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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guliano Martiniello is an Assistant Professor in Rural Community Development, American University of Beirut. Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds, and Senior Research Associate, Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg. Elisa Greco is an Associate Professor in International Political Economy and Development at European School of Political and Social Sciences, Lille Catholic University, and a Visiting Fellow at the Sustainability Research Institute, University of Leeds. The three authors are co-editors of the book Uganda: The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation (Zed 2018).

Long Reads

Unrecognized Vote: Somaliland’s Democratic Journey

If Somaliland’s democratic transition is to last, there must be strict regulation of the behaviour of political parties and the National Election Commission must be re-evaluated.

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Unrecognized Vote: Somaliland’s Democratic Journey
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Somaliland reinstated its independence in 1991 following the collapse of the military regime that had ruled Somalia for two decades. The Somali National Movement which took over the northern regions facilitated a broad-based conference in Burco attended by traditional leaders of all six regions of Somaliland who unanimously agreed to the dissolution of the union with Somalia and proclaimed independence on 18 May 1991.

The conference also established Somaliland’s first government, based on the SNM’s organisational structure, with its Chairman, Abdirahman Ahmed Ali, becoming Somaliland’s first executive president and the SNM Central Committee functioning as the country’s first parliament. It had a two-year mandate, and was tasked with accommodating non-Isaaq clans into the government, developing a constitution and preparing Somaliland for elections.

The new country continued to suffer violence and weak institutions, with elders stepping in to prevent degeneration into protracted civil war. In 1992, the first of two major clan conferences, held in Sheekh, created the national Guurti, or council of elders, bringing together elders from all the clans responsible for controlling clan militia and preventing conflict, as well as defending the country.

The 1993 Borama Conference 

The second major clan conference assembled in Borama, a city in the West of Somaliland, for nearly five months in 1993. It eventually produced a National Charter which established government structures and the separation of powers for a transitional two-year period, pending the adoption of a new constitution. The charter included the creation of a bicameral parliament, with the Guurti formally institutionalised as the upper house, and the lower house made up of elected representatives. A clan-based electoral college elected Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal president for two years as well as members of the guurti and the lower house.

The political system established in 1993 became known as Shirbeelad, meaning “clan” or “community,” integrating indigenous forms of institutional arrangements with modern institutions of government. It was only meant to be in place for three years but lasted a decade.

Following the transition of power from the SNM leader Abdirahman to Egal, the new administration now had two years to prepare an interim constitution for approval by parliament and the upper house. The process proved to be time-consuming, necessitating extensions of the charter’s deadline.

Ultimately, two drafts were produced. In 1994, the government hired a Sudanese lawyer to write the constitution while the House of Representatives appointed an ad-hoc committee advised by lawyers, traditional leaders, religious figures and politicians which, suspecting the government’s draft would give excessive power to the executive branch, drafted an alternate version. Following deliberations to reconcile the two documents, a unified draft was adopted as the interim constitution in 1996, with a three-year implementation period leading up to a referendum. A final, revised constitution was approved by both houses on 30 April 2000 and overwhelmingly endorsed by 97 per cent of voters in a public referendum held on 31 May 2001.

The local government and parliamentary electoral system

The constitutional referendum paved the way for popular elections. The first set of municipal and national elections held between 2002 and 2005 were conducted by a novice electoral commission with almost no international technical and financial support and without many of the accoutrements of modern elections such as censuses, comprehensive voter registers and voter education. Though not without problems, disagreements and accusations of malpractice, the elections were considered largely credible, free and fair, and their outcomes were widely accepted.

The constitution defined a new political system for Somaliland — a democratic, multi-party system, in which the head of state and members of parliament and district councils would be elected directly by the public by secret ballot, instead of through electoral colleges of elders.

Within two years, a body of laws was passed to facilitate formation of political parties, define citizenship, delineate the structure of local government, and lay down electoral procedures. The laws provided for a seven-member Registration Committee which administered the registration process for political parties as well as the process of qualifying three to become national parties as stipulated by the constitution. The constitutional limitation to the number of national parties was meant to prevent the political system from fracturing along clan or regional lines.

The first local government elections were held In December 2002. Voter registration was only carried out in urban areas, with around 330,000 people being registered. However, on polling day people were allowed to vote irrespective of whether they had a registration card or not (and were then marked with indelible ink).

Six registered political formations qualified to compete in the polls, with the top three in terms of number of seats won recognised as national parties which could field candidates in national elections, including for the position of president. The successful parties were Egal’s UDUB, Kulmiye and UCID. European Union observers declared the elections — during which 440,000 votes were cast — to be “of as high a quality as is realistic within the prevailing environment”.

The presidential polls

In 2003, with the presidential elections fast approaching, President Dahir Riyale Kahin, who had succeeded Egal after the latter’s death in May 2002, met with the three national parties and agreed on the composition of the seven-member National Election Commission. The president and the Guurti would each nominate two commissioners while the political parties would pick one each.

The elections were held on 14 April 2003, pitting President Riyale of UDUB, Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo of Kulmiye and Feisal Ali Hussein of UCID. The result was a wafer-thin victory for the incumbent, who won by just 80 votes out of the 500,000 cast. The Kulmiye Party immediately asked for a recount at some of the polling stations but this did not change the original tally. The result was eventually challenged in the Supreme Court which endorsed Kahin’s victory. Silanyo conceded and Kahin was sworn in on 16 May.

Many who were uncertain and wary of a disputed election and its consequences, expressed gratitude to the Kulmiye leader, Silanyo, for his incredible decision. A seasoned politician, Silanyo had weighed the situation and seen the turmoil that lay ahead. He sacrificed his own political and party ambitions in order to save the fragile democracy. Given that he had served the longest in the SNM leadership and was from the dominant Isaaq clan, Silanyo’s concession removed the latent suspicion that the powerful Isaak would establish hegemony over the other clans.

2005 legislative elections

On 29 September 2005, Somaliland held its first, and so far only, multiparty contest for the 82 parliamentary seats. The 82 members of the house were elected on the basis of proportional representation. UDUB won with 33 seats, Kulmiye garnered 28 and UCID captured 21.

Smarting from their 2003 presidential loss. Kulmiye and UCID blocked or rejected any motion from the executive branch. It was the beginning of political tensions in Somaliland, which crippled the cohesive nature of Somaliland democracy. The parliament elected in 2005 is still glued to their seats because the opposition political majority in the house has continued to filibuster and shoot down any progressive motion pertaining to elections.

He sacrificed his own political and party ambitions in order to save the fragile democracy.

It was only after the 2005 elections that political stakeholders agreed to establish the first voter registry. A law was enacted in 2007 to govern the process and, following some amendments, voter registration proceeded in 2008. It was, however, briefly suspended following suicide bombings in Hargeisa on 29 October 2008, and was also marred by widespread fraud and mismanagement. Nearly 1.3 million names were collected throughout the country, each of which was meant to be validated through a biometric fingerprint system. According to Michael Walls —  Co-Coordinator of the international election observation mission for the Somaliland presidential election in 2009 and lecturer at University College London — registration centres permitted more than half of those registering to do so without taking a readable fingerprint and “large numbers were permitted to hold photos in front of the camera rather than presenting themselves for the purpose”.

The 26 June 2010 presidential election 

With the term of President Kahin expiring in May 2008, the voter registration exercise was meant to facilitate municipal and presidential elections. However, the polls were repeatedly delayed because of infighting within the higher political circles, specifically between the parliament, opposition leaders and the president, necessitating two extensions of his term. As provided for in the constitution, the Guurti approved the president’s request for an extension of his term and that of parliament to March 2009 due to the instability in the eastern regions. The second extension occurred at the request of the NEC which needed another year to prepare for the polls due to the prevailing political situation, economic problems and technical issues.

The elections were finally held two years late — on 26 June 201 — and were again contested by Kulmiye, UDUB and UCID. Nearly 540,000 voters cast their ballots across the country on election day, electing Kulmiye leader Silanyo, with 50 per cent the vote. It was now Kahin’s turn to gracefully concede and Silanyo was sworn in on July 26 in a ceremony attended by delegations from across East Africa, including officials from Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia.

Local government elections in 2012

On 28 November 2012, Somaliland held its second round of local council elections, the results of which, like the first a decade earlier, would  determine the three national political parties that could contest national elections for the next decade. Though largely free and relatively peaceful, the elections were marred by multiple voting exacerbated by the lack of a voter register – the previous one having been nullified by parliament after it defied attempts to clean up the voter roll — and the ease with which supposedly indelible ink was removed.

With two of the three national parties in trouble — many of UCID’s supporters and MPs had transferred their allegiance to Wadani, a new political organisation, while UDUB, the party of the two previous presidents, was widely thought to be dissolving — there was space for new political formations. Five new formations contested the 2012 elections alongside Kulmiye and UCID. Despite some dispute and violence in the immediate aftermath, the results were accepted and Kulmiye, UCID and Wadani emerged as the national political parties.

Presidential elections 2017

On 13 November 2017, Somaliland conducted its third presidential election, its sixth popular national voting exercise in 15 years. The election — which had originally been scheduled for June 2015 but was delayed, initially at the request of the NEC and then due to the drought ravaging the country in January 2017 — saw three candidates competing to replace the incumbent Silanyo, who had decided to step down: Wadani’s Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi Irro, UCID’s Faisal Ali Warabe, and Kulmiye’s Muse Bihi Abdi. The polls, which were preceded by the rollout of a new biometric voter registration system, experienced considerable delay caused by technical and political challenges, and drought. Compared to over a million in 2010, 873,000 voters were registered, although only just over 700,000 actually collected the voter cards that would allow them to vote.

Once again, peaceful voting was followed by delays in the tabulation and collation of results, and allegations of malpractice. Violence led to some fatalities and the results were disputed, especially by Wadani which demanded a recount but eventually relented. On 21 November, Abdi was declared the winner with 55 per cent of the vote and became the country’s fifth president, cementing a tradition of peaceful handovers of power that is relatively rare in the region.

On November 7th 2020, as the country prepared for the long-delayed parliamentary and municipal elections that are now to be held at the end of May 2021, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) released the timetable for the voter registration exercise that was scheduled to start on November 29th 2020 and end on January 13th 2021. The voter registration exercise targeted those who had missed the 2016 voter registration exercise as well as those who had attained the voting age. The exercise would also be used to clean up the 2016 register. The NEC also gave voters who needed to change voting locations the opportunity to do so and to also replace lost voter cards.

Successes and challenges in the democratisation process

The Somaliland constitution contains fundamental principles strengthening citizens’ rights and freedoms, and emphasises the transition from clan-based politics to a multi-party democracy. However, political parties have not transformed themselves in terms of structure, vision and strategy. Rather than becoming vehicles for transmitting the noble constitutional principles of a multi-party system, in practice they derailed it and became clan-oriented in order to secure more votes. For example, they deferred to clan leaders in the selection of candidates, favouring those from the larger, vote-rich clans, ignoring the smaller ones, and generating conflicts and divisions between them.

The heteromorphic nature of Somali politics and democracy 

Somali society is considered ethnically homogenous, monolingual and singularly Islamic. However, it is characterised by an entrenched paternal clan system. These clans are communities of relationships that share common ancestral origins and are interrelated. Clan relations extend over clan territories marked by fluid borders. Upon birth, a Somali is given one name — their first name. The second name is their father’s, the third their paternal grandfather’s and so on and so forth until you arrive at the sub-clan name. Knowing one’s genealogy several generations back is of paramount importance in Somali culture; it is a primary identifier for the individual and the clan. This genealogical identity has been used successfully in Somaliland to curb crime, insecurity and terrorism. It is the most successful approach to community policing.

The clan therefore is at the core of politics in Somali culture. Clan groups became the basis of the political parties for the parliamentarian election in 1964, which meant that from the outset Somalia political parties had a strong clan consciousness. The political system adopted in the 1960s was a clan-based parliamentary democratic system that inevitably led to the politicisation of the clan and the death of ideological politics and democracy.

Clanism, nepotism and patronage

This is the omnipresent danger to all Somali political and democratic initiatives. In such a clan-based political system, the government must have robust and powerful institutions. The governance culture must also emphasise meritocracy over clanism, nepotism and patronage. Governance must be inclusive economically, socially and in terms of development and must be seen to be meritocratic in the filling of public office. The tenets of democracy are optimistic; they envisage a rational human society. But humans are often irrational and their decisions, beliefs and bias is born out of their own selfish interests and desires.

Democracy calls for one man, one vote, and victory to the majority. This is ideal in a democracy that practices ideological politics. But where ideology is replaced by clanism, the majority will always be the most populous clan or the most populous clan alliance. This denies a country visionary leadership because political contests are not based on ideologies, development agenda or unity.

Further, elections in Somaliland have been characterised by unnecessary postponements when politicians are uncomfortable either with the electoral laws or with the appointment of NEC members. For example, the 2008 presidential elections were postponed for two years due to the opposition severely pressuring the incumbent president on controversial issues related to the choice of NEC members.

The political system adopted in the 1960s was a clan-based parliamentary democratic system that inevitably led to the politicisation of the clan and the death of ideological politics.

More recently, between 2017 and 2019, opposition parties UCID and Wadani were at loggerheads with the president over the nomination of the National Electoral Commission. The opposition was challenging the president’s prerogative to increase the number of the NEC commissioners from seven to nine. That dispute led to the postponement of the elections to 2021.

The political parties have truly shackled many opportunities to develop true democracy in Somaliland. The parliamentarians elected in 2005 are still in office 16 years later due to the cycle of postponements driven by political parties. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however, as new political parties are rising unburdened by the tedious process of using local government elections to select the parties to compete in national elections. The four-year delay in holding the local government elections now means they will be held on the same day as the parliamentary polls.

Due to this, on April 4th 2021 the Somaliland parliament drew up new criteria for identifying national political parties which will now be selected through a separate electoral process in all the six regions. The political organisations that obtain the highest cumulative votes from all six regions will qualify for the three spots, allowing them to run for national elections in future. This elective process for new political parties will most likely be carried out before the expiration of the 10-year period for the current three political parties in November 2022.

Significance of the May 2021 elections 

With 1.3 million registered voters (approximately 30 per cent of the population of Somaliland) expected to cast their votes — with 246 candidates gunning for 82 parliamentary seats and 966 vying for 249 district municipality seats in the six regions — these elections will be the most competitive yet. The outgoing parliamentarians were elected in 2005 and sat for 16 years, a decade longer than their mandated term limit. Similarly, the outgoing local government council was elected in 2012. The citizens of Somaliland are determined to bulldoze these unethical politicians. As stated earlier, the dysfunctional political parties are responsible for the postponements, while incumbent presidents have often played the game to gain more time on the throne.

The government will provide at least 80 per cent of the NEC’s budget, with international partners covering the rest. According to the NEC, it will be using biometric voter registration and a sophisticated voting system which university students have trained operate at the polling stations to ensure smooth operations with minimum technical errors and disruptions.

May 31 is of historic significance for Somaliland as it marks the 30th anniversary of Somaliland’s independence and the 20th anniversary of Somaliland’s multiparty democracy. It was on May 31st 2001 that Somaliland voters approved the constitution through a referendum. Somaliland youth born after 1991 have never had a chance to elect their parliamentary representatives.

Which way forward?

If Somaliland’s democratic transition is to last there must be strict regulation of the behaviour of political parties. Moreover, the structure, composition, competence and size of the National Election Commission must be re-evaluated and the best way to do this is to make its membership independent of political parties. The inclusion of political interests in an institution that is supposed to be a neutral adjudicator only destabilises and weakens the NEC with serious repercussions as the constant bickering brought on by political entities diminishes the trust that the electorate has in the organ. Elections are an emotive exercise in Somaliland especially since political compromise and consensus in Somaliland politics is almost absent. Further, the habitual postponing of the elections by the NEC, allowing elected officials to continue to hold seats beyond the end of their terms without the mandate of the electorate is a direct result of the inclusion of political stakeholders within the NEC.

May 31 is of historic significance for Somaliland as it marks the 30th anniversary of Somaliland’s independence and the 20th anniversary of Somaliland’s multiparty democracy.

The elders’ house is aged and incompetent; many of the key members have either died or are crippled. The Guurti is a powerful legal institution but it has not been re-elected since 1993; dead elders are replaced by their next-of-kin regardless of merit. The president must urgently form an ad-hoc commission to study the criteria required to elect the members of the upper house and laws to eradicate the postponement of elections and the extension of political mandates must be put in place.

And finally, mechanisms to engage citizens’ aspirations, to build trust and confidence in the democratisation process, seminars, lectures, debates and discussions may play a vital role, while the involvement of external experts/institutions will be necessary in providing training in democratisation, specifically for the upcoming parliament and the emerging political parties.

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Long Reads

Rites And Wrongs: Are we Going the Right Way About Ending FGM?

While COVID-related school closures in Kenya have led to a surge in the number of teenage girls undergoing FGM/C, it is also an opportune time to ask whether Alternative Rites of Passage work.

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Rites And Wrongs: Are we Going the Right Way About Ending FGM?
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There are reports from some parts of Kenya that 30 per cent of high school girls have been missing from class. This may be the result of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), marriage, pregnancy, the cost of school fees, or a combination of these factors. The Orchid Project reports similar findings, although its survey was published last September and the situation may well have worsened since then:

“The impact of COVID is huge,” says Charles Leshore, who formerly worked for a leading Kenyan health NGO that campaigns against FGM/C. He is also a board member at a school in Kajiado, and has seen the negative impacts there and across the county. “COVID and school closures have significantly erased a lot of good work [around FGM/C] and more girls have succumbed to teenage pregnancy, FGM/C, depression and mental health issues.”

The issue goes well beyond Kenya. Judy Gitau, Regional Coordinator for Africa for the NGO Equality Now (whose Africa office is in Nairobi) warns: “Schools are generally safe spaces for girls and those not in school are more vulnerable to human rights violations, including sexual and labor exploitation, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, early pregnancy, and early and forced marriage. Schools provide a channel via which violation or threats can be reported and action taken. This pandemic has shut down this key source of safeguarding . . . .”

With a couple of exceptions, this article will not name any other NGOs from this point on to avoid seeming to show favour or disfavour.

Our starting point is that this is an opportune moment to pause and ask whether anti-FGM/C strategies have been working. This will be our main focus, with particular reference to Alternative Rites of Passage (ARP, explained below). One of the authors (Hughes) has researched this subject academically, while Newell-Jones has empirical knowledge of it as a development practitioner.  We shall also refer to FGM/C as “the cut”, which is the colloquial expression, at least in East Africa. Efforts to end the practice take many forms, of which ARP is only one.

FGM/C in Kenya: laws and incidence

FGM/C has been outlawed in Kenya since 2001, first under the Children Act 2001 and later under the Prohibition of FGM Act 2011. It was further proscribed (by implication, not by name) in the Constitution of Kenya 2010 (CoK), which banned harmful cultural practices without specifying what these are. Although the CoK upholds rights to culture, it also says that these cannot include harmful cultural practices. Under the 2011 Act, an Anti-FGM Board of Kenya was established, with a remit to spearhead anti-FGM/C efforts nationwide. Despite this legislation, and the efforts of the Board, the practice continues. According to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014, 21 per cent of all Kenyan women aged 15 to 49 years have been circumcised. This compares to 38 per cent in 1999; the rate is steadily falling. The incidence is, however, much higher in certain communities, e.g. 94 per cent among the Somali and 78 per cent among the Maasai. Worryingly for campaigners, FGM/C is increasingly becoming medicalised, meaning it is being performed in secret by medical practitioners in a child’s home or in government health facilities. Medicalisation was highlighted in the court case brought by medical doctor Tatu Kamau, which she recently lost. In 2018, UNFPA reported that 20 per cent of FGM/C in Kenya was performed by medical professionals, compared to 77 per cent in Sudan and 12 per cent in Nigeria.

What are Alternative Rites of Passage?

This relatively new approach to tackling FGM/C was developed by NGOs and some communities. It has become increasingly popular in Kenya and Tanzania, and with international donors that fund anti-FGM/C work. At least ten NGOs in Kenya run ARP programmes, or have done so in the past. ARP is only believed to be effective in communities where FGM/C traditionally involved initiation into womanhood, not those in which pre-pubescent girls, even babies, undergo it. This is because NGOs seek to use ARP to replicate girls’ initiation, but without the cut.  As Christine Alfons, Founder of SAFE Engage Foundation, explained to us: “ARP is more effective in communities where the cut is done towards the marriage time. In Kuria, girls are cut way back before they are ready for marriage, so we don’t need ARP, it adds nothing and takes many resources.”

ARP is known colloquially as a “ritual without cutting” or “circumcision by words”. There is no standard model, but it usually consists of two parts: a training session or sessions, for girls and sometimes boys, followed by a public graduation ceremony where the participants declare that they have renounced FGM/C. The participants include not only girls and boys but also their parents (though not all parents attend, or even oppose FGM/C), elders, other members of the community, and VIPs who can include police chiefs, teachers, faith leaders, representatives of the county council and the Anti-FGM Board. ARP usually takes place during the school holidays, to coincide with the “cutting season”. Most cutting is carried out in the long school holidays in November-December, April, or July-August with local variations.

ARP was first developed in Kenya by Maendeleo ya Wanawake in collaboration with PATH (Programme for Alternative Technology in Health), in the Tharaka area of Meru in 1996. The few studies on ARP that exist all cite this pioneering work, but without being able to access the original data, and in the absence of follow-up studies, it is difficult to draw conclusive lessons from it. ARP remains highly under-researched, both by scholars and development practitioners, and research access is difficult to negotiate. The Anti-FGM Board acknowledges that more research is needed.

ARP training sessions

The training or educational element of an ARP is arguably much more important than the final ceremony, though media coverage, NGO reports and the Anti-FGM Board pay far less attention to this. For PR purposes, it’s not sexy or eye-catching and nor is it deemed newsworthy.

The training sessions, when combined with longer-term community sensitisation and other measures that form an integrated multi-pronged approach, are vital if attitudes and behaviour are to change. Evidence that they actually achieve those aims, however, is hard to find, largely because no long-term evaluations have been carried out on the educational element. We only know of two NGOs that hold quizzes some months later to test how much children remember about the anti-FGM/C messages. It is difficult to access the training, and requests to see curricula and teaching materials are often declined. The following observations are mostly based on Hughes’s experience of sitting in on training sessions run by two major NGOs that did allow access, where she took verbatim notes with the aid of local translators.

The training sessions usually take up to a week, sometimes two, and often take place in girls’ boarding schools where the girls stay for the duration of the ARP. (If boys are included, they usually stay in boys’ boarding schools nearby.) The curriculum can include: traditional culture (good and bad), harmful practices, the law and FGM/C, health and hygiene, food and nutrition, sexuality and reproductive health (including sexually transmitted diseases), drug abuse, human rights, violence against girls and women, self-esteem, the bible/Christian faith (if the community concerned is Christian), and “good morals”.

ARP graduation ceremonies

These are days of high excitement, celebration and expectation. For the children, it’s a chance to dress up, perform songs and dances, and laugh with their friends. It often starts with a parade to the venue, the girls and boys (if they are involved) striding along carrying NGO-branded banners, singing songs about stopping the cut. Journalists and camera crews are out in force, scrambling for visuals and soundbites. Some parents (not all attend) sit separately, looking slightly baffled as the ceremony unfolds. In some ARP ceremonies, parents publicly declare they will not cut their daughters. Hours of speeches from NGO staff, pastors, elders, health workers, teachers, law enforcers and VIPs have tested most onlookers’ patience by mid-afternoon. The graduates are presented with certificates towards the end of the day: the girls’ certificates confirm their personal commitment to remain “cut free”, the boys’ certificates confirm their commitment to keeping their sisters and future daughters “cut free”. Musical performances by the children, and cultural artistes, are highly entertaining and the poems and songs written and performed by children can be very moving.

What are the challenges and weaknesses of ARP? 

Besides those already mentioned, these include:

On the training: There is, from observation, wide disparity in the quality of the teaching, with some trainers (rarely professional teachers, not that this would necessarily be appropriate) clearly unprepared and ill-equipped to teach. Many trainers are outsiders, rather than members of the community concerned, though some NGOs do take care to include “grassroots” people. The mode of delivery can resemble brainwashing, while some of the content jars with the avowed aim of empowering girls to make their own choices about their bodies and future lives. For example, the trainers repeatedly tell girls to “be obedient”, especially to men, parents and elders, yet these are often the very people who want to see the practice continue, and who force girls to undergo FGM/C and child marriage.

The emphasis on obedience, this time to God, is repeated in the lessons about faith, and features throughout the programmes run by faith-based NGOs. (We refer only to Christian NGOs here, and have not studied the approach taken by Muslim ones; there is less uptake of ARP in Muslim communities.) It is drummed into the children that FGM/C is a sinful act, it displeases God, is “the devil’s work”, and so on. Some Christian NGO staff defend this approach on the grounds that faith is a key vehicle for messaging, and that it’s important to point out, to a predominantly Christian audience, that the bible does not condone or even mention FGM/C (though it does endorse male circumcision). Some scholars also see the use of religious discourse as helpful in certain situations, noting how “many participants drew inspiration from the Bible in a way that enabled them to cope and deal with adversity”.

But how can biblical arguments convince non-believers? Furthermore, they encourage people to stop practising FGM/C for biblical rather than, say, health and human rights reasons. Fear of divine retribution for “sinfulness” hardly suggests a sincere change of heart. As a 45-year- old Maasai Pentecostal pastor’s wife who took part in a focus group discussion (mediated by Hughes in a Kajiado village in March 2015) said: “As a Christian I have to obey what the law says. As a good Christian, unless something is against the word of God I will do it. But if it’s clear in the Bible that it’s wrong, I can’t continue [to support FGM/C].” Earlier in the discussion, this woman had said she used to “love” FGM/C before she was “born again”.

Good work to tackle FGM/C is undoubtedly being done by some faith-based NGOs and individual churches but it tends to be undermined by what may be called “fire and brimstone” religiosity. This was very evident at some training sessions we observed. The emphasis was on fearing God, confessing sin, and families being excluded from church if they cut their daughters. Evangelical pastors also lead entire sessions that resemble religious services at some ARP ceremonies. However, both Christianity and Islam believe in the perfection of God’s creation of man and woman, which can lead to powerful anti-FGM/C messages. As one clergyman trainer put it: “What God created in human beings was complete, nothing to be added or subtracted . . . God made us perfectly. So those people who come and cut those parts are doing a wrong thing.”

NGOs say that the lessons on culture and tradition are meant to mimic the instruction that girls traditionally had before or after they were cut. But back in the day, girls were taught by older women to be good wives and mothers, to obey their husbands at all times (even if they beat them), to be sexually submissive, and so on. How does this type of message equip today’s girls to become empowered women, and to challenge gender stereotyping? Clearly, it does not. Hence there is a fundamental contradiction here, for example between lessons on traditional culture and those on children’s and human rights. Girls taking part in ARP told us that they were confused by contradictory messaging.

Good work to tackle FGM/C is undoubtedly being done by some faith-based NGOs and individual churches but it tends to be undermined by what may be called “fire and brimstone” religiosity.

Some scholars have previously noted that telling youngsters that education will bring wealth and high social status is not realistic. We concur. Many of the children we saw in these classes clearly come from very poor families and are highly unlikely to make it past primary school, never mind enter college. Yet a repeated refrain by several trainers was along the lines of, ”if you get educated, you can become a pilot, lawyer or doctor, become an important person like me, travel the world, the sky’s the limit!” This isn’t helpful, and may raise false expectations that will soon be dashed, or leave some girls thinking that the ARP training doesn’t apply to them.

Curiously, the Board’s Guideline for Conducting an Alternative Rite of Passage pays little attention to the education component of ARP, but focuses largely on the final ceremony. It gives no detail of what a recommended curriculum might look like, but simply says the training should centre on sexual reproductive health and rights, and subsumes under this “life skills, awareness of sexual and gender-based violence, children’s rights and essential hygiene”. It adds, “Boys and girls are also taken through traditional values, customs and beliefs that positively impact their response to ARP.” This begs the question: but what if the community’s “cultural stakeholders” (who tend to be older men) favour an entirely different set of values and customs that contradict those of ARP? Moreover, a top-down directive from a national body aligned to government is the very opposite of community ownership, and does not augur well for community buy-in – especially in historically marginalised communities such as the Maasai and Samburu, where fear of and antagonism towards government is entrenched.

Views are divided on the use by some NGOs of shockingly graphic videos showing children, even babies, being cut. We believe these are abusive in themselves, and doubly abuse the children shown undergoing the cut. Community members in Kuria in 2015 declared after watching a video of a girl undergoing a very severe type of cut, “but we do not cut like that, our girls are back playing within two days”. Instead of convincing them to abandon FGM/C, the video seemed to reinforce their belief that the way they themselves perform the cut is not harmful. Some NGO staff defend the use of such videos in order to show the grim reality to children who may otherwise disbelieve it. Says Charles Leshore: “The videos bring reality and deep reflections on what FGM/C is, and its negative impact.”

What parts of the training seem to work best? The use of culturally-specific African proverbs went down well. So did the use of humour. So did lessons in West Pokot given by someone calling herself “Mrs Culture”, who spoke passionately about the blight of FGM/C on her own life; the girls loved her honesty and warmth. Lessons on children’s rights were informative about the constitution and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but were contradicted by repetition of the exhortation to “obey your parents”. Interactive sessions on FGM/C facts and myths were also well received.

On the graduation ceremony: Many NGOs claim, amidst media fanfare, to have “saved” large numbers of girls from FGM/C, simply because they went through an ARP. The Anti-FGM Board itself claims, among its list of key achievements in 2011-14, to have “graduated 10,000 girls through ARP”, which implies that they were “saved”. But NGOs admit that some participating girls have already been cut, and that some girls also attend ARPs several times in succession. Why? Because they are fun events, where girls who may not have much freedom at home get the chance to hang out with their friends, dress up, sing and dance, and eat better food than they get at home. Some ARPs in Kuria have been dubbed “fattening camps” for that reason.

A top-down directive from a national body aligned to government is the very opposite of community ownership and does not augur well for community buy-in.

There are very odd elements in some ARP ceremonies, such as the cutting of a huge iced cake at one in Maasai country, and the presence of some Miss Tourisms in high heels and mini-skirts who were presented as role models for uncut girls. (With great respect to the people concerned, who were obviously sincere, what have scantily-clad beauty queens – which is what Miss Tourisms essentially are – got to do with ending FGM/C and offering realistic role models? Given the widely-held myth that uncut girls are more promiscuous than cut girls, beauty queens in minis and heavy make-up seem to be entirely inappropriate role models.) The day often ends with a free meal, but it was notable, at several ARP ceremonies, that VIPs et al. were served superior refreshments to everyone else in a separate venue.

What relationship does all this have to traditional initiation rites? Very little. The ceremonies include “pick-and-mix notions of pastness, culture, social transformation and tradition . . . incorporated into a hybridised ritual”. Some scholars have questioned whether these rites are not in fact better understood as alternatives to rites of passage, or rites of delayed passage, for “girls who underwent the alternative rites of passage did not feel themselves to be women, nor were they considered women by others”. Some may argue that all this is fine, that the means justify the ends. It would be fine if there was any evidence that they did, if these high-cost events were sustainable, and if there was proof that the whole community fully embraced and endorsed them. Thus far, robust evidence is lacking, and sadly, reports that some girls are still cut even after attending an ARP are common.

On ARP overall: ARP can be highly divisive. The selection processes for girls frequently lack transparency and fail to reach out-of-school girls who are most at risk, and most likely to benefit from engagement. Reports are common of priority being given to the daughters of community leaders. Moreover, the girls are often from one or two schools rather than from across the whole community. From an NGO’s point of view, it is far easier logistically to work with a few schools, and with families whose girls are in school, and who (in some cases) have already decided not to cut their daughters.

In its introduction to the 2018 Guideline, the Board recognises that “such alternative rites were neither accepted by the communities where they were conducted nor held for uncut girls only”. The intention of the Guideline is to ensure “community involvement in the planning and execution of alternative rites of passage, reduce undue costs, give more meaning to the alternative rituals and hold the communities together in the eradication of female genital mutilation”. These intentions highlight some of the significant shortcomings of ARP. Apart from those already mentioned, they also include the fact that ARP tends to be delivered to communities, rather than developed and implemented by them. The external funding often far exceeds what communities could raise themselves, once external funding ends. Such a model is therefore unsustainable. Furthermore, the alternative rituals – though they include traditional elements such as elders’ blessings – are usually newly created and unfamiliar to younger generations and community elders alike.

There are contradictions within the Guideline. In the Foreword, Board chair Agnes Pareiyo states that the aim of ARP is to maintain all traditional culture with the exception of the cut. However, culture is not static (as the March 2021 ruling in the Tatu Kamau legal case made clear), but is an evolving tapestry of beliefs and attitudes linking different aspects of community life. FGM/C is one aspect of culture, which is closely linked to the status, identity, role and life opportunities of girls and women. Abandoning FGM/C needs to be more than just replacing the act of cutting with another ritual. The community awareness and empowerment programme which precedes the ARP ceremony needs to reflect the aspirations of the community, with a strong emphasis on the role and life opportunities of girls and women.

Secondly, there is a contradiction between the attempt on the one hand to harmonise and standardise ARPs by suggesting a set of criteria to be met and steps to follow, while on the other hand encouraging communities to develop and own the process. The Guideline lists things which communities should lead on, but all within a prescriptive framework. This drive for consistency contradicts the guiding principle of being community-led, and is likely to increase the feeling that ARP is externally driven, rather than community owned.

They are fun events, where girls who may not have much freedom at home get the chance to hang out with their friends, dress up, sing and dance, and eat better food than they get at home.

The Guideline recognises ARP as “not a standalone approach but a product of community dialogue and school engagements”. This statement in itself highlights one of the key challenges, namely that the ARP ceremony is seen as the vehicle of change, that somehow the ceremony itself changes beliefs, attitudes and opinions in relation to FGM/C.  In section 3.9 the Guideline talks about “a productive ARP that delivers the desired change not only to the girls but also to the community”. There is no evidence that the ARP ceremony itself actually brings about change. At best, the ceremony is a means of consolidating, celebrating and communicating change that has previously taken place as a result of education, awareness-raising and community dialogue. As Seleyian Partoip, Founder of Murua Girl Child Education Program, told us, “We see the ARP ceremony as a way of reducing the stigma against the girls who have not been cut. If we can reduce this stigma then maybe more families will make the move to not cutting their daughters.”

The Guideline describes how the community and its leadership needs to be “fully mobilised” and that this process “may take at least six months” prior to an ARP. It usefully lists community dialogue, capacity building, school outreach programmes and cultural learning and exchange as means of community mobilisation. However, it implies that this process is quite straightforward, whereas in reality this is where the real challenge lies, in encouraging dialogue about the harmful effects of FGM/C and supporting the community in taking the decision to abandon it.

When is ARP likely to be most effective?

The activities which appear to result in attitudinal change in relation to FGM/C are those which take place in communities, regardless of whether the community holds an ARP ceremony. They include awareness-raising and intergenerational dialogue on the direct and indirect impact of FGM/C, the associated sanction and benefits imposed by the community and the links to girls’ education, child marriage, etc. Equally important is the active engagement of the youth in discussing their own aspirations for their future.  As Christine Alfons told us, “We are the youth, leading change in our community. The whole community needs to be empowered and mobilised on why to abandon the cutting, as girls alone can’t manage to say no to FGM. And one change needs to lead to others about the roles of men and women in our society.”

Some community organisations in Kenya have developed alternative models of ARP which are proving to be more effective than the model that we, and others, have critiqued. The new models have incorporated some of these features: a steering/planning committee that consists primarily of community members greater involvement of youth in the development, implementation and evaluation of the ARP model; community engagement throughout the year which is holistic, based on dialogue rather than instruction, and involves the whole community; the education/mobilisation programme has a consistent message of empowered decision-making, rather than obedience, and redefines the role, status and life opportunities of girls and women, irrespective of whether they are cut; the ARP ceremony is not introduced until there is sound evidence of change towards the abandonment of FGM/C within the community; resourcing for the ARP ceremony comes from within the community, using resources which would have been used for the traditional cut.

Given the lack of evidence that ARP actually works, more longer-term evaluation and research is needed. The Anti-FGM Board is responsible for the monitoring and evaluation of ARPs in Kenya, and its Guideline includes a framework for this. Board representatives often attend ARP ceremonies. In the light of reports of girls still being cut after participating in an ARP, and priority given to girls from more privileged backgrounds, it would be useful if the Board collected and published data on these and other issues.

ARP is being overused in contexts where it is unlikely to succeed, but may be useful in specific contexts when it is community driven and where the community is already changing, and where plenty of mobilisation has already taken place. Most scholars and practitioners agree that community ownership of the process of ending FGM/C is vital to achieving this goal. It follows that ARP should be community owned too, if it is to be continued at all as an anti-FGM/C strategy. Ideally, ARP should be totally community-run without outside intervention; only then will it be sustainable.

Above all, young people themselves need to be more involved in this process. With donor funding being slashed as a result of COVID-19, and the cutting of overseas aid budgets such as that of the UK, the pressure for “magic bullet/quick fix” solutions increases. Reducing gender-based violence, including FGM/C, is likely to remain a priority in the current global climate; however, with reduced budgets it is even more important to ensure funds are spent wisely and approaches like ARP are robustly evaluated and applied only where there is evidence of effectiveness.

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Democracy as Imperialism

In a far-reaching long-read, writer and commentator Yusuf Serunkuma argues that ‘democracy’ in Africa is not just a language of (colonial) exploitation, it is the practice of exploitation itself. Our challenge today, is to understand the colonial nature of this democracy – divide and rule, shameless free markets, foreign aid, and loans & media bombardment – and the myriad, so-called good-intentioned crusaders who promote it.

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Democracy as Imperialism
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If Marx had lived during our time, he would edit his timeless phrase about religion.  He would write, as religion is the opium of the masses, democracy is the crack cocaine of the elite.  Especially the African elite, we are high on it.  As it quietly destroys our internal organs, we strive for more and of better quality.  The vendors are merchandisers all the most aggressive and most persuasive. Their adverts have refused to add the cautionary label, “democracy smoking will kill you.”

These vendors are not only ‘creaming away’ all the profits from their product, but also eating the carcasses of their victims.  By the time the African intelligentsia overcome their addiction, they would understand that the enemy to their governance-development question has never been themselves, their bad education or bad leadership but rather the stuff they have been smoking as medication – democracy itself, its crusaders and merchandisers.  Democracy is not just a language of [colonial] exploitation, it is the practice of exploitation itself.  Problematically mixed with civil liberties, democracy has inextricably, irretrievably tied the African elite to exploitative capitalism, while at the same time, exciting, distracting and completely blinding them from real concerns, or even revolution.

Just the same way colonial exploitation thrived on divide and conquer, democracy does the same, but more tactfully, more elusively.  Democracy thrives on a double-layered divide and conquer (a) it disconnects the elite from ordinary folks with the elite not only developing new tastes and cultures —not simply consumptive ones, but lifestyles and practices—but they also become obsessed with their own preservation. On the other hand, the lifestyles, struggles and pains of rural folks are exorcised as slight inconveniences, painful sores and humanitarian— not structural—challenges needing benevolent intervention. And (b) the elite are then split into often terribly polarised “political parties” and other smaller camps, where sustaining or grabbing power becomes the single most important preoccupation.  The task of the African intellectual therefore is to understand the colonial exploitative nature of democracy (divide and rule, shameless vulgarity of free markets, disruptive endless ‘human rights’ quibbles, foreign aid, and loans, media bombardment); and the myriad lofty seemingly good-intentioned crusaders.

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Let’s start with some basic seemingly obsolete questions: Do former colonial masters still want to exploit the resources of formerly colonised places – specifically Africa? By exploit I mean, to steal or benefit at the expense of the Natives of those countries. Stated differently, are Africans convinced that their former colonisers are happy to see them thrive, and the endless streams of aid and loans, and the gospel of democracy are all meant for their betterment?  How about new powers such as America and China? Are they benevolent friends helping in times of need or honest business partners?  Has this urge, ambition and plotting to pillage ended? Again, this is not about countries in West Africa where the colonial powers, specifically, France actually didn’t leave after independence but rather retained its grip on their former colonies through especially banking. I am concerned about countries where colonial masters actually “left” upon independence.

The response to these questions is an easy YES; all the world’s new and old powers are interested in stealing from weaker countries especially in Africa. A sombre cry by novelist Ama Ato Aidoo on 500 years of European exploitation captures the painful state of affairs, and a recent meticulous study by Angus Elsby on coffee and cotton captures this ongoing pillage. But the question is this: if Africans know that there are thieves all around them plotting, scheming, and conniving to steal their resources, why are they not resisting the way their predecessors resisted colonialism? Why do Africans feel and behave so weak, incapable, and conditioned to playball as their countries are looted by the same powers their anti-colonial mothers and fathers resisted? Why don’t we have a second wave of anti-exploitation struggle on the continent resisting the new manifestation of colonial-like exploitation?

If Marx had lived during our time, he would edit his timeless phrase about religion.  He would write, as religion is the opium of the masses, democracy is the crack cocaine of the elite

Let me make one caveat here: this has nothing to do with the so-called legacy of colonialism – see Mahmood Mamdani and co. – because that would mean seeking to bring an end to a way of doing things, or simple removal of the structures that were left behind after independence. Mine is not a quest to decolonise but rather to see foreign exploitation in all its new forms. Perhaps my first proposition is that seeing and discussing western exploitation of the African continent through the language of colonialism, and its blighted offshoots, neo-colonialism, decolonisation, etc is not necessarily obsolete, but is actually distractive. It denies us the chance to appreciate the performatively non-colonial ways in which the continent is being looted. My core proposition is that we need to see democracy as the new absolute manifestation of exploitation.  There is urgent need to go behind it, expose its traps, and confront its beastly smiley face. Africa will need to proudly pursue a de-democratisation struggle—which is certainly much more difficult than the anti-colonial struggle.

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Let’s return to my central question: why are Africans not resisting this new form of exploitation – democracy? My answer to this question is threefold: (a) the new exploiters, couched in the slick but highly deceptive, confusingly omnibus understanding of democracy (to include free markets, free and fair elections, freedoms and human rights, free speech, choice, people, representation, equality, justice) have deftly disguised the manifest exploitation of democracy. The face of democracy appears attractive and sophisticated as it displays and performs ironically non-existent Mzungu practices on governance in Europe and North America.

As Ali Mazrui, 1997 succinctly demonstrated, the humanitarian values (freedom of speech, women emancipation and empowerment, freedom of choice, religion, etc.) believed to the guaranteed as so terribly inexistent even in the so-called democracies of the west. The denial of these values, Mazrui noted, only takes a different more subtle form. One doesn’t have to look too far to see how “democratic” America or the United Kingdom treats its black folks, workers, women, drops bombs on other nations for sport, continue to openly loot abroad, etcetera.. The beautiful decorated façade of regular elections, freedom of speech and religion mask a rather dangerous strain of thuggery and exploitation.

There is an army of pleasant looking, beautiful, ever-smiling, sweet-talking and cash-dangling handlers and brokers pushing democracy with high-sounding and seemingly beautiful arguments about justice, rights, the people… etcetera claiming these are provided and guaranteed by democracy.  Who could be against that…? They subtly ask. These handlers – these new colonial administrators – do not call themselves Governors and Colonial Lords, but rather “regional coordinators,” “country directors,” “programme managers” and academics. They operate without the brutality, overt racism and insults that defined earlier exploiters. They are constantly “seeking partnerships,” not dominions. They claim to “respect” national sovereignty and independence and will seek to execute their duties in the confines of international law. They will never tell you the history of so-called international law, which explicitly does not recognise Africans as sovereigns but rather just as Africans (see Siba N’Zatioula Grovogui, 1996). In doing all this, they never lose sight on the estate. These new exploiter emissaries include charming fellows in the European Union, American and British embassies, the United Nations offices, World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and several experts of democracy based at British and American universities—studying Africa!  They run tantalisingly named units such as the Democracy Governance Facility (DGF) where they narcotize thousands of local elites into inertia, spending endless hours in offices writing proposals and forging accountabilities (see Makau Mutua, eds. 2009).

These strategies have quietly, methodically captured all local media houses, schools, and all other spaces of active learning to push the democracy agenda into curriculums. In the end, they produce democracy thinking clones – literally, producing democracy’s Uncle Toms. Ever wondered why war-torn countries such as Somalia, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Libya, etcetera have intellectuals and politicians on podiums chanting democracy amidst ruins and dead bodies—entering contracts for oil and other mineral resource explorations, signing off loans and debts? Yes, it is the good work of these handlers.

Oftentimes, these democracy “merchandisers” operate under the language of development assistance. They flood the NGO sector, and civil society. This is in spite of the copious amounts of scholarship that vividly demonstrate that aid does not work (see Andrew Rugasira, 2007Juluis Gatune, 2010Dambisa Moyo, 2010).  African countries surely do not need aid to stave off famine or prosper – no country ever did – but the givers will not listen. Even when asked to leave, they go away sour-graping like they loved the recipient country more than its leaders. But these new exploiters, wearing their false smiles have, through a series of lengthy and underhand methods—including manufacturing narratives of poverty, predictions of disease, fake annual indices on this and that—they actually force, squeeze, cajole, and harass an African country into receiving aid, but will never mention better terms of trade (see  Slavoj Zizek, 2009).  If they fail to push this through more technicalized forgeries and liberal concoctions, they’ll resort to outright violence.  Examples abound of both covert and overt uses of violence: Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, etcetera under the cover of civil liberties. In truth, these are fortune hunters – like their colonial predecessors who rode on the deceptive language of civilising the Natives, these are simply sophisticated thieves who  have managed to manufacture a common sense around their practice of theft as the best form of governance (elsewhere, see Pepe Escobar, 2009).

And finally, against such an environment of deftly disguised exploitation and aggressive brokers (c) the current breed of leaders – in the academia, media, and mainstream politics – have been extremely softened by urban life, and the perverse spread of bodily pleasures from Europe and North America. Softeners range from their beautiful wives (and, occasionally, husbands) and long streams of concubines, comfortable beds, to sweet foods, which they have not earned and are haunted by the fact that they do not deserve. Incredible amounts of money circulate among these fellows over and above the rent for their labour. It is a cartel.

All the world’s new and old powers are interested in stealing from weaker countries especially in Africa. A sombre cry by novelist Ama Ato Aidoo on 500 years of European exploitation captures the painful state of affairs, and a recent meticulous study by Angus Elsby on coffee and cotton captures this ongoing pillage

These comprador leaders and elites surviving off the crumbs of elite capital are condemned to perpetual praise and gratitude to their present oppressors – for enabling them access to these crumbs in the theft of their compatriots. Intellectually inferior, and without the backing of a traditional modernities  upon which their predecessors —the anti-colonial intelligentsia—were bedecked, our new leaders are barebones, thrown into modernities where they have no histories and are simply drowning. When Partha Chatterjee writes about ‘tradition’ presenting the anti-colonial intellectuals with ‘a liberal rationalist dilemma’, that is, in the words of Lidwien Kapteijns, the challenge to be modern and traditional at the same time, he actually recognises the base upon which the anti-colonial intelligentsia constantly made reference as they negotiated their entry into a colonial modernity in a postcolonial moment. Our new would-be liberationists have neither and are simply swimming with the tide.

Spending endless hours watching European football on SuperSport, and admiring lofty English on BBC and CNN, googling stuff, and busying themselves on the myriad social media platforms, they cannot imagine abandoning these pleasures for thoroughbred struggle, which could benefit the collective. It is simply enough and too much. With the majority of this elite imprisoned at their small desks in parliament, NGOs and Civil Society, they are seemingly content with the status quo since they can ably afford the bodily pleasures mentioned above (you’ll find them endlessly chanting: ‘Compatriots! Do not risk throwing the existing order up in air – who knows where we will land !’). They are obsessed with their pleasures and freedoms guaranteed by democracy as the actual wealth of the country is quietly scooped up by their NGOs and Civil Society funders.

Democracy as divide and rule: Lessons from Uganda

Ugandans are now familiar with constant images of mostly white folks from the European Union, and other western embassies driving to homes of leading opposition candidate after every election. Their agenda remains the most enigmatic. When it was Col. Kiiza Besigye, amidst the tension of a stolen election in 2016 —the Uganda  confirmed gross irregularities on two occasions but refused to nullify the election— EU folks would drive to his home in Kasangati for some conversations. We will never know exactly what they discussed but it wouldn’t matter anyway.  But they often had such a grand entry and exit from the dusty Kasangati road turning into Besigye’s home. From Kiiza Besigye’s home, they would then go and meet the incumbent, Yoweri Museveni. This Museveni meeting was never as prominently publicised.  Most recently, with Bobi Wine becoming the lead opposition candidate in the country, they have been driving to his home in Magere, and quite often to his party offices in Kamwokya. Again, they often make quite an entry. From meeting Bobi Wine, they then travelled a few kilometres to meet Museveni where he assured them that Uganda was not “their enemy” [sic] before posing for pictures.

There is no better manifestation, or blatant display of divide and conquer than seeing these democracy merchandisers strutting from one corner of Kampala to the other just like colonial lords patronising the lead politicians on either side of the rather superficial aisle. Their obvious but deftly disguised intention are threefold: (a) ensure that while these two groups remain diametrically opposed to each other, they do not disturb the peace creating a mess for business. Preach peace— there should be no disruptions to our looting! Because if they did, you will never know where it ends. (b) should either side emerge victorious, no alliances are lost, as all of them will consider you a friend. But more significantly, (c) once the cameras are gone, the EU uses opposition leaders as bargaining chips against which they force Museveni into tougher concessions. They constantly remind Museveni of their potential to support his adversary if he does not play ball. Indeed, if this were the 1970s, these fellows would actually sell guns to both sides, and then bring relief food supplies to war-displaced natives.

Democracy is not just a language of [colonial] exploitation, it is the practice of exploitation itself.  Problematically mixed with civil liberties, democracy has inextricably, irretrievably tied the African elite to exploitative capitalism, while at the same time, exciting, distracting and completely blinding them from real concerns, or even revolution

If colonialism thrived on the principle of divide and conquer, democracy thrived on a likeable but sadly, equally dangerous arrangement, ‘multi-party governance.’ As a principle, a multi-party order divides the elite into polarized camps, political parties, with one forming the government and the other, the opposition. After the country’s intelligentsia are divided, the democracy brokers and merchandisers proceed to conquer them. Deeply divided, and sometimes at the point of violence against each other, Natives never get the opportunity to stop and see their real enemy. The contest over retaining office becomes the major concern for the ruling party at the expense of developing the country. Instead of actually uniting to consolidate their position and use their combined brain power (as their anti-colonial intelligentsia did), the sitting government both imprisons and murders its critics—key human resources—leaving it empty of brain power, and terribly exposed. By the time the democracy thieves strike, the sitting president has sycophants and praise singers to consult with.

In the Ugandan example, we will never know (a) how much money Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni invests in keeping the office of president, since he has some of the most sumptuous classified budget votes—such as state house (spending USH550m daily – US$152,000) with a budget allocation above tourism, the lead foreign exchange earner). It is certainly in billions. Since he has life presidency ambitions, Museveni spends a great deal of time and money procuring members of the opposition. To divide them further. Museveni is also endlessly facilitating and privileging the security forces, which in 2020, took 10% of the entire national budget above health and agriculture. [There is no war in Uganda, and the budget has been as high as this for the last 15 years]. The guardian ministries of the man (state house and security) also get sumptuous supplementary budgets for classified expenditure! But the larger goal is to keep the president in power, since he sees a constant threat in the opposing side.

Parliament, which Museveni obviously does not need if there were no democracy merchandisers pushing him, is terribly bloated with over 530 legislators currently making it the biggest in Africa—bigger than South Africa and Nigeria. Annually, the Ugandan parliament burns USH1.3 trillion (approximately US$360m) of Ugandan taxpayer just for the theatrics of it.  Just for the theatrics of it.  Yet, everything of consequence in Uganda is pre-decided by Museveni before it is dramatized on the floor of Parliament. Additionally, Museveni employs hundreds of advisors, ministers, Residential District Commissioners (RDCs) with equally senior deputies, simply as part of his great retinue of patronage.

The amount of money and energy Museveni spends on playing other centres of power especially the Catholic church, Muslims and the Buganda kingdom elite is equally immense. These are not simple cash-staffed brown envelopes—which are far too common—these are big sums ranging from billions to churches to four-wheel Land-cruisers.  Just to buy off opposition in the name of democracy. But democracy merchandisers hold these items in his face, which forces him into concessions with specifically the foreign exploiters. Let’s now consider the related part of this argument.

As Ali Mazrui, 1997 succinctly demonstrated, the humanitarian values (freedom of speech, women emancipation and empowerment, freedom of choice, religion, etc.) believed to the guaranteed as so terribly inexistent even in the so-called democracies of the west.

Living in simple fear—not the principle—of the opposition (b) we would never know the amount of concessions, Museveni has had to make with the new democracy-wagging exploiters, the self-appointed vanguards of democracy to allow them to continue their pillage of Uganda, and him to continue governing. If he is not sending mercenary forces to Somalia, he is sending them to South Sudan, and DRC.  The details of these concessions remain top secrets to the Ugandan public.  The Ugandan parliament predicts that the country will need 94 years to clear this debt, which continues to surge every passing day. Business deals where Uganda is left with minority shareholding over its own resources such as oil are simply baffling.

Incidentally, all this rides on the wreck left behind by vanguards of democracy into African economies in the late 1980s when they coerced country after country into dismantling cooperatives that had enabled societies and the people to survive. The dismantling of cooperatives led to a rise in rural poverty after tilling the land had been made unprofitable.  If this was no colonialism—an outright plot to exploit and break the toiling masses of Africa —then we’ll never appreciate the depth of its damage to the continent.  Because after local economies were ruined, including the closure of all local banks – many of them closed without explanation – the vacuum left behind was filled by European and Asian banks. The Ugandan banking market is now dominated by foreign banks, with business-suffocating interest rates, making banks in Africa the most profitable in the world, yet the most inefficient—according to The Economist. It is extremely difficult, if not outright terrifying, for farmers and small scale businesspersons to access credit. Surprisingly, this so-called Washington Consensus is still enforced 20 years on – even when the damage is visible everywhere – and the WB has acknowledged its mistakes. What the fuck is this?

Yet farmers across Europe and North America are not on their own. They are heavily funded by their states. Take the example of Mali that Slavoj Zizek (2009) writes about, despite producing high quality cotton and beef, the two pillars of its economy, the country could not compete with the US and EU, where the same industries are heavily subsidised:

…the problem is that the financial support the US government gives to its own cotton farmers amounts to more than the entire state budget of Mali… the EU subsidizes every single cow with around 500 Euros per year—more than the per capita GDP in Mali.

These double standards are visible to every single soul from South Africa to Mali and Uganda (see also, Jörg Wiegratz 2019). The promotion of free markets remains a central idea to a so-called democratic government.  But in truth, it is outright exploitation through the international dictates of structural adjustment and open markets which are pushed down the throats of Africans as a core parts of ‘democracy.’ Only in Africa!

To return to the question why is there no concentrated movement against this new form of exploitation dubbed democracy (its free market economics, loans, and grants, and foreign aid) and enforced onto only small countries? This is because of democracy’s disguised logic of divide and conquer. The language of democracy ensures the best brains of the country are split into conflicting camps with one obsessed with  the holding onto the presidency as much of the intelligentsia remains blind but also conscripted to the networks and channels of exploitation.

The west’s no-change regimes, and PR presidents

One of the most powerful jokes of the 21st Century is the highly cited notion that “power belongs to the people.”  It never does, has never, and will never.  That in the exercise of democracy—specifically voting—ordinary folks wield their power to determine the ways in which they are governed, remains one of the biggest lies of our time.  The lie continues that by this single act of voting, they have power to restore civility, end dangerous policies of previous governments such as removing American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, which since the start was based on fake intelligence, closing the very embarrassing Guantanamo Prison, or ensuring a minimum wage for workers etcetera.  It is all high sounding nonsense.  Ordinary folks have no power—except through violent revolution—but would be constantly manipulated into the belief in their electoral power.

The Slovenian theorist, Slavoj Zizek, was right when he claimed that while humanity was okay, 99 percent of people are boring gullible idiots.  They have been deluded into belief of possessing electoral civil power.  In truth, the world is run on self-interested authorities or autocracy.  These take two forms, institutionalised and individualised.  While in Europe and North America, authority or autocracy is institutionalised, it has tended to take individualised forms in Africa.  The west has extremely autocratic institutions, which constantly change their public relations officers—often problematically called Presidents or Prime Ministers.  The holders of these titles and offices actually have no power besides speech and celebrity.  See for example, be it Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden, America’s domestic policy on immigration, the police force, black folks, guns, women, the minimum wage will remain the same.  There will be minute adjustments that the very noisy American press will blow out of proportion discussing it endlessly.  But by and large, stuff remains the same.  American foreign policy towards the Middle East, Israel, Palestine, Iran and Africa will not change.  Change only comes by way of violent revolution, marches, strikes, community organising, media activism, etcetera—not through the facades of elections.

As an African watching  America from the outside, I agree with Syria’s Bashar-al-Assad’s conclusion that President Donald Trump’s crime was transparency about the intentions of America’s imperial interests.  While Obama and Clinton smiled and joked through their crimes in the Middle East and at home, Trump was boisterous and embarrassingly candid.  With more gusto, Trump simply continued Obama’s policies at home and abroad.  Surely, Joe Biden is already doing the same — with just a little sophistication and disguise. American and European presidents are like shirts and dresses, while some make the wearer turn out smart, others could simply mess-up their appearances.  But the bodies behind these fabrics remain the same.  The truth is, heavily invested, albeit invisible Hitlers, Mussolinis, Stalins, Lenins, and Napoleons control American and European institutions. True to their power, these invisible Hitlers and Mussolinis blatantly took away the megaphone from Donald Trump for constantly embarrassing them with terrible PR. They went ahead and killed those smaller units that sought to challenge their power?  [Please note, Facebook and Twitter are simply a manifestation, not the wielders of actual power].

The cycle of deception continues. Americans will always unite in stealing and killing from the rest of the world.  Then back home, lobbyists, bankers and the super rich will squeeze life out of workers and African Americans will constantly be jailed and murdered, as women march for equal work equal pay like democracy never existed.  It is all a deception.

The deceptive entanglement that democracy is more than elections, but all other civil liberties and humane treatment is terribly ahistorical. African history is replete with civil regimes that have no connection with our present perceptions of so-called democracy. In truth, the proposition that their democracy guarantees and is synonymous with humaneness and civil liberties is not just problematically ahistorical, but a dreadful deceptive. It is the trick. It is behind this claim that Africans have been duped, as their resources are being stolen under their noses.

Towards regimes of authority

After Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli had died, and the deafening elite noise boomed from every corner of the region, sloganeering about how Magufuli stifled dissent and free press, a friend of mine asked me to name the major opposition political party in China, and how many MPs they had in their parliament. I didn’t know. He then asked me to name the main opposition party in Russia, and how democracy—as dramatized in western Europe and North America—played out there. I did not know it either.  He moved on to the much admired Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.  He mixed it up with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Argentina, North Korea, Iran asking me to name their opposition political parties.  It was such as mixed bag, and I did not know how to respond.  He then asked me about the quality of life in those countries compared to say the “more democratic” Great Britain, Kenya, Uganda or even South Africa.

Humbled, I then recalled Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya which the UN constantly ranked highest in Africa on its Development Index. Focused on items including literacy rates, women empowerment, living conditions, and healthcare, Libya, for years ranked above more democratic spaces such as South Africa and Nigeria. On their part, Russia, China and Turkey have a higher quality of life for their populations in addition to being major economic powers. Why, if they aren’t democratic? Why don’t they have open markets? Didn’t structural adjustment reach these places? Before asking about the civil liberties in these countries, my friend raised the story of Julian Assange and the asked whether I had read a Mazrui 1997 essay discussing how similar the so-called democratic spaces in the west aren’t any different from so-called authoritarian spaces in the Islamic world.

The exploitative dangerousness of democracy is captured in Slavoj Zizek’s eulogy to Nelson Mandela that appeared in The Guardian upon his death. Concluding that Mandela was a failure—as regards the uplift the victims of apartheid from the backwaters of the economy, land redistribution . Zizek speaks to a difficult capitalist-democracy dilemma, and how leaders get derided and fought as authoritarians and sometimes even killed. Zizek writes,

A leader or party is elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a “new world”– but, then, sooner or later, they stumble upon the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms, or does one decide to “play the game”? If one disturbs these mechanisms, one is very swiftly “punished” by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest.

Although Zizek speaks to open confrontation from capitalists, we need to appreciate that exploitative nature of capitalism has thrived with ‘democracy’ as its utmost enabler, its methodology, which most importantly, makes resistance to exploitation divided and distracted.

Across Africa, this dilemma of whether to or not to touch the capitalist machine is as old as independence. Those leaders who played the game were either favourably profiled in international presses, given lucrative deals in mining and other resource exploitation projects. In other cases, they were knighted, and sometimes awarded with Nobel prizes. If they touched or simply threatened to dismantle this exploitative structure, they were punished, either with sanctions leading to removal from office, assassinated or exiled. They would be labelled dictators.

It is noteworthy that those few African leaders in history who actually managed to destabilise the machinery of new exploitation—euphemised as ‘free markets democracy’—had to craft something entirely different. But they were fiercely resisted. Even if they had actually been elected, as soon as they touched the machinery of exploitation, they were challenged. Especially on land and resources exploitation reforms, Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, John Pombe Magufuli are noteworthy. The core reason for dispensing with their democracy is that it has tended to bind government into contracts (globalisation, and free market), sensibilities (such as certain political freedoms, international human rights regimes etc), which are often selfishly and racially applied onto weaker countries and then exploited. International exploitative capitalism would be dead if it were not offered democracy as its handmaiden.

It is noteworthy that those few African leaders in history who actually managed to destabilise the machinery of new exploitation—euphemised as ‘free markets democracy’—had to craft something entirely different. But they were fiercely resisted

Nelson Mandela’s Nobel Prize winning genius was in deftly deflecting ANC land reform and economic redistribution movement leaving the economy in the hands of white South Africans. And because Steve Biko, Chris Hani, Winnie Mandela presented a persistent threat to white capital, they were purged.  It should be interesting to note that the land reform in Zimbabwe was for a while actually working despite the country continuing under sanctions and misinformation in the major media houses (see  Grasian Mkodzongi and Peter Lawrence, 2019).  Six years of John Pombe Magufuli would be characterised by immense international name-calling because he actually refused to cow-tow to the dictates of the democracy merchandisers.

Closely appreciating these exploitative dynamics of a mode of government—a more sophisticated mode of pillage and control just like colonialism—continues to be stifled by the democracy machine and lobby.  Africans will have to take a stand.  And standing up will be costly in terms of life and resources. Sanctions, death, wars will be created so as to reproduce democratic exploitation. But for the African who is convinced that democratic Uganda under Museveni or democratic Kenya under the Mwai Kibaki, Uhuru Kenyatta, or Raila Odinga rather than Libya under Gaddafi or Cuba under Fidel Castro has actually joined the thieves en-route to rob their father’s estate.

Of course, there are empty comprador autocracies, which are as bad as democracy. Of course, Libya’s Gaddafi would be more humane, and the example of what it has become is extreme.  But democratic Libya would never return to Gaddafi’s Libya, unless all Africans stood up.  Nor will democratic South Africa ever reach Gaddafi’s Libya. The values often confused with democracy were more often preserved under the Ottomans. The scholarship on the Islamic tradition is deep and explicit on humaneness, rights of women, the poor, social security, equality between races, workers, independent scholarship, and thus freedom of speech, but the language is never “democracy.” In truth, democracy is divide and rule. It is thuggery.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.

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