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Enhancing the Digital Transformation of African Universities: COVID-19 as Accelerator

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African universities must transform higher education. At stake is the future of the African continent and humanity itself, as much of this humanity becomes increasingly African.

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Enhancing the Digital Transformation of African Universities: COVID-19 as Accelerator
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The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated global economies, healthcare systems, and institutions including universities. It has accelerated trends towards the digitalisation of economic and social life and the need for digital skills. Here we focus on how African higher education institutions can embrace these changes in order to survive and succeed in the emerging “new normal”. The pandemic has exposed the huge developmental challenges that African universities face, while at the same time it has opened immense new opportunities for transformation. The continent is indeed at the proverbial crossroads in which the multiple demographic, economic, ecological, political and social problems confronting it can be turned into possibilities if managed with strategic, systemic and smart interventions, and the seriousness they deserve.

One of the continent’s biggest assets is its rapid population growth. If properly harnessed, the youth bulge not only promises to become the continent’s largest population ever, but also potentially its most educated and skilled. It is this population upon whose weighty shoulders the continent has placed a historic opportunity to overcome its half millennia of global marginality, underdevelopment and dependency, and begin realising the long-deferred dreams of constructing integrated, inclusive, innovative democratic developmental states and societies. The ghastly alternative is a Malthusian nightmare of hundreds of millions of uneducated, unemployable, and ungovernable marauding masses of young people, a future of unimaginable dystopia.

Educational institutions including universities have a monumental responsibility to turn the youth explosion into a dividend rather than a disaster. This entails removing prevailing skills and jobs mismatches, upgrading the employability skills of the youth, and strengthening and reforming educational institutions to prepare them for the jobs of the 21st century, which increasingly require digitalised competencies. For this to happen, higher education institutions themselves must undergo and embrace digital transformation. COVID-19 suddenly shoved universities—which are renowned for their aversion to change and notoriously move at a snail’s pace—into the future as they moved teaching and learning, administrative and support services, research activities, and even their beloved seminars, symposia, and conferences online.

The ghastly alternative is a Malthusian nightmare of hundreds of millions of uneducated, unemployable, and ungovernable marauding masses of young people, a future of unimaginable dystopia.

Here we examine the digital transformation of higher education. First, we begin by placing the changes, challenges, and opportunities facing contemporary Africa in the context of the mega trends of the 21st century in which the digitalisation of the economy, society, politics, work, education, and even leisure and interpersonal relations increasingly loom large. Second, we examine global developments in the digitalisation of higher education. Third, we present a twelve-point digital transformation agenda for African universities. Finally, the question of building Africa’s technological capacities to ensure that the continent is a major technological player and not pawn, dynamic creator not just passive consumer of technology, is broached and analysed. We believe without it, the digital transformation of not only African universities, but the continent’s economies and societies will remain incomplete and keep them in perpetual underdevelopment.

The mega trends of the 21st century 

There is no shortage of diagnoses and prognoses of the trends and trajectories of the 21st century by international agencies, consultancy firms, governments, academics and pundits. The projections and predictions of the future are as varied as their progenitors and prognosticators, reflecting their divergent institutional, ideological, intellectual, and even individual investments and proclivities. At a more collective and policy level, they find articulation in national, regional, and global visions. Examples include Kenya’s Vision 2030, East Africa’s Vision 2050, the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The futuristic soothsayers were particularly busy at the turn of the new century and millennium but they are by no means gone. A recent compelling and controversial forecast of the unfolding century can be seen in Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. He identifies five developments under which he outlines specific challenges. The first is what he calls “The Technological Challenge” (under which he discusses disillusionment, work, liberty, and equality); second, “The Political Challenge” (community, civilisation, nationalism, religion, and immigration); third, “Despair and Hope” (terrorism, war, humility, God, secularism); fourth, “Truth” (ignorance, justice, post-truth, science fiction); and fifth “Resilience” (education, meaning, meditation).

One of us (Zeleza) is writing a book, The Long Transition to the 21st Century: A Global History of the Present, which seeks to examine the major features of the contemporary world, how they came about, and their differentiated manifestations in different world regions. It is divided into five chapters. The first is entitled, “The Rise of the People” (on social movements and struggles for emancipation and empowerment); the second, “The Emergence of Planetary Consciousness” (on the development of global consciousness fostered by the processes of globalisation and growth of environmental awareness); the third, “The Digitalisation of Everything” (on transformations brought about by digital information and communications technologies on every aspect of social life); the fourth, “The Restructuring of the Geopolitical Order” (on shifting global hegemonies, hierarchies and struggles); and the fifth, “The Great Demographic Reshuffle” (on changing demographic regimes and migration processes and patterns).

Three of these phenomena are particularly pertinent here. The first centers around the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The term often refers to the emergence of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, machine learning, data analytics, big data, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the convergence of the digital, biological, and physical domains of life, and the digitalisation of communication, connectivity, and surveillance. Africa has participated in the three revolutions lately as a pawn rather than a player.

During the First Industrial Revolution of the mid-18th century the continent paid a huge price through the Atlantic slave trade that laid the foundations of the industrial economies of EuroAmerica. Under the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century Africa was colonised. The Third Industrial Revolution that emerged in the second half of the 20th century coincided with the tightening clutches of neo-colonialism for Africa. If the continent continues to be a minor player, content to import technologies invented and controlled elsewhere, its long-term fate might not be confined to marginalisation and exploitation as with the other three revolutions, but descent into irreversible global irrelevance.

The second major trend centers on hegemonic shifts in the world system. The global hegemony of the West that has survived over the last half millennium appears to be drawing to a close with the rise of Asia and other emerging economies of the global South. A harbinger of the hegemonic rivalries that are likely to dominate much of the 21st century is the trade war between a declining United States and a rising China. The consequences of previous hegemonic struggles for global power for Africa varied.

The imperial rivalries between Britain, the world’s first industrial power, and industrialising Germany, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries culminated in the “New Imperialism” that engendered both the colonisation of Asia and Africa and World War I. In contrast, the superpower rivalry between the former Soviet Union and the United States spawned the geopolitical spaces for Asian and African decolonisation. What will the current reconfiguration of global power bring for Africa? How can Africans ensure it creates opportunities for development?

If the continent continues to be a minor player, content to import technologies invented and controlled elsewhere, its long-term fate might be descent into irreversible global irrelevance.

Africa’s prospects in the 21st century will be inextricably linked to the third major transformation, namely, the profound changes in world demography. This is characterised by, on the one hand, an aging population in the global North and in China thanks to its one-child policy imposed from 1979 to 2015, and on the other, population explosion in some regions of the global South, principally Africa. Currently, 60 per cent of the African population is below the age of 25.

The continent is expected to have, on current trends, 1.7 billion people in 2030 (20 per cent  of the world’s population), rising to 2.53 billion (26 per cent) in 2050, and 4.5 billion (40 per cent) in 2100. It is estimated that in 2100 Africa will have a large proportion of the world’s labour force. Thus, educating and skilling Africa’s youths is critical to the future of Africa itself and the rest of the world. Doing so will yield a historic demographic dividend, whereas failure will doom Africa’s prospects for centuries to come.

The digitalisation of higher education

Higher education institutions have a fundamental role to play in enhancing the development and nurturing of demand-driven digital and technical skills because of their quadruple mission, namely, teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and engagement, and innovation and entrepreneurship. This mission is particularly pressing for African universities, the bulk of which were established after independence by the developmentalist state as locomotives to catapult the continent from the perils of colonial dependency and underdevelopment to the possibilities of sustainable development.

As with every other sector, higher education institutions are facing massive transformations that require continuous reform to make them better responsive to the unyielding and unpredictable demands of 21st century economies, societies, polities, and ecologies. The restructuring of universities is necessitated by pervasive and escalating digital disruptions, rising demands for public service and engagement, changes in the credentialing economy, and escalating imperatives for lifelong and lifewide learning. Given the changing nature and future of jobs, today’s youth will not only have multiple jobs but several careers, some of which have not even been invented.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed widespread differences and inequalities in terms of national capacities to manage the crisis and its costs. It forced higher education institutions around the world to embrace distance teaching and learning using online platforms as never before. They had to learn to do more with less as their financial resources became strained as never before and their faculty and students faced the stresses of massive readjustment. Many institutions rose to the occasion as they leveraged existing and acquired new digital technologies, while faculty and students adapted to the new normal.

Empty class.

Empty class. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The unprecedented crisis revealed differentiated institutional resources, access to information technology, and capabilities to transition to online teaching and learning. The pandemic also underscored challenges of access by faculty and students to digital technologies and broadband based on the social dynamics of class, location, gender, and age. It simultaneously exposed and eroded prevalent distrust and discomfort with online compared to face-to-face teaching and learning, and widespread concerns about the quality of online instruction by students, parents and employers.

A few months before the world was engulfed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Association of Universities published an important report on Higher Education in the Digital Era. The report contained results of a global consultation encompassing 1,039 public and private higher education institutions in 127 countries (29 per cent from Europe, 27 per cent Asia and the Pacific, 21 per cent Africa, 17 per cent Middle East, 5 per cent Latin America and Caribbean). Globally, only 16 per cent of respondents found national regulatory policies supportive for higher education transformation in the digital era; 32 per cent mostly supportive with some exceptions; 36 per cent variably supportive and constraining; and 17 per cent mostly unsupportive. The responses from African institutions were 19 per cent, 26 per cent, 37 per cent, and 19 per cent, respectively. Overall, Asia had the most positive assessment, and Europe the most negative.

Today’s youth will not only have multiple jobs but several careers, some of which have not even been invented.

The report also investigated the national financial framework for higher education. Only 7 per cent globally deemed the frameworks highly supportive; 26 per cent mostly supportive with some exceptions; 43 per cent variably supportive and constraining; and 24 per cent mostly unsupportive. Overall, Asia led with 43 per cent, reporting highly and mostly supportive, followed by the Middle East at 40 per cent, Latin America and the Caribbean at 36 per cent, Africa at 30 per cent, and Europe at 27 per cent.

As for Internet infrastructure, the variations favoured the more developed regions. The proportion of individuals out of 100 using the Internet stood at 80.9 in the developed countries, 45.3 in developing countries, 19.5 less developed countries, and a world average of 51.2. Europe led with 79.6, followed by the Commonwealth of Independent States 71.3, Americas 69.6, Arab States 54.7, and Africa was at the bottom with 24.4. The quality of the Internet infrastructure in Africa is exceptionally poor: only 7 per cent find it satisfactory, compared to 39 per cent in Europe, and 21 per cent in Africa find it not good, compared to 2per cent in Europe.

There are also glaring inequalities in the spatial distribution of Internet facilities. At a global level, 34 per cent reported that Internet infrastructure was good in big cities, but poor in rural areas. The equivalent figures were 58 per cent for Latin America and the Caribbean, 47 per cent for Asia and the Pacific, 39 per cent for Africa, 26 per cent for Middle East, and 17 per cent for Europe.

Clearly, enhancing the technological transformation of higher education depends on the levels of national investments in IT infrastructure. The global digital divide remains real and daunting. High inequalities in the spatial distribution of Internet facilities deprives tens of millions of people around the world, especially Africa, access to information, knowledge and networks. Equally critical are institutional investments in IT and here too, Africa lags awfully behind. According to the IAU report, 39 per cent noted digital infrastructure was a significant obstacle at the institutional level compared to 7 per cent in Europe, representing the highest and lowest global levels, respectively.

Higher education and research institutions tend to use national research education networks (NRENs) as an alternative to the commercial Internet Service Providers. On the issue of national support for NRENs, Africa is also at the bottom with 67 per cent of respondents noting the level of support was very or somewhat high compared to the world average of 71 per cent, and 74 per cent for Asia and Pacific, 73 per cent for Middle East, 72 per cent for Europe, and 50 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean.  Africa led in the use of NRENs by higher education institutions at 70 per cent compared to a world average at 62 per cent, the same as Asia and Pacific, and 68 per cent for Latin America and the Caribbean, 64 per cent for Middle East, and 56 per cent for Europe.

Technology at University of Washington, Seattle, United States

Information Technology infrastructure at University of Washington, Seattle, United States Photo by Taylor Vick on Unsplash

Institutional commitment to digital transformation is obviously critical to making the necessary investments in IT infrastructures. The IAU’s report shows generally high levels of commitment from institutional leaders. Africa led with 77 per cent claiming strong leadership support, compared to 74 per cent for Middle East, 73 per cent for Asia and Pacific, 70 per cent for Europe and 61 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean. At a global level, advocacy for digital transformation was bottom-up (56 per cent) rather than top-down (41 per cent). For Africa it was 34 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively. Top-down strategies were most pronounced in Europe (49 per cent) and Latin America and Caribbean (49 per cent), while Middle East led with bottom up approaches (70 per cent).

Approaches to digital transformation varied. Only 18 per cent of respondents globally, and 18 per cent in Africa, and 14 per cent each in Europe and Latin America and Caribbean, 21 per cent in Asia and Pacific, and 33 per cent in Middle East expected to continue doing the same things in their teaching and governance with technology. A larger proportion 43 per cent at the global level expected to do things differently with technology; for Africa the proportion was 16 per cent, Latin America and Caribbean led with 63 per cent, followed by Europe 53 per cent, Asia and Pacific 45 per cent, and Middle East 26 per cent. In Africa, 63 per cent were planning to do things differently but were limited by funds, while globally the figure was 38 per cent, and for Middle East 41 per cent, Europe 33 per cent, Asia and Pacific 32 per cent, and Latin America and Caribbean 23 per cent.

Digital transformation was integrated in institutional strategic plans in all the regions. According to the respondents, globally it was 75 per cent, ranging from 77 per cent for Africa, Asia and Pacific, to 76 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean, 74 Europe and 73 Middle East. Budget allocation for digital transformation was 55 per cent, from a high of 60 per cent in Africa to a low of 50 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean, with Middle East (56 per cent), Asia and Pacific (55 per cent), and Europe (51 per cent) in between. Overall, the bulk of the institutional budget allocated was mostly between 0 and 9 per cent (35 per cent) and 10 and 19 per cent (29 per cent). In most cases, 73 per cent of institutions reported having a senior person in charge of digital transformation. Training opportunities for faculty and staff were generally in the same range.

The survey further revealed regional divergences in online governance of student data and learning processes. Globally, 63 per cent of institutions reported managing enrolment and student data fully online, with a high of 72 per cent in Europe and a low of 55 per cent in Africa, and 70 per cent for Middle East, 60 per cent for Asia and Pacific, and 58 per cent for Latin America and Caribbean. But the use of learning management systems was lower. The range as reported by institutional leaders was from 47 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean to 24 per cent in Africa, while it was 40 per cent in Asia and Pacific, 34 per cent in Europe, and 33 per cent in Middle East. Online data management creates both new possibilities and perils in tracking and managing student enrolments, learning, and outcomes. This raises the issue of data privacy and protection. Globally, 55 per cent of institutions reported fully having ethical guidelines or data privacy policies. Africa ranked lowest at 43 per cent, compared to 65 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean, 64 per cent in Europe, 49 per cent in Asia and Pacific, and 41 per cent in Middle East.

Similarly varied was the use of technology and new modalities in teaching and learning. The global average for full integration of technology in teaching was 31 per cent. Africa ranked second to Middle East at 38 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively. The lowest was Latin America and the Caribbean at 11 per cent, followed by Asia and Pacific at 33 per cent, and Europe at 23 per cent per cent. When it comes to the full use of the new teaching modalities of flipped classroom, blended and online learning, Africa ranked last at 14 per cent, and Latin America and Caribbean on top at 49 per cent, while Asia and Pacific scored 32 per cent, Europe 24 per cent, and Middle East 22 per cent. The global average was 27 per cent. Very few of the responding institutions provided fully online courses: 32 per cent had none, in 14 per cent of institutions they comprised 1 to4 per cent of all courses, and in 13 per cent between 5 and9 per cent.

In much of the world the majority of undergraduate courses were largely delivered through lectures. Africa led in the category “mostly lecture-based learning but combined with problem-based learning”, scoring 56 per cent against a world average of 49 per cent, and ranked lowest under “mostly problem-based learning but combined with lectures” at 11 per cent compared to a world average of 19 per cent. Only 35 per cent of institutions globally reported having fully reconsidered the skills and competencies required of students in the past three years. The regional rankings were Latin America and Caribbean (56 per cent), Asia and Pacific (36 per cent), Europe (35 per cent), Africa (31 per cent), and Middle East (22 per cent). As for reviews of learning outcome assessments, the global average was 42 per cent, and was lowest in Africa at 33 per cent and highest in Latin America and Caribbean at 49 per cent.

Digital literacy is increasingly becoming a critical skill. However, the survey revealed relatively low levels of national support for digital literacy and computational thinking. The global average reporting “Yes, very much” was 19 per cent; Africa registered at the bottom with 12 per cent, while Asia and Pacific and Middle East were on top with 19 per cent each. At the institutional level, digital literacy was viewed as a transversal learning outcome in 22 per cent of the responding institutions globally, the same figure as Africa.

Equally low were levels of national support for open educational resources (OER). In terms of national initiatives in favour of OER, the global average for “Yes, very much” was 16 per cent, similar to Africa’s. The global average for support for online bibliography or library for online content was 23 per cent and for Africa 16 per cent compared to a high of 32 per cent each for Europe and Latin America and Caribbean. At the institutional level only 19 per cent reported fully creating and using OER at the global level, while in Africa 9 per cent did so, which was below the other regions. Commitment to open science was much lower at the national level (17 per cent) compared to the institutional level (56 per cent).

The impact of digital transformations on the nature of jobs and future of work is increasingly appreciated. As a result, continuous reskilling and upskilling through lifelong learning is becoming more and more imperative. Only 18 per cent of respondents globally agreed “Yes, very much” that there were national initiatives in support of lifelong learning; for Africa it was 16 per cent, Europe 24 per cent, Asia and Pacific 18 per cent, Middle East 14 per cent, and Latin America and Caribbean 8 per cent. At the institutional level, 84 per cent reported having adult learners globally led by Europe with 90 per cent, then Africa 88 per cent,  Latin America and Caribbean 87 per cent, and Asia and Pacific and Middle East with 77 per cent each. African institutions reported a 65 per cent increase in adult learners over the past three years, compared to an average 55 per cent globally. African institutions also had higher expectations (68 per cent) that adult learners would increase than other regions (the global average was 61 per cent).

Overall, it is evident from the survey that digital transformation was being pushed by the leadership, followed by faculty, staff, students, governing board, and national authorities. The respondents identified the key achievements using new technologies as, in descending order, improved governance of information, new learning pedagogies to enhance the student experience, improved research, and improved accessibility to higher education. As for challenges, they selected financial costs, university culture’s slowness to adapt to change, lack of interest of faculty and staff to change, lack of capacity building, unreliable internet, and national policies, in that order. For Africa the order of challenges was listed as financial costs, unreliable internet, lack of capacity building, university culture, lack of faculty and staff interest, and national policies.

The report concluded by examining perceptions of current transformations. On institutional readiness towards change, the majority, 53 per cent, indicated they were “very ready”. Respondents from Africa were in the lead at 46 per cent, followed by Latin America and Caribbean 35 per cent, Asia and Pacific 33 per cent, Middle East 30 per cent, and Europe 21 per cent. African respondents (77 per cent) believed more strongly than others (global average 61 per cent) that digital transformation is necessary and inevitable in preparing students to actively participate in society. They also more strongly agreed that digital transformation exacerbates socioeconomic divides within and between countries by 35 per cent to 27 per cent.

Further, to 75 per cent globally, 89 per cent of African respondents strongly agreed compared that digital transformation and new technologies represent an opportunity to expand access to higher education. By a margin of 58 per cent to 39 per cent, they strongly believe these technologies will lower the costs of higher education; 97 per cent to 79 per cent strongly believe they are essential to improving higher education; 90 per cent to 77 per cent that they can enhance the quality of higher education; and 78 per cent to 58 per cent that higher education plays an important role in shaping digital transformation. Yet, only 27 per cent compared to 33 per cent globally believe their institutions were equipped for the future in terms of the emerging technologies and opportunities, compared to 40 per cent in Asia and Pacific, 35 per cent in Europe, 33 per cent in Latin America and Caribbean, and 30 per cent in Middle East.

Clearly, even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic higher education institutions around the world including Africa were increasingly aware and committed to the challenges and opportunities of emerging technologies. They understood the need to undertake transformations at the national and institutional levels in terms of creating enabling policies, making the necessary financial investments in technological infrastructures and capacities, promoting institutional leadership, culture and commitment to change, providing opportunities for faculty and staff training and development. Further, it was appreciated that critical attention needed to be paid to the inequalities of access and the ethical dimensions of data protection and privacy in institutional data management.

COVID-19 acted as an accelerator in the digitalisation of higher education. It is evident from numerous reports in the higher education and popular media that following closures of campuses as part of the containment measures imposed by governments against the pandemic universities scrambled to transition to remote or distance teaching and learning using digital technologies. An informative comparative snapshot on how universities managed and continue to manage the massive disruptions engendered by COVID-19 is provided by the Association of Commonwealth Universities that conducted a survey in May 2020 of its 500 member universities across 50 countries around the world.

The transition to online education, research and administration revealed glaring digital divides among and within countries, as well as among and within universities in terms of digital capacities and access to data, devices, and broadband. More positively, it helped change perceptions about the quality of online teaching and learning. By the beginning of April 2020, higher education institutions had closed in 175 countries affecting over 220 million students. The survey showed 80 per cent of respondents reported teaching had moved online, 78 per cent agreed it had affected their ability to conduct research, while 69 per cent reported they had been able to take research activities online.

The digital divide between countries was evident in the fact that 83 per cent of respondents in the high income countries had access to broadband, compared to 63 per cent for upper middle income countries, 38 per cent in lower middle income countries and 19 per cent from low income countries. Institutions that were unable to move online were confined to the lower middle income countries (19 per cent) and low income countries (24 per cent). Only 33 per cent with broadband access strongly agreed that the pandemic had affected their ability to conduct research, compared to 43 per cent of respondents without broadband access.

Within institutions, the distribution of access to broadband ranged from 74 per cent for senior leaders to 52 per cent to those in professional services, to 38 per cent for academics, and 30 per cent for students. Institutional support for remote working in terms of devices or data was also skewed in favour of senior leaders and professional services staff (both 82 per cent), compared to students (45 per cent) and academics (40 per cent). Prior to the pandemic students were less likely than other groups to report always having worked online, while after the pandemic senior leaders were more likely than their counterparts to say they would work online frequently.

Perceptions of the quality of online teaching and learning showed marked improvement. The vast majority of respondents, 81 per cent, agreed that quality had improved since the pandemic; 90 per cent agreed that a blended degree, combining online and face-to-face learning, was equivalent to a degree earned only through face-to-face learning, while 53 per cent felt a degree earned solely through online learning was equivalent to one earned through face-to-face learning. As for online working, 65 per cent foresaw working online frequently after the pandemic, while 19 per cent foresaw doing so “all of the time”, and only 16 per cent said rarely and 1 per cent said never.

Fifty-three  per cent of respondents envisaged all (26 per cent) or most (28 per cent) departments would continue to use online teaching and learning, and only 4 per cent said that no departments would do so. In terms of institutional commitments and capacity, 89 per cent agreed that their institution had the will to develop high-quality online teaching and learning, while 82 per cent of respondents agreed that their institution has the capacity to do so.

It was reported that universities were providing support for remote working, but with variations between countries and professional roles. Thirty-seven per cent noted their university made a contribution towards data costs, 31 per cent that they were provided device(s) and 7 per cent that their institutions contributed towards device costs. The levels of support ranged from 87 per cent in high income countries, to 70 per cent in upper middle income countries, 51 per cent in lower middle income countries, and 52 per cent in low income countries. Support was also provided in the form of faculty and staff training and development.

The most pressing challenges identified by respondents for remote working were internet speed (69 per cent), data costs (61 per cent), internet reliability (56 per cent), and time zones (38 per cent). Data costs were most pressing for those from low and lower middle income countries, while those from high income countries cited time zones. As for online teaching and learning, the leading challenges were accessibility for students (81 per cent), staff training and confidence (79 per cent), connectivity costs (76 per cent), and student engagement (71 per cent). Respondents from low and lower middle income countries emphasised connectivity costs, while those from high income countries stressed challenges relating to student perceptions of quality. In terms of impact on research, there were some disciplinary variations: in the natural, environmental and earth sciences 92 per cent of academics reported being affected, while in the arts, social sciences and humanities 61 per cent did so.

The twelve-point digital transformation agenda for Africa

Based on data collected from Africa, the ACU noted that African universities faced particular challenges in managing COVID-19. Many suffered from limited digital infrastructure, capacity and connectivity which made it difficult for them to transition online for education, research and administration. These challenges were compounded by enduring financial strains worsened by severe budget cuts as student enrolments dropped and government funding declined. Fundraising has largely been negligible in most African universities.

Also evident was the digital divide across and within African countries. Across the continent respondents identified many challenges including accessibility of students (83 per cent), staff training and confidence (82 per cent), and connectivity costs (89 per cent). In terms of devices and connectivity, respondents indicated 58 per cent had access to two devices, 82 per cent had access to mobile data and 35 per cent to broadband. In Kenya, 25 per cent of respondents reported having access to a desktop, while in Nigeria 15 per cent and in South Africa 13 per cent did. With regard to broadband, 63 per cent of South African respondents had access compared to 54 per cent for Kenya, and 27 per cent for Nigeria.

Among the leading challenges identified for remote working respondents across the continent were data costs (77 per cent), internet speed (71 per cent) and internet reliability (65 per cent). An encouraging development was the growing provision of institutional support. Forty per cent of respondents received contributions toward data costs from their university, 22 per cent were provided with a device and 8 per cent received a contribution toward device costs. Some institutions adopted innovative ameliorative measures, ranging from negotiating with technology companies zero-rated access or reduced subscription prices to educational content, to providing free dongles to students without remote connections.

There were of course national and intra-institutional variations. More likely to receive support were senior leaders and professional services than faculty and students. In terms of contributions to data costs, 62 per cent of senior leaders and 64 per cent of professional services received support. In the provision of devices 54 per cent of the former and 38 per cent of the latter received support.

As far as online teaching and learning is concerned, there was a marked shift. Prior to the pandemic only 16 per cent of respondents indicated online teaching had occurred in all or most departments; 74 per cent said that all or most teaching and learning was now online. Forty-seven  per cent expected that all or most departments would continue to use online teaching and learning. Again, there were national divergences. In Nigeria 44 per cent of respondents reported no teaching and learning had moved online, unlike South Africa and Kenya where no respondents reported this to be the case. In South Africa 94 per cent of respondents stated all or most teaching was now online, compared to 62 per cent for Kenya and 22 per cent for Nigeria. Attitudes on the quality of online teaching and learning witnessed a marked shift as 80 per cent of respondents believed quality had improved; 49 per cent said they thought a degree earned exclusively online was equivalent, while 91 per cent agreed a blended degree is equivalent to a degree earned face to face.

African educators and policy makers now widely accept that the digital transformation of higher education is here to stay. They also appreciate more keenly the need to make significant investments and interventions in technology-based platforms for the higher education enterprise. In the context of the new realities and pressures, it is increasingly evident that the traditional instructional methods, modes of knowledge production and consumption, and institutional conceits of exclusivity are no longer tenable if higher education institutions are to remain relevant for Africa’s regeneration.

A report on digital transformation for British universities recommends ten useful guiding principles that promote digital fluency among faculty and students: institutional digital innovation and progress; integrated working by creating inclusive and collaborative working environments; engaged learning by rethinking interactivity across physical and virtual spaces; personalised learning that motivates and facilitates individual student success; transformed learning spaces that are connected, coherent and compelling; inclusivity in design to accommodate diverse students and learning styles; building of learning communities for students that are safe, secure, and empowering; learning infrastructure in a propitious technology environment that allows for continuous upgrading; and innovative learning based on continuous experimentation, learning, and investment.

Higher education will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly changed from the most catastrophic crisis it has ever faced and for which it was not prepared.  The EDUCAUSE 2021 Top IT Issues foresees the emergence of what it calls alternative and overlapping futures involving three scenarios, restore, evolve, and transform. “The Restore scenario is a story of institutional survival focused on reclaiming the institution’s pre-pandemic financial health”, while the Evolve scenario applies to “institutions that will choose to incorporate the impact and lessons of the pandemic into their culture and vision”. Institutions embracing the Transform scenario “plan to use the pandemic to launch or accelerate an institutional transformation agenda”.

African educators and policy makers now widely accept that the digital transformation of higher education is here to stay.

For example, on the issue of financial health, the Restore scenario focuses on cutting costs, while the Evolve scenario focuses on “increasing revenues and funding sources and on evolving the institution’s business model”. On online learning, the “Restore version takes a structural approach to online learning—emphasizing supports, processes, and policies—whereas the Evolve version focuses on advancing the quality of online learning”. On information security the “Restore version is a tactical one that covers returning to campus as well as cost-effectiveness and recovery. The Evolve version takes a strategic approach and also expands the scope of cybersecurity efforts to include off-campus locations, in recognition of the need to adapt to constituents whose technology environments will never fully return to campus”.

For its part, the “Transform version expands the role of technology (digital transformation) in order to not only reduce costs but also maximize value”. Transform institutions seek to prioritise changing institutional culture and promoting technology alignment. They also seek to develop “an enterprise architecture to enable business outcomes, manage data to enable decision-making and future opportunities, streamline business processes, and enable digital resources to keep pace with strategic change”. For enrollment and recruitment they endeavour to explore and implement “creative holistic solutions for recruitment, including analytics-based marketing around student career outcomes, technology-enabled transfer agreements and partnerships, and use of social media to build student communities”.

Each African university has to ask itself: What kind of institution does it wish to become in the post-COVID-19 era? Many of course will combine elements of all three—restoration, evolution, and transformation. Some may not survive, while others will thrive. Those that endure and excel will need to adopt the twelve-point agenda outlined below.

First, COVID-19-induced transition to remote delivery of education must turn to the development of a long-term digital strategic framework that ensures resilience, flexibility, experimentation, and continuous improvement. Digital transformation must be embedded in institutional culture from strategic planning processes, organisational structures, to administrative practices and daily operations while avoiding exacerbating existing inter- and intra-institutional inequalities for historically, socially, and spatially disadvantaged communities. Universities have to integrate digitalisation in their four core missions: teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and engagement, and innovation and entrepreneurship.

Second, universities have no choice but to make strategic and sustainable investments in digital infrastructures and platforms by rethinking capital expenditures and increasing spending on technological and digital infrastructure. Their budgets must not only support a more robust online learning ecosystem, but also build in flexibilities to reallocate resources in the face of unexpected crises. Critical in this regard is building resilient and secure digital business continuity plans, strategies and capabilities.

Third, African universities have to develop online design competencies both individually and through consortia with each other and overseas institutions that are committed to mutually beneficial partnerships in promoting e-learning. Such consortial arrangements should encompass sharing technical expertise for online instructional design, pedagogy and curation, content development, and training of faculty and university leaders. Inter-institutional collaboration is more imperative than ever following the global transition to online teaching and learning spawned by COVID-19 because competition for students between universities in the global North and the global South is likely to intensify. Africa already loses many of its richest and brightest students to universities in the global North and increasingly the major emerging economies of Asia. Now, they stand to lose some middle class students who can afford enrolling in online programmes offered by foreign universities that enjoy better brands than local universities.

Fourth, universities need to entrench technology-mediated modalities of teaching and learning. Higher education has to embrace face-to-face, blended and online teaching and learning, and raise the digital skills of faculty and students accordingly. Digital transformation promises to diversify students beyond the 18-24 age cohort, maximise learning opportunities for students, and open new markets and increasing tuition revenues for universities. Blended and online teaching and learning offers much needed flexibility for students, who increasingly find it appealing and convenient for its space and time shifting possibilities. It also offers faculty “opportunities to improve educational outcomes by adopting a wider range of learning activities, allowing greater flexibility of study times, space for reflection and a move to different forms of assessment”.

Fifth, digitalisation provides opportunities for beneficial pedagogical changes in terms of curricula design and delivery that involves students and incorporates how they learn. It helps faculty to rethink learning and teaching practices, to see themselves less as imperious sages on the stage and more as facilitating coaches. In this transformed pedagogical terrain and relationship, universities ought to “ensure their professional development strategies and plans include digital training, peer support mechanisms, and reward and recognition incentives to encourage upskilling”. An important part of this agenda is for universities to promote research that enables them to stay current with the changing digital preferences, expectations, and capabilities of students, faculty and professional staff.

Sixth, universities should develop curricula that impart skills for the jobs of the 21st century. Such curricula must be holistic and integrate the classroom, campus, and community as learning spaces; promote inclusive, innovative, intersectional, and interdisciplinary teaching and learning; embed experiential, active, work-based, personalised, and competence-based learning; instil among the GenZ youth the mind-sets of creativity, enterprise, innovation, problem solving, resilience, and patience rather than mindsets of passive learners and knowledge consumers who regurgitate information to pass exams. The extensive changes taking place require continuous reskilling, upskilling, and lifelong learning. The growing importance of careers in science, technology, engineering, healthcare, and the creative arts, all within an increasingly technologically-driven environment, necessitates the development of hybrid hard and soft skills.

Students learning.

Students learning. Photo by heylagostechie on Unsplash

Seventh, for student success, universities have a responsibility to embrace and use educational technologies that support the whole student. According to the EDUCAUSE 2020 Student Technology Report, student success goes beyond degree completion. Holistic support encompasses “access to advisors and to helpful advising technologies”, raising students’ awareness about “the tools available to students, where to find those tools, how to use them, and how they can help advance educational and career goals”. Surveys show students also appreciate course-related alerts, nudges and kudos that are positive and offered early. Regular, constructive, targeted and personalised feedback makes a big difference, so does “embedding a human assistant in the online virtual lectures and office hours [who] . . . through modeling, or observational learning, may persuade students to imitate the assistant . . .. The assistant could be a graduate teaching assistant, an undergraduate student, or a peer leader”.

On technology use and preferences, it is important for universities to “establish research-based instructional practices in all teaching modalities” and develop “an acceptable use policy (AUP) for classroom uses of student devices that is informed by evidence-based practice and students’ preferences for device use. Allow students to participate in the design of the AUP to create a digital learning environment in which they feel empowered to use their devices and to regulate their own behavior”. Also important is assessing “student access to Wi-Fi and digital devices and work to ensure that every student has access to these critical technologies”.

Eighth, universities need to develop effective policies and interventions to address the digital divide and issues of mental health disorders and learning disabilities. Resources and new investments are required to provide opportunities to those trapped by digital poverty. An inclusive agenda for digital transformation must also include using the universal design for learning framework (UDL) “when designing learning experiences and services to optimize learning for all people… If technology and IT policies are thoughtfully and inclusively incorporated into a course guided by UDL, then ideally learner variability, choice, and agency increase, while the need for individual accommodations is greatly reduced”.

Creating inclusive learning environments also entails investing in professional development for faculty to better prepare them to provide accessible instruction. Moreover, as universities seek to expand access to mental health services, they need to leverage technology-based interventions that do not just introduce new ways of offering services but also enable scaling of those services to multiple students online.

Ninth, as learning and student life move seamlessly across digital, physical, and social experiences, issues of data protection and privacy become more pressing than ever. Protecting personal data especially relating to students has to be a priority through the provision of safe storage options and the development of policies and practices that are transparent and ethical. Students are generally comfortable with the institutional use of their personal data as long as it helps them achieve their own academic goals, but not for other gratuitous purposes. Thus, they need to know and have confidence in how the institution collects, stores, protects and uses their personal data, and be able to view, update, and opt out.

The proliferation of online harassment especially against women and people from marginalised groups requires institutional protections including creating codes of conduct against clearly defined online harassment, fostering an anti-harassment culture, and developing a centralised system of reporting and tracking. Growing dependence on digital technologies increases cyber security risks that require robust mitigation capabilities including conducting information security awareness campaigns.

Tenth, in so far as the market for online programmes is transnational, it is essential for universities to pay special attention to international students who face unique barriers in an online learning environment that require special redress. Generally, African universities are not serious players in the international education market. Online education opens new opportunities. The key barriers international students face in the virtual classroom include time differences, hard deadlines, limited connectivity and access, lack of learning space, lack of scheduled support,  lack of language support for non-native or secondary speakers of the language of instruction, remote class culture, invisible support, social isolation and racial discrimination.

The solutions include adopting asynchronous learning, allowing flexible timelines, providing connectivity support, offering safe learning spaces, replicating the class structure, providing language support, setting digital expectations early, building cultural bridges, providing remote support services, and practicing micro-inclusions by encouraging “teachers, staff and students to use subtle, inclusive ways to show international students they are welcome and valued” and establishing safe “virtual” spaces for international and marginalised students and faculty to talk openly.

Eleventh, higher education institutions must develop meaningful partnerships with external constituencies and stakeholders including digital technology and telecommunication companies. As the demands for return on investment increase from students and their families, as well as the state and society, pressures are growing on universities to demonstrate their value proposition and social impact. This translates into the question of graduate employability, closing the much-bemoaned mismatches between educational qualifications and the economy. This entails strengthening experiential learning and work-based learning, which requires strengthening connections with employers. Virtual learning not only necessitates and opens new ways of engaging industry, the economy and society, it also creates huge demands for digital skills for the emerging jobs of the 21st century.

Higher education institutions must develop meaningful partnerships with external constituencies and stakeholders including digital technology and telecommunication companies.

Twelfth, the stakes for research have been raised for African higher education institutions. All along they have been expected to actively produce both basic and applied research and generate innovations that address the pressing problems of African communities, countries, continent, and Africa’s place in the world. However, levels of research productivity have remained generally low. Universities also have a responsibility to promote research and data driven policy and decision-making. Following the disruptions and digital opportunities engendered by COVID-19, universities will increasingly be expected to anchor their research and innovation in the technological infrastructure that supports and enhances the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa.

Research, innovation and technological infrastructure

As noted earlier, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is disrupting and transforming every sector. A critical facet of the technological revolution is advancing research and turning hindsight into insight to make our world a better place whether its gene sequencing, predictive medicine, climate research, economic modelling, manufacturing with computer aided design or financial services trading and risk management.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has produced numerous reports showing how the data-driven technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are shaping the future of advanced manufacturing and production; consumer industries; energy, materials and infrastructure; financial and monetary systems; health and healthcare; investing; media, entertainment and sport; mobility through the creation of autonomous vehicles; and trade and global economic interdependence.

In its report, The Future Jobs Report 2020, the WEF forecasts massive changes in the jobs landscape by as soon as 2025. The report contends, “we estimate that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms, across the 15 industries and 26 economies covered by the report”. It identifies the top ten emerging jobs as: Data Analysts and Scientists, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Specialists, Big Data Specialists, Digital Marketing and Strategy Specialists, Process Automation Specialists, Business Development Professionals, Digital Transformation Specialists, Information Security Analysts, Software and Applications Developers, and Internet of Things Specialists, in that order.

Digital upskilling.

Digital upskilling. Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Conversely, the top ten declining jobs mentioned are: Data Entry Clerks, Administrative and Executive Secretaries, Accounting, Bookkeeping and Payroll Clerks, Accountants and Auditors, Assembly and Factory Workers, Business Services and Administration Managers, Client Information and Customer Service Workers, General and Operations Managers, Mechanics and Machinery Repairers, Material-Recording and Stock-Keeping Clerks.

“Data is the new oil” headlines abound and countries that can harness this data to extract value will have a significant competitive advantage. Data is even more valuable than oil, whose reserves on the planet are fixed. As Adam Schlosser notes, “Unlike oil, increasing amounts of data are being generated at a pace that’s hard to fathom: in the next two years, 40 zettabytes of data will be created – an amount so large that there is no useful framing exercise to demonstrate its size and scope. It’s roughly equivalent to 4 million years of HD video or five billion Libraries of Congress . . .. Unlike oil, the value of data doesn’t grow by merely accumulating more. It is the insights generated through analytics and combinations of different data sets that generate the real value.”

Thus, harnessing data, advancing research and drawing insights requires advances in computing and specifically High Performance Computing or HPC. There is an intersection between technologies that are driven by the pertinent needs of the 21st century workplaces such as Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data etc. and high performance computing. Huge technological strides in the development of hardware technology and computing architectures have played a big role towards making it possible for complex machine learning algorithms to be used to resolve real world problems and challenges from climate change to disease pandemics.

It is noteworthy that the future jobs mentioned above in areas such as Data Analytics, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics will require advanced computing technologies and performance in order to support the operational roles that employees will play in organisations.  Notwithstanding the financial pressures that the COVID-19 pandemic has visited on Africa, the continent has to make strategic and smart investments in the digitalisation of its economies, societies, and educational institutions. At most it has a decade to do so if it is not to be permanently left behind by the rest of the world.

During the First Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century Africa was reduced to providing labour for the Atlantic Slave Trade that developed EuroAmerica and underdeveloped the continent. Under the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, colonised Africa supplied raw materials that deepened its dependency. Africa participated in the Third Industrial Revolution of the late-20th century as a collection of neo-colonial peripheries. In exchange for its labour Africa received trinkets, its raw materials fetched a pittance on world markets, and later the backward post-colonies were sold “appropriate technologies”. Now, the continent is even paying dearly for the privilege of exporting its data!

The danger of remaining peripheral to the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa is not exploitation and marginalisation, but historical irrelevance as noted earlier, becoming a landmass of disposable people. Critics caution that Africa should not embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the risk of “premature de-industrialisation”. Others warn of the dangers of data manipulation and cyberattacks and that the continent is not ready, an argument that condemns Africa to eternal technological underdevelopment. On the contrary, as Ndung’u and Signé, argue, the transformative potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa is substantial. It promises to promote economic growth and structural transformation; fight poverty and inequality; reinvent labour skills and production; increase financial services and investment; modernise agriculture and agro-industries; and improve health care and human capital.

In order to play a pivotal role in the 4th Industrial revolution, African higher education institutions need a change of mind set and to recognise their role as centres for teaching and learning, research, knowledge and technology transfer to current and future generations. They need to collaborate among themselves and with industry, government and other key players to undertake research, innovation, and develop digital technologies that address the continent’s most enduring and difficult needs and opportunities, not simply consume technologies produced by others.

The danger of remaining peripheral to the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Africa is not exploitation and marginalisation, but historical irrelevance.

Africa’s leading research universities need to reinvent themselves by using advanced technologies such as HPC that support supply of human resources for the jobs of the future, as well as training faculty that have the requisite skills and competency to equip students with the skills required to take up those jobs. The digital transformation agenda has huge implications on universities’ institutional capacities, financial resources, human capital in relation to development and delivery of curricula and technological infrastructures. Currently, the continent’s HPC capacity is abysmally low as shown below.

Data presented at the HPC conference held at USIU-Africa and the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in December 2017 underscored Africa’s insignificant capability for the high performance computing that is essential for the digital revolution as evident in Figure 2.

The need and rationale for HPC in Africa is self-evident. It is simply unacceptable for a continent of 1.2 billion people to have negligible HPC capacity that is so essential for research, innovation and development. The African continent faces several socio-economic and political challenges, scores low on research and innovation indices, and is plagued by the persistent challenges of “brain drain” with some of the best and brightest people often leaving the continent in search of “greener pastures” including access to research infrastructures, higher pay and an appreciation for innovation. Nevertheless, Africa is posting impressive economic growth rates and has one of the youngest populations in the world. Technology is making a dramatic impact in Africa and Africa’s rate of technology adoption is unprecedented as evident in Figure 5. The mobile phone and internet are increasingly widely available.

Figure 5: Kenya's rapid adoption of technology (source World Development Report 2016)

Figure 4: Kenya’s rapid adoption of technology (source World Development Report 2016)

For Africa to competitively contribute to research and innovation and to find home-grown solutions to its socio-economic challenges, it is important that measures are taken which will provide the continent with access to cutting-edge computing technologies from hardware to software that have become essential for research, innovation, growth and jobs. Africa must invest in High Performance Computing platforms because modern scientific discovery involves very high computing power and the capability to deal with massive volumes of data. Otherwise, the continent will miss out on major advances in research and innovation in the digital age.

It is estimated that a $1 HPC Investment on average yields $463 in revenue and $44 in added profit. HPC can help solve Africa’s challenges, such as:

  • Climate Change: climate research and weather prediction are critical if Africa is to weather the ravages of climate change. Predicting weather accurately can enable countries to make better long-term food security policies, environmental policies and interventions and even security policies.
  • Health and life sciences: gene sequencing, molecular research and bio-physical simulations can all support the development of effective medicine and vaccines for critical diseases like Malaria and HIV in Africa; and explore Africa’s abundance of natural remedies. Epidemic modelling can predict disease spread so that governments and healthcare providers can make appropriate interventions.
  • Oil, gas and mineral exploration: Africa has an abundance of natural resources and access to HPC platforms can speed up seismic analysis which can speed up exploration and exploitation.
  • Growth of industry and SMEs: Industry and SMEs are increasingly dependent on the power of supercomputers to discover innovative solutions, cut costs and reduce time to market for products and services (European Commission, 2017). Sectors such as retail, manufacturing and financial services could benefit from HPC for data analysis for insights and innovation.
  • Economic research: economic modelling using big and open data would lead to insights and contribute to evidence-based policy making.
  • Research Collaboration: Increase research collaboration between Africa and other parts of the world. Having local capacity for large data processing means African scientists can better contribute to the global research agenda, provide tools for wider collaboration with research colleagues, and stimulate increased awareness, utilisation and application of high performance computing in the sectors identified in Figure 1 above.

It is evident from Figure 1 and Figure 2 above that despite the potential that HPC for promoting collaborative research and innovation in various sectors of the world economy, hardly any effort has been made towards harnessing this huge potential on the African continent. There have been HPC initiatives in several countries in the past, including Ghana, Kenya, Congo, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Cameroon. Clearly, these efforts have not gone far.

There is need to develop HPC technical design and management skills etc., leverage initiatives and build synergy through discussions with potential partners including research programmes, networks and institutions, university communities, associations and institutions, donors, development partners, and philanthropists, governments, intergovernmental agencies, and the private sector.

It is simply unacceptable for a continent of 1.2 billion people to have negligible HPC capacity that is so essential for research, innovation and development.

To conclude, building digital capacities including information literacy for students at one end and HPC infrastructures at the other end is essential for dealing with the development and employment challenges of today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. Digital capabilities and skills are not good to have, but are a must-have. They are essential to support effective development of solutions to address societal/scientific/industrial challenges in Africa, and the development of innovations, products and services.

This will lead to job creation; building computing capacity that will create new opportunities for both scientific applications and computing technologies; support for growth and competitiveness in industry and Africa’s economy through round-the-clock availability and utilisation of HPC systems and services; and enhance South-South and South-North collaboration in education, research and development.

We invite you to join African universities in this great calling and journey to transform higher education on this continent to educate, skill, and empower the youth to fully participate in their countries’ socioeconomic development. At stake is not only their future, but the future of the African continent and humanity itself, as much of this humanity becomes increasingly African.

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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger. He is the Associate Provost and North Star Distinguished Professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Long Reads

Pan-Africanism in the Age of Globalization

This is the first of a two-part series that assesses the historical progress of the Pan-African movement and considers the global political economy, the relevance of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century and its potential to impact economic and political development within Africa and its diaspora.

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Pan-Africanism in the Age of Globalization
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In the last century many African states have experienced political decolonization and witnessed the spread of democracy. Considering developments in the current international economic order, many members of the African diaspora believe African descendants have prospered since Africa’s decolonization and the independence era. However, while some members of the African diaspora have experienced substantially less discrimination, the nature of the capitalist global economy hardly conceals the fact that it inherently devalues Africans and their descendants. Furthermore, internationally, members of the African diaspora suffer gross human rights violations daily due to the remnants of the colonial era, namely, slavery and racialism. Despite attempts by international organizations to address the issues created by the exploitation of Africans, their subjugation is widespread and not limited to the continent, as diaspora Africans experience discrimination in developed nations such as the United States, Britain, France, and many others.

This essay was developed to investigate the development of the Pan-African movement within Africa and offer suggestions for its application in the 21st century and beyond. The purpose of this study is to critically assess the history of the Pan-African movement, with respect to the global political economy, and analyse the potential of the movement to contribute to the political and economic development of Africa in the 21st century. Moreover, this study seeks to highlight some of the significant ways African-led development has been hindered by capitalism and offer suggestions for the Pan-African movement to experience revitalization beyond 2022, despite capitalist obstructions. This study examines the relationship between capitalism and the Pan-African movement, noting that the former created conditions necessary for the latter, as members of the African diaspora experience the negative aspects of the current international economic order such as dehumanization, degradation based on racialism and ethnicity, and poverty (economic underdevelopment).

The essay is a qualitative analysis and consists of two parts; the first assesses the historical progress of the Pan-African movement while the second considers the global political economy, the relevance of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century and its potential to impact economic and political development within Africa and its diaspora. The historical analysis of African development via capitalist models notes that the international system is fundamentally capitalist and limits any independent (African-led) development in Africa. This examination of world politics and economics is critical because it addresses externalities that ultimately affected Africa and the African diaspora, creating the conditions necessary for Pan-African attempts at development. This study examines Pan-Africanism in practice and historical attempts to create international African unity. The latter analysis attempts to investigate the relevance of the Pan-African movement in the 21st century and beyond, as the momentum of the movement has waned since Africa’s independence era. Finally, this essay attempts to analyse whether or not Pan-Africanism can catalyse development in Africa and the diaspora and offers an egalitarian and humanitarian application and treatment of Pan-Africanism (Black Equalism) to present a new perspective of how the movement can achieve its goals beyond 2022.

Pan-Africanism in practice: Historical attempts at international African unity 

The 1900s-1920s: Pan-Africanism’s early period

During the 20th century, as advocates of Pan-Africanism made efforts to institutionalize their ideas and create formal organizations to complement the work of Pan-Africanist intellectuals, the first meeting took place in London (1900), and was organized by Henry Sylvester Williams of Trinidad. The meeting was designed to bring together peoples of African descent to discuss Pan-Africanist ideas, and was attended by several prominent Blacks from Africa, Great Britain, the West Indies, and the United States, with W.E.B. DuBois being perhaps the most prominent member of the US delegation. The first formal convening to bear the title “Pan-African Congress” took place in 1919 in Paris and was called by DuBois. Two years later, a second Pan-African Congress convened over three sessions in London, Brussels, and Paris, and produced a declaration that criticized European colonial domination in Africa and the unequal state of relations between white and Black races, and called for a reasonable distribution of the world’s resources. The declaration also challenged the rest of the world to either create conditions of equality in the places where people of African descent lived or to recognize the “rise of a great African state founded in Peace and Goodwill.” In 1923, the third Pan-African Congress took place in London, England and Lisbon, Portugal and called for development in Africa to benefit Africans rather than being an instrument of European profit. The third congress also called for home rule and an improved government in British West Africa and the British West Indies, the abolition of white minority rule in Kenya, Rhodesia, and South Africa, and the illegalization of lynching and mob law in the United States. The fourth Pan-African Congress took place in New York City in 1927 and was the first convening held in North America, and its resolutions were similar to those of the third Pan-African Congress.

The 1930s-1950s: Pan-Africanism’s developmental period

Migration is a key theme in Africa and its Diaspora Since 1935, as J.E. Harris and S. Zeghidour provide context about the efforts of diaspora Africans to develop institutions and international mechanisms that could be used to assist Africans on the continent and diaspora Africans alike. The colonial powers did not empower Africans or facilitate the development of adequate education, healthcare, transportation, or public service systems and administration, and as a result, foreign higher education opportunities were desirable for African students. The authors uphold that “The number of African students going into Europe and the United States increased greatly between 1935 and 1960 and quite a substantial number of them never returned home.”

In their subsections The Africans in the Diaspora since 1935, The Fifth Pan-African Congress, Expanding Horizons of African Consciousness, and The Challenge, the authors provide accounts of the international efforts of diaspora Africans and continental Africans to collaborate nationally and transnationally, organize themselves, acquire political sovereignty, and determine their political, economic, and social destiny. In the United States, William Leo Hansberry, Ralph Bunche, and William Steen collaborated with Hosea Nyabongo, a Ugandan, and Malaku Bayen, an Ethiopian, and organized Blacks from Africa and the diaspora to form the Ethiopian Research Council (ERC) in 1934 to spread information about Ethiopia and garner support for African causes. Through the collaborative efforts of individuals such as C.L.R. James, the International African Friends of Ethiopia (IAFE) was established in England in 1936, as well as the International African Service Bureau (IASB) in 1937. Later, Britain saw the development of the Pan-African Publishing Company, through the efforts of Guyanese businessman George Thomas Nathaniel Griffith (T. Ras Makonnen), Dr Peter Milliard, Jomo Kenyatta, and George Padmore.

“The number of African students going into Europe and the United States increased greatly between 1935 and 1960 and quite a substantial number of them never returned home.”

In 1937, emissary and Howard University Medical School graduate, Malaku Bayen and his African-American wife Dorothy Hadley formed the Organization of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) in the United States and later established the publication The Voice of Ethiopia, described as a paper for the “vast universal Black Commonwealth and friends of Ethiopia everywhere”. The EWF was instrumental and influential as branches were established throughout the United States and the Caribbean, and news from its newsletters spread to Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Panama, Jamaica, Honduras, Venezuela, Nigeria, and other places. The year 1937 also saw the establishment of the International Committee on Africa – which later became the Council on African Affairs in 1941 – by Max Yergan, Paul Robeson, and William Alphaeus Hunton. The Council was created to “promote the political liberation of Africans and the advancement of their social and economic status through the dissemination of relevant and current information, facilitation of training for Africans in Europe and America, and arrangement of mutual exchange of visits and cooperation among African people”, and engaged in a variety of activities before ultimately dissolving in 1955 due to its perspective, which was increasingly radical and critical of American political and economic decisions with regard to African issues.

The Pan-African movement faded from the international scene until 1945 when the fifth Pan-African Congress was held in Manchester, England. Kuryla notes that Pan-Africanist leadership had largely transferred from African Americans to Africans by the mid-1940s, and Nkrumah, Kenyatta, and Padmore played the most prominent roles at the fifth congress, with the only African American present being DuBois. As mentioned, the fifth Pan-African Congress called for the political decolonization of African states from European imperialism. The themes of the congress featured a combination of the intellectualism of W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey’s pragmatism, and inspired attendants to focus on the struggle for liberation in Africa. This congress was also significant because it was the first to be spearheaded by British-based organizations and organizers, as historian Hakim Adi notes; the four previous convenings were largely organized under the auspices of Dubois and the US-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The fifth congress was also unique because it involved continental Africans as well as more descendants from the African diaspora such as Afro-Caribbeans.

Pan-Africanist leadership had largely transferred from African Americans to Africans by the mid-1940s.

Moreover, as noted by historian Saheed Adejumobi in The Pan-African Congresses, 1900–1945,  while previous congresses had been largely controlled by Black middle-class British and American intellectuals who emphasized the betterment of colonial conditions, the 1945 Manchester meeting was dominated by delegates from Africa and Africans working or studying in Britain, who also galvanized the support of workers, trade unionists, and the growing radical sector of the African student population.

The 1960s-1970s: Pan-Africanism’s active period

After the fifth Pan-African Congress of 1945, Pan-Africanism continued to develop and fragment into distinctive schools of thought with varying frameworks and methods for addressing the economic, political, and social conditions Africans experienced in Africa and throughout the diaspora. By the 1960s, influential leaders, intellectuals, writers and activists such as Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Alioune Diop, Dr Walter Rodney, Stokely Carmichael, John Henrik Clarke and others developed the consciousness of Black Americans and African descendants around the world, to the point where African and Black studies became mandatory and the Black studies movement developed. As academics, politicians, diplomats, activists, artists, and others approached the topic of African independence and economic and political equity for African descendants, the varying perspectives led to the creation of different cultural, political, and development organizations. Pan-Africanism continued to evolve and focus on aspects such as racial Pan-Africanism, or uniting African descendants based on racial classification and social hierarchy, and continental Pan-Africanism, which sought to unite around issues facing the continent of Africa and African descendants world-wide.

S.K.B. Asante and David Chanaiwa’s subsection Pan-Africanism and Regional Integration peruses historical attempts of African states to work towards economic, political, cultural, regional, and social development and alignment utilizing Pan-African ideals in diplomacy, state governance, and economic and political development. Due to the efforts of Kwame Nkrumah and other pivotal state and liberation movement leaders, African states saw a revival of thought leadership and social preference in collective political and economic activities which supported Africans amid their colonial experience, with liberation and sovereignty becoming political preferences. Colonial histories ultimately influenced African states and independence movements as former colonies aligned themselves into regional blocks which supported foreign affairs that were considered pro-East or pro-West. In turn, African leaders divided their nations based on geopolitical interests, and in 1961, Ghana, Guinea, Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Libya and the Algerian government-in-exile formed the Casablanca Group, while the remainder of the French colonies and Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone formed the Monrovia Group. The former supported Nkrumah’s proposal for a United States of Africa, and consisted of militant, socialist, and non-aligned leaders in Africa who supported centralized continental economic integration and cultural restoration, while the latter supported a flexible confederation of independent sovereign African states.

Edem Kodjo and David Chanaiwa also discuss the history of the Charter of African Unity in Pan-Africanism and Liberation. The Charter was signed on 25 May 1963, with the heads of states of the following nations present: Algeria, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville (the Republic of the Congo), Congo-Leopoldville (the Democratic Republic of Congo), Côte d’Ivoire, Dahomey (Benin), Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanganyika, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, the United Arab Republic, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), and Zanzibar. With the creation of the Organization of African Unity, Pan-Africanism began to manifest its ideals on the international stage in the political realm and eventually in geopolitics.

The authors also explore some of the early distinctions between Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism – the former being predicated on racial unification and liberation, while the latter focused on the religious unification and liberation of Islam and its supporters. The distinctions between Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism also manifested themselves in the form of Black Africans from Sub-Saharan Africa as opposed to fairer-skinned individuals who were descendants of African peoples from the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Anglophone African states developing tensions with Francophone African states due to colonial histories, wars of independence, and economic interests.

Overall, a central theme of Kodjo and Chanaiwa’s analysis of Pan-Africanism is that the ideology focuses on the liberation of Black people in general and Africans in particular. The primary bonds that united African nations and Pan-Africanists were the anti-colonial movement, the anti-racialism movement, and the non-alignment movement. Although there were many regional integration efforts toward Pan-African cooperation, this also created more division in response to colonialism as each African state had its own unique political and economic struggles based on its respective interests. The economic self-interest of African states usually resulted in or stemmed from Western intervention or involvement in African affairs.

The primary bonds that united African nations and Pan-Africanists were the anti-colonial movement, the anti-racialism movement, and the non-alignment movement.

Asante and Chanaiwa discuss Pan-Africanism, regionalism, and economic development, as well as the extra-regional efforts of international organizations and agencies with operations in Africa. The authors note that Africa is central to the world’s future politically, socially, and economically. However, considering regionalism, the interdependence of African states and need for internal sustenance, the current global political economy and economic arrangement is hierarchical and stands to deplete Africa more than benefit its states. Due to the existing structures and international systems of economics, and the political dependencies of African nations on their former colonizers, the authors note that African nations seeking Pan-African ideals should seek alignment with the interests of developing nations rather than with Western powers that seek to extract from Africa.

A third wave of migration developed in the 1960s, and the primary cause of African migration to Europe and America transformed yet again, although this time the focus was not on those who wanted to develop and gain skills and knowledge, but on the technocrats who already possessed highly specialized skills and qualifications. This phenomenon is considered a “brain drain”, as highly qualified professionals such as engineers, doctors, businessmen and women, scientists, artists, musicians, and lecturers migrated from Africa in alarming numbers and moved all around the world. The prospect of relocating was significant because it represented a new form of social status, which symbolized that an individual (as a representative of Africa) had “arrived” intellectually and politically. However, this did not change the social and political conditions of Africa, nor did it change the social conditions that diaspora Africans experienced abroad as “Blackness” was still equated with inferiority.

African nations also experienced what the authors consider “gender drain” as “semiliterate, qualified, and unqualified” African women sought fortune in the Americas and Europe via opportunities such as nursing, smuggling, or drug trafficking, and “semieducated, unskilled and untrained” African men sought fortune and affluence outside of Africa via manual labor, smuggling, or drug trafficking as well.

The prospect of relocating was significant because it represented a new form of social status, which symbolized that an individual had “arrived” intellectually and politically.

The sixth congress took place in 1974 in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, which served as a key location for bringing people together, as many of the organizers wanted to establish direct connections between African liberation movements and African Americans. The meeting was the first Pan-African Congress to take place in Africa, gave a stronger voice to liberation movements, and moved beyond the nationalist agenda of the Organization of African Unity in defining the principles of African liberation. In the late 1960s, Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere went to Harlem, New York and issued an invitation to African Americans to come to Tanzania to assist in building a socialist African state. As a result of these efforts, the number of African Americans in Tanzania increased and a number of members from the diaspora were instrumental in organizing the convening, including Sam Dove, a consultant to the Tanzanian government, and Bill Sutherland, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a founder of the American Committee on Africa (ACA), and a consultant to President Nkrumah. In the declaration of the Sixth Pan African Congress, the call was that henceforth “Pan Africanism was informed by the class struggle internationally”. According to Dr Sylvia Hill, professor of criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia, who served as one of the key organizers for “Six PAC”, despite the differences and disagreements among delegates from the US and the Caribbean, there were many positive developments. Hill mentions the significance of the sixth congress in raising the consciousness of African liberation movements within the diaspora, particularly in the case of Southern Africa as she highlights the Free South Africa Movement.

The 1980s-1990s: Pan-Africanism’s waning period

The seventh and final Pan-African Congress of the 20th century, was convened in Kampala, Uganda, in April 1994. The declaration of the 7th Pan-African Congress was that African peoples everywhere should resist recolonization, and the primary motivation behind the convening was to reverse the depoliticization and the demobilization of the African peoples post-20th century reorganization of the international system. Significant developments of the 7th Pan-African Congress included the historic recognition of the participants of the Pre-Congress Women’s Meeting who called for “Pan-Africanism to break out of its male-centered mold and to stop silencing women who were at the forefront of the Pan-African struggle on a daily basis, although previous Pan-African convenings were primarily organized by men”; the establishment of a permanent secretariat that would be hosted by an African state (the Ugandan government offered) and would be responsible for convening meetings of the designated regions of the Pan-African world in an effort to improve the effectiveness of the political work of the Pan-African movement and move beyond the individualism and periodic organizing of convenings that highlighted the ideas of eminent persons; regarding the special place of the youth in the reconstruction and renewal of the African peoples, the organization of special meetings within and outside the congress by youths from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda along with the youths from the Southern African delegation; and the recognition of the ideological differences among the male adherents of Pan-Africanism in North American territories which consisted of Afrocentric Pan-Africanists, grassroots organizers and activists, workers, urban youth and the homeless, and members of the Nation of Islam and other religion organizations.

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Long Reads

The EPRDF Coalition Had One Job: Loosen the Hold of the Empire-State 

The EPRDF coalition that ousted Colonel Mengistu’s Derg regime had one job: to loosen the suffocating bonds through which the empire-state had had been created. It failed.

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The EPRDF Coalition Had One Job: Loosen the Hold of the Empire-State 
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Hopes for peace in Ethiopia have been revived with the signing of a peace treaty—as the signatories have called it—between the Ethiopian government and the leaders of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), at the very start of November.

This is the first concrete step any participants or mediators have taken in bringing the truly epic levels of killing and destruction to an end since the TPLF insisted on its right to go ahead with organizing (and winning) elections in the Tigray region in open defiance of the decision of the federal government (from which the TPLF had recently withdrawn) to suspend all scheduled elections ostensibly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Arguments over who had the right to organize or ban elections soon brought out the underlying grievances over what were the respective rights and powers between the regional governments and the central government ever since the TPLF’s loss of power over the country as a whole, due to the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed systematically dismantling the putative federal arrangements put in place by the TPLF-dominated armed coalition when it came to power in 1991.

Open warfare followed soon after, and, on top of drawing in Ethiopia’s northern neighbour Eritrea, which borders the Tigray region, it created all the usual results: destroyed livelihoods, death, bodily injuries, human displacement and a lot of mutual propaganda.

That was 2020, and nothing, not even the burning of churches and monasteries long held up as symbols of civilizational pride by all of official Ethiopia, seemed able stop the carnage.  It is therefore of particular significance that this initiative has been implemented by African leadership under the auspices of the African Union.

Prior to that, even just bringing these two belligerents to the negotiating table had proven to be beyond everyone, including the United States which had recently made attempts.

Despite this, the leaders and guarantors may eventually have to face up to the perennial question of Ethiopian politics, namely that, if this agreement does not address the reason why wars keep breaking out in Ethiopia, will it actually be able to end them?

This question lies at the very heart of the problem. A fundamental outcome of the treaty is that it works to keep Ethiopia intact. This is written in the document. Yet, for many of its peoples, the two fundamental problems with Ethiopia are first, that it exists and second, how the country came to exist in the first place.

In general, the mainstream intellectual, political and diplomatic traditions of Africa still remain very wary of, and therefore uninformed and under-educated about, the perennial question of indigenous African ethnicity that has rumbled on beneath any conflict on the continent over the last five to seven decades. As a result, they offer remedies premised on the same negligence. What they do have in common with the Western European powers that birthed this crisis, is an overly reflexive hostility to indigenous identity which is seen as an existential threat to their dream of modern African state-building.

Modern Ethiopia is a perfect home for this mind-set to take root and get stuck, and the South African peace treaty is largely a loftily-worded example of that: a glorified ceasefire that seeks to mitigate the worst effects of that which it has not yet acknowledged as broken. Just as one would keep replacing an unevenly worn out front car tyre without addressing the underlying poor wheel alignment that is causing it.

This is masked in the venerable “never been colonized” mantra that frames much internal and external thinking about the place. But the fact is that modern Ethiopia (as opposed to ancient Abyssinia) is a product of imperial European political games in Africa and so suffers the same pathologies of that legacy as does the rest of Africa.

In this, both belligerent parties to the treaty are to blame, because deep down, they are both wedded to the deep-seated notion of an Ethiopian empire-state made in the image of Abyssinian cultures, found in what is now the northern areas of the vast country. Their historical point of conflict has simply been over which branch of Abyssinian culture—Tigrayan or Amhara—would control and define that state.

The fact is that modern Ethiopia is a product of imperial European political games in Africa.

The TPLF leadership is even more to blame because it had the opportunity to break this historical cycle when it was part of the armed Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that brought down the Mengistu regime in 1991 after decades of war. Instead, it turned on the other coalition partners and worked to consolidate the same empire-state at the behest of its Western imperialist new best friends, who remain ever concerned with both its resources, and the need to keep Islamic nationalism at bay through the Horn and up to the Gulf (as they did with founding emperor Menelik, Selassie his eventual successor, and failed with Mengistu, despite his initial friendliness towards them).

This TPLF gambit lasted nearly three whole decades, during which time the party elite worked to play the role previous Amhara elites had played in enriching, developing their own regions, and guaranteeing the global imperial grip on the Ethiopian economy.

This can be confirmed by an answer by Lt. Gen. Tsadkan Gebretensae, head of the Tigray military effort (who will go down in history as an absolute military genius in enabling Tigray to thwart what should have been a short and absolute rout by the much better placed Ethiopian state) in explaining some of the reasons for their battlefield success during an interview on July 6 2021:

“[W]hen this thing started it was very clear that the most senior, most highly experienced commanders are from Tigray, which has been the backbone of the Ethiopian armed forces for the last thirty years…”

This is my second time to make reference to it, and for two reasons.

First, there is this bald fact that the leaders of a region whose population makes up less than 10 per cent of the entire Ethiopian population organised to ethnically monopolize an institution as key as the armed forces for nearly three decades.

Second, that in the untroubled nature of his response, devoid of any sense of irony, the General saw absolutely nothing untoward about this level of exceptionalist self-regard. Despite his military genius, he seems not to have grasped the political reality that the very thing that he is appreciating about Tigray’s conduct in the war is the very thing that created support for the war against Tigray in the first place: a deep antipathy towards Tigray by the rest of the country due to a memory of the TPLF’s self-serving culture while in power.

It is this political culture, steeped in a very insular and almost complete lack of self-awareness, which drives the cyclical violence of Abyssinian-dominated Ethiopian politics.

Essentials of the treaty

The treaty rotates around principles already set out in Ethiopia’s constitution, and in the African Union and United Nations protocols and charters to which Ethiopia is already a signatory. Moreover, the TPLF was once the government of Ethiopia, so it would also be very familiar with them.

It is as if someone ripped open one of those wholesale sacks of mitumba and all the used clothes came tumbling out to be sorted, and re-sold for re-use. In this case, it is a bundle of used and tired Peace Studies phrases and platitudes that have come spilling out. It remains to be seen if anyone will be buying them this time.

Within that, there are some hard requirements. In essence, the TPLF is expected to disband the Tigray Defence Force, the only thing that stood (as I said, brilliantly, by any military measure) between the Tigrayan people and total annihilation.

There is a commitment to stopping the involvement of outside actors. This would essentially mean Eritrea, which stepped in on the side of the Ethiopian government, sending forces into Tigray’s north to devastating effect.

There is the requirement that the TPLF sever all ties to other armed groups it may have been working with. This basically means the reformed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) which is led by a faction that rejected earlier disarmament deals made between the original (and long-suffering) OLF, and the then incoming regime of current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during his honeymoon period.

This is curious, because it essentially means that neither the TPLF, nor the Abiy government see the Oromo war as a matter requiring consideration in its own right. What the TPLF in particular has done, is to elect to make its own peace with the government, and basically abandon another actor with whom it was in formal alliance.

The word “Oromo”, and much less the name “Oromo Liberation Front”, appears nowhere in the entire peace document. The native question in Ethiopia, as in the rest of the continent, is once again rendered invisible.

It is this political culture, steeped in a very insular and almost complete lack of self-awareness, which drives the cyclical violence of Abyssinian-dominated Ethiopian politics.

The Oromo people, who make up nearly 40 per cent of Ethiopia’s population and are therefore the single largest nationality, have had a permanently troubled relationship with Abyssinianism since it was expanded into their territories, thus creating “Ethiopia”, a century and a half ago. It forms the template for how all the other non-Abyssinian peoples of the new country were conquered.

Their armed resistance to it peaked with their being part of the 1991 post-Mengistu EPRDF coalition. As said, this did not last long as the TPLF used its dominance of the security apparatus to attend to Western bidding and see to it that the agreed full federation of the country was watered down to a few half-measures. This included the then seemingly clever ploy of cloning Oromo nationalism through the invention of alternative Oromo parties that were also placed into the coalition. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s journey to political power began there, as a more TPLF-compliant kind of Oromo. The subsequent terrorizing of the real Oromo nationalists drove them out of the coalition and into silence and exile in less than three years of the creation of the new government. This saga was to continue when Oromo nationalism resurrected itself 25 years later in the form of civil, youth-led protests against the TPLF regime, as Meles Zenawi lay dying from natural causes. Many atrocities were committed against them. But their persistence, and the joining in of other ethnic parties eventually saw the TPLF relinquish internal control of the coalition to new faces. This is how Abiy Ahmed eventually ascended to the premiership of the country.

But Oromo nationalism was still on its own journey. One of Prime Minister Ahmed’s acts during his honeymoon period was to organise the return of all the OLF fighting groups, and their families, that had had been exiled by the TPLF. But the old habits of the Ethiopian empire-state kicked in once again: some fighters suffered mass poisoning at assembly points; the OLF leadership’s agreement to disarm and become a civilian party ran into registration and other obstacles, and the new trust broke down.  This is where the new armed rebellion by a faction now also calling itself OLF—which, amidst these developments, rejected the disarmament deal—began.

The treaty makes some sort of recognition of the fact that the crisis originates in Ethiopian politics. But it is tone-deaf, and therefore half-hearted. It calls for the need for a discussion of the “political differences”, but does not seem to make these either central to the document or conditional upon it. And there seems to be no absolute deadline for when such “discussions” should either begin or end, and what a failure to do so would mean for the rest of the process.

What is more, the matter is reduced to the two actors at the table. But on the one hand, we have the TPLF, a political organisation, once in federal power but now claiming to be the elected leadership of the Tigray region (through elections disputed by the other party), and on the other, the actual government of all of Ethiopia. This seems to be some kind of imbalance, since the root of this particular dispute was a political disagreement inside the EPRDF that resulted in the TPLF pulling out, and the remainder accepting to radically alter the EPRDF’s structure under the direction of Abiy Ahmed, and fully abandon the pretence to federation and return the country to its tradition of highly centralised government.

The question, therefore, is if this is indeed a dispute between the TPLF and the Ethiopian state per se, or simply a dispute between two former factions of a now dead coalition, one of which (the Abiy faction of the old EPRDF), happens to also retain control the Ethiopian state apparatus. The wrong conceptualisation will lead to wrong prescriptions.

The native question in Ethiopia, as in the rest of the continent, is once again rendered invisible.

Because, on the flip side, the Treaty calls for a recognition of “formal” forces, and the acceptance that there can be only one recognized military and security apparatus for the whole of Ethiopia. This amounts to a constitutional amendment, given that what little was implemented of the EPRDF-era federal-lite constitution allowed the different national regions to establish and maintain regional armed forces.

On top of that, the Amhara national region also has an additional ethnic militia called “Fano” that presents itself as the defender of the Amhara people, and is not formally answerable to either the Amhara regional government or the Addis federal one. It just exists as a politico-military fact. What is more, Fano has been very deeply involved in physically “assisting” the central government in the war in Tigray, and is blamed for many of the atrocities there.

When the treaty calls for “disarmament”, disbandment and disassociation, it remains unclear if and how this will be enforceable on those forces that have helped the government wrestle the TPLF to the negotiating table. The same doubt, conceptually, hovers over Eritrea. And in all cases, not least because both militant Amhara nationalism, and Eritrean foreign policy came pre-loaded with a deep animosity towards the TPLF in particular, and by extension, the Tigrayan people as a whole.

Eritrea still smarts from the bitter two-year war it fought with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 over the border town of Badme. The TPLF was, of course, the de facto Ethiopian government at the time. The death toll was upwards of one hundred thousand, and this is a matter that has never been forgotten.

Amhara nationalism has an earlier grievance, what with Meles Zenawi being the first non-Amhara ruler of the empire they believe they founded, and which draws it entire official, cultural and linguistic narrative from their culture. What is more, they held grievances against the Meles regime redrawing homeland boundaries in favour of Tigray, and “resettling” ethnic Tigrayans in lands Meles believed had originally been grabbed by Amhara. This consists of much of western Tigray. This area has now been re-seized, and Amhara nationalists, be they in the formal regional government, or the informal militias, will not be easily persuaded to hand them back. And the best way for them to guarantee that this does not happen, is of course to remain armed.

It is therefore not unkind to wonder if this treaty solves anything, or if it simply reinforces only bad lessons, and brings the war-prone country back to where it once was: on the brink of another war.

Same mistakes

The only reason these talks—and the treaty they have produced—even exist in the first place is because it proved militarily impossible, despite the combined efforts of the formal Ethiopian government forces, the regional Amhara militias as well as the informal militias backed by the physical intervention of Eritrean armed forces to the north, and some hi-tech weaponry from some Gulf states, to completely rout the armed force the TPLF was able to muster in Tigray, despite some truly massive losses and setbacks.

But both sides have since discovered the reality that it is very difficult to maintain a large-scale and high intensity war when neither of side manufactures the weapons and weapons systems needed to do so (a reality similar to the one dawning only slowly on the armed forces of Ukraine).

Once again, the future of all the peoples of Ethiopia is reduced to an inter-Abyssinian duel. This is almost exactly what happened during the 1991 London peace talks.

The TPLF’s participation now in the South African peace talks is basically an echo of how the Meles-led TPLF went on to secure its own interests in that Peace Conference that anticipated the fall of the Mengistu regime, despite being part of a military alliance with both Oromo and Eritrea at the time. Once again, in a display of TPLF self-absorption that borders on the outright narcissism of their late leader Meles Zenawi, they made their own deal to their best ability, in pursuit of their own understanding of what was in their best interests.

As said, their military alliance with the new OLF this time round was not a factor; the TPLF did not make OLF inclusion a condition.

A key difference is that while then they presented from a position of strength, this time they have done so from a position of weakness. But the mind-set remains the same.

The TPLF seem to have lost all memory of how the original OLF was hounded out of the EPRDF back in 1991 due to its conduct. A real peace treaty in Ethiopia should perhaps more take on the form of a review of the political breakdown that began with TPLF one-sided domination of the post-Mengistu political landscape, which has brought us to this point.

Eritrea still smarts from the bitter two-year war it fought with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 over the border town of Badme.

If Tigray does not wish to have its internal affairs dominated by others (the very essence of the 1970s and 1980s national liberation struggles in Ethiopia and elsewhere), then it simply should have made more sincere efforts to neuter the highly centralized nature of the Ethiopian state during its thirty years in government, agreed to during the wars against Mengistu and Haile Selassie before him. Instead, it promoted ethnic nationalism for itself, and suppressed it among others. It used the resources of the whole state towards that promotion, instead of limiting its development to the resources generated from its region. The TPLF wants to have it both ways: when in power, they were the premiere custodians of the empire-state; in particular, they went on to crush and scatter the Oromo nationalist movement after they had agreed to disarm and reorganize in the 1990s.  But once out of power, they now wish to be Ethiopia’s arch-separatists.

The idea of real federation was a sensible middle ground but the TPLF messed that up in exchange for American patronage at the end of the Mengistu regime. In that time Abiy Ahmed was a junior partner in the same regime. Once in power, he also went on to do the same thing to the Oromo movement after 2018, in a series of provocations that have led to the flare-up of fighting in the south.

It is all these realities that have led to all the avoidance, denial and silences reflected in the texture and narrowness of the peace treaty.

The TPLF and the Ethiopian regime may hate each other to the extent the destruction caused by their war has demonstrated. But however intense that hatred is, it is nothing in comparison to the hatred they jointly have for the “pagan” peoples of the south.

Consequences

Perhaps the TPLF’s cunning is finally catching up with it. The EPRDF coalition that ousted Colonel Mengistu’s Derg regime had one job: to loosen the suffocating bonds through which the empire-state had had been created.

But instead of finally dismantling the toxic legacy of the Menelikan state, the TPLF (or more accurately, the Meles Zenawi faction thereof, that controlled the party in order to control the EPRDF coalition in order to control the government that controlled the state), acted as though it would be in power forever. Thus, the West used an inner clique of TPLF to subvert that entire struggle. Now the West has decided to finally fully abandon the TPLF and turn back to the other Abyssinian house to keep the project going.

It is also why the TPLF has no moral grounds to make complaints about the excesses the Abiy government has perpetrated against the Tigray region and its people since the start of the war; by inventing him as a counterweight to actual Oromo nationalists through viciously repressing the original OLF—and ultimately therefore thwarting actual federation—the TPLF is now the teacher being practiced on by his former student.

The peace deal could now give the state a freer hand to focus attention and resources on the south in an attempt to re-establish hegemony over the real asset.

For the native African as a whole, events since 1991 have therefore been an enormous waste of everyone’s time, going back to the optimistic days of the 1980s when, along with organizations like Nabudere’s Uganda National Liberation Front (A-D) and its army, the Azanian Peoples’ Organization (AZAPO), the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, and even Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF, there existed the seeds of wider African Maoist movements, of which the Horn formations were seen as the most successful examples.

Once again, the future of all the peoples of Ethiopia is reduced to an inter-Abyssinian duel.

Just as Mao Zedong developed a “socialism with Chinese characteristics” which began with his armed struggle against the plethora of Western (and later Japanese) empire corporations that had been plundering the China region for over a century, the hope was for a similar uprising in Africa, in which ethnic identity did not have to be cast aside for the sake of “progress”, but became its foundation.

This is why 1991 was so important, and what makes Meles Zenawi’s betrayal at the time so profound and so stupid: in life, there is the ordinary stupidity of straightforward mistakes, and then there is this kind of stupidity that is profound because it mistakes itself for extreme cleverness.

In the course of his long rule, Prime Minister Zenawi managed to make Eritrea an enemy country (despite the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s seed support to what eventually became the TPLF back in the day) through the Badme border war, consolidated the empire-state not least by upgrading its capacity for repression, and severely disrupted the Oromo struggle by oppressing and scattering its then representative organisation (the original OLF).

For the damage done in these past two years of fighting, with most of what Meles did for Tigray probably now laying in ruins, and a lot of what he found destroyed too, and with a scattered and traumatized people, they might as well have just left Mengistu in power.

We need to hear Tigrayan intellectuals give an honest and objective comprehensive review of the now evident disaster that was the empire-based regime of Meles Zenawi, which has simply now caught up with the people of Tigray, him having left other Ethiopians enveloped in it at the time of his 2012 passing.

But “We may be waiting a long time” for that to happen, says an Oromo activist.

What we see now is the end of that sweet Meles-American deal. This is a transition to a new custodian of the empire state, a cobbling together of an old Amhara elite (even some Mengistu-era officers have been wheeled out to offer advice and succour to the Abiy government) working with an expanded base of assimilated and assimilating elites from other parts of the country, especially Oromo petit bourgeois types of which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is emblematic, focused on becoming profitably absorbed into “Ethiopianism” with just a little of their own cultures to add some local flavour.

Many in the Tigray diaspora who were cheering on the fighting they were not directly part of are now very annoyed.  Tigray political culture is normally very self-contained, so it is an annoyance that must be very high indeed, because some of the debates are now spilling out into the public, and even in English.

What they need to understand is that this method of working is exactly how Meles and his cronies were able to sign up to become a tool of US foreign policy, without the rest of the anti-Mengistu coalition knowing, in the run-up to the 1991 London Ethiopia Peace Conference. Now they might be about to have done to them what the TPLF did to the OLF in particular back then.

We need to hear Tigrayan intellectuals give an honest and objective comprehensive review of the now evident disaster that was the empire-based regime of Meles Zenawi.

The TPLF cannot now credibly repudiate the assertion of “one authority” for all Ethiopia (the key clause of the Treaty), because that is what they leaned heavily on, despite the “federation” label of the constitution, when they were in power. If they really believed in the rights of regions within a federal framework, then they should have implemented and guaranteed them for all of Ethiopia’s nations, during their time in government.

This treaty is now part of a process which is a repeat of 1899, 1991, and 2018; it is about keeping the empire state intact, which means it is about keeping Oromo and the wider south under the heel of Abyssinian western-backed power. It means continuing to destroy political voices from the south, both for the regime and the West. It is about putting this dispute between the past and present managers of the empire-state to bed, so that the real business of the empire-state may continue. Despite the depletion of blood and treasure, it is about shutting down a massively distracting side-show.

Implications

Peace agreements historically have often just been ways of buying time, but this document is bad in itself anyway, in as far as it is premised on the affirmation of the empire state.

The problem lies perhaps in the way humanities are taught in Africa: no specificity, no native history. All Africans are tribes eternally in need of a country. This creates a certain type of thinking: there is nothing in the political record of all the key actors in the crisis, and the peace treaty they have agreed to, that suggests any personal commitment to, or capacity for open democratic politics, a regard for human rights, and fair play.  Even in this war alone, there has not been any agreement about humanitarian assistance that has been fully upheld by either side.

Given all of the above—combined with the risk that Amhara-ist triumphalism, which is insisting on framing this as nothing less than an absolute capitulation by TPLF—there is every chance that this treaty will fail. As another Ethiopian put it to me, “Abyssinians don’t believe in choosing peace or negotiation. The only thing that makes sense to them is destroy your enemy totally, or he does the same to you.”

Either the consequences of Meles’ games have completely caught up with them and they have run out of options, or they a planning something.

Nevertheless, with Tigray stilled (however temporarily), the greater attention of the empire-state can be devoted to attempting to crush the armed rebellion in Oromo and Sidama, the real breadbaskets of the country, and hopefully fully restore Pax Menelikana. The economic conditions in the west, with people reduced to begging in the streets, and the drought conditions in the east, have knocked the will to fight out of everybody.

The problem lies perhaps in the way humanities are taught in Africa: no specificity, no native history.

The TPLF have helped to utterly bastardize and discredit the essence and public perception of ethnic nationalism; this war will forever be held up as an example of its “folly”, and an object lesson in the justification for crushing it by any means necessary. This has allowed already sceptical people to now hold up the images from the war as the best evidence as to why “tribalism” is to be avoided at all costs.

What does it mean for the future of native politics? Simply put, it has set the arguments for native struggles back to the 1950s, and offers the arguments for the pseudo-African nationalism built on the former colonial states, a new lease of life.

For those Africans not seeing it, understand this: the AU and the West will now be able to more confidently brush aside objections to widespread slaughter and destruction in pursuit of keeping native politics in its box.

Another possible outcome may now be the end of the TPLF as a political force. Or some fundamental re-branding, at the very least. Certainly, they are headed for a day of reckoning with their own people. The road to this point has to be explained.

However, as long as the Ethiopian state continues to exist in its current form, and as again reiterated in this peace treaty, there is going to be conflict both inside the country, and with some of its neighbours.

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The Lion, the Gazelle and the Mountain: Migration Tales of the Cattle People

In Ateker lands, explanations about the root causes of migration are often elided, not talked about. Centuries since the young walked away from Karamoja, the migration of uninitiated young men is still a sore point.

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The Lion, the Gazelle and the Mountain: Migration Tales of the Cattle People
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The draining emotional stress of the last three years breaks up memory, bringing in hallucinatory waves the past as a refracted landscape. The depth of time grows deceptive so that the last weeks of March 2020 cave into a distant darkness, whereas events that happened before that, like the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals, seem more recent.

The pandemic broke up what I had thought would be a finalising of the then ten-year quest to understand the cultural and identity texture of the region’s migratory patterns. While I bemoaned the breakage, unbeknownst to me, the pandemic lockdown had, rather than interfere with the hard-earned and long-running project (self-funded), offered a very rare glimpse into the heart of the matter itself.

Dodging cattle rustlers’ bullets

I had since 2008 followed the migratory routes and fortunes of the Nilotic peoples of East Africa, and at the time of the lockdown, I had returned from the pastoralist societies straddling Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya and was lining up a place for myself on a convoy to Kangaten, the capital of the Ethiopian Woreda of Nyangatom in the Omo region, on the northern shores of Lake Turkana.

The outbreak of the South Sudan civil war and the constant and armed cattle-rustling had stymied the travel. The civil war was not going to end any time soon, and cattle rustling was as ingrained into the culture of these pastoralist lands as a pancreas is to a stomach. You had then to ascertain where the civil war was and to study the seasonal rise and fall in the rustling calendar (there is such a thing) to know when and where to jump in and out.

Doing all of which seemed to have been for naught as the world’s lights went out in March 2020. You stood frozen to the spot, unable to go over that hill, driven early indoors to watch your mind fall to bits.

And yet that moment of global catastrophe was telling me, in reverse facsimile, the very story of what I had seen as a halted project. A global pandemic lockdown and migrations of the people are metanarratives on such a vast scale that like all metanarratives, are so big that even when they seem unrelated, leave no in-between spaces as small time factors do; they feed on and reflect on each other.

If the “migration of the peoples” is movement on a monumental scale, then a global lockdown is its polar opposite, immobility of a staggering momentousness. It goes without saying that the months of 2020-2021 had turned the globe into a laboratory to show us why human beings, like sand dunes and water, must be constantly on the move.

Stood still, human society, like decaying refuse left in one place too long, stagnates and begins to fester. The rapid depletion of food stores, collapse of economies, environmental meltdown, and the sudden and harsh tyrannical power structures enforcing the lockdown, would have been the chief factors behind the 15th and 16th century disintegration of the society some experts say had settled in roughly the present day location of Kotido in northeastern Uganda.

Christ over Lodwar

As if emphasising the faith of Christians, the last and enduring insight had come from climbing a big hill in Lodwar town to go have a look at the imitation Christ the Redeemer installed to look over Lodwar town, the capital of Turkana in northern Kenya. Under the outstretched arms of Christ, the breadth of Turkana (not its considerable length) can be seen from the haze over Lake Turkana to the East, to the wall of mountains to the West that separate Kenya from Uganda.

The aridity of the Turkana landscape is one that smites the senses, as a colonial-era explorer, the murderous, psychotic Hungarian Count Sámuel Teleki de Szék summed it up:

“I can’t imagine a landscape more barren, dried out and grim. At 1.22 pm (of March 17 1888) the Bassonarok appeared, an enormous lake of blue water dotted with some islands. The northern shores cannot be seen. At its southern end it must be about 20 kilometers wide. As far as the eye can see are barren and volcanic shores.”

The “Bassonarok” is what the Samburu—who pointed it out to Teleki so he could go and “discover” it—called the lake. Teleki promptly names it after his benefactor, the Austro-Hungarian crown prince, Rudolf, who had funded the expedition, as speculation had been that this was a possible source of the River Nile.

This “dried out and grim” landscape is where the migrating Turkana chose to make their home. Little visible in the land justifies this choice, for if migration is a search for the more conducive land as the common view will have it, then on first sight this does not appear to be the place.

If the “migration of the peoples” is movement on a monumental scale, then a global lockdown is its polar opposite, immobility of a staggering momentousness.

As the Turkana themselves will tell you, their ancestors came from across that wall of mountains, from present day Uganda. In contrast to Turkana, the Karamoja region is relatively better watered and drained, with the mix of sufficient pasture and absence of tsetse fly that favours animal husbandry. The often described route of this migration itself confounds the choice.

Whatever it was that was driving the Turkana away was not climate. When I started out on the quest, my aim had been a more general travel through the pastoralist lands of the region. A gargantuan and not well-advised choice given that up to 70 per cent of the Greater Horn of Africa is said to be pastoralist. You have to be a multi-state institution, rather than a self-funding peripatetic writer to undertake such a project.

The first foray out into Turkana lands in 2012 quickly forced me to draw a smaller plan, which still covered southeastern South Sudan, northeastern Uganda, northwestern Kenya and southwestern Ethiopia, a landmass bigger than many countries.

It took all of a decade to do, with some balance left uncleared.

Down the valley

In July 2012, I set off from Kitale on a recceing trip to size up the task, dropping down the escarpment and onto the floor of the Kenyan North Rift. At Kalem Ngorok, I happened to ask what the name of the place meant.

“Hornless cattle”, I was told.

From my formative years in boarding school in Teso in Uganda, I knew that Ngorok meant cattle. I had probably had an inkling of Kalem, but the connection that among the Luo-speaking Lango alem referred to hornless cattle, struck me like thunder out of a clear sky.

As I made my way back to Kitale, the premise upon which I had based the project started to fray and in the months that followed, grew confused, and what Kalem Ngorok had implanted in my mind would not go away.

As the Turkana themselves will tell you, their ancestors came from across that wall of mountains, from present day Uganda.

The pivot away from the original framing meant working out another. The ensuing search sent me scrounging through theology, culinary culture, language, naming systems, clan formation—all areas that yielded valuable knowledge but still did not adequately add up. Without a framework, information is just a pile of meaningless data. But frameworks are not useful just because they exist. The trick was finding one that went to the heart of the matter.

I did not find one; it found me. In the rain-soaked April of 2018, I was determined to make it to South Sudan. My target was Kapoeta, capital of the South Sudan state of Namorunyang. The route that I chose was via Turkana, seeing as it would also be my first time visiting Lodwar, hence bringing the insights that come from contiguity into the mix.

I had by then learnt that the collective terminology by which the pastoralist group I narrowed my quest down to was “Ateker”. But this grouping is too big to look at all at once, so I settled for those who the Ugandan politician, David Pulkol controversially refers to as “core Ateker”—the Karamojong of Uganda, the Turkana of Kenya, the Toposa of South Sudan and the Nyangatom of Ethiopia who oscillate problematically within their collective circle.

In Lodwar, in the shadow of the great gathering of the Ateker peoples in the Tobong Loree festival that brought many Ateker from the region together, conversations yielded a word, “Asapan”. It was to be the turning point.

Bull worship

I liked it for that clipped, exact phonetics of which the Ateker language overflows. I did not pay much attention to it nor think it was more important than the other words and constructions I was meeting. What I liked about it at the time was its cultural texture, describing as it did the male rite of passage from an uninitiated youth to a full man allowed to slaughter bulls. Among the cattle keepers, the bull is held in special, god-like status. There is a becoming complexity to this, for while in economic terms the cow is of greater value, exchanging for 13 goats where the bull will collect only 7 good grade goats, the bull is special for spiritual and cultural purposes. For insight, a young man will have a bull calf pointed out as his. Henceforth, the two grow up as what can only be described as spiritual twins. They will share a name. When a young warrior returns successfully from a battle or raid, he is expected during the celebration to decorate his bull. He is mentioned in reference to his bull. Should his bull have a red coat, he will be given the pet name Apaloreng, and if black, Apalokwang, etc. Stories are told of men going into terminal shock upon the death or abduction of their bulls, and in Kapoeta, I was told that a man whose bull had been rustled, and who followed its track, began to walk into the fire in which the bull was being roasted.

To loosen the tongue of an Ateker man, start a conversation about bulls. To not be thought man enough to slaughter a bull has profound spiritual and political implications. And in what will have a bearing in the central theme of this essay, a man who cannot slaughter a bull has no political influence, cannot talk in an assembly and is the last to eat and drink.

This aspect of Asapan—the rite of passage allowing a man to slaughter a bull—fascinated me all the way to Kapoeta. And yet, the velocity of the provisional framing I had created was still bearing me forth, hence, I was interested in finding words which, like Kalemngorok, would explain to me just how connected to my Lango these peoples of the arid cattle fields were.

The lion, ostrich and mountain sets

In Kapoeta I asked what Toposa meant. They said to me, “We were heading west during our migration”.

“West?” I asked and before they could respond, I said, that is what “To” means, right?

They nodded in agreement. So I said, in that case, “The Toposa word for East is Kide?”

They were struck silent that a man from Lango in northern Uganda, so far from home, would know this. There were others that left me disoriented. Those who will remember the news from yesteryears will recognise the name Fr. George King’a. He was a South Sudanese priest and politician who played important roles in both the united Sudan and in peeling the South off it. There is more to him. But by the time I got to Kapoeta, I had gotten into the habit of asking the meaning behind everything. And so in Kapoeta, sitting next to his grave and talking to his nephew, then Kapoeta MP, Hon. Emmanuel Epone Lolimo, told me that his uncle, Fr. King’a had been so named because he was born at the border point of Kapoeta and Riwoto.

Where I was myself born, the line separating one allotment from the other, is called “wang king’a”.

That was as far as the words and names were concerned. Sitting there, just listening to the people, the texture of their voices and mannerisms, I could have been in any place in Lango. I had never met such close relatives of Lango before.

It was another word, this time in English, that pushed me further to understand the connection between asapan and why the Turkana most likely left Karamoja and chose to live in the desert instead. One evening, in Kapoeta, at Lorika’s Hotel where I stayed, I was in a small group with the governor, Louis Lobong and three of his state’s ministers discussing Toposa society when I started to understand the significance of asapan.

When a young warrior returns successfully from a battle or raid, he is expected during the celebration to decorate his bull.

One of the ministers, Lorika himself, drew an organogram of age sets and explained to me what he called “promotion”. These age sets proceed by order of birth, by which men born in a certain period belong in a socio-political cluster with influence. These age sets, like the generation sets, are mostly named after animals or mountains, so there is the mountain set—Ngimoru, ostrich set—Nguwana, gazelle set—Ngigetei, lion set—Ngingatunyo, etc.

(The age sets go by different names among the numerous Ateker groups, and one incredible man I met in Lodwar, Boniface Korobe, has traced the lineages back to the 1730s or thereabouts, when the effective split with Jie began for Turkana.)

I then asked about the generation age-set.

The response to this simple question removed the scales from my eyes.

They explained that ever since the Toposa left Jie (who live in present day Kotido), they had lost the generation set system. In their explanation, the ancestors of the Toposa had left without the transfer of power that a retiring generation proffers to their sons. No longer standing in the darkness, a lot about the Ateker began to make sense.  This “leaving”, as I was to understand it again and again, had not been made in good stead.

Becoming a full man at 70

Unravelling this would take me all of another year. How I undertook the project was to save enough money to last me a handful of weeks at a time. But before then, and when I returned to Moroto in Karamoja, the significance of asapan was no longer in doubt. I met an old man, John Napua who told me that he had received asapan at the age of 70, whereupon he felt like a full man. He was inducted into the Ngimoru generation set and wears the defining copper bracelet of his set. He did not have to tell me what that meant. A posse of young men, when I sat down with Napua in Naita Kwai, just outside Moroto town, circled him the same way that powerful politicians or bishops, are shadowed by aides.

There was a sad subtext to the story of Napua. During his childhood in the 1950s, his family had lost all their animals in one single raid. The further deaths of his sisters meant there would be no dowry to return animals to his family. They did not have boys in numbers and age enough to carry out compensatory, restocking raids. Napua and his family fell out of the structures of power. His father did not have the animals to fund his sons’ asapan when the time came. The one open option, albeit to an alternative, viable life, was to be sent to the colonial government schools. As a man who could read and write, and speak English, Napua found employment in the civil service. But it was not asapan and the distinction counted.

Lopiar, The Sweep

There was a further twist to this, and reconnects directly to the fate of the Ateker. The tragic 1980 famine that swept across much of Africa had a deleterious impact on the Ateker. In what is memorialised there as “Lopiar” —The Sweep, from the root verb Apiar, to sweep—it is estimated that the Ateker lands lost up to 21 per cent of their population. The sheer magnitude of this tragedy was in Uganda subsumed by the return of President Milton Obote to power, the elections of that year and the beginning of the Museveni rebellion.

What it meant was that the cholera outbreak and the death of cattle stock set Ateker societies back several generations. In Karamoja, there was no stock wealth to enable the expensive asapan ceremonies to be carried out. The impact was profound as Karamojong society was without effective government, albeit a traditional one. For the decades starting in 1980 till the 2010s, Karamoja nearly suffered the complete loss of generational age set linkages to ensure continuity of its political system.

A man who cannot slaughter a bull has no political influence, cannot talk in an assembly and is the last to eat and drink.

And yet that does not explain why Napua was initiated so late in life. That belongs to an age-old paradox and critique of gerontological systems generally, and may partly explain why so many branches of the Ateker family were forced to migrate and why some, like the Teso and Lango, were easy prey to absorption by other societies.

The age set system is simple to understand. Boys born within the range of say a five-year radius are considered members of the same age set. This means the rhythm of initiation is regular. But the generational set system is where the challenge lies. The generation set systems stump even scholars to unwind. The little I understood runs something like this: A generation refers to male issues of males of a similar generation, the entire progeny of an entire generation of fathers, by which the grandfathers are one generation, the fathers a second generation, sons a third and so on and so forth, each holding power in turns. That is about the simplest explanation. The complication lies in the peculiarity of pastoralist societies. Men can only marry when cattle are available, so Ateker men married comparatively late, often in their mid to late 20s and at times, in their early 30s. Then, they did not stop marrying, with the result that a first born son may be in his 50s when his own father sires a last born son, by which time he himself could well have sons in their late 20s. And those sons may well be fathers already. It is not uncommon that men will have uncles as young as their own grandsons. So the problems start.

As happened with Napua, the 50-year-old son belongs in the same generation as his 1-year-old step-brother. Assuming that the 50-year-old’s father had himself been the last born of his own father, the society is left with a generational range that can stretch up to 120 years. By this range, the 30-year old son is considered to be generationally junior to his 1-year old uncle. Political power is unlikely to come to the 30 year old. The oldest member of that generation could have died in the 1890s while in 2022, the youngest member is still alive. The 80-year old nephew would have died powerless in the 1980s.

It is a system that boggles the mind, or as Boniface Korobe, cultural researcher and official at the Turkana County Government office explained to me, it is a system that can only be explained to you; you may not necessarily understand it.

The result is political and psychological despair for men caught out in the middle generations. Picture Ateker men already in their 80s sitting waiting for their 10-year old uncles to age, assume political power and hand it over to them.

Migrating from political rigidities

In Ateker lands, explanations about the root causes of migration are often elided, not talked about directly because it is so personal and not without pain. Centuries since the young walked away from Karamoja, the migration of uninitiated young men is still a sore point. It is explained that it was these uninitiated young men—the Karachuna—who walked away with their old men’s grazing herds (lactating herds are kept closer to kraals to provide milk) and never returned. It is this sense of betrayal that the Karamojong still hold to this day, since the 1600s and 1700s, against the Lango, the Teso, the Turkana, the Toposa, the Nyangatom. What outsiders call cattle rustling boils down to calls for the migrants—seen as cow thieves, to bring those animals back, and the retaliation to regain them. But the order of who started it has since been lost in the back and forth grabbing of the herds.

Sitting there, just listening to the people, the texture of their voices and mannerisms, I could have been in any place in Lango.

As to why they left is a matter of analytical discourse and most explanations, including the one I am attempting here, are subject to strong challenges. But the gathering weight of pre-initiation men, who were coming of age, but were two to three generations waiting in line, and whose own elderly fathers were still taking young brides much to the chagrin of the very young men charged with maintaining them, would have rankled. To boot, it is this pre-initiation generation that are tasked with the equivalent of civil service duties, the generation set being political heads. With the imprimatur of asapan, and their hegemony in full force, the elders are that glittering circle of senatorial authority (senator deriving from the Latin word senilis, old—a senate literally meaning a council of elders), whose presence grants such magnificence at the Ateker Akiriket ceremonies. It is they that can slaughter bulls. They have first service rights. No crafted political decision is taken without their approval.

And yet, it is for the pre-initiation age set young men to carry these decisions out. Without formal power and uncertain about their place in the pecking order, the karachuna are often a troublesome lot; it is often they that you see in pictures or footage of Ateker men caught rustling livestock.

Away in the fields of 17th century Karamoja, and despairing at never gaining political power, why should they return to a life of tyrannical senators? It is a conjectural extrapolation. But it is one with very strong points to make. The glittering Akiriket ceremonies I described of Ateker hosts in full regalia of ostrich-plumed aworich headgear, with the authority of a generation in power, are sadly, meaningful mostly held in Karamoja.

When the young men migrated, the elders considered them lost—dead. In fact, it is believed that the word “Teso” may be translatable to “grave”, as the Karamojong considered their errant sons already dead to them. Such was the sense of betrayal felt back home. In a socio-political sense, the migrants were dead as the societies they founded were politically null and void. There was no one with respectable authority to call things to order. If they came upon a simpler political system such as the Lango when they encountered the Luo, kick-starting their politics meant adopting other people’s systems, in what amounted to a political reform. But at the price of losing language, gods, names and culture. To carry on without the generation with power at hand would be the equivalent of a ministry without a political head to approve decisions.

A further supporting factor to this argument of generation-system collapse is that those who left referred derisively to those they left behind as the elderly men in charge, hence the terminology, Karamojong—from the root noun emojong, the elderly. In Karamoja, the enlightened don’t want that name and prefer to be called Karatunga (the people).

In Turkana and Toposa, I was told that the generation system “ended so long ago” it is no longer possible to trace it. But even if it is traced back, the permission and blessing of the Jie, generally referred to as “our ancestors” by the Ateker diaspora, and who sit firmly in this knowledge in Kotido, would be needed for the generational age set to be reinstated, for as with church matters, only a consecrated bishop can consecrate a new bishop. Out of all proportions, the Turkana and Toposa still make entreaties for the Jie to do this.

The price for that, alas, is that the animals the young took be returned. Which is unacceptable.

Ateker in the post-independence state

Hence, in Turkana, as Boniface Korobe explained to me, there is asapan “lite”, no more than a marking of passage for boys and only marking the coming of age of age sets. There is little political force in it. It is the same in Toposa.

There is nothing untypical about this sad supply-end of migration. The European migration into “new worlds” was precipitated by dominative and frozen aristocratic systems, which after the collapse of the church in the Reformation, closed common lands and widened the wealth and power gaps between aristocrats and peasants. To boot, the collapse of what I am at times tempted to call the Ateker Empire corresponds to the period of general collapse of empires in Africa, whose roots trace back to antiquity. There is more to this story. As with new polities created by migrants fleeing ossified political systems, the Ateker in diaspora created what amounts to republics, to guard against age tyranny. Tragically, colonialists saw these societies as acephalous for not having the kinds of monarchies seen in the south. Tragic because the post-independence state carried on the cruel ignorance of colonialists in mistreating the Ateker.

The tragic 1980 famine that swept across much of Africa had a deleterious impact on the Ateker.

The price for this breakage has arisen in our own times to exact a terrible political price. In Karamoja, the 1989 famine stymied the rise to power of a new generation. This failure was marked by the lack of control of the 1990s and early 2000s when the karachuna, without powerful elders to command their obedience, and armed with the lately acquired AK47 (another story altogether), ran amok. The resulting raids and counter-raids destroyed Ateker society and were fought on the scale of civil wars. It was only in Karamoja, where the generation set system was salvaged from the ruins of the 1980 famine, that elders have managed to finally hold sway over the youth. The Museveni government takes credit for “pacifying” Karamoja, but it was the respected word of the elders—men like Napua—that convinced the youth to lay down their guns.

In comparison, there was no such voice in Turkana or Toposa to help Nairobi and Juba to disarm their pastoralists. Because these pose threats from Kenya and South Sudan, Karamoja began to re-arm.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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