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From Red to Blue: The Importance of the Black Vote in the US Presidential Election

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Black voters, including recent immigrants from Africa, played a large part in ensuring the Biden-Harris victory. Changing demographics and Trump’s xenophobic attacks against immigrants and Muslims helped to flip key states from Republican to Democrat.

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From Red to Blue: The Importance of the Black Vote in the US Presidential Election
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Much media attention before and after the 2020 presidential election in the United States has been on the racial identity of Vice President-elect Senator Kamala Harris. The media emphasised her several firsts that are the result of where her parents were born.  From Jamaica where her father was born, to India where her mother was born, the narrative of her South Asian/Black identity has been scrutinised, analysed, and evaluated.  In addition, the perceived and real possibility of some dominant Republican states losing power to the Democrats was front and centre in newspaper articles, opinions pieces, blogs, and essays.

Political analysts addressed the international and domestic migration pieces of this puzzle to a certain extent, but the historical and contemporary dynamics of migration to and within the United States needs further analyses if we are to understand the Biden-Harris victory.

William F. Frey, in Diversity Explosion:  How Racial Demographics are Remaking America (2015), uses census and other data to illustrate that both forms of migration are transforming the country in economic and political ways.  Historical migration out of the South, especially for African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states and cities, is too important to downplay.  Furthermore, intra-migration of African Americans has to be unpacked if we are to understand clear Democratic victories in certain states and the shift towards turning some red states into blue states—at least a paler shade of blue for some.  In other words, African Americans are migrating out of Chicago in droves, but not all of them are making a beeline to Atlanta.  Intra-regional migration has seen the numbers of African Americans increase in Milwaukee and other cities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan that were so important to rebuilding the blue wall in the Midwest.  The other excellent example of intra-regional migration is African Americans migrating from California to Nevada and Arizona.

Finally, the manifestation of African American reverse migration out of these same states and regions showed up in voter turnout and voter preferences in particular states in the South and Southwest.  We must also take into consideration that states that experience an influx of African Americans, such as Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, and Florida, also experience an influx of Latino populations that come from various regions in Central and South America and the Caribbean.  Moreover, there are Latinos (read Mexican-descended non-immigrants) who have lived in what was northern Mexico and now makes up the Southwest for centuries.  They also participate in intra-regional migration from California to Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado.  In sum, domestic migration, whether it is intra-regional, inter-regional, or reverse, is a factor that is evident in recent presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial races in several states that have turned from red to blue or that could be on the cusp of transferring power from Republicans to Democrats.  When this domestic migration coincides with international migration, which is what brought Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ parents to the United States in the first place, the result is a change in demographics and a more diverse electorate and candidate pool that ushered in different voter preferences and choices.

African American migration out of California to Southern states is important to note.  African Americans are moving from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego to Southern and Mid-Atlantic States such as Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, Florida, Maryland, and the Washington, DC area.

The significance of the African American vote cannot be underestimated in the 2020 presidential election.  Without African Americans participating in large numbers in South Carolina’s democratic primary and then voting for Senator Joseph Biden, current President-elect Biden’s campaign may not have gotten the head winds needed to secure the nomination for president. Moreover, Congressman James E. Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, endorsed Biden.  The endorsement gave African Americans the green light to support Biden in the primary.  Biden garnered 61% of their vote. This is why South and African Americans are very important to the Democratic Party, although Biden did not win South Carolina.

This is where domestic migration needs to be unpacked as it relates to African Americans.  There is some scholarship on African American migration following the Civil War, such as Nell Irvin Painter’s Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (1976).  Other scholarship examines the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North and Midwest into cities such as New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Saint Louis, and Philadelphia.  Isabelle Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns and Castes:  The Origins of Our Discontent (2010) is one such example, along with William F. Frey’s The New Great Migration:  Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965-2000 (2004) and Sabrina Pendergrass’ “Routing Black Migration to the Urban US South:  Social Class and Sources of Social Capital in the Destinations Selection Process” (2013).  We know that African Americans transformed these cities culturally, economically, and politically.

From 1910 to 1970, as many as six million African Americans left the cotton fields, sharecropping, domestic work, and terrorism (in the form of lynching of Black people carried out by the Ku Klux Klan and other white groups) for the North, Midwest, Southwest, and West. They did not heed the call of Booker T. Washington to cast down their buckets where they were.  We also know that the first residents of these cities identified and voted for the Republican Party because they viewed it as the party of Abraham Lincoln.  Over time, party identification shifted to the Democratic Party and African Americans were important in the election of Democratic presidents while at the same time gaining political power as mayors in most of these cities beginning in the 1960s and 1970s.

The idea that there would a reverse migration of thousands of African Americans out of these cities to return to the South was not in the calculations of the Southern Strategy that the Republicans so successfully used to turn Democratic strongholds red.  One observation from the election is that the millions of African Americans who participated in reverse migration may have the ability to wrestle political power from the Republicans to the Democrats.

The impact of reverse migration  

Before there is a discussion of African American participation in the 2020 presidential election in the South in particular, the economic and cultural dynamics of their migration need to be addressed in general, and in particular, those states that experienced the influx of new African American arrivals beginning in the late 1990s.

For example, African Americans from New York, Chicago, and other Northeastern and Midwestern cities began moving to Georgian cities that include Atlanta, Savannah, Columbus, Athens, and Macon for several reasons.  Western cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco also experienced an out-migration of African Americans.  One of the factors that makes Atlanta attractive to African Americans and others is its increasingly diverse population and economic opportunities.  The multinational giant, the Coco-Cola Company, along with DHL, Delta Airlines, Home Depot, and reputable colleges and universities that include Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) such as Spelman and Morehouse that attract students, faculty, and staff from across the world, along with Emory University and top notch medical facilities serve as pull factors.  More importantly, Atlanta is a space for those who choose to migrate where African Americans can achieve economic and personal success.  Atlanta serves as a magnate for African Americans working in the entertainment industry such as Tyler Perry who opened Tyler Perry Studios in 2019. This follows the huge success of musicians who set up studios in Atlanta earlier, such as Kenneth Edmonds (Babyface) and Antonio Reid (L.A). Jermain Dupri and even Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis got their start in Atlanta by working with the Atlanta-based SOS band.  Edmonds and Reid used their skills as producers and songwriters to make some of the best-known recordings in the last several decades by Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Usher, Janet Jackson, TLC, Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, and Boys II Men.

The idea that there would a reverse migration of thousands of African Americans out of these cities to return to the South was not in the calculations of the Southern Strategy that the Republicans so successfully used to turn Democratic strongholds red.

Florida is another state that has experienced an influx of African Americans as part of the reverse migration trend.  The mass exodus out of the Rust Belt does not just comprise whites who want to escape the harsh winters of the Midwest and Northeast after retirement nor whites who lost jobs due to loss of manufacturing jobs in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  African Americans were also tired of the snow and sleet of these regions.  They too had lost jobs in the same states.

Again, what is missing from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt narrative is the participation of African Americans and what this means for presidential races in their new states.  Whites are not the only ones moving to the Sunshine State to soak up the sun year round.  African Americans are moving to Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, and smaller towns and cities.Other states include North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina.

For African American retirees, the reasons vary, but they include other factors besides a warmer climate, such as a cheaper cost of living, lower taxes in some states, the desire to return to their ancestral homes to be near family and childhood friends and to enjoy leisure activities.  There are also pull factors for younger African Americans, especially those who are college-educated.  The growing economy in these states (before COVID- 19) provided employment in various sectors, such as banking in Charlotte, the tech industry in Atlanta, and the hotel and hospitality industry in Charleston, Miami, and Virginia Beach.

However, it is important to note that there were push factors that served as a catalyst for migration.  Many African Americans from Chicago to Philadelphia to Bridgeport to the Bronx were frustrated with areas where they lived that were unsafe on many levels.  Parents feared for the safety of their children; they also wanted their children to obtain a high quality education; employment opportunities that led to economic and social mobility dwindled, and finally the economic recession of 2008 laid bare the extent of predatory lending to African American households that often led to foreclosures.  Many lost their jobs, homes, savings, and any hope of rebuilding their lives.  They were more than willing to return to the states that their parents and grandparents had left in search of a better life.

Finally, in some ways life and opportunities in their new homes were better for African Americans.  However, there were instances when it was not.  They still could not fully escape structural and systemic racism, especially by the police when walking, driving, and shopping while Black could result in death.

African American migration out of California to Southern states is important to note.  African Americans are moving from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego to Southern and Mid-Atlantic States such as Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, Florida, Maryland, and the Washington, DC area.  The high cost of housing and a dismal reputation for traffic jams, long commutes, and lack of public transport have pushed many residents to smaller cities. The Southwestern states of Texas, Nevada, and Arizona have also experienced an influx of African American migrants in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, Las Vegas, and Phoenix.

Intra-migration, as mentioned above, is important to examine for African Americans in the West and Midwest.  African Americans have migrated from California to Nevada, Arizona, and Texas.  They have also migrated from cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis to other smaller towns and cities.  The protests and demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake Jr. illustrate the presence of African Americans in smaller cities throughout the country.  Unfortunately, the world knows that Kenosha, Wisconsin has an African American population.

Changing demographics 

Trump and Republican strategists seemed to be oblivious of inter, intra, and reverse migration for African Americans.  Moreover, the thought – not the fact – that the majority of African Americans are living in suburbs, regardless of the region more so now than ever, was not on their radar.  Trump’s nod to white women in his plea for them to like him and that he saved their neighbourhoods was a clear illustration that demographics had changed and he was unaware.  While he begged them to like him and vote for him, African Americans were getting out the vote in those same neighbourhoods from Atlanta to Miami, Phoenix, Houston and Austin.  The college-educated and retired African Americans who have migrated live in these same suburbs.

Furthermore, this population has the time, resources, and skills to participate in election campaigns, to donate to candidates, and to canvas door to door.  The tech entrepreneurs can use their expertise to work with younger people to use social media to energise African American voters.  Brentin Mock reports in “Black Cities Ain’t Going Nowhere” (2019) that suburban areas outside of Atlanta and Miami are manifestations of Black cities within the cityhood movement.  As indicated by the title of his article, Black cities are not decreasing in number, but rather, they are increasing:  from 460 in 1970 to 1,262 in 2017.

At the same time that inter, intra, and reverse migration has changed demographics in key states that determined the electoral vote count in 2020. International migration played a role too.  This discussion examines people who are citizens through naturalisation.  Therefore, the refugees and legal immigrants in states such as Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, Nevada, and Arizona are discussed.  Those states have significant immigrant populations who are eligible to vote and many did.  The largest number of immigrants are from Mexico, the Philippines, India, China, Vietnam, Cuba, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and El Salvador.  It is interesting to note that of the 23 million eligible immigrant voters, they live in only five states:  California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and New York.  Trump won Florida and Texas while Biden won the other three Democrat strongholds.

However, Texas and Florida may be moving from blood red to cranberry red and on its way to becoming blue.  In particular, Texas has a large immigrant population from Mexico, Vietnam, and India.  For Florida, the emphasis is on Cuban-Americans and their support for the Republicans due to the narrative that they support presidential candidates who are anti-communist.  What is left out of this narrative within the context of the Latino vote in Florida is that other immigrants who are classified as Latino live there too, including Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Dominicans, El Salvadorans, and others from Central America.  Furthermore, these classifications are nebulous.  Where do African-descended migrants from Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic factor in?  Asian Americans cannot be lumped into one category either because some Chinese and Japanese communities have lived in the United States for longer than the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indians, and Laotians.

African immigrants and refugees have a shorter history in the United States due to exclusionary immigration laws.  However, laws passed that no longer relied on geographical quotas opened the door for more African and Black immigrants to enter the country.  In addition, the refugee ceiling for Africa slowly began to increase. At this point, Black- and African- descended immigrants played a role in the 2020 presidential election.  There numbers are still not large, but they are active and are certain to become more active.  Congresswoman Ilhan Omar serves as an important example.  The Somali-American community in the district that elected her, along with historic African American community, are too important to ignore.  It is also important to point out that refugees hold permanent resident status following their approval for resettlement to the United States.  Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, refugees must apply to adjust their status to lawful permanent resident after one year of being admitted into the United States. After five years of lawful permanent residence, refugees can apply for citizenship through naturalisation.  Therefore, the thousands of Somalis, Liberians, Ethiopians, Burundians, Sierra Leoneans, Rwandans, and Eritreans are citizens and eligible to vote.

Other first, second, and third generation African and Black immigrants participate in elections as well.  Census data and scholarship illustrate the level of education and their success in various economic sectors.  Many of these migrants who represent several generations at this point live in key states, cities, and suburbs that were important to the Biden-Harris ticket.  There is a confluence of their migration to the same regions and states where reverse migration has occurred.  In other words, the historic African American Diaspora and the contemporary African Diaspora are finding themselves in the same spaces in Georgia, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.  Both groups are represented by a young and college-educated demographic. This demographic lives and works in college towns such as Austin, Atlanta, Raleigh, Athens, Hampton, and Richmond.  At the same time, this demographic joins educated and professional retirees from the military, educational, corporate, health, government, and business sectors who vote.

Turning anger and grief to votes 

The last part of this essay will examine the five states that the Biden-Harris ticket flipped from red to blue and examine the role an influx of domestic and international migrants played.  Georgia serves as a good starting point because its growth in population that is eligible to vote from both domestic and international migration is too important to ignore.  Georgia had 2.4 million African Americans residents who were eligible to vote.  The number represents 32% of this total electorate.  The population growth resides in both urban and suburban areas.  People who voted for the Biden-Harris ticket live in counties such as Cobb, Henry, Douglas, Gwinnet, Clayton, and Fayette that are not predominantly as white as they were during previous elections.  These counties have larger numbers of African Americans now, but Asian Americans and Latinos now live there.  These communities, along with African and African descended immigrants have similar concerns around issues such as healthcare, the effects of COVID- 19 on people of color, police brutality against African Americans and other people of color including undocumented and documented immigrants.

Georgia delivered its electoral votes to the Republican presidential candidate faithfully after the 1992 election, but in 2020, things fell apart. The New York Times reported on November 14th that, “Mr. Biden’s late surge in Georgia, thanks to his dominance in Atlanta, Savannah and the increasingly Democratic-friendly suburbs around both, transformed what had seemed to be a safe Trump state in early tabulations last week into one of the closest contexts in the nation.”  This underscores the importance of the cities pointed out earlier that have African American voters as the result of several factors including reverse migration, retirees, HBCUs, and immigrants from Africa, Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean.  The same New York Times article pointed out the importance of Atlanta in that “Mr. Biden was powered by high turnout among Black voters in Atlanta.”

The Biden-Harris ticket probably would not have garnered these much-needed electoral votes without the organisational skills of Stacy Abrams.  Ms. Abrams gained national attention when she ran and later lost the governor’s race in 2018 under the suspicion of voter suppression carried out by her opponent, Brian Kemp, who at the time was Secretary of State.  It is clear to all who were not familiar with presidential elections in the United States that the secretaries of state are responsible for overseeing elections to ensure that voter fraud and suppression do not occur.  Many in Georgia and around the country viewed Ms. Abrams as the rightful winner because they believed the secretary of state’s office participated in voter suppression by purging voters’ names from the voting rolls.  Ms. Abrams turned this loss into a win for Democrats in the presidential election by galvanizing 800,000 new registered voters.  We all know that voting is important, but if one does not register, one cannot vote.  The 14,000 votes that Biden received to beat Trump may have come from this number.

Georgia was the only state in the South that flipped from red to blue where the Midwest had two:  Wisconsin and Michigan. Wisconsin has 0.3 million eligible African American voters or 6% of the state’s electorate.  Wisconsin is among the Midwestern states that has experienced intra-migration as the result of African Americans moving from cities such as Chicago to Milwaukee and other smaller cities.  However, during this presidential election, this is not what put the state in national and international headlines.   The police shooting in August 2020 of 29- year old Jacob Blake Jr., an African American man who did not live in Milwaukee, made the small city of Kenosha infamous. Mr. Blake survived the shooting, but his name is on the long list of African American men who have either been killed or severely injured by the police.

Hundreds of people from the state and Midwest descended on Kenosha after learning that police officers shot Mr. Blake seven times in the back, leaving him paralysed. Trump’s response to this shooting did not motivate African Americans and other people of colour, along with whites in urban and suburban areas, to vote for him.  When people from all backgrounds protested against the shooting, Trump made it clear that he supported whatever aggressive actions were taken by the police.  The last straw may have been the killing of two white men in Kenosha by a white teenager during a Black Lives Matter protest in response to the Blake shooting.  Another person was seriously injured. The image of a seventeen-year old teenager brandishing a semi-automatic rifle, shooting three men, and then running toward the police with the gun slung across his torso was too much.  To add insult to injury, the police assisted the teenager; the police did not apprehend him on the spot; the police did not push him to the ground, put him in a chokehold, put him in handcuffs or use a Taser to attempt to arrest him.  His arrest was the following day from his home in Illinois!  It was apparent to African Americans that Trump’s call for law and order did not apply to everyone equally.  When Congresswoman Gwen Moore, whose district includes Milwaukee, stated, “We have to turn our anger and grief and frustration into our votes,” African Americans listened.

Hundreds of people from the state and Midwest descended on Kenosha after learning that police officers shot Mr. Blake seven times in the back, leaving him paralysed. Trump’s response to this shooting did not motivate African Americans and other people of colour, along with whites in urban and suburban areas, to vote for him.

Wisconsin’s location next door to Minnesota heightened people’s willingness to march and protest following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.  In addition, Wisconsin is part of the intra-migration of African Americans from Chicago and other cities in Illinois and other states in the Midwest.  Some of these migrants live in Milwaukee; however, others have moved to smaller cities such as Madison and Racine.

African Americans, in particular, did not just march and protest; they registered to vote and then voted for Biden. They did not repeat the mistake of 2016 when they stayed home and did not vote for Senator Hillary Clinton who, perhaps mistakenly, did not campaign in the state.  Moreover, Biden and Harris did not make Clinton’s mistake; they both campaigned in Wisconsin and for that thousands of African Americans, particularly younger ones, voted for the ticket. Wisconsin is just one example of an increase in voter registration and voting by young African Americans in the presidential election.  In many ways, it was obvious that Trump was launching a dirty war against them by using the rhetoric of law and order; insisting that federal law enforcement protects cities; and giving a nod to a white supremacist group, Proud Boys, that he was on their side during one of the presidential debates no less.

The second Midwestern state to deliver blue electoral votes to Biden was Michigan, especially among younger voters.  Michigan, like Wisconsin, was able to give Trump a victory in 2016 because many African Americans voters stayed home.  Michigan may not have had its Stacy Adams, but it had African American pastors and others who mobilised people to register to vote.  African Americans constituted 13% of the one million eligible voters in Michigan.  Detroit’s own Stevie Wonder played a part by attending a campaign rally in Detroit that paid off with Biden receiving 94% of votes cast in Detroit while Trump received 5%.  This came as no surprise as Detroit’s population is 79% African American.  However, African Americans in Detroit could not have done it alone.  Other African Americans in Oakland, Genesee, and Wayne County (39% of its population is African American) were also important.  Michigan’s Lt. Governor, Michael Gilchrist understood this and underscores the argument that Trump fundamentally did not understand changing demographics when he attempted to characterise the suburbs as being places for whites only.  He played right into the hands of Trump and the Republicans when he stated, “This year I really kind of made it my mission to make sure that we were engaging communities both in Detroit but also in…Flint, Saginaw, Benton Harbor.  But also, importantly, the fact that Black people don’t just live in cities.”

There is no disputing the importance of the African American vote in Michigan, from Detroit to Flint to Benton Harbor.  However, Michigan has Latino, Asian, and Arab and Muslim populations.  Segments of the Arab and Muslim population have been in the state from the late nineteenth century.  African Americans were not the only group who moved there to work in the automobile plants.  People who identified as Arab migrated to work in the new auto plants.  It is important to point out that this population is not all Arab or Muslim and many do not come from or are descended from the Middle East.

The Black Muslim and Arab American vote 

Finally, there are Black Muslims to consider.  Let us not forget that the members of the historic African Diaspora founded the Nation of Islam in Detroit in 1930.  The Pew Research Center reported in 2017 that Black Muslims represent one-fifth of all Muslims in the United States. Put another way, two percent of African Americans identify as Muslim.  Black Muslims are a part of the historic and contemporary Diaspora in the United States.

The contemporary African Diaspora Black Muslims can be from Senegal, Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, or Ethiopia.  Dearborn has the distinct reputation of being the capital of Arab America. These communities have much in common with African Americans in terms of housing, employment, racial justice, police killings, and COVID- 19.  African Americans have shown solidarity with immigrants and refugees.  This was evident in their push for reforms in immigration laws during the 1960s at a time when they had recently gained basic civil and voting rights.

Trump’s (or rather his son-in-law, Jared Kushner’s) handling of issues in the Middle East did not convince some Muslims to vote for him.  Many Americans, and not just this community, did not think Kushner had the political skills or expertise to enable him to formulate any foreign policy, let alone to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestian Authority. What he managed to do was totally unacceptable to the Palestinians as it was clear that Israel was not going to have to give any concessions while the Palestinians were expected to take whatever offer was on the table.  This, along with other issues and concerns, may have been the final nail in the coffin that sealed Trump’s electoral fate in Michigan.

Going back to the above counties of Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, they not only have sizeable African American populations, but there are also Latinos, Asian, Arab, and Muslim Americans who reside there.  Again, Trump was ignorant concerning the racial and ethnic diversity found in American suburbs.  Wayne County is not only home to Detroit, but Dearborn where a sizeable Arab American population lives.  Trump failed to gain the votes from eligible voters in this county, but Biden did and he won 70% of this voting bloc.

Arab Americans, similar to all groups, do not vote one hundred percent for either party.  Domestic and international issues influence their vote. Their vote is influenced by domestic and international issues. The voting patterns of communities that have resided in the state for decades are different from those of more recent refugees from Syria and Iraq.  One issue that may have unified the various communities is immigration and Trump’s efforts to ban travel to and from Arab and Muslim-majority countries.  Congresswoman Rashida Tlabib, one of four Congresswomen Trump bullied, played a significant role in getting Arab, Muslim, and African American communities to vote.

Winning Pennsylvania 

President-elect Biden won his home state of Pennsylvania.  However, it was a struggle to the end, but his victory allowed him to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to become President-elect and to put the state in the blue column.  Biden needed to win urban and suburban areas and he did this in Philadelphia and Allegheny Counties that are home to the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

African Americans and others in Philadelphia responded to the police killing, again captured on video, of Walter Wallace Jr. in October 2020, with marches, protests, and looting.  Trump’s response was to send in the National Guard.  Again, this was his signal that he was the candidate to enforce law and order.  When he begged white women to like him because he saved their neighbourhoods, his message was that he would deal with these “thugs.”  African Americans interpreted it for what it was.   They were stereotyped as criminals who needed to be rounded up and locked up.  African Americans make up 10% or one million of the state’s eligible voters and enough of them voted for Biden.

As the Lt. Governor of Michigan rightly pointed out for his state, African Americans do not all live in cities.  The same applies to Pennsylvania where African Americans in rural areas voted for the Biden-Harris ticket.  African Americans in suburban areas followed suit.  One county is Chester where the African American population voted overwhelming for Biden.  African American churches, sororities, fraternities, and civil rights groups all joined forces to push Biden into the lead.  Smaller cities such as Harrisburg, the state capital, also voted for Biden.  African Americans voted in other parts of the state such as Wilkes-Barre, Erie, Allentown, Reading, Scranton (Biden’s hometown), and York.  Pennsylvania is a state that witnessed large numbers of African Americans who migrated during the Great Migration.  Their descendants are the ones who canvassed door-to-door, participated in phone banks, organised voter registration, and voted for Biden.

Pennsylvania has the not so flattering reputation of having Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as progressive centres and the rest is Mississippi.  As stated above, African Americans live throughout the state in urban, suburban, and rural areas.  The state also has an increasing number of Latinos and Asian Americans as a result of immigration.  According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Asian eligible voters in the country was 4.6 million in 2000.  This number increased to 11.1 million in 2020.  Again, Asian Americans are very diverse and people from the Pacific Islands are often put into this category.  Nevertheless, the issues that concern them include the economy, education, healthcare, COVID- 19, and immigration.  Pennsylvania has 511,002 people who are classified as Asian American and Pacific Islanders.  Of this number, 251,377 are eligible to vote. The largest numbers are people from Indian (155,887), China (136,206) followed by Vietnam (49,306), South Korea (47,480), and the Philippines (42,544). The same counties that have sizeable African American populations are where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders reside:  Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Allegheny Counties.

Within this classification, numerous factors produce cleavages such as immigration status, religion, and countries of origin.  Putting all of this aside, Asian American and Pacific Islanders made up 4% of Pennsylvania’s eligible voters and many voted for Biden.  Again, some members of this population were born in Muslim-majority countries or their parents and grandparents migrated from those countries.

Trump, again, put his foot in his mouth by constantly blaming the COVID- 19 pandemic on China, going so far as to call it the “China Virus,” and threatening to engage in a trade war with the country. These actions, accompanied by anti-Asian racism, served to energise members of the community to provide voter education, register eligible voters, and ensure they voted.  Despite Asian Americans being labeled the model minority, they face the same challenges that all minority and marginalized communities face such as poor health care, lack of health insurance, significant rates of poverty, poor housing, unemployment, and overall obstacles to achieve social and economic success.

Latino voters in Pennsylvania also contributed to Biden’s 270 electoral votes.  This segment of the population is diverse within the context of its members having origins in many countries.  In addition, it does not pack a punch, like African Americans, in terms of its numbers in Pennsylvania, but every vote for Biden was important.  It has a larger number than Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in terms of eligible voters with more than 500,000.  Of this number, the majority identify as Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Mexican.  Similar to communities discussed above in all states, Latinos organised grassroots efforts to register voters. The treatment and language used by Trump following Hurricane Maria served to favour Biden over Trump because it was viewed as a gesture of blatant disrespect.  This, coupled with the same issues discussed above for other communities, gave Biden the support of the Latino community.

Voter mobilisation 

The last sections of the essay will examine the Western region by examining the presidential vote in Arizona.  Biden won Arizona that was a deep shade of red (perhaps ruby red).  This is a big shift from the party of ultra-conservative Senator Barry Goldwater to the “maverick” late Senator John McCain.  Trump’s treatment of the late senator, both in life and in death, was mean-spirited and hateful.  Trump took every opportunity to besmirch McCain’s  military career during the Vietnam War and his political record in the Senate.  Senator McCain’s widow did not let Trump’s attacks go unnoticed.  When a long-time Republican such as Ms. Cindy McCain publicly denounced Trump and endorsed Biden, the writing was on the wall that the state had the possibility to flip from red to blue.  People of colour may not have supported or voted for Senator McCain, but many must have believed that Trump’s attacks against him represented an all-time low and he was clearly in the basket of deplorables.  The last Democrat to win the presidential vote in Arizona was President Clinton in 1996.  Trump’s attacks against a late senator, who Republicans and Democrats respected, may have played a role.

There were other factors at play, including the state’s changing demographics due to inter, intra, and international migration.  However, the state’s indigenous population needs to be examined as the media, politicians and other Americans even in states where their numbers are significant often ignore them.  The Navajo in Arizona are one such group.  Its members overwhelmingly voted for Biden under daunting circumstances.  First, COVID- 19 hit their communities in a devastating manner.  The health outcomes for the Navajo were problematic before the pandemic struck.  The pandemic made it difficult to provide voter education and registration information to them.  The cases of COVID- 19 were disproportionate to their numbers in the state and the death toll struck a community already under siege.  Trump’s anti-immigrant position did not appeal to many indigenous communities because of his plan to build a wall to keep out migrants from Mexico.  In order to build the wall, sacred burial grounds of the Hopi, White Mountain Apache, and Pascua were destroyed.  Moreover, indigenous populations throughout the country and in Arizona understand marginalisation, racism, and discrimination.  Similar to African Americans, not all Native Americans in Arizona live in urban areas.  They too joined African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos in Phoenix and the important Maricopa County.

As stated earlier, intra-migration of African Americans and Latinos from California to Arizona has changed the demographics in the state.  These two groups also played a role in delivering Arizona’s eleven electoral votes to Biden, although the African American population is much smaller than the Latino one.  Arizona had 0.2 million eligible African American voters or 5% of the state’s eligible voters.  Again, Maricopa County, where many African Americans reside voted for the Biden-Harris ticket.  Many of these African Americans are college-educated middle and upper middle class professionals.  The percentage of African American eligible voters who have a Bachelor’s degree and higher is 23% while 41% have some college education.

African Americans find retirement attractive in Arizona due to the lower cost of housing from what they left in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Diego.  California declined to serve as a pull for African American migration, but rather, African Americans migrated to Arizona with their college degrees and skills prepared to take advantage of economic and professional opportunities.  African American migration out of California in significant numbers began in the late 1980s long before the economic crisis of 2008.

Latinos also voted for Biden.  This category includes more immigrants from Central America and Mexico and non-immigrant Mexican descended citizens who have lived in California for generations and later moved to Arizona.  In other words, there are people of Mexican descent or non-immigrants whose ancestors lived in what was then Northern Mexico (later became the Southwest) before the Mexican-American War.  Arizona’s Latino population that is eligible to vote is 23% or 1.2 million citizens.

International migration within the context of African and African-descended populations may not have been very significant for the 2020 presidential election, but if the numbers of eligible voters continue to increases from this migration, they could play a bigger role in future elections.  African refugees and immigrants reside in all of the above states.  An estimated 2.4 million Africans migrated to the country during the last two decades.  As stated above, all refugees can apply for citizenship after five years of permanent legal residence.  The U.S. refugee resettlement programme began to accept refugees in the 1980s mainly from Ethiopia and Somalia.  The children and grandchildren of these refugees are first and second generation American citizens.  More recently, refugees have been accepted for resettlement from Liberia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, and Sierra Leone.  Immigrants from Africa have mainly migrated from Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon, Senegal, South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya.   African descended immigrants have migrated primarily from Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Cuba, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Because African and African-descended people, regardless of their origins and how long they have lived in the country, were classified as Black, the Black eligible voters discussed above include people from refugee and immigrant backgrounds as well as the historical African Diaspora.  This has increased the overall percentage of Black eligible voters.  For the states that flipped from red to blue, Arizona’s was 5%; Pennsylvania 10%; Georgia 32%; Wisconsin 6%; and Michigan 13%.

Florida is worth mentioning although it did not flip but because the percentage is the highest of the top states with Black immigrant populations.  The state has 14% of its eligible voters who are Black immigrants from either Africa or the Caribbean.  The old notion that the Black vote is totally comprised of the historic African Diaspora needs to be deconstructed to take into account African and African descended immigrants who come from diverse and vast backgrounds.  For example, depending on their country of origin, some are Christian while others are Muslims, and others are from South Asian origins whose relatives migrated to the Caribbean and East Africa from India.

Black immigrants from the Caribbean have English or Spanish as their first language whereas immigrants from Africa have many first languages such as Arabic, Yoruba, Ewe, Zulu, and Luo.  In addition, many are fluent in the European language of their former colonisers, such as French, Portuguese, and English.  Furthermore, there is a need to examine the Latino population within the context of nebulous racial categories.  There is the non-white Latino and white Latino classification.  For example, are African-descended immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Cuba, Latino or Black?  Are immigrants from Brazil who are African- descended Black or Latino?  Are they both?  What do these categories mean for understanding the Black vote?  Are North Africans Black immigrants?  To help answer these questions, the census can now capture some of these nuances by simply asking citizens to identify their national origins.

The 2020 presidential election signaled that the African and African-descended population, if not already, will have a role to play in future elections and may serve to swing battleground states such as Florida from red to blue.  We know that in Philadelphia, which has a sizeable African and African-descended immigrant population, there was a concerted effort to engage in grassroots organising and mobilising.  The Coalition of African and Caribbean Communities and the African Cultural Alliance of North America worked hard to make sure citizens originally from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ethiopia, and Nigeria registered to vote and then voted.  Social media and good old-fashioned door-to-door canvasing mobilised eligible voters to cast their votes and many did for Biden.  Biden’s win in Pennsylvania is what gave him the 270 electoral votes.  The media, and rightfully so, focused on the Black vote and Philadelphia.  What was missing was the importance of the Black immigrant vote, particularly in Philadelphia.  Black immigrants paid attention to the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr.  Some members of this community may have participated in the protests following the killing.  They too interact with the police and whether they or their parents are from Jamaica, Nigeria, or Ethiopia, they are viewed and treated as Black.  When the Black vote is compressed into a single bloc, these important factors are not explored.

Because African and African-descended people, regardless of their origins and how long they have lived in the country, were classified as Black, the Black eligible voters include people from refugee and immigrant backgrounds as well as the historical African Diaspora.  This has increased the overall percentage of Black eligible voters.

Similar to the historic African Diaspora and other immigrant and minority groups discussed above, these communities share similar issues that motivated them to vote and sometimes against Trump – issues surrounding immigration, employment, education, healthcare and COVID- 19.  At the same time, depending on how long they have lived in the country, their religious beliefs and age, some hold conservative views and supported Trump over Biden.

However, there is one thing that most Black people regardless of citizenship, immigration status, age, gender, and region of residence, rallied around: Trump’s grotesque characterisation of some African countries as “shitholes”. This was an assault against all members of these communities who have roots in Africa regardless of how long they have lived in the country and under what conditions they ended up in the country.

Trump’s anti-Muslim ban, overall anti-immigrant stance, attacks on Congresswomen Tlabib and Omar, and general disinterest in Africa persuaded some of these voters to support Biden.  Finally, Latinos are not the only immigrant group that is concerned about immigration issues.  Although a sizeable percentage of African and African-descended immigrant populations are in the country legally, thousands are undocumented.  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducts surveillance on them, rounds them up in sweeps, detains, and then deports them.  There are numbers of Africans seeking asylum who are also stuck at the US-Mexican border.  They too are separated from their families including children from their parents.

Over the next several months and years, scholars and the media will study and analyse the presidential election of 2020.  International and domestic migration is crucial for a thorough understanding of the outcomes for Biden in the swing states that handed him a victory. Arizona was the only state with a large Latino population that flipped from red to blue.  Texas and Florida remained red despite having sizeable eligible voters who are Latino immigrants and non-immigrant Mexican descended—Texans of Mexican descent are not recent immigrants. Latinos’ contribution to the immigrant vote in Texas is 52% while their percentage of eligible voters is 30%.  Both immigrant and non-immigrants make up 40% of the state’s population.  Texas did not turn blue for the 2020 presidential election, but it has a good chance in the next election as its Latino, African American, and Black immigrant populations increase, along with Asian Americans.

The other part of the 2020 presidential election that cannot be ignored is the extent of voter mobilisation within all of the states discussed among all of the communities.  In addition, the gender dynamics of this mobilisation needs to be analyzed.  African American women received media attention, spurred on by the work of Stacy Abrams in Georgia and women in other states.  We have become familiar with their activism.  However, Latina women in Texas, Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Arizona need to be visible.  Native American women in Arizona also need to be acknowledge for their work.  African and Caribbean immigrant women in Pennsylvania and Muslim and Arab women in Michigan were very important to voter mobilisation.

What is evident from the election is that all of the people in all of the states have difference histories and experiences in the United States.  No group is monolithic.  There were similar issues in common for all groups during this election period that occurred during a pandemic:  access to healthcare, unemployment, and economic issues.  Despite all the differences and variations among and within all of these groups, there was enough commonality and coalition-building to turn some states from red to blue.

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Prof. Cassandra Veney is Professor of International Relations at the United States International University.

Long Reads

Cultural Nostalgia: Or How to Exploit Tradition for Political Ends

The fake councils of elders invented by the political class have robbed elders in northern Kenya of their legitimacy. It will take the intervention of professionals and true elders to end this adulteration of traditional institutions.

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Cultural Nostalgia: Or How to Exploit Tradition for Political Ends
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With devolution, northern Kenya has become an important regional cultural hub, and cultural elders have acquired a new political salience. The resources available to the governors have made the region once again attractive. Important geographical reconnections and essential cultural linkages have been re-established.

These cultural reconnections are happening on a spatial-temporal scale, and old cultures have been revived and given a new role. Contiguous regions hitherto separated by boundaries, state policies and wars are now forging new ways of engaging with each other, Mandera with southwestern Somalia and the Lower Shabelle region, Marsabit with the Yabello region the Borana  hails from, and Wajir with southwestern Ethiopia.

The speed with which Mandera governor Ali Roba sent a congratulatory message to Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmaajo when he was elected—before even the Kenyan president—or the meetings between the governor of Marsabit and Ethiopia’s premier, or how a delegation of northeastern politicians “covertly” visited Somalia, are just some of the new developments that have been encouraged by devolution.

With each of these connections, significant shifts are taking place in the region. But of even greater significance is how cultural institutions have been repurposed and given a central role in the north’s electoral politics.

The re-emergence of sultans

When Wabar Abdille Wabar Abdi, the 78-year-old king of the Degodia, visited Kenya for the first time in 2019, members of parliament and governors from the region ran around like zealous subalterns. He commanded loyalty and legitimacy without seeming to need them, a status that the Kenyan president or any other formal authority could never achieve in the mind-set of the people of Wajir.

Stories of his power preceded Wabar Abdille Wabar Abdi’s visit to Wajir, shared in exciting detail as clans collected camels for his reception. It was said that the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died because he lied to Wabar Abdille Wabar Abdi, that his supernatural powers were not to be joked with. It was said that his title is hereditary and that his main occupation is prayer.

A friend joked that a school named Wabar Abdille had been opened overnight; Wabar Abdille Wabar Abdi was in Wajir for a week. Later, President Uhuru Kenyatta received Wabar Abdille at State House and made him a Chief of the Order of the Burning Spear (O.B.S.)—Kenya’s highest national honour—for establishing “cross-border peace” and for “promoting unity and understanding in the region.”

There was Kenya with its leaders, and then there were the Degodia with a true leader who was loved and revered.

Locally, the larger Degodia saransoor (clan brotherhood) gave Wabar Abdille Wabar Abdi 101 camels. This gift was amplified by a further 101 camels given him by the Jibrail clan for his community service. Strong opinions were shared on social media, with allegations that the Jibrail had presented themselves as different from the saransoor, the larger Degodia ethnic cluster.

Post-devolution, previously dormant traditional cultural institutions like the position of sultan or the Ugaas have experienced a renaissance. In the past several months, there has been a flurry of activity, with the appointment/coronation of Ugaas and Sultans in the run-up to the 2022 election season. At the Abdalla Deyle clan coronation, Ahmed Abdullahi, the former governor for Wajir said, “I ask politicians like myself to give space to the cultural and religious leaders. We can do this by engaging in constructive politics.”

There was Kenya with its leaders, and then there were the Degodia with a true leader who was loved and revered.

Another resident who spoke after him said, “Politicians have been blamed for disturbing the Ugaas and whatnot. Well, Ugaas is leadership; there is an Ugaas seat, there is a sultanate. For this, we shall continue to disturb and disrupt it. We shall continue saying a certain Ugaas is my clan. We shall continue bribing them by giving them money. What they shall do with that will depend on them.”

Cultural revivalism as political spectacle

Each coronation that has taken place since the advent of devolution—there have been eight, three in Wajir in the last three months—represents a sentimental celebration of a bygone era. The prominence of the Wabar, the Abba Gada, the Sultans and Ugaas, and the Yaa in the past 15 years is a case study in political manipulation. With their aura of purity, the traditional institutions mitigate the shortcomings of formal electoral politics. The revival of these institutions fulfils a need created by the exigencies of marginalisation, which demand the invention of psychological security.

In almost all the coronations, words like “modern dynasty”, “opening a new chapter”, and “unity of purpose” were used. Terms that ooze cultural nostalgia. The Sultan was projected as a “symbol of unity” who would “champion community interest,” “restore long lost glory,” “revive historical prowess.” And also play the political roles of negotiating for peace, vetting electoral candidates, bringing order to the council of elders, and representing clan interests in the political decision-making process.

The prominence of the Wabar, the Abba Gada, the Sultans and Ugaas, and the Yaa in the past 15 years is a case study in political manipulation.

In most cases, those anointed Sultan were former chiefs, sons of former chiefs, former councillors, shrewd businessmen, and retired teachers who had made at least one trip to Mecca and Medina. Upon becoming Sultans, these secular individuals suddenly assume pseudo-spiritual-religious roles in the community. The newly assigned roles are only loosely based on the traditional role of the Sultan.

The publicity around their coronation was a necessary public spectacle, designed to add substance, status and power to the anointed so that whomever they endorse is accepted without question. The revival of these old traditions is, in most cases, intended to provoke nostalgia in order to bolster the perception of traditional legitimacy. The creation of a council of elders made up of the wealthy and their middle-class agents has been enabled by the wealth created by the devolved system of governance.

Counties have availed the resources for politicians to package nostalgia and use the emotions provoked to market themselves as woke cultural agents. Take, for example, the case of the Ajuran community who, in September 2021, threw a party in Nairobi to celebrate the Ajuran Empire, which reigned 500 years ago. But at their core, the speeches were about the 2022 elections, and cultural nostalgia was just a means of bringing the people together.

A temporary bridge 

It is easy to see how the excited use of the title Sultan is a temporary convenience. The last time it was used was during the waning years of colonialism. Then, even the Somalified Borana, like Hajj Galma Dida, the paramount chief who was killed by the Shifta, had been referred to as Sultan in letters to the British since it was a title that suggested status. With devolution, use of the title has been revived and it is generously conferred, an ill-fitting Islamic graft on Somali culture.

Changes 

The revival of these traditional governance institutions is emerging while states in the Horn of Africa strive to bring into their formal fold these hitherto peripheral regions. Traditional institutions have been critical arbiters of the peace process, where formal institutions have failed at the macro level. This has been possible because the conventional cultural institutions enjoy trust, legitimacy, and a presence more intimate than the formal governance system.

The contributions of the traditional institutions to the governance of the region cannot be gainsaid. Somalia’s Xerr system and Ethiopia’s Gada system are critical in ensuring peace and harmony in their areas. During Wabar Abdi Wabar Abdille’s visit, Miles Alem, the Ethiopian Ambassador to Kenya said, “You can’t preach regional integration from your capitals. The politicians have to use spiritual leaders, religious leaders and elders of our people such as Wabar Abdi Wabar Abdille.”

Abba Gada, Oromo and Borana

During the 2017 election contest for the Marsabit County gubernatorial seat, Kura Jarso, the 72nd Borana, issued a mura, an uncontestable decision endorsing Mohammed Mohamud Ali as the sole Borana gubernatorial candidate. This was based on a quasi-consensual declaration; before he issued his mura, 60 elders in Kenya had “endorsed” Mohamud Ali. The Abba Gada’s blessings were thus a final incontestable seal. With his word, all the Borana were expected to rally behind Mohammed Ali’s gubernatorial bid.

For the first time, finally, here was the Abba Gada giving his direct political endorsement to an individual, and on video. The video of the Abba Gada issuing the mura was shared widely. He is recorded saying, “Whoever defies this decision has divided the Borana, and we shall discuss their issue. . . . Take this message to where you will go. . . . Guide and protect this decision.”

*****

But all this revival, invention and spectacle were not happening without drama and contest. There was a teacher who taught history and religion at a local secondary school in Marsabit; I had christened him Bandura, the name of one of the scholars with whose theories he would pepper his conversations.

Bandura was a jolly fellow who for a few years ran a Facebook page in which he extolled the virtues of the Gada system and Pax Borana. In December 2018, the Borana Supreme Leader, the Abba Gada, was in Marsabit to officiate a traditional ceremony conferring the status of Qae—a revered position in Borana political culture—on J. J. Falana, a former member of parliament for Saku constituency.

Upon becoming Sultans, these secular individuals suddenly assume pseudo-spiritual-religious roles in the community.

Bandura, the history and religion teacher, was J.J. Falana’s and Abba Gada Kura Jarso’s clansman—the Digalu-Matari clan. There was not a better opportunity for commentary on Borana affairs than this visit and this occasion. In his comments on social media, Bandura was of the opinion that J.J. Falana did not deserve the new title and called out the Abba Gada’s decision as founded on a folly. He allegedly said that the Abba Gada was better off placing the title on a dog than on the former MP.

Bandura added another indiscretion to this political statement by refusing to heed the Abba Gada’s summons, and a government vehicle was dispatched to pick him up. At the residence of the former MP where the traditional ceremony was being held, the teacher was questioned, and to the inquiries, Bandura allegedly responded in a light-hearted, unapologetic and near-dismissive manner. A mura, an excommunication order, was immediately issued, perhaps the Abba Gada’s most potent control tool over his subjects.

With the excommunication order, the Abba Gada also asked the Borana not to give Bandura any assistance should he find himself in any difficulty. He was not to be buried if he died, his sons and daughters were not to marry, his cows were not to be grazed and watered on Borana land. Under the enormity of the sanction, Bandura fainted thrice.

Those who witnessed the event say that Bandura was like a man possessed by some spiritual force; he fell to his knees, rolled in the mud as he begged for forgiveness. This, too, to others, hinted at the mythical powers of the Abba Gada. The event, and what it portended, was unprecedented in Marsabit.

In centuries past, a customary law, serr daawe, forbade the Abba Gada from crossing into Kenya. But following devolution in Kenya, this law was changed to allow the Abba Gada to travel to Kenya.

The first two times the Abba Gada visited Marsabit were as a ceremonial guest. The first visit was to attend the coronation of the Marsabit governor on 21 September 2017. He returned three months later, in December 2017, as a guest at a cultural festival. His third visit, in December 2018, was to attend to his clan’s affairs and to make J.J. Falana a Qae.

A mura, an excommunication order, was immediately issued, perhaps the Abba Gada’s most potent control tool over his subjects.

That last visit of the Abba Gada was full of intrigues; the governor deliberately avoided meeting the delegation but tried to provide accommodation and meals even in his absence.

Later, the Abba Gada made an impromptu visit to Isiolo—the other key Borana county. A blogger referred to the visit as Cultural Regional Diplomacy saying it had thrown “the town into a rapturous frenzy . . . a mammoth crowd trooped in a convoy of about 200 vehicles covering more than 40 Kilometers away from Isiolo town to receive the most powerful Borana leader.”

After the visit to Isiolo, the Abba Gada visited Raila Odinga’s office. The Abba Gada later told BBC Oromia that he had discussed unity, culture, and peace.

“They are on this side [Kenya], and thus, they are far from culture. They have forgotten their culture. Culture is a body, and it should be strengthened. Those without culture are slaves. If your language and your culture are lost, your identity won’t be visible. You will be a slave to the culture of those around you.”

In his book Oromo Democracy: An indigenous African Political system, Asmarom Legesse says that for Kenya Borana, “The Gada chronology, covering 360 years of history, no longer plays any significant role in their lives. It exists in severely abridged forms,” and that the reason the Gada “is an irrelevant institution in the lives of Kenya Boran today is because there are no Gada leaders in their territory.” Legesse observes that what remains of Oromo political organisation in Northern Kenya “is the culture and language of Gada and age-sets, but not the working institutions. . . . The Boran of Marsabit can talk about their institutions as if they still governed them, but the institutions themselves do not exist.”

Legesse concludes that Kenya Borana’s knowledge of the Gada system “is very shallow, and they perform hardly any of the Gada rituals or political ceremonies—Gada Moji (the final rite of retirement) being the only significant exception.”

After 360 years of absence, more than the political endorsements, Bandura’s excommunication became the symbolic assertion of the Abba Gada’s return.

Bandura’s excommunication was lifted after 24 hours, and Bandura was blessed. Shortly after the blessings, Bandura got an opportunity to travel to the Netherlands to present an innovative project idea in an NGO competition. On his return, he was employed as a quality assurance officer in the Marsabit County Government. The mythical powers of the Abba Gada had manifested first in Bandura’s fainting, then in his travel to The Hague, and finally in the job change.

Even while based in Ethiopia, the Gada system has animated Borana electoral politics in the region. In the past, for most Kenyan Borana, the Gada institution has been only part of a nostalgic political campaign repertoire.

In a famous 1997 campaign song, at the end of Jarso Jillo Fallana’s ten years in parliament, the singer says,

“Gadan Aba tokko, gann sathetinn chitte bekhi, Gadaan Jarso Jillo Gann lamann thabarte bekhi. . . .”
The Gada era/leadership cycle ends at eight years, but the end of Jarso Jillo’s leadership term is two years overdue. . . .

Writing about this, Hassan H. Kochore says that for the Borana, “Gada and its associated ritual of gadamojji is appropriated in music to construct a strong narrative of Boran identity in the context of electoral politics.”

The singer in the 1997 campaign song reveals an important facet of the Borana mind-set. A cursory analysis of all elected Borana leaders in the Kenyan parliament reveals that there have been only two members of parliament who have served a third parliamentary term, which for one MP was a party nomination. This contrasts with the Somali and their immediate neighbours, the Gabra, where third and even fourth parliamentary terms are not extraordinary.

More than the political endorsements, Bandura’s excommunication became the symbolic assertion of the Abba Gada’s return.

The Borana system had supported 560 years of peaceful traditional democratic transitions (70 changeovers of political leadership with eight-year rotations) under the Gada institution. Is the abuse that Borana parliamentarians in Kenya received at the end of their two parliamentary terms, less a commentary on their failure to deliver, than a demand for the application of the traditional 8-year cycle of the Gada system ingrained in their psyche over the centuries?

For the Kenyan Borana, it seems this internal socio-political environment has shaped the legitimacy of electoral democracy. The traditional social structure and political institutions of a community have a bearing on such a community’s electoral behaviour (the conventional basis of political legitimacy).

It would seem that within the Borana’s Gada system is the belief that there is nothing new or different an elected politician can offer beyond eight years in office. The Borana system predates Western democracy by more than 200 years. Kenya’s system of electoral democracy, which has been around for a mere 58 years, is too new to displace ideas that have evolved over the past five centuries. 

Bandura was a tiny man, and his encounter with the Abba Gada is recent. Decades ago, another major clash had occurred between another Abba Gada and a Borana member of parliament.

In June 1997, with Oromo calls for liberation in Ethiopia spilling over into Moyale politics, fighters of the Oromo Liberation Front hiding in Kenya and OLF politics in high gear, Moyale town was polarised, with OLF sympathisers on one side and those against them on the other. As the 1997 election fever gripped the region, the then Abba Gada arrived in Moyale town, defying centuries of serr dawwe, the law that forbade him to cross into Kenya.

Also present was Mohamed Galgallo, the then Moyale member of parliament, who was viewed as a “liberator”, a hero and chief OLF sympathiser. The Abba Gada is said to have arrived in Moyale dressed in a suit, a cowboy hat and leather shoes, in a government vehicle with security in tow. In the gathering, the Abba Gada urged Kenya Borana to stop supporting the OLF. This didn’t sit well with Galgallo, who is alleged to have grabbed the microphone from the Abba Gada and given the Borana Supreme Leader a piece of his mind.

A resident of Moyale recalls Galgallo asking, “We have been told that the Abba Gada never crosses into Kenya or wears a suit or shoes like yours. . . . Have you come here as a government minister or as a traditional leader?”

This led the Abba Gada to curse him, asking the Borana to choose another leader. Galgallo didn’t campaign in 1997 and, according to local lore, his life has not been good ever since, not even when he served as a nominated member of parliament.

Kenya’s system of electoral democracy, which has been around for a mere 58 years, is too new to displace ideas that have evolved over the past five centuries.

Almost three decades later, during the last Abba Gada’s visit to Marsabit, other incidences of defiance were witnessed, of men who refused to attend his events or heed his summons. One of the Abba Gada’s clan members I spoke to told me that not heeding such a summon is like being called by Uhuru and refusing to go. To do such a thing must take a lot of courage, he said.

Even so, stories are freely exchanged in the Borana region of how errant persons who defied the Abba Gada’s ruling, summons or decisions were often beset by tragedies—going deaf, going dumb, and dying suddenly.

The slow process of the Abba Gada’s loss of his traditional legitimacy can be gleaned from certain occurrences, such as the pervasive rumour that spread across Marsabit that the Abba Gada was on the county government’s payroll, or that his frequent visits were to follow up on payments for his “contracts”.

The Gada system has been relatively resilient under various forms of state-imposed changes, assaults by the Amhara, and Ethiopia’s federalist policies which have attempted to manipulate the Gada by interchanging religious and political roles and twinning traditional roles with formal state ones. In Ethiopia, the Gada system has been so effective in co-evolving with the state that communities that didn’t have the Gada political system have invented a similar one or adopted the Gada structure. 

A classic example are the Gabra and the Burji of Southern Ethiopia. They are traditionally decentralised but now have an “Abba Gada” without however having instituted the attendant socio-political and cultural institutions of the Gada. The Kenyan Gabra must be surprised by their brothers in Ethiopia who have had two Abba Gadas so far; the first one served for 16 years, and the second one is serving his second year since his coronation.

The Burji seem unable to name their Gadas despite claims that they too had a Gada system but that it disappeared 100 years ago. Their elders are at a loss to explain how they evolved the system and their claim seems contrived.

Yaa Gabra

The Gabra people, the camel nomads of northern Kenya, have “no institutionalised political structure on a tribal level”. According to the late Fr. Tablino, a missionary-anthropologist who worked for a long time amongst the Gabra, “the Gabra ‘nation’ could be described as a federation with five capitals, or yaa. All the structures are separate and self-contained within each phratry. The head of the yaa, known as the Qaalu, played a religious role and not a political one, but he had a moral influence.” 

The Gabra seldom have a pan-Gabra assembly comprising the five Yaa. When it happens, the grand Yaa meetings happen after a very long time. When they meet, they discuss essential crosscutting matters that affect the whole community. Fr. Tablino documents only four pan-Gabra clan assemblies—in 1884, 1887, 1934 and 1998. In 1884, the Yaa met to “discuss civil law which reviewed judicial matters.” In 1887, “decisions were made to redistribute livestock for the benefit of the poor.” In 1934, the Yaa met on the northern slopes of the Huri Hills where “topics such as History, cycles, poverty, wealth and livestock distribution and redistribution, all were aired.”

But in 1998, “an extraordinary meeting at Balesa of representatives of all five yaa” was held. This time it was “because a serious conflict had occurred among the Gabra during and immediately after the campaign for the general political elections of Kenya in December 1998.” The primary objective of the meeting was to reject “such political interference in the Gabra way of life.”

It seems that the 1998 Yaa assembly did not make a lasting impact because in 2011, in Kalacha, the Yaa met to endorse Amb. Ukur Yatani for the Marsabit gubernatorial seat in what has been dubbed the Kalacha Declaration. They met twice in 2016, in June and in December. In each of the last three meetings, their discussions were about individuals and not crosscutting communal affairs. In the previous two meetings, the candidates they endorsed were rejected. Gabra professionals called the Yaa’s decision partisan and corrupt. The Gabra Yaa at the Kalacha assembly went away with egg on their face, their decisions ignored. Both gubernatorial contestants from the Gabra community claimed to have been endorsed by the Yaa.

Following devolution, the Yaa has met three times in just six years (2011-2016); almost the same number of times they had met in the preceding 126 years (1884-2010). For a long time, the traditional system had inspired legitimacy due to the infrequency of its judicial, cultural, political decrees. Now, they were becoming too frequent, and with this familiarity, contempt was brewing. The traditional political ordinances, imbued with the spiritualism and the mysticism of tradition, were being tested by unforgiving adjutants. The elders invoked their untested and theoretically supernatural powers across northern Kenya and put themselves at the risk of ridicule and disrespect.

2022 and the future

As we edge closer to another general election we see a repeat of past general elections across northern Kenya. The political class have endorsed sultans and Ugaases and set up “legitimisation” schemes for their favoured councils of elders. That process has been completed and now the councils of elders are in turn legitimising the political class, with almost all the endorsements for the 2022 elections going to rich contractors and past politicians.

The Gabra Yaa at the Kalacha assembly went away with egg on their face, their decisions ignored.

In Mandera, the Asare clan who had formed an ad hoc committee eight months ago vetted four individuals interested in the gubernatorial post and eventually settled on the current Mandera County Assembly Speaker. One of the contestants has rejected the outcome, saying the process was corrupt.

In Isiolo, a faction of Borana elders have endorsed the former Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission chairperson Halakhe Dida Waqo as Isiolo Governor.

The national gaze

The control of the councils of elders brings a two-fold benefit to the region’s politicians. The governor has little opposition at the grassroots. He has reduced the council of elders to agents of his charity, doled out as employment for the children of elders or in the form of lucrative contracts. The elders now have new roles at the national level—to deliver votes and popular support to their national-level cronies.

On the other hand, governors incentivise the elders and use the concessions granted to control them. They eventually throw these elders under the bus of public opinion and move on swiftly, as Ali Roba did during the 2016 election in Mandera.

A casual observation of the past eight years of devolution portrays the councils of elders in northern Kenya as stupefied antelopes caught in the headlights of a powerful vehicle. Most elders have been reduced to simple brokers without legitimacy who serve only as political agents with no ethical values. Their cultural events are now political days.

But traditions are malleable things and are not apolitical. Even while making new concessions, the elders are learning new rules. For instance, professional bodies are also acting as a significant counterweight to the excesses of the elders. The Gabra professionals’ protest of the Yaa’s manipulation during the hurried endorsement of Ukur Yatani in 2016 is one example.

Social media criticisms offer a dramatic example of how elders seem to be caught up in a situation they little understand or control. Their attempts to censor dissenting views expressed on social media have so far failed. But cases of elders summoning so-and-so’s son for saying whatnot on a Facebook page or in a WhatsApp group have occurred in many northern counties.

Professional bodies are also acting as a significant counterweight to the excesses of the elders.

The next frontier of conflict will be how retired civil servants, who are increasingly taking up roles in the “council of elders” as post-retirement employment, will deal with dissent from professionals and social media.

The invention of parallel councils and the emergence of factions within councils of elders have severe implications for conflict arbitration processes and the management of pastureland and rangeland. The fake councils of elders invented by the political class for their own needs have also robbed true elders of their legitimacy. The contempt directed at the retired teachers and business people seems to signify that the elders are all corrupt and ineffective. The long-term implications of this are the death of traditional institutions. It will take courageous intervention led by professionals and true elders to stop this manipulation and adulteration of traditional institutions.

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9/11: The Day That Changed America and the World Order

Twenty years later, the US has little to show for its massive investment of trillions of dollars and the countless lives lost. Its defeat in Afghanistan may yet prove more consequential than 9/11.

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9/11: The Day That Changed America and the World Order
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It was surreal, almost unbelievable in its audacity. Incredulous images of brazen and coordinated terrorist attacks blazoned television screens around the world. The post-Cold War lone and increasingly lonely superpower was profoundly shaken, stunned, and humbled. It was an attack that was destined to unleash dangerous disruptions and destabilize the global order. That was 9/11, whose twentieth anniversary fell this weekend.

Popular emotions that day and in the days and weeks and months that followed exhibited fear, panic, anger, frustration, bewilderment, helplessness, and loss. Subsequent studies have shown that in the early hours of the terrorist attacks confusion and apprehension reigned even at the highest levels of government. However, before long it gave way to an all-encompassing overreaction and miscalculation that set the US on a catastrophic path.

The road to ruin over the next twenty years was paved in those early days after 9/11 in an unholy contract of incendiary expectations by the public and politicians born out of trauma and hubris. There was the nation’s atavistic craving for a bold response, and the leaders’ quest for a millennial mission to combat a new and formidable global evil. The Bush administration was given a blank check to craft a muscular invasion to teach the terrorists and their sponsors an unforgettable lesson of America’s lethal power and unequalled global reach.

Like most people over thirty, I remember that day vividly as if it was yesterday. I was on my first, and so far only sabbatical in my academic year. As a result, I used to work long into the night and wake up late in the morning. So I was surprised when I got a sudden call from my wife who was driving to campus to teach. Frantically, she told me the news was reporting unprecedented terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Virginia, and that a passenger plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. There was personal anguish in her voice: her father worked at the Pentagon. I jumped out of bed, stiffened up, and braced myself. Efforts to get hold of her mother had failed because the lines were busy, and she couldn’t get through.

When she eventually did, and to her eternal relief and that of the entire family, my mother-in-law reported that she had received a call from her husband. She said he was fine. He had reported to work later than normal because he had a medical appointment that morning. That was how he survived, as the wing of the Pentagon that was attacked was where he worked. However, he lost many colleagues and friends. Such is the capriciousness of life, survival, and death in the wanton assaults of mass terrorism.

For the rest of that day and in the dizzying aftermath, I read and listened to American politicians, pundits, and scholars trying to make sense of the calamity. The outrage and incredulity were overwhelming, and the desire for crushing retribution against the perpetrators palpable. The dominant narrative was one of unflinching and unreflexive national sanctimoniousness; America was attacked by the terrorists for its way of life, for being what it was, the world’s unrivalled superpower, a shining nation on the hill, a paragon of civilization, democracy, and freedom.

Critics of the country’s unsavoury domestic realities of rampant racism, persistent social exclusion, and deepening inequalities, and its unrelenting history of imperial aggression and military interventions abroad were drowned out in the clamour for revenge, in the collective psychosis of a wounded pompous nation.

9/11 presented a historic shock to America’s sense of security and power, and created conditions for profound changes in American politics, economy, and society, and in the global political economy. It can be argued that it contributed to recessions of democracy in the US itself, and in other parts of the world including Africa, in so far as it led to increased weaponization of religious, ethnic, cultural, national, and regional identities, as well as the militarization and securitization of politics and state power. America’s preoccupation with the ill-conceived, destructive, and costly “war on terror” accelerated its demise as a superpower, and facilitated the resurgence of Russia and the rise of China.

Of course, not every development since 9/11 can be attributed to this momentous event. As historians know only too well, causation is not always easy to establish in the messy flows of historical change. While cause and effect lack mathematical precision in humanity’s perpetual historical dramas, they reflect probabilities based on the preponderance of existing evidence. That is why historical interpretations are always provisional, subject to the refinement of new research and evidence, theoretical and analytical framing.

America’s preoccupation with the ill-conceived, destructive, and costly “war on terror” accelerated its demise as a superpower.

However, it cannot be doubted that the trajectories of American and global histories since 9/11 reflect the latter’s direct and indirect effects, in which old trends were reinforced and reoriented, new ones fostered and foreclosed, and the imperatives and orbits of change reconstituted in complex and contradictory ways.

In an edited book I published in 2008, The Roots of African Conflicts, I noted in the introductory chapter entitled “The Causes & Costs of War in Africa: From Liberation Struggles to the ‘War on Terror’” that this war combined elements of imperial wars, inter-state wars, intra-state wars and international wars analysed extensively in the chapter and parts of the book. It was occurring in the context of four conjuctures at the turn of the twenty-first century, namely, globalization, regionalization, democratization, and the end of the Cold War.

I argued that the US “war on terror” reflected the impulses and conundrum of a hyperpower. America’s hysterical unilateralism, which was increasingly opposed even by its European allies, represented an attempt to recentre its global hegemony around military prowess in which the US remained unmatched. It was engendered by imperial hubris, the arrogance of hyperpower, and a false sense of exceptionalism, a mystical belief in the country’s manifest destiny.

I noted the costs of the war were already high within the United States itself. It threatened the civil liberties of its citizens and immigrants in which Muslims and people of “Middle Eastern” appearance were targeted for racist attacks. The nations identified as rogue states were earmarked for crippling sanctions, sabotage and proxy wars. In the treacherous war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq it left a trail of destruction in terms of deaths and displacement for millions of people, social dislocation, economic devastation, and severe damage to the infrastructures of political stability and sovereignty.

More than a decade and a half after I wrote my critique of the “war on terror”, its horrendous costs on the US itself and on the rest of the world are much clearer than ever. Some of the sharpest critiques have come from American scholars and commentators for whom the “forever wars” were a disaster and miscalculation of historic proportions. Reading the media reports and academic articles in the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been struck by many of the critical and exculpatory reflections and retrospectives.

Hindsight is indeed 20/20; academics and pundits are notoriously subject to amnesia in their wilful tendency to retract previous positions as a homage to their perpetual insightfulness. Predictably, there are those who remain defensive of America’s response to 9/11. Writing in September 2011, one dismissed what he called the five myths of 9/11: that the possibility of hijacked airliners crashing into buildings was unimaginable; the attacks represented a strategic success for al-Qaeda; Washington overreacted; a nuclear terrorist attack is an inevitability; and civil liberties were decimated after the attacks.

Marking the 20th anniversary, another commentator maintains that America’s forever wars must go on because terrorism has not been vanquished. “Ending America’s deployment in Afghanistan is a significant change. But terrorism, whether from jihadists, white nationalists, or other sources, is part of life for the indefinite future, and some sort of government response is as well. The forever war goes on forever. The question isn’t whether we should carry it out—it’s how.”

Some of the sharpest critiques have come from American scholars and commentators for whom the “forever wars” were a disaster and miscalculation of historic proportions.

To understand the traumatic impact of 9/11 on the US, and its disastrous overreaction, it is helpful to note that in its history, the American homeland had largely been insulated from foreign aggression. The rare exceptions include the British invasion in the War of 1812 and the Japanese military strike on Pearl Harbour in Honolulu, Hawaii in December 1941 that prompted the US to formally enter World War II.

Given this history, and America’s post-Cold War triumphalism, 9/11 was inconceivable to most Americans and to much of the world. Initially, the terrorist attacks generated national solidarity and international sympathy. However, both quickly dissipated because of America’s overweening pursuit of a vengeful, misguided, haughty, and obtuse “war on terror”, which was accompanied by derisory and doomed neo-colonial nation-building ambitions that were dangerously out of sync in a postcolonial world.

It can be argued that 9/11 profoundly transformed American domestic politics, the country’s economy, and its international relations. The puncturing of the bubble of geographical invulnerability and imperial hubris left deep political and psychic pain. The terrorist attacks prompted an overhaul of the country’s intelligence and law-enforcement systems, which led to an almost Orwellian reconceptualization of “homeland security” and formation of a new federal department by that name.

The new department, the largest created since World War II, transformed immigration and border patrols. It perilously conflated intelligence, immigration, and policing, and helped fabricate a link between immigration and terrorism. It also facilitated the militarization of policing in local and state jurisdictions as part of a vast and amorphous war on domestic and international terrorism. Using its new counter-insurgence powers, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency went to work. According to one report, in the British paper The Guardian, “In 2005, it carried out 1,300 raids against businesses employing undocumented immigrants; the next year there were 44,000.”

By 2014, the national security apparatus comprised more than 5 million people with security clearances, or 1.5 per cent of the country’s population, which risked, a story in The Washington Post noted, “making the nation’s secrets less, well, secret.” Security and surveillance seeped into mundane everyday tasks from checks at airports to entry at sporting and entertainment events.

The puncturing of the bubble of geographical invulnerability and imperial hubris left deep political and psychic pain.

As happens in the dialectical march of history, enhanced state surveillance including aggressive policing fomented the countervailing struggles on both the right and left of the political spectrum. On the progressive side was the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and rejuvenated gender equality and immigrants’ rights activists, and on the reactionary side were white supremacist militias and agitators including those who carried the unprecedented violent attack on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. The latter were supporters of defeated President Trump who invaded the sanctuaries of Congress to protest the formal certification of Joe Biden’s election to the presidency.

Indeed, as The Washington Post columnist, Colbert King recently reminded us, “Looking back, terrorist attacks have been virtually unrelenting since that September day when our world was turned upside down. The difference, however, is that so much of today’s terrorism is homegrown. . . . The broad numbers tell a small part of the story. For example, from fiscal 2015 through fiscal 2019, approximately 846 domestic terrorism subjects were arrested by or in coordination with the FBI. . . . The litany of domestic terrorism attacks manifests an ideological hatred of social justice as virulent as the Taliban’s detestation of Western values of freedom and truth. The domestic terrorists who invaded and degraded the Capitol are being rebranded as patriots by Trump and his cultists, who perpetuate the lie that the presidential election was rigged and stolen from him.”

Thus, such is the racialization of American citizenship and patriotism, and the country’s dangerous spiral into partisanship and polarization that domestic white terrorists are tolerated by significant segments of society and the political establishment, as is evident in the strenuous efforts by the Republicans to frustrate Congressional investigation into the January 6 attack on Congress.

In September 2001, incredulity at the foreign terrorist attacks exacerbated the erosion of popular trust in the competence of the political class that had been growing since the restive 1960s and crested with Watergate in the 1970s, and intensified in the rising political partisanship of the 1990s. Conspiracy theories about 9/11 rapidly proliferated, fuelling the descent of American politics and public discourse into paranoia, which was to be turbocharged as the old media splintered into angry ideological solitudes and the new media incentivized incivility, solipsism, and fake news. 9/11 accelerated the erosion of American democracy by reinforcing popular fury and rising distrust of elites and expertise, which facilitated the rise of the disruptive and destructive populism of Trump.

9/11 offered a historic opportunity to seek and sanctify a new external enemy in the continuous search for a durable foreign foe to sustain the creaking machinery of the military, industrial, media and ideological complexes of the old Cold War. The US settled not a national superpower, as there was none, notwithstanding the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but on a religion, Islam. Islamophobia tapped into the deep recesses in the Euro-American imaginary of civilizational antagonisms and anxieties between the supposedly separate worlds of the Christian West and Muslim East, constructs that elided their shared historical, spatial, and demographic affinities.

After 9/11, Muslims and their racialized affinities among Arabs and South Asians joined America’s intolerant tent of otherness that had historically concentrated on Black people. One heard perverse relief among Blacks that they were no longer the only ones subject to America’s eternal racial surveillance and subjugation. The expanding pool of America’s undesirable and undeserving racial others reflected growing anxieties by segments of the white population about their declining demographic, political and sociocultural weight, and the erosion of the hegemonic conceits and privileges of whiteness.

9/11 accelerated the erosion of American democracy by reinforcing popular fury and rising distrust of elites and expertise.

This helped fuel the Trumpist populist reactionary upsurge and the assault on democracy by the Republican Party. In the late 1960s, the party devised the Southern Strategy to counter and reverse the limited redress of the civil rights movement. 9/11 allowed the party to shed its camouflage as a national party and unapologetically adorn its white nativist and chauvinistic garbs. So it was that a country which went to war after 9/11 purportedly “united in defense of its values and way life,” emerged twenty years later “at war with itself, its democracy threatened from within in a way Osama bin Laden never managed.

The economic effects of the misguided “war on terror” and its imperilled “nation building” efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq were also significant. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union and its socialist empire in central and Eastern Europe, there were expectations of an economic dividend from cuts in excessive military expenditures. The pursuit of military cuts came to a screeching halt with 9/11.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11 Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winner for economics, noted ruefully that Bush’s “was the first war in history paid for entirely on credit. . . . Increased defense spending, together with the Bush tax cuts, is a key reason why America went from a fiscal surplus of 2% of GDP when Bush was elected to its parlous deficit and debt position today. . . . Moreover, as Bilmes and I argued in our book The Three Trillion Dollar War, the wars contributed to America’s macroeconomic weaknesses, which exacerbated its deficits and debt burden. Then, as now, disruption in the Middle East led to higher oil prices, forcing Americans to spend money on oil imports that they otherwise could have spent buying goods produced in the US. . . .”

He continued, “But then the US Federal Reserve hid these weaknesses by engineering a housing bubble that led to a consumption boom.” The latter helped trigger the financial crisis that resulted in the Great Recession of 2008-2009. He concluded that these wars had undermined America’s and the world’s security beyond Bin Laden’s wildest dreams.

The costs of the “forever wars” escalated over the next decade. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, from 2001 to 2020 the US security apparatuses spent US$230 billion a year, for a total of US$5.4 trillion, on these dubious efforts. While this represented only 1 per cent of the country’s GDP, the wars continued to be funded by debt, further weakening the American economy. The Great Recession of 2008-09 added its corrosive effects, all of which fermented the rise of contemporary American populism.

Thanks to these twin economic assaults, the US largely abandoned investing in the country’s physical and social infrastructure that has become more apparent and a drag on economic growth and the wellbeing for tens of millions of Americans who have slid from the middle class or are barely hanging onto it. This has happened in the face of the spectacular and almost unprecedented rise of China as America’s economic and strategic rival that the former Soviet Union never was.

The jingoism of America’s “war on terror” quickly became apparent soon after 9/11. The architect of America’s twenty-year calamitous imbroglio, the “forever wars,” President George W Bush, who had found his swagger from his limp victory in the hanging chads of Florida, brashly warned America’s allies and adversaries alike: “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”

Through this uncompromising imperial adventure in the treacherous geopolitical quicksands of the Middle East, including “the graveyard of empires,” Afghanistan, the US succeeded in squandering the global sympathy and support it had garnered in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 not only from its strategic rivals but also from its Western allies. The notable exception was the supplicant British government under “Bush’s poodle”, Prime Minister Tony Blair, desperately clinging to the dubious loyalty and self-aggrandizing myth of a “special relationship”.

The neglect of international diplomacy in America’s post-9/11 politics of vengeance was of course not new. It acquired its implacable brazenness from the country’s post-Cold War triumphalism as the lone superpower, which served to turn it into a lonely superpower. 9/11 accelerated the gradual slide for the US from the pedestal of global power as diplomacy and soft power were subsumed by demonstrative and bellicose military prowess.

The disregard for diplomacy began following the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. In the words of Jonathan Powell that are worth quoting at length, “The principal failure in Afghanistan was, rather, to fail to learn, from our previous struggles with terrorism, that you only get to a lasting peace when you have an inclusive negotiation – not when you try to impose a settlement by force. . . . The first missed opportunity was 2002-04. . . . After the Taliban collapsed, they sued for peace. Instead of engaging them in an inclusive process and giving them a stake in the new Afghanistan, the Americans continued to pursue them, and they returned to fighting. . . . There were repeated concrete opportunities to start negotiations with the Taliban from then on – at a time when they were much weaker than today and open to a settlement – but political leaders were too squeamish to be seen publicly dealing with a terrorist group. . . . We have to rethink our strategy unless we want to spend the next 20 years making the same mistakes over and over again. Wars don’t end for good until you talk to the men with the guns.”

The all-encompassing counter-terrorism strategy adopted after 9/11 bolstered American fixation with military intervention and solutions to complex problems in various regional arenas including the combustible Middle East. In an increasingly polarized capital and nation, only the Defense Department received almost universal support in Congressional budget appropriations and national public opinion. Consequently, the Pentagon accounts for half of the federal government’s discretionary spending. In 2020, military expenditure in the US reached US$778 billion, higher than the US$703.6 billion spent by the next nine leading countries in terms of military expenditure, namely, China (US$252 billion), India (US$72.9 billion), Russia (US$61.7 billion), United Kingdom (US$59.2 billion), Saudi Arabia (US$57.5 billion), Germany (US$52.6 billion), France (US$52.7 billion), Japan (US$49.1 billion) and South Korea (US$45.7 billion).

Under the national delirium of 9/11, the clamour for retribution was deafening as evident in Congress and the media. In the United States Senate, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the perpetrators of 9/11, which became law on 18 September 2001, nine days after the terrorist attacks, was approved by 98, none against, and two did not vote. In the House of Representatives, the vote tally was 420 ayes, 1 nay (the courageous Barbara Lee of California), and 10 not voting.

9/11 accelerated the gradual slide for the US from the pedestal of global power as diplomacy and soft power were subsumed by demonstrative and bellicose military prowess.

By the time the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 was taken in the two houses of Congress, and became law on 16 October 2002, the ranks of cooler heads had begun to expand but not enough to put a dent on the mad scramble to expand the “war on terror”.  In the House of Representatives 296 voted yes, 133 against, and three did not vote, while in the Senate the vote was 77 for and 23 against.

Beginning with Bush, and for subsequent American presidents, the law became an instrument of militarized foreign policy to launch attacks against various targets. Over the next two decades, “the 2001 AUMF has been invoked more than 40 times to justify military operations in 18 countries, against groups who had nothing to do with 9/11 or al-Qaida. And those are just the operations that the public knows about.”

Almost twenty years later, on 17 June 2021, the House voted 268-161 to repeal the authorization of 2002. By then, it had of course become clear that the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq were destined to become a monumental disaster and defeat in the history of the United States that has sapped the country of its trust, treasure, and global standing and power. But revoking the law did not promise to end the militarized reflexes of counter-insurgence it had engendered.

The “forever wars” consumed and sapped the energies of all administrations after 2001, from Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden. As the wars lost popular support in the US, aspiring politicians hoisted their fortunes on proclaiming their opposition. Opposition to the Iraq war was a key plank of Obama’s electoral appeal, and the pledge to end these wars animated the campaigns of all three of Bush’s successors. The logic of counterterrorism persisted even under the Obama administration that retired the phrase “war on terror” but not its practices; it expanded drone warfare by authorizing an estimated 542 drone strikes which killed 3,797 people, including 324 civilians.

The Trump Administration signed a virtual surrender pact, a “peace agreement,” with the Taliban on 29 February 2020, that was unanimously supported by the UN Security Council. Under the agreement, NATO undertook to gradually withdraw its forces and all remaining troops by 1 May 2021, while the Taliban pledged to prevent al-Qaeda from operating in areas it controlled and to continue talks with the Afghan government that was excluded from the Doha negotiations between the US and the Taliban.

The “forever wars” consumed and sapped the energies of all administrations after 2001, from Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden.

Following the signing of the Doha Agreement, the Taliban insurgency intensified, and the incoming Biden administration indicated it would honour the commitment of the Trump administration for a complete withdrawal, save for a minor extension from 1 May  to 31 August 2021. Two weeks before the American deadline, on 15 August 2021, Taliban forces captured Kabul as the Afghan military and government melted away in a spectacular collapse. A humiliated United States and its British lackey scrambled to evacuate their embassies, staff, citizens, and Afghan collaborators.

Thus, despite having the world’s third largest military, and the most technologically advanced and best funded, the US failed to prevail in the “forever wars”. It was routed by the ill-equipped and religiously fanatical Taliban, just like a generation earlier it had been hounded out of Vietnam by vastly outgunned and fiercely determined local communist adversaries. Some among America’s security elites, armchair think tanks, and pundits turned their outrage on Biden whose execution of the final withdrawal they faulted for its chaos and for bringing national shame, notwithstanding overwhelming public support for it.

Underlying their discomfiture was the fact that Biden’s logic, a long-standing member of the political establishment, “carried a rebuke of the more expansive aims of the post-9/11 project that had shaped the service, careers, and commentary of so many people,” writes Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration from 2009-2017. He concludes, “In short, Biden’s decision exposed the cavernous gap between the national security establishment and the public, and forced a recognition that there is going to be no victory in a ‘war on terror’ too infused with the trauma and triumphalism of the immediate post-9/11 moment.”

The predictable failure of the American imperial mission in Afghanistan and Iraq left behind wanton destruction of lives and society in the two countries and elsewhere where the “war on terror” was waged. The resistance to America’s imperial aggression, including that by the eventually victorious Taliban, was in part fanned and sustained by the indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations, the dereliction of imperial invaders in understanding and engaging local communities, and the sheer historical reality that imperial invasions and “nation building” projects are relics of a bygone era and cannot succeed in the post-colonial world.

Reflections by the director of Yale’s International Leadership Center capture the costly ignorance of delusional imperial adventures. “Our leaders repeatedly told us that we were heroes, selflessly serving over there to keep Americans safe in their beds over here. They spoke with fervor about freedom, about the exceptional American democratic system and our generosity in building Iraq. But we knew so little about the history of the country. . . . No one mentioned that the locals might not be passive recipients of our benevolence, or that early elections and a quickly drafted constitution might not achieve national consensus but rather exacerbate divisions in Iraq society. The dismantling of the Iraq state led to the country’s descent into civil war.”

The global implications of the “war on terror” were far reaching. In the region itself, Iran and Pakistan were strengthened. Iran achieved a level of influence in Iraq and in several parts of the region that seemed inconceivable at the end of the protracted and devastating 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War that left behind mass destruction for hundreds of thousands of people and the economies of the two countries. For its part, Pakistan’s hand in Afghanistan was strengthened.

In the meantime, new jihadist movements emerged from the wreckage of 9/11 superimposed on long-standing sectarian and ideological conflicts that provoked more havoc in the Middle East, and already unstable adjacent regions in Asia and Africa. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Africa’s geopolitical stock for Euro-America began to rise bolstered by China’s expanding engagements with the continent and the “war on terror”. On the latter, the US became increasingly concerned about the growth of jihadist movements, and the apparent vulnerability of fragile states as potential sanctuaries of global terrorist networks.

As I’ve noted in a series of articles, US foreign policies towards Africa since independence have veered between humanitarian and security imperatives. The humanitarian perspective perceives Africa as a zone of humanitarian disasters in need of constant Western social welfare assistance and interventions. It also focuses on Africa’s apparent need for human rights modelled on idealized Western principles that never prevented Euro-America from perpetrating the barbarities of slavery, colonialism, the two World Wars, other imperial wars, and genocides, including the Holocaust.

Under the security imperative, Africa is a site of proxy cold and hot wars among the great powers. In the days of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union competed for friends and fought foes on the continent. In the “war on terror”, Africa emerged as a zone of Islamic radicalization and terrorism. It was not lost that in 1998, three years before 9/11, US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked. Suddenly, Africa’s strategic importance, which had declined precipitously after the end of the Cold War, rose, and the security paradigm came to complement, compete, and conflict with the humanitarian paradigm as US Africa policy achieved a new strategic coherence.

The cornerstone of the new policy is AFRICOM, which was created out of various regional military programmes and initiatives established in the early 2000s, such as the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn Africa, and the Pan-Sahel Initiative, both established in 2002 to combat terrorism. It began its operations in October 2007. Prior to AFRICOM’s establishment, the military had divided up its oversight of African affairs among the U.S. European Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany; the U.S. Central Command, based in Tampa, Florida; and the U.S. Pacific Command, based in Hawaii.

In the meantime, the “war on terror” provided alibis for African governments, as elsewhere, to violate or vitiate human rights commitments and to tighten asylum laws and policies. At the same time, military transfers to countries with poor human rights records increased. Many an African state rushed to pass broadly, badly or cynically worded anti-terrorism laws and other draconian procedural measures, and to set up special courts or allow special rules of evidence that violated fair trial rights, which they used to limit civil rights and freedoms, and to harass, intimidate, and imprison and crackdown on political opponents. This helped to strengthen or restore a culture of impunity among the security forces in many countries.

Africa’s geopolitical stock for Euro-America began to rise bolstered by China’s expanding engagements with the continent and the “war on terror”.

In addition to the restrictions on political and civil rights among Africa’s autocracies and fledgling democracies, the subordination of human rights concerns to anti-terrorism priorities, the “war on terror” exacerbated pre-existing political tensions between Muslim and Christian populations in several countries and turned them increasingly violent. In the twenty years following its launch, jihadist groups in Africa grew considerably and threatened vast swathes of the continent from Northern Africa to the Sahel to the Horn of Africa to Mozambique.

According to a recent paper by Alexandre Marc, the Global Terrorism Index shows that “deaths linked to terrorist attacks declined by 59% between 2014 and 2019 — to a total of 13,826 — with most of them connected to countries with jihadi insurrections. However, in many places across Africa, deaths have risen dramatically. . . . Violent jihadi groups are thriving in Africa and in some cases expanding across borders. However, no states are at immediate risk of collapse as happened in Afghanistan.”

If much of Africa benefited little from the US-led global war on terrorism, it is generally agreed China reaped strategic benefits from America’s preoccupation in Afghanistan and Iraq that consumed the latter’s diplomatic, financial, and moral capital. China has grown exponentially over the past twenty years and its infrastructure has undergone massive modernization even as that in the US has deteriorated. In 2001, “the Chinese economy represented only 7% of the world GDP, it will reach the end of the year [2021] with a share of almost 18%, and surpassing the USA. It was also during this period that China became the biggest trading partner of more than one hundred countries around the world, advancing on regions that had been ‘abandoned’ by American diplomacy.”

As elsewhere, China adopted the narrative of the “war on terror” to silence local dissidents and “to criminalize Uyghur ethnicity in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’ and ‘de-extremification.” The Chinese Communist Party “now had a convenient frame to trace all violence to an ‘international terrorist organization’ and connect Uyghur religious, cultural and linguistic revivals to ‘separatism.’ Prior to 9/11, Chinese authorities had depicted Xinjiang as prey to only sporadic separatist violence. An official Chinese government White Paper published in January 2002 upended that narrative by alleging that Xinjiang was beset by al-Qaeda-linked terror groups. Their intent, they argued, was the violent transformation of Xinjiang into an independent ‘East Turkistan.’”

The United States went along with that. “Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in September 2002 officially designated ETIM a terrorist entity. The U.S. Treasury Department bolstered that allegation by attributing solely to ETIM the same terror incident data, (“over 200 acts of terrorism, resulting in at least 162 deaths and over 440 injuries”) that the Chinese government’s January 2002 White Paper had attributed to various terrorist groups. That blanket acceptance of the Chinese government’s Xinjiang terrorism narrative was nothing less than a diplomatic quid pro quo, Boucher said. “It was done to help gain China’s support for invading Iraq. . . .

Similarly, America’s “war on terror” gave Russia the space to begin flexing its muscles. Initially, it appeared relations between the US and Russia could be improved by sharing common cause against Islamic extremism. Russia even shared intelligence on Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union had been defeated more than a decade earlier. But the honeymoon, which coincided with Vladimir Putin’s ascension to power, proved short-lived.

It is generally agreed China reaped strategic benefits from America’s preoccupation in Afghanistan and Iraq that consumed the latter’s diplomatic, financial, and moral capital.

According to Angela Stent, American and Russian “expectations from the new partnership were seriously mismatched. An alliance based on one limited goal — to defeat the Taliban — began to fray shortly after they were routed. The Bush administration’s expectations of the partnership were limited.” It believed that in return for Moscow’s assistance in the war on terror, “it had enhanced Russian security by ‘cleaning up its backyard’ and reducing the terrorist threat to the country. The administration was prepared to stay silent about the ongoing war in Chechnya and to work with Russia on the modernization of its economy and energy sector and promote its admission to the World Trade Organization.”

For his part, Putin had more extensive expectations, to have an “equal partnership of unequals,” to secure “U.S. recognition of Russia as a great power with the right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. Putin also sought a U.S. commitment to eschew any further eastern enlargement of NATO. From Putin’s point of view, the U.S. failed to fulfill its part of the post-9/11 bargain.”

Nevertheless, during the twenty years of America’s “forever wars” Russia recovered from the difficult and humiliating post-Soviet decade of domestic and international weakness. It pursued its own ruthless counter-insurgency strategy in the North Caucasus using language from the American playbook despite the differences. It also began to flex its muscles in the “near abroad”, culminating in the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The US “war on terror” and its execution that abnegated international law and embraced a culture of gratuitous torture and extraordinary renditions severely eroded America’s political and moral stature and pretensions. The enduring contradictions and hypocrisies of American foreign policy rekindled its Cold War propensities for unholy alliances with ruthless regimes that eagerly relabelled their opponents terrorists.

While the majority of the 9/11 attackers were from Saudi Arabia, the antediluvian and autocratic Saudi regime continued to be a staunch ally of the United States. Similarly, in Egypt the US assiduously coddled the authoritarian regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that seized power from the short-lived government of President Mohamed Morsi that emerged out of the Arab Spring that electrified the world for a couple of years from December 2010.

For the so-called international community, the US-led “war on terror” undermined international law, the United Nations, and global security and disarmament, galvanized terrorist groups, diverted much-needed resources for development, and promoted human rights abuses by providing governments throughout the world with a new license for torture and abuse of opponents and prisoners. In my book mentioned earlier, I quoted the Council on Foreign Relations, which noted in 2002, that the US was increasingly regarded as “arrogant, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and contemptuous of others.” A report by Human Rights Watch in 2005 singled out the US as a major factor in eroding the global human rights system.

Twenty years after 9/11, the US has little to show for its massive investment of trillions of dollars and the countless lives lost.  Writing in The Atlantic magazine on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Ali Soufan contends, “U.S. influence has been systematically dismantled across much of the Muslim world, a process abetted by America’s own mistakes. Sadly, much of this was foreseen by the very terrorists who carried out those attacks.”

Soufan notes, “The United States today does not have so much as an embassy in Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Syria, or Yemen. It demonstrably has little influence over nominal allies such as Pakistan, which has been aiding the Taliban for decades, and Saudi Arabia, which has prolonged the conflict in Yemen. In Iraq, where almost 5,000 U.S. and allied troops have died since 2003, America must endure the spectacle of political leaders flaunting their membership in Iranian-backed groups, some of which the U.S. considers terrorist organizations.”

A report by Human Rights Watch in 2005 singled out the US as a major factor in eroding the global human rights system.

The day after 9/11, the French newspaper Le Monde declared, “In this tragic moment, when words seem so inadequate to express the shock people feel, the first thing that comes to mind is: We are all Americans!” Now that the folly of the “forever wars” is abundantly clear, can Americans learn to say and believe, “We’re an integral part of the world,” neither immune from the perils and ills of the world, nor endowed with exceptional gifts to solve them by themselves. Rather, to commit to righting the massive wrongs of its own society, its enduring injustices and inequalities, with the humility, graciousness, reflexivity, and self-confidence of a country that practices what it preaches.

Can America ever embrace the hospitality of radical openness to otherness at home and abroad? American history is not encouraging. If the United States wants to be taken seriously as a bastion and beacon of democracy, it must begin by practicing democracy. This would entail establishing a truly inclusive multiracial and multicultural polity, abandoning the antiquated electoral college system through which the president is elected that gives disproportionate power to predominantly white small and rural states, getting rid of gerrymandering that manipulates electoral districts and caters to partisan extremists, and stopping the cancer of voter suppression aimed at disenfranchising Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities.

When I returned to my work as Director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 2002, following the end of my sabbatical, I found the debates of the 1990s about the relevance of area studies had been buried with 9/11. Now, it was understood, as it was when the area studies project began after World War II, that knowledges of specific regional, national and local histories, as well as languages and cultures, were imperative for informed and effective foreign policy, that fancy globalization generalizations and models were not a substitute for deep immersion in area studies knowledges.

If the United States wants to be taken seriously as a bastion and beacon of democracy, it must begin by practicing democracy.

However, area studies were now increasingly subordinated to the security imperatives of the war on terror, reprising the epistemic logic of the Cold War years. Special emphasis was placed on Arabic and Islam. This shift brought its own challenges that area studies programmes and specialists were forced to deal with. Thus, the academy, including the marginalized enclave of area studies, did not escape the suffocating tentacles of 9/11 that cast its shadow on every aspect of American politics, society, economy, and daily life.

Whither the future? A friend of mine in Nairobi, John Githongo, an astute observer of African and global affairs and the founder of the popular and discerning online magazine, The Elephant, wrote me to say, “America’s defeat in Afghanistan may yet prove more consequential than 9/11”. That is indeed a possibility. Only time will tell.

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Negotiated Democracy, Mediated Elections and Political Legitimacy

What has taken place in northern Kenya during the last two general elections is not democracy but merely an electoral process that can be best described as “mediated elections”.

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Negotiated Democracy, Mediated Elections and Political Legitimacy
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The speed with which negotiated democracy has spread in Northern Kenya since 2013 has seen others calling for it to be embraced at the national level as an antidote to the fractious and fraught national politics. Its opponents call the formula a disguised form of dictatorship. However, two events two months apart, the coronation of Abdul Haji in Garissa, and the impeachment of Wajir Governor Mohamed Abdi, reveal both the promise and the peril of uncritically embracing negotiated democracy. Eight years since its adoption, has negotiated democracy delivered goods in northern Kenya?

The coronation

In March 2021, Abdul Haji was (s)elected “unopposed” as the Garissa County Senator, by communal consensus. The seat, which fell vacant following the death of veteran politician Yusuf Haji, attracted 16 candidates in the by-election.

In an ethnically diverse county with competing clan interests and political balancing at play, pulling off such a consensus required solid back-room negotiations. At the party level, the Sultans (clan leaders) and the council of elders prevailed, ending with a single unopposed candidate.

In one fell swoop, campaign finance was made redundant. Polarising debates were done away with; in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, large gatherings became unnecessary. The drama of national party politics was effectively brought to an end.

But even with the above benefits, consensus voting took away the necessary public scrutiny of the candidate—a central consideration in electoral democracies. So, Abdul Haji was sworn in as the Garissa Senator without giving the public a chance to scrutinise his policies, personality, ideologies, and experience.

Pulling off such a feat is an arduous task that harkens back to the old KANU days. At the height of KANU’s power, party mandarins got 14 candidates to stand unopposed in 1988 and 8 in the 1997 elections.

Abdul Haji was (s)elected unopposed, not because there were no other contestants—there were 16 others interested in the same seat—but because of the intervention of the council of elders.

The two major points that are taken into consideration in settling on a candidate in negotiated democracy are their experience and their public standing, a euphemism for whether enough people know them. Abdul Hajj ticked both boxes; he comes from an influential and moneyed family.

An impeachment

Two months later, news of the successful impeachment of Wajir Governor Mohamed Abdi on grounds of “gross misconduct” dominated the political landscape in the north. Mohamed Abdi was a career civil servant. He went from being a teacher, to an education officer, a member of parliament, an assistant minister, a cabinet minister, and an ambassador, before finally becoming governor.

Before his impeachment, Mohamed Abdi had narrowly survived an attempt to nullify his election through a court case on the grounds that he lacked the requisite academic qualifications, and accusations of gross misconduct and poor service delivery. Abdi convinced the court of appeal that not having academic papers did not impede his service delivery, but he was unable to save himself from an ignominious end.

The impeachment ended the messy political life of Mohammed Abdi and revealed disgraceful details—his wife was allegedly the one running the county government and he was just the puppet of her whims.

If they were to be judged by similar rigorous standards, most northern Kenya governors would be impeached. However, most of them are protected by negotiated democracy. Mohamed Abdi’s election followed the negotiated democracy model and was thus part of a complex ethnopolitical calculation.

Abdi’s impeachment was followed by utter silence except from his lawyers and a few sub-clan elders. His censure and the silence that followed vindicates those who complain that negotiated democracy sacrifices merit and conflates power with good leadership.

Negotiated democracy

Consensus voting has been effectively used in the teachers’ union elections in Marsabit County. An alliance of teachers from the Rendille, Gabra and Burji communities (REGABU) have effectively rotated the teacher’s union leadership among themselves since 1998. During the union’s elections held on 17 February 2016, no ballot was cast for the more than 10 positions. It was a curious sight; one teacher proposed, another seconded and a third confirmed. There was no opposition at all.

The same REGABU model was used in the 2013 general elections and proved effective. Ambassador Ukur Yatani, the then Marsabit Governor and current Finance Cabinet Secretary stood before the REGABU teachers and proclaimed that he was the primary beneficiary of the REGABU alliance.

His censure and the silence that followed vindicates those who complain that negotiated democracy sacrifices merit and conflates power with good leadership.

Yatani extolled the virtues of the alliance, terming it the best model of a modern democracy with an unwritten constitution that has stood the test of time. He described the coalition as “an incubator of democracy” and “a laboratory of African democracy”.

Its adoption in the political arena was received with uncritical admiration since it came at a time of democratic reversals globally; negotiated democracy sounded like the antidote. The concept was novel to many; media personalities even asked if it could be applied in other counties or even at the national level.

Ukur’s assessment of REGABU as a laboratory or an incubator was apt. It was experimental at the electoral politics level. The 20-year consistency and effectiveness in Marsabit’s Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) elections could not be reproduced with the same efficiency in the more aggressive electoral politics, especially considering the power and resources that came with those positions. Haji’s unopposed (s)election was thus a rare, near-perfect actualisation of the intention of negotiated democracy.

But lurking behind this was a transactional dynamic tended by elite capture and sanitised by the council of elders. Abdul Haji’s unopposed selection was not an anomaly but an accepted and central condition of this elite capture.

Negotiated democracy has prevailed in the last two general elections in northern Kenya. Its proponents and supporters regard it as a pragmatic association of local interests. At the same time, its strongest critics argue that negotiated democracy is a sanitised system of impunity, with no foundational democratic ethos or ideological framework. 

Negotiated democracy is similar in design to popular democracy or the one-party democracy that characterised the quasi-authoritarian military and one-party regimes of the 70s and 80s.

To call what is happening “democracy” is to elevate it to a higher plane of transactions, to cloak it in an acceptable robe. A better term for what is happening would be “mediated elections”; the elites mediate, and the elders are just a prop in the mediation. There is no term for an electoral process that commingles selection and elections; the elders select, and the masses elect the candidate.

The arguments of those who support negotiated democracy 

There is no doubt about the effective contribution of negotiated democracy in reducing the high stakes that make the contest for parliamentary seats a zero-sum game. Everyone goes home with something, but merit and individual agency are sacrificed.

Speaking about Ali Roba’s defiance of the Garri council of elders Billow Kerrow said,

“He also knows that they plucked him out of nowhere in 2013 and gave him that opportunity against some very serious candidates who had experience, who had a name in the society. . . In fact, one of them could not take it, and he ran against him, and he lost.”

The genesis of negotiated democracy in Mandera harkens back to 2010 where a community charter was drawn to put a stop to the divisions among Garri’s 20 clans so as not to lose electoral posts to other communities.

Since then, negotiated democracy, like a genie out of the bottle, is sweeping across the north.

As one of the most prominent supporters of negotiated democracy, Billow Kerrow mentions how it did away with campaign expenditure, giving the example of a constituency in Mandera where two “families” spent over KSh200 million in electoral campaigns. He also argues that negotiated democracy limits frictions and tensions between and within the clans. That it ensures everyone is brought on board and thus encourages harmony, cohesion, and unity.

Its strongest critics argue that negotiated democracy is a sanitised system of impunity, with no foundational democratic ethos or ideological framework.

It has been said that negotiated democracy makes it easier for communities to engage with political parties. “In 2013, Jubilee negotiated with the council of elders directly as a bloc.  It’s easier for the party, and it’s easier for the clan since their power of negotiation is stronger than when an individual goes to a party.”

Some have also argued that negotiated democracy is important if considered alongside communities’ brief lifetime under a self-governing state.  According to Ahmed Ibrahim Abass, Ijara MP, “Our democracy is not mature enough for one to be elected based on policies and ideologies.” This point is echoed by Wajir South MP Dr Omar Mahmud, “You are expecting me to stand up when I am baby, I need to crawl first. [Since] 53 years of Kenya’s independence is just about a year ago for us, allow the people to reach a level [where they can choose wisely].”

Negotiated democracy assumes that each clan will give their best after reviewing the lists of names submitted to them. Despite the length of negotiations, this is a naïve and wishful assumption.

The critics of negotiated democracy

Perhaps the strongest critic of negotiated democracy is Dr Salah Abdi Sheikh, who says that the model does not allow people to express themselves as individuals but only as a group, and that it has created a situation where there is intimidation of entire groups, including women, who are put in a box and forced to take a predetermined position.

For Salah Abdi Sheikh this is not democracy but clan consensus. “Kenya is a constitutional democracy yet northern Kenya is pretending to be a failed state, pretending that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) does not exist or that there are no political parties”. Abdi Sheikh says that negotiated democracy is the worst form of dictatorship that has created automatons out of voters who go to the voting booth without thinking about the ability of the person they are going to vote for.

Women and youth, who make up 75 per cent of the population, are left out by a system of patronage where a few people with money and coming from big clans impose their interests on the community. This “disenfranchises everybody else; the youth, the minorities and the women.”

Negotiated democracy, it has been observed, does not bring about the expected harmony. This is a crucial point to note as in Marsabit alone, and despite its version of negotiated democracy, almost 250 people have died following clan conflicts over the past five years.

No doubt negotiated democracy can be a stabilising factor when it is tweaked and institutionalised. But as it is, cohesion and harmony, its central raison d’être, were just good intentions. Still, the real intention lurking in the background is the quick, cheap, and easy entry of moneyed interests into political office by removing competition from elections and making the returns on political investment a sure bet.

The pastoralist region

By increasing the currency of subnational politics, especially in northern Kenya, which was only nominally under the central government’s control, devolution has fundamentally altered how politics is conducted. The level of participation in the electoral process in northern Kenya shows a heightened civic interest in Kenya’s politics, a move away from the political disillusionment and apathy that characterised the pre-devolution days.

“Kenya is a constitutional democracy yet northern Kenya is pretending to be a failed state.”

Apart from breaking the region’s old political autonomy imposed by distance from the centre and national policy that marginalized the region, a major political reorganization is happening.

At the Pastoralist Leadership Summit held in Garissa in 2018, the enormity of the political change in post-devolution northern Kenya was on full display. The Frontier Counties Development Council had “15 Governors, 84 MPs, 21 Senators, 15 Deputy Governors, 15 County Assembly Speakers, 500 MCAs” at the summit. Apart from raising the political stakes, these numbers have significant material consequences.

Love or despair?

Those who stepped aside, like Senator Billow Kerrow, claimed that negotiated democracy “enhances that internal equity within our community, which has encouraged the unity of the community, and it is through this unity that we were able to move from one parliamentary seat in 2017 to 8 parliamentary seats in 2013.”

This was an important point to note. Since negotiated democracy only made elections a mere formality, votes could be transferred to constituencies like Mandera North that did not have majority Garre clan votes. Through this transfer of votes, more and more parliamentary seats were captured. By transferring votes from other regions, Garre could keep Degodia in check. Do minorities have any place in this expansionist clan vision? The question has been deliberately left unanswered.

“Many of those not selected by the elders – including five incumbent MPs – duly stood down to allow other clan-mates to replace them, rather than risking splitting the clan vote and allowing the “other side in.”

In 2016, the Garre council of elders shocked all political incumbents by asking them not to seek re-election in the 2017 general elections. With this declaration the council of elders had punched way above their station. It immediately sparked controversy. Another set of elders emerged and dismissed the council of elders. Most of the incumbents ganged up against the council of elders save politicians like Senator Billow Kerrow, who stepped down.

These events made the 2017 general election in Mandera an interesting inflection point for negotiated democracy since it put on trial the two core principles at the heart of negotiated democracy, which are a pledge to abide by the council of elders’ decision and penalties for defying it.

When the council of elders asked all the thirty-plus office bearers in Mandera not to seek re-election. The elders’ intention was to reduce electoral offices to one-term affairs so as to reduce the waiting time for all the clans to occupy the office. But those in office thought otherwise, Ali Roba said.

“The elders have no say now that we as the leaders of Mandera are together.” He went on to demonstrate the elders’ reduced role by winning the 2017 Mandera gubernatorial seat. Others also went all the way to the ballot box in defiance of the elders, with some losing and others successful.

Reduced cultural and political esteem

Like other councils of elders elsewhere across northern Kenya, the Garre council of elders had come down in esteem. The levels of corruption witnessed across the region in the first five years of devolution had tainted them.

It would seem that the legitimacy of the councils of elders and the initial euphoria of the early days has been almost worn out.

The council of elders drew much of their authority from the political class through elaborate tactics; clan elders were summoned to the governors’ residences and given allowances even as certain caveats were whispered in their ears. Some rebranded as contractors who, instead of safeguarding their traditional systems, followed self-seeking ends. With the billions of new county money, nothing is sacred; everything can be and is roped into the transactional dynamics of local politics.

The new political class resurrected age-old customs and edited their operational DNA by bending the traditional processes to the whims of their political objectives.

The council of elders resorted to overbearing means like uttering traditional curses or citing Quranic verses like Al Fatiha to quell the dissatisfaction of those who were forced to withdraw their candidacies. Others even ex-communicated their subjects in a bid to maintain a semblance of control.

In Marsabit, the Burji elders excommunicated at least 100 people saying they had not voted for a candidate of the elders’ choice in 2013, causing severe fissures in Burji unity. Democratic independence in voting was presented as competition against communal interests. Internally factions emerged, externally lines hardened.

Service delivery

Considerations about which clan gets elected are cascaded into considerations about the appointment of County Executive Committee members, Chief Officers and even directors within the departments. It takes very long to sack or replace an incompetent CEC, CO or Director because of a reluctance to ruffle the feathers and interests of clan X or Y. When the clans have no qualified person for the position the post remains vacant, as is the case with the Marsabit Public Service Board Secretary who has been in an acting capacity for almost three years. It took several years to appoint CECs and COs in the Isiolo County Government.

Coupled with this, negotiated democracy merges all the different office bearers into one team held together by their inter-linked, clan-based elections or appointments. The line between county executive and county assembly is indecipherable. The scrutiny needed from the county assembly is no longer possible; Members of Parliament, Senators and Women representatives are all in the same team. They rose to power together and it seems they are committed to going down together. This is partly why the council of elders in Mandera wanted to send home before the 2017 election all those they had selected as nominees and later elected to power in 2013; their failure was collective. In Wajir, the Members of Parliament, Members of the County Assembly, the Senator, the Speaker of the County Assembly and even the Deputy Governor withdrew their support for the Governor only five months to the last general elections, citing service delivery. This last-ditch effort was a political move.

The new political class resurrected age-old customs and edited their operational DNA by bending the traditional processes to the whims of their political objectives.

In most northern Kenya counties that have embraced negotiated democracy, opposition politics is practically non-existent, especially where ethnic alliances failed to secure seats; they disintegrated faster than they were constituted. In Marsabit for example, the REGABU alliance was a formidable political force that could easily counter the excesses of the political class, and whose 20-year dominance over the politics of the teacher’s union could provide a counterbalance to the excesses of the Marsabit Governor. But after failing to secure a second term in office, the REGABU alliance disintegrated leaving a political vacuum in its wake. Groups which come together to achieve common goals easily become disenfranchised when their goals are not reached.

In Mandera, immediately after the council of elders lost to Ali Roba, the opposition disbanded and vanished into thin air, giving the governor free reign in how he conducts his politics.

The past eight years have revealed that the negotiated democracy model is deeply and inherently flawed. Opposition politics that provide the controls needed to curtail the wanton corruption and sleaze in public service seem to have vanished. (See here the EACC statistics for corruption levels in the north.)

Yet, the role played by elders in upholding poor service delivery has not been questioned. The traditional council of elders did not understand the inner workings of the county, and hence their post-election role has been reduced to one of spectators who are used to prop up the legitimacy of the governor. If they put the politicians in office by endorsing them, it was only logical that they also played some scrutinizing role, but this has not been undertaken effectively.

In most northern Kenya counties, which have embraced negotiated democracy, opposition politics is practically non-existent.

In the Borana traditional system, two institutions are involved in the Gada separation of powers; one is a ritual office and the other a political one. “The ritual is led by men who have authority to bless (Ebba). They are distinguished from political leaders who have the power to decide (Mura), to punish, or to curse (Abarsa).” 

In his book Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System, Asmarom Legesse says the Oromo constitution has “fundamental ideas that are not fully developed in Western democratic traditions. They include the period of testing of elected leaders, the methods of distributing power across generations, the alliance of alternate groups, the method of staggering succession that reduces the convergence of destabilising events, and the conversion of hierarchies into balanced oppositions.”

Yet the traditional institution of the Aba Gada seems to have bestowed powers and traditional legitimacy on a politician operating in a political system that does not have any of these controls. The elders have been left without the civic responsibility of keeping the politician in check by demanding transparency and accountability while the endorsement of the Gada has imbued the leader with a traditional and mystical legitimacy.

The impeachment of the Wajir governor was thus an essential political development in northern Kenya.

The perceived reduction of ethnic contest and conflict as a benefit resulting from negotiated democracy seems to override, in some places, the danger of its inefficiency in transparent service delivery.

In Wajir, the arrangement has been so effective that the impeachment of a Degodia governor and his replacement with his deputy, an Ogaden, took place with the full support of all others, including the Degodia. This shows that if well executed and practiced, negotiated democracy can also work. Incompetent leaders can be removed from the ethnic equations with little consequence.

But in Marsabit this level of confidence has not been achieved, as the negotiated democracy pendulum seems to swing between a Gabra-led REGABU alliance and a Borana-led alliance.

The role of women 

Negotiated democracy’s most significant flaw has so far been its architects’ deliberate efforts to leave women out of the decision-making process. In Mandera, women have a committee whose role has so far been to rally support for the council of elders’ decisions even though these decisions cut them out and receive minimal input from the women.

No woman has been elected as governor in northern Kenya. The absence of women is a big flaw that weakens the structural legitimacy of negotiated democracy.

Women’s role in the north has been boldly experimental and progressive. In Wajir for example, women’s groups in the 1990s initiated a major peace process that ended major clan conflicts and brought lasting peace. Professionals, elders, and the local administration later supported the efforts of Wajir Women for Peace until, in the end, the Wajir Peace Group was formed, and their efforts culminated in the Al Fatah Declaration. Many women have been instrumental in fighting for peace and other important societal issues in the north.

In Marsabit, the ideologues and organisers of the four major cultural festivals are women’s groups. Merry-go-rounds, table banking, and other financial access schemes have become essential in giving women a more important economic role in their households. Their organisational abilities are transforming entire neighbourhoods, yet negotiated democracy, the biggest political reorganisation scheme since the onset of devolution, seems to wilfully ignore this formidable demographic.

An outlier 

Ali Roba won the election despite his defiance of the council of elders, but Ali Roba’s defiance created a vast rift in Mandera. As the council of elders desperately tried to unseat the “unfit” Ali Roba, his opponent seemed to emphasise the elders’ blessings as his sole campaign agenda. The council of elders eventually closed ranks and shook hands with Ali Roba.

But there was something more insidious at play, the aligning of the council of elders—with their old and accepted traditional ethos—to the cutthroat machinations of electoral politics means that their own legitimacy has been eroded in significant ways.

Negotiated democracy’s most significant flaw has so far been its architects’ deliberate efforts to leave the women of the north out of the decision-making process.

In northern Kenya, the traditional centres of power and decision-making that thrived in the absence of state power are undergoing a contemporary revival. They occupy a central position as players and brokers in the new local realities. Through these political trade-offs between politicians and elders we see the wholesome delivery of traditional systems to a dirty political altar.

With devolution, the more resourced governors, who now reside at the local level and not in Nairobi, are altering intractably the existing local political culture. They praised and elevated the traditional systems and portrayed themselves as woke cultural agents, then manipulated the elders and exposed them to ridicule.

The governors manipulated the outcome of their deliberations by handpicking elders and thus subverted the democratic ethos that guaranteed the survival of the culture.

A new social class

The new political offices have increased the number of political players and political contestation leading to hardened lines between clans. The Rendille community who are divided into two broad moieties-belel (West and East), only had one member of parliament. Now under devolution they have a senator under the negotiated alliance. The MP comes from the western bloc and the senator from the eastern bloc. Each pulled their bloc—Belel, the two moieties—in opposing directions. Where there were partnerships now political divisions simmer. For example, in 2019 the Herr generational transition ceremony was not held centrally, as is normally the case, because of these new political power changes.

In northern Kenya, the traditional centres of power and decision-making that thrived in the absence of state power are undergoing a contemporary revival.

Devolution has also made positions in the elders’ institutions lucrative in other ways. A senior county official and former community elder from Moyale stood up to share his frustrations with community elders at an event in Marsabit saying, “in the years before devolution, to be an elder was not viewed as a good thing. It was hard even to get village elders and community elders. Now though, everyone wants to be a community elder. We have two or more people fighting for elders’ positions.”

To be an elder is to be in a position where one can issue a political endorsement. To be a member of a council of elders is to be in the place where one can be accorded quasi-monarchical prerogatives and status by the electorate and the elected. The council of elders now comprises retired civil servants, robbing the actual traditional elders of their legitimacy.

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