Donald Trump will be remembered as one of the worst presidents in American history, a man who brutally and blithely exposed the failings and fragilities of American democracy, the enduring polarisations of its body politic, and the deformities of its institutions. Many commentators have bemoaned how the Trump presidency severely damaged American society and the United States’ global standing.
Trump’s transgressions are aptly captured by leading columnists in the New York Times in the series, “What Have We Lost”. They variously claim that Trump’s shocking election led to the loss of naivety as the country was dragged to the brink of ruin; America was robbed of its innocence and optimism as he extravagantly exposed some of its hideous history and attributes. The perpetual state of emergency impoverished the national imagination, culture, creativity, and thinking; his boorish behaviour smashed the decency floor of society; he emboldened moral cynicism that eroded the spirit of generosity as selfishness was normalised and turned into a national credo; his incendiary populist partisanship systematically undermined the social capital of trust, connectivity and community; his perpetual and pervasive outrage, lies, scandals, and incivility sapped national pride and discourse; his corrosive nationalism and belligerence dimmed America’s aura and standing in the world and accelerated the demise of Pax-Americana, he tarnished democracy, emboldened autocracies and facilitated China’s great leap past America.
The roots of Trump’s loss lie in the incompatibility of his 2016 electoral promises of authoritarian nationalism and economic populism, and in the Republican Party’s fiercely anti-populist economic agenda by which he actually governed. So instead of enacting a popular infrastructure bill, he supported a massive tax cut that benefitted the rich. His trade war with China did not revive domestic manufacturing; instead it ravaged farmers, and did little to cut the trade deficit.
Trump inherited a growing economy from the Obama administration, which improved little under his tenure. The United States grew at an average annual rate of 2.5 per cent during Trump’s first three years, which is almost identical to the 2.4 per cent rate during President Barack Obama’s final 36 months. This made it difficult to distinguish the Trump economy from the Obama economy, notwithstanding Trump’s promises and boasts of his business prowess, which was fake, given his history of serial bankruptcies, staggering business incompetence, and tax avoidance, as revealed in a sensational expose by the New York Times in late September and early October. Not surprisingly, voters showed increasing faith in Joe Biden’s ability to rebuild a pandemic-ravaged economy.
As the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic surged across the country, the Republican Senate balked at passing a new stimulus bill that would have helped millions of people and bolstered Trump’s populist economic agenda. To the delight of Republicans, the Trump administration ended up redistributing “wealth upward even more aggressively than Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush did. But for Trump, the political consequences have been dire”
All too often, condemnation of the Trump presidency becomes a deflection when he is depicted as an aberration rather than an embodiment of the profound and long-standing disabilities and deficits of American society and democracy. The fact that about 40 per cent of the population consistently supported him throughout his presidency, and that he won 70 million votes in the 2020 presidential election, shows he represented a large swathe of American society and embraced their values of intolerance, bigotry, and racism. But he also made more inroads than any Republican president among non-white voters, especially Hispanics and Black men gesturing to the appeal of his strutting conservative machismo.
In the New York Times series noted above, some acknowledge the ugly truths of the Trump phenomenon. Jamelle Bouie puts it well:
For many millions of Americans, the presidency of Donald Trump has been a kind of transgression, an endless assault on dignity, decency and decorum…But his transgressions are less a novel assault on American institutions than they are a stark recapitulation of past failure and catastrophe…What is terrible about Trump is also terrible about the United States. Everything we’ve seen in the last four years – the nativism, the racism, the corruption, the wanton exploitation of the weak and unconcealed contempt for the vulnerable – is as much a part of the American story as our highest ideals and aspirations. The line to Trump runs through the whole of American history…
But instead of generating a serious reckoning with the uncomfortable realities laid bare by the Trump presidency, another commentator laments that there “has been widespread retreat from revelation, let alone from any subsequent conversion, and a rush back to the comforts of one’s preconceptions and one’s tribe”. The right, the left, and centreof American politics responded to these revelations “sometimes with recognition and adaptation, but more often with denial”.
The backlash and the rise of the Democratic Party
However, it is also true that the breadth and depth of Trump’s perverse omnipresence and invasion of the fractious nation’s political space and discourse shook Americans out of their complacency; it provoked a massive backlash among women, minorities, aggrieved independents and livid liberals who promised to revitalise American democracy.
In the vanguard of the democratic resistance were Black women, the unshakeable bedrock of the Democratic Party, and the conscience of the beleaguered nation. They marched and mobilised, volunteered and voted overwhelmingly for the Biden-Harris ticket to rescue the country that had oppressed, exploited and marginalised them for centuries.
The fact that about 40 per cent of the population consistently supported him throughout his presidency, and that he won 70 million votes in the 2020 presidential election, shows he represented a large swathe of American society and embraced their values of intolerance, bigotry, and racism.
Trump’s train wreck was brought to a halt by facts he failed to bend to his will, to banish to the fantasies of fake news, to denigrate and deny. He was mauled by the deadly facts of the coronavirus pandemic, the undeniable facts of economic collapse, the haunting facts of tens of millions of lives and livelihoods destroyed, the hideous facts of a country coming apart at the seams, and the humbling fact of a superpower surging towards decline in compressed time before the gaze of an incredulous world.
The election represented the repudiation of Trump by a majority of Americans who had never voted for him in the first place. He has lost to Biden by more than 4 million votes. However, the election of Trump in 2016 and the nail-biting finish in 2020 showed the inherent flaws of American democracy. The election also represented a resounding affirmation of the Biden-Harris ticket.
Six dynamics propelled Biden to victory. First, he captured the mood of the country by campaigning for the “soul of America”. He sold himself as the sober and decent pragmatist who would bring back civility and compromise, pursue national unity and public service, and rescue the country from the abyss of political partisanship, greed, corruption, and moral nihilism. He successfully made the election a referendum against Trump.
Second, like Obama before him, Biden’s was a crisis candidacy, forged in the burning inferno of the worst health and economic crisis in a century that the Trump presidency squandered through staggering ineptitude. Biden seized the moment as he exuded empathy and competence steeled by personal tragedy and a long political career. He said he believed in science, facts, collective action, and government capability and intervention as part of the solution to resolving crises and promoting national well-being. Unlike Hillary Clinton after her bruising 2016 campaign, he managed to unite the party behind him, including the restive left. He also revived the Obama coalition.
Third, he chose an inspiring running mate – Senator Kamala Harris. As a Black and Asian woman, Harris carried the historical weight of struggles against racism and white supremacy and women’s marginalisation in a charged moment of unprecedented national and global protests under the banner of the Black Lives Matter Movement following the murder of George Floyd. Trump’s misogyny had also revitalised the American women’s movement. As a daughter of immigrant parents from India and Jamaica, Harris recreated Obama’s multiracial and migrant appeal and attracted the new African and Asian diasporas at a time of draconian anti-immigration rhetoric and policies.
As a graduate of Howard University, she affirmed the intellectual prowess and transformative power of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and mobilised the Black middle class produced by HBCUs. The stature of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, soared “and people began to understand precisely what a Black sisterhood is – the strength and support of those bonds. These women, 300,000 strong, organised for the Biden-Harris ticket. And their wondrous blend of accomplishment and poise was writ large”.
Harris has become the first woman, the first Black woman, and the first woman of colour to ascend to the second highest political office in the United States – a monumental achievement that has electrified women across the country and around the world.
Fourth, Biden’s campaign skillfully reinstated the blue wall around the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and looked poised to flip the red and rapidly diversifying states of Arizona and Georgia. He was saved by the cities without alienating the suburbs by his reassuring balancing appeals to the anxieties and aspirations of African Americans and other minorities, as well as white workers and white women, who gravitated towards him in larger numbers than they did towards Hillary Clinton. Particularly challenging was how to address issues of police brutality, law and order, and racial equality and justice.
Fifth, Democrats have progressively won the battle of ideas, so that ideas espoused by the Democratic Party platform in 2020, which would have seemed radical when Barack Obama ran for office, suddenly appeared moderate. Over the last century, four major ideological battles have been fought in American politics and society: on the role of the state and the market; social mores and policy; racial equality and justice; and America’s international relations with its allies, rivals and developing countries.
Following the demise of Keynesian economics and the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, Republicans unapologetically favoured small government and free markets, while Democrats stuck to their preference for larger government and regulated markets. To quote David Brooks, “That debate ebbed and flowed over the years, but 2020 has turned out to be a pivotal year in the struggle, and it looks now as if we can declare a winner. The Democrats won the big argument of the 20th century. It’s not that everybody has become a Democrat, but even many Republicans are now embracing basic Democratic assumptions. Americans across the board fear economic and physical insecurity more than an overweening state. The era of big government is here.”
Harris has become the first woman, the first Black woman, and the first woman of colour to ascend to the second highest political office in the United States – a monumental achievement that has electrified women across the country and around the world.
If the Great Recession dented the neoliberal hegemony of limited government and unfettered markets, COVID-19 has buried it. To quote Brooks again, “Covid-19 has pushed voters to the left. It’s made Americans feel vulnerable and more likely to support government efforts to reduce that vulnerability…This greater support for social safety net programs transcends political ideology.”
About 60 per cent of Americans now believe that the government should do more to solve national problems, and two-thirds believe that it should fight the effects of climate change.
American society has also been moving to the left on contentious social policies, such as gender equality, abortion, and sexuality. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2020, 57 per cent of adult Americans say that the US hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights with men; the figure is 64 per cent among women and 49 per cent among men, and 76 per cent among Democrats compared to 33 per cent among Republicans. Seventy-seven per cent say that sexual harassment is a major obstacle to gender equality.
On abortion, the majority of Americans (61 per cent) continue to support legal abortion and 70 per cent oppose overturning Roe vs. Wade. Sixty-one per cent support same sex marriage while 31 per cent oppose it – the reverse of attitudes in 2004 when 60 per cent were opposed and 31 per cent were in favour. There are, of course, variations by political party, religious affiliation, and demographic group.
As for foreign policy, 73 per cent say that good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace, while 26 per cent say that military strength is the best way to do this. By a similar margin, more Americans say the US should take the interests of its allies into account, even if it means making compromises, than those who think the US should follow its own national interests when allies disagree (68 per cent vs. 31 per cent). Democrats and Independents score highest, at 90 per cent and 83 per cent, respectively, on the two questions, while Republicans are more evenly split, with 53 per cent and 51 per cent, respectively. Those under the age of 50 are more likely to favour diplomacy and compromise with allies.
On the US’s involvement in the global economy, 73 per cent say it is a good thing, an opinion that is highest among those with a college education (86 per cent) and lowest (64 per cent) among those with a high school education or less.
Clearly, notwithstanding the loud fulminations of America’s right wing that was inflated by the Trump presidency, the United States of 2020 is more liberal than the United States of 2016, or 2000, let alone the United States of 1950 when conservatives sought to restore in their plaintive cry, “Make America Great Again”.
Progressives need to deconstruct the narrative that sees the United States as a naturally conservative country whose authentic overlords are Republicans and in which Democrats come to power only as periodic interlopers. This often leads Republicans playing hardball and Democrats playing softball; the former are always ready for combat and the latter for compromise.
Sixth, America is becoming more diverse and is destined to become a majority-minority nation in the mid-2040s. The demographic shifts are evident even in the electorate in 2016 and 2020. Demography is of course not destiny. The country changes, and so do political parties. At one time African Americans largely voted Republican, the party of Lincoln, then drifted to the Democrats, the party of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that propelled the Republicans to adopt their Southern Strategy of racist appeals to white voters.
However, trends point to what Fessenden and Gamio call “the relentless shrinking of Trump’s base”. From 1976 to 2018, white voters without college degrees declined from 71 per cent to 39 per cent, while white voters with college degrees doubled from 17 per cent to 34 per cent, and minority voters more than doubled from 11 per cent to 27 per cent. The shifts in age are no less telling. Between 2016 and 2020, voters among the silent and older generations fell from 30 per cent to 9 per cent, baby boomers from 38 per cent to 29 per cent, Gen X from 26 per cent to 23 per cent, while millennials increased from 6 per cent to 25 per cent, and Gen Z from 0 per cent to 13 per cent.
Notwithstanding the cultural and demographic advantages enjoyed by the Democrats, predictions of a blue wave failed to materialise. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, panic and cheeriness gripped both the Democrats and the Republicans as Trump bagged Florida and Texas, took an early lead in the polls in the battleground states, and Republicans held on to Senate races that had been expected to flip and won House seats from Democrats. Some feared or hoped for a repeat of 2016, and questioned the accuracy of the polls that had shown Biden and Democrats in a commanding lead. But as an editorial in the Washington Post reminded its readers, “Surprise! The election is unfolding as predicted.” As the vote counting continued from hours to days, and Biden’s prospects brightened, the narrative and expectations shifted.
The dysfunctions of American democracy
Americans are used to getting their projected election results instantly on election night. I teased my African American wife to exercise patience as is common in African and many other countries where election results are often announced several days, even weeks, after the elections. The apparent slowness in declaring the winner of the US presidential election revealed a lot more than American impatience; it reflected the enduring dysfunctions of American democracy. As a member of the new African diaspora in the United States, and a student of international political economy and comparative politics, I have always been struck by the following four structural deficits of the American democratic system.
First, the electoral college is an instrument of minority rule that has primarily benefitted Republicans over the last twenty years, first, George W. Bush in 2000 in which Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000 while losing Florida’s electoral college by 537 votes, and second, Donald Trump in 2016 who lost to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes but clinched the electoral college by a whisker in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Altogether, in American history, five presidents – three in the 19th century (John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888) – won the presidency while losing the popular vote.
Over the past 30 years, only once, in 2004, did a Republican president win the popular vote, but they have been elected three times. Republican minority rule by the presidency and Senate are baked into the system. The US Senate “gives disproportionate power to older, whiter, more rural and more conservative interests”. Right now, states representing just 17 per cent of the nation’s population could elect a majority of senators. By 2040, the 15 most populous states will be home to 67 per cent of Americans yet will be represented by just 30 per centof the Senate. Add up the actual votes received in the winning election of every sitting US senator, and you will see that Republicans haven’t won a senate majority since the mid-1990s. Yet they’ve controlled the Senate for 10 of the last 20 years, and used that advantage to shape the ideological balance on the federal courts.
The electoral college system, writes Bob Carr in the Guardian, represents an unenviable form of American exceptionalism. “It confirms the proposition that the US is simply not a democracy, not in the sense Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are democracies.” If America’s systematic voter suppression and rigged elections “were practised against, say, Caribbean or Asian communities in the UK or Sicilians in Italy or Māori in New Zealand, its peculiarity would be a subject of domestic scandal and international embarrassment. The American electoral system is a shambles defying democratic norms.”
Second, American democracy is haunted by the spectre of voter suppression, which goes back to the nation’s founding. In the US constitution, enslaved Africans were not only deemed three-fifths of a human being, they could not vote, nor could women of any race. After the right to vote was extended in the Fifteenth Amendment that enfranchised all men (but not women), culminating in the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, new voter suppression strategies were devised, which were especially targeted at African Americans.
During Jim Crow, poll taxes and literacy tests were used to disenfranchise African Americans in the South. In the post-Civil Rights era, voter suppression encompassed the disenfranchisement of ex-felons in some states, the purging of voter rolls, the placing of limitations on early and absentee voting, disinformation, and the imposition of discriminatory voting identification requirements. Trump’s angry denunciations against absentee voting is rooted in the tattered undemocratic playbook of voter suppression.
Voter suppression makes a mockery of America’s self-image as the world’s leading democracy. Sam Levin laments:
To understand how voter suppression is shaping the 2020 election, just look at Texas. While many states do not require voters to have a reason to vote by mail, Texas only allows voters to do so if they are 65 or older or meet other conditions. The state does not allow people to register to vote online. Even with a flood of Covid cases, Texas has successfully fought tooth and nail in federal and state courts to uphold those restrictions. Last month, Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, a Republican, abruptly issued an order that limited each county in the state to offer one ballot drop box. The move meant that Democratic-friendly Harris county, which covers more than 1,700 square miles and is home to 2.4 million registered voters, could only offer one place for voters to return their ballots. The state of Rhode Island, which is smaller than Harris county, will have more drop-off locations this year…The battle playing across America is in some ways a continuation of a centuries-long fight over access to the franchise.
Third, the establishment of electoral boundaries and constituencies through gerrymandering is deployed as a powerful weapon to dilute the voting power of an opposition party and concentrate that of the ruling party in a district. In America’s first-past-the-post electoral system, gerrymandering has been used by the two main political parties to reduce competition by maximising the voting power of supporters and minimising that of opponents often segmented on the basis of race, class, religion, or ideology.
In effect, in the absence of a neutral or cross-party agency, the party in power draws the electoral boundaries and chooses its voters. It does so by spreading groups of known or likely opposition voters among several districts or concentrates them in one district to dilute their votes across the state – what political scientists call the wasted vote effect. Gerrymandering is designed to bolster the electoral prospects of incumbents and undermines descriptive or proportional representation.
American democracy is haunted by the spectre of voter suppression, which goes back to the nation’s founding. In the US constitution, enslaved Africans were not only deemed three-fifths of a human being, they could not vote, nor could women of any race.
Fourth, the American judicial system is highly politicised. At the federal level, the president makes judicial appointments, which are reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee before a vote is taken by the Senate. Presidents nominate individuals who fit and are likely to promote their party’s ideology and interests, while the balance of power in the Senate among the two parties often determines who is appointed. Fights over the appointment of Supreme Court justices are fierce because of the court’s extensive powers of judicial review. In 2000, the electoral contest between Bush and Gore was decided by the Supreme Court.
Trump hopes that the Supreme Court will also save him, especially now that it is packed with three of his appointees, and conservatives enjoy a 6-3 advantage. The last appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, was nominated by Trump on September 26, 2020, six days after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a revered liberal icon, and confirmed by the Republican-dominated Senate of October 26. The same Republicans suddenly forgot their injunction against considering a nominee in a president’s last year that was directed at President Obama who sought to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died eight months before the 2016 elections, with Merrick Garland.
No resounding rejection of Trumpism
The renowned economist, Paul Krugman wonders, “Is America becoming a failed state?” His answer is not reassuring. Even with a Biden victory, “it seems likely that the Senate — which is wildly unrepresentative of the American people — will remain in the hands of an extremist party that will sabotage Biden in every way it can…Every state, of course, has two senators — which means that Wyoming’s 579,000 residents have as much weight as California’s 39 million…An analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight.com found that the Senate in effect represents an electorate almost seven percentage points more Republican than the average voter”.
Larry Diamond, a theorist of democracy, warns in Foreign Affairs that “a new administration won’t heal American democracy” because the “rot in U.S. political institutions runs deeper than Trump”. He argues:
The broad signs of political decay are familiar – and alarming – to comparative scholars of democracy: the growing polarization, distrust, and intolerance among supporters of the main opposing parties; the increasing tendency to view partisan attachments as a kind of tribal identity; the intertwining of partisan affiliations with racial, ethnic, or religious identities; and the inability to forge political compromises across partisan divides – and hence to mount effective policy responses to national issues.
Baskar Sunkara concludes ruefully:
America is a failing state…In 2020, America has shown itself to be exceptional in the worst possible ways…Winning mass support for a program of Medicare for All, green jobs, affordable housing, and more seems within reach. But the left must find a way to not just popularize our goals, but secure the means – institutional reform – to achieve them… But we can’t just stop at the abolition of the electoral college and the Senate filibuster, or even full Congressional representation for Washington DC residents. We must more fundamentally fight to transform the pre-modern political system that we’ve grafted on to our modern economy and society. For progressives, that’s a battle far more daunting than just getting Trump out of the White House – but it’s just as necessary.
Trump will, of course, do everything to subvert the will of the people, including inciting his tens of millions of supporters. As one columnist in the Washington Post put it, there was no “resounding rejection of Trump and Trumpism” Even with Trump evicted from the White House, “Trumpism will not have been swept into the dustbin of history; it will remain all over the furniture. It’s part of the furniture. Unsweepable.” Another commentator in The Atlantic reminds us, “A large portion of the electorate chose the sociopath. America will have to contend with that fact.”
Zeynep Tufecki warns that compared to Trump, who was ineffective and easily beaten because of his incompetence, “America’s next authoritarian will be much more competent”, like the current politically talented autocratic populists of India, Brazil, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and elsewhere who have mastered winning elections.
Trumpism – a reincarnation of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy that has been reconfigured to incorporate digitalised angry populism and the laager of white supremacy and racial capitalism – is likely to survive and to cast a shadow over the Biden presidency.
Others are more hopeful that American democracy has survived “its brush with death”. Nell Irvin Painter, the distinguished African American scholar, concedes that the election shouldn’t have been this close, but she sees hope “in the long lines of voters”, and in the indelible images of “Americans in 2020 re-enacting the South African voters of 1994” as they voted the ghost of apartheid into the dustbin of history.
Jonathan Freedland sadly notes:
It’s a form of progressive masochism to search for the defeat contained in a victory… Yes, in a high-turnout election, Trump got more votes than he did in 2016 – but Biden got more votes than any presidential candidate in history, more even than the once-in-a-generation phenomenon that was Barack Obama. What’s more, Biden looks to have done something extremely difficult and vanishingly rare, taking on and defeating a first-term president. That would ensure that Donald Trump becomes only the third elected president since Herbert Hoover in 1932 to try and fail to win re-election. Trump would take his place alongside Jimmy Carter and George Bush the elder in the small club of rejected, one-term presidents.
America’s return to the world
Joe Biden’s victory has been greeted with great relief by many democracies around the world, and with some consternation by authoritarian populists and autocratic rivals who reveled in America’s democratic recession and descent under Trump. “U.S. allies stressed the need to rebuild ties and multilateral cooperation after President Trump’s ‘America First’ approach upended decades of U.S. foreign policy. For traditional allies who endured sharp criticism, unpredictable behavior and new tariffs under Trump, the election of Biden offered a return to normalcy.”
In the global environmental movement and the health sector, many anticipate the quick return of the US to the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization to combat COVID-19 and other long-standing and future global health threats. Multilateralism seems poised to enjoy a new burst of diplomatic energy. But the hegemonic rivalry between China and the United States is fated to continue, and the decline of the American model is unlikely to be reversed. The Trump saga and his expulsion from power has exposed both the fragility and resilience of American institutions. In that sense, it has made the United States ordinary.
Trumpism – a reincarnation of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy that has been reconfigured to incorporate digitalised angry populism and the laager of white supremacy and racial capitalism – is likely to survive and to cast a shadow over the Biden presidency.
For Africa, the US can be expected to return to its traditional diplomatic preoccupations of economic development, human rights, anti-terrorism, and competition with China. But the Biden administration will encounter a different continent from that of the Obama years – one that has lived without serious engagement with the departing Trump administration and demands more respect, a continent whose economies have been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and require productive and transformative relationships.
For me personally, it has been fascinating to watch the elections in the two countries whose citizenship I carry: Malawi and the United States. Earlier this year, the Malawi Supreme Court annulled the presidential election of May 2019 because of irregularities by the Malawi Electoral Commission. The opposition proceeded to win the election re-run in June. What I have learned from the two elections is that the notion that American democracy is more mature than that of an African country like Malawi is false.
The Malawian Supreme Court exercised judicial independence that is unlikely to come from the highly politicised US Supreme Court. Moreover, the losing ruling party demonstrated maturity that has not been demonstrated by the infantile, irascible and entitled Trump administration and his unprincipled Republican sycophants. This underscores a sobering and empowering fact: democracy is not a monopoly of developed countries; it is always a work in progress that needs to be jealously guarded.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
Unrecognized Vote: Somaliland’s Democratic Journey
If Somaliland’s democratic transition is to last, there must be strict regulation of the behaviour of political parties and the National Election Commission must be re-evaluated.
Somaliland reinstated its independence in 1991 following the collapse of the military regime that had ruled Somalia for two decades. The Somali National Movement which took over the northern regions facilitated a broad-based conference in Burco attended by traditional leaders of all six regions of Somaliland who unanimously agreed to the dissolution of the union with Somalia and proclaimed independence on 18 May 1991.
The conference also established Somaliland’s first government, based on the SNM’s organisational structure, with its Chairman, Abdirahman Ahmed Ali, becoming Somaliland’s first executive president and the SNM Central Committee functioning as the country’s first parliament. It had a two-year mandate, and was tasked with accommodating non-Isaaq clans into the government, developing a constitution and preparing Somaliland for elections.
The new country continued to suffer violence and weak institutions, with elders stepping in to prevent degeneration into protracted civil war. In 1992, the first of two major clan conferences, held in Sheekh, created the national Guurti, or council of elders, bringing together elders from all the clans responsible for controlling clan militia and preventing conflict, as well as defending the country.
The 1993 Borama Conference
The second major clan conference assembled in Borama, a city in the West of Somaliland, for nearly five months in 1993. It eventually produced a National Charter which established government structures and the separation of powers for a transitional two-year period, pending the adoption of a new constitution. The charter included the creation of a bicameral parliament, with the Guurti formally institutionalised as the upper house, and the lower house made up of elected representatives. A clan-based electoral college elected Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal president for two years as well as members of the guurti and the lower house.
The political system established in 1993 became known as Shirbeelad, meaning “clan” or “community,” integrating indigenous forms of institutional arrangements with modern institutions of government. It was only meant to be in place for three years but lasted a decade.
Following the transition of power from the SNM leader Abdirahman to Egal, the new administration now had two years to prepare an interim constitution for approval by parliament and the upper house. The process proved to be time-consuming, necessitating extensions of the charter’s deadline.
Ultimately, two drafts were produced. In 1994, the government hired a Sudanese lawyer to write the constitution while the House of Representatives appointed an ad-hoc committee advised by lawyers, traditional leaders, religious figures and politicians which, suspecting the government’s draft would give excessive power to the executive branch, drafted an alternate version. Following deliberations to reconcile the two documents, a unified draft was adopted as the interim constitution in 1996, with a three-year implementation period leading up to a referendum. A final, revised constitution was approved by both houses on 30 April 2000 and overwhelmingly endorsed by 97 per cent of voters in a public referendum held on 31 May 2001.
The local government and parliamentary electoral system
The constitutional referendum paved the way for popular elections. The first set of municipal and national elections held between 2002 and 2005 were conducted by a novice electoral commission with almost no international technical and financial support and without many of the accoutrements of modern elections such as censuses, comprehensive voter registers and voter education. Though not without problems, disagreements and accusations of malpractice, the elections were considered largely credible, free and fair, and their outcomes were widely accepted.
The constitution defined a new political system for Somaliland — a democratic, multi-party system, in which the head of state and members of parliament and district councils would be elected directly by the public by secret ballot, instead of through electoral colleges of elders.
Within two years, a body of laws was passed to facilitate formation of political parties, define citizenship, delineate the structure of local government, and lay down electoral procedures. The laws provided for a seven-member Registration Committee which administered the registration process for political parties as well as the process of qualifying three to become national parties as stipulated by the constitution. The constitutional limitation to the number of national parties was meant to prevent the political system from fracturing along clan or regional lines.
The first local government elections were held In December 2002. Voter registration was only carried out in urban areas, with around 330,000 people being registered. However, on polling day people were allowed to vote irrespective of whether they had a registration card or not (and were then marked with indelible ink).
Six registered political formations qualified to compete in the polls, with the top three in terms of number of seats won recognised as national parties which could field candidates in national elections, including for the position of president. The successful parties were Egal’s UDUB, Kulmiye and UCID. European Union observers declared the elections — during which 440,000 votes were cast — to be “of as high a quality as is realistic within the prevailing environment”.
The presidential polls
In 2003, with the presidential elections fast approaching, President Dahir Riyale Kahin, who had succeeded Egal after the latter’s death in May 2002, met with the three national parties and agreed on the composition of the seven-member National Election Commission. The president and the Guurti would each nominate two commissioners while the political parties would pick one each.
The elections were held on 14 April 2003, pitting President Riyale of UDUB, Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo of Kulmiye and Feisal Ali Hussein of UCID. The result was a wafer-thin victory for the incumbent, who won by just 80 votes out of the 500,000 cast. The Kulmiye Party immediately asked for a recount at some of the polling stations but this did not change the original tally. The result was eventually challenged in the Supreme Court which endorsed Kahin’s victory. Silanyo conceded and Kahin was sworn in on 16 May.
Many who were uncertain and wary of a disputed election and its consequences, expressed gratitude to the Kulmiye leader, Silanyo, for his incredible decision. A seasoned politician, Silanyo had weighed the situation and seen the turmoil that lay ahead. He sacrificed his own political and party ambitions in order to save the fragile democracy. Given that he had served the longest in the SNM leadership and was from the dominant Isaaq clan, Silanyo’s concession removed the latent suspicion that the powerful Isaak would establish hegemony over the other clans.
2005 legislative elections
On 29 September 2005, Somaliland held its first, and so far only, multiparty contest for the 82 parliamentary seats. The 82 members of the house were elected on the basis of proportional representation. UDUB won with 33 seats, Kulmiye garnered 28 and UCID captured 21.
Smarting from their 2003 presidential loss. Kulmiye and UCID blocked or rejected any motion from the executive branch. It was the beginning of political tensions in Somaliland, which crippled the cohesive nature of Somaliland democracy. The parliament elected in 2005 is still glued to their seats because the opposition political majority in the house has continued to filibuster and shoot down any progressive motion pertaining to elections.
He sacrificed his own political and party ambitions in order to save the fragile democracy.
It was only after the 2005 elections that political stakeholders agreed to establish the first voter registry. A law was enacted in 2007 to govern the process and, following some amendments, voter registration proceeded in 2008. It was, however, briefly suspended following suicide bombings in Hargeisa on 29 October 2008, and was also marred by widespread fraud and mismanagement. Nearly 1.3 million names were collected throughout the country, each of which was meant to be validated through a biometric fingerprint system. According to Michael Walls — Co-Coordinator of the international election observation mission for the Somaliland presidential election in 2009 and lecturer at University College London — registration centres permitted more than half of those registering to do so without taking a readable fingerprint and “large numbers were permitted to hold photos in front of the camera rather than presenting themselves for the purpose”.
The 26 June 2010 presidential election
With the term of President Kahin expiring in May 2008, the voter registration exercise was meant to facilitate municipal and presidential elections. However, the polls were repeatedly delayed because of infighting within the higher political circles, specifically between the parliament, opposition leaders and the president, necessitating two extensions of his term. As provided for in the constitution, the Guurti approved the president’s request for an extension of his term and that of parliament to March 2009 due to the instability in the eastern regions. The second extension occurred at the request of the NEC which needed another year to prepare for the polls due to the prevailing political situation, economic problems and technical issues.
The elections were finally held two years late — on 26 June 201 — and were again contested by Kulmiye, UDUB and UCID. Nearly 540,000 voters cast their ballots across the country on election day, electing Kulmiye leader Silanyo, with 50 per cent the vote. It was now Kahin’s turn to gracefully concede and Silanyo was sworn in on July 26 in a ceremony attended by delegations from across East Africa, including officials from Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia.
Local government elections in 2012
On 28 November 2012, Somaliland held its second round of local council elections, the results of which, like the first a decade earlier, would determine the three national political parties that could contest national elections for the next decade. Though largely free and relatively peaceful, the elections were marred by multiple voting exacerbated by the lack of a voter register – the previous one having been nullified by parliament after it defied attempts to clean up the voter roll — and the ease with which supposedly indelible ink was removed.
With two of the three national parties in trouble — many of UCID’s supporters and MPs had transferred their allegiance to Wadani, a new political organisation, while UDUB, the party of the two previous presidents, was widely thought to be dissolving — there was space for new political formations. Five new formations contested the 2012 elections alongside Kulmiye and UCID. Despite some dispute and violence in the immediate aftermath, the results were accepted and Kulmiye, UCID and Wadani emerged as the national political parties.
Presidential elections — 2017
On 13 November 2017, Somaliland conducted its third presidential election, its sixth popular national voting exercise in 15 years. The election — which had originally been scheduled for June 2015 but was delayed, initially at the request of the NEC and then due to the drought ravaging the country in January 2017 — saw three candidates competing to replace the incumbent Silanyo, who had decided to step down: Wadani’s Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi Irro, UCID’s Faisal Ali Warabe, and Kulmiye’s Muse Bihi Abdi. The polls, which were preceded by the rollout of a new biometric voter registration system, experienced considerable delay caused by technical and political challenges, and drought. Compared to over a million in 2010, 873,000 voters were registered, although only just over 700,000 actually collected the voter cards that would allow them to vote.
Once again, peaceful voting was followed by delays in the tabulation and collation of results, and allegations of malpractice. Violence led to some fatalities and the results were disputed, especially by Wadani which demanded a recount but eventually relented. On 21 November, Abdi was declared the winner with 55 per cent of the vote and became the country’s fifth president, cementing a tradition of peaceful handovers of power that is relatively rare in the region.
On November 7th 2020, as the country prepared for the long-delayed parliamentary and municipal elections that are now to be held at the end of May 2021, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) released the timetable for the voter registration exercise that was scheduled to start on November 29th 2020 and end on January 13th 2021. The voter registration exercise targeted those who had missed the 2016 voter registration exercise as well as those who had attained the voting age. The exercise would also be used to clean up the 2016 register. The NEC also gave voters who needed to change voting locations the opportunity to do so and to also replace lost voter cards.
Successes and challenges in the democratisation process
The Somaliland constitution contains fundamental principles strengthening citizens’ rights and freedoms, and emphasises the transition from clan-based politics to a multi-party democracy. However, political parties have not transformed themselves in terms of structure, vision and strategy. Rather than becoming vehicles for transmitting the noble constitutional principles of a multi-party system, in practice they derailed it and became clan-oriented in order to secure more votes. For example, they deferred to clan leaders in the selection of candidates, favouring those from the larger, vote-rich clans, ignoring the smaller ones, and generating conflicts and divisions between them.
The heteromorphic nature of Somali politics and democracy
Somali society is considered ethnically homogenous, monolingual and singularly Islamic. However, it is characterised by an entrenched paternal clan system. These clans are communities of relationships that share common ancestral origins and are interrelated. Clan relations extend over clan territories marked by fluid borders. Upon birth, a Somali is given one name — their first name. The second name is their father’s, the third their paternal grandfather’s and so on and so forth until you arrive at the sub-clan name. Knowing one’s genealogy several generations back is of paramount importance in Somali culture; it is a primary identifier for the individual and the clan. This genealogical identity has been used successfully in Somaliland to curb crime, insecurity and terrorism. It is the most successful approach to community policing.
The clan therefore is at the core of politics in Somali culture. Clan groups became the basis of the political parties for the parliamentarian election in 1964, which meant that from the outset Somalia political parties had a strong clan consciousness. The political system adopted in the 1960s was a clan-based parliamentary democratic system that inevitably led to the politicisation of the clan and the death of ideological politics and democracy.
Clanism, nepotism and patronage
This is the omnipresent danger to all Somali political and democratic initiatives. In such a clan-based political system, the government must have robust and powerful institutions. The governance culture must also emphasise meritocracy over clanism, nepotism and patronage. Governance must be inclusive economically, socially and in terms of development and must be seen to be meritocratic in the filling of public office. The tenets of democracy are optimistic; they envisage a rational human society. But humans are often irrational and their decisions, beliefs and bias is born out of their own selfish interests and desires.
Democracy calls for one man, one vote, and victory to the majority. This is ideal in a democracy that practices ideological politics. But where ideology is replaced by clanism, the majority will always be the most populous clan or the most populous clan alliance. This denies a country visionary leadership because political contests are not based on ideologies, development agenda or unity.
Further, elections in Somaliland have been characterised by unnecessary postponements when politicians are uncomfortable either with the electoral laws or with the appointment of NEC members. For example, the 2008 presidential elections were postponed for two years due to the opposition severely pressuring the incumbent president on controversial issues related to the choice of NEC members.
The political system adopted in the 1960s was a clan-based parliamentary democratic system that inevitably led to the politicisation of the clan and the death of ideological politics.
More recently, between 2017 and 2019, opposition parties UCID and Wadani were at loggerheads with the president over the nomination of the National Electoral Commission. The opposition was challenging the president’s prerogative to increase the number of the NEC commissioners from seven to nine. That dispute led to the postponement of the elections to 2021.
The political parties have truly shackled many opportunities to develop true democracy in Somaliland. The parliamentarians elected in 2005 are still in office 16 years later due to the cycle of postponements driven by political parties. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however, as new political parties are rising unburdened by the tedious process of using local government elections to select the parties to compete in national elections. The four-year delay in holding the local government elections now means they will be held on the same day as the parliamentary polls.
Due to this, on April 4th 2021 the Somaliland parliament drew up new criteria for identifying national political parties which will now be selected through a separate electoral process in all the six regions. The political organisations that obtain the highest cumulative votes from all six regions will qualify for the three spots, allowing them to run for national elections in future. This elective process for new political parties will most likely be carried out before the expiration of the 10-year period for the current three political parties in November 2022.
Significance of the May 2021 elections
With 1.3 million registered voters (approximately 30 per cent of the population of Somaliland) expected to cast their votes — with 246 candidates gunning for 82 parliamentary seats and 966 vying for 249 district municipality seats in the six regions — these elections will be the most competitive yet. The outgoing parliamentarians were elected in 2005 and sat for 16 years, a decade longer than their mandated term limit. Similarly, the outgoing local government council was elected in 2012. The citizens of Somaliland are determined to bulldoze these unethical politicians. As stated earlier, the dysfunctional political parties are responsible for the postponements, while incumbent presidents have often played the game to gain more time on the throne.
The government will provide at least 80 per cent of the NEC’s budget, with international partners covering the rest. According to the NEC, it will be using biometric voter registration and a sophisticated voting system which university students have trained operate at the polling stations to ensure smooth operations with minimum technical errors and disruptions.
May 31 is of historic significance for Somaliland as it marks the 30th anniversary of Somaliland’s independence and the 20th anniversary of Somaliland’s multiparty democracy. It was on May 31st 2001 that Somaliland voters approved the constitution through a referendum. Somaliland youth born after 1991 have never had a chance to elect their parliamentary representatives.
Which way forward?
If Somaliland’s democratic transition is to last there must be strict regulation of the behaviour of political parties. Moreover, the structure, composition, competence and size of the National Election Commission must be re-evaluated and the best way to do this is to make its membership independent of political parties. The inclusion of political interests in an institution that is supposed to be a neutral adjudicator only destabilises and weakens the NEC with serious repercussions as the constant bickering brought on by political entities diminishes the trust that the electorate has in the organ. Elections are an emotive exercise in Somaliland especially since political compromise and consensus in Somaliland politics is almost absent. Further, the habitual postponing of the elections by the NEC, allowing elected officials to continue to hold seats beyond the end of their terms without the mandate of the electorate is a direct result of the inclusion of political stakeholders within the NEC.
May 31 is of historic significance for Somaliland as it marks the 30th anniversary of Somaliland’s independence and the 20th anniversary of Somaliland’s multiparty democracy.
The elders’ house is aged and incompetent; many of the key members have either died or are crippled. The Guurti is a powerful legal institution but it has not been re-elected since 1993; dead elders are replaced by their next-of-kin regardless of merit. The president must urgently form an ad-hoc commission to study the criteria required to elect the members of the upper house and laws to eradicate the postponement of elections and the extension of political mandates must be put in place.
And finally, mechanisms to engage citizens’ aspirations, to build trust and confidence in the democratisation process, seminars, lectures, debates and discussions may play a vital role, while the involvement of external experts/institutions will be necessary in providing training in democratisation, specifically for the upcoming parliament and the emerging political parties.
Rites And Wrongs: Are we Going the Right Way About Ending FGM?
While COVID-related school closures in Kenya have led to a surge in the number of teenage girls undergoing FGM/C, it is also an opportune time to ask whether Alternative Rites of Passage work.
There are reports from some parts of Kenya that 30 per cent of high school girls have been missing from class. This may be the result of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), marriage, pregnancy, the cost of school fees, or a combination of these factors. The Orchid Project reports similar findings, although its survey was published last September and the situation may well have worsened since then:
“The impact of COVID is huge,” says Charles Leshore, who formerly worked for a leading Kenyan health NGO that campaigns against FGM/C. He is also a board member at a school in Kajiado, and has seen the negative impacts there and across the county. “COVID and school closures have significantly erased a lot of good work [around FGM/C] and more girls have succumbed to teenage pregnancy, FGM/C, depression and mental health issues.”
The issue goes well beyond Kenya. Judy Gitau, Regional Coordinator for Africa for the NGO Equality Now (whose Africa office is in Nairobi) warns: “Schools are generally safe spaces for girls and those not in school are more vulnerable to human rights violations, including sexual and labor exploitation, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, early pregnancy, and early and forced marriage. Schools provide a channel via which violation or threats can be reported and action taken. This pandemic has shut down this key source of safeguarding . . . .”
With a couple of exceptions, this article will not name any other NGOs from this point on to avoid seeming to show favour or disfavour.
Our starting point is that this is an opportune moment to pause and ask whether anti-FGM/C strategies have been working. This will be our main focus, with particular reference to Alternative Rites of Passage (ARP, explained below). One of the authors (Hughes) has researched this subject academically, while Newell-Jones has empirical knowledge of it as a development practitioner. We shall also refer to FGM/C as “the cut”, which is the colloquial expression, at least in East Africa. Efforts to end the practice take many forms, of which ARP is only one.
FGM/C in Kenya: laws and incidence
FGM/C has been outlawed in Kenya since 2001, first under the Children Act 2001 and later under the Prohibition of FGM Act 2011. It was further proscribed (by implication, not by name) in the Constitution of Kenya 2010 (CoK), which banned harmful cultural practices without specifying what these are. Although the CoK upholds rights to culture, it also says that these cannot include harmful cultural practices. Under the 2011 Act, an Anti-FGM Board of Kenya was established, with a remit to spearhead anti-FGM/C efforts nationwide. Despite this legislation, and the efforts of the Board, the practice continues. According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014, 21 per cent of all Kenyan women aged 15 to 49 years have been circumcised. This compares to 38 per cent in 1999; the rate is steadily falling. The incidence is, however, much higher in certain communities, e.g. 94 per cent among the Somali and 78 per cent among the Maasai. Worryingly for campaigners, FGM/C is increasingly becoming medicalised, meaning it is being performed in secret by medical practitioners in a child’s home or in government health facilities. Medicalisation was highlighted in the court case brought by medical doctor Tatu Kamau, which she recently lost. In 2018, UNFPA reported that 20 per cent of FGM/C in Kenya was performed by medical professionals, compared to 77 per cent in Sudan and 12 per cent in Nigeria.
What are Alternative Rites of Passage?
This relatively new approach to tackling FGM/C was developed by NGOs and some communities. It has become increasingly popular in Kenya and Tanzania, and with international donors that fund anti-FGM/C work. At least ten NGOs in Kenya run ARP programmes, or have done so in the past. ARP is only believed to be effective in communities where FGM/C traditionally involved initiation into womanhood, not those in which pre-pubescent girls, even babies, undergo it. This is because NGOs seek to use ARP to replicate girls’ initiation, but without the cut. As Christine Alfons, Founder of SAFE Engage Foundation, explained to us: “ARP is more effective in communities where the cut is done towards the marriage time. In Kuria, girls are cut way back before they are ready for marriage, so we don’t need ARP, it adds nothing and takes many resources.”
ARP is known colloquially as a “ritual without cutting” or “circumcision by words”. There is no standard model, but it usually consists of two parts: a training session or sessions, for girls and sometimes boys, followed by a public graduation ceremony where the participants declare that they have renounced FGM/C. The participants include not only girls and boys but also their parents (though not all parents attend, or even oppose FGM/C), elders, other members of the community, and VIPs who can include police chiefs, teachers, faith leaders, representatives of the county council and the Anti-FGM Board. ARP usually takes place during the school holidays, to coincide with the “cutting season”. Most cutting is carried out in the long school holidays in November-December, April, or July-August with local variations.
ARP was first developed in Kenya by Maendeleo ya Wanawake in collaboration with PATH (Programme for Alternative Technology in Health), in the Tharaka area of Meru in 1996. The few studies on ARP that exist all cite this pioneering work, but without being able to access the original data, and in the absence of follow-up studies, it is difficult to draw conclusive lessons from it. ARP remains highly under-researched, both by scholars and development practitioners, and research access is difficult to negotiate. The Anti-FGM Board acknowledges that more research is needed.
ARP training sessions
The training or educational element of an ARP is arguably much more important than the final ceremony, though media coverage, NGO reports and the Anti-FGM Board pay far less attention to this. For PR purposes, it’s not sexy or eye-catching and nor is it deemed newsworthy.
The training sessions, when combined with longer-term community sensitisation and other measures that form an integrated multi-pronged approach, are vital if attitudes and behaviour are to change. Evidence that they actually achieve those aims, however, is hard to find, largely because no long-term evaluations have been carried out on the educational element. We only know of two NGOs that hold quizzes some months later to test how much children remember about the anti-FGM/C messages. It is difficult to access the training, and requests to see curricula and teaching materials are often declined. The following observations are mostly based on Hughes’s experience of sitting in on training sessions run by two major NGOs that did allow access, where she took verbatim notes with the aid of local translators.
The training sessions usually take up to a week, sometimes two, and often take place in girls’ boarding schools where the girls stay for the duration of the ARP. (If boys are included, they usually stay in boys’ boarding schools nearby.) The curriculum can include: traditional culture (good and bad), harmful practices, the law and FGM/C, health and hygiene, food and nutrition, sexuality and reproductive health (including sexually transmitted diseases), drug abuse, human rights, violence against girls and women, self-esteem, the bible/Christian faith (if the community concerned is Christian), and “good morals”.
ARP graduation ceremonies
These are days of high excitement, celebration and expectation. For the children, it’s a chance to dress up, perform songs and dances, and laugh with their friends. It often starts with a parade to the venue, the girls and boys (if they are involved) striding along carrying NGO-branded banners, singing songs about stopping the cut. Journalists and camera crews are out in force, scrambling for visuals and soundbites. Some parents (not all attend) sit separately, looking slightly baffled as the ceremony unfolds. In some ARP ceremonies, parents publicly declare they will not cut their daughters. Hours of speeches from NGO staff, pastors, elders, health workers, teachers, law enforcers and VIPs have tested most onlookers’ patience by mid-afternoon. The graduates are presented with certificates towards the end of the day: the girls’ certificates confirm their personal commitment to remain “cut free”, the boys’ certificates confirm their commitment to keeping their sisters and future daughters “cut free”. Musical performances by the children, and cultural artistes, are highly entertaining and the poems and songs written and performed by children can be very moving.
What are the challenges and weaknesses of ARP?
Besides those already mentioned, these include:
On the training: There is, from observation, wide disparity in the quality of the teaching, with some trainers (rarely professional teachers, not that this would necessarily be appropriate) clearly unprepared and ill-equipped to teach. Many trainers are outsiders, rather than members of the community concerned, though some NGOs do take care to include “grassroots” people. The mode of delivery can resemble brainwashing, while some of the content jars with the avowed aim of empowering girls to make their own choices about their bodies and future lives. For example, the trainers repeatedly tell girls to “be obedient”, especially to men, parents and elders, yet these are often the very people who want to see the practice continue, and who force girls to undergo FGM/C and child marriage.
The emphasis on obedience, this time to God, is repeated in the lessons about faith, and features throughout the programmes run by faith-based NGOs. (We refer only to Christian NGOs here, and have not studied the approach taken by Muslim ones; there is less uptake of ARP in Muslim communities.) It is drummed into the children that FGM/C is a sinful act, it displeases God, is “the devil’s work”, and so on. Some Christian NGO staff defend this approach on the grounds that faith is a key vehicle for messaging, and that it’s important to point out, to a predominantly Christian audience, that the bible does not condone or even mention FGM/C (though it does endorse male circumcision). Some scholars also see the use of religious discourse as helpful in certain situations, noting how “many participants drew inspiration from the Bible in a way that enabled them to cope and deal with adversity”.
But how can biblical arguments convince non-believers? Furthermore, they encourage people to stop practising FGM/C for biblical rather than, say, health and human rights reasons. Fear of divine retribution for “sinfulness” hardly suggests a sincere change of heart. As a 45-year- old Maasai Pentecostal pastor’s wife who took part in a focus group discussion (mediated by Hughes in a Kajiado village in March 2015) said: “As a Christian I have to obey what the law says. As a good Christian, unless something is against the word of God I will do it. But if it’s clear in the Bible that it’s wrong, I can’t continue [to support FGM/C].” Earlier in the discussion, this woman had said she used to “love” FGM/C before she was “born again”.
Good work to tackle FGM/C is undoubtedly being done by some faith-based NGOs and individual churches but it tends to be undermined by what may be called “fire and brimstone” religiosity. This was very evident at some training sessions we observed. The emphasis was on fearing God, confessing sin, and families being excluded from church if they cut their daughters. Evangelical pastors also lead entire sessions that resemble religious services at some ARP ceremonies. However, both Christianity and Islam believe in the perfection of God’s creation of man and woman, which can lead to powerful anti-FGM/C messages. As one clergyman trainer put it: “What God created in human beings was complete, nothing to be added or subtracted . . . God made us perfectly. So those people who come and cut those parts are doing a wrong thing.”
NGOs say that the lessons on culture and tradition are meant to mimic the instruction that girls traditionally had before or after they were cut. But back in the day, girls were taught by older women to be good wives and mothers, to obey their husbands at all times (even if they beat them), to be sexually submissive, and so on. How does this type of message equip today’s girls to become empowered women, and to challenge gender stereotyping? Clearly, it does not. Hence there is a fundamental contradiction here, for example between lessons on traditional culture and those on children’s and human rights. Girls taking part in ARP told us that they were confused by contradictory messaging.
Good work to tackle FGM/C is undoubtedly being done by some faith-based NGOs and individual churches but it tends to be undermined by what may be called “fire and brimstone” religiosity.
Some scholars have previously noted that telling youngsters that education will bring wealth and high social status is not realistic. We concur. Many of the children we saw in these classes clearly come from very poor families and are highly unlikely to make it past primary school, never mind enter college. Yet a repeated refrain by several trainers was along the lines of, ”if you get educated, you can become a pilot, lawyer or doctor, become an important person like me, travel the world, the sky’s the limit!” This isn’t helpful, and may raise false expectations that will soon be dashed, or leave some girls thinking that the ARP training doesn’t apply to them.
Curiously, the Board’s Guideline for Conducting an Alternative Rite of Passage pays little attention to the education component of ARP, but focuses largely on the final ceremony. It gives no detail of what a recommended curriculum might look like, but simply says the training should centre on sexual reproductive health and rights, and subsumes under this “life skills, awareness of sexual and gender-based violence, children’s rights and essential hygiene”. It adds, “Boys and girls are also taken through traditional values, customs and beliefs that positively impact their response to ARP.” This begs the question: but what if the community’s “cultural stakeholders” (who tend to be older men) favour an entirely different set of values and customs that contradict those of ARP? Moreover, a top-down directive from a national body aligned to government is the very opposite of community ownership, and does not augur well for community buy-in – especially in historically marginalised communities such as the Maasai and Samburu, where fear of and antagonism towards government is entrenched.
Views are divided on the use by some NGOs of shockingly graphic videos showing children, even babies, being cut. We believe these are abusive in themselves, and doubly abuse the children shown undergoing the cut. Community members in Kuria in 2015 declared after watching a video of a girl undergoing a very severe type of cut, “but we do not cut like that, our girls are back playing within two days”. Instead of convincing them to abandon FGM/C, the video seemed to reinforce their belief that the way they themselves perform the cut is not harmful. Some NGO staff defend the use of such videos in order to show the grim reality to children who may otherwise disbelieve it. Says Charles Leshore: “The videos bring reality and deep reflections on what FGM/C is, and its negative impact.”
What parts of the training seem to work best? The use of culturally-specific African proverbs went down well. So did the use of humour. So did lessons in West Pokot given by someone calling herself “Mrs Culture”, who spoke passionately about the blight of FGM/C on her own life; the girls loved her honesty and warmth. Lessons on children’s rights were informative about the constitution and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but were contradicted by repetition of the exhortation to “obey your parents”. Interactive sessions on FGM/C facts and myths were also well received.
On the graduation ceremony: Many NGOs claim, amidst media fanfare, to have “saved” large numbers of girls from FGM/C, simply because they went through an ARP. The Anti-FGM Board itself claims, among its list of key achievements in 2011-14, to have “graduated 10,000 girls through ARP”, which implies that they were “saved”. But NGOs admit that some participating girls have already been cut, and that some girls also attend ARPs several times in succession. Why? Because they are fun events, where girls who may not have much freedom at home get the chance to hang out with their friends, dress up, sing and dance, and eat better food than they get at home. Some ARPs in Kuria have been dubbed “fattening camps” for that reason.
A top-down directive from a national body aligned to government is the very opposite of community ownership and does not augur well for community buy-in.
There are very odd elements in some ARP ceremonies, such as the cutting of a huge iced cake at one in Maasai country, and the presence of some Miss Tourisms in high heels and mini-skirts who were presented as role models for uncut girls. (With great respect to the people concerned, who were obviously sincere, what have scantily-clad beauty queens – which is what Miss Tourisms essentially are – got to do with ending FGM/C and offering realistic role models? Given the widely-held myth that uncut girls are more promiscuous than cut girls, beauty queens in minis and heavy make-up seem to be entirely inappropriate role models.) The day often ends with a free meal, but it was notable, at several ARP ceremonies, that VIPs et al. were served superior refreshments to everyone else in a separate venue.
What relationship does all this have to traditional initiation rites? Very little. The ceremonies include “pick-and-mix notions of pastness, culture, social transformation and tradition . . . incorporated into a hybridised ritual”. Some scholars have questioned whether these rites are not in fact better understood as alternatives to rites of passage, or rites of delayed passage, for “girls who underwent the alternative rites of passage did not feel themselves to be women, nor were they considered women by others”. Some may argue that all this is fine, that the means justify the ends. It would be fine if there was any evidence that they did, if these high-cost events were sustainable, and if there was proof that the whole community fully embraced and endorsed them. Thus far, robust evidence is lacking, and sadly, reports that some girls are still cut even after attending an ARP are common.
On ARP overall: ARP can be highly divisive. The selection processes for girls frequently lack transparency and fail to reach out-of-school girls who are most at risk, and most likely to benefit from engagement. Reports are common of priority being given to the daughters of community leaders. Moreover, the girls are often from one or two schools rather than from across the whole community. From an NGO’s point of view, it is far easier logistically to work with a few schools, and with families whose girls are in school, and who (in some cases) have already decided not to cut their daughters.
In its introduction to the 2018 Guideline, the Board recognises that “such alternative rites were neither accepted by the communities where they were conducted nor held for uncut girls only”. The intention of the Guideline is to ensure “community involvement in the planning and execution of alternative rites of passage, reduce undue costs, give more meaning to the alternative rituals and hold the communities together in the eradication of female genital mutilation”. These intentions highlight some of the significant shortcomings of ARP. Apart from those already mentioned, they also include the fact that ARP tends to be delivered to communities, rather than developed and implemented by them. The external funding often far exceeds what communities could raise themselves, once external funding ends. Such a model is therefore unsustainable. Furthermore, the alternative rituals – though they include traditional elements such as elders’ blessings – are usually newly created and unfamiliar to younger generations and community elders alike.
There are contradictions within the Guideline. In the Foreword, Board chair Agnes Pareiyo states that the aim of ARP is to maintain all traditional culture with the exception of the cut. However, culture is not static (as the March 2021 ruling in the Tatu Kamau legal case made clear), but is an evolving tapestry of beliefs and attitudes linking different aspects of community life. FGM/C is one aspect of culture, which is closely linked to the status, identity, role and life opportunities of girls and women. Abandoning FGM/C needs to be more than just replacing the act of cutting with another ritual. The community awareness and empowerment programme which precedes the ARP ceremony needs to reflect the aspirations of the community, with a strong emphasis on the role and life opportunities of girls and women.
Secondly, there is a contradiction between the attempt on the one hand to harmonise and standardise ARPs by suggesting a set of criteria to be met and steps to follow, while on the other hand encouraging communities to develop and own the process. The Guideline lists things which communities should lead on, but all within a prescriptive framework. This drive for consistency contradicts the guiding principle of being community-led, and is likely to increase the feeling that ARP is externally driven, rather than community owned.
They are fun events, where girls who may not have much freedom at home get the chance to hang out with their friends, dress up, sing and dance, and eat better food than they get at home.
The Guideline recognises ARP as “not a standalone approach but a product of community dialogue and school engagements”. This statement in itself highlights one of the key challenges, namely that the ARP ceremony is seen as the vehicle of change, that somehow the ceremony itself changes beliefs, attitudes and opinions in relation to FGM/C. In section 3.9 the Guideline talks about “a productive ARP that delivers the desired change not only to the girls but also to the community”. There is no evidence that the ARP ceremony itself actually brings about change. At best, the ceremony is a means of consolidating, celebrating and communicating change that has previously taken place as a result of education, awareness-raising and community dialogue. As Seleyian Partoip, Founder of Murua Girl Child Education Program, told us, “We see the ARP ceremony as a way of reducing the stigma against the girls who have not been cut. If we can reduce this stigma then maybe more families will make the move to not cutting their daughters.”
The Guideline describes how the community and its leadership needs to be “fully mobilised” and that this process “may take at least six months” prior to an ARP. It usefully lists community dialogue, capacity building, school outreach programmes and cultural learning and exchange as means of community mobilisation. However, it implies that this process is quite straightforward, whereas in reality this is where the real challenge lies, in encouraging dialogue about the harmful effects of FGM/C and supporting the community in taking the decision to abandon it.
When is ARP likely to be most effective?
The activities which appear to result in attitudinal change in relation to FGM/C are those which take place in communities, regardless of whether the community holds an ARP ceremony. They include awareness-raising and intergenerational dialogue on the direct and indirect impact of FGM/C, the associated sanction and benefits imposed by the community and the links to girls’ education, child marriage, etc. Equally important is the active engagement of the youth in discussing their own aspirations for their future. As Christine Alfons told us, “We are the youth, leading change in our community. The whole community needs to be empowered and mobilised on why to abandon the cutting, as girls alone can’t manage to say no to FGM. And one change needs to lead to others about the roles of men and women in our society.”
Some community organisations in Kenya have developed alternative models of ARP which are proving to be more effective than the model that we, and others, have critiqued. The new models have incorporated some of these features: a steering/planning committee that consists primarily of community members greater involvement of youth in the development, implementation and evaluation of the ARP model; community engagement throughout the year which is holistic, based on dialogue rather than instruction, and involves the whole community; the education/mobilisation programme has a consistent message of empowered decision-making, rather than obedience, and redefines the role, status and life opportunities of girls and women, irrespective of whether they are cut; the ARP ceremony is not introduced until there is sound evidence of change towards the abandonment of FGM/C within the community; resourcing for the ARP ceremony comes from within the community, using resources which would have been used for the traditional cut.
Given the lack of evidence that ARP actually works, more longer-term evaluation and research is needed. The Anti-FGM Board is responsible for the monitoring and evaluation of ARPs in Kenya, and its Guideline includes a framework for this. Board representatives often attend ARP ceremonies. In the light of reports of girls still being cut after participating in an ARP, and priority given to girls from more privileged backgrounds, it would be useful if the Board collected and published data on these and other issues.
ARP is being overused in contexts where it is unlikely to succeed, but may be useful in specific contexts when it is community driven and where the community is already changing, and where plenty of mobilisation has already taken place. Most scholars and practitioners agree that community ownership of the process of ending FGM/C is vital to achieving this goal. It follows that ARP should be community owned too, if it is to be continued at all as an anti-FGM/C strategy. Ideally, ARP should be totally community-run without outside intervention; only then will it be sustainable.
Above all, young people themselves need to be more involved in this process. With donor funding being slashed as a result of COVID-19, and the cutting of overseas aid budgets such as that of the UK, the pressure for “magic bullet/quick fix” solutions increases. Reducing gender-based violence, including FGM/C, is likely to remain a priority in the current global climate; however, with reduced budgets it is even more important to ensure funds are spent wisely and approaches like ARP are robustly evaluated and applied only where there is evidence of effectiveness.
Democracy as Imperialism
In a far-reaching long-read, writer and commentator Yusuf Serunkuma argues that ‘democracy’ in Africa is not just a language of (colonial) exploitation, it is the practice of exploitation itself. Our challenge today, is to understand the colonial nature of this democracy – divide and rule, shameless free markets, foreign aid, and loans & media bombardment – and the myriad, so-called good-intentioned crusaders who promote it.
If Marx had lived during our time, he would edit his timeless phrase about religion. He would write, as religion is the opium of the masses, democracy is the crack cocaine of the elite. Especially the African elite, we are high on it. As it quietly destroys our internal organs, we strive for more and of better quality. The vendors are merchandisers all the most aggressive and most persuasive. Their adverts have refused to add the cautionary label, “democracy smoking will kill you.”
These vendors are not only ‘creaming away’ all the profits from their product, but also eating the carcasses of their victims. By the time the African intelligentsia overcome their addiction, they would understand that the enemy to their governance-development question has never been themselves, their bad education or bad leadership but rather the stuff they have been smoking as medication – democracy itself, its crusaders and merchandisers. Democracy is not just a language of [colonial] exploitation, it is the practice of exploitation itself. Problematically mixed with civil liberties, democracy has inextricably, irretrievably tied the African elite to exploitative capitalism, while at the same time, exciting, distracting and completely blinding them from real concerns, or even revolution.
Just the same way colonial exploitation thrived on divide and conquer, democracy does the same, but more tactfully, more elusively. Democracy thrives on a double-layered divide and conquer (a) it disconnects the elite from ordinary folks with the elite not only developing new tastes and cultures —not simply consumptive ones, but lifestyles and practices—but they also become obsessed with their own preservation. On the other hand, the lifestyles, struggles and pains of rural folks are exorcised as slight inconveniences, painful sores and humanitarian— not structural—challenges needing benevolent intervention. And (b) the elite are then split into often terribly polarised “political parties” and other smaller camps, where sustaining or grabbing power becomes the single most important preoccupation. The task of the African intellectual therefore is to understand the colonial exploitative nature of democracy (divide and rule, shameless vulgarity of free markets, disruptive endless ‘human rights’ quibbles, foreign aid, and loans, media bombardment); and the myriad lofty seemingly good-intentioned crusaders.
Let’s start with some basic seemingly obsolete questions: Do former colonial masters still want to exploit the resources of formerly colonised places – specifically Africa? By exploit I mean, to steal or benefit at the expense of the Natives of those countries. Stated differently, are Africans convinced that their former colonisers are happy to see them thrive, and the endless streams of aid and loans, and the gospel of democracy are all meant for their betterment? How about new powers such as America and China? Are they benevolent friends helping in times of need or honest business partners? Has this urge, ambition and plotting to pillage ended? Again, this is not about countries in West Africa where the colonial powers, specifically, France actually didn’t leave after independence but rather retained its grip on their former colonies through especially banking. I am concerned about countries where colonial masters actually “left” upon independence.
The response to these questions is an easy YES; all the world’s new and old powers are interested in stealing from weaker countries especially in Africa. A sombre cry by novelist Ama Ato Aidoo on 500 years of European exploitation captures the painful state of affairs, and a recent meticulous study by Angus Elsby on coffee and cotton captures this ongoing pillage. But the question is this: if Africans know that there are thieves all around them plotting, scheming, and conniving to steal their resources, why are they not resisting the way their predecessors resisted colonialism? Why do Africans feel and behave so weak, incapable, and conditioned to playball as their countries are looted by the same powers their anti-colonial mothers and fathers resisted? Why don’t we have a second wave of anti-exploitation struggle on the continent resisting the new manifestation of colonial-like exploitation?
If Marx had lived during our time, he would edit his timeless phrase about religion. He would write, as religion is the opium of the masses, democracy is the crack cocaine of the elite
Let me make one caveat here: this has nothing to do with the so-called legacy of colonialism – see Mahmood Mamdani and co. – because that would mean seeking to bring an end to a way of doing things, or simple removal of the structures that were left behind after independence. Mine is not a quest to decolonise but rather to see foreign exploitation in all its new forms. Perhaps my first proposition is that seeing and discussing western exploitation of the African continent through the language of colonialism, and its blighted offshoots, neo-colonialism, decolonisation, etc is not necessarily obsolete, but is actually distractive. It denies us the chance to appreciate the performatively non-colonial ways in which the continent is being looted. My core proposition is that we need to see democracy as the new absolute manifestation of exploitation. There is urgent need to go behind it, expose its traps, and confront its beastly smiley face. Africa will need to proudly pursue a de-democratisation struggle—which is certainly much more difficult than the anti-colonial struggle.
Let’s return to my central question: why are Africans not resisting this new form of exploitation – democracy? My answer to this question is threefold: (a) the new exploiters, couched in the slick but highly deceptive, confusingly omnibus understanding of democracy (to include free markets, free and fair elections, freedoms and human rights, free speech, choice, people, representation, equality, justice) have deftly disguised the manifest exploitation of democracy. The face of democracy appears attractive and sophisticated as it displays and performs ironically non-existent Mzungu practices on governance in Europe and North America.
As Ali Mazrui, 1997 succinctly demonstrated, the humanitarian values (freedom of speech, women emancipation and empowerment, freedom of choice, religion, etc.) believed to the guaranteed as so terribly inexistent even in the so-called democracies of the west. The denial of these values, Mazrui noted, only takes a different more subtle form. One doesn’t have to look too far to see how “democratic” America or the United Kingdom treats its black folks, workers, women, drops bombs on other nations for sport, continue to openly loot abroad, etcetera.. The beautiful decorated façade of regular elections, freedom of speech and religion mask a rather dangerous strain of thuggery and exploitation.
There is an army of pleasant looking, beautiful, ever-smiling, sweet-talking and cash-dangling handlers and brokers pushing democracy with high-sounding and seemingly beautiful arguments about justice, rights, the people… etcetera claiming these are provided and guaranteed by democracy. Who could be against that…? They subtly ask. These handlers – these new colonial administrators – do not call themselves Governors and Colonial Lords, but rather “regional coordinators,” “country directors,” “programme managers” and academics. They operate without the brutality, overt racism and insults that defined earlier exploiters. They are constantly “seeking partnerships,” not dominions. They claim to “respect” national sovereignty and independence and will seek to execute their duties in the confines of international law. They will never tell you the history of so-called international law, which explicitly does not recognise Africans as sovereigns but rather just as Africans (see Siba N’Zatioula Grovogui, 1996). In doing all this, they never lose sight on the estate. These new exploiter emissaries include charming fellows in the European Union, American and British embassies, the United Nations offices, World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and several experts of democracy based at British and American universities—studying Africa! They run tantalisingly named units such as the Democracy Governance Facility (DGF) where they narcotize thousands of local elites into inertia, spending endless hours in offices writing proposals and forging accountabilities (see Makau Mutua, eds. 2009).
These strategies have quietly, methodically captured all local media houses, schools, and all other spaces of active learning to push the democracy agenda into curriculums. In the end, they produce democracy thinking clones – literally, producing democracy’s Uncle Toms. Ever wondered why war-torn countries such as Somalia, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Libya, etcetera have intellectuals and politicians on podiums chanting democracy amidst ruins and dead bodies—entering contracts for oil and other mineral resource explorations, signing off loans and debts? Yes, it is the good work of these handlers.
Oftentimes, these democracy “merchandisers” operate under the language of development assistance. They flood the NGO sector, and civil society. This is in spite of the copious amounts of scholarship that vividly demonstrate that aid does not work (see Andrew Rugasira, 2007; Juluis Gatune, 2010; Dambisa Moyo, 2010). African countries surely do not need aid to stave off famine or prosper – no country ever did – but the givers will not listen. Even when asked to leave, they go away sour-graping like they loved the recipient country more than its leaders. But these new exploiters, wearing their false smiles have, through a series of lengthy and underhand methods—including manufacturing narratives of poverty, predictions of disease, fake annual indices on this and that—they actually force, squeeze, cajole, and harass an African country into receiving aid, but will never mention better terms of trade (see Slavoj Zizek, 2009). If they fail to push this through more technicalized forgeries and liberal concoctions, they’ll resort to outright violence. Examples abound of both covert and overt uses of violence: Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, etcetera under the cover of civil liberties. In truth, these are fortune hunters – like their colonial predecessors who rode on the deceptive language of civilising the Natives, these are simply sophisticated thieves who have managed to manufacture a common sense around their practice of theft as the best form of governance (elsewhere, see Pepe Escobar, 2009).
And finally, against such an environment of deftly disguised exploitation and aggressive brokers (c) the current breed of leaders – in the academia, media, and mainstream politics – have been extremely softened by urban life, and the perverse spread of bodily pleasures from Europe and North America. Softeners range from their beautiful wives (and, occasionally, husbands) and long streams of concubines, comfortable beds, to sweet foods, which they have not earned and are haunted by the fact that they do not deserve. Incredible amounts of money circulate among these fellows over and above the rent for their labour. It is a cartel.
All the world’s new and old powers are interested in stealing from weaker countries especially in Africa. A sombre cry by novelist Ama Ato Aidoo on 500 years of European exploitation captures the painful state of affairs, and a recent meticulous study by Angus Elsby on coffee and cotton captures this ongoing pillage
These comprador leaders and elites surviving off the crumbs of elite capital are condemned to perpetual praise and gratitude to their present oppressors – for enabling them access to these crumbs in the theft of their compatriots. Intellectually inferior, and without the backing of a traditional modernities upon which their predecessors —the anti-colonial intelligentsia—were bedecked, our new leaders are barebones, thrown into modernities where they have no histories and are simply drowning. When Partha Chatterjee writes about ‘tradition’ presenting the anti-colonial intellectuals with ‘a liberal rationalist dilemma’, that is, in the words of Lidwien Kapteijns, the challenge to be modern and traditional at the same time, he actually recognises the base upon which the anti-colonial intelligentsia constantly made reference as they negotiated their entry into a colonial modernity in a postcolonial moment. Our new would-be liberationists have neither and are simply swimming with the tide.
Spending endless hours watching European football on SuperSport, and admiring lofty English on BBC and CNN, googling stuff, and busying themselves on the myriad social media platforms, they cannot imagine abandoning these pleasures for thoroughbred struggle, which could benefit the collective. It is simply enough and too much. With the majority of this elite imprisoned at their small desks in parliament, NGOs and Civil Society, they are seemingly content with the status quo since they can ably afford the bodily pleasures mentioned above (you’ll find them endlessly chanting: ‘Compatriots! Do not risk throwing the existing order up in air – who knows where we will land !’). They are obsessed with their pleasures and freedoms guaranteed by democracy as the actual wealth of the country is quietly scooped up by their NGOs and Civil Society funders.
Democracy as divide and rule: Lessons from Uganda
Ugandans are now familiar with constant images of mostly white folks from the European Union, and other western embassies driving to homes of leading opposition candidate after every election. Their agenda remains the most enigmatic. When it was Col. Kiiza Besigye, amidst the tension of a stolen election in 2016 —the Uganda confirmed gross irregularities on two occasions but refused to nullify the election— EU folks would drive to his home in Kasangati for some conversations. We will never know exactly what they discussed but it wouldn’t matter anyway. But they often had such a grand entry and exit from the dusty Kasangati road turning into Besigye’s home. From Kiiza Besigye’s home, they would then go and meet the incumbent, Yoweri Museveni. This Museveni meeting was never as prominently publicised. Most recently, with Bobi Wine becoming the lead opposition candidate in the country, they have been driving to his home in Magere, and quite often to his party offices in Kamwokya. Again, they often make quite an entry. From meeting Bobi Wine, they then travelled a few kilometres to meet Museveni where he assured them that Uganda was not “their enemy” [sic] before posing for pictures.
There is no better manifestation, or blatant display of divide and conquer than seeing these democracy merchandisers strutting from one corner of Kampala to the other just like colonial lords patronising the lead politicians on either side of the rather superficial aisle. Their obvious but deftly disguised intention are threefold: (a) ensure that while these two groups remain diametrically opposed to each other, they do not disturb the peace creating a mess for business. Preach peace— there should be no disruptions to our looting! Because if they did, you will never know where it ends. (b) should either side emerge victorious, no alliances are lost, as all of them will consider you a friend. But more significantly, (c) once the cameras are gone, the EU uses opposition leaders as bargaining chips against which they force Museveni into tougher concessions. They constantly remind Museveni of their potential to support his adversary if he does not play ball. Indeed, if this were the 1970s, these fellows would actually sell guns to both sides, and then bring relief food supplies to war-displaced natives.
Democracy is not just a language of [colonial] exploitation, it is the practice of exploitation itself. Problematically mixed with civil liberties, democracy has inextricably, irretrievably tied the African elite to exploitative capitalism, while at the same time, exciting, distracting and completely blinding them from real concerns, or even revolution
If colonialism thrived on the principle of divide and conquer, democracy thrived on a likeable but sadly, equally dangerous arrangement, ‘multi-party governance.’ As a principle, a multi-party order divides the elite into polarized camps, political parties, with one forming the government and the other, the opposition. After the country’s intelligentsia are divided, the democracy brokers and merchandisers proceed to conquer them. Deeply divided, and sometimes at the point of violence against each other, Natives never get the opportunity to stop and see their real enemy. The contest over retaining office becomes the major concern for the ruling party at the expense of developing the country. Instead of actually uniting to consolidate their position and use their combined brain power (as their anti-colonial intelligentsia did), the sitting government both imprisons and murders its critics—key human resources—leaving it empty of brain power, and terribly exposed. By the time the democracy thieves strike, the sitting president has sycophants and praise singers to consult with.
In the Ugandan example, we will never know (a) how much money Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni invests in keeping the office of president, since he has some of the most sumptuous classified budget votes—such as state house (spending USH550m daily – US$152,000) with a budget allocation above tourism, the lead foreign exchange earner). It is certainly in billions. Since he has life presidency ambitions, Museveni spends a great deal of time and money procuring members of the opposition. To divide them further. Museveni is also endlessly facilitating and privileging the security forces, which in 2020, took 10% of the entire national budget above health and agriculture. [There is no war in Uganda, and the budget has been as high as this for the last 15 years]. The guardian ministries of the man (state house and security) also get sumptuous supplementary budgets for classified expenditure! But the larger goal is to keep the president in power, since he sees a constant threat in the opposing side.
Parliament, which Museveni obviously does not need if there were no democracy merchandisers pushing him, is terribly bloated with over 530 legislators currently making it the biggest in Africa—bigger than South Africa and Nigeria. Annually, the Ugandan parliament burns USH1.3 trillion (approximately US$360m) of Ugandan taxpayer just for the theatrics of it. Just for the theatrics of it. Yet, everything of consequence in Uganda is pre-decided by Museveni before it is dramatized on the floor of Parliament. Additionally, Museveni employs hundreds of advisors, ministers, Residential District Commissioners (RDCs) with equally senior deputies, simply as part of his great retinue of patronage.
The amount of money and energy Museveni spends on playing other centres of power especially the Catholic church, Muslims and the Buganda kingdom elite is equally immense. These are not simple cash-staffed brown envelopes—which are far too common—these are big sums ranging from billions to churches to four-wheel Land-cruisers. Just to buy off opposition in the name of democracy. But democracy merchandisers hold these items in his face, which forces him into concessions with specifically the foreign exploiters. Let’s now consider the related part of this argument.
As Ali Mazrui, 1997 succinctly demonstrated, the humanitarian values (freedom of speech, women emancipation and empowerment, freedom of choice, religion, etc.) believed to the guaranteed as so terribly inexistent even in the so-called democracies of the west.
Living in simple fear—not the principle—of the opposition (b) we would never know the amount of concessions, Museveni has had to make with the new democracy-wagging exploiters, the self-appointed vanguards of democracy to allow them to continue their pillage of Uganda, and him to continue governing. If he is not sending mercenary forces to Somalia, he is sending them to South Sudan, and DRC. The details of these concessions remain top secrets to the Ugandan public. The Ugandan parliament predicts that the country will need 94 years to clear this debt, which continues to surge every passing day. Business deals where Uganda is left with minority shareholding over its own resources such as oil are simply baffling.
Incidentally, all this rides on the wreck left behind by vanguards of democracy into African economies in the late 1980s when they coerced country after country into dismantling cooperatives that had enabled societies and the people to survive. The dismantling of cooperatives led to a rise in rural poverty after tilling the land had been made unprofitable. If this was no colonialism—an outright plot to exploit and break the toiling masses of Africa —then we’ll never appreciate the depth of its damage to the continent. Because after local economies were ruined, including the closure of all local banks – many of them closed without explanation – the vacuum left behind was filled by European and Asian banks. The Ugandan banking market is now dominated by foreign banks, with business-suffocating interest rates, making banks in Africa the most profitable in the world, yet the most inefficient—according to The Economist. It is extremely difficult, if not outright terrifying, for farmers and small scale businesspersons to access credit. Surprisingly, this so-called Washington Consensus is still enforced 20 years on – even when the damage is visible everywhere – and the WB has acknowledged its mistakes. What the fuck is this?
Yet farmers across Europe and North America are not on their own. They are heavily funded by their states. Take the example of Mali that Slavoj Zizek (2009) writes about, despite producing high quality cotton and beef, the two pillars of its economy, the country could not compete with the US and EU, where the same industries are heavily subsidised:
…the problem is that the financial support the US government gives to its own cotton farmers amounts to more than the entire state budget of Mali… the EU subsidizes every single cow with around 500 Euros per year—more than the per capita GDP in Mali.
These double standards are visible to every single soul from South Africa to Mali and Uganda (see also, Jörg Wiegratz 2019). The promotion of free markets remains a central idea to a so-called democratic government. But in truth, it is outright exploitation through the international dictates of structural adjustment and open markets which are pushed down the throats of Africans as a core parts of ‘democracy.’ Only in Africa!
To return to the question why is there no concentrated movement against this new form of exploitation dubbed democracy (its free market economics, loans, and grants, and foreign aid) and enforced onto only small countries? This is because of democracy’s disguised logic of divide and conquer. The language of democracy ensures the best brains of the country are split into conflicting camps with one obsessed with the holding onto the presidency as much of the intelligentsia remains blind but also conscripted to the networks and channels of exploitation.
The west’s no-change regimes, and PR presidents
One of the most powerful jokes of the 21st Century is the highly cited notion that “power belongs to the people.” It never does, has never, and will never. That in the exercise of democracy—specifically voting—ordinary folks wield their power to determine the ways in which they are governed, remains one of the biggest lies of our time. The lie continues that by this single act of voting, they have power to restore civility, end dangerous policies of previous governments such as removing American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, which since the start was based on fake intelligence, closing the very embarrassing Guantanamo Prison, or ensuring a minimum wage for workers etcetera. It is all high sounding nonsense. Ordinary folks have no power—except through violent revolution—but would be constantly manipulated into the belief in their electoral power.
The Slovenian theorist, Slavoj Zizek, was right when he claimed that while humanity was okay, 99 percent of people are boring gullible idiots. They have been deluded into belief of possessing electoral civil power. In truth, the world is run on self-interested authorities or autocracy. These take two forms, institutionalised and individualised. While in Europe and North America, authority or autocracy is institutionalised, it has tended to take individualised forms in Africa. The west has extremely autocratic institutions, which constantly change their public relations officers—often problematically called Presidents or Prime Ministers. The holders of these titles and offices actually have no power besides speech and celebrity. See for example, be it Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden, America’s domestic policy on immigration, the police force, black folks, guns, women, the minimum wage will remain the same. There will be minute adjustments that the very noisy American press will blow out of proportion discussing it endlessly. But by and large, stuff remains the same. American foreign policy towards the Middle East, Israel, Palestine, Iran and Africa will not change. Change only comes by way of violent revolution, marches, strikes, community organising, media activism, etcetera—not through the facades of elections.
As an African watching America from the outside, I agree with Syria’s Bashar-al-Assad’s conclusion that President Donald Trump’s crime was transparency about the intentions of America’s imperial interests. While Obama and Clinton smiled and joked through their crimes in the Middle East and at home, Trump was boisterous and embarrassingly candid. With more gusto, Trump simply continued Obama’s policies at home and abroad. Surely, Joe Biden is already doing the same — with just a little sophistication and disguise. American and European presidents are like shirts and dresses, while some make the wearer turn out smart, others could simply mess-up their appearances. But the bodies behind these fabrics remain the same. The truth is, heavily invested, albeit invisible Hitlers, Mussolinis, Stalins, Lenins, and Napoleons control American and European institutions. True to their power, these invisible Hitlers and Mussolinis blatantly took away the megaphone from Donald Trump for constantly embarrassing them with terrible PR. They went ahead and killed those smaller units that sought to challenge their power? [Please note, Facebook and Twitter are simply a manifestation, not the wielders of actual power].
The cycle of deception continues. Americans will always unite in stealing and killing from the rest of the world. Then back home, lobbyists, bankers and the super rich will squeeze life out of workers and African Americans will constantly be jailed and murdered, as women march for equal work equal pay like democracy never existed. It is all a deception.
The deceptive entanglement that democracy is more than elections, but all other civil liberties and humane treatment is terribly ahistorical. African history is replete with civil regimes that have no connection with our present perceptions of so-called democracy. In truth, the proposition that their democracy guarantees and is synonymous with humaneness and civil liberties is not just problematically ahistorical, but a dreadful deceptive. It is the trick. It is behind this claim that Africans have been duped, as their resources are being stolen under their noses.
Towards regimes of authority
After Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli had died, and the deafening elite noise boomed from every corner of the region, sloganeering about how Magufuli stifled dissent and free press, a friend of mine asked me to name the major opposition political party in China, and how many MPs they had in their parliament. I didn’t know. He then asked me to name the main opposition party in Russia, and how democracy—as dramatized in western Europe and North America—played out there. I did not know it either. He moved on to the much admired Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. He mixed it up with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Argentina, North Korea, Iran asking me to name their opposition political parties. It was such as mixed bag, and I did not know how to respond. He then asked me about the quality of life in those countries compared to say the “more democratic” Great Britain, Kenya, Uganda or even South Africa.
Humbled, I then recalled Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya which the UN constantly ranked highest in Africa on its Development Index. Focused on items including literacy rates, women empowerment, living conditions, and healthcare, Libya, for years ranked above more democratic spaces such as South Africa and Nigeria. On their part, Russia, China and Turkey have a higher quality of life for their populations in addition to being major economic powers. Why, if they aren’t democratic? Why don’t they have open markets? Didn’t structural adjustment reach these places? Before asking about the civil liberties in these countries, my friend raised the story of Julian Assange and the asked whether I had read a Mazrui 1997 essay discussing how similar the so-called democratic spaces in the west aren’t any different from so-called authoritarian spaces in the Islamic world.
The exploitative dangerousness of democracy is captured in Slavoj Zizek’s eulogy to Nelson Mandela that appeared in The Guardian upon his death. Concluding that Mandela was a failure—as regards the uplift the victims of apartheid from the backwaters of the economy, land redistribution . Zizek speaks to a difficult capitalist-democracy dilemma, and how leaders get derided and fought as authoritarians and sometimes even killed. Zizek writes,
A leader or party is elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a “new world”– but, then, sooner or later, they stumble upon the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms, or does one decide to “play the game”? If one disturbs these mechanisms, one is very swiftly “punished” by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest.
Although Zizek speaks to open confrontation from capitalists, we need to appreciate that exploitative nature of capitalism has thrived with ‘democracy’ as its utmost enabler, its methodology, which most importantly, makes resistance to exploitation divided and distracted.
Across Africa, this dilemma of whether to or not to touch the capitalist machine is as old as independence. Those leaders who played the game were either favourably profiled in international presses, given lucrative deals in mining and other resource exploitation projects. In other cases, they were knighted, and sometimes awarded with Nobel prizes. If they touched or simply threatened to dismantle this exploitative structure, they were punished, either with sanctions leading to removal from office, assassinated or exiled. They would be labelled dictators.
It is noteworthy that those few African leaders in history who actually managed to destabilise the machinery of new exploitation—euphemised as ‘free markets democracy’—had to craft something entirely different. But they were fiercely resisted. Even if they had actually been elected, as soon as they touched the machinery of exploitation, they were challenged. Especially on land and resources exploitation reforms, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, John Pombe Magufuli are noteworthy. The core reason for dispensing with their democracy is that it has tended to bind government into contracts (globalisation, and free market), sensibilities (such as certain political freedoms, international human rights regimes etc), which are often selfishly and racially applied onto weaker countries and then exploited. International exploitative capitalism would be dead if it were not offered democracy as its handmaiden.
It is noteworthy that those few African leaders in history who actually managed to destabilise the machinery of new exploitation—euphemised as ‘free markets democracy’—had to craft something entirely different. But they were fiercely resisted
Nelson Mandela’s Nobel Prize winning genius was in deftly deflecting ANC land reform and economic redistribution movement leaving the economy in the hands of white South Africans. And because Steve Biko, Chris Hani, Winnie Mandela presented a persistent threat to white capital, they were purged. It should be interesting to note that the land reform in Zimbabwe was for a while actually working despite the country continuing under sanctions and misinformation in the major media houses (see Grasian Mkodzongi and Peter Lawrence, 2019). Six years of John Pombe Magufuli would be characterised by immense international name-calling because he actually refused to cow-tow to the dictates of the democracy merchandisers.
Closely appreciating these exploitative dynamics of a mode of government—a more sophisticated mode of pillage and control just like colonialism—continues to be stifled by the democracy machine and lobby. Africans will have to take a stand. And standing up will be costly in terms of life and resources. Sanctions, death, wars will be created so as to reproduce democratic exploitation. But for the African who is convinced that democratic Uganda under Museveni or democratic Kenya under the Mwai Kibaki, Uhuru Kenyatta, or Raila Odinga rather than Libya under Gaddafi or Cuba under Fidel Castro has actually joined the thieves en-route to rob their father’s estate.
Of course, there are empty comprador autocracies, which are as bad as democracy. Of course, Libya’s Gaddafi would be more humane, and the example of what it has become is extreme. But democratic Libya would never return to Gaddafi’s Libya, unless all Africans stood up. Nor will democratic South Africa ever reach Gaddafi’s Libya. The values often confused with democracy were more often preserved under the Ottomans. The scholarship on the Islamic tradition is deep and explicit on humaneness, rights of women, the poor, social security, equality between races, workers, independent scholarship, and thus freedom of speech, but the language is never “democracy.” In truth, democracy is divide and rule. It is thuggery.
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.
Politics1 week ago
The Extraordinary Journey of J. P. Magufuli and Comparative Perspectives of Dog-Eat-Man Regimes
Reflections1 week ago
Of Chapati, Identity and Migrant Politics in Europe
Politics1 week ago
Will an Unga Revolution Follow in the Wake of the Coronavirus?
Politics1 week ago
It Is Time for the Agro-Queer Conversation
Op-Eds1 week ago
Another False Start: The Green Revolution Myths that Africa Bought
Politics1 week ago
Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever
Politics1 week ago
Indian Farmers Protests Continue Amid COVID Surge
Long Reads1 week ago
Unrecognized Vote: Somaliland’s Democratic Journey