We Are Not the Wretched of the Pandemic18 min read.
Casting Africans as the wretched of the pandemic seems to make sense, given the obvious inequalities. But it deprives us of agency and urgency.
“Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” ~ Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust (2014)
I want to explore something I have been wrestling with over the last three weeks. About silences, and also about anger.
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 was first identified by scientific teams in southern Africa, and reported to the WHO on 24 November 2021. Since then, there has been a chaotic outpouring of news, speculation and reactions. We have also been furious about travel bans, about scientists being punished, about COVID being labelled as African, and about global vaccine inequality/apartheid.
Some of the dust is only now settling. Omicron has spread incredibly quickly worldwide, and has displaced older variants. European and North American healthcare systems are in danger of being overwhelmed. There is political fallout from the unpopular introduction of tighter controls.
The first cases from Omicron in Kenya have now been identified, but the variant has probably been here for some time. Daily case numbers began doubling just before Christmas 2021. We have entered our fifth wave.
This new variant seems extremely transmissible, but key aspects of its longer-term severity, and its ability to resist existing vaccines, remain unclear. Results from South Africa, Europe and North America about its “mildness” were eagerly projected onto a quite different population here, one with much lower vaccination levels – even as all those health systems went into crisis. New unpredictable variants are still likely to appear over the coming year.
We are still in a situation of uncertainty, but we are desperate to believe the pandemic is over.
I want to explore the psychological impact of the pandemic. There are things we need to understand, acknowledge, and address now. If we fail to do this, we may remain distracted or paralysed at a time when we really need to gather and refocus our energies.
The pandemic may be viral, but it has also created a mental health epidemic. Most of us are completely exhausted from the past two years. Our emotional and financial reserves are drained. Some of us are suffering from the longer-term effects of COVID, from isolation, or just from the stress of unpredictability.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor wrote, “Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.”
After the Omicron variant was announced, and the West responded with travel bans, I felt we should add a fourth language — and perhaps for Africa more broadly. Anger.
Fight, Flight or Freeze.
Many of you will recognise these as our classic responses to threats. We usually become angry in response to a source of fear — a threat. We want to fight, to protect ourselves from whatever threatens us. An ancient reactive part of our brain, the amygdala, takes over.
It has to act quickly. It can’t do nuance. It. Doesn’t. Have. Time.
Our amygdala has to flatten the world around us, divide it neatly into friends and foes.
Anger in itself is not a bad emotion. It evolved to protect us. Sometimes it is life-saving. Channelled well, outrage can change society in really positive ways.
However, in our modern, artificial, overcrowded, confusing, stressful and technological lifestyles, we have to be careful. Anger can be misplaced, destructive, and exhausting, especially if we become trapped within cycles of anger and trauma.
At this stage of the pandemic, we are frightened and exhausted. Some of us are on the verge of collapse and paralysis. We want this to be over.
We are also angry.
But the real cause of this anger — an invisible virus — is hard to attack.
Since COVID-19 emerged in 2019, the world has been a confusing and frightening place. COVID-19 fuelled a global crisis in an extremely unequal and unfair world.
The pandemic, and the accompanying lockdowns, created huge fears, personal losses, sickness, deep economic and psychological challenges. Many people struggled and some genuinely found it hard to understand why.
COVID-19 fuelled a global crisis in an extremely unequal and unfair world.
Lockdowns succeeded in reducing the initial spread, but this paradoxically undermined their justification. Without people visibly dying everywhere, some questioned whether news of the pandemic had a hidden motive. The reluctance of western media to show the suffering of white bodies also created a cognitive disconnect, especially in the US.
We were at war with an invisible virus — not with one another — but still tensions rose.
Our amygdala is not good at this new kind of war. It needs a recognisable enemy.
This medical crisis is not a fairy tale, with cartoon heroes and villains. However, when we are angry, frustrated and scared, the protective instinctive part of our brain activates. It desperately wants to flatten complicated reality into a reassuringly simple cartoon version.
Who is attacking us? Who are our enemies?
We needed someone to blame.
There has been a lot of coverage of far-right COVID conspiracy theories. Trump labelled COVID-19 the “China virus”, while allowing it to kill far more people in the US. An election year in the US cemented a crazy partisan divide, with right-wing politicians taking their stance against masks and vaccines. Public health was placed in opposition to personal freedoms. This soon spread to other countries online.
At a deeper level, the Christian far-right in the US doesn’t believe in evolution. A rapidly mutating virus is impossible to understand. A deliberately weaponized pathogen, developed in a lab, by godless people unlike them, made far more sense. There was someone (imaginary) to blame. They found their “real” enemy.
(This wasn’t a solely Christian problem. Religious “leaders” with political access in India also derailed the COVID response in their country, with disastrous global consequences.)
Conspiracy theories may be convoluted and nonsensical — but they are emotionally satisfying. In a confusing world, they give us someone clear to blame, to scapegoat.
The idea of the scapegoat comes from the Jewish tradition where, as described in Leviticus 16:21, the sins of a community were placed on a live goat, which was then chased off into the wilderness. I am not sure the scapegoat fully understood what was happening, and the goats I have consulted think this was probably not a huge punishment. However, the point was never really about the goat, but about the removal of sins from within the community.
Lockdowns succeeded in reducing the initial spread, but this paradoxically undermined their justification.
In the modern world, we still find scapegoats — people to blame. They are not the real cause of our problems and chasing them into the wilderness does not resolve anything. While the original Jewish ceremony may have served a genuinely useful social purpose, our modern versions do not. Scapegoats are now useful distractions, used to stoke up and misdirect fear and hatred.
While there has been a lot of emphasis on far-right conspiracy theories, I think there is also a different but related phenomenon on the left. After all, people who are scared and angry need to find someone to blame. We all need a scapegoat on whom to pile our complex, perhaps intractable problems — and then noisily chase them out of town.
This does not solve our problems — but it is something tangible we can do. It provides some temporary relief.
In the narratives of these conspiracy theories, pharmaceutical companies and Western governments have conspired to create global vaccine apartheid. Greed, control or naked racism are the clear explanation in the wilder discussions online. There are wicked people to blame, and we must attack them.
Like any good conspiracy theory, there is a kernel of truth in these narratives. We live in a world that has been substantially shaped by capitalism, and that is still scarred by deep historical inequalities stemming from slavery and Western colonialism. Africa has been last on the list to receive vaccines. (Omicron may have emerged in Africa because of low vaccine coverage, allowing new variants to appear.)
We all need a scapegoat on whom to pile our complex, perhaps intractable problems — and then noisily chase them out of town.
A global public health emergency needed a global public health response. While there was immense public funding and coordination, it has been galling to see large pharmaceutical companies make massive profits from this catastrophe; the techniques and “recipes” for the vaccines must become public goods — not controlled for private profit.
There are very unpleasant echoes of past crises. As Zeynep Tupfecki has observed, most of the people who died in the HIV/AIDS epidemic did so after ARV medicines had been developed. Intellectual property rights and corporate profits took precedence over global health, and Africans bore the brunt of that approach.
We clearly need better global health systems. However, this narrative that vaccine inequality was deliberate and racist — and our angry response — simplifies and obscures key issues.
There actually was a plan to make sure all countries received vaccines. This plan recognised that we were facing an interlinked global health crisis, and that we needed to address structural inequalities. COVAX was explicitly set up as “a global risk-sharing mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.”
Several things went wrong with this plan, but an angry backlash against vaccine inequality is now obscuring that history. This anger may prevent us from learning difficult lessons, or taking the time-critical action we need to focus on right now.
Our house is on fire. People are inside, still at risk, but some of us are standing outside — feeling safe because we have been vaccinated — and yelling about who started the fire. Trying to find the people to blame, instead of figuring out how we can help right now.
Contracting most of the shared vaccines to one provider — the Serum Institute of India (SSI) — was a disastrous decision for COVAX. This decision may have been based on cost, but it was a strategic mistake to put so many eggs in one basket during an unpredictable global disaster.
Under Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing government did not take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. A whole government department was set up to push herbal remedies, and other unproven treatments like steaming. Politicians were preoccupied with elections and religious rallies, which turned into super-spreader events. When the Delta variant began to ravage India in February 2021, the government retreated into full-scale denial.
It has been galling to see large pharmaceutical companies make massive profits from this catastrophe.
The situation in India was devastating. I was already helping to coordinate Indian volunteer group efforts, and I remember the horror of seeing the wave of infections grow rapidly, and then overwhelm the country. People struggled to find oxygen, medicines and ICU beds for their loved ones — or even for themselves.
Then things went quiet — which was even more ominous. The COVID wave was starting to ravage communities, and they had no one to ask for help.
However, the crisis in India was also an indication that a global crisis was brewing. SSI was meant to produce 700 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine for poorer countries in 2021. It had already encountered some production issues, and the Indian government, in its complacency, had not ordered doses for its own citizens until it was too late. At one point, facing threats from desperate Indian politicians, the CEO fled to London for his own safety.
Exports of the doses produced for other countries, including for Kenya, were blocked. Much of the vaccine famine we experienced early in 2021 was caused by this crisis.
Mistakes were made, and people were definitely culpable as well. However, this key event does not fit neatly into the angry narrative of vaccine apartheid. If the rich white West are the obvious villains, and black Africans are the clear victims — adding a complex disaster in India to the mix just messes up the neat fairy tale.
China developed its own vaccine. It has administered nearly three billion doses to its own people, and exported millions as well. Cuba did even better, despite facing economic sanctions. After a delayed start, Latin America is doing far better with vaccinations, with larger countries nearing Western levels of protection.
The problem is not simply racism, but relative poverty. However, it is a better fairy tale if we just edit out the inconvenient parts.
In political theory, a surprising convergence between right- and left-wing extremes has often been noted. Starting from different initial points, positions seem to become more similar as they become more radicalised and angry. This is known as the “horseshoe theory”.
This links to how we flatten the world, and look for simple friends, foes, and scapegoats, as that part of our brain that responds instinctively takes over to protect us from threats. Traditionally, political theory has focussed on dry policy issues and class allegiances. But with the rise of Trump and other populists mainstreaming conspiracy theories worldwide, a lot more research has been undertaken to explore deeper psychological issues around fear, uncertainty, and anger.
Politicians were preoccupied with elections and religious rallies, which turned into super-spreader events.
In a world dominated by powerful and often impersonal, confusing and opaque structures, our amygdala has to find someone to blame — like a classic Bond villain. Common examples are both right- and left-wing antisemitism, and attacks on globalisation.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, pro- and anti-vaccine groups both see conspiracies organised by greedy pharmaceutical companies. The more you think about this, the more bizarre it seems — but here we are. Anger at international structures in general has also grown, leading to strange bedfellows. At one point, I saw Elon Musk attacking the World Food Programme, and left-wing people rallying to his side. I had to switch off my devices and lie down for a while.
The SARS-CoV-2 genome only contains about 29,903 bases of single-stranded RNA — 30kB of data, less than half the length of this article. This tiny virus is outwitting human civilization.
Our amygdala, and the adrenalin it activates, can save lives — but only in the right context. We need to act instinctively rapidly when we are running out of a house that is on fire — as did our distant ancestors when escaping predators.
However, in a slow-burning and confusing pandemic, our amygdala should not be allowed to take charge.
COVID-19 is being helped right now by our own fearful responses.
Right now, our house is on fire — and many of us are still trapped inside. We instinctively want to save ourselves, get our boosters, and get away from the problem as quickly as possible.
However, as a country we are less than 10% fully vaccinated. Our fire is far from out.
The last few years have been an “I can’t breathe” crisis on several levels.
Franz Fanon was a physician, psychiatrist and philosopher. His work on colonial violence, and the lasting psychological and cultural damage it caused, remains important to this day. After all, these past years have been a crisis of COVID, but also of George Floyd, and of Black Lives Matter.
I was very influenced by Fanon’s work, via Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who built on Fanon’s work. I first encountered these ideas around lasting cultural trauma when I was a peace worker for British Quakers, based in South Africa. About a decade after that experience, I took part in the first large Rhodes Must Fall march in Oxford, which was extraordinarily moving and powerful.
Fanon talks of the colonial world as “a Manichaean World”, divided into light and dark. White colonizers are seen as the light, and black colonized individuals are viewed as darkness, and the epitome of evil.
In a world dominated by powerful and often impersonal, confusing and opaque structures, our amygdala has to find someone to blame.
At this point, this should sound familiar. Surely the antidote to this colonial polarisation, a world where black is bad — is it’s opposite — white neo-colonial pharma as the epitome of evil?
However, this is simplistic — as I have demonstrated with the catastrophe in India. I am reminded of a jingle for Lotus FM in Durban: “Not everything’s black and white. . .”
I would also argue that it is literally dangerous.
Painting Africa as the wretched of the pandemic, a whole continent victimised yet again by the West, deprives us of agency and urgency. It glosses over complex but really important details.
Most importantly, while the image gives us something to focus our anger on, a scapegoat to chase out of town, it also provides us with an excuse not to actually do anything difficult but useful ourselves.
We can safely exhaust ourselves shouting at foreigners in the West, and this venting is cathartic. We are now absolved from doing anything closer to home. Powerful and evil external actors are in charge — at least until some utopian revolution dawns.
Meanwhile, the reality which this narrative obscures is that vaccines have been arriving in Africa. Kenya now has millions of vaccines available, and the immediate but very real challenges are local logistics, and persuading people with mild vaccine reluctance to get vaccinated.
Unfortunately, anger at global pharma is being manipulated to make people on the ground more hesitant at a time when we need to reassure them that vaccines are safe and effective. It is still not quick and easy to get a vaccine in Kenya. Vague rumours about side effects and large wicked corporations are enough to put scared people off doing something that seems novel, risky and time-consuming.
But while overall Africa has lagged behind other countries on vaccine uptake, we have also seen much fewer deaths. It is not entirely clear why this is — although it will probably be due to a complex mix of factors, including our younger demographics, and fewer comorbidities from diseases of affluence like obesity and diabetes.
Painting Africa as the wretched of the pandemic, a whole continent victimised yet again by the West, deprives us of agency and urgency.
As more vaccines became available during 2021, more of them went to countries where they were more desperately needed, rather than to Africa, which had lower case rates. The overall picture includes Latin America and South East Asia, which did get vaccines when they needed them more. The now high vaccination rates in these regions are being ignored by those arguing that there is a global vaccine apartheid.
We are also likely to experience a global oversupply of vaccines in 2022. Part of the reason pharmaceutical companies seem greedy is that they know vaccines are going to commodify. Increased supply will drive price reductions, so companies want to take profits while they still can. Free markets are not morally perfect, but when they scale up, they are incredibly powerful.
(I still believe we need a more global public control of vaccines that are essential to public health. Since the Delta variant overwhelmed India in May, and torpedoed collective efforts via COVAX, I have argued that we need a “Liberty Ships” approach to this pandemic — a wartime level of effort and resources. This did not happen fast enough, and we have lost lives as a result.)
Mirroring global vaccine inequality is local vaccine inequality.
I have been concerned for some time that the relatively privileged but tiny urban elites in Kenya would get themselves vaccinated then lose interest as their own lives returned to normal. Once vaccination rates in Nairobi reached about 20 per cent, and the lockdowns and curfews were eased, this did seem to happen; although most of Kenya’s counties still had very low levels of vaccination, the national conversation moved on, unconcerned.
Once Omicron was announced, there was a vast amount of anger at travel restrictions imposed on southern African countries. There were lots of legitimate reasons for the frustration, especially as Omicron was probably already in many countries, as has proved to be the case, but African scientists were effectively being punished for being the first to identify it.
Blanket travel bans are in any case not very effective at stemming the spread of variants and those travel bans have now been largely removed. (Ironically, France is now restricting travellers from Britain, where Omicron case numbers are rising alarmingly.)
Part of the reason pharmaceutical companies seem greedy is that they know vaccines are going to commodify.
However, the anger I sensed seemed really unfocused and confused. Kenyans were also outraged, but there was little concern or interest in the actual variant, or in the rising cases in southern Africa — the countries with which we were apparently showing solidarity. Christmas concerts and parties continued. Some people seemed more worried about having their own travel plans, and their newly regained privileged lifestyles, threatened. I felt like a lone voice, trying to remind Kenyans just how few of our own citizens were protected by vaccines.
I am not sure what Frantz Fanon would make of our bourgeoisie. Che Guevara would actually have shot most of the people who wear those trendy t-shirts bearing his image. I doubt Fanon would have been impressed.
We have now got our reward, with exponentially rising case numbers in Kenya as well.
My feeling is that the outrage was actually based on the deeper fear that we would return to lockdowns, and that the pandemic was not actually over. Instead of focussing on the actual problem — a new variant — we found foreign scapegoats to yell at, allowing the thing which frightened us to take root.
For Fanon, the colonized were kept constantly on edge by an “atmospheric violence”, tensed in anticipation of violence. The pandemic has done something similar to our limbic systems. While not comparable to the traumas of slavery, we are constantly stressed, and on edge.
I am strangely reminded of Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity as a “slave morality”. Good Christians, by turning the other cheek, did not push back against power. Returning to the Fight/Fright/Freeze stress response that I learnt about in school, it has been updated to include a fourth response sometimes called ‘Submit’, ‘Fawn’ or ‘Feign’.
The Slave Bible, published in 1807 in London, then circulated in Caribbean and North American plantations, was a disturbing later embodiment of Nietzsche’s criticism. Sections such as the exodus story, which might inspire hope for liberation, were removed. Instead, portions that justified and fortified the system of British Imperial slavery were emphasized.
The Slave Bible encouraged silence, subservience and passivity, in the face of injustice. It was used to pacify people subjected to the worst forms of oppression and constant violence.
We found foreign scapegoats to yell at, allowing the thing that frightened us to take root.
The reality is more complex. Jesus himself was not passive. Theologians like Walter Wink have shown that turning the other cheek was actually a powerful act of resistance, given wider Roman culture. To turn the other cheek forced the aggressor to use their left hand, which would be seen as humiliating for the aggressor to other Romans. This would reclaim some power and agency for the Christian in a situation of powerlessness.
In the “atmospheric violence” of the pandemic, I sense we all feel disempowered. Some of us have become passive and withdrawn, while others have become angry and frustrated. However, instead of channelling the energy of anger into practical action to take care of one another, we are simply venting our frustrations publicly and fruitlessly – and sometimes counterproductively.
Some of us channel our frustrations against the pandemic restrictions of our own governments, or vaccination programmes – while others rail against international injustices.
Venting may feel helpful, but it is not reclaiming power or agency. It may briefly feel good, but it is not really helping us.
Casting Africans as the wretched of the pandemic seems to make sense, given the obvious inequalities. It is proving an incredibly powerful global rallying cry.
It makes people righteously, blindly, angry. It directs all our fear and rage outwards.
It is also, however, a good way of absolving us from tackling the harder questions, much closer to home, or requiring more difficult practical action. The actors who matter are powerful and elsewhere, which limits our own direct responsibility to do more than yell from a safe distance.
We all have limited energy at the best of times, and right now most of us are depleted. Directing our energy at global injustice, while ignoring more local problems, feels wrong to me. We actually have vaccines and knowledge and hard work to do right now. Nobody else can or will do that work for us.
Perhaps this is why such anger is so attractive though. If the problems are all global, we don’t have to look at our own broken health systems, venal politicians diverting COVID-19 relief funds, or the real challenge of addressing rumours that have spread over the past year about vaccine side effects. We can ignore the failings of our own leaders, who hold rallies and threaten our citizens, if our true enemies are global ones.
Anger directed at outside factors also prevents us from taking a hard look at how fragmented we ourselves are. While life-threatening famine was raging in large parts of Kenya, Nairobi was worried about cancelling Christmas parties and flight bans.
If you are reading this, you probably inhabit a tiny, relatively privileged bubble, just as I do. Even those of us who want to improve vaccine access have little idea what is happening in other parts of the country. It is harder still to know how to help.
Fanon never wanted colonialism — or the struggle against colonialism — to define us, taking on a simplistic crusading missionary zeal ourselves.
I’ve been organising civil society work around COVID-19 for much of the year, but I’m struck by how few people are able to volunteer their time and energy. We are all exhausted, but it feels deeper than that.
In India, one genuine problem was that so many people wanted to get involved, which created lots of duplication and confusion, as so many people reinvented the same wheels, and made the same mistakes.
South Africa also has a much stronger civil society response than I have seen here. Kenya is one of the few places I know where activists are treated with suspicion. This feels like the shadow of both colonialism, and Jomo Kenyatta’s and Moi’s authoritarian rule. Repression and fear were normalised. Kenya suffered from atmospheric violence. The few brave activists became lightning rods — but with little support from those for whom they organised.
No country in the world had massive health service capacity in reserve, ready for a pandemic. A massive civil society effort has been needed everywhere but I simply have not seen one in Kenya. We are rightly frustrated at the incompetence and the colonial threats of our own Ministry of Health, but we are not yet willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved where we see obvious gaps. We complain loudly — but that is all we do.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor talks of silence as one of Kenya’s official languages.
I feel that that silence has been breaking over the past decade. Kenyans are more forthright, more outspoken and more critical. The internet has helped many to speak up, and to find kindred spirits. There is also a lot of buried historical baggage to process, and economic frustration and inequality, and injustice as well.
We are rightly frustrated at the incompetence and the colonial threats of our own Ministry of Health, but we are not yet willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved.
This is an important part of becoming a healthier society — one not cowed by power. We are growing up, from literally being treated as the children of the nation, which suited our rulers just fine. We have suffered the consequences of arrogant power for far too long.
We have difficult baggage to process, and the pandemic has added layers of fear and frustration. There is a lot we need to face, and mourn, but being angry is a distraction from that. I also see a hollow and defensive kind of pride, used as a shield against any kind of criticism.
These are ways of covering up our pain.
Anger is becoming our fourth official language.
This is dangerous — especially since 2022 will be an election year.
What is the alternative?
Well, vaccines are here, and will keep coming.
Kenya has more vaccines in fridges than we’ve used in total so far.
We have a national mobilisation project — to ensure all of our people are safe.
The narrative that we are wretched victims also ignores all the inconvenient good news. How did Morocco or Botswana manage to vaccinate so many of their populations?
Within Kenya itself, some counties are doing much better than others.
What could we learn from them?
Who are our local heroes?
Who needs our help?
We stand at the beginning of a New Year.
I actually think it will be a hopeful one, as far as the pandemic is concerned.
Even with new variants like Omicron, science is incredibly powerful. In particular, the mRNA platform is able to rapidly create new targeted vaccines.
There is also unprecedented global solidarity. Unlike during other previous crises, such as conflicts or famines, rich countries were the first to suffer the devastating consequences of the pandemic, so there is huge empathy. We can tell our stories online in compelling ways, and these stories resonate.
Even more than science and compassion, economically speaking, the world will put resources into ending the pandemic. Highly infectious diseases simply cannot be contained by travel restrictions. Our world is simply too interconnected and interwoven.
It is also an election year in Kenya. We can look at how politicians and governors have performed, and the state of their health programmes. This is the one time we have some leverage.
Anger is a call to action that we can channel into things that are more useful than empty, exhausting rage and the accompanying disempowering sense of victimhood. Action will be truly healing, as we find ways to take back control, after the helplessness of the past two years.
For some reason, we have also been lucky. The level of COVID deaths and serious illness in Kenya have been undercounted – but they still aren’t as high as in some other countries. This isn’t because of our excellent scientists (that’s southern Africa) or our experience with Ebola (west and central Africa). It may be demographics, geography, and exposure to other pathogens. The answer will probably be a mix of different factors.
So far, strangely enough, we’ve actually escaped the worst of it; we have simply not been the wretched of this pandemic. The worst of what I saw in India, and in many other countries, did not befall us. Our biggest challenge now is to get our own population vaccinated, with the now fairly available vaccines, so that we are better protected against new variants.
It may be demographics, geography, and exposure to other pathogens. The answer will probably be a mix of different factors.
We need to take a deep breath and take stock of where we actually are right now. Instead of fighting battles from last year, and knowing all that we now, what should be our focus?
Our next challenge is climate change, and that will be much harder. Especially for Africa.
We need to end this crisis, and in doing so, learn how to deal with our own fears and anger, our need for simple scapegoats, if we are to stand a chance of addressing the climate crisis.
COVID-19 was relatively minor, but it still shook our civilisations. Climate change is a truly existential threat.
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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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