The locusts appeared near the barrier to the Lake Turkana Wind Farm. They did not form a massed cloud and they did not appear to be that interested in feeding on the semi-desert vegetation. But they were everywhere, a diffuse scattering of red juveniles that gave the sky a slightly speckled cast over the next five kilometres of road.
Desert locusts were one of the obsessions of colonial administrative officers, many of whom sought to preserve the Northern Frontier District in its natural state to protect its ancient communities and abundant wildlife. The preoccupation with the region’s eco-cultural integrity was predicated on two basic assumptions: 1) if allowed, local herders would degrade the range beyond repair through overgrazing; and, 2) should the vast region be treated like the rest of the colony, outsiders would flood in and corrupt the cultural ecology of the region’s ennobled nomads.
An assortment of explorers, wanderers, and opportunists had crisscrossed the northern region during the latter decades of the 19th century. Ivory hunters brought up the rear, followed by Kamba and Somali competitors in search of the region’s last untapped population of tuskers. By the turn of the century the Rendille and Borana had also become involved in the trade, albeit reluctantly.
The paternalism of British colonial administrators serving in remote areas was in part response to the unrestrained mercantilism of their freelancing European predecessors, but it also reflected their recognition of the local communities’ expressed desire to maintain their way of life.
The local pastoralists didn’t mind the relative isolation in the beginning. They mainly wanted to be left alone in their vast, wide-open spaces. For the most part, the colonial administration respected this. But as Kenyan independence approached, isolation gave way to calls for secession.
The Kenyatta government’s sovereignty over the potentially turbulent northern rangelands started badly after the rejection recorded in the 1962 pre-independence referendum. The Shifta insurgency commenced under the shadow of emergency laws gazetted several weeks after Uhuru. This extended a state of occupation across a large swath of territory including Lamu and Tana River Districts. Shifta banditry followed.
It has been a long way coming back from this inflection point.
For ruling elites based in the region’s capitals, the rangelands mainly offered the hope of the hidden resources lurking underneath the surface. Governing the rangelands of the former NFD, the northern Rift Valley, and the North Eastern Province became a holding game—an exercise based on the probability that returns on the investment in controlled conflict management would materialise someday.
It took over five decades for the first manifestations of that pay-off to appear. It began with official recognition of the rangelands’ importance for the livestock sector’s commercial value articulated in a speech President Kibaki made after winning the 2002 elections. Prospecting for oil, natural gas, and wind power came next. This segued into the LAPSSET mega-project’s infrastructural wet dream for opening up the neglected region.
The Land of Jilali
None of this was on the radar as the new millennium approached. The La Niña drought that followed the deluge of the 1998 El Niño had restored the political ecology narrative dominating the rangelands since the colonial era. Desertification was back, and the primary culprit were the proto-modern nomads, with some help from capricious nature.
Two decades ago, I had crisscrossed the expanses of Marsabit without hearing any mention of Schistocerca gregaria, or nzige, to use the Swahili term for the locusts. Years of conversations across northern Kenya had not yielded a single mention of the scourge. But then again, the last outbreak was seventy years ago. At the time, I was part of a team of Kenya researchers based at Kenya’s National Arid Lands Research Centre investigating desertification and its potential mitigations.
In The Land of Jilali, an account of our field trips across the district, originally published in 2001, the spectre of deepening drought and famine followed us everywhere we went.
The essay featured multiple references to dark rockscapes, arboreal denudation, and the expanding discs of desertified land ringing the settlements. Permanent manyattas elsewhere displayed a similar pattern. The environmental crisis was undermining traditional livelihood strategies, fulfilling the prophecies Western scientists had promulgated after the Great Sahel drought of the mid-1970s.
This segued into the LAPSSET mega-project’s infrastructural wet dream for opening up the neglected region.
The conclusion to The Land of Jilali traced the problems to the economic stasis resulting from the decades of laissez-faire policy, widening the separation of the NFD from the highlands to the south.
Our verdict: the problem is not so much environmental degradation as lack of economic diversification. There are untapped resources in these remote regions, including nutrient-rich salt from the Chalbi, gum arabic, stunning landscapes for the high-end adventure tourist. But exploiting them has been constrained by a combination of poor infrastructure, restrictive laws, a lack of services, and the social prejudice engendered by separation. Isolation has bred war parties that roam the land with the unpredictability of rain-bearing clouds.
Now it is 2021 and I returned to retrace some of the steps recorded in the Land of Jilali narrative. The world has witnessed massive shifts and changes over the past two decades. At first glance, however, Marsabit appears to be insulated from many of the trends. The lowland range looked relatively unaltered, certainly less degraded than scientists like Hugh Lamprey had predicted back in 1976 when he claimed the Sahel was advancing at a rate of over five kilometres per year.
At that rate, the advancing semi-desert should have pushed beyond large areas of Kenya’s dryland agricultural fringe and even into the coast’s semi-arid hinterland. Lamprey’s warning came with a scenario of social collapse overtaking the unstable grasslands and fragile drylands due to surging population growth.
The northern rangelands played their part by recording the country’s highest birth rates over the last two decades. But everywhere we went the tree cover was improved, the pasture ok, and although the peripheries of settlements remain bare, the vegetation and tree cover within them has expanded.
Among other things, these trends validate the efforts of local civil society and the local environmental committees established by the Marsabit Development Programme at the turn of the millennium.
The areas adjacent to the recently tarmacked road that now connects the northern slopes of Mt. Kenya to Moyale on the Ethiopian border conveyed an impression of environmental stability. Highway towns like Archers Post, Merille, and Logologo are larger but look much the same except for the expanding band of small block houses spreading out into the bush behind them. The stacked sacks of charcoal along the roadside are gone.
These trends validate the efforts of local civil society and the local environmental committees established by the Marsabit Development Programme at the turn of the millennium.
Although such landscapes can be deceptive, the environmental stasis conveyed by these roadside settlements appeared to be in step with the fast-moving tropes of Kenya’s transition from an agrarian society, where the majority of the population is no longer directly dependent upon rainfall and vegetation.
The data accumulating over time would come to show that the state of vegetation and population growth is not necessarily congruent with long-term land change. But at the beginning of the 1980s, the negative trends documented by researchers working across the Sahel had the unchallenged certainty of Western science on their side.
The Age of IPAL
The Great Sahel famine of 1974-76 struck from the shores of the Atlantic to the Horn of Africa. The death and devastation wrought magnified the significance of the drought and portrayed the famine as the harbinger of a larger environmental crisis. The 1976 United Nations conference on desertification in Nairobi officially established environmental degradation as the leading issue threatening the planet.
It was science to the rescue. Externally conceived schemes to combat desertification, seen as a root cause of the increasing incidence of drought, dominated the response. Lamprey’s picture of a man getting ready to cut down a solitary tree stranded on a barren plain of dark rocks had made Marsabit an international exemplar of desertification, and the goat by the man’s side became the movement’s poster child.
Somalia, which portrayed itself as a pastoralist democracy, at that time, was the only country to adopt a homegrown response to the calamity. The government sought to exploit the shock by promoting an audacious shift from livestock to investment in marine fisheries. Its proactive efforts faced formidable headwinds. Two ambitious interventions to kick-start an industrial fishery from above were eventually overtaken by the internal dynamics of Syad Barre’s doomed government.
Some of the fiberglass boats from these projects turned up later in the hands of the vigilantes and pirates patrolling the country’s offshore waters.
In Kenya, the call to arms led to the establishment of the Integrated Project for Arid Lands in Marsabit. Initiated under the aegis of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme in 1977, IPAL was designed as a multi-disciplinary, human-focused project that improved on the design of the integrated project template of that period. Over the course of its three phases, the research compiled useful baseline data on vegetation change and climate patterns, livestock disease vectors, studies on the dynamics of traditional range management, and the sociology of Marsabit’s pastoralist communities.
Little changed on the ground in the interim. The rains had returned, and the new jobs IPAL created were welcome. The project’s facilities and research mandate were transferred to the Government of Kenya in 1984. Kenya’s National Arid Lands Research Centre in Marsabit came into existence as the stepchild of IPAL.
Now the ward of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), KARIMAR, as the Centre became known, continued to actively conduct field research, but the scientific output generated by the Centre’s researchers was compromised by the way the Institute worked. Because salaries, which were pegged to civil service pay scales, were low, the per diems for time spent in the field were high to compensate. KARIMAR staff spent a lot of time crisscrossing the landscape collecting data, much of which remained on the shelf.
At that rate, the advancing semi-desert should have pushed beyond large areas of Kenya’s dryland agricultural fringe and even into the coast’s semi-arid hinterland.
During my time at the Centre, its research focused on animal health, typologies of camel productivity based on indigenous technical knowledge, the ongoing problem of environmental degradation, assessment of optimal dosages of herbal livestock remedies, meat and milk preservation, and sociocultural changes in the area’s growing settlements.
Most of the data did not make its way into publications. But the Centre did operate strong outreach activities, sharing the research findings through periodic meetings with Marsabit’s lowland communities. This was a positive move away from the ivory tower knowledge model, even if the uptake of the technological prototypes on offer was not high.
KARIMAR outreach coincided with the surge in local associational life in the form of the Community Based Organisation and other variations on participatory development like the environmental and security committees. All of this contributed to the onset of a more auto-catalytic, or self-starting developmental phase. This was aided by the rise in education and the increasing movement of locals beyond district and national borders.
The small settlement of Ngurunit, situated at the base of the Ndoto Range, was originally a base for the region’s ancient hunter-gatherer community. It became one of the primary focal points for small-scale projects in vogue at that juncture, and the most noteworthy was the Salato Women’s Group.
Salato was a prime beneficiary of the donor support for gender-based projects at that time. It ran one of the several mini-dairies supported by KARIMAR, and was producing nyiri nyiri (a variation on dried meat jerky preserved in oil, traditionally made for ceremonial occasions like weddings) for local export. At its height Salato was operating a bakery, selling crafts, facilitating a camel restocking plan, and was racking up citations in the local press, and in developmental and academic publications.
But Salato, once the exemplar of local women’s entrepreneurial zeitgeist, was gone when we passed through Ngurunit. No one was interested in talking about it, as if its fate had always been common knowledge—there were always frictions among its leadership. Only the citations remained. The KARI research station was also kaput, which made me very sad.
The facility’s main veranda was one of those places in Kenya sanctified by the volume of fascinating and esoteric discussions it had absorbed over the past several decades. Those conversations about the region’s history, culture, politics, and economy were part of a vernacular narrative that, from a complex systems perspective, was often more revealing than the insights generated by the formal research.
The Age of LAPSSET
LAPSSET is the logical endpoint of the developmental trajectory that began with the 19th-century caravan trade that penetrated the most remote expanses of the eastern Africa interior. Traders fanned out across the basin spanning Malawi and Tanzania, northern Kenya the lowlands of Ethiopia, and the borderlands of southern Sudan in search of ivory, human captives, and other high-value commodities.
The name of the game was extraction, and the tales of treasure in the African interior percolating into Europe attracted western explorers. In the western Sahel, the locals set the terms for explorers attracted by the gold-clad city of Timbuctoo, as Mungo Park famously describes in his journal. The Scottish explorer was harassed, threatened, and detained in a pen with a pig by a Berber chieftain. He was so spooked after being released that by the time his boat finally approached the mythical city, the explorer sped by with all guns blazing.
Mungo Park met a watery death during the final leg of his journey down the Niger River; his journals were retrieved by his faithful guide, preserving his fascinating account for future generations. Many others perished crossing the Sahara or while trying to enter the interior from the West Africa coast, which became known as the White Man’s Grave.
Historically, the western Sahel had given rise to states that integrated herders and agro-pastoralists into the region’s cross-Sahara trade-driven economy. The Sahel zone remains integral to the politics and economy of the new countries created by the colonial disruption. The opposite pattern prevailed in the eastern Sahel, where populations were still on the move during the 19th century, and the region’s stateless pastoralists remained on the periphery after colonial intervention favoured the promotion of agricultural economies.
Somalia, which portrayed itself as a pastoralist democracy, at that time, was the only country to adopt a homegrown response to the calamity.
Explorers venturing into the interior of East Africa faced formidable changes, but less hostility from the natives. The combination of colonial separation and post-independence isolation that followed insured that exploitation through extraction would face minimal opposition when the time came.
The LAPSSET project and its elaborate grid of proposed roads, pipelines, airports, railroads, the new Lamu port at Magogoni, and “tourist” cities is a prime example. Designed to open up the region for capital penetration, the fantastic scheme hatched by the Kibaki government’s planners was never tabled for debate in Parliament, or formally introduced to communities on the ground. But the Lake Turkana Wind Power and two berths at the Magogoni Port are the only projects that have come to fruition so far.
Renewable energy is one industry that can actually mesh with the region’s pristine environment. The wind farm initially appeared to be the kind of project residents and proponents of rangeland development would approve of. The LTWP offered the hope that it would promote greater integration of the area’s inhabitants into the national economic grid. Instead, the outcome reinforced the skewed state-society power relations defining the last century of highland-lowland relations.
Sarima sits beneath the escarpment descending towards the lake. The corridor framed by Mt. Kulal to the north and the Ndoto Range in Samburu forms a powerful wind tunnel that inspired a Dutch expatriate to undertake a basic feasibility study. He established that the winds in this area, known in Rendille as Kurti Haafar or the Hill of the Winds, are stronger than anywhere in Europe.
The quasi-legal acquisition of the land lease from the Marsabit County Council in 2007 through political brokers and the convoluted implementation process proved to be a recipe for conflict and unrelenting contestation. What could have been a relatively non-intrusive and mutually beneficial investment based on an initial 40,000-hectare allocation in Sarima had become a private 150,000-hectare electricity plantation covering an important swath of Rendille dry season grazing reserve.
The environmental and social impact assessment was completed in 2009. The World Bank bailed on the project in 2012. This removed some of the more cumbersome hurdles to implementation, like the poor terms of the project’s power purchase with Kenya’s Ministry of Energy. The World Bank’s withdrawal also expedited financing for the consortium of private investors, who expected to have the 310-megawatt facility operational by 2014.
Africa’s largest wind farm was finally completed in 2017, but due to tendering scandals and the usual delays, it took the better part of two years to connect the wind turbines to the national grid. As predicted by the World Bank, the Kenya Treasury committed to pay the LTWP investors €127 million (KSh14.5 billion) for the unused electricity generated during this period, which inflated the cost of the project’s electricity for the Kenyan consumer.
LAPSSET is the logical endpoint of the developmental trajectory that began with the 19th-century caravan trade that penetrated the most remote expanses of the eastern Africa interior.
Projects that tick most of the developmental boxes tend to engender controversy in Kenya’s marginalized areas. The Turkana County government fought a protracted battle to increase their small share of the expected revenues from the oil found there. In Lamu, civil society advocates have been forced to fight for basic compensation in court for the land and livelihoods lost to the Magogoni port. Marsabit County received nothing in return and was denied access to the electricity that the Project Consortium’s application boasted will light up 2.5 million Kenya households.
A case brought by Rendille activists contesting the land allocation and petitioning for its reversion to community land upon expiration of the lease has been delayed, even after being accepted for review by Kenya’s Supreme Court. The encroachment of Turkana and the preferential hiring of Samburu for the 339 permanent jobs created by the project has, however, complicated the case predicated on the rights of all of Marsabit’s pastoralist communities.
The pastoralists’ lawyers argued that the allocation failed to follow the guidelines mandated in Kenya’s Trust Lands Act, and it represented an even more serious violation of the community land principles embedded in Kenya’s new Constitution.
For their part, the LTWP Consortium’s lawyers argued that the law grants communities the right to access communal grazing resources, but not formal ownership of the land. This blatant revisionism anchored their dismissal of any local claim to the benefits accruing from the utilisation of the wind passing over the land in question.
Such cynical ploys contribute to why citizens of Kenya B remain poor and the value of their production low by the standards of Kenya’s agricultural majority. But communities in the areas that first experienced Uhuru under the draconian emergency laws like the Special Districts Act are now awake and increasingly organised. They are also armed. None of this augurs well for the belated integration of these areas under the extraction and carbon-based investment model the Kenya government is promoting under its Vision 2030 blueprint.
Return to the Land of Jilali – Part Two
The View from the Lake, Then and Now
We approached Sarima on an overcast morning. The day before we had been warned of a clash between Samburu and Turkana. The incident claimed a boda boda rider transporting miraa and a Samburu moran, the victims adding to the growing body count resulting from an extended series of conflicts erupting across local ethnic fault lines. Upon approaching the edge of the project’s land we passed small groups of elders walking towards what was apparently a peace meeting being convened in a glade of acacia.
The configuration of the wind farm, unlike the lines and grids of similar projects elsewhere, consisted of clusters of the tall white towers scattered in an uneven pattern across the landscape. The blades of these giant pinwheels appear to spin at a lazy pace out of synch with the fiercely gusting wind.
The once rugged road has been paved up to the final stretch to the Lake, and the road following the shore to Loiyangalani has been improved. This made for a leisurely, two-hour drive to the town that has always struck me as one of Kenya’s most eclectic settlements.
When I first travelled this route for the first time in 1975, it took nine days traveling by public means and hitchhiking to make it to the lake. Two days were spent on buses and seven were spent hanging out with the locals on the side of the road in Baragoi and South Horr during the day. The traffic never exceeded five vehicles a day: the typical sample comprised of lorries, GK Land Rovers, and the occasional private vehicle which would speed raising a cloud of dust.
After three nights camping in a laaga on the edge of town, we got a lift to South Horr in a pick-up transporting goats. South Horr was at that time a small hamlet of some fifteen shops and storage structures set in a woody glade. Most of the Samburu herders carried semi-precious stone knotted in their shukas. We failed to see why they spent their days loitering along the road, until a German-speaking man stopped, methodically inspected the rocks with a special eyeglass, made a few purchases, and sped off after spurning our request for a lift.
It was at that point, on our fourth day in South Horr, that we decided to walk the final 90 kilometres to Loiyangalani. Local sources told us there is a 25km stretch of savanna woodland before entering the desert. So we hatched a plan to do half the walk at night, find a tree to rest under, and complete the remaining distance the next day when the sun was low.
The combination of colonial separation and post-independence isolation subsequently insured that exploitation through extraction would face minimal opposition when the time came.
We packed some sugar, tea leaves, posho, and purchased a small spear at a high price from a one of the rock-hunting Samburu morani. We should have employed him as a spear-carrier and guide instead, but we had no idea what was awaiting us ahead.
The next day, forty minutes before our planned departure, a European tour group stopped and told us they would make room in their Landcruiser if we did not mind being squeezed. We accepted this offer with great relief.
The vegetation thinned out after passing the Kurunga River, confirming the intel we had collected. The Sarima corridor was near-treeless at that time; it certainly was not the “lush plain” described in the LTWP literature, and the Turkana village that has been a magnet for inter-communal conflict since the project began did not exist. We disembarked further down the road so the car could negotiate the staircase, a series of terraces that for decades enabled vehicles to bump their way down this most difficult section of the escarpment.
It was five o’clock yet still incredibly hot. Fifteen minutes under the sun amidst this sea of rocks, the Jade Sea beckoning in the distance, was enough to see us consume half of the water we were carrying. This point roughly marked the rest stop of our walk, and there was not a single tree with a canopy offering respite from the sun in sight. The rest of the route to Loiyangalani was even harsher, bereft of any sign of shade or habitation.
Like the fate of many of the meticulously planned expeditions passing through the region in the late 19th century, we would have survived the trek, but only barely. With this realisation came renewed respect for the long-time inhabitants who figured out how to survive and prosper in this stark and rugged land.
Now I was retracing these steps, forty-five years later. Acacia nilotica and seyal dotted the once barren lakeside. The lake had receded into the distance when I visited here during the turn-of-the-millennium La Niña drought. Despite the controversial commissioning of the three Gibe dams on the lake’s Omo River source in Ethiopia, the waters had now returned. The large informal settlement that had sprung up on the extended beachfront was gone; the only reminder of the lakeside suburb was a partially submerged bar and restaurant.
An initial 40,000-hectare allocation in Sarima had become a private 150,000-hectare plantation covering an important swath of Rendille dry season grazing reserve.
Some things only change slowly: I took a picture of a small raft of doum palm trunks, the archetypal vessel the El Molo use to fish these turbulent and croc-infested waters. But Loiyangalani was otherwise vibrant, and undergoing a makeover.
The piles of rocks for sale on the lakeside approach were new. I used to see the sight of animals foraging on this denuded shoreline as confirmation of the desertification narrative—until closer inspection revealed that the rocks hide spikey shoots of grass shielded from the burning sun. Now the Turkana boys herding goats are diversifying their income by selecting stones with the right size and shape for constructing houses to sell to the new builders.
Loiyangalani now features facilities that provide reasonably priced accommodation and meals for the groups of down-country Kenyans who are now exploring the Marsabit lowland loop. Ngurunit and South Horr also have similar tourist bomas, enabling access to the remote vistas along a route that was formerly the province of low-budget travellers touring in mini-mog trucks. Many of the settlements are setting up mini-grids based on solar power, obviating the need to access the LTWP electricity. Off-grid technologies for harvesting the sun provide a low-cost alternative to the government-investor ‘owned’ wind.
The roads are better; I stood next to where the staircase used to be and watched a Toyota Vitz drive down to the Lake. Such examples of change offer hope that, after decades of media-framed perceptions of the north as a crisis-prone region, other Kenyans see the north for themselves and empathise with their neighbours’ quest for an equitable return from their land and natural resources.
The capital-intensive schemes favoured by the government’s economic planners are not the ticket for Land of Jilali development. Before leaving Loiyangalani, we learn that elders attending the peace meeting produced the foils from the box lunches provided to the security personnel at the site of the attack as evidence showing that LTWP guards were behind the raid two days before.
The Land of Jilali Revisited
This brings us to a revised verdict based on a long view of developments in the Land of Jilali.
The desertification thesis, which emerged out of the French occupation of the western Sahel, traces the blame to culturally conservative herders and management practices like the use of fire and overstocking. The Francophone desertification thesis was exported to the Horn of Africa following the great famine of the mid-1970s. Since then, scholars like Tor Benjminsen have exposed the combination of opportunism and flawed science used to delegitimise the adaptive and resilient practices of pastoralists developed over the centuries. His article on the subject documents how since the 1920s the myth has been revived during protracted droughts, only to fade away during the resumption of normal rainfall.
A contrasting case of extreme climate set the locust invasion in motion. Two cyclones in quick succession had pushed far beyond the normal range for such storms. This supercharged the expansion and reproduction of the locusts, the unusually high rainfall launching the jump from the insects’ southern Arabia breeding grounds while optimising conditions across the Horn of Africa for their spread.
Despite the controversial commissioning of the three Gibe dams on the Lake’s Omo River source in Ethiopia, the waters had returned.
The media duly repeated claims that the locusts represented an existential danger to the Horn of Africa, threatening millions of producers with starvation. Documentation of the devastation to agricultural and pasture resources has been less forthcoming. This tallies with reports from sources in affected areas, who verified the appearance of swarms, but claimed the damage to crops and pasture was minimal.
Did we once again fail to fully comprehend a non-linear ecological event?
The 2020 locusts appear to be recyclers who fed off the excess vegetation generated by the heavy rains, while providing a temporary source of protein for birds and wildlife and local communities who convert the insects into a healthy version of fast food. The locusts are also a rich source of chemicals known as phytosterols that boost immunity and help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The response to combatting the locusts did provide a positive example of international cooperation, even though the use of insecticides was a greater threat to human health than the vegetation they consumed. The nzige invasion dovetailed with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which exposed the cupidity and corruption of the state-based cartels who exploited the international response to the virus for personal benefit.
The retrogressive behaviour of the region’s states comes with important implications for the Horn of Africa, which is entering a new phase of political economy after several decades of communal conflict, unencumbered market economy, and donor-supported democratisation. The expanded scope for global capital under this arrangement represents the latest challenge for the region’s pastoralists’ fight to own their future.
Explorers and military map makers’ accounts dominated the first phase of modernity in the north. Their descriptions of the region as Africa’s last remaining Garden of Eden dovetail with the Lake Turkana version of the Eve hypothesis. The environs where our earliest ancestors frolicked entered the twentieth century as a rangeland ghetto sustaining decades of socioeconomic malaise.
The capital-intensive schemes favoured by the government’s economic planners are not the ticket for Land of Jilali development.
The second, developmental phase of modernity was driven by Western science. Researchers amassed a large body of useful information, including the baseline data sets underpinning remote sensing and survey methodologies that now support the monthly reports on the frontier counties’ vegetation and human food security. Jilali is now a data-defined phenomenon. But they also failed to identify the critical dynamics operating on the human-environmental interface.
The new school of range ecology eventually rectified the biased assumptions responsible for the procession of failed drylands policy experiments. Recognition of the inherent uncertainty of such non-equilibrium environments went a long way towards rehabilitating the pastoralist’s opportunistic utilisation of ephemeral resources availed by the unpredictable climate. Strategies combining maximisation with resilience are common to the diverse plant, animal, and human populations who colonised the Horn of Africa’s arid and semi-arid lands.
This occurred under wetter conditions, when Mauretania still had swamps and giraffes roamed lower Egypt. Then they spent the last 800 years adapting to the increasingly drier environment.
Climate is the great driver of life on earth. Generations of environmental stability culminated in the European expansion. The societal operating system it imposed on the world has run its course, relegating a large portion of humanity to a precarious existence on a non-equilibrium planet. Humanity needs a new civilisational operating system.
We do not know how the world’s most resilient survivors will negotiate the current interlude of top-down capitalism. In the end, they will be the authors of this third phase of rangeland development now unfolding. I also expect that their indigenous sensibilities will play an influential role in the collective response as the rest of us figure out how to cope with the long-term changes now overtaking the biosphere.
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Is Decolonization More Than a Buzzword?
Through a “tour” of sessions of the April 2022 African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) conference, Kathryn Toure tries to show that decolonization, more than jargon or a mere buzzword, is a process in progress.
One is never intelligent alone.
– Senufo proverb
The 4th African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) biennial conference was all about being human and (re)imagining the human from Africa. About 600 people participated, in person in Cape Town and/or virtually. The theme of decolonization was discussed in many of the 160 sessions over five days in April 2022. This article explores some of the themes that emerged in the presentations and discussions regarding decolonization, which some called merely a buzzword.
Is decolonization more than a buzzword? And if so, is it even possible to achieve decolonization? To begin the reflection, how is the concept defined? Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed, drawing on other scholars, writes that “Decolonization is rooted in dismantling colonial and imperialist systems that are built into the social, economic, political, cultural, and religious realities of colonized peoples” and “requires tremendous work and effort in addressing these injustices.” People and organizations in communities around the world are trying to understand colonial hierarchies and legacies and how to dismantle them and refashion ways of relating and organizing in society that account for mutual respect and reciprocity for one and all. However, if decolonisation is more than just talk, is it sufficient as a concept and a strategy to attain that end? Another question to keep in mind.
This article is organized in nine sections: Doing Africa; Speaking out through kangas, writing and publishing; Values, history, language, education, and culture matter; Epistemic journeys; Umoja; Exercising real power in parliament; Leveraging digital spaces; Hope for Africa as a forever incomplete project; Positionality. The non-comprehensive nature of this “coverage” of the decolonization debate at the ASAA conference makes this reflection incomplete and open to dialogue. The intergenerational conversations and queries and affirmations of Global Africa’s next generation at ASAA2022 suggest that the project of Africa, building on ancestral foundations in a spirit of conviviality and incompleteness, is very much on the move.
In a conference session exploring inclusion and exclusion, Martha Mbuvi of Tangaza University College described marrying into the Akamba community in Kenya – which made her, according to her husband’s community, a “Muki”. The term means “one who has come” and brings fresh blood and new ideas, and it can also connote stranger or outsider. The way it is used in practice can leave women with a diasporic feeling – part of the community yet not entirely.
Mbuvi mentioned how she is inspired by the work of Ghanaian scholar Mercy Amba Ewudziwa Oduyoye (born in 1934, now in her 80s) who worked “for women’s voices and concerns” to be heard. Martha goes on to declare how her own research on the term Muki among the Akamba will help bridge gaps and bring attention to ignored or uninterrogated issues, including relationships between language and power.
Such participatory research, conducted in a spirit of sisterhood and solidarity and focused on African culture is part of the decolonization process, even though Mbuvi did not describe her work as “decolonial”. As African American artist Bisa Butler, who makes life-size quilt portraits celebrating Black life, says in an interview, Black history and culture – which are a part of world history and culture – have been “concealed, deliberately erased or ignored”. The work of Martha Mbuvi and other young researchers trying to understand the nuances and complexities of everyday lived experiences and interactions in Africa will certainly shed light on African his/herstory and culture in context.
Africa has for centuries been described and characterized from outside the continent, let us say, through “fuzzy lenses”, and from within the continent by Africans who often feel compelled to use those external lenses or simply take them for granted. If we look through fuzzy lenses, won’t vision be blurred? Even with fuzzy lenses, the more the angles and perspectives, the greater the possibility of representation of silent and silenced voices. It is paramount to multiply initiatives to tell the story of Africa by listening to everyday Africans. “Ces vieux sages m’apprennent ce que n’ont pu m’apporter les docteurs en Sorbonne […] faire la science relève de la vie ordinaire.” (Those elders taught me what I could not learn from doctors of the Sorbonne […] doing science is part of everyday life). What is being done to support the Martha Mbuvis across the continent?
“Who are you that mumbles in the dark?” asked Langston Hughes in a poem. In the poem, he turns from mainstream musings about life in America to centre previously parenthesized voices, voices from the margins of society, subdued voices of oppressed and colonized peoples. Mbuvi as a researcher and knowledge producer is listening to the stories, perspectives, and experiences of those who may be mumbling in the dark. Mbuvi is “doing Africa” from an Afrocentric point of view. This is part of decoloniality. She is sensitive to power dynamics, to who is included and who is not, and is seeking more wholistic and nuanced representations of relations and people in society.
Africa has for centuries been described and characterized from outside the continent, let us say, through “fuzzy lenses”.
At the ASAA conference, South African researcher Sabelo Mcinziba stressed that “We need to do us, see us, hear us.” In an April 23 2022 Facebook post describing some of his historical research with elders in townships, Mcinziba insists that we must tell stories “that must be told because their memories will be erased while we prioritize elite history as official history.” My guess is that Martha Mbuvi does not spend most of her time thinking about whether decolonization is a buzzword or not but is getting on with her work of “doing Africa”, of telling stories that do not get told and making voices heard that otherwise get ignored. And she will be obliged to develop new tools and concepts along the way, which will contribute meaningfully to African and global knowledge production – and make us more humxn. Is that part of decolonization? I would venture to say yes.
Speaking out through kangas, writing and publishing
Pfungwa Nyamukachi spoke at the conference about how The Conversation Africa helps academics translate research findings for the public. Others discussed how women speak and are heard through songs they compose and share at the local level and through messages emblazoned on the kangas that they wear – including in efforts to resist colonization and patriarchal systems.
Esther Karin Mngodo shared about how she is disrupting patterns of knowledge production by creating a platform for women to publish in Swahili: Umbu Online Women’s Literary Magazine. Esther explained how she did not get to read in Swahili about topics of interest growing up, nor later in life, and is working to change that. She asked, “Why can’t I read about breasts or postpartum depression in Swahili?” Swahili is one of the ten most spoken languages – with 16 million speakers worldwide – and was adopted this year as an official working language of the African Union. Mngodo’s work will have decolonizing and healing effects, although she did not use those terms, because she is making space for the sharing of reflections related to concerns close to her heart and to those of others, and in a language that can express the nuances of the lived experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Her work of enlarging the frame of “who knows” and of “what is considered as knowledge” comes with challenges. People ask: “Why dwell so much on women’s perspectives? Why are you so angry? Why are you so angsty? You are too educated for a woman.”
But Mngodo persists. She sees her disruptor role as important and does not mind when heads turn. She said, “Writing on kangas is not enough for me. Our literature and our libraries also need to reflect what is going on in our society at large.” She asks why anyone familiar with the Tanzanian literary scene knows about Shaaban Robert (1909-1972) but may not have heard of Penina Muhanda (born in 1948, now in her 70s) who wrote her plays in Swahili. Indeed, it can be a struggle for women to write and be published and recognized, perhaps especially if they write in an African language – which Muhanda wanted to do to reach her people. So much can be lost in cultural translation to colonial languages. Future generations will hopefully be grateful to the efforts of Esther Karin Mngodo who, in the tradition of Penina Muhanda, is helping to ensure that people will be able to read about everyday life experiences in Swahili. Esther and Penina contribute to shifts in the ebbs and flows of knowledge.
Esther is full of action and agency. This contrasts with a literary character, Jonas, whose obscurity was essential to his survival. Jonas, a character in the second novel of Dinaw Mengestu, is the son of parents who emigrated to the USA from Ethiopia. Caught between cultures and unsure of himself, he is ostracized by classmates and neighbours. Ultimately, Jonas opts out of a marginal existence – of being forced into colonial frames and ignorance of his humanity. This, according to Grace Musila, Associate Professor of African Literature at the University of Witwatersrand.
When I saw in a meme on social media with the text, “Although I was born visible, I now identify as invisible. I am trans-parent. My pronouns are who/where,” and the progression of images of someone disappearing, I somehow thought of the pain and trauma of Jonas, who is not alone in the experience of feeling erased or of being in a zone of non-being. I also think of the partners of miners in Marikana, described by Asanda Benya, and their struggles for dignity.
Like Esther, Sandra Tamele, Executive Director of independent press Editora Trinta Zero Nove in Mozambique, is another inspiring example of making the world accessible to her compatriots, through the written word and audio books. A trained architect-turned-professional translator and interpreter, she began translating novels and stories into Portuguese and supporting others to do the same. She subsequently founded Editora Trinta Zero Nove to provide a publication outlet for those works. Then, because only 11 per cent of the 31 million people in Mozambique speak Portuguese, she realized the works needed to be translated into four of the major languages of the country and, because only 50 per cent of the population read and write, to be turned into audiobooks as well. Her dream is to enrich education through access to literature in a country where bookstores can be rare, and many people do not know how to use the digital plazas available in the country. Tamele explains how both her grandmothers were child brides and did not have the opportunity to go to school and recognizes her privilege, being among the 1 per cent of Mozambicans with access to tertiary education. She believes she is planting seeds for the future, one book, one story, and one reader at a time. The press Tamele founded translates and publishes mostly female writers and writers living with disabilities.
“Although I was born visible, I now identify as invisible. I am trans-parent. My pronouns are who/where.”
Pfungwa Nyamukachi, Esther Karin Mngodo, Grace Musila, and Sandra Tamele are each filling a gap in valuing African history, culture, people, and knowledge production. This is long overdue, considering the vast inequalities in the global knowledge economy, where African voices are sorely underrepresented and often mispresented. These women are part of the process of decolonizing minds and cultures. With colleagues at The Conversation Africa, Nyamukachi is making the work of African researchers available to people with access to the Internet. Mngodo is disrupting the status quo and making heads turns with new and exciting writings in Swahili by women writers. Musila is deepening understandings of literary productions related to eastern and southern Africa. Tamele is strategically and creatively challenging the lack of access to literary productions by fellow Mozambicans. They are not just writing in Big English to advance their careers. Each of these formidable women is speaking out, proactively taking decolonizing action, uplifting African voices and perspectives, and planting seeds for the future. I find their work buzzworthy. A buzzword in this sense should be lauded, not discouraged.
Values, history, language, education, and culture matter
In the ASAA session on “Remembering Humans”, Christopher Ouma, Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town, evoked the critical and creative work of Dr Harry Garuba of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, who died in February 2020. Throughout his career, he “tirelessly laboured against the erasure of worlds, people, ways of thinking and being – and offered critical tools with which to knowledge differently.”
“I miss the language that once lived in my body,” wrote Harry Garuba in his poem “Leaving Home at 10,” which Christopher read at the conference. How many other people remember or know about someone leaving behind family and a whole linguistic and cultural world to go to school – to learn to perceive the world through the prism of colonial language, culture and thinking?
Lawino, in a poem by Okot P’Bitek, observing the newly acquired values and attitudes of her schooled husband Ocol, speaks to him in the following way:
Husband, now you despise me
Now you treat me with spite
And say I have inherited the stupidity of my aunt;
Son of the Chief,
Now you compare me
With the rubbish in the rubbish pit,
You say you no longer want me
Because I am like the things left behind
In the deserted homestead.
You laugh at me
You say I do not know the letter A
Because I have not been to school
And I have not been baptized
Take care of your tongue,
Be careful what your lips say.
Francis Nyamnjoh shows “how the values acquired during the colonial era that teach the superiority of the colonizer set the tone for the imbibing of knowledge and continue to dominate education and life in postcolonial Africa.” Thus, the decolonial project includes the need to unpack education, learn and relearn history, bring a critical perspective to what is valued and not valued, and revalue what has been devalued. Acclaimed Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo (born in 1942, recently turned 80), as Secretary for Education, called for children to learn to read and write their mother tongue and one other Ghanaian language, but this proposal did not see the light of day at the time; today she encourages writers to not hesitate to write in African languages.
Each of these formidable women is speaking out, proactively taking decolonizing action, uplifting African voices and perspectives, and planting seeds for the future.
At the ASAA conference, Wesley Maraire described Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanisms, which, contrary to courts of law, are not adversarial in nature and draw on African traditions and values. Anthony Diala called for the (re)education of a whole new generation of teachers, aware of their past. Lauren Paremoer explained the value of solidarity as described in the Banjul Charter. The producers of the film “When Women Speak”, which was screened at the conference, demonstrate a true spirit of sisterhood. Thaddeus Metz elaborated how the African philosophy of ubuntu acknowledges interdependencies among people and self-fulfilment through social ideals.
ASAA President, Akosua Adomako Ampofo, in her presidential lecture, called for empathy, kindness, humaneness, and love. She challenged conference participants to “Dare to be kind.” Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, and Rama Salla Dieng, Lecturer at the University of Edinburg, called for a culture of care and for justice. Many youthful voices called for being seen, heard, counted and considered, and for African values, history, language, ways of knowing, and culture to be part and parcel of the project of Africa. They are not talking about something that is just fashionable or trendy. They are calling for what can make for a better humanity.
In stripping away vestiges of colonialism, understanding of and attention to values, history, language, education, and culture is important but insufficient. The epistemological underpinnings of knowledge production need to be interrogated. Whose knowledge counts? Who is considered to know? What knowledge is valued and promoted? How is knowledge produced? With what assumptions and from what vantage points? From what philosophical perspectives? And for what purposes? According to Harry Garuba, decolonization and decoloniality, which may seem trendy and confusing, simply mean “putting the needs and interests of the epistemologically disenfranchised at the forefront of knowledge production.”
African children, for example, have been epistemologically disenfranchised. Oduor Obura argues that for many years the realities of childhood in Africa have been constructed through a western colonial lens, with a focus on want, need, and lack. His book, Decolonising Childhoods in Eastern Africa, challenges such domineering mono-directional narratives and “universalising experiences and notions of childhood” which silence “the pluralities of experiences and knowledges” present in eastern Africa. Through multidisciplinary work, the Congolese concept of Bula Matadi (the use of force in breaking of obstacle rocks), engagement with children and those around them, and studies of the presentation of children in literary works, he presents pluralistic counter-narratives about child agency, negotiation, resilience and creativity in eastern Africa.
The devalorization of Africanness and African ways of being, the “attempted epistemicide” of African ways of knowing, and centuries of “concessions to the outside” require critical perspectives and methodical and intentional epistemic work for true transformation. Francis Nyamnjoh argues that:
In Africa, the colonial conquest of Africans – body, mind and soul – has led to real or attempted epistemicide – the decimation or near complete killing and replacement of endogenous epistemologies with the epistemological paradigm of the conqueror. The result has been education through schools and other formal institutions of learning in Africa largely as a process of making infinite concessions to the outside – mainly the western world. Such education has tended to emphasize mimicry over creativity, and the idea that little worth learning about, even by Africans, can come from Africa.
Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai was aware of these epistemological challenges. At the ASAA conference session on “Remembering Humans”, Besi Brillian Muhonja argues that Wangari Maathai is celebrated mainly as an environmental activist, which ignores or erases her contributions as a scholar and African knower, thinker, and theorizer. Muhonja, in her book, Radical Utu: Critical Ideas and Ideals of Wangari Muta Maathai, presents a more multidimensional portrait of Maathai and her words and works, to situate her ideas and concepts in global discourse. She focuses on her practical philosophical and epistemological approaches. Maathai promoted the decolonization of knowledge and theories of self-knowing and facilitated emotional and spiritual processes of learning about self, language, ecology, and community. In a paper titled “The Cracked Mirror,” she wrote the following:
By the end of the civic and environmental seminars organised by the Green Belt Movement, participants feel the time has come for them to hold up their own mirror and find out who they are. This is why we call the seminars kwimenya (self-knowledge). Until then, participants have looked through someone else’s mirror – the mirror of the missionaries or their teachers or the colonial authorities who have told them who they are and who write and speak about them – at their own cracked reflections. They have seen only a distorted image, if they have seen themselves at all!
Maathai resisted the idea of the missionaries that “God does not dwell on Mount Kenya” but rather in heaven. She stressed that “Cultural liberation will only come when the minds of the people are set free and they can protect themselves from colonialism of the mind.” She promoted women’s rights and the use of African languages to reflect nuances of African ways of being and thinking. She believed that people need to reclaim their culture to attain cultural liberation and that that freedom will help people care for nature and future generations.
The decolonial project includes the need to unpack education, learn and relearn history, bring a critical perspective to what is valued and not valued, and revalue what has been devalued.
According to Muhonja’s interpretation of the philosophy of Wangari Maathai, when we have nothing to call our own, to reflect to us who we are, we no longer see ourselves and will forget who we are. We will try to fill voids with material things. Planting trees and telling our stories is important to conservation. “Let us mind our language, practice our spirituality, and live our communal culture,” she urged, drawing on the philosophy and critical ideas and ideals of Wangari Muta Maathai.
Wangari Maathai is an example of someone who took decolonization and Afrocentric thinking beyond the academy into her practice and interactions with rural Kenyan women and others involved in the Green Belt Movement.
Another issue I would like to cover in this discussion of epistemic journeys is the ASAA roundtable discussion on: Are African Studies Centres Gatekeepers of African Knowledge Production and Enablers of (De)Colonisation? Prof. Thoko Kaime of the University of Bayreuth in Germany launched the discussion by speaking about knowing and playing by the rules or disavowing the rules in the interest of reshaping African studies to focus on African perspectives and predicaments rather than imperial interests. After all, these centres were created to “study the native”. To promote the status quo, however, an environment of fear which discourages critical thought can be created. Kaime insists that decolonization happens “only when those we study can speak and be heard”.
One participant in the discussion called for auditing African studies centres around the world for Afrocentric perspectives and pedagogical approaches and closing those that perpetuate a colonial gaze. “What has changed since anthropologist Audrey Richards created the Cambridge Centre of African Studies in 1965?” they insisted. Isabelle Zundel, a University of Bayreuth student of legal and political trends in eastern and southern Africa, noted how African studies centres can, regrettably, promote the use of Africa as a career path, with the assumption of a “submissive Africa”.
Research cooperation in African Studies was discussed at two conference sessions. New ways of cooperation are emerging “due to individual interests” and “institutional awareness of the necessity of collaboration”. The session participants discussed demands for decentralising African Studies and for “fair participation of researchers from the Global South”.
In the discussion about gatekeepers and enablers of (de)colonization, legal anthropologist Anthony Diala insisted that the decolonization debate and its lack of structuration is keeping people from focusing on restorative justice and the dismantling of racist and hegemonic structures. Educationalist Prof. Brenda Leibowitz spoke to this tension to some degree in her 2016 inaugural address on the decolonisation of knowledge at the University of Johannesburg. She called for cognitive justice (through a university curriculum in which students see themselves and the pedagogical processes in which they are active) but also social justice (equitable access to resources, services, and opportunities in society). She went on to insist that decolonization is not just exchanging one knowledge for another and called for the dehegemonization and diversification of knowledge, understanding that different knowledge systems are in dialogue and need to dialogue with each other.
Leibowitz went further to reference Raewyn Connell who insists that southern knowledge systems need to be especially supported to respond to southern preoccupations and planetary questions and disruptions. Connell et al. went on to show that patterns of extraversion in Southern scholarship can suppress theoretical advances and thus limit the quality and robustness of Southern and global knowledge production.
Wangari Maathai is celebrated mainly as an environmental activist, which ignores or erases her contributions as a scholar and African knower, thinker, and theorizer.
Other sentiments discerned at the ASAA conference about epistemological aspects of the decolonization journey include: “Colonialism took so much from our people, and it serves the status quo for us to be patient. We need pluralities rather than dichotomies. We need more Afrocentric ways of teaching and learning and the right as Africans to participate fully in knowledge production and be seen and heard. How we theorize matters. Our conceptual frameworks matter – we need to expand the frames of understanding. We need to use appropriate methodologies and humanize fieldwork.”
In her paper on the Dagbaŋ philosophy of respecting the human dignity of interlocutors, Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed cites two postcolonial thinkers, who write on decolonizing, respectively, the mind and methodologies. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o draws our attention to the importance of “pulling our languages, literature, and knowledge systems out of the periphery to which they have been banished.” Linda Tuhiwai Smith presents us with “the importance of disrupting the Western canon in knowledge production” and “the potential that Indigenous knowledges hold not only to affirm the lived experience of colonized peoples, but also to dismantle the colonial values embedded in and woven into academia.”
Rather than force themselves to write in a hand that is not theirs or force their research into frames that do not quite fit, Harry Garuba urges students to “center the questions that are important to you and let that drive your research and your methods and concepts formation”. Let knowledge production be directed by the “needs, interests, and desires of people epistemologically disenfranchised”. This will lead to conceptual voids, opportunities to rethink things, and new concepts and possibilities across disciplines. “When you reach the cul-de-sac, that is when we get invention” that transcends fragmentation and “moves beyond methodological fundamentalism”.
African integration, umoja, and pan-Africanism were part of the ASAA conference. Participants in different sessions appreciated the comingling and the dialogues across boundaries – national, linguistic, disciplinary, generational. Scholars and writers described the beauty of meeting new colleagues, encountering new concepts, learning about similarities and differences from context to context, and discussing potential transboundary collaborations. The international and pan-African spirit was palpable, inspiring, and uplifting. If this is part of decolonization, I want to be a part of it.
The screening of the film Umoja – Swahili word for “unity” – and the subsequent discussion, with producer/director Dr Mjiba Frehiwot of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, addressed pan-Africanism directly. Through a series of interviews, pan-Africanism is presented in the film as the celebration of African people and values, the teaching and practice of solidity over division, and investment in systems of thought and action that unite the continent. Pan-Africanists dreamed of a common foreign policy, currency, and defence for pan-Africanism to work and recognize the need to continually “give people the tools with which to liberate themselves”. Today there are new social movements – Y’en a marre and Nouveau Type de Citoyens for example, and #EndSARS, Black Lives Matter, #FixTheCountry, #ShutItAllDown, #NoMore and initiatives like re_sisters, Year of Return to Ghana, and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. How do Africans come together, address issues collectively, invest in education and create an ubuntu economy and shared prosperity? Then and now, pan-Africanism is rooted in values of dignity, love, sharing, learning, compassion, caring, dialogue, reciprocity, and interdependence.
When we have nothing to call our own, to reflect to us who we are, we no longer see ourselves and will forget who we are. We will try to fill voids with material things.
One interviewee in the film expressed the following: “We need to stop performing peace. Peace is the ability to claim rights, for the media to speak, and for people to not fight unimaginable rising prices and traffic. We need to protect ourselves and uplift each other. Let us keep telling the truth. The year 2063 is too far, we need to unite now.” Another interviewee insisted that “Girls should not be forced to marry, and education needs to be relevant.” And a third added, “Education needs to address our challenges, including psychological ones. The inherited institutions were not meant for transformation.” Rabbi Kohain, Executive Secretary of the PANAFEST Foundation is featured in the film saying, “We have had to put a mask on every day. Be prepared to be born again as Africans.”
Sabelo Mcinziba said on day one of the conference, “We trade too little with each other and cite each other too little.” Nonetheless, lived experiences of pan-Africanism are real – especially in frontier spaces. The film producer/director described observing women engaged in cross-border trade in West Africa. They speak several languages, take cedis, dollars, and CFA, know the exchange rates, and ask you how you want your change. “In whichever direction you are moving, they work with you.” Very convivial. They straddle borders that others so jealously protect. “But do police officers know about Umoja?” asked a participant. Indeed, cross-border traders and travellers can be challenged by authorities.
South-South collaboration and conversations among Southern scholars is another form of unity and was addressed implicitly in some conference sessions and explicitly in a panel on “Decolonizing Southern thinking” with Fabricio Pereira da Silva of Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Mjiba Frehiwot of University of Ghana. They examined the decolonial philosophies of Amílcar Cabral and of Paulo Freire as an intellectual bridge between Africa and Latin America and examined Yves Valentin Mudimbe’s Invention of Africa for insights on ways forward for pan-Africanism and Latin-Americanism. Although African and Latin American experiences are vastly different, there are shared experiences of being on the receiving end of colonialism and thus the value of unpacking the implications of colonial legacies together. The two presenting scholars travelled between their continents, reminiscing how Paulo Freire travelled to Guinea Bissau to work in a literacy programme there after Amílcar Cabral was murdered.
The panel sought to “rescue epistemologies in the process of being silenced. In a world in deep crisis and accelerated transformation, we believe that the Global South (Africa in particular) is well-positioned to contribute to the imagination of more humane alternative futures – and to the very survival of humanity. In this sense, we think about Global South contributions in terms of concepts and practices of interconnectivity, conviviality, communality, equality, and emancipations.”
Exercising real power in parliament
Gender, women’s rights and concerns for intersectionality were integral to decolonial thinking and movements in Africa, and women were visibly involved – like Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Bibi Titi Mohammed, and Djamila Boupacha – as well as working behind the scenes. The attention to gender issues during decolonisation struggles “led to practical gains for women in many newly independent states,” but with time, some of the “spaces created by decolonisation movements were closed,” and imperialist and patriarchal structures continue to shape everyday life in many ways.
The ASAA conference session on “Women as Lesser Humans?” explored women’s influence in African parliaments, particularly the cases of South Africa and Uganda. The number of women in parliament, or their “descriptive representation,” has increased in part due to affirmative action measures including quotas. But how does this translate into “substantive representation,” for example pro-gender agendas and policies that address the specific challenges and aspirations of girls and women, with concern for intersecting factors, like class, educational level, disability, and geographic location? Women are increasingly present in parliaments, but are they influential? In the end, it seems that substantial representation is difficult. The “stickiness of old rules” and the power of informal institutions (like male social networks, decision-making conversations with selective participation behind closed doors or in other shadow spaces) inhibit new ways of working.
African studies centres can, regrettably, promote the use of Africa as a career path, with the assumption of a “submissive Africa”.
At this conference session, Amanda Gouws, of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, explained how the women’s movement in South Africa was successful in ensuring a whole package of institutions to help advance women’s equality post-apartheid. Those active in the movement did not want just a gender or women and youth ministry that might be side-lined but the integration of concerns for gender equality and inclusion in all ministries, an office of the status of women, a commission for gender equality, and other institutions. This holistic approach facilitated substantive representation (for example the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act of 1998 and the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996). This package of institutions, however, lost its vibrancy under President Mbeki (1999-2008) and President Jacob Zuma (2009-2018), who came to power after President Nelson Mandela, and has not been reinvigorated. Prof. Gouws, in responding to a question, said that “we cannot just want the institutions back – we also need the feminist consciousness and commitment.”
Dr Hannah Muzee, who studied at the Pan African University Institute for Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences, hosted by Cameroon, and lectured at Kyambogo University in Uganda, explored how women in Uganda have “a seat at the table but no voice”. Women can make it into parliament, but then what? Since the 1995 Constitution, women have been fast-tracked into politics through affirmative action but have also been tokenized. Factors that hold women back in politics include the lack of access to resources for campaigns, party loyalty pressures, and the perpetuation of gender division of labour in political parties and in parliament (i.e. men are usually in charge of finance, law, policy). In addition, women’s leagues of political parties do not work on pro-women’s issues. They speak or operate if sanctioned by the party executive, and their biggest role is to mobilize funds and votes.
However, the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association, an all-party parliamentary caucus, has supported networking, training in public speaking, and mentorship on pro-women issues for women parliamentarians. This has helped to enhance women’s voices and pass pro-women legislation, i.e. the Domestic Violence Bill and the Children’s (Amendment) Bill. The Association strategically admits male legislators as allies, with the understanding that men need to understand injustices women suffer so they too can speak to the issues. Promoter of women’s rights, Miria Rukoza Koburunga Matembe, who served in Uganda’s parliament and became Minister of Ethics and Integrity, writes from her experience about how the gender question and the journey of women to top positions need to be tackled by both men and women. She also wrote about the challenges of translating a gender sensitive constitution into reality, especially regarding land rights for women, and co-founded in 2006 the Centre for Women in Governance to “make women’s participation in politics and governance go beyond numbers.”
The phenomenon of women’s substantial representation is further explored in Gendered Institutions and Women’s Political Representation in Africa. In addition to the South Africa case study, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana are covered. Chapter 3 by Sethunya Tshepho Mosime and Maude Dikobe explores whether political candidate training programmes in Botswana are “A waste of resources or pedagogies of the oppressed?”
Then and now, pan-Africanism is rooted in values of dignity, love, sharing, learning, compassion, caring, dialogue, reciprocity, and interdependence.
In the current context of androcentric legislatures, can policies be advanced to fight persistent and prevalent forms of gender-based violence and promote equality and inclusion? The question stands for many legislatures around the world. Can we talk about decolonization at all in the contexts of male-centric political systems described by Gouws and Muzee? Where are the openings for transformative change? The session asked: For how long will women be kept as secondary citizens? Just as it is important to bring an intersectional gender lens to understanding fights against colonial rule, an intersectional gender lens – considering not only gender but also sex, sexuality, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and other identity factors, depending on the context – is necessary to understand and inform ongoing decolonization efforts.
Are hierarchies of power and belonging that were at the centre of colonial rule being reproduced? Or questioned and dismantled? Who is included and who is not? Who is respected? Whose humanity is valued? Whose agency is recognized? Who speaks? Who is listened to? Whose rights are considered as important? Whose knowledge is considered knowledge? Who may be taking up too much space or speaking or writing over others? Who has influence and power? And how is it exerted? Are processes inclusive or exclusive? Who is considered Greater? Who is considered Lesser? Does equality matter? Whose voices and needs and aspirations are considered? Is anyone dismissed or erased?
Leveraging digital spaces
Digital technologies can reflect, reproduce, and even reinforce the inequalities, hierarchies, and power dynamics that exist in society. Their creative and strategic use can also facilitate new ways of organizing across multiple boundaries for social change, challenge authoritarianism and heterogendered relationship norms, and promote more horizontal ways of relating. During the COVID-19 pandemic, relations, even among diplomats on the continent, moved from strictly formal spaces to include more informal spaces on social media, and this induced changes in ways of relating.
The ASAA conference organizer, the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), brilliantly leveraged air travel and digital technologies to connect people in person and virtually after two years of hunkering down during the pandemic. What a beautiful opportunity to connect across the continent and beyond. Like at the 3rd ASAA conference in Nairobi, the energy was infectious. For the 4th conference, participants in Congo, North Africa, and Japan debated alongside people physically present in Cape Town. People participated online and offline.
Highlights were shared via Twitter at #ASAA2022, which serves as a record of important encounters and a space for continuing the discussions – among conference participants and with people who did not attend. In a tweet, Chichi Ayalogu affirmed that “#ASAA2022 is top of the list for organized conference executions and really should be noted as ‘the’ example of a Hybrid event done right.”
A dozen different meeting rooms for parallel sessions, each equipped with a roving camera connected to internet and someone present to ensure convivial use of the technology. What a feat. Considerate moderators of different ages fielding questions from the floor and the chat box and calling on people raising a virtual or in-person hand. People checking for sessions and room numbers in the online programme or via the ASAA2022 space on theEventApp. A virtual Information Desk where people could put themselves into the designated room for a parallel session or ask the attendant, Roxanne Adams of HUMA, to do so. Mx. Roxanne calmly reassured people toward the end when there was a temporary Zoom hiccup or two. Important human touches.
Jean-Marc Éla reminds us: “Le cerveau a besoin de rêver comme le corps de respirer.” The brain needs to dream, just as the body needs to breathe. ASAA2022 was a place to share knowledge and dreams and collectively (re)envision what it means to be humxn and what that means for organizational and institutional change initiatives.
“We trade too little with each other and cite each other too little.”
The conference was itself an exciting digital space, and some conference sessions dealt with the theme of leveraging digital spaces. Amani Abdel Rahman spoke about how a 2019 social media uprising in Sudan led to the disintegration of a regime that had governed the country for 30 years. “Youth were ahead of classical political parties – unfamiliar with internet and social media.” Aghi Bahi shared about the apparition of cyber activists on Facebook to address political concerns in Cote d’Ivoire. “Are the activists free, though? Or working for a political entrepreneur?”
Digitisation might be another buzzword, but, if well harnessed, its decolonial capabilities could be significant. Political analyst and activist Nanjala Nyabola has written about online organizing, efforts to contain online organizing, the circulation of fake news and hate speech on social media, and the threat of digital colonization. Nyabola participated in ASAA2022, along with Timnit Gebru of the Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research (DAIR) Institute, in a keynote debate on “Meta Forms, Artificial Lies & Digital Futures”. Artificial intelligence (AI) is part of digitality. To what extent is it creating a new colonial world order? To take but one example, languages, it can “further codify the supremacy of dominant languages” or be used “outside the wealthy profits centers of Silicon Valley to serve people and language revitalization work.”
Digitisation might be another buzzword, but, if well harnessed, its decolonial capabilities could be significant.
Digital spaces should also be leveraged to make African knowledge production more visible. This was discussed at the ASAA session on “Making African Research Visible and Accessible.” The work of the Training Centre in Communication (TCC Africa) to train scientists in effective communication skills was discussed, and AficArXiv was presented as an option for open scholarly publishing – to promote accessibility to research outputs by African scholars and scholarship on Africa more broadly. Part of decolonization would include the promotion of African journals, data repositories, research portals and means of circulating African scholarship.
Hope for Africa as a forever incomplete project
It was great to see ASAA2022 – as Africa in miniature and a project for Africa – at the University of Cape Town. I would argue that it contributes to the decolonization debate in universities across South Africa and the continent and beyond, and makes the prospects for decolonization and transformation more real and tangible. One could also argue that the decolonization debate has been co-opted and that the conference was one big talk shop. On Twitter, Sandeep Bakshi suggests that assimilating decolonization into academic discourse as a buzzword “is one way to monitor and begin to incapacitate it” – because of its perceived or real threats to power. And a conference participant asked, “How can we decolonize the academy if society is not decolonized?” “True,” was the response. “It is hard to decolonize the academy when it is surrounded by a colonial world. But academics should not spend too much time being engulfed by the academy and forgetting about the interdependencies between community and university.”
The intergenerational conversations and debates are a sign of hope – for Africa as a forever incomplete project. At the conference, the voices of the living intermingled with those of the dead in a constructive spirit of learning and taking appropriate action for the current times and specific contexts. One generation feeds the other. From Wangari Maathai of Kenya, Ugandan politician Rukoza Koburunga Matembe, and writers Penina Muhanda from Tanzania and Ama Ata Aidoo from Ghana, to women of another generation – Martha Mbuvi (studying the Akamba in Kenya), Esther Karin Mngodo (publishing women writers in Swahili), Grace Musila (helping us understand history and culture through literature), and Sandra Tamele (expanding access to literary works in Mozambique) –, we have examples to guide us. People who had not heard about Langston Hughes and his poetry or Harry Garuba and his poetry and writings over several decades about decolonization could learn more, delve deeper, make connections. At ASAA2022, papers and thoughts were shared and films screened. People bravely challenged each other. Curiosities were aroused and collaborations discussed. Participants were enriched and hopefully inspired by the encounters. Were there absences or silences? Perhaps. How much did we hear from people from South Sudan or the Central African Republic, for example? How much did we hear from people living as refugees, about their experiences of displacement and more?
Gender, women’s rights and concerns for intersectionality were integral to decolonial thinking and movements in Africa.
Is it enough to talk about and work for de-colonization? In opposition to centuries of erasure through colonization? Probably not. One conference participant said something like, “We cannot just describe ourselves and what we want as de– or non-” – in the negative. In envisioning and working toward desired futures, perhaps we need to resuscitate and reinvent some forms of knowledge? Maybe decolonization is a fuzzy concept and needs more context or focus?
Dr Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian describes the value of a decolonization lens as well as it limits – as an adversative strategy which itself may imbibe colonial logics. She suggests it be married with a philosophy such as ubuntu so that decolonization involves “fighting against” and dismantling unjust colonial systems and constructively creating futures for the common good. Conference participants and this article refer to concepts and philosophies that are affirming and aspirational in nature and that inform and shape decolonisation processes, for example: kwimenya, ubuntu, umoja, “doing Africa,” conviviality, incompleteness, and Bilchiinsi, the Dagbaŋ philosophy of respecting the human dignity of interlocutors.
And there are other existing and emerging African-inspired concepts and philosophies to help forge and weave the way forward. However, George Sefa Dei and Chizoba Imoka argue that “It is impossible to have a sincere reflection about the question of development without an anti-colonial lens.” They suggest asking questions such as these:
What sort of development should be taking place in our communities today? Whose knowledge informs this development? To what extent is the vision of development that is advanced aligned to and grounded in the indigenous epistemologies, histories and the aspirations of local people? How are community members coming to learn and use multiple lenses of critical inquiry to understand the processes of colonization and the impact on social development?
W.E.B. Du Bois came to realize how “the silence and neglect of science can let truth utterly disappear or even be unconsciously distorted.” Thus, the necessity of reconstituting history, seeking truth and teaching our children to do so as well. Bernard Fonlon argued that the worst effect of colonialism was the wresting of African cultural genius and initiative from African hands. Wangari Maathai stressed “how crucial it is to return constantly to our cultural heritage.” And elaborated:
If believing that God is on Mount Kenya is what helps people conserve their mountain, I say that’s okay. If people still believed this, they would not have allowed illegal logging or clear-cutting of the forests.
It is not, however, just a matter of going back in time. But going back to fetch what is needed in a forward-looking manner (Sankofa). The new cord is attached to the old (West African proverb). Philosopher Paulin Hountondji argued that, to end extraversion and dependence, there must be a “methodical reappropriation of one’s own knowledge and know-how as much as the appropriation of all the available knowledge in the world.” He also urged scholars of his time to go beyond theory and abstraction to “take concrete measures to justify their sociopolitical existence and relevance.” If young people are “unable to breathe” because they cannot see themselves in society’s institutions, we must do something.
Professor Akosua Adomako Ampofo, University of Ghana, did something, as President of the African Studies Association of Africa, to shift consciousness and inspire critical thinking and action. Professor Toussaint Murhula of Université Loyola du Congo, in his response to Prof. Ampofo, called for support as the new ASAA President by affirming that good leadership requires the contribution of the wider society.
In the current context of androcentric legislatures, can policies be advanced to fight persistent and prevalent forms of gender-based violence and promote equality and inclusion?
To begin to wrap up, in a forward-looking fashion, let me share from The Africa I Want, a collection of poems by Fatma Adam, which book I received from the author at the 3rd ASAA conference in Nairobi, in October 2019. Her poem, “The Story of Her Hands,” is about lines on the hands of a woman, which tell the story of her struggles. They show where she spends most of her days, holding the responsibility of the entire family on her shoulders. The lines on her hands tell the story of a woman who longed to hold a pen. They show the opportunities that slipped through her fingers and the unveiled secrets she holds deep within her heart. They show the reasons why she keeps on moving with love to change her destiny.
Concerns about positionality
Who can study and write about Africa? And how? These are questions that many researchers and writers ask. “If you use a western lens, stay away,” I heard someone say at the ASAA conference session on African studies centres as enablers of (de)colonization. “Check your lenses. Understand race. No one would mention it when I studied at Cambridge,” said one participant.
Positionality and approach matter not only between Africa and the West but also within Africa. In the very last session of the conference, it was advanced that unpacking the inherent power dynamics within Southern-based knowledge systems is equally important, to avoid mimicking systems of exclusion and inequalities of the current knowledge agenda. For example, speakers observed that because research is more resourced in South Africa than in some other African countries, South African-based researchers should question their positionality and check their privilege. Participants in the session suggested: “Let local spaces speak. Understand and share the perspectives of people in those spaces. See the world thru their eyes. Let the local values guide. Rather than coming with ‘South Africanism’.” A US scholar, Regina Fuller, reflected on Twitter on her positionality: “As a Junior scholar in African Studies, questions I have are How can I conduct ethical, feminist ethnographic gender sexualities research in Africa? How do I grapple with my positionality as black US Scholar? #ASAA2022.”
“It is impossible to have a sincere reflection about the question of development without an anti-colonial lens.”
As author of this piece, what is my positionality, related to the ASAA discussions? I became interested in Africa at the University of Kansas, through a visiting professor of political science from Sierra Leone, who made West African realities come alive and sparked my interest to know more. I later studied literature, art, and history at the University of Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire. When working in international and comparative studies at the University of Iowa, I took a course on African history where we read novels to learn history.
This humanistic and holistic approach to understanding history through stories of people and their communities resonated with me. Since then I promote, on both sides of the Atlantic, the writing and publication of personal stories and reflections that might otherwise go unheard and that, in their sharing, make us more humxn. I recognize my privilege as a white cis able-bodied woman who can “waltz” into certain situations and spaces. I also recognize the continual work it takes to decolonize myself – my attitudes, outlooks, and behaviours. I believe that decolonization requires efforts from people of all colours and abilities and parts of the world. Some sisters and brothers might suggest that I should “stay in my lane”, knowing that my knowledge of different African languages is minimal and that the way I describe ubuntu and other concepts may be lacking as well. Like any piece of knowledge production, this writing is open to critique and conversation. I do envision a world in which colonial mind-sets, hierarchies, and structures are recognized, questioned, and dismantled – for more equitable and convivial ways of relating, for the benefit of current and future generations. We are bound up together in the colonial project. How do we free each other from its grip? As Harry Garuba says, there is “no easy walk to education and freedom.” But we must each do our part.
Through a quick and non-comprehensive “tour” of sessions of the April 2022 African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) conference, we have tried to show that decolonization, more than jargon or a mere buzzword, is a process in progress. However, like Prof. Anthony Diala of the University of the Western Cape said in the session about gatekeeping and enabling (de)colonization, “the reality of coloniality makes a mockery of decolonization.”
In the face of very real colonial legacies, various organizations work with greater and lesser degrees of intentionality. For some people and organizations, decolonization may just be talk or political correctness. Others are going beyond important, necessary and challenging conversations to collectively develop strategies and frameworks and put in place initiatives to shift thinking and power in academia and institutions and structures of everyday life – for greater inclusion and participation and with regard for African sociocultural, political and historical processes.
Is decolonization more than a buzzword? We have suggested that it is and needs to be. However, some may continue to insist that decolonisation is poison to be avoided to the degree that it promotes a spirit of opposition in humxn endeavours. Others may suggest the concept is fuzzy – a catch-all net that buzzes and fuzzes busily around the real issues of bringing about a shared humanity and consciousness of the hierarchies that pose a formidable challenge to attaining sustainable equality and dignity for all and sundry.
Colonization and its extractive and dehumanizing processes were entrenched over centuries. Resistance to colonization existed during the slave trade, movements for flag independence in the 20th century, and calls for transformation in post-apartheid South Africa and the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements and continues to exist in renewed calls for integration and pan-Africanism in a spirit of ubuntu. As much as colonial structures, processes and mind-sets persist, they are being questioned, undone, and reshaped.
At one of the ASAA conference sessions, Aïdas Sanogo, lecturer and researcher at Centre Universitaire de Manga in Burkina Faso, explains that “The students I teach are more impatient than I was at their age.” This provides reason for hope. The intergenerational conversations and queries and affirmations of Global Africa’s next generation suggest that the project of Africa, building on ancestral foundations in a spirit of conviviality and incompleteness, is very much on the move. But is the urgency felt and the movement swift enough? Some argue that decolonisation is impossible, “but we must make her possible.”
Thanks to all those who took the time to read and comment this article. I take the time to do the same for others, in a spirit of give and take, of learning, and of continual co-construction. I take responsibility for any errors in relating what I heard at the ASAA conference and interpreting subsequent readings.
From Ukraine to Rwanda: Race, Asylum and Externalization in Europe-Africa Relations
After years of complaint about being “overwhelmed” by trickles of new arrivals, Europe has absorbed millions of refugees fleeing the conflict in Ukraine virtually overnight. However, the solidarity that underpins this dramatic turnaround would appear to exclude non-Europeans.
Europe’s embrace of Ukrainian refugees marks an historic departure from its increasingly restrictive stance towards asylum seekers in recent years. With the exception of Angela Merkel’s bold but isolated welcome of displaced Syrians (which generated a considerable backlash), efforts to elicit empathy for people escaping conflict zones have been met with indifference —and at times outright hostility — since the so-called migration “crisis” in 2015. Escalating border patrols and illegal “pushbacks” intercepting would-be asylum claimants have defined an ever-hardening border regime that led numerous commentators to pronounce the “end of asylum” prior to Russia’s invasion.
Against this backdrop, solidarity with refugees in countries as diverse as Hungary and Denmark has been something of a revelation. After years of internal wrangling and inaction over how to share the “burden” of asylum applications, policy has been dramatically overhauled by the decisive implementation of the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), granting millions of Ukrainian refugees right of residency with access to work and education outside their homeland. A comparable shift in Britain has led liberal commentators to proclaim, “The spasm of xenophobia that was spread by the Brexiteers has lifted”.
How to explain this so-called U-turn? For charity workers and activists accustomed to combatting negative perceptions of asylum seekers in Europe, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ushered in a strangely disorienting scenario. On the one hand, the protection and dignity of displaced persons that they have long called for has arrived with bells on. After years of complaint about being “overwhelmed” by trickles of new arrivals, millions have been absorbed virtually overnight without a peep. On the other, the “solidarity” that underpins this dramatic turnaround would appear to exclude non-Europeans.
The very same border guards consigning asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Eritrea to detention or possible death by “push-back” into freezing cold forests are distributing soups and blankets to Ukrainians offered safe passage. Long after animals were evacuated from Ukrainian zoos, Asians and Africans are reported to be languishing in the EU’s Zhuravychi facility, close enough to the warzone to hear artillery and explosions. Such facts, together with scenes of non-white students being obstructed from reaching safety, raise the question of whether what we are witnessing is in fact a turning point at all, and not merely the latest chapter of an older story of European racism.
Migration researchers and policymakers have interpreted these differences technically, citing other factors: geographic proximity, legislative frameworks that give Ukrainians greater legal access to enter the EU, cultural, historical, ethnic and religious affinities that bind them to neighbouring Christian societies. Echoing the liberal centre of European politics, these voices insist the “opening of refugee corridors to Ukraine’s neighbours has little to do with race”.
Asians and Africans are reported to be languishing in the EU’s Zhuravychi facility, close enough to the warzone to hear artillery and explosions.
That the “legislative frameworks” privileging Ukrainians over migrants from the Global South might themselves be part of a racialized migration system is rarely considered by exponents of this technocratic analysis. Nor do they take into account the role of racial ideology in forging the so-called “ethnic, cultural and religious affinities” that bind white Europeans against groups deemed alien, summed up by Polish member of parliament Dominik Tarczynski before the current conflict: “We’ve taken over two million Ukrainians in Poland. We will not receive even one Muslim . . . This is why our government was elected; this is why Poland is so safe”. As for “geography”: how does proximity explain the greater willingness of Britain and Italy to receive Ukrainians rather than the Africans and Asians they seek to repel? Or, for that matter, the enthusiasm of the United States?
Statements professing solidarity with Ukrainians for their “blonde hair” and “blue eyes” did the rounds on social media during the early weeks of the conflict. Race is also at play, however, in subtler enunciations of difference — above all, the presumed contrast between the “economic” motivations of “illegal” entrants with the “political” drivers of Ukrainian flight. The propensity of Westerners to identify Ukrainian affluence as a basis of empathy underlines the class-based dimensions of race. The feeling that “they are just like us” because they travel with suitcases, own cars and live in cities like “our own” is intimately related to the perception of Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans as covetous imposters who could never have been middle-class, and therefore had nothing to lose from the wars that plague their wretched countries of origin.
It is of course true that many of those who seek asylum in Northwestern Europe are fleeing marginalization and encampment in “safe countries”, in addition to the dangers that uprooted them from their countries of origin. The entanglement of “economic”, “political”, and indeed other motivations in each individual’s decision to move is beyond doubt. But the EU’s own recognition rates underline just how many non-Europeans who apply for asylum are in fact “authentic” refugees: last year 81 per cent of Eritrean asylum applicants were accorded protection; 79 per cent of Yemenis, and in October-November, over 90 per cent of Afghans. Britain’s processes of adjudication confirm a majority (around two-thirds) of all those who apply for asylum in the UK are entitled. All of which suggests the lack of empathy with these groups is about more than objectively observable difference.
Viral footage of African students prevented from boarding trains at gunpoint makes a similar point. Even as they fled a warzone alongside millions of other “genuine” (white) political exiles, a tiny trickle of highly educated, middle-class non-white people were pulled aside by Europe’s asylum system for less-than-equal treatment. To explain such blatantly racialized filtration away via legalistic reasoning or talk of geography is disingenuous. It also requires a short memory. Broaden the picture to encompass what we’ve learned about “traveling while Black” in other recent emergencies, and the curtailment of these students’ movement reflects a pattern.
To explain such blatantly racialized filtration away via legalistic reasoning or talk of geography is disingenuous.
As recently as November 2021, blanket flight bans were imposed on African countries following the discovery of the Omicron coronavirus variant by South African scientists. Racist photographic imagery and grotesque cartoons depicting the virus as Black figures in boats appeared in the European press. Nigeria and South Africa, two of the most affluent and politically influential nations in the African continent were powerless to protect the right of their middle-classes to cross international borders. “Had the first Covid-19 virus . . . originated in Africa,” remarked Dr Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, an African Union vaccine expert, “it is clear the world would have locked us away and thrown away the key.”
Her words reflect an unspoken truth about Africa’s lowly position in the hierarchy that underpins international mobility. Yet, discriminatory policies and practices in Europe are just one pillar of this system. Another rests on mobility from and within the African continent itself, which is increasingly the site of exported European migration controls, a phenomenon known as “externalization”. Just how deeply the two are entwined was illustrated by the recent unveiling of Britain’s Rwanda deal, which envisages the deportation of “irregular migrants” without processing their asylum applications.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s framing of the plan to the British press began with a lengthy preamble on Britain’s proud history of refugee protection, including its recent acceptance of Ukrainians. He then presented the UK’s intention to export unwanted arrivals to Africa as a means of preserving its capacity for compassionate action. In spelling out the relationship between embracing some and removing others, he couldn’t have been clearer: Britain’s generous acceptance of Ukrainian and other “genuine” refugees is dependent on the successful removal of false pretenders via externalization.
This effective bifurcation of asylum seekers into (white) Europeans and non-whites from Asia and Africa is not a peculiarly British phenomenon. Denmark, which just passed an expedited law to ease Ukrainians’ access to labour markets and schools, is in the process of forging a similar arrangement of its own with Rwanda. The first European country to officially restrict migrants and refugees classified as “non-western” last year, it will not apply its “jewellery law” — passed in 2016 to allow confiscation of valuables from refugees claiming asylum — to Ukrainians. Syrians, in response to whose arrival the law was invented, witnessed their own rights of asylum revoked just months ago. Damascus was declared a safe country amidst Denmark’s drive to rid its territory of unwanted “ghettos”, but legal challenges have complicated the government’s attempts to force them to return. As for the EU, which has done so much to support the acceptance and integration of Ukrainians in recent months, it was reported on April 6th that the Commission is now proposing to levy punitive trade tariffs on countries that do not accept the return of citizens who have illegally entered Europe. A move that would tie trade to migration policy sounds less of a U-turn than a continuation of the hardening regime pursued by “fortress Europe” since the 1990s.
Denmark, which just passed an expedited law to ease Ukrainians’ access to labour markets and schools, is in the process of forging a similar arrangement of its own with Rwanda.
Could we be heading for a world in which Syrians, along with other Arab, Asian and African asylum seekers alike will be deported from Europe to the African continent to accommodate “genuine” refugees? If so, what does this mean, and how did we get here?
The EU-Africa ‘Partnership’
More than racism, geography, or indeed any of the other factors listed above, the revival of European asylum policy to address the plight of Ukrainians has been framed geopolitically. Putin’s misadventure, according to security experts and aficionados, presents a more flagrant, clear-cut breach of legal and political norms than other messier conflicts around the world. As a threat to the territorial integrity of a nation-state, the invasion undermines a sacred principle of the Westphalian international order: national sovereignty. Ukraine’s women and children, according to this view, embody the stakes of a universal struggle waged by their gallant menfolk.
Revealingly, Sir Tony Blair, whose punditry is otherwise ubiquitous these days, is nowhere to be seen making this point. The gist of those who do is that Ukraine and its human casualties matter for global order in a way other conflicts and theirs do not. Whatever one makes of the threat posed by Putin, this kind of rationale misses the whole point of refugee protection: to ensure fair treatment for those whose claims to asylum might be prejudiced by such distortive considerations, which, within a just legal order, cannot determine who receives protection, and who does not.
Sensing the need for a less Hobbesian, value-based argument to justify the elevation of Ukraine above other conflicts, Europe’s liberal centre has expanded on what this particular national liberation struggle means for people: “This is not only an attack on Ukraine”, tweeted Ursula von der Leyen on March 10th: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is “a defining moment for the European Union”, because “it is an attack on people’s freedom to choose their own destiny. The very principle our Union is based on.”
Just how committed Europe is to ideals of sovereignty and democratic freedom beyond the Global North is evident in the “externalization” of its borders. An approach to migration policy that relies upon the willingness and capacity of sending and transit states to prevent irregular migratory outflows to Europe whilst accepting the “return” of deportees and “voluntarily” repatriated migrants, externalization has been the preferred strategy of the EU and individual European countries seeking to rid their shores of undocumented arrivals from Africa for close to a decade. Advanced under the umbrella of “cooperation”, it was ramped up in 2015 via the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), launched to tackle the “root causes of irregular migration” holistically through development, job creation, and by creating legal pathways of mobility.
The single largest tranche of funding — around a quarter of the EUTF’s five billion Euros — has been spent on “migration management”, the meaning of which was analysed by a study that compared the rhetoric of cooperation agreements with policy implementation. It found that between 2005 and 2016, European discourse on “managing” the movement of people obscured a reality of restriction: when it came to action, the EU’s focus was on halting all migration from Africa to Europe — so much so that the number of first time visas for employment of African citizens was reduced by approximately 80 per cent between 2010 and 2016. Six years on, this remains the pattern. In a recent webinar, Professor Mehari Taddele Maru, a leading analyst of EU-Africa cooperation on migration, described the anticipation of African policymakers for regular migratory alternatives that seem never to materialize: waiting for the EU’s legal pathways is “like waiting for Godot”.
Externalization has been heavily criticized by civil society actors in both Africa and Europe, who view it as a form of domination through which a powerful economic block advances its agenda over “partners” on unequal footing, for the most part bilaterally. The inequality at its heart is reflected in disregard for the sovereignty of African nation-states. A fortnight before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson suggested sending EU border forces to Senegal, a country whose constitution upholds the right of its citizens to migrate and settle abroad. The proposal, which would see Frontex — the EU’s border and coastguard agency — operating on non-European territory for the first time, was promptly greenlighted by Dakar for technical discussions. Bilateral “cooperation” led by individual member states has raised similar protest given the power imbalance that underlies agreements with countries such as Niger, one of the poorest nations in the world, which was persuaded to host an Italian military mission to support increasingly militarized attempts to combat irregular migration in 2018.
Just how committed Europe is to ideals of sovereignty and democratic freedom beyond the Global North is evident in the “externalization” of its borders.
Aside from the symbolic connotations of European police making arrests on African soil, opposition to externalization stems from the lack of transparency and accountability that often accompanies this type of collaboration, which critics view as undemocratic. Predicated upon opaque, high-level deliberations between foreign powers and political elites that are seldom subject to meaningful public debate or participation by civil society, externalization is associated with the adoption of donor-oriented policies in exchange for funds spent without oversight. It is revealing that European overtures are least successful in contexts such as Gambia, where the government’s accountability to the electorate has prevented its acceptance of returnees from Europe, and Tunisia, where civil society raised concerns about EU attempts to create disembarkation zones.
In so far as externalization has succeeded in stemming the flow of emigration from Africa, it has done so by bolstering the coercive capacities and border controls of countries such as Libya, with grave consequences for human rights. From 2017, Italy and the EU’s empowerment of the quasi-military Libyan Coastguard through provision of funding and equipment contributed to the development of a sadistic, state-sponsored machinery of emigration control linked to industrial-scale trafficking by militias. Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, some of whose interception was enabled by European aerial surveillance, were systematically extorted in a network of black prisons where excessive force, violent abuse, murder and rape are known to have occurred. The UN is currently investigating reports of mass graves filled with the bodies of migrants in the desert city of Beni Walid.
A less extreme version of this story unfolded in Sudan, where EU finance for President Omar al-Bashir’s border police was linked with human rights abuses committed by the army’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a reincarnation of the Janjaweed paramilitary group, accused of war crimes during the Darfur conflict. In Niger, a clampdown on smuggling since 2015 led to the adoption of longer, riskier, more expensive routes through Chad and Sudan, increasing the scope for police forces to extract bribes for facilitation. Migrants now pay more, and experience greater danger to reach the same destinations. In each case, the effect of EU support for state-led crusades against smuggling has been to render migrants more vulnerable.
Proponents of externalization (who rarely refer to it as such), like to claim it is part of a collaborative project that improves migration governance in African states by strengthening their capacity for border-management. National-state sovereignty is in fact reinforced, they argue, by enabling African policymakers and officials to administer mobility with support from migration agencies such as the IOM and UNHCR, and by building border posts and installing new architectures of computerization to digitize the identities of citizens and migrants alike. Through technology transfer and training, Europe is professionalizing the management of mobile populations in Africa, all in the spirit of “cooperation”.
Others are more sceptical about the value of surveilling, assigning and binding African populations to national-state territories through what is, after all, an EU-driven project to concretize borders drawn up by Europeans in the previous century. In West Africa, externalization is imbricated within a gambit of multilateral counter-terrorism measures. Financial, military, and technological support have poured into securitizing hubs along Niger’s borders. With Frontex at the forefront of collating biometric information about African bodies in these laboratories of digital governance, it seems reasonable to assume data could be used to return and confine Africans on the move to their countries of origin.
Externalization is associated with the adoption of donor-oriented policies in exchange for funds spent without oversight.
More than just keeping Africans in Africa, however, externalization threatens to undermine intra-African mobility, which accounts for by far the largest proportion of international African migration. Consider: Nigeriens, Malians, Burkinabès, Ivorians, and others formerly employed in the trans-Sahelian transit economic hubs shut down by the EU’s anti-smuggling drive, are members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), whose Common Approach on Migration legitimates freedom of movement for citizens across the region. Collateral damage in the war against ‘trafficking’, these traders and transporters might wonder: what right does a union of states thousands of miles away have to shut down a busy crossroads of intra-African migration integral to their livelihoods? Similarly, nomadic and pastoral populations whose lives have depended on seasonal, cross-border migration for centuries, and transnational populations such as Somalis in northern Kenya being turned into “machine-readable” refugees might feel similarly ambivalent at Europe’s support for “better migration governance”. Intervention of this kind, whatever its intentions, has a tendency to add bureaucratic layers to “migration management”, formalizing previously porous or unregulated spaces, creating de facto restrictions and inhibiting traditional patterns of trade and transhumance.
Herein lies the troubling essence of externalization, a project that protects the integrity of migration and asylum systems in Europe by undermining prosperity, mobility and human rights in Africa. Bilateral cooperation led by the EU contains a special layer of hypocrisy given the block’s espousal of regional integration and human mobility between neighbouring states in Europe: in its own backyard, it celebrates cultural exchange through schemes such as ERASMUS and Schengen’s integrated trans-national labour market. In Africa, it dissuades young people from emigration through “information campaigns” and promotes nationally self-contained development projects that implore them to stay put, stigmatizing mobility and shrinking their horizons of travel in the name of tackling (irregular) migration’s “root causes”.
Britain’s Rwanda Deal
If the EU’s approach to externalization involves maintaining the appearance of value-based cooperation and includes broader consultation, for example with the African Union, no such parameters constrain individual Western countries engaged in secretive, bilateral talks to secure the reception of deportees. Pioneered by Israel, which quietly used Rwanda and Uganda to rid its territory of African “infiltrators” for several years from 2013, this type of externalization makes little pretence at submitting itself to public scrutiny. Neither African country publicly acknowledged their receipt of unknown numbers of Eritreans and Sudanese. The scheme came to light in 2018 when Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government attempted to ramp up repatriations through increasingly coercive measures, embarrassing both Rwanda and Uganda, which to this day, deny colluding in the removal and transfer of African asylum seekers from Israel under degrading and illegal conditions.
Given the covert nature of this type of sordid transactional migration diplomacy, the detail of what gets proposed for barter is mysterious, though leaks suggest offerings go well beyond the usual development aid. Israel reportedly extended assistance in Defence to Uganda and Rwanda. Earlier this year, Denmark was credibly reported to have tried to give Rwanda 250,000 COVID-19 vaccines to host asylum processing centres. Despite being rejected, this last “donation” underscores the depths to which this type of exchange can sink: exploiting an African country’s inferior access to life-saving medical technology during a pandemic as a basis of negotiation.
Bilateral cooperation led by the EU contains a special layer of hypocrisy given the block’s espousal of regional integration and human mobility between neighbouring states in Europe.
Against this background, Britain’s agreement with Rwanda feels more like a place we’ve been headed to than a diplomatic breakthrough. That’s not to deny elements of genuine innovation in Home Office Priti Patel’s proposition, which goes further than Australian-style “offshore processing” and Israel’s undocumented deportations. Crucially, the scheme does not envisage the re-entry of successful asylum applicants. The radical aspect, then, is Britain’s not-so-tacit admission that it doesn’t actually matter whether individuals are “genuine” refugees. (The possibility they might be is acknowledged by the plan’s offer of safe haven in Rwanda.) Instead, their fates hinge on whether they arrived by legal invitation. Here too, the plans break new ground, in that the government has been unusually candid about the typical profile of those they wish to see removed without UK asylum processing. “Only adult males would be sent to Rwanda,” Welsh Secretary Simon Hart briefed the press. A subsequent statement by the Home Office has cast some doubt over whether such a rule would in fact apply, but there’s little doubt whom the new order would target. Like talk of “economic motivations”, gender too now functions as a language of difference that signifies non-European identity without referring to it explicitly.
Despite the astronomical cost, bureaucratic and legal complexity of the scheme, which is unlikely to be implemented any time soon, its significance as a barometer of right-wing European attitudes to migration and asylum from Asia and Africa could not be clearer: A government that airlifted dogs from Kabul during the chaos of Western withdrawal last year, is this year rolling out a legal framework for Britons to (literally) open their homes to Ukrainian women and children. Simultaneously, it is planning large-scale expulsion of predominantly male, non-European asylum seekers to Africa.
Like talk of “economic motivations”, gender too now functions as a language of difference that signifies non-European identity without referring to it explicitly.
If any of this sounds like a U-turn, the direction of travel is toward the original Eurocentric scope of the Refugee Convention, which, at its inception in 1951, was designed to protect Europeans uprooted by the Second World War. Like the still largely colonial world of that era, today’s European system of migration and asylum governance offers sanctuary to Europeans whilst saying little about Europe’s responsibility to displaced populations elsewhere. With climate catastrophe looming, we can see where such a framework might lead. Perhaps, in years to come, the period between 1990 and 2022 will be retrospectively viewed as an historically exceptional interval during which Europe received significant numbers of asylum seekers from Asia and Africa. Its increasing reluctance to do so over these three decades, manifested in the rise of openly racist, xenophobic political parties and externalization policies, would appear to be culminating in the present bifurcation, catalysed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
What does this mean for Africa? Achille Mbembe has described European migration policy as wanting to turn Africa into a “Bantustan”. Yet the Rwanda plan envisages a curious and unprecedented multiracial role for Africa as a point of disembarkation, not just for Sudanese, Eritreans, Maghrebi and other cohorts of the continent’s own returnees, but Asians from just about anywhere else. Some of these exiles may have transited Africa en route to Europe; others are being offered one-way tickets to a country they’ve never visited, and whose credentials to safely host and integrate refugees have been questioned by leading asylum and human rights experts.
Denmark was credibly reported to have tried to give Rwanda 250,000 COVID-19 vaccines to host asylum processing centres.
The Tories are spinning this, as one might expect, in terms that flatter Rwanda as a safe and stable country with a powerful economy — evidence that Africa is held in high esteem. Their scorn for the unwanted human surplus they’re shipping from their shores suggests they feel otherwise. Notwithstanding Rwanda’s status as a dynamic economy (though not as strong as is being suggested), the plan brings to mind Lawrence Summers’ infamous 1991 World Bank memo about the “impeccable” economic logic behind “dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country”. Like European diplomats pushing externalization over the last decade or so, Summers too had Africa in his sights — not because he viewed it on equal terms, but because he saw it as the ideal cite of expulsion to absorb that which is unwanted or discarded by the rich world.
Needless to say, European policymakers preaching democracy and anti-imperialism against the tyranny of Putin would firmly dispute any such suggestion. Whatever their commitment to these values in Europe, the global direction of migration policy more broadly suggests the sovereignty and freedom they have in mind when calling for protection of Ukrainian refugees is rather different from that which is envisaged for non-Europeans they wish to keep in/send to Africa, where the post-colony is being fashioned, , into a receptor and container of bodies and aspirations.
None of this is to lessen the case against Russian territorial imperialism and its associated crimes, which are rightly being condemned in the strongest possible terms. Nor is it to question Ukrainians’ right to protection. They deserve all the political and material support they have received and more. Indeed, given the complex position of East Europeans within the Northwest European racial imaginary, and its well-known fickle tolerance for strangers in general, it would be misplaced to assume their position is secure, or to exaggerate their privilege within an international migration system that treats all displaced persons inadequately. Incidentally, the “welcome” of the hollowed-out British state, which is sourcing out a significant proportion of the burden of hosting Ukrainians onto society, actually risks placing individuals in situations of vulnerability within private homes. Without questioning the generosity of the vast majority of those extending support within communities, the motives behind the enthusiasm of a small minority of those who wish to shelter East European women could well be less than innocent, a possibility not lost on refugee charities that have expressed well-grounded concerns about the dangers of trafficking.
Progressive voices within Europe and the West have called for the generosity shown to Ukrainians to be extended to other groups. Optimistically, perhaps, they imagine the outpouring of support for refugees in Ukraine as the potential starting point for a genuine U-turn in asylum policy — one that would acknowledge the humanity, needs and entitlements of all displaced persons, irrespective of origin or geopolitical salience. If such a scenario seems unlikely in Poland and Hungary, it may well be that in other countries, the hostility of prominent actors and voices towards non-European asylum seekers is not quite as widely shared by all parts of society as policymakers seem to believe. An Ipsos survey conducted before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine found a majority of Brits backed giving refuge to those fleeing war, suggesting the bifurcation scenario being advanced by political elites, in which racism and externalization reconfigure asylum and migration in ways that threaten to introduce an apartheid in global mobility, is neither necessary nor inevitable.
The plan brings to mind Lawrence Summers’ infamous 1991 World Bank memo about the “impeccable” economic logic behind “dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country”.
As for progressive voices within Africa: policymakers, officials, intellectuals, experts and civil society will not be waiting for Europe to reach particular conclusions about international migration and asylum from Africa to Europe. Nor will they wait for Europe to extend the generosity it has shown to Ukrainians to the people of their respective regions, within which most African migration takes place. Even before the West was faced with the burden of absorbing the largest exodus since World War II, its externalization agenda in Africa was criticized for lack of attention to intra-African migration and displacement. Given its new strategic priorities, increased costs of living and the Western media’s uninterrupted focus on the war in Ukraine, it seems less likely than ever such attention will finally materialize. If anything, there are already signs that Europe’s disproportionate fixation with Russia’s invasion is resulting in the direction of funding away from humanitarian crises in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, for instance, where acute hunger linked with climate change is contributing to internal displacement.
In the longer term, the strength of political and diplomatic resistance to the troubling aspects of Europe’s externalization agenda will depend in some measure on the African Union. The latter has been critical of Europe’s evasion of its responsibilities to accept immigration from Africa whilst offering its own genuinely exciting vision (2063) for intra-African migration, which unapologetically advocates free movement as a pathway to peace and prosperity. Together with East and West Africa’s respective regional political communities, IGAD and ECOWAS, the AU could continue to be a vehicle for progressive change. Historically, in its incarnation as the OAU, it has led the world in refugee protection by broadening the original Eurocentric focus of the Refugee Convention in 1969, and again in 2012, when the Kampala Convention on internal migration was signed. Leading analysts of East Africa and the Horn of Africa point out that the region is exemplary in the extent of protections provided by states and institutions to displaced persons. This is not to suggest they don’t have their own problems. Shrinking space for asylum in Kenya and Tanzania, for instance, has led to threats of camp closures and repatriation. South Africa, where immigration and asylum have been politicized in toxic ways with violent consequences, is wracked with xenophobia. It is to point out, rather, that they have little to learn from Europe.
The motives behind the enthusiasm of a small minority of those who wish to shelter East European women could well be less than innocent.
The agency of African society will also be asserted through the policies of individual African states, particularly where democracy and civil society are most vibrant. It is no coincidence that EU overtures have been least successful in contexts where governments are accountable for their migration policies to civil society and electorates — that is, where greater degrees of popular sovereignty and democratic culture are in evidence.
Finally, the role of the African diaspora had a noticeable impact during the Ukraine crisis, not least the actions of social worker Tokunbo Koiki, Barrister Patricia Daley and medical student Korrine Sky studying in Ukraine, who together formed a humanitarian social organization, BL4BL (Black Women for Black Lives), that raised funds to support the evacuation of Black students caught up in the warzone. In drawing attention to the neglect and in many cases, discrimination that led to the abandonment of these individuals, BL4BL made a powerful connection that points to the ways in which the global Black Lives Matter movement could in years to come expand into opposition against policies that have led to the suffering of migrants from and within Africa. The deaths and disappearances of tens of thousands who attempted to cross the Mediterranean or the Niger desert during the peak years of externalization since 2015 have thus far figured surprisingly little in debates about migration policy, except where their tragedy is used to stigmatize irregular migration and vilify “traffickers”, justifying evermore draconian controls without addressing the single biggest “root cause” of irregular migration — the absence of legal pathways to migrate. Despite the transformative impact of BLM in so many other spheres of life within the West, a certain disconnect exists between its advances and the field of migration, where, as noted earlier, experts who stubbornly downplay the importance of racism tend to dominate the conversation.
This article is published in collaboration with the Heinrich Boll Foundation.
Africa and Its Diasporas: From Pan-Africanism to Developmentalism to Transnationalism
We need to candidly interrogate relations between the diaspora and the continent and among the diaspora along the enduring inscriptions of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, class, sexuality, and other social markers including colorism.
Studies of Africa and its diasporas have largely been framed through the paradigms of Pan-Africanism and developmentalism. The persistent and pressing demands of Pan-African unity and African development have increasingly privileged the engagements of the new extra-continental diasporas that have grown rapidly and eclipsed previous preoccupations with the historic diasporas that remain globally dominant.
The former number more than 15 million and the latter nearly 200 million, the largest number being in Brazil with approximately 97 million, the United States with 43 million, and the Caribbean with 28 million. In 2020, Africa had 40.6 million emigrants (14.5% of the world total of 280.6 million), Asia (114.9 million (40.9%), Europe 63.3 million (22.6%), Americas 47.2 million (16.8%), and Oceania 2 million (1.1%). Twenty-five million of the continent’s international emigrants lived on the continent representing 1.9% of the population. Globally, emigrants represented 3.6% of the world population up from 2.8% in 2000 (or 183 million).
This data underscores that despite widespread hysteria the share of international migrants remains small, Africa lags behind Asia in international migration, and the bulk of African emigrants reside in other African countries; 7.4 million of them are refugees second to Asia’s 16.2 million, followed by Europe with 2.9 million, and the Americas 1.1 million. This requires more nuanced analysis of African diasporas as both extra-continental and intra-continental.
While both the historic and new diasporas are invested in Africa, their imaginaries of Africa and modalities of engagement with the continent vary. The divergences in analyses of the two groups are constructed and reinforced in the disciplinary gulf between African studies and development studies identified by Alfred Zack-Williams in 1995. He bemoaned development studies ignores “questions of race and cultural identity,” while diaspora studies “tend to focus on cultural and racial links with Africa to the exclusion of questions of political economy.” His appeal was only partly answered as scholarship on diaspora and development blossomed. However, the focus was largely on the contributions of the new diasporas to African development.
The question remains: how do we create an analytical balance between the new and historical diasporas, the cultural and developmentalist imperatives of diaspora engagements, merge the epistemic foci and inquiries from African studies, development studies, and diaspora studies? In my work over the last two decades, I have tried to map out the historical dynamics and global dimensions of African diaspora formations, flows, and activities that encompass both the historic and new diasporas across Afro-Asia, Afro-Europe, and Afro-America and the multiplicity of domains of their engagements with the continent.
I am increasingly drawn to the insights that may be derived from international relations perspectives in so far as diasporas emerge out of transnational processes and phenomena that are engendered and transformed by the interplay of the structures of globalized and racialized capitalism and the human agency of its subjects including the diasporas themselves. This is the focus of my presentation. I will begin by making brief notes on the Pan-African and developmentalist imperatives in African diaspora studies that we are all familiar with, then turn to the role of the new diasporas, and conclude with key analytical frameworks in international relations that might fruitfully expand the exploration of linkages between Africa and its diasporas.
The Pan-Africanist and Developmentalist Imperatives
Pan-Africanism as an idea, philosophy, and movement was developed in the diasporas of today’s global North. It was an ideology of racial solidarity and resistance against the denigration and subjugation of African peoples in the Euroamerican capitalist world spawned by enslavement and colonialism. African peoples in the diaspora were the first to systematically experience racialized oppression. They were homogenized and came to see themselves as one people earlier than peoples on the continent divided as they were into different colonial states and enveloped in the various social identities of ethnicity, religion, and culture.
Moreover, in the 19th and early 20th centuries educational opportunities were better developed in the diaspora than on the continent which facilitated immersion in global political discourses of nationalism, socialism, liberalism, and human rights through which Pan-Africanism was articulated. Out of diaspora Pan-Africanism were incubated continental Pan-Africanism and territorial nationalisms propagated by the founding presidents of several African states who were socialized and politicized in diaspora institutions and communities. They include Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Nigeria’s Nnandi Azikiwe, and Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda who attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States. Other leaders in British, French, and Portuguese colonies were schooled in the diaspora political and social milieus of their respctive imperial metropoles.
Eventually, six versions of Pan-Africanism emerged: Trans-Atlantic Pan-Africanism that promoted connections between the continent and its diasporas across the Atlantic; Continental Pan-Africanism that culminated in the formation of the OAU; Sub-Saharan Pan-Africanism that embraced the Eurocentric construct of Hegel’s “Africa proper” and the excision of North Africa; Pan-Arabism that envisaged North Africa in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s view as the center of Pan-African, Pan-Arab, and Pan-Islamic circles; Black Atlantic named after Paul Gilroy’s book that prioritizes intra-Atlantic diaspora relations excluding Africa; and what Ali Mazrui called Global Pan-Africanism that encompasses African diasporas everywhere in Afro-Asia, Afro-Europe, and Afro-America.
Following decolonization continental Pan-Africanism triumphed with the formation of the Organization of African University out of a historic compromise between conservative and progressive states grouped into the so-called Casablanca and Monrovia blocs, respectively. The nationalist project pursued what Thandika Mkandawire called five humanistic and historic tasks: decolonization, nation-building, development, democratization, and regional cooperation. The postcolonial state was under enormous pressure to rectify the huge economic, political, and social deformities and legacies of colonial underdevelopment and dependence.
Developmentalism became an all-encompassing drive, the altar at which the political class prayed and justified state intervention in the organization of economic, social, cultural, and political processes. Statism and developmentalism were reinforced by the drive for accumulation by the small indigenous capitalist class and the legitimacy imperatives of the state to deliver the fruits of “uhuru” as it mediated global capitalism and negotiated the Cold War. As the multiple contradictions and frustrations of the neocolonial order built on limited sovereignty, political posturing without economic power, and Africanization without genuine indigenization deepened and became more open, authoritarian developmentalism intensified. In Joseph Ki-Zerbo’s inimitable phrase, African populations were admonished: “Silence, Development in Progress!”
During the first phase of authoritarian developmentalism, African countries experienced relatively rapid rates of economic growth and development. Altogether, between 1960 and 1980 African economies grew by 4.8%, a rate that hides wide divergences between high growth, medium growth, and low growth economies, as well as between sectors. There were wide ideological divergences and disputes between states and regimes within states pursuing the capitalist and socialist paths of development or muddling through mixed economies, which were variously inspired by modernization, dependence, and Marxist perspectives. However, no model held a monopoly on rates of economic growth, and all states pursued developmentalism and fetishized development planning.
It was during the second phase of neo-liberal authoritarian developmentalism, 1980-2000, that brought Africa’s new diasporas into developmentalist discourse. The imposition of structural adjustment programs (SAPS) reflected the global ascendancy of neo-liberalism as an ideological response to the world economic crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s that ended the postwar boom. It marked the collapse of the Keynesian consensus and political coalitions that had sustained it, and the rise to power of conservative, ‘free’ market-oriented governments in the leading industrial economies. Neo-liberalism turned into triumphalism following the collapse of socialism in Central and Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
SAPs threatened to undo the developmental promises and achievements of independence, to dismantle the postcolonial social contract, to abort the nationalist project of Africa’s renewal. They were pursued with missionary zeal by the international financial institutions and western governments and accepted by hapless African states as part of conditionalities for balance of payments support. They called for currency devaluation, interest and exchange rate deregulation, liberalization of trade, privatization of state enterprises, withdrawal of public subsidies, and retrenchment of the public service (what Mkandawire labels getting prices right, governance right, property structures right, politics right, culture right, and policy ownership right).
The introduction of SAPs reflected the conjunction of interests between fractions of the national bourgeoisie keen to expand and global capital seeking to dismantle the post-war fetters of Keynesian capitalist regulation. SAPs were welcomed by fractions of the African capitalist class and were applied in the core capitalist countries themselves. The harsher consequences of SAPs for Africa and other countries in the global South reflected the enduring reality that economically weaker countries and the poorer classes always pay the highest price for capitalist restructuring.
This era coincided with the rise of globalization discourse characterized by celebrations and condemnations of the intensified flows of all manner of phenomena from capital, commodities, and culture, to images, ideologies, and institutions, to values, viruses, and violence, to people, plants, and pollutants. The emergence of African diaspora studies coincided with the spread of globalization studies, both of which gathered momentum in the 1990s and 2000s and reflected complex cross fertilizations with postmodernism and postcolonial studies.
The Role of the New Diasporas
African diasporas, especially the new international migrants, whose waves were generated by the ravages of neo-liberal restructuring, tend to be constituted and conceptualized as the “new diasporas.” They are perceived and analyzed through the complex prism of developmentalism, globalization, and diasporization. The discovery of “new diasporas” by governments, development agencies, civil society, and academics was premised on the mobilization of their political, economic, and social capitals, African international migration as an important feature of globalization, and lingering homage to the diaspora as a powerful force for Pan-Africanism.
I have written extensively on the histories of African diasporas, both the historic and new, and their complex, contradictory, and always changing political, economic, and cultural engagements with Africa. In 2005, I embarked on a project, funded by the Ford Foundation that took me to sixteen countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia to map out the global dispersal of African peoples over the past millennium, the processes of diasporization in the different world regions, and the modalities of engagements between the various diasporas and Africa.
Later, in 2011-12, I undertook research for the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY) on African born academics in Canada and the United States and how they work with higher education institutions on the continent. This resulted in the formation of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program that by 2021 had sponsored nearly 500 fellows to more than 150 African universities. I regard this as part of “intellectual remittances” from the new diaspora to the continent. Reports and scholarly studies on diaspora financial remittances, philanthropy, and investment continue to mushroom.
A 2019 report by the African Development Bank affirms “Diaspora contributes positively, significantly and robustly to the improvement of real per capita income in Africa… Improvements in human capital, total factor productivity and democracy are effective transmission channels of this impact.” According to the World Bank’s Migration and Development Brief 33 published in October 2020 amid the COVID-19 crisis, global remittances were expected to decline by 7.2 percent, to $508 billion in 2020, followed by a further decline of 7.5 percent, to $470 billion, in 2021. This was due to increased unemployment which in many countries was more pronounced for non-native born immigrants, reduced immigration, and increased return migration.
However, remittances remained critical for low- and middle-income countries. In 2019 they had reached “a record high of $548 billion, larger than foreign direct investment (FDI) flows ($534 billion) and overseas development assistance (ODA), around $166 billion).” In 2020, the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa and the Middle East received $44 billion and $55 billion, respectively, which was -8.8% and -8.5 below 2019. In 2019, African countries collectively were projected to receive $84.3 billion, led by Egypt with $26. 4 billion (8.8% of GDP), Nigeria $25.4 billion (5.7% of GDP), Morocco $7.1 billion (5.8% of GDP), Ghana $3.7 billion (5.5% of GDP), Kenya $2.9 billion (2.9% of GDP), Senegal $2.5 billion (9.9% of GDP), and Tunisia $1.9 billion (5.3% of GDP).
As I have written elsewhere, the diasporas also serve as major philanthropic players and mobilize philanthropy in their countries of residence to the continent. Philanthropy is pronounced among the offspring of first-generation migrants and the historic diasporas. No less important is the deployment of human capital comprising temporary, permanent, and circulatory repatriation, as well as business investment ranging from purchasing equity or lending to local businesses to direct investment in industry and services. It is encouraging that plans are advanced to establish the African Diaspora Corporation (ADFC) to facilitate diaspora investment. It will “develop, issue and manage diaspora bonds and mutual funds, to harness and channel diaspora resources into socially responsible and impactful ventures.”
One recent study on the UK “demonstrates that the diasporas use the new knowledge, skills and wealth they have gained in the UK in tandem with support from trusted family, kinship and business ties at home to develop enterprises… institutional barriers which served as push factors that encouraged or forced migrants to leave their home countries to seek greener pastures abroad may later become pull factors that enable them to engage in diaspora entrepreneurship which is often characterized by paradoxes. Particularly, the informal institutions that constrain foreign investors can become assets for African diaspora entrepreneurs and help them set up new businesses and exploit market opportunities in Africa.” In this context, diaspora tourism seems to have special meaning for African descendants, enhances understanding, and brings economic benefits to local economies.
As for political, social, and cultural mobilization the historic and new diasporas play different and complimentary roles. I noted earlier, the role of Pan-Africanism in the development of territorial nationalisms. The involvement of both diasporas in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa is well documented. The new diasporas tend to gravitate to politics in their homelands in which they play complex and contradictory roles as purveyors of democratization and authoritarianism, perpetrators of conflicts and wars, and promoters of peacemaking and post-conflict reconstruction. Equally intriguing is the role of the diaspora in the transnationalization of old and new social movements, and brokering the growth of new forms of global interconnectedness and consciousness with Africanist inflections.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the cultural and social capitals of both the historic and new diasporas has been important in the development and globalization of African and diasporic cultural and creative industries, the construction, transmission, and performance of diaspora identities, the processes of digital diasporization, and the circulation of professional skills, philosophies and values, and other forms of soft power that have been harnessed by states and various publics in both the homelands and hostlands.
Recasting the Diaspora
The last set of comments suggest the analytical possibilities of recasting the study of the diaspora through international relations perspectives. The study of international phenomena and processes encompasses a variety of approaches. Conventional approaches include realism, liberalism, and Marxism and their iterations, neo-realism, neo-liberalism, and neo-Marxism, while the relatively newer ones include critical theory, post-modernism, constructivism, feminism, and ecocentricism.
Realism focuses on states as rational actors protecting their interests in a competitive and anarchic global system. Liberalism embraces the power of human reason and progress, the plurality of state actors and multidimensionality of state actions, and the role of institutions and international organizations in mitigating anarchy and conflicts. The question that arises from the two perspectives is the extent diasporas operate as political actors, from city mayors to members of Congress or parliament and cabinet to prime ministers as in the Caribbean and the presidency as with the Obama administration. More broadly, is the influence diaspora citizens, activists and their supporters on the continent exert on state actors and international organizations, including the United Nations, the African Union, and the Regional Economic Communities, and the distribution of capabilities that shape outcomes at national, regional, and global levels.
Marxist ideas on capitalism and imperialism, which stress the primacy of economic and material forces—historical materialism— in international relations focus on the interplay of states and markets, power and production, and the states-system and world capitalist economy. They stress global inequalities arising out of the internationalization of relations of production, how the developed capitalist countries exercise hegemonic power on the world order to maintain material inequalities through coercion and consent.
For diaspora studies, several important questions arise including the ways in which transnational capitalist development produces and reproduces diasporas, how the latter mediate its global hegemony and its associated inequalities of power, resources, and opportunities, as well as the resistances it engenders. Such an approach forces us to ponder critically the export of diaspora political, social, cultural, and economic capitals instead of complacently celebrating it.
Critical theory, which borrowed insights from Marxist ideas and other traditions in seeking to explain how the existing global order came about, changes, and can be changed. Initially focused on individual societies, international critical theory extends the focus from the domestic realm to the global realm. It stresses the connection between knowledge and interests, that theories of international engagements are conditioned, like any form of knowledge, by history and social, cultural, and ideological contexts so they are not objective or neutral.
Postmodernism incorporates elements of critical thought in its analysis of power and knowledge, that the production of knowledge is a normative and political process, and operations of power fit within existing structures and discourses. It sees many of the problems studied in international relations also as matters of power and authority, of struggles to impose authoritative interpretations. This calls for deconstruction and double reading of how any totality, whether a text, theory, discourse, or structure is constituted and deconstituted.
For diaspora studies critical theory and postmodernism help in advancing reflexive theorizing, critiquing dominant conceptualizations of the diaspora, seeing diaspora communities as socially and historically determined, and exploring the avenues and trajectories of change and emancipation from existing constraints. Post-modernism helps us understand how boundaries between home and abroad are constructed, spatialized political identities developed, how violence, boundaries and identity reinforce each other in the construction of contemporary states, and how the latter are naturalized and normalized as a mode of national and international subjectivity.
As for constructivism, while it derives its roots from critical international theory, it developed after the end of the Cold War to explain world politics, which the neo-realists and neo-liberals had failed to predict, and the critical theorists could not adequately explain. Constructivists contend material and ideational or normative structures shape the identities, behavior, and actions of social and political actors whether states or individuals through the mechanisms of imagination, communication, and constraint. They stress that agents and structures are mutually constituted. While some constructivists focus on the domestic or international, holistic constructivists bridge the two domains and focus on the mutually constitutive relationship between the international social and political order and global change.
This approach can help advance diaspora studies by exploring the mutual constitution of agents and structure in diaspora communities, the interlocking nature of the domestic and international domains, and the international social, economic, and political order and national and global change.
Feminist perspectives gained currency from the 1980s. They stress the importance of gender relations as an analytic category in studies of all domains of social, economic, political, and cultural life, as well as foreign policy, security, power, and the global political economy. Empirically, feminists have produced voluminous scholarship recording women’s experiences, restoring the exclusions, and reading the silences in conventional malestream scholarship, including studies on women in international development, gender and development, the gendered dynamics of globalization, international division of labor, the gendered construction of international organizations, non-state actors in global politics, and transnational women’s networks.
Analytically, feminism focuses on deconstructing the gender biases that pervades core concepts in the disciplines, many interdisciplinary fields, and international relations that prevent comprehensive understanding. They critique the separation of private and public spheres, domestic and international politics, see the state and international institutions as architects of gendered power, and posit an empowering model of agency as connected, interdependent, and interrelated. Normative feminism offers a feminist agenda for global change. They problematize the dominant dichotomies and hierarchies in global relations that replicate the male-gender dichotomy. Within feminism there have been debates between white feminists and feminists of color, and feminists in the global North and from the global South, which challenges global feminist solidarity.
Diaspora studies stand to gain enormously from feminist theoretical and methodological interventions, reconstructions, and insights in exposing the experiences of women, exploring the gendered dynamics and dimensions of diaspora phenomena, processes practices, policies, programs, and paradigms, as well as the need to produce gender disaggregated data.
Finally, there is what is variously called ecocentricism, environmentalism or green theory that emerged out environmental politics and movements and recast how we study and analyze humanity and nature, history and geography, society and ecosystems, and economic growth, development, and sustainability. This body of thought provides a holistic view about the interconnectedness of all ecological relationships including the human and non-human worlds, current and future generations, the need for the ethical and sustainable use of resources because economic growth and development is often anti-ecological and there are limits to growth of human societies in a finite ecosystem.
Ecologists offer a sharp and distinctive critique of the prevailing state and international system and propose a restructuring of the global order. They advocate decentralization of political, economic, and social organization as evident in the phrase, “think globally, act locally.” They propose “reclaiming the commons” and global environmental governance that doesn’t depend entirely on sovereign states. They seek to integrate facts and values, normative and explanatory concerns, focus on concentration of power and homogenizing forces, political economy and global inequalities, and embrace the emancipatory possibilities of theory and an ecocentric ethic.
What can diaspora studies benefit from these perspectives? It would entail critically examining diaspora environmental ideas, interventions, and movements, the environmental impact of diaspora economic, political, and social contributions and engagements with the continent, and their advocacy in domestic and international forums on issues of climate change and mitigation, one of the most important agendas of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals upon which the future of humanity, nature, and our fragile planet rest. A recent study covering 22 African countries suggests “diaspora income has a negative and statistical impact on ecological footprint.”
I have tried to suggest the analytical possibilities of recasting African diaspora studies through intentional, interdisciplinary, and systematic engagement with conventional and more recently developed theoretical and methodological paradigms in international relations, the need to critically engage and integrate epistemological, ontological, and ethical insights from diverse disciplines and modes of thought. The historical processes and realities of diasporas as social formations, embedded as they are in globalized and racialized capitalism, world system, global order, international division of labor—take your pick—is too complex and contradictory for exclusive claims to truth by any one discipline or perspective
We need to candidly interrogate relations between the diaspora and the continent and among the diaspora along the enduring inscriptions of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, class, sexuality, and other social markers including colorism. In a paper I wrote years ago on intra-diasporas relations in the United States among the four waves of diasporas—the historic communities of African Americans, migrant communities from other diasporic locations such as the Caribbean and South America, recent immigrants from the indigenous communities of Africa, and African migrants who are themselves diasporas from Asia or Europe—I placed their relations along a continuum of antagonism, ambivalence, acceptance, adaptation, and assimilation. In my global diaspora project I have found this schema broadly applicable to other regions with some modifications.
The challenges are evident even in relations between academics from the new diaspora and their counterparts on the continent. In my report presented to CCNY in February 2013 on “Engagements between African Diaspora Academics in the U.S. and Canada and African Institutions of Higher Education,” I identified five sets of obstacles: first, lack or inadequate administrative and financial support on both sides; second, rank and gender imbalances in accessing resources and opportunities for internationalization; third, attitudinal problems and stereotypes on both sides; fourth, hurdles arising from differences in academic systems; and finally, questions of citizenship and patterns of diasporization. These challenges persist and have been substantiated more recently in a report also funded by CCNY on African Academic Diaspora Toolkit.
I would like to end with an observation and some questions. In discourses and conferences on African diasporas the discussion is often about what the diaspora can do for the motherland. What can and does the continent do for the diaspora? For example, in shoring diaspora struggles for civil rights and against white supremacy, and diaspora demands for reparations so forcefully articulated by historian Hilary Beckles, my former colleague at the University of the West Indies and its current vice chancellor. How can there be a true mutuality of support and engagement that empowers and transforms both Africa and its diasporas.
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