The cataclysm of war is convulsing the European subcontinent following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, shattering more than seventy years of relative peace since the end of World War II. Europeans had brashly and complacently convinced themselves such a conflagration was buried in their war-ridden pasts, banished to the unfortunate lands of the global South struggling with the modernity, development, democracy, and advancement Europe and its civilizational outposts in North America and Australasia had bequeathed to the world. The nightmare of war has returned with a ferocity that has shocked Europe and threatens to upend the already unstable global order.
The Postcolonial Unconscious
From the vantage point of African history, this is a post-colonial war, a war between a former colonial power, Russia, and its former colony, Ukraine. It is inflamed by the combustible logic of post-Cold War competitive imperialisms of a resurgent, belligerent, and repressive Russia seeking to recover great power status from the demise of the Soviet Union, and a triumphalist, assertive, and expansive NATO determined to maintain its supremacy in Euro-America.
We live in a world driven at its core by the memories, legacies, and contestations of imperialism and colonialism that created the modern world system with its hierarchies, divisions, inequalities, and conflicts. This postcolonial unconscious is readily apparent to many of us reared in the global South where the colonial permeates and perverts the mentalities and materialities of social life from the mundane to matters of state and global relations. Not surprisingly, some of the most powerful speeches at the emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the cusp of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were delivered by African diplomats.
One went viral, the riveting speech by Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Martin Kimani. He captured quite poignantly the unacceptable and tragic imperialist impulses and dynamics behind foreign invasions and the redrawing of boundaries. He reminded the world, “Kenya and almost every African country was birthed by the ending of empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing. They were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Paris and Lisbon with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart.”
This created a treacherous cartographic mosaic that separated people who had been together and brought together people who had been separate in the memorable phrasing of Kenya’s great public intellectual and iconoclast, the late Ali Mazrui in his brilliant television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage. In Kimani’s words, “Today, across the border of every single African country, live our countrymen with whom we share deep historical, cultural and linguistic bonds. At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later.”
At independence, African states made a fundamental decision, enshrined in the Charter of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each state and for its inalienable right to independent existence, and to uphold the sovereign equality of all member states, non-interference in the internal affairs of states, and affirmed a policy of non-alignment with regard to all blocs. The OAU was a flawed organization, which became a talking shop for presidents, and besides its successes in driving decolonization, its record on promoting social and economic development was abysmal. Its non-interference commitment allowed repressive governments to get away with impunity.
Its successor, the African Union, reiterated the principles of respect for borders existing at independence, prohibition of the use of force or threat to use force among members states, non-interference, but allowed for, in a crucial corrective, “the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” This enshrined the pioneering interventions undertaken by the Economic Community of West African States in the civil wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, and the humanitarian intervention principle of right to protect .
Africa has of course been bedeviled by conflicts and wars since independence. However, hardly are they about redrawing borders and they are not fomented by rival regional blocs. The regional economic communities that have been formed have security protocols to deal with internal threats, but they are not pitted against each other. Europe, on the other hand, has remained wedded to rival alliances and militarized blocs that brought it endless regional wars, which turned in the 20th century to the calamities of World War I and World War II.
Europe’s regional wars turned into world wars because of the dominance of Europe and its settler outposts in the Americas and Australasia in the world system created from the 15th century. The current Russian-Ukrainian conflict is already internationalized in a way that is unthinkable for regional African, Asian, and Latin American conflicts. It reflects the persistence of imperial mindsets in Euro-America. Ambassador Kimani implored the world to “complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”
He informed his audience African countries resisted looking “ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia… because we wanted something greater, forged in peace.” He bemoaned, “The Charter of the United Nations continues to wilt under the relentless assault of the powerful. In one moment, it is invoked with reverence by the very same countries who then turn their backs on it in pursuit of objectives diametrically opposed to international peace and security.” It was a powerful rebuke of the Russian invasion as well as the impunity of all great powers including those in NATO that flout international law.
Many Africans remember how the NATO alliance supported the Portuguese fascist regime in its savage colonial wars against the liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau. NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 over the objections of the African Union and many African nations, left the country in political tatters that it has yet to recover from. Former President Barack Obama calls it the worst mistake of his presidency. Between 1960-2005, France undertook 112 military interventions in its former African colonies. Since 1945 the United States has made more than 80 military interventions, most recently in the widely opposed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that devastated those countries, and eventually exhausted the United States itself.
I have found watching the American television coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war quite revealing. If I lived in Kenya, where I spent the past six years, I would have been able to watch on cable television stations from several parts of the world, such as the US itself, China (CGTN), the Middle East (Al-Jazeera), various European countries including Britain, France, Germany, and Russia, as well as many countries across Africa from South Africa to Nigeria, and Kenya’s neighbors. This demonstrates the narrow international and ideological bandwidth of the American media.
So, I tend to spend my time reading the high quality newspapers and magazines that I subscribe to, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian from Britain, The Globe and Mail from Canada, The Economist, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and Foreign Affairs, among others. I’ve been struck, as an African diaspora scholar and student of world history and politics, by several themes and recurring tropes in Euro-American discourse on global issues and conflicts. Eight stand out.
First, there’s a tendency to personalize, psychologize, and pathologize the Russian leader, President Vladimir Putin. Second, is the moralization and dichotomization of the conflict as one between the forces of good and evil, the promises of democracy and authoritarianism, peace and progress, and anarchy and atavism. Third, is the propensity to universalize idealized Euro-American self-perceptions and project them into expectations from the rest of the world. Fourth, there’s a tendency to amplify the power of punitive sanctions to avenge aggression.
Fifth, those enamored by their predictive prowess authoritatively pronounce on how the conflict will unfold. Sixth, some seek to decipher how the crisis is being filtered in polarized domestic politics and its potential impact on the political fortunes and electoral prospects of beleaguered Western leaders. Seventh, some are preoccupied by the implications of the crisis on the fragile world economy that is tentatively recovering from the devastations of the Covid-19 pandemic. Eighth, there’re dueling historicizations of the crisis.
The Russian leader has been depicted as a deranged dictator, a megalomaniac, kleptocrat, possibly unhinged by the isolation of Covid-19, pathologically consumed by imperial nostalgia and hellbent on recreating the Soviet Union, whose unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has spectacularly backfired and united NATO instead of dividing it. To some President Putin is the Russian state, its lone and lonely embodiment.
Peter Pomerantsez pulls no punches. “You’ve all seen it now. The small, mean, vicious yet weirdly blank eyes. The stubby stabbing fingers that jab as he humiliates his underlings, making them shake with fear… The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in his great study of the Nazi mind, described how for the Nazis claiming they were victims was really a way to excuse how they would victimize others. It’s the same for Putin.”
Simon Tisdall, The Guardian columnist drips with disdain, calling President Putin a mafioso-president ruling a rogue regime, a twisted little coward, who must “be toppled from his throne. Only decapitation can save Ukraine, the global order – and Russia itself. The west should publicly assist all those Russians who want new leadership in their country. Feed Putin’s paranoia. Erode his base. Make him fear his friends.’”
Others offer more nuanced readings of the Russian leader by contextualizing his actions in terms of the dynamics of the Russian state and national psyche. Chris Miller, writing a guest column in The New York Times, argues, “There is no world leader today with a better track record when it comes to using military power than President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Whether against Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 or in Syria since 2015, the Russian military has repeatedly converted battlefield successes into political victories… So it is no surprise why Russia feels emboldened to use its military power while the West stands by.”
Jonathan Steele, the reputable journalist and former correspondent in Moscow for The Guardian insists, “The Russian president is a rational man with his own analysis of recent European history… It is crucially important for those who might seek to end or ameliorate this crisis to first understand his mindset… There is clear strategy here. His bulwark against Nato is to create a ‘frozen conflict’, like those in Georgia and Moldova.”
For Robyn Dixon and Paul Sonne in The Washington Post, Putin’s “actions reflect a man steeped in Soviet geopolitics and traditional Russian Orthodox conservatism, fired with an almost spiritual view of his historical mission to transform his vast nation. At home, that has come with increasing repression – with his government removing opponents, quashing dissent and hobbling internet and press freedom with evermore vigor as his government ages.”
In an article published in 2016 in Foreign Affairs, Stephen Kotkin contended that Putin was returning to the historical pattern of Russian geopolitics. “For half a millennium, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities. Beginning with the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, Russia managed to expand at an average rate of 50 square miles per day for hundreds of years, eventually covering one-sixth of the earth’s landmass.”
Angela Stent also in Foreign Affairs elaborates on what she calls “The Putin Doctrine.” She opens her essay, “The current crisis between Russia and Ukraine is a reckoning that has been 30 years in the making. It is about much more than Ukraine and its possible NATO membership. It is about the future of the European order crafted after the Soviet Union’s collapse. During the 1990s, the United States and its allies designed a Euro-Atlantic security architecture in which Russia had no clear commitment or stake, and since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has been challenging that system.”
Then there are the rightwing populists and pundits who remain infatuated with Putin’s pugilistic politics and authoritarianism and regard him as a strategic genius. In former President Trump’s opinion, speaking after the invasion, “The problem is not that Putin is smart, which of course he’s smart, but the real problem is that our leaders are dumb.” On their part, some leftwing critics and activists are so focused on the moral, social, and political deficits of the arrogant western powers that they tend to excuse Putin’s actions and peddle equivalences.
Individualizing and demonizing adversaries is quite common in domestic and international political discourse. However, it oversimplifies complex global politics and conflicts. Moreover, it infantilizes the society of the culprit, and absolves the opposing states and their leaders of any culpability in the conflict. It recalls how in some circles and countries the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were depicted as the delusional machinations and masculinist pretensions of a single man, an insecure, incompetent, idiotic President George W Bush, rather than as the product of longstanding ideological tendencies among some key actors in the American polity.
The Morality of War
There can be no doubt wars raise difficult ethical issues. There is a vast body of literature on just war theory or doctrine that discusses the right to go to war, the right conduct in war, and the morality of post-war settlement and reconstruction that are enshrined in various international instruments. Pacificists believe there cannot be a justifiable basis for war. The ethics of war has been debated in various philosophical, religious, and political traditions around the world for a long time. For Africa, it goes back to the pharaonic tradition, ancient Christian (several of the early Christian theologians such as St Augustine were Africans) and Islamic traditions, to modern traditions informed by the continent’s various wars and conflicts.
In a two-volume edited study of conflicts in Africa, The Roots of African Conflicts and The Resolution of African Conflicts, I identified five typologies of war. First, imperial wars comprising Africa’s participation in the two world wars and the Cold War that engendered proxy hot wars on the continent. Second, anti-colonial wars encompassing wars of resistance against colonial conquest and anti-colonial liberation wars. Third, intra-state wars including secessionist wars, irredentist wars, wars of devolution, wars of regime change, wars of social banditry, and armed inter-communal insurrections.
Fourth, inter-state wars, such as the Uganda-Tanzania war of 1978-1979, the Eritrea-Ethiopia war of 1998-2000, and the first and second Congo wars of 1996-1997 and 1998-2003, respectively, that are often called the African World War. Fifth, international wars involving deployment of African troops in peacekeeping forces outside the continent, the Arab Israeli wars, recruitment of African combatants and mercenaries, and Africa’s entanglement in America’s “war on terror”. Some of these may be considered just wars, others are not. Wars against colonial conquest and for national liberation were certainly justified despite their high costs. For example, Algeria lost more than one million people in its liberation war against France.
From a postcolonial perspective, there can be no justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is an exercise and projection of Russian military might. The larger context of the conflict between NATO and Russia, in which Ukraine has been turned into a hapless proxy, as many countries in the global South including Africa were during the Cold War, is not a morality tale of the good guys and the bad guys. Rather, it is a lethal struggle between two powerful military camps over unresolved contestations from the past intended to reshuffle the present and reconstruct the future to their respective advantage.
There’s considerable debate, which can only be expected to grow, about the responsibility of the different parties to the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Most western commentators blame Russia. But there are some who criticize the role played by the West after the end of the Cold War. Peter Hitchens in The Daily Mail is unequivocal in blaming what he calls “the arrogant, foolish West. We have been utter fools… We have treated Russia with amazing stupidity. Now we pay the price for that. We had the chance to make her an ally, friend and partner. Instead we turned her into an enemy by insulting a great and proud country with greed, unearned superiority, cynicism, contempt and mistrust.”
Some blame the western powers and their allies for misreading President Putin. Michael Gordon, Stephen Fidler, and Allan Cullison in The Wall Street Journal claim, these countries “have lined up to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. They can’t say he didn’t warn them. Fifteen years ago, the former KGB officer railed against U.S. domination of global affairs and assailed the post-Cold War security order as a threat to his country. In the years that followed, he grabbed portions of Georgia, annexed Crimea and sent troops into Ukraine’s Donbas region.”
“Mr. Putin sent repeated signals that he intended to widen Russia’s sphere of influence and cast the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to Moscow’s security,” Gordon et al. continue. “Yet until recently few Western leaders imagined Mr. Putin would go through with a full-scale invasion, having miscalculated his determination to use force… The costs of the West’s failure to deter Russia are now being borne by Ukraine, which for 14 years has existed in a strategic purgatory: marked for potential membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but never admitted into the alliance and the security guarantees that it provided.”
Thomas Friedman, the liberal columnist in The New York Times, blames both sides. “This Is Putin’s War. But America and NATO Aren’t Innocent Bystanders.” He asks “why the U.S. — which throughout the Cold War dreamed that Russia might one day have a democratic revolution and a leader who, however haltingly, would try to make Russia into a democracy and join the West — would choose to quickly push NATO into Russia’s face when it was weak… A very small group of officials and policy wonks at that time, myself included, asked that same question, but we were drowned out.”
One of those opponents to the eastward expansion of NATO into the “backyard” of the defunct Soviet Union was the renowned diplomat and architect of America’s policy of containment at the onset of the Cold War, George Kennan. Friedman interviewed him on May 2, 1998 and reproduces quotes from the interview. Keenan warned, “‘I think it is the beginning of a new cold war… I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else…. Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.”
Peter Beinart takes a similar approach in The Guardian. He writes, “Saying the US stands with Ukraine because America is committed to democracy and the “rules-based international order” is at best a half-truth. The US helps dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates commit war crimes in Yemen, employs economic sanctions that deny people from Iran to Venezuela to Syria life-saving medicines, rips up international agreements like the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accords, and threatens the international criminal court if it investigates the US or Israel.”
Beinart casts an equally scorching gaze at Russia. “Vladimir Putin’s Russia is neither as powerful nor as genocidal as Hitler’s Germany. But Putin’s claim that historical and cultural affinity gives Russia the right to bludgeon Ukraine into submission is a total lie. It is no less of a lie because the US – by pushing Nato ever-further eastward after 1989 – exploited Russian weakness and compounded Russian humiliation.”
Some seek to frame the conflict through the rather ill-fitting prism of clash of civilizations as Ross Douthat, the thoughtful New York Times columnist, does. He recalls, “When the United States, in its hour of hubris, went to war to remake the Middle East in 2003, Vladimir Putin was a critic of American ambition, a defender of international institutions and multilateralism and national sovereignty. This posture was cynical and self-interested in the extreme… But now it’s Putin making the world-historical gamble, embracing a more sinister version of the unconstrained vision that once led George W. Bush astray. And it’s worth asking why a leader who once seemed attuned to the perils of hubris would take this gamble now.”
The Privileges of Hegemony
Countries, like individuals, tend to construct identities that vary in degrees of reflexivity and integrity. The more narcissistic, the greater the self-delusions. Euro-America idealizes itself as the progenitor and custodian of modernity, democracy, and human progress. However, this did not prevent it from perpetrating the horrendous barbarities of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, the two World Wars, other imperial wars, genocides of native peoples in the European settler colonies, the Holocaust, and supporting dictatorial regimes across Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
One could add the despoilation the environmental global commons that threatens the very sustainability of our shared planet, the perpetration of global socioeconomic inequalities including most recently during the Covid-19 pandemic, the worst health crisis in a century, of vaccine apartheid, not to mention the assaults of white supremacy and racialized capitalism on diasporas from Africa and Asia and the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australasia.
Euro-American inconsistencies, contradictions, and hypocrisies are not only staggering, but they also make a mockery of the West’s professed affinity to humanistic and progressive values. This is the filter through which global events and crises are read from the postcolonial perspective in much of the global South. This includes the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
In his intriguing commentary, Bret Stephens, the conservative columnist in The New York Times asks: “Who are we, with our long history of invasions and interventions, to lecture Vladimir Putin about respecting national sovereignty and international law? Who are we, with our domestic record of slavery and discrimination, our foreign record of supporting friendly dictators, and the ongoing injustices of American life, to hold ourselves up as paragons of freedom and human rights? Who are we, after 198 years of the Monroe Doctrine, to try to stop Russia from delineating its own sphere of influence? Who are we, with our habitual ignorance, to meddle in faraway disputes about which we know so little? Such questions are often put by people on the left, but there’s a powerful strain of the same thinking on the right.”
The logic of Euro-American global hegemony is the expectation that other countries are either with them or against them. This was apparent during the Cold War and articulated explicitly by President Bush in America’s ill-fated “war on terror.” Forgotten is the simple fact that other countries, even poor and weak ones, have their own interests that guide their perceptions and actions in international politics.
David Lammy, the Black British parliamentarian, and Labor Party’s shadow minister for foreign affairs reprises this script. “To defeat Putin,” he proclaims, “we need to unite against the ideology of Putinism. This is an ideology of authoritarianism, imperialism and ethno-nationalism. It is not unique to Russia.” He stresses, “the opposition to Putinism needs to be broader than the G7, the EU or Nato. We need to rally the world against this threat and widen the international coalition that will oppose this grievous act of war, and counter Putin’s ideology of nationalistic expansion.”
I suspect many African leaders, social activists, and intellectuals are abhorred by the Russian invasion. They probably wish the world got as worked up about the continent’s crises. Predictably, their energies are invested in the regeneration of their continent from centuries of imperial, colonial, and neo-colonial underdevelopment and dependence than in becoming foot soldiers in Europe’s current war triggered by the Russia’s wanton invasion of Ukraine, overarched by the Russian-NATO conflict, let alone the brewing hegemonic rivalry between the United States and China that is likely to dominate global politics in the next few decades.
Sanctions and Punishment
One of the privileges of global hegemony is that sanctions are never imposed on NATO countries that invade other countries. Many Africans remember how the United States and its allies bankrolled the white apartheid regime in South Africa and refused to impose sanctions for decades. The US finally did so after President Reagan’s veto was overridden in Congress in 1986 following years of mobilization by the civil rights movement led by TransAfrica and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Sanctions are increasingly popular in Africa as noted in a recent article in The Washington Post. Commenting on the recent spate of coups in Africa, of which they have been 11 attempts since 2019, it notes the African Union has suspended governments formed through coups since 2003 “and imposed sanctions 73 percent of the time.” Thus, the imposition of western sanctions on Russia would be well understood in many African quarters. However, the question of the unevenness of the global sanction regime remains.
After the first tranche of sanctions were imposed on Russia following its recognition of the breakaway republics in Ukraine, President Putin remained defiant, demonstrating according to Paul Sonne in The Washington Post “the limits of relying on the threat of economic pain to change behavior by a government such as Putin’s—a highly personalist regime that has weathered Western sanctions for eight years, elevated hard-liner members of the security services to its most influential positions and clamped down on domestic dissent.”
Russia paid no heed. It proceeded to invade Ukraine, triggering the escalation of sanctions. At the time of writing, they include asset freezes on major banks and wealthy individuals including President Putin and his foreign minister, Mr. Sergei Lavrov, restrictions to conduct transactions in the US dollar and British pound that were later followed by cutting some Russian banks out of the SWIFT international payment system and freezing the assets of Russia’s central bank to limit the country’s ability to access its overseas reserves, limiting Russia’s access to energy and military technologies, and other high tech equipment, and closing EU space to Russian aircraft.
This constitutes the harshest regime of sanctions ever imposed on any country. Undoubtedly, they will gravely undermine the Russian economy. But it remains to be seen what effect they will have on the war and Russia’s conduct. As important as economics is, the power of nationalist and cultural forces in determining the behavior of state actors should not be underestimated. Cuba has survived the America embargo since its revolution more than sixty years ago. The regimes of heavily sanctioned countries from Iran to North Korea to Zimbabwe remain in power.
Joshua Keating observes in The Washington Post, “Putin seems to have priced sanctions into his calculations. In an era when sanctions often feel like the default U.S. response to every international crisis, Russia is already the second-most sanctioned country by the United States, after Iran… Politicians love sanctions for an obvious reason: They’re a way of taking concrete action to address wrongdoing—terrorism, illegal weapons programs, human rights abuses, invading another sovereign nation—without committing U.S. military force or putting American lives at risk.”
He notes data shows sanctions accomplish their goals only a third of the time and comments on a recent book, The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War by historian Nicholas Mulder, which argues that sanctions were initially developed after World War I as a tool meant to outlaw war. Instead, sanction “simply blurred the line between peace and war, normalizing the use of policies meant to destroy the human lives and economic resources of another country during times of nominal peace… Today, they often feel like the last flailing attempts to keep that order from breaking down.”
Writing in Foreign Affairs a month before the Russian invasion, Alexander Vindman and Dominic Bustillos insisted the sanctions would work. “Some might question the effectiveness of sanctions as tools for deterrence or behavioral change. Indeed, with $630 billion in international reserves, increased indigenization of critical industries, a favorable energy market, and alternatives to SWIFT in the form of the domestic Russian System for Transfer of Financial Messages and the Chinese Cross-Border Interbank Payment System, Russia may be able to weather the storm. Such concerns, however, overlook the fact that sanctions will still impose costs and weaken the Kremlin’s networks of malign influence.”
The power of Euro-America to impose sanctions, and not to have sanctions imposed on it for its own repeated breaches of international law, is a poignant reminder of its hegemony over the world economy and international financial institutions. In the 1970s, developing countries sought the establishment of a new international economic order, which languished as neoliberalism imposed its uncompromising restructuring of the world economy. Even the emerging and rapidly growing economies of India and China succumb to the logic of neo-liberal global capitalism, and have not established an alternative to it, although China has been trying to create new international financial institutions, a drive that can only be expected to continue and intensify as the century unfolds.
The Arts of Forecasting
Whenever there’s a major world crisis or event, policy wonks and pundits inundate the media with their crystal balls boldly predicting the future, notwithstanding their often-flawed forecasting records. Many see the Russian-Ukrainian war as a watershed in European and global politics that will usher a new era of disorder. Others believe Russia will be permanently isolated from the “civilized” world. Others fear the conflict will spread across Europe, and even trigger the unthinkable, nuclear war.
The latest reports at the time of writing that Russia has put its nuclear forces on high alert are deeply concerning. In response, the Biden administration apparently chose to de-escalate by not putting nuclear forces on high alert. The echoes of some of the tense moments of the Cold War are chilling.
For an unfolding story as complex as the current one with so many actors, multiple dimensions, and unpredictable dynamics the dizzying flow of news can be confusing. It is possible, however, to discern several tendencies in the avalanche of media reports, pronouncements, and public discourse, a few of which are identified below.
Commenting in Foreign Affairs about Russia’s use of overwhelming force in Ukraine, Michael Kofman and Jeffrey Edmonds, posit, “A war between Russia and Ukraine could prove to be incredibly destructive. Even if the initial phase were quick and decisive, the conflict could morph into a dragged-out insurgency featuring a great number of refugees and civilian casualties—especially if the war reached urban areas. The scale and potential for escalation of such a conflict are difficult to predict, but they would likely produce levels of violence unseen in Europe since the 1990s, when Yugoslavia tore itself apart.”
Russia experts at Harvard as reported in The Harvard Gazette, “say that it’s difficult to predict exactly what Putin’s next move will be. But it seems likely that he will avoid taking on NATO directly as that could lead to a nuclear standoff, and so will avoid member states. Much will depend, however, on how much resistance he meets in Ukraine and how unified NATO remains through the crisis.”
The experts agreed that “for the short term, “Russia is going to have its hands full with Ukraine. Russia’s larger and far superior military would likely overwhelm Ukraine’s in head-to-head combat, but it seems likely the Ukrainians will continue to offer armed resistance. Beyond that, it’s still unclear what Putin’s ultimate objectives are… That said, once shooting starts, the threat of the crisis escalating into nuclear war, while remote, nonetheless exists.”
Robert Kagan, a neoconservative advocate of muscular “liberal interventionism”, and a columnist at The Washington Post, posits possible strategic and geopolitical consequences if Russia succeeds in gaining full control of Ukraine. “The first will be a new front line of conflict in Central Europe… The most immediate threat will be to the Baltic states… The new situation could force a significant adjustment in the meaning and purpose of the alliance. Putin has been clear about his goals: He wants to reestablish Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe.” Chillingly, Kagan expects Ukraine “will likely cease to exist as an independent entity… Setting history and sentiment aside, it would be bad strategy for Putin to allow Ukraine to continue to exist as a nation after all the trouble and expense of an invasion. That is a recipe for endless conflict.”
Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian offers a four-point plan. “First, we need to secure the defence of every inch of Nato territory, especially at its eastern frontiers with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine… Second, we have to offer all the support that we can to the Ukrainians, short of breaching the threshold that would bring the west into a direct war with Russia… Third, the sanctions we impose on Russia should go beyond what has already been prepared… a final, vital point: we must be prepared for a long struggle. It will take years, probably decades, for all the consequences of 24 February to be played out. In the short term, the prospects for Ukraine are desperately bleak.”
He observes that the map of Europe “has experienced many changes over the centuries. Its current shape reflects the expansion of U.S. power and the collapse of Russian power from the 1980s until now; the next one will likely reflect the revival of Russian military power and the retraction of U.S. influence. If combined with Chinese gains in East Asia and the Western Pacific, it will herald the end of the present order and the beginning of an era of global disorder and conflict as every region in the world shakily adjusts to a new configuration of power.”
Caution is needed in predicting the future of the conflict, urges Walter Mead in The Wall Street Journal. “As for the future of American foreign policy, we should not underestimate the difficulties ahead. This is not only about Ukraine, and Mr. Putin will not rest on his laurels if his gamble succeeds… He aims to topple the U.S. from its global position, break the post-Cold War world order, cripple the European Union and defeat the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russia, even with the addition of Ukraine, does not have China’s superpower potential. But given the incompatibility of its goals with American interests and its demonstrated ability to punch above its economic weight, Russia poses threats that the U.S. cannot afford to ignore.
A fascinating question is the crisis’s likely impact on wider global politics especially relations between the US and China, the current superpowers that are locked in a rising hegemonic rivalry that is likely escalate. Some believe President Biden’s tough response to China is in part meant as a warning shot to China. Others contend the crisis has scuttled his administration’s pivot to China as America’s geostrategic rival.
Presenting the second position, Jeremy Shapiro in Politico Magazine, argues that the Russian invasion has given NATO renewed unity and purpose. However, “The outbreak of war is in this sense a failure in and of itself” for NATO. “Russia’s war has done similarly grievous damage to the Biden administration’s overarching foreign-policy framework… Recognizing that the China challenge required nearly the full measure of US resources, the administration had intended to use its political capital with European allies to get them on board with its Indo-Pacific policy. That policy has now nearly completely collapsed.”
Shapiro and others now fear the relationship between China and Russia will be strengthened. However, in the immediate term, the crisis has put China in rather delicate situation. To quote the title of one article, “China keeps walking its tightrope between Russia and the West as tensions flare in Ukraine” as it seeks to manage its warming ties with Russia and deteriorating relations with the United that it does not want to make worse.
Simon Jenkins in The Guardian believes that the US and its allies need China’s intervention with Russia “as the only people President Putin will listen to are China’s Xi Jinping and a circle of rich cronies. Only they may be able to prevent huge bloodshed,” which represents “the true failure of European diplomacy over the past 30 years.” Before the outbreak of the war, China is reported to have repeatedly rebuffed US entreaties when presented with “intelligence on Russian troop buildup in hopes that President XI Jinping would step in.”
Yu Jie in The Guardian contends China has been unsettled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and believes “Beijing will tread carefully, and weigh up whether its strategic alliance with Moscow is worth the cost of this reckless invasion… cooperation would have to come with some substantial limits to avoid undermining Beijing’s own priorities and interests in the eyes of Chinese foreign policy planners. For various reasons, the Kremlin’s latest military exercise is both a conundrum and a source of equally unexpected opportunities for Beijing.”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Liling Wei reports that following the Russian invasion, President Xi contacted his Russian counterpart and urged President Putin to negotiate with the Ukrainian government. “In recent days, Beijing’s response has been vacillating between more clearly opposing an invasion and providing moral support for Moscow’s security concerns, all the while continuing to blame the U.S. and its allies for hyping the threats from Russia.”
For the longer term, some expect the Ukraine conflict to fuel superpower struggle between the US, Russia, and China. To quote Michael Gordon also in The Wall Street Journal, “The challenges are different than those the U.S. and its network of alliances faced in the Cold War. Russia and China have built a thriving partnership based in part on a shared interest in diminishing U.S. power. Unlike the Sino-Soviet bloc of the 1950s, Russia is a critical gas supplier to Europe, while China isn’t an impoverished, war-ravaged partner but the world’s manufacturing powerhouse with an expanding military.”
“This emerging order leaves the U.S.,” he submits, “contending with two adversaries at once in geographically disparate parts of the world where America has close partners and deep economic and political interests. The Biden administration now faces big decisions on whether to regear its priorities, step up military spending, demand allies contribute more, station additional forces abroad and develop more diverse energy sources to reduce Europe’s dependence on Moscow.”
Countries around the world are carefully calibrating their responses. Among Russia’s partners in the BRICS, a group that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, only the latter has spoken out unequivocally. In an official statement, South Africa stated it was “dismayed at the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. We regret that the situation has deteriorated despite calls for diplomacy to prevail.” It called “on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter,” and reaffirmed the country’s “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.” It reminded the world that “As a nation birthed through negotiation, South Africa is always appreciative of the potential dialogue has in averting a crisis and de-escalating conflict.” However, many people on social media said that South Africa should not get involved in the conflict, while others asked how South Africans in Ukraine would be helped.”
India abstained on the UN Security Council vote against Russia joining China and the United Arab Emirates. According to Ashok Sharma and Aijaz Hussain, this decision “does not mean support for Moscow, experts said, but reflects New Delhi’s reliance on its Cold War ally for energy, weapons and support in conflicts with neighbors… In the past, India depended on Soviet support and its veto power in the Security Council in its dispute over Kashmir with its longtime rival Pakistan.” India rebuffed appeals from the US, which envisages creating a coalition of democracies in which India is the largest, and a member of the Quad nations, a linchpin of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China.
“Indian sympathies for Russia — and Russia’s support for India — reach back to the early decades of the Cold War,” observes Gery Shih in The Washington Post, “when Washington often sided with India’s archrival, Pakistan, over issues including the contested Kashmir region… Today, Russia has leased a nuclear submarine to India. Russian scientists are helping develop India’s hypersonic missile program… And yet, one other realpolitik consideration could tip India’s hand… India now considers China—which is increasingly embracing Russia diplomatically and purchasing more Russian energy and now wheat—to be its biggest threat and one that could be countered only with American help.”
Similar ambivalence is evident in Israel, America’s strongest ally in the Middle East as Shira Rubin reports in The Washington Post. This arises out of the complex and combustible politics and alliances in the region. She writes, “Israel is increasingly going public with its support for Ukraine while avoiding public condemnation of Russia, the primary backer of the Syrian regime, which is classified by Israel as an enemy state on its northern border.” This underscores the complex dynamics of global geopolitics, regional, and national politics and interests, and the fact that even allies can differ on some major issues.
Rubin reports the statement from Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, “‘We are praying for the well-being of the citizens of Ukraine and hope that additional bloodshed will be avoided… We are conducting a measured and responsible policy…’ On the ground, Israel stands with Ukraine… Bennett, however, has avoided criticizing Russia, or even mentioning it by name… Israel has not replied to several outreach attempts by Zelensky, the only other Jewish head of state outside of Israel and whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust.”
The reaction of African countries to the crisis are quite varied given their diversity. However, at the time of writing, no African country had come in support of Russia, “not even Mali and Central African Republic, where Russian forces are helping the governments fight insurgencies,” reports the BBC. “But – in a sign that autocratic regimes will stand by it – Sudan’s powerful military commander, Gen Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemeti’ Dagolo, arrived in Moscow just as the war in Ukraine started. His trip was aimed at strengthening ties with Russia, at a time when the junta has become a pariah in the West for derailing the transition to democracy after the overthrow of long-serving ruler Omar al-Bashir.” African countries are likely to come under increasing “diplomatic pressure to take sides in the escalating feud between Russia and Western powers.”
In the meantime, African students in Ukraine, who made up 20% of international students in the country in 2020, find themselves stranded and scrambling to leave. Stories of racist abuse of these students by some Ukrainians will not endear the beleaguered country to people on the continent. In such situations, the support by African embassies tends to leave a lot to be desired.
Domestic and international crises, however grave, are always mediated through the lenses of prevailing national and international political and social polarizations. In the United States, there’s the yawning Republican-Democratic divide, which is currently reflected in some of the early divergent views on the Russian-Ukrainian war. Some Republican politicians including former President Donald Trump, and pundits on Fox News such as Carlson Tucker, are loudly partial to President Putin, while many other conservatives are more inclined to blame President Biden’s “weakness” for the imbroglio.
George Will, the witty conservative columnist at The Washington Post, thinks “Putin, in his feral cunning, is Bismarckian, with a dash of Lord Nelson.” Kori Schake, who worked under the George W Bush administration, contends “The real problem in administration policy is President Biden. The insular nature of his decision-making, including his reliance on like-minded advisers, lacks rigorous thinking and fuels a kind of arrogance that can lead to unforced errors… Most egregiously, Mr. Biden let Russia know it need not fear the prospect of U.S. troops fighting to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine and postwar order, saying publicly that ‘there is not going to be any American forces moving into Ukraine.’
Nahal Toosi claims that all along President Biden has been played by President Putin. “Biden’s appeals to Putin’s geopolitical ego didn’t work. Neither did threats of sanctions, words of condemnation, emotional appeals on human rights grounds, deployments of U.S. troops to NATO countries and weapons to Ukraine, or the relatively united front put forth by the United States and its allies. Even an unusual tactic employed by the Biden administration — publicizing significant amounts of intelligence about Putin’s plans — didn’t stop the dictator. And actions that might have — maybe — changed Putin’s calculus, such as deploying U.S. troops to Ukraine itself, were not ones Biden would consider.”
On the other hand, there are those who applaud President Biden’s handling of the crisis. Jennifer Rubin, the well-known columnist in The Washington Post, concisely represents such views. She believes, “This is a defining moment for Biden, NATO and a rules-based international order… It will also test Republicans to see whether they can finally wean themselves from the increasingly anti-American former president and support Biden during the most acute international crisis since the end of the Cold War. So far, the West is performing well. The Republicans? Not at all.”
Crises also offer leaders respite from their current woes and an opportunity to show leadership. French President Macron, who undertook frantic shuttle diplomacy with Moscow is facing elections in April 2022 and hoped success would strengthen his chances for re-election. The crisis certainly provides welcome diversion for the besieged British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, barely hanging to office because of an avalanche of scandals, and an opportunity to channel his inner Churchill that he admires and fancies himself.
President Biden has seen his polls progressively drop, his agenda stalled in a recalcitrant Congress, and the prospects for the Democrats in the mid-term elections in November 2022 currently look dim. The new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who succeeded the indomitable and widely admired Angela Merkel in December 2021, has much to prove. His government suspended the massive Nord Stream 2 gas project, and upended decades of security policy by significantly expanding the defense budget and “committing to exceeding the NATO defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP ‘from now on, every year’ — a target that Germany had long failed to meet.”
The club of authoritarian populists in Europe from Britain’s Nigel Farage, France’s Marie LePen, to Italy’s Matteo Salvini, and across the Atlantic to Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro who was apparently the last major leader to meet President Putin before the invasion, have apparently been left squirming by the aggressive actions of the Russian strongman they idolized and who showered them with financial support. They looked upon him, Jason Horowitz tells us in The New York Times, “as a defender of closed borders, Christian conservatism and bare-chested machismo in an era of liberal identity politics and Western globalization. Fawning over him was a core part of the populist playbook.”
It is difficult to know with certainty the political fallout in Russia itself. A story in The New York Times by Anton Trojanovski and Ivan Necgepueenko paints an ambivalent picture. “Despite the ubiquitous propaganda machine, the economic carnage and societal turmoil wrought by Mr. Putin’s invasion is becoming increasingly difficult to obscure… Still, it appeared on Saturday that the Kremlin’s enforced blinders were doing their job, as were the clear dangers of voicing dissent… The main determining factor for what comes next, of course, will be what happens on the battlefield in Ukraine — the longer the war lasts and the greater the loss of life and destruction, the more difficult it will be for the Kremlin to cast the war as a limited operation not directed against the Ukrainian people”
There are indications that Britain and the US “are secretly preparing to arm resistance fighters in Ukraine in the event of an invasion [which] should raise red flags, and not just of the Russian variety,” reports Simon Tisdall. “The effectiveness and wisdom of intervening in other people’s conflicts by proxy, however vital the principle and however seemingly justified the cause, are open to serious question, as much of cold war-era history suggests.” He lists America’s failures in fighting proxy wars from Cuba in the 1960s, to Nicaragua in the 1980s, to Iraq in the 1990s. However, he concedes, “Most public opinion undoubtedly sympathizes with the Ukrainian citizens contemplating the destruction of their country’s independence and democracy at the point of a gun.”
The war threatens global economic recovery. The stock markets fell precipitously as war broke out and swung wildly in its immediate aftermath as sanctions against Russia were imposed and oil prices rose to a seven year high. Larry Elliot in The Guardian explains, “sanctions against Russia come at a cost to the west,” and quotes “Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, [who] pointed out to the Guardian, the crisis in Ukraine is happening at a time when the world economy is only just emerging from the pandemic. ‘It adds to uncertainty when there is already plenty of it.’”
Laura Reiley warns, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could push U.S. food prices even higher, as the region is one of the world’s largest producers of wheat and some vegetable oils. And the disruptions could drag on for months or even years, as crop production in the area could be halted and take a long time to restart.”
She enumerates several factors. “Russia’s attack has imperiled shipping in the Black Sea region, which is where much of the area’s wheat shipments are exported. And the Russian attacks could disrupt the ability of Ukrainian farmers to plant and harvest crops in 2022…. Ukraine is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of both corn and wheat. It is also the world’s largest exporter of sunflower seed oil, an important component of the world’s vegetable oil supply. Together, Russia and Ukraine supply 29 percent of all wheat exports and 75 percent of global exports of sunflower oil,”
The Harvard economist, Kenneth Rogoff, thinks Russia’s attack “threatens to exact painful economic hardships… The conflict is also forecast to worsen existing pandemic-related inflation, supply chain delays, and labor shortages in the U.S. and various nations around the world… Europe already was facing massive increases in energy prices. In Germany, natural gas prices were 10 times higher this winter than before. That’s been a big driver of inflation in Europe.”
Moreover, “Russia supplies one-third of the natural gas to Europe… Russia is also a very important supplier of many minerals; there are a lot of flight routes that go over Russia. But these economic considerations are small compared to the risks and uncertainty that are being created for Europe… Businesses don’t like uncertainty; consumers don’t like uncertainty, either. The macroeconomic effects have just started to unfold.”
Commenting in The New York Times, Patricia Cohen and Stanley Reed, examine “why the toughest sanctions on Russia are the hardest for Europe to wield… Noticeably missing from that list [of sanctions] is the one reprisal that would cause Russia the most pain: choking off the export of Russian fuel. The omission is not surprising. In recent years, the European Union has received nearly 40 percent of its gas and more than a quarter of its oil from Russia. That energy heats European homes, powers its factories and fuels its vehicles, while pumping enormous sums of money into the Russian economy.”
Blair and Dunford assert in The New York Times, “Russia’s belligerence against Ukraine is underscoring once again the inextricable link between national security and energy security. Today, Russia is flexing its energy dominance over a dependent Europe… In recent years America has been lulled into a false sense of energy independence. The shale revolution of the past decade has generated incredible supplies of vital natural gas and oil… But that is changing. Germany now depends on Russian suppliers for as much as two-thirds of its natural gas and the European Union for about 40 percent.”
Another columnist in The Guardian, Bill McKibben, stresses this is defining moment the West should seize to “defeat Putin and other petrostate autocrats.” He recalls, “After Hitler invaded the Sudetenland, America turned its industrial prowess to building tanks, bombers and destroyers. Now, we must respond with renewables… Russia has a pathetic economy – you can verify that for yourself by looking around your house and seeing how many of the things you use were made within its borders. Today, 60% of its exports are oil and gas; they supply the money that powers the country’s military machine.” This is time for Europe to invest seriously in green energy. “That Europe would not be funding Putin’s Russia, and it would be far less scared of Putin’s Russia.”
Europe will try to lessen its energy dependence on Russia by getting more gas from other regions including North Africa. Efforts to replace old fossil fuels with green energy might slacken, and global negotiations on climate change be undermined as global tensions rise. “Tackling climate change is a security threat that requires accelerated action even as international attention is focused on Russia and Ukraine, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said on Monday during a visit to Cairo,” Reuters reported. “Egypt will host the COP27 climate conference in November… But I am concerned in terms of the climate efforts that a war is the last thing you need with respect to a united effort to try to deal with the climate challenge,” Kerry said.
As for the potential impact of the crisis, given the small size of many African economies, which were gravely weakened by the Covid-19 pandemic, it will likely add to their economic woes the longer it lasts and shave rates of economic recovery and growth. According to the IMF, global growth was already expected to moderate to 4.4% in 2022 from 5.9% in 2021, and for sub-Saharan Africa from 4.0% to 3.7%. However, rising energy prices are likely to benefit the oil and gas producing countries in Africa.
In a powerful essay in the South African progressive blog, The Daily Maverick, Mark Heywood lamented the negative impact the invasion was likely to have on social justice issues. Instead of focusing on social justice day, which fell on 20 February and “the issues of hunger, inequality, a pandemic that has taken a far heavier toll on the poor – the world’s attention was elsewhere… Even before the first missiles have been fired this war has taken a dreadful toll: diverting billions of dollars into rearmament and away from tackling poverty, pandemics, education, inequality and the burgeoning climate crisis in a critical year…”
The Ghosts of History
Contemporary conflicts are invariably rooted in contested histories. The history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, and the larger history of post-World War II, the end of the Cold War, and its disputed aftermath, are extraordinarily complicated. History like any field of knowledge is littered with divergent and conflicting epistemological, ontological, and normative claims that often reflect the intellectual, ideological, and institutional proclivities and even the social biographies of the historians concerned. What can be said with considerable confidence is that the historical dynamics that unleashed the current Russian-Ukrainian war will become clearer over time.
History of course never exactly repeats itself. However, it carries useful analogies, and above all, it is a powerful repository of memories, imaginations, values, beliefs, discourses, and legacies that inform the identities, behaviors, and actions of subsequent state and non-state actors at national, regional, and global levels. Therefore, it is critical to examine the historical roots of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, to appreciate the predictable ideological and intellectual divergences of opinion on the unfolding war, the fierce struggles over representation, the combating texts and propaganda perpetrated by the opposing protagonists and pundits.
Many Euro-American leaders are haunted by memories of appeasement to the Nazis in the 1930s which, they believe, emboldened Nazi Germany and its allies to throw Europe and the world into the cataclysm of World War II. In the words of Ian Bond in The Guardian, “Despite many differences, there are echoes of 1938 in current developments. Putin may not be Hitler; Ukraine in 2022 isn’t Czechoslovakia in 1938; and French president Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, and their western colleagues aren’t some sort of collective Chamberlain. But 1938 does carry important lessons: the most important being that deterrence may seem more expensive and riskier than accommodation today, but it is essential for Europe’s long-term security.”
Peggy Noonan, the celebrated columnist in The Wall Street Journal, and a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, resists comparisons to 1938, arguing “The point is we are not repeating history. This war is uncharted territory… All the West is going to have to play a long, cool, careful game. Leaders and officials should do nothing to provoke. In Europe they should speak in one voice to the extent possible: define, describe, be precise, no histrionics. Don’t taunt. Sometimes it’s good to quiet your rousing voices and concentrate on not letting this become World War III.”
Timothy Gartin Ash, another Guardian columnist says, “Putin knows exactly what he wants in Eastern Europe—unlike the West.” He contends, “The west has contributed to this crisis by its confusion and internal disagreement about its strategic goal in eastern Europe. Essentially, the west – if one can still talk of a single geopolitical west – has spent the years since 2008 failing to decide between two different models of order in Eurasia, instead pursuing a bit of both and neither properly. We can call these models, in shorthand, Helsinki and Yalta.” Helsinki is a model for equal democratic societies, while Yalta acceded to great powers carving Europe up into western and eastern spheres of influence.
Others see parallels between the end of World War I and end of the Cold War. The former led to the vengeance of the victors in the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919, the latter in the eastward expansion of NATO into the satellite states of the defunct Soviet Union. The first left defeated Germany humiliated, and the second did the same for Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union. The Versailles settlement of 1919, some argue, facilitated the rise of the Nazis, while post-Cold War triumphalism paved the way for Russian revanchism that Europe and the world are now currently witnessing.
Intra-regional conflicts of course have never been a monopoly of Europe. All continents including Africa are littered with the destructive pulverizations of war. The difference is that since the emergence of the “new imperialism” in the late 19th century, Europe’s intra-regional and inter-state war wars have tended to engulf much of the world, most horrendously in World War I and World War II. While they were many factors behind the outbreak of those wars their ferociousness and geographical spread was exacerbated by the existence of rival alliances. At one level, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a product of the enduring rivalries between NATO and Russia since the end of Cold War as noted above.
They are reports that when Russian leaders including President Putin expressed concerns about the expansion of NATO in the 1990s and 2000s and even expressed interest in joining NATO they were brushed aside. Europe is ripping the whirlwinds of its enduring attachment to rival alliances. No continent is divided into such lethal geopolitical rivalries encrusted in formal and heavily armed rival blocks. Never having learned from history, Europe is repeating that history in this gruesome conflagration. It is a tragic irony that the contested settlement of the Cold War that had sustained strained peace in Europe, while exporting proxy wars elsewhere including Africa, should rise from the ashes and plunge Europe in a horrendous hot war.
Ukraine is in better shape than it was in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and began arming and supporting separatists in the Donbas region through “a program of radical reforms, Western military training and a significant increase in military funding [that] has left Ukraine with modern well-equipped armed forces numbering over 200,000 service people. They could put up serious resistance to a further Russian invasion. The Ukrainian army has also been bolstered by Western military aid.” At the time of writing, the Russian blitzkrieg had not yet vanquished Kyiv, or the other major Ukrainian cities as the Ukrainian army and enraged armed civilians put up fierce resistance. These are still early days of course.
Whatever the immediate outcome of the current Russian-Ukrainian war, its end will simply inscribe new memories for the protagonists that will stoke future confrontations. That is the tragedy of history, of Europe’s regional wars that have been resurrected from the past. The relatively long lull from regional wars that Europe enjoyed in the post-World War II era, which survived during the nerve-wracking tensions of the Cold War, is over.
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Pan-Africanism in the Age of Globalization: Capitalism and Poverty
This is the second 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 Chinweizu’s “Africa and the Capitalist Countries” found in General History of Africa, Volume VIII: Africa since 1935, the author discusses various aspects and key points in history that have affected African states that pursued the capitalist road to development. The author explains that after WWII, the leaders of the anti-Axis alliance sought to prevent economic rivalries and hostile competition from capitalist countries, and thus a new economic arrangement was created to “manage peace”.
The arrangement, the “Atlantic Charter”, was outlined by United States President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and instituted multilateral organizations to maintain political, economic, and military control of designated regions of the world. The Charter led to the development of the Bretton Woods agreement of 1945, where several economic institutions were created such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank system, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to manage international economic and political affairs, as well as the United Nations Organization and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which were established to manage world affairs and secure the collective defence of American and European powers, respectively. The European Economic Community (EEC) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) were later instituted to manage commerce, trade, and other economic areas of development.
The aforementioned organizations collectively made up the international structure of rules, laws, and regulations that oversaw the affairs of African states as they were co-opted into them. Moreover, the West was admittedly preoccupied with preventing the spread of Soviet influence in Africa, although such instances exist where African nations received Soviet assistance.
Chinweizu details how the West was determined to maintain its economic order and African dependence on Western powers and how, as a means of reassuring African leadership, it allowed economic development to experience forms of Africanization in order to accommodate Africans who desired political independence. This created a pattern where during the first 25 years of African political independence, any nation’s attempt towards economic development was met with efforts by the West to ensure said development maintained a pro-capitalist form. Despite African nations’ attempts to lead their own economic development in alliance and aligned with capitalists’ interests, they ultimately maintained a position similar to that prevailing in colonial times, and remained the source of economic growth for foreign nations while the economic conditions of African states deteriorated. Chinweizu states that “If anything the colonial economic relations waxed stronger” as African nations did the biding of the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, NATO, end eventually the European Union.
Is Pan-Africanism still relevant in the 21st century
Harris and Zeghidour highlight that internationally there is a need to grow the awareness of the actual numbers of majority black nations and communities, and broaden the awareness of the cultural and social influences of Africans and their descendants as they have roots and are present in South (and North) America, Asia, and the Middle East. They also provide great context about the situation and conditions African states endure in the current global political economy and note that under such conditions it is difficult for diaspora Africans and continental Africans to consistently engage free of external influence such as ideology and national issues. Moreover, the authors declare that African leaders also endure great challenges because they are faced with the prospect of either choosing to serve the interests of African descendants and Africans and affiliating themselves with an international Black network, or aligning themselves with the interest of global superpowers, which were/are apparently against the interests of Africans and African descendants based on deductive reasoning and consideration of historical events.
For example, as noted in “The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited”, “in 1945, at the end of World War II, some 700 million people around the world lived under imperial rule. They were “subject peoples”, with no freedoms, no parliaments, no democracy, and no trade unions to protect workers. Post-WWII, many former colonies throughout the world, especially within Africa, were motivated to pursue political independence based on the promises of liberation from colonial states who asked for their support during the war, and the betrayal that ensued when colonization resumed after European nations and their allies adopted the newly instituted Bretton Woods system. Harris and Zeghidour conclude by highlighting that, in their modern form, most African nations are only a generation old and that African leaders have been trained by the former colonial powers, which increases the need for Pan-African efforts among continental Africans as well as diaspora Africans, and the need to advance the welfare of Africa and its descendants.
Any nation’s attempt towards economic development was met with efforts by the West to ensure said development maintained a pro-capitalist form.
The only Pan-African Congress that has been organized in the 21st century thus far has actually occurred in phases, since the 8th Pan-African Congress took place in 2014 at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and in 2015 at the University of Ghana. Significant developments of the 8th Pan-African Congress included resolutions which upheld that: Arab and Western countries should compensate with due reparations for the damages inflicted on African people, and this should be pursued vigorously; there should be a day when black workers throughout the world stay away from work to mark the need for reparations; there is a case for reparations regarding the extensive economic and psychological damage that colonialism has done to the African people globally, and which continues today via neoliberal policies; the perspectives, roles, and actions of African women should be considered a foremost priority in all Pan-African movement initiatives; a policy including youth in all phases of future Pan-African work should be established; a commitment should be made to dedicate resources to creating and operationalizing a new Pan-African education curriculum that would not only teach STEM courses but would also teach all African children to see themselves as Africans first, and only secondarily as members of the Wolof, Zulu, or any other ethno-tribal group.
Unfortunately, African nations are only allowed to engage in economic development efforts as facilitated by international overseers such as the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, the European Union, and the United States. This point is further exemplified by developments in the international economic order such as the G20 Conference, which has South Africa as its sole African nation. Unsurprisingly, South Africa’s economic policies benefit the racial minority population, which is classified as “white”, even as the nation continues to endure high levels of economic poverty (underdevelopment) and a population that is segregated or socially stratified by income and economic status.
The example above demonstrates the need for collaboration among Africans and members of the diaspora, as opportunities to obtain education and employment in developed non-African states do little to contribute to the development of Africa and the diaspora. No matter how many recognitions of “progress” the African diaspora receives, the first Black or African this or that means very little if those individuals do not critically attempt to contribute to the diaspora en masse. Such examples of “progress” can be deduced to be gradualism and tokenism, as they celebrate “acceptance” from the global political economy, much like the Africans who had the opportunity to receive education and employment in developed nations during the 20th century.
As noted in Part I, Pan-Africanism evolved into two distinctive schools during the 20th century: racial Pan-Africanism, which seeks to unite African descendants based on racial classification and social hierarchy, and continental Pan-Africanism, which seeks to unite around issues facing the continent of Africa and African descendants world-wide. In the 21st century, both schools are more than necessary as the conditions of colonialism, slavery, and racialism have only transformed and adapted to the global economy. Therefore, it is also necessary for advocates of the Pan-African movement to develop their treatments and adapt to the current international economic order.
Pan-Africanism is undoubtedly relevant in the 21st century. However, several internal issues and exogenous factors need to be addressed by the African diaspora and by Pan-Africanists. The issues that need to be addressed are significant because they limit the ultimate capacity of Pan-Africanism and its application within the international global order.
Opportunities to obtain education and employment in developed non-African states do little to contribute to the development of Africa and the diaspora.
Whereas the miseducation of African descendants is a by-product and a necessary condition of the global political economy, this absolute truth is hardly told in public and is usually discussed in closed quarters such as the ivory towers, the policy community, and among non-profit, private, or government officials. That said, advocates of Pan-Africanism bear the responsibility of confronting and removing the self-imposed limitations, as the implications of these issues affect the entire African diaspora directly or indirectly. As mentioned above, the mistreatment and marginalization of women, the inclusion and integration of youth into Pan-African agendas, and ideological differences among Pan-Africanists are three areas of primary concern due to the diverging perspectives. The decision of the 7th Congress to create an international secretariat to manage the day-to-day affairs of the movement is an invaluable step in the right direction as it enables adherents of Pan-Africanism to meet frequently.
Thus far, the 21st century has seen many attempts to practice and operationalize Pan-African political, economic, and social ideals in contemporary society. In addition to various members of the African diaspora who are committed to raising awareness about the importance and usefulness of Pan-Africanism in modern society using digital and mobile applications such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, and Skype, as well as social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, other advocates have developed websites, podcasts, and dedicated YouTube channels to the Pan-African cause.
Students, activists, scholars, and human rights advocates interested in economic and social justice have utilized the aforementioned applications to organize protests and movements such as South Africa’s #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, Nigeria’s #EndSARS, the international Black Lives Matter movement, and most recently Howard University’s #BlackburnTakeover have all made pan-African demands and declarations. Established in 2011, Black Power Media (BPM) is an example of Pan-Africanists collaborating via YouTube to distribute news and conduct productive conversations from a Pan-African perspective. BPM describes itself as “a Black-radical independent media project” that seeks to “challenge the narrative about Black politics and the [international] Black condition.”
The contemporary era of Pan-Africanism has received significant contributions from members of civil society, elders, activists, advocates and scholars who continued to uphold the ideology and philosophy. A slew of international and national social and political grassroots organizations and campaigns, such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, and the All-African People Revolutionary Party, have organized local sections and continued to advance the movement. As members of the African diaspora continue to engage in world affairs, groups of private, multilateral, and non-governmental advocacy, policy and economic development organizations have emerged with pan-African aims, such as the African Union, the Pan-African Council and others.
The miseducation of African descendants is a by-product and a necessary condition of the global political economy.
In 2016, the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation was established at the University of Johannesburg as a flagship centre of excellence to conduct research and provide a forum for scholars, practitioners, and members of civil society across Africa and the diaspora to exchange ideas and contribute to the production of pan-African knowledge and culture. Academic journals and conferences around the world continue to receive considerable scholarship from proponents of Pan-Africanism in fields such as African and African American studies, economics, political science, history, public policy, governance, conflict resolution and more. Moreover, publishers in Africa, Europe and the US have continued to discuss the topic and, with the development of the digital era, online publications such as The Elephant have emerged as leading platforms for pan-African discourse, culture and information.
Can Pan-Africanism catalyse development in Africa?
Economic development and policy reform are boosted by political liberation, yet Africa’s new democracies continue to experience economic underdevelopment. In Democratization in Africa: Progress and Retreat, Peter Lewis considers this the “democracy-development disconnect” in his essay “Growth Without Prosperity in Africa”. Lewis notes:
“Officials and average citizens alike often note the ‘disconnect’ between macroeconomic indicators and microeconomic performance…data on poverty and human development are showing few significant improvements, and citizens report discouragement when surveyed about attitudes and economic conditions… This paradox presents a basic challenge for Africa’s new democracies. However desirable democracy may be in its own right, political liberalization does not ensure economic regeneration or improved popular welfare [and] the tension between democracy and welfare is evident…”
Lewis continues his analysis and suggests that while early observations of democracy in Africa did not outperform non-democratic African governments economically, a recent study by Brian Levy assessed 21 African states between 1975-2000 and found that African states pursuing democracy and economic reforms were more successful than non-democratic states. Despite the metrics used to assess economic growth in Africa, (GDP growth, income per capita, etc.) – which led to Levy’s assertion that democracies in Africa were economically successful – such metrics are deceiving as they conceal two important limitations. Firstly, African states are under the purview of the international economic order, which ensures that non-African states benefit from African labour more than African states due to the extraction and commodity-based economy. Secondly, democratic African states that experienced “economic progress” according to Levy, also suffered from welfare state policies, as the public welfare of citizens did not improve, which further illustrates Lewis’ point of “growth without prosperity in Africa”.
Pan-African attempts to development are centred around African-led methods to development that supersede the obstructions of capitalism, and seek to improve the political, economic and social conditions of Africa’s states as well as the diaspora en masse, despite geography. That said, one could assume that if African leaders, heads of state, institutions, and lay people within the diaspora were genuinely given the opportunity to collaborate and construct ways to catalyse said development, they would be at least moderately successful. Whereas the continent of Africa is extremely diverse, with varying histories and cultures, absolute consensus is not necessary. Members of the diaspora and Africa’s stakeholders do not need to agree on every aspect of economic and political developmental approaches; they only need to agree to eliminate any obstruction and hinderance to development, whether capitalist or non-capitalist.
Revitalised Pan-Africanism: An egalitarian and humanitarian approach
African states continue to be politically and economically dominated by a minority of global citizens who reside in developed nations (note that some of these individuals take residence on the continent), while Africans are only seemingly valued as labour. Considering the nature of development in Africa, as well as the legacy of slavery, colonialism, and contemporary issues of racialism within the diaspora, it is important to consider how the African diaspora’s unique way of creating, surviving, and thriving under extreme conditions can be applied to political and economic development in Africa. Development in Africa in the era of globalization has occurred under the guidance of international organizations and developed nations with either capitalist or socialist economic systems, which ultimately benefits foreign nations, international organizations, and non-Africans more than Africans en masse. This relationship should be mutually beneficial for Africa’s economically and socially marginalized populations to experience uninterrupted development.
In order for the 21st century to witness the improved potential of the movement, Pan-Africanists need to abolish the marginalization of African women and integrate the perspectives and input of women who have lived on the frontlines and at the intersections of the movement for centuries. Historically the role of African women has been reduced yet Pan-Africanists should be aware of the political, economic, military, social, and cultural feats and contributions of African women. Beyond their historical role as woman warrior queens, queen mothers, queen-regents, and commercial and agricultural masters, African women continue to lead, stabilize, restore and heal, and innovate social, cultural, professional, political, and economic processes and activities in nations all around the world. No nation would exist or function without the contributions, acknowledged or unacknowledged, of African women. The movement must consider these facts and reorganize or recalibrate itself so that African women are not only viewed as equal, but also that social and institutional mechanisms support women in the same fashion as women have supported the efforts of male African descendants.
African states are under the purview of the international economic order, which ensures that non-African states benefit from African labour more than African states.
Pan-Africanists must also identify mechanisms to transcend the political, economic, and socially constructed limitations imposed by political, economic, or socio-cultural ideologies and paradigms such as race, class, gender, sex, religion and political party affiliation. For example, the international Black middle class could practice Amilcar Cabral’s theory of class suicide in order to foster connections with members of the diaspora who do not have proportionally higher incomes.
Pan-Africanists must openly and actively discuss the issues brought about by miscegenation (sexual reproduction with people outside of the African diaspora) and colourism, which directly relate to what I consider the “politics of sex” and the “politics of race”. Pan-African enthusiasts need to collectively understand the unspoken rules of so-called “interracial reproduction”, or miscegenation, and social hierarchy based on skin complexion, or colourism, which are socio-political mechanisms to marginalize/reduce, or to domesticate their African-ness/Blackness (Africanity) and draw them closer to people who identify as white.
Lastly, Pan-Africanists must identify mechanisms to reduce xenophobia in all its forms within the African diaspora, including but not limited to: misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ethnic and religious-based discrimination, prejudice against immigrants, elitism, anti-homelessness, anti-intellectualism, gerontophobia (discrimination and fear of aging and the elderly), Islamophobia, and Africanophobia (fear of Africa/n related concepts).
In order to generate an example of an applicable method of Pan-African development in the 21st century and beyond, a more inclusive and global perspective is needed that incorporates all members of the diaspora. Rather than seeking consensus among supporters of Pan-Africanism, proponents need to understand the aims of the movement, create spaces for all African descendants to contribute, and not perpetuate the dehumanizing practices that were used to politically, culturally, and socially separate African descendants.
No nation would exist or function without the contributions, acknowledged or unacknowledged, of African women.
As an example, this essay suggests “Black Equalism”, which is a human rights philosophy rooted in Pan-Africanism and egalitarianism. Black Equalism seeks to advance the cultural, social, economic, and political parity of African descendants and the world at large, and to inspire and promote egalitarian thought, principles, and practices. Should such a philosophy be utilized and promoted within the diaspora, it could possibly ameliorate the impact of capitalism, which is rooted in classism and imperialism.
Egalitarianism can be defined as “the doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities”. Egalitarianism is the opposite of elitism, promotes a classless society, and advances the notion that “all members of society deserve equity and are equal despite social, political, and economic status”. By synthesizing Pan-African thought with egalitarianism in the 21st century, Black Equalism seeks to advance the cultural, social, economic, and political parity of African descendants, and to inspire and promote egalitarian thought, principles, and practices. Black Equalism seeks to promote and facilitate the development of bonds, paradigms, campaigns, entities and institutions, and social, economic, and political systems that feature, serve, develop, and incorporate all members of the African diaspora regardless of educational background, income level, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, residence, geographic location, and political and/or religious affiliations (otherwise known as social, political, or economic status).
To that effect, should individuals including but not limited to: artists, designers, writers, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, investors, philanthropists, performers, musicians, poets, community organizers, business people, scientists, engineers, technologists, teachers, or anyone interested in collective action to change the status quo actually work together, one can deduce that the diaspora and the continent would benefit.
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.
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