict as a benefit resulting from negotiated democracy seems to override, in some places, the danger of its inefficiency in transparent service delivery.
In Wajir, the arrangement has been so effective that the impeachment of a Degodia governor and his replacement with his deputy, an Ogaden, took place with the full support of all others, including the Degodia. This shows that if well executed and practiced, negotiated democracy can also work. Incompetent leaders can be removed from the ethnic equations with little consequence.
But in Marsabit this level of confidence has not been achieved, as the negotiated democracy pendulum seems to swing between a Gabra-led REGABU alliance and a Borana-led alliance.
The role of women
Negotiated democracy’s most significant flaw has so far been its architects’ deliberate efforts to leave women out of the decision-making process. In Mandera, women have a committee whose role has so far been to rally support for the council of elders’ decisions even though these decisions cut them out and receive minimal input from the women.
No woman has been elected as governor in northern Kenya. The absence of women is a big flaw that weakens the structural legitimacy of negotiated democracy.
Women’s role in the north has been boldly experimental and progressive. In Wajir for example, women’s groups in the 1990s initiated a major peace process that ended major clan conflicts and brought lasting peace. Professionals, elders, and the local administration later supported the efforts of Wajir Women for Peace until, in the end, the Wajir Peace Group was formed, and their efforts culminated in the Al Fatah Declaration. Many women have been instrumental in fighting for peace and other important societal issues in the north.
In Marsabit, the ideologues and organisers of the four major cultural festivals are women’s groups. Merry-go-rounds, table banking, and other financial access schemes have become essential in giving women a more important economic role in their households. Their organisational abilities are transforming entire neighbourhoods, yet negotiated democracy, the biggest political reorganisation scheme since the onset of devolution, seems to wilfully ignore this formidable demographic.
Ali Roba won the election despite his defiance of the council of elders, but Ali Roba’s defiance created a vast rift in Mandera. As the council of elders desperately tried to unseat the “unfit” Ali Roba, his opponent seemed to emphasise the elders’ blessings as his sole campaign agenda. The council of elders eventually closed ranks and shook hands with Ali Roba.
But there was something more insidious at play, the aligning of the council of elders—with their old and accepted traditional ethos—to the cutthroat machinations of electoral politics means that their own legitimacy has been eroded in significant ways.
Negotiated democracy’s most significant flaw has so far been its architects’ deliberate efforts to leave the women of the north out of the decision-making process.
In northern Kenya, the traditional centres of power and decision-making that thrived in the absence of state power are undergoing a contemporary revival. They occupy a central position as players and brokers in the new local realities. Through these political trade-offs between politicians and elders we see the wholesome delivery of traditional systems to a dirty political altar.
With devolution, the more resourced governors, who now reside at the local level and not in Nairobi, are altering intractably the existing local political culture. They praised and elevated the traditional systems and portrayed themselves as woke cultural agents, then manipulated the elders and exposed them to ridicule.
The governors manipulated the outcome of their deliberations by handpicking elders and thus subverted the democratic ethos that guaranteed the survival of the culture.
A new social class
The new political offices have increased the number of political players and political contestation leading to hardened lines between clans. The Rendille community who are divided into two broad moieties-belel (West and East), only had one member of parliament. Now under devolution they have a senator under the negotiated alliance. The MP comes from the western bloc and the senator from the eastern bloc. Each pulled their bloc—Belel, the two moieties—in opposing directions. Where there were partnerships now political divisions simmer. For example, in 2019 the Herr generational transition ceremony was not held centrally, as is normally the case, because of these new political power changes.
In northern Kenya, the traditional centres of power and decision-making that thrived in the absence of state power are undergoing a contemporary revival.
Devolution has also made positions in the elders’ institutions lucrative in other ways. A senior county official and former community elder from Moyale stood up to share his frustrations with community elders at an event in Marsabit saying, “in the years before devolution, to be an elder was not viewed as a good thing. It was hard even to get village elders and community elders. Now though, everyone wants to be a community elder. We have two or more people fighting for elders’ positions.”
To be an elder is to be in a position where one can issue a political endorsement. To be a member of a council of elders is to be in the place where one can be accorded quasi-monarchical prerogatives and status by the electorate and the elected. The council of elders now comprises retired civil servants, robbing the actual traditional elders of their legitimacy.
Towards Democratization in Somalia – More Than Meets the Eye
Although Somalia continues to experience many challenges, its rebuilding progress is undeniable. But this remarkable track record has been somewhat put to the test this electoral season.
Elections in Somalia have yet again been delayed, barely a month after the country agreed on a timetable for the much-anticipated polls and months after the end of the current president’s mandate and the expiry of the parliament’s term. At the close of their summit at the end of June, the National Consultative Council, made up of Somalia’s Prime Minister and the presidents of the Federal States, had announced an ambitious electoral schedule. The entire electoral process was to take place over 100 days.
However, going by Somali standards, keeping to this timeline was always highly improbable and country stumbled at the first hurdle—the election of the Upper House—following the failure by most federal regions to submit candidates’ lists to form local committees to cast the ballots in time. As of the first week of August, only two, Jubbaland and the South West State, had conducted the elections, which were meant to start on 25 July and be completed within four days. Yet to start are elections in the federal member states of Puntland, Galmudug and Hirshabelle, as well as the selection of special delegates to vote for Somaliland members of the Senate and the Lower House.
But as most political stakeholders would say, at least the process has finally begun. This was not the outlook just three short months ago. In fact, on 25 April, Somalia’s entire state-building project appeared to be unravelling after President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo” unilaterally extended both his term and that of the Lower House of Parliament. Running battles between Somali security forces had erupted in the capital, with fissures evident within the Somali security forces, with some opposing the term extensions and others supporting the government.
This was the culmination of a yearlong conflict that was initially triggered by the government’s apparent inability to conduct the much-awaited one-person one-vote elections. This conflict led to the removal of the former prime minister for his divergent views in July 2020. Eventually, the president conceded and all parties agreed to sign yet another agreement on indirect elections—where appointed delegates, not the general public, do the voting—on 17 September 2020. But for months following the 17 September agreement, the process remained at a standstill as the implementation modalities were disputed. The president’s mandate expired on 8 February without a conclusive agreement on an electoral process or plan having been reached, several attempts at resuscitating talks between the president and some federal member states having flopped.
The three main sticking points were the composition of the electoral teams that included civil servants and members of the security services; the management of the electoral process in Gedo, one of the two electoral locations in the Federal Member State of Jubbaland, a state that is in conflict with the central administration; and the appointment of the electoral team for Somaliland seats, the breakaway state in the north (northern MPs protested the undue influence of President Farmaajo in their selection).
Additionally, security arrangements for the elections became a significant factor after a night attack on a hotel where two former presidents were staying and the use of lethal force against protesters, including a former prime minister, on 19 February. More than a month later, the electoral process tumbled further into crisis when the Lower House of Parliament introduced and approved the “The Special Electoral Law for Federal Election” bill to extend the mandate of the governing institutions, including that of the president, by two years. The president hastily signed the bill into law less than 48 hours later despite global condemnation and local upheaval. More critically, the move was the first real test of the cohesiveness of the Somali security forces. Forces, mainly from the Somali National Army, left the frontlines and took critical positions in the capital to protest the illegal extension, while the Farmaajo administration called on the allied units to confront the rival forces.
The ensuing clashes of the armed forces in the capital brought ten months of political uncertainty and upheaval to a climax as pro-opposition forces pushed forward and surrounded Villa Somalia demanding a change of course. With the country on the verge of a return to major violence, Somalia’s prime minister and the Federal Member State presidents loyal to the president rejected the illegal term extension and on the 1st of May, the president and parliament jointly rescinded the resolution to extend the mandate of the governing institutions. The president finally handed the responsibility for electoral negotiations between the federal government and the federal member states to the prime minister. After a brief cooling-off period, the harmonized electoral agreement merging the 17 September agreement with the 16 February implementation recommendations by a technical committee was finally signed and agreed by the National Consultative Forum on 27 May. The electoral stalemate that had begun in June 2020 ended precisely a year after it began.
Somalia’s electoral calendar
- Election of the Upper House – 25 July
- Selection and preparation of electoral delegates – 15 July – 10 August
- Election of members of Parliament – 10 August – 10 September
- Swearing-in of the members of parliament and election of the speakers of both Houses of the Somali Parliament – 20 September
- Presidential election – 10 October
Direct vs indirect elections
Although Somalia continues to experience many challenges, including al-Shabaab terrorism, and natural and man-made disasters, its rebuilding progress is modest and undeniable. The country has, despite many odds, managed to conduct elections and organise the peaceful handover of power regularly. This remarkable track record has been somewhat put to the test this electoral season, but the nation has since corrected course. It has been eight years since the end of the Somali transitional governments and the election of an internationally recognized government. In that time, subsequent Somali governments have conducted two indirect electoral processes that have facilitated greater participation and advanced progress towards “one person one vote”. In 2012, to usher in Somalia’s first internationally recognized administration since 1991, 135 traditional elders elected members of parliament, who in turn elected their speakers and the federal president. This process was conducted only in Mogadishu. The 275 seats were distributed according to the 4.5 clan-based power-sharing formula.
The electoral stalemate that had begun in June 2020 ended precisely a year after it began.
In 2016, further incremental progress was made with 14,025 Somalis involved in the selection of members of parliament and the formation of Somalia’s Upper House. Elections were also conducted in one location in each Federal Member State as the Federal Map was by then complete. The 135 traditional elders were still involved as they selected the members of 275 electoral colleges made up of 51 delegates per seat, constituting the total electoral college of 14,050. On the other hand, the Upper House, made up of 54 representatives, represented the existing and emerging federal member states. The state presidents nominated the proposed senate contenders, while the state assemblies elected the final members of the Upper House. Each house elected its Speaker and Deputy/ies, while a joint sitting of both houses elected the President of the Federal Republic of Somalia.
The main task of this administration was therefore to build upon this progress and deliver one-person-one-vote elections. But despite high expectations, the current administration failed to deliver Somalia’s first direct election since 1969. The consensus model agreed upon is also indirect and very similar to that of the last electoral process. The main difference between this model and the 2016 indirect election is an increase in electoral delegates per parliamentary seat from 51 to 101, and the increase of electoral locations per Federal Member State from one location per FMS to two.
Slow but significant progress
While Somalia’s electoral processes appear complex and stagnant on the surface, the political scene has continued to change and to reform. Those impatient to see change forget that Somalia underwent total state collapse in 1991. The country experienced nearly ten years of complete anarchy without an internationally recognized central government, which would end with the establishment of the Transitional National Government in 2000. Immediately after Barre’s exit, Somaliland seceded and declared independence in May 1991 and the semi-autonomous administration of Puntland was formed in 1998. In the rest of the country, and particularly in the capital, warlords and clans dominated the political scene, with minimum state infrastructure development for more than a decade. As anarchy reigned, with widespread looting of state and private resources, and heinous crimes committed against the population, authority was initially passed to local clan elders who attempted unsuccessfully to curb the violence. Appeals by Islamists to rally around an Islamic identity began to take hold when the efforts to curb the violence failed, and several reconciliation conferences organized by Somalia’s neighbours failed to yield results. This led to the emergence of the Islamic Courts Union in 2006 that would later morph into the Al-Shabaab insurgency following the intervention of Ethiopia with support from the US.
Simultaneously, external mediation efforts continued with the election of the Transitional National Government led by President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan in Arta, Djibouti, in 2000, the first internationally recognized central administration. In 2004, the IGAD-led reconciliation conference in Nairobi culminated in the formation of the Transitional Federal Government and the election of President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. It was in 2000 at the Arta conference in Djibouti that the infamous 4.5 power sharing mechanism was introduced, while in 2004, federalism, as the agreed system of governance, was introduced to address participatory governance and halt the political fragmentation as demonstrated by the era of warlords and the formation of semi-autonomous territories. However, to date, the emergent federal states are largely drawn along clan lines.
President Abdiqasim was initially welcomed back into Mogadishu; he reinstated the government in the capital, settling into Villa Baidoa. President Abdullahi Yusuf faced stiffer opposition and initially settled in the city of Baidoa before entering the capital in 2007, supported by Ethiopian forces. He was able to retake the seat of government in Villa Somalia but resigned two years later, paving the way for the accommodation of the moderate group of Islamist rebels led by Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Sheikh Ahmed would later be elected president of the Transitional Federal Government in Djibouti, succeeding Abdullahi Yusuf. This would be the last Somali electoral process held outside Somalia.
Strengthening state security
The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force was deployed in South-Central Somalia in early 2007 to help stabilize the country and provide support to the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG). AMISOM’s deployment was instrumental in the withdrawal of the unpopular invading Ethiopian forces whose historical enmity with Somalia and the atrocities it committed against the Somali population provided rich fodder for Al-Shabaab’s recruitment efforts. But even as AMISOM helped the TFG and, later the FGS, to uproot AS from large swathes of Somalia, rekindling latent possibilities for a second liberation, the mission has not been without fault. While the mission is credited with helping create a conducive environment to further the political processes, it has also been equally culpable of hindering Somalia’s political progress by including in the mission Somalia’s arch-enemies, its problematic neighbours.
Ethiopia rehatted its troops in Somalia in 2014, following Kenya’s lead. Kenya had made the unilateral decision to invade Somalia in October 2011, in Operation Linda Nchi, Operation Protect the Nation, and subsequently rehatted into AMISOM in November 2011. Djibouti, Somalia’s northern neighbour, had warm relations with Somalia and is the only neighbour whose inclusion in AMISOM in December 2011 did not follow a previous unilateral invasion and was welcomed by the federal government. At face value, the interventions were seemingly motivated by national security interests. In particular, Ethiopia and Kenya share a long porous border with Somalia, and the spillover of the active al-Shabaab insurgency was considered a national security risk. But both Ethiopia and Kenya have dabbled in Somalia’s political affairs, routinely recruiting, training, and backing Somali militia groups whose leaders are thereafter propelled to political leadership positions. Somalia’s neighbours have been guilty of providing an arena for proxy battles and throwing Somalia’s nascent federalism structures into disarray.
AMISOM is also credited with enabling greater international community presence in Somalia and the improvement of social and humanitarian efforts. The international presence has also facilitated the completion of the federal map, with the formation of Jubbaland, South-West, Galmudug, and Hirshabelle member states. Somaliland and Puntland have strengthened their institutions and political processes. The most recent Somaliland parliamentary elections pointed to a maturing administration. Opposition parties secured a majority and formed a coalition in preparation for next year’s presidential elections.
To date, the emergent federal states are largely drawn along clan lines.
Meanwhile, the Puntland Federal Member State has also embarked on an ambitious programme of biometric registration of its electorate to deliver the region’s first direct elections since its formation. But on the flip side, the international partners, who mainly re-engaged in Somalia after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, are guilty of engaging with the country solely through the security perspective. The partners also often dictate solutions borrowed from their experiences elsewhere that do not necessarily serve in Somalia’s context. The insistence on electoral processes, specifically at the national level, that disregard bottom-up representation and genuine reconciliation, is a case in point; any Somali administration joins a predetermined loop of activities set out by partners with little room for innovation or change.
Key among these critical tasks is the completion of the provisional constitution, which would cement the federal system of government. For the federal government, the provisional nature of the constitution has hamstrung the completion of the federal governance system and framework. Both Somalia’s National Security Architecture and the Transition Plan have faced implementation hurdles due to the differences between the federal government and the federal member states. This has fundamentally hampered the tangible rebuilding of Somali security forces and synergizing operations for liberation and stabilization between the centre and the periphery.
Yet all the state-building steps taken by Somalia, wrought with political upheaval and brinkmanship at the time, still presented progress as Somalis moved away from anarchy towards some semblance of governance. There is no doubt that the application of the new federal dispensation has also witnessed several false starts as the initial transitional governments and federal governments have been beset by the dual challenge of state-building while battling the al-Shabaab insurgency. But however imperfect, Somalia’s electoral processes have managed to keep the peace between most of Somalia’s warring political elite.
Somalia’s political class
Somalia’s protracted conflict has revolved primarily around clan competition over access to power and resources both at community and at state level. Historically, the competition for scarce resources, exacerbated periodically by climatic disasters, has been the perpetual driver of conflict, with hostilities often resulting in the use of force. Additionally, due to the nature of nomadic life, characterized by seasonal migration over large stretches of land, inter-clan conflict was and remains commonplace. This decentralized clan system and the nature of Somalis can also explain the difficulty that Somalis face in uniting under one leader and indeed around a single national identity. This is in contrast with the high hopes that Somalia’s post-independence state-building would be smoother than for its heterogenous neighbours. In fact, Somalia has illustrated that there is sub-set of heterogeneity within its homogenous society.
Thus, state-building in Somalia has had to contend with the fact that Somalia was never a single autonomous political unit, but rather a conglomeration of clan families centred around kinship and a loosely binding social contract. Although the Somali way of life might have been partially disrupted by the colonial construct that is now Somalia, clan remains a primary system of governance for Somalis, especially throughout the 30 years that followed state collapse. Parallels between the Somali nation prior to colonization and present-day Somalia reveal an inclination towards anarchy and disdain for centralized authority.
Independence in 1960 did little to change the socio-economic situation of the mostly nomadic population. Deep cleavages between the rural and urban communities became evident as the new political elite, rather than effecting economic and social change for their people, engaged in widespread corruption, nepotism, and injustices. Despite the best intentions and efforts of some of the nation’s liberation leaders, the late sixties witnessed the beginning of social stratification based on education and clan. Western observers at the time hailed the democratic leanings of the post-colonial civilian regime for Africa’s first peaceful handover of power after the defeat of the president in a democratic election. However, many Somalis saw corruption, tribalism, indecision and stagnation, particularly after liberation leaders left power. As such, the military coup orchestrated by the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) led by General Mohamed Siad Barre was seen as an honest alternative.
Both Ethiopia and Kenya have dabbled in Somalia’s political affairs, routinely recruiting, training, and backing Somali militia groups
This initial positive reception to military rule was quickly repudiated as the council could not deliver on its pledges, and in addition to corruption and nepotism, violent repression prevailed. The oppressive military dictatorship followed and reigned for the next two decades. During his 22-year rule, Barre succeeded in alienating the majority of the population through his arbitrary implementation of Scientific Socialism. He introduced policies that outlawed clan and tribal identities while simultaneously cracking down on religious scholars. Armed opposition and a popular uprising ended the repressive rule but led the way to a complete collapse of the Somali state as different factions fought for control. The blatant nepotism of the military regime and the subsequent bloody era of the warlords re-tribalized the society. Somalis turned to religion as the common unifying identity as evident in the gradual increase of new Islamist organizations and increased religious observance.
With over 70 per cent of the population under the age of 35, the average Somali has known no other form of governance, having lived under either military rule or anarchy. The cumulative 30 years after state collapse and the previous 21 years of military rule have not really given Somalia the chance to entrench systems and institutions that would aid the democratization of the state. As such, the progress made thus far is admirable.
Possibilities for success – Somalia’s democratization process
Somalia’s numerous challenges notwithstanding, there has always existed some semblance of a democratic process. Every president has been elected through an agreed process, as imperfect as that may be. And the peaceful transfer of power has become an expectation. That is why it was quite notable that when there was a threat of subversion of the democratic process in April this year, the military that had historically been used as a tool to cling on to power, in this instance revolted to return the country to the democratic path. It is clear that the still-nascent fragile institutions of the past 12 years require protection. So far, Somalia’s democratization process has been a process towards building trust. Civilian rule was replaced with an autocratic military regime that was subsequently replaced by lawlessness and the tyranny of warlords.
However imperfect, Somalia’s electoral processes have managed to keep the peace between most of Somalia’s warring political elite.
Since 2000, Somalia has steadily been making its way out of the conflict. But rebuilding trust and confidence in the governing authorities has been an uphill battle. The checks and balances that are built into the implementation of federalism will serve to further this journey. The next two Somali administrations will need to implement full political reforms if this path is to lead to a positive destination. These political reforms will encompass the implementation of the political Parties Act that would do away with the despised 4.5 clan-based construct, improve political participation and representation, and bring about inclusive and representative government.
Even then, there are crucial outstanding tasks, key among which is the completion of the Provisional Constitution. The contentious issues such as allocation of powers, natural resource sharing between the centre and the periphery, separation of powers and the status of the capital remain unsolved and threaten the trust-building process that Somalia has embarked on. The missing ingredient is political settlements, settlements between Somalia’s elite. The next four years will be therefore be key for Somalia to maintain and possibly accelerate its steady progress towards full democratization.
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