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Algorithmic Colonisation of Africa

16 min read.

Colonialism in the age of Artificial Intelligence takes the form of “state-of-the-art algorithms” and “AI driven solutions” unsuited to African problems, and hinders the development of local products, leaving the continent dependent on Western software and infrastructure.

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Algorithmic Colonisation of Africa
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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.

Context matters

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.

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Abeba Birhane is PhD Candidate, School of Computer Science, University College Dublin, Ireland and Lero - The Irish Software Research Centre.

Long Reads

The West and Its African Monsters Syndrome

The language of colonialism has remained a determined and fixed feature of mainstream accounts of Africa. The racist imagery of Africa remains unchanged and essentially monstrous.

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The West and Its African Monsters Syndrome
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There is a new book out on Rwanda that, for various reasons, has made quite some “waves”: Michela Wrong’s Do not disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad (published end of March 2021). It is about a controversial topic: the politics of the government of Rwanda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and President Paul Kagame. The book blurb reads:

Do Not Disturb is a dramatic recasting of the modern history of Africa’s Great Lakes region, an area blighted by the greatest genocide of the twentieth century. This bold retelling, vividly sourced by direct testimony from key participants, tears up the traditional script. The new version examines afresh questions which dog the recent past: Why do so many ex-rebels scoff at official explanations of who fired the missile that killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi? Why didn’t the mass killings end when the rebels took control? Why did those same rebels, victory secured, turn so ruthlessly on one another? Michela Wrong uses the story of Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence and a quicksilver operator of supple charm, to paint the portrait of a modern African dictatorship created in the chilling likeness of Paul Kagame, the president who sanctioned his former friend’s murder.

Wrong also published a Guardian opinion piece a few days ago that begins as follows:

There are moments when the international community’s perception of a leader shifts into a new configuration, often for reasons that can’t be entirely logically explained. Myanmar’s Aung San Sui Kyi reached that tipping point during the Rohingya crisis, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has been undergoing the same transition since war broke out in Tigray, and the same process is taking place with the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. Today, he is welcoming the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to Kigali, his spotlessly tidy hillside capital. . .

The piece closes with:

In February, Rwandan officials attending the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva seemed taken aback by the bluntness of the human rights concerns aired by US and UK delegates. Kagame was not included among the five African presidents invited to Biden’s climate summit in April, and Rwanda was bypassed on Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s virtual visit to Africa. A lot of this recalibration can be explained by the sheer passage of time. Kagame has now been at the helm for 27 years, and such longevity carries its own message. As one development official told me: “Anyone who is in power that long, well, you have to regard them as a dictator, don’t you?”

Like her book on corruption in Kenya, Our Turn to Eat, published back in 2009, Wrong’s new book has been received with enthusiasm in the UK and US. Various high-end webinar and podcast book launches have already been held in, among other places, the UK, the US and South Africa, with, for example, the Royal African Society/SOAS, the Foreign Press Association USA, the South African Institute of International Affairs, or Public Affairs Books (see also for other launch talks here, here, here, here, here, here and here; further reviews and launches are publicised at fast speed). The book was much praised by various launch hosts and speakers. On one event page one can read: “Near the end of this episode, host of the Departures podcast Robert Amsterdam tells his guest, ‘This is perhaps the best book I’ve ever read on Africa, and I’ve read a lot of books.’ Such is the esteem we hold for Michela Wrong.”

Reuters headline
And one can find headlines like this Reuters one in the ongoing launch phase of the book.

Reuters headline
So, there is great interest in the book. The cover carries praises by John Le Carré who assesses the book to be “A withering assault on the murderous Rwandan regime of Paul Kagame – very driven, very impassionate”, and, according to the longer review available online, “a melancholy love song to the last dreams of the African Great Lakes”. Archbishop Desmond Tutu evaluates the text to be an “extremely important and profoundly disturbing book”. More appraisals are listed here with the Rwandan government being described as a “murderous” and “profoundly criminal regime”, and Kagame as a “ruthless dictator”.

Further, Edward Clay, who was the UK’s Ambassador to Rwanda from 1994 to 1996, the British High Commissioner in Uganda from 1993 to 1997 and in Kenya from 2001 to 2005, writes in the last paragraph of his review: “Wrong concludes with reminders of why her book’s title is apt. The heroic days of the RPF have yielded to duplicity, treachery, betrayal and assassination. Why did those who later fell out with the regime serve so long as its defenders, apologists and executives; and why is the obscure Kagame of 1990 still standing tall thirty years on?” Finally, at a book launch hosted by Ian Williams, President of the Foreign Press Association USA, he asks Wrong towards the end of their talk: “Is there hope, is Kagame going to appear before the International tribunal?” Clay’s book review was published on DemocracyinAfrica.org and assessed to be a “great read” by scholar Nic Cheeseman, the website’s founder. Cheeseman also expressed in a tweet: “Can’t wait to hear Michela Wrong talk about her new hard hitting book on Rwanda”. (bold in original). Do not Disturb was the website’s “Book of the Month” earlier this year.

The book has received criticisms too and they include charges of naivety, one-sidedness, partisanship, propaganda, demonisation/character assassination of Kagame, revisionism, and racism (see e.g. here, here, here and here). In the first part of his three-part review, Ugandan analyst and journalist Andrew Mwenda writes that Wrong’s book continues with a line of analysis that pathologises African political actors. The matter here is state violence (particularly extra-territorial killings). Mwenda argues that this political phenomenon needs to be analysed as a matter of foreign policy choices (and, generally, political repertoire) not as a psychological/cultural phenomenon. Mwenda further argues that these practices are analysed, interpreted and judged differently by many Western scholars, depending on whether the protagonists are Western or African leaders:

Many countries have always acted extra-territorially depending on their judgement of the nature of the threats they faced. During the cold war, the Americans, French, British, and Russians intervened in other countries using coups, civil wars, and targeted assassinations. The Americans attempted to assassinate Castro 76 times yet he never sought to attack the USA, just to be independent of it. After 9/11, the America government adopted a policy of preemptive war to any threat anywhere. The American state has carried out coups, assassinations or sponsored civil wars and terrorist activities in Iraq, Syria, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Grenada, Vietnam, Libya, etc. Would Wrong accuse any U.S. president of being a violent psychopath?

This is the problem I have with many Western scholars, journalists and diplomats. When something is done by their countries, they focus on the national policy that informs the decision, not the personality of the leader who made it. They can criticise the policy but rarely do they attribute it to some mental or psychological pathology of the leader. When the same thing is done by an African leader, they ignore the circumstances that informed such a decision and accuse the individual leader of madness or psychopathy. I hate to use the word racism. But if this is not racism, what is it? Wrong . . . presents such policy [Rwanda’s extraterritorial operations] as the product of . . . Kagame’s psychopathy.

Mwenda here opens up the question of comparison about political violence in general and state violence (and state crimes) in particular: how does the Rwandan case of (especially extraterritorial) state violence compare globally — and particularly vis-à-vis Western states such as the US — on a continuum of “degrees” of state violence abroad?

The racism charge in the debate emerges, amongst others, due to the opening chapter of Wrong’s book, which she has reproduced on the Lit Hub website. It has been commented on, in particular by Mwenda (see also e.g. here) and reads as follows:

Rwandans kept telling me that deceiving others, being economical with the truth, was something their community reveled in, positively prided itself upon. Especially when dealing with Western outsiders. A proof of superiority, not shame, when successfully achieved. So much so, that the practice had worked itself into the language. . . . One of Rwanda’s prime ministers, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, shocked the head of a UN peacekeeping force by telling him: “Rwandans are liars and it is a part of their culture. From childhood they are taught to not tell the truth, especially if it can hurt them.”. . . A successor told me the same thing over coffee in a Brussels hotel lobby many years later: “In Rwanda, lying is an art form. When you, as a white journalist, leave a meeting, they will be congratulating themselves: ‘We took her for a ride.’ Lying is the rule, rather than the exception.” It was an accusation tossed into conversations with Tutsis and Hutus, Rwandans and Ugandans, diplomats and military men, lawyers, and journalists. “You spoke to so-and-so? Oh, he’s the most terrible liar.”

Wrong details some of her views regarding political violence/culture in the case she takes into focus in a talk here (e.g. min 8:57 onwards, and especially min 17:52 onwards), and also offers a comparative commentary regarding Rwanda vs the West/US here (min 4:33 onwards). Wrong reacts to the criticism concerning the points about “lying . . . as part of Rwandan culture” and “culture of deceit” in a book launch event in June hosted by Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor, Channel 4 News (see min 16:19 onwards).

The Royal African Society which co-hosted a book launch back in April received a petition titled “Show that racism has no place at the Royal African Society”. Signed by 1099 people, it notes:

We are shocked to see that the Royal African Society are providing a platform to Michela Wrong. Ms Wrong has a history of using racist and offensive language when discussing the African continent and its people. Wrong’s most recent work, Do Not Disturb, is saturated with offensive stereotypes and underpinned by her argument that in Rwanda, everyone is a liar. In her introduction, she writes about Rwandans: “Deceiving others was something their community revelled in” and “In Rwanda, lying is an art form”. These are long-established tropes which were used in the past to demonise Tutsis. One of the architects of the genocide, Theoneste Bagosora, in his 30-page booklet inciting hatred towards the Tutsi said: “The Tutsis are the masters of deceit” and “Inveterate liars”. Wrong also quotes Ewart Grogan. Grogan, who Wrong refers to as an ‘Adventurer’, was in fact a colonialist who worked for Cecil Rhodes and was convicted for beating Africans in the street. She makes no mention of this, or the fact that Grogan said that in fact all Africans are “fundamentally inferior”, choosing instead to select his quote: “Of all the liars in Africa, I believe the people of Ruanda are by far the most thorough” to support her contention that Rwandans could not be trusted. The neo-colonial undertones to her work are barely concealed.

This is not the first time that Wrong has used outdated, offensive, and unnecessarily graphic language when discussing the continent. In one of Wrong’s previous works, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, she said: “Africa, a continent that has never disappointed in its capacity to disappoint: Hutu mothers killing their children by Tutsi fathers in Rwanda; the self-styled Emperor Bokassa ordering his cook to serve up his victims’ bodies in Central African Republic; Liberia’s rebels gleefully videotaping the torture of a former president”. In the same book, Wrong stated that: “There were more recent signs that La Sape was being infected by the ‘slob’ look embraced by America’s blacks, all outsized jeans, baggy dungarees and shorts that drop to calf level”. At other points, she paints a picture of Rwandans as a people conditioned to kill from birth. When describing a typical Rwandan “peasant”, she suggests that “If instructed to kill you, he may well pick up a machete, because the value of obedience has been impressed on him since birth and, above all, no one wants to stand out from the crowd”. Her contempt for Rwandans, who in her mind are all one and the same, is plain to see.

We are shocked that in 2021, and in the era where racism and discrimination in all its forms is being challenged around the world, these views are published and promoted without challenge. . . . We call on the Royal African Society to immediately review their decision to provide Ms Wrong a platform and commit to challenging her racist and offensive views about Rwandans and Africans more widely.

The written reply of the Society’s Director, Nicholas Westcott, to the petitioners includes these lines (emailed to us by Westcott with permission to publish):

We are very conscious of the sensitivity of many issues in Rwanda’s history, and especially the question of the genocide.  I have read Ms Wrong’s book (and indeed her previous books), and I feel your selective quotations distort her message and misrepresent her views. There is certainly criticism of the current government, but not in a form that can justifiably be described as racist. The meeting we are holding to discuss her book is open to the public, so those who disagree with Ms Wrong’s views are welcome to participate and express their own opinion, raise questions or explain their disagreements. . . .

Spectator headline

We do not provide a review of the book. Rather we wish to problematise two headlines of the book reviews in the UK press — in the Times and the Spectator. In the review title there is reference to Kagame as a “monster”. The titles read: “Do Not Disturb by Michela Wrong review — the making of a monster” and “The making of a monster: Paul Kagame’s bloodstained past”. The pieces are written by high-profile writers Ian Birrell and Nicholas Shakespeare. Birrell also uses the “monster” characterisation in a tweet about the piece and, in the review, employs the “savagery” term in this passage: “She exposes a more complex and tawdry story, showing the savagery that lies below the smooth surface of a regime hailed by many Western admirers.” and writes that “this gruesome regime . . . lies blatantly on everything . . . .”

The Times headline

Birrell’s text reads:

Yet this interwoven story of two fascinating men is much more than a smart device to tell the tale of another African rebel leader who festered in power, even if it is a riveting account of raw power turned rancid. Wrong, the author of fine books on Eritrea, Kenya and the Congo, challenges the tatty conventional narrative on the 1994 genocide, with its simplistic notion of triumphant Tutsi good guys led by the heroic national saviour returning from exile. She exposes a more complex and tawdry story, showing the savagery that lies below the smooth surface of a regime hailed by many Western admirers.

The pages are laced with irony since Karegeya was a key player in creating the deceptive façade of a democratic Rwanda, before he fled and rebranded himself as an opposition leader. “When they say these dictators and monsters are created by those around them, I think it’s true,” confesses another key figure in exile. “We had a hand in the making of a monster.”

The book offers searing indictment of naive western politicians and gullible aid groups that appease this gruesome regime in desperation to find a poster child for their policies of spraying cash around the planet, ignoring how it lies blatantly on everything from human rights to poverty data. Wrong also points to the racism that lurks behind the idea Africans need a strongman to keep them in order.

We do not know whether the authors or editors of the book reviews came up with the “monster” titles. In any case we find the “monster” headline disturbing (though not surprising given the racism in part of the UK press) and worth analytical attention. We look in particular at sections of the press and non-academic writing but arguably, the issue is wider and deeper. We have for various reasons become interested by the reception of the book in the press — and in academic and policy circles generally — in the past week, one of the reasons being that this reception is deeply political at various levels. They are “events” (and thus insightful “data”) in the unfolding politics of Do not Disturb. What is discussed and judged (and reframed) there is arguably not just Rwanda, Kagame and the RPF. The book and the fast-mounting debate relate to wider political issues and discourses: representations of Africa; media; Western imperialism, foreign policy and aid; the West’s self-image; North-South relations; Africa rising; African statehood/sovereignty; political violence; knowledge production; the relationship between scholarship/academia/media/experts and foreign policy, for example in the UK and US, and the silences, taboos and no-goes in part of Western scholarship, media commentary and reporting, particularly about state/political violence (or in Wrong’s terms “political murder”) of Western imperialist countries (i.e. the Western empire). Wrong’s writing speaks to some of these foreign policy/international relations issues and the reviews and headlines pick it up (“the world” ignores/wakes up, etc.). Our theme of interest is thus also how Western media, academia and expert circles do politics and the respective authors’ relationship with the foreign policies of their governments (in this case vis-à-vis African countries and governments). We realise that this is a theme that has a long history, but we think it deserves renewed attention as the geopolitical and inter-imperialist conflicts once again intensify, and as the media landscape changes in a very particular way.

Headline block

Notably, Kagame is not the first post-independence leader from the continent to be characterised as a monster by the Western media in prominently displayed headlines and/or article-summary lines. Instead, he is the latest in a longer list of “monsters” that goes far back in history. We found monster-calling with regard to leaders ranging from Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Charles Taylor (see also here re. Chucky Taylor), and Robert Gabriel Mugabe, with many in-between. Mugabe: Monster or Hero?  one France24 headline reads. Robert Mugabe: Hero and Monster, titles a Canadian outlet. And the UK’s Telegraph used the monster characterisation for years in some of the Mugabe headlines. Just a few months ago, The Times referred to Amin as a monster in the summary line of a review of the new book by Mark Leopold: Idi Amin: The Story of Africa’s Icon of Evil (for a review see here). Joseph Kony has received monster headlines too, e.g. in The Sun, and in an in-text passage in an Observer report about the documentary film Kony 2012. See also a book titled Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason K. Stearns. Amin, Gaddafi and Mobutu (and Jean-Bédel Bokassa) also made it onto the list of “monsters” in a book titled Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators, by Jay Nordlinger.

Newspaper headlinesIt is against this background that we want to make very few basic points about “the West” and its apparent African Monsters syndrome. We want to start by posing some questions (while leaving them largely open for debate): why have some Western press outlets, throughout the decades, referred to some leaders in Africa (but also in other regions such as Latin America) as monsters? Why do these outlets — and their respective writers and editors — mobilise the “monster” characterisation when they write about other countries’ leaders that a part of “the West” (i.e. sections of political actors, commentators, etc.) views, for whatever reasons, in a critical light? And what might be the commonality between those leaders from around the globe who make it into the infamous box of “monsters”? What are the mechanisms that produce the monster category in politics? Why have some African political leaders that are eventually labelled “monsters” often been labelled “heroes” first (Kagame and Mugabe for example)? What has changed in the politics of these cases that informs the change in narrative, image and label? The discourse we bring into focus is generated in countries with intense geopolitical interests in African countries and so matters of narrative politics and control come in. It is a ubiquitous US, UK and Western European formation that we have in mind when we refer to “the West’.

In any case we find the “monster” headline disturbing (though not surprising given the racism in part of the UK press).

Before we start: yes, there are also headlines that refer to former US president Trump as a monster (e.g. here or here, and he was called monster by an official; see also here re. George W. Bush; and here or here for Barack Obama, or for Jair Bolsonaro, here and here). And the characterisation is not used just by “right-wing” outlets. But, arguably, overall these are somewhat different cases, in different contexts. One may debate in future what the commonality and connection is in these global “monster” cases, across these regions. What explains the choices of the editors and writers? The immediate question at hand, however, might rather be: do the Times/Spectator editors who run the Kagame-monster-headlines refer to some Western leaders as monsters too, or do they only use the characterisations in texts about non-Western leaders? Our focus of analysis is the West and its African “monsters-in-government”, i.e. the reporting, analysing and headlining about leaders from the continent (and by extension in the Third World/Global South; Fidel Castro and Nicolas Maduro, for example, have also had their share of   “monster” headlines).

Fidel Castro
The “hero or . . .” binary also features here (and the question is why we repeatedly find these binaries in such headlines).

Fidel Castro
That said, let’s examine one relatively recent case of the West’s African Monsters syndrome: Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Gabriel Mugabe, now deceased. For years, Mugabe — who was at one time happy to implement the policies of the IMF and World Bank — was transformed into the despised tyrant of the continent, a “monster” determined to unleash “mob savagery” against law abiding (white) Zimbabweans (The Daily Telegraph, 10 August 2001).

In the early 2000s, TV programmes and newspaper articles were full of the “catastrophe” for white Zimbabwe, and Mugabe was labelled the killer-in-chief – a man who once knew his place, he was quickly transformed over a period of a couple of years from 1999 to 2001 into the very embodiment of the continent’s monsters.

For the next twenty years and until he died on 6 September 2019, coverage in the media and popular history books were unanimous about Mugabe’s role in Zimbabwe’s plunge. The devastation to white farmers in the country, with hysterical war veterans or “mobs” rampaging mindlessly through the capital, Harare, had a single cause: Mugabe’s megalomania and an insatiable craving for power. Many “serious” studies were dragged into the metanarrative. Dinner with Mugabe by Heidi Holland, published in 2009, told the story of a “freedom fighter” who became a “tyrant”. Even reviews of the balanced account of Zimbabwe’s crisis by Richard Bourne, Catastrophe, which came out in 2011, were replete with praise for charting Mugabe’s lunacy. At the time, the BBC’s James Robbins explained how the book “expertly lays bare Mugabe’s terrifying abuse of power — his path from liberator to destroyer — as well as charting the failures by Britain and the world to challenge him effectively.”

Across the US and UK, some commentators, academics and politicians referred to Mugabe as a madman “on the loose”, and spoke of a crisis “driven by one man’s ruthless campaign”. In the West’s wild imaginings, Zimbabwe became a symbol of the need to reorder Africa. When Mugabe was metamorphosing into a monster of continental proportions in the early part of the century, the then UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw (of the Labour party), insisted that it was “our” responsibility not to “let a great continent go down”.

By the end of the first decade of this century, Amazon was listing seven biographies of Mugabe written in the previous few years. Each, in a different way, promised to get to the “man behind the monster”. Today on Amazon’s site, the list of Mugabe “monster biographies” is literally endless — an industry has grown up around this popular imaginary that defies even our wildest exaggerations.

Dinner with MugabeWhy does it matter? The core of our argument is not knee-jerk support for political figures on the continent demonised by the monster characterisation. Instead, we see the terms used in headlines of reviews of Wrong’s book, and others, as a default racism — apparently still so deeply embedded in the minds of the respective writers/editors that they are unable to see how they simply slot into popular and racists assumptions about Africa and its people. The language, tools and analyses of these commentators are unreformed and colonial in origin. The monster characterisation dehumanises African leaders, and arguably their families, communities and societies too.

There is another dimension to it which we can only sketch out in brief here, but hope it can be further debated by others in future. It links to pieces that were published a short while ago by Jimi Adesina, Andrew Fisher and Nimi Hoffman, and by Yusuf Serunkuma. These pieces and the issues they raise made a symposium on the issue seem pertinent and an email was drafted and sent to a colleague along the following lines:

Given the Adesina et al. & Serunkuma pieces, African studies might have at hand an emerging debate regarding the link between Western scholarship/scholars and Western politics/foreign policy agendas (in the context of empire/imperialism/imperialist rivalries); a debate about the political character/identity of African studies – historical and current dynamics. See as an example also the declaration of some Western scholars of postelection 2021 Uganda as a test case for US/UK/Biden, and the calls there for these governments to harden their stand vis-à-vis the Ugandan government. What are the theoretical stances, intellectual projects, purposes and politics behind such calls? For US empire to act/govern “better”? What do such interventions – that are arguably part of a large sample (that includes respective social media postings) tell us about the political character of this section of African studies? How do they sit in a longer historical line of African studies and geopolitics, empire/imperialism & western interests, power, hegemony, ideology and intervention? How do scholars reflect on their role in Western policy/empire (or see it as “no role”?)?  Does such a debate make sense? Would it be of use?

HeadlinesThe issue here is one that Serunkuma’s latest pieces clearly help to bring into focus: to what extent (and when, why, how, etc.) do the analyses that come out of part of the expert/commentator/academic/media community reflect the foreign policy positions of their governments (i.e. are thus in a particular way political).

How does this relationship between scholars/journalists and government/policy shape the analyses (i.e. matters of focus, argument, evidence, etc.) and modes of knowledge production?

How does that relationship shape scholarly and media controversies, such as the ones around Rwanda? And in what way does existing scholarship (and power relations etc.) inhibit a more extensive, critical debate about Western foreign policy (and discourses and narratives), vis-a-vis governments and leaders on the continent?

And does, as Serunkuma reminds us, a debate proper about “monsters” in the West not emerge because that debate does not get facilitated and supported (also via book launches and reviews), but rather is sidelined, by mainstream media and scholarship? In short, what are the taboos of Western mainstream scholarship and media and might there be a link to how the “monster” debate has unfolded, in the past and now? We cannot go deeper into this issue now, but note that some of these issues about sections of Western scholarship, scholars and analysts get also discussed, for example, in a recent intervention by Moses Khisa, in some twitter posts earlier this year by Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, Yusuf Serunkuma, Godwin Murunga and Jimi Adesina, and in the Editorial philosophy statement of the Pan African Review, amongst others.

Further then with the racism argument: Racist ideas are not new. For years analysts have lamented the “coup, war, famine syndrome” — that the continent only surfaces into Western news coverage, or into popular books, when it faces one of these catastrophes. As a result, no coherent image of Africa or its people can be narrated outside these categories/tropes – the continent simply does not exist without its wars, famines and monsters. These are not simply justifications for foreign interventions in the continent, but long held racist ideas about Africa’s barbarity.

The book and the fast-mounting debate relate to wider political issues and discourses.

Early European intrusion into the continent was justified, set-up and carried out to rid Africa of its pre-existing barbarity – its natural tendency to chaos and disorder. The cases are too extensive to cover in this piece, so we will limit ourselves to two examples. Algeria was invaded by France in 1830, and engaged in a war of pacification as Algerians fought the invaders for decades. Officially, the country was conquered in 1848 but in reality, there were hardly any years without fighting between 1830 and 1871.

The invasion was conducted – officially – in the name of civilisation and against native barbarity. The outcome was truly monstrous. After almost a century of French occupation, schooling in a largely literate pre-French society had been decimated by 1950, with UNESCO reporting 90 per cent illiteracy among the “natives”.  A population of 6 million in 1830 had collapsed to less than 3.5 million in 1852 as millions were forced off the land, and fertile agricultural regions were taken over to cultivate grapes for the export of wine to mainland France. Algerians were labelled “primitive” and unable to appreciate French civilisation, their behaviour pathologised as brutal and monstrous (Frantz Fanon wrote about how this impacted mental health – a process, he described in his medical lexicon, of recerebralising Algerians, literally reshaping their brains and thinking). When Algerians fought back in the 1950s, demanding independence, this was once more regarded as an expression of their primitive nature, and their innately violent character.

The extent of the devastation following the first decades of French occupation led even the pro-imperialist French politician and historian Alexis de Tocqueville to note that colonisation had made Muslim society more barbaric. In other words, the society was already barbaric, and the French had only deepened its savagery.

The language, tools and analyses of these commentators are unreformed and colonial in origin.

The story of European civilisation conquering African barbarism and its associated monsters was common across the decades of colonial occupation and adventure on the continent. Sometimes the language did not always stick to the barbaric script. Take the Congo. Over a period of twenty years, Henry Morton Stanley – the 19th century imperialist adventurer par excellence – helped to establish what became the murderous Belgian empire in the Congo. As Stanley rampaged through the Congo in the 1870s and 1880s, he saw great opportunity for profit and imagined riches everywhere he turned, but the enemy this time was sloth. “In every cordial-faced aborigine whom I meet I see a promise of assistance to me in the redemption of himself from the state of unproductiveness in which he at present lives”. By 1884, Stanley boasted to King Leopold’s court that he had 500 treaties with chiefs and Congolese headmen. The Berlin Conference that was held at the end of that year and into early 1885 divided up Africa among European nations and officially recognised Leopold as the head of the International African Association of the Congo, soon renamed the Congo Free State.

The stated aim of the new Belgian colony – loudly proclaimed by newspapers and embedded writers – was to abolish slavery (a war was going to be fought against Arab slave traders) and to bring civilisation. In the name of this war against barbarism, a regime of utter brutality commenced. The combination of famine, forced labour and systematic violence wiped out millions; according to the historian Adam Hochschild, the population fell from over 20 million in 1891 to 8.5 million in 1911.

Why is this history important? It is our contention that the language of colonialism has remained a determined and fixed feature of mainstream accounts of Africa. Racist imagery of Africa, its barbaric people – who live under a thin veneer of civilisation – remains unchanged, and essentially monstrous. The result of this constant narrative, and its linguistic tools, is to pulverise Africa, to keep its people and politics in a tight hold, and, of course, to justify intervention, provide racist analyses and condescension. For the dominant European narrative, Africans need to be categorised and controlled – this is how it’s done.

To conclude, the debate about these wider and case-specific matters is ongoing, for example in the critical accounts of Wrong’s book and the endorsing reviews. And its continuation is vital. In the meantime, perhaps, the UK press could consider a self-imposed ban on having monster characterisations in its reporting and headlining.

Post-script

An Indian outlet changed the original title of a conversation piece by Roger Southall about Mugabe from a monster-free headline into a with-monster headline.

Original

The ConversationAnd the headline on the website in India.

Headline

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Tanzania: The Dialectics of Maguphilia and Maguphobia

Hopefully, the Magufuli phenomenon would have taught progressive African intellectuals to distinguish between rhetorical anti-imperialism and systemic understanding of the global capitalist-imperialist system

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Tanzania: The Dialectics of Maguphilia and Maguphobia
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Grief and relief

On March 17, 2021, the fifth president of Tanzania John Joseph Pombe Magufuli, aged 61, died a few months after beginning his second term in office. It was a ‘dramatic’ exit for a person who had almost single-handedly (some would say heavy-handedly) ruled the country for the preceding five years. The reaction of the Tanzanian populace was as dramatic, if not extreme. Large sections of down-trodden (‘wanyonge’ in Swahili) people in urban and semi-urban areas were struck with disbelief and grief. Among them were motorbike taxi drivers (‘bodaboda’), street hawkers (‘machinga’), women food vendors (‘mama Ntilie’) and small entrepreneurs (‘wajasiriamali’). At the other end of the spectrum were sections of civil society elites, leaders and members of opposition parties, and a section of non-partisan intelligentsia who heaved a sigh of relief. Barring a few insensitive opposition political figures in exile, most in the middle-class group did not openly express or exhibit their relief, as African culture dictates, until after the 21-day mourning period had passed. In between the extremes were large sections of politicians and senior functionaries in the state and the ruling party who continued singing the praises of the leader while privately keeping track of the direction of the wind before casting their choice.

Increasingly the division between Maguphiles and Maguphobes is surfacing, particularly among parliamentarians. We may be witnessing a beginning of realignment of forces. Popular perception tends to be cynical, justifiably so, for none of the emerging factions resonates with their interests and daily lives. Street wisdom has it that with the change of wind, opportunist politicians are positioning themselves to be on the right side (‘wanajiweka sawa’ as the street Swahili goes) of the new president.

Between February 27, 2021 when he was last seen in public and March 17 when Magufuli’s passing on was officially announced, President Magufuli disappeared from the public eye. He was not seen at public functions nor did he attend church services on three consecutive Sundays. Magufuli was a practising Catholic and a devout church-goer. He never missed the Sunday Mass nor did he let go the opportunity to make political speeches from the pulpit. This practice distinguished President Magufuli from his predecessors to whom mixing politics with religion was anathema. They had been brought up on the secular doctrine preached and practised by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who never stopped reiterating that religion was a private matter and the Tanzanian state was secular. During the two weeks Magufuli was not seen in public, the country was awash with rumours, speculation and stories spun by spin doctors on Magufuli’s health, the nature of his disease, and whether or not he was alive. Internal detractors and a section of the foreign Western press superficially reported and gleefully reiterated that Covid-19 had finally caught up with President Magufuli who was reputed to be a Covid denier. The then Vice-President Mama Samia Suluhu Hassan gave heart complications as the cause of the president’s death. It was known that the president had a pacemaker. It is not necessary for the purposes of this essay to establish what the cause of death of President Magufuli was. I do not intend to cloud my analysis by that debate.

President Magufuli leaves behind a controversial legacy. It would be intellectually futile to strike a strict balance between Maguphilia and Maguphobia. That is a lazy way of understanding a political phenomenon. Drawing up a balance sheet of the good and the bad is an accountant’s job not that of an intellectual analyst. Rather it is important to understand that Magufuli was a political phenomenon, not an individual. Magufuli was a local variant of populist political leaders who have emerged recently in a number of countries of the South. Brazil and India are obvious examples. Conditions were ripe for the emergence of demagogic politicians, partly as a backlash to neo-liberalism which wreaked havoc with the social fabric of the countries in the periphery and partly because of the resulting polarisation, inequalities and impoverishment of the working people and middle classes. Disarmed, disillusioned and stripped of all hope, masses yearned for a messiah. Populists presented themselves as such deliverers. The masses in Tanzania found themselves in this state when Magufuli appeared.

Populist rhetoric varies from country to country but invariably it feeds on heightening racial, religious and gender differences and exploits popular prejudices. The Magufuli phenomenon was not a deus ex machina. To understand it we must locate it in the history and politics of the country and come up with a correct characterisation. I characterise the Magufuli phenomenon as messianic Bonapartism. Before we dwell further on this, let me say a couple of things about Bonapartism as a political phenomenon.

Bonapartism

When classes are weak or have been disarmed ideologically and organisationally over a generation, politics suffer from Bonapartist effects. Bonapartism can take different forms depending on the concrete situation. Quickly, we may identify the two most relevant to us – militarist and messianic. Tanzania has been saved of the former for reasons which will become clear in the course of this essay. In the late president we witnessed the latter.

Bonapartism is characterised by the unexpected rise of an individual who stands above classes and social struggles. Indeed he even appears to rise above the state. The famous phrase attributed to Louis XIV ‘l’etat, c’est moi’, ‘I’m the state’ sums it all. Bonapartism has arisen in historical situations where the struggling classes have either exhausted themselves and there is an apparent vacuum in the body politic or the rein of the previous ruler has been so laissez-faire that ‘law and order’ has broken down. The Bonaparte legitimises his crassly high-handed actions to return the country to order and to rein in fighting factions in which everyone is for themselves and the devil takes the hindmost. Liberal institutions of ‘bourgeois’ democracy such as parliament and judiciary are either set aside (a fascist option) or emaciated of their content (neo-fascist authoritarianism). They exist in name only, but go through the rituals of elections, law-making and ‘judicial decision’ making, which means little in practice.

When classes are weak or have been disarmed ideologically and organisationally over a generation, politics suffer from Bonapartist effects

Unlike much of the rest of Africa, Tanzania can justifiably boast of a relatively stable and peaceful polity as well as smooth succession from one administration to another. Julius Nyerere, the founding president, ruled for nearly quarter of a century followed by three presidents, each one of whom was in power for ten years, that is, two terms of five years, the term limit prescribed by the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania, 1977. President Magufuli had just entered his second term after the general election of October 2020 when he met his death.

The political antecedents

The driving force during Mwalimu Nyerere’s reign was the ideology of nation-building and development. Nation-building called for national unity. Nyerere was preoccupied by national unity and as a result he reigned in centrifugal forces. At the time of independence there were three identifiable centres of power: the army, trade unions and the state. The army mutiny of 1964 and the alleged attempt by some trade unionists to make common cause with the mutineers drew home the point that all was not well and Nyerere’s national project was tottering. The mutiny became the occasion to dismantle the colonial army, ban independent trade unions and abolish the multi-party system. Opposition parties then were miniscule without much support but they had the potential to derail the national project, as Nyerere saw it. Tanzania was the first country in this part of Africa to rebuild the army from scratch with soldiers recruited mainly from the ruling party’s youth wing.

In 1965 a new one-party constitution providing for a highly centralised executive presidency was passed. From then on, the polity was informed by the centralising tendency, power being concentrated in the state and the party. In 1968, an independent religious organisation of Muslims, the East African Muslim Welfare Society, was banned for fear that it could become an organisational home for disgruntled Muslim politicians. The 1967 Arusha Declaration enshrining the policies of socialism and self-reliance saw the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. That lay the basis for the rise of parastatals with their own spawning bureaucracy. Over a period of next ten years, relatively independent co-operatives were abolished and replaced by crop authorities. Independent student, youth, and women’s organisations were all brought under the wing of the party. Thus the proto-ruling class which could be described as a bureaucratic bourgeoisie or state bourgeoisie established its ideological and organisational hegemony. By the time Nyerere stepped down in 1985, Tanzania had one of the most formidable state-party machines and it was highly bureaucratised.

Four important features of the party-state during Nyerere’s time must be highlighted. One, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party did function. Its organs had foundations at grassroots level in villages and streets. The party operated through its various organs such as party branches, ten-cell organs and similar organs, at district, regional and national level. At the top was the Central Committee and the all-powerful National Executive Committee (NEC). These organs met regularly and transmitted their resolutions and proceedings to higher levels. Two, the army was integrated in the party structure. It constituted a region which sent delegates to the NEC and the Congress, just as other regions did. Three, the party had a clearly spelt out philosophy and ideology which became the basis for developing its programmes and manifestos. Consequently, there was an ideology and a structure around which members could rally and participate in decision-making. Fourthly, as a result of these factors, political factions with a clear ideology and politics could not easily crystallise in or outside the party. If factions did emerge, they were temporary and issue-oriented. It was difficult for them to have medium or long-term political ambitions. The only group which did function as a faction and began to flex its muscles in the last five years of Nyerere’s rule was from Zanzibar. The succession saga within the party following Nyerere’s announcement that he was stepping down was actually led by Zanzibaris to which a few mainlanders aligned. To Nyerere’s surprise, the Zanzibari CCM faction proved to be so formidable that it managed to overturn Nyerere’s preferred choice to succeed him.

Magufuli was a local variant of populist political leaders who have emerged recently in a number of countries of the South. Brazil and India are obvious examples. Conditions were ripe for the emergence of demagogic politicians, partly as a backlash to neo-liberalism which wreaked havoc with the social fabric of the countries in the periphery and partly because of the resulting polarisation, inequalities and impoverishment of the working people and middle classes

In sum, although state structures of checks and balances were compromised during Nyerere’s time, the party did act as a check on top leaders providing a platform for relatively free discussions and debates within the party. Throughout this period, the independence of the judiciary was respected even though the judiciary could not play a very active role because, one, the constitution did not have a bill of rights against which the performance and accountability of the state organs and officials could be measured and, two, the law tended to be very widely worded, giving the bureaucracy unfettered discretion. These powers were often abused but grievous abuses were relatively rare and, if and when discovered, legal action was taken against the perpetrators. While Nyerere’s regime could arguably be described as authoritarian it certainly could not be labelled fascist in any sense of the word. When some overzealous youth wingers once described Nyerere as a ‘fascist’, Nyerere is said to have quipped: ‘What would they say if they saw a real one!’

The next ten years under President Ali Hassan Mwinyi saw the first, albeit hesitant, steps on the road to neo-liberalisation. It was during Mwinyi’s term that the leadership code which prevented state and party leaders from using their political office to accumulate personal wealth was lifted. There were also signs of factional struggles within the party but interestingly it was once again the coherent Zanzibar faction which mainlander CCM leaders with presidential ambitions had to attach themselves. Nonetheless, it was on Zanzibar issues – Zanzibar’s membership of the Organisation of Islamic Conference on its own and Parliament adopting a resolution to form a Tanganyika Government thus changing the union structure from two to three governments – that matters came to a head. Nyerere was still around. He managed to salvage the boat. The boat rocked but did not sink.

The next president, Benjamin Mkapa, was the first to be elected in a multi-party election, scoring a majority vote of only 62 per cent, demonstrating that the electorate was getting exhausted with CCM’s scandals and over-bearing bureaucracy. Mkapa, who served as president from 1995 to 2005, can easily be described as the father of neo-liberalism in Tanzania. He privatised national assets, including the national state bank, and steam-rolled through Parliament the mining law, opening up that important sector to rapacious foreign investment. However, he took a leaf from Nyerere’s book by adhering to party protocols and ensuring that the party organs met regularly and that there was a semblance of debate in the top party organs. During his term the judiciary became more active as a bill of rights had been inserted in the constitution in 1984.

The political antecendents in Tanzania
By the end of Mkapa rule, Tanzania was a full-blown neo-liberal state. The hardest-hit victims of neo-liberalisation, as elsewhere, were the working people, in both urban and rural areas. As cost-sharing in education and health took hold and various subsidies were removed, the component of social wage from the livelihoods of working people disappeared, exposing them to the full rigour of the so-called free market. Even lower middle classes suffered. If Tanzania was spared of bread riots, it was because of the lingering ideological and organisational hegemony of the state-party over the working people.

Finding a successor to Mkapa proved to be contentious. Jakaya Kikwete and his friend Edward Lowassa, the party’s two leading cadres, had built a strong base in the party’s youth wing. They had waited in the wings to bid for the presidency at the opportune time. Through fair and foul means, aided by some manipulation of party rules by the then party chairman Mkapa, the Kikwete-Lowassa duo managed to keep out another strong contender, Salim Ahmed Salim. Kikwete got the party’s nomination, subsequently winning the presidency with a handsome majority. He lost no time in making his friend Lowassa his Prime Minister and one of their businessman friends – who was widely believed to play kingmaker behind the scenes – treasurer of the party. Eventually, the two friends fell out and Lowassa had to resign as Prime Minister. Be that as it may, the party had become fractionalised and mired in factional struggles. With no coherent ideology like the Arusha Declaration, the factions were not held together by any ideology or political programme but by sheer ambition to power and through power the ability to access the state largesse.

The ten years of Kikwete rule were one of the most laissez-faire periods in the country’s history. The neo-liberal chickens came home to roost. Scandals abounded, there was unchecked embezzlement of public funds, some politicians in collusion with businessmen went on an accumulation spree, corruption mounted. The party was side-lined. Kikwete did not have purchase on party meetings. The party and the government lost any semblance of coherence. The check-and-balance machinery broke down. Policymaking was erratic. Donors ruled the roost. To be sure, in this climate civil society elite and opposition parties enjoyed a measure of freedom which they had not experienced before but all that was at the expense of the masses who continued to sink deeper and deeper into poverty and hopelessness. The party lost credibility, so much so that when the time came for general elections it could not be sure of getting elected. Day by day, the opposition gained in popularity as it exposed the scandals and corruption of CCM politicians.

Unlike much of the rest of Africa, Tanzania can justifiably boast of a relatively stable and peaceful polity as well as smooth succession from one administration to another

Within the party, the person believed to be the strongest contender for presidency was Edward Lowassa. He had both political and financial clout but no purchase on political probity. He had cleverly put in place his people in vital party organs. Succession to Kikwete was ridden with factional struggles, so much so that when finally Lowassa lost out on nomination in the Central Committee, his faction in the Committee came out openly questioning the Central Committee’s decision.

As we have seen, the ruling party and its leaders had been so much maligned and marred by allegations of corruption that it had to nominate for the presidency a person who was not identifiable with the party and its heavyweights, a relatively clean person. That person was John Magufuli, until then a non-entity. In the elections, Magufuli got the lowest vote ever (58 per cent). Lowassa, having moved to the opposition, scored nearly 40 per cent. The opposition also won a significant number of seats in Parliament. As we shall see, Magufuli never forgave the opposition for their relative success.

The rise of a messianic Bonaparte

Thus were created almost textbook conditions for the rise of a Bonaparte, in this case, a messianic Bonaparte. By the time of the fifth president, the post-Nyerere presidents had abandoned the country’s cementing ideology, the Arusha Declaration. What was left of it was smashed to smithereens by the onslaught of neo-liberalism. The ideological vacuum thus created was filled with narrow nationalism and religious dogmas including religious salutations at political meetings and rallies in what was constitutionally a secular state.

The messianic variant of civilian Bonapartism best describes the Magufuli phenomenon. Messianic Bonapartism rules by fiat of the leader. It legitimises its rule not only by material measures in the interest of the down-trodden or oppressed (called wanyonge in Tanzania) but also by metaphysical appeals. The late President Magufuli used both in good measure. One of the most significant collateral damages of messianism is that accountability of the top leader disappears while their subordinates become, if at all, accountable to one person at the top. Politics are submerged in the personality of the president. Patriotism is defined and measured by one’s loyalty to the president. Any critique of the president is labelled unpatriotic or anti-national, the term widely used by Hindutva BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in India.

Messianic Bonapartism shares some characteristics of the absolute monarchies of Europe. Absolute monarchs derived their legitimacy and authority from God, not from the people. And so-called good absolute monarchs were those who bestowed their largesse on their subjects. President Magufuli did not flinch in giving cash gifts to well-performing functionaries or leading an on-the-spot collection of funds for a complaining widow or a mama Ntilie. Such publicity stunts no doubt endeared the president to the masses, notwithstanding the fact that the impact of these acts was fleeting.

On many levels Magufuli scored a first in the political history of the country. He was the first president of the country since independence 50 years ago who was not a party veteran or a cadre. Unlike his predecessors, he was not brought up in the party. He was nowhere close to the first or second-generation nationalists. In his ministerial portfolios under the third president, Mkapa, and later under the fourth president, Kikwete, he was better known for his close supervision of infrastructure projects than for his political acumen or ideological leanings. He got things done, which earned him the nickname ‘bulldozer’. He was more of a supervisor than a leader. As a president, he never travelled outside the country except to nearby African countries. He did not attend a single United Nations General Assembly or an African Union Summit. He had little appreciation of international geopolitics. Although described as a Pan-Africanist after his death, he showed little understanding of the history or politics of Pan-Africanism. He saw regional organisations like the East African Community (EAC) or Southern African Development Community (SADC) as vehicles to enhance Tanzania’s trade and economic benefits rather than as the political building blocks of Pan-Africanism. Although he rhetorically used the term ubeberu (imperialism), it is doubtful if he ever understood it as a system. He hardly ever talked about ubepari (capitalism) or for that matter ujamaa, socialism. His refrain and rhetoric was maendeleo (development), kutanguliza Mungu (putting God first) and uzalendo (patriotism). For him, ‘development’ was non-partisan; ‘development’ was above politics, above ideology and above all-isms.

The rise of the messianic Bonaparte
He was the first president who was able, in five years, to accomplish major undertakings which his predecessors had failed to do over decades. He moved the capital to Dodoma, a project that had been conceived and planned by Nyerere. He embarked on a gigantic hydroelectric project across Stigler’s Gorge. He initiated the building of the over-2000km-long Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza and further west. He built many miles of tarmac roads across the country. He would invariably quote a string of statistics from memory of the length of roads built, the number of dispensaries, hospitals, schools and factories constructed under him. Whether these figures represented the whole truth on the ground, no one could tell, and those who could kept quiet for fear of contradicting the all-powerful and unpredictable leader. As a matter of fact, during Magufuli’s time the Statistics Act of 2015 was amended to make it a crime punishable by a fine of ten million shillings or three years imprisonment or both ‘to disseminate or otherwise communicate to the public any statistical information which is intended to invalidate, distort or discredit official statistics’ (section 24B). A year later the amendment was repealed following pressure from local NGOs but not until the World Bank issued a statement showing its concern with the amendments and ending with a threat to withdraw its financial support to the strengthening of the national statistics system.

While Nyerere’s regime could arguably be described as authoritarian it certainly could not be labelled fascist in any sense of the word. When some overzealous youth wingers once described Nyerere as a ‘fascist’, Nyerere is said to have quipped: ‘What would they say if they saw a real one

While some of the mega-projects (like the SGR) undoubtedly made developmental sense, others were controversial given their possible medium and long-term ecological effects. The Stigler’s Gorge project and others (like buying eight airbuses and the Tanzanite bridge across the sea) could very well prove to be white elephants. While Magufuli lived, no one dared to challenge or contradict him. One consulting geologist from the University of Dar es Salaam who gave an adverse report on the feasibility of the Stigler’s Gorge project was roundly condemned by the president in public before his peers for being unpatriotic.

He was the first president who made meaningful and far-reaching decisions like abolishing primary and secondary school fees, ordering the building of classrooms and buying of desks, extending health insurance coverage at a cheap premium to almost one-third of the population, issuing street vendors and kiosk owners with identity cards at twenty thousand Tanzanian shillings which would legitimise their occupation and free them from constant harassment by city police and militia. A number of times he cancelled state celebrations like independence day and redirected the money thus saved to infrastructural and health projects. These and other populist moves, some impactful and others inflated out of proportion, endeared him to wanyonge and earned him the title ‘people’s president’, ‘man of the people’ and many other accolades generously bestowed on him by courtiers and praise singers.

Magufuli’s populist measures were not without contradictions. For instance, he barred pregnant school girls from education on the grounds of patriarchal morality which typically blames the victim. Use of misogynistic language was legendary with him. He unabashedly made remarks on the skin colour and figures of young female functionaries in his government. Yet hardly any local gender lobby could dare call him out. While he made primary and secondary education ‘free’, the loan instalment payments by university graduates was doubled, leaving little from their salaries for their upkeep.

He had little respect for the constitution or law. He did not even pay lip service to the rule of law and breached law and the constitution at will. He fired and humiliated senior civil servants in public meetings contrary to public service regulations and without proper investigation of their alleged misdeeds. While this to some extent restored discipline in the civil service, it was a discipline born of fear resulting in his ministers and civil servants shying away from making decisions.

During President Magufuli’s reign some of the most draconian pieces of legislation were passed, propelled by his compliant Attorney General. Public interest litigation (founded on article 26 of the country’s Constitution), under which a number of constitutional petitions were filed challenging some laws and Magufuli’s public appointments, was abolished. A few vocal lawyers conducting such cases were taken before the Advocates Committee for disciplinary action. One of them, who had appeared in a case in which the credentials of the Attorney General himself were questioned, was struck off the roll of advocates. At the time of writing her appeal is pending before the High Court.

The list of unbailable offences under the notorious Money Laundering Act was extended to cover even such offences as tax evasion and use of illegal fishing nets. The law was generously used by the prosecution to incarcerate critical journalists and commentators. A few such cases were sufficient to strike fear in the rest, including critical intellectuals and academics. Once famous as a site of critical debates and discussions, the University of Dar es Salaam became an intellectual desert with its faculty tight-lipped in the face of momentous happenings outside the campus. To be fair, Magufuli could not be solely blamed for this as the trend had already set in in the previous decade. One of the major collateral damages of neo-liberalisation of the university and marketisation of its scholars was the emaciation of the critical intellectual content of university life. But that is a subject on its own and is best left for another day.

Under Magufuli’s presidency, the executive branch of the government became predominant riding rough-shod over other branches. During his presidency, it would require a leap of imagination to believe that the country had separation of powers. Mundane state functions like swearing-in ceremonies became grand functions at the state house with live TV coverage. Invariably, the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Chief Justice, commanders of the army and the police would be present seated in the front row with all their regalia. During such functions, which were essentially executive functions, the Speaker and Chief Justice would be invited to speak assuring the president of their loyalty and re-iterating their admiration for him. His speech would come at the end. In a long-winded rambling monologue, he would harangue, humiliate and even reprimand his ministers and other public officials. The president would often give thinly veiled instructions to the head of the judiciary and the legislature. The speech would end with his oft-repeated refrain that he would not flinch from speaking the truth for those who tell the truth are the beloved of God.

Under President Magufuli’s watch the country for the first time witnessed disappearances and kidnappings whose perpetrators remain unknown to this day. The perpetrators, we are told, were ‘watu wasiojulikana’ (unknown people). During his reign a wealthy businessman was mysteriously kidnapped and as mysteriously reappeared after 10 days. To this day it is not known what the motive was, who did it and what was the deal between the perpetrators and the victim’s wealthy family that led to his release. The businessman incredibly claimed a year later that no ransom money had been paid (https://www.bbc.com/ news/world-africa-50235322). An outspoken, high-profile, if somewhat erratic, leader of the opposition party was shot at in broad daylight by the occupants of a trailing land cruiser. Sixteen bullets were pumped into his body. Thankfully he survived, after dozens of surgeries performed on him in a foreign country, but the agony and the traumatic experience that he and his family and his admirers went through was inhuman and immeasurable. To date the perpetrators have not been arrested or sent before a court of law, nor does anyone know if the police are continuing the investigation or if the file has been conveniently closed.

The driving force during Mwalimu Nyerere’s reign was the ideology of nation-building and development. Nation-building called for national unity. Nyerere was preoccupied with national unity and as a result, he reigned in centrifugal forces

Soon after coming to power on a slim majority, by Tanzanian standards, of 58 per cent President Magufuli lost no time in coming down heavily on opposition parties. Political rallies were banned, opposition leaders were harassed, and slapped with all kinds of charges which kept them in court or prisons most of the time. Civil society organisations and NGOs fared no better. Funded by foreign agencies, some of them dubious, and having no constituency or agenda of their own, NGOs were most vulnerable. Extreme controls were imposed on them. Some of them found their bank accounts closed while others were subjected to all kinds of demands from revenue authorities.

As might be expected, print and electronic media bore the brunt of repression. While public media joined the praise-singing choir, private media too fell in line to protect their businesses and profits. Fearing closure or being slapped with heavy fines by the regulatory agency (TCRA) for smallest of infractions (which were not unknown), the media avoided controversial stories and investigative reporting. A couple of critical newspapers and online TV channels were either banned or starved of advertisements. They went under.

Ironically while the mainstream media was undergoing censure, a mysterious media mini-tycoon emerged on the scene like a phoenix. He owned a couple of newspapers and TV Online (an Online TV channel). His newspapers defamed prominent people, even party stalwarts, without let or hindrance. He abused and poured verbal venom on Magufuli’s critics and perceived opponents and enemies. He had no respect for professionalism or ethics. No disciplinary action has ever been taken against him either by regulatory bodies or media watchdogs.

Arguably the measure which was most important in making Magufuli known on the continent was his bold taking on of the multinational gold company Barrick Gold. And he did it in his own spectacular fashion. He stopped containers full of mineral sand to be exported by Acacia, a subsidiary of Barrick, for smelting. He formed a local team of experts to investigate the mineral content of the sand. Simultaneously, the Tanzania Revenue Authority slapped on it a huge bill of unpaid taxes amounting to USD190 billion. As expected, the expert team found that the sand contained a variety of minerals costing billions of shillings. The long and short of the story is that Barrick Gold had to send its chief executives to Tanzania to negotiate with the government, bypassing the Acacia management. Eventually, the parties struck a deal under which Barrick would pay USD300 million in settlement of the tax dispute and give Tanzania a 16 per cent stake in a new company, Twiga Minerals, which would operate Barrick’s three mines. Meanwhile, the ban on export of mineral sand was lifted. Details and the small print of the agreement were never made public. It is not clear if the promises made have been fulfilled.

In the same vein, a progressive piece of legislation called Natural Wealth and Resources (Permanent Sovereignty) Act was passed in 2017. While the law recognises the sovereign ownership of the people of natural resources, they are legally vested in the president who holds the same in trust. Most of its provisions, including this one, are really hortatory in that they cannot be easily enforced in a court of law. Nonetheless, the law did send a strong message that at least in theory the Tanzanian government would not tolerate any exploitation of its natural resources which had no benefit to the people of Tanzania. One provision which forbade any international agreement from providing for dispute settlement by outside bodies could be considered a great advance since most of these agreements invariably provide for international arbitration of disputes. Research has to be done to establish if this provision has been observed in practice. My hunch is that it has not.

The president also boldly moved against grand corruption. A number of high-profile, and hitherto untouchable, business people perceived to be corrupt were charged with unbailable offences. A few bought back their freedom through plea-bargaining; some are still rotting in jail. The former Vice-President of Acacia Deo Mwanyika was charged with money laundering for alleged tax evasion soon after retirement from the company. Eventually, he bought his freedom by way of a plea-bargaining agreement coughing up millions of shillings. (indeed many others charged similarly had to agree to pay handsome sums of money to get back their freedom.) Ironically, he was nominated by Magufuli’s party to stand for Parliament in the 2020 elections which he duly won. A well-known businessman who had been charged under the money laundering law for allegedly avoiding taxes died in remand custody.

In the 2020 general election Magufuli won by a landslide, getting an unprecedented 84 per cent while the ruling party won all parliamentary seats except a couple. Opposition parties cried foul but theirs was a voice in the wilderness. For the first time since the general elections began in the country in 1965, no election petitions were filed. It was a telling comment on the 2020 General Elections under President Magufuli’s watch. It was also a veiled pointer to the loss of people’s trust in the impartiality of the judiciary.

Within two or so years of Magufuli’s rule the civil and political space virtually disappeared. Selected disappearances, court cases against perceived opponents and closure or fining of media – both print and electronic – instilled fear, uncertainty and hopelessness even in outspoken academic critics. Magufuli shrewdly dangled carrots in front of academics by appointing a significant number of professors and PhDs to his cabinet and top public service positions thus denuding the university of its most senior faculty. The remaining joined the queue hoping to be picked up in the next round of presidential appointments.

The country had never before experienced such an intense perception of repression. Critics were subdued. Some leading opposition politicians were ‘bought’ off with political positions. Overnight they crossed the aisle becoming flag-waving members of the ruling party. Meanwhile, the populist rhetoric coupled with promises of beneficial material improvement for the wanyonge – free education, health insurance, relative discipline in delivery of public services and well-publicised action against notorious businesspeople for corruption, tax evasion, drug business etc – garnered support of the masses behind the president. The president’s unrelenting industrialisation drive, albeit unplanned and incoherent, gave jobless youth the hope of employment. In the event, whatever new industrial plants were put up they made little dent on unemployment figures. In itself the idea of industrialisation had a lot to commend it but for it to make developmental sense it had to be coherent and consistent with a broad vision of building a nationally integrated economy in which industry and agriculture would be mutually reinforcing. The president had no such vision and it is doubtful if he sought any advice or accepted it if given.

The president also became the chairman of the party, in terms of the convention established by the first phase government. Nyerere believed, not without reason, that the Tanzanian polity was not ready for the separation of the state president and the party chairman. The party was brought up and bred on centralisation of power. Under Magufuli’s chairmanship, party organs like the Central Committee and NEC were slimmed down in terms of numbers and filled with loyalists. The old guard of the party was weeded out. Two former Secretary Generals of the party and the foreign minister in Kikwete’s government with presidential ambitions were hounded, defamed and relentlessly humiliated in the media owned by the new kid on the block (see above). No action was taken against the mini media tycoon. Instead, the victims of his defamation campaign were subjected to disciplinary measures. One was reprimanded, another was suspended and put under watch while the former foreign minister was expelled.

Messianic Bonapartism shares some characteristics of the absolute monarchies of Europe. Absolute monarchs derived their legitimacy and authority from God, not from the people. And so-called good absolute monarchs were those who bestowed their largesse on their subjects.

Eventually, all but the latter asked for forgiveness and were duly forgiven. A similar dose of medicine was administered on one of the very vocal cadres of CCM who had campaigned vigorously for Magufuli in the 2015 election. He was appointed minister for information in the Magufuli cabinet. He dared to cross swords with one of Magufuli’s favourite regional commissioners which earned him a revocation of his appointment as a minister. When he tried to hold a press conference to explain his side of the story at a city hotel, he was confronted by a plain-clothes pistol-wielding person who forced him back into his car. To this day no one has been held accountable for that roguish behaviour. Eventually he too asked for forgiveness and was duly forgiven.

The new chairman of the party appointed a young person from the University of Dar es Salaam with progressive credentials as Secretary-General of the party. Another young person with no political or ideological credentials to speak of except vituperous outpourings became the ideology and publicity secretary of the party. None of them had an independent base either in the party or outside. They became the public image of the party in the shadow of the chairman to whom they were eternally beholden.

The passing of the president

The framers of 1977 Constitution (as amended) wisely provided for the contingency of the death of an incumbent president. In case of such eventuality the vice-president would take over for the remaining the term of the deceased president. This provision was not well known even to constitutional lawyers and had certainly not featured in public discussions on the constitution. This was so partly because there had never been such an occurrence but mainly because this provision was new, having been introduced in one of a spate of constitutional amendments following the introduction of multi-party in 1992. In the Eighth Constitutional Amendment, the framers borrowed the system of a running-mate from the United States. Together with this, the framers took over almost lock, stock and barrel the American provision on succession in case of the death of an incumbent president (25th Amendment to the US Constitution). Article 37(5) of the 1977 Constitution stipulated that in case of, among other things, the death of the incumbent, the vice-president should be sworn in to be the president.

After the announcement of the death of the president it took almost 60 hours before the vice-president was sworn in.2 A few legal commentators opined that there was a lacuna (gap) in the constitution which did not provide the timeframe within which the vice-president had to be sworn in. One legal expert who has attained a kind of celebrity status for conducting public interest litigation even opined that it would be imprudent to swear in the succeeding president while the body of the late president had not yet been interred. One does not have to be a constitutional expert to read the constitution in context to conclude that the successor has to be sworn in immediately, that in fact there is no lacuna in the constitution. Under Tanzania’s Constitution the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces with powers to declare war and make peace, with powers to declare state of emergency etc. The presidency therefore cannot remain vacant for any length of time. The practice in the US, from where article 37(5) of the Tanzanian Constitution was lifted, has been to swear in the vice-president to become president immediately on the confirmation of the death of the incumbent president. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 in the city of Dallas, Lyndon B. Johnson, his vice-president, was sworn in within two hours onboard Air Force One while it was still parked on the runway. In the event, to the relief of many, the constitution prevailed. It is not clear which superior force intervened in favour of the constitution. So far, the transition has gone smoothly.

Glimpses into the future

It is too early to say the direction that the new regime will take under president Samia Suluhu Hassan. To be sure, it is likely to be a little more liberal politically and economically and a little less heavy on invoking rhetorical invectives against western governments. In changing the symbolic salutation from religious to secular, the president will probably adhere to the secular tradition of the country. She is likely to open up to the outside world. The extent of opening up will determine whether her government draws in the laissez-faire elements of the fourth phase government or remains within the parameters of national interest. All in all, the party and the government which she now heads is likely to continue on the path of neo-liberalism. Thus the stark choice in the immediate and medium-term future is not so much between nationalism and neo-liberalism but rather between rampant and regulated neo-liberalism.

Whether or not and how far the new president opens up the civil space will also determine how far the working people are able to organise themselves openly to defend their interests. There are disturbing signs that opportunist politicians, businessmen and IFIs (International Financial Institutions) are getting too close to the president. If they prevail, the neo-liberal path will consolidate itself. There is a fear among more conscious elements that some of the worst features of neo-liberalism – rampant pillage of natural resources, reaping of monopoly super-profits at the expense of the working people, land grabbing resulting in eviction of smallholders, further exacerbation of social inequalities and mass misery– may once again reappear with a vengeance. In which case, whatever goodwill the president may have generated will quickly evaporate.

One major lesson to draw from the Magufuli phenomenon is that our polities in the periphery remain fragile and masses disorganised. Therefore our polities are vulnerable and amenable to the rise of narrow nationalists and populists on the one hand, and rampant neo-liberals on the other. Under the circumstances, organisation-building remains foremost on the working peoples’ agenda. The politics of class struggle have to transit from spontaneity to organisation just as committed left intellectuals have to transit from being public to organic intellectuals.

Ultimately the working people have to depend on themselves rather than wait for a messiah to deliver them. Hopefully the Magufuli phenomenon would have taught progressive African intellectuals to distinguish between rhetorical anti-imperialism and systemic understanding of the global capitalist-imperialist system; between populist demagogues and popular democrats; between mass political line and mass evangelism; and between a protracted struggle of the working people for liberation and emancipation from below and short-cut measures to development and promises of deliverance from above.

This article was first published by CODESRIA in the Codesria Bulletin online, N°13, June 2021.

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Challenges and Opportunities for African Universities in a Post-COVID-19 World

The massive disruptions wrought by COVID-19 present an opportunity for a fundamental transformation of Africa’s higher education.

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Challenges and Opportunities for African Universities in a Post-COVID-19 World
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The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the systemic deficiencies and inequalities in healthcare systems, economies, businesses and educational institutions around the world. African universities have been particularly affected. What does this portend for their future and for the production, consumption and dissemination of scholarly knowledges?

Here I argue that universities face various alternative and overlapping futures ranging from restoration, to evolution, to transformation. These interlinked scenarios encompass every aspect of university affairs from the modalities of teaching and learning, financial models, leadership skills, and institutional governance systems to modes of external engagement. In this context, it is critical to interrogate the desirable transformative trajectories for African universities.

Constructing new futures for African universities and knowledge economies entails institutional, intellectual, and ideological struggles and negotiations, and different ways of studying and assessing the value proposition of universities not only for students and other internal stakeholders, but also for African societies and diasporas in their complex national and transnational dimensions, articulations, and intersections.

As a historian, I trust you will appreciate if I begin by revisiting the agenda for African higher education set at the First African Higher Education Summit held in Dakar, Senegal, in March 2015. The Summit identified the challenges and opportunities for African universities in the realisation of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which remains as pressing as ever and, indeed, is even more imperative in the coming post-COVID-19 world. Secondly, I will briefly review the challenges exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. Finally, I will outline the agenda for reform and transformation in four key areas: digitalisation, leadership, institutional cultures, and financing.

Revisiting the agenda of the Dakar Summit

The African Union’s Agenda 2063 provides “a blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future. It is the continent’s strategic framework that aims to deliver on its goal for inclusive and sustainable development and is a concrete manifestation of the pan-African drive for unity, self-determination . . . .” Education is indispensable for the realisation of Agenda 2063 in so far as promoting integrated, inclusive, innovative, structural, and sustainable development requires building strong human capital, research systems, and robust collective identities and civic values.

The Dakar Summit sought “to create a continental multi-stakeholders’ platform to identify strategies for transforming the African higher education sector” in pursuit of Agenda 2063. I was commissioned to write the Framing Paper for the Summit and help draft the Declaration and Action Plan. In the paper, I provided a broad overview of the historical development of African higher education from ancient times to the colonial era to the post-independence period.

The latter is characterised by three trends, namely, expansion, crisis and reform. In 1959, on the verge of Africa’s “year of independence” in 1960 when 17 countries achieved their freedom from colonial rule, there were only 76 universities across Africa, mostly concentrated in South Africa, Egypt, and parts of West Africa. The number rose to 170 in 1970, 294 in 1980, 446 in 1990, 784 in 2000, 1,431 in 2010, and 1,682 in 2018. Enrolments rose from 0.74 million in 1970 to 1.7 million in 1980, 2.8 million in 1990, 6.1 million in 2000, 11.4 million in 2010, and 14.7 million in 2017.

As rapid as this growth was, Africa remained with the lowest levels of higher education institutions and tertiary enrolments, which stood at 8.9 per cent  of the world’s 18,772 higher education institutions (Asia had 37 per cent, followed by Europe with 21.9 per cent, North America 20.4 per cent, Latin America and the Caribbean 12 per cent), and 6.6 per cent  of the world’s 220.7 million students. Forty-five per cent of the African students were in Northern Africa. To put it more graphically, Indonesia had nearly as many students in higher education institutions as the whole of sub-Saharan Africa (7.98 million to 8.03 million).

Enrolment ratios tell the story differently. In 2017, the world’s average enrolment ratio was 37.88 per cent, compared to 8.98 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and 33.75 per cent in Northern Africa. Kenya’s stood at 11.66 per cent in 2016. For the high- income countries it was 77.13 per cent, for upper-middle-income countries 52.07 per cent, for the middle-income countries 35.59 per cent, and for lower- middle-income countries 24.41 per cent. The proverbial development case of South Korea is instructive. As pundits never tire of pointing out, in 1960 the country’s level of development was comparable to that of some African countries: its enrolment rate in 2017 was 93.78 per cent! And China, the emerging colossus of the world economy, had a rate of 51.01 per cent. Put simply, not enough Africans are going to university.

To put it more graphically, Indonesia had nearly as many students in higher education institutions as the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

The second trend I discussed in the Framing Paper was the massive crisis of structural adjustment in the lost decades of the 1980s and 1990s. The rationales and models that had undergirded them changed in the maelstrom of the world economic crisis and the rise of neo-liberalism following the end of the long global postwar boom and the demise of the Keynesian welfare state in the global North and the developmental state in the global South. The impact on African higher education was devastating. It was expressed in declining state funding, falling instructional standards, declining facilities, shrinking wages, and low faculty morale. Academics increasingly resorted to consultancies or they became part of the “brain drain” as they sought refuge in other sectors at home or in universities abroad.

This was followed by the third trend from the 2000s as many African economies resumed the growth of the early post-independence years and democratisation spread as struggles for the “second independence” intensified. The reform agenda raised and focused on seven sets of issues that I cannot elaborate on because of space constraints. First, there was the need to re-examine the philosophical foundations and nationalist objectives of African higher education in an era of neo-liberalism and knowledge economies.

Second, African higher education institutions were confronted with the question of how to deal with their changing demographics and the demands for equity, diversity and inclusion based on the social inscriptions of gender, ethnicity, class, religion, etc. Third, the question of privatisation and its effects rose to the top of the policy and public agenda as public institutions were increasingly privatised, private institutions exploded and overtook public ones, and for-profit-institutions expanded. Fourth, the challenges of governance and accountability became increasingly apparent.

Fifth, financial pressures intensified as public funding declined, cost sharing measures were developed, and conditions of work in terms of salaries declined, forcing faculty to indulge in income generation activities including consultancies and adjuncting. The result was low research productivity, poor staff morale, institutional conflicts, and declining quality of education. Many African universities became glorified high schools. Sixth, demands grew for accountability through the quality assurance movement from the ever-expanding stakeholders of higher education. Finally, the perennial struggle between indigenisation and internationalisation for Africa’s higher education institutions and knowledge production systems entered a new phase as globalisation accelerated.

Put simply, not enough Africans are going to university.

The paper noted some of the key global developments African universities had to grapple with. Four stood out. First, was the unbundling of the systems developed after World War II including the erosion of universities’ monopoly over research and credentialing as new entrepreneurial providers and research institutions sponsored by business, non-governmental organisations, and other agencies emerged. Second, was the disruptive and transformative impact of technology in all aspects of university activities from teaching, to research, to operations and provision of services. Third, there were fundamental shifts taking place in the global political economy in terms of hegemonies and hierarchies and in the nature and future of jobs that challenged traditional curricula and pedagogies. Fourth, new forms of intra- and inter-institution competition and collaboration were emerging within and across countries, increasingly sanctified and reproduced by rankings that regulated global academic capitalism.

I made six recommendations for the Summit. First, how to match growth, or massification with quality. Second, strategies for improving financing and management. Third, how to promote the articulation, harmonisation and quality assurance in Africa’s higher education systems that needed greater horizontal and vertical differentiation and diversification. Fourth, modalities to promote institutional autonomy and improve governance. Fifth, enhancing research and innovation. Sixth, strengthening beneficial internationalisation and diaspora mobilisation.

These recommendations found their way into the Summit Declaration and Action Plan, which identified eight priorities. I will quote each priority as described in the heading.

  1. We call for an ambitious commitment of various stakeholders to expand higher education, including, achieving through concomitant investments in academic staff, infrastructure, and facilities by the state, private sector, and society at large, a higher education enrolment ratio of 50%…
  2. Promote diversification, differentiation, and harmonization of higher education systems at the national, institutional and continental/regional levels by African countries to enable consolidation and assure the quality of educational provision against locally, regionally, and internationally agreed benchmarks of excellence.
  3. Increase investment in higher education to facilitate development, promote stability, enhance access and equity; develop, recruit and retain excellent academic staff and pursue cutting-edge research and provision of high quality teaching. Appropriate investments are required at institutional, national, regional, and international levels.
  4. African higher education institutions shall commit themselves to the pursuit of excellence in teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and provision of solutions to the development challenges and opportunities facing African peoples across the continent. Key actions are required by all stakeholders and levels to assure quality, relevance, and excellence.
  5. Commit to building capacity in Research, Science, Technology, and Innovation.
  6. Pursue national development through business, higher education and graduate employability: Despite the rapid expansion of higher education enrollments, there are serious concerns about the ability of Africa’s universities to produce the kinds of graduates who can drive the continent forward.
  7. Nation building and democratic citizenship: As enshrined in the relevant sections of African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, 1981 and in the AU’s Agenda 2063, the continent seeks to deepen the culture of good governance, democratic values, gender equality, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law.
  8. Mobilize the Diaspora: Develop a 10/10 program that sponsors 1,000 scholars in the African diaspora across all disciplines every year, for 10 years, to African universities and colleges for collaboration in research, curriculum development, and graduate student teaching and mentoring.”

Challenges exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 forced universities around the world to confront unprecedented challenges that simultaneously exposed and exacerbated existing deficiencies and dysfunctions. Six stand out. First, in terms of transitioning from face to face to remote teaching and learning using online platforms. Second, managing severely strained finances. Third, ensuring the physical and mental health of students, faculty and staff. Fourth, reopening campuses as safely and as effectively as possible. Fifth, planning for a sustainable post-pandemic future. Sixth, contributing to the capacities of government and society in resolving the multiple dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Universities in Africa were among the most affected and least able to manage the multi-pronged crises because of their pre-existing capacity challenges that centred on ten dimensions, namely, institutional supply, financial resources, human capital, research output, physical and technological infrastructures, leadership and governance, academic cultures, quality of graduates, patterns of internationalisation, and global rankings.

The first refers to the inadequate number of universities on the continent noted earlier. The second concerns inadequate financing, declining public investment, and limited philanthropic support for higher education. The third is about the insufficient availability of faculty and lessening attractiveness of academic careers because of the devaluation of academic labour. The fourth points to low levels of research funding and productivity. The fifth alludes to the poor state and maintenance of physical and technological infrastructures.

The sixth touches on external interference and politicisation of university executive appointments, corporatisation, and lack of leadership development opportunities. The seventh suggests growing social conflicts with the pluralisation of internal and external constituencies and erosion of academic freedom. The eighth signifies persistent mismatches between graduates and the needs of the economy that results in high levels of unemployability. The ninth implies the durability of coloniality, intellectual dependency, and unequal international engagements. The tenth indicates the low standing of African universities in world rankings, notwithstanding the problems with rankings as instruments of global academic capitalism.

Universities in Africa were among the most affected and least able to manage the multi-pronged crises because of their pre-existing capacity.

Some of these institutional deficits directly affected the ability of universities to manage the pandemic and to plan for the post-pandemic future. Most crucial are the technological, financial, and research capacities, and the state of institutional cultures and leadership. Many African universities suffered from limited digital infrastructure, capacity, and connectivity, which made it difficult for them to transition online for education, research and administration. The digital divide was evident among and within countries and institutions in terms of access to broadband, electronic gadgets, data costs, digital literacy and preparedness for administrators, faculty, staff and students. Digital inequalities reflected and reinforced the prevailing differentiations of class, gender, age, race, location, disability, and other social markers.

The technological challenges were compounded by worsening financial strains. University revenues from auxiliary services plummeted following campus closures; student enrolments and ability to pay tuition dropped sharply as economies went into recession and unemployment for parents or guardians rose; government funding declined; and philanthropic donations fell and were increasingly diverted to emergency healthcare. Universities were forced to undertake severe budget cuts including job furloughs, reductions in salaries and pensions, suspension of capital projects and renegotiation of service contracts. Some stared at the brink of bankruptcy and permanent closure. Under such circumstances, new investments in electronic infrastructures were difficult to support and sustain.

The financial crisis was of course not confined to African or developing countries. It was a global phenomenon as evident in numerous reports from UNESCO, the European University Association, International Association of Universities, Association of Commonwealth Universities, and African Association of Universities. Depressing stories on the loss of millions of jobs in universities and other draconian cost containment measures including salary reductions, suspension of pensions and other benefits, increased workload, merging and elimination of some departments, outsourcing of more and more services were reported in the academic and national media in developed and developing countries alike, such as—to mention those that I read every day—University World NewsTimes Higher EducationThe Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, and The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and closer to home the Daily Nation and The Standard. Similar reports have been produced by consultancy firms such as McKinsey, Ernest & Young, and Moody’s.

The pandemic not only put pressure on the finances and operations of African universities, but also raised the stakes for research and policy interventions; they were expected to undertake biomedical and socioeconomic research to manage the pandemic. As I noted in an article in University World News summarising a series of webinars by the Alliance for African Partnership that I moderated between April and July 2020, some universities produced hygiene products and personal protective equipment including hand sanitisers, masks, ventilators, EpiTents for patient isolation and mobile hospitals, testing kits, and robots for delivery of food and medicines to patients. Others undertook research on the epidemiology of the coronavirus and biomedical treatments and the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic, provided advisory services to government, developed software to monitor the pandemic’s spread, and sought to raise awareness and provide psychosocial support to their constituents and the wider society.

Digital inequalities reflected and reinforced the prevailing differentiations of class, gender, age, race, location, disability, and other social markers.

However, most African universities and firms stood on the sidelines as their societies waited for the development of vaccines in the global North, China, and India. At best, a few collaborated with overseas universities, research establishments and networks, and hosted clinical trials, although they were “unable to secure a fair pricing agreement”. Weak research and drug manufacturing capabilities have made African countries vulnerable to vaccine nationalism in the global North, while democratic deficits have led to the securitisation of mitigation measures, gravely undermining human rights in several countries.

As of May 26, 2021 doses administrated per hundred people range from more than 100 per cent in 13 countries to 90 per cent in the UK, 86 per cent in the US, 56 per cent in Canada and 54 per cent in Germany. African countries have the lowest rates of vaccination, ranging from less than one in a hundred in 18 countries, one in a hundred in seven countries, two per hundred in eight, and three per hundred in seven. This is a monumental and global scandal of deadly proportions. What are our universities, governments, and industries doing to serve and save themselves besides stretching their hands and praying for salvation from the rich world apart from indulging in perennial and petty, but often vicious, national and institutional politics?

COVID-19 should be a wake-up call for African universities and countries to strengthen their research capacities, science, technology and innovation systems, manufacturing capabilities, and inter-institutional and interdisciplinary collaboration through existing consortia such as the African Research Universities Alliance, and new ones. Beyond being involved in quality control and to have an important role to protect the continent “from being used as a testing lab for COVID-19 vaccines”, some believe African universities “should join forces with the pharmaceutical industry and funding organizations to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines in the continent”.

Funding for research by governments, the private sector and the universities, and collaborations among the three needs to be enhanced. Despite innovations made in some universities, “the scale of collaboration with the industry that takes headline-making innovation beyond the walls of an institution is conspicuously missing. These collaborations can also provide an opportunity for further validation, and a path to widespread adoption and commercialization.” The comparative research data should be of concern to us all.

Most African universities and firms stood on the sidelines as their societies waited for the development of vaccines in the global North, China, and India.

In 2013, Africa accounted for 2.4per cent of world researchers, compared to 42.8 per cent for Asia, 31.0 per cent for Europe, and 22.2 per cent for the Americas. In terms of scientific publications, Africa’s share was 2.6 per cent in 2014, compared to 39.5 per cent for Asia, 39.3 per cent for Europe, and 32.9 per cent for the Americas. For research and development (R&D) as a percentage of GDP, Africa spent 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.

The agenda for reform and transformation

A crisis, as the saying goes, is the flip side of opportunity. The bigger the crisis, the more profound the lessons to be learned, and the greater the imperatives for transformation. African universities are likely to pursue three scenarios. The restore scenario will be focused on reclaiming the institution’s pre-pandemic financial health and operations, while the evolve scenario applies to “institutions that will choose to incorporate the impact and lessons of the pandemic into their culture and vision” while under the transform scenario institutions will “use the pandemic to launch or accelerate an institutional transformation agenda”.

For some universities what is at stake is survival, for others stability, and for many sustainability. Institutional survival is a precondition for stability, which is essential for sustainability. Confronting the entire higher education sector is the question of its raison d’être, its value proposition in a digitalised world accelerated by COVID-19.

I would like to focus on four critical dimensions: promoting progressive digital transformation, effective leadership, strong institutional cultures, and sustainable funding for African universities. For the first two I propose a dozen strategies for each, and for the last two seven strategies for each, respectively. Given the limitations of space, I shall only give the broad outlines of the various proposed initiatives.

As a scholar of intellectual history—the history of ideas and knowledge producing institutions—I’m only too aware that knowledge production is framed by certain crucial dynamics, what I call the 4Is: first, intellectual, which refers to the prevailing paradigms; second, ideological, in terms of the dominant and competing ideologies at a given moment; third, institutional, as far as the nature and organisation of an institution is concerned; and finally, individual, one’s social biography with reference to gender, race, nationality, class, religion, politics, etc.

For some universities what is at stake is survival, for others stability, and for many sustainability.

Institutional change occurs at the intersections of these dynamics, out of concrete social struggles within and outside the academy, among the university’s ever expanding and shifting constituencies. Change, in short, does not emanate from analytical prescriptions or rhetorical declarations, however compelling. However, constructing desired futures is not a wasteful exercise; it can inspire action for ideas constitute an indispensable part of praxis.

In a forthcoming co-authored paper with Paul Okanda, USIU-Africa’s ICT director, in the Journal of African Higher Education, whose abridged version appeared in University World News on February 11, 2021, a twelve-point agenda is proposed for the digital transformation of African universities. First, they need to embed digital transformation in the institutional culture, from strategic planning, organiational structures, to operational processes. Second, invest in digital infrastructure by rethinking capital expenditures that historically favoured physical plant. Third, develop online design competencies both individually and through consortia. Fourth, entrench technology-mediated modalities of teaching and learning encompassing face-to-face, blended, and online.

Fifth, embrace pedagogical changes in terms of curricula design and delivery that involves students as active participants in the learning process rather than passive consumers. Sixth, develop holistic and innovative curricula that impart skills for the jobs of the 21st century. Seventh, adopt and use educational technologies that support the whole student for student success going beyond degree completion. Eighth, develop effective policies and interventions to address the digital divide and issues of mental health disorders and learning disability.

Ninth, as learning and student life move seamlessly across digital, physical, and social experiences, universities must safeguard data protection, security, and privacy. Tenth, in so far as the market for online programmes is transnational, universities must pay special attention to international students who face unique barriers. Eleventh, they should develop meaningful partnerships with external constituencies and stakeholders, including digital technology and telecommunication companies to close the glaring employability gap. Twelfth, universities will increasingly be expected to anchor their research and innovation in the technological infrastructure that supports and enhances the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa.

As for effective leadership, I also see twelve areas for improvement. The multi-pronged health, economic, financial and social crises of COVID-19 have underscored the importance of strategic and smart institutional leadership at all levels.

First, it requires ensuring that appointments of institutional heads and governance boards are based on verifiable leadership competencies, passion and understanding of the higher education sector. All too often, their selection reflects misguided political considerations, expectations of donations which are hardly ever honoured in African universities, or preferences for alumni wedded to institutional nostalgia and stasis. Second, university leaders at all levels, from department chairs to deans, vice chancellors to board members, must undergo periodic leadership development training that is specifically tailored for higher education.

Third, university leaders must possess and sharpen their financial acuity. In addition to managing complex institutional budgets, they now need to develop the ability to manage reductions in staffing, programmes, and space. Fourth, cultural competency is more critical than ever. University leaders must go beyond making statements about valuing diversity and inclusion and articulate and exhibit a deeper awareness of systemic injustice, inequality, and privilege, and show boundless compassion and commitment for promoting an inclusive institution.

Fifth, they must display technological deftness. In an increasingly digitalised academy, it’s no longer enough for university leaders to be comfortable using emerging technologies; they must model and promote institutional technological savviness and competence, and develop analytics expertise to promote data-driven decision-making. Sixth, the pandemic has shown that crisis management is essential. Besides preparing for traditional natural and security threats, leaders are currently forced to manage physical and mental health crises, emergency preparedness and business continuity, and to lead in times of uncertainty.

Seventh, leaders need an entrepreneurial mindset. More than ever universities want leaders who are calculated risk-takers, innovative entrepreneurs, and effective in promoting the university mission as they create beneficial external partnerships and revenue generation initiatives. Eighth, political savviness is an important asset as university leaders are increasingly required to work in uncertain and politically polarised times at national, regional, and global levels that challenge them to pursue and promote advocacy and institutional discourse that is calm, informed, and respectful.

Ninth, empathy and respect is essential as mental stress and financial insecurity rise among university constituencies. Leaders are expected to demonstrate empathy and respect for all their internal constituencies. They must reveal their humanity, even in decision-making. Tenth, multi-genre communication skills are indispensable. Further to strong written and verbal communication skills, leaders are now increasingly expected to provide efficient, timely, clear and persuasive messages and stories to diverse constituencies using multiple platforms including social media.

Eleventh, possessing high emotional intelligence is a must. Additional to the ability to demonstrate confidence and empathy, leaders are more and more expected to demonstrate self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, and social skills, rather than egotism, impulsivity, and proneness to bullying and micromanagement. Finally, agility is necessary. On top of well-established professional knowledge and experience, success increasingly depends on a leader’s ability to be flexible in the face of many changes, to have the capacity to learn and assume new and more responsibilities, and to show fortitude, unflappability, and moral compass.

Building strong institutional cultures requires adherence to seven critical values. First, is academic freedom, which in most jurisdictions embodies two dimensions: the freedom of inquiry for faculty and students and the procedural and substantive autonomy of institutions. In the first instance, a faculty member should be able to teach or express scholarly views without fear of reprisals, and in the second, an institution has the right to determine for itself on academic grounds how its core business of teaching and research is conducted. In many African countries and universities academic freedom in both senses is contested and often breached by pervasive authoritarian interventions and impulses by the state, administration, and governing boards.

Second, is shared governance, which refers to the participation and demarcation of rights and responsibilities in decision making between faculty, management, and governing boards. Typically, faculty is expected to exercise authority on academic matters such as the curriculum, instruction, and degree requirements. As universities have become more complex and demands for accountability have increased, democratic organisational processes have been eroded, replaced by what critics call corporatisation and managerialism. It is critical to balance the management of the university as a complex organisation and the traditions and ethos of collegiality, participation, and distributed power by maintaining what is called in South Africa cooperative governance.

Third, is diversity, equity and inclusion. Given their critical role as pathways for social mobility and leadership across all sectors, universities are increasingly expected to promote diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels and for all their constituencies. Inequalities of access, support, and success are deeply entrenched across Africa’s and the world’s multicultural, multiracial, and multi-ethnic, gendered, and class societies that are also marked by other forms of difference and discrimination. By providing opportunities for underrepresented groups and creating and sustaining an inclusive climate through their mission, values, policies, and practices, universities promote inclusive excellence for institutional and national progress.

Fourth, civility and collegiality. The academic bully culture—as Darla Twale and Barbara De Luca call it in their book by that title—has grown. Some call it academic mobbing. Incivility and intolerance in universities has several manifestations. At a macro level, it reflects the frictions of the increasing diversification of university stakeholders, the growing external pressures for accountability, and the descent of political discourse into angry populisms. Student and faculty incivility is also fueled by a rising sense of entitlement, consumerist attitudes, emotional immaturity, stress, racism, tribalism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, social media, and other pervasive social and institutional ills that universities must confront and address to foster a healthier institutional climate.

Universities are increasingly expected to promote diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels and for all their constituencies.

Fifth, universities must maintain their role as generative spaces in the rigorous search for truth. The “posts” and the movement for decolonising knowledge has vigorously and rightly contested the epistemic architecture and metanarratives of the Eurocentric academy and its hegemonic knowledges. However, as we pluralise knowledges and universalisms, remake intellectual cultures, and transform our universities, we must resist the relativism of alternative facts, the nihilism of anti-science, and the solipsism of self-referentiality beloved by populist demagogues, many of them products of the world’s leading universities, as some critics noted with the neo-fascist Trumpists in the United States who live in a world of alternative facts.

Sixth, effective communication is essential for building cohesive communities out of the university’s disparate constituencies that have divergent interests, priorities, and preferences. Internally, there are students, faculty, staff, administrators and governing boards, and externally prospective students and employees, alumni, parents, government, regulatory agencies, competitors, institutional partners, donors, the media and general public. This requires developing multiple communication channels, messages, and styles tailored for different audiences to create dialogue and understanding. Good, transparent, and regular internal communication fosters a sense of community, efficiency, and the collective pursuit of th institutional mission, vision, and goals.

Seventh, embracing social responsibility is vital for universities to eschew institutional naval gazing for the higher purpose of social impact that can mobilise internal and external stakeholders. Universities are well placed to provide evidence-based knowledge, solutions and innovations for society. Socially responsible universities need to embed public service in their missions, experiential learning in their curricula, and research that is responsive to pressing local, national, regional and global problems. They need to enhance their social ownership as public goods, in tackling social inequities, and embrace research-sharing with their communities.

Financial sustainability requires pursuing seven strategies as well. The low financial capacities of many African universities is sobering. The FY21 budget of the University of Illinois system, where I spent the longest time in my academic career, is US$6.7 billion, which is probably more than the combined budgets of public universities in several East African countries. In Kenya, in 2020-2021 the government allocated the equivalent of US$1.13 billion for all public higher education institutions, down from US$1.53 billion in the previous year, of which US$1.06 billion was for salaries and only US$70 million was for infrastructural development. Research hardly features.

We must resist the relativism of alternative facts, the nihilism of anti-science, and the solipsism of self-referentiality beloved by populist demagogues.

First, public funding for higher education needs to be raised substantially if African countries are serious about improving the quality of human capital so essential for integrated and innovative sustainable development, and for them to turn the demographic explosion into a dividend rather than a disaster. The burial of the ghosts of structural adjustment programmes is long overdue. African governments need to develop innovative allocation mechanisms to universities encompassing clear funding formulas, performance contracts, and competitive grants.  The latter two should be open to both public and private universities.

Second, there is a need to establish differentiated tuition pricing and targeted student aid. Besides increasing spending per student, which is the lowest in the world, African governments and universities must develop targeted free or low tuition for the neediest students who qualify for university studies, improve student loan recovery schemes, and make them income-contingent. Private universities can do this through effective and sustainable internal student aid policies and external scholarships.

Third is exercising prudent financial management. As I noted in the Framing Paper for the 1st Higher Education Summit held in Dakar in March 2015, the financial challenges facing higher education institutions require the adoption of more sophisticated and transparent budgeting models to ensure efficient utilisation of limited resources. The spectre of corruption that undermines the finances of some universities should also be ruthlessly tackled.

Fourth is diversifying revenue streams. Universities tend to have seven major sources of funding, namely, government subventions, student tuition, auxiliary services, income-generating activities, research grants, philanthropic donations, and loans. African universities could increase income from auxiliary services by providing better accommodation for their students rather than leaving them captive to shoddy and dangerous neighbourhoods as has become the case on many campuses; undertaking entrepreneurial activities including consultancies, offering executive programs, and establishing enterprises that leverage their expertise and innovations; consistently bringing in large research grants; and raising philanthropic donations from Africa’s rapidly expanding middle classes and high-net-worth individuals (with assets of more than US$1 million).

According to Frank Knight’s The Wealth Report 2021, in 2020 their numbers reached 231,000 (down from 251,511 in 2019), representing 0.48 per cent of the world’s total, while those of ultrahigh-net-worth individuals (with assets of more than US$30 million) reached 3,270 (up from 3,127 in 2019) accounting for 0.63 per cent of the world’s total. Collectively, the African HNWIs own nearly US$2 trillion. The few that give to universities prefer to donate to renowned universities in the global North than in their own countries. Indeed, the African elites prefer to educate their children abroad rather than at home, just like they trek overseas for medical care.

The national bourgeoisies of African countries tend to be among the least patriotic in the world in terms of building or supporting national high quality educational and healthcare facilities because they can readily access them in the wealthy countries. This is one of the unintended benefits of COVID-19: it underscored the importance of building such facilities and services at home as the elites and their children who are socialised and pampered to be as un-African as possible could no longer freely travel overseas.

African elites prefer to educate their children abroad rather than at home, just like they trek overseas for medical care.

Fifth is creating institutional mergers. There is no doubt that Africa needs more universities, but they must be financially sustainable. Many of the public and private universities that have mushroomed in the last two decades are simply glorified high schools. For economies of scale in the higher education sector, mergers are imperative even for the fiercely independent and often thinly disguised for-profit private universities. This has to be part of a strategic agenda for diversification and differentiation, accompanied by horizontal and vertical articulation of higher education institutions at national, regional, and continental levels.

Sixth is forging robust inter-institutional collaborations. University consortia will become increasingly necessary to promote quality education, facilitate cost sharing and bargaining in the procurement of expensive technological infrastructures, instructional materials, talent development, and to facilitate the mobility of students, faculty, credit transfer, and the development of inter-institutional innovative programmes and practices.

Seventh is strengthening external partnerships with other higher education institutions and non-academic sectors and organisations. Old patterns of asymmetrical internationalisation under which Africa was subordinated to Euroamerican institutional and epistemological systems must be replaced by strategic inclusion, mutuality, and co-creation of activities and initiatives, and humanising internationalisation by abandoning exploitation of international students who tend to be treated as “cash cows”.

Also important are partnerships with the private sector which under-invests in skills and needs to complement government funding in promoting high-quality education and reducing the much-bemoaned skills gap that employers often complain about. However, universities have to be discerning in establishing public-private partnerships to ensure they are not exploited as has happened to some universities. Critical players also include African international and intergovernmental agencies that often play second fiddle to their foreign counterparts in funding university activities and formulating policies.

Many of the public and private universities that have mushroomed in the last two decades are simply glorified high schools.

In this presentation I have tried to share ideas on the nature, dynamics and possible futures of African higher education. Some of the data might be disconcerting, but it is not meant to disempower us, rather to enrage and energise us. I come from the radical tradition of the 1970s and 1980s, honed in Southern Africa’s experiences of liberation struggles, that as we strive for better futures we must combine the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will, that is, there is need for a cold-hearted analysis of conditions as they are, and ironclad conviction of the agency we possess as human beings and social actors to bring about change. That is why I am neither an Afro-pessimist, nor an Afro-optimist, but an Afro-realist.

Higher education is too important for Africa’s future to be held captive to haphazard interventions and superficial reforms. What is needed is fundamental transformation thanks, in part, to the massive disruptions of COVID-19. Studies show that the returns on investment for education are much higher for society and individuals than any other form of investment. This applies to all levels including tertiary, and not just to primary education as we were told by the misguided missionaries who propagated the neo-liberal assault on universities during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s with the connivance of the anti-intellectualist and anti-developmentalist political classes of many African states. I believe we—governments, the private sector, civil society and the universities working together—can remake the future of African higher education. 

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