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Fear and Loathing in Middle America

22 min read.

Ugly notions of war, pointless yelling about dishwashers and light bulbs, Lionel Richie songs, and visions of Nancy Pelosi in a sweltering cage. My bizarre night at a Trump rally.

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Fear and Loathing in Middle America
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Note from a resentful and sequestered journalist:

It’s a real downer to be so perpetually right about this man all the time. Years ago, on a cruel Wednesday in November, the morning after Trump ‘won’, I had a brief conversation via Facebook with a family member.

He stated: “What a disaster.”

To which I replied, “No, the disaster is yet to hit us.”

What a f***ing drag to be correct. The rally took place six months ago, for all I know, the VIRUS could have been banging around the corridors of that ugly squat Milwaukee structure already. At the time, it was one of the darkest eight hour periods of my life, a look into the other side only to find out that it was even worse than my ‘good liberal’ sensibilities could have fathomed.

At the time of writing, I thought, perhaps I’ve gone too far with this one, crossing the Rubicon of objectivity. It turns out, no one quite went far enough in putting this man back into his place, and because of it all wishes of him slithering away seem a distant hope.

The Trump supporter, the ones that attend such rallies and wear big middle fingers that read ‘HERE HILLARY!’, the ones who’d show up to a rally in the depths of a frozen January, seemed as though they’d follow the man of the long ties over a cliff if he’d merely pointed that way. There was something strange hanging in the air that day, like the feeling that the other shoe was about to drop, and do so squarely onto the bridge of one’s nose.

Sixth months later, the country lays tattered and beaten, split asunder by denial and modern political ineptitude swirled in with the Trump ethic’s engrained cruelty. It was certain then that this was going to be an absolute emotional suck of a presidential campaign – one that would drag the country backwards in some inexplicable way yet to be revealed. Turns out, it was every way imaginable, even some from a nightmare. The US now sits at the end of the barrel of one man’s ego, stuck in quarantine from the scourge of COVID-19, still arguing about masks for f***’s sake, the highest death tolls globally by far and Disney World throwing open its doors to keep the shareholders smiling via Zoom.

I thought at the time, watching that audience and their fervor, Trump would surely win the election. I no longer think that, but it might not matter. The damage was done a long time ago, it just took a germ, a knee in a man’s neck and decades of malignant systemic bullshit swirling together to prove it out.

It turns out some dumbness is terminal after all, but everyone was too worried about the “good of the country” to listen.

***

MILWAUKEE, January, 2020.

F*** Your Feelings: Donald Trump 2020. Indeed. A truer sentiment couldn’t have been more reflected in the teeming mass of humanity that writhed back and forth between segmented caution tape lines in the January deep freeze of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Now, such heinous slogans were made for opportunity; it was $20 (CASH ONLY!) and printed onto T-shirts, flying off a folded table as fast as wind-chapped hands could clamour for them.

It was the first thing that I saw as I came bounding out of Major Goolsby’s Bar and Grill. I’d ventured into it to use the toilet (to avoid the horrors of portable loos used by thousands of waiting Trump supporters, many of whom had camped out on an overnight drunk in the line). On my way to the exit, I bumped into a table with six sorority age women, all silently eating Authentic Tennessee honey BBQ chicken wings and staring off idly into space; one of them wore a sign draped around her neck that said: First Time Voter, All Time Republican. None of them even looked up as the table rocked violently.

There were some 5,000 people out in the line, even this early, some two hours before the doors were set to open. I was wearing Republican “cosplay”, a green polo shirt, pressed khakis and a backwards Milwaukee Brewers’ baseball cap (an effort to make me look like a good and decent suburban conservative). These items, along with my winter-pasty Irish whiteness would serve me well; I could slide right in with these people and blend in, as long as I didn’t say something tolerant and flag myself.

Within seconds of diving into the midst of the queue, flasks came zipping from hidden pockets; whiskey and vodka flowed out in bright red half litre frat-boy “solo cups”. This was it, the centre of the universe for those yearning for the long-dead America that President Ronald Reagan destroyed in the 80s and then took credit for inventing; this was a carnival for depressed suburban accountant dads, their well-coiffed wives and an assortment of Northern US weirdos (like rednecks, but with strange heavily-nasal accents), ones that looked as though they’d simply hopped out of deer-hunting season and hustled fixing carburetors to scrape together just enough gas money to get to the Tuesday day-drinking. All around me, people were pounding back booze like the end was nigh, and with the helicopters swirling back and forth overhead, I couldn’t say it seemed they were far off base.

Red. It was all I saw. Not just the colour, but also the blinding feeling of it. Guys were hyped, this was their guy, a rock star idol straight out of the late 1980s, throwing a free festival for them. Simply everyone had on some kind of apparel. They’d all bought in and thrown down cash on this shameless shill; paying a billionaire to sport his likeness.

Scarves, hats, stars and stripes, camouflage MAGA jackets, signs, lewd buttons, T-shirts (several of them) that read in bold letters: Hillary Sucks, but Monica BLOWS.

That’s what it was, although I realised it too late: I didn’t match the crowd. For one hundred metres in any direction, everyone was branded and I wasn’t.

People were slapping each other on the back. They were at ease here. They could really let loose and say how they really felt about jobs, Mexicans, the prospect of “war with those towel-heads in that sand-pit Iran”, and their own collective victimisation. They were able to breathe out and send out FOX News talking points along with every liquor-tinged breath.

A fifty-five year old goateed man, while pulling a canned beer (the fifth I’d seen, but judging by his slur, the thirteenth of the day) from a cooler, saw this lack of conformity and my long hair and started in: “Man, I bet one of those liberals is going to raise their dumb f***ing head and say something. They always have to talk about their stupid feelings.”

People were slapping each other on the back. They were at ease here. They could really let loose and say how they really felt about jobs, Mexicans, the prospect of “war with those towel-heads in that sand-pit Iran”, and their own collective victimisation. They were able to breathe out and send out FOX News talking points along with every liquor-tinged breath.

I grinned a shit-eating grin and shot back, “I bet it’ll be a whole bunch of them.”

He lifted his shades and glared at me, beers and years of boredom behind his eyes. “You’re not one of them, are you?”

I had a vision of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when people who don’t match up with the aliens are pointed and shrieked at by gaping horrific mouths. I looked back at him stone-faced. “My man, I’m a Christian soul, but you couldn’t pay me to pray for that bitch Hillary.”

He glared back, reading my face for a long moment before smiling slightly and tilting his Bud Light: Lime beer.

There was a lot of fear in this crowd; it was almost palpable. Several attendees made comments about having to “come out” as Trump supporters to family, friends, and co-workers. They all gave stories of heavy alienation. I’d had similar conversations with young and gay kids from the Deep South state of Georgia – tales of shunning and fearing disownment.

Perhaps this wasn’t quite the audience for an impassioned discussion on historical disenfranchisement of minorities; to this line, they were the marginalised. It was obvious that they finally felt listened to, they all seemed to have the same giddy expression of a secondary school student who just found out that she had a date to the dance.

The irony was thoroughly lost on all of these Trump supporters, however, as they failed to realise that victimisation isn’t equal. It is clear from the crowd that a chief principle of a Trump crowd is playing to that ugly “woe-is-me” part of the lizard brain. In Trumpville, you really did get a raw deal all your life; you sad-sap white-male-of-the-first-world-making-60K-USD-a-year you.

Not only this, but it was probably a Honduran who delivered that shitty bargain up hot and steaming while stealing your jobs while you kept going to work every day.

Life, for some, just isn’t fair.

Dear God, these well-fed victims were all drinking like it was pre-prom and it was all downhill from here in life. I watched five middle-aged women in matching navy blue TRUMP 2020 shirts shotgun beers and then immediately throw the cans to the ground, only to pass a bottle of Fleischman’s: Wisconsin’s Number 1 Vodka! around in a circle; polishing it off in a mere two laps.

The scene outside was, to put it mildly, deeply strange. It was the same kind of weirdness that one would encounter heading into a rock-metal concert in the deep American South – shit always gets heavy in the event’s parking lot; it is where the broke get loaded and the swag hustlers push their wares.

Now the feeling echoed eerily similar. Seven songs played in a sort of ramshackle list, but not in any rational order – songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock would play twice in four tracks, followed by Elton John (not with permission to play his music) and, most jarringly, the Village People’s Macho Man, a famous gay anthem of the 70s.

Such musical eclecticism led to tableaus playing out before me; such as watching two pot-bellied, white-goateed men wearing matching ‘hristians for Trump! T-shirts, dancing and smiling with each other whilst holding hands in a sort of circular country jig.

I should have brought a flask myself, especially as I saw a young girl with an Iranians for Trump sign pose for selfies with overtly fascinated war-mongers in the line.

The music was split through every thirteen minutes or so by a pre-recorded public announcement. A woman with a voice similar in tone to Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale would suddenly exclaim:

“Hi and Welcome to this patriotic campaign rally to re-elect Donald Trump, featuring your Commander-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump! We thank you for coming out to show your patriotism and your pride. Donald Trump cares about your First Amendment Rights….almost as much as he cares about your Second Amendment Rights! But there are some people who want to take advantage of Donald Trump’s patriotism by interrupting his speech during the rally! If you see protesters, don’t get violent, just hold up your complementary Trump signs and yell TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP! The police will be around to collect them shortly! Thank you and Keep America Great!”

A nearby bystander muttered, “The Iranians are smart man, they knew we’d have blown them into a sandbox, just like those f***ing terrorists in Iraq.”

Jesus, this was going to be a long several hours out here, and the temperature was starting to drop. The wind picking up and sucking through the office blocks along the Milwaukee River, before swooping downwards to smack us.

Any faithful Midwesterner will tell you that the winters here are an atrocity, enough to make you curse your ancestors. Anyone you catch outside enjoying themselves in such foul climate is to be avoided, as they are probably up to no good. The bitter cold brings out the bitterness in people, a sentiment that was now being leaned into heavily.

Towards the front of the line, assorted hired security heavies were yelling, “WHATEVER YOU HAVE TO EAT, DISPOSE OF IT NOW! THERE ARE NO HANDWARMERS ALLOWED. THROW THEM AWAY NOW!” Soccer moms began to heft back entire sachets of wine; Skinny Girl Margaritas, martinis in water bottles, whatever their acrylic nails could reach.

The dirtiness was astounding towards the end of the queue; garbage cans overflowed three-fold their capacity and it was clear that many had brought chairs with the full intention of abandoning them. Folded camping chairs lay in piles, covered with soon-to-rot picnic platters of mysterious orange cheeses with Wisconsin-Made! processed beef summer sausage. Glass was everywhere, smashed into near dust on the ground. I had a terrible vision of being knocked to the ground by an overzealous ca -mechanic sporting a MAG’ Hat, crushed under feet pounding towards seeing their false idol spit foul-smelling lies through a loudspeaker.

Now was not the time for such thoughts; it was time to smile and nod. Agree tacitly, scream inwardly: individual thought is strongly frowned upon in such crowds.

Three hours in and I finally made it to the door, a great inward wind tunnel sucking us all into its void towards several polo shirt-wearing ex-military types guarding a metal detector.

***

Now, when I’d heard of this spectacle guised as a legitimate political campaign rally, I acted quickly, signing up for a ticket online and spelling all of my details out with precision. If I were to subject myself to this Trumpian f***ery, I planned on coming correct and not being turned back rudely at the door.

I had assumed that security would be bordering on a prison camp, a Kafkaesque mess of purity-by-campaign-slogan hat. I’d scrubbed my pockets of all potential liberalisms and half-suspected to be found out for malicious statements I’d made about the “administration” in mid-2017 while drunk on White Cap in Nairobi.

Instead, there was no check – I was simply whisked through and searched thoroughly, pushed along further down the tunnel, like they needed the numbers and were filling the seats with any hapless idiot dumb enough to cut back on their hourly wages long enough to attend.

It played into the sudden rush of realisation as to just how disjointed and chaotic the whole thing was. Just like that, I was in, surrounded by cowboy hats and camo, although I noticed that all talk of “open carry” and “2nd Amendment Liberty” was quickly discarded in the name of the safety of The Republican Party.

There was a strong sense of unity in the Panther Arena, a bizarre squat throwback to 1960s’ mid-size- market indoor coliseums; a beautiful modern facade outside, but once in, a droll concrete oval, with little character, only awkward scarlet TRUMP! posters to dot the walls.

Every 60 feet, tables with the exact same gaudy merchandise were placed. That same ugly feeling that used to come around when I’d been whisked around to curio shops in Kenya washed over me: that some faceless puppet master was pulling the strings, fleecing money out of pockets looking for an “authentic experience”.

I found a seat to the stage left of the podium, some twenty metres away. I wedged myself between middle-aged conspiracy theorists and pondered my options. Who could I kick aside if someone yelled “GAY!” in the middle of this throng and caused a fear-driven stampede? The 60 year old singing I’m Proud to be an American! off-key while ogling the blonde FOX News anchor standing at the crowd fence down towards the floor seemed a prime target to trample over.

“God damn, would you look at her, she’s got the tits of an angel!” the singer was whispering in my ear. He was the kind of awkward older Midwestern man you never want to be spiraled downwards into a conversational hole with, “She’s fair and balanced alright. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

I suddenly had the bad image of tens of thousands of once-decent Middle Americans being seduced by electric sex and overt racism over the entire eight-year run time of the Bush administration. I swallowed a grimace and leaned back towards him. “I heard that Roger Ailes (the now deceased CEO of FOX News) willed them to her.”

He looked back at me, slightly perturbed. It was a gentle reminder that this was not the crowd for sarcasm.

And what was this crowd exactly? Down on the floor seemed to be the most “out there”; the veritable roadie of the Trump supporter, the parking lot people. From my perch, I could see conspiracy theories in print, awkward hats, and oh, so many atrocious haircuts.

Every 60 feet, tables with the exact same gaudy merchandise were placed. That same ugly feeling that used to come around when I’d been whisked around to curio shops in Kenya washed over me: that some faceless puppet master was pulling the strings, fleecing money out of pockets looking for an “authentic experience”.

Collude This, Bitch! The letters were in glitter and framed a middle finger on a T-shirt; complements abounded to the wearer.

I sat in that sweaty seat, mainlining coffee as various campaign hangers-on came around and repeatedly asked me to volunteer, which I claimed I already had outside of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. A couple seemed to doubt this, but I just shrugged and went back to pretending to enjoy the music. In this crowd, ignorance is woke.

Speaking of which, why this music? It was a major theme from the entire proceeding. Why are they playing this right now? It wasn’t just that the artists being played had expressly told the Trump campaign to f*** off under threat of litigation, it was the odd mix of it. Nessun Dorma was followed by REMs’ Everybody Hurts, followed again by Proud to be an American. The music rang out as though an American-idol obsessed 13 year old had made a mixtape; there was no thematic tie at all; the music rambled the same way Trump did. Was the audience being subconsciously primed for a stream of continual disjointed thoughts?

Paul McCartney had just began singing the refrain to The Beatles’ Hey Jude when the music suddenly cut out, the recording coming to a screeching halt, leaving a brief void of silence and nervous laughter, only for the concert speakers hanging from the ceiling, at a volume that could only be described as apocalyptic, to blare forth the opening chords of Lionel Richie’s Hello badly shaking the molded plastic seats down to the screws.

It is an odd thing to watch 9,300 adults simultaneously sing a song of youthful alienated and lonesome heartbreak, all whilst wearing identical hats.

And the arena kept filling up. Early on, as I sat idly in my seat, clasping a Trump sign that an overzealous young Republican had thrust rudely into my hands, I smirked and thought of Trump’s repeated crowd size claims; the ones that made it seem he had an underlying issue with how big things are…

Now, however, the room continued to engorge, with people seemingly streaming in from God knows where, many piss drunk already.

“Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?”

My ears ringing, I made my way back out for another cup of drastically overpriced coffee, poured by a mostly black concession stand staff that seemed absolutely dead set on avoiding making eye contact with any Trump supporting patrons.

Who could possibly be intimidated by a man with seven AR-15 rifle pins on his skull-and-bones T-shirt? It is his God-given right after all, just as long as the guns don’t get into the hands of the minorities. There were a great many fashion statements seemingly derived exclusively from intimidation, a lot of awkward male posturing, a great many uncouth phallic references, both intentional and not.

It is an odd thing to watch 9,300 adults simultaneously sing a song of youthful alienated and lonesome heartbreak, all whilst wearing identical hats.

The majority of the Republican leadership in Wisconsin is, above all, boring as an insurance salesman’s pitch during a heatwave. They meander through talking points, drone on about “fiscal responsibility” and yammer endlessly about “how every life is sacred” before “praying for the troops” who are “keeping us safe” in whatever military conflict has 100x the non-American casualties this week.

This is standard Bush-era, post-9/11 fare.

As such, these typical right wing tools seemed dreadfully out of place following the Trump campaign managers who came out to pounding 70s rock anthems before throwing T-shirts into the crowd at a high velocity and condemning the soul of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to burn in hell for eternity.

Everyone in the crowd sensed it; this was the state-fair/semi-professional stock car race/fireworks accident turned sentient and rampaging its way to the stage: the anticipation was now so thick that with each bland nothingness let forth from one of these faceless suits at the podium, the tension steadily built.

***

It was as if Wrestlemania was here and everyone wanted to be splattered by blood. This was no space for a PG rating.

“Hurry the hell up,” I heard the creepy old man next to me mutter as Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson said some boring thing about bombing Iran if they didn’t “respect agreements”.

Yes, indeed, just ignore all serious things by those who can make such decisions and get to the main event. Politics isn’t political to this crowd. This is only entertainment.

After Vice President Mike Pence took the stage, briefly unbuttoned his jaw and let loose an incredibly boring vision of the world ending for 22 minutes, it was time for it.

Feet stomped and jaws clenched. Elvis was in the building. Then, as Michael Jackson’s Beat It got cut and switched over to a blaring rendition of Proud to be an American, Donald Trump himself awkwardly popped out into view from behind a curtain, emerging to his comfort zone, announced by a lisping voice booming through the PA system.

He tottered around for some minutes, gesticulating wildly while the 10,000-strong crowd went somewhere well beyond ape-shit in pandemonium.

“F*** YEAH DONALD!” a man in a bright orange hunter vest screamed out from behind me, his voice cracking as if pre-pubescent. The crowd swayed back and forth, chanting “U-S-A!” in a unified boom, surging up and forward, staring at this strange-looking man now standing at the pulpit.

It has been ridiculed in the media, but it can’t be understated just how strange this man’s posture truly is. As he launched into his self-congratulations at nearly causing a regional war in the Middle East, I couldn’t stop staring at his hips; they sat there as though they were displaced, somehow his torso shifted forward above them, requiring a stand and microphone for him to lean into, as if he wasn’t truly whole unless screaming obscenities about minorities to his converted faithful.

After brief introductions, one of the most surreal six minutes of any speech ever came flowing with such stunning speed. I was flabbergasted. With one breath, the press was cursed as “corrupt, evil, liars”. With the next, Iran was threatened with obliteration without subtlety.

The masses in the cheap seats were with him all the way.

Americans, by and large, have an ugly tinge of entitled jingoism to their conversational abilities and global view; and sometimes we just can’t help ourselves but lean into these instincts, especially when drunk and encouraged.

Many within this weird country look down openly on people from other cultures. They talk about Africa as though it is a monolith made of people below their station. As they clamoured for a fascist leader who was openly lying to them, admitting it, then asking them to clap for the falsehoods, I took a mental note of just how “superior” American Democracy really was.

“You tell them Trump!” In came the harangues and chorus of agreement. From somewhere above, faint voices began to ring out, their words unclear, their message of protest practically crystal. Two girls, probably come down from some bastion of liberal tendencies at the University, revealed smuggled T-shirts and unfurled a cloth banner that read something to the affect of NO TO WAR!

The crowd universally booed and hissed them with vicious intent. Fists waved, middle fingers straightened. Trump waved his hands about like some sort of deeply disturbed conductor, before rebuking the girls to “go home to mommy!”

“He sure knows how to tell those pussies off, huh?” The same dirty old man was trying to engage me again, now breathing seemingly directly into my eardrum.

Knowing Americans, this same schmuck sitting next to me will probably print up six or seven of Trump’s lamest threats, print them onto T-shirts and later be convicted of tax fraud when he launders prescription drug money through selling them on eBay. He’ll then be pardoned by the administration via a midnight tweet storm. The world turns onward.

The crowd was stomping their feet; sin turned Pentacostal while led by their preacher. The first thirty minutes or so could be viewed as a sort of unhinged Greatest Hits album, like watching a fading rock star, propped up on just enough speed to bang out his most well-known chords. Trump struck out at all the classic notes:

Bomb Iran? Just playing (or are we?).”

“How great is the military? Great, but only because they respect me, oh, how they respect me.”

“Aren’t Mexicans coming up from the south to surely rape your elderly first grade teacher and beat her poodle to death with a sack full of meth and drug profits? Almost definitely, but I alone can stop it. BECAUSE OF THE WALL.”

“Police are great aren’t they? It’s surely a shame that the inner cities don’t respect them enough.”

“Democrats are a vile sack of evil, trying to convict me and get me out of the White House, but don’t they know any better? I’ll never leave. Just kidding, or am I?”

“Nasty Nancy Pelosi is trying to convict me in this horrible, ugly, witch-hunt; which I openly admit guilt to, but that’s okay because I said so.”

With this last statement, the masses roared their approval. Signs were held aloft; chants of “FOUR MORE YEARS” began in earnest, only to be soon drowned out with chants of “LOCK HER UP!” aimed at the Democratic Speaker of the House.

Three rows down and to the left, a rotund woman was wearing a jean jacket with the words “DON’T IMPEACH!” sequined onto the back. She turned towards me slightly, and wiped a tear away from her eyes. There was broad grin on her face. Could this be the best day of her life? For some reason, I thought of some dull-eyed American I’d met in a Nairobi bar back in 2013, asking me why Kenyans were so blind in their political loyalty to oligarchs who couldn’t care less if they died.

With that, as his speech rose and fell, with that awkward cadence of his, he took pause, within which a bearded hipster launched an emphatic “F*** YOU!’ from the mid-tier of the bleachers, only to be pushed slightly, and have cardboard TRUMP signs shoved into his chin. Two tired-eyed cops come and collect him by either elbow, pulling him out as he dragged his VANS sneakers along the polished concrete.

As the police were duck-walking him out, presumably to throw him headlong into a soiled snowbank, Trump paraded several of the top Wisconsin right wing establishment onto the stage; each were yanked back and forth with an extended and aggressive handshake, as though they were show dogs being broken in by their overzealous owner.

Three rows down and to the left, a rotund woman was wearing a jean jacket with the words “DON’T IMPEACH!” sequined onto the back. She turned towards me slightly, and wiped a tear away from her eyes. There was broad grin on her face. Could this be the best day of her life?

Show of dominance. That’s what it was. I’d seen it before, when lions fight, the king has to put the lesser males in their place.

This was pure animalism in politics. Superiority had to be shown, teeth had to be bared and someone had to show the neck. The enemy had to be pointed out and shouted down. There can be no dissent in such circles – and within America, the dominant tend to have gun racks on their trucks.

While the first 30 minutes of the 87 minutes were utter lunacy, it was trackable insanity, the kind that you expect to see during a monster truck rally, a rodeo, a semi-professional wrestling title bout or a ladder match during a hailstorm in Florida. Utterly bonkers, but not unexpected.

Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the left turns during the middle section of the speech. The political “monster truck” that is Donald J. Trump went off script and was the campaign rally equivalent of watching a giant machine of metal and air-brushed flame patterns veer off into the crowd. There was simply no predicting where Trump’s verbal tirades would take us next.

I tried to keep track. I swear I did. I was regrettably entirely sober, wide awake, and pumped full of the adrenaline that can only come with the temptation of taking off my shoe and throwing it at Mike Pence to find out if he was in fact a mere hologram.

THE WATER!”

Trump shouted it into the microphone and let the words hang out in space, the crowd screaming, his orange tanned hands held up into the air.

“It’s terrible. The water comes down from the north, into California, but Gavin Newsom, that horrible governor, he takes the water. He doesn’t know what to do with the water. He sends the water out into the ocean!”

“The Ocean! The Pacific Ocean! Imagine that. And the fish, oh the fish, they don’t know what to do with it! Is it good water? We know, but they don’t care!”

“AND THE DISHES! Oh God, the dishes. You do the dishes once. It’s not enough. The dishwashers aren’t strong because they’re taking the water. You have to put them through one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten times! And the light bulbs! They’re toxic! You have to unscrew them? You have to unscrew them. And walk them into the dump and put them down?! Who will do that?! So we’re going to give you the water back. Through the sinks, through the showers, and through the other thing! The toilets! You’re getting the water back! And I will be the one to give it back to you!”

There was no hiding it; my jaw was agape. I truly had no idea what he was talking about. It was then, and only then, that I was really afraid during the entire ugly proceeding. I realised that not only is this man a bigot and all the rest, but there might actually be an element of true mental derangement within him, an element that his multitude of supporters embrace wholeheartedly, without remorse. This man, rambling about sinks and light bulbs within millimetres of a full-blown war with Iran, a conflict with a people that he was truly incapable of reasoning with. They were brown after all.

F*** THOSE LIGHTBULBS!” The cry came from a bearded man, now beet-red in the face, flanked on either side by his teenage sons who stared at him, beaming.

Trump rambled onwards; all the while without any care, utterly gauche, to the extent it was damn near respectable. One thing was clear: that Trump was a total master of his craft, however bizarre and atrocious his craft might be.

As he went into his bombastic closing remarks, the thousands stayed with him, beat for beat, rising and falling, laughing on cue, cheering and booing with utter abandon – like the finale flourish of a fireworks display.

An ill-fated Bernie Bro pulled out a “Bernie Sanders for President 2020” sign. Trump looked down at him from the stage and the crowd pounced, viciously pulling at him, jostling him back and forth.

“HIT HIM!” A woman’s voice from somewhere close to me.

Two heavies came from the back down onto the floor, closing in on this long-haired liberal getting shoved back and forth; a cork in the storm.

Despite their tattoos and Bill Goldberg haircuts; I ignorantly thought to myself, “At least security is here and will save him.”

But they grabbed him all the harder, ripping his sign downwards, tearing at it and pushing him out the back. How dare he have the audacity to support someone other than the great leader?

Trump peaked into crescendo, rambling on about the inevitability of winning this year and that the best people, the chosen people, the tough people were on his side. They would take no other result; and the scrum down on the floor bellowed their support. This wasn’t politics, it was a death roll, and the grip was tightening.

The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want began to play, and with much more glad-handing, waving, and awkward displays of faux-nationalistic pride, he was gone, little more than a thin wisp of a hair plug dissapearing behind a curtain.

It was then, and only then, that I was really afraid during the entire ugly proceeding. I realised that not only is this man a bigot and all the rest, but there might actually be an element of true mental derangement within him, an element that his multitude of supporters embrace wholeheartedly, without remorse.

The spell held over the crowd, but started to dissipate. We began to file out, shuffling bashfully towards the exits, as if we were all leaving some truly horrific live sex show in Mtwapa. In such circumstances, don’t make eye contact.

There were several black Trump supporters amongst the crowd, and more than a dozen people caught their eye, giving a little fist pump of “unity”. The underlying sentiment was to return to their cohort and tell them, “No, no, I swear there were black people there who support Trump too! See he can’t be racist! It is a lie spun by liberal geeks, worried about their feelings!”

“HEY YOU!” A frat-boy was screaming into my face, thrusting his pointer finger. He looked animated, and surely, this would be the end of me. I had gone too far out on a limb here, and now I was to be “outed”.

He was motioning to my hat, which sported the insignia of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball club. Without smiling, he gave me a thumbs up and walked sullenly away. I started to cut around people as I traversed the crowd towards the exit. I felt as though my welcome was overstayed and now it was mostly certainly past the hour of bouncing.

The cold was a shock to the system, like waking up suddenly after a long night of drinking. I found myself looking for my wallet several times, wondering, “Where was I?”

A feeling of unease had come over me, especially looking about at the grinning faces streaming past me as I paused to stuff the TRUMP 2020! sign deep into my sleeve. It was the same sense one would have waking up after a night out next to someone that you know you shouldn’t have called.

It was a kind of toxic satisfaction, exhilaration definitely, happiness of a sort – but all pervaded by a destitute hanging melancholy, of witnessing something truly bizarre, only to realise that you have to meander back to your schlubby life and under-sized apartment.

Could the people around me know just how wrong-headed almost everything that just happened had been? Looking around, I couldn’t see it; they’d bought into all of this a long time ago and had cast their lot.

“They’d bought in because he simply refuses to give in the way they did.” It struck me, to Trump supporters, he really was some kind of magical maverick, condemning the norm and doing it “his way”; the tax code and civility couldn’t stop him. “It doesn’t matter if our guy does it as long as he wins.”

A beating of drums suddenly struck up, the bass thumping dull within my chest. Streaming out into the cold, we were careening towards it, as the zip-tied metal-grate fences surrounded on all other sides kept us walled in.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city known for terminal dumbness at all levels of authority figures, had made another gangbusters decision: to line up six token cops in riot gear and let the exiting Trump contingent of thousands file straight into the waiting protesters; for Trump can go nowhere without an audience. I must admit, that while inside, I’d forgotten about them entirely; now it was unavoidable.

“YOU’RE A F***ING EMBARASSMENT!” One middle-aged white female Trump supporter screamed into the face of a young Latina girl, probably 16 years old, banging a cow bell while chanting, “NO FASCIST USA!”

I’d had enough, I tucked the sign in deep and crossed over the line. As I did, a cup full of ice came flying in and went over the shoulder of an old white-haired hippy man who was banging a tambourine slightly off-beat. The ice scattered on the concrete at our feet.

Megaphones and drums split the night and the wind howled around us. Some in the crowd held glow sticks, which, when mixed with the reddish tinge of police tail lights, gave the entire tableau a hue of a football riot about to break loose.

Shit, it was a Tuesday in January, in bitter cold Wisconsin. The campaign hadn’t even really cracked off yet. The scene looked to spin downwards, liquored up left versus just-incited right. And in all of this, it was clear, despite it all, the man in the over-sized suits was certain to win again.

There are no consequences for such men in history. They will continue to ensure their victory because they know a dark truth that their foes never could grasp: that politics is just a game of monopoly, and if you’re not cheating, then you’re just not trying.

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Alex is a journalist and social media expert based in Nairobi, Kenya

Long Reads

The Anatomy of Kenya Inc: How the Colonial State Sustains and Re-Creates Itself

The two tyrannies of ethnic expectation and institutionalised corruption feed off each other and are inextricably connected.

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The Anatomy of Kenya Inc: How the Colonial State Sustains and Re-Creates Itself
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The return to multipartyism in the early 1990s and the implementation of the 2010 constitution were seen by many as seminal moments in the democratisation of Kenya. However, in truth, they merely masked what essentially remains an unchanged bureaucratic-security state dating back to the colonial era that is today reproducing itself at the county level. The continuity and longevity of this state has chiefly been the product of an ideology of law and order created to protect the class and commercial interests of an African colonial elite.

For the colonial enterprise in Kenya to succeed, it needed local allies who would bring existing economic and political institutions into the newly created colonial order. However, this arrangement, which privileged the small white settler community, irrevocably corrupted and even usurped indigenous African authority and generated a collaborating class of African big men whose loyalty was no longer to kinship networks and ties but to the newly established colonial government.

Over time, the newfangled chiefly power and leadership of men like Koinange wa Mbiyu, Karuri wa Gakure, Njiiri wa Karanja, Mumia of Wanga, Ole Murumbi of the Maasai, Owuor Kere of Nyakach, Kinyanjui wa Gathirimu, Muhoho wa Gathecha, Michuki wa Kagwi and Ogola Ayieke resulted in a ready-made socioeconomic and political class to whom independence and state power could be entrusted in 1963.

It is therefore no coincidence that many of the politicians and senior government administrators who have dominated the top ranks of government and the civil service in post-colonial Kenya were scions of this class. These include the recently deceased Simeon Nyachae (son of Chief Musa Nyandusi), Joab Omino, the Mwendwa brothers (Eliud Ngala Mwendwa, who served as the Minister of Labour in Jomo Kenyatta’s cabinet, and Kitili Mwendwa, the first African Chief Justice of Kenya), John Njoroge Michuki, Kariuki wa Njiiri, Peter Mbiyu Koinange (son of Chief Koinange who also served as a powerful Kenyatta minister).

Although he was not himself the scion of a colonial-era chief, Jomo Kenyattta wisely married into chief Koinange wa Mbiyu’s family and, later, into that of Chief Muhoho wa Gathecha, thus founding one of Kenya’s foremost and lasting political dynasties. His immediate successor, Daniel arap Moi, established his own dynasty that is showing a similar political tenacity.

The return to multipartyism in the early 1990s and the implementation of the 2010 constitution were seen by many as seminal moments in the democratisation of Kenya. However, in truth, they merely masked what essentially remains an unchanged bureaucratic-security state dating back to the colonial era that is today reproducing itself at the county level

Jomo and the presidents who succeeded him have all sung the same refrain of law and order that was sang in colonial times. For this class of big men, political stability and the peaceful maintenance of the status quo has been the singular objective. Through a masterful stroke of political genius, Moi repackaged it into the populist appeal of his Nyayo philosophy of love, peace and unity. Mwai Kibaki, for his part, hinted at it when he reminded people that Kenya was a working nation and that there was nothing for free. At every stage of its evolution, the Kenyan state has had a steady hand at the helm ensuring the continuity of the ideology of order.

However, ensuring the survival of this vision amid the political reality of the Kenyan state with its veneer of democracy demands the suppression of all alternatives articulated and championed through political dissent. Beyond its preoccupation with the preservation of power, the ideology of order is thus also committed to protecting the Kenyan state and its brand of democracy from the people.

‘The danger to democracy is the people’

One of the colonial state’s greatest fears is the masses. Colonial authorities, and later, independent Kenya’s African ruling elite, were afraid the hordes of have-nots might rebel and challenge the politics of law and order as they had in 1952. Therefore, the imperative was to coopt, exclude or crush all dissenting voices in society. This is a task that the political heirs of the colonial state — led by Kenyatta and the scions of chiefly power such as his attorney general Charles Njonjo — fulfilled to the hilt.

Having already been recognised as the rallying political symbol through whom the hopes of the European community, London’s commercial interests and continued military presence, and the ideology of order could be secured, Kenyatta had his task already cut out for him on the eve of independence. He faced-off with the Kenya Land and Freedom Army — the Mau Mau — who sought to create an equitable society by any means, including violence. Unsurprisingly, early during Kenyatta’s tenure at the helm, much of the time was spent coaxing fighters to leave the forest and surrender their weapons.

One of the colonial state’s greatest fears is the masses. Colonial authorities, and later, independent Kenya’s African ruling elite, were afraid the hordes of have-nots might rebel and challenge the politics of law and order as they had in 1952

On the whole, Kenyatta attempted to temper the high expectations of ordinary Kenyans with his calls for Harambee (pooling together), pleas to forgive and forget the past and, consistent with the ideology of order which he understood only too well, entreating people to celebrate and embrace “uhuru na kazi” (“freedom and work”) — an appeal later echoed by Kibaki.

Toward the end of Kenyatta’s tenure, as his faculties were dulled by age, his ideological lieutenant, Njonjo, a chiefly big man in his own right, held guard against “dangerous agitators”. Njonjo openly threatened to jail the radical novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o who had just penned his incendiary novel, Petals of Blood which both London and Nairobi feared would inspire a revolution. The palpable and shared crowd-phobia by the custodians of the ideology of order shows they understood that “the danger to democracy is the people”, who had to be thwarted at every turn and by every means available to the state.

Moral anarchy and the culture of impunity

The colonial state was built not through consensus as a democracy, but by decree. Not only did the colonial system corrupt African traditional authority and contribute to the destruction of African morality — thus creating moral anarchy — but it also sowed the seeds of a political culture of impunity. Indeed, the colonial state was itself a result of impunity.

Two of Kenya’s largest corruption scandals, Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing, were enabled by this culture of impunity. The Goldenberg scandal, which occurred between 1990 and 1993 under Moi’s imperial presidency, entailed the government paying Goldenberg International special compensation for fictional exports of gold and diamonds. The total cost of the scandal is unknown, but some estimates indicate that up to 10 per cent of Kenya’s GDP was lost.

Anglo Leasing, which occurred between 1997 and 2003, involved payments to a British company under the guise of investing to improve Kenyan security services, such as $36 million for new high-technology “tamper-proof passports”. However, the scandal also involved payments to other fictitious corporate entities that were paid to supply naval ships and forensic laboratories. The fact that this scandal straddles both the Moi and Kibaki administrations is quite telling. It shows that high-level corruption in the country is deeply entrenched in the bureaucracy and is, therefore, systemic or institutionalised. Alluding to this repugnant systemic morass of corruption, John Githongo, the former anti-corruption tsar and whistleblower who served in the first half of Kibaki’s first administration as the Governance and Ethics Permanent Secretary, sadly observed in a public personal statement on May 2, 2019 that:

“The Anglo Leasing model of misappropriation of resources from the Kenyan people has continued unabated since 2001. . . . Over the past six years in particular the plunder of public resources has accelerated to levels unprecedented in Kenyan history since independence. Increasingly the economic, political, social and very personal cost of this plunder by officials in positions of authority has been borne by the Kenyan people directly.”

Illustration: Gado

Illustration: Gado

The Uhuru Kenyatta government too has been rocked by several corruption scandals including the Eurobond scandal which entailed the mysterious disappearance of over $1 billion after Kenya issued its first sovereign bond in 2014. The amounts of money said to have gone missing under Uhuru Kenyatta are staggering. It is not surprising that skyrocketing corruption under President Kenyatta, the country’s fourth, dwarfs all previous corruption scandals.

Flagrant and rampant corruption in the post-independence era has surprised even Kenya’s erstwhile rulers. Reacting to Anglo Leasing, the biggest scandal of the Kibaki era, Sir Edward Clay, the then British High Commissioner to Kenya, lamented that top figures of the hegemonic regime were eating “like gluttons” and vomiting “all over our shoes”.

This “eating” culture at various levels of the bureaucracy and in the high echelons of government is mirrored throughout society. Corruption permeates Kenyan society because it is the sort of society that the predatory state has created. In 2015, exasperated by rampant corruption, Dr Willy Mutunga, then Kenya’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Kenya, concluded that Kenya had become a “bandit economy”. The respected and high-ranking jurist complained that corruption stretched from the very bottom to the very top of society. As an apparatus transforming society, the Kenyan predatory state has created a sukuma wiki bandit economy characterised by survival by any means necessary.

Indeed, corruption so permeates society that it scarcely leaves anyone untouched or unaffected. The unwritten code is expressed in the African proverb, “the goat eats where it is tethered”. It is, therefore, not surprising to find corruption and the trading of favours, bakshish, among lawmakers, among revenue collection officials, among parents, teachers and students in schools and universities, among doctors, nurses and staff in hospitals, in the corridors of justice among judges and magistrates and even in the so-called disciplined forces including the police.

The colonial state was built not through consensus as a democracy, but by decree. Not only did the colonial system corrupt African traditional authority and contribute to the destruction of African morality — thus creating moral anarchy — but it also sowed the seeds of a political culture of impunity. Indeed, the colonial state was itself a result of impunity.

The poor remuneration of public servants, a poor incentive system for hard and honest work (due to nepotism and ethnic discrimination) and socioeconomic frustrations caused by unemployment or underemployment, force ordinary citizens to resort to corruption. Working people, much like a tethered goat, tend to eat where they are “tethered”, or, put differently, use the nature of their work to look after themselves. Professional people, therefore, do not only find it necessary but also morally easy to exploit their professions or their workplace because of such tacit African cultural sanction of bakshish – acceptance of relatively small gifts or money in return for services rendered. In the meld of African traditional values and modernity in a society imbued by corruption, the line between gratitude and corruption is blurred.

In this way, therefore, the strategies adopted for material survival by school principals, the military, lawmakers, judges, magistrates, the police and other civil servants, people in the private sector, and even criminals, are not dissimilar from those used by leaders to accumulate power and wealth. Thus, the tempting image of innocent, by-standing masses, or viewing the Kenyan public as victims of grand corruption, is shattered. There is, therefore, no prospect of a united demand for clean government. It could even be said that very few Kenyans qualify to make such a demand.

Illustration: Afrobarometer

Source: Afrobarometer

In Kenya, the bribes collected go by many words: bakshish, chai (tea) or kitu kidogo (something small). In this sukuma wiki bandit economy characterised by predatoriness, survival is at any cost. Hence, the civil servant and other officials who are poorly remunerated, or simply harbour an insatiable greed for riches, make their living or build their fortunes off the people they serve rather than from their meagre salaries.

Even heads of public schools are known to charge exorbitant tuition and illegally admit students, while in hospitals, necessities like mattresses and bed sheets, even prescription drugs, are known to be sold-off by poorly paid staff. At times, members of the police force, politicians and other public authorities, are forced to collude with the criminal underworld. Facing harsh laws or the lynch mob, young criminals have no choice but to kill or be killed, unleashing a veritable balance of urban terror. This can also be interpreted as an unlawful effort at a re-distribution of the resources hoarded by the rich in society. In major cities, rural areas and townships, local people engage in all sorts of vandalism of public service installations and petty theft. In other more remote localities, traditional raiding or cattle rustling, for example in the North Rift region and the North Eastern Province, this survival-by-all-means bandit economy translates into a form of political action.

Culturally and structurally, therefore, both the state and Kenyan society have mutually transformed each other, producing a national psyche characterised by moral anarchy and primal greed; the state and society mutually reinforce each other in entrenching unabated, runaway corruption, a culture of impunity, and politics of (dis)order.

Illustration: Gado

Illustration: Gado

The twin tyranny of political tribalism 

At the core of the bane of politics in post-independent Kenya is the twin tyranny of political tribalism. On the one hand is the tyranny of the masses, that is, the pressure that different ethnic groups — and seasonal and shifting ethnic-political alliances — place on their respective ethnic bigwigs. On the other is the tyranny of the ruling class that is responsible for the institutionalisation of grand malfeasance. These two tyrannies feed off each other and are, as such, inextricably connected.

With political consciousness and organisation restricted only within the bounds of discrete, administratively designated “ethnic regions” during the colonial era and well into the postcolonial period, wealthy politicians have acted as guardians or custodians of their respective ethnic groups to the exclusion of all others within the political context of perceived stiff competition for public goods or state power.

The masses, as ethnic political “patrons” — either pursuing their real or perceived pan-ethnic interests — neither have tribal innocence nor are they innocent of the endless accumulation and concentration of power in the hands of the political elite without accountability, and the perpetuation of corruption. After all, when they act, whether at the ballot box or when they defend their ethnic elite “clients” even when they are accused of grand corruption, they do so simply along ethnic lines.

Both in the colonial and postcolonial periods, therefore, ethnicity (political tribalism) acts as the main vehicle through which dominance and the preservation of power and resources are achieved. In turn, ethnic political elites are beholden to “their own”; they are expected by their respective ethnic groups to defend and expand real or perceived pan-ethnic interests and opportunities with regard to the modern economic, or civic public, sector.

This, then, is the first tyrannical twin of political tribalism. A classic case of the tail wagging the dog or, as E.S.A. Odhiambo puts it in The Political Economy of Kenya, the logic of patron-client relationships turned upside down. According to Odhiambo, political entrepreneurs:

“Came to the threshold of state power with a specific objective. The bottom line for all of them was that they had to ‘deliver the goods’. . . . To maintain and reproduce their bases of power, they had to recruit, sustain, and reward their followers from time to time. . . . The peasants have the latitude, at elections, to shift their patronage. The fascination with the fact that the Kenyan member of Parliament is vulnerable at election time should acknowledge the fact of peasant choice as well as the peasants’ success at insisting on accountability by the parliamentary representative to his constituents. Put more directly, the masses put the leaders on the run to the gates of Parliament. ‘They invaded the state with society at their heels rather than imposed it on the people. They were accountable to an elected democracy’.”

But at times, indeed, more often than not, and increasingly over the course of time, to do so – delivering public goods to sustain the support of their patrons, namely, their close individual supporters/enablers or cronies and tribes – politicians, as tribal clients, have no recourse but to seek to gain private capital out of the public domain. State coffers are, therefore, raided rather blatantly by the political elite in order to benefit their immediate and extended families (nepotism), ethnic communities (tribalism) and/or elite cronies and political allies.

This, then, is the second twin tyranny of political tribalism: rampant, massive and seemingly endemic institutionalised corruption unleashed on the nation by the political elite in their quest for the accumulation, concentration and perpetuation of power and (re)producing themselves. This is the conundrum of the twin tyranny of political tribalism. On the one hand, a collection of patron-tribes acting as rational actors exacting high expectations of public goods on their clients, their corresponding ethnic political elites. And on the other hand, insatiable politicians who exploit ethnicity and such tribal expectations and demands to profit by looting the public domain. There are, after all, no serious investigations into subsequent and ever increasing corruption scandals.

Tribal bigwigs are untouchable sacred cows even when implicated or involved in appalling corruption scandals. After all, they enjoy the unstinting support of their tribes who would rather be “eaten” by the hyena they think they know (a politician from their own ethnic group) than one they neither really know nor care to know (a politician from a different ethnic group).

It is not surprising, therefore, that when it comes to fighting corruption, Kenyans are rather resigned to their fate. Politics, for the most part, is viewed as an inherently flawed and dirty game; a rather cynical acceptance that ordinary citizens can do nothing about it except vote for political tribalism. This languid attitude ensures that, collectively, ordinary people are unsafe and are, more often than not, not at the table but, rather, on the menu. And so goes the vicious cycle, the Kenyan political circus window-dressed as a paragon of Western democracy in Africa although multiparty elections are largely nothing more than ethnic contests that take place every five years.

The Configuration of State Patronage / National Finance Grid (NFG)

Fig. 1. The distribution of state finance capital in the Kikuyu-centric Kenyatta state, 1963–1978.

Fig. 1. The distribution of state finance capital in the Kikuyu-centric Kenyatta state, 1963–1978.

Fig. 2. The distribution of state finance capital in the Kalenjin-centric Moi state, 1978–2002.

Fig. 2. The distribution of state finance capital in the Kalenjin-centric Moi state, 1978–2002.

The ideology of the propertied elite is thus shored up by the pervasive ideology of tribalism which defines the struggle and capture of state power. The corresponding democracy emanating from within such a political system is one in which the election-winning strategy is based purely on ethnic considerations. Political and economic competition in the context of tense inter-ethnic relations has a deleterious and blighting effect on a range of important institutions that generally give states their form, stability and longevity.

The highly ethnicised nature of Kenyan politics and the stultifying and stunting sway and monopoly of ethnic kingpins has historically created personality cults and hegemonic political dynasties that hark back to the very first collaborating class of African big men who were produced by the colonial order of the early 20th Century.

Culturally and structurally, therefore, both the state and Kenyan society have mutually transformed each other, producing a national psyche characterised by moral anarchy and primal greed

Having reproduced itself over the years, this political class has consolidated a hegemony that enables it to flaunt, subvert or circumvent institutions based on democratic values such as the constitution that guaranteesfreedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of meeting, freedom of association, the rule of law; a free and independent judiciary; an independent election commission; public integrity and control bodies; and the civil service, among others.

But it is the generic political partyfounded on principles or championing social issues of concern and pursuing clear ideological positions that has, arguably, borne the brunt of dynastic and tribal politics. In the face of political tribalism and dynastic politics, the democratic multiparty political system is weakened and stultified. Ethnicity, the fulcrum on which national politics revolves has, therefore, implied the inexorable death of the political party in Kenya.

This is the unspoken consequence of the double tragedy of the twin tyranny of political tribalism that exists beneath the thin veneer of the preponderant ideological insistence on “order”, a political “order” underpinned by moral anarchy and the assorted vagaries of political tribalism. One, moreover, that suppresses political dissent and one, therefore, that is, at once, anti-people and, thus, anti-democratic, chaotic and violent; and one that perpetuates the endless search for, and accumulation of, power accompanied by skyrocketing corruption. It is, alas, political disorder that is based on a false political stability enforced by the state security apparatus – regular and anti-riot police, intelligence services and the army.

In post-independent Kenya, therefore, the colonial ideology of order is sustained through the very means that were used at the state’s inception – force, authority, bureaucracy and power.

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Long Reads

Enhancing the Digital Transformation of African Universities: COVID-19 as Accelerator

African universities must transform higher education. At stake is the future of the African continent and humanity itself, as much of this humanity becomes increasingly African.

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Enhancing the Digital Transformation of African Universities: COVID-19 as Accelerator
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The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated global economies, healthcare systems, and institutions including universities. It has accelerated trends towards the digitalisation of economic and social life and the need for digital skills. Here we focus on how African higher education institutions can embrace these changes in order to survive and succeed in the emerging “new normal”. The pandemic has exposed the huge developmental challenges that African universities face, while at the same time it has opened immense new opportunities for transformation. The continent is indeed at the proverbial crossroads in which the multiple demographic, economic, ecological, political and social problems confronting it can be turned into possibilities if managed with strategic, systemic and smart interventions, and the seriousness they deserve.

One of the continent’s biggest assets is its rapid population growth. If properly harnessed, the youth bulge not only promises to become the continent’s largest population ever, but also potentially its most educated and skilled. It is this population upon whose weighty shoulders the continent has placed a historic opportunity to overcome its half millennia of global marginality, underdevelopment and dependency, and begin realising the long-deferred dreams of constructing integrated, inclusive, innovative democratic developmental states and societies. The ghastly alternative is a Malthusian nightmare of hundreds of millions of uneducated, unemployable, and ungovernable marauding masses of young people, a future of unimaginable dystopia.

Educational institutions including universities have a monumental responsibility to turn the youth explosion into a dividend rather than a disaster. This entails removing prevailing skills and jobs mismatches, upgrading the employability skills of the youth, and strengthening and reforming educational institutions to prepare them for the jobs of the 21st century, which increasingly require digitalised competencies. For this to happen, higher education institutions themselves must undergo and embrace digital transformation. COVID-19 suddenly shoved universities—which are renowned for their aversion to change and notoriously move at a snail’s pace—into the future as they moved teaching and learning, administrative and support services, research activities, and even their beloved seminars, symposia, and conferences online.

The ghastly alternative is a Malthusian nightmare of hundreds of millions of uneducated, unemployable, and ungovernable marauding masses of young people, a future of unimaginable dystopia.

Here we examine the digital transformation of higher education. First, we begin by placing the changes, challenges, and opportunities facing contemporary Africa in the context of the mega trends of the 21st century in which the digitalisation of the economy, society, politics, work, education, and even leisure and interpersonal relations increasingly loom large. Second, we examine global developments in the digitalisation of higher education. Third, we present a twelve-point digital transformation agenda for African universities. Finally, the question of building Africa’s technological capacities to ensure that the continent is a major technological player and not pawn, dynamic creator not just passive consumer of technology, is broached and analysed. We believe without it, the digital transformation of not only African universities, but the continent’s economies and societies will remain incomplete and keep them in perpetual underdevelopment.

The mega trends of the 21st century 

There is no shortage of diagnoses and prognoses of the trends and trajectories of the 21st century by international agencies, consultancy firms, governments, academics and pundits. The projections and predictions of the future are as varied as their progenitors and prognosticators, reflecting their divergent institutional, ideological, intellectual, and even individual investments and proclivities. At a more collective and policy level, they find articulation in national, regional, and global visions. Examples include Kenya’s Vision 2030, East Africa’s Vision 2050, the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The futuristic soothsayers were particularly busy at the turn of the new century and millennium but they are by no means gone. A recent compelling and controversial forecast of the unfolding century can be seen in Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. He identifies five developments under which he outlines specific challenges. The first is what he calls “The Technological Challenge” (under which he discusses disillusionment, work, liberty, and equality); second, “The Political Challenge” (community, civilisation, nationalism, religion, and immigration); third, “Despair and Hope” (terrorism, war, humility, God, secularism); fourth, “Truth” (ignorance, justice, post-truth, science fiction); and fifth “Resilience” (education, meaning, meditation).

One of us (Zeleza) is writing a book, The Long Transition to the 21st Century: A Global History of the Present, which seeks to examine the major features of the contemporary world, how they came about, and their differentiated manifestations in different world regions. It is divided into five chapters. The first is entitled, “The Rise of the People” (on social movements and struggles for emancipation and empowerment); the second, “The Emergence of Planetary Consciousness” (on the development of global consciousness fostered by the processes of globalisation and growth of environmental awareness); the third, “The Digitalisation of Everything” (on transformations brought about by digital information and communications technologies on every aspect of social life); the fourth, “The Restructuring of the Geopolitical Order” (on shifting global hegemonies, hierarchies and struggles); and the fifth, “The Great Demographic Reshuffle” (on changing demographic regimes and migration processes and patterns).

Three of these phenomena are particularly pertinent here. The first centers around the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The term often refers to the emergence of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, machine learning, data analytics, big data, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the convergence of the digital, biological, and physical domains of life, and the digitalisation of communication, connectivity, and surveillance. Africa has participated in the three revolutions lately as a pawn rather than a player.

During the First Industrial Revolution of the mid-18th century the continent paid a huge price through the Atlantic slave trade that laid the foundations of the industrial economies of EuroAmerica. Under the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century Africa was colonised. The Third Industrial Revolution that emerged in the second half of the 20th century coincided with the tightening clutches of neo-colonialism for Africa. If the continent continues to be a minor player, content to import technologies invented and controlled elsewhere, its long-term fate might not be confined to marginalisation and exploitation as with the other three revolutions, but descent into irreversible global irrelevance.

The second major trend centers on hegemonic shifts in the world system. The global hegemony of the West that has survived over the last half millennium appears to be drawing to a close with the rise of Asia and other emerging economies of the global South. A harbinger of the hegemonic rivalries that are likely to dominate much of the 21st century is the trade war between a declining United States and a rising China. The consequences of previous hegemonic struggles for global power for Africa varied.

The imperial rivalries between Britain, the world’s first industrial power, and industrialising Germany, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries culminated in the “New Imperialism” that engendered both the colonisation of Asia and Africa and World War I. In contrast, the superpower rivalry between the former Soviet Union and the United States spawned the geopolitical spaces for Asian and African decolonisation. What will the current reconfiguration of global power bring for Africa? How can Africans ensure it creates opportunities for development?

If the continent continues to be a minor player, content to import technologies invented and controlled elsewhere, its long-term fate might be descent into irreversible global irrelevance.

Africa’s prospects in the 21st century will be inextricably linked to the third major transformation, namely, the profound changes in world demography. This is characterised by, on the one hand, an aging population in the global North and in China thanks to its one-child policy imposed from 1979 to 2015, and on the other, population explosion in some regions of the global South, principally Africa. Currently, 60 per cent of the African population is below the age of 25.

The continent is expected to have, on current trends, 1.7 billion people in 2030 (20 per cent  of the world’s population), rising to 2.53 billion (26 per cent) in 2050, and 4.5 billion (40 per cent) in 2100. It is estimated that in 2100 Africa will have a large proportion of the world’s labour force. Thus, educating and skilling Africa’s youths is critical to the future of Africa itself and the rest of the world. Doing so will yield a historic demographic dividend, whereas failure will doom Africa’s prospects for centuries to come.

The digitalisation of higher education

Higher education institutions have a fundamental role to play in enhancing the development and nurturing of demand-driven digital and technical skills because of their quadruple mission, namely, teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and engagement, and innovation and entrepreneurship. This mission is particularly pressing for African universities, the bulk of which were established after independence by the developmentalist state as locomotives to catapult the continent from the perils of colonial dependency and underdevelopment to the possibilities of sustainable development.

As with every other sector, higher education institutions are facing massive transformations that require continuous reform to make them better responsive to the unyielding and unpredictable demands of 21st century economies, societies, polities, and ecologies. The restructuring of universities is necessitated by pervasive and escalating digital disruptions, rising demands for public service and engagement, changes in the credentialing economy, and escalating imperatives for lifelong and lifewide learning. Given the changing nature and future of jobs, today’s youth will not only have multiple jobs but several careers, some of which have not even been invented.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed widespread differences and inequalities in terms of national capacities to manage the crisis and its costs. It forced higher education institutions around the world to embrace distance teaching and learning using online platforms as never before. They had to learn to do more with less as their financial resources became strained as never before and their faculty and students faced the stresses of massive readjustment. Many institutions rose to the occasion as they leveraged existing and acquired new digital technologies, while faculty and students adapted to the new normal.

Empty class.

Empty class. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The unprecedented crisis revealed differentiated institutional resources, access to information technology, and capabilities to transition to online teaching and learning. The pandemic also underscored challenges of access by faculty and students to digital technologies and broadband based on the social dynamics of class, location, gender, and age. It simultaneously exposed and eroded prevalent distrust and discomfort with online compared to face-to-face teaching and learning, and widespread concerns about the quality of online instruction by students, parents and employers.

A few months before the world was engulfed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Association of Universities published an important report on Higher Education in the Digital Era. The report contained results of a global consultation encompassing 1,039 public and private higher education institutions in 127 countries (29 per cent from Europe, 27 per cent Asia and the Pacific, 21 per cent Africa, 17 per cent Middle East, 5 per cent Latin America and Caribbean). Globally, only 16 per cent of respondents found national regulatory policies supportive for higher education transformation in the digital era; 32 per cent mostly supportive with some exceptions; 36 per cent variably supportive and constraining; and 17 per cent mostly unsupportive. The responses from African institutions were 19 per cent, 26 per cent, 37 per cent, and 19 per cent, respectively. Overall, Asia had the most positive assessment, and Europe the most negative.

Today’s youth will not only have multiple jobs but several careers, some of which have not even been invented.

The report also investigated the national financial framework for higher education. Only 7 per cent globally deemed the frameworks highly supportive; 26 per cent mostly supportive with some exceptions; 43 per cent variably supportive and constraining; and 24 per cent mostly unsupportive. Overall, Asia led with 43 per cent, reporting highly and mostly supportive, followed by the Middle East at 40 per cent, Latin America and the Caribbean at 36 per cent, Africa at 30 per cent, and Europe at 27 per cent.

As for Internet infrastructure, the variations favoured the more developed regions. The proportion of individuals out of 100 using the Internet stood at 80.9 in the developed countries, 45.3 in developing countries, 19.5 less developed countries, and a world average of 51.2. Europe led with 79.6, followed by the Commonwealth of Independent States 71.3, Americas 69.6, Arab States 54.7, and Africa was at the bottom with 24.4. The quality of the Internet infrastructure in Africa is exceptionally poor: only 7 per cent find it satisfactory, compared to 39 per cent in Europe, and 21 per cent in Africa find it not good, compared to 2per cent in Europe.

There are also glaring inequalities in the spatial distribution of Internet facilities. At a global level, 34 per cent reported that Internet infrastructure was good in big cities, but poor in rural areas. The equivalent figures were 58 per cent for Latin America and the Caribbean, 47 per cent for Asia and the Pacific, 39 per cent for Africa, 26 per cent for Middle East, and 17 per cent for Europe.

Clearly, enhancing the technological transformation of higher education depends on the levels of national investments in IT infrastructure. The global digital divide remains real and daunting. High inequalities in the spatial distribution of Internet facilities deprives tens of millions of people around the world, especially Africa, access to information, knowledge and networks. Equally critical are institutional investments in IT and here too, Africa lags awfully behind. According to the IAU report, 39 per cent noted digital infrastructure was a significant obstacle at the institutional level compared to 7 per cent in Europe, representing the highest and lowest global levels, respectively.

Higher education and research institutions tend to use national research education networks (NRENs) as an alternative to the commercial Internet Service Providers. On the issue of national support for NRENs, Africa is also at the bottom with 67 per cent of respondents noting the level of support was very or somewhat high compared to the world average of 71 per cent, and 74 per cent for Asia and Pacific, 73 per cent for Middle East, 72 per cent for Europe, and 50 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean.  Africa led in the use of NRENs by higher education institutions at 70 per cent compared to a world average at 62 per cent, the same as Asia and Pacific, and 68 per cent for Latin America and the Caribbean, 64 per cent for Middle East, and 56 per cent for Europe.

Technology at University of Washington, Seattle, United States

Information Technology infrastructure at University of Washington, Seattle, United States Photo by Taylor Vick on Unsplash

Institutional commitment to digital transformation is obviously critical to making the necessary investments in IT infrastructures. The IAU’s report shows generally high levels of commitment from institutional leaders. Africa led with 77 per cent claiming strong leadership support, compared to 74 per cent for Middle East, 73 per cent for Asia and Pacific, 70 per cent for Europe and 61 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean. At a global level, advocacy for digital transformation was bottom-up (56 per cent) rather than top-down (41 per cent). For Africa it was 34 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively. Top-down strategies were most pronounced in Europe (49 per cent) and Latin America and Caribbean (49 per cent), while Middle East led with bottom up approaches (70 per cent).

Approaches to digital transformation varied. Only 18 per cent of respondents globally, and 18 per cent in Africa, and 14 per cent each in Europe and Latin America and Caribbean, 21 per cent in Asia and Pacific, and 33 per cent in Middle East expected to continue doing the same things in their teaching and governance with technology. A larger proportion 43 per cent at the global level expected to do things differently with technology; for Africa the proportion was 16 per cent, Latin America and Caribbean led with 63 per cent, followed by Europe 53 per cent, Asia and Pacific 45 per cent, and Middle East 26 per cent. In Africa, 63 per cent were planning to do things differently but were limited by funds, while globally the figure was 38 per cent, and for Middle East 41 per cent, Europe 33 per cent, Asia and Pacific 32 per cent, and Latin America and Caribbean 23 per cent.

Digital transformation was integrated in institutional strategic plans in all the regions. According to the respondents, globally it was 75 per cent, ranging from 77 per cent for Africa, Asia and Pacific, to 76 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean, 74 Europe and 73 Middle East. Budget allocation for digital transformation was 55 per cent, from a high of 60 per cent in Africa to a low of 50 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean, with Middle East (56 per cent), Asia and Pacific (55 per cent), and Europe (51 per cent) in between. Overall, the bulk of the institutional budget allocated was mostly between 0 and 9 per cent (35 per cent) and 10 and 19 per cent (29 per cent). In most cases, 73 per cent of institutions reported having a senior person in charge of digital transformation. Training opportunities for faculty and staff were generally in the same range.

The survey further revealed regional divergences in online governance of student data and learning processes. Globally, 63 per cent of institutions reported managing enrolment and student data fully online, with a high of 72 per cent in Europe and a low of 55 per cent in Africa, and 70 per cent for Middle East, 60 per cent for Asia and Pacific, and 58 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean. But the use of learning management systems was lower. The range as reported by institutional leaders was from 47 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean to 24 per cent in Africa, while it was 40 per cent in Asia and Pacific, 34 per cent in Europe, and 33 per cent in Middle East. Online data management creates both new possibilities and perils in tracking and managing student enrolments, learning, and outcomes. This raises the issue of data privacy and protection. Globally, 55 per cent of institutions reported fully having ethical guidelines or data privacy policies. Africa ranked lowest at 43 per cent, compared to 65 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean, 64 per cent in Europe, 49 per cent in Asia and Pacific, and 41 per cent in Middle East.

Similarly varied was the use of technology and new modalities in teaching and learning. The global average for full integration of technology in teaching was 31 per cent. Africa ranked second to Middle East at 38 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively. The lowest was Latin America and the Caribbean at 11 per cent, followed by Asia and Pacific at 33 per cent, and Europe at 23 per cent per cent. When it comes to the full use of the new teaching modalities of flipped classroom, blended and online learning, Africa ranked last at 14 per cent, and Latin America and Caribbean on top at 49 per cent, while Asia and Pacific scored 32 per cent, Europe 24 per cent, and Middle East 22 per cent. The global average was 27 per cent. Very few of the responding institutions provided fully online courses: 32 per cent had none, in 14 per cent of institutions they comprised 1 to4 per cent of all courses, and in 13 per cent between 5 and9 per cent.

In much of the world the majority of undergraduate courses were largely delivered through lectures. Africa led in the category “mostly lecture-based learning but combined with problem-based learning”, scoring 56 per cent against a world average of 49 per cent, and ranked lowest under “mostly problem-based learning but combined with lectures” at 11 per cent compared to a world average of 19 per cent. Only 35 per cent of institutions globally reported having fully reconsidered the skills and competencies required of students in the past three years. The regional rankings were Latin America and Caribbean (56 per cent), Asia and Pacific (36 per cent), Europe (35 per cent), Africa (31 per cent), and Middle East (22 per cent). As for reviews of learning outcome assessments, the global average was 42 per cent, and was lowest in Africa at 33 per cent and highest in Latin America and Caribbean at 49 per cent.

Digital literacy is increasingly becoming a critical skill. However, the survey revealed relatively low levels of national support for digital literacy and computational thinking. The global average reporting “Yes, very much” was 19 per cent; Africa registered at the bottom with 12 per cent, while Asia and Pacific and Middle East were on top with 19 per cent each. At the institutional level, digital literacy was viewed as a transversal learning outcome in 22 per cent of the responding institutions globally, the same figure as Africa.

Equally low were levels of national support for open educational resources (OER). In terms of national initiatives in favour of OER, the global average for “Yes, very much” was 16 per cent, similar to Africa’s. The global average for support for online bibliography or library for online content was 23 per cent and for Africa 16 per cent compared to a high of 32 per cent each for Europe and Latin America and Caribbean. At the institutional level only 19 per cent reported fully creating and using OER at the global level, while in Africa 9 per cent did so, which was below the other regions. Commitment to open science was much lower at the national level (17 per cent) compared to the institutional level (56 per cent).

The impact of digital transformations on the nature of jobs and future of work is increasingly appreciated. As a result, continuous reskilling and upskilling through lifelong learning is becoming more and more imperative. Only 18 per cent of respondents globally agreed “Yes, very much” that there were national initiatives in support of lifelong learning; for Africa it was 16 per cent, Europe 24 per cent, Asia and Pacific 18 per cent, Middle East 14 per cent, and Latin America and Caribbean 8 per cent. At the institutional level, 84 per cent reported having adult learners globally led by Europe with 90 per cent, then Africa 88 per cent,  Latin America and Caribbean 87 per cent, and Asia and Pacific and Middle East with 77 per cent each. African institutions reported a 65 per cent increase in adult learners over the past three years, compared to an average 55 per cent globally. African institutions also had higher expectations (68 per cent) that adult learners would increase than other regions (the global average was 61 per cent).

Overall, it is evident from the survey that digital transformation was being pushed by the leadership, followed by faculty, staff, students, governing board, and national authorities. The respondents identified the key achievements using new technologies as, in descending order, improved governance of information, new learning pedagogies to enhance the student experience, improved research, and improved accessibility to higher education. As for challenges, they selected financial costs, university culture’s slowness to adapt to change, lack of interest of faculty and staff to change, lack of capacity building, unreliable internet, and national policies, in that order. For Africa the order of challenges was listed as financial costs, unreliable internet, lack of capacity building, university culture, lack of faculty and staff interest, and national policies.

The report concluded by examining perceptions of current transformations. On institutional readiness towards change, the majority, 53 per cent, indicated they were “very ready”. Respondents from Africa were in the lead at 46 per cent, followed by Latin America and Caribbean 35 per cent, Asia and Pacific 33 per cent, Middle East 30 per cent, and Europe 21 per cent. African respondents (77 per cent) believed more strongly than others (global average 61 per cent) that digital transformation is necessary and inevitable in preparing students to actively participate in society. They also more strongly agreed that digital transformation exacerbates socioeconomic divides within and between countries by 35 per cent to 27 per cent.

Further, to 75 per cent globally, 89 per cent of African respondents strongly agreed compared that digital transformation and new technologies represent an opportunity to expand access to higher education. By a margin of 58 per cent to 39 per cent, they strongly believe these technologies will lower the costs of higher education; 97 per cent to 79 per cent strongly believe they are essential to improving higher education; 90 per cent to 77 per cent that they can enhance the quality of higher education; and 78 per cent to 58 per cent that higher education plays an important role in shaping digital transformation. Yet, only 27 per cent compared to 33 per cent globally believe their institutions were equipped for the future in terms of the emerging technologies and opportunities, compared to 40 per cent in Asia and Pacific, 35 per cent in Europe, 33 per cent in Latin America and Caribbean, and 30 per cent in Middle East.

Clearly, even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic higher education institutions around the world including Africa were increasingly aware and committed to the challenges and opportunities of emerging technologies. They understood the need to undertake transformations at the national and institutional levels in terms of creating enabling policies, making the necessary financial investments in technological infrastructures and capacities, promoting institutional leadership, culture and commitment to change, providing opportunities for faculty and staff training and development. Further, it was appreciated that critical attention needed to be paid to the inequalities of access and the ethical dimensions of data protection and privacy in institutional data management.

COVID-19 acted as an accelerator in the digitalisation of higher education. It is evident from numerous reports in the higher education and popular media that following closures of campuses as part of the containment measures imposed by governments against the pandemic universities scrambled to transition to remote or distance teaching and learning using digital technologies. An informative comparative snapshot on how universities managed and continue to manage the massive disruptions engendered by COVID-19 is provided by the Association of Commonwealth Universities that conducted a survey in May 2020 of its 500 member universities across 50 countries around the world.

The transition to online education, research and administration revealed glaring digital divides among and within countries, as well as among and within universities in terms of digital capacities and access to data, devices, and broadband. More positively, it helped change perceptions about the quality of online teaching and learning. By the beginning of April 2020, higher education institutions had closed in 175 countries affecting over 220 million students. The survey showed 80 per cent of respondents reported teaching had moved online, 78 per cent agreed it had affected their ability to conduct research, while 69 per cent reported they had been able to take research activities online.

The digital divide between countries was evident in the fact that 83 per cent of respondents in the high income countries had access to broadband, compared to 63 per cent for upper middle income countries, 38 per cent in lower middle income countries and 19 per cent from low income countries. Institutions that were unable to move online were confined to the lower middle income countries (19 per cent) and low income countries (24 per cent). Only 33 per cent with broadband access strongly agreed that the pandemic had affected their ability to conduct research, compared to 43 per cent of respondents without broadband access.

Within institutions, the distribution of access to broadband ranged from 74 per cent for senior leaders to 52 per cent to those in professional services, to 38 per cent for academics, and 30 per cent for students. Institutional support for remote working in terms of devices or data was also skewed in favour of senior leaders and professional services staff (both 82 per cent), compared to students (45 per cent) and academics (40 per cent). Prior to the pandemic students were less likely than other groups to report always having worked online, while after the pandemic senior leaders were more likely than their counterparts to say they would work online frequently.

Perceptions of the quality of online teaching and learning showed marked improvement. The vast majority of respondents, 81 per cent, agreed that quality had improved since the pandemic; 90 per cent agreed that a blended degree, combining online and face-to-face learning, was equivalent to a degree earned only through face-to-face learning, while 53 per cent felt a degree earned solely through online learning was equivalent to one earned through face-to-face learning. As for online working, 65 per cent foresaw working online frequently after the pandemic, while 19 per cent foresaw doing so “all of the time”, and only 16 per cent said rarely and 1 per cent said never.

Fifty-three  per cent of respondents envisaged all (26 per cent) or most (28 per cent) departments would continue to use online teaching and learning, and only 4 per cent said that no departments would do so. In terms of institutional commitments and capacity, 89 per cent agreed that their institution had the will to develop high-quality online teaching and learning, while 82 per cent of respondents agreed that their institution has the capacity to do so.

It was reported that universities were providing support for remote working, but with variations between countries and professional roles. Thirty-seven per cent noted their university made a contribution towards data costs, 31 per cent that they were provided device(s) and 7 per cent that their institutions contributed towards device costs. The levels of support ranged from 87 per cent in high income countries, to 70 per cent in upper middle income countries, 51 per cent in lower middle income countries, and 52 per cent in low income countries. Support was also provided in the form of faculty and staff training and development.

The most pressing challenges identified by respondents for remote working were internet speed (69 per cent), data costs (61 per cent), internet reliability (56 per cent), and time zones (38 per cent). Data costs were most pressing for those from low and lower middle income countries, while those from high income countries cited time zones. As for online teaching and learning, the leading challenges were accessibility for students (81 per cent), staff training and confidence (79 per cent), connectivity costs (76 per cent), and student engagement (71 per cent). Respondents from low and lower middle income countries emphasised connectivity costs, while those from high income countries stressed challenges relating to student perceptions of quality. In terms of impact on research, there were some disciplinary variations: in the natural, environmental and earth sciences 92 per cent of academics reported being affected, while in the arts, social sciences and humanities 61 per cent did so.

The twelve-point digital transformation agenda for Africa

Based on data collected from Africa, the ACU noted that African universities faced particular challenges in managing COVID-19. Many suffered from limited digital infrastructure, capacity and connectivity which made it difficult for them to transition online for education, research and administration. These challenges were compounded by enduring financial strains worsened by severe budget cuts as student enrolments dropped and government funding declined. Fundraising has largely been negligible in most African universities.

Also evident was the digital divide across and within African countries. Across the continent respondents identified many challenges including accessibility of students (83 per cent), staff training and confidence (82 per cent), and connectivity costs (89 per cent). In terms of devices and connectivity, respondents indicated 58 per cent had access to two devices, 82 per cent had access to mobile data and 35 per cent to broadband. In Kenya, 25 per cent of respondents reported having access to a desktop, while in Nigeria 15 per cent and in South Africa 13 per cent did. With regard to broadband, 63 per cent of South African respondents had access compared to 54 per cent for Kenya, and 27 per cent for Nigeria.

Among the leading challenges identified for remote working respondents across the continent were data costs (77 per cent), internet speed (71 per cent) and internet reliability (65 per cent). An encouraging development was the growing provision of institutional support. Forty per cent of respondents received contributions toward data costs from their university, 22 per cent were provided with a device and 8 per cent received a contribution toward device costs. Some institutions adopted innovative ameliorative measures, ranging from negotiating with technology companies zero-rated access or reduced subscription prices to educational content, to providing free dongles to students without remote connections.

There were of course national and intra-institutional variations. More likely to receive support were senior leaders and professional services than faculty and students. In terms of contributions to data costs, 62 per cent of senior leaders and 64 per cent of professional services received support. In the provision of devices 54 per cent of the former and 38 per cent of the latter received support.

As far as online teaching and learning is concerned, there was a marked shift. Prior to the pandemic only 16 per cent of respondents indicated online teaching had occurred in all or most departments; 74 per cent said that all or most teaching and learning was now online. Forty-seven  per cent expected that all or most departments would continue to use online teaching and learning. Again, there were national divergences. In Nigeria 44 per cent of respondents reported no teaching and learning had moved online, unlike South Africa and Kenya where no respondents reported this to be the case. In South Africa 94 per cent of respondents stated all or most teaching was now online, compared to 62 per cent for Kenya and 22 per cent for Nigeria. Attitudes on the quality of online teaching and learning witnessed a marked shift as 80 per cent of respondents believed quality had improved; 49 per cent said they thought a degree earned exclusively online was equivalent, while 91 per cent agreed a blended degree is equivalent to a degree earned face to face.

African educators and policy makers now widely accept that the digital transformation of higher education is here to stay. They also appreciate more keenly the need to make significant investments and interventions in technology-based platforms for the higher education enterprise. In the context of the new realities and pressures, it is increasingly evident that the traditional instructional methods, modes of knowledge production and consumption, and institutional conceits of exclusivity are no longer tenable if higher education institutions are to remain relevant for Africa’s regeneration.

A report on digital transformation for British universities recommends ten useful guiding principles that promote digital fluency among faculty and students: institutional digital innovation and progress; integrated working by creating inclusive and collaborative working environments; engaged learning by rethinking interactivity across physical and virtual spaces; personalised learning that motivates and facilitates individual student success; transformed learning spaces that are connected, coherent and compelling; inclusivity in design to accommodate diverse students and learning styles; building of learning communities for students that are safe, secure, and empowering; learning infrastructure in a propitious technology environment that allows for continuous upgrading; and innovative learning based on continuous experimentation, learning, and investment.

Higher education will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly changed from the most catastrophic crisis it has ever faced and for which it was not prepared.  The EDUCAUSE 2021 Top IT Issues foresees the emergence of what it calls alternative and overlapping futures involving three scenarios, restore, evolve, and transform. “The Restore scenario is a story of institutional survival focused on reclaiming the institution’s pre-pandemic financial health”, while the Evolve scenario applies to “institutions that will choose to incorporate the impact and lessons of the pandemic into their culture and vision”. Institutions embracing the Transform scenario “plan to use the pandemic to launch or accelerate an institutional transformation agenda”.

African educators and policy makers now widely accept that the digital transformation of higher education is here to stay.

For example, on the issue of financial health, the Restore scenario focuses on cutting costs, while the Evolve scenario focuses on “increasing revenues and funding sources and on evolving the institution’s business model”. On online learning, the “Restore version takes a structural approach to online learning—emphasizing supports, processes, and policies—whereas the Evolve version focuses on advancing the quality of online learning”. On information security the “Restore version is a tactical one that covers returning to campus as well as cost-effectiveness and recovery. The Evolve version takes a strategic approach and also expands the scope of cybersecurity efforts to include off-campus locations, in recognition of the need to adapt to constituents whose technology environments will never fully return to campus”.

For its part, the “Transform version expands the role of technology (digital transformation) in order to not only reduce costs but also maximize value”. Transform institutions seek to prioritise changing institutional culture and promoting technology alignment. They also seek to develop “an enterprise architecture to enable business outcomes, manage data to enable decision-making and future opportunities, streamline business processes, and enable digital resources to keep pace with strategic change”. For enrollment and recruitment they endeavour to explore and implement “creative holistic solutions for recruitment, including analytics-based marketing around student career outcomes, technology-enabled transfer agreements and partnerships, and use of social media to build student communities”.

Each African university has to ask itself: What kind of institution does it wish to become in the post-COVID-19 era? Many of course will combine elements of all three—restoration, evolution, and transformation. Some may not survive, while others will thrive. Those that endure and excel will need to adopt the twelve-point agenda outlined below.

First, COVID-19-induced transition to remote delivery of education must turn to the development of a long-term digital strategic framework that ensures resilience, flexibility, experimentation, and continuous improvement. Digital transformation must be embedded in institutional culture from strategic planning processes, organisational structures, to administrative practices and daily operations while avoiding exacerbating existing inter- and intra-institutional inequalities for historically, socially, and spatially disadvantaged communities. Universities have to integrate digitalisation in their four core missions: teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and engagement, and innovation and entrepreneurship.

Second, universities have no choice but to make strategic and sustainable investments in digital infrastructures and platforms by rethinking capital expenditures and increasing spending on technological and digital infrastructure. Their budgets must not only support a more robust online learning ecosystem, but also build in flexibilities to reallocate resources in the face of unexpected crises. Critical in this regard is building resilient and secure digital business continuity plans, strategies and capabilities.

Third, African universities have to develop online design competencies both individually and through consortia with each other and overseas institutions that are committed to mutually beneficial partnerships in promoting e-learning. Such consortial arrangements should encompass sharing technical expertise for online instructional design, pedagogy and curation, content development, and training of faculty and university leaders. Inter-institutional collaboration is more imperative than ever following the global transition to online teaching and learning spawned by COVID-19 because competition for students between universities in the global North and the global South is likely to intensify. Africa already loses many of its richest and brightest students to universities in the global North and increasingly the major emerging economies of Asia. Now, they stand to lose some middle class students who can afford enrolling in online programmes offered by foreign universities that enjoy better brands than local universities.

Fourth, universities need to entrench technology-mediated modalities of teaching and learning. Higher education has to embrace face-to-face, blended and online teaching and learning, and raise the digital skills of faculty and students accordingly. Digital transformation promises to diversify students beyond the 18-24 age cohort, maximise learning opportunities for students, and open new markets and increasing tuition revenues for universities. Blended and online teaching and learning offers much needed flexibility for students, who increasingly find it appealing and convenient for its space and time shifting possibilities. It also offers faculty “opportunities to improve educational outcomes by adopting a wider range of learning activities, allowing greater flexibility of study times, space for reflection and a move to different forms of assessment”.

Fifth, digitalisation provides opportunities for beneficial pedagogical changes in terms of curricula design and delivery that involves students and incorporates how they learn. It helps faculty to rethink learning and teaching practices, to see themselves less as imperious sages on the stage and more as facilitating coaches. In this transformed pedagogical terrain and relationship, universities ought to “ensure their professional development strategies and plans include digital training, peer support mechanisms, and reward and recognition incentives to encourage upskilling”. An important part of this agenda is for universities to promote research that enables them to stay current with the changing digital preferences, expectations, and capabilities of students, faculty and professional staff.

Sixth, universities should develop curricula that impart skills for the jobs of the 21st century. Such curricula must be holistic and integrate the classroom, campus, and community as learning spaces; promote inclusive, innovative, intersectional, and interdisciplinary teaching and learning; embed experiential, active, work-based, personalised, and competence-based learning; instil among the GenZ youth the mind-sets of creativity, enterprise, innovation, problem solving, resilience, and patience rather than mindsets of passive learners and knowledge consumers who regurgitate information to pass exams. The extensive changes taking place require continuous reskilling, upskilling, and lifelong learning. The growing importance of careers in science, technology, engineering, healthcare, and the creative arts, all within an increasingly technologically-driven environment, necessitates the development of hybrid hard and soft skills.

Students learning.

Students learning. Photo by heylagostechie on Unsplash

Seventh, for student success, universities have a responsibility to embrace and use educational technologies that support the whole student. According to the EDUCAUSE 2020 Student Technology Report, student success goes beyond degree completion. Holistic support encompasses “access to advisors and to helpful advising technologies”, raising students’ awareness about “the tools available to students, where to find those tools, how to use them, and how they can help advance educational and career goals”. Surveys show students also appreciate course-related alerts, nudges and kudos that are positive and offered early. Regular, constructive, targeted and personalised feedback makes a big difference, so does “embedding a human assistant in the online virtual lectures and office hours [who] . . . through modeling, or observational learning, may persuade students to imitate the assistant . . .. The assistant could be a graduate teaching assistant, an undergraduate student, or a peer leader”.

On technology use and preferences, it is important for universities to “establish research-based instructional practices in all teaching modalities” and develop “an acceptable use policy (AUP) for classroom uses of student devices that is informed by evidence-based practice and students’ preferences for device use. Allow students to participate in the design of the AUP to create a digital learning environment in which they feel empowered to use their devices and to regulate their own behavior”. Also important is assessing “student access to Wi-Fi and digital devices and work to ensure that every student has access to these critical technologies”.

Eighth, universities need to develop effective policies and interventions to address the digital divide and issues of mental health disorders and learning disabilities. Resources and new investments are required to provide opportunities to those trapped by digital poverty. An inclusive agenda for digital transformation must also include using the universal design for learning framework (UDL) “when designing learning experiences and services to optimize learning for all people… If technology and IT policies are thoughtfully and inclusively incorporated into a course guided by UDL, then ideally learner variability, choice, and agency increase, while the need for individual accommodations is greatly reduced”.

Creating inclusive learning environments also entails investing in professional development for faculty to better prepare them to provide accessible instruction. Moreover, as universities seek to expand access to mental health services, they need to leverage technology-based interventions that do not just introduce new ways of offering services but also enable scaling of those services to multiple students online.

Ninth, as learning and student life move seamlessly across digital, physical, and social experiences, issues of data protection and privacy become more pressing than ever. Protecting personal data especially relating to students has to be a priority through the provision of safe storage options and the development of policies and practices that are transparent and ethical. Students are generally comfortable with the institutional use of their personal data as long as it helps them achieve their own academic goals, but not for other gratuitous purposes. Thus, they need to know and have confidence in how the institution collects, stores, protects and uses their personal data, and be able to view, update, and opt out.

The proliferation of online harassment especially against women and people from marginalised groups requires institutional protections including creating codes of conduct against clearly defined online harassment, fostering an anti-harassment culture, and developing a centralised system of reporting and tracking. Growing dependence on digital technologies increases cyber security risks that require robust mitigation capabilities including conducting information security awareness campaigns.

Tenth, in so far as the market for online programmes is transnational, it is essential for universities to pay special attention to international students who face unique barriers in an online learning environment that require special redress. Generally, African universities are not serious players in the international education market. Online education opens new opportunities. The key barriers international students face in the virtual classroom include time differences, hard deadlines, limited connectivity and access, lack of learning space, lack of scheduled support,  lack of language support for non-native or secondary speakers of the language of instruction, remote class culture, invisible support, social isolation and racial discrimination.

The solutions include adopting asynchronous learning, allowing flexible timelines, providing connectivity support, offering safe learning spaces, replicating the class structure, providing language support, setting digital expectations early, building cultural bridges, providing remote support services, and practicing micro-inclusions by encouraging “teachers, staff and students to use subtle, inclusive ways to show international students they are welcome and valued” and establishing safe “virtual” spaces for international and marginalised students and faculty to talk openly.

Eleventh, higher education institutions must develop meaningful partnerships with external constituencies and stakeholders including digital technology and telecommunication companies. As the demands for return on investment increase from students and their families, as well as the state and society, pressures are growing on universities to demonstrate their value proposition and social impact. This translates into the question of graduate employability, closing the much-bemoaned mismatches between educational qualifications and the economy. This entails strengthening experiential learning and work-based learning, which requires strengthening connections with employers. Virtual learning not only necessitates and opens new ways of engaging industry, the economy and society, it also creates huge demands for digital skills for the emerging jobs of the 21st century.

Higher education institutions must develop meaningful partnerships with external constituencies and stakeholders including digital technology and telecommunication companies.

Twelfth, the stakes for research have been raised for African higher education institutions. All along they have been expected to actively produce both basic and applied research and generate innovations that address the pressing problems of African communities, countries, continent, and Africa’s place in the world. However, levels of research productivity have remained generally low. Universities also have a responsibility to promote research and data driven policy and decision-making. Following the disruptions and digital opportunities engendered by COVID-19, universities will increasingly be expected to anchor their research and innovation in the technological infrastructure that supports and enhances the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa.

Research, innovation and technological infrastructure

As noted earlier, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is disrupting and transforming every sector. A critical facet of the technological revolution is advancing research and turning hindsight into insight to make our world a better place whether its gene sequencing, predictive medicine, climate research, economic modelling, manufacturing with computer aided design or financial services trading and risk management.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has produced numerous reports showing how the data-driven technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are shaping the future of advanced manufacturing and production; consumer industries; energy, materials and infrastructure; financial and monetary systems; health and healthcare; investing; media, entertainment and sport; mobility through the creation of autonomous vehicles; and trade and global economic interdependence.

In its report, The Future Jobs Report 2020, the WEF forecasts massive changes in the jobs landscape by as soon as 2025. The report contends, “we estimate that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms, across the 15 industries and 26 economies covered by the report”. It identifies the top ten emerging jobs as: Data Analysts and Scientists, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Specialists, Big Data Specialists, Digital Marketing and Strategy Specialists, Process Automation Specialists, Business Development Professionals, Digital Transformation Specialists, Information Security Analysts, Software and Applications Developers, and Internet of Things Specialists, in that order.

Digital upskilling.

Digital upskilling. Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Conversely, the top ten declining jobs mentioned are: Data Entry Clerks, Administrative and Executive Secretaries, Accounting, Bookkeeping and Payroll Clerks, Accountants and Auditors, Assembly and Factory Workers, Business Services and Administration Managers, Client Information and Customer Service Workers, General and Operations Managers, Mechanics and Machinery Repairers, Material-Recording and Stock-Keeping Clerks.

“Data is the new oil” headlines abound and countries that can harness this data to extract value will have a significant competitive advantage. Data is even more valuable than oil, whose reserves on the planet are fixed. As Adam Schlosser notes, “Unlike oil, increasing amounts of data are being generated at a pace that’s hard to fathom: in the next two years, 40 zettabytes of data will be created – an amount so large that there is no useful framing exercise to demonstrate its size and scope. It’s roughly equivalent to 4 million years of HD video or five billion Libraries of Congress . . .. Unlike oil, the value of data doesn’t grow by merely accumulating more. It is the insights generated through analytics and combinations of different data sets that generate the real value.”

Thus, harnessing data, advancing research and drawing insights requires advances in computing and specifically High Performance Computing or HPC. There is an intersection between technologies that are driven by the pertinent needs of the 21st century workplaces such as Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data etc. and high performance computing. Huge technological strides in the development of hardware technology and computing architectures have played a big role towards making it possible for complex machine learning algorithms to be used to resolve real world problems and challenges from climate change to disease pandemics.

It is noteworthy that the future jobs mentioned above in areas such as Data Analytics, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics will require advanced computing technologies and performance in order to support the operational roles that employees will play in organisations.  Notwithstanding the financial pressures that the COVID-19 pandemic has visited on Africa, the continent has to make strategic and smart investments in the digitalisation of its economies, societies, and educational institutions. At most it has a decade to do so if it is not to be permanently left behind by the rest of the world.

During the First Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century Africa was reduced to providing labour for the Atlantic Slave Trade that developed EuroAmerica and underdeveloped the continent. Under the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, colonised Africa supplied raw materials that deepened its dependency. Africa participated in the Third Industrial Revolution of the late-20th century as a collection of neo-colonial peripheries. In exchange for its labour Africa received trinkets, its raw materials fetched a pittance on world markets, and later the backward post-colonies were sold “appropriate technologies”. Now, the continent is even paying dearly for the privilege of exporting its data!

The danger of remaining peripheral to the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa is not exploitation and marginalisation, but historical irrelevance as noted earlier, becoming a landmass of disposable people. Critics caution that Africa should not embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the risk of “premature de-industrialisation”. Others warn of the dangers of data manipulation and cyberattacks and that the continent is not ready, an argument that condemns Africa to eternal technological underdevelopment. On the contrary, as Ndung’u and Signé, argue, the transformative potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa is substantial. It promises to promote economic growth and structural transformation; fight poverty and inequality; reinvent labour skills and production; increase financial services and investment; modernise agriculture and agro-industries; and improve health care and human capital.

In order to play a pivotal role in the 4th Industrial revolution, African higher education institutions need a change of mind set and to recognise their role as centres for teaching and learning, research, knowledge and technology transfer to current and future generations. They need to collaborate among themselves and with industry, government and other key players to undertake research, innovation, and develop digital technologies that address the continent’s most enduring and difficult needs and opportunities, not simply consume technologies produced by others.

The danger of remaining peripheral to the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa is not exploitation and marginalisation, but historical irrelevance.

Africa’s leading research universities need to reinvent themselves by using advanced technologies such as HPC that support supply of human resources for the jobs of the future, as well as training faculty that have the requisite skills and competency to equip students with the skills required to take up those jobs. The digital transformation agenda has huge implications on universities’ institutional capacities, financial resources, human capital in relation to development and delivery of curricula and technological infrastructures. Currently, the continent’s HPC capacity is abysmally low as shown below.

Data presented at the HPC conference held at USIU-Africa and the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in December 2017 underscored Africa’s insignificant capability for the high performance computing that is essential for the digital revolution as evident in Figure 2.

The need and rationale for HPC in Africa is self-evident. It is simply unacceptable for a continent of 1.2 billion people to have negligible HPC capacity that is so essential for research, innovation and development. The African continent faces several socio-economic and political challenges, scores low on research and innovation indices, and is plagued by the persistent challenges of “brain drain” with some of the best and brightest people often leaving the continent in search of “greener pastures” including access to research infrastructures, higher pay and an appreciation for innovation. Nevertheless, Africa is posting impressive economic growth rates and has one of the youngest populations in the world. Technology is making a dramatic impact in Africa and Africa’s rate of technology adoption is unprecedented as evident in Figure 5. The mobile phone and internet are increasingly widely available.

Figure 5: Kenya's rapid adoption of technology (source World Development Report 2016)

Figure 4: Kenya’s rapid adoption of technology (source World Development Report 2016)

For Africa to competitively contribute to research and innovation and to find home-grown solutions to its socio-economic challenges, it is important that measures are taken which will provide the continent with access to cutting-edge computing technologies from hardware to software that have become essential for research, innovation, growth and jobs. Africa must invest in High Performance Computing platforms because modern scientific discovery involves very high computing power and the capability to deal with massive volumes of data. Otherwise, the continent will miss out on major advances in research and innovation in the digital age.

It is estimated that a $1 HPC Investment on average yields $463 in revenue and $44 in added profit. HPC can help solve Africa’s challenges, such as:

  • Climate Change: climate research and weather prediction are critical if Africa is to weather the ravages of climate change. Predicting weather accurately can enable countries to make better long-term food security policies, environmental policies and interventions and even security policies.
  • Health and life sciences: gene sequencing, molecular research and bio-physical simulations can all support the development of effective medicine and vaccines for critical diseases like Malaria and HIV in Africa; and explore Africa’s abundance of natural remedies. Epidemic modelling can predict disease spread so that governments and healthcare providers can make appropriate interventions.
  • Oil, gas and mineral exploration: Africa has an abundance of natural resources and access to HPC platforms can speed up seismic analysis which can speed up exploration and exploitation.
  • Growth of industry and SMEs: Industry and SMEs are increasingly dependent on the power of supercomputers to discover innovative solutions, cut costs and reduce time to market for products and services (European Commission, 2017). Sectors such as retail, manufacturing and financial services could benefit from HPC for data analysis for insights and innovation.
  • Economic research: economic modelling using big and open data would lead to insights and contribute to evidence-based policy making.
  • Research Collaboration: Increase research collaboration between Africa and other parts of the world. Having local capacity for large data processing means African scientists can better contribute to the global research agenda, provide tools for wider collaboration with research colleagues, and stimulate increased awareness, utilisation and application of high performance computing in the sectors identified in Figure 1 above.

It is evident from Figure 1 and Figure 2 above that despite the potential that HPC for promoting collaborative research and innovation in various sectors of the world economy, hardly any effort has been made towards harnessing this huge potential on the African continent. There have been HPC initiatives in several countries in the past, including Ghana, Kenya, Congo, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Cameroon. Clearly, these efforts have not gone far.

There is need to develop HPC technical design and management skills etc., leverage initiatives and build synergy through discussions with potential partners including research programmes, networks and institutions, university communities, associations and institutions, donors, development partners, and philanthropists, governments, intergovernmental agencies, and the private sector.

It is simply unacceptable for a continent of 1.2 billion people to have negligible HPC capacity that is so essential for research, innovation and development.

To conclude, building digital capacities including information literacy for students at one end and HPC infrastructures at the other end is essential for dealing with the development and employment challenges of today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. Digital capabilities and skills are not good to have, but are a must-have. They are essential to support effective development of solutions to address societal/scientific/industrial challenges in Africa, and the development of innovations, products and services.

This will lead to job creation; building computing capacity that will create new opportunities for both scientific applications and computing technologies; support for growth and competitiveness in industry and Africa’s economy through round-the-clock availability and utilisation of HPC systems and services; and enhance South-South and South-North collaboration in education, research and development.

We invite you to join African universities in this great calling and journey to transform higher education on this continent to educate, skill, and empower the youth to fully participate in their countries’ socioeconomic development. At stake is not only their future, but the future of the African continent and humanity itself, as much of this humanity becomes increasingly African.

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Uganda Elections 2021: Neoliberalism as Neocolonialism and the West’s Role in Propping up a Dictator

The last thirty years of Ugandan politics cannot be explained as something that emerges primarily and ultimately from Museveni as a politician and as a “case”. Internalist characterisations of the drivers of social, political and economic transformation have contributed to a concealing of the inter-linkages of the international matrix of power structures and capital accumulation.

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Uganda Elections 2021: Neoliberalism as Neocolonialism and the West’s Role in Propping up Dictators
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The 2021 presidential and parliamentary elections in Uganda were the subject of intense public debate and widely covered in the local and international media. The discussions and reports were dominated by a number of major themes: the imprisonment of opposition presidential candidates and members of their support teams; disappearances and killings; the use of tear gas and live bullets by state agencies to “contain” the politically engaged public; state attacks on journalists and NGOs, and control of social media spaces; the role of state agencies such as the police, the army and the electoral commission in helping the incumbent, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni—Uganda’s President of over 30 years—secure another contested victory at the ballot box; the electoral influence of ‘”foreigners” who cooperate with opposition politicians and NGOs to “destabilise” the country, support domestic terrorism, advance the homosexuality agenda, etc.; and, of course, the prospects of election rigging and subsequent protest, violence and uprising.

Days before the elections on January 14th, key partners of the Ugandan government such as the United Nations, the United States and the European Union (as well as various domestic and global organisations) expressed concerns regarding the heavy-handedness of the state and the human rights violations committed in the run-up to the election and appealed to the Ugandan authorities to respect human rights, ensure electoral fairness, and investigate the alleged cases of state brutality. The elections indeed exacerbated pre-existing trends in the country towards state authoritarianism, the militarisation of society and repression of political dissent. This of course raises a core question: what is the causal and political implication of these influential global actors, including the international financial institutions and many other development agencies, in this state of affairs, including the violence of the Ugandan state? And what can we conclude from the election dynamics about the state of the liberal project—including promoting democracy—in Uganda?

First, an observation about the prevailing debate. To date a significant part of the commentaries regarding the election and its characteristics focuses on Museveni and regards his ambitions for life presidency as a major if not the key reason for the election crisis and the mayhem to which the media has devoted numerous pages and hours of reporting, roundtable discussions and expert interviews. No matter how analytically useful this focus might be, disproportionate attention is, in our view, paid to the role of Museveni and his agency as the explanans of the key characteristics of the developments in the country since 1986 when Museveni took power after years of armed struggle against the government of the day.

It is against this background that we argue here (as we did in the introduction and conclusion to a collection about neoliberal Uganda we recently edited) that Museveni is not an explanans but rather an explanandum, and this calls for an analysis of national and transnational class alliances and global, national and local neoliberal forces. The last thirty years of Ugandan politics cannot be explained as something that emerges primarily and ultimately from Museveni as a politician and as a “case”. Internalist characterisations of the drivers of social, political and economic transformation have contributed to a concealing of the inter-linkages of the international matrix of power structures and capital accumulation. Instead, part of Museveni’s hegemony has been reinforced by “foreign” influences and interests that have fuelled the neoliberal project co-existing with endogenous social and power structures.

Here, we place the Ugandan elections in the context of a wider process of post-1986 social transformation: the locking in of neoliberal capitalism in the country and the social engineering of Uganda as a market society. This process implicates not just Museveni and his inner circle but a far wider and more illustrious range of actors with their respective agendas, including, actors like the UN, the EU and the US, long-term core partners of the Museveni government and the liberal project in the country.

This dimension of the election phenomenon is often underestimated in comments by academics and commentators. Such analyses also typically spare the donor community when they explore the drivers of the state violence and suppression of the past months. In other words, such accounts tend to not adequately analyse the implication of these foreign actors in the making of a violent election, state and presidency, and in the current state of Ugandan politics generally. Rather, a common position in this genre of writings is that donors are a constraining factor when it comes to state violence, that they help to ensure that the Museveni state does not go “too hard” on its opponents (and on the population more generally). Kristof Titeca and Anna Reuss, for example, write in a piece titled “How Museveni mastered violence to win elections in Uganda”:

“An essential part of the NRM’s . . .  strategies is that they are relentless but rarely too extreme. Museveni has learnt this after seeing the response to more overtly repressive measures. The regime’s relative restraint also avoids overly riling international donors. Given Uganda’s reputation as a beacon of stability and its contributions to regional peacekeeping missions, Western diplomats are typically reluctant to express more than mild criticism of Museveni’s government. They only do so in cases which are big enough to warrant attention from western audiences, such as the anti-gay bill. The arrests of Besigye and Bobi Wine in 2018 similarly surpassed that threshold. As a result of these experiences, the Museveni regime has become a master in using an arsenal of measures which are limited in time and intensity but whose message is clear enough. It exerts continued pressure in a way that makes opposition leaders’ lives difficult but without escalating into major events.”

We do not have space to unpack this position but would question what is said here regarding agency and causality in matters of state violence and repression. Also problematic are the exhortations from commentators such as Rita Abrahamsen and Gerald Bareebe for donors to now reconsider their relation with the NRM government and to let their concerns for human rights violations and for democracy be followed by more decisive actions. A problem with this kind of analysis is that it tends to regard violence as epiphenomenal rather than inscribed in the structural operation of the world capitalist system, and ignores the ways in which violence plays out in the everyday politics in different, often hidden, forms and at different levels (from local to transnational).

Symptomatically, such analyses do not sufficiently take into account that a core phenomenon at play here is imperialism, that these western states that are asked by analysts to learn from their past ‘mistakes’, reconsider their politics, and stand up for human rights, ordinary people, democracy, justice, fairness and peace are imperialist (and highly militaristic) states often in competition for resources, markets and spheres of influence. So, any such political demand made to the US or the EU for example is a demand made to empires, to the leading military and political-economic powers in the world.

All this requires an analytical acknowledgement of the politics (including violence) of empire, imperialism, imperialist states, and global capitalism, and of the deeper structures of economic and political interests (beyond the often referred to ‘security’ or ‘stability’) in the day-to-day operations of ‘the system’. The call to action made to western powers in this newly declared “test case” is thus politically disingenuous (and analytically questionable), especially in the light of the fact that international financial and development agencies, western governments and bilateral donors have been active players in forging transnational class alliances and shaping the contours of the emerging state-donors-capital political complex in Uganda in the last three decades.

Our position in this ongoing debate about donors in Uganda and Africa more generally is instead more in line with analysts such as Kalundi Serumaga, Yusuf Serunkuma, Mary Serumaga, Helen Epstein, A.K. Kaiza, Bernard Tabaire, Allan Tacca, Chris Dolan or Adam Branch who have analysed “donors” as enablers of state violence and/or the other “social ills” that often get mentioned in national and international commentaries on Museveni’s Uganda. Their respective pieces on the Ugandan government and state take into account the “larger picture” of (post-)colonialism, imperialism and the global political economy. Kalundi Serumaga’s latest big-picture pieces for example are titled as follows: “Murder as  Order”, “Democracy for Some Mere Management for Others” and “Uganda’s Democracy-free Election”; the latter echoing Thandika Mkandawire’s term “choiceless democracies”, coined more than 20 years ago.

We move on then in our own analysis that derives from our research in Uganda, and our work as editors of a recent collective analysis titled Uganda: The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation. To start with, contemporary Uganda is analytically one of the most telling cases of the complex entanglements between neoliberal capitalism, the democratisation agenda and imperialism in Africa. The country is one of the planet’s most globally propped up, most invested in and symbolically one of the most important cases of global liberalism and liberal interventionism and the respective social engineering. Globally praised as an African success story and heavily backed by international financial institutions, development agencies and bilateral donors, the country has become the exemplar of economic and political reform for those who espouse a neoliberal model of development.

The neoliberal policies and the resulting restructuring of the country have been accompanied by narratives of progress, prosperity, and modernisation and have been justified in the name of development. Uganda is a major exemplar of the dominant if dubious trope of “Africa Rising”, of liberation-movements-in-government, of liberal democracy in Africa, of Bill Clinton’s “new generation of African leaders” (also called the “new breed”), of aid and development, and of neoliberal capitalism in Africa, i.e. the comprehensive (yet contested) neoliberal transformation of the economic, political, social, ecological and cultural structures in a post-colonial, aid-dependent, under-developed, agrarian country in a geopolitically important region of the world.

Thus, when Kampala goes up in flames—as it did a few weeks in November 2019 when protests broke out on the streets after the imprisonment of by far the most popular opposition presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine (his stage name)—a model, an exemplar, burns. In this incident, dozens of people lost their lives when state agencies quelled what the president later called plans by the opposition to organise a Libya-style “insurrection’”. “Pacification” (in this case of Kampala) is back (or rather remains) on the agenda, with Maj. Gen. Paul Okech—who has gained extensive experience in managing urban conflict in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu (thus nicknamed “the Lion of Mogadishu”)—newly appointed to the position of Deputy Inspector General of Police.

The country is one of the planet’s most globally propped up, most invested in and symbolically one of the most important cases of global liberalism and liberal interventionism

Uganda’s 2021 elections were hence another showdown in a country that is often displayed by the establishment, both global and local, as a showcase for the project of neoliberal social reordering. In this electoral campaign, state violence and repression of dissent, then, did not signal the failure but rather the very operations and realities on the ground of the model of authoritarian neoliberalism: using state power and coercion to establish functioning markets and advance the core political-economic interests and preferred social order of the ruling actors. The encounter of state coercion and authoritarian forms of rule with the ideas of free markets (and private enterprise) is not accidental in liberal economic theory. As one of the pioneers of (neo)liberalism, Friedrich von Hayek, once argued: “Personally I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism.” In this sense, human, civic and other political rights in today’s Uganda (as elsewhere in the world) are being sacrificed on the altar of neoliberalisation.

Neoliberalisation refers to the process of systematic and substantial transformation of the Ugandan state, economy, and culture into a “market society”, i.e. a society characterised by marketisation of social relations, a general empowerment and hegemony of capital (especially of large private corporations), and the corresponding restructuring of people’s subjectivities, relationships and everyday practices so as to make all realms of society operate market-like. Neoliberalism—as a project, discourse and ideology—is at its core about creating such a fully-fledged market society, which operates above all in the interest of capital by conflating it with the public interest.

To follow the dynamics in pre-election Uganda then means to observe and come to terms with the character and impact of this restructuring and with the actual operations of this market society, and relatedly, the operations of global capitalism/political economy, the dynamics of Western and Eastern imperialism, the interactions of local and national power structures and the dynamics with international political-economic structures and patterns, and the inherently conflictual and contradictory processes of capitalist societal transformation including class formation, consolidation and struggle.

It means to come to terms with the evolving capitalist social order in all its complexity, tension, and socially regressive, unsustainable and harmful character. And it means to witness the intense discourses, commentaries, spins and silences of the ruling classes and key members of the “international community” that include some of the most powerful international organisations and agencies in the development industry (World Bank, IMF, USAID, and so on).

The election is thus an exemplar (or “thriller”, “showdown”) par excellence of international politics, global political economy, and international development, all at the same time. Crucially, the election campaign narratives of government success and failure, of Museveni as a dictator vs. visionary, of a country that has progressed from 1986 and is on the road to prosperity for all vs a country that is in deep crisis and back to “square one” politically is not new at all and nor is the state violence. Instead, these bifurcated discourses and the state violence are long-standing key features of the making and operation of neoliberal Uganda.

The events of the run up to the 2021 elections have questioned and destabilised the decades-long ideational and discursive hegemony of powerful international and national reform designers, implementers and supporters about Uganda as a success story. This hegemony—or cognitive intervention and restriction of the powerful—has produced and defended a severe ideological and analytical containment and impoverishment concerning key societal themes. We thus critique and challenge what Ngugi Wa Thiong’o calls, with reference to European colonialism in Africa, the mental domination we witness surrounding Uganda-as-a-case; a domination that is so characteristic of the neoliberal social order across the contemporary “free world”: “Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control.” 

The encounter of state coercion and authoritarian forms of rule with the ideas of free markets (and private enterprise) is not accidental in liberal economic theory

As thinkers from Luxemburg to Orwell noted, contesting the “truth” of the ruling classes, pronouncing what is going on and offering alternatives to establishment accounts of “reality” (and thereby “history”), is a crucial political act. In 2020 pre-election and COVID Uganda, donors/UN/aid agencies stood as close to government as one can imagine, running plenty of joint report-launching, forward-planning and partnership-announcing events. Contesting the existing dominant set of data, interpretations, languages, policy demands and actor alliances—especially when the establishment chatter, celebration and cheers is at its loudest—is thus most paramount. So, let us delve deeper…

As we explain in the introduction to our edited collection, the dynamics of transformation in neoliberal Uganda are interpreted through two diverging, hard–to-reconcile narratives which persist in global and national debates alike. The first narrative frames Uganda as a success story and a development/reform model for international development agencies such as the World Bank (which has a parallel in a major part of the country’s academic scholarship that for decades was characterised by a celebratory tone about the country’s overall development path). This is the narrative of a Uganda emerging from years-long civil war in the late 1980s, and within a few years becoming an international success story.

This “New Uganda” narrative praises the post-1986 policy reforms which have stimulated economic growth, with sustained GDP growth and foreign direct investment attraction matched by steady progress in poverty reduction and gender empowerment. Central to this narrative is the leadership of a president who is a progressive moderniser, acting with the interest of the nation at heart. In short, Uganda has never been better. Such accounts parade “impressive”, “successful”, and “admirable” achievements in social, political and economic spheres. Very powerful actors promote this narrative year in, year out: from the World Bank, the IMF and the country’s various international and bilateral donors, to influential international and domestic scholars and analysts, and the Ugandan government and establishment.

The same actors have produced a plethora of official statistics and econometric studies that supposedly provide evidence of this stated steady progress. A prime example of this celebratory narrative about the new Uganda as an astonishing exemplar of reform success is the Kampala speech of the IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, in January 2017, “Becoming the Champion: Uganda’s Development Challenge”, which states:

“This gathering provides an opportunity to congratulate Uganda for its impressive economic achievements and to speak about the possibilities of the future. I do not normally begin my speeches with statistics, but today will be an exception. That is because the numbers tell us a great deal: Uganda has experienced a threefold increase in per capita GDP over the past generation. And you have reduced extreme poverty to one-third of the population. This made Uganda one of the countries that has more than achieved the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015. This is an African success story.” (Lagarde 2017, emphasis in original.)

Couched in orthodox neoliberal language, the “New Uganda” narrative pushed by the IMF is consistent with its “Africa rising” narrative of economic optimism, which mirrors the  enthusiastic rhetoric of the African Renaissance narrative led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki in the early 2000s. Accelerated economic development spurred a renewed optimism among economists who predicted a luminous 21st century for African economies. The argument is that China’s and India’s demands for African raw materials, following the extraction-centric export-oriented route that raised GDP levels in the 2000s represents the best option for Africa to grow wealthy.

Lagarde made her visit just months after the highly controversial 2016 political elections that were—just like the 2020/21 version—accompanied by repression against sections of the opposition and critics of the government (as well as accusations of substantial and outright vote rigging). The outcome of the 2016 elections further deepened the government’s legitimacy crisis (which has intensified ever since). Nevertheless, donors remained strong advocates of the project of ultra-capitalist Uganda and its principle implementing agency, the government. The 2018 Labour Day speech of the UN Resident Coordinator in Uganda, Rosa Malango, is another exemplar here. As the speech, titled “Revitalize local government system to build public spirit for service”, outlines: “Uganda is widely recognized for producing a wide range of excellent policies on social, economic and development issues”

And indeed, while there is data and analyses available that support some of the mainstream narratives of a successful (and socially beneficial) post-1986 transformation, there is also plenty of evidence of a prolonged and multifaceted situation of crisis generated by a particular version of severe capitalist restructuring, or neoliberal reforms, of a crisis that severely questions the success narrative. This leads us to discuss the second narrative, “Uganda in crisis”, which has been articulated by “people on the street”, sections of the political opposition, and some segments of the media and non-governmental organisations. This narrative captures the extent of multi-faceted political, social, cultural and economic crises due to the prevalence of a patrimonial mode of rule supported by the president’s ruling group. This formation uses state power to advance private economic interests and functions through a far-reaching business and political network, which includes the President’s extended family, political allies and foreign investors.

To denounce the self-seeking attitude prevalent in the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), Ugandan street politics have mockingly renamed it the “National Robbery Movement”. The state has come to be associated with increasing political repression, a decline in public services and generalised economic insecurity. Public debates refer to “mafias”, a “mafia state”, a “vampire state”, a country occupied, controlled and exploited by a tiny “clique” of powerful domestic actors and their foreign allies. Uganda has experienced recurring food shortages and chronic indebtedness, and an explosive social crisis characterised by increased inequality, widespread violence and increased criminality.

The idiosyncrasies between these two competing discourses—which are a reflection of different social constituencies, political complexes and economic interests—were already manifest before the beginning of the 2021 election campaign with a mix of economic depression, systemic corruption, widening inequalities and poverty going hand-in-hand with growing state repression of dissenting voices in the midst of mushrooming, diverse and localised social struggles.

Two events signify these emerging sets of contradictions. First, the detention and torture in August 2018 of the popular “ghetto” musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine, the NUP (National Unity Platform) presidential candidate and main opponent to the US-backed military rule of Museveni, embodying in the eye of a significant section of the public opinion the aspirations and imaginaries of the masses of youthful voters aiming to dethrone the dictator and, second, the imprisonment of Museveni’s vocal critic, feminist scholar and activist Stella Nyanzi, in the same year. Symbolically speaking, they represent respectively two cases of repression of political alternatives and intellectuals, pointing to the increasingly authoritarian character of Museveni’s regime which, finding itself under a serious crisis of legitimacy, responds with the major weapon it masters, the inherited violence of the colonial state.

Challenged by the explosion of a series of popular mobilisations and protests, and inundated by public controversies (such as those around the constitutional revision of the presidential mandate, the alleged involvement of the president and his foreign minister Sam Kutesa in a case of international corruption with Chinese businessman Chi Ping Patrick Ho, who reportedly gave them a US$1million bribe in an attempt to gain oil concessions on behalf of the giant Chinese company, CEFC Energy Company Limited) the Ugandan state has responded with a growing militarisation of its politics by framing existing political formations as a threat to national security and the country’s road to progress.

This “securitisation” of the debate about the political future of the country has allowed the state to shift the terrain of struggle from questions of social justice, emancipation, and the construction of political alternatives towards issues of patriotism, national security and sovereignty, and political stability.

Notably, the increasing cases of kidnappings, disappearances of civilians and extra-judicial killings, and the systematic repression of the mobilisation and organisation campaigns of other political forces, have mostly been condoned by Western governments, bilateral donors and international financial institutions, pointing to the selective use of the doctrine of democracy and human rights and its use as an imperial weapon against non-compliant countries in the Global South.

The use of political violence in 2020/21 is thus not epiphenomenal, nor is it solely linked to the political turbulence caused by the election campaign. It is rather that, without it, the very existence of the regime would be jeopardised. Its constant deployment, in a mix of coercion and consent, is meant to secure the maintenance and reproduction of the social block in power. It is the same violence the regime unleashed against recalcitrant rural populations resisting state-orchestrated land enclosures and other contentious state-led donor-funded development projects such as, for example, the agro-industrial sugar complex in Amuru district in the Acholi region. The project has for years been supported by the government but has been met with prolonged opposition from local dwellers who perceive it as a threat to their land-based livelihoods.

The state has come to be associated with increasing political repression, a decline in public services and generalised economic insecurity

Against this wider background, and in order to facilitate debate about the causes of the election violence and other key election characteristics, we offer some analytical points in the remainder of this text which help us to map and interpret the key symptoms of Uganda’s neoliberal authoritarianism. These short 10 points emerged from our collective analysis of the character of neoliberal Uganda and are the condensation of the data and findings of the 19 substantial chapters written by over 20 scholars from across disciplines. They outline key features of the neoliberalisation of Uganda over the last three decades. The analysis helps to understand and conceptualise the state violence and bias in the run-up to the election not as outlier, not as failure of government to do x, y, z, but as the-model-in-operation of how power is reproduced and political-economic agendas and interests defended and advanced by the ruling classes (and their foreign backers) in neoliberal-capitalist societies.

At its most fundamental, day-to-day politics—election mode or not—is about power, i.e. the use (not abuse!) of power. Politics in semi-liberal capitalist settings is no exception to that rule. The question then is what the election violence tells us about power structures, relations and dynamics and the prevailing political-economic interests and priorities. It is here where most human rights-based analyses fall short. With our 10-point characteristics, we want to intensify the debate about the elections along three lines in particular: capitalism; aid and development; foreign control and influence and the respective power alliances between foreign and domestic actors (i.e. the role of foreign, particularly western/western-dominated actors, and their domestic partners/establishment actors).

First, neoliberal restructuring emerges as an all-encompassing process. Neoliberalisation is a hetero-directed process, one that diffuses from multiple poles of power, discourse, interest and wealth. As such, it is not simply exogenous to, or imposed on Uganda. Rather it is articulated with—and metabolised within—society and politics, at many interconnected levels.

Second, neoliberalisation was a joint exercise of power by way of an alliance of resourceful foreign and domestic actors, and across various power dimensions. The power alliance—with members including, among others, donors, international organisations (IOs), large firms and government—rolled out its agenda of reform in various ways over vulnerable populations and cemented a particular architecture of structural (of capital for example) and behavioural power and institutionalised and bureaucratised forms of discipline in the state and the economy. Domestic elites often helped advance, rather than stand against the interests of foreign economic actors.

Third, economic growth has become the centre of gravity of political activity and the key indicator of political success at the expense of other societal considerations including social justice, emancipation, equality, political and civic freedoms and human rights. The maximisation of private profits imposed itself as the dominant principle that informed policy-making. Some time back, in a tweet following a meeting with EU diplomats, Museveni wrote: “It’s okay to talk of human and other rights but growth of the economy should be the first right to emphasize”.

Fourth, Uganda is a striking example of authoritarian neoliberalism, in which coercive state practices and administrative and judicial state apparatuses contain oppositional forces, limiting the challenge to neoliberal policies. Sector restructuring through privatisations and liberalisations was often executed in a rushed and uncompromising way, with ample use of authoritarianism and state violence. Often, there was little concern for environmental and economic sustainability in policy-making, and the magnitude of the harmful repercussions of restructuring for large sections of the population. In this context, the state capitalised on foreign donors and investors, allied with particular domestic societal groups and established its hegemony by promoting the image of a government led by a benevolent, well-meaning, trustworthy power, and generally moralised the neoliberal project. IFIs and other foreign actors of the international development sector directly and indirectly enabled the build-up of a powerful and oppressive security apparatus, and more generally, the state’s coercive and violent practices of power, over many years.

Challenged by the explosion of a series of popular mobilisations and protests, the Ugandan state has responded with a growing militarisation of its politics

There are various ways in which these actors are implicated, directly and indirectly, in the growth of corruption, authoritarianism and militarisation, and in a more explicit turn towards crony/rentier capitalism. The oppression of sections of the population by the state is thus in-fact an oppression of the historical state-donors-capital bloc, i.e. the particular “congruence of material interests, institutions and ideologies, or broadly, an alliance of different class forces politically organised around a set of hegemonic ideas that gave strategic direction and coherence to its constitutive elements” (Gill 2002: 58). In the case of Uganda, the formation of this power bloc developed through a series of national and transnational political networks and discourses which converged around a certain vision and form of organisation of society.

This bloc also put in place and advanced a particular neoliberal capitalist form of structural violence. Violence has been an intrinsic component of the neoliberal project, rather than its antithesis. Like in other neoliberal societies, the escalation of violence has taken multidimensional forms—military, disciplinary, economic, political, cultural, verbal. State policies (especially those that hit the poor) have unleashed systemic violence and corresponding widespread and cruel social harm. Territorial militarisation and securitisation is one of these forms of neoliberal violence. The militarisation of whole villages and districts to curb dissent and protest—for instance, against large-scale land acquisitions and related displacing dynamics—has been a constant feature of post-1986 Uganda. The emerging oil and mining sectors are also driving this agenda further.

Fifth, there exist notable similarities and continuities between the neoliberal and colonial development projects, especially with regard to access and control of key natural resources and the accelerating extractive logic of capitalism. Uganda is undergoing a deep structural transformation, not so much into the much coveted “middle income country” that populates the imaginary of many, but rather into an extractive and authoritarian enclave where foreign interests are tackling land, water, oil, forestry and conservation areas as sinks for resource extraction. A colonial matrix of dispossession and domination persists in the neoliberal period through structures of power that link state-corporate actors, comprador bourgeois classes and racialised social groups and classes within states reproducing neo-colonial structures of inequality and projects of subjugation through development projects, market violence, land theft, looting of natural resources, exploitation and cultural assault.

Neoliberalisation is a hetero-directed process, one that diffuses from multiple poles of power, discourse, interest and wealth

Sixth, neoliberalisation has advanced inequalities between classes and exacerbated social injustice. Many neoliberal interventions had a pro-powerful—rather than a pro-poor character. Systemic elite bias and elite capture of development projects turned these into tools to advance the process of class formation, consolidating the power of dominant classes. Neoliberalism increased the power of a range of domestic actors, especially but not only elite actors. Major foreign economic actors benefited in significant ways. The presence of foreign capital was backed by various ideological devices, including “foreigners as investors” and “business interest equals public interest” ideologies. Over the years, Museveni’s rhetoric has been consistent and insistent on the role of foreign investors in his vision for the country. Symptomatic of neoliberal Uganda is an acceleration of “jobless” economic growth, whereby much of the investment take place in the extractive and financial sectors, with little or no linkages to local economies, and with wealth captured by a plethora of actors with little societal redistribution. As such, the making of the new market society has gone hand in hand with increasing resource inequalities, as uneven access to natural resources paved the way for capital accumulation in the hands of a few. The escalation of inequality and class divisions is inherently linked to neoliberal restructuring.

Seventh, neoliberal policies have produced socially regressive effects for the most vulnerable parts of the population. The financial demands and pressures on the subaltern classes to just survive and recover from ill-health are extraordinary. Health and education reforms resulted in a social crisis for significant sections of the poor, threatening their life chances and advancing inequality and class divisions. Further, the multiple and interacting crises produced by neoliberal restructuring are often addressed by more neoliberal reform which brings rather little advancement. The version of neoliberalism observed in Uganda is in key aspects arguably more extreme, crass and unequal than elsewhere. Neoliberal reason has become embedded in society and it is by now a habit of thought, a cognitive frame that shapes the way people see themselves, others, and the social world, and consequently the ways in which they act in that context.

Eighth, neoliberal discourses—from good governance to empowerment—provided a positive, sanitising spin to the brutal exercise of power and restructuring that has locked-in a capitalist social order and its societal hierarchy based on increased inequality and a permanent social crisis. Neoliberal ideology provided a message of win-win, progressive change, hope and optimism, a “human” face, a technical, natural flavour to a process that produced substantial regressions and crises. This resulted in the depoliticisation and sterilisation of debates about development and change.

Donor-led development narratives and ideologies systematically concealed the class interests behind the neoliberal reforms. Narratives of liberalisation, free markets, empowerment and competition among free individuals thus tended to conceal the substantial concentration of wealth, monopolistic tendencies and resulting profit levels, and the coercive and conflictive character of the neoliberal economy. Reform programmes that promised a better governed, efficient, orderly, clean, accountable, humane, pro-people polity and economy, i.e. a harmonious social order, thereby engendered a society shaped (and scarred) by heightened violence, criminality, opaqueness, conflict, and social harm.

Neoliberal reason has become embedded in society and it is by now a habit of thought, a cognitive frame that shapes the way people see themselves

Ninth, the process of neoliberalising Uganda has occurred in continuity with key aspects of the colonial project, substantially contested on the ground by those who have most suffered its nefarious social, political and ecological implications. Protests have taken different forms and contributed to shaping important alliances with other social constituents which carved up a new political space by challenging the implementation of neoliberal development projects. A myriad of social struggles is taking place around key areas of societal transformation. Social media has become a protest platform which the state constantly strives to restrict in order to control dissent and criticism of state action. These dynamics have at times helped opposition parties to win seats, and forced the state to respond by alternating its iron hand – political violence – with its soft hand – consent seeking.

Tenth, the exclusion, inequality, violence, precarity and crises that large sections of the subaltern classes face are thus not caused by a “malfunctioning” market, or a “deviated” capitalist trajectory. Rather, the opposite is true: it is precisely the functioning of neoliberal restructuring and institutions that causes widespread social, political and economic crises. The Ugandan situation is part and parcel of institutionalised crass capitalism globaxlly. There is no way out of these crises unless the key pillars of neoliberal order are questioned, and inroads towards a significant de-neoliberalisation of the country are made. We do not see this happening in the near future, as the neoliberal restructuring is now well embedded, i.e. Ugandans face an “instituted neoliberalism” (McMichael 2017: 336). This institutionalised character of neoliberalism applies to the regional and the global levels too, where it produces a wide array of “material and epistemic demands” (ibid) that will push for further restructuring.

To conclude, the mainstream ideology claiming that more private sector development will produce a future that is, as Museveni put it in a tweet in 2017, “easy to handle”, is a fallacy (“If economy grows, costs go down, private investors are attracted and the future becomes easy to handle.”, 10.05.2017). Current in-crisis countries elsewhere, for instance Mexico, were once celebrated success stories of neoliberal restructuring; they are now telling case studies of the open-ended regressive possibilities of this model of society. Uganda, and neoliberal Africa, might well face a further “mexicisation” in some aspects of societal order. The key processes and practices underpinning social transformations in the country are not unique to Uganda. Several African countries have in many ways undertaken similar paths of political, social, economic, and cultural transformation. Yet the spectacular changes that have occurred in Uganda in the last thirty years reveal the potential trajectories of transformation upon which other African countries could embark in the near future (or that are already underway). The prevalence of extractive and enclave economies, the hegemony of the state-donors-capital block, and the expanding marketisation of society, represent the common denominator for many African countries. As all this unfolds, watch out for the crisis-related spin, explanations, narratives and discourses of the powerful, particularly how the problems and contradictions of capitalist social order and rule are theorised, discussed, and explained (away). This task of explaining the ‘unexplainable’ – to (re-)construct for example explanations concerning state violence, to express shock and concern about violence while at the same time advancing or hiding it – can be regarded as part of what Kalundi Serumaga termed the “common boss problem”. The conflicting and changing (and much debated) statements in the last days of the EU and other western actors about the quality of the elections (and EU statements about respective misreporting) give a glimpse into the ‘dilemmas’ and ‘difficulties’ of executing this task.

Social media has become a protest platform which the state constantly strives to restrict in order to control dissent and criticism of state action

Finally then, whatever the spins of the powerful, the neoliberal hegemonic development model in Uganda, which has produced widening inequalities, growing concentration of control of resources, rising levels of poverty and widespread marginalization, has not gone uncontested. Despite elections having taken place in the midst of state sponsored violence, they have been characterised by tremendously high levels of popular mobilisation and political participation. Indeed, the growing political ferment in the country, which precedes the electoral period, is the result of the growing political support gained by Bobi Wine, ‘ghetto’ musician-turned-politician, founder of People’s Power movement and leading figure of the political scenario in the country. Embodying the aspirations of millions of disenfranchised youth (the overwhelming majority of Ugandans are under 25 years), Wine has been able to mobilize masses across the country, reawakening the political imagination, forging alliance with other forces in the opposition, and becoming a major threat to the existence of the regime.

In this sense, the acute violence we have witnessed in coincidence with elections is a response to a broader set of social mobilisations which have mounted a series of political challenge to neoliberal authoritarianism. In this short piece: “The West helped cripple Ugandan democracy”, Wine points to the long-term involvement of external forces in Ugandan’s political affairs, and the role of donors and western governments in hindering the overthrow of the neoliberal order. He highlights the antagonism between authoritarian neoliberalism and the free political agency of millions of Ugandans. His political challenge is thus arguably not only against the oppression of the Museveni government but against key aspects of the very operation of imperialism and global capitalism (and the continuation of neoliberalism in the country). In these moments of political contestation and upheavals Amiclar Cabral’s revolutionary teaching, ‘tell no lies, claim no easy victories” becomes actual. Yesterday, as today, it is paramount to uncover the causes of people’s misery, in order to build a social order that can truly serve, advance and protect people’s lives and aspirations.

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