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Democracy as Imperialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democracy as divide and rule: Lessons from Uganda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards regimes of authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yusuf Serunkuma Kajura is a columnist in Uganda’s newspapers, scholar and a playwright. In 2014, Fountain Publishers published his first play, The Snake Farmers and it was received with critical acclaim in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda.

Long Reads

Museveni’s Paradox, Class Dynamics and the Rise of the Hustler Politics in Uganda

In this long-read, Liam Taylor explores the politics and class dynamics of Kampala, Uganda. Taylor unpicks the enigma of Yoweri Museveni’s background – a former student militant who was taught by Walter Rodney, and argued for the necessity of revolutionary violence, socialism and radical transformations. Yet he soon became the apostle of neoliberal change, always promising that real change was forthcoming.

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Museveni’s Paradox, Class Dynamics and the Rise of the Hustler Politics in Uganda
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During thunderstorms in Kampala the rainwater comes rushing down the hillsides in torrents, through clogged drainage ditches and silty channels, inundating the valleys with sudden floods. The rich make their homes on the hilltops, where the rain runs off their paved compounds. The poor crowd into the wetlands, in one-roomed mizigo rentals sometimes built with small brick walls around the doorway, to hold back the impending tide. In Luganda, an ordinary person is omuntu wa wansi, literally, a “person from down”. It is a metaphor that maps onto the very contours of the city.

The ruptures in Ugandan politics can be seen in the contrast between those valleys and hilltops. January’s tumultuous election was a generational contest and a struggle against dictatorial power.  But it was also an eruption of class politics, embodied by the rise of Robert Kyagulanyi, a popstar-turned-politician best known as Bobi Wine. “If parliament will not come to the ghetto,” he said when elected MP in 2017, “then the ghetto will come to parliament.”

For Yoweri Museveni, now in his 36th year of rule, this upsurge is baffling. His self-proclaimed mission is to haul Uganda out of the sectarian logic of peasant society into the industrial age. In that brave new world, class would replace religion and ethnicity as the axis along which politics was organised. But the distortions of his rule have instead perpetuated old logics and blocked economic transformation, creating alternative forms of urban class politics that he can neither understand nor control. This long-read explores the politics and class dynamics of Museveni’s rule.

The next section explores Museveni’s sociological understanding of politics. Subsequent sections examine how its premises are undermined by the economic realities of neoliberalism and the rise of the “hustling class”. The conclusion considers how Museveni maintains his power in the Uganda he has created.

It’s not like in genesis chapter one

In the 1960s the western region of Nkore was going through a social upheaval. The spread of Christianity and colonial education had reconfigured relations between the high-status, cattle-keeping Bahima and the lowlier Bairu cultivators. Cash-cropping and enclosures were fuelling land conflicts. Politics had fractured along religious and ethnic lines.

The young Museveni was a schoolboy in Nkore at the time. He wrote later of his “revulsion at the sectarian politics in Ankole [which] was a microcosm of the sad story of political sectarianism in the whole of Uganda”. In 1967, when he enrolled at the University of Dar es Salaam, he found the intellectual tools to make sense of his experiences. Campus life was a cauldron of socialist and pan-African politics. Museveni attended a study group taught by Walter Rodney, and argued for the necessity of revolutionary violence in his dissertation on Frantz Fanon.

Museveni’s formative years in Nkore and Dar have shaped his politics ever since. They instilled in him the teleological notion that society progresses in stages from “backwardness” to “modernity”.  As a young man in Nkore he had trekked between kraals, encouraging nomadic cattle-keepers to “modernise” and  settle down. In Dar he learned a certain version of Marx’s historical materialism, with its dialectic unfolding from feudalism to capitalism to the coming era of communism. But he saw that if history had a direction, it could also be thrown off course. He thought that the petty local divisions in Nkore and the great divisions in African society had opened the door to imperialists and left the peasants poor.

In his speeches, Museveni still reiterates these themes of modernisation and unity. And yet they ring hollow. The long war he waged against the Lord’s Resistance Army has left a legacy of trauma and dispossession in the Acholi region of the north. In the Rwenzori mountains families mourn more than 150 people who were massacred by the army in 2016. There is resentment almost everywhere against the westerners, especially Bahima, who dominate the security apparatus. Division endures.

How can we reconcile Museveni’s political thought with his political practice?  The temptation is to reach for psychology: to insist either that he was a imposter from the start, or a young idealist corrupted by the spoils of office. But a better solution to the Museveni enigma lies in political economy. One way to read Uganda’s predicament is as a dialogue between Museveni’s ideas, refracted through militarism, and the international economic order which confronted him.

Museveni was never a liberal. Political competition is dangerous, in his view, because opportunists will sow division for personal gain. After fighting his way to power in 1986, he established a system of “no-party democracy”, in which candidates stood for office without party affiliation. His own National Resistance Movement (NRM) was to be the all-encompassing arena of politics, containing the fractures which had once torn the country apart. Calls for multiparty democracy were missing the point, he told other African leaders in 1990. Democracy was like water, which can exist as liquid, vapour or ice: “Yes, I need water, but let me determine the form which I want to use.”

Museveni, with his Marxist training, believed that political institutions were hostage to the material circumstances of their time. “A society like ours here is still preindustrial,” he said at Makerere University in 1991, “which means that it is still primarily a tribal society, and that its stratification is, therefore, vertical. In an industrialised society, on the other hand, you have horizontal linkages and, therefore, horizontal stratification.” For example, British workers had united around their common class interests, rather than their English, Scottish or Welsh identities. “An industrialised society is really a class society,” Museveni continued. “A multiparty system in an industrialised society is likely to be national, while the propensity of a similar arrangement in a preindustrial society is likely to be sectarian.”

That rather self-serving logic underpinned Museveni’s view that the wrong sort of democracy, too soon, threatens cohesion and thus hinders modernisation.  Even after a multiparty system was restored in 2005 – partly as a quid pro quo for the lifting of presidential term limits – the NRM remained the substrate of local politics. The leading opposition force, the Forum for Democratic Change, had itself splintered off from the ruling party. Politicians such as Kizza Besigye, the FDC’s tireless leader, were hounded by the police. They were treated less as rivals than as enemies of the state.

How do Museveni’s disciples think today? Last August, I spoke with David Mafabi, a presidential advisor and NRM ideologue. In 2017 he had convened a meeting to plot the removal of an age limit from the constitution – the last legal obstacle to Museveni ruling for life.

“We are a nation in the process of becoming, an unstable multinational entity,” Mafabi told me, in the same restaurant where that notorious meeting was held. “Democracy, constitutionalism, are not acts of creation. It’s not like in Genesis chapter one: let there be prosperity, stability and everything. No, it cannot be like that.”

NRM activists buzzed around us in canary-yellow shirts. “With the advent of industrialisation, the advent of capitalism, you’ve had individuals who have acted as midwives so to speak of new societies,” Mafabi continued. “And sub-Saharan African countries are generally overall at that point… Leadership in such societies gravitates around the charismatic, visionary leaders, who in themselves express the objective needs of societies at those critical times.” He listed examples. Cromwell. Washington. Napoleon.

A technocrat’s dream

In 1984 the British journalist William Pike went to meet Museveni in the bush. He found a self-confident guerrilla in faded fatigues with a “faraway look in his eyes… the look of a dreamer, a revolutionary”. But Museveni was also the kind of man who would spend an evening debating exchange rate policy. Minutiae obsessed him.

What kind of economic policy could Ugandans expect when, eighteen months later, a victorious Museveni was sworn in as president? Nobody really knew. Many NRM leaders assumed that their Marxist commander would not allow them to own land or businesses, writes Matthew Rukikaire, who had chaired the movement’s external committee during the war. It was only when Museveni himself started buying up cattle ranches that his comrades “breathed a sigh of relief and followed suit”.

Like many post-colonial intellectuals, Museveni had always been a nationalist first, and a Marxist second. “Socialism is not the main issue for Africa,” he told Pike in the bush, “the crucial issue is disengagement from strangulation by foreign interests.” Perceptive rivals poured scorn on Museveni’s radical credentials. As early as 1980, the socialist thinker Dani Wadada Nabudere dismissed Museveni and his comrades as “petty bourgeois anti-Marxist reactionaries”.

In power, Museveni initially resisted IMF-inspired structural adjustment, and even bartered with Cuba. But with inflation running at 191%, and foreign aid funding half of government expenditure, he soon changed course. “In his search for the new Jerusalem, President Museveni went to the precipice, peered over the edge and did not like what he saw,” writes Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, a liberal economist and the most influential technocrat of the Museveni era. “It was scary. That is why he will never go back.”

How do Museveni’s disciples think today? Last August, I spoke with David Mafabi, a presidential advisor and NRM ideologue. In 2017 he had convened a meeting to plot the removal of an age limit from the constitution – the last legal obstacle to Museveni ruling for life.

The Cold War was over. Free market ideology was at its zenith, pushed aggressively by the West. A new constitution and elections were still several years away. “Uganda was effectively a ‘benign dictatorship’,” write two foreign economists who worked as advisors to the Ugandan government in the 1990s. “The next few years were a technocrat’s dream.”

The government cut spending, crushed inflation and halved the number of public servants in just four years. The shilling was allowed to float freely. Foreign investors were welcomed with generous tax breaks. Between 1992 and 2007 the state sold its stake in 90 public enterprises, in sectors such as telecoms, banking, hotels, power, agro-industry and railways. Museveni still quoted “our friend Mao Tse-Tung” at startled World Bank officials, but his policies had made him a poster child for the Washington Consensus. When debt relief was granted to the Global South in the 1990s, Uganda was the first country to benefit.

And some things did get better. The proportion of Uganda’s population living below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line fell from 58% in 1989 to 36% in 2012. Over the same period, GDP growth averaged 6.9% a year, faster than in Singapore. Museveni lapped up praise – and money – from the Western governments that bankrolled him. The Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby described Tumusiime-Mutebile, the top civil servant in a new economic super-ministry and later central bank governor, as “the greatest contributor to Africa’s struggle against poverty in his generation”.

But reforms premised on the power of the market were simultaneously blind to its failures. The withdrawal of the state from coffee marketing gave farmers a greater share of the export price, but meant they got little support to improve quality or withstand disease. Reduced tariffs on garments led to a flood of cheap imports, swamping domestic industry. The sale of parastatals was opaque and allegedly corrupt. Museveni’s brother Salim Saleh was tangled up in several notorious deals, from the sell-off of a state bank to the privatisation of cargo handling at Entebbe airport (the latter with Sam Kutesa, the president’s in-law, who was investment minister at the time).

There was a deeper problem too. Arthur Lewis, the St Lucian economist, famously observed that poor countries become rich ones through a process of structural transformation, as workers move from subsistence activities into more productive sectors. In east Asia, this kind of industrial revolution was steered by an activist state. But Museveni’s Uganda instead became a test case for neoliberal reform in Africa, with all of its achievements and failures: low inflation, industrial torpor, precarious employment, and the expansion of the informal services sector. There was some initial export diversification and manufacturing growth, especially in areas such as food processing, but by the mid-2000s progress had stalled (some recent experiments with industrial parks notwithstanding). As a share of employment, industry has shrunk. Poverty is rising again.

“The historical mission of the NRM,” Museveni said last year, “is to make the Ugandan jump on the historical bus of machine power and gunpowder power… and, as a consequence, cause the metamorphosis of our society into a middle class, skilled working [class] society and away from the society of peasants, low skill artisans and a miniscule and powerless feudal class.” By that standard, although he did not say it, his government has failed. The people hustle, as best they can: flogging second-hand clothes, baking bricks, hawking herbal supplements, burning charcoal, cultivating wetlands, or toiling in Arab countries as maids and guards. If Ugandans have jumped on any machine in the Museveni era it is the boda-boda, the motorbike taxi, spluttering over hills and round potholes, choking out fumes and frustration.  Museveni had once argued that economic transformation would create European-style class politics, which would make true multipartyism possible. But an industrial revolution has not come to pass. And so, by Museveni’s logic, democracy must wait.

The rich eat chicken but it is tasteless

But society is not static. Urban growth, a youth bulge and the informalisation of labour are producing new economic relations and identities. And perhaps the most important of these is the hustler, scraping by in the interstices of the city. In elite eyes, the hustler is an irritant and a threat. Intellectuals sneer about the “lumpen proletariat”. In Luganda, the lingua franca of the Bantu south, the hustler is often caricatured as a muyaaye (plural: bayaaye, adjective: -yaaye): a marijuana-smoker, a trickster, a thug.

Hustles, in many guises, have been around since the era of magendo, the black-market that flourished under Idi Amin. In those days Museveni was in Tanzania, trying to recruit Ugandan exiles into his guerrilla army. “These boys,” he wrote of one batch of idle recruits, “had mostly been working in towns like Nairobi and had a kiyaaye (lumpen proletariat) culture… They would start drinking and moving out of the camps.” He concluded that true peasants, uncorrupted by city life, were a more pliable material to work with.

But under Museveni’s rule the hustling class grew like never before. It was the hustlers – and not an industrial proletariat – that became the lifeblood of urban culture. By the late 1990s, when cheap recording equipment became available in makeshift studios, they were ready to take over the music scene, displacing the rustic kadongo kamu troubadours and imported Congolese soukous. “Eh, I remember in ’96 they called us bayaaye from Kamwokya,” sang one dreadlocked bad boy, mixing English, Luganda and street slang. “They said we stayed in the ghetto, in ramshackle houses, that we are failures / They say me come from a poor family / They don’t know ghetto life is the best.”

That singer was Bobi Wine, the man who now poses the greatest threat to Museveni’s regime. His People Power movement has been characterised, with varying degrees of accuracy, as a youth rebellion, a freedom struggle, or a rejection of Bahima dominance. But it is also, significantly, a class revolt. Bobi Wine – whose family had fallen into the ghetto, and who has long since clambered out – is the great rhapsodist of ghetto life, of its indignities, its promise. “Born hustling,” as he himself has said.

But under Museveni’s rule the hustling class grew like never before. It was the hustlers – and not an industrial proletariat – that became the lifeblood of urban culture.

The message is in the music. In “Ghetto”, released before a summit of Commonwealth leaders in Kampala: “Now see in Katwe that on the day the Queen comes, the poor man is cleared away.” In “Kikomando”, named after a cheap snack of beans and chapatti: “Sometimes you sleep hungry, sometimes you eat kikomando / and you think that God forgot about you / the rich are many and drive cars / they eat chicken but it is tasteless.” In “Situka”, the 2016 overture to his political career: “When leaders become misleaders and mentors become tormentors / when freedom of expression becomes a target of suppression / opposition becomes our position.”

These songs were an affirmation of all those who had been kicked down, boxed in, shut out. Young men like Rajabu Bukenya, from the flood-prone ghetto of Bwaise, in northern Kampala. Slight and neatly-bearded, he introduced himself to me by his street name: “Rasta Man e Bwaise Mulya Kimu” (Rasta Man in Bwaise who eats once a day). He dropped out in the third grade of secondary school, unable to afford the fees, and found work as a porter, lugging sand and bricks. These days he runs a small laundry business, and spends his spare time calling radio stations with the ten phones that he carries in his pocket.

“Bobi Wine also came from the ghetto – that’s why the people in the ghetto love him so much,” said Bukenya. “The pain they have, even Bobi Wine passed through that pain… Eating once a day, eating kikomando: in Uganda people don’t have money for food, they just eat chapatti and beans… We have nowhere to go. We have no money to buy land, to build a house. And the land we had in the village? The government took our land in the village.”

Another example: dawn, December last year, in Bobi Wine’s expansive garden, and a cluster of young women who had come to campaign with him. “I’m among those who are the oppressed Ugandans,” said Gloria Mugerwa, draped in a red gown. “The poor can’t access the medical facilities, the poor cannot access the education facilities.” She and her friends had worked as maids in Arab countries where, said Mugerwa, “you are treated as a slave”. In Bobi Wine she saw hope. “He has been through it, and he can help us through this.”

There can be a millenarian tinge to this sentiment: a naïve sense that if only Museveni were gone then Ugandans would “walk with swag”, as the People Power movement’s unofficial anthem goes. Despite his mural of Thomas Sankara and fondness for pan-African iconography, Bobi Wine and his closest associates do not seem especially curious about the dynamics of global capitalism. Yet the radical potential of the movement lies less in the singer himself than in the forces he represents.

Class dynamics have long rumbled beneath opposition politics, from the career of Nasser Sebaggala, a populist mayor of Kampala between 2006 and 2011, to the crowds that thronged behind Besigye. But it has burst to the surface in Bobi Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform, which is an uneasy alliance of young intellectuals, opposition stalwarts, the petit bourgeoisie and the hustling class. In the constituency of Kawempe North the party selected as its candidate Muhammad Ssegirinya, a former restaurant cleaner known as “Mr Updates” for his voluble social media presence. He beat off more established rivals for the party ticket, including a former deputy mayor, who has since accused Ssegirinya of forging his exam certificates – a telling line of attack. Bobi Wine, whose own academic credentials have also been questioned, once told me that Ssegirinya’s selection was evidence of “a system that drops the powerful and elevates the unknown”.

Even the NRM elite can feel the ground shifting beneath their feet. A year ago, I met Mike Mukula, a former health minister who fell from grace after he was accused of stealing money intended for medicines. These days he flies helicopters, drives fast cars and serves as one of Museveni’s vice-chairmen in the NRM.

Mukula laid out the classic Musevenist argument. “You know the British have a class setting, the haves and the have-nots – this is what was lacking in the African continent,” he explained in his Kampala villa, as servants laid out lunch. But something was changing. “Now there is this cluster of a new group, which was not there. I call them the urban lumpen proletariat. If you see most of those people who are on drugs, who are musicians, and so on and so forth – that group… Now they see the Museveni group like us having these houses, the vehicles, being in power for some time.” He sank back in his white leather armchair. These rabble-rousers were a “formation in its infancy”, he sniffed, without structure, organisation or ideology.

And that would also seem to be the view of Museveni himself, who has admonished Bobi Wine for focusing too much on the “lumpen proletariat” and “the bayaaye in Kampala”. Perhaps, in his mind’s eye, the old general thinks back to that cohort of recruits on a Tanzanian training ground. When he looks at Bobi Wine he sees a distracted cadet, with no place in his never-ending revolution.

More dangerous than AIDS and Ebola combined

Museveni should re-read Fanon, who wrote of the “lumpen proletariat” with a mixture of horror and awe. In The Wretched of the Earth, the Martinican intellectual argued that the anti-colonial struggle will find a foothold in cities among those who have “not yet succeeded in finding a bone to gnaw in the colonial system… It is within this mass of humanity, this people of the shanty towns, at the core of the lumpen proletariat, that the rebellion will find its urban spearhead. For the lumpen proletariat, that horde of starving men, uprooted from their tribe and their clan, constitutes one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary forces of a colonised people.”

If this was true of the late colonial metropolis, is it not more so of the twenty-first century city, sculpted by corruption, militarism and neoliberalism? On 18 and 19th November last year, after Bobi Wine was arrested on the campaign trail, Kampala exploded in uproar. Young men lit fires, threw rocks, shook down motorists: this was, in the words of veteran journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo, “an anger bubbling among the ‘lowerdeck’ people, against the ‘upperdeck’ folks in general”. Security forces shot people dead as they protested, sought shelter, sold food, went shopping, walked home. Stray bullets said the police. Collective punishment, more like.

The ghetto had always been caricatured as a place of tough-guy masculinity, from the cartoon violence of the low-budget “Wakaliwood” flicks to Bobi Wine’s self-depiction as a mubanda (gangster), “more dangerous than AIDS and Ebola combined”. But here were men in t-shirts with automatic rifles, playing out the Rambo fantasy for real. The state had become more “ghetto” than the ghetto of the darkest imagination. “When you want to catch a thief, sometimes you behave like a thief,” said Elly Tumwine, the security minister, defending the use of plainclothes gunmen to shoot unarmed civilians last year.

And then the state started stealing people. Hundreds of opposition activists were bundled into unmarked vans, then disappeared. Many of them later showed up in military detention. One man told me that soldiers had electrocuted the soles of his feet and interrogated him about his links to Bobi Wine. “You, the bayaaye, cannot lead this country,” his torturer said to him. When Museveni spoke about the abductions, he said that the army were detaining “terrorists” and “lawbreakers” who were plotting that gravest of crimes – to “scare away investments”.

The blurring of law enforcement and criminality is not new. Under General Kale Kayihura, police chief from 2005 to 2018, stick-wielding thugs would routinely bludgeon protesters while uniformed officers looked on. One of the most notorious outfits was Boda-Boda 2010, a motorbike taxi gang, which terrorised drivers, attacked registration officials, and once set upon a group of schoolchildren who were wearing red, a colour associated with political opposition. In 2019 the association’s leader, said to be close to Kayihura, was sentenced to ten years in jail for illegal possession of firearms (he has since been freed).

But society is not static. Urban growth, a youth bulge and the informalisation of labour are producing new economic relations and identities. And perhaps the most important of these is the hustler, scraping by in the interstices of the city. In elite eyes, the hustler is an irritant and a threat

But Museveni’s dance with the ghetto is about more than just violence. A few weeks before the November protests I met Andrew Mwenda, an astute and controversial journalist with powerful connections: his older brother, a major general, is in charge of joint security operations in Kampala, and the president’s son describes him as a close friend.

“Museveni has the largest patronage machine of any government I know in Africa,” Mwenda told me. “When there is an uprising here, or demonstrations, the deployment of the police and army is a short-term tactical measure to secure stability, but the medium- to long-term strategy is always to penetrate the groups that are protesting politically and begin demobilising them using bribery. Co-optation. You should see how the system here works! In a very short time, within a month, they will give [their ringleaders] money, put them in party structures. They will find communities where the hotspots are, form co-operatives, put money on the account. They will get hair salon owners, bus drivers, taxi touts, vendors and hawkers, and begin organising them and counter-mobilising politically.”

Perhaps the most striking example of this process is Museveni’s recruitment of musicians. Ragga Dee, a washed-up singer, was the NRM’s candidate for Lord Mayor of Kampala. Buchaman, former “vice-president” of Wine’s Firebase Crew, is now Museveni’s unofficial adviser on “ghetto affairs”. So too is Full Figure, a dancehall star, who once backed Bobi Wine but is now so enamoured with the president that she has named her new-born son after him. Last year I met her in her office, overlooking the welders and mechanics of Katwe. Twice a week, she said, she would visit State House or meet Saleh, the president’s brother. It was the job of musicians to bridge the gap between the government and the ghetto.

That transactional logic is evident even in its repudiation. Before elections, the NRM-state began recruiting boxers in Kampala. Most of them were naturally sympathetic to Wine, an amateur boxer himself, who had his own networks in the sweat-soaked gyms. “We met a certain general during these NRM things,” one boxer told me. “He told us: ‘Bobi Wine is going to make you killed [sic] and he’s not going to support your family and he’s not giving you money. Why don’t you come work for us, and we give you money?’”

The pay on offer was not enough to make the boxers do the NRM’s dirty work. They refused. One former national champion, Isaac “Zebra” Ssenyange, had been mobilising for the party but then fell out with his patrons. Security forces shot him dead in the street.

This is the ultimate rejection of Museveni: to spurn his money. On election day, as Bobi Wine arrived at his polling station to vote, his supporters burst into their favourite chant, which likens the president to “Bosco”, a bumbling character from a mobile phone advert.

Eh Mama! Twagala Bobi si ssente

Eh Mama! Twagala Bobi si Bosiko.

(Eh Mama! We want Bobi not money

Eh Mama! We want Bobi not Bosco.)

Even Museveni is a muyaaye

In 1852 a tousle-haired German journalist called Karl Marx sat down to analyse the politics of contemporary France. Napoleon III, elected president after the uprising of 1848, had recently assumed dictatorial authority. Revolution was sliding towards despotism, just as it had half a century earlier, when Napoleon III’s more famous uncle – the Napoleon everyone knows – had seized power in a coup. The new dictator, scheming and vaguely comical, was a caricature of the old one. History was repeating itself, wrote Marx: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”.

Marx called his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, after the date in the French revolutionary calendar when the first Napoleon had staged his coup. It is an intricate study of class antagonisms in a society in flux. And reading it in Kampala, it feels strangely recognisable, despite the gulf that separates modern Uganda from nineteenth-century France. Consider Marx’s discussion of how money greases the wheels of dictatorship:

Money as a gift and money as a loan, it was with prospects such as these that [Napoleon III] hoped to lure the masses. Donations and loans — the financial science of the lumpen proletariat, whether of high degree or low, is restricted to this. Such were the only springs Bonaparte knew how to set in action.

Or read Marx’s description of urban politics, and think of Museveni’s street enforcers like Boda Boda 2010 and its fallen patron, General Kayihura:

On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpen proletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole. Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters [the list goes on] — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.

David Mafabi, Museveni’s adviser, had told me that the president could play the role of Napoleon. The Napoleon he had in mind was the famous one: the military genius, the moderniser, silencing his enemies with a whiff of grapeshot. It is a (historically inaccurate) vision of the great man bestriding history, wrestling with immense forces, even his violence justified by some larger purpose. This is Museveni the ssabalwanyi, the greatest of fighters.

But strip away these delusions and the Museveni project becomes nothing but an endless game of tactical manoeuvre, whispered deals, grubby handshakes. At times, when he is posing with Buchaman or attempting ghetto slang, there is even dark comedy about it. In this regard, Museveni most resembles that other, lesser, Napoleon, the one that Marx christened “the chief of the lumpen proletariat”. Museveni created the ghetto: now he must cajole, co-opt and crush it. “Even Museveni is a muyaaye,” I was once told by a small-time singer in a cramped recording studio in Kampala. “He’s ruling us in a muyaaye style, like fooling us.”

Museveni dreamt of ushering Uganda through the doorways of history, but his politics was premised on an economic transformation which never came. The blame lay partly in his own policies and partly in the international economic order which moulded them. He continues in power through inertia and intrigue, still chasing a vanished future. In his self-righteous violence and petty machinations, he evokes both Napoleons at once: the blood-soaked general and the wily schemer. This time as tragedy. This time as farce.

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Reflections on the Kenyan Court of Appeal Proceedings in the BBI Case

By all accounts, this is amongst the most – if not the most – important constitutional case under Kenya’s new Constitution, and the High Court’s judgment was a massive setback for both President Uhuru Kenyatta, and the Hon. Raila Odinga.

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Reflections on the Kenyan Court of Appeal Proceedings in the BBI Case
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On 13 May 2021, the High Court of Kenya handed down a landmark judgment striking down the “Building Bridges Initiative”, a set of proposed amendments to the Kenyan Constitution, on grounds – inter alia – of violating the Constitution’s basic structure [“the BBI Judgment”]. At the time, I had analysed the judgment in this blog post. The High Court’s judgment was appealed to the Court of Appeal, and argued before a seven-judge bench, over four days, between June 29 and July 2. Judgment has been scheduled for August 20.

The Kenyan constitutional courts are unique in that oral arguments are live-streamed, broadcast live by major television networks, and available on YouTube (with an open comments section!). I was thus able to watch the arguments, which raised a range of fascinating issues, from the distinction between direct and indirect democracy (drawn from the Kenyan Constitution’s very particular amendment provisions), the identity of “the People”, the distinction between top-down and bottom-up constitutionalism, the meaning and purpose of public participation, and so on. Perhaps what made the arguments even more interesting was that, having been enacted in 2010, the Kenyan Constitution is a relatively young document, and not yet bowed down by layers of encrusted precedential sediment. For this reason, counsel on both sides were able to make arguments on first principle, presenting the overlaps between concrete constitutional practice and the philosophy of democratic constitutionalism, in a distilled form that we don’t often get to see.

Here, I will examine some of the major arguments made over the course of the four-day appeal hearing. The first two days of the hearing were occupied by the appellants who were challenging the High Court’s decisions. These included the Attorney-General’s Office, the BBI Secretariat, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (whose powers – and their alteration – were central to the High Court’s judgment), the Hon. Raila Odinga (the opposition leader), and HE Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya. I will not here examine all the arguments raised; that would be an impossible task, apart from the fact that some of the issues are beyond the scope of a comparativist’s ability to engage with. I will, however, discuss three issues that, in my view, are at the heart of the appeal.

Perhaps what made the arguments even more interesting was that, having been enacted in 2010, the Kenyan Constitution is a relatively young document, and not yet bowed down by layers of encrusted precedential sediment.

My usual caveat: I am an outsider, and I approach this post with an awareness of my limited knowledge. While I will write as honestly as I can, there is undoubtedly much context that I do not know, and much that I may get wrong; for those trespasses, an apology, in advance.

Who Are The People?

First, Appellants challenged the High Court’s finding that the Kenyan Constitution had a basic structure, which could only be amended through the exercise of a primary Constituent power that – in effect – lay outside the Constitution. Recall that in its judgment, the High Court had not held that the Kenyan Constitution’s basic structure was beyond the power of amendment altogether (thus making the Kenyan basic structure doctrine entirely different from its Indian variant, and indeed, unique in the annals of comparative constitutionalism). Rather – on an analysis of Kenyan constitutional history – the High Court held that in order to amend the basic structure, the conditions around the founding of the 2010 Constitution had to be recreated (primary constituent power). This meant, in concrete terms, a four-step procedure involving civic education, public participation, the convening of a Constituent Assembly, and a referendum.

It was therefore a little surprising to note the amount of time that Appellants spent distinguishing Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala, or arguing for its inapplicability to Kenya. As I have mentioned above, the basic structure doctrine of Kesavananda, and the basic structure doctrine of the BBI judgment, are chalk and cheese. In particular, Appellants spent considerable time arguing that Kesavananda was a response to Parliamentary abuse of amending power, while the Kenyan Constitution explicitly envisages a role for the people (via the Popular Initiative method under Article 257) in the amending process. This is correct. But it is also, with respect, irrelevant. The distinction would have made sense if the Kenyan High Court had placed the basic structure out of bounds altogether; however, as we have seen, it did not – arguing only for deeper public participation than is provided in the Kenyan Constitution via the popular initiative method. That argument, however, needs to be tackled on its own terms, and not with reference to Kesavananda and parliamentary supremacy.

That brings us to how Appellants did attempt to tackle it on its own terms. Now here is where things get interesting. Let us go back for a moment to the amendment provisions in Kenya’s Constitution (Articles 255 – 257). Recall that Article 256 prescribes the familiar parliamentary route for certain constitutional amendments. Article 257, however, provides an alternative route known as the “popular initiative”, which requires (a) signatures of one million registered voters to initiate; (b) approval by a majority of county assemblies; (c) passage by simple majority in both Houses of Parliament, and (d) if pertaining to one of ten critical categories spelt out in Article 255, a referendum. Interestingly, therefore, the method under Article 257 is a combination of direct and representative democracy: it has elements of direct democracy in its initiation and completion (in cases of a referendum), and also elements of representative democracy through the process (ratification by county assemblies and Parliament).

It was therefore a little surprising to note the amount of time that Appellants spent distinguishing Kesavananda Bharati v State of Kerala, or arguing for its inapplicability to Kenya

In this context, Appellants argued that the participation of the people is already provided for under the Constitution, when it comes to the question of amendments. Consequently, there was no need for a separate basic structure doctrine that was itself based on public participation, as that issue had already been resolved within the Constitution. To supplement this argument, counsel referred to Article 1(1) of the Kenyan Constitution, which states that “all sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya and shall be exercised only in accordance with this Constitution.” Stressing upon the phrase “this Constitution”, Appellants argued, therefore, that popular sovereignty did not – and could not – exist outside the Constitution. It was the Constitution that – through Article 257 – facilitated the exercise of popular sovereignty through the popular initiative amendment process.

But underlying this textual point is a deeper normative claim, which goes to the heart of constitutionalism: who are the People? Effectively, Appellants argued that “the People” had no existence – or identity – outside of the Constitution; quite literally, the People are “constituted” by the Constitution. Consequently, in holding that the basic structure could only be amended by an – effectively – extra-Constitutional process initiated – and led – by the People, the High Court had misconstrued not only the text of the Constitution, but the basic premises of constitutionalism itself.

At first blush, the argument sounds powerful. I believe, however, that in the final analysis, it fails to persuade. I would submit, with respect, that in focusing on Article 1(1), Appellants inadvertently hoisted themselves on their own petards. This is because the phrase “this Constitution” begs the anterior question, which is at the heart of the basic structure doctrine: at what point does “this Constitution” cease to be “this Constitution”, and becomes something else? It is here that Kesavananda Bharati actually becomes relevant – because what many people (especially in its home country) tend to forget is that before it was anything else, Kesavananda Bharati was a textual judgment. The majority judges took great pains to parse the meaning of the word “amend”, and took equal pains to explain how it differed from “repeal” or “abrogate” or “destroy”. To put the point at its simplest: this Constitution – whose entire structure is based on the principle of (say) representative democracy, is no longer this Constitution if all those provisions are replaced with a clause turning the State into a monarchy. Indeed, the bench repeatedly put these hypotheticals to the Appellants’ counsel – without (in my view) a satisfactory answer.

Indeed, Respondents’ counsel made this point on multiple occasions. The clearest exposition of it is to be found from around 55 minutes to 1 hour during the first session of Day 3: counsel distinguished between the concepts of “amendment” and “repeal”, and then further distinguished between two kinds of repeal: express repeal (such as when Kenya’s Independence Constitution was “retired”, in advance of the 2010 Constitution coming into force); but also, repeal by irreconcilable differences, where although a Constitution is not formally repealed, it is nonetheless repealed in effect, by introducing into it principles or provisions that are fundamentally irreconcilable with its core identity.

To this, I would add two brief points. The first is that taking the argument to its logical conclusion, Article 1(1) of the Kenyan Constitution, far from supporting Appellants’ case, is fatal to it. Because if it is true that (a) Article 1(1) only authorises the exercise of popular sovereignty within this Constitution, and (b) that this Constitution is no longer this Constitution if its basic structure is altered, it must necessarily follow that (c) if the People wish to alter the basic structure, they must act outside the Constitution. Indeed, it cannot be otherwise. And if this is conceded, then the High Court’s judgment is not only arguably but correct, but indeed, the only correct outcome. Because not only did the High Court correctly rule that alteration of the basic structure must take place outside of the Constitution, it also set out the logical corollary: that the manner of doing so must resemble, as closely as possible, the manner of the writing of the Constitution. This is so because an alteration of the basic structure amounts, in effect, to re-writing the founding document, and for that, such an activity needs to be conducted within the procedural confines of the manner in which its writing took place.

Counsel on both sides were able to make arguments on first principle, presenting the overlaps between concrete constitutional practice and the philosophy of democratic constitutionalism, in a distilled form that we don’t often get to see.

The second point is that on multiple occasions, Appellants’ counsel expressly conceded that the Constitution does have basic structure. Counsel attempted to make light of the point by arguing that every form of government – including theocracies and one-party totalitarian States – have basic structures. Counsel then argued that the existence of basic structure doesn’t necessarily imply the existence of the basic structure doctrine. However, it is in precisely that disjunction where the problem lies: if you accept that the Constitution has basic structure – i.e., a core set of principles that constitute its identity – then the burden falls upon you to show how an alteration of the basic structure, and thus an alteration of constitutional identity nevertheless implies that “this Constitution” at the beginning of the process is still “this Constitution” at the end of it. I believe that this was a burden Appellants did not discharge.

The Njoya Debate

I would suggest that the above argument is also relevant to answering a question that was hotly debated on both sides of the bar during the hearings: that is, the interpretation of the Kenyan High Court’s 2004 judgment in Njoya v Attorney-General. In Njoya – which involved a challenge to the then-ongoing constitutional review process – the High Court had accepted Kesavananda Bharati, and held that under the (now-retired) Constitution, the Kenyan Parliament had no power to abrogate or repeal the Constitution. Now naturally, the Respondents strongly argued that Njoya went in their favour. However, Appellants argued equally strongly that read closely, Njoya actually supported their case. The reason for this was that in Njoya, Ringera J categorically stated that (a) Parliament had no power to abrogate the Constitution, (b) that this power belonged to the People of Kenya, acting in their sovereign capacity, and (c) that the People of Kenya were entitled to a referendum on any new Constitution (paragraphs 32 & 33, Njoya). Now if you look at Articles 255 read with 257, an amendment by popular initiative – that seeks to alter one of the ten categories set out in Article 255 (such as the territory of Kenya or the functions of Parliament) must be put to a referendum. Appellants therefore argued that the dictum of Njoya had already been incorporated into the 2010 Constitution. Indeed, the bench’s question to Mr. Nelson Havi, Respondents’ lead counsel, at around 48 mins of the first session of Day 3, went to the heart to the issue: did not the 2010 Constitution enact the very requirements outlined in Njoya?

I believe that the answer is in Njoya itself, and it is the same answer as that set out above. In paragraph 29, Ringera J wrote that popular sovereignty is “the basis of the creation of the Constitution and it cannot therefore be conferred or granted by the Constitution” – although, of course, it could be juridically recognised by it. These lines, I submit, answer the bench’s question about the referendum provisions under Article 257: regardless of what Article 257 says about a referendum, ex hypothesi, the power to create a Constitution cannot lie within it. Now when you combine this with Njoya’s holding in paragraph 61 accepting the correctness of Kesavananda and holding that “amendment” does not mean “abrogation” or “repeal”, you reach the inescapable conclusion that a Constitution’s amendment provisions – whether or not they contemplate referenda – do not extend to the repeal of this or the creation of a new Constitution, something that can only be done through an external exercise of popular sovereignty. And that was what the High Court recognised.

The Discontents of the Presidential System

The second major issue was with respect to the identity of the initiator of the BBI Amendment(s). Articles 257(3) and (4) of the Kenyan Constitution contemplate the existence of the “promoters” of an amendment by popular initiative. Formally, the promoters of the BBI Amendment(s) were two parliamentarians named Dennis Waveru and Junet Mahomed. However, it was strongly urged before – and accepted by – the High Court that the actual moving force behind the Amendment(s) was the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta. The factual dispute continued before the Court of Appeal, and I do not intent to address it here.

However, it was also argued by Appellants that even if it was the President who was behind the BBI Amendment(s), there was nothing wrong with it; in other words, just like any other registered voter, high State officials could also initiate amendments by popular initiative. In particular, Appellants argued that (a) there was no express bar under Article 257 that forbade the President from engaging in amendment(s) by popular initiative; (b) that explicitly, the President continued to retain political rights under the Constitution even on formal investiture, including, for example, the right to vote; (c) that as a matter of fact, even if the President had been acting in this case, he had been acting in his private capacity; and (d) that the entire purpose of Article 257 was to prevent legislative bottlenecks in a Presidential system. It was meant to deal with a situation where the political party with a majority in Parliament was opposed to the elected President’s agenda, and was stymying him. In such a situation of gridlock, Article 257 gave the President an avenue to to bypass Parliament and go directly to the People.

In this context, Appellants argued that the participation of the people is already provided for under the Constitution, when it comes to the question of amendments. Consequently, there was no need for a separate basic structure doctrine that was itself based on public participation, as that issue had already been resolved within the Constitution.

At its deepest level, then, the argument was one about constitutional design. Appellants argued that the Kenyan Constitution did two things: it opted for the Presidential system, with its known problem of veto points and bottlenecks – and then also solved that problem through Article 257, by essentially saying “President + People > Parliament“.

Now there are a few points here. The first is that – as the bench acutely pointed out – Article 255(3)(b) of the Constitution states that the amendment procedure under Article 257 is by “the people and Parliament”. It therefore follows that the Constitution itself draws a distinction between “the People”, and constitutional bodies (such as the Parliament), even though – of course – those constitutional bodies are helmed by members of “the People”. It follows ipso facto, therefore, that much like “the people” and “Parliament” are distinct entities for the purposes of a constitutional amendment, “the people” and “the Presidency” must likewise be so.

Is this dispositive? No. However, what it does show is that textually, Articles 255 – 257 sustain the High Court’s interpretation. Whether it is the correct interpretation – given that the text is ambiguous – is of course a normative question, internal to the Kenyan Constitution. And it is here that the principles of representative and direct democracy come into tension with each other. As I have pointed out above, Article 256 provides the familiar amendment path via representative organs (Parliament), while 257 consciously combines elements of representative and direct democracy, and – specifically – envisages direct democracy at both the beginning and the end of the process.

I would submit, with respect, that this carefully balanced scheme of Article 257 would be nullified were representative organs allowed to initiate the process. Such an interpretation of Article 257 would undermine the fact the bottom-up character of direct democracy that the provision seeks to preserve. During the opening session of Day 3, at around 1 hour 6 minutes, Respondents’ counsel put the point perfectly when they argued that by definition, when the people delegate authority (as in representative democracy), the delegate no longer counts as part of ‘the people’ for the purposes of the exercise of popular sovereignty (as in direct democracy, envisioned by Article 257).

The bench then asked – correctly – whether it would not be possible for the President to “wear two hats” – i.e., remain the President, while initiating a popular initiative process as a private citizen. The answer – which was provided a little later in the day – was that ‘yes, she can, but she needs to formally give up the trappings of office while doing so.’ This, to me, makes eminent sense: the entire point of Article 257 – and the carefully wrought distinction between direct and representative democracy – would be defeated if the President could say “I am President, but I ask for your signature on this popular initiative as a private citizen.” With respect, that distinction could be sustained only by denying reality.

As I have mentioned above, Appellants repeatedly argued that there was no express bar on the President’s powers under Article 257. That is true; but again, going back to Kesavananda – and much more recently, to the UK Supreme Court’s prorogation judgment in Miller v The Primer Minister, limitations upon powers exercised by constitutional authorities are not only express, but – in many cases – implied. In Miller, it was held that when you have two constitutional principles, the exercise of power under one is (impliedly) limited at the point at which the said exercise would frustrate or impede the operation of the other. That is exactly what is happening here: the President’s powers under the Constitution are limited by the operation of other constitutional principles; in the case of Article 257, that principle is the balance between direct and representative democracy in the popular initiative process.

The Nature of Referenda

The third issue also concerned the interpretation of Article 257. The BBI Amendment(s) had been pushed as a package deal, containing as many as seventy-four proposed amendments to the Kenyan Constitution. The High Court had nixed this in no uncertain terms, holding that in an amendment by way of popular initiative, every amendment had to be presented distinctly, and put through the process required by Article 257, separately. Appellants’ response to this holding was primarily textual, noting that Article 257 used the word “amendment”, and not “amendments.” Thus, an “amendment” could take the form of a proposed bill – that amended multiple provisions of the Constitution – but for the purposes of Article 257, the was to be treated as an amendment, in the singular.

Now it should be clear that once again, the text does not determine the issue. It could easily well be argued – and indeed, was argued – that the very use of the singular “amendment” actually means that you can only present one amendment at a time via the popular initiative. For interpretive support, Respondents’ counsel also pointed to Kenya’s Elections Act, Section 51(2) of which provides that “where there is more than one referendum question, persons intending to campaign for or against each referendum question shall, on application to the Commission, form one national referendum committee each and one committee each in every constituency for each referendum question.

At first blush, the argument sounds powerful. I believe, however, that in the final analysis, it fails to persuade. I would submit, with respect, that in focusing on Article 1(1), Appellants inadvertently hoisted themselves on their own petards. This is because the phrase “this Constitution” begs the anterior question, which is at the heart of the basic structure doctrine: at what point does “this Constitution” cease to be “this Constitution”, and becomes something else

Textual ambiguity, once again, brings us into the domain of the normative – and the normative issue here goes once again to the purpose of referenda, and the provision of direct democracy in a Constitution. The core argument against referenda – as we well know – is that they boil down extremely complex and nuanced questions into a simple yes/no binary. In effect, therefore, they distort the expression of public opinion by simplifying an issue to a point where a yes/no vote doesn’t accurately reflect the range of views that people hold. Now, I would submit, with respect, that given that referenda already have this problem with respect to being accurate vessels for the expression of direct democracy, a package deal referendum exacerbates that precise problem even more (the reasons are easy to see). It therefore follows that if the Court is faced with two equally legitimate textual interpretations of the same provision, one of which advances the cause of direct democracy, and the other potentially impedes it, given that the purpose of the section is to facilitate direct democracy, it should choose the former interpretation. In this case, that would be to uphold the High Court’s ruling that a popular initiative can only be for one amendment at a time.

The above analysis has only scratched the surface of the immensely complex and nuanced arguments that I heard. Some of the fascinating arguments I have not dealt with here include, for example, the question of which side bears the burden in a dispute over whether the popular initiative involved adequate public participation or not (I would suggest that if public participation is a fundamental premise of the Kenyan Constitution, the presumption must be that official acts do not acquire a constitutional seal of approval until it is affirmatively demonstrated that public participation has taken place; think of it as a precondition); the role of constituencies in distributing resources, power, and political patronage, and why, therefore, boundary alteration affects the basic structure; whether the popular initiative starts from the moment signatures are collected, or does the public participation requirement kick in before; and so on. Ultimately, what I found most striking is that for a lot of these questions, the Constitution does not provide a textual answer. For a lot of these questions, both sides presented an interpretation that, textually, was plausible; ultimately, therefore, this ruling will turn upon what principles the Court identifies as underlying these provisions, and which interpretation it believes better furthers those principles.

A few parting remarks on the oral arguments themselves. I loved watching them: there was wit, humour, seriousness, and a whole range of styles of advocacy, with consistently high quality throughout. The timekeeping was impressively strict: a big timer showed counsel their countdown, the bench cut them short when their time was up, and barring a few occasions where I thought that counsel genuinely needed more time to develop their argument, I felt that the quality of advocacy was raised by the fact that counsel had to put their point across in limited time. The questions from the bench were sharp, focused, and at times, almost frightening in how accurately they identified weak spots in the argument. And then, away from all this, I was struck by the freedom with which people were commenting and arguing with each other in the YouTube comments section, and openly poking fun at the lawyers, the President, and even the court. As far as I could tell, none of this had any perceivable impact on “justice”. Perhaps judges in other jurisdictions may take a leaf out of this YouTube book, and treat irreverence and critique with a smile.

Finally, as an outsider, I was struck by the civility with which the arguments were conducted. By all accounts, this is amongst the most – if not the most – important constitutional case under Kenya’s new Constitution, and the High Court’s judgment was a massive setback for both President Uhuru Kenyatta, and the Hon. Raila Odinga. However – barring a few good-natured jabs back and forth, I did not see personal invective. Imagine watching the State’s lawyers argue over two days, and not once insinuate that the other side is a hotbed of anti-nationals, publicity-seekers, “lobbyists”, and a threat to sovereignty and national security?

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The President Who Burned Kenya’s Heritage, Humiliated Little Girls and Elderly Women

We should make the 25th of February Kenya’s National Day of Shame, the day in 1992 when Kenyan mothers were forced to undress in front of armed young men of the age of their detained sons.

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The President Who Burned Kenya’s Heritage, Humiliated Little Girls and Elderly Women
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I will remember Moi as the president who burned material culture, and humiliated little girls and elderly women. He carried the dreaded club considered a weapon among many cultural groups, and had a red rose bud of Love, Peace and Unity, pinned to his lapel. That’s the image of him I have. He who did not age in the photograph that was everywhere — in schools, bars, government offices, shops, you name it. The fatherly look in those light brown eyes — patronizing, caring, saintly.

But the image of his sculpted hand wielding his favourite weapon over Mt. Kenya showed otherwise. I looked at his sculpted hand bursting out of Mt. Kenya like a volcano as I drove by Uhuru Park and tried to think about the meaning behind it. The mountain is a sacred shrine to many. Elders still face Mt. Kenya for blessings as the freedom fighters did at dawn. Mt. Kenya is Kenya’s national symbol that has appeared on stamps, bank notes and wall paintings in rural eateries. Armed resistance against the colonial power was centred around the mountain and was protected by it for many years. What was the reason behind the design that obviously showed one man’s power over a mountain that is the country’s highest point and a symbol of Kenya? Was it a show of conquest over the uthamaki? I could not find an explanation in any text or from any person. We ought to look again at the statues of tyrants in this year of toppling monuments and take a moment to reflect on what and for whom they are there.

I hold other images. My first encounter with President Moi humiliating the pastoralists was in late 1970s. I was in the field in the vicinity of Kapedo (Turkana County) among the Turkana when his motorcade appeared on the hot desert road like a dust storm. There was a lot of excitement to see the spectacle and welcome the new president who was from one of Kenya’s smaller tribes. Moi was one of them unlike the previous president, an avaricious agriculturalist, whose kinsfolk were encroaching on their land and mineral resources albeit in cahoots with the local politicians. But the local politicians were brothers and sons and that did not matter. Only the agriculturists were the madoadoa demon settlers.

President Moi held a huge baraza at Kapedo where the steaming hot waters of the river fall over a rock. Truly a sight to behold. After some welcoming speeches, it was time for the much-awaited presidential address. I was aghast to see what followed. The president called a shy teenage Turkana girl to the stage where he was seated in his usual austere manner, clutching his club. The people must have at once understood that the club was a weapon. The president elicited fear rather than peace, love and unity in the audience. In most Kenyan cultural groups, a club is a symbol of violence to knock an enemy on the skull. The symbol of authority and respect is a flywhisk or a peace staff that is also often used as a walking stick by community elders. There was an obvious contradiction between the new president’s words and the symbol that he lifted over his head as if to strike.

We ought to look again at the statues of tyrants in this year of toppling statues and take a moment to reflect on what and for whom they are there.

The teenage girl was wearing traditional Turkana dress and ethnic beads that proudly spoke of her identity and of who she was. She was dressed exquisitely for she was meeting the president. Then, the president called another girl. She was wearing a neat school uniform; you would think she came from an English public school. She was also Turkana. Pointing to the girl in the beautiful calfskin clothes with his club, the president put on a noticeable frown on his fatherly face that was gleaming in the strong Kapedo sunshine. The Father of the Nation, Baba wa Taifa as we called him, said he did not want to see “this” meaning the Turkana dress. His following words were spiked with references to backwardness and the civilization that his presidency was bringing to them.  He said it was time for the Turkana to join the maendeleo path like other Kenyans.

From 1963 onwards, the word maendeleo had evolved to mean not just development in Kenya but also becoming “civilized”; it connoted becoming westernized and perhaps Christianized as well. Then he pointed to the other girl who was in a neat school uniform, a white shirt and blue skirt. The president’s face brightened into a smile; this is what he wanted to see. That was the path to maendeleo, leaving primitiveness behind. These may not have been his exact words but that’s what they meant. I write from the images, emotions and memories from over forty years ago that have lived on in my mind.

My heart sank. I wondered what the teenage girl must have felt being humiliated in public by the president of her country. What her parents must have felt. What the Turkana elders, the custodians of their culture, must have thought. What the community was thinking as they listened to the president in utter silence. The Turkana people, like everyone else, take pride in their dress and their culture. Now they were being insulted on their own territory by the new president of Kenya. Their culture is what has sustained them in the harsh semi-desert scrubland and given them a sense of identity and community.

I had been working on Turkana material culture, especially on their animal skin clothing which interested me because of the unique cut and the stitched lines that patterned their long skirts which were suited to the semi-desert scrubland. How they quilted different colours of cowhide to create amazing patterned clothes. It is an ingeniously designed garment weighted with flattened hoofs so that it does not flare out in the desert wind or get ripped at the bottom. The skirt is worn long because of the Turkanas’ respect for the female body and local cultural etiquette. It is carefully cut down the side of the leg for the air to circulate in the hot desert climate and to accommodate movement while running after animals when herding or walking long distances to fetch water and firewood. I wanted to include the Turkana dress in the material culture curriculum for schools that I was writing at the time and as an example of Kenya’s indigenous dress that is suited to the environment and vernacular design in the book that I was working on. The president was ignorant of Kenya’s culture.

Back in Nairobi, I was shocked to see the picture of the president and the two girls on the front page of the newspaper. I don’t remember which one, probably the Daily Nation. It was as if in Nyayo’s onward march to maendeleo, the humiliation of a proud culture was being celebrated. I tried to talk about this incident in the staffroom at the University of Nairobi where I worked, but I met blank, if not surprised, looks. “The Asian is talking about primitive tribes again”, I read on their faces. I worked, put up exhibitions and often talked about the material culture of Kenya as a heritage to be cherished like the mother tongue; both were looked down upon as obstacles to development by a segment of the intellectual class. An academic at the University of Nairobi once told me to my face that I was taking Africans backwards. In the tone of his comment was an allusion to the racist Asian stereotype that I had become used to on campus. Then as now, the president had his followers within the intellectual community.

The teenage girl was wearing traditional Turkana dress and ethnic beads that proudly spoke of her identity and of who she was.

My second encounter with President Moi was in Orwa in the Pokot region. I came to the area soon after the president had been there on his “civilizing the natives” mission that reminded me of the infamous colonial Pacification Expeditions. I was stunned to see a pile of ashes and burned items of material culture at the Orwa airfield, a makeshift strip of cleared bush for small aircraft. The elders told me while spitting bitterness how Jeshi la Nyayo had forcefully stripped them of their valued skin garments and beads. I gathered Jeshi la Nyayo were the dreaded General Service Unit. I had seen them at work at the University of Nairobi and had fled from their batons. The Pokot material culture was thrown in a heap on the airstrip and made into a bonfire. My heart wept for I was collecting the precious material culture of the Pokot at the time, especially what they wore; how they celebrated their identity with their clothing and beads; their embodiment of utu, their humanity and, most important, how they made reconciliation through their art, how important material culture was in their lives. I was collecting material culture for preservation for posterity and here I find my president burning the nation’s cultural archive, the resources for the school curriculum on indigenous art and knowledge that would one day be taught if ever the authorities decolonized their minds sufficiently to look in the mirror and see who they are.

Among the items stripped from the bodies of the Pokot was the leketyo. The leketyo is a sacred symbol of peace for the community. In fact, the metaphor used for peace is leketyo, and for some like the Marakwet, Keiyo and Pokot, the word for greeting is “Leketyo!” — very much like Shalom and Salaam. What is leketyo? A leketyo is a leather belt decorated with lines of coloured beads and cowry shells. Expectant mothers wear it around the waist to avoid miscarrying the foetus. Women walk long distances for water and firewood; they herd goats and build houses. Their strenuous work in the harsh climate easily leads to miscarriages. The leketyo has become a sacred and a respected object for it saves life. I have seen how fighting, that is physical fighting, using weapons, comes to an abrupt halt when a mother removes her leketyo and throws it down between the belligerent warriors.

The leketyo may be laid down by any mother passing by and all the warriors will respect it for in communal societies, one mother represents everyone’s mother in her son’s age group and she calls them “my sons”. As any Kalenjin would know, the leketyo is revered in the community for it represents protection of the womb. Like the mutilina of the Akamba and the enkitati of the Maasai, it is a symbol of motherhood, love and nourishment that prevents violence and maintains peace in the community. It is also a symbol of the feminine God-given gift of procreation, and of family and community well-being. In other words, women’s waist belts are symbols of peace used as metaphors in speech and song.

When I heard the songs of Pokot mothers, concealed from the ears of the local special branch, bemoaning the loss of their leketyo, I felt their pain. The humiliated mothers sang about the beauty of their lost leketyo while cursing the president in the same verse. Yes, during the oppressive regimes of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, they had developed clandestine oral literature expressing outrage at those who stole their land and visited brutality and humiliation on them.

There was a parallel between the clandestine oral literature of rural Kenya and the underground papers like Pambana that I read in the city. The difference was that the pastoralists’ secret literature was oral, in poetry and songs, using idioms, metaphors and double meanings that those who did not know the culture and did not understand the language — like most of the local administration, the police and the GSU — could not understand. They were masked like the Mau revolutionary songs that sounded like hymns to the outsider. The underground literature in the city did not mask the message; it openly condemned the despotic presidents and called for change. Unfortunately, the two did not connect.

The Pokot also erected secret memorials invisible to the outside eye in memory of those who were killed by Nyayo. One such memorial that I visited near the Kenya-Uganda border in the West Pokot region was made of gigantic white marble-like slabs. One would need to persuade the local oral artist to hear the full narrative of the cultural oppression, the humiliation and the brutality of the punitive military expeditions of the Nyayo era. These are the monuments erected by the people that we need to celebrate and care for. They speak of a people’s resilience in the face of oppression.

An academic at the University of Nairobi once told me to my face that I was taking Africans backwards.

It baffled me why the president humiliated the Pokot women and Turkana girls who were closer to his cultural roots than, say, Wangari Maathai whom he also insulted and humiliated. The professor and environmentalist was protecting our trees, our natural heritage that the president was decimating for profit.

But then, in 1992, what happened at Uhuru Park was shocking. In my novel Home Between Crossings, I put together what I saw, read and heard to write about the assault on the mothers of the detainees. Putting it in print a way of releasing the emotions locked in my memory and telling the story so that it is not forgotten. Though based on real events, the writing came from my creativity and imagination.

The next day women gather in groups to talk about the incident at Uhuru Park. There is horror in their eyes. Anxiety in the air. We had all seen the Daily Nation photographs of the riot police hounding old women. Some had watched the news on the TV.  I tell them I was there and what I saw. They come closer me. Even those I don’t usually talk to come to listen to me. They listen in silence and shock. But what horrified them was how President Moi treated the mothers protesting in the park.

“Does he not have a mother?” asked one.

“Would he have treated his mother like that?” asked another.

“What if he were detained without trial, would his mother not have come to Uhuru Park to ask for his release?” asked the third…

Later in the evening, I look at the photographs on the front page of the Daily Nation. “MOTHERS OF DETAINED PRISONERS WITHOUT TRIAL FLEE.” Yesterday comes back in my eyes. I see them. They flee before the brutal charge of the riot squad and the paramilitary. Helmeted, armed and shielded in metal, the machine-like army of young men assail the old mothers in cotton dresses and head scarfs. Putting the newspaper pictures together with what I saw yesterday was like bringing two pieces of a torn photograph together. First, the women herded together like trapped animals, hugging each other in one tight embrace. A combined hug in unison out of fear. Of comfort. Of courage. Of unity. Of solidarity of mothers. I felt I was in that circle of human embrace. Some whimper for mercy, others sing hymns. Aged mothers thought the President would listen to them, for he had a mother too. Then one of them stepped forward before the contingent of young armed men and she began tearing clothes off her body.  In Africa, it is a taboo to see a woman, who is the age of your mother, so distressed that she unclothes herself surrendering her dignity to a young man the age of her son who, by custom, is her son, too. It’s a gesture of wounded motherhood that many do not understand. A gesture showing there is no more utu or humanity left in society. Of showing self-inflicted humiliation that says it’s not worth being your mother. It’s the humiliation of sacredhood of the womb, meaning the giver of life. Shame and sin would fill the eyes of the onlookers. In Africa, I repeat, to see your mother’s nudity is shame and a curse. Everyone knows that it pains the land when the mother forfeits her honour to her sons’ gaze. More mothers come forward, ripping clothes off their shrivelled frames, spitting curses and disgust, tearing away headscarves, casting away mother-love for rage and forfeiting the dignity bequeathed to them by nature when they gave birth. They were surrendering in defiance to the rape by their sons. They sing hymns in unison daring the armed men to come, touch them and dishonour their mothers until they feel satisfied. What more had they to lose when they have lost all, meaning their self-respect? Some policemen cover their eyes, others turn back and yet there are some who advance without shame. They would say they had orders. Or they are not of the same tribe so the curse would not harm them or that they are Christians now. That these are not their mothers. They don’t believe in superstitions and primitive customs. Never before, not even under the English, not even during the girls’ circumcision unrest at Mt Kenya, were the mothers of Africa reduced to such humiliation as under the black government of Nyayo.

Chapter: Humiliation of disowning motherhood in Home Between Crossings (2014)

I write about my encounters with Nyayoism in the hope that we can retain the memories of how one in whom the nation had placed its trust, shamed its girls and mothers. It is as though this has become an accepted part of the Kenyan culture as is graphically described by April Zhu writing in The Elephant about the defiance of Mama Victor and the Mathare Social Justice Centre co-founder Juliet Wanjiru Wanjira.

Misogyny is like a cancer that flows from the highest office in the land to the lower cadres of state institutions. Insulting women has become a global phenomenon as explained by Joane Nagel in Masculinity and Nationalism: Gender and sexuality in the making of nations. Daniel arap Moi had just come to power and he had to show he was a man. All the incidents I speak about were reported in the media albeit from angles different from how I viewed them as an ethnographer. The accounts and photographs can be found in newspapers archives.

What I came to know during my work on the cultural aspects of Peace and Conflict Resolution was that humiliation played a significant role in conflicts. Humiliation breeds chuki, the hard hate that festers in the community. And chuki breeds revenge. Cultural humiliation has more often than not been the undertone of political campaigning. It becomes a widespread epidemic during elections, making somebody unlike me, making them the Other of the nation and hence not quite worthy of the highest office in the land. Sometimes it turns into jeering and nasty behaviour; I once watched a shirtless young man running through the streets of Nairobi holding up his pants because his belt had been pulled out, looking helpless and terrified as  a jubilant mob shouted, “Circumcise him!” This was in late 2002 when campaigning between the circumcised and uncircumcised contenders was at its peak. It was a direct result of cultural humiliation instigated from the top to diminish the Other as not worthy to rule.

Humiliation breeds chuki, the hard hate that festers within the community.

More often than not, epidemics of cultural hate and humiliation are started by politicians and even by the president as I have seen during my forty years working in the field in Kenya. We know how cultural chuki was spread through the radio in Rwanda to galvanize the population to commit a genocide. I have sometimes wondered in frustration whether Moi’s humiliation of Wangarĩ Maathai and the market women of Nairobi was patriarchy embedded in nationalism or whether it was a personality trait that sought pleasure in humiliating whomever while singing “mindfulness” in public broadcasts.

To understand humiliation, it is best to think in an African language. Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” 

In Swahili, for example, humiliation has several shades. We say tia aibu meaning put shame. Or tia uchungu, put pain and vunja heshima meaning break self-respect, and also break the heart, vunja moyo. Humiliation is to make the other feel she/he is not human, si binadamu. Then the humiliated is filled with chuki (hatred) and looks for revenge to reclaim his/her or the community’s honour, kisasi cha aibu ya staha. This can lead to killings.

Humiliation is one face of governance by repression. In societies where identities are collective, one killing or one rape is considered humiliation of the entire community. Consequently, it calls the people to rise and avenge the spilled blood of a kinsman or the dishonour of a mother, wife or daughter of a fellow kinsman. Humiliation is communal, and like trauma, it is generational in that the responsibility of the unavenged wrong falls to the youth. Hence, ethnic conflicts become cyclic. Whenever the suppressed rage of humiliation comes to the fore, the outcome is horrendous. Evelin Lindner, who is among the foremost thinkers and writers on humiliation and violence, says:

Rage turned outward can express itself in violence, even in mass violence when leaders are available to forge narratives of group humiliation.

We know that power and wealth breed arrogance. This is neither new nor particular to Africa’s presidents and politicians. But how can we create awareness of what we do to each other and thus stop or at least lessen this especially with the looming elections?

One way could be to make the 25th of February Kenya’s National Day of Shame, the day in 1992 when Kenyan mothers, our mothers, were forced to undress in front of armed young men of the age of their detained sons. It will be a day to reflect on what shame our leaders have placed upon us, and the consequences that the ordinary person has had to bear, as we so often see during elections. Keeping and refreshing our memories would remind us to be watchful of politicians who divide Kenya along gender and cultural lines. Students will ask, “Why are we remembering this day?” The media will report and commentaries will expand on the history of humiliation from the colonial days to the present-day dictatorships led by brutal capitalism, nationalism and cronyism. One bright Kenyan may choose to write her PhD on the History of Humiliation in Kenya from Colonialism to the Present.

When we choose to be silent, we are erasing the lessons of history from our memory. We become complicit in the propagation of the propaganda of the state and politicians. As a result, violence is passed on from one generation to the next among cultural groups and becomes systemic in governmental and institutional hierarchies.

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