Conservation: What Do John Muir’s Writings and Thoughts Mean Today?17 min read.
Conservation practice today is based on settler colonialism because it is invariably led by the needs, sentiments and aspirations of outsiders. This is a fundamental flaw that began with European immigrants to North America.
John Muir is widely acknowledged as the “father” of conservation thinking, indeed considered by many to be a conservation hero whose standing straddles two centuries. Whether or not that is justified is a different issue, but the pinnacle of this adulation is probably the reference to him as the “Father of the National Parks”. A historical examination of the global network of protected areas shows that the original US National parks like Yellowstone were the inspiration behind the establishment of similar structures all over the world.
From a personal perspective, there are a number of different things that inspired my childhood fascination with wildlife and wild places, and a major one was the wonderful hardcover book “The American Wilderness” by John Muir, a somewhat unlikely read for the typical African child, but part of my experience spending part of my childhood in the United States. Others were the romanticized and shallow portrayals of African wildlife in films like “Born Free” and “Serengeti Shall Not Die” by Joy Adamson and Bernhard Grzimek, respectively, which were made in the 1960s, but really became staples in the 1970s. One theme that endured the test of time from the turn of the 20th century into the beginning of the 21st century has been the dominance of white people in the global conservation narrative.
When we read the works of John Muir today, what stands out to critical observation is his gift of expression and passion for the wilderness he talks about. However, therein also lies the deep malaise that grew from charismatic men like him, and their gift for imparting their belief. Conservation practice around the world today is based loosely on the fortress conservation model developed in 19th Century North America. Reference to history books reveals to us portraits of a society that had little or no place for any human perspectives that weren’t Christian, Male, and white. These dominant perspectives were enforced by continuous violence, perpetrated on Native American nations, women, black slaves brought from Africa, and Hispanic people from further south.
One of Muir’s more famous works, Our National Parks, was published in 1901 and this caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. They corresponded regularly and in 1903, Roosevelt visited Muir and they undertook a camping trip in Yosemite. To this day, it is still considered the “most significant camping trip” in history. There, together, beneath the trees, they laid the foundation of Roosevelt’s expansive conservation programmes. This was the beginning of the global protected area network, driven largely by hubris and the need for self-actualization through the purported protection of “nature”. This convergence of ideas between these two famous men also conferred acceptability to the notion of “pristine wilderness” devoid of human presence. The seeds of racism in conservation practice were also sown during this time by Muir, who regarded Native Americans as “unclean” and something of a stain on the pristine wilderness that was Yosemite.
The perceptions of European colonists around the world determined what part of biodiversity was worth killing and what was worth saving, resulting in a strange situation where they simultaneously occupied the place of killers and that of “saviours”. Even today, where the intrinsic values of biodiversity seem to be indelibly stained by the needs of tourism, the desires and aspirations of white people continue to influence what in nature is to be eliminated as vermin, what is to be hunted for prestige as trophies, and what is precious enough to be protected through the use of force and violence.
In some cases, species like the African elephant are hunted by white hunters for prestige while being protected by white saviours from black “poachers”. Indeed, conservation practice is one of the few facets of human endeavour where duplicity is accepted as the norm, with endangered wildlife protected with military might, while those who are wealthy enough gladly pay for licences to kill them for fun. We have Muir’s contemporaries like Teddy Roosevelt who were extraordinarily proficient killers of wildlife celebrated as pioneers of conservation. To fully understand the true import of John Muir’s story and legacy, conservation scholars ought to delve into American history to understand the context within which he was living and marvelling about this “beautiful wilderness” within which he found himself.
Firstly was the creation of Yellowstone National Park in March 1872. This park is widely acknowledged to be the foundation upon which the development of protected areas as a conservation tool grew into the widely held paradigm that we see today. We know very well what Yellowstone is in the history of America as written by the European colonists, but what is Yellowstone on the ground? A two million acre expanse of land from which the ancestors of the Kiowa and Crow Nations were excluded in order to provide a recreation area for the settler colonists. Conservation was and still is an integral cog in the wheel that is colonialism, because it “erases” indigenous people from landscape and lexicon. Even today, the history of Yellowstone as detailed in the US National Parks’ service website does not have any account of the Native Americans’ role in the history of the park. The history of Yellowstone National Park is therefore resolutely “white”.
Species like the African elephant are hunted by white hunters for prestige while being protected by white saviours from black “poachers”.
The efficacy of terrestrial wildlife conservation is widely (and erroneously) stated by science to be proportional to the geographical size of the “protected area”. Conservation science knows, but never acknowledges that the geographical size of a protected area is also directly proportional to the degree of violence required to establish and maintain it. This thinking is also an inadvertent admission that present day conservation science is based on settler colonialism, primarily the notion that wildlife cannot sustainably share landscapes with humans. The sharing of habitats, landscapes and resources with wildlife is an ancient and present reality of indigenous populations all over the world. It is a widely accepted fact that human populations, consumption patterns, and carbon footprints have changed irreversibly over the centuries. However, humans are a unique species in that we are able to change the carrying capacity of their habitats through behaviour. When we examine this capacity for behaviour change through the prism of natural resource use, it is conservation practice in its purest form, the very essence of civilization.
From their own historical accounts, the settler society in North America was still a very primitive and violent society in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the gun becoming an essential part of everyday life for people everywhere, in farms, in the wild, and even in urban settings. The Hobbesian nature of North American settler society of the period gave rise to the second amendment to the US constitution giving every citizen the right to bear arms. This was a self-justifying law, because the right to bear arms, in itself gave rise to the overarching “self-defence” justification for bearing arms.
This is the world in which John Muir distinguished himself through his appreciation of wilderness and natural spaces. Through his appreciation for wild spaces and his gift for writing, he managed to bring nature “home” for the white settler population, gathering a vast following in the process. The amount of interest in nature that Muir managed to garner was also a reflection of the entitlement to it that was felt by the European settler population. The settler population’s admiration for nature made no reference to the Native American nations that they found living with, and using these resources. The universal admiration for National Parks also reveals ignorance or tacit acceptance of the fact that protected areas are almost universally created through acts of violence and disenfranchisement. The peace and tranquillity that protected areas represent, is actually a result of areas being “cleansed” of the indigenous people that used them, an act that in itself reduces the owners of resources to the level of a nuisance that needs to be removed, or otherwise dealt with.
Racism is very difficult to deny or escape in conservation literature over the generations and Muir wasn’t immune to this difficulty. His writings revealed a grudging admiration for the ways in which the native Americans lived off the land on naturally available resources while leaving a very light footprint on the landscape. Muir’s own limitations in this regard were brought into sharp relief by his inability to find sufficient food during his forays into the wilds of Yosemite, the main limitation that curtailed the amount of time he could spend out in the wild. He was conflicted in the manner in which he regarded nature as clean and pristine, while regarding the natives who blended so well into it as “unclean”.
Conservation was and still is an integral cog in the wheel that is colonialism, because it ‘erases’ indigenous people from landscape and lexicon.
Despite being a typically detailed and expressive writer, Muir’s work studiously avoids mentioning any positive interactions with, or assistance from the Native Americans, although he does describe interactions and conversations with Chinese immigrants. This starkly illustrates conservation’s greatest prejudice—the disregard for indigenous peoples. It does not stand to reason that Muir could have spent so much time exploring, sketching, painting and describing Yosemite without regularly encountering its original residents. This was a deliberate effort to erase them from the Yosemite narrative and it is a sad testament to the culture of conservation that this erasure was accepted without question for over a century.
Once we understand the attitudes of John Muir and European settler colonialism, the pall of racism that stains his writings becomes more visible, for instance in the way he refers to the Natives’ knowledge of their environment as “instinctive behaviour”, a description commonly used in zoology to describe the behaviour of various wildlife species. In addition, there is the conflicted manner in which one who considers himself a naturalist grudgingly admires indigenous knowledge, while stating that it is beyond the remit of what he describes as “civilized whites”.
Another vital lesson that contemporary conservation scholars should draw from Muir’s descriptions of his experiences is the nexus between western Christianity and conservation’s attendant prejudices. Muir grew up in a staunch Christian family and the spiritual tone is very “audible” in his writing, particularly when describing beautiful features and landscapes. More telling, are the repeated references to the Native Americans as “unclean”. He expressly refers to “dirt” on their faces, but it is a well-known fact that face painting is an integral part of the culture of many Native American nations. Moreover, personal hygiene was never an important attribute of 19th century “civilized white” outdoorsmen. This was more a reference to “heathen” in the biblical sense—recognizing them as human, but unable to attain the imagined level of “cleanliness” upon which he placed “civilized whites” and nature.
Once we understand the attitudes of John Muir and European settler colonialism, the pall of racism that stains his writings becomes more visible
In order to understand the impact (or lack thereof) that John Muir had on the behaviour of the “civilized whites” of his time, we need to examine the state of biodiversity in North America at the time. His lifetime (1838-1914) straddled a period of precipitous decline in wildlife species that had astounded settlers by their sheer abundance. The Bison roamed the prairies in the tens of millions until the early 19th century, but were hunted down to less than a hundred animals in 1880. They were killed for their tongues and hides, with the rest of the animal left out to rot. Even by contemporary standards, the sheer destructiveness and bloodlust defy belief. Some heroes like William “Buffalo Bill” Cody are still celebrated today for having single-handedly killed thousands of Bison.
Two notable declines of avifauna in North America also occurred during Muir’s years, namely the Ivory-billed woodpecker and the passenger pigeon—species that neither posed any danger to, nor had direct conflict with human populations. The passenger pigeon’s decline was far more precipitous and it finally went extinct when the last specimen died in captivity in 1914. To put this into context, the passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, with a population estimated at around 5 billion birds. They were hunted by the Native Americans for food, but the precipitous decline and eventual extinction was driven by the arrival of Europeans and hunting for food on a commercial scale. The ivory-billed woodpecker was also decimated by hunting, probably driven by the fact that it was a large, brightly coloured and highly visible bird.
Protected areas are almost universally created through acts of violence and disenfranchisement.
The casual destruction is starkly illustrated by reports that in the late 1940s when the bird was critically endangered some hunters and fishermen were still using ivory-billed woodpecker flesh to bait traps and fishing hooks. Given the low level of technological advancement at the time, these extirpations demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to killing, which indigenous populations around the world are neither psychologically equipped to understand nor to perpetrate.
The unique neurosis of conservation interests and naturalists is notable in the fact that the final precipitous decline of both these species was driven by collectors who went out to shoot specimens for private and institutional collections. The inexplicable pride that collectors have in writing scientific papers about the “last collected” specimen is a feature that excludes indigenous people from extirpating species, because even where they are hunters, an animal that is reduced to a few specimens is no longer worth the energy and time required to hunt and kill it. For a “conservation scientist” however, when there are only two left, there is an irresistible compulsion to find them, kill them and collect them. The reward is fame through media coverage, scientific publications, promotion in academia, and bizarrely, conservation grants to help “prevent extinction ever happening again”.
The hundreds of skins of these decimated species that remain in the collections of universities and museums bear silent witness to the wanton destruction done in the name of conservation “science”. So the most important question of our times is, if we claim that John Muir inspires our conservation work more than a century after his passing, why wasn’t he able to stop the mass extinctions precipitated by the destructive nature of his fellow “civilized whites” in North America during his lifetime? It is very difficult to find any records of his trying to do so, despite all his lofty social connections. The lack of concern from conservationists over the actions of white people obviously isn’t a new phenomenon.
Conservation being a “noble obligation, therefore, set the stage for the exclusion of the proletariat, and the celebration of the nobles, regardless of what they actually do. Our state of knowledge in 2021 needs to acknowledge that sustainable use of natural resource is the cornerstone and a necessary preoccupation of indigenous civilizations all over the world. This is uncontestable because the indigenous societies that didn’t have this culture died out, leaving only ruins as evidence of their past existence. The fact that wildlife and biodiversity still exist side by side with these societies implies that conservation was, and still is part and parcel of their cultures and livelihoods. In over 20 years of research and practice in wildlife conservation policy and practice, I still haven’t encountered a word for “conservation” in any African language because it was simply a principle governing how people lived their lives. The word used most often in Kiswahili, for example, is uhifadhi, which translates more accurately to “keep”, more akin to an item kept on a shelf than a living system with producers and consumers.
Therefore, conservation as a structured, abstract and discrete concept is a creation of destructive people, those who need to create barriers to their own consumption, which extends far beyond the remit of their needs and into the realm of wanton destruction. It is a concept that lives very comfortably with contradictions and duplicity, for example, the protection of wildlife not for its intrinsic value but in order to satisfy the desires of those who seek dominion over it. This fundamental flaw is the reason why wildlife conservation in Africa still remains and has been unable to escape from racism and violence to this day. Its mind-set grew from the thoughts, imaginations and deeds of Theodore Roosevelt and his bloodthirsty harvest of wildlife during his 1909 Kenya safari. The animals he brutally killed for his self-actualization are still displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (which sponsored his trip and still celebrates this slaughter to this day).
Many euphemisms have been used to describe his trip, including high-brow terms like “expedition” and “scientific collection”, but the truth is that he was neither a scientist nor and an explorer. He was a wealthy American seeking self-actualization and to demonstrate dominance through the slaughter of African wildlife. This is still the profile of westerners’ involvement in African conservation even in the 21st century, with the only notable difference being that some of them are now women and some come to “save” rather than slaughter our natural heritage.
Looking at the story of John Muir, there is so much importance attached to his association and closeness to Theodore Roosevelt, which of course is perceived as a significant bolster to his already considerable credentials as a conservationist. So who was “Teddy” Roosevelt and what does he mean to those of us seeking harmony with our natural heritage today? He was a picture of the self-interested need to possess and dominate nature that so often masquerades as love for nature and wildlife. This sentiment is also a very comfortable redoubt for racism, because it instantly places indigenous people living in situ in the position of “obstacles” to conservation and the survival of ecosystems. Roosevelt was an unabashed racist, and conservation will continue to suffer, until it can escape from the intellectual clutches of its prejudiced icons.
The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, with a population estimated at around 5 billion birds.
Racism amongst individuals wasn’t remarkable in early 20th century America, but scholars of conservation today must pause for thought at the manner in which racists are accepted and celebrated by individuals and institutions in our field. The American Museum of Natural History in New York features a larger than life bronze statue of Roosevelt at the front entrance. He is astride a magnificent horse and flanked by two people on foot: a Native American, and a black man. The location of the statue implies appreciation of Roosevelt as a conservationist, but the statue itself portrays Roosevelt as a conqueror of sorts, giving a nod to white supremacy. We in conservation accepted it and never once questioned its message. It took the social upheavals and racial tensions of 2019 to commence discussions around its removal, almost 80 years after it was erected.
There are many cases in history where racists escaped odium because their prejudices were closeted. Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t of that ilk. He described Native Americans as “squalid savages” and justified the taking of their lands to spread white European “civilization”. It isn’t difficult to imagine that this sentiment played an important part in his affinity for John Muir, especially since the creation of national parks was a faster and more effective way to appropriate lands belonging to indigenous people. It still is, all over the world. The following are excerpts from his spoken and written words. One of the most starkly racist statements from a world leader was probably Roosevelt’s expressed opinion on the lengthy genocide perpetrated by European settlers on the Native American population. “The most righteous of all wars is a war with savages, though it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman . . . A sad and evil feature of such warfare is that whites, the representatives of civilization, speedily sink almost to the level of their barbarous foes.”
It isn’t a stretch of imagination to perceive the possible part this sentiment played in the mutual admiration between Muir and Roosevelt. Muir’s regard of Native Americans as “unclean” would have been bolstered by the unequivocal support of a racist president. This in turn, would have greatly enhanced the moral acceptability of the violent eviction of Native Americans to make room for the National Parks that are so celebrated today.
Roosevelt’s racism wasn’t restricted to the natives and this was his opinion on the annexation of Texas in 1845: “It was of course ultimately to the great advantage of civilization that the Anglo-American should supplant the Indo-Spaniard.” His opinions on black people probably give us the most pause for thought when we examine the spread of fortress conservation around the world’ On slavery, Roosevelt said: “I know what a good side there was to slavery, but I know also what a hideous side there was to it, and this was the important side.” He also believed that the “average Negro” was not fit to take care of himself, and this was the cause of what he referred to as “the Negro problem”.
It isn’t debatable that Theodore Roosevelt was racist, and racism isn’t a new malaise afflicting societies around the world, but it is imperative that we ask ourselves why conservation is the one field that can make a racist acceptable and even celebrated around the world. Judging from the views he aired in the public domain, Roosevelt’s bigotry borders on white supremacy, but he was a much admired figure during and after his presidential tenure, receiving many accolades, including the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. In the 100 years since his death in 1919, he has been relentlessly celebrated as a champion of nature with a slavish devotion that only conservation and religious cults are able to inspire. He is praised for “setting aside” land for National Parks, even though it didn’t belong to him, and the process was in violation of Native Americans’ rights.
In over 20 years of research and practice in wildlife conservation policy and practice, I still haven’t encountered a word for “conservation” in any African language.
Conservationists even celebrate the centenary of his slaughter of Kenyan wildlife, somehow seeing it as the inspiration for their conservation work. It was meticulously documented in photographs and journals, but through it all, Africans were conspicuous by their absence from the narrative. Photos therein depict hundreds of black porters carrying heavy loads on foot, while Roosevelt and his white companions rode on horseback. The inspiration for the bronze statue outside the American Museum of Natural History is obvious. His detailed journals narrating his direct bloodthirsty interaction with African wildlife without “interference” from indigenous populations helped give rise to the myth of an untrammelled African “wilderness” devoid of human presence or influence.
Sadly, this still remains the cornerstone of what western tourists aspire to experience. It is ludicrous that conservation science even extends this fallacy to the rangelands of East Africa, which archaeology acknowledges to be the cradle of mankind, having developed in the presence of humans for over a million years. Indigenous peoples have been vilified by conservationists for generations as “primitive”’, “unclean” and “uncivilized”, but it is now time for us to acknowledge the truth and confront the fact that those dubious distinctions are actually features of conservationists and their chosen profession.
As we evolve into more intellectually astute or “civilized” practitioners of conservation, we will have to look at how attitudes have been shaped by Christianity, in nations where the settler colonialists included Christian missionaries. Dominion of man over other creatures is a well-known Christian tenet and dominion over the same in foreign lands is an expression of expansionism and imperialism over lands and peoples. An examination of the fortress conservation model and how it has been practiced around the world, its perceived successes and failures is basically a walk along the path trodden by European colonists in partnership with Western Christian missionaries.
The fortress conservation model has either died, or had to remodel itself radically in those societies where Christian missionaries and colonialists found strong and structured religious traditions that preceded them. Knowledge of this history is vital in the understanding of contemporary conservation narratives. China and India are the world’s two most populous nations. They are also home to a magnificent array of biodiversity, including iconic endangered species like the giant panda and the tiger, respectively. A common narrative in the conservation arena today is the claim that human populations are compromising the space available for wildlife and space needs to be “secured” for wildlife in one way or another. We have known for some time now that this is a racially biased concern because it is never said in reference to any country whose indigenous inhabitants are white, despite the fact that some like the UK have relatively high population densities and hardly any biodiversity worth speaking of. Countries like my homeland (Kenya) that have a well-developed tourism industry have the added intellectual burden of selling a spurious product which presumes to place indigenous people in the position of bystanders and props. Terms like “winning space for wildlife” are de rigueur in conservation circles with the attendant loss of resource rights remaining unsaid.
Closer scrutiny of all the noise surrounding human population as a challenge to conservation will reveal that China and India are prominent by their absence from this discussion. You are unlikely to hear of China’s human population being described on global platforms as a threat to the survival of the giant panda, or India’s population as a threat to survival of tigers. A similar argument could be extended to Indonesia on the nexus of population density, coexistence with biodiversity and low penetration of Christianity, which has now been replaced by conservation as the most effective vehicle of Caucasian hegemony in the world today.
Conservation will continue to suffer, until it can escape from the intellectual clutches of its prejudiced icons.
Conservation practice today is based on settler colonialism because it is invariably led by the needs, sentiments and aspirations of outsiders. This is a fundamental flaw that began with European immigrants to North America like John Muir, who then presumed to claim ownership, concern and value for natural heritage beyond that of the Natives in whose presence this entire ecosystem had evolved. Today, it is incumbent upon conservation practitioners plying their trade away from their homelands to correct this by understanding and accepting local people’s aspirations. We need to accept that these aspirations could include the desire for us to go away and leave them alone. We in conservation need to read more into the social sciences and move away from the imagination that ours is a field of biology. The Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe accurately (if inadvertently) describes conservation’s neuroses in his 2006 paper entitled Settler Colonialism and The Elimination of the Native. We must realize that the challenges we are facing aren’t discrete events, but a flawed, cruel and unjust structure, that must be dismantled before it collapses on itself.
The foibles and faults of Individuals like John Muir, therefore, aren’t the problem as much as the structure that they and others created that removes humans from nature and worships the resultant falsehood as a fetish. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Serengeti, Kruger, Tsavo, Corbett, Kaziranga and all the other national parks around the world are monuments to this fetish. We must value them, not just for their ecosystem values, but for the memories of the brutalized populations who were victims of their creation and continue to be victims of their maintenance. Anything else is patently false. We in Africa are constantly under assault from “saviours” who love African wildlife but hate African people. We must temper our celebration of conservation “icons” with knowledge of their deeds and context. If we do this, we’ll understand that someone like John Muir was just a relatively sensible member of a brutal and primitive colonial settler class who appreciated nature and sought to take it away from its indigenous owners.
It is imperative that we ask ourselves why conservation is the one field that can make a racist acceptable and even celebrated around the world.
The relentless need that westerners have to impose the colonial model of conservation on indigenous peoples of other races is less about concern for biodiversity and more about the need to deny the existence of the civilizations that preceded them in these lands. In my experience, one of the highest forms of civilization is the capability of living with wildlife for millennia without destroying it, and for this alone, indigenous peoples deserve to be celebrated, and not vilified, displaced and occasionally killed. This regular injustice has been accepted and celebrated for the last 100 years, until completely unrelated events in 2019 gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Suddenly, global consciousness of racial injustice has been heightened, with calls for the removal of monuments to racists around the world, including Roosevelt at the American Museum of Natural History.
Things came full circle in July 2020, when the Sierra Club distanced itself from John Muir, its icon and founder, admitting that he was actually a racist. Is this new information? No it isn’t. John Muir was one of those people who achieved “icon” status in their lifetimes, so society has always been aware of what he said and his thoughts. Our acknowledgement today of his prejudices is simply a sign that the primitive conservation field is gradually becoming civilized. Ideally, we shouldn’t regard the legend of John Muir as an inspiration for anything we should do in the future, but as a prism through which we can view the false edifice we refer to as “conservation”. It is also a glimpse into conservation’s dark past—one that we should neither forget nor repeat. Through this prism of historical knowledge, “Yosemite” is an essential historical work for anyone who understands where conservation has come from, and where it should be aiming to go.
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Within the Margin of Error? — A Post-Election Polling Retrospective
Assessing the accuracy of survey results and examining the five factors that contributed to pollsters missing the mark in the 2022 elections.
Now that nearly all of the election “dust” has settled, it is appropriate to revisit the results of the final round of pre-election presidential contest polls that were presented in my last piece. In doing this I shall compare them with the official/IEBC results and attempt to explain the apparent contrasts.
But has nearly all the ‘dust’ really settled?
Before undertaking the main task at hand—analysing the degree to which the last round(s) of surveys generated presidential results that were reflected in those declared by IEBC Chair Wafula Chebukati—it seems necessary to explain the delay in finishing this piece for The Elephant.
Ever since the return of election polls ( themselves coming in the wake of the return to multi-party competition in the 1990s) a major challenge in assessing their accuracy has been the credibility-deficit often associated with the official results. Leaving aside the assumed willingness of survey respondents to “honestly” reveal their voting intentions, as well as the impossibility to exactly predict voter turnout, a number of factors have been identified—and on some occasions, well documented—including: the buying of IDs/voters’ cards, threats to/physical obstruction of would-be voters, intimidation of/interference with campaign activities, ballot-stuffing, and fraudulent vote-counting. As such, one survey firm that had undertaken pre-election polling since 1997 decided prior to the 2013 contest not to do this (at least for public release) “until and unless we are confident that the official results are credible”—although just how this might be determined raises additional issues.
For last year’s election as related to this piece that seeks to assess the accuracy of survey results, it was thus necessary to wait to see if any credible evidence emerged that might at least cast doubt on the official presidential results, especially since, as shown below, nearly all of the final pre-election survey results were “wrong”—that is, not just showing a “different” candidate winning, but also doing so by a figure that was well outside the margins-of-error of the reported polls. The author therefore paid close attention first to whatever grounds the four dissenting IEBC commissioners had for refusing to confirm the results announced by their chairman, and then to the nine “consolidated” petitions that were taken to the Supreme Court, and the issues that the Court sought to scrutinize and determine. However, the commissioners remained silent, with three of them subsequently resigning, apparently to avoid interrogation by the tribunal established by the president following its authorization by the Kenya Kwanza majority in the National Assembly. Court proceedings also yielded far from sufficient evidence to “prove” that the election was “stolen”, even if not all of the arguments used to overcome these petition challenges were entirely convincing.
As such, it was possible to complete a draft of this piece within several months of the election. However, almost immediately thereafter, one of the IEBC commissioners, Ms Irene Masit, declared that rather than resign as did her three “dissenting” colleagues, she would contest her possible removal through the above-noted tribunal . In this context, shortly before her first scheduled appearance before it, she announced her intention (in mid-December) to release a “bombshell” about the official presidential results. It was, therefore, rather an anti-climax when she failed to appear at the hearing, instead sending her lawyer, the focus of whose complaint was the composition of the tribunal rather than any substantive refutation of the results. Indeed, despite several additional tribunal sittings, no such “bombshell” was ever dropped, with Masit remaining silent throughout (even if doing so may have contributed to the tribunal’s ultimate decision to recommend her removal from office), leaving the motivation behind her initial statement quite up in the air.
On the other hand, a different “explosive device” was lobbed by Raila Odinga on 18 January—and repeated several times thereafter in several public rallies and press statements: that a “whistle-blower” from within the IEBC had made available the full constituency results of the presidential contest (which are yet to be posted on the IEBC’s website) showing that Odinga had won with a margin of over two million votes, giving him some 57 per cent of all votes cast. Just why it had taken so long for these “true results” to be made available (either by the ‘whistle-blower’, or by Azimio depending upon when they were provided) was never explained, however, and a rigorous scrutiny of them by a long-term observer-analyst of Kenyan elections, Dr Charles Hornsby, cast serious doubt about their credibility. Central here was his comparison of the supposedly “true” presidential tallies in a number of key constituencies (“key” in the sense that these results amounted to a complete reversal of the official presidential figures), but where, almost without exception, the parliamentary results, none of which the “whistle-blower” sought to refute, amounted to overwhelming victories for Ruto’s UDA party and its affiliates, thus making such reversed presidential results incredulous. (It is also curious why Masit remained silent about them, whether during the tribunal’s hearings or at any other time, as well as why the “whistle-blower” had not made them available to her or to any of the other dissenting commissioners before they resigned—assuming this was the case.)
Just why it had taken so long for these “true results” to be made available by Azimio was never explained.
Even more recently, the investigative and civic education NGO, Inform Action, released a report that assessed the degree to which last year’s election met the standards demanded by the constitution and relevant statutes. While it identified numerous failings at all stages of the electoral process, none was identified as having significantly affected the presidential results.
In sum, then, no incontrovertible evidence has come to light since the election that calls into question the validity of the declaration of William Ruto as the winner. This includes the claim, also made on several occasions by Azimio leaders, that an exit poll confirmed the results released by the IEBC “whistle-blower”. Yet no figures were released in connection with this poll , let alone the identity of the agency that conducted it or any details of the methodology used (i.e., sample size and distribution across which polling stations, the number and wording of the questions asked, the proportion invited to be interviewed who refused and their distribution over the map, etc.) Such doubts were magnified by the fact that (especially if the results were favourable to Odinga) the results were not released immediately all the polling stations had closed, as is the general case globally, or at least prior to the announcement of the official results five days later. Further, an effort to obtain such information by writing to a senior Azimio official yielded no fruit. (Why various media interviews with Azimio leaders since this claim was first made failed to raise any of these questions is also curious.)
No incontrovertible evidence has come to light since the election that calls into question the validity of the declaration of William Ruto as the winner.
With this context (which, it should be noted, however, is at least potentially subject to change), the main issue examined in this piece can be addressed: what (if anything) can explain the significant gap between nearly all of the final round of polls and the official results?
Were the pollsters ‘wrong again’?
Notwithstanding the usual disclaimers from survey firm representatives that their results were “snapshots-in-time” rather than predictions, questions about the accuracy of their work arose immediately enough constituency-level results had been tallied to indicate that even if Odinga was going to emerge the winner—or even whether either he or Ruto would get over the 50 per cent + 1 hurdle—the margin between these two main contenders was going to be far smaller than the final polls had indicated, with one exception: that of Radio Africa, the only one that put Ruto in the lead, although within that poll’s margin of error, as indicated in the following table containing all these results as well as their collective average:
Moreover, and as I have noted in previous pieces in this series, since ballots do not provide any “undecided” or “no response” options (and those left unmarked or spoilt by any “stray” marks are removed from the total of “valid votes cast” that is used to calculate the 50 per cent + 1 requirement), it would make sense this close to an election to also calculate survey results with those no-named-candidate results removed, which are presented in the table below for TIFA (and which were included in its 3 August media release) and the five-survey average, as well as the official/IEBC results:
In other words, Ruto obtained about 6.5 per cent more votes than his five-poll average of 44 per cent, and Odinga obtained about 5 per cent less than his average of 54 per cent.
So, what might explain this “error”? (And note that the margin of error in none of these “incorrect” polls does so.) To answer this question, five factors will be considered: the “evaporation” of expressed support for the two minor candidates; the postponement of gubernatorial contests in two counties; the variable distribution of voter turnout; respondent dishonesty; and a possible late “wave” in Ruto’s favour.
Factor one: burst of the Wajackoyah ‘balloon’
I had previously suggested that the expressed intention to vote for George Wajackoyah—which was recorded at 4 per cent in TIFA’s late June survey—could have been largely “for fun”, and that some, if not most, of those respondents who actually vote would bring themselves to choose between the only two serious contenders.
That this was a likely scenario was suggested by the drop in expressed support for him by more than half (to 1.8 per cent) in TIFA’s final pre-election survey. Given the fact that—as was the case previously—in that survey Ruto had rather more support among voters under 35 and that Wajackoyah had nearly three times more support among such voters than among the more elderly, it can be assumed that on 9 August, Ruto was the main beneficiary of the “evaporation” of Wajackoyah’s votes to less than 0.5 per cent.
Factor two: the two postponed gubernatorial contests
A second factor is the failure to hold elections for governor in two counties where Odinga received clear majorities. As may be recalled, it was immediately clear on 9 August that there had been a “mix-up” of the gubernatorial ballot papers in Mombasa and Kakamega counties, with the candidates’ images on the ballots failing to match their names. This meant that the elections for these positions had to be postponed, raising the question as to how much that might depress voter turnout in these two counties. That this was a concern on the Azimio side was evident when Mvita MP and ODM gubernatorial candidate, Abdulswamad Nassir, cried foul on the basis that these “are all ODM strongholds and we read ill-motive to reduce the number of votes in favour of Raila Odinga”, an allegation also contained in one of the Supreme Court election petitions subsequently filed on Odinga’s behalf.
Buttressing Azimio’s argument (though not mentioned in the petition) were the results of a question in TIFA’s final pre-election survey, released on 3 August, which revealed that Kenyan voters perceived the importance of the position of governor as equal to that of president, and thus its absence from the ballot would most certainly have a negative impact on voter motivation.
In its full judgment, the Supreme Court, having first affirmed the IEBC’s authority to postpone elections under various conditions including those at issue here, held that the petitioners had failed to prove that the postponement led to a suppression of voter turnout, and that it was motivated by malice.
Leaving aside the second point about any “malice or bad faith”, a more precise estimate than that which was presented to the Supreme Court helps to reveal the extent to which voter turnout in these two counties was, in fact, depressed, and how this impacted on the presidential results in those counties.
In answering these questions, a more detailed review of the presidential election results is helpful. First, according to the IEBC, 65.1 per cent of nationally registered voters cast votes, 99.2 per cent of which were valid, making a total of 14,213,137 valid votes. Of these, 50.49 per cent were cast for Ruto and 48.85 per cent for Odinga. Ruto’s total was based on receiving 233,211 more votes than Odinga, and 69,573 votes above the 50 per cent + 1 required for an outright win. However, national turnout was rather lower than it was in the 2017 election (77 per cent). Among several national level factors that may account for this, most widely acknowledged was the absence of a serious presidential candidate from the Mt. Kenya region, so that voter turnout there was 15 per cent below the 2017 figure.
Kenyan voters perceived the importance of the position of governor as equal to that of president.
With specific regard to Kakamega and Mombasa, five years ago the turnout was 75 per cent in the former and 59 per cent in the latter. This time, apparently (but not conclusively) due to the absence of gubernatorial ballots, these figures were 60 per cent and 44 per cent, respectively. By comparison, the average for the other four counties in the western region was 64 per cent, and in the other five coastal region counties, 59 per cent, both considerably higher than in the two counties at issue.
At the Supreme Court, however, the petitioners used an average turnout of 72 per cent for the last three elections in Kakamega, and posited an average of 56 per cent in Mombasa, yielding a 12 per cent turnout gap in both counties on 9 August. However, given the credibility issues regarding voter turnout in previous elections, using regional county averages from 2022 as well as the differentials between Kakamega and the rest of western and between Mombasa and the rest of the coast region, yields a more accurate estimate of what the turnout in these two counties would likely have been had all six positions been on the ballot.
In order to arrive at such an estimate, the difference in average turnout in the 2017 and 2022 elections for the counties in each of the two regions—aside from the two at issue—was calculated. For the western region, aside from Kakamega, turnout in 2022 was 12.1 per cent below what it was in 2017. Based on this reality, since turnout in Kakamega in 2017 was 74.9 per cent when all six positions were on the ballot, it may be assumed that in 2022 it would have been about 63 per cent, or 3 per cent higher than the 60.3 per cent recorded on 9 August.
A similar calculation for the coast region (leaving aside Mombasa) yields a figure that is 11.2 per cent below the 2017 level for its five other counties. As such, taking into account that turnout in Mombasa in 2017 was about 9 per cent lower than it was in the region as a whole (60.0 per cent), it appears that in 2022 it would have been 51 per cent. However, given that the 2022 gubernatorial contest was considerably more competitive (in which Abdulswamad Nassir of ODM defeated Hassan Omar of UDA by a mere 20,000 votes) than in 2017, a slightly higher turnout may be assumed compared to 2017 when Ali Hassan Joho had no serious challenger. Thus, perhaps 53 per cent is a more likely figure, about 9 per cent higher than what occurred on 9 August.
Based on the above pair of assumptions, the disadvantage Odinga suffered through these two postponements can be estimated. For Mombasa, 9 per cent of all registered voters represents 57,813 votes. Assuming that these “extra” votes would have been split in the same proportions as were the votes that were cast on 9 August, Odinga (having obtained 58.07 per cent) would have garnered an additional 33,571 votes, and Ruto (who obtained 41 per cent) an additional 23,702 votes. Similarly, in Kakamega, Odinga would have garnered an additional 18,002 votes, and Ruto an additional 7,101 votes, had voter turnout been 3 per cent higher.
Taking these “lost” votes into account, the national totals for both candidates would therefore have risen to 7,206,944 for Ruto and 6,994,503 for Odinga. The quite modest gain for Odinga thereby reduces the overall gap between them from 233,211 to 212,441. Further, if we assume that the two other candidates would between them have gained another 800 or so votes (based on totals of 0.93 per cent in both counties, giving them a combined national total of 94,756), that would have brought the total national vote to around 14,296,000 valid votes. This, in turn, means that Ruto would have obtained about 50.41 per cent of all valid votes (rather than 50.49 per cent), while Odinga would have obtained 48.93 per cent (rather than 48.85 per cent). Overall, these figures would have slightly narrowed Ruto’s margin above 50 per cent: from 69,573 to 58,944 votes.
As can be seen, these calculations do not affect the overall result, but they are measurable, and it may be asked why the petitioners were not more precise in their submission to the Court, if they were going to be presented at all. At the same time, given the dismissive language in the Supreme Court’s eventual full judgment, it is unclear how large such a turnout gap would have had to be in order for this aspect of the IEBC’s performance to be taken into account, or whether any such gap would have been enough to force such a consideration unless one or more petitioners could have convinced the Court that such errors were deliberate as opposed to being only “accidental” ballot-printing errors by the Greek firm that supplied them.
Factor three: turnout differential – Ruto vs. Odinga ‘strongholds’
The next and potentially much weightier “suspect” for the pollsters’ “error” is national voter turnout, as TIFA emphasized in a “Cautionary Note” that accompanied its 3 August media release: “The outcome of the election depends on voter turnout and this cannot be predicted by surveys.” Even earlier, in several of its pre-election survey-release, TIFA had also made clear that far more respondents were claiming to be registered voters than was indicated by the IEBC’s figures. For example, in its second-to-last pre-election survey (conducted at the household level from 21 to 26 July), 93 per cent of randomly selected respondents claimed to be registered voters, yet based on the adult population as identified in the 2019 Census plus the youth who came of age since the last voter registration exercise was concluded in February of last year, the correct figure is only slightly aove 80 per cent.
Such a “reality-check” is bolstered by comparing the proportions among those claiming to be registered voters in the nine zones used by TIFA in presenting its findings who stated that they would “definitely” or “probably” vote with the IEBC’s actual – and significantly lower – figures:
As shown, while the national level gap is a hefty 30 per cent, it varies across these 9 zones from a high of 34 per cent in the coast region to just 1 per cent in the South Rift. The key question, therefore, is to what extent the variations in actual voter turnout explain TIFA’s (and several other firms’) “erroneous” final survey figures.
To answer it, we can first look at the voter intention figures from the same late late July TIFA survey and compare these with the percentages actually won by each candidate in the nine zones:
In doing so, several points emerge. First, in the respective home-zone areas (Nyanza and Central Rift) of the two main presidential candidates, the gaps between TIFA’s results and those of the IEBC are minimal (i.e., only 2 per cent higher in Nyanza, and only 1 per cent lower in Central Rift). Second, Ruto did almost as well in the second zone in which he obtained a majority—Mt. Kenya—as he did “at home”: 79 per cent vs. 83 per cent, only a 4 per cent difference. By contrast, in the zone where Odinga obtained his second largest majority—Lower Eastern—his majority was considerably smaller than it was “at home”: 75 per cent vs. 87 per cent, a 12 per cent difference. As has been noted, Odinga’s running-mate in this election came from Mt. Kenya region, as did Ruto’s, and not from Lower Eastern, the home of Kalonzo Musyoka who had been his running-mate in the previous two elections. Third and finally, Odinga suffered decreases in his actual vote proportions as compared with his TIFA figures in two zones – South Rift and Nairobi—amounting to 18 per cent in total, whereas Ruto’s negative difference-gap in Central Rift was only 1 per cent.
It is unclear how large such a turnout gap in Mombasa and Kakamega would have had to be in order for this aspect of the IEBC’s performance to be taken into account by the Supreme Court.
With these contrasting regional results in mind, does differential voter turnout explain any of the pollsters’ pre-election “error”? The simple answer is “yes”, but to what extent requires another “deep dive” into the official/IEBC data.
First of all, of all 48 electoral units, Odinga obtained more votes than Ruto in 28 (27 counties plus the Diaspora), leaving 20 counties in which Ruto out-scored him. In the former category, there were 7,968,238 valid votes, while in the latter there were 6,244,799. However, whereas Odinga obtained only 70.6 per cent of all valid votes in his “dominant” areas, Ruto obtained 78.3 per cent in his. Or to put it the other way round, while Ruto obtained 28.7 per cent of all valid votes in Odinga-dominant areas, Odinga managed only 21.1 per cent in Ruto-majority areas. In terms of actual votes, Odinga got 5,627,630 votes in his “strongholds”, while Ruto garnered 4,889,909 in his. However, what got Ruto over the line is that while Odinga obtained only 1,315,300 votes in Ruto’s areas, Ruto obtained 2,286,232 in Odinga’s.
What got Ruto over the line is that while Odinga obtained only 1,315,300 votes in Ruto’sareas, Ruto obtained 2,286,232 in Odinga’s.
Such figures underscore the importance of voter turnout in explaining Ruto’s advantage. Specifically, whereas it was about 69 per cent in the 20 Ruto-dominant counties, it was only about 62 per cent in Odinga’s 27 (leaving out the few Diaspora voters).
This analysis can be extended by answering another specific hypothetical question: what would the results have been if voter turnout had been identical to the national average of 65.1 per cent in all 47 counties? In terms of votes, Odinga would have obtained 7,140,924 as compared to Ruto’s 7,078,521 (with the remaining 98,319 divided between Wajackoyah and Mwaure), thereby pushing the former up to 49.9 per cent vs. 49.8 per cent for Ruto. Further, when Odinga’s “lost” votes from Kakamega and Mombasa are added, his total would have stood at 50.3 per cent as opposed to 49.7 per cent for Ruto, giving the former an outright/first round win, though with a victory-margin of just over 0.5 per cent, almost equal to that of Ruto’s official win, although still less than what nearly all of the final polls reported. Why so many more of Odinga’s potential voters failed to show up at their polling stations on 9 August is a question I shall leave for others to answer.
Factor four: respondent dishonesty
An additional factor that could help to explain the discrepancy between the last round of polls (average) and the official results is respondent dishonesty. It is of two types: unfulfilled intentions and outright falsehood. An example of the latter, as noted above, is respondents claiming to be registered who in fact were not, and thus never voted. Indeed, in selecting respondents for its two final pre-election surveys, TIFA excluded those who “confessed” to not being registered, although it was not possible to verify the registration claims of the remainder, let alone to match those non-voters with their expressed presidential voting intentions.
TIFA sought to identify the “liars” in its July survey, which was conducted in person at residences, by asking all respondents to name their polling stations, but only 94 per cent could do so. Here it should be recalled that in terms of expressed presidential vote-choice in that survey, Odinga out-scored Ruto by 46.7 per cent to 44.4 per cent, a 2.3 per cent difference. Yet when results are limited to those who could name their polling station, Odinga’s lead shrinks to just 0.2 per cent, from 46.4 per cent to 46.2 per cent, suggesting that there was more “dishonesty” about being registered among Odinga supporters. Moreover, the likelihood that, in comparison with the TIFA findings, Odinga “lost votes” by such dishonesty is also suggested by the fact that among those who failed to name their polling station, far more expressed voting intentions for Odinga than for Ruto (53 per cent vs. 19 per cent), and that another 19 per cent said they were “undecided” as to whom they would vote for, as compared with only 5 per cent among those who did name their polling station.
One other factor that could explain part of the discrepancy between the last round of polls (average) and the official results is respondent dishonesty.
(At the same time, asked about their likelihood of voting, the combined figures of “will probably not” and “not sure” are the same for those expressing vote-support for both Odinga and Ruto—3 per cent—countering an assumption that those not registered would be more likely to express doubts about their participation in the election at all. In light of such issues, it is unfortunate there was no exit poll even if limited to a few counties, since ipso facto it would have involved only actual voters.)
The above analysis leads to an obvious question: why would at least a significant number of survey respondents have claimed they would vote for Odinga when they had decided otherwise? While this issue could be explored in subsequent surveys, at this point two closely related factors seem to have encouraged at least some “dishonesty” of this nature. One is the visible support given to Odinga’s campaign by the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta government, which according to reliable reports, involved both financial and rhetorical support, the latter including exhortations, if not clear threats, by local administration officials. While the impact of such direct involvement on voting is unclear, it seems reasonable to conclude that it served to intimidate at least some respondents, making them uneasy about declaring their intentions to vote for Ruto even in surveys conducted by non-state entities.
Such a conclusion is suggested by the responses TIFA obtained in its April survey to a question (that had also been included in five previous surveys) asking which presidential candidate, if any, respondents thought President Kenyatta supported. Overall, 73 per cent named Odinga. However, rather more of those expressing an intention to vote for him held this view than did those stating they would vote for Ruto (85 per cent vs. 79 per cent). In other words, the fact that more of Odinga’s expressed supporters believed the incumbent president was supporting him than did Ruto’s may have really been an indication that they were not being “honest” but rather sought to align themselves with incumbent presidential power.
Such ‘unease’ is also indicated by the finding in TIFA’s late-July survey that found that among the substantial minority of those who reported having voted for Odinga in 2017 but who intended to vote for Ruto in this election, two-thirds explained their ‘defection’ from him as a consequence of his ‘handshake’ with President Kenyatta. As such, even those still stating they would vote for him may have likewise had this as their main motivation for not doing so, but not wanting to ‘confess’ the same to TIFA and other survey firms.
Another related factor is the widespread assumption that Odinga, being the recipient of such state support, would inevitably win (which likewise appears to have contributed to lower turnout in Odinga “strongholds” as already suggested). As such, even some of those committed to voting for Ruto were likely reluctant to risk getting on the “wrong side” of an expected Odinga government by declaring their true voting intentions, even to private/independent survey firms such as TIFA.
Further, in TIFA’s final survey, a total of 7 per cent of respondents declined to identify their presidential voting intentions, with 4 per cent claiming to be “undecided” and the rest simply remaining silent. Even if 78 per cent of those without a stated presidential vote-preference also failed to identify with any political party (thus suggesting a general lack of interest in politics and thus a lower likelihood of voting at all), this proportion on their own could have been enough to eliminate the polls-vs.-IEBC gap between Odinga and Ruto, and then some.
Factor five: a possible ‘late wave’
Aside from “dishonesty” among those 7 per cent in TIFA’s final survey who declined to reveal their presidential voting intentions, it is possible not only that some of them failed to vote at all, but that others only made up their minds at “the last minute”. Moreover, a small proportion who had honestly expressed an intention to vote for Odinga changed their minds in the intervening period between these final surveys and 9 August, for whatever reasons, and voted for Ruto. Recall here that according to The Publication of Electoral Polls Act (2012), no such results can be published within five days before election day. This means that even the last such survey undertaken and released in this election cycle was completed a full week before that day. In this case, also, it should be possible to identify at least some of these “last-minute” decision-makers in a post-election survey. And several commentators and political actors indicated that such a “wave” was likely, and after the election, that it did, in fact, occur.
For example, just a week before the election, during a discussion of the most recent polls on one of the morning TV political talk-shows, Dr Peter Kagwanja dismissed Odinga’s modest lead by claiming that in the Mt. Kenya region, at least, “You will see a major swing towards Odinga when the votes are tallied because people from this area, not having a presidential contender for the first time, are determined to be where power will be for the next five years, and it is clear that will be an Azimio government.” But such a “swing” could have been in the opposite direction.
Indeed, several weeks after the election, one senior Kenya Kwanza leader from this region claimed to the author that “in our final rallies, we could feel the surge in our direction, such as at Kirigiti in Kiambu, which was our last big rally.”
Altogether, then, while impossible to substantiate without further post-election research, such a ‘late wave’ cannot be ruled out, and to the extent it did occur during the final week, it could not have been captured in the final surveys, once again highlighting the value of an election day exit poll.
A few longer-term take-aways
While each of the five factors examined above could have contributed to Odinga’s loss, it is not possible to precisely measure their impact (even if an attempt was made to do so with regard to the second and third of these). The question that remains is whether, taken together, they could sufficiently explain why the official results deviated significantly from nearly all of the polls conducted towards the end of the campaign period. While the answer must be left for readers to answer, it seems certain that if the outcome had been an Odinga win, even by a narrower margin than Ruto obtained, the media would have most certainly reported that “the pollsters were correct”, even if this result would have been outside these polls’ margins of error!
Even some of those committed to voting for Ruto were likely reluctant to risk getting on the “wrong side” of an expected Odinga government by declaring their true voting intentions.
Whatever the case, and despite the fact that far more use was made of such survey tools by the major presidential campaign teams (and also by many candidates below that level), it seems that “serious” survey firms may have to re-think certain aspects of their methodology, in terms of both the selection of respondents (for example, trying to discover why some people decline to be interviewed in case such non-participation might create a “silent” bias, even within particular ethnic groups) and the reliability of the answers they give to certain critical questions. Likewise, they may need to publish their final results in terms of several potential scenarios, beginning, perhaps, with variable voter turnout figures in both national and regional terms. Indeed, in his last pre-election blog, Hornsby, using such a multiplicity of factors – including the most recent polls – ‘guessed’ that Ruto would win within a 1 per cent margin – which is exactly what happened.
Such considerations raise one question this piece has yet to address: “What about the ‘correct’ Radio Africa/Star poll?” A valid question, but an answer seems elusive. In the US, following considerable embarrassment associated with the performance of a number of reputable pollsters in the last two elections, they sat down together to share their thoughts as to what ‘went wrong’, and what steps could be taken – mainly with regard to sampling models – to remedy such errors. But doing so required a level of data-sharing transparency that has no precedent in Kenya, where the few firms that conduct these surveys have never (to my knowledge) engaged in such a collective exercise, which would clearly have to include a comparison of the ethnic distribution of their samples, given the salience of this factor in voters’ choices.
Recall, however, that an early June poll by Radio Africa gave Odinga a six per cent lead, whereas late-May surveys by Infotrak and TIFA placed him ahead of Ruto by only 4 per cent. And in April, while a TIFA poll put Ruto ahead of Odinga by 7 per cent, Radio Africa gave the former DP an advantage of just 5 per cent. As such, the basis for Radio Africa’s ‘predictive success’ in that poll remains unknown, least for now.
But beyond any such “errors”, those involved in the conduct, dissemination and use of such data in a still-young democracy such as Kenya must not get distracted from the larger—and, it can be argued—more important question: Do such research tools contribute to the strengthening of democracy, both among those competing for office and those with the power to determine winners and losers—that is, the voters themselves?
Religion and the Tragedy of the Kenya Middle Class
The Kenyans who are really blinded by religion are not the ordinary ones who are actively religious, but the educated ones who are against religion. It’s an intellectual entanglement so spectacular that would put the emotional entanglement of the Smiths to shame.
When William Ruto won the 2022 general elections to become Kenya’s fifth president, local and international media were awash with discussions of Ruto as an evangelical president. The excitement, however, was informed less by Kenyan religion or politics and more by right-wing Evangelical America and its war on homosexuality and abortion. Le Monde, a major newspaper from a country that boasts of being the home of the Enlightenment, was understandably preoccupied with Kenya’s adherence to secularism. The BBC was curious about the president’s stand on homosexuality, but not about secularism, which would have been strange for the public broadcaster of a country whose head of state is also the head of the Anglican church.
Kenyan intellectuals, who are largely educated on Western liberal values and human rights, were also inclined to focus on concerns about secularism. Editorials of Kenyan media waxed lyrical about the need to separate the church from the state. Other observers, inspired by the reversal of Roe v. Wade in the US, voiced concerns that women might suffer an attack on their reproductive rights under a Ruto presidency.
Much of this analysis misses major nuances of religion and politics in Kenya, and comes from rigid adherence to the false dichotomy which Eurocentrism has placed between reason and faith.
The ambiguity of Evangelicalism
It is important to note that most Kenyans cannot distinguish the doctrines of different Christian faiths. In the 70s and 80s, they might have defined that distinction largely by the concept of “getting saved,” because Catholics stood out as the only branch of Kenyan Christianity that did not believe in salvation from a personal relationship with Jesus. From the late 80s onwards, a Kenyan might have offered a vague distinction of Protestantism from other faiths based on the style of worship, pointing out that mainstream Protestant churches sang hymns, listened to choirs singing in four-part harmony and prayed silently, while Pentecostals and African traditional churches sang vibrant songs to musical instrumentation, danced in the sanctuary and prayed loudly in tongues.
But by early 2000, however, that difference had largely disappeared, because many mainstream churches changed their worship to a more Pentecostal style, thanks to some clergy who felt that the Pentecostal expression was more “spiritual,” and others who felt that adopting the Pentecostal style of worship would prevent the youth from leaving the church. Children who grew up since that time would therefore scarcely know the difference between a Protestant and an Evangelical.
Therefore, there is little clarity in the Kenyan mind about what constitutes the Evangelical church. Most of the churches called “evangelical” in Kenya do not consciously profess the evangelical faith, if by evangelical, we mean those who believe in the centrality of the bible in faith, and who profess to be “born again” after having a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. In any case, the concept of being “born again” was already in Protestant circles in the 1930s, thanks to the East African Revival Movement, and back then, British missionaries were irked by their African converts who claimed to be “born again.”
But that lack of clarity on Evangelicalism is evident even in academic scholarship. Kenyan scholars who are close to American evangelical circles, and who seem at pains to prove that even Evangelicals are interested in social issues, often cite Protestant clergy and academics who are vocal on faith and society as “evangelical.” They do so even when those whom they cite would not consider themselves Evangelical and are even critical of Evangelicals.
Christianity and the state
Part of this confusion emanates from the failure to appreciate the different political attitudes of American and European missionaries towards the state, and how that difference influences Christianity in Kenyan political life today. European missionaries tended to be driven by liberal ideas and to collaborate with the colonial state in providing education, but they also took a stand against human rights abuse by the colonial government. The American missionaries, however, wanted to keep their distance from the colonial government because they believed that Christian mission work should rely on God (meaning on donations from fellow believers). Neither side fundamentally challenged the concept of colonialism itself.
After independence, the mainstream churches continued their engagement with the ex-colonial Kenyan state, either in agreement or opposition. For instance, in 1969, mainstream churches opposed Jomo Kenyatta’s adoption of the oath to solidify political support of his Kikuyu ethnic group against Kenyatta’s political rivals. That Kenyatta listened to the church shows that his use of traditional spirituality to bind people to his political project, and of the church to maintain his hold on the ex-colonial state.
After independence, however, American missionaries continued to distance themselves from the state. Much of that conceptual work was done through the concept of culture. The argument of American missionaries was that faith was expressed through culture, and no culture was superior to the other. The utopian implication was that under Christ, there was no African or American, no black or white. In reality, however, this focus on culture supported the imperial project of the Cold War by steering African Christianity away from politics. The cultural focus of theology was important for US imperialism to block the development of African solidarity with black theology, which influenced by the Black Panther movement, and liberation theology which was influenced by Marxism.
During the 80s and 90s, as Moi’s rule became more draconian and as the economic conditions deteriorated, mainstream clergy were at the forefront of speaking out against the shrinking democratic space. By contrast, American missionary founded churches like the AIC, Moi’s home church, took the stance that leaders are chosen by God and should be supported spiritually rather than criticized, and that the church should keep off commenting on political matters.
The Evangelical Alpha Male
But as the Protestant churches focused on the relationship of Christianity to the state, the evangelical churches modeled for us how to live as Christians. In the context of Structural Adjustment Programs that gutted down the few public services available, and the rise of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, Evangelicalism gained momentum by offering personal lifestyle responses to social problems.
For instance, evangelicalism filled the intellectual space in the public sphere which had been evacuated by the persecution of academics, students, professionals and artists, and by the reduction of funding for education. As Dr. Damaris Parsitau has demonstrated in her scholarship, that vacuum was rapidly filled by the omniscient Evangelical preacher.
At the same time, a socio-political vacuum was developing due to the privatization of social services. For the youth who were joining the job market and expecting to start families, the charismatic churches provided practical remedies to the social services falling apart. The churches promised private services like homeschooling to compensate for education, miracle healing for failing medical services, and abstention from sex for the HIV-AIDS pandemic.
Thus rose the figure of the pastor as the alpha male. He exuded a positive attitude as approach to all problems in life. He was the intellectual who explained how to navigate the crippling economy. He was the educator who exemplified homeschooling through the work of his wife. He was the model husband who motivated his wife to do that work. He was also the entrepreneur who embodied the promise of neoliberal capitalism, because he had started his own church with a few members and was now living a lavish lifestyle as the head of a mega church.
As such, the word “evangelical”, though not commonly used in Kenya, usually refers to a certain profile of churches and their clergy. The churches which Kenyans call “Evangelical” loosely refer to churches which revolve around the personal enterprise of the pastor in the case of men, or of the pastor and his wife, or sometimes of unmarried women pastors. In such churches, major decisions, including the management of church property and finances, are managed almost exclusively by the pastor, as opposed to an elders’ council or a general assembly, and so the evangelical pastor embodies the figure of the CEO. Most of these churches are morally conservative, but any missteps in their own morality, like fathering children out of wedlock, receives a generous lathering of Christ’s forgiveness to wash away a multitude of sins.
By contrast, mainstream Protestant churches are identified by institutionalization, church hierarchy, leadership elections whose chaos often mirrors the elections for political leadership, and clergy who are likely to take positions on political issues.
This landscape suggests that despite the denominational differences, spirituality in Kenya is one continuous space where Kenyans navigate their political and social lives in the face of local and global dilemmas. That spiritual whole includes local and ethnic African spiritualities, which Kenyans revert to even though they may continue to attend church.
Victorian morality as “African culture”
One major confusion in Kenya that is directly related to Evangelicalism is the discourse of morality. This confusion comes from the fact that Kenya is governed by a rigid manufacture of consent, where public discourse on a wide range of issues is tied to how such matters relate to the state. When it comes to the personal space, especially in matters of femininity and sexuality, this discursive control is expressed as concern for “African traditions,” and often includes quotations from the bible. However, when one scratches beneath the surface of those concerns, one finds what is being called African tradition is closer to Victorian morality.
As such, Kenyans will criticize women for wearing their hems above the knee as flouting African tradition, and have nothing to say when reminded that in many African traditional fashions barely cover the body. Kenyans will share pictures of men on catwalks in Europe wearing skirts and declare that those catwalks flout African morals, forgetting that most African traditional wear for men is in the form of clothes that flow from the shoulder or from the waist.
One must therefore avoid reading statements about African culture as exclusively expressions of Kenyan right-wing conservativism. When Kenyans say that something “is not culturally African,” they could be saying less about African culture and revealing more about the limited intellectual space in which Kenyans can contemplate anything outside what is acceptable to the state. They could be expressing the fear that allowing minorities to have a voice, or their right to life and social services, or autonomy of one’s body or sexuality, requires disentangling many other convoluted beliefs which Kenyans must uphold, if they are to avoid a direct confrontation with what the late ES Atieno Odhiambo famously called Kenya’s “ideology of order.”
This entanglement explains the contradictory signals on homosexuality that confound Western and liberal journalists. Most of the pronouncements by government officials against LGBTI are made in situations of crisis, or in reaction to news reports, or in interviews by foreign journalists, rather than as political campaign issues.
For example, Ezekiel Mutua, a state officer, often weaponized homophobia in his drive to censor the arts in the name of morality. In 2016, his office proposed laws with draconian requirements that would have gagged artists using bureaucracy. When the artists protested, Mutua sought the support of the church by justifying censorship as a concern about morality. He was hoping that the public would pick up the fact that one of the prominent faces in the protest against censorship was gay gospel musician Joji Baro.
However, the state’s issue with the arts is not morality; it’s control. Together with the church, the state has always had a fractured relationship with the arts because of the power of the arts to influence society independently of Kenyan institutions. Arts are an intrinsic threat to the “ideology of order.“ Many artists, of whom Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of the most famous, were persecuted for their creative work. Campaigns against arts education have been led by politicians, the media and the business sector who call the arts irrelevant to the job market, and by the church whose schools expel children for drawings which are dubbed “demonic.” Ruto has repeatedly called arts education the teaching of irrelevant facts such as when Vasco da Gama came to Africa, yet his government is actively trying to coopt artists into the state under the banner of the “creative economy.” Mutua’s appeal to homophobia was therefore an additional alibi for the suppression of the arts.
Mutua once again weaponized homophobia to rally the church to endorse state ban against Wanuri Kahiu’s film Rafiki. Viewing was eventually opened up for a week, apparently to help the film qualify for international film festivals. Thus we see an ambiguity that “morality” faces when the state is confronted with the international arena. A similar ambiguity occurred when CNN journalist Richard Quest, who is gay, visited Kenya, and was a guest of the Jubilee Celebration Centre, one of the quintessential “evangelical” churches of Nairobi.
My focus here is not the cliché intersectionality of struggles of class, gender, religion and sexual orientation, which obviously applies. It is that hostility to women and sexual minorities is intertwined with other forms of incoherence in Kenyan life, including our visceral hatred for the youth which is seen in the violence in schools and in extra judicial killings. To challenge these injustices inevitably touches other live wires of social traumas which may not necessarily be an expression of Evangelicalism, even when they borrow expressions from Evangelicalism.
All this to say that the place of the church in Kenyan politics, and especially what constitutes the “Evangelical” church in Kenya, is more fluid than a Euro-American reading would allow. A rigid subjection of Kenyan Christianity to the framework of European secular thought or American Christian fascism, hides the impact of US militarism and capitalism on Kenya through the suffocation of cultures, diversity and ideas. More than that, it is largely a project of intellectual class.
The obsession of the Kenyan middle class with enforcing Enlightenment secularism is an intellectual tragedy of major proportions.
Ruto’s faith and political career also demonstrate these ambiguities. In the run up to the 2010 constitutional referendum, for example, Ruto was the most prominent politician in the “No” camp against the constitution, but his interest was largely driven by his own political ambitions. More strange is that his opposition to the constitution was that it was not capitalist enough on the land question.
Meanwhile, the Kenyan pastors who waged war against the constitution voiced their concerns as moral concerns about abortion, and they argued that the inclusion of the Kadhi courts in the constitution went against the principle of secularism because it promoted Islam. The deal with the Kadhi courts was a political one made before independence to maintain Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline as part of Kenya, but the evangelical clergy chose to ignore the politics and restrict the question to religion. What’s ironic is that now, the same clergy who claimed to be concerned about secularism in 2010 are now asking for state appointments. American evangelicals had sponsored some Kenyan pastors to oppose the constitution, on the claim that the constitution promoted abortion and homosexuality, as an extension of America’s own cultural politics.
During the referendum campaigns, therefore, Ruto and the clergy were largely partners of convenience. Mark Kariuki, who would pray fifteen years later at Ruto’s swearing in as president, even clarified that “No yao si no yetu” (Their “no” is not our “no”), meaning that Ruto and the clergy may have been on the same side against the constitution, but for different reasons.
The moral posturing of the clergy was not enough to persuade Kenyans to forget the legal and political agendas that had brought Kenya to this new constitutional moment. Contrary to their expectations, Kenyans – many obviously Christian – ratified the constitution. To date, many Evangelicals, especially professionals, carry that rejection of the clergy’s position as a trauma, as one member of that group inadvertently informed me.
The greater manifestation of Ruto’s faith is in his economic thinking. Four years ago, Kenyan journalist Christine Mungai wrote a brilliant analysis of Ruto’s “gangster theology,” arguing that Ruto’s camaraderie with evangelical churches was a tactical strategy in propping himself up as a hustler. To distinguish himself from Uhuru Kenyatta as a dynasty, Ruto had to portray himself as a person who pulled himself by the bootstraps to become a politician of national prominence. His religion therefore needed to reflect that image of “Kenyan ordinariness.” Aligning himself to a mainstream, stiff-necked institutional church would have been detrimental to his image. He had to align himself with pastors who had begun their churches in abandoned buildings with a few congregants before they became wealthy heads of mega churches.
Despite rooting for hustlers, Ruto is no socialist, as the West initially feared. He hates the arts and believes that science, technology and finance, not social change, are the solution to Kenya’s economic challenges. He has called arts and humanities education useless knowledge that has no relevance to Kenya’s problems. As such, his answer to crippling economic inequality has been to avail cheap micro-credit to the poor, otherwise dubbed as the “Hustler fund,” and promise very little in terms of social support. If the evangelical God blesses individuals for the work of our hands, then that theology perfectly aligns itself with micro-credit as a route out of poverty. It is up to the poor to “work hard” using the loans they receive, albeit at high interest rates, in the same way that Ruto says he rose from a chicken seller to become president, and in the same way pastors became owners of mega churches. In other words, there is an economic, and fundamentally neoliberal logic to the alliance between Ruto and the evangelicals, as opposed to an exclusively cultural, moral and anti-secular one.
To focus on Ruto’s stereotypical answers on women and sexual minorities is therefore to miss the basic gist of Ruto’s politics. That is not to say that the human rights of these groups are not important, or to minimize the spectacular violence that they suffer. It is to point to the socio-economic and political dimensions of this violence – which are the crippling inequality, the narrow public sphere and the cruelty of daily life under neoliberal policies. These dynamics are often obscured when critics engage in moralistic, human rights-centric discourses. Many times, their hard stance locks out potential allies in faith who would also oppose violence against those minorities and would raise concerns about inequality. And most of those who dominate this exclusionary discourse are Kenyans who have received advanced education and are likely to be working in close contact with Western liberal journalists, lawyers and human rights advocates. The possibility that the ordinary Kenyan from outside that class profile, can be religious or not, and can hold politically progressive views, does not feature on their radar, yet those in whose name they speak belong to the same group outside the middle class.
The concern about secularism is largely a form of snobbery that minimizes the sophistication with which ordinary Kenyans without education navigate their lives through religious spaces. For many Kenyans, religion provides the spaces where they can meet without the state shooting them down. It provides the spaces where they get social status and community leadership outside of politics. It’s where they can carry out both traditional and modern rituals like weddings, birth, initiation and death. It’s where they get education, because the government is not providing enough schools and the church has often stepped in to fulfil that role. But many of the Kenyan middle class ignore this material reality and share extreme incidents of abusive pastors, sort of to depict ordinary Kenyans without similar education as stupid for being religious.
A problem within Euro-America itself
This complete misunderstanding of educated Kenyans is a failure of education. The war against arts education, which began during colonial rule and is still waged by Ruto, has denied educated Kenyans a historical understanding of religion, be it in Europe or in Africa. And the greater irony is that Kenyan schools are notoriously religious, despite not teaching anything useful on religion.
As such, educated Kenyans do not understand that the problem here is the fundamentally Euro-American framework in which religion represents the conflict between the traditional monarchy, liberal secularism, fascist conservatism and anti-religion left politics. For Europe, religion has always been read through the lens of the power of the state and its accountability to the people. During feudalism, religion justified the monarchy, and inheritance of power and wealth by birth, as the will of God. After the Reformation, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants was fundamentally a political one on divine rights to power and the people’s right to have a say about power. This new shift caused a lot of bloodshed in Europe, leading to atrocities such as the St Bartholomew Massacre against French Protestants, and the Thirty Years War whose casualties were only rivalled by those of the 20th century great wars.
To protect their revolution from the return of the monarchy, the French literally had no choice but to declare a secular state. Other Western European countries who still have monarchs had to compromise and create state churches, headed by the monarchs, as a compromise to the church’s divorce from Rome. Left politics, which sees religion as a weapon of the ruling class, has been successfully muzzled in Euro-America, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ironically, many Kenyans who would not normally quote Karl Marx cite his statement on religion as the opium of the masses.
For Europe therefore, Christian denominations are necessarily political positions on the relationship between power and the will of the people. In the United States, however, the religious dynamics are different and reveal a struggle over the voice of faith in social life. While European Christians in the US wanted no ties with the state, they were implicated in dispossession of the indigenous people and in the enslavement of Africans. Slave holders justified the enslavement of Africans as biblical, and during the Civil War, some American churches split, because some argued that slavery was not a religious issue, since justice was not a “fundamental” of faith like baptism and repentance. At the other end of the spectrum, white Christians became abolitionists,. Some like William Lloyd Garrison would cite the book of Isaiah in calling the much venerated American constitution a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” after the constitution was amended to institutionally support the enslavement of African peoples.
For the people of African descent, however, expressions of faith are not tied to monarchies and republics but to liberation. For the last four centuries, freedom has been the fundamental spiritual and religious preoccupation of Africans on the continent and in its diaspora. Enslaved Africans sang spirituals as songs of resistance in the plantation. The spark of the Haitian revolution was the Boukman prayer, where the proclamation of freedom was a spiritual articulation about the God “who orders us to revenge our wrongs” and against “the white man’s god who is so pitiless.” The Rastafari movement in Jamaica and the Candomble in Brazil are just some of the many religious articulations that voiced the political aspiration of freedom. In Africa, Kimpa Vita, Simon Kibangu, Elijah Masinde and Lucas Pkech are some of the Africans who used contrapuntal readings of scripture in resisting colonialism.
The civil rights movement in the United States followed the same tradition, for both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X grounded their struggles in faith. If anything, the modern articulation of right-wing, white Evangelicalism has piggy backed on the impact of the liberation theologies and struggles. White racism learned from the victories of the civil rights movement that raw racist ideologies and violence had made the United States a laughing stock of the world and had given credibility to Communism during the Cold War. The American right, led by figures like Paul Weyrich, therefore made a deliberate effort to coopt the Evangelical religion in the fight against the social gains of the civil rights movement while hiding behind the façade of faith and morality. To counter desegregation of schools, the right-wing offered homeschooling and faith schools. In the place of diversity and social welfare, it offered family values. Against the political gains of women, it turned abortion into its rallying cause.
But rather than attack this theology, the Euro-American acolytes of the Enlightenment have blocked the development of theological responses to fascism. In the place of theology, they offer reason, human rights and landmark court cases, claiming that religion automatically made one a conservative, and often implying that peoples of the Global South who wanted to harness religion had failed to decolonize their minds. The silence which they have imposed on emancipatory readings of religion have created space for right-wing, anti-political and hateful theology to gain momentum, and that momentum was used to capture the US Supreme Court. And now, instead of learning their lessons and removing the walls which Eurocentric ideas have constructed around religion, these intellectuals are trying to force African politics and religion into restrictive Eurocentric boxes of constitutionalism and human rights activism.
The anti-colonial alibi
Here at home, educated Kenyans have unsuccessfully tried to adapt European Enlightenment into the framework of anti-colonial struggles. On social media and in their op-eds, their enthusiasm makes them repeat inaccurate facts. A year or so ago, I got into an argument with someone who shared a poster that said that enslaved Africans were forced to read only the bible. I tried to point out that that is not true, that reading in and of itself was forbidden to enslaved Africans. I even urged people to read what Frederick Douglass said about the risks he took to learn how to read. The reaction to my comment was literally hysterical. I was accused of defending Christianity when I was simply stating a fact that slave masters did not want enslaved Africans reading any material, bible or not.
Since then, I’ve noticed many similar posts on social media, such as statements that all enslaved Africans became Christians, suggesting that Africans in the Americas acquiesced to their enslavement because they were stupid enough to accept the white man’s religion. The fact that many of these falsehoods refer to the enslavement in the Americas has made me suspect that these posts are pro-American psyops which are trying to prevent any African connection of religion or spirituality to politics.
My suspicion is strengthened by the way Kenyan theological education was depoliticized in the 1960s. American churches gave scholarships to Kenyan clergy to study biblical studies or missiology instead of theology. In the 1970s, J S Mbiti, whose book “African religions and philosophy” has become a classic, vehemently criticized black theology for being “bitter” and of no use to Africans who now had independent states. Kenyan theological studies are notoriously preoccupied with culture and sociology, rather than with prophetic insights into the impact of state power on ordinary life. This focus on acculturation is consistent with the effort of the US missionaries to distance themselves in Africa from colonial missionaries, and to present American and African Christianities as cultural equals, in order to deflect theological consideration of the role of US economic and military imperialism in Africa. Meanwhile, African and liberation theologies barely feature in the curriculum of Kenyan schools or of the few seminaries that churches have not converted into faculties offering business degrees.
Theology is political
What this middle class activism denies is that interpretation of religion is fundamentally political, because interpretation informs and is informed by decisions we make in society. That reality is not affected by secularism, for as Ali Mazrui said many years ago, the separation between the church and the state does not necessarily translate into a separation between religion and politics. By the same token, blocking discussion of religion is fundamentally political as well, but worse, it depoliticizes people by imposing moral conversations (the goodness of individuals) where there should be political ones (what people should do about power and wealth).
A large part of the Euro-American oversimplification of religion emanates from the Euro-American state’s discomfort with knowledge outside of the rational. Unlike reason, religion and spirituality allow more space for ambiguity, fluidity, contradiction and intersection, which is inconvenient for forms of power that rely on the letter of the law, precision and empirical proof. Add to that racism, which is notoriously impatient with appreciating Africans as complex human beings, and humanity as having limits, especially in the exploitation of the planet. This potent mix produces the misreading of African political theology and an obsession with depicting religious Africans as stupid and colonized.
This delusion leaves the political space for neoliberalism to entrench itself in Kenyan life through religion. To date, there is no pro-poor theology from our pulpits, or pro-poor politics from our political parties, that tackles the question of whether micro-credit is a way out of poverty, or whether deteriorating living conditions should be the price we pay for balancing the economy to please the IMF. Meanwhile, the government is committed to restricting the arts to economics by coopting artists into state appointments, while actively engaging in a war against arts education. The middle class have not understood this larger impact of Ruto’s religion. And the moral superiority with which they refuse to listen to logic is spectacular.
Instead of addressing the plight of the “least of these,” the middle class is wailing about secularism and calling the poor stupid for going to church. So we’re back to the days Fanon described in The Wretched of the Earth, where the native intellectuals equated cultural nationalism with anti-colonialism and missed the larger struggle against exploitation of the majority. The Kenyans who are really blinded by religion are not ordinary ones who are actively religious, but the educated ones who are against religion. It’s an intellectual entanglement so spectacular that would put the emotional entanglement of the Smiths to shame.
This article was first published in Wandia Njoya’s blog.
Pan-Africanism in the Age of Globalization
This is the first of a two-part series that assesses the historical progress of the Pan-African movement and considers the global political economy, the relevance of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century and its potential to impact economic and political development within Africa and its diaspora.
In the last century many African states have experienced political decolonization and witnessed the spread of democracy. Considering developments in the current international economic order, many members of the African diaspora believe African descendants have prospered since Africa’s decolonization and the independence era. However, while some members of the African diaspora have experienced substantially less discrimination, the nature of the capitalist global economy hardly conceals the fact that it inherently devalues Africans and their descendants. Furthermore, internationally, members of the African diaspora suffer gross human rights violations daily due to the remnants of the colonial era, namely, slavery and racialism. Despite attempts by international organizations to address the issues created by the exploitation of Africans, their subjugation is widespread and not limited to the continent, as diaspora Africans experience discrimination in developed nations such as the United States, Britain, France, and many others.
This essay was developed to investigate the development of the Pan-African movement within Africa and offer suggestions for its application in the 21st century and beyond. The purpose of this study is to critically assess the history of the Pan-African movement, with respect to the global political economy, and analyse the potential of the movement to contribute to the political and economic development of Africa in the 21st century. Moreover, this study seeks to highlight some of the significant ways African-led development has been hindered by capitalism and offer suggestions for the Pan-African movement to experience revitalization beyond 2022, despite capitalist obstructions. This study examines the relationship between capitalism and the Pan-African movement, noting that the former created conditions necessary for the latter, as members of the African diaspora experience the negative aspects of the current international economic order such as dehumanization, degradation based on racialism and ethnicity, and poverty (economic underdevelopment).
The essay is a qualitative analysis and consists of two parts; the first assesses the historical progress of the Pan-African movement while the second considers the global political economy, the relevance of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century and its potential to impact economic and political development within Africa and its diaspora. The historical analysis of African development via capitalist models notes that the international system is fundamentally capitalist and limits any independent (African-led) development in Africa. This examination of world politics and economics is critical because it addresses externalities that ultimately affected Africa and the African diaspora, creating the conditions necessary for Pan-African attempts at development. This study examines Pan-Africanism in practice and historical attempts to create international African unity. The latter analysis attempts to investigate the relevance of the Pan-African movement in the 21st century and beyond, as the momentum of the movement has waned since Africa’s independence era. Finally, this essay attempts to analyse whether or not Pan-Africanism can catalyse development in Africa and the diaspora and offers an egalitarian and humanitarian application and treatment of Pan-Africanism (Black Equalism) to present a new perspective of how the movement can achieve its goals beyond 2022.
Pan-Africanism in practice: Historical attempts at international African unity
The 1900s-1920s: Pan-Africanism’s early period
During the 20th century, as advocates of Pan-Africanism made efforts to institutionalize their ideas and create formal organizations to complement the work of Pan-Africanist intellectuals, the first meeting took place in London (1900), and was organized by Henry Sylvester Williams of Trinidad. The meeting was designed to bring together peoples of African descent to discuss Pan-Africanist ideas, and was attended by several prominent Blacks from Africa, Great Britain, the West Indies, and the United States, with W.E.B. DuBois being perhaps the most prominent member of the US delegation. The first formal convening to bear the title “Pan-African Congress” took place in 1919 in Paris and was called by DuBois. Two years later, a second Pan-African Congress convened over three sessions in London, Brussels, and Paris, and produced a declaration that criticized European colonial domination in Africa and the unequal state of relations between white and Black races, and called for a reasonable distribution of the world’s resources. The declaration also challenged the rest of the world to either create conditions of equality in the places where people of African descent lived or to recognize the “rise of a great African state founded in Peace and Goodwill.” In 1923, the third Pan-African Congress took place in London, England and Lisbon, Portugal and called for development in Africa to benefit Africans rather than being an instrument of European profit. The third congress also called for home rule and an improved government in British West Africa and the British West Indies, the abolition of white minority rule in Kenya, Rhodesia, and South Africa, and the illegalization of lynching and mob law in the United States. The fourth Pan-African Congress took place in New York City in 1927 and was the first convening held in North America, and its resolutions were similar to those of the third Pan-African Congress.
The 1930s-1950s: Pan-Africanism’s developmental period
Migration is a key theme in Africa and its Diaspora Since 1935, as J.E. Harris and S. Zeghidour provide context about the efforts of diaspora Africans to develop institutions and international mechanisms that could be used to assist Africans on the continent and diaspora Africans alike. The colonial powers did not empower Africans or facilitate the development of adequate education, healthcare, transportation, or public service systems and administration, and as a result, foreign higher education opportunities were desirable for African students. The authors uphold that “The number of African students going into Europe and the United States increased greatly between 1935 and 1960 and quite a substantial number of them never returned home.”
In their subsections The Africans in the Diaspora since 1935, The Fifth Pan-African Congress, Expanding Horizons of African Consciousness, and The Challenge, the authors provide accounts of the international efforts of diaspora Africans and continental Africans to collaborate nationally and transnationally, organize themselves, acquire political sovereignty, and determine their political, economic, and social destiny. In the United States, William Leo Hansberry, Ralph Bunche, and William Steen collaborated with Hosea Nyabongo, a Ugandan, and Malaku Bayen, an Ethiopian, and organized Blacks from Africa and the diaspora to form the Ethiopian Research Council (ERC) in 1934 to spread information about Ethiopia and garner support for African causes. Through the collaborative efforts of individuals such as C.L.R. James, the International African Friends of Ethiopia (IAFE) was established in England in 1936, as well as the International African Service Bureau (IASB) in 1937. Later, Britain saw the development of the Pan-African Publishing Company, through the efforts of Guyanese businessman George Thomas Nathaniel Griffith (T. Ras Makonnen), Dr Peter Milliard, Jomo Kenyatta, and George Padmore.
“The number of African students going into Europe and the United States increased greatly between 1935 and 1960 and quite a substantial number of them never returned home.”
In 1937, emissary and Howard University Medical School graduate, Malaku Bayen and his African-American wife Dorothy Hadley formed the Organization of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) in the United States and later established the publication The Voice of Ethiopia, described as a paper for the “vast universal Black Commonwealth and friends of Ethiopia everywhere”. The EWF was instrumental and influential as branches were established throughout the United States and the Caribbean, and news from its newsletters spread to Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Panama, Jamaica, Honduras, Venezuela, Nigeria, and other places. The year 1937 also saw the establishment of the International Committee on Africa – which later became the Council on African Affairs in 1941 – by Max Yergan, Paul Robeson, and William Alphaeus Hunton. The Council was created to “promote the political liberation of Africans and the advancement of their social and economic status through the dissemination of relevant and current information, facilitation of training for Africans in Europe and America, and arrangement of mutual exchange of visits and cooperation among African people”, and engaged in a variety of activities before ultimately dissolving in 1955 due to its perspective, which was increasingly radical and critical of American political and economic decisions with regard to African issues.
The Pan-African movement faded from the international scene until 1945 when the fifth Pan-African Congress was held in Manchester, England. Kuryla notes that Pan-Africanist leadership had largely transferred from African Americans to Africans by the mid-1940s, and Nkrumah, Kenyatta, and Padmore played the most prominent roles at the fifth congress, with the only African American present being DuBois. As mentioned, the fifth Pan-African Congress called for the political decolonization of African states from European imperialism. The themes of the congress featured a combination of the intellectualism of W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey’s pragmatism, and inspired attendants to focus on the struggle for liberation in Africa. This congress was also significant because it was the first to be spearheaded by British-based organizations and organizers, as historian Hakim Adi notes; the four previous convenings were largely organized under the auspices of Dubois and the US-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The fifth congress was also unique because it involved continental Africans as well as more descendants from the African diaspora such as Afro-Caribbeans.
Pan-Africanist leadership had largely transferred from African Americans to Africans by the mid-1940s.
Moreover, as noted by historian Saheed Adejumobi in The Pan-African Congresses, 1900–1945, while previous congresses had been largely controlled by Black middle-class British and American intellectuals who emphasized the betterment of colonial conditions, the 1945 Manchester meeting was dominated by delegates from Africa and Africans working or studying in Britain, who also galvanized the support of workers, trade unionists, and the growing radical sector of the African student population.
The 1960s-1970s: Pan-Africanism’s active period
After the fifth Pan-African Congress of 1945, Pan-Africanism continued to develop and fragment into distinctive schools of thought with varying frameworks and methods for addressing the economic, political, and social conditions Africans experienced in Africa and throughout the diaspora. By the 1960s, influential leaders, intellectuals, writers and activists such as Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Alioune Diop, Dr Walter Rodney, Stokely Carmichael, John Henrik Clarke and others developed the consciousness of Black Americans and African descendants around the world, to the point where African and Black studies became mandatory and the Black studies movement developed. As academics, politicians, diplomats, activists, artists, and others approached the topic of African independence and economic and political equity for African descendants, the varying perspectives led to the creation of different cultural, political, and development organizations. Pan-Africanism continued to evolve and focus on aspects such as racial Pan-Africanism, or uniting African descendants based on racial classification and social hierarchy, and continental Pan-Africanism, which sought to unite around issues facing the continent of Africa and African descendants world-wide.
S.K.B. Asante and David Chanaiwa’s subsection Pan-Africanism and Regional Integration peruses historical attempts of African states to work towards economic, political, cultural, regional, and social development and alignment utilizing Pan-African ideals in diplomacy, state governance, and economic and political development. Due to the efforts of Kwame Nkrumah and other pivotal state and liberation movement leaders, African states saw a revival of thought leadership and social preference in collective political and economic activities which supported Africans amid their colonial experience, with liberation and sovereignty becoming political preferences. Colonial histories ultimately influenced African states and independence movements as former colonies aligned themselves into regional blocks which supported foreign affairs that were considered pro-East or pro-West. In turn, African leaders divided their nations based on geopolitical interests, and in 1961, Ghana, Guinea, Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Libya and the Algerian government-in-exile formed the Casablanca Group, while the remainder of the French colonies and Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone formed the Monrovia Group. The former supported Nkrumah’s proposal for a United States of Africa, and consisted of militant, socialist, and non-aligned leaders in Africa who supported centralized continental economic integration and cultural restoration, while the latter supported a flexible confederation of independent sovereign African states.
Edem Kodjo and David Chanaiwa also discuss the history of the Charter of African Unity in Pan-Africanism and Liberation. The Charter was signed on 25 May 1963, with the heads of states of the following nations present: Algeria, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville (the Republic of the Congo), Congo-Leopoldville (the Democratic Republic of Congo), Côte d’Ivoire, Dahomey (Benin), Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanganyika, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, the United Arab Republic, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), and Zanzibar. With the creation of the Organization of African Unity, Pan-Africanism began to manifest its ideals on the international stage in the political realm and eventually in geopolitics.
The authors also explore some of the early distinctions between Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism – the former being predicated on racial unification and liberation, while the latter focused on the religious unification and liberation of Islam and its supporters. The distinctions between Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism also manifested themselves in the form of Black Africans from Sub-Saharan Africa as opposed to fairer-skinned individuals who were descendants of African peoples from the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Anglophone African states developing tensions with Francophone African states due to colonial histories, wars of independence, and economic interests.
Overall, a central theme of Kodjo and Chanaiwa’s analysis of Pan-Africanism is that the ideology focuses on the liberation of Black people in general and Africans in particular. The primary bonds that united African nations and Pan-Africanists were the anti-colonial movement, the anti-racialism movement, and the non-alignment movement. Although there were many regional integration efforts toward Pan-African cooperation, this also created more division in response to colonialism as each African state had its own unique political and economic struggles based on its respective interests. The economic self-interest of African states usually resulted in or stemmed from Western intervention or involvement in African affairs.
The primary bonds that united African nations and Pan-Africanists were the anti-colonial movement, the anti-racialism movement, and the non-alignment movement.
Asante and Chanaiwa discuss Pan-Africanism, regionalism, and economic development, as well as the extra-regional efforts of international organizations and agencies with operations in Africa. The authors note that Africa is central to the world’s future politically, socially, and economically. However, considering regionalism, the interdependence of African states and need for internal sustenance, the current global political economy and economic arrangement is hierarchical and stands to deplete Africa more than benefit its states. Due to the existing structures and international systems of economics, and the political dependencies of African nations on their former colonizers, the authors note that African nations seeking Pan-African ideals should seek alignment with the interests of developing nations rather than with Western powers that seek to extract from Africa.
A third wave of migration developed in the 1960s, and the primary cause of African migration to Europe and America transformed yet again, although this time the focus was not on those who wanted to develop and gain skills and knowledge, but on the technocrats who already possessed highly specialized skills and qualifications. This phenomenon is considered a “brain drain”, as highly qualified professionals such as engineers, doctors, businessmen and women, scientists, artists, musicians, and lecturers migrated from Africa in alarming numbers and moved all around the world. The prospect of relocating was significant because it represented a new form of social status, which symbolized that an individual (as a representative of Africa) had “arrived” intellectually and politically. However, this did not change the social and political conditions of Africa, nor did it change the social conditions that diaspora Africans experienced abroad as “Blackness” was still equated with inferiority.
African nations also experienced what the authors consider “gender drain” as “semiliterate, qualified, and unqualified” African women sought fortune in the Americas and Europe via opportunities such as nursing, smuggling, or drug trafficking, and “semieducated, unskilled and untrained” African men sought fortune and affluence outside of Africa via manual labor, smuggling, or drug trafficking as well.
The prospect of relocating was significant because it represented a new form of social status, which symbolized that an individual had “arrived” intellectually and politically.
The sixth congress took place in 1974 in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, which served as a key location for bringing people together, as many of the organizers wanted to establish direct connections between African liberation movements and African Americans. The meeting was the first Pan-African Congress to take place in Africa, gave a stronger voice to liberation movements, and moved beyond the nationalist agenda of the Organization of African Unity in defining the principles of African liberation. In the late 1960s, Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere went to Harlem, New York and issued an invitation to African Americans to come to Tanzania to assist in building a socialist African state. As a result of these efforts, the number of African Americans in Tanzania increased and a number of members from the diaspora were instrumental in organizing the convening, including Sam Dove, a consultant to the Tanzanian government, and Bill Sutherland, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a founder of the American Committee on Africa (ACA), and a consultant to President Nkrumah. In the declaration of the Sixth Pan African Congress, the call was that henceforth “Pan Africanism was informed by the class struggle internationally”. According to Dr Sylvia Hill, professor of criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia, who served as one of the key organizers for “Six PAC”, despite the differences and disagreements among delegates from the US and the Caribbean, there were many positive developments. Hill mentions the significance of the sixth congress in raising the consciousness of African liberation movements within the diaspora, particularly in the case of Southern Africa as she highlights the Free South Africa Movement.
The 1980s-1990s: Pan-Africanism’s waning period
The seventh and final Pan-African Congress of the 20th century, was convened in Kampala, Uganda, in April 1994. The declaration of the 7th Pan-African Congress was that African peoples everywhere should resist recolonization, and the primary motivation behind the convening was to reverse the depoliticization and the demobilization of the African peoples post-20th century reorganization of the international system. Significant developments of the 7th Pan-African Congress included the historic recognition of the participants of the Pre-Congress Women’s Meeting who called for “Pan-Africanism to break out of its male-centered mold and to stop silencing women who were at the forefront of the Pan-African struggle on a daily basis, although previous Pan-African convenings were primarily organized by men”; the establishment of a permanent secretariat that would be hosted by an African state (the Ugandan government offered) and would be responsible for convening meetings of the designated regions of the Pan-African world in an effort to improve the effectiveness of the political work of the Pan-African movement and move beyond the individualism and periodic organizing of convenings that highlighted the ideas of eminent persons; regarding the special place of the youth in the reconstruction and renewal of the African peoples, the organization of special meetings within and outside the congress by youths from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda along with the youths from the Southern African delegation; and the recognition of the ideological differences among the male adherents of Pan-Africanism in North American territories which consisted of Afrocentric Pan-Africanists, grassroots organizers and activists, workers, urban youth and the homeless, and members of the Nation of Islam and other religion organizations.
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