Grief and relief
On March 17, 2021, the fifth president of Tanzania John Joseph Pombe Magufuli, aged 61, died a few months after beginning his second term in office. It was a ‘dramatic’ exit for a person who had almost single-handedly (some would say heavy-handedly) ruled the country for the preceding five years. The reaction of the Tanzanian populace was as dramatic, if not extreme. Large sections of down-trodden (‘wanyonge’ in Swahili) people in urban and semi-urban areas were struck with disbelief and grief. Among them were motorbike taxi drivers (‘bodaboda’), street hawkers (‘machinga’), women food vendors (‘mama Ntilie’) and small entrepreneurs (‘wajasiriamali’). At the other end of the spectrum were sections of civil society elites, leaders and members of opposition parties, and a section of non-partisan intelligentsia who heaved a sigh of relief. Barring a few insensitive opposition political figures in exile, most in the middle-class group did not openly express or exhibit their relief, as African culture dictates, until after the 21-day mourning period had passed. In between the extremes were large sections of politicians and senior functionaries in the state and the ruling party who continued singing the praises of the leader while privately keeping track of the direction of the wind before casting their choice.
Increasingly the division between Maguphiles and Maguphobes is surfacing, particularly among parliamentarians. We may be witnessing a beginning of realignment of forces. Popular perception tends to be cynical, justifiably so, for none of the emerging factions resonates with their interests and daily lives. Street wisdom has it that with the change of wind, opportunist politicians are positioning themselves to be on the right side (‘wanajiweka sawa’ as the street Swahili goes) of the new president.
Between February 27, 2021 when he was last seen in public and March 17 when Magufuli’s passing on was officially announced, President Magufuli disappeared from the public eye. He was not seen at public functions nor did he attend church services on three consecutive Sundays. Magufuli was a practising Catholic and a devout church-goer. He never missed the Sunday Mass nor did he let go the opportunity to make political speeches from the pulpit. This practice distinguished President Magufuli from his predecessors to whom mixing politics with religion was anathema. They had been brought up on the secular doctrine preached and practised by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who never stopped reiterating that religion was a private matter and the Tanzanian state was secular. During the two weeks Magufuli was not seen in public, the country was awash with rumours, speculation and stories spun by spin doctors on Magufuli’s health, the nature of his disease, and whether or not he was alive. Internal detractors and a section of the foreign Western press superficially reported and gleefully reiterated that Covid-19 had finally caught up with President Magufuli who was reputed to be a Covid denier. The then Vice-President Mama Samia Suluhu Hassan gave heart complications as the cause of the president’s death. It was known that the president had a pacemaker. It is not necessary for the purposes of this essay to establish what the cause of death of President Magufuli was. I do not intend to cloud my analysis by that debate.
President Magufuli leaves behind a controversial legacy. It would be intellectually futile to strike a strict balance between Maguphilia and Maguphobia. That is a lazy way of understanding a political phenomenon. Drawing up a balance sheet of the good and the bad is an accountant’s job not that of an intellectual analyst. Rather it is important to understand that Magufuli was a political phenomenon, not an individual. Magufuli was a local variant of populist political leaders who have emerged recently in a number of countries of the South. Brazil and India are obvious examples. Conditions were ripe for the emergence of demagogic politicians, partly as a backlash to neo-liberalism which wreaked havoc with the social fabric of the countries in the periphery and partly because of the resulting polarisation, inequalities and impoverishment of the working people and middle classes. Disarmed, disillusioned and stripped of all hope, masses yearned for a messiah. Populists presented themselves as such deliverers. The masses in Tanzania found themselves in this state when Magufuli appeared.
Populist rhetoric varies from country to country but invariably it feeds on heightening racial, religious and gender differences and exploits popular prejudices. The Magufuli phenomenon was not a deus ex machina. To understand it we must locate it in the history and politics of the country and come up with a correct characterisation. I characterise the Magufuli phenomenon as messianic Bonapartism. Before we dwell further on this, let me say a couple of things about Bonapartism as a political phenomenon.
When classes are weak or have been disarmed ideologically and organisationally over a generation, politics suffer from Bonapartist effects. Bonapartism can take different forms depending on the concrete situation. Quickly, we may identify the two most relevant to us – militarist and messianic. Tanzania has been saved of the former for reasons which will become clear in the course of this essay. In the late president we witnessed the latter.
Bonapartism is characterised by the unexpected rise of an individual who stands above classes and social struggles. Indeed he even appears to rise above the state. The famous phrase attributed to Louis XIV ‘l’etat, c’est moi’, ‘I’m the state’ sums it all. Bonapartism has arisen in historical situations where the struggling classes have either exhausted themselves and there is an apparent vacuum in the body politic or the rein of the previous ruler has been so laissez-faire that ‘law and order’ has broken down. The Bonaparte legitimises his crassly high-handed actions to return the country to order and to rein in fighting factions in which everyone is for themselves and the devil takes the hindmost. Liberal institutions of ‘bourgeois’ democracy such as parliament and judiciary are either set aside (a fascist option) or emaciated of their content (neo-fascist authoritarianism). They exist in name only, but go through the rituals of elections, law-making and ‘judicial decision’ making, which means little in practice.
When classes are weak or have been disarmed ideologically and organisationally over a generation, politics suffer from Bonapartist effects
Unlike much of the rest of Africa, Tanzania can justifiably boast of a relatively stable and peaceful polity as well as smooth succession from one administration to another. Julius Nyerere, the founding president, ruled for nearly quarter of a century followed by three presidents, each one of whom was in power for ten years, that is, two terms of five years, the term limit prescribed by the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania, 1977. President Magufuli had just entered his second term after the general election of October 2020 when he met his death.
The political antecedents
The driving force during Mwalimu Nyerere’s reign was the ideology of nation-building and development. Nation-building called for national unity. Nyerere was preoccupied by national unity and as a result he reigned in centrifugal forces. At the time of independence there were three identifiable centres of power: the army, trade unions and the state. The army mutiny of 1964 and the alleged attempt by some trade unionists to make common cause with the mutineers drew home the point that all was not well and Nyerere’s national project was tottering. The mutiny became the occasion to dismantle the colonial army, ban independent trade unions and abolish the multi-party system. Opposition parties then were miniscule without much support but they had the potential to derail the national project, as Nyerere saw it. Tanzania was the first country in this part of Africa to rebuild the army from scratch with soldiers recruited mainly from the ruling party’s youth wing.
In 1965 a new one-party constitution providing for a highly centralised executive presidency was passed. From then on, the polity was informed by the centralising tendency, power being concentrated in the state and the party. In 1968, an independent religious organisation of Muslims, the East African Muslim Welfare Society, was banned for fear that it could become an organisational home for disgruntled Muslim politicians. The 1967 Arusha Declaration enshrining the policies of socialism and self-reliance saw the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. That lay the basis for the rise of parastatals with their own spawning bureaucracy. Over a period of next ten years, relatively independent co-operatives were abolished and replaced by crop authorities. Independent student, youth, and women’s organisations were all brought under the wing of the party. Thus the proto-ruling class which could be described as a bureaucratic bourgeoisie or state bourgeoisie established its ideological and organisational hegemony. By the time Nyerere stepped down in 1985, Tanzania had one of the most formidable state-party machines and it was highly bureaucratised.
Four important features of the party-state during Nyerere’s time must be highlighted. One, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party did function. Its organs had foundations at grassroots level in villages and streets. The party operated through its various organs such as party branches, ten-cell organs and similar organs, at district, regional and national level. At the top was the Central Committee and the all-powerful National Executive Committee (NEC). These organs met regularly and transmitted their resolutions and proceedings to higher levels. Two, the army was integrated in the party structure. It constituted a region which sent delegates to the NEC and the Congress, just as other regions did. Three, the party had a clearly spelt out philosophy and ideology which became the basis for developing its programmes and manifestos. Consequently, there was an ideology and a structure around which members could rally and participate in decision-making. Fourthly, as a result of these factors, political factions with a clear ideology and politics could not easily crystallise in or outside the party. If factions did emerge, they were temporary and issue-oriented. It was difficult for them to have medium or long-term political ambitions. The only group which did function as a faction and began to flex its muscles in the last five years of Nyerere’s rule was from Zanzibar. The succession saga within the party following Nyerere’s announcement that he was stepping down was actually led by Zanzibaris to which a few mainlanders aligned. To Nyerere’s surprise, the Zanzibari CCM faction proved to be so formidable that it managed to overturn Nyerere’s preferred choice to succeed him.
Magufuli was a local variant of populist political leaders who have emerged recently in a number of countries of the South. Brazil and India are obvious examples. Conditions were ripe for the emergence of demagogic politicians, partly as a backlash to neo-liberalism which wreaked havoc with the social fabric of the countries in the periphery and partly because of the resulting polarisation, inequalities and impoverishment of the working people and middle classes
In sum, although state structures of checks and balances were compromised during Nyerere’s time, the party did act as a check on top leaders providing a platform for relatively free discussions and debates within the party. Throughout this period, the independence of the judiciary was respected even though the judiciary could not play a very active role because, one, the constitution did not have a bill of rights against which the performance and accountability of the state organs and officials could be measured and, two, the law tended to be very widely worded, giving the bureaucracy unfettered discretion. These powers were often abused but grievous abuses were relatively rare and, if and when discovered, legal action was taken against the perpetrators. While Nyerere’s regime could arguably be described as authoritarian it certainly could not be labelled fascist in any sense of the word. When some overzealous youth wingers once described Nyerere as a ‘fascist’, Nyerere is said to have quipped: ‘What would they say if they saw a real one!’
The next ten years under President Ali Hassan Mwinyi saw the first, albeit hesitant, steps on the road to neo-liberalisation. It was during Mwinyi’s term that the leadership code which prevented state and party leaders from using their political office to accumulate personal wealth was lifted. There were also signs of factional struggles within the party but interestingly it was once again the coherent Zanzibar faction which mainlander CCM leaders with presidential ambitions had to attach themselves. Nonetheless, it was on Zanzibar issues – Zanzibar’s membership of the Organisation of Islamic Conference on its own and Parliament adopting a resolution to form a Tanganyika Government thus changing the union structure from two to three governments – that matters came to a head. Nyerere was still around. He managed to salvage the boat. The boat rocked but did not sink.
The next president, Benjamin Mkapa, was the first to be elected in a multi-party election, scoring a majority vote of only 62 per cent, demonstrating that the electorate was getting exhausted with CCM’s scandals and over-bearing bureaucracy. Mkapa, who served as president from 1995 to 2005, can easily be described as the father of neo-liberalism in Tanzania. He privatised national assets, including the national state bank, and steam-rolled through Parliament the mining law, opening up that important sector to rapacious foreign investment. However, he took a leaf from Nyerere’s book by adhering to party protocols and ensuring that the party organs met regularly and that there was a semblance of debate in the top party organs. During his term the judiciary became more active as a bill of rights had been inserted in the constitution in 1984.
By the end of Mkapa rule, Tanzania was a full-blown neo-liberal state. The hardest-hit victims of neo-liberalisation, as elsewhere, were the working people, in both urban and rural areas. As cost-sharing in education and health took hold and various subsidies were removed, the component of social wage from the livelihoods of working people disappeared, exposing them to the full rigour of the so-called free market. Even lower middle classes suffered. If Tanzania was spared of bread riots, it was because of the lingering ideological and organisational hegemony of the state-party over the working people.
Finding a successor to Mkapa proved to be contentious. Jakaya Kikwete and his friend Edward Lowassa, the party’s two leading cadres, had built a strong base in the party’s youth wing. They had waited in the wings to bid for the presidency at the opportune time. Through fair and foul means, aided by some manipulation of party rules by the then party chairman Mkapa, the Kikwete-Lowassa duo managed to keep out another strong contender, Salim Ahmed Salim. Kikwete got the party’s nomination, subsequently winning the presidency with a handsome majority. He lost no time in making his friend Lowassa his Prime Minister and one of their businessman friends – who was widely believed to play kingmaker behind the scenes – treasurer of the party. Eventually, the two friends fell out and Lowassa had to resign as Prime Minister. Be that as it may, the party had become fractionalised and mired in factional struggles. With no coherent ideology like the Arusha Declaration, the factions were not held together by any ideology or political programme but by sheer ambition to power and through power the ability to access the state largesse.
The ten years of Kikwete rule were one of the most laissez-faire periods in the country’s history. The neo-liberal chickens came home to roost. Scandals abounded, there was unchecked embezzlement of public funds, some politicians in collusion with businessmen went on an accumulation spree, corruption mounted. The party was side-lined. Kikwete did not have purchase on party meetings. The party and the government lost any semblance of coherence. The check-and-balance machinery broke down. Policymaking was erratic. Donors ruled the roost. To be sure, in this climate civil society elite and opposition parties enjoyed a measure of freedom which they had not experienced before but all that was at the expense of the masses who continued to sink deeper and deeper into poverty and hopelessness. The party lost credibility, so much so that when the time came for general elections it could not be sure of getting elected. Day by day, the opposition gained in popularity as it exposed the scandals and corruption of CCM politicians.
Unlike much of the rest of Africa, Tanzania can justifiably boast of a relatively stable and peaceful polity as well as smooth succession from one administration to another
Within the party, the person believed to be the strongest contender for presidency was Edward Lowassa. He had both political and financial clout but no purchase on political probity. He had cleverly put in place his people in vital party organs. Succession to Kikwete was ridden with factional struggles, so much so that when finally Lowassa lost out on nomination in the Central Committee, his faction in the Committee came out openly questioning the Central Committee’s decision.
As we have seen, the ruling party and its leaders had been so much maligned and marred by allegations of corruption that it had to nominate for the presidency a person who was not identifiable with the party and its heavyweights, a relatively clean person. That person was John Magufuli, until then a non-entity. In the elections, Magufuli got the lowest vote ever (58 per cent). Lowassa, having moved to the opposition, scored nearly 40 per cent. The opposition also won a significant number of seats in Parliament. As we shall see, Magufuli never forgave the opposition for their relative success.
The rise of a messianic Bonaparte
Thus were created almost textbook conditions for the rise of a Bonaparte, in this case, a messianic Bonaparte. By the time of the fifth president, the post-Nyerere presidents had abandoned the country’s cementing ideology, the Arusha Declaration. What was left of it was smashed to smithereens by the onslaught of neo-liberalism. The ideological vacuum thus created was filled with narrow nationalism and religious dogmas including religious salutations at political meetings and rallies in what was constitutionally a secular state.
The messianic variant of civilian Bonapartism best describes the Magufuli phenomenon. Messianic Bonapartism rules by fiat of the leader. It legitimises its rule not only by material measures in the interest of the down-trodden or oppressed (called wanyonge in Tanzania) but also by metaphysical appeals. The late President Magufuli used both in good measure. One of the most significant collateral damages of messianism is that accountability of the top leader disappears while their subordinates become, if at all, accountable to one person at the top. Politics are submerged in the personality of the president. Patriotism is defined and measured by one’s loyalty to the president. Any critique of the president is labelled unpatriotic or anti-national, the term widely used by Hindutva BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in India.
Messianic Bonapartism shares some characteristics of the absolute monarchies of Europe. Absolute monarchs derived their legitimacy and authority from God, not from the people. And so-called good absolute monarchs were those who bestowed their largesse on their subjects. President Magufuli did not flinch in giving cash gifts to well-performing functionaries or leading an on-the-spot collection of funds for a complaining widow or a mama Ntilie. Such publicity stunts no doubt endeared the president to the masses, notwithstanding the fact that the impact of these acts was fleeting.
On many levels Magufuli scored a first in the political history of the country. He was the first president of the country since independence 50 years ago who was not a party veteran or a cadre. Unlike his predecessors, he was not brought up in the party. He was nowhere close to the first or second-generation nationalists. In his ministerial portfolios under the third president, Mkapa, and later under the fourth president, Kikwete, he was better known for his close supervision of infrastructure projects than for his political acumen or ideological leanings. He got things done, which earned him the nickname ‘bulldozer’. He was more of a supervisor than a leader. As a president, he never travelled outside the country except to nearby African countries. He did not attend a single United Nations General Assembly or an African Union Summit. He had little appreciation of international geopolitics. Although described as a Pan-Africanist after his death, he showed little understanding of the history or politics of Pan-Africanism. He saw regional organisations like the East African Community (EAC) or Southern African Development Community (SADC) as vehicles to enhance Tanzania’s trade and economic benefits rather than as the political building blocks of Pan-Africanism. Although he rhetorically used the term ubeberu (imperialism), it is doubtful if he ever understood it as a system. He hardly ever talked about ubepari (capitalism) or for that matter ujamaa, socialism. His refrain and rhetoric was maendeleo (development), kutanguliza Mungu (putting God first) and uzalendo (patriotism). For him, ‘development’ was non-partisan; ‘development’ was above politics, above ideology and above all-isms.
He was the first president who was able, in five years, to accomplish major undertakings which his predecessors had failed to do over decades. He moved the capital to Dodoma, a project that had been conceived and planned by Nyerere. He embarked on a gigantic hydroelectric project across Stigler’s Gorge. He initiated the building of the over-2000km-long Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza and further west. He built many miles of tarmac roads across the country. He would invariably quote a string of statistics from memory of the length of roads built, the number of dispensaries, hospitals, schools and factories constructed under him. Whether these figures represented the whole truth on the ground, no one could tell, and those who could kept quiet for fear of contradicting the all-powerful and unpredictable leader. As a matter of fact, during Magufuli’s time the Statistics Act of 2015 was amended to make it a crime punishable by a fine of ten million shillings or three years imprisonment or both ‘to disseminate or otherwise communicate to the public any statistical information which is intended to invalidate, distort or discredit official statistics’ (section 24B). A year later the amendment was repealed following pressure from local NGOs but not until the World Bank issued a statement showing its concern with the amendments and ending with a threat to withdraw its financial support to the strengthening of the national statistics system.
While Nyerere’s regime could arguably be described as authoritarian it certainly could not be labelled fascist in any sense of the word. When some overzealous youth wingers once described Nyerere as a ‘fascist’, Nyerere is said to have quipped: ‘What would they say if they saw a real one
While some of the mega-projects (like the SGR) undoubtedly made developmental sense, others were controversial given their possible medium and long-term ecological effects. The Stigler’s Gorge project and others (like buying eight airbuses and the Tanzanite bridge across the sea) could very well prove to be white elephants. While Magufuli lived, no one dared to challenge or contradict him. One consulting geologist from the University of Dar es Salaam who gave an adverse report on the feasibility of the Stigler’s Gorge project was roundly condemned by the president in public before his peers for being unpatriotic.
He was the first president who made meaningful and far-reaching decisions like abolishing primary and secondary school fees, ordering the building of classrooms and buying of desks, extending health insurance coverage at a cheap premium to almost one-third of the population, issuing street vendors and kiosk owners with identity cards at twenty thousand Tanzanian shillings which would legitimise their occupation and free them from constant harassment by city police and militia. A number of times he cancelled state celebrations like independence day and redirected the money thus saved to infrastructural and health projects. These and other populist moves, some impactful and others inflated out of proportion, endeared him to wanyonge and earned him the title ‘people’s president’, ‘man of the people’ and many other accolades generously bestowed on him by courtiers and praise singers.
Magufuli’s populist measures were not without contradictions. For instance, he barred pregnant school girls from education on the grounds of patriarchal morality which typically blames the victim. Use of misogynistic language was legendary with him. He unabashedly made remarks on the skin colour and figures of young female functionaries in his government. Yet hardly any local gender lobby could dare call him out. While he made primary and secondary education ‘free’, the loan instalment payments by university graduates was doubled, leaving little from their salaries for their upkeep.
He had little respect for the constitution or law. He did not even pay lip service to the rule of law and breached law and the constitution at will. He fired and humiliated senior civil servants in public meetings contrary to public service regulations and without proper investigation of their alleged misdeeds. While this to some extent restored discipline in the civil service, it was a discipline born of fear resulting in his ministers and civil servants shying away from making decisions.
During President Magufuli’s reign some of the most draconian pieces of legislation were passed, propelled by his compliant Attorney General. Public interest litigation (founded on article 26 of the country’s Constitution), under which a number of constitutional petitions were filed challenging some laws and Magufuli’s public appointments, was abolished. A few vocal lawyers conducting such cases were taken before the Advocates Committee for disciplinary action. One of them, who had appeared in a case in which the credentials of the Attorney General himself were questioned, was struck off the roll of advocates. At the time of writing her appeal is pending before the High Court.
The list of unbailable offences under the notorious Money Laundering Act was extended to cover even such offences as tax evasion and use of illegal fishing nets. The law was generously used by the prosecution to incarcerate critical journalists and commentators. A few such cases were sufficient to strike fear in the rest, including critical intellectuals and academics. Once famous as a site of critical debates and discussions, the University of Dar es Salaam became an intellectual desert with its faculty tight-lipped in the face of momentous happenings outside the campus. To be fair, Magufuli could not be solely blamed for this as the trend had already set in in the previous decade. One of the major collateral damages of neo-liberalisation of the university and marketisation of its scholars was the emaciation of the critical intellectual content of university life. But that is a subject on its own and is best left for another day.
Under Magufuli’s presidency, the executive branch of the government became predominant riding rough-shod over other branches. During his presidency, it would require a leap of imagination to believe that the country had separation of powers. Mundane state functions like swearing-in ceremonies became grand functions at the state house with live TV coverage. Invariably, the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Chief Justice, commanders of the army and the police would be present seated in the front row with all their regalia. During such functions, which were essentially executive functions, the Speaker and Chief Justice would be invited to speak assuring the president of their loyalty and re-iterating their admiration for him. His speech would come at the end. In a long-winded rambling monologue, he would harangue, humiliate and even reprimand his ministers and other public officials. The president would often give thinly veiled instructions to the head of the judiciary and the legislature. The speech would end with his oft-repeated refrain that he would not flinch from speaking the truth for those who tell the truth are the beloved of God.
Under President Magufuli’s watch the country for the first time witnessed disappearances and kidnappings whose perpetrators remain unknown to this day. The perpetrators, we are told, were ‘watu wasiojulikana’ (unknown people). During his reign a wealthy businessman was mysteriously kidnapped and as mysteriously reappeared after 10 days. To this day it is not known what the motive was, who did it and what was the deal between the perpetrators and the victim’s wealthy family that led to his release. The businessman incredibly claimed a year later that no ransom money had been paid (https://www.bbc.com/ news/world-africa-50235322). An outspoken, high-profile, if somewhat erratic, leader of the opposition party was shot at in broad daylight by the occupants of a trailing land cruiser. Sixteen bullets were pumped into his body. Thankfully he survived, after dozens of surgeries performed on him in a foreign country, but the agony and the traumatic experience that he and his family and his admirers went through was inhuman and immeasurable. To date the perpetrators have not been arrested or sent before a court of law, nor does anyone know if the police are continuing the investigation or if the file has been conveniently closed.
The driving force during Mwalimu Nyerere’s reign was the ideology of nation-building and development. Nation-building called for national unity. Nyerere was preoccupied with national unity and as a result, he reigned in centrifugal forces
Soon after coming to power on a slim majority, by Tanzanian standards, of 58 per cent President Magufuli lost no time in coming down heavily on opposition parties. Political rallies were banned, opposition leaders were harassed, and slapped with all kinds of charges which kept them in court or prisons most of the time. Civil society organisations and NGOs fared no better. Funded by foreign agencies, some of them dubious, and having no constituency or agenda of their own, NGOs were most vulnerable. Extreme controls were imposed on them. Some of them found their bank accounts closed while others were subjected to all kinds of demands from revenue authorities.
As might be expected, print and electronic media bore the brunt of repression. While public media joined the praise-singing choir, private media too fell in line to protect their businesses and profits. Fearing closure or being slapped with heavy fines by the regulatory agency (TCRA) for smallest of infractions (which were not unknown), the media avoided controversial stories and investigative reporting. A couple of critical newspapers and online TV channels were either banned or starved of advertisements. They went under.
Ironically while the mainstream media was undergoing censure, a mysterious media mini-tycoon emerged on the scene like a phoenix. He owned a couple of newspapers and TV Online (an Online TV channel). His newspapers defamed prominent people, even party stalwarts, without let or hindrance. He abused and poured verbal venom on Magufuli’s critics and perceived opponents and enemies. He had no respect for professionalism or ethics. No disciplinary action has ever been taken against him either by regulatory bodies or media watchdogs.
Arguably the measure which was most important in making Magufuli known on the continent was his bold taking on of the multinational gold company Barrick Gold. And he did it in his own spectacular fashion. He stopped containers full of mineral sand to be exported by Acacia, a subsidiary of Barrick, for smelting. He formed a local team of experts to investigate the mineral content of the sand. Simultaneously, the Tanzania Revenue Authority slapped on it a huge bill of unpaid taxes amounting to USD190 billion. As expected, the expert team found that the sand contained a variety of minerals costing billions of shillings. The long and short of the story is that Barrick Gold had to send its chief executives to Tanzania to negotiate with the government, bypassing the Acacia management. Eventually, the parties struck a deal under which Barrick would pay USD300 million in settlement of the tax dispute and give Tanzania a 16 per cent stake in a new company, Twiga Minerals, which would operate Barrick’s three mines. Meanwhile, the ban on export of mineral sand was lifted. Details and the small print of the agreement were never made public. It is not clear if the promises made have been fulfilled.
In the same vein, a progressive piece of legislation called Natural Wealth and Resources (Permanent Sovereignty) Act was passed in 2017. While the law recognises the sovereign ownership of the people of natural resources, they are legally vested in the president who holds the same in trust. Most of its provisions, including this one, are really hortatory in that they cannot be easily enforced in a court of law. Nonetheless, the law did send a strong message that at least in theory the Tanzanian government would not tolerate any exploitation of its natural resources which had no benefit to the people of Tanzania. One provision which forbade any international agreement from providing for dispute settlement by outside bodies could be considered a great advance since most of these agreements invariably provide for international arbitration of disputes. Research has to be done to establish if this provision has been observed in practice. My hunch is that it has not.
The president also boldly moved against grand corruption. A number of high-profile, and hitherto untouchable, business people perceived to be corrupt were charged with unbailable offences. A few bought back their freedom through plea-bargaining; some are still rotting in jail. The former Vice-President of Acacia Deo Mwanyika was charged with money laundering for alleged tax evasion soon after retirement from the company. Eventually, he bought his freedom by way of a plea-bargaining agreement coughing up millions of shillings. (indeed many others charged similarly had to agree to pay handsome sums of money to get back their freedom.) Ironically, he was nominated by Magufuli’s party to stand for Parliament in the 2020 elections which he duly won. A well-known businessman who had been charged under the money laundering law for allegedly avoiding taxes died in remand custody.
In the 2020 general election Magufuli won by a landslide, getting an unprecedented 84 per cent while the ruling party won all parliamentary seats except a couple. Opposition parties cried foul but theirs was a voice in the wilderness. For the first time since the general elections began in the country in 1965, no election petitions were filed. It was a telling comment on the 2020 General Elections under President Magufuli’s watch. It was also a veiled pointer to the loss of people’s trust in the impartiality of the judiciary.
Within two or so years of Magufuli’s rule the civil and political space virtually disappeared. Selected disappearances, court cases against perceived opponents and closure or fining of media – both print and electronic – instilled fear, uncertainty and hopelessness even in outspoken academic critics. Magufuli shrewdly dangled carrots in front of academics by appointing a significant number of professors and PhDs to his cabinet and top public service positions thus denuding the university of its most senior faculty. The remaining joined the queue hoping to be picked up in the next round of presidential appointments.
The country had never before experienced such an intense perception of repression. Critics were subdued. Some leading opposition politicians were ‘bought’ off with political positions. Overnight they crossed the aisle becoming flag-waving members of the ruling party. Meanwhile, the populist rhetoric coupled with promises of beneficial material improvement for the wanyonge – free education, health insurance, relative discipline in delivery of public services and well-publicised action against notorious businesspeople for corruption, tax evasion, drug business etc – garnered support of the masses behind the president. The president’s unrelenting industrialisation drive, albeit unplanned and incoherent, gave jobless youth the hope of employment. In the event, whatever new industrial plants were put up they made little dent on unemployment figures. In itself the idea of industrialisation had a lot to commend it but for it to make developmental sense it had to be coherent and consistent with a broad vision of building a nationally integrated economy in which industry and agriculture would be mutually reinforcing. The president had no such vision and it is doubtful if he sought any advice or accepted it if given.
The president also became the chairman of the party, in terms of the convention established by the first phase government. Nyerere believed, not without reason, that the Tanzanian polity was not ready for the separation of the state president and the party chairman. The party was brought up and bred on centralisation of power. Under Magufuli’s chairmanship, party organs like the Central Committee and NEC were slimmed down in terms of numbers and filled with loyalists. The old guard of the party was weeded out. Two former Secretary Generals of the party and the foreign minister in Kikwete’s government with presidential ambitions were hounded, defamed and relentlessly humiliated in the media owned by the new kid on the block (see above). No action was taken against the mini media tycoon. Instead, the victims of his defamation campaign were subjected to disciplinary measures. One was reprimanded, another was suspended and put under watch while the former foreign minister was expelled.
Messianic Bonapartism shares some characteristics of the absolute monarchies of Europe. Absolute monarchs derived their legitimacy and authority from God, not from the people. And so-called good absolute monarchs were those who bestowed their largesse on their subjects.
Eventually, all but the latter asked for forgiveness and were duly forgiven. A similar dose of medicine was administered on one of the very vocal cadres of CCM who had campaigned vigorously for Magufuli in the 2015 election. He was appointed minister for information in the Magufuli cabinet. He dared to cross swords with one of Magufuli’s favourite regional commissioners which earned him a revocation of his appointment as a minister. When he tried to hold a press conference to explain his side of the story at a city hotel, he was confronted by a plain-clothes pistol-wielding person who forced him back into his car. To this day no one has been held accountable for that roguish behaviour. Eventually he too asked for forgiveness and was duly forgiven.
The new chairman of the party appointed a young person from the University of Dar es Salaam with progressive credentials as Secretary-General of the party. Another young person with no political or ideological credentials to speak of except vituperous outpourings became the ideology and publicity secretary of the party. None of them had an independent base either in the party or outside. They became the public image of the party in the shadow of the chairman to whom they were eternally beholden.
The passing of the president
The framers of 1977 Constitution (as amended) wisely provided for the contingency of the death of an incumbent president. In case of such eventuality the vice-president would take over for the remaining the term of the deceased president. This provision was not well known even to constitutional lawyers and had certainly not featured in public discussions on the constitution. This was so partly because there had never been such an occurrence but mainly because this provision was new, having been introduced in one of a spate of constitutional amendments following the introduction of multi-party in 1992. In the Eighth Constitutional Amendment, the framers borrowed the system of a running-mate from the United States. Together with this, the framers took over almost lock, stock and barrel the American provision on succession in case of the death of an incumbent president (25th Amendment to the US Constitution). Article 37(5) of the 1977 Constitution stipulated that in case of, among other things, the death of the incumbent, the vice-president should be sworn in to be the president.
After the announcement of the death of the president it took almost 60 hours before the vice-president was sworn in.2 A few legal commentators opined that there was a lacuna (gap) in the constitution which did not provide the timeframe within which the vice-president had to be sworn in. One legal expert who has attained a kind of celebrity status for conducting public interest litigation even opined that it would be imprudent to swear in the succeeding president while the body of the late president had not yet been interred. One does not have to be a constitutional expert to read the constitution in context to conclude that the successor has to be sworn in immediately, that in fact there is no lacuna in the constitution. Under Tanzania’s Constitution the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces with powers to declare war and make peace, with powers to declare state of emergency etc. The presidency therefore cannot remain vacant for any length of time. The practice in the US, from where article 37(5) of the Tanzanian Constitution was lifted, has been to swear in the vice-president to become president immediately on the confirmation of the death of the incumbent president. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 in the city of Dallas, Lyndon B. Johnson, his vice-president, was sworn in within two hours onboard Air Force One while it was still parked on the runway. In the event, to the relief of many, the constitution prevailed. It is not clear which superior force intervened in favour of the constitution. So far, the transition has gone smoothly.
Glimpses into the future
It is too early to say the direction that the new regime will take under president Samia Suluhu Hassan. To be sure, it is likely to be a little more liberal politically and economically and a little less heavy on invoking rhetorical invectives against western governments. In changing the symbolic salutation from religious to secular, the president will probably adhere to the secular tradition of the country. She is likely to open up to the outside world. The extent of opening up will determine whether her government draws in the laissez-faire elements of the fourth phase government or remains within the parameters of national interest. All in all, the party and the government which she now heads is likely to continue on the path of neo-liberalism. Thus the stark choice in the immediate and medium-term future is not so much between nationalism and neo-liberalism but rather between rampant and regulated neo-liberalism.
Whether or not and how far the new president opens up the civil space will also determine how far the working people are able to organise themselves openly to defend their interests. There are disturbing signs that opportunist politicians, businessmen and IFIs (International Financial Institutions) are getting too close to the president. If they prevail, the neo-liberal path will consolidate itself. There is a fear among more conscious elements that some of the worst features of neo-liberalism – rampant pillage of natural resources, reaping of monopoly super-profits at the expense of the working people, land grabbing resulting in eviction of smallholders, further exacerbation of social inequalities and mass misery– may once again reappear with a vengeance. In which case, whatever goodwill the president may have generated will quickly evaporate.
One major lesson to draw from the Magufuli phenomenon is that our polities in the periphery remain fragile and masses disorganised. Therefore our polities are vulnerable and amenable to the rise of narrow nationalists and populists on the one hand, and rampant neo-liberals on the other. Under the circumstances, organisation-building remains foremost on the working peoples’ agenda. The politics of class struggle have to transit from spontaneity to organisation just as committed left intellectuals have to transit from being public to organic intellectuals.
Ultimately the working people have to depend on themselves rather than wait for a messiah to deliver them. Hopefully the Magufuli phenomenon would have taught progressive African intellectuals to distinguish between rhetorical anti-imperialism and systemic understanding of the global capitalist-imperialist system; between populist demagogues and popular democrats; between mass political line and mass evangelism; and between a protracted struggle of the working people for liberation and emancipation from below and short-cut measures to development and promises of deliverance from above.
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We Are Not the Wretched of the Pandemic
Casting Africans as the wretched of the pandemic seems to make sense, given the obvious inequalities. But it deprives us of agency and urgency.
“Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” ~ Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust (2014)
I want to explore something I have been wrestling with over the last three weeks. About silences, and also about anger.
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 was first identified by scientific teams in southern Africa, and reported to the WHO on 24 November 2021. Since then, there has been a chaotic outpouring of news, speculation and reactions. We have also been furious about travel bans, about scientists being punished, about COVID being labelled as African, and about global vaccine inequality/apartheid.
Some of the dust is only now settling. Omicron has spread incredibly quickly worldwide, and has displaced older variants. European and North American healthcare systems are in danger of being overwhelmed. There is political fallout from the unpopular introduction of tighter controls.
The first cases from Omicron in Kenya have now been identified, but the variant has probably been here for some time. Daily case numbers began doubling just before Christmas 2021. We have entered our fifth wave.
This new variant seems extremely transmissible, but key aspects of its longer-term severity, and its ability to resist existing vaccines, remain unclear. Results from South Africa, Europe and North America about its “mildness” were eagerly projected onto a quite different population here, one with much lower vaccination levels – even as all those health systems went into crisis. New unpredictable variants are still likely to appear over the coming year.
We are still in a situation of uncertainty, but we are desperate to believe the pandemic is over.
I want to explore the psychological impact of the pandemic. There are things we need to understand, acknowledge, and address now. If we fail to do this, we may remain distracted or paralysed at a time when we really need to gather and refocus our energies.
The pandemic may be viral, but it has also created a mental health epidemic. Most of us are completely exhausted from the past two years. Our emotional and financial reserves are drained. Some of us are suffering from the longer-term effects of COVID, from isolation, or just from the stress of unpredictability.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor wrote, “Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.”
After the Omicron variant was announced, and the West responded with travel bans, I felt we should add a fourth language — and perhaps for Africa more broadly. Anger.
Fight, Flight or Freeze.
Many of you will recognise these as our classic responses to threats. We usually become angry in response to a source of fear — a threat. We want to fight, to protect ourselves from whatever threatens us. An ancient reactive part of our brain, the amygdala, takes over.
It has to act quickly. It can’t do nuance. It. Doesn’t. Have. Time.
Our amygdala has to flatten the world around us, divide it neatly into friends and foes.
Anger in itself is not a bad emotion. It evolved to protect us. Sometimes it is life-saving. Channelled well, outrage can change society in really positive ways.
However, in our modern, artificial, overcrowded, confusing, stressful and technological lifestyles, we have to be careful. Anger can be misplaced, destructive, and exhausting, especially if we become trapped within cycles of anger and trauma.
At this stage of the pandemic, we are frightened and exhausted. Some of us are on the verge of collapse and paralysis. We want this to be over.
We are also angry.
But the real cause of this anger — an invisible virus — is hard to attack.
Since COVID-19 emerged in 2019, the world has been a confusing and frightening place. COVID-19 fuelled a global crisis in an extremely unequal and unfair world.
The pandemic, and the accompanying lockdowns, created huge fears, personal losses, sickness, deep economic and psychological challenges. Many people struggled and some genuinely found it hard to understand why.
COVID-19 fuelled a global crisis in an extremely unequal and unfair world.
Lockdowns succeeded in reducing the initial spread, but this paradoxically undermined their justification. Without people visibly dying everywhere, some questioned whether news of the pandemic had a hidden motive. The reluctance of western media to show the suffering of white bodies also created a cognitive disconnect, especially in the US.
We were at war with an invisible virus — not with one another — but still tensions rose.
Our amygdala is not good at this new kind of war. It needs a recognisable enemy.
This medical crisis is not a fairy tale, with cartoon heroes and villains. However, when we are angry, frustrated and scared, the protective instinctive part of our brain activates. It desperately wants to flatten complicated reality into a reassuringly simple cartoon version.
Who is attacking us? Who are our enemies?
We needed someone to blame.
There has been a lot of coverage of far-right COVID conspiracy theories. Trump labelled COVID-19 the “China virus”, while allowing it to kill far more people in the US. An election year in the US cemented a crazy partisan divide, with right-wing politicians taking their stance against masks and vaccines. Public health was placed in opposition to personal freedoms. This soon spread to other countries online.
At a deeper level, the Christian far-right in the US doesn’t believe in evolution. A rapidly mutating virus is impossible to understand. A deliberately weaponized pathogen, developed in a lab, by godless people unlike them, made far more sense. There was someone (imaginary) to blame. They found their “real” enemy.
(This wasn’t a solely Christian problem. Religious “leaders” with political access in India also derailed the COVID response in their country, with disastrous global consequences.)
Conspiracy theories may be convoluted and nonsensical — but they are emotionally satisfying. In a confusing world, they give us someone clear to blame, to scapegoat.
The idea of the scapegoat comes from the Jewish tradition where, as described in Leviticus 16:21, the sins of a community were placed on a live goat, which was then chased off into the wilderness. I am not sure the scapegoat fully understood what was happening, and the goats I have consulted think this was probably not a huge punishment. However, the point was never really about the goat, but about the removal of sins from within the community.
Lockdowns succeeded in reducing the initial spread, but this paradoxically undermined their justification.
In the modern world, we still find scapegoats — people to blame. They are not the real cause of our problems and chasing them into the wilderness does not resolve anything. While the original Jewish ceremony may have served a genuinely useful social purpose, our modern versions do not. Scapegoats are now useful distractions, used to stoke up and misdirect fear and hatred.
While there has been a lot of emphasis on far-right conspiracy theories, I think there is also a different but related phenomenon on the left. After all, people who are scared and angry need to find someone to blame. We all need a scapegoat on whom to pile our complex, perhaps intractable problems — and then noisily chase them out of town.
This does not solve our problems — but it is something tangible we can do. It provides some temporary relief.
In the narratives of these conspiracy theories, pharmaceutical companies and Western governments have conspired to create global vaccine apartheid. Greed, control or naked racism are the clear explanation in the wilder discussions online. There are wicked people to blame, and we must attack them.
Like any good conspiracy theory, there is a kernel of truth in these narratives. We live in a world that has been substantially shaped by capitalism, and that is still scarred by deep historical inequalities stemming from slavery and Western colonialism. Africa has been last on the list to receive vaccines. (Omicron may have emerged in Africa because of low vaccine coverage, allowing new variants to appear.)
We all need a scapegoat on whom to pile our complex, perhaps intractable problems — and then noisily chase them out of town.
A global public health emergency needed a global public health response. While there was immense public funding and coordination, it has been galling to see large pharmaceutical companies make massive profits from this catastrophe; the techniques and “recipes” for the vaccines must become public goods — not controlled for private profit.
There are very unpleasant echoes of past crises. As Zeynep Tupfecki has observed, most of the people who died in the HIV/AIDS epidemic did so after ARV medicines had been developed. Intellectual property rights and corporate profits took precedence over global health, and Africans bore the brunt of that approach.
We clearly need better global health systems. However, this narrative that vaccine inequality was deliberate and racist — and our angry response — simplifies and obscures key issues.
There actually was a plan to make sure all countries received vaccines. This plan recognised that we were facing an interlinked global health crisis, and that we needed to address structural inequalities. COVAX was explicitly set up as “a global risk-sharing mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.”
Several things went wrong with this plan, but an angry backlash against vaccine inequality is now obscuring that history. This anger may prevent us from learning difficult lessons, or taking the time-critical action we need to focus on right now.
Our house is on fire. People are inside, still at risk, but some of us are standing outside — feeling safe because we have been vaccinated — and yelling about who started the fire. Trying to find the people to blame, instead of figuring out how we can help right now.
Contracting most of the shared vaccines to one provider — the Serum Institute of India (SSI) — was a disastrous decision for COVAX. This decision may have been based on cost, but it was a strategic mistake to put so many eggs in one basket during an unpredictable global disaster.
Under Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing government did not take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. A whole government department was set up to push herbal remedies, and other unproven treatments like steaming. Politicians were preoccupied with elections and religious rallies, which turned into super-spreader events. When the Delta variant began to ravage India in February 2021, the government retreated into full-scale denial.
It has been galling to see large pharmaceutical companies make massive profits from this catastrophe.
The situation in India was devastating. I was already helping to coordinate Indian volunteer group efforts, and I remember the horror of seeing the wave of infections grow rapidly, and then overwhelm the country. People struggled to find oxygen, medicines and ICU beds for their loved ones — or even for themselves.
Then things went quiet — which was even more ominous. The COVID wave was starting to ravage communities, and they had no one to ask for help.
However, the crisis in India was also an indication that a global crisis was brewing. SSI was meant to produce 700 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine for poorer countries in 2021. It had already encountered some production issues, and the Indian government, in its complacency, had not ordered doses for its own citizens until it was too late. At one point, facing threats from desperate Indian politicians, the CEO fled to London for his own safety.
Exports of the doses produced for other countries, including for Kenya, were blocked. Much of the vaccine famine we experienced early in 2021 was caused by this crisis.
Mistakes were made, and people were definitely culpable as well. However, this key event does not fit neatly into the angry narrative of vaccine apartheid. If the rich white West are the obvious villains, and black Africans are the clear victims — adding a complex disaster in India to the mix just messes up the neat fairy tale.
China developed its own vaccine. It has administered nearly three billion doses to its own people, and exported millions as well. Cuba did even better, despite facing economic sanctions. After a delayed start, Latin America is doing far better with vaccinations, with larger countries nearing Western levels of protection.
The problem is not simply racism, but relative poverty. However, it is a better fairy tale if we just edit out the inconvenient parts.
In political theory, a surprising convergence between right- and left-wing extremes has often been noted. Starting from different initial points, positions seem to become more similar as they become more radicalised and angry. This is known as the “horseshoe theory”.
This links to how we flatten the world, and look for simple friends, foes, and scapegoats, as that part of our brain that responds instinctively takes over to protect us from threats. Traditionally, political theory has focussed on dry policy issues and class allegiances. But with the rise of Trump and other populists mainstreaming conspiracy theories worldwide, a lot more research has been undertaken to explore deeper psychological issues around fear, uncertainty, and anger.
Politicians were preoccupied with elections and religious rallies, which turned into super-spreader events.
In a world dominated by powerful and often impersonal, confusing and opaque structures, our amygdala has to find someone to blame — like a classic Bond villain. Common examples are both right- and left-wing antisemitism, and attacks on globalisation.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, pro- and anti-vaccine groups both see conspiracies organised by greedy pharmaceutical companies. The more you think about this, the more bizarre it seems — but here we are. Anger at international structures in general has also grown, leading to strange bedfellows. At one point, I saw Elon Musk attacking the World Food Programme, and left-wing people rallying to his side. I had to switch off my devices and lie down for a while.
The SARS-CoV-2 genome only contains about 29,903 bases of single-stranded RNA — 30kB of data, less than half the length of this article. This tiny virus is outwitting human civilization.
Our amygdala, and the adrenalin it activates, can save lives — but only in the right context. We need to act instinctively rapidly when we are running out of a house that is on fire — as did our distant ancestors when escaping predators.
However, in a slow-burning and confusing pandemic, our amygdala should not be allowed to take charge.
COVID-19 is being helped right now by our own fearful responses.
Right now, our house is on fire — and many of us are still trapped inside. We instinctively want to save ourselves, get our boosters, and get away from the problem as quickly as possible.
However, as a country we are less than 10% fully vaccinated. Our fire is far from out.
The last few years have been an “I can’t breathe” crisis on several levels.
Franz Fanon was a physician, psychiatrist and philosopher. His work on colonial violence, and the lasting psychological and cultural damage it caused, remains important to this day. After all, these past years have been a crisis of COVID, but also of George Floyd, and of Black Lives Matter.
I was very influenced by Fanon’s work, via Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who built on Fanon’s work. I first encountered these ideas around lasting cultural trauma when I was a peace worker for British Quakers, based in South Africa. About a decade after that experience, I took part in the first large Rhodes Must Fall march in Oxford, which was extraordinarily moving and powerful.
Fanon talks of the colonial world as “a Manichaean World”, divided into light and dark. White colonizers are seen as the light, and black colonized individuals are viewed as darkness, and the epitome of evil.
In a world dominated by powerful and often impersonal, confusing and opaque structures, our amygdala has to find someone to blame.
At this point, this should sound familiar. Surely the antidote to this colonial polarisation, a world where black is bad — is it’s opposite — white neo-colonial pharma as the epitome of evil?
However, this is simplistic — as I have demonstrated with the catastrophe in India. I am reminded of a jingle for Lotus FM in Durban: “Not everything’s black and white. . .”
I would also argue that it is literally dangerous.
Painting Africa as the wretched of the pandemic, a whole continent victimised yet again by the West, deprives us of agency and urgency. It glosses over complex but really important details.
Most importantly, while the image gives us something to focus our anger on, a scapegoat to chase out of town, it also provides us with an excuse not to actually do anything difficult but useful ourselves.
We can safely exhaust ourselves shouting at foreigners in the West, and this venting is cathartic. We are now absolved from doing anything closer to home. Powerful and evil external actors are in charge — at least until some utopian revolution dawns.
Meanwhile, the reality which this narrative obscures is that vaccines have been arriving in Africa. Kenya now has millions of vaccines available, and the immediate but very real challenges are local logistics, and persuading people with mild vaccine reluctance to get vaccinated.
Unfortunately, anger at global pharma is being manipulated to make people on the ground more hesitant at a time when we need to reassure them that vaccines are safe and effective. It is still not quick and easy to get a vaccine in Kenya. Vague rumours about side effects and large wicked corporations are enough to put scared people off doing something that seems novel, risky and time-consuming.
But while overall Africa has lagged behind other countries on vaccine uptake, we have also seen much fewer deaths. It is not entirely clear why this is — although it will probably be due to a complex mix of factors, including our younger demographics, and fewer comorbidities from diseases of affluence like obesity and diabetes.
Painting Africa as the wretched of the pandemic, a whole continent victimised yet again by the West, deprives us of agency and urgency.
As more vaccines became available during 2021, more of them went to countries where they were more desperately needed, rather than to Africa, which had lower case rates. The overall picture includes Latin America and South East Asia, which did get vaccines when they needed them more. The now high vaccination rates in these regions are being ignored by those arguing that there is a global vaccine apartheid.
We are also likely to experience a global oversupply of vaccines in 2022. Part of the reason pharmaceutical companies seem greedy is that they know vaccines are going to commodify. Increased supply will drive price reductions, so companies want to take profits while they still can. Free markets are not morally perfect, but when they scale up, they are incredibly powerful.
(I still believe we need a more global public control of vaccines that are essential to public health. Since the Delta variant overwhelmed India in May, and torpedoed collective efforts via COVAX, I have argued that we need a “Liberty Ships” approach to this pandemic — a wartime level of effort and resources. This did not happen fast enough, and we have lost lives as a result.)
Mirroring global vaccine inequality is local vaccine inequality.
I have been concerned for some time that the relatively privileged but tiny urban elites in Kenya would get themselves vaccinated then lose interest as their own lives returned to normal. Once vaccination rates in Nairobi reached about 20 per cent, and the lockdowns and curfews were eased, this did seem to happen; although most of Kenya’s counties still had very low levels of vaccination, the national conversation moved on, unconcerned.
Once Omicron was announced, there was a vast amount of anger at travel restrictions imposed on southern African countries. There were lots of legitimate reasons for the frustration, especially as Omicron was probably already in many countries, as has proved to be the case, but African scientists were effectively being punished for being the first to identify it.
Blanket travel bans are in any case not very effective at stemming the spread of variants and those travel bans have now been largely removed. (Ironically, France is now restricting travellers from Britain, where Omicron case numbers are rising alarmingly.)
Part of the reason pharmaceutical companies seem greedy is that they know vaccines are going to commodify.
However, the anger I sensed seemed really unfocused and confused. Kenyans were also outraged, but there was little concern or interest in the actual variant, or in the rising cases in southern Africa — the countries with which we were apparently showing solidarity. Christmas concerts and parties continued. Some people seemed more worried about having their own travel plans, and their newly regained privileged lifestyles, threatened. I felt like a lone voice, trying to remind Kenyans just how few of our own citizens were protected by vaccines.
I am not sure what Frantz Fanon would make of our bourgeoisie. Che Guevara would actually have shot most of the people who wear those trendy t-shirts bearing his image. I doubt Fanon would have been impressed.
We have now got our reward, with exponentially rising case numbers in Kenya as well.
My feeling is that the outrage was actually based on the deeper fear that we would return to lockdowns, and that the pandemic was not actually over. Instead of focussing on the actual problem — a new variant — we found foreign scapegoats to yell at, allowing the thing which frightened us to take root.
For Fanon, the colonized were kept constantly on edge by an “atmospheric violence”, tensed in anticipation of violence. The pandemic has done something similar to our limbic systems. While not comparable to the traumas of slavery, we are constantly stressed, and on edge.
I am strangely reminded of Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity as a “slave morality”. Good Christians, by turning the other cheek, did not push back against power. Returning to the Fight/Fright/Freeze stress response that I learnt about in school, it has been updated to include a fourth response sometimes called ‘Submit’, ‘Fawn’ or ‘Feign’.
The Slave Bible, published in 1807 in London, then circulated in Caribbean and North American plantations, was a disturbing later embodiment of Nietzsche’s criticism. Sections such as the exodus story, which might inspire hope for liberation, were removed. Instead, portions that justified and fortified the system of British Imperial slavery were emphasized.
The Slave Bible encouraged silence, subservience and passivity, in the face of injustice. It was used to pacify people subjected to the worst forms of oppression and constant violence.
We found foreign scapegoats to yell at, allowing the thing that frightened us to take root.
The reality is more complex. Jesus himself was not passive. Theologians like Walter Wink have shown that turning the other cheek was actually a powerful act of resistance, given wider Roman culture. To turn the other cheek forced the aggressor to use their left hand, which would be seen as humiliating for the aggressor to other Romans. This would reclaim some power and agency for the Christian in a situation of powerlessness.
In the “atmospheric violence” of the pandemic, I sense we all feel disempowered. Some of us have become passive and withdrawn, while others have become angry and frustrated. However, instead of channelling the energy of anger into practical action to take care of one another, we are simply venting our frustrations publicly and fruitlessly – and sometimes counterproductively.
Some of us channel our frustrations against the pandemic restrictions of our own governments, or vaccination programmes – while others rail against international injustices.
Venting may feel helpful, but it is not reclaiming power or agency. It may briefly feel good, but it is not really helping us.
Casting Africans as the wretched of the pandemic seems to make sense, given the obvious inequalities. It is proving an incredibly powerful global rallying cry.
It makes people righteously, blindly, angry. It directs all our fear and rage outwards.
It is also, however, a good way of absolving us from tackling the harder questions, much closer to home, or requiring more difficult practical action. The actors who matter are powerful and elsewhere, which limits our own direct responsibility to do more than yell from a safe distance.
We all have limited energy at the best of times, and right now most of us are depleted. Directing our energy at global injustice, while ignoring more local problems, feels wrong to me. We actually have vaccines and knowledge and hard work to do right now. Nobody else can or will do that work for us.
Perhaps this is why such anger is so attractive though. If the problems are all global, we don’t have to look at our own broken health systems, venal politicians diverting COVID-19 relief funds, or the real challenge of addressing rumours that have spread over the past year about vaccine side effects. We can ignore the failings of our own leaders, who hold rallies and threaten our citizens, if our true enemies are global ones.
Anger directed at outside factors also prevents us from taking a hard look at how fragmented we ourselves are. While life-threatening famine was raging in large parts of Kenya, Nairobi was worried about cancelling Christmas parties and flight bans.
If you are reading this, you probably inhabit a tiny, relatively privileged bubble, just as I do. Even those of us who want to improve vaccine access have little idea what is happening in other parts of the country. It is harder still to know how to help.
Fanon never wanted colonialism — or the struggle against colonialism — to define us, taking on a simplistic crusading missionary zeal ourselves.
I’ve been organising civil society work around COVID-19 for much of the year, but I’m struck by how few people are able to volunteer their time and energy. We are all exhausted, but it feels deeper than that.
In India, one genuine problem was that so many people wanted to get involved, which created lots of duplication and confusion, as so many people reinvented the same wheels, and made the same mistakes.
South Africa also has a much stronger civil society response than I have seen here. Kenya is one of the few places I know where activists are treated with suspicion. This feels like the shadow of both colonialism, and Jomo Kenyatta’s and Moi’s authoritarian rule. Repression and fear were normalised. Kenya suffered from atmospheric violence. The few brave activists became lightning rods — but with little support from those for whom they organised.
No country in the world had massive health service capacity in reserve, ready for a pandemic. A massive civil society effort has been needed everywhere but I simply have not seen one in Kenya. We are rightly frustrated at the incompetence and the colonial threats of our own Ministry of Health, but we are not yet willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved where we see obvious gaps. We complain loudly — but that is all we do.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor talks of silence as one of Kenya’s official languages.
I feel that that silence has been breaking over the past decade. Kenyans are more forthright, more outspoken and more critical. The internet has helped many to speak up, and to find kindred spirits. There is also a lot of buried historical baggage to process, and economic frustration and inequality, and injustice as well.
We are rightly frustrated at the incompetence and the colonial threats of our own Ministry of Health, but we are not yet willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved.
This is an important part of becoming a healthier society — one not cowed by power. We are growing up, from literally being treated as the children of the nation, which suited our rulers just fine. We have suffered the consequences of arrogant power for far too long.
We have difficult baggage to process, and the pandemic has added layers of fear and frustration. There is a lot we need to face, and mourn, but being angry is a distraction from that. I also see a hollow and defensive kind of pride, used as a shield against any kind of criticism.
These are ways of covering up our pain.
Anger is becoming our fourth official language.
This is dangerous — especially since 2022 will be an election year.
What is the alternative?
Well, vaccines are here, and will keep coming.
Kenya has more vaccines in fridges than we’ve used in total so far.
We have a national mobilisation project — to ensure all of our people are safe.
The narrative that we are wretched victims also ignores all the inconvenient good news. How did Morocco or Botswana manage to vaccinate so many of their populations?
Within Kenya itself, some counties are doing much better than others.
What could we learn from them?
Who are our local heroes?
Who needs our help?
We stand at the beginning of a New Year.
I actually think it will be a hopeful one, as far as the pandemic is concerned.
Even with new variants like Omicron, science is incredibly powerful. In particular, the mRNA platform is able to rapidly create new targeted vaccines.
There is also unprecedented global solidarity. Unlike during other previous crises, such as conflicts or famines, rich countries were the first to suffer the devastating consequences of the pandemic, so there is huge empathy. We can tell our stories online in compelling ways, and these stories resonate.
Even more than science and compassion, economically speaking, the world will put resources into ending the pandemic. Highly infectious diseases simply cannot be contained by travel restrictions. Our world is simply too interconnected and interwoven.
It is also an election year in Kenya. We can look at how politicians and governors have performed, and the state of their health programmes. This is the one time we have some leverage.
Anger is a call to action that we can channel into things that are more useful than empty, exhausting rage and the accompanying disempowering sense of victimhood. Action will be truly healing, as we find ways to take back control, after the helplessness of the past two years.
For some reason, we have also been lucky. The level of COVID deaths and serious illness in Kenya have been undercounted – but they still aren’t as high as in some other countries. This isn’t because of our excellent scientists (that’s southern Africa) or our experience with Ebola (west and central Africa). It may be demographics, geography, and exposure to other pathogens. The answer will probably be a mix of different factors.
So far, strangely enough, we’ve actually escaped the worst of it; we have simply not been the wretched of this pandemic. The worst of what I saw in India, and in many other countries, did not befall us. Our biggest challenge now is to get our own population vaccinated, with the now fairly available vaccines, so that we are better protected against new variants.
It may be demographics, geography, and exposure to other pathogens. The answer will probably be a mix of different factors.
We need to take a deep breath and take stock of where we actually are right now. Instead of fighting battles from last year, and knowing all that we now, what should be our focus?
Our next challenge is climate change, and that will be much harder. Especially for Africa.
We need to end this crisis, and in doing so, learn how to deal with our own fears and anger, our need for simple scapegoats, if we are to stand a chance of addressing the climate crisis.
COVID-19 was relatively minor, but it still shook our civilisations. Climate change is a truly existential threat.
The Possibilities and Perils of Leading an African University
This is the first of a ten-part series of reflections on various aspects of my experiences over six years as Vice Chancellor of USIU-Africa that will be expanded into a book.
For six years, from 2016 to 2021, I was Vice Chancellor (President) of a private university in Kenya, the United States International University-Africa. It was an honor and privilege to serve in that role. It marked the apex of my professional academic life. It offered an incredible opportunity to make my small contribution to the continued development of the university itself, put into practice my scholarly research on African higher education, and deepen my understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the sector at a time of tumultuous change in African and global political economies.
When I took the position, I was quite familiar with both African universities and Kenya as a country. I was a product of African higher education having undertaken my undergraduate studies at the University of Malawi, my home country, in the 1970s. I had done my PhD dissertation at Dalhousie University in Canada on Kenya’s economic and labor history where I spent about fifteen months in 1979-1980.
Later, I taught at Kenyatta University in Nairobi for five and half years between 1984-1989. That is one reason the position of Vice Chancellor at USIU-Africa eventually proved attractive to me. I would be returning to my African “intellectual home.” Or so I thought. I came back to a different country, as I will elaborate later in my reflections.
After I left Kenya at the beginning of January 1990, I spent the next 25 years at Canadian and American universities. But Africa was always on my mind, as an epistemic and existential reality, the focus of my intellectual and political passions, the locus of my research work and creative writing. My scholarly studies on intellectual history examined the construction of ideas, disciplines, interdisciplines, and higher education institutions and their African provenance, iterations, and inflections.
Over the years I had published numerous books and papers on African studies and universities including in 2004 African Universities in the 21st Century (Vol.I: Liberalization and Internationalization and Vol II: Knowledge and Society), and in 2007 The Study of Africa (Vol. I: Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Encounters and Vol.II: Global and Transnational Engagements).
In early 2015, I was commissioned to write the Framing Paper for the 1st African Higher Education Summit on Revitalizing Higher Education for Africa’s Future held in Dakar, Senegal March 10-12. I was also one of the drafters of the Summit Declaration and Action Plan. So, I was well versed on the key issues facing African higher education. But leading an actual African university proved a lot more complex and demanding as this series will show.
The vice chancellor’s position at USIU-Africa was advertised after the Dakar Summit. Initially, it had little appeal for me. My earlier experiences at Kenyatta University had left me wary of working as an “expatriate”, as a foreigner, in an African country other than my own. In fact, in 1990 I wrote a paper on the subject, “The Lightness of Being an Expatriate African Scholar,” which was delivered at the renowned conference convened by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, held in Uganda in late November 1990, out of which emerged the landmark Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility. The paper was included in my essay collection, Manufacturing African Studies and Crises published in 1997.
The paper began by noting, “The lack of academic freedom in Africa is often blamed on the state. Although the role of the state cannot be doubted, the institutions dominated by the intellectuals themselves are also quite authoritarian and tend to undermine the practices and pursuit of academic freedom. Thus, the intellectual communities in Africa and abroad, cannot be entirely absolved from responsibility for generating many of the restrictive practices and processes that presently characterize the social production of knowledge in, and on, Africa. In many instances they have internalized the coercive anti-intellectualist norms of the state, be it those of the developmentalist state in the South or the imperialist state in the North, and they articulate the chauvinisms and tyrannies of civil society, whether of ethnicity, class, gender or race.”
The rest of the paper delineated, drawing from my experiences at Kenyatta, the conditions, contradictions, constraints, exclusions, and marginalization of African expatriate scholars in African countries that often force them to trek back to the global North where many of them studied or migrated from, as I did.
Once I returned from the diaspora back to Kenya in 2016, I soon realized, to my consternation, that xenophobia had actually gotten worse, as I will discuss in later sections. It even infected USIU-Africa that took pride in being an “international American university.” In my diasporic excitement to “give back” to the continent, to escape the daily assaults of racism that people of African descent are often subjected to in North America, Europe and elsewhere, I had invested restorative Pan-African intellectual and imaginative energies in a rising developmental, democratic, integrated and inclusive post-nationalist Africa.
Over the next six years, I clang desperately to this fraying ideal. It became emotionally draining, but intellectually clarifying and enriching. I became an Afro-realist, eschewing the debilitating Afro-pessimism of Africa’s eternal foes and the exultant bullishness of Afro-optimists.
In 2015, as I talked to the VC search firm based in the United States, and some of my close friends, and colleagues in the diaspora I warned up to the idea of diaspora return. The colleagues included those who participated in the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program (CADFP). The program was based on research I conducted in 2011-2012 for the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY) on the engagement of African diaspora academics in Canada and the United with African higher education institutions.
CADFP was launched in 2013 and I became chair of its Advisory Council comprised of prominent African academics and administrators. This was one of four organs of the program; the other three were CCNY providing funding, the Institute for International Education (IIE) offering management support, and my two former universities in the US (Quinnipiac) and Kenya (USIU-Africa) hosting the Secretariat. Several recipients ended up returning to work back on the continent long after their fellowships. I said to myself, why not me?
For various reasons, my position as Vice President for Academic Affairs in Connecticut had turned out to be far less satisfactory than I had anticipated. I was ready for a new environment, challenges, and opportunities. So, I put in an application for the USIU-Africa vice chancellorship. There were 65 candidates altogether. The multi-stage search process replicated the ones I was familiar with in the US, but it was novel in Kenya where the appointment of vice chancellors tends to be truncated to an interview lasting over a couple of hours or so in which committee members score the candidates sometimes on dubious ethnic grounds.
At the time I got the offer from USIU-Africa, I had two other offers, a provostship in Maryland, and as founding CEO of the African Research Universities Alliance. Furthermore, I was one of the last two candidates for a senior position at one of the world’s largest foundations from which I withdrew. I chose USIU-Africa after long deliberations with my wife and closest friends. Becoming vice chancellor would give me an opportunity to test, implement, and refine my ideas on the Pan-African project of revitalizing African universities for the continent’s sustainable transformation.
USIU-Africa had its own attractions as the oldest private secular university in Kenya. Originally established in 1969 as a branch campus of an American university by that name based in San Diego that had other branches in London, Tokyo, and Mexico City, it was the only university in the region that enjoyed dual accreditation by the Commission for University Education in Kenya and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in the United States. Moreover, it was the most international university in the region with students from more than 70 countries; an institution that seemed to take diversity and inclusion seriously; a comprehensive university with several schools offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs; one that boasted seemingly well-maintained physical and electronic infrastructure poised for expansion. The position prospectus proclaimed the university’s ambitions to become research intensive.
Six months before my wife and I packed our bags for Kenya, I took up a fellowship at Harvard University to work on a book titled, The Transformation of Global Higher Education: 1945-2015 that was published in late 2016. I had long been fascinated by the history of ideas and knowledge producing institutions around the world, and this book gave me an opportunity to do so, to examine the development of universities and knowledge systems on every continent—the Americas, Europe, Asia, and of course Africa. Writing the book filled me with excitement bordering on exhilaration, not least because it marked the second time in my academic career that I was on sabbatical.
I thought I was as prepared as I could be to assume leadership of a private African university. As I showed in my book, by 2015, private universities outnumbered public ones across the continent, 972 out of 1639. In 1999, there were only 339 private universities. Still, public universities predominated in student enrollments, and although many had lost their former glory, they were often much better than most of the fly by night profiteering private institutions sprouting all over the place like wild mushrooms.
Africa of course needed more universities to overcome its abysmally low tertiary enrollment ratios, but the haphazard expansion taking place often without proper planning and the investment of adequate physical, financial, and human resources only succeeded in gravely undermining the quality of university education. The quality of faculty and research fell precipitously in many countries and campuses as I have demonstrated in numerous papers.
Serving in successive administrative positions ranging from college principal and acting director of the international program at Trent University in Canada, and in the United States as center director and department chair at the University of Illinois, college dean at Loyola Marymount University, and academic vice president at Quinnipiac University, I had come to appreciate that once you enter the administrative ladder, even if it’s by accident or reluctantly as was in my case, there are some imperatives one has to undertake in preparing for the next level.
Universities are learning institutions and as such university leaders at all levels from department chairs to school deans to management to board members must be continuous learners. This requires an inquisitive, humble, agile, open, creative, entrepreneurial, and resilient mindset.
It entails, first, undergoing formal training in university leadership. Unfortunately, this is underdeveloped in much of Africa as higher education leadership programs hardly exist in most countries. As part of my appointment, I asked for professional training opportunities to be included in my contract for the simple reason I had never been VC before so I needed to learn how to be one! In summer 2016 and summer 2017, I attended Harvard University’s seminars, one for new presidents and another on advancement leadership for presidents. Not only did I learn a lot, I also built an invaluable network of presidential colleagues.
Second, university leaders must familiarize themselves with and understand trends in higher education by reading widely on developments in the sector. In my case, for two decades I became immersed in the higher education media by subscribing to The Chronicle of Higher Education and later Times Higher Education, and reading the editions of Inside Higher Education, University World News, and other outlets. As vice chancellor I took to producing a weekly digest of summaries of pertinent articles for the university’s leadership teams. I got the impression few bothered to read them, so after a while I stopped doing it. I delved into the academic media because I wanted to better understand my role and responsibilities as an administrator. Over time, this morphed into an abiding fascination with the history of universities and other knowledge producing institutions and systems.
Third, it is essential to develop the propensity for consulting, connecting, and learning from fellow leaders within and outside one’s institution. As a director, chair or a dean that means colleagues in those positions as well as those to who one reports. The same is true for deputy vice chancellors or vice presidents. For provosts and executive vice presidents and presidents the circle for collegial and candid conversations and advice narrows considerably and pivots to external peers.
In my case, this was immensely facilitated by joining boards including those of the International Association of Universities, the Kenya Education Network, better known as KENET, and the University of Ghana Council, and maintaining contacts with Universities South Africa. These networks together with those from my previous positions in Canada and the United States proved invaluable in sustaining my administrative and intellectual sanity.
Fourth, it is imperative to develop a deep appreciation and respect for the values of shared governance. Embracing and practicing shared governance is hard enough among the university’s internal stakeholders comprising administrators, faculty, staff, and students. It’s even more challenging for the external stakeholders including members of governing boards external to the academy. This was one of the biggest challenges I faced at USIU-Africa as I’ll discuss in a later installment.
Fifth, it is critical to appreciate the extraordinary demands, frustrations, opportunities and joys of leadership in African universities. Precisely because many of these universities are relatively new and suffer from severe capacity challenges of resources in terms of funding, facilities, qualified faculty, and well-prepared students, it creates exceptional opportunities for change and impact. Again, as will be elaborated in a later section, I derived levels of satisfaction as vice chancellor that were higher than I had experienced from previous positions in much older and better endowed Canadian and American institutions where university leaders are often caretakers of well-oiled institutional machines.
Sixth, during my long years of university leadership at various levels I had cultivated what I call the 6Ps: passion for the job, people engagement, planning for complexity and uncertainty, peer learning, process adherence, and partnership building. This often encompasses developing a personal philosophy of leadership. As I shared during the interviews for the position and throughout my tenure, I was committed to what I had crystallized into the 3Cs: collaboration, communication and creativity, in pursuit of the 3Es: excellence, engagement, and efficiency, based on the 3Ts: transparency, trust, and trends.
Seventh, it is important to pursue what my wonderful colleague, Ruthie Rono, who served as Deputy Vice Chancellor during my tenure, characterized as the 3Ps: protect, promote, and project, in this case, the mission, values, priorities, and interests of the institution as a whole not sectarian agendas. She often reminded us that this was her role as Kenya’s ambassador to several European and Southern African countries during a leave of absence from USIU-Africa, to safeguard Kenya’s interests. Unfortunately, outside the management team, this was not always the case among the other governing bodies as will be demonstrated later.
Eighth, as an administrator one has to balance personal and institutional voices, develop an ability to forgive and forget, and realize that it’s often not about you, but the position. Of course, so long as you occupy the position what you do matters; you take credit and blame for everything that happens in the institution even if you had little to do with it. Over the years as I climbed the escalator of academic administration, I confronted the ever-rising demands and circuits of institutional responsibility and accountability. You need to develop a thick skin to deflect the arrows of personal attack without absorbing them into your emotions. You need to anticipate and manage the predictable unpredictability of events.
Ninth, I had long learned the need to establish work balance as a teacher, scholar, and administrator. In this case, as an administrator I taught and conducted research within the time constraints of whatever position I held. I did the same during my time as vice chancellor. I taught one undergraduate class a year, attended academic conferences, and published research papers to the surprise of some faculty and staff and my fellow vice chancellors. I always reminded people that I became an academic because I was passionate about teaching and research. Being an administrator had actually opened new avenues for pursuing those passions. I had a satisfying professional life before becoming vice chancellor and I would have another after I left.
There was also the question of work-life balance. Throughout my administrative career I’ve always tried to balance as best as I can my roles as a parent, husband, friend, and colleague. Moreover, I maintained outside interests especially my love for travel, the creative, performing and visual arts, voracious reading habits developed in my youth over a wide range of subjects and genres, not to mention the esthetics of cooking and joys of eating out, and taking long walks. I found my neighborhood in Runda in Nairobi quite auspicious for the invigorating physical and mental pleasures of walking, which I did every day for more than an hour during weekdays and up to two hours on weekends.
Not being defined by my position made it easier to strive to perform to the best of any ability without being consumed by the job, and becoming overly protective of the fleeting seductions of the title of vice chancellor. I asked colleagues to call me by my first name, but save for one or two they balked preferring the colorless concoction, “Prof.” Over the years I had acquired a capacity to immerse myself and enjoy whatever position I occupied with the analytical predisposition of an institutional ethnographer. So, I took even unpleasant events and nasty surprises as learning and teachable moments.
This enabled me to develop the tenth lesson. Leave the position when you’ve given your best and have the energy to follow other positions or pursuits. When I informed the Board of Trustees, Chancellor, and University Council fourteen months to the end of my six-year contract that I would be leaving at the end of the contract, some people within and outside USIU-Africa including my fellow vice chancellors expressed surprise that I was not interested in another term.
The fact of the matter is that the average tenure of university presidents in many countries is getting shorter. This is certainly true in the United States. According to a 2017 report on the college presidency by the American Council of Education, while in the past presidents used to serve for decades—my predecessor served for 21 years—“The average tenure of a college president in their current job was 6.5 years in 2016, down from seven years in 2011. It was 8.5 years in 2006. More than half of presidents, 54 percent, said they planned to leave their current presidency in five years or sooner. But just 24 percent said their institution had a presidential succession plan.” Whatever the merits of longevity, creativity and fresh thinking is not one of them!
A major reason for the declining term of American university presidencies is, as William H. McRaven, a former military commander who planned the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, declared as he announced his departure as chancellor of the University of Texas system after only three years, “the job of college president, along with the leader of a health institution, [is] ‘the toughest job in the nation.’ In my case, there was a more mundane and compelling reason. My wife and I had agreed before I accepted the position that I would serve only one term. Taking the vice chancellorship represented a huge professional and financial sacrifice for her.
By the time I assumed the position, I believed I had acquired the necessary experiences, skills and mindset for the pinnacle of university leadership. Over the next six years I experienced the joys and tribulations of the job in dizzying abundance. This was evident almost immediately.
Two days after we arrived in Nairobi, we were invited to the home of one of my former students at Kenyatta University and the University of Illinois. Both he and his wife, who we knew in the United States from the days they were dating, were prominent public figures in Kenya; she later became a cabinet minister in President Kenyatta’s administration. We spent New Year’s Day at their beautiful home together with their lovely and exceedingly smart two daughters and some of their friends and relatives eating great food including roasted meat in Kenyan style. It was a fabulous welcome. We felt at home.
But the bubble soon burst. Hardly two weeks later, our home in the tony neighborhood of Runda was invaded by armed thugs one night. I was out of town at a university leadership retreat. My wife was alone. While she was not physically molested, she was psychologically traumatized. So was I. The thugs went off with all her jewelry including her wedding ring, my clothes and shoes, and our cellphones and computers. My soon to be finished book manuscript on The Transformation of Global Higher Education was in my stolen computer. It was a heinous intellectual assault.
Our Kenyan and foreign friends and acquaintances showered us with sympathy and support. Some commiserated with us by sharing their own stories of armed robbery, what the media called with evident exasperation, Nairoberry. We later learnt there was more to our hideous encounter, the specter of criminal xenophobia. It was a rude awakening to the roller coaster of highs and lows we would experience over the next six years during my tenure as Vice Chancellor of USIU-Africa.
Both of us had fought too many personal, professional, and political battles in our respective pasts to be intimidated. We were determined to stay, to contribute in whatever way we could to higher education in our beloved motherland.
Scapegoats and Holy Cows: Climate Activism and Livestock
Opposition to livestock has become part of climate activism. Veganism is growing, particularly amongst affluent Westerners, and billions of dollars are flowing into the associated “animal-free meat and dairy” industry. This will result in yet more people forced off their land and away from self-sufficiency, give more profits and power to corporations, and may have little or no positive impact on the environment.
Until recently, Greta Thunberg kept a filmed appeal to stop eating meat and dairy as the first item on her twitter account—she has been a vegan for half her life, so that is not surprising. Her message begins with pandemics but swiftly segues to climate change, as might be expected. (Assertions linking deforestation with pandemics are tenuous and speculative: there is no established link between COVID19 and deforestation or the wildlife trade.) The film was made by Mercy for Animals, which she thanks.
The film remained top of her twitter account for months. She has several million followers, so the value of the advertising she gave this little-known not-for-profit must run into millions of dollars. As opposition to livestock has become a major plank of climate activism, it is worth looking at how the world’s biggest climate influencer chooses to influence it.
Mercy for Animals is an American NGO with the stated purpose of ending factory farming because it is cruel to animals, a fact with which few would disagree. There are other reasons to shun factory-farmed meat as opposed to meat from animals raised on pasture, not least because some of the meat thus produced is subsequently heavily processed using unhealthy ingredients and then shipped long distances. The reason factory-farmed meat remains profitable is, obviously, because it is cheap and those who cannot afford expensive free range or organic have little other choice.
There is no doubt that factory farming is an industrial process that pollutes. There is also no doubt that an average Western—especially urban—diet contains a lot of unhealthy things, including too much meat. But whether or not folk who eat sensible amounts of local, organic meat and dairy, and try to stay fit and healthy, would have any significant impact on the planet’s climate by changing their diet is another matter, which I will come back to.
Mercy for Animal’s beliefs go much further than opposing animal cruelty. The organisation believes in speciesism or rather anti-speciesism, the idea that humans have no right to impose their will on other animals or to “exploit” them. It is a view that is shared by a growing number of people, especially vegans in the Global North. Thunberg goes as far as believing that only vegans can legitimately “stand up for human rights,” and wants non-vegans to feel guilty. Even more radical is Google founder, Larry Page, who reportedly thinks robots should be treated as a living species, just that they are silicon-based rather than carbon-based!
Whatever novel ideas anti-speciesists think up, no species would evolve without favouring its own. Our ancestors would never have developed their oversized brains if they had not eaten scavenged or hunted meat, and we have always lived in symbiosis with other animals, sometimes to the benefit of both. It seems likely that the wolf ancestors of dogs freely elected to live close to humans, taking advantage of our hearths and our ability to store game. In this, the earliest proven instance of domestication, perhaps each species exploited the other.
Having visited many subsistence hunters and herders over the last half century, I know that the physical – and spiritual – relationship they have with the creatures they hunt, herd or use for transport, is very different from that of most people (including me!). Most of us now have little experience of the intimacy that comes when people depend at first-hand on animals for survival.
Hunters, for example, often think they have a close connection with their game, and it is based on respect and exchange. A good Yanomami huntsman in Amazonia does not eat his own catch but gives it away to others. Boys are taught that if they are generous like this, the animals will approach them to offer themselves willingly as prey. Such a belief encourages strong social cohesion and reciprocity, which could not be more different from Western ideals of accumulation. The importance of individual cows to African herders, or of horses to the Asian steppe dwellers who, we think, started riding them in earnest, can be touchingly personal, and the same can be found all over the world.
Our ancestors would never have developed their oversized brains if they had not eaten scavenged or hunted meat
Everyone knows that many small children, if they feel safe, have an innate love of getting up close and personal to animals, and projects enabling deprived city kids to interact with livestock on farms can improve mental wellbeing and make children happier.
This closeness to other species is a positive experience for many, clearly including Thunberg; her film features her in an English animal sanctuary and cuddling one of her pet dogs. Those who believe speciesism is of great consequence, on the other hand, seem to seek a separation between us and other animals, whilst paradoxically advancing the idea that there is none. Animals are to be observed from a distance, perhaps kept as pets, but never “exploited” for people’s benefit.
Mercy for Animals does not stop at opposing factory farming. It is against the consumption of animal products altogether, including milk and eggs, and thinks that all creatures, including insects, must be treated humanely. Using animals for any “work” that benefits people is frowned upon. For example, the foundation holds the view that sheepdogs are “doubly problematic” because both dogs and sheep are exploited. It accepts, however, that they have been bred to perform certain tasks and may “experience stress and boredom if not given . . . work.” In a communication to me, the organisation has confirmed that it is also (albeit seemingly reluctantly) ok with keeping pets as they are “cherished companions with whom we love to share our lives”, and without them we would be “impoverished”. Exactly the same could be said for many working dogs of course.
Anyway, this not-for-profit believes that humans are moving away from using animals for anything, not only meat, but milk, wool, transport, emergency rescue, and everything else. It claims “several historical cultures have recognized the inherent right of animals to live . . . without human intervention or exploitation,” and thinks we are slowly evolving to a “higher consciousness” which will adopt its beliefs. It says this is informed by Hindu and Buddhist ideals and that it is working to “elevate humanity to its fullest potential.”
We all exalt our own morality of course, but professing a higher consciousness than those who think differently casts a supremacist shadow. The alleged connection with Indian religions is a common argument but remains debatable. The sacredness of cows, for example, is allied to their providing the dairy products widespread in Hindu foods and rituals. The god Krishna, himself a manifestation of the Supreme Being Vishnu, was a cattle herder. The Rig Veda, the oldest Indian religious text, is clear about their role: “In our stalls, contented may they stay! May they bring forth calves for us . . . giving milk.” Nearly a third of the world’s cattle are thought to live in India. Would they survive the unlikely event of Hindus converting to veganism?
Most Hindus are not wholly vegetarian. Although a key tenet of Hindu fundamentalism over recent generations is not eating beef, the Rig Veda mentions cows being ritually killed in an earlier age. The renowned Swami Vivekananda, who first took Hinduism and yoga to the US at the end of the 19th century and is hailed as one of the most important holy men of his era, wrote that formerly, “A man [could not] be a good Hindu who does not eat beef,” and reportedly ate it himself. Anyway, the degree to which cows were viewed as “sacred” in early Hinduism is not as obvious as many believe. The Indus Civilisation of four or five thousand years ago, to which many look for their physical and spiritual origins, was meat-eating, although many fundamentalist Hindus now deny it.
Vegetarians are fond of claiming well-known historical figures for themselves. In India, perhaps the most famous is Ashoka, who ruled much of the subcontinent in the third century before Christ and was the key proponent of Buddhism. He certainly advocated compassion for animals and was against sacrificial slaughter and killing some species, but it is questionable whether he or those he ruled were actually vegetarian.
We all exalt our own morality of course, but professing a higher consciousness than those who think differently casts a supremacist shadow.
Whatever Ashoka’s diet included, many Buddhists today are meat-eaters like the Dalai Lama and most Tibetans—rather avid ones in my experience—and tea made with butter is a staple of Himalayan monastic life. Mercy for Animals however remains steadfast to its principles, asserting, “Even (sic!) Jewish and Muslim cultures are experiencing a rise in animal welfare consciousness.”
Mercy for Animals might look at how racists have supported animal rights over the last hundred years, sometimes cynically and sometimes not. “Concern for animals can coexist with a strong strain of misanthropy, and can be used to demonise minority groups as barbaric, uncivilised and outdated . . . in contrast to supposedly civilised, humane Aryans. . . . The far right’s ventures into animal welfare is sometimes coupled with ‘green’ politics and a form of nature mysticism.”
Mercy for Animals was founded by Milo Runkle, a self-styled “yogi” who lives in Los Angeles. He was raised on an Ohio farm and discovered his calling as a teenager on realising the cruelty of animal slaughter. He is now an evangelical vegan who believes an “animal-free” meal is, “an act of kindness”. He is also a keen participant in the billion-dollar Silicon Valley industry trying to make and sell “meat and dairy” made from plants, animal cells and chemicals. He is a co-founder of the Good Food Institute and sits on the board of Lovely Foods. Like others in the movement, he rejects the term “fake” and insists that the products made in factories—that are supported by billionaires like Richard Branson and Bill Gates—are real meat and dairy, just made without animals.
The multi-million dollar Good Food Institute is also supported by Sam Harris, a US philosopher who came to prominence with his criticism of Islam, which he believes is a religion of “bad ideas, held for bad reasons, leading to bad behaviour”, and constitutes “a unique danger to all of us.”
Ersatz animal products are of course ultra-processed, by definition. They use gene modifications, are expensive, and produce a significant carbon footprint, although figures for the gasses emitted for any type of food depend on thousands of variables and are extremely complex to calculate. The numbers bandied about are often manipulated and should be viewed with caution, but it seems that the environmental footprint of “cultivated meat” may actually be greater than that of pork or poultry.
Is opposing livestock—and not just factory farming—and promoting veganism and fake meat and dairy a really effective way of reducing environmental pollution? Few people are qualified to assess the numerous calculations and guesses, but it is clear that there are vastly different claims from the different sides in the anti-livestock debate. They range from it contributing some 14 per cent of greenhouse gases, to a clearly exaggerated 50 per cent—and the fact that livestock on pasture also benefits the atmosphere is rarely mentioned by its critics. Thunberg plumps for a vague “agriculture and land use together” category, which she thinks accounts for 25 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, but which of course includes plants. It is also important to realise that some grazing lands are simply not able to produce human food other than when used as animal pasture. Take livestock out of the picture in such places, and the amount of land available for food production immediately shrinks.
In brief, some vegetarians and vegans may produce higher greenhouse gas emissions than some omnivores—it all depends on exactly what they consume and where it is from. If they eat an out-of-season vegetable that has travelled thousands of miles to reach their plate, it has a high carbon footprint. The same thing, grown locally in season, has a much lower carbon footprint. If you are in Britain and buy, for example, aubergines, peas, beans, asparagus, or Kenyan beans, you are likely consuming stuff with a high environmental impact.
Mercy for Animals might look at how racists have supported animal rights over the last hundred years, sometimes cynically and sometimes not.
In any event, there is no doubt that a locally sourced, organically raised—or wild—animal is an entirely different creature from one born and living in a factory on the other side of the world. There is also no doubt that the factory version could be a legitimate target for climate activism. So could the felling of established forests, whether it is for cattle, animal feed or any number of things.
Why should anyone who does not want real meat or dairy want to eat an expensive lookalike made entirely in a factory? Is it mere taste, habit, or virtue signalling? Few would dispute that the food we eat is at the centre of our identity. This has long been recognised by social scientists, and is in plain sight in the restaurant quarter of every city, everywhere in the world. “You are what you eat” is also as scientific as it is axiomatic.
Diet is central to many religions, and making people change what they eat, whether through the mission, schoolroom, or legal prohibitions, has long been a significant component in the colonial enterprise of “civilising the natives”. Many traditional indigenous diets are high in animal protein, are nutrient-rich, and are low in fat or high in marine sources of fat. Restricting the use of traditional lands and prohibiting hunting, fishing and trapping—as well as constant health edicts extolling low animal fat diets—have been generally disastrous for indigenous people’s wellbeing, and this is particularly noticeable in North America and Australia. The uniquely notorious residential schools in North America, where indigenous children were taken from their families and forced into a deliberately assimilationist regime, provided children with very little meat, or much of anything for that matter. Many died.
Western campaigns around supposedly improving diet go far beyond physical welfare. For example, the world’s best known breakfast cereal was developed by the Seventh Day Adventist and fiercely vegetarian Kellogg brothers in 1894. They were evangelical about the need to reduce people’s sex drive. Dr Kellogg advocated a healthy diet of his Corn Flakes, which earned him millions. He separately advised threading silver wire through the foreskin and applying acid to the clitoris to stop the “doubly abominable” sin of masturbation. Food choices go beyond animal cruelty or climate change!
The belief that meat-eating—particularly red meat—stimulates sexual desire and promotes devilish masturbation is common in Seventh Day Adventism, a religion founded in the US in the 1860s out of an earlier belief called Millerism. The latter held that Christ would return in 1844 to herald the destruction of the Earth by fire. Seventh Day Adventism is a branch of Protestantism, the religion that has always underpinned American attitudes about material wealth being potentially allied to holiness. I have written elsewhere on how Calvinist Protestant theology from northern Europe underpins the contemporary notion of a sinful humankind opposing a divine “Nature”, and it is noteworthy that Seventh Day Adventism starts at exactly the same time as does the US national park movement in the 1860s.
Restricting the use of traditional lands and prohibiting hunting, fishing and trapping have been generally disastrous for indigenous people’s wellbeing.
Although this is not widely known by the general public, Seventh Day Adventism is one of the world’s fastest growing religions, and has sought to push its opposition to meat into wider American attitudes for over a century. For example, the American Dietetic Association was co-founded by a colleague of Kellogg, Lenna Cooper, in 1917. It evolved into the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and is now the world’s largest organisation of nutrition and dietetics practitioners.
Protestants figuring out what God wants humans to eat dates from before Seventh Day Adventism. The famous founder of Methodism, John Wesley, did not eat meat; some years after he died, a few of his followers started the vegetarian Bible Christian Church in England’s West Country. They sent missionaries to North America a generation before the foundation of Seventh Day Adventism and were also closely involved in establishing the Vegetarian Society in England in 1847—three years after Christ did not come to end the world with fire as originally predicted. It was this society that first popularised the term “vegetarian”. In 1944, a hundred years after that non-appearance of Christ, the word “vegan” was coined.
Fundamentalist Christians might believe that humankind’s supposedly vegan diet in the Garden of Eden should be followed by everyone, and that is obviously open to question from several points of view. What is clearer, and worth repeating, is that the “normal” Western urban diet, particularly North American, contains a lot of highly processed factory foods and additives and is just not great for human health.
In 1944, a hundred years after that non-appearance of Christ, the word “vegan” was coined.
It is also true that, in spite of generations of colonialism trying to erode people’s food self-sufficiency, hundreds of millions of people still depend on eating produce—animal as well as vegetable—which is collected, hunted, caught or herded by their own hands, or by others close by, often sustainably and organically. Perhaps rather paradoxically, Thunberg visited Sami reindeer herders the year before her Mercy for Animals film. They are recognised as indigenous people in her part of the world and are about as far from veganism as is possible. They not only eat the reindeer, including its milk, cheese and blood, but also consume fish, moose and other animals. As far as I know, there are no indigenous peoples who vegan anywhere in the world.
Like the Sami, about one quarter of all Africans depend on sustainable herding, and the pastoralists in that continent have an enviable record of knowing how to survive the droughts that have been a seasonal feature in their lives for countless generations. It is also the case that pasturelands created or sustained by their herds are far better carbon sinks than new woodlands.
Some wild as well as domesticated animal species feed a lot of people. In spite of conservationist prohibitions and its relentless demonisation, “bushmeat” is more widespread than is admitted and remains an important nutritional source for many Africans. Denigrating it has an obviously racist tone when compared to how “game” is extolled in European cuisine. If you are rich, you can eat bushmeat, if you are poor, you cannot.
Many do not realise that bushmeat is openly served in African restaurants, particularly in South Africa and Namibia, the countries with by far the highest proportion of white citizens. During the hunting season, no less than 20 per cent of all (red) meat eaten is from game with, for example, ostrich, springbok, warthog, kudu, giraffe, wildebeest, crocodile and zebra all featuring on upmarket menus. Meanwhile, poor Africans risk fines, beatings, imprisonment or worse if they hunt the same creatures. When “poachers” are caught or shot, Western social media invariably erupts with brays of how they deserve extreme punishment.
Some conservationists would like to end both herding and hunting and, even more astonishingly, advocate for Africans to eat only chicken and farmed fish. In real life, any step towards that luckily unattainable goal would result in an increase in malnutrition, in the profits of those who own the food factories and supply chains, and probably in greenhouse gas emissions as well.
Controlling people’s health and money by controlling their access to food has always featured large in the history of human subjugation. Laying siege was always a guaranteed way of breaking an enemy’s body and spirit. If most food around the world is to be produced in factories—like fake meat and dairy—then the factory owners will control human life. The drive to push small-scale hunters, herders and farmers off their land, supposedly for rewilding or conservation, is a step towards that ruin.
The clamour against meat and dairy goes far beyond opposition to factory farming, and that is the problem. Of course, there is nothing wrong with celebrating vegetarianism and veganism, but claiming they are a product of a higher consciousness or morality, and labelling those who do not follow the commandment as cruel or guilty if they stick to their existing diet, as Thunberg and Runkle do, turns them into religious beliefs. These invariably encompass fundamentalist undertones that can tip all too easily into violence against non-believers.Some vegans go beyond persuasion, and try to force others to their belief whether they like it or not. One way in which they do this is by raiding factory farms illegally to “liberate” the animals, as Milo Runkle did, or they engage in other low-level vandalism like spray-painting meat and cheese shops or breaking windows, or go further and wreck vehicles. The fact that the most extremist animal rights activists—usually referencing veganism—do all of this and a great deal more, including physical threats, arson, grave robbing (sic), and planting bombs, is unfortunately no invented conspiracy theory.
The most extreme protests involving firebombs and razor blades in letters are normally reserved for those who use animal tests in research. The homes of scientists are usually the targets, although other places such as restaurants and food processing plants are also in the firing line. One US study found that the activists behind the violence were all white, mostly unmarried men in their 20s. Their beliefs echoed those of many ordinary climate activists. They included supporting biodiversity; that humans should not dominate the earth; that governments and corporations destroy the environment; and that the political system will not fix the crisis.
An organisation called Band of Mercy (unrelated to Mercy for Animals) was formed in 1972 and renamed the Animal Liberation Front four years later. Starting in Britain, where by 1998 it had grown to become “the most serious domestic terrorist threat”, it spawned hundreds of similar groups in forty countries around the world. Membership is largely hidden but they do seek publicity—in one year alone, they claimed responsibility for 554 acts of vandalism and arson.
Of course, moderate vegans are not responsible for the violence of a small minority, but history shows that where there are lots of people looking for a meaningful cause, some will support those they latch onto in extreme ways. In brief, there is a problematic background to opposing meat and dairy that should be faced. Big influencers must accept a concomitantly big responsibility in choosing what to endorse. The most powerful influencers who demonise anything must be sensitive to the inevitability of extremist interpretations of their message.
The drive to push small-scale hunters, herders and farmers off their land, supposedly for rewilding or conservation, is a step towards that ruin.
We know that digital communication is a new and effective way of stoking anger that can lead to violence. For example, the risk that Muslims in India today might be murdered by Hindu fundamentalists if they are even suspected of eating beef seems to have increased with the proliferation of social media. Characterising a meal as cruel if it includes meat or even dairy, as Runkle wants us to, could be used to stoke deadly flames far from his West Coast home.
More broadly, well off influencers trying to make others feel guilty about what they eat should be careful about unintended consequences. Disordered eating damages many people, especially young girls who already face challenges around their transition to adulthood. In addition to everyday teenage angst and biology, they are faced with the relentless scourge of social media, now with eco- and COVID19-anxiety as added burdens. In a rich country like the UK, suicide has become the main cause of death for young people. In that context, telling people they are guilty sinners if they carry on eating what they, or their parents, have habitually eaten could set off dangerous, cultish echoes.
On another level, corporations and NGOs should stop trying to deprive people of any food self-sufficiency they might have left, and stop kicking them off their territories and into a dependence on factories from which the same corporations profit.
The obvious lesson from all this is to eat locally produced organic food as much as possible, if one can. That is a good choice for health, local farming, sustainability, and reducing pollution. Those who want to might also choose to eat less meat and dairy, or none at all. That is a good choice for those who oppose animal slaughter, believe milk is exploitation, or decide that vegan is better for them. However, claiming veganism means freedom from guilt and sin and is a key to planetary salvation is altogether different and, to say the least, open to question.
Thunberg’s core message in her Mercy for Animals film is “We can change what we eat”, although she admits that some have no choice. In reality, choosing what to eat is an extraordinarily rare privilege, denied to most of the world’s population, including the poor of Detroit and Dhaka. The world’s richest large country has 37 million people who simply do not have enough to eat, of anything; six million of these Americans are children. Those lucky enough to possess the privilege of choice do indeed have an obligation to use it thoughtfully. In that respect anyway, Thunberg is right.
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