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The American Uprising of 2020: Black Lives Matter Gains Traction

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The public execution of George Floyd sparked demonstrations across every state and in hundreds of cities and towns in the United States, quickly turning into the nation’s largest and most widespread protest movement against systemic racism since the 1960s.

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The American Uprising of 2020: Black Lives Matter Gains Traction
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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.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria / Photo. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildarchiv Austria, Inventarnr.

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.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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.

Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788.

Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788.

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.

Performative Activism  

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”.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter

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.

Ivory Tower

Ivory Tower

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 NatureSciencePhysical 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.

Black Lives Matter Protest in DC

Black Lives Matter Protest in DC. Photo/Unsplash

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.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

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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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger.

Long Reads

The True – Hidden – Cost of the Proposed Lamu Coal Plant

The claim by Amu Power that the proposed Lamu Coal Plant will generate cheap electricity and provide employment does not hold up to scrutiny.

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The True – Hidden – Cost of the Proposed Lamu Coal Plant
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It is common knowledge that coal has significant impacts on the environment, human health and livelihoods, and oceans and marine life yet Amu Power, the entity behind the proposed 1,050 MW Lamu Coal Plant, is minimising these risks and arguing that the plant is necessary on economic grounds.  Their arguments do not hold up under scrutiny.

Amu Power makes three claims about the plant:  1) that it will provide cheap electricity – their marketing states that the plant will provide electricity at KSh7.8/kWh; 2) that it will create employment opportunities for Kenyans; and 3) that inexpensive electricity from the coal plant will spur manufacturing in Kenya and transform the country into a middle-income economy by 2030.

In January 2021 the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) sold electricity to domestic consumers at KSh24.06/kWh. In comparison, the KSh7.8/kWh promised by Amu Power looks great. But that is what KPLC, not its customers, will pay. This amount is a component of only one line item, known as the Fuel Cost Charge (FCC), of the total cost per kilowatt hour that KPLC charges consumers.

In January 2020, the Fuel Cost Charge was KSh2.58/kWh for residential and commercial consumers. This means that the electricity Amu Power is offering is at least three times more expensive than what KPLC is currently paying.

That in itself should put an end to any economic argument for the Lamu Coal Plant.  However, and as we shall see, the true costs of this plant are much higher.

1) Claim: Coal as a cheap source of power

Three inputs to the cost-of-electricity equation demonstrate that power from the plant will always cost more than KSh7.8/kWh and will therefore never be competitive against renewable resources:  1) price of coal; 2) capacity factor; and 3) hidden costs.

Price of coal: When Amu Power sold the idea of the Lamu Coal Plant to Kenya in 2014, their plan was to import coal from South Africa because there will be no coal available in Kenya to fuel the plant in the foreseeable future.

Amu Power’s claim that electricity from the plant would cost KSh7.8/kWh was based on a coal price of US$50/metric tonne. However, even at the time they made the claim, the average price of South African coal delivered to Kenya was already 50 per cent higher — over US$77.3/metric tonne. Coal prices fluctuate and so will the cost of power from a coal plant. At least once in the past six years, South African coal has been higher than US$106/metric tonne — more than twice what Amu Power quoted to convince the Kenyan government to give the company a permit.

The Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) between Amu Power and KPLC provides formulae to calculate the cost of electricity from the plant. Inputting a coal price of US$77.3/metric tonne — with all other of the proponent’s assumptions holding steady — increases the cost of electricity from the plant to KSh8.98/kWh. At a coal price of US$106/metric tonne, it would go up to KSh10.21/kWh.

In 2017, the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum (MoEP) projected the price of coal will be USD$108/tonne in 2040. That would make the cost of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant at least KSh10.27/kWh, almost four times the FCC today.

Cost of electricity based on price of coalBut accounting for a more accurate cost of coal does not bring to an end the adjustments necessary to Amu Power’s fantasy pricing. There are two other factors that must be taken into account to arrive at a more realistic price for the electricity from the proposed coal-fired plant.

2) Capacity Factor:  This is the actual amount of electricity generated by a plant as compared to the maximum amount it can produce. Amu Power’s projected price of KSh7.8/kWh is not only based on an inaccurate price of coal, but it is also based on the assumption that the plant will run at 85 per cent capacity.  For context, the global average utilisation for a coal-fired plant in 2019 was 54 per cent.

According to Amu Power, at 85 per cent capacity the Lamu Coal Plant would generate 7,305 gigawatt hours of electricity each year, which would enable it to meet the inflated demand forecasts presented in the MoEP’s 2011 Least Cost Power Development Plan. Based on more realistic demand forecast scenarios, in 2017 the Ministry calculated that the plant would generate – at most – only a third of Amu Power’s pledge. More damaging, in 2020, the MoEP calculated that in a fixed-case scenario the Lamu Coal Plant would operate at 2.8 per cent in 2030, at 4.6 per cent in 2035, and at 14.4 per cent in 2040. In an optimized, best-case scenario, the MoEP calculated that the plant would reach an operating capacity of only 26.2 per cent in 2040 (two-thirds into its lifespan). Therefore, based on the MoEP’s own calculations, Kenya does not need a 1,050 Mw coal plant.

The PPA commits ratepayers to paying Amu Power KSh37 billion annually for each of the 25 years the plant is expected to operate – a total of KSh900 billion. This capacity payment – approximately KSh100 million every single day – will be paid regardless of how much electricity the plant produces. If the plant is operating, the annual capacity payment is amortised and included in the price we pay per kWh for electricity.  That is significant because the higher the capacity factor, the less we pay per kWh.

The MoEP’s 2020 calculation that in an optimised, best-case scenario, the plant will operate at 26.2 per cent capacity – and not the 85 per cent capacity that Amu Power needs to make their electricity even marginally cost-competitive with geothermal and wind – is thus significant because a change in the capacity factor has more of an impact on the price of electricity from the plant than a change in the price of coal.

Coal-fired electricity from the proposed Lamu Coal Plant will be two to ten times more expensive than from current sources of generation.

If the plant operates at 26.2 per cent, the cost of electricity will be KSh19/kWh (using Amu Power’s claim of US$50/tonne). But if we also include a more realistic price of coal (US$77.3/tonne – the actual price in 2014), electricity from the plant would cost KSh20/kWh. Using the most recent highest price of South African coal (US$106/tonne), the cost would be KSh21/kWh, nearly eight times what we are paying now.

Cost of electricity based on price of coalWhen the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) analysed the 2017 MoEP data, it found that the plant would more likely run at between 5 per cent and 34 per cent capacity. If the plant runs at 5 per cent capacity, the price of electricity increases by KSh79.3/kWh, and at 34 per cent capacity, it goes up by KSh7.4/kWh, for a price range of between KSh15.2 and KSh87.1/kWh (assumming coal were miraculously available at US$50/tonne).  If coal were at US$77.3/metric tonne, the price of the electricity generated by the Lamu Coal Plant would be between KSh17/kWh (at 34 per cent capacity) and KSh88/kWh (at 5 per cent capacity).

Cost of electricity based on price of coalPlotting the price of electricity under the MoEP fixed-case scenarios, things look even worse.  At 2.8 per cent capacity – assuming US$$77.3/tonne of coal – electricity from the plant would be KSh154/kWh, at 4.6 per cent it is KSh95/kWh, and at 14.4 per cent it is KSh33/kWh.

This is not looking good for Kenyans. But there are more adjustments needed to generate a more realistic price of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant.

3) Hidden Costs:  There are two hidden cost centres that make the economics of the plant even worse for Kenyans – the Power Purchase Agreement itself and unaccounted-for construction costs.

The PPA and Letter of Support signed by the Kenyan government guarantee that Amu Power will be paid KSh37 billion annually for providing a plant to generate electricity – even if the plant does not produce a single kilowatt. These two documents guarantee that the Government of Kenya will pay Amu Power if the plant ceases to operate due to a political event, a change in the law, or a force majeure event including acts of God, epidemics, plagues, terrorism, labour disputes, public unrest, or piracy.

If the Government of Kenya is on the hook for the bill, this means that Kenyans will need to pay extra to ensure that Amu Power makes its profits for the remainder of the 25 years.  Based on the amount of electricity consumed annually in Kenya in 2018 and 2019, paying the KSh37 billion to Amu Power via KPLC would increase the price of electricity by KSh4.6/kWh for 25 years.  We would not be getting even a kilowatt of electricity for this tariff while Amu Power owners would be doing nothing and still making billions off the backs of Kenyans.

The other hidden cost is that of construction. In order for the electricity generated in Lamu to be available on the national grid, a transmission line must be built to transport the electricity from Lamu to Nairobi and in order for coal to get from the proposed mine in Kitui, a railway line must be built from Kitui to Lamu. Neither of these costs is included in the price of the plant.

The latest Least Cost Power Development Plan 2020-2040 estimated that the transmission line will cost approximately KSh55.9 billion.  The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) estimates that the railway line will cost KSh290 billion.  In addition, prior to coal being sourced from Kitui, a 15 km conveyor belt must be built to bring the coal that is delivered to the port at Kililana in Lamu to the site of the coal plant at Kwasasi. The ESIA does not provide a cost for the conveyor belt.

Amu Power owners would be doing nothing and still making billions off the backs of Kenyans.

Together, the railway and transmission lines add at least an additional KSh345.9 billion to the cost of the plant.  Because the costs for transmission lines and railroads were not included in the formula calculating the price of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant that was disclosed in the PPA, we do not know if our electricity bills will increase per kWh to cover the cost of these necessary components of the plant or if, instead, Kenyans will pay for this via taxes. A rough calculation using the formula for electricity pricing shows that if KSh345.9 billion is repaid over 25 years via our utility bills and the plant is operating at 26.2 per cent capacity (the MoEP’s best-case scenario), the cost will increase by an additional KSh6/kWh.

Looking at the reality of the price of coal inputs, plant utilisation, and the full cost of construction, it is clear that the Lamu Coal Plant cannot possibly generate electricity for KSh7.8/kWh. It is much more likely that the electricity from the coal plant will cost KSh26/kWh assuming a more realistic cost of coal (US$77.3/tonne), with the plant running at 26.2 per cent capacity as predicted by the MoEP, and that rail and transmission costs are amortised over the 26.2 per cent capacity factor.

It is possible for the cost to be as low as KSh15/kWh if the cost of coal is US$77.3/tonne and the plant operates at the international average of 54 per cent utilisation, with rail and transmission costs amortised over 54 per cent capacity factor. Or it could be as high as KSh213/kWh if coal costs US$100/tonne, the plant operates at the 2.8 per cent utilisation rate in the MoEP’s lowest fixed-case scenario, and rail and transmission costs are amortised over the 2.8 per cent capacity factor.

Cost of electricity based on price of coal2) Claim:  Coal as an employment creator

The Lamu Coal Plant Environmental Impact Assessment states that the plant will employ between 2,000 and 3,000 people during the 42-month construction period and 400 people during its 25 years of operation.

While on the face of it this seems like a good thing for Kenya, it is important to look closely at the jobs lost due to the construction and operation of the plant, the jobs gained, and who gets these jobs.

To explore this, we can look at the two main industries in Lamu, tourism and fishing. Pre-COVID data found that tourism injects over Ksh2 billion per year into Lamu’s economy and pays over KSh500 million in taxes each year. This sector directly employs more than 3,000 locals in hotels and restaurants and several thousand more as boat operators for the visiting tourists, and tourist guides.

Particulate emissions from the coal plant will result in significant damage to the historic buildings and structures in Lamu Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The effluent emissions will cause ocean temperatures to rise, destroying the coral reefs and increasing toxicity which will make it unsafe for tourists and locals to swim, snorkel, and dive.  With the plant in operation, Lamu will no longer be a pristine and unique tourist attraction.

Most significant is the impact of the smoke from the stacks at the plant. The Kaskazi winds blow from October through May, when the island welcomes 80 per cent of its tourists. The winds blow from the northeast – the direction of the plant – and across the archipelago.  This air will carry the toxic, noxious emissions from the plant to Lamu as well as cause haze pollution that will reduce visibility of the shoreline so beloved of tourists and locals.  The Lamu Tourism Association expects that business will drop by at least 80 per cent due to this pollution.  As such, the industry expects to lose, at a minimum, 2,400 jobs. There are not many alternative sources of income in Lamu and most of these people will be permanently unemployed.

Together, the railway and transmission lines add at least an additional KSh345.9 billion to the cost of the plant.

The approximately 6,000 people who derive their livelihoods from participating in Lamu’s KSh1.5 billion fishing industry will be similarly affected.  Most are local fishermen who use hand-crafted fishing boats and equipment to fish close to the shoreline.

The plant’s emissions and effluent, and the leachate from coal ash waste which is to be stored in a flood zone along Manda Bay, will increase the nitrogen content, water temperature, and heavy metals and carcinogens in the bay. This will negatively impact the quantity, quality, and health of fish and shellfish.

As the water in the bay becomes inhospitable for fish, the industry will move farther into the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, the boats and equipment used by most of the local fishermen are not appropriate for deep ocean fishing. The move to deeper waters also leads to a transformation and consolidation in the industry where larger companies with petroleum-based deep-sea fishing vessels make it noncompetitive for local independent fishermen even if they were to obtain the necessary boats and equipment.  In addition, not as many fishermen are needed on the commercial vessels and few locals will be able to retain their jobs. The work requirements on a commercial fishing boat are such that the Chair of the Lamu Beach Management Unit estimates that only 1 per cent of current fishermen will find work on commercial vessels and that 70 per cent of local fishermen will completely lose their livelihoods.  The rest of the fishermen are expected to find other, non-fishing, work locally.

Amu Power has falsely led the public to believe that locals who may lose their jobs due to the coal plant will gain employment during its construction and operation. But they are not transparent about who will get these jobs.

If built, the Lamu Coal Plant would be the first in East Africa. This means that, as a country, we do not have the experience and expertise needed to be among the skilled workforce that will get the better-paying jobs. The coal plant’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment confirms that 1,700 Chinese expatriates will construct the coal plant leaving us with between 300 and 1,300 jobs to allocate to Kenyans during the construction phase of 3.5 years — less than half what was promised, even in a best-case scenario. The jobs allocated to Kenyans are not skilled labour and do not make up for the thousands who will have lost their livelihoods due to the impacts from the plant.

The ESIA states that the plant will employ 400 people once it is operational. It does not disclose how many of these positions will be technical, requiring experience and expertise that we do not yet have, nor how many will be unskilled jobs – such as coal handling, which comes with health risks – given to Kenyans. Even so, 400 jobs over 25 years neither reemploys the number of local fishermen and people in the tourism industry who will have lost their jobs due to the plant, nor reduces current levels of unemployment in the region.

Amu Power has falsely led the public to believe that locals who may lose their jobs due to the coal plant will gain employment during its construction and operation.

The plant will therefore create job opportunities for expatriates at the expense of thousands of fishermen and locals who are dependent on fishing and tourism as a source of employment while creating – at best – 1,700 jobs over a 25-year period and causing approximately 4,200 job losses in the fishing industry and 2,400 in tourism – a net loss of 4,900 Kenyan jobs.

3) Claim:  Coal will help Kenya transform into a manufacturing economy 

Manufacturing is one pillar of President Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda. The government’s aim is to raise the contribution of manufacturing to GDP from the current for 9.4 per cent of constant-price [inflation-adjusted] GDP to 20 per cent of GDP by 2022. Amu Power has sold the point that coal provides inexpensive baseload power that is required to boost Kenyan manufacturing to achieve President Kenyatta’s goals. Baseload electricity is the electricity that is always available to commercial and residential consumers. Coal plants run 24-7 so historically they have been used for baseload electricity (as have natural gas and diesel turbines). In contrast, wind and solar are considered intermittent sources of electricity because wind does not blow and the sun does not shine 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

But Amu Power ignored two things:  1) there are less expensive options for baseload power in Kenya and 2) coal-fired electricity will increase the cost of manufacturing in Kenya.

1) There are less expensive options. Amu Power’s claim that Kenya needs coal for its baseload electricity ignores both that coal is more expensive per kilowatt hour than natural gas and wind power and – more significantly for Kenya – that it is cost competitive with geothermal. Kenya has among the highest geothermal potential in the world – 7,000 to 10,000 MW.  Unlike wind and solar, geothermal energy is available for electricity generation 24 hours per day, every day of the year. Unlike coal, it is locally available and is not dependent on purchasing fossil-fuel inputs whose costs fluctuate wildly on international markets.

Kenya’s Least Cost Power Development Plan 2017-2037 states that the price of power from geothermal plants is, on average, about a third the cost of electricity from coal: US$10 cents/kWh compared to US$29.5 cents/kWh.  Because geothermal (like wind and sunshine) is free, it is less expensive in the long-term than coal-fired electricity (and has none of the environmental impacts of coal which increase the community’s burden of costs for environmental clean-up and healthcare due to increased cases of pulmonary and cardiac diseases).

Unlike coal, geothermal energy is locally available and is not dependent on purchasing fossil-fuel inputs whose costs fluctuate wildly on international markets.

2) Coal-fired electricity will increase the cost of manufacturing in Kenya. Considering more realistic capacity factors and the prices of coal, rail, and transmission lines, the cost of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant ranges from KSh15 to KSh213/kWh (instead of the KSh2.58/kWh commercial enterprises paid for FCC in January 2021).  If the Lamu Coal Plant is built, the price of electricity for industry could be more than ten times higher than what they are currently paying (in January 2021, commercial consumers paid between Ksh14.61 and KSh23.82 per kWh of electricity).

In order to manufacture with such electricity costs, the prices of goods produced in Kenya would also have to increase, rendering Kenyan products uncompetitive locally and undesirable on international markets.

Conclusion

None of the three claims made by Amu Power to convince the government that Kenyans not only need, but will benefit from, a coal plant hold up under examination.  Coal-fired electricity from the proposed Lamu Coal Plant will be two to ten times more expensive than from current sources of generation, causing dramatic increases in our electricity bills. The Lamu Coal Plant will create jobs for Chinese expat workers and cause an overall loss of 4,900 Kenyan jobs.  The cost of electricity from the Lamu Coal Plant will make manufacturing in Kenya so expensive that not only will the country not deliver on the president’s Big Four Agenda, but Kenyan goods will become non-competitive on local, regional, and international markets.

The poor economics of the Lamu Coal Plant will be disastrous for Kenya’s economy. It will make electricity unaffordable for most Kenyans and will eliminate competitive growth in the manufacturing sector. Furthermore, with the Lamu Coal Plant saddling Kenyans with billions in debt and hundreds of megawatts of expensive excess generation capacity, the Kenyan government will be prevented from investing in sustainable, low-cost, local sources of electricity generation, hampering the country’s economic development for decades.

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Long Reads

BBI: A Textbook Case of Compounding Constitutional Illegalities

The issues that Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga have identified as bedevilling the country have already been assigned by the constitution or the law to existing and established state agencies.

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BBI: A Textbook Case of Compounding Constitutional Illegalities
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The phrase “compounding illegalities” aptly describes the approach and processes taken by Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga to change the constitution through the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

The following have been the defining processes for BBI thus far. One, the formation of the BBI Steering Committee and Taskforce; two, the decision that the mandate of the BBI is to propose constitutional reforms; three, the decision that BBI constitutional amendments will be introduced through a popular initiative; four, submission of the BBI Bill and verification of its support by the IEBC; five, the referendum path being scripted by BBI proponents. Each of these steps has been riddled with a myriad of illegalities.

Let us discuss these processes one at a time.

BBI taskforce

The BBI Taskforce was born out of the opaque “truce” between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta following the dramatic swearing in of Raila Odinga as the People’s President on 9 March 2018 that was presided over by Miguna Miguna. It is unclear the extent of the considerations that placated Raila and led him to the “handshake” with Uhuru at a time when he professed that everything he stood for was diametrically opposed to Uhuru’s beliefs. What was made public, however, were the nine issues that the two identified as afflicting Kenya’s democracy. The issues ranged from ethnic antagonism to a lack of a national ethos with regard to corruption.

The launch of the BBI Steering Committee soon followed on 24 May 2018. The membership of the Steering Committee was drawn from Uhuru and Raila’s long-term loyalists, with persons considered politically non-controversial included to give the membership a veneer of diversity. The Steering Committee had only three terms of reference: (i) evaluate the national challenges identified in the BBI (handshake) communiqué and make recommendations on the necessary “reforms that build lasting national unity”; (ii) draw up policy and administrative reform proposals to address the challenges identified, and (iii) consult with members of the public.

After it issued its first report, the Steering Committee’s term was extended on 20 January 2020 and its description was changed to a Taskforce. Its revised terms of reference were to conduct public participation to validate its report. However, a mischievous mandate was sneaked into the Taskforce work: “proposing constitutional reforms”.

I must pause here and identify how, even this early in the process, Uhuru violated the constitution and the law. The illegalities are at least at three levels. First, all the nine issues that he and Raila identified as bedevilling the country were already issues assigned by the constitution or the law to already existing and established state agencies. Let us sample a few. One – ethnic antagonism and inclusivity are the mainstay functions of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC). Two – corruption is the single issue assigned to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC). Three – the constitution and other laws have already established all manner of agencies and structures to deal with every aspect of devolution, including the Summit (the body bringing together the president and all governors), the Inter-governmental Relations Technical Committee and the Inter-governmental Budget and Economic Council. Finally, we already have institutions – ranging from the IEBC, the NCIC, and the judiciary among others – to deal with electoral justice.

Essentially, what Uhuru did in establishing the Steering Committee and Taskforce to deal with his and Raila’s nine issues was to usurp responsibilities that have already been assigned by the constitution and the law to established state institutions and hand them over to a select group of friends and loyalists to steer.

But there are those who will argue that part of Uhuru’s constitutional mandate as the President and Head of State is to foster national unity and it is therefore within his powers to appoint a taskforce to assist with this constitutional task. But this argument misses the fundamental point that the President is required to be the first in line to respect the functional mandate of the institutions established by the constitution and the law and not to do anything that undermines or minimises their authority.

The second level of illegality has to do with how Uhuru and Raila settled on members of the taskforce. The constitution insists that, with the exception of the personal staff of the president and his deputy, anyone selected to undertake a public function by and for the executive must undergo a merit-based and competitive selection process. This is to ensure that those assigned public duties are qualified to do what they are assigned to do and are not just sycophants of the appointing authority.

Essentially, what Uhuru did was to usurp responsibilities that have already been assigned by the constitution and the law to established state institutions.

The third illegality is unilaterally starting a consequential constitutional revision project without first creating a legal framework to guide the process. Revising a constitution is too sacrosanct a task to be left to three half-baked terms of reference contained in a nondescript gazette notice and assigning the work to a taskforce that is not accountable to the people. Worse, the fact that the constitutional mandate was sneaked into the terms of reference of the taskforce at the last minute only aggravates the disregard Uhuru has for the law.

Popular initiative

The constitution provides two pathways to its amendment. The first is through a parliamentary initiative. The second is the popular initiative. The parliamentary pathway to amending the constitution largely mirrors the manner in which regular laws are introduced in parliament. Ordinarily, and ideally, the executive formulates policy on an issue. That policy is transmitted to the office of the attorney general who works in tandem with parliament to translate it into a draft law. The draft is then introduced in parliament by a member of parliament – ordinarily the majority leader or a member of a political party aligned to the executive.

There is logic to this process. Parliament exists largely to ensure that whatever action is taken by the executive is regulated by law. Ensuring that every action of the state derives its authority from the law is essentially what the principle of the rule of law is all about. But, importantly, the law-making function of parliament is intended to restrain the executive or other arms of government from transgressing on areas not assigned to them or undertaking their work in a way that is inimical to the principles of constitutionalism and rule of law. Hence, the law-making power of parliament is not passive but, at its core, involves ensuring that the law it enacts provides for the necessary guardrails against abuse of public power and sufficient guidance to those charged with implementing public responsibilities.

But how does this relate to the popular initiative process? The point here is that the constitution created the parliamentary initiative process for use by state actors including the executive and this is the path the constitution expects Uhuru and other government actors to take if they want to amend the constitution.

Why then the popular initiative process?

The constitution created this path for the people who do not wield state power to initiate the process of changing the constitution. Understanding the popular initiative as the people’s pathway to amending the constitution is critical for a number of reasons. To start with, it reaffirms the constitutional principle of sovereignty of the people – giving the people a pathway to changing the constitution that is not at the mercy of the political leadership.

The second reason is perhaps the most relevant given our circumstances and experience with the BBI thus far. The constitution and the law intend that the person or persons sponsoring amendments through the popular initiative fully bear the costs and inconveniences of initially mobilising the required threshold of at least one million voters to support the proposed amendment. It is only after the promoters deliver the bill and the supporting signatures to the IEBC that the constitution requires that state agencies – starting with the IEBC – engage with and deploy state resources in processing the bill and other ensuing procedures.

Revising a constitution is too sacrosanct a task to be left to three half-baked terms of reference contained in a nondescript gazette notice.

When the state hijacks the popular initiative process it unfairly inverts power relations between the people and the ruling elites. It also negates the entire constitutional intention of creating a popular initiative pathway since the use of state resources by state officers in order to popularise and attain the initial support of at least one million voters is unfair and discriminatory because similar public resources are not available to the people – who have no favour with the state – when pushing for amendments through the popular initiative.

Briefly, not only did Uhuru violate the law by hijacking the popular initiative pathway to amending the constitution when the law required him to use the parliamentary initiative pathway, but he has also abused his powers by deploying state resources to raise support for BBI constitutional amendments.

IEBC verification and approval by county assemblies

The constitution imposes three foundational obligations on the IEBC as an independent constitutional commission: to protect the sovereignty of the people; to secure observance of democratic values and principles by all state organs; and to promote constitutionalism. However, the IEBC’s handling of the BBI process goes against these obligations. The violations range from caving into undue pressure from the promoters of BBI, failing to observe the basic requirements of verification of signatures, using a makeshift administrative (legal) framework that was promulgated without complying with the law and, worse, violating the provisions of that framework.

Let us start with the lack of a proper legal framework. There is no law that guides the IEBC in its verification of signatures or any other aspects entrusted to it in processing the request to amend the constitution through a popular initiative. Yet there are very many issues where it is unclear  what the IEBC can or cannot do with regard to a popular initiative to amend the constitution. A law or proper guidance from the court is necessary if for no other reason other than to render IEBC actions legal.

A few examples of the gaps will suffice here. Although the constitution requires that a popular initiative have “supporting signatures” and that the IEBC will then “verify that the initiative is supported by at least one million registered voters”, given that the IEBC does not maintain a database of signatures of voters, it is unclear how it should undertake the verification exercise or what it would actually verify. Similarly, it is unclear whether the IEBC has an obligation to provide the public with information about who signed to support the popular initiative, and if so, through which medium.

Yes, the IEBC does not make law. That is the work of parliament. However, the IEBC has an obligation to request parliament to prepare the necessary regulatory framework to ensure its work and processes are guided by law. Where parliament refuses or fails to enact a guiding law, the IEBC has the option to go to court to seek guidance, especially given the importance of the process.

The law-making power of parliament is not passive but involves ensuring that the law it enacts provides for the necessary guardrails against abuse of public power.

An illustration is necessary here. In 2014, when the Embu County Assembly impeached Governor Martin Wambora it quickly noticed that, while the constitution allowed the deputy governor to take over the governor’s position, there was no national law to determine how the arising vacancy of a deputy governor would be filled. Parliament, which has the authority to pass such a law, had not done so. The County Assembly moved to the Supreme Court to ask for guidance. The Supreme Court provided that guidance because it found that both the position of the governor and of the deputy were so crucial “to the operations of County Government, it is inconceivable that, constitutionally, they could remain fallow until the next cycle of a general election.” Equally, the amendment of the constitution is too crucial a matter for the IEBC to allow itself to rely on guesswork when it has all along had the option to seek authoritative guidance from the Supreme Court.

What the IEBC has done is to illegally arrogate itself law-making powers by cobbling together some vague administrative procedures that it claims to use to guide its verification process.

But this is where it gets even more interesting. The IEBC failed to follow even its own procedures when verifying BBI signatures. First, its administrative procedures require it to compile and publish the list of supporters on its portal for two weeks. The procedures further allow it to receive complaints from members of the public whose information is either wrongly included or is excluded. However, the IEBC was in such haste to facilitate the BBI bill that it published the names for only four days before forwarding it to the County Assemblies.

Lack of a regulatory framework to guide a constitutional amendment driven by a popular initiative not only affects the IEBC but also nearly every step of the process. For example, there is no law that guides the county assemblies on how they should undertake the crucial step of approving the amendment bill. In fact, in 2019, the High Court ordered parliament to enact a law to seal this legislative lacuna. Again, parliament has failed to pass that law.

Yet, it is quite ironical that when the two Speakers – Justin Muturi and Ken Lusaka – were notifying parliament that it would start the process of considering the BBI bill they loudly stated that even parliament did not have the necessary law of parliamentary procedures to guide its own procedure of processing the bill. The Speakers had a quick solution to this – make up the rules and procedures as you go. Then parliamentarians were quite surprised when their process quickly hit a snag as they were unsure whether they were permitted to amend the BBI bill or not.

Uhuru violated the law and abused his powers by deploying state resources to raise support for BBI constitutional amendments.

Admittedly, there are currently two unsatisfactory bills pending in parliament intended to guide the entire constitutional amendment process – including how to resolve issues relating to preparing for and conducting the referendum. Those bills are full of regulatory gaps including the procedure in parliament. Still, instead of parliament prioritising the passing of these laws, it is focussing on pushing the BBI bill through. A classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

But why does passing a law to regulate the process matter?  Because that is what rule of law is all about – the authority to exercise public power must find its validity in a rule, a law. Law provides a framework through which those entrusted with public power to undertake certain processes can be objectively audited for compliance with the law and the constitution. Discretion, especially unregulated discretion, only breeds anarchy. It allows those with power to manipulate public processes for their own personal gain. In many ways, that is the story of BBI.

Crystal-balling future violations

The BBI bill is now before parliament. There are a few things that should be constitutionally clear about how parliament should process the bill. First, and unlike most county assemblies which voted for the bill using a single motion to approve it, parliament must subject the bill to the rigours of the mandatory three readings that bills undergo in parliament before they become law. This is because, under the constitution, parliament has the ultimate responsibility to pass the constitutional amendments into law – especially where a referendum may be unnecessary. The enormity of this responsibility demands that it must use a proper, predictable, accountable and constitutionally compliant procedure.

Second, parliament has the obligation to facilitate adequate public participation. The constitution requires that, for a constitutional amendment proposed through a parliamentary initiative, the period provided by parliament for public participation should not be less 90 days. Yet, this minimum timeline is constitutionally ring-fenced between the first and second reading of the bill. Similar timelines should apply for a popular initiative and for parliament’s passing of the BBI bill. However, Parliament has already indicated it will not comply with this timeline because Uhuru and Raila have imposed a deadline for passing the BBI bill.

Third, the bill is passed by parliament if it is supported by a majority of members in both houses. This is important. A majority of members means at least over 50 per cent of all members of each house and not just those present in parliament at the time of voting.

But given the extent to which promoters of the BBI bill have already violated the constitution, and the haste with which they are pushing for the bill to pass, it is highly conceivable that parliament will violate the very clear rules and expectations of the constitution. Parliament has already committed the first sin by rushing public participation.

Another likely BBI illegality will relate to the referendum. As it is, the BBI bill cannot avoid a referendum because it is packed with issues that require a referendum based on Article 255 of the constitution. This includes re-organisation of the executive, changing the composition and roles of the National Assembly and the Senate, and numerous issues concerning devolution and tampering with the independence of autonomous institutions. There is much more.

At least two violations relating to the referendum are being primed. The first is the possibility that BBI proponents – and especially the president – will only designate certain matters to go to referendum and insist that those issues not submitted to the referendum are adopted into the constitution regardless of the outcome of the referendum. This is problematic because the constitution provides that “if a bill to amend the constitution proposes an amendment relating to a matter” that requires a referendum, the president cannot assent to the bill until after the referendum is held. This means that if the bill is not approved through a referendum the entirety of the amendment bill fails.

The IEBC has an obligation to request parliament to prepare the necessary regulatory framework to ensure its work and processes are guided by law.

But in the case of the BBI bill, there is a more fundamental problem which makes it impossible to reconcile the process concerning the referendum and assent. The BBI bill has always been constitutionally irredeemably defective in its content. Irredeemably defective because a bill to amend the constitution – either though a parliamentary or a popular initiative – should not contain more than one matter. Essentially, it was illegal for BBI promoters to include in one bill so many unrelated issues. Each issue should have gone into a separate bill. This is actually the issue I should have started this analysis with because the point I am making here is that the BBI bill that was force-fed to the IEBC, bribed through the county assemblies and is now being walked through Parliament has – in its content – been unconstitutional from the start.

This brings me to the second likely violation concerning the referendum that we can expect and this is what the BBI proponents have told us already; the BBI referendum will field only one question. This is wrong. Firstly, the law already authorises multiple questions and leaves that decision to the IEBC to make. Secondly, not only was it unconstitutional for BBI proponents to include in the amendment bill a myriad unrelated changes but demanding that only one question be presented at the referendum will be aggravating this cardinal sin.

It is not over yet

When on 8 February 2021 the High Court issued orders restraining the IEBC from facilitating and subjecting the BBI bill to a referendum, it made a fundamental observation. It observed that that rushing the bill through the various stages “does not inoculate the resultant proposed constitutional amendment from the possibility that it could yet, upon final disposition of these Petitions, be declared invalid.” The litany of violations of the constitution that litter the path the BBI has travelled would make a great mockery of the constitution if the amendments proposed by BBI are eventually pronounced to be part of the Kenya 2010 Constitution.

Ultimately, the passing of the BBI will represent the moment that tested whether Kenyans recognise that the supremacy of the constitution, rule of law and the sovereignty of the people as enshrined in the 2010 Constitution are not mere words. It will be the true and defining moment pitting the people against a gluttonous, insatiable and incorrigible ruling elite.

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In the Name of Jesus: How the Church Forced Tanzania to Change its Stance on COVID-19

Tanzania’s recent admission of the presence of COVID-19 in the country is thanks to the intervention of church leaders who have a history of intervening in matters of national importance.

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In the Name of Jesus: How the Church Forced Tanzania to Change its Stance on COVID-19
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By the time President John Magufuli went to the St. Peter’s Church on that sunny Sunday on 21 February 2021 he already knew that he had lost the debate on the coronavirus situation in Tanzania. The reality, as many anticipated, had proved him utterly wrong. The decision to attend the mass took place against the background of widespread calls from various religious leaders who, after witnessing the unprecedented number of deaths in their respective parishes, decided to defy the government’s rhetoric that Tanzania was coronavirus-free.

Church leaders felt obliged to tell their followers the truth authorities kept denying; that COVID-19 was in fact present in the country and that they needed to protect themselves against the disease. President Magufuli’s attendance at the mass followed hard on the heels of pushbacks against his COVID-19 approach, including from his own Catholic Church, something that made skeptics wonder if the devout Catholic would show up at the service. That he did led some observers see the decision as a tactical one, aimed at preventing a further shrinking of his authority –  and even relevance –  when it comes to the issue of COVID-19.

While at the church, President Magufuli, who had until then acted as he wished as far as COVID-19 was concerned, pointed out that he had nothing against people wearing facemasks, while also warning that not all facemasks are appropriate and that Tanzanians face the risk of being supplied with faulty facemasks if they are not careful. Magufuli claimed that there was “an economic war” going on and urged his people to wear only those facemasks that are approved by his ministry of health or made locally by Tanzanians themselves.

Of course, these claims are questionable. How, for example, did the government allow the importation of virus-infected facemasks? If those masks are already in the market, why haven’t the authorities launched a manhunt to confiscate the merchandise for destruction and bring those responsible to justice? Still, the president’s positive remarks about a disease he has spent a lot of his time downplaying were welcome. This is especially so considering the fact that his statement came barely a month after the Head of State admitted the presence of a new coronavirus variant in Tanzania, in a speech during which he also claimed that COVID-19 vaccines were inappropriate.

But while many are breathing a sigh of relief, it is important to point out that the government’s current position on COVID-19 in Tanzania did not just come out of thin air. It is solely thanks to church leaders who fearlessly decided to break the silence by saying enough is enough. After spending months dilly-dallying, peddling falsehoods and outright denials in the face of numerous documented and undocumented deaths of innocent citizens, the clergy decided to intervene to fill the vacuum left by the press, professional associations and civil society organisations which, out of the fear of reprisals or mere opportunism, had given the government carte blanche to play with the lives of its citizens.

The clergy’s intervention motivated by the troubling events that started occurring in Tanzania at the beginning of 2021. On 20 January, for instance, UWC East Africa, a school in the Moshi District of Kilimanjaro Region, announced that it was suspending all presential teaching after one of its students tested positive for COVID-19 and another displayed symptoms of the killer disease. Kilimanjaro regional commissioner Anna Mghwira, however, promptly denied the reports and demanded that the school apologise. Whether the school’s claims were true or false doesn’t matter. What does matter at this moment is that it was soon after this that reports of pneumonia-related deaths started coming in in astonishing succession.

Some of the deaths reported in the month of January 2021 include that of a popular hip-hop artist, Ilunga Khalifa alias Cpwaa, who died at the Muhimbili National Hospital (MNH) of pneumonia-related complications. Others are former legislator Gregory Teu who died following a short illness, Deputy Commissioner of Prisons Julius Sang’uti who died at Benjamin Mkapa Hospital in the capital Dodoma, and Special Seat MP Martha Umbula who died in India where she had been hospitalised. Others include a seasoned political analyst Prudence Karugendo, Ankunda Muro, mother of Arumeru District Commissioner Jerry Muro, who died while receiving treatment at MNH, former Permanent Secretary Richard Mariki and former Kigoma Regional Commissioner Emanuel Maganga who died in Tabora shortly after arriving at Mirambo Hospital for treatment. On the list is also Bukoba Catholic Bishop Ireneus Mbahulira who died at Mugana Hospital in Misenyi District, with the area’s auxiliary bishop Methodius Kilaini saying that Bishop Mbahulira had been on a ventilator while in hospital.

While many more people were reported to have died, the government seemed reluctant to admit the existence of COVID-19 in the country and take the measures that any responsible government would deem necessary to take to control of the situation. This was despite reports indicating that the South African coronavirus variant had been found in travellers from Tanzania, which led the UK to ban Tanzanians from entering the country, while some countries such as Turkey airlifted their ailing citizens out of Tanzania.

It is against this background that the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC) was the first to issue a statement on 26 January pointing out that COVID-19 poses a dangerous threat to the safety of many Tanzanians and urging its congregation and the general public to take all necessary precautions to protect themselves against the pandemic. In an interview with the German broadcaster, the TEC Secretary General Dr Charles Kitima told DW that the TEC was forced to issue the statement after noticing an unprecedented number of deaths in their parishes. “For example,” explained Dr Kitima, “in our parishes located in big cities, we used to have one or two requiem masses per week. But nowadays it is everyday, there’s something wrong.” A day later, on 27 January, Magufuli admitted that COVID-19 was present in Tanzania.

On 3 March 2021 Dr Kitima revealed that, between mid-December and February, more than 25 priests, 60 nuns and two members of the laity had died of various causes including respiratory issues, a revelation that invited a reprimand from the government’s chief propagandist, Hassan Abbasi, who warned against what he described as the “arbitrary” release of statistics on diseases such as COVID-19.

His acknowledgement of the presence of COVID-19 in Tanzania notwithstanding, Magufuli did not take any measures to combat the spread of the virus. Even now the government will not admit that there are people dying of COVID-19, the cause of death given being respiratory complications. So people keep on dying with many people announcing the deaths of their relatives and loved ones through various social media platforms.

It would be misleading to claim that all these deaths are COVID-19-related since authorities continue to refuse to test people for the disease. But the rapid succession of deaths was enough to freak the hell out of people who now knew that something was wrong. Some of high-profile people who were reported dead in the month of February include the First Vice President of Zanzibar, Seif Sharif Hamad, who died at the Muhimbili National Hospital after he tested positive for COVID-19, former Bank of Tanzania governor Prof Benno Ndulu, and Chief Secretary John Kijazi. In Mbeya, so many deaths were reported that a regional commissioner, Albert Chalamila, banned the use of the word “sudden” in death announcements.

Even now the government will not admit that there are people dying of COVID-19, the cause of death given being respiratory complications.

Against this background of indifference and carelessness, church leaders intervened again, with the Christian Council of Tanzania (CCT) this time warning Tanzanians that they are not safe against COVID-19 and calling on them to protect themselves against the disease. On February 12, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) also asked its congregation to hold a special prayer against COVID-19 while insisting on the need to take all necessary care to avoid contracting the virus.

Other church leaders continued to use their positions and pulpits to urge Tanzanians to take precautions against COVID-19. At the same time, others were coming out to urge people to take precautions with a ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) legislator for Mbulu constituency, Zacharia Isaay, asking the government to stop beating about the bush on COVID-19, saying that people in his constituency were dying at an unprecedented rate and that he was tired of burying them.

The church may have forced the government to admit to the presence of COVID-19 in Tanzania but not to mount effective intervention mechanisms to combat the negative effects of the pandemic. Apart from urging people to resort to traditional herbs and steam inhalation therapy to keep themselves safe, the government hasn’t made public its COVID-19 response plan. Government officials themselves are far from observing the safety guidelines recommended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In many state functions, government officials can be seen not wearing facemasks or maintaining social distance. But getting the government to bow to pressure and confess publicly that Tanzanians are at risk of dying of COVID-19 is no small matter and for this the church deserves some praise. By speaking out, the church acted upon its long and glorious history of intervening in matters of national importance, especially at a time when it is the only institution in the country that can take the bull by the horns in the interests of the people.

With the exception of its history of neutrality during the struggle against German and British colonialism in Tanganyika, and its relative indifference during Tanzania’s single party rule, the church has played a notable role in the country’s political life, particularly since the introduction of fundamental political reforms during the 1990s which included the re-introduction of multi-party politics, a process which took place under the leadership of the late Benjamin Mkapa.

In Justice, Rights and Worship: Religion and Politics in Tanzania, Prof Rwekaza S. Mukandala explains that religion became one of the forums where pertinent issues such as corruption, embezzlement of public funds and other vices that the political system had failed to deal with were addressed. It was during this time that the Catholic bishops, in February 1993, issued one of their strongest statements ever when they blamed the government for the deteriorating economic, social and political situation in the country. Around the same time, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania (ELCT) issued its famous Bagamoyo Statement where it spoke of the worsening political, economic and social conditions in the country and the need for the government to take appropriate actions.

In Mbeya, so many deaths were reported that a regional commissioner banned the use of the word “sudden” in death announcements

Since then, church leaders have been acting as mediators between the government and opposition parties, especially following highly contested elections where claims of vote-rigging threaten the peace of the country and during other heightened political moments, by taking part in the provision of civic education to their congregations which includes, but is not limited to, providing voter education to their followers so that they can make informed decisions at the voting booth.

When President Magufuli came into office in late 2015, the relationship between the church and the state was rather bitter and strained thanks to the government’s crackdown on the press and civil society, and its attacks on fundamental rights and freedoms like the freedom of expression and the right to assembly. The churches’ attempts to warn against these tendencies pitted church leaders against reactionary government officials who went as far as threatening to shut down churches it accused of “mixing politics and religion”.’

So far no church has been shut down in Tanzania but the government has tried to minimise the role that the clergy can play in the country’s politics. During the 2020 general elections, for example, the government denied the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC), alongside other experienced Civil Society Organisations, permits to observe the elections, a task that the TEC has been undertaking since Tanzania’s multi-party election of 1995.

Another tactic which has been employed by the state to force the clergy into silence is to harrass church leaders who engage in matters of national interest by arresting and detaining them on trumped-up charges of “threatening the national security”. Bishop Emmaus Mwamakula of the Uamsho Morovian Church who was arrested and detained for seven days ahead of planned demos to demand a new constitution, is the latest case of such harrassment.

As far as the relationship between religious leaders and the Magufuli administration is concerned—with the notable exception of Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda of the Council of Imams who has been a thorn in the flesh of the authorities for many years and who has been able to maintain such a reputation at huge personal cost—Christian leaders have been more open and forthcoming when it comes to standing with the people against state repression than their Muslim counterparts.

Getting the government to bow to pressure and confess publicly that Tanzanians are at risk of dying of COVID-19 is no small matter and for this the church deserves some praise.

The clergy intervened in the COVID-19 situation in Tanzania at the most critical moment when absolutely nobody had the guts to tell the king to his face that he was naked. Church leaders came out to confront the dangerous rhetoric by government officials who kept on fooling people by telling them to go about their business and leave COVID-19 to God who would miraculously take care of it. At his press conference on 3 March 2020, TEC’s Dr Kitima urged Tanzanians to take all the necessary precautions against the pandemic, urging them to ignore the baseless claims that their God would intervene on their behalf. “Prayers alone are not enough,” Dr Kitima correctly pointed out. “We need to also consider scientific findings.” That it took religious leaders to insist on the usefulness of science in combating a pandemic while the leaders of a secular state were busy endangering the lives of their people by promoting superstition will be the biggest irony in Tanzania’s history of secularism.

The clergy may have forced the “denialist government” of Tanzania to abandon its false claims that the country was coronavirus-free. While such a development is a step in the right direction against the COVID-19 pandemic, merely acknowledging the presence of COVID-19 will not save Tanzanians from dying of the disease. A lot is still at stake. With President Magufuli remaining skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccines, and the Director General of the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), Prof Yunus Mgaya, saying that there is no need for Tanzania to rush for the vaccines, calling them a product of “neo-colonialism”, Tanzanians risk being locked out of the world, as the recent announcement by Saudi authorities that COVID-19 vaccines would be a mandatory requirement for anyone preparing for the 2021 Hajj vividly shows.

Church leaders have successfully shown that pressure works and now is the time for others – the press, the CSOs, the WHO, trade unions, etc. – to join forces and pressure the government into prioritising the fight against COVID-19 for the safety of Tanzanians. We are at a critical moment in our history where our actions or inaction will determine our future relevance and how we will be judged by future generations. We have the opportunity to make the best out of this moment and we must seize it for silence in the face of extinction is no virtue and a fair and responsible society cannot be built upon servitude, opportunism and such a frigid and killing indifference.

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