History occasionally accelerates with unexpected speed as its slow, subterranean motions suddenly erupt into surges of change, sparked by an event whose ordinariness suddenly acquires an extraordinary potency out of a unique confluence of forces. The triggers of course vary, but there is a particular poignancy that comes with the incendiary intimacy of individual murders. Such killings strike a powerful emotional and cognitive chord in the human imagination in a way that mass murders may not, as their sheer scale congeals into mind-numbing abstractions.
The public execution of George Floyd, with its casual performance of suffocating and snuffing life out of the black body became a frightful spectral presence in the minds of tens of millions of people in the United States and around the world. It captured with terrifying clarity the utter depravity and degradation of a black life that validated the humanistic and historic demands of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The spontaneous demonstrations that erupted across every state and in hundreds of cities and towns in the United States — including some with small black populations and even among those infamous for harbouring white supremacy movements and militias — quickly turned into the nation’s largest and most widespread protest movement against systemic racism since the 1960s, and some claim in American history. It brought both the country and the shambolic Trump presidency to an inflection point.
The uprising over Floyd’s murder derived its fiery multiracial and multigenerational rage from the coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately devastated the lives and livelihoods of black and poor people. It tapped into the surplus time and energies of people seeking release from the isolating suffocations of anti-COVID-19 lockdowns. It also benefitted from the inept and provocative responses of racist politicians and police forces. Further, it was catalysed by the persistent struggles of longstanding activists and social movements.
Assassinations as Historical Inflections
Assassinations have served to trigger major events throughout history. Think of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. This event helped ignite World War I by prying open long-simmering nationalist and imperialist rivalries in Europe. The conflicts were engendered by, and coalesced around, rival alliances that catapulted the world into an unprecedented conflagration.
Think of the brutal lynching of 14 year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi on 28 August 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The photographs of his mutilated body served to galvanise the American civil rights movement by inflaming age-old grievances and agitation against systemic racism and white supremacy, and the country’s North-South divide, overlaid by the global reverberations of Cold War superpower rivalries and decolonisation struggles in Africa and Asia.
Think of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, on 17 December 2010, in protest against state repression and economic distress for young people. It provoked the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring against the autocratic and corrupt ruling coalitions in North Africa, other parts of Africa, Asia and South America, adding fuel to the democratic wave unleashed by the end of the Cold War. Elsewhere in North America and Europe the Arab Spring inspired the Occupy movement.
However, the Arab Spring soon turned into the Arab Winter, pushed back by counter-revolutions comprising resurgent Islamism, the reinstatement of military rule in Egypt, descent into autocracy in Turkey, and ferocious civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. As for the victories of the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s, they remained limited and provoked a racist backlash. The Republican Party embarked on the “Southern Strategy” of courting white racists, and systemic racism and white supremacy were propped up with new structural and ideological scaffolding. For its part, World War I led to the consolidation of colonialism in Africa and Asia, reaped the whirlwinds of fascism and Stalinism in Europe, and unleashed the spectre of economic devastation that culminated in the Great Depression.
In short, revolutionary moments generate complex and contradictory futures in which progress is often checkmated by reversals, underscoring the fact that history is a dialectical process. The racist backlash against Obama that led to Trump’s election seems to have succeeded in creating an anti-racist backlash.
The Floyd moment in which the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining traction in the US and around the world will not be an exception. Progress will be made in chipping away at some of the practices, symbols, and performances of anti-black racism, but the fundamental structures of white supremacy are likely to survive and mutate.
In the Shadows of 1968
The American uprising of 2020 shares some parallels and connections to the uprising of 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King. The script of 1968 remains — notwithstanding some progress — in so far as the protests sprang from the deep well of institutionalised racism, economic inequality, social despair, political disenfranchisement, and the dehumanising terrors of police brutality and constant denigration of blackness in the national imaginary.
The road to 2020 was paved with the legacies of 1968. As Peniel Joseph, a renowned African American historian writes in The Washington Post, “The flames that engulfed large portions of America during the 1960s helped to extinguish the promise of the Great Society by turning the War on Poverty into a dehumanizing war against poor black communities. America has, in the ensuing five decades, deployed state of the art technology to criminalize, surveil, arrest, incarcerate, segregate and punish black communities. Floyd’s death represents the culmination of these political and policy decisions to choose punishment over empathy, to fund prisons over education and housing and to promote fear of black bodies over racial justice”.
In short, revolutionary moments generate complex and contradictory futures in which progress is often checkmated by reversals, underscoring the fact that history is a dialectical process. The racist backlash against Obama that led to Trump’s election seems to have succeeded in creating an anti-racist backlash.
The America of King’s dream of racial equality and social justice not only remained deferred, but was actively sabotaged by the courts, politicians, and business. The landmark legislative achievements of the civil rights movements, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 wilted as the prison industrial complex, deepening socioeconomic inequalities, and social despair among the poor, both black and white, exploded.
Since 1968, there have been periodic eruptions of protests, most memorably the 1992 Los Angeles uprising following the acquittal of four police officers charged with the widely publicised beating of Rodney King, and the 2014 uprising that began after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a police officer. After each uprising, police, judicial and other reforms were announced, but they largely gathered dust as the protests faded into memory until the next eruption elsewhere.
Only history will tell if the 2020 uprising is different, a transformative watershed in the long history of protests against systemic racism and police brutality. Some are doubtful, others more hopeful. A sample of the divergent opinions can be found among two dozen experts convened by Politico magazine.
Those who doubt that the Floyd protests represent an inflection point worry about the challenges of sustaining the momentum of protest, dynamic grassroots organising and cohesive leadership and unity around a clear set of goals, as well as the powers of state suppression and repression in the reactionary name of “law and order”. Further, hyper-partisanship is more glaring today than ever, facilitated by political polarisation and media fragmentation that make reconciliation difficult.
Those who are more hopeful about the positive impact of the uprising point to the nationwide scale of the protests, the ubiquity of video images of police brutality, and the fact that the protests are occurring in the face of a pandemic and mass unemployment that have disproportionately ravaged people of colour. Moreover, the presence of an outrageously racist, divisive and authoritarian-minded president has increasingly alienated moderate whites.
Many believe the expansive geography of the protests portends its historical significance. In the 1960s, “most protests were held in major cities and on college campuses — and most Americans saw them on the television news”. The 2020 uprising is different. “National media focuses on the big demonstrations and protest policing in major cities, but they have not picked up on a different phenomenon that may have major long-term consequences for politics. Protests over racism and #BlackLivesMatter are spreading across the country — including in small towns with deeply conservative politics. Altogether, according to some counts, the Floyd protests occurred in 1,280 places.
The Floyd moment in which the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining traction in the US and around the world will not be an exception. Progress will be made in chipping away at some of the practices, symbols, and performances of anti-black racism, but the fundamental structures of white supremacy are likely to survive and mutate.
If current polls are to be believed to be harbingers of the future possibilities for transformation, according to The New York Times, “support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm. By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began”.
The paper continues, “A Monmouth University poll found that 76 percent of Americans consider racism and discrimination a ‘big problem,’ up 26 points from 2015. The poll found that 57 percent of voters thought the anger behind the demonstrations was fully justified, while a further 21 percent called it somewhat justified. Polls show that a majority of Americans believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans, and that there’s a lot of discrimination against black Americans in society. Back in 2013, when Black Lives Matter began, a majority of voters disagreed with all of these statements”.
In short, the 2020 uprising seems to represent progress over 1968 in the scale of its multiracial composition and breadth of demands for racial justice. It suggests white America and other Americans of colour are coming to understand the depth and scope of unrelenting black pain under institutional racism and white supremacy. In the words of Alex Thompson in Politico, “The killing of George Floyd has prompted a reckoning with racism not only for Joe Biden, but for a wide swath of white America,” which he argues could reshape the 2020 elections.
However, given the history of the United States, doubts remain whether this moment represents a defining turning point. The road towards racial equality and justice will continue to be bumpy because what is at stake is the entire system of racial capitalism that reproduces white supremacy, not just its manifestations evident in heinous practices such as police brutality.
What is certain is that the terrain of American race relations is shifting. Floyd’s death has spearheaded the country’s largest and broadest anti-racist movement and made Black Lives Matter an acceptable slogan and not the dreaded and derided radical idea it once was. Behind the movement’s new-found traction lie six long years of tireless work by its activists.
On the Trails of Slavery
The modern world was created by the triangular slave trade between Africa, Europe, and the Americas. These continents have been linked ever since by the historical geographies and political economies of exploitation and struggle. The US uprising inspired worldwide protests. This reflected the ubiquity of both America as a superpower with an outsize presence in the global imagination and almost universal anti-black racism born out of the Atlantic slave trade that created the modern world.
The protests tapped into growing recognition in many western countries that racism is a problem. According to The Economist, “The share of Americans who see racial discrimination in their country as a big problem has risen from 51% in January 2015 to 76% now. A YouGov poll last week found that 52% of Britons think British society is fairly or very racist, a big rise from similar polls in the past. In 2018, 77% of the French thought France needed to fight racism, up from 59% in 2002. Pew Research found last year that in most countries healthy majorities welcome racial diversity”.
The unprecedented scale of the protests in the US provoked confrontations between the obdurate and callous Trump administration and city mayors and state governors around the country. It produced iconic moments and images. Most graphically, in an act of political pornography and vandalism, there was the picture of Trump awkwardly holding a bible in front of a church after the National Guard had forcibly cleared peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Square using teargas and rubber bullets. The mayor of Washington responded by painting and ceremonially naming two blocks of the street to the White House Black Lives Matter Plaza. The newly extended perimeter from the White House was turned into an exuberant makeshift exhibition of resistance art, posters, and graffiti.
The America of King’s dream of racial equality and social justice not only remained deferred, but was actively sabotaged by the courts, politicians, and business
Trump’s overreaction triggered a powerful backlash. Widely condemned for accompanying the president to his ill-fated photo-op, the Defense Secretary and Chief of Staff apologised. Several former military leaders expressed disgust and alarm. John Allen, former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, warned: “The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment”.
Other retired military leaders sought to depoliticise their beloved Pentagon from the clutches of the aspiring draft-dodging autocrat. They included John Mattis, who served as Trump’s own Defense Secretary, and Colin Powell, a former Chief of Staff and Secretary of State, who accused Trump of unprecedented divisiveness. The Pentagon promised to review the conduct of the National Guard against the protests. Former presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama expressed their misgivings, and some Republican politicians nervously tried to distance themselves from a president who increasingly looked like a deranged dictator in the mold of the despots he clearly admires and envies.
Before long, anti-racist struggles and protests spread to countries with their own troubled histories of anti-black racism, from Canada to Brazil in the Americas, the former colonial powers of Europe, and the outposts of European settler colonialism in Australasia. Electrifying images were beamed on television stations and social media around the world. A sample can be seen in The Atlantic “Images from a Worldwide Protest Movement”.
In each country and city where the Floyd protests took place, parallels were drawn with local histories of anti-black racism, social injustice, exclusion and marginalisation. The demonstrations and marches were organized by local groups of the Black Lives Matter movement, political and civil society activists, and local groups that had long fought against all forms of exclusion and discrimination. The protests often took place in front of US embassies, national parliaments, public squares, as well as in front of detested statues and monuments to slavery, imperialism and colonialism, and along major thoroughfares.
American diplomats found it galling for the US to be the target of human rights protests around the world as the specious cocoon of democratic exceptionalism spectacularly burst. The New York Times observed, “Diplomats Struggle to Defend Democracy Abroad Amid Crises at Home . . . In private conversations and social media posts… [they] expressed outrage after the killing of George Floyd and President Trump’s push to send the military to quell demonstrations. Diplomats say that the violence has undercut their criticisms of foreign autocrats and called into question the moral authority the United States tries to project as it promotes democracy and demands civil liberties and freedoms across the world”.
The Americas harbour the largest population of the African diaspora mostly descended from enslaved Africans. While there have been some national differences in the constructions of racial identities, since the 16th century the black experience across the region has been uniformly exploitative and oppressive, characterised by slavery, institutionalised racism, exclusion, and police brutality.
Canada — which likes to see itself as the gentler face of North America — is no exception. The country has an ugly history of anti-black racism and genocidal brutality against the indigenous people. Not surprisingly, the uprising in the US resonated in all the country’s provinces and major cities from Halifax, Sydney and Yarmouth in Nova Scotia, where the black loyalists from the American War of Independence settled, to Fredericton, Moncton and Sackville in New Brunswick, St. John’s in Newfoundland, and several cities in Quebec including Montreal, Quebec City and Sherbrooke. Huge protests also took place across Ontario in such cities as Barrie, Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Toronto, and Windsor, and in the western provinces of Alberta (Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethridge), British Columbia (Vancouver and Victoria and other cities), Manitoba (Winnipeg), and Saskatchewan (Saskatoon and Regina).
However, given the history of the United States, doubts remain whether this moment represents a defining turning point. The road towards racial equality and justice will continue to be bumpy because what is at stake is the entire system of racial capitalism that reproduces white supremacy, not just its manifestations evident in heinous practices such as police brutality.
Unknown to many people is the fact that Mexico has an African diaspora population and that racism is deeply entrenched despite the myths of mestizaje, or racial mixing. White Mexicans have dominated the country and marginalised the indigenous people and African descendants for centuries. Protests and vigils occurred in Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Xalapa. They spread to South America from Argentina (Buenos Aires) that whitened itself in the 19th century through a campaign of black extermination, to Brazil (Curitiba, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo), the country with the largest African diaspora in the world and a horrible history of systemic racism despite the cruel myth of racial democracy, as well as Ecuador (Quito), and Colombia (Bogotá), another country with a massive African diaspora presence.
In the Caribbean, most of the islands have majority African descended populations. Historically, the region’s intellectual-activists played a crucial role in the development of Pan-Africanism. Migration from the region in the 19th and 20th centuries to South and North America and Europe has given its inhabitants intricate global connections so that developments in these regions reverberate with political immediacy. Protests took place in Bermuda, in Kingston, Jamaica, and in Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago.
The protests particularly resonated in Europe with its colonial histories, and failures to integrate recent waves of migrants and refugees from its imperial outposts in Africa and Asia. The black British journalist and academic, Gary Younge, brilliantly dissects the resonance of the American uprising. “Europe’s identification with black America, particularly during times of crisis, resistance and trauma, has a long and complex history. It is fuelled in no small part by traditions of internationalism and anti-racism on the European left, where the likes of Paul Robesson, Richard Wright and Audre Lorde would find an ideological – and, at times, literal – home”.
However, he continues, “this tradition of political identification with black America also leaves significant space for the European continent’s inferiority complex, as it seeks to shroud its relative military and economic weakness in relation to America with a moral confidence that conveniently ignores both its colonial past and its own racist present. From the vantage point of a continent that both resents and covets American power, and is in no position to do anything about it, African Americans represent to many Europeans a redemptive force: the living proof that the US is not all it claims to be, and that it could be so much greater than it is”.
Britain and France, the former colonial superpowers, became the epicenters of large protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and in pursuit of local anti-racism and social justice struggles. Predictably, right-wing politicians and the punditocracy dismissed the solidarity protests claiming, as British black historian, David Olusoga, noted, “The US situation is unique in both its depth and ferocity, they say, so that no parallels can be drawn with the situation in Britain. The smoke-and-mirrors aspect of this argument is that it attempts to focus attention solely on police violence, rather than the racism that inspired it”, which is prevalent in Britain and across Europe.
Olusoga notes that this argument has an old history going back to 1807 “with the abolition of the slave trade and picked up steam three decades later with the end of British slavery, twin events that marked the beginning of 200 years of moral posturing and historical amnesia”. In Britain, demonstrations broke out from May 28 and for the next two weeks roiled all the major cities including London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Brighton, Belfast, Oxford, Cardiff, Newcastle, Sheffield, Hastings, Glasgow, Coventry, Nottingham, Carlisle, Middlesbrough, and Wolverhampton. Some believed this marked a turning point in the UK as, in the words of The Guardian, “demands for racial justice now have a new and unstoppable urgency”.
France suffers from a pernicious tradition of colonial denial and amnesia, clothed in facetious fidelity to universal values, which it rationalised at the height of empire with the myth of assimilation. But the country has its own history of police brutality and killings of black people. It was rocked by unrest in Paris, Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse during which protesters invoked George Floyd and their own black martyrs to French racism.
The cities of other former colonial powers were not spared. In Belgium there were widespread protests in Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Hasselt, Leuven, Liège, and Ostend. Germany was another centre that saw demonstrations by thousands of people in more than two dozen cities including Berlin, Bonn, Cologne, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hannover, Leipzig, Munich, Nuremberg, and Stuttgart. Italy was engulfed by protests in two dozen cities including Bologna, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Rome, Turin, and Verona. In Portugal, the last imperial power to be booted out of Africa, thousands of people marched in Lisbon and Porto. Spain, whose African colonial empire was the smallest, a dozen cities witnessed protests including Barcelona and Madrid.
Protests spread to other European countries that had been involved in establishing slave trading forts or colonial settlements across the western seaboard of the African continent. In Denmark, whose slave forts dot the coastline of modern Ghana, hundreds and thousands of people gathered and marched in Aalborg, Aarhus, Copenhagen and Odense. In the Netherlands, the country that gave South Africa its Afrikaner architects of apartheid, solidarity vigils and protests took place from June 1 for the next fortnight in several cities including Amsterdam, Breda, Eindhoven, Leeuwarden, Maastricht, Rotterdam, Utrecht, The Hague, and Tilburg. In Norway, a country that was unified with Denmark during the era of the slave trade, protesters marched in Bergen, Kristiansan, Oslo, and Tromsø.
Such has been the global reach of the uprising against racism and police brutality that other European countries were caught in the turbulence. In Vienna, Austria, more than 50,000 people marched on June 4. Large protests also took place in Sweden in the cities of Gothenburg, Malmö, and Stockholm, while in Switzerland they occurred in Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, and Zürich. Smaller protest marches also took place in Sofia in Bulgaria, Zagreb in Croatia, Nicosia in Cyprus, Prague in the Czech Republic, Helsinki in Finland, Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece, Budapest in Hungary, Reykjavík in Iceland, Cord, Dublin and Limerick in Ireland, Pristina in Kosovo, Vilnius in Lithuania, Luxembourg, Valletta in Malta, Podgorica in Montenegro, Kraków, Poznań and Warsaw in Poland, Bucharest in Romania, Belgrade in Serbia, and Bratislava in Slovakia.
Asia became another theater of Floyd protests although not on the scale of the Atlantic world except for Australia, a settler colony with a notorious history of systemic racism and police brutality against the indigenous people, and Asian and African immigrants. The protests in Brisbane and Sydney attracted tens of thousands of people, and sizable numbers took part in other Australian cities from Canberra, the capital, to Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth.
Hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of people protested in Japan (Tokyo and Osaka), Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea (Seoul), India (Kolkata), Pakistan (Karachi), Sri Lanka (Colombo), the Philippines (Quezon City), Thailand (Bangkok), Kazakhstan (Almaty and other cities), Armenia (Yerevan), Georgia (Tbilisi), Iran (Tehran), Israel (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa) — led by Israelis of African origin who face racism and disproportionate police arrests — Lebanon (Beirut), and Palestine (Bethlehem).
The protests in the United States and around the world focused on a broadly similar range of targets. First, law enforcement agencies that uphold the system of racial capitalism that marginalises and disempowers black people. Second, the symbols of white supremacy embodied in the public commemorations that honour the perpetrators of enslavement, colonisation, and plunder. Third, private institutions, organisations, and corporations that tolerate and reproduce racial inequalities.
Ironically, it was in Africa where protests over Floyd’s death were relatively muted. To be sure, there were some demonstrations often involving dozens or hundreds of people in several countries such as Ghana (Accra), Kenya (Nairobi), Liberia (Monrovia), Nigeria (Abuja), Senegal (Dakar), South Africa (Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria), Tunisia (Tunis), and Uganda (Kampala). More extensive and powerful expressions of solidarity were vented in petitions by activists, intellectuals, and artists (I participated in one called “We Cannot Remain Silent”), and especially on social media, according to Nana Osei-Opare writing in the Washington Post. This intriguing phenomenon reflects three complex factors.
First, in spite of Pan-Africanist rhetoric among African leaders and intellectuals, it reflects an enduring disconnect between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. It is borne out of limited engagements that ordinarily would emanate through the educational system and other forms of positive mutual exposure. Instead, there is an overexposure to negative stereotypes in the media that often traffic Eurocentric constructs and tropes on both sides of the other’s “civilisational” lack. More deeply, the unknowing of the diaspora, the willful ignorance of its tribulations, elides Africa’s complicity in the very creation of the Atlantic diasporas through the slave trade.
Second, is the ambivalent postcolonial mindset rooted in the colonial denial of African humanity and historicity. It is a miscognition that simultaneously breeds resentment of the empire and craving of its prowess. This generates a strange desire to be embraced and absorbed into the empire’s imagined superiority and advancement enveloped in the whiteness that the colonised strives for but, like Sisyphus, is destined never to attain, thereby inducing a state of perpetual self-doubt and self-denial. This fosters both envy of the diaspora ensconced in the heart of empire and blindness to its plight, a slippery disposition that engenders a deficit of sympathy and often slides into blaming the victim.
Third, there is what I would call the shortage of surplus political capital for solidarity, the dispositions to accommodate transnational diaspora struggles. Surplus capital can be externalised for better or ill as evident in the impetus for new imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Save for their elites, many African communities in their protean daily lives, now made infinitely worse by the coronavirus pandemic, are fettered by debilitating economic, political, and social conditions and perpetual struggles against often autocratic regimes or illiberal democracies whose law enforcement agencies have retained the deformities of colonial state violence and repression.
Reclaiming Public Memory
The monuments that have become the focus of public protests, accompanied by demands for more accurate, holistic and inclusive historical representations, are part of the struggles for liberating highly sanitised and racialised public spaces and memories. The protesters seek to insert African-descended peoples and their invaluable contributions in the national and regional histories of Euroamerica.
The removal and desecration of racist monuments offer a powerful rebuke against the brazen glorification of imperial and colonial conquests, exploitation, and oppression. These acts of iconographic liberation strike at the willful production of ignorance and limited understanding about the unsavory histories that made Euroamerica through the educational system, popular histories, and films and television. They have been targeted for decades as offensive symbols and reminders of slavery and racial oppression.
The conversations forced by the assault on racist monuments provoke much-needed historical reckoning and accounting for the persistent racial inequalities, injustices, and hierarchies bequeathed by enslavement, colonialism, and empire. They help dismember contemporary constructions of belonging and citizenship, of who constitutes and can enjoy the rights of the social and political community of the nation-state in Europe and the settler societies of the Americas and Australasia.
In the US, the removal of the statues and symbols of the renegade losers of the civil war who fought to retain slavery has intensified and reached the hallowed halls of Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged the removal of 11 statues representing Confederate leaders and soldiers, noting that the “statues pay homage to hate, not heritage”. The Pentagon announced its willingness to rename military bases associated with Confederate figures, a move that was endorsed by the Republican-controlled Senate despite Trump’s expressed opposition.
The scale of the task is huge as there are about 1,800 Confederate symbols across the US (776 of which are monuments), and only 141 (61 of them monuments) have been removed, and seven are pending removal. For their part, “the Navy and Marine Corps announced that they will ban the display of the Confederate flag at their facilities and events. Church symbols have not been exempt. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention “called for the retirement of a gavel that carries the name of a 19th-century Southern Baptist leader who was a slaveholder and led the convention in support of the Confederacy”. He proceeded to say “‘black lives matter’ six times in his presidential address”.
In Britain, protesters toppled the statues of slave traders including Edward Colston in Bristol, and Robert Milligan in London. City councils under the Labour Party led by the capital, London, announced their intention to set up commissions to review sculptures, buildings and street names associated with slavers, while Conservative councils came under increased pressure to do the same. Activists hoped the toppling of the public memorialisations of the symbols of slavery and colonialism would force the country to confront the sordid historical injustices that had shaped it.
Several institutions including hospitals and universities also began the process or conversations to remove historical figures associated with the slave trade. Calls intensified for the disposal of the notorious imperialist Cecil Rhodes, a campaign that began in 2016 on the heels of the RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town, and racist icons of the British establishment such as Winston Churchill and Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouts movement. But Catherine Bennet cynically that, “As statues of slave traders are torn down, their heirs sit untouched in the Lords”.
In Belgium the statue of King Leopold II of Belgium, the architect of one of the worst genocides of the 20th century that decimated 10 million people in the Congo, was removed in Antwerp. In Spain debate was rekindled for the removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona — which some councilors had voted for in 2016 — for its glorification of the conquest of the Americas and for its replacement by a memorial of those who resisted imperialism and the oppression and segregation of the indigenous people and enslaved Africans and their descendants.
The removal of the statues of slave traders and imperialists in Europe is a homage to the unfinished project of decolonisation that began after World War II. The struggle over historical memory, constructions, and emblems is about the legacies of the past that disfigure the present and threaten to burden the future if reckoning and resolution continue to be postponed. The refusal to deal with the past and its stifling shadows on contemporary society is infantile and an ingrained part of the repertoire of anti-black racism in the Americas, Europe, and elsewhere. Removing statues is of course a symbolic act, but symbols matter. As Eusebius McKaiser reminds us, “We know from South Africa that toppling statues is no silver bullet – but it’s a start”.
Thus, at stake in the political and discursive struggles over the statues is collective public denial or willingness to reckon honestly with the complicated and messy histories and persistent legacies of slavery and empire, to dismantle false national mythologies and self-righteous delusions that breed shameless hypocrisies and perpetuate human rights abuses. Many of the contested statues were created decades or even centuries after the individuals or events their creators sought to glorify (in the US the Confederate monuments were created as part of the revisionist romanticisation of the “Lost Cause”). This underscores the fact that they were built to augment the arsenal of selective political constructs in the ignominious service of white supremacy.
The struggles to reclaim public spaces and historical memory from the accretion of generations of racist practices and ideologies is leading powerful institutions and individuals to embrace performative anti-racist activism that does not cost them much but serves to burnish their brands. The growing traction of the Black Lives Matter movement in public opinion has raised the opportunity costs of casual anti-black racism as a majority of Americans have increasingly come to believe that racism is a problem in the US.
This moment has ironically been facilitated by Trump’s presidency, which is characterised by unabashed racism, dizzying incompetence, authoritarian impulses, and perpetual chaos. Trump has succeeded in accelerating the erosion of the conservatism he was elected to protect from the country’s changing demographics and liberal drift. Thus, the Trump administration, which emerged out of a racist backlash against the Obama presidency, has helped both to reinforce and upend systemic racism and white supremacy.
Trump simultaneously brought racism out of the post-civil rights closet and made racism increasingly embarrassing to the so-called middle America of moderate whites and unacceptable to younger white Americans more exposed to multiracial experiences and expectations, not least because of the symbolic possibilities of the Obama presidency notwithstanding all its limitations. The national uprising has been remarkably multiracial, far more than the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. It has been dominated by young people, as revolutionary moments tend to be.
Trump’s victory often obscures the fact that the shifts in racial attitudes began earlier. One observer contends that “For all the attention paid to the politics of the far right in the Trump era, the biggest shift in American politics is happening somewhere else entirely”, namely, in the move to the left of white liberals on questions of race, racism and other priorities of the Democratic coalition such as immigration reform. He calls it the “Great Awokening” that began with the 2014 protests in Ferguson. “Opinion leaders often miss the scale and recency of these changes because progressive elites have espoused racial liberalism for a long time”.
A poll published on 9 June 2020 found that “nearly two-thirds of Americans, including 57% of whites, are ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about systemic racism”. It is this shift in public opinion that makes performative support for anti-racism more imperative for more constituencies and actors in the public and private sphere, from corporations to the media, sports and academe. The New York Times puts it pithily, “From Cosmetics to NASCAR, Calls for Racial Justice Are Spreading. What started as a renewed push for police reform has now touched seemingly every aspect of American life”.
Racist behaviours and statements that would previously have been ignored increasingly threatened the careers and social standing of their perpetrators as the opprobrium for anti-black racism rose. It became a season of apologies from media personalities, sports figures, university professors, publishers, and film directors, for the offensive statements they had made in the past or following Floyd’s horrific killing.
The public imagination was especially captured by the apologies and the affirmations that Black Lives Matter by sports figures. The NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated, “We the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people”. He went on to stress, “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest”. Confronted by criticism that he did not mention Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who popularised kneeling during the national anthem as a form of protest against police brutality, he later did so and appealed for Kaepernick’s reinstatement. NASCAR, especially popular among Southern whites, announced the banning at its events of Confederate flags — a despised symbol among African Americans — which it had discouraged since 2015 to no avail.
Apologies and protests spread to the rarefied white-dominated world of fashion as the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, apologised for publishing hurtful or intolerant stories and not hiring enough people of colour. The editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned “after an article with the headline ‘Buildings Matter, Too,’ on the effects of civil unrest on the city’s buildings, led to a walkout by dozens of staff members”.
For their part, “more than 300 leading stage artists signed a letter decrying racial inequality in the world of ‘White American theater’”. Some musicians converted to the new anti-racist tune: “Lady Antebellum, the Grammy-winning country music trio behind one of the highest-selling country songs of all time, is dropping the “antebellum” from its name”, wrote The Washington Post. The cinematic arts also saw the light. Television shows, such as Cops, and films, such as Gone with the Wind, that glorify police violence and elide the brutalities of slavery, were terminated or removed from streaming. However, critics maintained that censoring old films and TV shows was not enough; what mattered was employing more people of colour in the industry.
Restiveness among technology companies also became evident. The announcement by IBM and Amazon that they were withdrawing their face recognition technology from use by police forces in racial profiling and mass surveillance was widely hailed in some quarters. In the meantime, “More than 200 Microsoft employees have signed a letter calling on the company to stop supplying software to law enforcement agencies; to support efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department; and to join a call for the mayor of Seattle, Jenny Durkan, to resign. The signers are a tiny fraction of Microsoft’s more than 140,000 employees. But the letter is another sign of increasing activism by employees at major technology companies on a range of political issues, which executives have been forced to address — if only to explain why they would not comply with workers’ requests”.
Performative anti-racist solidarity was also expressed in other countries, although to a more limited extent. In Britain, the tea-obsessed nation paid attention when “Top U.K. Tea Brands Urge #Solidaritea With Anti-Racism Protests”, to quote a headline from a story in The New York Times. The story noted that a series of tea companies doubled down following right-wing complaints about businesses’ support for Black Lives Matter.
Clearly, as silence on race increasingly ceased to be an option, American companies and institutions fell over each other to proclaim their support for Black Lives Matter. Anti-racism suddenly became a badge of honour for companies eager to burnish their brands under America’s emerging new normal. Corporate America proudly wore its newly acquired conscience on its malleable sleeves.
The bandwagon expanded by the day and encompassed every sector as noted in the following partial list. Automobile industry: BMW, General Motors, Lexus, Mercedes Benz, and Porsche. Banking and finance: American Express, Barclays Bank, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, MasterCard, Wells Fargo. Delivery services: FedEx, and DHL. Film and Television: The Academy, Cartoon Network, DIRECTV, Disney, ESPN, HBO, Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Fox, Hulu, IMAX, Netflix, Showtime, STARZ, Star Wars, Warner Bros, and YouTube. Gaming: Astro Gaming, GameSpot, Nintendo, PlayStation, Pokémon, XBox, Sony, Nintendo, EA, Ubisoft, Take-Two, Square Enix, Riot Games, Rockster Games, Bethesda, and Capcom.
Health and Insurance: MetLife, New York Life, UnitedHealth Group. Food and Beverages: Ben & Jerry’s, Burger King, Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Doritos, Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Gatorade, Popeyes Chicken, McDonald’s, Pop Tarts, Red Lobster, Subway, Starbucks Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. Music and performance: Atlantic Records, Billboard, Capitol Records, Virgin Records, Warner Records, and Metropolitan Opera. Oil and gas: BP. Pharmaceuticals and pharmacies: Bauer, CVS, Merck, and Pfizer. Publishing: Condé Nast.
Retail and grocery stores: American Apparel, Adidas, Armani, Burberry, Foot Locker, Gap, H&M, Home Depot, Huckberry, IKEA, Lacoste, Levi’s, Nike, Nordstrom, Reebok, Proctor & Gamble, PUMA, Target, Vans, Versace, Zara, Lowe’s, Sephora, and Tesco. Sports: NASCAR, and NFL. Technology and e-commerce: Apple, Cisco, Dell, Dropbox, eBay, Facebook, Google, HP, Inivision, IBM, Intel, Lenovo, LinkedIn, McAfee, Microsoft, Mozilla, Qualcomm, Reddit, Snapchat, Salesforce, Shopify, Spotify, TikTok, Tinder, Tumblr, Twitter, and Zoom. Telecommunications: AT&T, Verizon, TMobile. Transport: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Lyft, and Uber.
The flood of corporate anti-racist statements was often accompanied by donations to venerable civil rights organisations such as the NAACP, Urban League, and National Action Network, and other groups fighting racial inequality. They also made vague promises to promote diversity and inclusion in their own companies without spelling out meaningful enforcement mechanisms. The donations tended to be largely token, but some were sizable. For example, SoftBank allocated of $100 million to invest in minority entrepreneurs, while “PayPal, Apple and YouTube collectively pledged $730 million to racial justice and equity efforts”. Estée Lauder, the cosmetics giant, raised its donation from $1 million to $5 million when its initial offer was derided by employees who compared it unfavorably to Mr. Lauder’s far more generous donations to Trump.
Many corporate executives saw the anti-racism cause as part of their corporate social responsibility, which for some amounted to political corporate social responsibility. In 2019, 181 US corporations signed a revised statement on the purpose of a corporation, issued by Business Roundtable. The corporate executives committed to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders by “Delivering value to our customers”, “Investing in our employees”, “Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers”, “Supporting the communities in which we work”, and “Generating long-term value for shareholders”.
While welcoming pledges by corporations to engage in anti-discrimination efforts and programmes to support black businesses and communities, many black corporate leaders and civil rights activists remained skeptical as noted in a long article in The New York Times, entitled “Corporate America Has Failed Black America”. They emphasised the need to tie executive pay to diversity metrics, which a few companies such as Microsoft, Intel and Johnson & Johnson had embraced.
By and large, critics of corporate America were not impressed by its performative anti-racism. They bemoaned the glaring gap between its fluffy anti-racist rhetoric and the reality of entrenched racist practices in most American companies. Some of the advice given to companies by their cheerleaders exacted little cost. One corporate sympathiser urged them to expand their relationships with historically black colleges and universities, advertise more openly, create diverse interview panels at all levels, provide extensive sensitive training for all employees, and set the tone for inclusion at the top.
The Economist contended, “Good intentions of bosses aside, untangling the problem of race and corporate America requires addressing four questions. First, what is the evidence that blacks are disadvantaged in the workplace? Second, how much is business to blame rather than society as a whole? Third, do any such disadvantages impact how businesses perform? And finally, what if anything can business do to improve matters?”
Its answer to all four questions underscored the prevalence of systemic racism and black under-representation throughout American business. It concludes, “Experts recommend creating a diversity strategy specifically for black employees, implementing clear and consistent standards for promotion and securing a firm commitment from the top to overcome bias among middle managers . . . That points to the importance of metrics and measurement”.
The rhetorical anti-racist bandwagon grew with breathtaking speed that confounded many people. Unhinged white conservatives bemoaned the trend, redoubled their virulent attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement and denounced the protesters as rioters and even domestic terrorists. Anguished white liberals shed their silence and commiserated with each other about racism and inundated their black colleagues with outpourings of sympathy, support and queries, which some blacks welcomed and others disdained. The latter resented the added burden of cleansing white consciences.
For their part, African Americans seized this rare opportunity to be heard by the wider society, unleashing an avalanche of tales of painful and often harrowing experiences with racism in their daily lives which they often hide from their white colleagues. New social media tags were created, such as #BlackInTheIvory that has been deluged by stories of the marginalisation, isolation, devaluation, frustration, and hostility experienced by black academics. Sales of books on race and racism, many by black authors, skyrocketed. The uprising also inspired thousands of people in the US and around the world to create powerful art. From “street murals near the White House to editorial comics created near where Floyd died, artists are delivering political messages through often stark imagery”.
The battles over racism and the protests raged on social media, the public square of the digital age. They engulfed platforms often not in the public eye. For example, as reported by The New York Times, “Upper East Side Mom Group Implodes Over Accusations of Racism and Censorship. A large Facebook parenting group temporarily shut down after silencing black members. Now new groups for parents are forming that are explicitly anti-racist.”
Trouble in the Ivory Tower
Colleges and universities were embroiled in the sprawling national crisis, although closures of campuses in response to the coronavirus pandemic saved them from protests on their own campuses and in university towns. Linda Ellis warns in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 12, 2020) that, “For Colleges, Protests Over Racism May Put Everything On the Line”. She predicts the reckoning will come once colleges and universities reopen and as students return to campuses, already energised by the national uprising triggered by Floyd’s horrific killing.
Many universities issued statements expressing sympathy, pain, even support for Black Lives Matter. Predictably, the statements vary in length, depth and breadth. Many were formulaic and fluffy, written by communication departments afraid of antagonising powerful donors, state lawmakers, and alumni. They invoke the role of the university as a positive force in society, forgetting the fact that American universities and education in general have been integral to the production and reproduction of the structures and ideologies of systemic racism.
As numerous studies have shown, building on Craig Steven Wilder’s groundbreaking Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, many of the renowned Ivy League universities were founded by or with resources from slave owners and slave traders. Over the generations, the ideologies and practices of anti-black racism have been concocted, refined and sanctified in the academy. Black history, contributions, concerns, interests and experiences are routinely excluded and devalorised in the American academy.
The constant assaults and surveillance of racism in the white academy is for black students and faculty are draining and exhausting. Some succumb to the stresses of racial battle fatigue and become less productive and alienated from a vocation they had chosen with such passion and expectation. They become retired on the job in that they check out and go through the motions of their jobs. Others persist and become adept at concealing the pain, humiliation, and hostility they often face. However, professional progress offers no immunity. In fact, the higher one rises, the more one is surveilled in the fishbowl of systemic racism that permeates American academic cultures and institutions.
African American students and academics are grossly underrepresented in the prestigious universities, programmes, and fellowships, while black-centred knowledges are often filtered out from the holy grail of academic publications, journals, grants, and conferences. There are of course differences according to discipline and field. The situation in the sciences is particularly egregious.
On June 10 2020, almost 6,000 scientists and academicians participated in a one-day strike. The event was organised under various hashtags, including #Strike4BlackLives, #ShutDownStem and #ShutDownAcademia, by scientists who complained about pervasive racism in science. Besides classes, several leading scientific journals, such as Nature, Science, Physical Review Letters and arXiv, cancelled activities that day.
Protests spread to some academic journals and their editors. For example, after writing a tone-deaf tweet criticising the Black Lives Matter movement as “flat earthers”, an array of economists that included the former chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, and Paul Krugman, a Nobel prize winner, called for the resignation of Harald Uhlig, the editor of Political Economy Review. In the US economics as a field is white male-dominated, which has led to the devaluation of research and publications by women and blacks and on gender and race.
I can relate to the challenges faced by African Americans in the academy. As a college dean and an academic vice president at predominantly white universities in California and Connecticut, respectively, I was subject to doubt and disrespect that none of my colleagues in similar positions experienced. As is all too common, I was the first black person to occupy those positions. Earlier in my career when I served as director of one of the largest centers for African Studies at a Research 1 university in the Midwest, I witnessed the exclusion of Africans and African Americans in the study of their own ancestral continent, Africa.
It became too much for me and, fortunately, I was able to flee to Kenya. I often commiserate with my friends and colleagues that I left behind, some of who have risen to higher positions as deans, provosts, and presidents. They continue to walk the fine line of racial discrimination and exclusion in the American academy. In the aftermath of the uprising many of them have courageously stepped up to denounce systemic racism and call for honest dialogue and real change on their own campuses and share their pernicious experiences with racism as black men and women.
Taming Law Enforcement
A key demand of the protesters has been the urgent need to address systemic police brutality, racial bias, misconduct, and unaccountability. The evidence of racism in the criminal justice system is overwhelming as an exhaustive list of studies in The Washington Post shows. As if to prove the Black Lives Matter movement right, the police reacted to the demonstrators with excessive force and brutality that resulted in 11 deaths and nearly 10,000 arrests within a fortnight. This galvanised the protest movement even further. The public and elected leaders could no longer ignore police behaving as an invading army and the armour of police untouchability began to crack.
To be sure, there were occasional scenes of police officers kneeling in solidarity withthe protesters. Some African American police chiefs — who are always caught between their racial identity and police fraternity — shared their agonies, dilemmas, challenges, and frustrations in trying to change their departments from within and reconcile their personal and professional, private and public lives.
Police Departments across the country came under pressure to review their policies and practices as public agitation for comprehensive police reform mounted. City councils, state assemblies, and Congress were forced to begin enacting long-standing demands and legislation banning grievous repressive practices and promoting police reform. For some, more radical measures were needed, and they adopted the slogan “Defund the Police”. The Center for Community Change Action framed the much-needed restructuring in terms of redistribution for reconstruction, taking funds from law enforcement to improve health care, education, and other social services and opportunities in communities of colour.
In the House of Representatives, Democrats unveiled the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 whose provisions included requiring police to use body and dashboard cameras, restricting the transfer of military equipment to police, prohibiting chokeholds and unannounced raids through the issuance of no-knock warrants, enhancing police accountability by restricting the application of the qualified immunity doctrine that makes it difficult to prosecute law enforcement personnel, establishing a federal registry of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary actions, granting power to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to issue subpoenas to police departments with a pattern and practice of bias or misconduct, and requiring state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding to adopt anti-discrimination policies and training programmes.
Republicans were caught flat-footed. The New York Times noted that, “Having long fashioned themselves as the party of law and order, Republicans have been startled by the speed and extent to which public opinion has shifted under their feet in recent days after the killings of unarmed black Americans by the police and the protests that have followed. The abrupt turn has placed them on the defensive”. They charged the only black Republican Senator, Tim Scott, to draft their own bill on police reform.
On 17 June 2020, Republicans “unveiled a policing reform bill that would discourage, but not ban, tactics such as chokeholds and no-knock warrants, offering a competing approach to legislation being advanced by House Democrats that includes more directives from Washington. The Republican proposal, which Senate leaders said would be considered on the floor next week, veers away from mandating certain policing practices, as the Democratic plan does . . . Prospects for reaching common ground in the coming weeks remain unclear”. The stage was set for a legislative brawl between the two parties, whose outcome was unpredictable.
Under mounting pressure, President Trump had issued an executive order the previous day. He offered tepid “support for curtailing police abuses while reiterating a hard line on law and order”, reported The Wall Street Journal. The order “has three main components: establishing an independent credentialing process to spur departments to adopt the most modern use-of-force practices; creation of a database to track abusive officers that can be shared among different departments; and placing social service workers to accompany officers on nonviolent response calls to deal with issues such as drug addiction and homelessness. Chokeholds would be banned under the recommended standards, Mr. Trump said, unless an officer’s life is at risk”.
Within two weeks of the national uprising following Floyd’s death, several states and cities had enacted legislation to reform the police services along some of the lines of the Democratic bill in Congress. The New York state assembly passed a bill allowing felony charges to be brought against police using chokehold or similar restraint, and for the release of disciplinary records of individual police officers, firefighters or corrections officers without their written consent. The governor ordered all police departments to develop and obtain approvals for reform plans by April 1 2021 in order to remain eligible for state funding, while the mayor of New York City announced plans to shift some funds from the police department’s $6 billion budget to other services.
Los Angeles cut funding by US$150 million from its police department. In Seattle, the mayor promised to invest US$100 million in the Seattle Black Commission for community-driven programmes for black youths and adults. The Minneapolis City Council voted overwhelmingly to abolish the police department. In Louisville, Kentucky, the City Council unanimously passed “Breonna’s Law” that banned the use of “no-knock” warrants, named after Breonna Taylor who was killed in her own home. In Washington DC the City Council also banned the use of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse protesters.
Some critics maintain focusing on the police is not enough. In the words of Charles Blow, “But, these bills, if they pass as conceived, would basically punish the system’s soldiers without altering the system itself. These bills would make the officers the fall guy for their bad behaviour while doing little to condemn or even address the savagery and voraciousness of the system that required their service. This country has established a system of supreme inequity, with racial inequity being a primary form, and used the police to protect the wealth that the system generated for some and to control the outrages and outbursts of those opposed to it and oppressed by it. We need more than performative symbols of solidarity. We need more than narrow, chaste legislation”.
The slogan “Defund the Police” turned into a battle cry for the supporters and opponents of comprehensive police reform. For its proponents this is a demand for a fundamental reimagining and restructuring of American law enforcement from its roots in the systemic racism and white supremacy of slave patrols that evolved into the gendarmes of Jim Crow and subsequent crackdowns on black protests and the highly racialised “War on Drugs.”
The critics argue that the nearly US$100 billion spent on law enforcement could be used, to quote Paige Fernandez, the Policing Policy Advisor of the American Liberties Union, writing in Cosmopolitan, to fund “more helpful services like job training, counseling, and violence-prevention programs . . . Funneling so many resources into law enforcement instead of education, affordable housing, and accessible health care has caused significant harm to communities”.
The author reminds her readers that, “Much of the work police do is merely engage in the daily harassment of Black communities for minor crimes or crimes of poverty that shouldn’t be criminalized in the first place. Consider this: Out of the 10.3 million arrests made per year, only 5 percent are for the most serious offenses, including murder, rape, and aggravated assault. These are the ones that truly threaten public safety . . . That means that police spend the most resources going after minor incidents that actually don’t threaten everyday life but do lead to mass criminalisation and incarceration”.
The brutality of police forces escalated with their militarisation, a process that accelerated, writes Simon Tisdall in The Guardian, in response to “the 9/11 attacks, when George W Bush plunged the country into a state of perpetual war. Paradoxically, his ‘global war on terror’ intensified international and domestic insecurity. It sparked a huge, parallel expansion in the powers and reach of the homeland security apparatus. As Pentagon spending grew to a whopping $738bn this year, total police and prison budgets have also soared, reaching $194bn in 2017. About 18,000 law enforcement agencies employ 800,000 officers nationwide. Many are armed to the teeth”. In short, the crisis of policing in the US flows from the devil’s brew of entrenched racism, excessive militarism, xenophobic nationalism, and imperial decline.
Transforming Racial Capitalism
Many leaders and opinion makers in political, business, media, and academic circles promote legislative and policy solutions as antidotes to systemic racism. However, anti-black racism has persisted despite the enactment of a myriad of laws and policies since the 1960s. White supremacy and its pathological disdain for black people, black bodies, and black humanity emanates from deep cultural and cognitive spaces that lie beyond the reach of well-crafted legislation and policy pronouncements.
In short, the struggle to eradicate systemic racism and white supremacy has to transcend police reform and electoral politics. After all, racial bias, violence, and inequality have persisted under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, including Obama’s own, and under black leaders in state assemblies and black mayors in cities. Thus, for young African Americans who have grown up in cities and in a country with thousands of elected black officials compared to the 1960s, the promises of electoral politics do not carry the same transformative appeal.
As in Africa following decolonisation, achieving political representation, a worthy goal in itself, is inadequate for the herculean task of fundamentally changing the structures of economic and political power and systemic racism in the United States. The younger generations demand, and are seeking to build, a new black and national politics of accountability and transformation.
The complicity of Democratic presidents, senators, and congressmen and congresswomen in the construction of the prison-industrial complex since the 1980s is all too well known. President Clinton’s crime and welfare reform legislation fueled mass black incarceration and impoverishment. For his part, President Obama failed to meet the radical expectations placed on his administration in terms of reforming the criminal justice system, reducing economic inequalities, and curtailing the corporate power that engendered the Great Recession. Whereas Clinton passed draconian immigration law, Obama’s deportation of undocumented immigrants reached record levels.
Fundamental change requires a much broader and bolder vision and an expansive and inclusive politics. It has to transcend the paralysing dogmas of neo-liberalism and encompass transforming the multiple structural pillars and cultural dynamics of racial capitalism, as well as building new multiracial and class coalitions and alliances. There is no shortage of blueprints for a different future from America’s radical thinkers and activists committed to building a future envisaged in Martin Luther King’s dream of a “beloved community” based on the pillars of economic and social justice free from poverty, discrimination, and violence.
Danielle Allen suggests creating a new national compact that encompasses some of the following elements: expanding the House of Representatives, adopting ranked-choice voting, instituting universal voting and instant voter registration for all eligible Americans, establishing an expectation of national service by all Americans, limiting Supreme Court justices to 18-year terms, building civic media to counteract the challenges introduced by social media, finding honest ways to tell the nation’s story, and increasing “resources and resolve for community leadership, civic education and an American culture of shared commitment to constitutional democracy and one another”.
In the magazine, Harvard Gazette, a group of six of the university’s faculty members discuss “how best to convert the energy of this moment into meaningful and lasting change”. Some explicitly support or echo the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. More specifically, they variously propose a serious reckoning of the foundational exclusions of African Americans and Native Americans; the pursuit of economic democracy; the need for a new Voting Rights act and a a Third Reconstruction involving “a fundamental reconsideration of our Constitution, systems, institutions, and practices to uphold human rights and ensure equal opportunity for all”. Centring black women in the struggle for collective liberation is imperative, and for the university itself “to move beyond the rhetoric of ‘diversity and inclusion’ and become anti-racist”.
Michele Alexander, the author of the influential book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, admonishes the nation in The New York Times. “America, This is Your Chance. We must get it right this time or risk losing our democracy forever”. She implores the country’s diverse citizens, “We must face our racial history and our racial present”, “We must reimagine justice” beyond tinkering with token or unsustainable fixes, “We must fight for economic justice” by transforming the economic system, and embracing one based on economic justice.
For some, economic justice also entails reparations, an issue that is gaining some traction. The reparations movement has a long history, but it has remained on the fringes of American intellectual and political discourse. An influential essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the African American writer who some regard as a successor to the great James Baldwin, “The Case for Reparations” published in The Atlantic in June 2014, brought the issue to the mainstream media. He argues powerfully, “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole”.
The data on what America owes African Americans is damning. In her book, The Color of Money, Mehrsa Baradaran offers a bleak assessment of the racial wealth gap and the limits of community self-help. She shows that in 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the black community owned 0.5 per cent of the country’s wealth. More than 150 years later this rose to a paltry 1 per cent! In a recent interview, she argues, America has repeatedly violated its promises of equal protection, equality and equality to African Americans. To quote her, “I teach contract law”, she states, “When you break a contract, you pay damages. We’ve broken the contract with Black America . . . We embedded racism into policy. And how do you get that out. How do you fix that? I think reparations is the only answer . . . And I think a process of reparations should involve truth and reconciliation. We have the funds. We saw this with the coronavirus. Over a weekend, the Fed infused trillions of dollars into the repo markets and into the economy. We don’t have limits of resources. We have limits of empathy and imagination”.
The need for white involvement in the anti-racist movement is well understood. No less critical is building strong multiracial alliances among America’s racial minorities, who collectively will in a couple of decades become the country’s majority. Each minority group has its own complex history and positioning in the country’s racial hierarchy and political economy. Particularly divisive has been the model minority myth applied to Asians, which some Asian Americans have embraced and internalised. It was constructed, and serves, to distance them from African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
Differentiation and distanciation from African Americans is the ritual of passage to Americanisation by every migrant group in the United States. Successive waves of Europeans from Irish, Italian, Slavic, and Jewish backgrounds were initially not considered white, but were eventually absorbed into whiteness, a process that often entailed socialisation into American racism. Asians, whose migration to the United States increased following changes in migration law due to the civil rights movement, have reveled in being called a model minority. Even immigrant Latin Americans and Africans seek dubious solace in their foreignness, in not being African American until they are brutalised by systemic racism and white supremacy. The 2020 uprising has brought a lot of soul searching for every racial group in the United States in terms of where they stand in the country’s enduring racial quagmire.
The national uprising has emboldened Asian American activists to call for solidarity with African Americans in struggles against systemic racism and white supremacy. Marina Fang notes, “George Floyd’s death has galvanized some Asian Americans to try to start conversations with their families about anti-Black racism” and build solidarity with Black communities. “Anti-Black racism in Asian communities is tied to the ‘model minority’ myth, which white political leaders, particularly in response to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, wielded in order to drive a wedge between Asian Americans and other people of color”.
Writing in The Washington Post, Prabal Gurung echoes the same sentiments, “It’s time for Asian Americans to shed the ‘model minority’ myth and stand for George Floyd”. He stresses, “Beyond simple divestment and rejection of our own trope, we must also actively combat anti-blackness — especially within the Asian community . . . To break from this cycle, we must begin by asking: Who benefits when minority groups fight each other or are apathetic to one another’s struggles? . . . It is time for us to stand in solidarity with black communities whose sacrifices led to the civil rights and privileges we benefit from”.
The Washington Post reported during the protests, “Many Asian Americans say they feel a need to show solidarity with black protesters . . . Asians have their own history of American discrimination from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the slurs and boycotts Asian American restaurant and business owners have faced during the coronavirus pandemic”. One Asian American protestor “said his generation is well aware that the success Asians have achieved in the United States is owed directly to black protesters in the 1950s and 1960s and is built “on the backs of those black leaders of the civil rights movement”.
The uprising has also forced many whites to accept that silence is complicity and to confess their ignorance about the depths of American racism. David Axelrod, the chief strategist for President Obama’s campaigns and senior advisor in the Obama White House, puts it poignantly in The Washington Post, “I thought I understood issues of race. I was wrong”. He goes on to state, “Despite my work, I was too often oblivious — or at least inattentive — to the everyday mistreatment of people of color, including friends and colleagues, in ways large and small. Although I was reporting on the issues of police brutality and unequal justice as a journalist, I didn’t experience it. My kids didn’t experience it. And I never really engaged my black friends and colleagues about their own experiences. I never asked, so far as I can remember, about their own interactions with police or their fears for their children”.
It is worth quoting Axelrod’s conclusion: “A lot of white Americans thought they understood. But the underlying legacy of racism still remains. The laws that were passed were hard-won and important, but they didn’t eliminate deeply ingrained biases and layers of discriminatory practices and policies that mock the ideal of equality. The election of a black president was a watershed event in our history that struck at the heart of the racist creed. But it didn’t end racism. In fact, it provoked a backlash that empowered a racist demagogue and new policies meant to further embed structural barriers to full citizenship for black Americans”.
This is an example of what the philosopher, Charles W. Mills, my former colleague at the University of Illinois at Chicago calls, “white ignorance”. He defines it as a historically constructed group-based cognitive tendency and moral disposition of non-knowing, of motivated irrationality. It is a perversely deforming outlook causally linked to white normativity and white privilege, in which white perception and categorisation, social memory and social amnesia are privileged, and non-white experiences and racial group interests are derogated.
White ignorance, Mills insists, is not confined to whites and is global in so far as the modern world was created by European imperialism and colonialism. It is a foundational miscognition that permeates perceptions, conceptions and theorisations in descriptive, popular and scholarly discourses. In his book, States of Denial, Stanley Cohen calls it “denial”, the willful act of not wanting to know, wearing blinders, turning a blind eye, blocking out, and of evading and avoiding unpleasant realities and horrific atrocities by the perpetrators and by bystanders of repression.
An often ignored site for the anti-racist struggle is the role of organised labour. In the US trade unions have declined precipitously. In the last four decades union membership fell by half from 20.1 per cent of workers in 1983 (17.7 million) to 10.3 per cent in 2019 (14.6 million). This helped reduce the capacity of the working class to organise against capital in the first instance, and to build multiracial coalitions and mobilise against the economic, political, and social system of racial capitalism. Deprived or divorced from collective class organisation and struggle, working people have been demobilised by capital and the political class. To be sure, in the United States the configurations of capital, labour, and politics have always been fractionalised, not least by the sheer scale of the demographics and ideologies of race.
As I noted in my earlier studies on labour movements after World War II, American trade unions at home and abroad were notoriously racist. However, the assault against organised labour accelerated in the post-civil rights era, as race was weaponised to camouflage the devaluation of labour under neo-liberalism. The “Southern Strategy” started peeling away white workers from the Democratic coalition. The rise of the “Reagan Democrats” culminated in the capture of demoralised and deradicalised white workers by Trump’s unabashedly racist insurgency.
In short, the anti-racist movement must find a way of mobilising the white working class, of aligning class, race, and gender for progressive change. More immediately, the labour movement, as Dave Jamieson notes, “faces a reckoning over police unions”. He notes that “police unions make a small slice of the AFL-CIO, but progressive members are increasingly uncomfortable associating with them”. Angered by police brutality, some labour leaders have called for cutting ties with police unions, increasing their transparency and accountability, and curtailing their funding and political power over both the Republican and Democratic parties.
The importance of transracial solidarity for working people is essential because the struggle is not just against racism, or just against capitalism, living in splendid isolation from each other, but against both in their articulation as racial capitalism. Race, class, gender and other social inscriptions are not competitive but complimentary categories of social and political identity and practice. They constitute interlocking structural, political, and representational processes that under racial capitalism reflect and reproduce deformed institutions and pathological social relations. The African American scholar and public intellectual, Kimberlé Crenshaw, calls this intersectionality, which offers more nuanced and complex analyses of systemic racism and white supremacy than the binaries of race and class and the isolated categories of race, class, and gender.
The concept of racial capitalism captures the interlocking nature of the capitalist system, patriarchy, and white supremacy. As Michael Dawson succinctly argues, each of these three systems of domination have “their own internal logics, which include sources of resistance”.” This means that “victories against one system of domination have the potential, too often unrealized, to undermine the other”. In its development racial capitalism undergoes historical shifts as the regimes of articulation of its constituent parts change. The question that arises with the 2020 national uprising is the extent to which it has pried open the contradictions between the three systems of domination.
The concept of racial capitalism captures the interlocking nature of the capitalist system, patriarchy, and white supremacy. As Michael Dawson succinctly argues, each of these three systems of domination have “their own internal logics, which include sources of resistance
The modern world system was created in the transatlantic world, including in the United States, by racial capitalism through the genocide of the native peoples, enslavement of Africans, and settler colonialism. Racism and patriarchy were integral to the extraction of value by white capitalists from both black and white workers, whose class solidarity was always undercut by white supremacy. Since the onset of neo-liberalism following the end of the long post-war boom in the 1970s, the wages of whiteness have precipitously declined as evident in stagnant incomes, a shrinking middle class, and rising inequalities. The prolonged capitalistic crises of accumulation and legitimacy, exacerbated by the Great Recession, produced the mobilisation of disaffected white working and middle classes by the insurgencies of rightwing populism embodied by Trump in 2016 and by the forces for social justice represented by the 2020 national uprising.
Thus, what is at stake goes beyond the reform of America’s law enforcement agencies and performative anti-racism. It is about the transformation of racial capitalism. Given the enormous stakes involved, and the depth and breadth of the economic, political, social and racial structures of domination, the struggle will be long and hard indeed. But the 2020 uprising has opened new doors of possibility.
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Polls and Ballots: Getting Into the ‘Weeds’ of Election-Based Survey Research
This is the third in a series of articles that will review and comment on surveys related to the August 2022 general election, providing analytical tools to enable the reader to assess their credibility and potential impact.
Given that it is well over a month since my last piece in the series, it is an understatement to say that much has happened in the intervening period. The three main developments that are covered here are: the changing positions of the two main presidential candidates, the earlier use of polls by political parties in the selection of candidates to augment or replace the usual nomination contests, and the announced selections of deputy presidential running mates by the two main presidential candidates just hours before the official deadline for doing so. In addition, a brief comment on TIFA’s more recent Nairobi County survey is offered.
‘Horse race’ update
Although several other firms have recently released presidential contest polls, I will ignore them here due to their lack of credibility (but shall take up this issue in a subsequent article) and concentrate on the three “mainstream pollsters” whose results this series has been tracking: TIFA Research, Infotrak and Radio Africa. The table below shows the reversal of fortunes of Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga found by all three firms:
|Survey Firm||Sample Size / No. of Counties||Survey Dates||Odinga||Ruto||Others||Undecided / Won’t Vote/NR|
|TIFA Research||1,719 / 47||17 May||39%||35%||3%||23%|
|Infotrak||9,000 / 47||23-27 May||42%||38%||1%||19%|
|Radio Africa/The Star||4,780 / 47||8-9 June||45%||39%||3%||13%|
Several comments help to explain these figures.
First, regarding data collection dates, although the TIFA survey was conducted the day after the announcement of former Gichugu MP and cabinet minister Martha Karua as Odinga’s DP running mate—with the announcement of Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua as Ruto’s running mate having been made the day before—not all respondents were able to name them. Specifically, while 85 per cent of all respondents could name Karua, only 59 per cent could name Gachagua. Several factors may account for this discrepancy, the two main ones being the much more public and “celebratory” event revealing Karua at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre compared with the more restrained and entrance-restricted one for Gachagua at the DP’s Karen residence, and Karua’s far larger public and political profile. This contrast notwithstanding, TIFA also provided correlation data that showed no statistical difference in expressed voting intentions for the two presidential candidates between those who did and those who did not correctly identify their running mates. (These correlations were based on the somewhat greater proportion of such Karua/Gachagua running mate awareness among those who elsewhere indicated that they intend to vote for Odinga or Ruto: 90 per cent and 69 per cent, respectively).
Specifically, the TIFA data reveals that slightly more of those aware of Karua as Odinga’s choice declared their intention to vote for him—41 per cent vs. 39 per cent for all respondents, and only 25 per cent among those who did not name her. Further, among women only, there is a 9 per cent difference in this regard: 37 per cent vs. 28 per cent. Yet similar results for Ruto’s running mate invite caution in concluding that knowing that Karua was Odinga’s choice itself made the difference. That is, considerably more of those respondents who could name Gachagua expressed a Ruto voting intention than those who could not (42 per cent vs. 26 per cent), with a nearly similar gap among women (37 per cent vs. 26 per cent).
Of course, if Gachagua were female, one would be tempted to conclude that gender per se accounts for this difference among respondents of both genders. That not being so, however, it would be necessary to explore other variables to account for this clear association of running mate knowledge with the propensity to vote for either Odinga or Ruto. A possible variable here is simply an interest in the presidential election/politics generally. This is apparent in that, among only those stating they are “undecided” about their presidential vote choice, significantly more could not name either Karua or Gachagua as compared with those who could: 23 per cent vs. 13 percent with regard to the former, and 18 per cent vs. 11 per cent with regard to the latter.
Specifically, the TIFA data reveal that a fifth of those who stated their intention to vote for Odinga as president also declared their intention to vote for Sakaja as governor.
Moreover, since neither Infotrak nor Radio Africa provided any such “running mate awareness” profile among their respondents, it was not possible to pose this question with regard to their data. The question as to whether—and how—any of these firms will attempt to measure this “running mate” effect in their forthcoming polls thus remains.
Next, compared to the results in the most recent previous surveys of these three firms, Odinga’s gains are significant. In TIFA’s late April survey, Ruto enjoyed a 7 per cent advantage (39-32 per cent), in Radio Africa’s, a 5 per cent lead (46-41 per cent), while in Infotrak’s previous poll, he and Odinga were tied (42 per cent each). In other words, Odinga’s most recent ratings give him gains of 11 per cent by Radio Africa and TIFA, and a 4 per cent gain by Infotrak.
In addition, if all the respondents who declined or failed to name any candidate in these three polls are removed from the calculation, the most recent results are as follows:
|Survey Firm||Total / Named Candidates Only
Re-Adjusted Margin of Error
|TIFA Research||1,719 / 1,324: +/-2.7%||51%||46%||5%|
|Infotrak||9,000 / 7,290: +/-1.1%||52%||47%||5%|
|Radio Africa/The Star||4,780 / 4,135: +/-1/5%||52%||45%||7%|
In other words, since “Undecided”, “No Response”, and “Won’t Vote” are not options found on ballot papers, removing such survey responses from the calculation gives a more accurate picture of where the race actually stands: Odinga now enjoys leads that are beyond each firm’s margin of error (the slightly greater ones reflecting the reduced effective sample sizes). This is so even if it is reasonable to believe that some of these “no preferred candidate” respondents actually have one but were shy about revealing it for one reason or another. (An attempt to “dig deeper” into the likely preferences of such respondents —at least those who will vote on 9 August—will be included in a subsequent piece in this series.)
At the same time, aside from those respondents who state that they will not vote—and even among those who declare that they will “definitely” vote in the surveys that included the relevant question—it is impossible to predict the levels and variations in voter turnout, even if, as Charles Hornsby has shown, such turnout rates have followed a fairly consistent pattern over the nearly six decades of Kenya’s independence.
Odinga’s most recent ratings give him gains of 11 per cent by Radio Africa and TIFA, and a 4 per cent gain by Infotrak.
All the above notwithstanding, given Odinga’s still quite modest lead in all three of these recent polls, the period remaining between when these three surveys were conducted and the election itself, together with expected (if unknown) differential turnout rates across the country, could still be the deciding factor (with turnout itself being a function of a complex combination of self/communal motivation and “external” mobilization, i.e., by individual candidates and/or political parties).
Nevertheless, it may be concluded that the DP’s campaign team and supporters would have cause for considerable concern if the next round of survey results reveal a further increase in Odinga’s lead. Moreover, it can also be concluded that unless the proportion of votes for all other presidential candidates (of which there are just two as of now) amounts to more than at least 3 per cent, a runoff contest is unlikely. That said, the fact that George Wajackoyah received 7 per cent in a mid-June Nairobi poll conducted by TIFA does at least raise this possibility.
A final set of additional comments about these three polls may be offered.
First, while both TIFA and Infotrak employed their previous methodology of telephone (i.e., CATI) interviews, Radio Africa for the second time conducted its poll via SMS messages. Based on 4,780 respondents, the margin of error is shown as +/-1.5 per cent. This is correct, but contrasts with the incorrect figure in its previous survey of +/-4.5 per cent for a sample of 3,559, a mistake that I had noted in my previous piece. At the same time, however, this Radio Africa survey once again reports a considerably smaller proportion who declined to name a preferred presidential candidate as compared with the other two surveys—13 per cent, as opposed to 19 per cent by Infotrak and 23 per cent by TIFA. Could this be because of the methodology used? That is, if those who receive the initial SMS can tell that it aims to collect data for a presidential elections survey, do many of those who have not made up their minds decline to participate so that a significant proportion of “undecided” responses are not even captured or reported? The fact that a source at the Star indicated that fewer than 10 per cent of those contacted via SMS for these surveys choose to participate suggests that this might be the case. This would also mean that for an achieved sample of 4,780, nearly 50,000 SMSs were initially sent out inviting participation. Further, unless the Radio Africa data-base has fairly detailed demographic details for all the interviewed respondents, it seems it would be impossible to weight the data so as to accurately depict the “population universe” the respondents purport to represent—whether the entire Kenyan population as per the 2019 Census or the total of registered voters, at least as reflected in the 2017 Register (since the current, updated version was not available at the time of these surveys). That the Star’s report on this survey fails to include any demographic information about the achieved sample (even education levels as required by the Publication of Electoral Polls Act, 2012) makes it impossible to know.
The above discussion raises one other question about the achieved samples. As I pointed out in my first piece for The Elephant, there are two basic requirements for “representative” samples. One is that the pool or data base from which respondents are selected must accurately represent the purported “population universe”. The other is that the process of selecting the relatively small number of respondents for interviews must be absolutely random, that is, without any bias, whether intentional or otherwise. While it is safe to assume the latter condition is strictly adhered to for the surveys reported here, a question may be raised about the former. That is, how precisely do these companies’ data bases reflect the “population universe” of adult Kenyans (or of registered voters, if respondent selection is restricted to them)?
For Infotrak and TIFA, this boils down to the mobile phone numbers from which their samples are drawn. How many do they have, and do their distributions for both their national and sub-national results reflect the country’s reality on the ground, at least as captured in the 2019 Census? It has been stated that both of these firms regularly collect mobile numbers in the course of conducting household or “face-to-face” surveys, whether the phone number acquired belongs to survey respondents themselves or to another household member (in cases where the respondent does not personally possess one).
It may be concluded that the DP’s campaign team and supporters would have cause for considerable concern if the next round of survey results reveal a further increase in Odinga’s lead.
In any case, two questions arise here. First, how many Kenyan households lack even one mobile phone owner/user? Second, at least in terms of the content of the questions being asked in CATI surveys, would a survey on public and political issues, such as one dealing with the forthcoming election, produce measurably different results if the data obtained came entirely from such phoneless individuals or households? While it is possible to compare the demographic profiles from respondents with and without such phones in previous surveys, the most precise way to answer this question is to conduct two surveys with the same content and at the same time but with respondents drawn from these two distinct “population universes”, an undertaking that I am not aware of having been done by any of these firms. (During the period of my previous employment, I did undertake such an experiment, but that was over ten years ago when mobile phone ownership was far less extensive than it is now. Consequently, I do not feel it would be useful to present those results here.)
One reality that can be reported, however, is that according to the 2019 Census, some 20 million households have (or had then; the number has surely increased) such phones, most of those without being found in parts of the country outside the networks of all of the mobile network providers. Still, even in parts of the country covered by such networks, a few people, mostly the very poor, are without them. With an adult population (i.e., 18 years and above—those who are routinely included in the sort of surveys discussed in this series) of around 25 million, this equates to some 85 per cent. And here I must correct Prof. Karuti Kanyinga who asserted in a recent Sunday Nation article that CATI surveys cannot be representative, since “only 47 per cent” of Kenyans owned mobile phones at the time of the 2019 Census. He evidently failed to notice that such census figures apply to all Kenyans aged three and above, and thus vastly underestimated phone possession by adults. As for Infotrak, in presenting presidential contest results for all 47 counties, one would want to know how extensive—and how representative—their mobile phone database is for each one, especially those mainly northern counties that still lack extensive network coverage.
Also, in the latest Infotrak survey, the 47 counties were divided into three categories: Odinga “strongholds”, Ruto “strongholds” and “battle-grounds”. Yet the lists are slightly misleading, in that the margin of error for these county results in several cases exceeds the difference between these two candidates. That is, the apparently impressively large sample of 9,000, when divided by 47 counties, yields a sub-sample average of only about 190 respondents per county, which has an associated margin of error of +/-7.1 per cent—equal to about a 14 per cent spread. This means that any county results that fall within this range indicate that, in reality, either candidate could actually be leading. For Odinga, this removes Mombasa and Garissa from his list of 20 “strongholds”; for Ruto, the same applies to Laikipia and Isiolo from his list of 16.
One notable aspect of this electoral cycle is that, based on statements by key political actors themselves, as well as in various media reports, there has been an unprecedented level of polling by both of the main campaign teams. These have been conducted not just for measuring presidential candidate and party/coalition popularity as well as the salience of particular issues at the national, regional and county levels, but also, in particular contexts, for the selection of candidates so as to avoid the “messy” process of nomination contests. Just where and when such polls were used, whether as the sole basis for the awarding of nomination certificates, and whether they were used together with “consensus” and even voting, remains a subject for very rigorous research (hopefully by some energetic doctoral students). What is clear, however, is that party and coalition leaders saw their main benefit as eliminating or at least significantly reducing the cost and acrimony of holding nomination elections, and even more potential acrimony when nominations were awarded in the absence of any competitive process at all (i.e., “dished out”, in Kenyan parlance). As the Sunday Nation reported just as the nomination period began, “The issuing of direct tickets to Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) hopefuls has caused unrest in the party strongholds, marking the start of a traditionally tumultuous season of political party nominations.”
Kanyinga evidently failed to notice that such census figures apply to all Kenyans aged three and above, and thus vastly underestimated phone possession by adults.
The Azimio coalition, and the ODM party in particular, have trumpeted their use of such research tools—albeit in particular, and limited, contexts—in selecting their flag-bearers. This first came to my attention early this year when this coalition’s campaign chairman, Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Muriithi, who is known for his appreciation of “hard” data, was reported to have declared that the services of a pollster had been engaged “to conduct research that will help in determining popular candidates to fly the coalition’s flag in the August General Election”. This same media report, quoted “a source” in the Odinga camp as saying that the data collected would be used to identify the “most popular candidates for all positions from MCA to governor”, and that this method was also aimed at “curbing violence” that is often generated by contested primaries. ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna was even more specific, revealing that the (unnamed) pollster had so far covered 15 counties with this figure to double “in the coming weeks.” As he put it, “We want science to guide us. We need not subject aspirants to an elective process when we know who is ahead of the others”, and he indicated that such direct tickets would be given to aspirants with “more than 20-30 percentage points over” their nearest rivals.
Subsequently, however, we saw controversy erupt in such places as Mombasa, where the opinion poll “losers” complained that they were being “unfairly” deprived of the chance to test their popularity with actual party members through primaries—one of the several methods allowed for such candidate selection by the ODM party’s constitution.
While it cannot be denied that such competitive primaries have often triggered intra-party violence among rival supporters, several questions arise in connection with this “opinion poll” option.
First, as the chairperson of ODM’s National Elections Board, Catherine Muma, explained in a TV interview at the time, these polls were not restricted to party members as documented in the list that was filed with the Office of the Registrar of Political Parties, but to all people in a particular electoral unit. Given that actual ballot choices on 9 August are not limited to candidates of one party, this makes sense. But here, one would want to know if any “filter” questions were used, so that only those registered as voters in that unit were interviewed (since, especially in a town like Mombasa, a substantial minority are registered and vote in other parts of the Coast region, and even beyond). Also, were respondents asked to indicate who they thought would be actually vying for particular seats before being asked to indicate their preference? If not, how could the popularity of any candidate be gauged against that of others? And if they were asked, but mentioned only a few of them, then what? That is, with polls conducted a full four months before the election, it was unrealistic to expect that the eventual ballot “menu” for such seats could be known. More generally, at this preliminary stage of the electoral calendar, which factors determine an aspirant’s popularity that a poll could measure? In particular, do incumbents have an advantage because of their name recognition, or a disadvantage, at least among those unhappy with the status quo and who are looking forward to punishing incumbents? And further, if the samples for such polls were not limited to party members, does this not diminish, if not completely negate, the value of such membership itself?
Based on statements by key political actors themselves, as well as in various media reports, there has been an unprecedented level of polling by both of the main campaign teams.
Even if such polls were used much closer to the election—perhaps based on an understanding between coalition partners that those who performed poorly would drop out (at least before the ballot papers are printed!)—how “scientific” are they in terms of reliably indicating actual outcomes? ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna, as reported by NTV on 5 April, made the curious assertion that: “There is not a single time when the science has misled us, and those on this podium can bear me witness. When we did the scientific poll in Msambweni [before the 15 December 2020 by-election] the actual results were exactly the same as what the science [of the poll] was telling us. The science and the results were spot-on.”
Since he did not identify the poll (or polls) he had in mind, I can only refer to the two polls I am aware of, both released in early December, just a few weeks before the by-election when voters should have been aware of all the candidates, and knew at least something about the main ones. Their results, together with the IEBC’s official results, are as follows:
Msambweni By-Election Poll/IEBC Results (Rounded Figures – Main Candidates Only)
|Survey Firm/IEBC||Publication Date||Margin of Error||Feisal Bader||Omar Boga|
|Radio Africa/The Star||3 December, 2020||5.5%||29%||54%|
|TIFA Research||3 December, 2020||5.5%||36%||46%|
|IEBC: Official Result||15 December, 2020||——||56%||39%|
Both surveys had a margin of error of about +/- 5.5 per cent based on their respective sample sizes. That means, for example, that in the Radio Africa poll, Boga’s support could have been as low as about 49 per cent, and in the TIFA poll, his support could have been as high as about 51 per cent, an indication that their results were pretty much in agreement. But the conclusion should be clear: both polls were “wrong”.
So, was Sifuna referring to some other poll, perhaps one never made public? (Surely not the poll results released by the Bader campaign on social media on 18 November showing him with 74 per cent as against just 23 per cent for Boga!) In that case, and if the official results mirrored it “exactly” (according to Sifuna—that is, an “upset” ODM loss), then we must assume either that the ODM campaign team, believing the contest was a lost cause, simply gave up (which surely would have caused Bader’s margin of victory compared to the poll to increase), or continued its campaign efforts to try to overcome Bader’s lead, but without any effect whatsoever.
There are several possible explanations, none mutually exclusive, as to why the two published polls failed to match “the reality”, perhaps most important among them: that, as in any election, differential voter turnout across any electoral unit cannot be predicted precisely. Moreover, by-elections invariably attract fewer voters than do general elections. In this Msambweni case, it was just under 40 per cent, and quite varied across the wards. As such—and especially in such a by-election context—even “scientific sampling” can often yield misleading results. In addition, however—and evidently more important—is that according to other reports at the time, Boga’s team was not nearly as active on the ground as Bader’s, in large part (I was told during a visit to the area this January) because the Boga campaign team “relaxed” after seeing these two polls, whereas Bader’s put even more energy into their efforts.
This is not to say that such polls are useless when parties/coalitions seek to identify their most-viable-candidate options. But it is clear that their use should be accompanied by considerable caution, since their “science”, in terms of predicting popularity—and thus an election’s outcome—may be limited at best, especially when voters are not yet aware of the full and final ballot menu.
Choosing running mates
Let me turn finally to what has been perhaps the most remarkable use of surveys so far in this pre-election period: that conducted by UDA in identifying a running mate for their presidential candidate, William Ruto.
The DP himself made clear just prior to his announced choice at his Karen residence 15 on May that a “general public” poll of some 10,000 respondents had been conducted (although it remained unclear by whom) in the greater Mt. Kenya region, an exercise that was supplemented by an “electoral college” poll among area MPs. In both cases, we were told, Tharaka Nithi Senator, Prof. Kithure Kindiki, was the overwhelming choice (“90 per cent”). Yet almost in the next breath, the DP revealed that he had settled on Rigathi Gachagua (as noted above). In fact, prior to this announcement, it was reported that the DP had made this decision some time earlier—the “rag sheet” Weekly Citizen had headlined this choice in its 1-7 November publication! It remains unclear to me why such contrary results were made public, or even why the polls had been undertaken in the first place. The fact that Senator Kindiki chose not to attend this event, and only issued a statement later, served to underscore his own dissatisfaction with the process, or at least with the decision. Whether he would have attended had these poll results not existed or been released must be left to speculation; he subsequently re-joined Kenya Kwanza’s campaign activities.
Aside from whatever internal polling was conducted by the main presidential campaign teams, publicly released surveys exploring this issue were at least equally off the mark. In both Radio Africa’s early April survey and TIFA’s a few weeks later, the “best” running mates for Odinga in terms of bringing in the most additional votes as identified by respondents were Peter Kenneth, Kalonzo Musyoka and Karua, in that order. Likewise, both Radio Africa and TIFA identified Musalia Mudavadi as Ruto’s “best” choice, with the ultimate “winner”, Rigathi Gachagua coming in second in the Radio Africa poll—followed by Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro—and third in TIFA’s, behind Kirinyaga governor Anne Waiguru.
Closer to the actual day of the announcements, Infotrak results were nearer to the eventual reality with regard to Odinga’s “best” choice, Karua placing first, followed by Musyoka and Kenneth. For Ruto, however, the results were less “accurate” than in either of the two other polls on the issue, with Gachagua nowhere among the top three, those positions being taken by Mudavadi, Kindiki and Waiguru, respectively.
In none of these three cases would it be “fair” to criticize the pollsters for “getting it wrong”, since it would be expected that respondents’ choices are far more a reflection of their general familiarity with these political figures, rather than of any intimate knowledge of the factors being considered by the presidential candidates themselves and their closest associates. For the latter, while adding “the most votes” is clearly a critical one, other factors include, especially, the “depth” of one’s (and one’s friends) pockets for campaign resources, the personal “chemistry” between the would-be president and deputy as well as the “fit” of their policy agendas and priorities, and the perceived capacity of the deputy to run the executive in the president’s absence (or even permanent exit from office for whatever reason). In other words, the “ideal” running mate must have enough political stature and following to help the two of them win the election and then govern, but not so much as to constitute a rival or threat to the dominant position that the constitution bestows on the president.
It remains unclear to me why such contrary results were made public, or even why the polls had been undertaken in the first place.
At the same time, in this 2022 context, several of these factors—whatever the weight given to each—are unlikely to apply equally to considerations by the Ruto and Odinga sides. This stems from the widespread assumption that whereas if he wins, Ruto would certainly attempt to extend his incumbency in 2027, there is rather less certainty that Odinga would do so due to his age, however healthy and vigorous the 77-year-old appears to be at present; indeed, some unconfirmed reports have indicated he has agreed to a single term. As such, there is likely to be more jockeying for influence—and ultimately, executive power in 2027—on the Azimio side of the partisan equation following the inauguration ceremony, eventually if not immediately.
TIFA’s Nairobi County Survey (20 June)
|Contest||Candidates and Percentages|
|Governor||J. Sakaja – 40%||P. Igathe – 32%||Others – 9%||Undecided/NR – 28%|
|President||R. Odinga – 50%||W. Ruto – 25%||Others – 8%||Undecided/NR – 18%|
The results of TIFA’s Nairobi County Survey carried out on 20 June have invited numerous queries as to how Johnstone Sakaja, the UDA/Kenya Kwanza candidate for governor, could clearly be more popular than Polycarp Igathe of Jubilee/Azimio, whereas the former’s presidential candidate is only half as popular as the latter’s (25 per cent vs. 50 per cent). While the data does not suggest an explanation, several “common sense” factors do. First, Sakaja has been in Nairobi public life for nearly a decade, first as a nominated MP, and then as the current senator. He has also been highly visible, frequently appearing on TV talk shows and taking well-publicized positions on various county and national issues. Prior to the 2013 election, he served as chairman of presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta’s The National Alliance Party (TNA), at the time “the youngest person in the world” to hold such a position (according to Wikipedia). By contrast, relatively few (in Nairobi, at least) had heard of Igathe before he was selected by then Nairobi gubernatorial candidate Mike Mbuvi Sonko to be his deputy governor running mate for the 2017 election on behalf of the winning Jubilee party. He then largely vanished from public life after only six months, when he resigned from this position, having fallen out with Governor Sonko, who would later be removed from office through impeachment. More broadly, given the general absence of clear policy or ideological differences in Kenya’s political parties, especially perhaps in terms of county-level issues, it is clear that “personality”, including one’s personal “track record” is more salient for many voters. Specifically, the TIFA data reveal that a fifth of those who stated their intention to vote for Odinga as president also declared their intention to vote for Sakaja as governor. As such, while party/coalition identity certainly has some salience, it is far from overwhelming, at least for this forthcoming Nairobi gubernatorial contest. Regardless, how much rhetorical attention/support Sakaja will give to Ruto during his Nairobi campaigns between now and the election will still be interesting to watch. However, should the current investigation into Sakaja’s Uganda Team University degree result in his disqualification, this issue may become moot though at the time of TIFA’s survey, an impressive 20 per cent of those who declared their intention to vote for him also indicated they do not believe his Team degree is valid!
Concluding point: heading to the home stretch
Whatever the frequency of both public and internal polls so far, it may be expected that it will increase in the remaining five weeks or so prior to 9 August. In addition to the regular, roughly monthly, surveys by Radio Africa, TIFA and Infotrak, it is rumoured that Ipsos will emerge from its nearly four years of “survey silence” with at least one poll before the election. The main media houses have also shown an increased interest in these surveys, in terms of sponsorship as well as coverage (in both news bulletins and talk shows).
It is rumoured that Ipsos will emerge from its nearly four years of “survey silence” with at least one poll before the election.
Just how much such poll results—and their accompanying/reactive commentary—may influence actual voting patterns remains a subject for a future piece in this series. So, too, does a consideration of how such devices might help to answer another major question about Kenyans’ voting behaviour: how can the split about presidential choices, especially within particular ethnic groups, be understood? In this context, it will be argued that simply posing this question should help to dilute the greatly overstated mantra that “all Kenyan politics is ethnic”!
Where is Exiled Former Rwandan Journalist Cassien Ntamuhanga?
In spite of the official denial of involvement, the arrest and disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga is proof that the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana and the Rwanda genocide that followed is, tragically, still claiming new casualties.
The last time eyewitnesses saw former Rwandan journalist and activist Cassien Ntamuhanga alive was on the 23rd of May 2021 when he was arrested by agents of the Mozambique National Criminal Investigation Service (SERNIC). On arrival in Mozambique, Ntamuhanga had asked for asylum and refugee status because of persecution back home in Rwanda and, therefore, according to international humanitarian law, he was a protected person in Mozambique—at least until his request for asylum was heard and determined by the competent authority in Mozambique. Those protections included protection from arrest and refoulement—forced repatriation back to Rwanda, his country of origin, which he had fled because of persecution.
Ntamuhanga was first taken to the Inhaca Island Police station before being transferred to Maputo. He had been living on Inhaca Island since he fled Rwanda in 2017. At the time of Ntamuhanga’s arrest, a man in civilian clothing who had accompanied the policemen who arrested him was heard speaking to him in Kinyarwanda. The SERNIC, Mozambique’s police service and the embassy of Rwanda in Maputo have all denied any knowledge of the “alleged” arrest of Cassien Ntamuhanga although several eyewitnesses in Inhaca have confirmed having witnessed the arrest.
As of this writing, the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga are unknown. The fact of the matter is that the last time Cassien Ntamuhanga was seen in public he was under the custody of men in the uniform of the Mozambique police service and SERNIC. The arrest of Cassien Ntamuhanga, former Rwandan journalist and critic of the Rwanda government has rung alarm bells because his disappearance, which has been denied by both Mozambique and Rwanda police, falls into a pattern of such disappearances of Rwandans in Rwanda or in exile only for their bodies to be found days later.
Both SERNIC and Mozambique’s police service have denied holding Ntamuhanga in custody. Ntamuhanga had fled Rwanda after escaping from custody after he and Kizito Mihigo had been arrested and charged with treason. Both had been arrested in 2014 and charged with plotting terror attacks against Rwanda and plotting to overthrow the Rwandan government. These very serious charges had been brought against Ntamuhanga and Mihigo by the Rwanda prosecutor. At the trial of the two, the Rwandan court sentenced Kizito Mihigo to twenty-five years in jail on a verdict of treason and terrorism against the state. Ntamuhanga, who was accused of terrorism, inciting disaffection against the government of Rwanda and for genocide denial, was convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison in 2015. In 2017, Cassien Ntamuhanga escaped from prison and fled to Mozambique from Rwanda.
On the 6th of May 2021, Cassien Ntamuhanga was tried in absentia in Rwanda and handed a 25-year prison sentence for facilitating terrorist activities and for financing from abroad the making of bombs to be exploded in Rwanda. At Cassien’s trial, his alleged accomplice told the court that Ntamuhanga had paid the accomplice to make bombs to be used to overthrow the government of Rwanda. And then, on 23rd May 2021, Cassien Ntamuhanga disappeared.
“Be a hero, my child
I love you and through that
I love Rwanda
That’s why I am dedicating it to you
Be a hero,
Be important for Rwanda”
Uzabe Intwari, Be a Hero, is a song Kizito Mihigo sung in 2019 urging peace and reconciliation. Rwandans admiringly called him Inuma, the Dove, because of his courageous campaign for peaceful coexistence and reconciliation among all Rwandans. A year after he sang this song, Kizito Mihigo hung himself with a bedsheet from the window of a police cell that has no windows.
To win us with honest trifles, then to betray us in deepest consequence
Given the disappearances of Rwandans in Rwanda and abroad, a deeper look at the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga demands of us that all voices speak up and refuse to be silent any longer following this latest disappearance. For, in the end, even Macbeth had to listen when the cries of Scotland’s many widows demanded of King Macbeth an accounting. There is an aptness in seeing events in Rwanda through the frame of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. For Shakespeare’s play is very much the needed journey into the psyche of the repressive and coercive Rwandan state. Here are the events that precede General Macbeth’s accession to the throne of Scotland, which at the time was fighting both a Civil War and an Invasion by a foreign army (Norwegian).
A year after he sang this song, Kizito Mihigo hung himself with a bedsheet from the window of a police cell that has no windows.
As Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, and Banquo his fellow general, walk from the latest battlefield in the Civil War in Scotland, three witches hail Macbeth with the titles of Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cowdor and King hereafter. And then immediately afterwards, news comes that King Duncun has invested Macbeth with the titles and dignities of Thane of Cowdor, the rebel who General Macbeth had just recently killed on the field of battle. After this surprising news, Banquo comments on how startled and deeply disturbed Macbeth looks—when what the Witches had just told Macbeth is nothing but good news on his fortunate new stature. But Macbeth looks reflectively at Banquo and reminds him that the witches who have made him (Macbeth) the Thane of Cowdor had also prophesied that Banquo would be the father of many Kings who would go on to rule Scotland although he (Banquo) himself would never be King—the Witches had called Banquo lesser than Macbeth yet greater. And then, reflecting on Macbeth’s rapid change of fortune, Banquo warns:
But ’tis strange,
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence. (Act I Scene 3, Macbeth by William Shakespeare)
Shortly thereafter Macbeth invites King Duncun to his estate and there murders the King and seizes the throne. The promises given to Macbeth by the instruments of darkness have been fulfilled—Macbeth is now the King of Scotland and among his first acts is to murder Banquo whose son Fleance barely escapes his father’s assassins to join the growing force of opposition to the King in exile. In his palace, Macbeth the new King of Scotland finds the Ghost of Banquo haunting his every waking moment. And so “to make assurance double sure” as Macbeth says, he goes back to the Witches for prophecies of the future and to learn how to protect his throne from the fate that had befallen his predecessor, King Duncan.
At his second encounter with the Witches, the Weird Sisters warn Macbeth to beware of Macduff, a Scottish nobleman and leader of the opposition against his (Macbeth’s) increasingly repressive rule. The Witches further advise Macbeth to harshly stamp out all dissenting voices without fear of any consequences because none of woman born shall ever harm Macbeth—his power and that of the state of which he is the head is proof against any and all opposition and conspirators because Macbeth “shall never be vanquished until great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come”—an impossible proposition because no forest can walk up the hill to attack Macbeth’s well defended castle at Dunsinane. Macbeth builds a formidable intelligence service and sends them out to spy against opponents at home and abroad. And so he can boast that:
“There’s not one of them but in his house I have a servant fee’d” (Act I Scene 3)
As in Rwanda, so in repressive and authoritarian Scotland; Macbeth has good reason for the fact that his trust in his well-educated and highly trained state intelligence service is absolute, justified. Yet his wife is driven insane and then to death by the unwashable sight of King Duncan’s blood on her hands. Macbeth finds that in spite of all his powers of command over the state, he cannot command a calm and stoic forbearance in his partner in crime. What drives Lady Macbeth insane and kills her is the fact that she cannot wash away the haunting blood of King Duncun from her hands that she keeps obsessively washing. And it is from the moment of these scenes of dread unknown to Scotland inside his own home and marriage that Macbeth discovers that the power that the instruments of darkness had put in his hands is power, yes, but also, to his horror he discovers that it is a power against which his own humanity is helpless. It is a horror that Macbeth cannot even share with anyone else outside of his inner circle. And to his greatest horror, this same dread turns the power that he had craved so much into but ashes in the soul.
A deeper look at the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga demands of us that all voices speak up and refuse to be silent any longer following this latest disappearance.
And thus, the instruments of darkness begin their work of betraying Macbeth “in deepest consequence”. In the end, after all his trust in their dark powers, the Instruments of darkness that he had embraced forsake him when indeed great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill comes. The forces which will liberate Scotland from Macbeth’s dictatorship have arrived led by Macduff—he that was “none of woman born” because he was ripped prematurely from his dead mother’s womb. Having assassinated Scotland’s leader, King Duncun, Macbeth finds that the only way to assure his security is through more bloodshed. This in spite of the warning that the Weird Sisters had given him: security is mortal’s chiefest enemy. In his quest for will-o’-the wisp security, Macbeth embarks on an endless campaign of repression and assassination world without end.
Poignantly, Macbeth will have to watch helplessly as the horrors of his Faustian bargain destroy the mind of his steely iron lady, Lady Macbeth. The only security for him now is to remain in power forever, but mortals are mortal—or, as Lennox sardonically puts it, men must not walk too late—or else when they die violently, the fearful son fled into exile might find himself ever so rightly, ever so easily, accused of being the murderer of his luckless father.
The original sin
Right from the assassination of Seth Sendashonga in exile in Kenya in 1998, to this latest outrage—the forced disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga on 23rd May 2021—there is a context that Rwandans silently acknowledge but which the rest of the world may need to understand because the violence that these exiled Rwandans are subjected to reflects the situation, the larger context of violence and impunity, that birthed post-genocide Rwanda. And it is that context that the rest of the world needs to understand given the indifferent silence coming out of Rwanda on the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga just as has happened when other Rwandans have met a tragic end either within Rwanda or abroad.
Much like Scotland in the grip of murderous King Macbeth, Rwanda is in the grip of a murderous regime at whose head is a ruler haunted by the assassination of Rwanda’s president Juvenal Habyarimana. Rwanda will only know peace when the true facts of the death of President Habyarimana are publicly investigated and accounted for in Rwanda by all Rwandans. There is a divinity hedges the person of the King, the Bard of Avon once said—the assassination of the president is no small matter to be swept aside because Rwanda must move on past the genocide. In the meantime, as in Scotland after the murder of King Duncan, Rwanda and Rwandans continue to pay the terrible price of that death that has never been acknowledged, never been investigated, never been accounted for.
The assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana is Rwanda’s Original Sin, which unless acknowledged and expiated, there is never going to be any peace for the current powerholders in Rwanda, however many more Rwandans are assassinated in the name of national security. Until the assassination of President Habyarimana is publicly investigated and accounted for in Rwanda, the death of the President is the terrible cross that every Rwandan must bear. Yet the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana was not a horrific aberration, it did not come out of the blue. There is a precedent, and that precedent is the haunting, poignant figure of Fred Rwigyema, the leader of the Rwanda Patriotic Front until his assassination in Uganda just before the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPC) began its last major incursion into Rwanda that would set the stage for the terrible last phase of the civil war and the genocide that followed as inevitably as night follows day.
Fred Gisa Rwigyema. Magnanimous Rwigyema—for his superlative battlefield tactics and treatment of outpaced and outmanoeuvred opponents in northern Uganda, he was gratefully nicknamed the god of war by those he had defeated on the battlefield. In Africa’s vicious counterinsurgency operations, it is very rare for such accolades to be bestowed upon the victorious government’s battlefield general by those he has just defeated. It is indeed a rare accolade by rebels to a government soldier anywhere in Africa. General Fred Rwigyema was that rare African General who earned battlefield honours from his defeated opponents. And there is more: for General Fred Rwigyema was a soldier’s soldier—even apart from the fact that he was that rare soldier whom his defeated enemy was always happy to surrender arms to.
Macbeth finds that in spite of all his powers of command over the state, he cannot command a calm and stoic forbearance in his partner in crime.
Fred Rwigyema’s vision of the RPF was of the RPF as a movement for all Rwandans. All. General Fred Rwigyema’s vision of Rwanda was of a country where all Rwandans would find a place as Tutsi, Hutu and Ba’Twa—and still find the space to live together as Rwandans. Rwanda first and always. That was the vision of General Fred Rwigyema—and it was the reason why Hutus joined the RPF without any doubts as to the motives of the rebel army. The General’s vision was the reason why the Ba’Twa, who are always so afraid of the latest turn of national events in Rwanda —formed the formidable, silent and unseen backbone of his intelligence service. After witnessing and hearing of his storied counterinsurgency campaigns in northern Uganda, the Ba’Twa had embraced the General with open arms, for General Fred Rwigyema’s RPF were all Rwandans fighting for a better day for their country. Their return to Rwanda from exile was anticipated with joy and love for Rwanda. And in Rwanda, the return of General Fred Rwigyema was as eagerly anticipated by the Rwandans in the north who had heard of the General’s reputation for magnanimity, especially in the north of Uganda where he had led a fabled counterinsurgency war against the remnants of the Obote regime.
Counterinsurgency warfare is scorched earth war, war to the knife, war to the death. And yet, General Fred Rwigyema executed counterinsurgency operations in northern Uganda that left the locals full of admiration for this soldier-statesman. On the 1st of October 1990, the RPF invaded Rwanda from Uganda. And on the 2nd of October, General Fred Rwigyema was dead. Shot dead accidentally, according to later RPF reports. If the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana triggered the Rwanda genocide, the death of General Fred Rwigyema on the second day of the invasion of Rwanda by his motivated RPF was a tragedy whose cost Rwandans would not discover for decades. Like Banquo’s Ghost upending national events in Macbeth’s Scotland, General Fred Rwigyema’s enigmatic smile haunts Rwandans wherever they go. The haunting vision of a Rwanda that acknowledges Hutu as Hutu, Tutsi as Tutsi, Ba’Twa as proudly Ba’Twa—and still forges these three into the supple bladed steel of a proud and stable Rwanda. O General Fred Rwigyema. What a vision. And what a tragedy. For that vision of a Rwanda of the three proud nations (Hutu, Tutsi, Twa) died on the second day of the invasion that General Fred Rwigyema intended would rid Rwanda of ethnic supremacy once and for all time.
In General Fred Rwigyema one sees the Rwanda that could have been. And in his death, one sees the prologue to all the horrors that would afflict Rwanda and her neighbours in the decades to come. The death of General Fred Rwigyema was a loss with which the African Great Lakes Region is only now beginning to reckon. The cost of the General’s death has been too high for this region. Yet in this poignant loss there is a hard lesson for the Great Lakes Region: our perennial instability and its terrible toll in blood and treasure always springs from that same place where the adulation of General Rwigyema springs from: we in the Great Lakes Region are always greatly enamoured of charismatic leaders, not institutions. When such a great leader passes from the scene prematurely or in the fullness of a life well lived, we are always left bereft. The lesson, as ever, is a poignant one: in our failure to cultivate viable, lasting national institutions, we have left ourselves and our countries open to the vagaries of capricious fate. Get a charismatic leader of vision and magnanimity like President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and the nation reaps big in terms of stability. Get a charismatic leader of capricious intent like Iddi Amin and suffer the cost in lives lost and spend decades trying in vain to repair the irreparable damage. And even when the visionary leader comes, his departure is always a catastrophe to the nation because his successors feel called upon to knock down his legacy—just for the sheer pleasure of boy-like cruelty, malice and revenge.
In General Fred Rwigyema one begins to understand the driven vindictiveness, the unquenchable rage that drives the state to expend scarce resources in pursuit of exiles in faraway countries like South Africa, Canada, and Mozambique. Behind every question that Rwandans ask about the horrors that the state is inflicting upon all Rwanda, there is the patient, enigmatic smile of General Fred Rwigyema. Behind the driven insatiable pursuit of the wealth of neighbouring countries, there stands the Ghost of General Fred Rwigyema: quizzical, gentle, aloof, questioning, mocking, never to be appeased by the baubles looted from neighbouring countries in the grip of their own national traumas. And the unaccounted for deaths continue to haunt Rwanda: King Mutara III Rudahigwa, President Grégoire Kayibanda, General Fred Rwigyema, President Juvenal Habyarimana, Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Umwamikazi Rosalie—the gathering of the angry and the impatient and the forgiving and the patient ghosts grows ever bigger, the list of their names ever longer.
It is hard to live up to the high standards of the illustrious dead. And so we lash out at those who would, even unintentionally, remind us of their unreachable visions, their rigorously high standards. Self-questioning, consensus seeking, patience, an instinctive empathy for the humanity of the other side: inhumanly high standards. Hence the impatience with that past. Hence the taboo on any talk of involving the old royals in any attempts at reconciliation. And, please, whatever you do, do not mention the monarchy. And please, whatever you do, do not mention the foundational covenant which, for the sacred stability of the land, the illustrious Gihanga, founder-hero, made with Rwanda. And please, whatever you do, do not talk of reconciliation. Reconciling with whom? Reconciling for what? And, hence the taboo on the mentioning of that name, Fred Rwigyema, in the hearing of the leader.
Rwanda will only know peace when the true facts of the death of President Habyarimana are publicly investigated and accounted for in Rwanda by all Rwandans.
Yet that self-mocking smile accompanies us everywhere we go. We see the ineradicable face in every face in the crowd. So we lash out at any idealist young man, woman who reminds us of that enigmatic presence who sits ever so patiently at the head of the dinner table every evening. Is it the Ghost of Banquo? Or is it the Ghost of that troublesome Fred Rwigyema and his nostalgias for a bygone time? We lash out at any questioner whose patriotism is instantly questioned—because they were not there when we were fighting for all this. What do they know? And so we lash out, single them out. Crush them. One by one—or all at once. For we live a charmed life—and we have this divine cachet to turn these naïfs into meat for the crocodiles. So we make them our training partners even if they are unwilling and they pay in blood—pay like Sewell, that naïf who faced General Macbeth in the naive innocence of callow youth and paid with his life; let every callow opponent come forth one and all. Just so that we can give the intelligence apparatus some live fire practice. And there is a kind of glee, a kind of insane greed for violence in the heart of the state when yet one more opponent is discovered and state resources are mobilized against him. Then, at the presidential intelligence headquarters, one notices an increased tempo in affairs, a quickening of pace, a tighter, happier smile, a sense of the blood beating faster in the heart, the pulse ticking steadily at the temple. Like an eager Macbeth putting on his armour gleefully, greedily even, before the time of battle arrives, these Rwandans now in the grip of a fate they no longer control, are driven to put on a greater show of national purpose. Even when the enemy threat is no longer a more restrained Congo or a wiser Uganda but a lonely exiled Cassien Ntamuhanga, heartsick for the fabled hills of his beloved Rwanda.
That famed Rwigyema sense of proportion, that calm sense of perspective, that lucky coup d’oeil that Fred was so famed for in the midst of a developing crisis—that is all gone now. It is all about hunting down lone Rwandans in foreign lands and caning domestic servants. So we lash out. And the language gets more intemperate, more brazen too; even as a distraught family mourns the murder of Patrick Karegeya, the head of state can warn the other exiles that, for them too, it is but a matter of time. And there is no need for any pretence anymore at consultation, at listening to the other side’s view: the other ones whom General Fred Rwigyema would always listen to so patiently. So what of them? Who needs them? Rwanda does not need them. We are all Rwandans here. General Fred Rwigyema’s vision of a Rwanda of Hutu, Tutsi, Twa? No need. We are all Rwandans here so do not ask me whether I am Tutsi or what have you. And so we lash out. And the remembrance days get longer, the memorials more lavish, more obscene, more outrageous each year. Kwibuka: lest we forget—and naïfs like young Sewell standing gangly and callow before Macbeth with a sword in his right hand—these naïfs did not even know what there was that so needed to be forgotten in the first place. They did not even know that we lead a charmed life. So their questioning, their ridiculous demands for an accounting are all a naive tilting at windmills. And so young Sewell falls to the General’s sword without even seeing where the blow that cut off his life came from. They cannot see me coming: I am as the leopard, the eagle, the silent running predator. I will come at them out of left field.
In this journey of anguished self-examination at the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga, one knows that wherever Cassien Ntamuhanga is, as the strong Christian that he is, were he able to reach out, he would ask that the Church in Rwanda pray for him. So once again, the Church finds itself called upon to intervene for the sake of Rwanda on the side of the beleaguered individual whose life forever stands forfeit because the state is yet to address the value of the life of the Rwandan. Only the Church can help Rwandans to retrace the path towards the sacredness of life. As the Church in Rwanda stood with Rwandans when Rwanda descended into the abyss, some clergy, unfortunately, walked with them that pushed Rwanda unto the abyss of the damned. The sacredness of the life of every Rwandan—leader or ordinary faithful— is a call in which all of us still look to the Church. Only the Church has the stature to stand with the ordinary Rwandan against the might of the unaccountable Rwandan state. Only the Church will help Rwandans to rediscover the sacredness, the cherished value of human life in Rwanda. For without that reverent realisation of the sacredness and the worth of each Rwandan’s life, all life is forfeit in Rwanda, and if the sacredness of life in Rwanda is forfeit, then Rwanda itself is forfeit.
In General Fred Rwigyema one begins to understand the driven vindictiveness, the unquenchable rage that drives the state to expend scarce resources in pursuit of exiles in faraway countries.
Mwami Mutara III Rudahigwa’s unexplained death in Bujumbura would set the stage for the deaths to come in Rwanda. The death of the king while on a visit to Burundi planted the seeds of the rancour that corrodes Rwanda’s national psyche to this day. Allegations of his poisoning by Belgian authorities have persisted to this day. The unexplained death of the king robs Rwanda of stability because whenever followers of another assassinated leader demand an investigation, their demands are blithely ignored because of the precedent set by Rwanda’s failure to judicially investigate the death of Mwami Rudahigwa and thus give his followers closure. His followers’ calls for an investigation have always been ignored by the successive rulers who have come to power in Rwanda since the revolution of 1959. Yet any Rwandan leader who ignores the calls to investigate the king’s unexplained death is giving hostages to fortune. “There’s such divinity doth hedge the person of a King” (Act IV Scene 5, Hamlet by William Shakespeare). No Rwandan leader has ever acknowledged the need to investigate the death of King Mutara III Rudahigwa – and the followers of the current leaders have been equally silent about the King’s unexplained death abroad. As for King Mutara III Rudahigwa’s followers, the death of the King on the 25th of July 1959 is an occasion for such deep mourning that you would think the king has just died this past July.
So what happens when your leader, in his turn, dies an unexplained or an unnatural death—which tends to be the special end Rwanda inflicts on its leaders? Whenever his followers gather to commemorate the life of King Rudahigwa, the current occupant of state house Kigali should look back to the fate that overtook his predecessors who blithely ignored the pained call for closure by King Rudahigwa’s followers. It is a call that has been ignored every year by each subsequent ruler of Rwanda. The meaning of this act is deafeningly loud, for when a ruler deems the life of his predecessor to be without worth, he speaks urgently, insistently, imperiously, to the future. And such a leader will not value the life of any of the citizens from whom he expects due regard as the leader. The stability of Rwanda is anchored in the sacredness of each individual’s life. When the ruler forfeits the life of but one of his subjects, his is forfeit. It is the unresolved end to the life of King Rudahigwa that has made the life of each subsequent Rwandan leader such a fraught life. And the fragility of the life of the leader is at the foundational roots of the instability that has rotted the core of the Rwandan state.
Like Banquo’s Ghost upending national events in Macbeth’s Scotland, General Fred Rwigyema’s enigmatic smile haunts Rwandans wherever they go.
All Rwandans have mocked and excoriated the ceremonial that surrounded the life of the King. But as Rwanda continues to pay this very high price in instability, the unappeased presence of His Majesty King Mutara III Rudahigwa waits out there in Nyanza. The unspeakable crimes perpetrated by the monarchy against Rwandans in the past have precluded any mention of the monarchy in the national non-discourse in Rwanda. Rwandans, like the son who rejects the name his father gave him, have the right to try to reject their monarchical heritage; yet they will fail in this—as they have failed in the past. And the cost of failure is this periodic decent into the abyss because the unrestrained Rwandan state does not recognize any right to life, liberty or life’s pursuits. Any call for accountability, for restraint when it comes to the king, is immediately dismissed out of hand as an unrealistic attempt at returning the monarchy to power. As genocide denial, even. Yet the continued dismissal of the King’s followers’ call for justice is but a measure of how fragile the new normal in Rwanda is. The call for an accounting for the fate of the king is a call for justice; the decision on the fate of the monarchy in Rwanda was the prerogative of Rwandans—and they did exercise it. In embracing the state with its arrogant lack of restraint when it comes to the fate of the king, Rwandans continually signal to the state that it can continue on its unrestrained, unaccountable path—even though that road is guaranteed to lead all Rwanda into the abyss.
The life of the individual is only as sacred as the life of the leader is; the life of the leader is only as sacred as the life of the individual is. Cassien Ntamuhanga’s life is as sacred as is the life of Rwanda’s leader; and the converse is also absolutely true. The fate of Grégoire Kayibanda, Rwanda’s first President, speaks to the urgent need to reckon with the fate of the king. When President Grégoire Kayibanda was overthrown, he was placed under house arrest and starved to death. There has been no attempt to atone for this terrible tragedy for Rwanda. President Kayibanda was Rwanda’s president and the worth of a Rwandan hinges on the worth that Rwanda places on the life of President Kayibanda. Atonement is overdue here and Rwanda stares deep into the abyss as each day it ignores the harrowing fate that his successors visited upon President Kayibanda. For the leader of the nation to starve to death is for the nation to starve to death. Rwanda needs to raise its voice for and speak the name of President Grégoire Kayibanda for the sake of the nation’s continued good health and stability. Rwandans must act with restraint towards their leaders if they expect Rwanda to act with wise restraint and forbearance towards each Rwandan. It must be a living nightmare to be the leader of a country where you live with the horrific knowledge that the citizens who call you excellency starved your predecessor to death. It is the kind of history that does not bode well for an enlightened and forbearing leadership.
Perhaps the unpredictable quicksilver character of Rwandan leadership (which is glossed over as Rwandan leader-order) is learnt from the nightmare mirror that is the fate of President Kayibanda. And yet Rwanda continues to ignore the roaring voice of this quintessence of the Rwandan psyche. President Kayibanda’s cold unconcern at the rampaging mobs who executed the seed-genocide of his reign was but a harbinger of things to come for Rwanda. In the shrieking ghost of President Kayibanda one hears the shrieking cries of the dying and the howling roars of the marauding mobs. His reign was but a rehearsal for the Rwanda that would be. He stands present there in the Rwandan national psyche together with the roaring mobs of his reign dancing to bloodcurdling songs while the dying shriek the name of Grégoire Kayibanda in all their despair.
Rwanda’s failed rendezvous with President Grégoire Kayibanda and his traumatic reign is Rwanda’s failed rendezvous with fate. It is a failure of national nerve that means that each generation of Rwandans cruelly kicks this overdue reckoning down the road to the next generation—their own children. It is a cruel father who points the vengeful ghosts of his own forefathers in the direction of his toddler son. Mama ni mama, angali mvi, your mother is your mother even if she is whitehaired. Mercurial President Grégoire Kayibanda belongs in the Rwandan national arena as surely as the thousand hills belong to Rwanda. Of course, it does not follow that just because he stands present in the national psyche Rwanda will do right by President Grégoire Kayibanda. Yet the price Rwanda has already paid for its amnesia over Rwanda’s first president is a price very few nations are willing to pay. Yet Rwandans seem ever ready for their periodic plunge into the abyss. Is it stoicism? Or is it a national death wish? A stoicism that makes you hand over the fate of your daughters into the hands of your worst enemies? A death wish that plays Rwandan roulette with the lives of other peoples’ sons? There is a mercurial side to the Rwandan psyche that mirrors the quicksilver Rwandaness of President Grégoire Kayibanda.
Even as a distraught family mourns the murder of Patrick Karegeya, the head of state can warn the other exiles that, for them too, it is but a matter of time.
The assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana through the mid-air shooting of his plane over Kigali on the 6th of April 1994 as he returned from the Arusha peace talks together with Burundian head of state Cyprien Ntaryamira is as harrowing as anything that the unaccountable Rwandan state is capable of inflicting upon Rwandans. After decades riding the roller coaster that is Rwandan leadership, Rwanda sent this favourite son for African Union-mediated peace talks in Arusha, Tanzania beginning in 1992. At first, these talks looked like the usual game of Rwandan roulette. That appeared to be the forgone conclusion regarding the Arusha peace talks—until Kinani took to them in earnest. And, suddenly, a vision of the future of Rwanda peeps through the communiqués from Arusha that takes your breath away. Suddenly, in Arusha, this African strongman looks his rebel opponents in the eye and calls them Rwandans. Yes, Rwandans. Men whose fathers and mothers and siblings he had locked out of Rwanda forever when he had famously declared that Rwanda is full and cannot accommodate any other person in the name of returnees. And suddenly, out there in Arusha, the armed opposition looks at President Juvenal Habyarimana and in him they see their leader, the President of Rwanda. And suddenly, not so suddenly, out there in Arusha, a vision, a vista of a Rwanda of all Rwandans opens out before the astonished gaze of all Rwandans and the watchful international community. In the annals of peace talks and peace-making, the Arusha peace talks rank right up there with the treaties that established the post-war European system after the Second World War. Alas, Rwanda. Alas, President Juvenal Habyarimana.
Alas, Africa. These moments in Arusha are as supernal as the vision that the future shows Macbeth, and that he spectacularly misapprehends. If ever there was a moment when all Rwandans looked into the future of Rwanda—and there saw a Rwanda at peace with itself—it was at these peace talks in Arusha. And like a Macbeth convinced of his special place in Scotland’s fate, the protagonists in Arusha each misapprehend and misinterpret the vision of the future that, for a moment, Rwanda had shown them. The extremists on both sides rush to claim centre stage—and two shrieking surface-to-air missiles curve the bloody signature to the Arusha peace talks over Kigali’s beautiful night skies that tragic April evening. The vision in Arusha vanishes and like a Macbeth vowed to put all opponents to the sword—babes in their mothers’ arms and all—from Arusha a terrible note is sounded for the first time when there in Arusha a vow is made to return to Rwanda and execute “the Apocalypse”.
President Juvenal Habyarimana returned with the signed peace document aboard the presidential Dassault Falcon. But that evening the presidential plane would never land at Kigali International Airport. Those two shrieking surface-to-air missiles raced for the presidential plane—two fiery javelins streaking over Kigali’s darkening evening skies. And the presidential plane exploded into a ball of flame and crashed into the grounds of state house Kigali, Rwanda. On board were the presidents of two countries—Rwanda and Burundi. The Apocalypse had claimed its first victims. And as the genocide gathered pace and the RPF forces fanned out of the north and roared for the east and the south in a race against time to save the lives of doomed Rwandans, the shattered former government forces raced westwards towards Zaire and with them they carried the remains of slain President Juvenal Habyarimana. Eventually they would give the president’s remains a haunting hasty ceremonial Hindu burial at Ndjili Airport in Congo ex-Zaire.
The anguish that the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana has occasioned Rwanda and the whole of the Great Lakes Region is incalculable. As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, Rwanda will not know peace as long as President Juvenal Habyarimana’s mortal remains are not returned to Rwanda and accorded the burial honours the president deserves. Any attempt at a lasting peace in Rwanda is doomed to fail as long as the president’s name remains but a silent, unspeakable, unspoken, tabooed name even as Rwanda’s national discourse gathers pace abroad. Of course, within Rwanda you cannot at present talk of any credible national discourse. Much like Macbeth’s Scotland where any mention of slain King Duncun was taboo, within Rwanda any mention of President Juvenal Habyarimana is fraught with danger. Yet Kinani stands there waiting for that national discourse to reach and start being heard within Rwanda—waiting, waiting, a dark, enigmatic, brooding presence. In the imposed amnesia over President Juvenal Habyarimana’s fate, Rwanda dances on the edge of the abyss. Rwanda is a country on the razor’s edge, and only in an honest reckoning with the fate it has meted out against its leaders is there a glimmer of a possible pathway to the future. For Rwandans deeply crave peace. And yet, the man who brought Rwanda peace languishes unmourned in the outer darkness out there in exile and at the shadowy edge of the Rwandan national psyche. For Rwanda, the road to peace must pass through President Juvenal Habyarimana’s mausoleum right there in Kigali, Rwanda—whenever it is in future that Rwandans will decide to build that mausoleum to Kinani, Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana. When that day of reverence for the lives of the leaders of Rwanda comes, then citizens like Cassien Ntamuhanga will walk freely in Rwanda knowing that their lives, too, are sacrosanct under law.
Only the Church has the stature to stand with the ordinary Rwandan against the might of the unaccountable Rwandan state.
No Rwandan leader has ever paid a higher price while in power as Agathe Uwilingiyimana paid while in office as Rwanda’s premier. A patriot who embraced the vision of a Rwanda in which all Rwandans would have an equal space as of right, Premier Agathe paid a price that no leader should ever be asked to pay for the sake of his or her country. Yet, illustrious stateswoman that she was, Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana stoically rose above her personal tragedy to serve Rwanda faithfully to the very end. When you look at Premier Uwilingiyimana, it is Simonides’ epitaph for King Leonidas and the valiant three hundred which immediately comes to mind: “O, Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here obedient to their commands we lie.” Stoic courage against impossible odds: Agathe Uwilingiyimana. Courage over and above the call of duty: Agathe Uwilingiyimana. Fidelity to one’s oath even when the price already paid and yet to be paid is an impossible one: Illustrious Agathe Uwilingiyimana. To stand at one’s station to the last hour and even if there was yet a glimmer of escape, refusing to take it so as to stand with those who had no one to offer them any escape: stalwart Agathe Uwiligiyimana. Like the fierce lioness standing between her cubs and death, to stand between your loved ones and catastrophe knowing full well that it means that your life is forfeit: Stateswoman Agathe Uwilingiyimana. Teacher of a nation. Mwalimu we are ever so sorry. And even after Rwanda visited a traumatic horror upon her, she still served Rwanda as its leader. And even when, on the second day of the Apocalypse, the genocidaires came for her, she came forth to face them. Alone. Unarmed. Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Rwanda’s leader. Words cannot speak fully to the true measure of Agathe Uwilingiyimana’s leadership in Rwanda.
And yet, even after the horrors it inflicted on this stalwart leader, Rwanda and the United Nations still dare to call Rwanda’s national catastrophe the Genocide Against the Tutsis. As for the United Nations, that august body has a long tradition of abandoning Rwanda at the country’s hour of need. The latest being the tepid response it has made over the forced disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga. As for Rwandans, their silence even as Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana’s memory suffers this treacherous damnatio memoriae, the message is as plain as day: until the day that Rwanda will choose to atone for the national wrong it has done to the premier, Rwanda will not know true peace. And yet it is unthinkable that Rwanda will ever abandon its obscene and self-serving “Genocide Against the Tutsis” to mourn all Tutsis who died in the Genocide and all Rwandans who died defending Tutsis. It is an impossible thought—yet in its unthinkableness is the harbinger of Rwanda’s future. Rwanda must punish all those who committed atrocities against Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana to the full extent of the law. Only then can Rwanda expect to deserve the full measure of its claim to sovereign statehood. The Rwandan will only get the full measure of his or her rights when Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana is accorded these same rights posthumously. “O, Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here obedient to their commands we lie.”
When President Grégoire Kayibanda was overthrown, he was placed under house arrest and starved to death.
The full measure of the national treasure that Rwanda expends in pursuit of perceived enemies like Cassien Ntamuhanga beyond the borders of Rwanda is the same full measure that Rwanda must expend to accord Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana justice if Rwanda expects to know peace. No individual Rwandan can claim safety so long as Rwanda refuses to atone for its atrocities against Premier Agathe Uwiligiyimana. Rwanda will not find atonement until Premier Agathe Uwiligiyimana is accorded the full measure of justice and redress by Rwanda. The harrowing fate that has overtaken Cassien Ntamuhanga is the fate that Rwanda reserves for each Rwandan so long as there is only silence when it comes to Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana. “O, Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here obedient to their commands we lie.” The lesson is that Rwanda must treat its leaders with wise restraint and utmost dignity and honour. To be the leader of a nation is a thing of great honour and reverence. Once appointed to office, a leader is a person that all Rwanda must honour and revere unconditionally.
The caveats Rwanda puts on the honour and regard due its leaders is the unwitting curse that each generation of Rwandans just picks up unthinkingly on the journey towards the latest iteration of the national catastrophe. The fate that befell Rwanda for its cavalier show of disrespect towards Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana is the reason why the aged, like the leader, were sacrosanct beings in Rwandan culture. The hand that Rwanda lifted to strike at the Premier is the curse that led Rwanda unto the abyss. Them that the gods would damn they first make proud. Even as Rwanda walked into the Apocalypse, the anticipation and the eagerness of Rwandans was the one noteworthy fact that observers noted of Rwanda’s national mood at that time. And the fact that even now there is no move in Rwanda towards redress for the wrongs a reckless nation inflicted on this gracious leader, that fact alone, is enough of a riposte unto them that claim the mantle of Rwanda’s infallible leaders. “O, Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here obedient to their commands we lie.” It is Rwandans who will convince their leaders that the life of a leader is a sacrosanct treasure, that the life of an ordinary Rwandan like Cassien Ntamuhanga is a sacrosanct treasure.
The genocide raced right across Rwanda in all its fury that April of 1994 and, finally, the mass slaughter reached Butare, Southern Rwanda, where Umwamikazi (Queen) Rosalie Gicanda had been banished to internal exile ever since Rwanda chased her out of the royal palace in Nyanza after the Rwanda Revolution of 1959. Rosalie Gicanda became Rwanda’s Queen in 1942. In 1959, King Mutara III Rudahigwa died in questionable circumstances in Bujumbura, Burundi, and in the same year, the Rwanda Revolution abolished the Rwanda monarchy. Speaking in Cape Town, South Africa, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan used the phrase “wind of change” to describe the epochal political changes that were sweeping through Africa in the 1960s. In Rwanda, the Revolution is called Muyaga, the wind of destruction, because it destroyed the structure of Rwandan society that was anchored in the balance of power between the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa, with the monarchy as the arbiter between the different sectors of Rwandan society.
With the monarchy—the shield that stood between Rwanda and the abyss—removed, Rwanda now begun its bloody race to the bottom that would culminate in the Rwanda genocide of 1994. When in 1962 Rwanda stripped Umwamikazi Rosalie of her titles and hounded her out of the royal palace, the Queen stoically settled to a quiet life in Butare in the hope of protecting her subjects from retaliation by the murderous mobs that periodically targeted her for vilification and persecution. Throughout the decades of internal exile and banishment in Butare, Queen Rosalie Gicanda kept her head down and avoided any public pronouncements that would lead to further pogroms against the remnant of her subjects who still lived in Rwanda after the revolution.
Rwanda’s failed rendezvous with President Grégoire Kayibanda and his traumatic reign is Rwanda’s failed rendezvous with fate.
Banished from the royal palace, stripped of all her titles after the abolition of the monarchy in 1962—for Rwanda that was not enough. A campaign of sustained vilification selected Queen Rosalie to be Rwanda’s bête noire in the years after Muyaga. On the 20th of April 1994, a detachment of the Rwanda intelligence service arrested the Queen and her small retinue and murdered them near the Rwanda National Museum. One little girl survived to speak of the murder of revered Queen Rosalie Gicanda. The assassination of Umwamikazi Rosalie Gicanda in the Rwanda genocide is a curse that Rwanda will struggle for decades to expiate. Full atonement for the death of the Queen is the only way for Rwanda to protect the lives of all Rwandans from the vagaries of a lawless and unaccountable state. As long as Rwanda does not recognize the sacredness of the life and person of Umwamikazi Rosalie, Rwanda cannot begin to even accept that atonement for this horrific crime is overdue. And yet, Rwanda will never accept that, in assassinating Umwamikazi Rosalie Rwanda, Rwanda damned itself. And in that refusal to recognize the fateful crime against revered Umwamikazi Rosalie, Rwanda walks with an albatross round its own neck. Indeed, there are sections of Rwandan society where these words of abiding sorrow at the fate of the Queen instantly meet with violent rejection. Until all Rwanda embraces the true symbolic meaning of the role of Umwamikazi Rosalie in the life and future of Rwanda, Rwanda will continue to stare at the abyss. The sheer rage that Rwanda still fans against the Queen, that is the seductive siren song of the abyss to which Rwanda is still listening with eager attention. Rwanda is still courting the abyss, Rwanda is still stoking the flames of a new genocide because Rwanda has adamantly refused to atone for the ills committed against this great African stateswoman, Umwamikazi Rosalie.
Gentle, gracious and stoic in her decades of sorrow in the wilderness, Umwamikazi Rosalie never accepted the continual offers to go into exile. The calls for the queen to flee Rwanda grew insistent once those two surface-to-air missiles had brought down President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane. Even as the genocide approached Butare, the queen refused the many insistent and desperate offers of safe passage for her out of Rwanda. Umwamikazi Rosalie stayed in Butare to the bitter end. Stoically, the Queen stayed with her subjects who were being slaughtered in the Rwanda genocide. And in Butare the genocide came with an especial fury because Butare is not only the spiritual heart of Catholicism in Rwanda. Butare, this beautiful city of soaring plainsong is also the mystical heartland of Rwanda as a nation and of Rwandans as a people. Butare of high learning and philosophical debates, Butare the spiritual home of Rwanda And so, in this chronical of tears and abiding sorrow, Queen Rosalie saw it fitting that, here in Butare of religious visions and soaring plainchant, she would stand to the bitter end.
Much like Macbeth’s Scotland where any mention of slain King Duncun was taboo, within Rwanda any mention of President Juvenal Habyarimana is fraught with danger.
The debt the Rwanda owes Umwamikazi Rosalie is the very survival of Rwanda as a nation now and into the future. In her decades-long persecution and suffering, Umwamikazi Rosalie is Rwanda’s curse. In her stoic acceptance and forgiveness of Rwanda’s atrocities against her, Umwamikazi Rosalie is Rwanda’s possibility of future blessings and prosperity and peace. Yet there are sections of Rwandan society that would pluck up and burn to cinders the black marble of her mausoleum in Rwanda. Rwanda’s rejection of the Queen, Rwanda’s fury against Rosalie Gicanda, that is the measure of Rwanda’s damnation. As we seek for even a whispered word about the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga, Rwanda must acknowledge the roots of its cavalier disregard for the rule of law, due process, rights of the accused and the value of the life of each Rwandan. The roots of Rwanda’s lawless lie in Rwanda’s horrific persecution of Umwamikazi Rosalie. Every Rwandan hopes for safety and the chance for prosperity for themselves and for their loved ones. Every year on the 4th of July, Rwandans celebrate Liberation Day and declare anew their aspirations for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There, in the person of Rosalie of Splendour, there in the person of persecuted, excoriated and exiled Umwamikazi Rosalie, there in the person of Queen Rosalie, is every Rwandan’s claim to the right to safety, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—even if they violently reject the Queen.
What will the United Nations ever tell the Premier?
In the above reprise of Cassien Ntamuhanga’s fate against the backdrop of Shakespeare’s “Scottish” play, there speaks to us an urgent message because ever since the Rwanda genocide, the hounding of Rwandans like Cassien Ntamuhanga by the state is a totalitarian horror that has engulfed not only Rwandans within but also those abroad. Cassien Ntamuhanga’s targeting by the Rwandan state finds strong resonance in King Macbeth’s Scotland. In post-genocide Rwanda, opponents of the RPF powerholders face jail and assassination both inside and outside Rwanda. And like Macbeth boasted, the president of Rwanda has boasted that Rwanda has one of the best intelligence services in the world—resourceful enough to strike at Rwanda’s “enemies” anywhere in the world. And with this we come to the harrowing events that have overtaken the life of Cassien Ntamuhanga, the former Rwandan journalist who was arrested in Inhaca, near Maputo, Mozambique.
It is Rwandans who will convince their leaders that the life of a leader is a sacrosanct treasure, that the life of an ordinary Rwandan like Cassien Ntamuhanga is a sacrosanct treasure.
Cassien Ntamuhanga has not been seen in public since his abduction—and abduction is the right legal term here because ever since his arrest, state officials in Mozambique and in Rwanda have denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. For its part, the government of Mozambique must publicly state the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga, for he had applied for refugee status in that country. And the government of Rwanda must tell the world of the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga given previous patterns of forced disappearance and murder or attempted murder of Rwandans living outside the country. At least one Kinyarwanda-speaking foreigner was present at the moment of Cassien Ntamuhanga’s arrest in Inhaca. The forced disappearance of former journalist Cassien Ntamuhanga must be the urgent concern of all Africans and humanity concerned for peace and reconciliation in Rwanda—and for peace and stability in the countries neighbouring Rwanda. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must tell the world of the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga as he had applied for refugee status in Mozambique at the time of his disappearance. By virtue of his refugee application in Mozambique, Cassien Ntamuhanga had automatically acquired the legal protection of the UNHCR. Even before the determination of his refugee application, the UNHCR owed Cassien Ntamuhanga a moral duty of care. Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, must intervene in Cassien Ntamuhanga’s case and demand that the latter be handed back into the care of the UNHCR because seeking asylum and safe refuge abroad is a basic right of all persecuted persons fleeing their country of birth. As an applicant for refugee status in Mozambique, Cassien Ntamuhanga is legally protected from repatriation to Rwanda and, setting aside the fact that the two countries do not have an extradition treaty, Mozambique cannot legally deport Cassien Ntamuhanga back to Rwanda. If Cassien Ntamuhanga ends up in Rwanda through a forced repatriation, Mozambique—and the UNHCR—would be in serious breach of international treaties governing the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
As for the United Nations, that august body has a long tradition of abandoning Rwanda at the country’s hour of need.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances needs to take up the case of Cassien Ntamuhanga because failing to intervene in this case will see Rwanda sink further into repression to the detriment of all Rwandans’ efforts at reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. Further, the case of Cassien Ntamuhanga is urgent to all because peace in Rwanda is vital for the whole Great Lakes Region. As past wars have proven, when Rwanda descends into anarchy, the whole of East and Central Africa pays an inhuman price in lives lost and livelihoods destroyed. This is a special call to the Commonwealth because had it not been for the global health crisis occasioned by COVID-19, Rwanda would have been handed the chairmanship of the Commonwealth in 2021. The Commonwealth bears a moral responsibility and a duty of care towards events in Rwanda and thus this appeal to the Right Honourable Patricia Scotland, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth to convene an urgent meeting with Rwandan authorities and get answers on the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga. Having invited Rwanda into the august body, the Commonwealth needs to impress upon Rwanda the need for it to abide by the Commonwealth values of adherence to due process rights, accountable government, political pluralism and, above all else, respect for human rights.
This call on the international community to intervene is made without being blind to the fact that the Rwanda government has worked hard to convince the world of the justice and rightness of its position—witness the successful Rwandan efforts to rewrite the narrative on the Rwanda Genocide. For years, the Rwandan government wanted the world to see the genocide as targeting the Tutsi population only. In the end, in 2017, Rwanda finally convinced the United Nations to change the designation of the Rwanda genocide to the Genocide Against the Tutsi. This is a great disservice to those non-Tutsi Rwandans who died because of their opposition to the genocide and to the genocide ideology. The name change is a great disservice to illustrious Agathe Uwilingiyimana, the valiant Rwandan leader who paid a very high price indeed for her patriotism to Rwanda. Even before the genocide, Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana and her family paid horrifically for her love of Rwanda and her courageous decision to stand by the vision of a Rwanda that stands for inclusivity and respect for the rule of law. During the genocide, many Rwandans who opposed the killings were targeted and killed together with the Tutsis whom they sought to protect from harm. What can the international community tell Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana who lost her life in the genocide now that the United Nations has agreed to call it the Genocide Against the Tutsis? Rwanda now quotes the United Nations to justify the erasure of dead Rwandans from the record by calling it the Genocide Against the Tutsis. What can the United Nations tell Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and the Hutus and the Twa who were killed because they opposed the genocide? The Twa lost a very large number of men, women and children to the genocide so what can the United Nations tell them of their loss now that the murders which took place are only the Genocide Against the Tutsis? Or are the lives of Hutus who died protecting Tutsis from the slaughter not worth a bullet as the genocidaires told these valiant Hutus before killing them too? What of the Twa? Does the United Nations General Assembly not consider their lives worth a bullet just as the genocidaires had said? Are the lives of these Hutus and Twa not worth honouring through remembrance? Is the United Nations agreeing now with the genocidaires who prophetically boasted that by the time they would be through with their “work” of mass murder, there would be none left to tell the tragic stories of their victims? Is the United Nations now in agreement with this horrific boast of the genocidaires? It is a terrible irony that the United Nations, which abandoned these Rwandans at their hour of greatest need, has now abandoned them in death too. It is a case of rubbing salt into the wound. It is a horrific travesty of all the values that the United Nations claims to stand for. Thus, it is absolutely no wonder that the UNHCR has failed Cassien Ntamuhanga just as it failed Rwandans at the start of the genocide by evacuating foreign nationals and leaving Rwandans to the tender mercies of the Interahamwe. Cassien Ntamuhanga is in the hands of the Rwandan security services. There can be no doubt about that. The only urgent thing remaining to be done is for the Rwandans to be pressured to produce Cassien Ntamuhanga in open court to answer to lawful charges—if any.
When remembering the dead is an act of high treason
The pattern of events surrounding Cassien Ntamuhanga’s forced disappearance mirrors and is closely intertwined with the story of gospel singer Kizito Mihigo. Before detailing the events surrounding Ntamuhanga’s disappearance, it is important to first recall the events surrounding the tragic end of Kizito Mihigo. In 2014, the Rwanda government arrested Kizito Mihigo and charged him with conspiracy to kill the president, plotting against the state, complicity in terrorist acts and murder. The Rwanda government then banned Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu and all of Kizito Mihigo’s songs. Kizito’s song Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu had urged reconciliation among Rwandans but it had also urged the remembrance of all of Rwandans who had died in 1994—both Tutsi and Hutu. At the end of his trial in 2015, Kizito Mihigo was sentenced to ten years in prison for planning to kill the president of Rwanda and for conspiring against the government of Rwanda.
The assassination of Umwamikazi Rosalie Gicanda in the Rwanda genocide is a curse that Rwanda will struggle for decades to expiate.
After Kizito Mihigo’s conviction and jailing, he was pardoned by President Paul Kagame in 2018 but was rearrested in February 2020. On 17th February 2020, the Rwanda Bureau of Investigations announced that Kizito had hanged himself in his cell in Remera Prison, Kigali, Rwanda. In interviews before his death, Kizito said that the charges against him arose from his songs—especially Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu—that urged Rwandan reconciliation. Kizito Mihigo’s mission of peace and reconciliation urged Rwandans to look towards forgiveness and remembrance of all of Rwanda’s dead. This message of remembrance of all of Rwanda’s dead during the Rwanda genocide—both Hutu and Tutsi—struck a raw nerve within the Rwanda government of President Paul Kagame. The Rwanda government condemned the song Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu, The Meaning of Death, as an act of genocide denial because in his song, Kizito Mihigo had equated the deaths of the Tutsis who died in the genocide to the deaths of Hutus who allegedly died in revenge killings in Rwanda and in the Congo where Hutu soldiers, militia and civilians had all fled to after participating in the mass slaughter of Tutsis, moderate Hutus and Ba’Twa. Singing in remembrance of the Tutsi victims of the Rwanda genocide and at the same time singing in memory and remembrance of the Hutus who died in revenge killings after the genocide was seen as an unforgivable act of moral equivalence—and an act of genocide denial. In Rwanda, the charge of genocide denial carries a heavy penalty.
Now, Cassien Ntamuhanga, Kizito Mihigo’s co-presenter on Radio Amazing Grace and co-accused in the 2014 trial in Rwanda, is missing, last seen in Maputo, Mozambique in the company of Mozambique’s security agents and at least one Rwandan-speaking stranger. As Al Jazeera says in its flagship programme “Inside Story”, “Rwanda is often portrayed as a shining example of what can be achieved in Africa.” One thing that post-genocide Rwanda has shown that it can achieve is the kidnap, forced disappearance and murder of government critics in foreign countries in America, Europe, the Arab world and extensively throughout Africa. Now Cassien Ntamuhanga’s forced disappearance has once again shown that Rwanda is a shining example of what the African state can achieve once it sets its mind to the task. Because Cassien Ntamuhanga had applied for refugee status in Mozambique, it is urgent and vitally important that the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees speaks out and demands to know from the Rwandan and Mozambique government of his whereabouts. The office of the Special Rapporteur on forced disappearance and torture, Houri es Slami must stand with Rwandans and call for the immediate release of Cassien Ntamuhanga as the initial step towards restoring the latter’s human rights. Protecting the rights of Cassien Ntamuhanga and according him protection as a refugee in Mozambique is a difficult but noble task. This is vitally important because in spite of his long tenure, President Paul Kagame will one day surely vacate office. And when that time comes, he will want to leave Rwanda in the hands of a man whose respect for the rule of law and the constitution is unwavering. A basic principle in jurisprudence is that the ruler must make laws that he would be happy to see executed, implemented by his own worst enemy. The whole of Rwanda must strive for this principal to be included in Rwanda’s stymied process of reconciliation and peace with justice.
Rwanda must acknowledge the roots of its cavalier disregard for the rule of law, due process, rights of the accused and the value of the life of each Rwandan.
If the international community is unable or unwilling to call Rwanda to account, then Rwandans from all sectors of the nation must be willing to initiate this process of reconciliation. Every Rwandan has a state—and a stake in the stability of that state. Speaking out against abuse Rwandans will be entrenching the culture of accountability. And it is only through a constant and sustained engagement with the state through the accountability institutions of Rwanda (the courts, the national assembly, the church, etc.) that the rights of all Rwandans and the rights of the individual will be protected in a sustained, sustainable Rwanda that is ready to protect the rights of the individual. Protecting the rights of the individual Rwandan is the only guarantee that the state and Rwanda itself will survive the looming transition from the leadership of the current Rwandan president.
In the meantime, the president lives like a man under siege. And the future stretches ahead of the president as a barren wasteland of empty tomorrows and more tomorrows. The sense of futility and entrapment is the reason why the long gone despised African dictators constantly changed their countries’ constitutions—all in search of the elixir of immortality that would make them life president in fact and not just on paper in those constitutions that in their hearts they despised so heartily even as they rewrote them to anchor their desire for immortality on paper. Like a terrible fever, the desire of the African ruler for immortality has caught up with the current crop of progressive African leaders. As the darlings of the western world, these African leaders can do no wrong—the New York Times once admiringly characterised President Paul Kagame as the world’s favourite dictator. Like the Weird Sisters whom Macbeth encountered on his way to the throne through a sea of blood, western media loves these African rulers and their authoritarian crackdown on the very institutions that brought them to power in Africa.
Like the Scotland led by Macbeth, the African state is a graveyard for the opponents of the regime who are prosecuted and persecuted under the war on terrorism clauses that were written into these African constitutions at speed. Their sense of futility is the reason why the leadership lashes out at exiled opponents and neighbouring states—if only for the giddy excitement and sense of national purpose. In the meantime, Rwandans and neighbouring states suffer the consequences of the leaders’ constant attempts to justify their actions to the ever-smiling Ghost of Fred Rwigyema and the enigmatic dark presence of the president who is waiting ever so patiently for an accounting of Rwanda’s role in his assassination. Thus, in the meantime, Rwanda feels justified in trying a singer and a journalist under the terrorism clauses of the amended Rwandan laws. We lash out.
The Renaissance Africans
For Rwanda, and for Africa, the tragedy is that after the admired “African Renaissance” presidents have violently killed and silenced the legitimate opposition to their rule, there remains no middle ground in Rwanda just as there remains no legitimate dissent in many of the African countries led by these African Renaissance leaders. In Rwanda, as elsewhere in Africa, what now stands between the ruler in state house and immortality is the armed opposition in exile and underground. The current powerholders will easily dismiss this discredited and exiled force as genocidaires and effete intellectuals. Yet Rwanda’s powerholders must remember that they, too, were once discredited and despised exiles. The lesson is taught over and over again every time a Rwandan seeks reform in Rwandan society only to be confronted with the charge of treason and genocide denial. Every time legitimate dissent is delegitimized in this manner, the message gets across to all Rwandans: the illusion of freedom is just that. The message gets across that there is no real freedom in spite of the beautifully written statutes. When moderate reformers like Kizito Mihigo, Cassien Ntamuhanga, Andre Kagwa Rwitsereka, Seth Sendashonga, Patrick Karegeya are killed or exiled or abducted and disappeared or murdered in exile; when the legitimate opposition—Victoire Ingabire Muhoza, Diane Rwigara, Fred Barafinda—is discredited and criminalised, the message gets across that in Rwanda freedom of speech, assembly, the right to choose one’s own leaders, these are not human rights, these are crimes. Eventually the legitimate opposition will be eliminated in Rwanda. Eventually the legitimate voices of dissent will all be criminalised, murdered, silenced.
As past wars have proven, when Rwanda descends into anarchy, the whole of East and Central Africa pays an inhuman price in lives lost and livelihoods destroyed.
Then what? The next lesson is there in the past of the RPF powerholders themselves, in their childhoods as stateless exiles and as despised foreigners: once all legitimate dissent is either killed or driven into exile, it transforms. The years of exclusion drive underground all alternative voices and there they become transformed into an armed rebel force. Discredited as they are, insignificant in number as they are, mocked and laughed at by the Rwandan president as they are, many Rwandans are starting to listen keenly to the message of the exiled opposition like the Rwanda National Congress. And the RNC itself is working hard to reach out to all sections of Rwanda society. Rwandans in exile learnt the message from the RPF powerholders: it is always a work of the long haul, a work of generations. This patience, this willingness to take the long view is the one asset that the Rwandan president does not have. Hence his constant intemperate outbursts against the liberal opposition. It was a shock to the whole world when the president openly boasted that he is ready to hunt down opponents even abroad when, after the assassination of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former head of the external intelligence service in South Africa. The president said, “Whoever betrays the country will pay the price, I assure you,” and on another occasion, “You cannot betray Rwanda and not get punished for it,” and “Any person still alive who may be plotting against Rwanda, whoever they are, will pay the price. . . Whoever it is, it is a matter of time.” It was with a feeling of horror that the world listened to the president telling the world after the death in police custody of Kizito Mihigo that he is not a singer. It was with a feeling of dread and deep anguish that the family of Assinapol Rwigara pleaded with the police to allow them access to him as he struggled within the wreckage of his car in that 4th of February 2015 road accident from which the police took him alive only to announce that he had died of his injuries.
Leaders like Karegeya and Mihigo are the moderate forces in Rwanda. Eliminating them leaves a vacuum that extremists from both sides are only too glad to fill. Looked at against the background of the exile and the return of the current powerholders in Rwanda, the current Rwandan exiles are making baby steps. Eventually they will grow and walk and start to run for the hunger for the return; in this world there is nothing more powerful than this in the mind of the exile. This hunger for the return home is a force that the current powerholders in Rwanda know well. Perhaps they no longer understand the power that sustained them for decades as despised exiles and refugees until the call of home pulled them back into the fray in Rwanda.
The sustainable long-term route for all Rwandans can only be the route of dialogue that is inclusive of all sectors of Rwandan society, whether they are living inside or outside Rwanda. Rwanda cannot survive yet another cataclysm, even though the powerholders in Kigali are ever orchestrating “incidents” in neighbouring countries with the aim of provoking yet another major regional conflagration. The current leadership of Rwanda came to power through a catastrophic regional crisis in the Great Lakes region triggered by an apocalyptic implosion in Rwanda. As a result of this origin, the current leaders in Rwanda are fatally wedded to the idea that in a crisis they thrive, that in a crisis they are the masters of the strategic long game. Hence the eagerness from Kigali for continual crises in the Great Lakes Region. Hence the periodic irruption of lawless groups like the M23 Movement in Eastern Congo. What the leaders in Kigali have not learnt is that the Great Lakes Region has learnt the bitter lesson that the Rwandan strongmen have been teaching it.
What can the United Nations tell Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and the Hutus and the Twa who were killed because they opposed the genocide?
Rwanda will continue to engineer provocations in the region, but as the M23 experience showed, the region is learning how to call the RPF’s bluff. It has been a bitter lesson learnt the hard way – but the region must not forget this lesson. The RPF adventurists must be mustered through a combination of regional containment and the nurturing of a viable alternative culture within Rwanda, a culture of inclusiveness and non-supremacist acceptance of all Rwandans. The hard lesson that Rwanda has taught the Great Lakes region is that East and Central Africa cannot survive another Rwandan Apocalypse. It is urgent that Africans and the international community intervene in Rwanda to support and sustain the legitimate opposition for that is the only sustainable route out for Rwanda. This is why the RPF’s policy of rendition or assassinations of its opponents abroad—which is a policy that the RPF has executed right from the beginning of its accession to power in 1994 (Seth Sendashonga’s assassination in 1998 as the noted tragic case example)—is an unlawful policy that the international community must counter and contain.
Containing Rwanda’s external aggression and adventurism is a cost effective alternative to reacting to another regional cataclysm ignited by Rwanda. External aggression, renditions and assassinations abroad, this part of Rwanda’s foreign policy must be challenged by the international community.
As a refugee fleeing persecution in Rwanda, the United Nations failed to protect Seth Sendashonga in Nairobi in 1998. Looking back one can see that Seth Sendashonga’s assassination in Nairobi was a tragic missed opportunity for all. The RPF’s self-justifying reaction to the death of Seth Sendashonga set the stage for all the subsequent assassinations abroad. There is a terrible poignancy to the fate of Seth Sendashonga after he fell out with the RPF powerholders. Had the international community challenged the assassination of Seth Sendashonga more aggressively, more collectively, the assassinations that followed that of Seth Sendashonga would have been harder to execute for the RPF powerholders. The indifference to Seth Sendashonga’s fate signalled to the RPF that it could get away with murder but the international community will find that one day it will have to make a start somewhere; at some point, the international community will have to draw a red line against the RPF’s policy of assassinations inside Rwanda and abroad. This is why the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga must be a red line for all peoples inside and outside Rwanda. Through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the international community has the structure in place to challenge these forced disappearances and assassinations.
The RPF’s self-justifying reaction to the death of Seth Sendashonga set the stage for all the subsequent assassinations abroad.
Of all the nations that have a moral obligation towards Cassien Ntamuhanga, Belgium—which lost ten soldiers through savage torture while they were protecting Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana—deserves to take centre stage in the pursuit of justice for Cassien Ntamuhanga. Belgium spent decades in the pursuit of justice for its valiant soldiers who met a tragic fate while protecting Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana after Rwanda abandoned her. The deaths of these Belgian soldiers was a tragedy of its own kind; they were the only ones who died while defending Rwandans. Belgium owes these valiant soldiers the honour of continued engagement with Rwanda in order to nurture the culture of respect for the worth of the individual.
Throughout the centuries of persecution in exile, Israel has always found one or two who would with honour stand with the House of Israel. Out of a profound gratitude for the courageous ones who have succoured Israel in Exile, Israel designated a special honour for them by designating them “the Righteous Among the Nations”. One hopes that one day, in the not too distant future, Rwanda too may enrol these courageous Belgian soldiers and recognize them as “The Righteous Among the Nations” who have succoured Rwandans when they have suffered persecution in Rwanda or, like Cassien Ntamuhanga, abroad.
Above all others, however, it is the United Kingdom which has both the moral and the strategic imperatives to intervene to thwart this policy of assassinations both inside and outside Rwanda that is a documented continual breach of international norms by the RPF powerholders. Through targeted sanctions against the leaders who bear direct responsibility for this murderous policy, the Rwandan state must be made to realise the high cost of assassinations and political repression of the legitimate opposition. Only through such targeted sanctions will the Rwanda government realise the very high cost that comes with extra-judicial killings in Rwanda and abroad. The disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga can so easily turn into the death of yet another Rwandan in police custody. Cassien Ntamuhanga deserves better than the indifferent silence with which Rwanda has greeted his disappearance. Rwanda knows the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga. Rwanda must be compelled to produce Cassien Ntamuhanga in public, safe and well—as safe and as well as he was on that 23rd May 2021 when he was arrested in Inhaca by that combined force of officers in Mozambique police uniform, the SERNIC and Kinyarwanda speaking strangers.
And you all know, security is mortals’ chiefest enemy – (Act III Scene V, Macbeth)
There is a deeper lesson here as well on Rwanda’s search for that elusive will-o’-the-wisp called security. Just as Macbeth, in a vain bid to assure his own security in power, killed all opponents and drove the rest into exile, so has president Kagame killed opponents and driven the rest into a terrible exile in order to assure his own hold on power. Yet, as the Weird Sisters warned Macbeth, security is mortal’s chiefest enemy. The driving ambition for security is what drove all African dictators to embrace murder and repression. It is the drive, the spiritual hunger in the soul, which drove Macbeth one more time to make a Faustian bargain with “the instruments of darkness”. Yet when Macbeth is shown the vision that his heart demands that the three Weird Sisters show him, his heart breaks at what he sees: the Weird Sisters show Macbeth a vision of a long line of Kings of Scotland ruling far into the centuries to come—all descended from the bloodline of his hated slain enemy, Banquo.
A basic principle in jurisprudence is that the ruler must make laws that he would be happy to see executed, implemented by his own worst enemy.
The deeper lesson is that in the longer term the violent powerholders in Rwanda have no future in the Rwanda to come. Rwanda will survive its current turmoil just as it survived its descent into the abyss in the Apocalypse, the name that the genocidaires called their genocidal attempt to wipe out the Tutsi race, their Hutu opponents, and the Ba’Twa. In the reckoning with the Rwanda genocide, the world always forgets the near annihilation of the precarious Ba’Twa. And therein is fate’s trump—always. For the fact that the Ba’Twa lost ten thousand of their number from a population of merely thirty thousand in 1994 speaks of the catastrophe staring all Rwanda in the face in future should Rwanda fail to reckon with the genocide which overtook the Ba’Twa.
The future of Rwanda is out of the hands of Rwanda’s current powerholders. Try as they might, rewrite constitutions as they have, jail opponents at home and assassinate critics abroad as they have, the ruling powerholders in Rwanda are helpless against the tide of time which Macbeth saw only as one bloody red tide. Rwanda will not descend into another apocalypse. Rwanda will not descend into yet another genocide—even though that is the card that the current powerholders in Rwanda are holding over a cowed and silent Rwanda. For feared dictator Macbeth, when it was that mysterious time for the great Birnam Wood to move against high Dunsinane, it seemed impossibly against the laws of physics. And yet. And yet the King still felt that he had a trump card up his sleeve that he could play: the prophecy of the Weird Sisters that none of woman born could kill or dethrone Macbeth.
This is the constant refrain that autocratic African Renaissance leaders always repeat to their countrymen, that without them their countries would have sunk into the abyss never to rise again. Against their silent African subjects, these enlightened African despots always brandish their impeccable credentials. It is no accident that in the military academies of the world, current and future elites study Paul Kagame’s military campaigns under the admiring rubric of “the world’s greatest living general”. At West Point, Sandhurst, Saint Cyr and points East, General Kagame’s campaigns are the high point of graduate and postgraduate work in military school. Yet the world’s greatest living General forgot the caution which fate speaks to him above. It is a warning arising from an instinctive people’s touch that General Rwigyema worked like a charm: national strategy is more than winning battles as Von Clausewitz repeatedly insists. Strategy is what you do with the battle, and that means hour two after you have defeated your opponent. General Rwigyema knew how to win over defeated enemies to the cause of nation building.
In Rwanda, as elsewhere in Africa, what now stands between the ruler in state house and immortality is the armed opposition in exile and underground.
The Rwanda now celebrated at Saint Cyr is an armed camp where any spark can set alight the powder keg. There is no way in which Rwanda can be viable before President Juvenal Habyarimana’s death is thoroughly investigated in public in Rwanda and a reckoning made. There is no way that Rwanda will know peace while the remains of President Habyarimana languish abroad. The president is all of a piece with the national catastrophe of Rwanda—but in the name of all that is sacred, President Habyarimana was the President of Rwanda. He was the President. The failure to bring closure for Rwanda on the death of the president has plunged Rwanda into deeper trauma. Hence the quick resort to assassinations. Hence the quick resort to violence—it is the enigmatic dark presence of the president demanding an accounting by all Rwandans. Failing to account for the president’s death only legitimizes the next set of genocidaires intent on seizing power in Rwanda. Even as the Renaissance Men are fated abroad, back home in Rwanda they are buying up whole armouries for the genocidaires waiting in the darkened corners of Rwanda’s psyche.
As they are fêted abroad, back home in Rwanda, back home in Africa, this has created an aura of invincibility around these African Renaissance statesmen. This admiration on the world stage directly translates into oracular infallibility at home. He is the president, he is the one the world is lauding, feting, not some dead name in a long ago battlefield, not some forbidden name whose charred remains came down on a fiery aeroplane. He is the one. He, not some singer because He is not a singer. He, not some obscure journalist who fled abroad. He. Because of their stature on the world stage, these African statesmen have the cachet of Macbeth; none of woman born shall ever harm them. These African Renaissance leaders are protected by the best security in the world, the best health care that money can buy, the best education from the most prestigious universities and academies in the world. These leaders are African Immortals but the people they rule with an iron fist can disappear without trace, without any consequence to the leaders. As Cassien Ntamuhanga has disappeared without any consequences for the rulers in Rwanda and in Mozambique.
Rwanda will continue to engineer provocations in the region, but as the M23 experience showed, the region is learning how to call the RPF’s bluff.
That aura of invincibility that surrounds African Renaissance leaders is even more palpable around these Rwandan powerholders—but with a fateful twist. The current Rwandan leaders are wrapped in the special aura of the Rwanda genocide even as the genocide itself has become contested ground between the Rwandan government and the survivors. Survivors are especially distressed at the way in which the genocide has become a strategic political tool of the government: the insistence by the government that the remains of the genocide dead must remain on continuous display even when survivors want the remains of their loved ones back so that the survivors can accord their dead honoured burial. Insidiously, these survivors have themselves found the charge of genocide denial being levelled against them. As a journalist, Cassien Ntamuhanga found himself grappling with this deeply traumatic dilemma. Those at Radio Amazing Grace where Cassien Ntamuhanga once worked have not hesitated to condemn the Rwandan government on this matter on the charge of “heathen practices”. On this contested ground, even the remains of the dead of the genocide have now been weaponized. A deeply Christian man, Cassien Ntamuhanga grappled with this matter to the day he fled Rwanda. To grapple with this extremely sensitive matter does not take away from the historic role that the RPF played in saving the remnant of the Tutsis and rescuing Hutus from the grip of the genocidal ideology of the Habyarimana MRND government.
Looked at against the background of the exile and the return of the current powerholders in Rwanda, the current Rwandan exiles are making baby steps.
When it comes to this matter, the deep and abiding distress and moral dilemma of the Rwandan survivors of the genocide is palpable. The treatment of the remains of the victims of the genocide is an explosive matter in Rwanda and it has split families down the middle—just like the genocide itself tore families apart. With sensitivity and compassion, Cassien Ntamuhanga had struggled with this matter for years as a survivor and as a journalist on the frontline of reportage in post-genocide Rwanda. It was a poignant turn of events for Cassien Ntamuhanga when his activism on behalf of survivors and memorialising the dead was turned by the state into a charge of destabilizing Rwanda, terrorism, inciting disaffection against the government of Rwanda and for genocide denial. It is ironic that a man who had grappled deeply and sensitively with the issue of the remains of the genocide dead should now find himself facing these charges.
In raising the charge of genocide denial against Cassien Ntamuhanga the state had driven a burning sword right into the heart of the survivors’ activism. And Cassien Ntamuhanga was now facing the spurious charge of genocide denial. In a Rwanda where authority is sacrosanct, there was going to be no questioning of the charge of genocide denier against Cassien Ntamuhanga. In a deeply hierarchical society where respect for authority is deeply ingrained, the fact of the charge of genocide denial against Cassien Ntamuhanga was itself enough to sow the seeds of doubt even among those who had stood side by side with him in the long years of fighting for the memories of the genocide dead. For Kizito Mihigo this matter would lead directly to his death when he composed Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu, his meditation on the meaning of the deaths of Rwandans in the genocide and in its apocalyptic aftermath in Congo ex-Zaire. For Cassien Ntamuhanga it would lead to a 25-year prison sentence until his escape from prison and from Rwanda. Cassien Ntamuhanga’s activism would lead, in absentia, to another 25-year prison sentence in 2021.
Their bodies turned into a fiercely contested battleground, the remains of the victims of the Rwanda Genocide had been weaponised. Speak of honoured burial at your peril: genocide denier. The dead will not know peace while the leadership still has need of them: the world must not be left to forget, never mind the fact that memory cannot be commanded at gunpoint. Such talk is genocide denial, a high crime in this Rwanda. Cassien Ntamuhanga is a victim of this existential fight for the right to craft and tell the official narrative of who is a Rwandan and what colours the national team wears. Contested ground: even all of Kizito Mihigo’s songs were banned and banished from Rwanda’s airwaves. Cassien Ntamuhanga found his way out of Rwanda with state agents hot on his trail. Now he has joined the ranks of “the disappeared” in Rwanda. May Cassien Ntamuhanga’s family reach him soon. And when his family finds him, may Cassien Ntamuhanga be found safe and well.
The Politics and Economics of Knowledge Production: Crucial Aspects of the Struggle Against Western Imperialism
Long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage.
What is knowledge? Is knowledge as objective as mountains, valleys, oceans, lakes and rivers, or is what constitutes knowledge determined by culture? We usually presume that knowledge has to do with understanding the world as it is rather than as we might imagine it to be. Many of us assume that the more academic certificates one has, the more knowledge one possesses. Yet scholars now point out that knowledge can only be properly understood if we consider insights from a variety of disciplines, including history, sociology, psychology, economics, politics and philosophy, among others. In ancient Athens, “politics” was understood as the management of the affairs of the city-state (polis). However, in line with the thought of Niccolò Machiavelli, many now understand politics as the activities of acquiring and retaining coercive power, and it is in this latter sense that I speak here of the politics of knowledge production. “Economics” comes from the Greek words oikos (“household”) and nomos (“law”, “management” or “principle”), literally “the law, management or principle of the household”, but has come to refer to the management of a society’s resources.
Knowledge production directed by politics and economics
As I pointed out in “Concrete Data and Abstract Notions in the Philosophical Study of Indigenous African Thought”, knowledge production is an integral part of social processes, and therefore necessarily laden with social, moral, political, and, most importantly, economic considerations. As the late Nigerian social scientist Claude Ake observed in Social Science as Imperialism, science in any society is apt to be geared to the interests and impregnated with the values of the ruling class that ultimately controls the conditions under which it is produced and consumed by financing research, setting national priorities, controlling the education system and the mass media, and in other ways. Thus, the choices of subject matter and methodology are heavily influenced by priorities identified in specific economic, social and political contexts: this set of dynamic interactions with economics as its foundation is what the late Egyptian economist, Samir Amin, following Karl Marx, referred to as “political economy”.
Besides, the transmission of knowledge reflects a society’s economic structures. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire memorably highlights the distinction between “banking education”, in which the learner is a docile and passive recipient of knowledge from the teacher, and which therefore reflects the capitalist power hierarchy, and “problem-solving education” entailing a dialogical approach in which both “teacher-students” and “student-teachers” teach and learn. Tragically but not surprisingly, six decades after formal independence, most schools and universities in Africa continue to deploy banking education in line with the capitalist power relations characteristic of the societies in which they function.
To illustrate the point that the production and transmission of knowledge are greatly influenced by politics, Leonhard Praeg, in A Report on Ubuntu, presents a hypothetical conversation between a South African philosophy professor of European descent and a young African postgraduate law student who is considering registering for a second master’s degree in philosophy. At one point, she challenges the professor’s presentation of philosophy as an objective and universal enterprise by highlighting the fact that the choice of who to include in any philosophical discourse is itself a political one:
Well, it seems obvious to me . . . that the most fundamental starting point for any philosophical conversation should be questioning the mechanisms that decide who is included and who is excluded from that conversation and whose traditions of thought will or will not be invoked in that conversation. Perhaps the most fundamental questions, the questions that every conversation should start with are political, questions such as: How is the difference between the included and excluded legitimized and what kind of institutional arrangements exist to safeguard and perpetuate certain kinds of knowledge at the exclusion of others?
Colonial devastation of indigenous systems of knowledge
In The Invention of Africa, the Congolese philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe explains that colonialism and colonization basically mean “organization”, “arrangement”. The two words derive from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate or to design.” He goes on to point out that the Western colonisers organized and transformed non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs:
[I]t is possible to use three main keys to account for the modulations and methods representative of colonial organization: the procedures of acquiring, distributing, and exploiting lands in colonies; the policies of domesticating natives; and the manner of managing ancient organizations and implementing new modes of production. Thus, three complementary hypotheses and actions emerge: the domination of physical space, the reformation of natives’ minds, and the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective. These complementary projects constitute what might be called the colonizing structure, which completely embraces the physical, human, and spiritual aspects of the colonizing experience.
Indeed, the Western imperialists only left their colonies in Africa and elsewhere after putting in place numerous structures to ensure their ongoing, albeit covert, control of the economies of the said territories. For example, in the late 1930s France created the CFA Franc Zone, comprising 14 West and Central African countries as well as the Comoros, bound by a monetary cooperation policy ostensibly to ensure the financial stability of its members, all of who used one or other of the two versions of the CFA Franc as their currency. Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”. Similarly, in the 1950s, the Swynnerton Plan in Kenya sought to mitigate the unpopularity of the British colonial regime by creating an African land-owning petty middle class that would be driven by an imperative to protect its property, and thereby view itself as having shared interests with the European settlers after the country’s independence.
Furthermore, the Western imperialists “left” only after ensuring that their former colonies adopted liberal democratic constitutions based on individualist capitalist values rather than on the communalistic outlooks of the peoples of Africa. They also ensured that the colonial territories embraced Western legal systems. For example, on 12th August 1897, the British invaders declared what they called The Reception Date, referring to the decree that the English statutes of general application passed before 12th August 1897 are law in Kenya, unless a Kenyan statute, or a latter English statute made applicable in Kenya, has repealed any such statute. In short, the British invaders declared the legal systems of the peoples of present day Kenya null and void, or, at best, relegated them to the status of “customary law” presumed to be inferior to the British legal system. This situation still holds to date, as evident in the way in which advocates and judges in Kenya frequently refer to English law, but very rarely to the jurisprudence of Kenya’s various peoples. No wonder “customary law” remains a highly marginalised area of study in most universities in Africa decades after independence.
Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”.
Similarly, the colonisers demeaned the diverse intellectual inventions and innovations of the peoples of Africa in areas such as medicine, environmental conservation, culinary arts, and creative works (such as songs, poems, fables and legends) among others. For example, they used the paradoxical and pejorative term “witch-doctor” to refer to indigenous healers, thereby deliberately conflating the restorative roles of healers with the destructive acts of wizards and witches. Indeed, due to that outrageous deliberate colonial conflation, most Kiswahili speakers in Kenya now do not appreciate the distinction between mganga (“healer”) and mchawi (“witch/wizard”), thereby failing to appreciate that even a medical doctor trained in a Western-type medical school is a mganga, and only refers to him or her as daktari from the English word “doctor”. No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19, or that any innovations they might develop to manage the scourge must be validated in Geneva, Washington DC or elsewhere outside the continent or under the direction of institutions based outside the continent.
No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19.
A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom. The colonial establishments therefore systematically downgraded indigenous languages, referring to them as “vernaculars”—a term used to denote languages spoken by “uncivilised” communities and contrasted with “literary” or “cultured” languages. Thus, the typical child in Africa undergoes instruction at school using English, French, Portuguese or German, thereby losing his or her cultural grounding through the lack of proficiency in his or her mother tongue; and it is much worse than that, for he or she begins to disparage indigenous languages. Many of us have heard the claim by our compatriots that the languages of the peoples of Africa are incapable of mediating scholarly discourses. This claim is oblivious to, or deliberately ignores, the fact that the Western languages with which many associate academic discourses have acquired their proficiency in scholarship only because of borrowing heavily from a variety of languages, and nothing, except a colonised mentality, prevents speakers of the indigenous languages of Africa from enriching them in similar fashion.
Unshackling contemporary scholarship in Africa from Western hegemony
In The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe is particularly unhappy that, long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage:
The fact of the matter is that, until now, Western interpreters as well as African analysts have been using categories and conceptual systems which depend on a Western epistemological order. Even in the most explicitly “Afrocentric” descriptions, models of analysis explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, refer to the same order.
This sorry situation, Mudimbe tells us, is partly due to the fact that “[S]ince most African leaders and thinkers have received a Western education, their thought is at the crossroads of Western epistemological filiation and African ethnocentrism.” He also points out that the structures of the colonial establishment remained firmly in place after formal political independence:
In the early 1960s, the African scholar succeeded the anthropologist, the “native” theologian replaced the missionary, and the politician took the place of the colonial commissioner. All of them find reasons for their vocations in the dialectic of the Same and the other.
Mudimbe further observes that colonialism creates an imaginary African past in a bid to fabricate “the other”, perhaps best exemplified by tourist art. He notes that in this subjugating environment, any solid evidence of science or philosophy in Africa is dismissed by the colonisers, as illustrated by the case of Dogon astronomy which holds that the planets rotate around their axes and revolve around the Sun, but which Western authors such as Carl Sagan explain away as knowledge obtained from a Western visitor to the Dogon. Mudimbe is emphatic that anthropology was specifically designed as a tool of Western imperialist domination with which to paint the peoples of Africa as frozen in a stage of “development” long transcended by Western societies.
A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom.
According to Samir Amin, current academic programmes in the social sciences in African Universities have been prescribed by the World Bank and allied authorities in order to destroy any capacity to develop critical thought. Unable to understand concrete existing systems that govern the contemporary world, the brainwashed cadres are reduced to the status of “executives” implementing programmes decided elsewhere, unable to contribute to changing that world rejected by their own people. Similarly, Claude Ake observes, “The West is able to dominate the Third World not simply because of its military and economic power, but also because it has foisted its idea of development on the Third World through the institutions and activities of knowledge production.”
The humanities (such as literature, music and philosophy) are not doing any better, as the Western canons continue to enjoy an exalted status in the various disciplines under this category: many philosophers from Africa still take great pride in their knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, and so on, while thinking very little of philosophical works by scholars from their own continent, and much less of the intellectual creations of their compatriots with no Western-type formal education. In like manner, many literary critics from Africa enjoy a sense of great accomplishment from their mastery of European literary classics while tacitly believing that nothing of similar grandeur is to be found among their own peoples. Besides, many scholars in Africa take great pride in having their works published in Western Europe and North America by what they happily refer to as “international journals” and “international publishers”, while considering publications from university presses in places such as Kigali, Dar es Salaam or Harare as of inferior status, thereby continuing to lend credence to the almost hegemonic Western system of knowledge production decades after formal independence.
Yet another important aspect of the hierarchical process of knowledge production has to do with the way in which events are reported. Many think that reports in media such as books, print and electronic news outlets are objective sources of knowledge. However, scholars of critical discourse analysis have repeatedly illustrated that such reports promote the interests of the economically dominant classes. Thus in a capitalist context, the bulk of mass media promotes the interests of the owners of capital. For example, where the police violently stop a workers’ demonstration, the media are likely to report “Four Demonstrators Shot” rather than “Police Shoot Four Demonstrators”, thereby suppressing the fact of who shot them. Similarly, school textbooks covertly and overtly promote capitalist values and advance the view that any challenge to such values is a threat to “stability”.
Long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage.
In Fourth Industrial Revolution: Innovation or New Phase of Imperialism?, I pointed out that humanity is currently confronted by a world dominated by artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and blockchain, resulting in a fusion of technologies that is integrating the physical, digital and biological spheres. Think of how all manner of people can determine where you are if you forget your mobile phone “Location” function on, or listen to your conversations and view your actions if you unwittingly allow an app to access your microphone and camera. Already phone manufacturers are including contact tracing apps in their devices, and many phones now have the option of a fingerprint instead of a series of numbers for passwords. Through the enormous power of artificial intelligence (“AI”), all these data are quickly analysed to produce detailed profiles of phone users—where they go, what they like listening to and watching, what they buy, among others. In short, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (“4IR”), privacy is now an illusion. Yet the bulk of these new technologies are owned by large corporations domiciled in the West and East, reducing the peoples of Africa to mere consumers subject to the whims of the owners of the technologies. All this raises the real possibility of a global dictatorship headed by the owners of these technologies reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, and it boils down to who controls knowledge production.
In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker argues that there is a distinctively epistemic type of injustice, in which someone is wronged specifically in his or her capacity as a knower. This is precisely what Western imperialism has subjected the peoples of Africa to. Similarly, in the preface to his celebrated work, Epistemologies of the south: Justice against Epistemicide, Boaventura de Sousa Santos indicates that he seeks to defend three important postulates:
First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammars and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.
Nevertheless, there are several encouraging initiatives to address the epistemic injustice in Africa. The valiant struggle of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has consistently pointed out that using African languages in creative writing is an act of decolonising the mind, Kwasi Wiredu, who advocates for the same approach in African philosophy, and the six African philosophers who wrote book chapters in their mother tongues for the edited volume Listening to ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy, are all efforts at challenging the hegemonic Western system of knowledge production. Besides, the research and teaching projects in African languages, African oral and written histories, African oral and written literatures, African music, African art, African philosophy, among others are evidence that a sizeable number of academics in Africa have perceived the problem, and are determined to contribute to the turning of the tide.
Yet several intellectuals who have raised their voices against global capitalism and the attendant hegemonic Western system of knowledge production have borne the brunt of state violence: Samir Amin was forced into exile from his native Egypt in 1960 for his Marxist but anti-Stalinist views; Paulo Freire’s success in teaching Brazilian peasants how to read landed him in prison and a subsequent long and painful exile; Walter Rodney’s exposition of the damage inflicted on Africa by European mercantilism that evolved into capitalism in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa resulted in his imprisonment in his native land of Guyana, and his death as a result of a car bomb blast in Georgetown, Guyana, remains a mystery, as does the plane crush that cut short Claude Ake’s life during the autocratic reign of Sani Abacha in Nigeria; Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Sani Abacha regime in Nigeria, and Wole Soyinka escaped Abacha’s murderous hand by a whisker; Ngugi wa Thiong’o spent time as a detainee without trial in a Kenyan maximum security prison for organising a peasants’ theatre group to perform his anti-capitalist plays, and later went into decades of exile, and the list is much longer than this. Nevertheless, the intellectuals of the exploited and oppressed peoples of Africa must continue to innovate in a bid to contribute towards the true liberation of their continent.
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