Traditional colonial power seeks unilateral power and domination over colonised people. It declares control of the social, economic, and political sphere by reordering and reinventing the social order in a manner that benefits it. In the age of algorithms, this control and domination occurs not through brute physical force but rather through invisible and nuanced mechanisms such as control of digital ecosystems and infrastructure.
Common to both traditional and algorithmic colonialism is the desire to dominate, monitor, and influence the social, political, and cultural discourse through the control of core communication and infrastructure mediums. While traditional colonialism is often spearheaded by political and government forces, digital colonialism is driven by corporate tech monopolies—both of which are in search of wealth accumulation.
The line between these forces is fuzzy as they intermesh and depend on one another. Political, economic, and ideological domination in the age of AI takes the form of “technological innovation”, “state-of-the-art algorithms”, and “AI solutions” to social problems. Algorithmic colonialism, driven by profit maximisation at any cost, assumes that the human soul, behaviour, and action is raw material free for the taking. Knowledge, authority, and power to sort, categorise, and order human activity rests with the technologist, for whom we are merely data-producing “human natural resources”, observes Shoshana Zuboff in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Zuboff remarks that “conquest patterns” unfold in three phases. First, the colonial power invents legal measures to provide justification for invasion. Then declarations of territorial claims are asserted. These declarations are then legitimised and institutionalised, as they serve as tools for conquering by imposing a new reality. These invaders do not seek permission as they build ecosystems of commerce, politics, and culture and declare legitimacy and inevitability. Conquests by declaration are invasive and sometimes serve as a subtle way to impose new facts on the social world and, for the declarers, they are a way to get others to agree with those facts.
Algorithmic colonialism, driven by profit maximisation at any cost, assumes that the human soul, behaviour, and action is raw material free for the taking
For technology monopolies, such processes allow them to take things that live outside the market sphere and declare them as new market commodities. In 2016, Facebook declared that it is creating a population density map of most of Africa using computer vision techniques, population data, and high-resolution satellite imagery. In the process, Facebook arrogated to itself the authority for mapping, controlling, and creating population knowledge of the continent.
In doing so, not only did Facebook assume that the continent (its people, movement, and activities) are up for grabs for the purpose of data extraction and profit maximisation, but Facebook also assumed authority over what is perceived as legitimate knowledge of the continent’s population. Statements such as “creating knowledge about Africa’s population distribution”, “connecting the unconnected”, and “providing humanitarian aid” served as justification for Facebook’s project. For many Africans this echoes old colonial rhetoric; “we know what these people need, and we are coming to save them. They should be grateful”.
Currently, much of Africa’s digital infrastructure and ecosystem is controlled and managed by Western monopoly powers such as Facebook, Google, Uber, and Netflix. These tech monopolies present such exploitations as efforts to “liberate the bottom billion”, help the “unbanked bank, or connect the “unconnected”—the same colonial tale but now under the guise of technology. “I find it hard to reconcile a group of American corporations, far removed from the realities of Africans, machinating a grand plan on how to save the unbanked women of Africa. Especially when you consider their recent history of data privacy breaches (Facebook) and worker exploitation (Uber)”, writes Michael Kimani. Nonetheless, algorithmic colonialism dressed in “technological solutions for the developing world” receives applause and rarely faces resistance and scrutiny.
It is important, however, to note that this is not a rejection of AI technology in general, or even of AI that is originally developed in the West, but a rejection of a particular business model advanced by big technology monopolies that impose particular harmful values and interests while stifling approaches that do not conform to their values. When practiced cautiously, access to quality data and use of various technological and AI developments does indeed hold potential for benefits to the African continent and the Global South in general. Access to quality data and secure infrastructure to share and store data, for example, can help improve the healthcare and education sectors.
Gender inequalities which plague every social, political, and economic sphere in Ethiopia, for instance, have yet to be exposed and mapped through data. Such data is invaluable in informing long-term gender-balanced decision making which is an important first step towards making societal and structural changes. Such data also aids general societal-level awareness of gender disparities, which is central for grassroots change. Crucial issues across the continent surrounding healthcare and farming, for example, can be better understood and better solutions can be sought with the aid of locally developed technology. A primary example is a machine learning model that can diagnose early stages of disease in the cassava plant, which is developed by Charity Wayua, a Kenyan researcher and her team
Having said that, the marvelousness of technology and its benefits to the continent is not what this paper has set out to discuss. There already exist countless die-hard techno-enthusiasts, both within and outside the continent, some of whom are only too willing to blindly adopt anything “data-driven” or AI-based without a second thought to the possible harmful consequences. Mentions of “technology”, “innovation”, and “AI” continually and consistently bring with them evangelical advocacy, blind trust, and little, if any, critical engagement. They also bring with them invested parties that seek to monetise, quantify, and capitalise every aspect of human life, often at any cost.
Crucial issues across the continent surrounding healthcare and farming can be better understood and better solutions can be sought with the aid of locally developed technology
The atmosphere during a major technology conference in Tangier, Morocco in 2019 embodies this techevangelism. CyFyAfrica, The Conference on Technology, Innovation and Society, is one of Africa’s biggest annual conferences attended by various policy makers, UN delegates, ministers, governments, diplomats, media, tech corporations, and academics from over 65 (mostly African and Asian) nations.
Although these leaders want to place “the voice of the youth of Africa at the front and centre”, the atmosphere was one that can be summed up as a race to get the continent “teched-up”. Efforts to implement the latest, state-of-the-art machine learning tool or the next cutting-edge application were applauded and admired while the few voices that attempted to bring forth discussions of the harms that might emerge with such technology got buried under the excitement. Given that the technological future of the continent is overwhelmingly driven and dominated by such techno-optimists, it is crucial to pay attention to the cautions that need to be taken and the lessons that need to be learned from other parts of the world.
One of the central questions that need attention in this regard is the relevance and appropriateness of AI software developed with values, norms, and interests of Western societies to users across the African continent. Value systems vary from culture to culture including what is considered a vital problem and a successful solution, what constitutes sensitive personal information, and opinions on prevalent health and socio-economic issues. Certain matters that are considered critical problems in some societies may not be considered so in other societies. Solutions devised in a one culture may not transfer well to another. In fact, the very problems that the solution is set out to solve may not be considered problems for other cultures.
The harmful consequences of lack of awareness to context is most stark in the health sector. In a comparative study that examined early breast cancer detection practices between Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and high-income countries, Eleanor Black and Robyn Richmond found that applying what has been “successful” in the West, i.e. mammograms, to SSA is not effective in reducing mortality from breast cancer. A combination of contextual factors, such as a lower age profile, presentation with advanced disease, and limited available treatment options all suggest that self-examination and clinical breast examination for early detection methods serve women in SSA better than medical practice designed for their counterparts in high-income countries. Throughout the continent, healthcare is one of the major areas where “AI solutions” are actively sought and Western-developed technological tools are imported. Without critical assessment of their relevance, the deployment of Western eHealth systems might bring more harm than benefit.
Mentions of “technology”, “innovation”, and “AI” continually and consistently bring with them evangelical advocacy, blind trust, and little, if any, critical engagement
The importing of AI tools made in the West by Western technologists may not only be irrelevant and harmful due to lack of transferability from one context to another but is also an obstacle that hinders the development of local products. For example, “Nigeria, one of the more technically developed countries in Africa, imports 90% of all software used in the country. The local production of software is reduced to add-ons or extensions creation for mainstream packaged software”. The West’s algorithmic invasion simultaneously impoverishes development of local products while also leaving the continent dependent on its software and infrastructure.
Data are people
The African equivalents of Silicon Valley’s tech start-ups can be found in every possible sphere of life around all corners of the continent—in “Sheba Valley” in Addis Abeba, “Yabacon Valley” in Lagos, and “Silicon Savannah” in Nairobi, to name a few—all pursuing “cutting-edge innovations” in sectors like banking, finance, healthcare, and education. They are headed by technologists and those in finance from both within and outside the continent who seemingly want to “solve” society’s problems, using data and AI to provide quick “solutions”.
As a result, the attempt to “solve” social problems with technology is exactly where problems arise. Complex cultural, moral, and political problems that are inherently embedded in history and context are reduced to problems that can be measured and quantified—matters that can be “fixed” with the latest algorithm. As dynamic and interactive human activities and processes are automated, they are inherently simplified to the engineers’ and tech corporations’ subjective notions of what they mean. The reduction of complex social problems to a matter that can be “solved” by technology also treats people as passive objects for manipulation. Humans, however, far from being passive objects, are active meaning-seekers embedded in dynamic social, cultural, and historical backgrounds.
The discourse around “data mining”, “abundance of data”, and “data-rich continent” shows the extent to which the individual behind each data point is disregarded. This muting of the individual—a person with fears, emotions, dreams, and hopes—is symptomatic of how little attention is given to matters such as people’s well-being and consent, which should be the primary concerns if the goal is indeed to “help” those in need. Furthermore, this discourse of “mining” people for data is reminiscent of the coloniser’s attitude that declares humans as raw material free for the taking.
Complex cultural, moral, and political problems that are inherently embedded in history and context are reduced to problems that can be measured and quantified
Data is necessarily always about something and never about an abstract entity. The collection, analysis, and manipulation of data potentially entails monitoring, tracking, and surveilling people. This necessarily impacts people directly or indirectly whether it manifests as change in their insurance premiums or refusal of services. The erasure of the person behind each data point makes it easy to “manipulate behavior” or “nudge” users, often towards profitable outcomes for companies. Considerations around the wellbeing and welfare of the individual user, the long-term social impacts, and the unintended consequences of these systems on society’s most vulnerable are pushed aside, if they enter the equation at all.
For companies that develop and deploy AI, at the top of the agenda is the collection of more data to develop profitable AI systems rather than the welfare of individual people or communities. This is most evident in the FinTech sector, one of the prominent digital markets in Africa. People’s digital footprints, from their interactions with others to how much they spend on their mobile top ups, are continually surveyed and monitored to form data for making loan assessments. Smartphone data from browsing history, likes, and locations is recorded forming the basis for a borrower’s creditworthiness.
Artificial Intelligence technologies that aid decision-making in the social sphere are, for the most part, developed and implemented by the private sector whose primary aim is to maximise profit. Protecting individual privacy rights and cultivating a fair society is therefore the least of their concerns, especially if such practice gets in the way of “mining” data, building predictive models, and pushing products to customers. As decision-making of social outcomes is handed over to predictive systems developed by profit-driven corporates, not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by corporate incentives, we are also allowing moral questions to be dictated by corporate interest.
“Digital nudges”, behaviour modifications developed to suit commercial interests, are a prime example. As “nudging” mechanisms become the norm for “correcting” individuals’ behaviour, eating habits, or exercise routines, those developing predictive models are bestowed with the power to decide what “correct” is. In the process, individuals that do not fit our stereotypical ideas of a “fit body”, “good health”, and “good eating habits” end up being punished, outcast, and pushed further to the margins. When these models are imported as state-of-the-art technology that will save money and “leapfrog” the continent into development, Western values and ideals are enforced, either deliberately or intentionally.
Blind trust in AI hurts the most vulnerable
The use of technology within the social sphere often, intentionally, or accidentally, focuses on punitive practices, whether it is to predict who will commit the next crime or who may fail to repay their loan. Constructive and rehabilitative questions such as why people commit crimes in the first place or what can be done to rehabilitate and support those that have come out of prison are rarely asked. Technology designed and applied with the aim of delivering security and order necessarily brings cruel, discriminatory, and inhumane practices to some.
The cruel treatment of the Uighurs in China and the unfair disadvantaging of the poor are examples in this regard. Similarly, as cities like Harare, Kampala, and Johannesburg introduce the use of facial recognition technology, the question of their accuracy (given they are trained on unrepresentative demographic datasets) and relevance should be of primary concern—not to mention the erosion of privacy and the surveillance state that emerges with these technologies.
Not only are we allowing our social concerns to be dictated by corporate incentives, we are also allowing moral questions to be dictated by corporate interest
With the automation of the social comes the automation and perpetuation of historical bias, discrimination, and injustice. As technological solutions are increasingly deployed and integrated into the social, economic, and political spheres, so are the problems that arise with the digitisation and automation of everyday life. Consequently, the harmful effects of digitisation and “technological solutions” affect individuals and communities that are already at the margins of society. For example, as Kenya embarks on the project of national biometric IDs for its citizens, it risks excluding racial, ethnic, and religious minorities that have historically been discriminated.
Enrolling on the national biometric ID requires documents such as a national ID card and birth certificate. However, these minorities have historically faced challenges acquiring such documents. If the national biometric system comes into effect, these minority groups may be rendered stateless and face challenges registering a business, getting a job, or travelling. Furthermore, sensitive information about individuals is extracted which raises questions such as where this information will be stored, how it will be used, and who has access.
FinTech and the digitisation of lending have come to dominate the “Africa rising” narrative, a narrative which supposedly will “lift many out of poverty”. Since its arrival in the continent in the 1990s, FinTech has largely been portrayed as a technological revolution that will “leap-frog” Africa into development. The typical narrative preaches the microfinance industry as a service that exists to accommodate the underserved and a system that creates opportunities for the “unbanked” who have no access to a formal banking system. Through its microcredit system, the narrative goes, Africans living in poverty can borrow money to establish and expand their microenterprise ventures.
However, a closer critical look reveals that the very idea of FinTech microfinancing is a reincarnation of colonialist-era rhetoric that works for Western multinational shareholders. These stakeholders get wealthier by leaving Africa’s poor communities in perpetual debt. In Milford Bateman’s words: “like the colonial era mining operations that exploited Africa’s mineral wealth, the microcredit industry in Africa essentially exists today for no other reason than to extract value from the poorest communities”.
Far from being a tool that “lifts many out of poverty”, FinTech is a capitalist market premised upon the profitability of the perpetual debt of the poorest. For instance, although Safaricom is 35% owned by the Kenyan government, 40% of the shares are controlled by Vodafone—a UK multinational corporation—while the other 25%, are held mainly by wealthy foreign investors. According to Nicholas Loubere, Safaricom reported an annual profit of $US 620 million in 2019, which was directed into dividend payments for investors.
A closer critical look reveals that the very idea of FinTech microfinancing is a reincarnation of colonialist-era rhetoric that works for Western multinational shareholders
Like traditional colonialism, wealthy individuals and corporations in the Global North continue to profit from some of the poorest communities except that now it takes place under the guise of “revolutionary” and “state-of-the-art” technology. Despite the common discourse of paving a way out of poverty, FinTech actually profits from poverty. It is an endeavour engaged in the expansion of its financial empire through indebting Africa’s poorest.
Loose regulations and lack of transparency and accountability under which the microfinance industry operates, as well as overhyping the promise of technology, makes it difficult to challenge and interrogate its harmful impacts. Like traditional colonialism, those that benefit from FinTech, microfinancing, and from various lending apps operate from a distance. For example, Branch and Tala, two of the most prominent FinTech apps in Kenya, operate from their California headquarters and export “Silicon Valley’s curious nexus of technology, finance, and developmentalism”. Furthermore, the expansion of Western-led digital financing systems brings with it a negative knock-on effect on existing local traditional banking and borrowing systems that have long existed and functioned in harmony with locally established norms and mutual compassion.
Lessons from the Global North
Globally, there is an increasing awareness of the problems that arise with automating social affairs illustrated by ongoing attempts to integrate ethics into computer science programmes within academia, various “ethics boards” within industry, as well as various proposed policy guidelines. These approaches to develop, implement, and teach responsible and ethical AI take multiple forms, perspectives, directions, and present a plurality of views.
This plurality is not a weakness but rather a desirable strength which is necessary for accommodating a healthy, context-dependent remedy. Insisting on a single AI integration framework for ethical, social, and economic issues that arise in various contexts and cultures is not only unattainable but also imposes a one-size-fits-all, single worldview.
Despite the common discourse of paving a way out of poverty, FinTech actually profits from poverty
Companies like Facebook which enter African “markets” or embark on projects such as creating population density maps with little or no regard for local norms or cultures are in danger of enforcing a one-size-fits-all imperative. Similarly, for African developers, start-ups, and policy makers working to solve local problems with homegrown solutions, what is considered ethical and responsible needs to be seen as inherently tied to local contexts and experts.
Artificial Intelligence, like Big Data, is a buzzword that gets thrown around carelessly; what it refers to is notoriously contested across various disciplines, and oftentimes it is mere mathematical snake oil that rides on overhype. Researchers within the field, reporters in the media, and industries that benefit from it, all contribute to the overhype and exaggeration of the capabilities of AI. This makes it extremely difficult to challenge the deeply engrained attitude that “all Africa is lacking is data and AI”. The sheer enthusiasm with which data and AI are subscribed to as gateways out of poverty or disease would make one think that any social, economic, educational, and cultural problems are immutable unless Africa imports state-of-the-art technology.
The continent would do well to adopt a dose of critical appraisal when regulating, deploying, and reporting AI. This requires challenging the mindset that invests AI with God-like power and as something that exists independent of those that create it. People create, control, and are responsible for any system. For the most part, such people are a homogeneous group of predominantly white, middle-class males from the Global North. Like any other tool, AI is one that reflects human inconsistencies, limitations, biases, and the political and emotional desires of the individuals behind it, and the social and cultural ecology that embed it. Just like a mirror, it reflects how society operates—unjust and prejudiced against some individuals and communities.
Artificial Intelligence tools that are deployed in various spheres are often presented as objective and value-free. In fact, some automated systems which are put forward in domains such as hiring and policing are put forward with the explicit claim that these tools eliminate human bias. Automated systems, after all, apply the same rules to everybody. Such a claim is in fact one of the single most erroneous and harmful misconceptions as far as automated systems are concerned. As Cathy O’Neil explains, “algorithms are opinions embedded in code”. This widespread misconception further prevents individuals from asking questions and demanding explanations. How we see the world and how we choose to represent the world is reflected in the algorithmic models of the world that we build. The tools we build necessarily embed, reflect, and perpetuate socially and culturally held stereotypes and unquestioned assumptions.
For example, during the CyFyAfrica 2019 conference, the Head of Mission, UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, addressed work that is being developed globally to combat online counterterrorism. Unfortunately, the Director focused explicitly on Islamic groups, portraying an unrealistic and harmful image of global online terrorism. For instance, contrary to such portrayal, more than 60 per cent of mass shootings in the United States in 2019 were carried out by white-nationalist extremists. In fact, white supremacist terrorists carried out more attacks than any other type of group in recent years in the US.
In Johannesburg, one of the most surveilled cities in Africa, “smart” CCTV networks provide a powerful tool to segregate, monitor, categorise, and punish individuals and communities that have historically been disadvantaged. Vumacam, an AI-powered surveillance company, is fast expanding throughout South Africa, normalising surveillance and erecting apartheid-era segregation and punishment under the guise of “neutral” technology and security. Vumacam currently provides a privately owned video-management-as-a-service infrastructure, with a centralised repository of video data from CCTV. Kwet explains that in the apartheid era passbooks served as a means of segregating the population, inflicting mass violence, and incarcerating the black communities.
Similarly, “[s]mart surveillance solutions like Vumacam are explicitly built for profiling, and threaten to exacerbate these kinds of incidents”. Although the company claims its technology is neutral and unbiased, what it deems “abnormal” and “suspicious” behaviour disproportionally constitutes those that have historically been oppressed. What the Vumacam software flags as “unusual behaviour” tends to be dominated by the black demographic and most commonly those that do manual labour such as construction workers. According to Andy Clarno, “[t]he criminal in South Africa is always imagined as a black male”. Despite its claim to neutrality, Vumacam software perpetuates this harmful stereotype.
Stereotypically held views drive what is perceived as a problem and the types of technology we develop to “resolve” them. In the process we amplify and perpetuate those harmful stereotypes. We then interpret the findings through the looking-glass of technology as evidence that confirms our biased intuitions and further reinforces stereotypes. Any classification, clustering, or discrimination of human behaviours and characteristics that AI systems produce reflects socially and culturally held stereotypes, not an objective truth.
A robust body of research in the growing field of Algorithmic Injustice illustrates that various applications of algorithmic decision-making result in biased and discriminatory outcomes. These discriminatory outcomes often affect individuals and groups that are already at the margins of society, those that are viewed as deviants and outliers—people who do not conform to the status quo. Given that the most vulnerable are affected by technology disproportionally, it is important that their voices are central in any design and implementation of any technology that is used on or around them.
However, on the contrary, many of the ethical principles applied to AI are firmly utilitarian; the underlying principle is the best outcome for the greatest number of people. This, by definition, means that solutions that centre minorities are never sought. Even when unfairness and discrimination in algorithmic decision-making processes are brought to the fore—for instance, upon discovering that women have been systematically excluded from entering the tech industry, minorities forced into inhumane treatment, and systematic biases have been embedded into predictive policing systems—the “solutions” sought do not often centre those that are disproportionally impacted. Mitigating proposals devised by corporate and academic ethics boards are often developed without the consultation and involvement of the people that are affected.
Stereotypically held views drive what is perceived as a problem and the types of technology we develop to “resolve” them
Prioritising the voice of those that are disproportionally impacted every step of the way, including in the design, development, and implementation of any technology, as well as in policymaking, requires actually consulting and involving vulnerable groups of society. This, of course, requires a considerable amount of time, money, effort, and genuine care for the welfare of the marginalised, which often goes against most corporates’ business models. Consulting those who are potentially likely to be negatively impacted might (at least as far as the West’s Silicon Valley is concerned) also seem beneath the “all knowing” engineers who seek to unilaterally provide a “technical fix” for any complex social problem.
As Africa grapples with digitising and automating various services and activities and protecting the consequential harm that technology causes, policy makers, governments, and firms that develop and apply various technologies to the social sphere need to think long and hard about what kind of society we want and what kind of society technology drives. Protecting and respecting the rights, freedoms, and privacy of the very youth that the leaders want to put at the front and centre should be prioritised. This can only happen if guidelines and safeguards for individual rights and freedoms are put in place, continually maintained, revised, and enforced. In the spirit of communal values that unifies such a diverse continent, “harnessing” technology to drive development means prioritising the welfare of the most vulnerable in society and the benefit of local communities, not distant Western start-ups or tech monopolies.
The question of technologisation and digitalisation of the continent is also a question of what kind of society we want to live in. The continent has plenty of techno-utopians but few that would stop and ask difficult and critical questions. African youth solving their own problems means deciding what we want to amplify and showing the rest of the world; shifting the tired portrayal of the continent (hunger and disease) by focusing attention on the positive vibrant culture (such as philosophy, art, and music) that the continent has to offer. It also means not importing the latest state-of-the-art machine learning systems or some other AI tools without questioning the underlying purpose and contextual relevance, who benefits from it, and who might be disadvantaged by the application of such tools. Moreover, African youth involvement in the AI field means creating programmes and databases that serve various local communities and not blindly importing Western AI systems founded upon individualistic and capitalist drives. In a continent where much of the Western narrative is hindered by negative images such as migration, drought, and poverty, using AI to solve our problems ourselves starts with a rejection of such stereotypical images. This means using AI as a tool that aids us in portraying how we want to be understood and perceived; a continent where community values triumph and nobody is left behind.
This article was first published by SCRIPTed.
Africa’s Fourth Industrial Revolution Must be STEAM-Driven
African policy makers create a Chinese wall between STEM and the humanities and social sciences. What is needed is STEAM—science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.
It is widely agreed that science, technology, and innovation are indispensable for African development. Universities are generally expected to play a critical role in the development of national and regional STI capabilities. The challenge is in the meaning of these axiomatic assumptions and aspirations, the modalities of synergising them into a virtuous cycle of continuous reinforcement to create knowledge, capacities, opportunities, and mentalities for innovative, integrated, inclusive and sustainable economies, societies, and polities.
STI is integral to Africa’s enduring drive for self-determination, development, and democratisation, for the continent’s transformation, and the restructuring and reimagining of its engagement with the world. Ultimately, it represents a search for African modernities in a world dominated by “instrumental reason” and characterised by the growing importance of “knowledge economies” and “knowledge societies”. It is a project that poses challenges that are simultaneously political and philosophical, concrete and conceptual, about the social and structural conditions and imperatives of Africa’s development in a world that rewards scientific and technological progress and punishes those lagging behind.
Knowledge including science and its applied products—technology—is driven and conditioned by powerful epistemic, economic, political and historical forces. Science is as much a scholarly venture spawned by intellectual curiosities and opportunities, as it is a social enterprise sustained by ideological interests, institutional dynamics, and the demands of society for solutions to pressing challenges and the market for profitable products and services. Science and scholarship thrive as much through the motivations, inspirations, and aspirations of the practitioners themselves as it requires structured support provided by universities, governments, businesses and other actors.
STI operates under national and transnational epistemological and regulatory regimes that transcend internal disciplinary proclivities and the agency and ambitions of their experts. The pressures and opportunities for strengthening STI in Africa have risen since 2000 as prospects for economic growth, political liberalisation, and struggles for social inclusion have accelerated, and as the imperatives of the Fourth Industrial Revolution have become more evident. COVID-19 has cast its own frightful demands for scientific and innovative mitigations.
Across the continent there has been a proliferation of national, regional, and continental STI policies and plans. African governments and universities are more aware, and even seem more committed than ever, of the need for their countries and institutions to invest and become producers of scientific knowledges and not just consumers of technological products. While science and technology are of course not a panacea for all the challenges of human and social development, and by themselves will not solve Africa’s stubborn legacies of underdevelopment, without them, those legacies cannot be overcome.
My presentation is divided into five parts. First, I will briefly discuss the conundrum of development as part of my argument that universities are essential for STI. Second, I will explore Africa’s standing in the global STI landscape. Third, I will examine various efforts undertaken by African states to engineer the development of STI. Fourth, I will suggest the ways in which universities can facilitate Africa’s drive for STI. Finally, I will draw some lessons for Malawi.
The development conundrum
Development remains an enigma despite massive intellectual and financial investments by the huge development industry that emerged after World War II. Governments and international and intergovernmental institutions, often supported by research in universities, have sought to decipher and deliver development. Academics in various fields especially in the social sciences and humanities have tried to answer some of these questions: Why do some nations develop and others remain underdeveloped? Why are some nations wealthy and others poor? Why do some nations grow and others stagnate?
In the days of unabashed Eurocentric conceit, race and ethnicity were put forward as explanations, that some races and ethnic groups were endowed with the innate attributes for civilisation. You still hear these naturalistic fallacies even among Africans, in which some ethnic groups are deemed superior in intellect and entrepreneurship. As Eurocentric and ethnocentric rationales lost currency, the determinisms of geography, culture, and history rose to prominence.
According to the geographical hypothesis, a country’s development is determined by its environment, terrain, and natural resources. Its advocates point to the fact that many poor countries are in the tropics and rich ones in the temperate regions. The cultural thesis posits that development emanates from a society’s cultural norms, social conventions, and even religious beliefs. There is the famous thesis that attributes the development of the Anglo-Saxon countries to the Protestant work ethic, and some attribute the rise of Southeast Asian countries to Confucianism. The historicist perspective comes in many guises: some applaud the genius of European civilisation for the West’s wealth, while others blame the poverty in the global South on European colonialism and imperialism.
Undoubtedly, geography, culture, and history affect the processes and patterns of development. But they only offer partial explanations at best. Abundance of natural resources doesn’t guarantee sustainable development. In fact, it may be a curse as it fosters the growth of corrupt rentier states and extractive economies that are structurally anti-development. The rapid growth of some tropical countries such as Singapore in Asia and Botswana in Africa undermines geographical determinism. Culture is equally insufficient as an explanation. The same Confucianism held as the secret to Southeast Asia’s recent economic miracle, was blamed for the region’s grinding poverty decades ago. History is a more compelling explanation. But formerly colonised countries have had different trajectories of development, even those colonised by the same imperial power. Moreover, the historic shift of global power from the West to Asia punctures the narrative of eternal Euroamerican superiority.
Some put analytical faith in vague and ideological notions of market freedom or democracy as the driver of growth and development. But the spectacular rise of a politically authoritarian China rebuts such arguments. Other scholars provide an assortment of explanations focusing on the levels of conflict and stability, patterns of corruption and investment, the presence of capable and committed leadership, and a nation’s geopolitical affiliation to hegemonic powers.
More sophisticated and compelling analyses show that historically, development prospects (not just rates of economic growth) have depended on the emergence and expansion of inclusive economic, political, and social institutions. Countries with extractive and weak institutions have not fared as well in achieving sustained growth and development. To the quality of institutions, I would add two other powerful factors: the quality of human capital and the quality of the social capital of trust. There is a growing body of research that shows a positive correlation between social trust and economic development, including the accumulation of physical capital, total factor productivity, income, and human capital formation and effectiveness.
Since the first Industrial Revolution in the mid-eighteenth century, to the unfolding Fourth Industrial Revolution, all the subsequent revolutions have been dependent on the indestructible link between intellectual inquiry, research, and innovation. This is the hallowed province of the university as society’s premier knowledge producing institution. The university is also the primary engine for producing high quality and innovative human capital. There are of course strong connections between university education and the production and reproduction of social capital, and intriguing linkages between university learning and the generation of civic attitudes and engagement. At best, university education goes beyond the provision of vocational, technical, and occupational training. It imparts flexible and lifelong values, skills, and competencies
Africa in the global STI landscape
The modern world is unimaginable without science, technology and the innumerable innovations that have revolutionised all aspects of socioeconomic life, politics and international relations, transport and communication, and the formation and performance of identities. Ever since the industrial revolution in the 19th century, the links between science and technology have become tighter — there has hardly been any significant technological advancement since the beginning of the 20th century that has not been the byproduct of scientific research. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is STI on steroids.
The relationship between science and technology is of course not unilinear; there are multiple feedback loops between the two and between them and markets and national economic and social wellbeing. Investment in research and development has become an increasingly critical factor and measure of national competitiveness in a globalised economy compressed and interconnected by informational and communication technologies.
Four key trends are evident in the global knowledge economy. First, a global reshuffling in scientific production is taking place. Asia, led by China, has or is poised to overtake Europe and North America in several key STI indicators such as research and development expenditures, scholarly publications, number and proportion of researchers, and patents. Second, research has become increasingly internationalised, which is evident in the exponential growth of collaborative research, citations to international work, and international co-authorship. Third, the landscape of research and development (R&D) funding is changing as new players enter the scene. In addition to governments, investments by business firms, philanthropic foundations, and intergovernmental agencies have risen. Finally, the growth of digital technologies has accelerated international collaborations and provided developing countries with almost unprecedented technological leapfrogging opportunities.
The exponential ascent of Asia in STI indicators reflects and reinforces that continent’s repositioning as the world’s economic powerhouse. In contrast, despite Africa’s much-vaunted rise, the continent remains at the bottom of global research indicators. According to data from UNESCO, in 2013, gross domestic expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP in Africa was 0.5 per cent compared to a world average of 1.7 per cent and 2.7 per cent for North America, 1.8 per cent for Europe and 1.6 per cent for Asia. Africa accounted for a mere 1.3 per cent of global R&D. In 2018, global R&D expenditure reached US$1.7 trillion, 80 per cent of which was accounted for by only ten countries. In first place, in terms of R&D expenditure as a share of GDP, was South Korea with 4.3 per cent, and in tenth place was the United States with 2.7 per cent. In terms of total expenditure, the United States led with US$476 billion followed by China with US$371 billion. What was remarkable was that, among the top fifteen R&D spenders, expenditure by the business sector was the most important source, ranging from 56 per cent in the Netherlands to 71.5 per cent in the United States.
In contrast, for the 14 African countries for which UNESCO had data, business as a source of R&D was more than 30 per cent in three countries, led by South Africa with 38.90 per cent, and was less than 1 per cent in four countries. In most countries, the biggest contributor to R&D was either government or the outside world. The former contributed more than 85 per cent in Egypt, Lesotho and Senegal and more than 70 per cent in another two countries, while the latter contributed a third or more in four countries. Higher education and private non-profit organisations hardly featured.
Not surprisingly, other research indicators were no less troubling. In 2013, Africa as a whole accounted for 2.4 per cent of world researchers, compared to 42.8 per cent for Asia, 31 per cent for Europe, 22.2 per cent for the Americas and 1.6 per cent for Oceania. Equally low was the continent’s share of scientific publications, which stood at 2.6 per cent in 2014, compared to 39.5 per cent for Asia, 39.3 per cent for Europe, 32.9 per cent for the Americas and 4.2 per cent for Oceania. The only area in which Africa led was in the proportion of publications with international authors. While the world average was 24.9 per cent, for Africa it was 64.6 per cent, compared to 26.1 per cent for Asia, 42.1 per cent for Europe, 38.2 per cent for the Americas and 55.7 per cent for Oceania. Thus, African scholarship suffers from epistemic extraversion and limited regional integration, much as is the case with our economies.
In terms of patents, according to data from the World Intellectual Property Organization, Africa accounted for 17,000 patent applications in 2018, while Asia led globally with 2,221,800 applications, followed by North America with 663,300, Europe with 362,000, Latin America and the Caribbean with 56,000, and Oceania with 36,200. For industrial design applications, Africa claimed 17,400. Again, Asia led with 914,900, followed by Europe with 301,300, North America with 54,000, Latin America and the Caribbean with 15,300 and Oceania with 9,700. Africa’s share of trademark applications was 245,500, while Asia had 10,000,000, Europe 2,252,200, North America 827,800, Latin America and Caribbean 751,000, and Oceania 199,600. The data for utility model applications (a cheaper and shorter patent-like intellectual property model to protect inventions, which is not available in the US, Canada and Britain) is equally revealing. Africa had 1,050, Asia 2,097,500, Europe 40,773, Latin America and Caribbean 4,391, and Oceania 2,246. In sum, in 2018, Africa accounted for 0.5 per cent, 1.3 per cent, 1.7 per cent, and 0.04 per cent of global applications for patents, industrial design, trademarks and utility models, respectively.
Engineering Africa’s STI futures
African countries have become increasingly committed to strengthening their STI capacities as a critical driver for sustainable development, democratisation, and self-determination. They understand that STI is essential for the public good, private enterprise development, and building productive capacity for sustainable development. However, translating aspirations into reality is often fraught and frustrated by bureaucratic inertia, lack of political will and resources.
By 2010, more than forty countries had established ministries responsible for national S&T policies. In addition, several regional agencies were created to promote the development and coordination of science and technology (S&T) policies, such as the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC) formed in 2001 that by 2020 had 28 members. It “aspires to make the ‘voice of science’ heard by policy and decision makers within Africa and worldwide”. It seeks to build the capacities of national “academies in Africa to improve their roles as independent expert advisors to governments and to strengthen their national, regional and international functions”. In recent years, NASAC has focused its attention on research and providing policy advice to governments on the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
At the continental level, several ambitious initiatives were advanced by the major intergovernmental agencies, from the African Union Commission (AUC) to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). In 2005, Africa’s Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA) was created. The CPA merged the science and technology programmes of the AUC and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. It sought to promote the integration of Africa into the global economy and the eradication of poverty through five priority clusters: biodiversity, biotechnology and indigenous knowledge; energy, water and desertification; materials sciences, manufacturing, laser and post-harvest technologies; information and communication technologies; and mathematical sciences.
The plan outlined strategies for improving policy conditions and building innovation mechanisms through the creation of the African Science, Technology and Innovation Initiative to establish common STI indicators and an STI observatory. It also sought to strengthen regional cooperation in science and technology, build public understanding of science and technology, a common strategy for biotechnology, and science and technology policy capacity as well as promote the creation of technology parks. The plan concluded with a list of institutional and funding arrangements as well as overall governance structures needed to ensure its effective and efficient implementation.
The CPA received vigorous support from UNESCO, which selected areas for assistance and proceeded to help a number of countries to review and reformulate their science policies. Notwithstanding all the fanfare that greeted the adoption of CPA, progress in implementing its programmes proved slow, hobbled by insufficient funding, weak organisational capacity, and inadequate infrastructure and expertise in STI policy development. Nevertheless, the CPA helped raise awareness about the importance of STI and foster bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
In 2014, the AUC adopted the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 (STISA-2024), which sought to place “science, technology and innovation at the epicenter of Africa’s socio-economic development and growth”. Six priority areas and four mutually reinforcing pillars were identified. The priorities were: eradication of hunger and achieving food security; prevention and control of diseases; communication (physical and intellectual mobility); protection of our space; live together—build the society; and wealth creation. The pillars were: building and/or upgrading research infrastructures; enhancing professional and technical competencies; promoting entrepreneurship and innovation; and providing an enabling environment for STI development in the African continent.
It was envisaged that STISA-24 would be implemented by incorporating the strategy in national development plans at the national level, through the regional economic communities and research institutions and networks at the regional level, and the AUC at the continental level. Targets would be established at each level, monitoring and evaluation undertaken, and domestic and external resources mobilised. Flagship and research programmes would be established. Investment in universities as centers of excellence in research and training was emphasised, as was the engagement of the private sector, civil society, and the diaspora. STISA-24 was touted as a powerful tool to achieve the AU’s Agenda 2063 by accelerating “Africa’s transition to an innovation-led, Knowledge-based Economy”.
In 2018, UNECA produced a lengthy report on the STI profiles of African countries. It noted that Africa’s economic growth since 2000 did not result in significant socioeconomic transformation because it was not knowledge-based and technology-driven. Africa needed to establish “economies with sustained investments in science, technology and innovation (STI), and that have the capacity to transform inventions into innovations in order to drive national competitiveness and improve social welfare. Such countries have economic and STI policies integrated as coherent national policies and strategies; their decisions on STI are guided by carefully drafted country STI readiness and assessment reports”.
The report outlined key indicators for measuring STI. It identified four pillars of country STI readiness and their input and output indicators. First, STI actors’ competences and capacity to innovate. Under this pillar, input indicators include R&D intensity, R&D intensity of industry, number of researchers in R&D, public sector investment in R&D, private sector investment in R&D, education expenditure as a percentage of GDP, and science and engineering enrollment ratio. Among the output indicators is the proportion of the population with secondary and tertiary level education, share of low, medium and high tech products in total manufacturing output, share of low, medium and high tech exports in total exports, and patents, trademarks and designs registered.
Second, STI actors’ interactions. Inputs for this pillar comprise fixed electric power consumption per capita, telephone main lines in operation per 100 inhabitants, fixed broadband Internet subscribers per 100 people, and mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people. Outputs encompass number of new products and services introduced, number of firms introducing new production processes, and level of FDI inflows.
Third, human resources for innovation. Its inputs consist of education expenditures as a percentage of GDP, sciences and engineering enrollment ratio, number of universities and other institutions of higher education, number of specialised universities in science and technology fields, and number of institutes providing technical vocational education. Its outputs are evident in the number of researchers in R&D, number of graduates in STI fields (sciences, engineering and mathematics), proportion of population with secondary and tertiary level education, and share of employment in manufacturing and services sectors.
Fourth, STI policy governance whose inputs are the existence of an STI policy derived from a participatory approach that ensures widespread stakeholders’ ownership and commitment, existence of an STI policy implementation framework that enjoys the support of the political leadership at the highest level, while its outputs are the number of STI initiatives completed and scaled up per year, proportion of planned STI investments achieved, FDI inflows, and the number of STI initiatives by nationals from the diaspora.
Each of the regional economic communities also promulgated their own STI initiatives and programs. In 2008, the Southern African Development Community issued its Protocol on Science, Technology and Innovation “to foster cooperation and promote, the development, transfer, and mastery of science, technology and innovation in Member States”. In its Vision 2050, the East African Community noted that “STI, whether embodied in human skills, capital goods, practices and organizations, is one of the key drivers of economic growth and sustainable development”. It bemoaned that “The weak development of science, technology and innovation has delayed the emergence of African countries as knowledge economies”, and outlined a series of STI initiatives including the formation of the East African Science and Technology Commission.
Similarly, in the treaty of the Economic Community of West African States, member states agreed to “strengthen their national scientific and technological capabilities in order to bring about the socio economic transformation”, by ensuring “the proper application of science and technology to the development of agriculture, transport and communications, industry, health and hygiene, energy, education and manpower and the conservation of the environment”, and reducing “their dependence on foreign technology and promote their individual and collective technological self-reliance”. They undertook to harmonise their science and technology policies, plans, and programs.
Despite these commitments, African countries have faced capacity challenges and constraints in building robust STI systems. In the literature four key issues have been identified. First, at the policy level, STI is often poorly grounded in the prevailing needs of the society and the national development plans, and lacks coordination. Second, there is lack of adequate and stable funding for STI infrastructures and poor implementation. Third, the private sector invests too little in research and development both for itself and in collaboration with higher education institutions. Fourth, scientific literacy as a critical means of popularising science, technology and innovation in society, and among students at all levels of the educational system tends to be weak.
It stands to reasons that developing and executing effective S&T policies entails the mobilisation of key stakeholders including public institutions, the private sector, universities and research networks, international agencies, non-governmental and civil society organisations, and the media. The latter is indispensable for translating science to the public and building popular support for it. In short, if the goal is to promote STI for sustainable development, the processes of policy formation and implementation require democratic engagement. This calls for political will and bold and visionary leadership, strong institutions, and strategic planning and coordination of programmmes and activities into a single, strong and sustainable national STI system. Without providing adequate resources to build research infrastructures and capacities, national plans become nothing more than ritualistic and rhetorical gestures to fantasy.
Universities as incubators of STI
Clearly, building collective, creative and transformative STI systems is exceedingly demanding. As noted in a report by UNESCO on co-designing sustainability science, it entails, first, building robust capacities that promote strong training and research infrastructures, intersectoral linkages, and multisectoral plans, and ensuring implementation and impact. Second, it is requires strengthening the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary generation of basic and applied knowledge and integrating different knowledge systems including indigenous and local knowledges and third, fortifying the science-policy-society interface through the incorporation of various stakeholders and mainstreaming the participation of women, the private sector, and civil society.
Universities are crucial for Africa’s drive to build effective transdisciplinary, collaborative and participatory STI capacities and systems that address the pressing needs and the development challenges and opportunities facing the continent. The package of prescriptions for this agenda is predictable. It is imperative to raise the number of tertiary institutions and enrollment ratios, levels of research productivity, and institutional commitments to public service and engagement and innovation and entrepreneurship.
In 2018, Africa had 1,682 universities, 8.9 per cent of the world’s total (18,772) compared to 37 per cent for Asia, 21.9 per cent for Europe, 20.4 per cent for North America, and 12 per cent for Latin America and the Caribbean. The tertiary enrollment ratio for sub-Saharan Africa was 9.08 per cent and for the Arab states, some of which are in Africa 33.36 per cent. In comparison, the world average was 38.04 per cent, for North America 86.26 per cent, for Europe 71.56 per cent, for Latin America and the Caribbean 51.76 per cent, East Asia and the Pacific 45.77 per cent, Central Asia 27.64 per cent, and South and West Asia 25.76 per cent.
Comparative global data on the enrollment ratio by programme is hard to come by. For the few African countries for which UNESCO had data covering 2013-2018 enrollments were highest in business, administration and law programmes, social sciences, journalism and information programmes, and arts and humanities programmes, in that order. In many countries, these three program clusters often registered more than two-thirds of students. Enrollments in the STEM and heath programmes tended to be much lower.
Enrollment in the natural sciences, mathematics and statistics programmes actually fell in Algeria, Benin, Burundi, Cape Verde, Lesotho, Madagascar, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, and South Africa. It only rose in Côte d’Ivoire and Seychelles. During the same period enrollment in engineering, manufacturing and construction programmes fell in Benin, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Lesotho, Mauritius, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria and South Africa, while it rose in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Egypt, Madagascar, Mali, Morocco, and Tunisia.
Enrollment in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and veterinary programs fell in ten countries (Algeria, Burundi, Cape Verde, Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Namibia, Rwanda, Seychelles and South Africa), and increased in eleven (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Ghana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, and Niger). Enrollment in health and welfare programs rose in more countries—fourteen (Algeria, Burundi, Eritrea, Ghana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Seychelles, South Africa, and Tunisia)—and fell in seven (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, and Mauritius).
STEM disciplines increasingly benefited from the establishment of universities of science and technology, the growth of these programmes in other universities, and the expansion of national and international research institutions. Africa’s leading economies, Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt, launched ambitious programmes and initiatives to promote science and technology, which benefitted universities. Nigeria’s Vision 2020 embraced science and technology as “key to global competitiveness” and turning the country into one of the top 20 economies in the world. It identified twelve priority areas for systematic intervention and development including biotechnology, nanotechnology, renewable energy, space research, knowledge-intensive new and advanced materials, ICT, and traditional medicine and indigenous knowledge.
In South Africa, the government adopted the National Research and Development Strategy in 2002, which rested on three pillars: innovation, human capital and transformation, and alignment and delivery. It sought to promote a coordinated science system, increase investment in R&D to 1 per cent of GDP, and enhance the country’s innovation and competitiveness in the global knowledge economy. Universities benefitted through the establishment of a Research Chairs initiative, Centers of Excellence Programme and a Postdoctoral Fellows Programme. In 2010, the Department of Science and Technology adopted a ten-year innovation plan building on the 2002 plan that placed emphasis on South Africa becoming a world leader in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, space science and technology, energy security, global climate change science, and human and social dynamics. An innovation fund was established to promote these activities.
In Egypt, the STI system was shaped by the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology. Founded in 1972, the Academy controlled the budget for R&D in universities and research centers until 2007 when it ceased to be a financing body but continued to play a central role in coordinating the country’s research programmes. New organs were created to strengthen STI capacities and collaboration. Universities stood to benefit from investments to increase the number and remuneration of researchers, large government research institutes from 18 to 28 and smaller ones from 180 to 230, and make governmental sources of research funding available to private universities for the first time.
Egypt’s new constitution adopted in 2014 “sets a goal of allocating 1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product to scientific research, up from 0.4 percent in 2010-11”. In 2019, the country issued its National Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation 2030. The plan envisaged enhancing the system of STI management, human resources and infrastructure, quality of scientific research, investment in scientific research and linking it to industry and development plans, international collaboration, and developing a scientific mindset in society. Thirteen priority areas were identified: energy, water, health and population, agriculture and food, environment and natural resources protection, technological application and future sciences, strategic industries, information, communication and space technology, education, mass media and social values, investment, trade and transportation, tourism, and social sciences and humanities.
The inclusion of the social sciences and humanities in the Egyptian STI 2030 strategy goes against the grain. All too often, African policy makers and educators create a Chinese wall between STEM and the humanities and social sciences, celebrating the former and disparaging the latter. In reality, what is needed is what some call STEAM—science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. As I have argued extensively elsewhere, the Fourth Industrial Revolution—a term that refers to the emergence of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, machine learning, data analytics, Big Data, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology and the convergence of the digital, biological and physical domains of life—makes it more imperative than ever to provide students with an integrated and holistic education that equips them with both essential employability skills and life-long learning skills.
The extraordinary changes in the nature and future of work, as well as living in a world that is increasingly digitalised and interconnected — processes that are being accelerated by COVID-19 — require the merging of hard skills and soft skills; training students in both the liberal arts and STEM; linking content knowledges and mindsets acquired in the classroom, campus (co-curricula activities), community (experiential learning), and in terms of career preparedness (work-based learning); offering an education that promotes interdisciplinary literacy, information literacy, intercultural literacy, international literacy, and inter-professional literacy; and providing teaching and learning using multiple platforms — face-to-face, online and blended.
We need to prepare our students for the next forty years of their lives, not the last forty of some of us. Their world will be characterised by extraordinarily complex and rapid changes, and by challenges and opportunities that are hard to predict. The best we can give these students, then, are the skills, competencies, literacies, and mindsets for flexibility, adaptability, versatility, and resilience. In short, the economies, societies, polities, and worlds of the twenty-first century will require lifelong and life-wide learning skills, which entails continuous reskilling and upskilling.
Education for lifelong learning has to transcend the narrow disciplinary silos many of us were trained in and to which we are so often passionately attached. Such an education must be inclusive, innovative, intersectional and interdisciplinary. That, I submit, is at the heart of science, technology, and innovation as a project and process for sustainable development.
From Red to Blue: The Importance of the Black Vote in the US Presidential Election
Black voters, including recent immigrants from Africa, played a large part in ensuring the Biden-Harris victory. Changing demographics and Trump’s xenophobic attacks against immigrants and Muslims helped to flip key states from Republican to Democrat.
Much media attention before and after the 2020 presidential election in the United States has been on the racial identity of Vice President-elect Senator Kamala Harris. The media emphasised her several firsts that are the result of where her parents were born. From Jamaica where her father was born, to India where her mother was born, the narrative of her South Asian/Black identity has been scrutinised, analysed, and evaluated. In addition, the perceived and real possibility of some dominant Republican states losing power to the Democrats was front and centre in newspaper articles, opinions pieces, blogs, and essays.
Political analysts addressed the international and domestic migration pieces of this puzzle to a certain extent, but the historical and contemporary dynamics of migration to and within the United States needs further analyses if we are to understand the Biden-Harris victory.
William F. Frey, in Diversity Explosion: How Racial Demographics are Remaking America (2015), uses census and other data to illustrate that both forms of migration are transforming the country in economic and political ways. Historical migration out of the South, especially for African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states and cities, is too important to downplay. Furthermore, intra-migration of African Americans has to be unpacked if we are to understand clear Democratic victories in certain states and the shift towards turning some red states into blue states—at least a paler shade of blue for some. In other words, African Americans are migrating out of Chicago in droves, but not all of them are making a beeline to Atlanta. Intra-regional migration has seen the numbers of African Americans increase in Milwaukee and other cities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan that were so important to rebuilding the blue wall in the Midwest. The other excellent example of intra-regional migration is African Americans migrating from California to Nevada and Arizona.
Finally, the manifestation of African American reverse migration out of these same states and regions showed up in voter turnout and voter preferences in particular states in the South and Southwest. We must also take into consideration that states that experience an influx of African Americans, such as Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, and Florida, also experience an influx of Latino populations that come from various regions in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Moreover, there are Latinos (read Mexican-descended non-immigrants) who have lived in what was northern Mexico and now makes up the Southwest for centuries. They also participate in intra-regional migration from California to Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado. In sum, domestic migration, whether it is intra-regional, inter-regional, or reverse, is a factor that is evident in recent presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial races in several states that have turned from red to blue or that could be on the cusp of transferring power from Republicans to Democrats. When this domestic migration coincides with international migration, which is what brought Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ parents to the United States in the first place, the result is a change in demographics and a more diverse electorate and candidate pool that ushered in different voter preferences and choices.
African American migration out of California to Southern states is important to note. African Americans are moving from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego to Southern and Mid-Atlantic States such as Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, Florida, Maryland, and the Washington, DC area.
The significance of the African American vote cannot be underestimated in the 2020 presidential election. Without African Americans participating in large numbers in South Carolina’s democratic primary and then voting for Senator Joseph Biden, current President-elect Biden’s campaign may not have gotten the head winds needed to secure the nomination for president. Moreover, Congressman James E. Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, endorsed Biden. The endorsement gave African Americans the green light to support Biden in the primary. Biden garnered 61% of their vote. This is why South and African Americans are very important to the Democratic Party, although Biden did not win South Carolina.
This is where domestic migration needs to be unpacked as it relates to African Americans. There is some scholarship on African American migration following the Civil War, such as Nell Irvin Painter’s Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (1976). Other scholarship examines the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North and Midwest into cities such as New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Saint Louis, and Philadelphia. Isabelle Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns and Castes: The Origins of Our Discontent (2010) is one such example, along with William F. Frey’s The New Great Migration: Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965-2000 (2004) and Sabrina Pendergrass’ “Routing Black Migration to the Urban US South: Social Class and Sources of Social Capital in the Destinations Selection Process” (2013). We know that African Americans transformed these cities culturally, economically, and politically.
From 1910 to 1970, as many as six million African Americans left the cotton fields, sharecropping, domestic work, and terrorism (in the form of lynching of Black people carried out by the Ku Klux Klan and other white groups) for the North, Midwest, Southwest, and West. They did not heed the call of Booker T. Washington to cast down their buckets where they were. We also know that the first residents of these cities identified and voted for the Republican Party because they viewed it as the party of Abraham Lincoln. Over time, party identification shifted to the Democratic Party and African Americans were important in the election of Democratic presidents while at the same time gaining political power as mayors in most of these cities beginning in the 1960s and 1970s.
The idea that there would a reverse migration of thousands of African Americans out of these cities to return to the South was not in the calculations of the Southern Strategy that the Republicans so successfully used to turn Democratic strongholds red. One observation from the election is that the millions of African Americans who participated in reverse migration may have the ability to wrestle political power from the Republicans to the Democrats.
The impact of reverse migration
Before there is a discussion of African American participation in the 2020 presidential election in the South in particular, the economic and cultural dynamics of their migration need to be addressed in general, and in particular, those states that experienced the influx of new African American arrivals beginning in the late 1990s.
For example, African Americans from New York, Chicago, and other Northeastern and Midwestern cities began moving to Georgian cities that include Atlanta, Savannah, Columbus, Athens, and Macon for several reasons. Western cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco also experienced an out-migration of African Americans. One of the factors that makes Atlanta attractive to African Americans and others is its increasingly diverse population and economic opportunities. The multinational giant, the Coco-Cola Company, along with DHL, Delta Airlines, Home Depot, and reputable colleges and universities that include Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) such as Spelman and Morehouse that attract students, faculty, and staff from across the world, along with Emory University and top notch medical facilities serve as pull factors. More importantly, Atlanta is a space for those who choose to migrate where African Americans can achieve economic and personal success. Atlanta serves as a magnate for African Americans working in the entertainment industry such as Tyler Perry who opened Tyler Perry Studios in 2019. This follows the huge success of musicians who set up studios in Atlanta earlier, such as Kenneth Edmonds (Babyface) and Antonio Reid (L.A). Jermain Dupri and even Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis got their start in Atlanta by working with the Atlanta-based SOS band. Edmonds and Reid used their skills as producers and songwriters to make some of the best-known recordings in the last several decades by Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Usher, Janet Jackson, TLC, Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, and Boys II Men.
The idea that there would a reverse migration of thousands of African Americans out of these cities to return to the South was not in the calculations of the Southern Strategy that the Republicans so successfully used to turn Democratic strongholds red.
Florida is another state that has experienced an influx of African Americans as part of the reverse migration trend. The mass exodus out of the Rust Belt does not just comprise whites who want to escape the harsh winters of the Midwest and Northeast after retirement nor whites who lost jobs due to loss of manufacturing jobs in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. African Americans were also tired of the snow and sleet of these regions. They too had lost jobs in the same states.
Again, what is missing from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt narrative is the participation of African Americans and what this means for presidential races in their new states. Whites are not the only ones moving to the Sunshine State to soak up the sun year round. African Americans are moving to Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, and smaller towns and cities.Other states include North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina.
For African American retirees, the reasons vary, but they include other factors besides a warmer climate, such as a cheaper cost of living, lower taxes in some states, the desire to return to their ancestral homes to be near family and childhood friends and to enjoy leisure activities. There are also pull factors for younger African Americans, especially those who are college-educated. The growing economy in these states (before COVID- 19) provided employment in various sectors, such as banking in Charlotte, the tech industry in Atlanta, and the hotel and hospitality industry in Charleston, Miami, and Virginia Beach.
However, it is important to note that there were push factors that served as a catalyst for migration. Many African Americans from Chicago to Philadelphia to Bridgeport to the Bronx were frustrated with areas where they lived that were unsafe on many levels. Parents feared for the safety of their children; they also wanted their children to obtain a high quality education; employment opportunities that led to economic and social mobility dwindled, and finally the economic recession of 2008 laid bare the extent of predatory lending to African American households that often led to foreclosures. Many lost their jobs, homes, savings, and any hope of rebuilding their lives. They were more than willing to return to the states that their parents and grandparents had left in search of a better life.
Finally, in some ways life and opportunities in their new homes were better for African Americans. However, there were instances when it was not. They still could not fully escape structural and systemic racism, especially by the police when walking, driving, and shopping while Black could result in death.
African American migration out of California to Southern states is important to note. African Americans are moving from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego to Southern and Mid-Atlantic States such as Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, Florida, Maryland, and the Washington, DC area. The high cost of housing and a dismal reputation for traffic jams, long commutes, and lack of public transport have pushed many residents to smaller cities. The Southwestern states of Texas, Nevada, and Arizona have also experienced an influx of African American migrants in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.
Intra-migration, as mentioned above, is important to examine for African Americans in the West and Midwest. African Americans have migrated from California to Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. They have also migrated from cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis to other smaller towns and cities. The protests and demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake Jr. illustrate the presence of African Americans in smaller cities throughout the country. Unfortunately, the world knows that Kenosha, Wisconsin has an African American population.
Trump and Republican strategists seemed to be oblivious of inter, intra, and reverse migration for African Americans. Moreover, the thought – not the fact – that the majority of African Americans are living in suburbs, regardless of the region more so now than ever, was not on their radar. Trump’s nod to white women in his plea for them to like him and that he saved their neighbourhoods was a clear illustration that demographics had changed and he was unaware. While he begged them to like him and vote for him, African Americans were getting out the vote in those same neighbourhoods from Atlanta to Miami, Phoenix, Houston and Austin. The college-educated and retired African Americans who have migrated live in these same suburbs.
Furthermore, this population has the time, resources, and skills to participate in election campaigns, to donate to candidates, and to canvas door to door. The tech entrepreneurs can use their expertise to work with younger people to use social media to energise African American voters. Brentin Mock reports in “Black Cities Ain’t Going Nowhere” (2019) that suburban areas outside of Atlanta and Miami are manifestations of Black cities within the cityhood movement. As indicated by the title of his article, Black cities are not decreasing in number, but rather, they are increasing: from 460 in 1970 to 1,262 in 2017.
At the same time that inter, intra, and reverse migration has changed demographics in key states that determined the electoral vote count in 2020. International migration played a role too. This discussion examines people who are citizens through naturalisation. Therefore, the refugees and legal immigrants in states such as Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, Nevada, and Arizona are discussed. Those states have significant immigrant populations who are eligible to vote and many did. The largest number of immigrants are from Mexico, the Philippines, India, China, Vietnam, Cuba, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and El Salvador. It is interesting to note that of the 23 million eligible immigrant voters, they live in only five states: California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and New York. Trump won Florida and Texas while Biden won the other three Democrat strongholds.
However, Texas and Florida may be moving from blood red to cranberry red and on its way to becoming blue. In particular, Texas has a large immigrant population from Mexico, Vietnam, and India. For Florida, the emphasis is on Cuban-Americans and their support for the Republicans due to the narrative that they support presidential candidates who are anti-communist. What is left out of this narrative within the context of the Latino vote in Florida is that other immigrants who are classified as Latino live there too, including Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Dominicans, El Salvadorans, and others from Central America. Furthermore, these classifications are nebulous. Where do African-descended migrants from Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic factor in? Asian Americans cannot be lumped into one category either because some Chinese and Japanese communities have lived in the United States for longer than the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indians, and Laotians.
African immigrants and refugees have a shorter history in the United States due to exclusionary immigration laws. However, laws passed that no longer relied on geographical quotas opened the door for more African and Black immigrants to enter the country. In addition, the refugee ceiling for Africa slowly began to increase. At this point, Black- and African- descended immigrants played a role in the 2020 presidential election. There numbers are still not large, but they are active and are certain to become more active. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar serves as an important example. The Somali-American community in the district that elected her, along with historic African American community, are too important to ignore. It is also important to point out that refugees hold permanent resident status following their approval for resettlement to the United States. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, refugees must apply to adjust their status to lawful permanent resident after one year of being admitted into the United States. After five years of lawful permanent residence, refugees can apply for citizenship through naturalisation. Therefore, the thousands of Somalis, Liberians, Ethiopians, Burundians, Sierra Leoneans, Rwandans, and Eritreans are citizens and eligible to vote.
Other first, second, and third generation African and Black immigrants participate in elections as well. Census data and scholarship illustrate the level of education and their success in various economic sectors. Many of these migrants who represent several generations at this point live in key states, cities, and suburbs that were important to the Biden-Harris ticket. There is a confluence of their migration to the same regions and states where reverse migration has occurred. In other words, the historic African American Diaspora and the contemporary African Diaspora are finding themselves in the same spaces in Georgia, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. Both groups are represented by a young and college-educated demographic. This demographic lives and works in college towns such as Austin, Atlanta, Raleigh, Athens, Hampton, and Richmond. At the same time, this demographic joins educated and professional retirees from the military, educational, corporate, health, government, and business sectors who vote.
Turning anger and grief to votes
The last part of this essay will examine the five states that the Biden-Harris ticket flipped from red to blue and examine the role an influx of domestic and international migrants played. Georgia serves as a good starting point because its growth in population that is eligible to vote from both domestic and international migration is too important to ignore. Georgia had 2.4 million African Americans residents who were eligible to vote. The number represents 32% of this total electorate. The population growth resides in both urban and suburban areas. People who voted for the Biden-Harris ticket live in counties such as Cobb, Henry, Douglas, Gwinnet, Clayton, and Fayette that are not predominantly as white as they were during previous elections. These counties have larger numbers of African Americans now, but Asian Americans and Latinos now live there. These communities, along with African and African descended immigrants have similar concerns around issues such as healthcare, the effects of COVID- 19 on people of color, police brutality against African Americans and other people of color including undocumented and documented immigrants.
Georgia delivered its electoral votes to the Republican presidential candidate faithfully after the 1992 election, but in 2020, things fell apart. The New York Times reported on November 14th that, “Mr. Biden’s late surge in Georgia, thanks to his dominance in Atlanta, Savannah and the increasingly Democratic-friendly suburbs around both, transformed what had seemed to be a safe Trump state in early tabulations last week into one of the closest contexts in the nation.” This underscores the importance of the cities pointed out earlier that have African American voters as the result of several factors including reverse migration, retirees, HBCUs, and immigrants from Africa, Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean. The same New York Times article pointed out the importance of Atlanta in that “Mr. Biden was powered by high turnout among Black voters in Atlanta.”
The Biden-Harris ticket probably would not have garnered these much-needed electoral votes without the organisational skills of Stacy Abrams. Ms. Abrams gained national attention when she ran and later lost the governor’s race in 2018 under the suspicion of voter suppression carried out by her opponent, Brian Kemp, who at the time was Secretary of State. It is clear to all who were not familiar with presidential elections in the United States that the secretaries of state are responsible for overseeing elections to ensure that voter fraud and suppression do not occur. Many in Georgia and around the country viewed Ms. Abrams as the rightful winner because they believed the secretary of state’s office participated in voter suppression by purging voters’ names from the voting rolls. Ms. Abrams turned this loss into a win for Democrats in the presidential election by galvanizing 800,000 new registered voters. We all know that voting is important, but if one does not register, one cannot vote. The 14,000 votes that Biden received to beat Trump may have come from this number.
Georgia was the only state in the South that flipped from red to blue where the Midwest had two: Wisconsin and Michigan. Wisconsin has 0.3 million eligible African American voters or 6% of the state’s electorate. Wisconsin is among the Midwestern states that has experienced intra-migration as the result of African Americans moving from cities such as Chicago to Milwaukee and other smaller cities. However, during this presidential election, this is not what put the state in national and international headlines. The police shooting in August 2020 of 29- year old Jacob Blake Jr., an African American man who did not live in Milwaukee, made the small city of Kenosha infamous. Mr. Blake survived the shooting, but his name is on the long list of African American men who have either been killed or severely injured by the police.
Hundreds of people from the state and Midwest descended on Kenosha after learning that police officers shot Mr. Blake seven times in the back, leaving him paralysed. Trump’s response to this shooting did not motivate African Americans and other people of colour, along with whites in urban and suburban areas, to vote for him. When people from all backgrounds protested against the shooting, Trump made it clear that he supported whatever aggressive actions were taken by the police. The last straw may have been the killing of two white men in Kenosha by a white teenager during a Black Lives Matter protest in response to the Blake shooting. Another person was seriously injured. The image of a seventeen-year old teenager brandishing a semi-automatic rifle, shooting three men, and then running toward the police with the gun slung across his torso was too much. To add insult to injury, the police assisted the teenager; the police did not apprehend him on the spot; the police did not push him to the ground, put him in a chokehold, put him in handcuffs or use a Taser to attempt to arrest him. His arrest was the following day from his home in Illinois! It was apparent to African Americans that Trump’s call for law and order did not apply to everyone equally. When Congresswoman Gwen Moore, whose district includes Milwaukee, stated, “We have to turn our anger and grief and frustration into our votes,” African Americans listened.
Hundreds of people from the state and Midwest descended on Kenosha after learning that police officers shot Mr. Blake seven times in the back, leaving him paralysed. Trump’s response to this shooting did not motivate African Americans and other people of colour, along with whites in urban and suburban areas, to vote for him.
Wisconsin’s location next door to Minnesota heightened people’s willingness to march and protest following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. In addition, Wisconsin is part of the intra-migration of African Americans from Chicago and other cities in Illinois and other states in the Midwest. Some of these migrants live in Milwaukee; however, others have moved to smaller cities such as Madison and Racine.
African Americans, in particular, did not just march and protest; they registered to vote and then voted for Biden. They did not repeat the mistake of 2016 when they stayed home and did not vote for Senator Hillary Clinton who, perhaps mistakenly, did not campaign in the state. Moreover, Biden and Harris did not make Clinton’s mistake; they both campaigned in Wisconsin and for that thousands of African Americans, particularly younger ones, voted for the ticket. Wisconsin is just one example of an increase in voter registration and voting by young African Americans in the presidential election. In many ways, it was obvious that Trump was launching a dirty war against them by using the rhetoric of law and order; insisting that federal law enforcement protects cities; and giving a nod to a white supremacist group, Proud Boys, that he was on their side during one of the presidential debates no less.
The second Midwestern state to deliver blue electoral votes to Biden was Michigan, especially among younger voters. Michigan, like Wisconsin, was able to give Trump a victory in 2016 because many African Americans voters stayed home. Michigan may not have had its Stacy Adams, but it had African American pastors and others who mobilised people to register to vote. African Americans constituted 13% of the one million eligible voters in Michigan. Detroit’s own Stevie Wonder played a part by attending a campaign rally in Detroit that paid off with Biden receiving 94% of votes cast in Detroit while Trump received 5%. This came as no surprise as Detroit’s population is 79% African American. However, African Americans in Detroit could not have done it alone. Other African Americans in Oakland, Genesee, and Wayne County (39% of its population is African American) were also important. Michigan’s Lt. Governor, Michael Gilchrist understood this and underscores the argument that Trump fundamentally did not understand changing demographics when he attempted to characterise the suburbs as being places for whites only. He played right into the hands of Trump and the Republicans when he stated, “This year I really kind of made it my mission to make sure that we were engaging communities both in Detroit but also in…Flint, Saginaw, Benton Harbor. But also, importantly, the fact that Black people don’t just live in cities.”
There is no disputing the importance of the African American vote in Michigan, from Detroit to Flint to Benton Harbor. However, Michigan has Latino, Asian, and Arab and Muslim populations. Segments of the Arab and Muslim population have been in the state from the late nineteenth century. African Americans were not the only group who moved there to work in the automobile plants. People who identified as Arab migrated to work in the new auto plants. It is important to point out that this population is not all Arab or Muslim and many do not come from or are descended from the Middle East.
The Black Muslim and Arab American vote
Finally, there are Black Muslims to consider. Let us not forget that the members of the historic African Diaspora founded the Nation of Islam in Detroit in 1930. The Pew Research Center reported in 2017 that Black Muslims represent one-fifth of all Muslims in the United States. Put another way, two percent of African Americans identify as Muslim. Black Muslims are a part of the historic and contemporary Diaspora in the United States.
The contemporary African Diaspora Black Muslims can be from Senegal, Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, or Ethiopia. Dearborn has the distinct reputation of being the capital of Arab America. These communities have much in common with African Americans in terms of housing, employment, racial justice, police killings, and COVID- 19. African Americans have shown solidarity with immigrants and refugees. This was evident in their push for reforms in immigration laws during the 1960s at a time when they had recently gained basic civil and voting rights.
Trump’s (or rather his son-in-law, Jared Kushner’s) handling of issues in the Middle East did not convince some Muslims to vote for him. Many Americans, and not just this community, did not think Kushner had the political skills or expertise to enable him to formulate any foreign policy, let alone to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestian Authority. What he managed to do was totally unacceptable to the Palestinians as it was clear that Israel was not going to have to give any concessions while the Palestinians were expected to take whatever offer was on the table. This, along with other issues and concerns, may have been the final nail in the coffin that sealed Trump’s electoral fate in Michigan.
Going back to the above counties of Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, they not only have sizeable African American populations, but there are also Latinos, Asian, Arab, and Muslim Americans who reside there. Again, Trump was ignorant concerning the racial and ethnic diversity found in American suburbs. Wayne County is not only home to Detroit, but Dearborn where a sizeable Arab American population lives. Trump failed to gain the votes from eligible voters in this county, but Biden did and he won 70% of this voting bloc.
Arab Americans, similar to all groups, do not vote one hundred percent for either party. Domestic and international issues influence their vote. Their vote is influenced by domestic and international issues. The voting patterns of communities that have resided in the state for decades are different from those of more recent refugees from Syria and Iraq. One issue that may have unified the various communities is immigration and Trump’s efforts to ban travel to and from Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Congresswoman Rashida Tlabib, one of four Congresswomen Trump bullied, played a significant role in getting Arab, Muslim, and African American communities to vote.
President-elect Biden won his home state of Pennsylvania. However, it was a struggle to the end, but his victory allowed him to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to become President-elect and to put the state in the blue column. Biden needed to win urban and suburban areas and he did this in Philadelphia and Allegheny Counties that are home to the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
African Americans and others in Philadelphia responded to the police killing, again captured on video, of Walter Wallace Jr. in October 2020, with marches, protests, and looting. Trump’s response was to send in the National Guard. Again, this was his signal that he was the candidate to enforce law and order. When he begged white women to like him because he saved their neighbourhoods, his message was that he would deal with these “thugs.” African Americans interpreted it for what it was. They were stereotyped as criminals who needed to be rounded up and locked up. African Americans make up 10% or one million of the state’s eligible voters and enough of them voted for Biden.
As the Lt. Governor of Michigan rightly pointed out for his state, African Americans do not all live in cities. The same applies to Pennsylvania where African Americans in rural areas voted for the Biden-Harris ticket. African Americans in suburban areas followed suit. One county is Chester where the African American population voted overwhelming for Biden. African American churches, sororities, fraternities, and civil rights groups all joined forces to push Biden into the lead. Smaller cities such as Harrisburg, the state capital, also voted for Biden. African Americans voted in other parts of the state such as Wilkes-Barre, Erie, Allentown, Reading, Scranton (Biden’s hometown), and York. Pennsylvania is a state that witnessed large numbers of African Americans who migrated during the Great Migration. Their descendants are the ones who canvassed door-to-door, participated in phone banks, organised voter registration, and voted for Biden.
Pennsylvania has the not so flattering reputation of having Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as progressive centres and the rest is Mississippi. As stated above, African Americans live throughout the state in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The state also has an increasing number of Latinos and Asian Americans as a result of immigration. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Asian eligible voters in the country was 4.6 million in 2000. This number increased to 11.1 million in 2020. Again, Asian Americans are very diverse and people from the Pacific Islands are often put into this category. Nevertheless, the issues that concern them include the economy, education, healthcare, COVID- 19, and immigration. Pennsylvania has 511,002 people who are classified as Asian American and Pacific Islanders. Of this number, 251,377 are eligible to vote. The largest numbers are people from Indian (155,887), China (136,206) followed by Vietnam (49,306), South Korea (47,480), and the Philippines (42,544). The same counties that have sizeable African American populations are where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders reside: Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Allegheny Counties.
Within this classification, numerous factors produce cleavages such as immigration status, religion, and countries of origin. Putting all of this aside, Asian American and Pacific Islanders made up 4% of Pennsylvania’s eligible voters and many voted for Biden. Again, some members of this population were born in Muslim-majority countries or their parents and grandparents migrated from those countries.
Trump, again, put his foot in his mouth by constantly blaming the COVID- 19 pandemic on China, going so far as to call it the “China Virus,” and threatening to engage in a trade war with the country. These actions, accompanied by anti-Asian racism, served to energise members of the community to provide voter education, register eligible voters, and ensure they voted. Despite Asian Americans being labeled the model minority, they face the same challenges that all minority and marginalized communities face such as poor health care, lack of health insurance, significant rates of poverty, poor housing, unemployment, and overall obstacles to achieve social and economic success.
Latino voters in Pennsylvania also contributed to Biden’s 270 electoral votes. This segment of the population is diverse within the context of its members having origins in many countries. In addition, it does not pack a punch, like African Americans, in terms of its numbers in Pennsylvania, but every vote for Biden was important. It has a larger number than Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in terms of eligible voters with more than 500,000. Of this number, the majority identify as Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Mexican. Similar to communities discussed above in all states, Latinos organised grassroots efforts to register voters. The treatment and language used by Trump following Hurricane Maria served to favour Biden over Trump because it was viewed as a gesture of blatant disrespect. This, coupled with the same issues discussed above for other communities, gave Biden the support of the Latino community.
The last sections of the essay will examine the Western region by examining the presidential vote in Arizona. Biden won Arizona that was a deep shade of red (perhaps ruby red). This is a big shift from the party of ultra-conservative Senator Barry Goldwater to the “maverick” late Senator John McCain. Trump’s treatment of the late senator, both in life and in death, was mean-spirited and hateful. Trump took every opportunity to besmirch McCain’s military career during the Vietnam War and his political record in the Senate. Senator McCain’s widow did not let Trump’s attacks go unnoticed. When a long-time Republican such as Ms. Cindy McCain publicly denounced Trump and endorsed Biden, the writing was on the wall that the state had the possibility to flip from red to blue. People of colour may not have supported or voted for Senator McCain, but many must have believed that Trump’s attacks against him represented an all-time low and he was clearly in the basket of deplorables. The last Democrat to win the presidential vote in Arizona was President Clinton in 1996. Trump’s attacks against a late senator, who Republicans and Democrats respected, may have played a role.
There were other factors at play, including the state’s changing demographics due to inter, intra, and international migration. However, the state’s indigenous population needs to be examined as the media, politicians and other Americans even in states where their numbers are significant often ignore them. The Navajo in Arizona are one such group. Its members overwhelmingly voted for Biden under daunting circumstances. First, COVID- 19 hit their communities in a devastating manner. The health outcomes for the Navajo were problematic before the pandemic struck. The pandemic made it difficult to provide voter education and registration information to them. The cases of COVID- 19 were disproportionate to their numbers in the state and the death toll struck a community already under siege. Trump’s anti-immigrant position did not appeal to many indigenous communities because of his plan to build a wall to keep out migrants from Mexico. In order to build the wall, sacred burial grounds of the Hopi, White Mountain Apache, and Pascua were destroyed. Moreover, indigenous populations throughout the country and in Arizona understand marginalisation, racism, and discrimination. Similar to African Americans, not all Native Americans in Arizona live in urban areas. They too joined African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos in Phoenix and the important Maricopa County.
As stated earlier, intra-migration of African Americans and Latinos from California to Arizona has changed the demographics in the state. These two groups also played a role in delivering Arizona’s eleven electoral votes to Biden, although the African American population is much smaller than the Latino one. Arizona had 0.2 million eligible African American voters or 5% of the state’s eligible voters. Again, Maricopa County, where many African Americans reside voted for the Biden-Harris ticket. Many of these African Americans are college-educated middle and upper middle class professionals. The percentage of African American eligible voters who have a Bachelor’s degree and higher is 23% while 41% have some college education.
African Americans find retirement attractive in Arizona due to the lower cost of housing from what they left in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Diego. California declined to serve as a pull for African American migration, but rather, African Americans migrated to Arizona with their college degrees and skills prepared to take advantage of economic and professional opportunities. African American migration out of California in significant numbers began in the late 1980s long before the economic crisis of 2008.
Latinos also voted for Biden. This category includes more immigrants from Central America and Mexico and non-immigrant Mexican descended citizens who have lived in California for generations and later moved to Arizona. In other words, there are people of Mexican descent or non-immigrants whose ancestors lived in what was then Northern Mexico (later became the Southwest) before the Mexican-American War. Arizona’s Latino population that is eligible to vote is 23% or 1.2 million citizens.
International migration within the context of African and African-descended populations may not have been very significant for the 2020 presidential election, but if the numbers of eligible voters continue to increases from this migration, they could play a bigger role in future elections. African refugees and immigrants reside in all of the above states. An estimated 2.4 million Africans migrated to the country during the last two decades. As stated above, all refugees can apply for citizenship after five years of permanent legal residence. The U.S. refugee resettlement programme began to accept refugees in the 1980s mainly from Ethiopia and Somalia. The children and grandchildren of these refugees are first and second generation American citizens. More recently, refugees have been accepted for resettlement from Liberia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, and Sierra Leone. Immigrants from Africa have mainly migrated from Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon, Senegal, South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. African descended immigrants have migrated primarily from Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Cuba, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Because African and African-descended people, regardless of their origins and how long they have lived in the country, were classified as Black, the Black eligible voters discussed above include people from refugee and immigrant backgrounds as well as the historical African Diaspora. This has increased the overall percentage of Black eligible voters. For the states that flipped from red to blue, Arizona’s was 5%; Pennsylvania 10%; Georgia 32%; Wisconsin 6%; and Michigan 13%.
Florida is worth mentioning although it did not flip but because the percentage is the highest of the top states with Black immigrant populations. The state has 14% of its eligible voters who are Black immigrants from either Africa or the Caribbean. The old notion that the Black vote is totally comprised of the historic African Diaspora needs to be deconstructed to take into account African and African descended immigrants who come from diverse and vast backgrounds. For example, depending on their country of origin, some are Christian while others are Muslims, and others are from South Asian origins whose relatives migrated to the Caribbean and East Africa from India.
Black immigrants from the Caribbean have English or Spanish as their first language whereas immigrants from Africa have many first languages such as Arabic, Yoruba, Ewe, Zulu, and Luo. In addition, many are fluent in the European language of their former colonisers, such as French, Portuguese, and English. Furthermore, there is a need to examine the Latino population within the context of nebulous racial categories. There is the non-white Latino and white Latino classification. For example, are African-descended immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Cuba, Latino or Black? Are immigrants from Brazil who are African- descended Black or Latino? Are they both? What do these categories mean for understanding the Black vote? Are North Africans Black immigrants? To help answer these questions, the census can now capture some of these nuances by simply asking citizens to identify their national origins.
The 2020 presidential election signaled that the African and African-descended population, if not already, will have a role to play in future elections and may serve to swing battleground states such as Florida from red to blue. We know that in Philadelphia, which has a sizeable African and African-descended immigrant population, there was a concerted effort to engage in grassroots organising and mobilising. The Coalition of African and Caribbean Communities and the African Cultural Alliance of North America worked hard to make sure citizens originally from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ethiopia, and Nigeria registered to vote and then voted. Social media and good old-fashioned door-to-door canvasing mobilised eligible voters to cast their votes and many did for Biden. Biden’s win in Pennsylvania is what gave him the 270 electoral votes. The media, and rightfully so, focused on the Black vote and Philadelphia. What was missing was the importance of the Black immigrant vote, particularly in Philadelphia. Black immigrants paid attention to the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. Some members of this community may have participated in the protests following the killing. They too interact with the police and whether they or their parents are from Jamaica, Nigeria, or Ethiopia, they are viewed and treated as Black. When the Black vote is compressed into a single bloc, these important factors are not explored.
Because African and African-descended people, regardless of their origins and how long they have lived in the country, were classified as Black, the Black eligible voters include people from refugee and immigrant backgrounds as well as the historical African Diaspora. This has increased the overall percentage of Black eligible voters.
Similar to the historic African Diaspora and other immigrant and minority groups discussed above, these communities share similar issues that motivated them to vote and sometimes against Trump – issues surrounding immigration, employment, education, healthcare and COVID- 19. At the same time, depending on how long they have lived in the country, their religious beliefs and age, some hold conservative views and supported Trump over Biden.
However, there is one thing that most Black people regardless of citizenship, immigration status, age, gender, and region of residence, rallied around: Trump’s grotesque characterisation of some African countries as “shitholes”. This was an assault against all members of these communities who have roots in Africa regardless of how long they have lived in the country and under what conditions they ended up in the country.
Trump’s anti-Muslim ban, overall anti-immigrant stance, attacks on Congresswomen Tlabib and Omar, and general disinterest in Africa persuaded some of these voters to support Biden. Finally, Latinos are not the only immigrant group that is concerned about immigration issues. Although a sizeable percentage of African and African-descended immigrant populations are in the country legally, thousands are undocumented. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducts surveillance on them, rounds them up in sweeps, detains, and then deports them. There are numbers of Africans seeking asylum who are also stuck at the US-Mexican border. They too are separated from their families including children from their parents.
Over the next several months and years, scholars and the media will study and analyse the presidential election of 2020. International and domestic migration is crucial for a thorough understanding of the outcomes for Biden in the swing states that handed him a victory. Arizona was the only state with a large Latino population that flipped from red to blue. Texas and Florida remained red despite having sizeable eligible voters who are Latino immigrants and non-immigrant Mexican descended—Texans of Mexican descent are not recent immigrants. Latinos’ contribution to the immigrant vote in Texas is 52% while their percentage of eligible voters is 30%. Both immigrant and non-immigrants make up 40% of the state’s population. Texas did not turn blue for the 2020 presidential election, but it has a good chance in the next election as its Latino, African American, and Black immigrant populations increase, along with Asian Americans.
The other part of the 2020 presidential election that cannot be ignored is the extent of voter mobilisation within all of the states discussed among all of the communities. In addition, the gender dynamics of this mobilisation needs to be analyzed. African American women received media attention, spurred on by the work of Stacy Abrams in Georgia and women in other states. We have become familiar with their activism. However, Latina women in Texas, Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Arizona need to be visible. Native American women in Arizona also need to be acknowledge for their work. African and Caribbean immigrant women in Pennsylvania and Muslim and Arab women in Michigan were very important to voter mobilisation.
What is evident from the election is that all of the people in all of the states have difference histories and experiences in the United States. No group is monolithic. There were similar issues in common for all groups during this election period that occurred during a pandemic: access to healthcare, unemployment, and economic issues. Despite all the differences and variations among and within all of these groups, there was enough commonality and coalition-building to turn some states from red to blue.
African Evangelicals and President Trump
African evangelicals align themselves with the American right and there are many parallels between American and African evangelicals that may explain why the latter support Trump.
Shortly after the contested November 3rd 2020 US elections, a video of Paula White, President Donald Trump’s spiritual advisor, making an impassioned prayer summoning African and Latin American angels to intercede for President Trump so that he would win the election caused quite a stir throughout Africa, generating not just hilarious memes but also significant debate on social media and in other forums about African evangelicals’ support for Trump. The video that was widely circulated on social media platforms came on the heels of media reports that a section of African evangelicals and Pentecostals and their leaders support Trump and have been holding prayer vigils for his re-election, ostensibly because Trump is viewed as a defender of their faith against the deep state.
The chairperson of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya (EAK), Bishop Mark Kariuki, argued that Trump’s victory would be a victory for “good morals” and that Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Kenya are “thinking about values”. He said that when former President Barrack Obama came to Kenya in 2016, “We told him not to bring his ‘democratic agenda’ in Kenya, an agenda that advocates for abortion and gay relationships. It is against this background that we are praying that the right person wins the USA election.”
It is not just Kenyan evangelicals who support Donald Trump. Similar trends are also evident in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Uganda and many other parts of the African continent where Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have been proliferating since the 1970s. Scholars, social commentators, the media and researchers are baffled by the evangelicals’ support for Trump regardless of his moral and ethical lapses, his divisive, bullish, combative, crude and brash character, his disrespect for women—especially women of colour—his hate for immigrants and Muslims and his inability to condemn white supremacists.
While many people cannot make sense of African Evangelical support for Trump, many scholars and social commentators have tried to rationalise and make sense of this phenomenon. Here I try to make sense of why African and Kenyan evangelicals and Pentecostals in particular, support a man so vile, a man who lacks empathy, compassion, morals, decorum, respect and human decency, values that are at the heart of African Christianity.
But first, let us understand why Trump aligns himself with American evangelicals, particularly white evangelicals. According to a 2019 Pew Research report, 81 per cent of white evangelicals and 62 per cent of white voters without a college degree voted for Trump. While not all American evangelicals support Trump, a significant majority of white evangelicals do.
In her best-selling and influential book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals corrupted Faith and Fractured a Nation, Historian and Gender Professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez argues that President Donald Trump weaponised both Christianity and masculinities to win the support of American evangelicals. Trump projects himself as a strongman, a characteristic that has increasingly defined his presidency since 2016. His machismo, patriarchal ideals and aggressive brand of masculinity are interwoven not just with his politics but also with his relationship with white evangelicals who form a big part of his political base.
Trump—who has cozied up to world dictators, praising authoritarian leaders like Russia’s strongman and dictator Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un—appears to have dictatorial tendencies. According to Professor Du Mez, Christian male evangelicals exude the same machismo and masculine strength that Trump projects. His combative style is also apparently evident in evangelical literature and popular culture, mainly books and films teeming with masculine heroes that shape evangelical beliefs about men and women for millions of evangelicals. This evangelical popular culture and literature is heavily promoted in Africa and elsewhere and also shapes African evangelical conceptualisations of manhood and masculinities.
The values at the heart of American evangelicalism today are authoritarianism, patriarchy, masculinity, aggressive foreign policy, the fear of Islam and immigrants, ambivalence towards the #metoomovemnt, opposition to Black Lives Matter and abortion and LGBTIQ issues. Trump has hijacked these issues and appropriated and weaponised evangelical Christianity and its symbols and language for his own political agenda, aligning himself with social and moral issues that are at the heart of American evangelicalism such as abortion, family values and other conservative agendas.
First, he has surrounded himself with a retinue of spiritual advisors led by Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr. and others who prop up the legend of a God-fearing man who loves God and has the interest of their faith at heart. In September 2020, Trump tear-gassed his citizens so that he could pose for a photo op outside St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC in a way that weaponised the Bible in order to get the support of American evangelicals.
Evangelicals also believe Trump has their interests at heart because he has projected himself as the only protector of family and Christian values that are under serious threat from an increasingly liberal left. Similarly, he promised evangelicals protection and power, and brought them and their concerns to the centre of American public life.
African evangelicals align themselves with the American right because of their conservative positions around family issues including divorce, same-sex relationships, abortion and many others. There are many parallels between American evangelicals and African evangelicals and this may explain why African evangelicals support President Trump.
African masculine and patriarchal evangelical Christianity
First, African big men of the booming evangelical movement promote a masculine, authoritative and patriarchal gospel similar to that of American evangelicalism. Many male African bishops, archbishops, pastors, evangelists and self-styled prophets exhibit machismo and a masculine strength and character that mirror Trump’s. At the same time, they are beholden to power, influence, and money. They see or desire to see themselves in Trump as well as in American evangelical leaders. African evangelicals also admire aggressive leaders and many are friends to African dictators. Kenyan evangelicals cozied up to the late President Daniel Arap Moi, providing his autocratic and corrupt KANU regime with legitimacy and justifying this with the tired argument that leaders are appointed by God.
Another reason why African evangelicals support Trump is a practical one. It is about money, power and religious influence. The American evangelical right supports humanitarian and non-humanitarian causes across the African continent, from healthcare to education, water and solar projects as well as agriculture and food security.
American evangelical televangelists are not only extremely popular in Africa but their literature and popular culture are also heavily consumed by the African evangelical marketplace. Their books, films, videos, church magazines and motivational books line the bookshelves of Africa’s leading Pentecostal and Charismatic clergy’s personal and office libraries, fill the shelves of Africa’s churches and church and secular bookshops, and are to be found displayed on the second-hand bookstands in the streets.
Their televised programmes are also popular in Africa’s television stations. American televangelists such as Paula White, Joyce Meyer, Jack Van Impe, Benny Hinn, John C. Maxwell, T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, the late Morris Cerrulo, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar and many others are celebrities in Kenyan and African evangelical circles. In fact, Kenyans have their favourite American televangelists and many receive daily inspirational quotes and prayers from these televangelists. Leading African televangelists in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana and many other African countries say they have been mentored by American televangelists.
American televangelists are regular guests in Africa, criss-crossing the continent to hold prayer rallies and crusades. African televangelists offer American televangelists platforms to speak in their churches while African evangelicals get invited to travel to North America on preaching holidays to raise funds for church projects. So there is a relationship that has been cultivated between American evangelical televangelists and their African counterparts. African evangelicals’ support for Trump can thus be understood as support for their brethren across the Atlantic, a kind of solidarity between brethren.
Prosperity Gospel and the money trail
But there is also the influence of the American prosperity gospel in Africa where leading African televangelists espouse the theology of wealth and health or the gospel of money. The gospel of prosperity—also variously and derogatorily referred to as the “health and wealth” gospel, “the faith gospel”, “the gospel of riches”, “the gospel of materialism and consumerism”, the “gospel of selective abundance”, the “name it and claim it” gospel, the “blab it and grab it” gospel, “the gospel of ‘Panda Mbegu’” or gospel of “planting seeds” — is a direct importation from North America that has exploded in both popularity and prominence in the African continent in the last nearly three and a half decades. It has also stirred up huge debates and created controversies globally. African evangelical televangelists have increasingly been influenced by American proponents of the prosperity gospel, creating bonds with their brethren in the US and mirroring each other.
But there is also the money trail. American evangelicals support a wide range of causes in Africa, including HIV/AIDs prevention strategies in scores of African nations including Kenya and Uganda and promoting the sexual purity and abstinence theology among many others. At the same time, the American evangelical right has poured in money to promote conservative positions with respect to women’s reproductive health rights including abortion and same-sex relationships.
During contestations over the promulgation of the new constitution, Kenyan Christian churches led by a group of powerful evangelical, Pentecostal and Catholic lobbies vehemently opposed the adoption of the 2010 constitution because they opposed clauses that they viewed as too liberal, in particular clauses concerning abortion and same-sex relationships.
During the Population Conference that took place in Nairobi in 2019, Christian churches held big demonstrations to oppose women’s reproductive health rights and during the debates on the reproductive health bill held in May 2020, Christian churches caused a stir when they opposed the passage of the bill, labelling it the “abortion bill”. Christian churches in Kenya were also instrumental in the closing of Marie Stopes clinics across the country because they claimed that they were abortion centres.
Christian churches and the clergy have also mobilised against same-sex relationships across the continent and especially in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. Christian opposition to these issues is linked to American dollars that have been poured in to fight liberal causes.
Thus American evangelicals have strongly influenced the rise of Africa’s evangelicals, not just in the public sphere but also in their quest to influence public policy with respect to hot-button issues like abortion, gay rights, gender rights and a wide array of liberties and rights. The sexual purity culture is also directly borrowed from the script of the American right and is often preached in evangelical churches.
The fear of liberalism and democratic ideals which are considered anti-family by religious conservatives is one of the other reasons African evangelicals support Trump. He is seen as a protector of family morality through not just his alignment with American evangelicals but also through his recent and contested appointment of conservative judges to the Supreme Court, especially that of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
Christian Zionism and eschatological concerns
Among the many other reasons why American and African evangelicals support President Trump is because of his policies and support for Israel. When Trump moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem there were jubilant celebrations not just in the US but also across scores of African countries that have large evangelical Christian majorities. In announcing the move, Trump said he did it for evangelicals. In many parts of the world but especially in the USA and Africa, evangelicals have a special affinity to Israel.
Many Christians also view the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. The promise of the Holy Land is therefore intricately tied to evangelical beliefs. This sort of Christian Zionism has been emerging for a long time and is tied to the Christian belief that God’s promise of the land to the Jews is eternal.
American and African evangelical support for Israel can be seen in light of an emerging Christian Zionism inspired by theological concerns and is connected to Christian eschatological concerns rather than to the larger politics including the Palestinian question. Interestingly, African Christians who support Israel couldn’t care less about Palestinian struggles.
As one pastor said to me in an interview that, “I align myself with God’s special people and Nation. When I need my prayers answered, I pray for Israel. I tell my flock that when they pray for Israel, God answers their prayers.” The emergence of Christian Zionism can thus be understood through eschatological beliefs.
For many evangelical Christians, Jerusalem is the linchpin of their eschatological beliefs. Evangelical Christians, a majority of whom make a literal reading of the bible, believe that Jesus Christ will return to Jerusalem, specifically a Jerusalem controlled by the Jewish people. Israel is therefore intricately tied to evangelical Christians who see it as an important nation in Gods’ larger plan for Christians, especially born-again Christians. Beyond eschatological beliefs, evangelicals also believe that Jerusalem will be the scene of the final battle between good and evil. It is the place where God will finally obliterate his enemies and usher in the millennial reign of Christ.
Such Christian eschatological beliefs are tied to what is generally referred to as pre-millennial dispensationalist theology or end-time eschatological beliefs. The millennial in pre-millennialism, theologians argue, refers to Jesus Christ’s prophesied 1000-year reign of peace on earth. Christians believe that those who are born-again will be raptured to heaven at the end of time.
A majority of African Pentecostal and evangelical clergy are proponents of this pre-millennialism or end-time eschatological beliefs. Consequently, many align with Trump who is seen as a friend of Israel, Gods own “special people and nation”.
When Trump named Jerusalem the capital of Israel, he said that there was more enthusiasm and excitement amongst American evangelicals than there was in Israel itself. This is also true of Africa where there were significant celebrations in scores of African countries that view Israel as a nation with a special place in God’s end-time plans.
Besides, Israel is believed by many Christians to be home to many sacred sites including the Ark of the Covenant and many other sacred objects and artefacts. There is also the prevailing belief that God’s presence resided inside the temple built by King Solomon and later destroyed by the Babylonians. Evangelicals believe that God’s presence still resides in Israel which will play a critical role in Christian end-time beliefs.
Similarly, Christians believe that Jesus Christ was born, lived, walked, died and rose again in Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem therefore conjures up memories of the history of Jesus Christ, a central figure in their personal lives and faith. Thus, for many evangelicals, Jerusalem is a special place and Israel is a holy land which is important in God’s larger eschatological plan.
The importance of Israel for many evangelical Christians as well as for other denominations has spawned a thriving religion-inspired tourism and pilgrimage to the Holy land. Every year, thousands of African Christian pilgrims travel to the Holy Land to renew their faith and walk where Jesus walked.
Patriarchy, misogyny and the weaponisation of masculinities
While Trump is viewed as an increasingly divisive and polarising figure the world over, he remains popular among evangelicals in Africa, especially in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. Trump’s support is evident in countries with a significant evangelical and Pentecostal majority, which is pretty much most of sub-Saharan Africa where Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity has exploded since at least the 1970s, or earlier in some countries. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches dot much of the African landscape. According to a 2019 Pew Research poll, Trump has more support in Kenya and Nigeria where supporters appear unbothered that he referred to African countries as shithole countries in 2018.
Both Nigeria and Kenya are highly religious countries with large numbers of evangelicals. Pastor Chris, a prominent Nigerian televangelist, has argued that people are angry at Trump for supporting Christians. He argues that people who hate Trump hate Christians. Bishop Mark Kariuki in Kenya said that Kenyan evangelicals are praying for President Trump’s re-election because Kenyan evangelicals are thinking about values. A majority of Christian groups in Africa hold conservative views about marriage, abortion, gay rights and scores of other issues.
Trump is seen by African evangelicals as a promoter of family values unlike President Obama who has been pushing a liberal agenda in Africa, a move that drew significant anger and concern from evangelicals in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda in particular. When President Obama came to Kenya in 2016, he publicly but civilly clashed with President Uhuru Kenyatta over the issue of gay rights. Evangelicals had held demonstrations before Obama’s arrival telling him to keep off gay issues.
African and American evangelical support for Trump is not only baffling but it is also very paradoxical given that he is hardly a paragon of morality. Nigerian Pentecostal philosopher and theologian, Professor Nimi Wariboko of Boston University, argues that Pentecostals and evangelicals support Trump because they are doing God’s will and because of the prevailing theology amongst evangelicals that God uses sinners to accomplish his divine purpose. According to Wariboko, for many of these groups Trump is not just their hero but he is also a sort of a messianic figure who will not only lead his followers to Godly redemption, but is also uniquely placed to do this for them and for the whole of America.
Scholars like Wariboko have tried to make sense of this both philosophically and theologically, especially given that Trump does not by any means conjure up any messianic ideals yet he is largely viewed by his evangelical supporters as a sort of a messiah, one who will protect America from liberalism and socialism.
Evangelicals and suspicions about science
Trump denies science, climate change and a wide array of environmental issues. While many evangelicals are not necessarily averse to science, they are also not very enthusiastic about it. Many evangelicals are beholden to the miraculous, spawning an entire faith healing and miracle industry that is at odds with science. For many evangelical clergy, science, climate change and environmental issues are not top of their agenda. They would rather pray for healing for ailments such as cancer, COVID-19, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, asthma and many others. Belief in science and medicine could seriously threaten their booming faith healing miracle industry, rendering many jobless.
With the collapse of healthcare in Africa following the structural adjustment programmes of the 1970s and 80s, the religious industry boomed while faith healers moved into the public sphere, spawning a thriving faith healing ministry that has captured the imaginations of many African Christians leading to the emergence of thousands of faith healing charlatans that have led many people astray. Prophet David Owuor, a scientist-cum-faith healer, has claimed to heal cancers, hypertension, diabetes, HIV/AIDs and various other disabilities. Trump is admired by these types of clergy because he legitimises their trade and gives them the language to oppose science.
Support for dictators: Leaders are appointed by God
Another reason why African evangelicals support Trump is that he appears to admire dictators and has dictatorial tendencies. African evangelicals have a long tradition of not just supporting populist politicians but also providing tacit approval to Africa’s dictators. Kenyan evangelicals supported and provided legitimacy to the late President Daniel Arap Moi. In Nigeria, evangelicals aligned themselves with corrupt leaders who looted the country. Pentecostal clergy have also provided legitimacy to leaders in Zambia, Uganda and Tanzania.
There are also many similarities between Trump and African evangelical leaders many of whom are authoritarian and entertain no criticism from their members or from members of the public. While Trump fires his critics, some evangelical leaders threaten their critics with the famous dictum, “touch not my anointed”, a biblical verse that is often used to silence critics. Others threaten their critics with death and curses. Prophet Owuor has maintained a grip on his thousands of followers using the threat of curses and deaths from cancers and road accidents against anyone who speaks ill about him. This has led to vicious infighting within a ministry that is run by fear to stifle criticism.
At the same time, many African evangelical leaders lack both the theological and philosophical tools of analysis with which to engage the state unlike their Catholic and other mainstream church clergy who have theologically-grounded and philosophical tools of analysis to engage on social and political issues. Many African evangelical clergy frown upon theological education and go into ministry by simply calling themselves to the ministry and relying on the Holy Spirit to interpret the bible.
Islam and evangelicals
There is also the Muslim factor in the evangelicals’ support for Trump. There is enough evidence in his rhetoric against Muslims—many of whom he has banned from entering the US—that Trump hates Muslims and regards them as terrorists who hate America. Evangelicals are suspicious of Muslims and the increase in Islamophobia in Africa, America and elsewhere is directly related to the emergence of Christian nationalism.
In Africa, especially in countries with significant numbers of Muslims, increased islamophobia and emerging and simmering tensions between Christians and Muslim is blamed on the emergence of evangelicals and Pentecostals in public life. We saw this in Kenya during contestations over the Kadhi Courts during the constitution review process. This has also been documented in Nigeria and other countries. Evangelicals feel threatened by increasing numbers of Muslims and Trump’s rhetoric about Islam has emboldened African evangelicals who are suspicious of Islam. Terrorism has also complicated this relationship.
Trump is a tragic hero in African evangelicalism, where many still believe that even though polls show that he lost to Joe Biden, many are still praying for a miracle while evangelical prophets and prophetesses have cast this election between the forces of evil (democrats) and good (Trump and the evangelicals). African evangelicals have cast Trump as a less than perfect person who is being used by God to fulfil his will. In their way of understanding, God uses the weak to accomplish his purpose. Evangelicals have appropriated biblical characters such as Cyrus to save God’s people from their enemies. Trump is therefore seen as a modern day Cyrus who will lead God’s people to peace and prosperity.
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