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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The Lion, the Gazelle and the Mountain: Migration Tales of the Cattle People
In Ateker lands, explanations about the root causes of migration are often elided, not talked about. Centuries since the young walked away from Karamoja, the migration of uninitiated young men is still a sore point.
The draining emotional stress of the last three years breaks up memory, bringing in hallucinatory waves the past as a refracted landscape. The depth of time grows deceptive so that the last weeks of March 2020 cave into a distant darkness, whereas events that happened before that, like the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals, seem more recent.
The pandemic broke up what I had thought would be a finalising of the then ten-year quest to understand the cultural and identity texture of the region’s migratory patterns. While I bemoaned the breakage, unbeknownst to me, the pandemic lockdown had, rather than interfere with the hard-earned and long-running project (self-funded), offered a very rare glimpse into the heart of the matter itself.
Dodging cattle rustlers’ bullets
I had since 2008 followed the migratory routes and fortunes of the Nilotic peoples of East Africa, and at the time of the lockdown, I had returned from the pastoralist societies straddling Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya and was lining up a place for myself on a convoy to Kangaten, the capital of the Ethiopian Woreda of Nyangatom in the Omo region, on the northern shores of Lake Turkana.
The outbreak of the South Sudan civil war and the constant and armed cattle-rustling had stymied the travel. The civil war was not going to end any time soon, and cattle rustling was as ingrained into the culture of these pastoralist lands as a pancreas is to a stomach. You had then to ascertain where the civil war was and to study the seasonal rise and fall in the rustling calendar (there is such a thing) to know when and where to jump in and out.
Doing all of which seemed to have been for naught as the world’s lights went out in March 2020. You stood frozen to the spot, unable to go over that hill, driven early indoors to watch your mind fall to bits.
And yet that moment of global catastrophe was telling me, in reverse facsimile, the very story of what I had seen as a halted project. A global pandemic lockdown and migrations of the people are metanarratives on such a vast scale that like all metanarratives, are so big that even when they seem unrelated, leave no in-between spaces as small time factors do; they feed on and reflect on each other.
If the “migration of the peoples” is movement on a monumental scale, then a global lockdown is its polar opposite, immobility of a staggering momentousness. It goes without saying that the months of 2020-2021 had turned the globe into a laboratory to show us why human beings, like sand dunes and water, must be constantly on the move.
Stood still, human society, like decaying refuse left in one place too long, stagnates and begins to fester. The rapid depletion of food stores, collapse of economies, environmental meltdown, and the sudden and harsh tyrannical power structures enforcing the lockdown, would have been the chief factors behind the 15th and 16th century disintegration of the society some experts say had settled in roughly the present day location of Kotido in northeastern Uganda.
Christ over Lodwar
As if emphasising the faith of Christians, the last and enduring insight had come from climbing a big hill in Lodwar town to go have a look at the imitation Christ the Redeemer installed to look over Lodwar town, the capital of Turkana in northern Kenya. Under the outstretched arms of Christ, the breadth of Turkana (not its considerable length) can be seen from the haze over Lake Turkana to the East, to the wall of mountains to the West that separate Kenya from Uganda.
The aridity of the Turkana landscape is one that smites the senses, as a colonial-era explorer, the murderous, psychotic Hungarian Count Sámuel Teleki de Szék summed it up:
“I can’t imagine a landscape more barren, dried out and grim. At 1.22 pm (of March 17 1888) the Bassonarok appeared, an enormous lake of blue water dotted with some islands. The northern shores cannot be seen. At its southern end it must be about 20 kilometers wide. As far as the eye can see are barren and volcanic shores.”
The “Bassonarok” is what the Samburu—who pointed it out to Teleki so he could go and “discover” it—called the lake. Teleki promptly names it after his benefactor, the Austro-Hungarian crown prince, Rudolf, who had funded the expedition, as speculation had been that this was a possible source of the River Nile.
This “dried out and grim” landscape is where the migrating Turkana chose to make their home. Little visible in the land justifies this choice, for if migration is a search for the more conducive land as the common view will have it, then on first sight this does not appear to be the place.
If the “migration of the peoples” is movement on a monumental scale, then a global lockdown is its polar opposite, immobility of a staggering momentousness.
As the Turkana themselves will tell you, their ancestors came from across that wall of mountains, from present day Uganda. In contrast to Turkana, the Karamoja region is relatively better watered and drained, with the mix of sufficient pasture and absence of tsetse fly that favours animal husbandry. The often described route of this migration itself confounds the choice.
Whatever it was that was driving the Turkana away was not climate. When I started out on the quest, my aim had been a more general travel through the pastoralist lands of the region. A gargantuan and not well-advised choice given that up to 70 per cent of the Greater Horn of Africa is said to be pastoralist. You have to be a multi-state institution, rather than a self-funding peripatetic writer to undertake such a project.
The first foray out into Turkana lands in 2012 quickly forced me to draw a smaller plan, which still covered southeastern South Sudan, northeastern Uganda, northwestern Kenya and southwestern Ethiopia, a landmass bigger than many countries.
It took all of a decade to do, with some balance left uncleared.
Down the valley
In July 2012, I set off from Kitale on a recceing trip to size up the task, dropping down the escarpment and onto the floor of the Kenyan North Rift. At Kalem Ngorok, I happened to ask what the name of the place meant.
“Hornless cattle”, I was told.
From my formative years in boarding school in Teso in Uganda, I knew that Ngorok meant cattle. I had probably had an inkling of Kalem, but the connection that among the Luo-speaking Lango alem referred to hornless cattle, struck me like thunder out of a clear sky.
As I made my way back to Kitale, the premise upon which I had based the project started to fray and in the months that followed, grew confused, and what Kalem Ngorok had implanted in my mind would not go away.
As the Turkana themselves will tell you, their ancestors came from across that wall of mountains, from present day Uganda.
The pivot away from the original framing meant working out another. The ensuing search sent me scrounging through theology, culinary culture, language, naming systems, clan formation—all areas that yielded valuable knowledge but still did not adequately add up. Without a framework, information is just a pile of meaningless data. But frameworks are not useful just because they exist. The trick was finding one that went to the heart of the matter.
I did not find one; it found me. In the rain-soaked April of 2018, I was determined to make it to South Sudan. My target was Kapoeta, capital of the South Sudan state of Namorunyang. The route that I chose was via Turkana, seeing as it would also be my first time visiting Lodwar, hence bringing the insights that come from contiguity into the mix.
I had by then learnt that the collective terminology by which the pastoralist group I narrowed my quest down to was “Ateker”. But this grouping is too big to look at all at once, so I settled for those who the Ugandan politician, David Pulkol controversially refers to as “core Ateker”—the Karamojong of Uganda, the Turkana of Kenya, the Toposa of South Sudan and the Nyangatom of Ethiopia who oscillate problematically within their collective circle.
In Lodwar, in the shadow of the great gathering of the Ateker peoples in the Tobong Loree festival that brought many Ateker from the region together, conversations yielded a word, “Asapan”. It was to be the turning point.
I liked it for that clipped, exact phonetics of which the Ateker language overflows. I did not pay much attention to it nor think it was more important than the other words and constructions I was meeting. What I liked about it at the time was its cultural texture, describing as it did the male rite of passage from an uninitiated youth to a full man allowed to slaughter bulls. Among the cattle keepers, the bull is held in special, god-like status. There is a becoming complexity to this, for while in economic terms the cow is of greater value, exchanging for 13 goats where the bull will collect only 7 good grade goats, the bull is special for spiritual and cultural purposes. For insight, a young man will have a bull calf pointed out as his. Henceforth, the two grow up as what can only be described as spiritual twins. They will share a name. When a young warrior returns successfully from a battle or raid, he is expected during the celebration to decorate his bull. He is mentioned in reference to his bull. Should his bull have a red coat, he will be given the pet name Apaloreng, and if black, Apalokwang, etc. Stories are told of men going into terminal shock upon the death or abduction of their bulls, and in Kapoeta, I was told that a man whose bull had been rustled, and who followed its track, began to walk into the fire in which the bull was being roasted.
To loosen the tongue of an Ateker man, start a conversation about bulls. To not be thought man enough to slaughter a bull has profound spiritual and political implications. And in what will have a bearing in the central theme of this essay, a man who cannot slaughter a bull has no political influence, cannot talk in an assembly and is the last to eat and drink.
This aspect of Asapan—the rite of passage allowing a man to slaughter a bull—fascinated me all the way to Kapoeta. And yet, the velocity of the provisional framing I had created was still bearing me forth, hence, I was interested in finding words which, like Kalemngorok, would explain to me just how connected to my Lango these peoples of the arid cattle fields were.
The lion, ostrich and mountain sets
In Kapoeta I asked what Toposa meant. They said to me, “We were heading west during our migration”.
“West?” I asked and before they could respond, I said, that is what “To” means, right?
They nodded in agreement. So I said, in that case, “The Toposa word for East is Kide?”
They were struck silent that a man from Lango in northern Uganda, so far from home, would know this. There were others that left me disoriented. Those who will remember the news from yesteryears will recognise the name Fr. George King’a. He was a South Sudanese priest and politician who played important roles in both the united Sudan and in peeling the South off it. There is more to him. But by the time I got to Kapoeta, I had gotten into the habit of asking the meaning behind everything. And so in Kapoeta, sitting next to his grave and talking to his nephew, then Kapoeta MP, Hon. Emmanuel Epone Lolimo, told me that his uncle, Fr. King’a had been so named because he was born at the border point of Kapoeta and Riwoto.
Where I was myself born, the line separating one allotment from the other, is called “wang king’a”.
That was as far as the words and names were concerned. Sitting there, just listening to the people, the texture of their voices and mannerisms, I could have been in any place in Lango. I had never met such close relatives of Lango before.
It was another word, this time in English, that pushed me further to understand the connection between asapan and why the Turkana most likely left Karamoja and chose to live in the desert instead. One evening, in Kapoeta, at Lorika’s Hotel where I stayed, I was in a small group with the governor, Louis Lobong and three of his state’s ministers discussing Toposa society when I started to understand the significance of asapan.
When a young warrior returns successfully from a battle or raid, he is expected during the celebration to decorate his bull.
One of the ministers, Lorika himself, drew an organogram of age sets and explained to me what he called “promotion”. These age sets proceed by order of birth, by which men born in a certain period belong in a socio-political cluster with influence. These age sets, like the generation sets, are mostly named after animals or mountains, so there is the mountain set—Ngimoru, ostrich set—Nguwana, gazelle set—Ngigetei, lion set—Ngingatunyo, etc.
(The age sets go by different names among the numerous Ateker groups, and one incredible man I met in Lodwar, Boniface Korobe, has traced the lineages back to the 1730s or thereabouts, when the effective split with Jie began for Turkana.)
I then asked about the generation age-set.
The response to this simple question removed the scales from my eyes.
They explained that ever since the Toposa left Jie (who live in present day Kotido), they had lost the generation set system. In their explanation, the ancestors of the Toposa had left without the transfer of power that a retiring generation proffers to their sons. No longer standing in the darkness, a lot about the Ateker began to make sense. This “leaving”, as I was to understand it again and again, had not been made in good stead.
Becoming a full man at 70
Unravelling this would take me all of another year. How I undertook the project was to save enough money to last me a handful of weeks at a time. But before then, and when I returned to Moroto in Karamoja, the significance of asapan was no longer in doubt. I met an old man, John Napua who told me that he had received asapan at the age of 70, whereupon he felt like a full man. He was inducted into the Ngimoru generation set and wears the defining copper bracelet of his set. He did not have to tell me what that meant. A posse of young men, when I sat down with Napua in Naita Kwai, just outside Moroto town, circled him the same way that powerful politicians or bishops, are shadowed by aides.
There was a sad subtext to the story of Napua. During his childhood in the 1950s, his family had lost all their animals in one single raid. The further deaths of his sisters meant there would be no dowry to return animals to his family. They did not have boys in numbers and age enough to carry out compensatory, restocking raids. Napua and his family fell out of the structures of power. His father did not have the animals to fund his sons’ asapan when the time came. The one open option, albeit to an alternative, viable life, was to be sent to the colonial government schools. As a man who could read and write, and speak English, Napua found employment in the civil service. But it was not asapan and the distinction counted.
Lopiar, The Sweep
There was a further twist to this, and reconnects directly to the fate of the Ateker. The tragic 1980 famine that swept across much of Africa had a deleterious impact on the Ateker. In what is memorialised there as “Lopiar” —The Sweep, from the root verb Apiar, to sweep—it is estimated that the Ateker lands lost up to 21 per cent of their population. The sheer magnitude of this tragedy was in Uganda subsumed by the return of President Milton Obote to power, the elections of that year and the beginning of the Museveni rebellion.
What it meant was that the cholera outbreak and the death of cattle stock set Ateker societies back several generations. In Karamoja, there was no stock wealth to enable the expensive asapan ceremonies to be carried out. The impact was profound as Karamojong society was without effective government, albeit a traditional one. For the decades starting in 1980 till the 2010s, Karamoja nearly suffered the complete loss of generational age set linkages to ensure continuity of its political system.
A man who cannot slaughter a bull has no political influence, cannot talk in an assembly and is the last to eat and drink.
And yet that does not explain why Napua was initiated so late in life. That belongs to an age-old paradox and critique of gerontological systems generally, and may partly explain why so many branches of the Ateker family were forced to migrate and why some, like the Teso and Lango, were easy prey to absorption by other societies.
The age set system is simple to understand. Boys born within the range of say a five-year radius are considered members of the same age set. This means the rhythm of initiation is regular. But the generational set system is where the challenge lies. The generation set systems stump even scholars to unwind. The little I understood runs something like this: A generation refers to male issues of males of a similar generation, the entire progeny of an entire generation of fathers, by which the grandfathers are one generation, the fathers a second generation, sons a third and so on and so forth, each holding power in turns. That is about the simplest explanation. The complication lies in the peculiarity of pastoralist societies. Men can only marry when cattle are available, so Ateker men married comparatively late, often in their mid to late 20s and at times, in their early 30s. Then, they did not stop marrying, with the result that a first born son may be in his 50s when his own father sires a last born son, by which time he himself could well have sons in their late 20s. And those sons may well be fathers already. It is not uncommon that men will have uncles as young as their own grandsons. So the problems start.
As happened with Napua, the 50-year-old son belongs in the same generation as his 1-year-old step-brother. Assuming that the 50-year-old’s father had himself been the last born of his own father, the society is left with a generational range that can stretch up to 120 years. By this range, the 30-year old son is considered to be generationally junior to his 1-year old uncle. Political power is unlikely to come to the 30 year old. The oldest member of that generation could have died in the 1890s while in 2022, the youngest member is still alive. The 80-year old nephew would have died powerless in the 1980s.
It is a system that boggles the mind, or as Boniface Korobe, cultural researcher and official at the Turkana County Government office explained to me, it is a system that can only be explained to you; you may not necessarily understand it.
The result is political and psychological despair for men caught out in the middle generations. Picture Ateker men already in their 80s sitting waiting for their 10-year old uncles to age, assume political power and hand it over to them.
Migrating from political rigidities
In Ateker lands, explanations about the root causes of migration are often elided, not talked about directly because it is so personal and not without pain. Centuries since the young walked away from Karamoja, the migration of uninitiated young men is still a sore point. It is explained that it was these uninitiated young men—the Karachuna—who walked away with their old men’s grazing herds (lactating herds are kept closer to kraals to provide milk) and never returned. It is this sense of betrayal that the Karamojong still hold to this day, since the 1600s and 1700s, against the Lango, the Teso, the Turkana, the Toposa, the Nyangatom. What outsiders call cattle rustling boils down to calls for the migrants—seen as cow thieves, to bring those animals back, and the retaliation to regain them. But the order of who started it has since been lost in the back and forth grabbing of the herds.
Sitting there, just listening to the people, the texture of their voices and mannerisms, I could have been in any place in Lango.
As to why they left is a matter of analytical discourse and most explanations, including the one I am attempting here, are subject to strong challenges. But the gathering weight of pre-initiation men, who were coming of age, but were two to three generations waiting in line, and whose own elderly fathers were still taking young brides much to the chagrin of the very young men charged with maintaining them, would have rankled. To boot, it is this pre-initiation generation that are tasked with the equivalent of civil service duties, the generation set being political heads. With the imprimatur of asapan, and their hegemony in full force, the elders are that glittering circle of senatorial authority (senator deriving from the Latin word senilis, old—a senate literally meaning a council of elders), whose presence grants such magnificence at the Ateker Akiriket ceremonies. It is they that can slaughter bulls. They have first service rights. No crafted political decision is taken without their approval.
And yet, it is for the pre-initiation age set young men to carry these decisions out. Without formal power and uncertain about their place in the pecking order, the karachuna are often a troublesome lot; it is often they that you see in pictures or footage of Ateker men caught rustling livestock.
Away in the fields of 17th century Karamoja, and despairing at never gaining political power, why should they return to a life of tyrannical senators? It is a conjectural extrapolation. But it is one with very strong points to make. The glittering Akiriket ceremonies I described of Ateker hosts in full regalia of ostrich-plumed aworich headgear, with the authority of a generation in power, are sadly, meaningful mostly held in Karamoja.
When the young men migrated, the elders considered them lost—dead. In fact, it is believed that the word “Teso” may be translatable to “grave”, as the Karamojong considered their errant sons already dead to them. Such was the sense of betrayal felt back home. In a socio-political sense, the migrants were dead as the societies they founded were politically null and void. There was no one with respectable authority to call things to order. If they came upon a simpler political system such as the Lango when they encountered the Luo, kick-starting their politics meant adopting other people’s systems, in what amounted to a political reform. But at the price of losing language, gods, names and culture. To carry on without the generation with power at hand would be the equivalent of a ministry without a political head to approve decisions.
A further supporting factor to this argument of generation-system collapse is that those who left referred derisively to those they left behind as the elderly men in charge, hence the terminology, Karamojong—from the root noun emojong, the elderly. In Karamoja, the enlightened don’t want that name and prefer to be called Karatunga (the people).
In Turkana and Toposa, I was told that the generation system “ended so long ago” it is no longer possible to trace it. But even if it is traced back, the permission and blessing of the Jie, generally referred to as “our ancestors” by the Ateker diaspora, and who sit firmly in this knowledge in Kotido, would be needed for the generational age set to be reinstated, for as with church matters, only a consecrated bishop can consecrate a new bishop. Out of all proportions, the Turkana and Toposa still make entreaties for the Jie to do this.
The price for that, alas, is that the animals the young took be returned. Which is unacceptable.
Ateker in the post-independence state
Hence, in Turkana, as Boniface Korobe explained to me, there is asapan “lite”, no more than a marking of passage for boys and only marking the coming of age of age sets. There is little political force in it. It is the same in Toposa.
There is nothing untypical about this sad supply-end of migration. The European migration into “new worlds” was precipitated by dominative and frozen aristocratic systems, which after the collapse of the church in the Reformation, closed common lands and widened the wealth and power gaps between aristocrats and peasants. To boot, the collapse of what I am at times tempted to call the Ateker Empire corresponds to the period of general collapse of empires in Africa, whose roots trace back to antiquity. There is more to this story. As with new polities created by migrants fleeing ossified political systems, the Ateker in diaspora created what amounts to republics, to guard against age tyranny. Tragically, colonialists saw these societies as acephalous for not having the kinds of monarchies seen in the south. Tragic because the post-independence state carried on the cruel ignorance of colonialists in mistreating the Ateker.
The tragic 1980 famine that swept across much of Africa had a deleterious impact on the Ateker.
The price for this breakage has arisen in our own times to exact a terrible political price. In Karamoja, the 1989 famine stymied the rise to power of a new generation. This failure was marked by the lack of control of the 1990s and early 2000s when the karachuna, without powerful elders to command their obedience, and armed with the lately acquired AK47 (another story altogether), ran amok. The resulting raids and counter-raids destroyed Ateker society and were fought on the scale of civil wars. It was only in Karamoja, where the generation set system was salvaged from the ruins of the 1980 famine, that elders have managed to finally hold sway over the youth. The Museveni government takes credit for “pacifying” Karamoja, but it was the respected word of the elders—men like Napua—that convinced the youth to lay down their guns.
In comparison, there was no such voice in Turkana or Toposa to help Nairobi and Juba to disarm their pastoralists. Because these pose threats from Kenya and South Sudan, Karamoja began to re-arm.
Book Review: Power, Politics and the Law by Githu Muigai
Prof Githu Muigai book, whose full title is Power, Politics and Law: Dynamics of constitutional change in Kenya, 1887- 2022 delves into the history of constitutional change from the colonial era to the present day, and will be found helpful by those looking for an overview of the key developments in our constitutional history.
Kenyans are often chided for not being interested in their history, a claim that I find as reductive as it is insulting. There are many Kenyans who are interested in—and actually learn—our history, at least the one that has been presented to us. Even where we know that the history presented to us is curated to serve particular ends, we consume it and also attempt to read between the lines. Furthermore, history is not just what is written. There is a good tradition of oral history that helps us critique what has been presented to us in books.
That being said, it is delightful when Kenyan scholars and intellectuals set their sights on documenting various aspects of Kenyan history and offering it to us. In recent years, we have seen the publication of numerous memoirs by public figures that are, to varying degrees, helping us to catch glimpses of our history and of that part of our society that many of us do not have access to. These are useful and we need more of them; hopefully better written and more honest ones. However, we also need analytical texts that delve into particular topics in depth. Prof Githu Muigai’s book Power, Politics and Law: Dynamics of constitutional change in Kenya, 1887- 2022, published in 2022 by Kabarak University Press, is one such intervention.
Githu’s book presents a history of constitutional change from the colonial era to the present day. Overall, the book feels very much like a series of lectures that Prof Muigai would deliver to his Constitutional Law classes at the university. The core argument that he advances in the book, that constitution making is political, is a fairly straightforward one. Still, the book has important gems that are worth encountering. The book has a textbook feel, which is at once helpful and frustrating. It will no doubt be helpful for those looking for a consolidated overview of the key developments in our constitutional history. However, it will frustrate those who are looking for more depth into the political dynamics undergirding constitutional development, who Prof Muigai may argue are not his target audience. This notwithstanding, I have found the book useful and will certainly be referencing it in my writing because it documents things that we know but whose sources we may struggle to find and name.
The initial chapters of the book—especially chapters 2 and 3—kept me fully in their grip because they presented me with a history of Kenya that I have not encountered before, or that has not been presented to me in the systematic manner that Githu presents it. In my history classes both in primary school and secondary school, I learnt about Kenya’s colonial history from the Berlin conference of 1885 (the Partition of Africa), the entry of Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company and the arrival of notable figures like Lord Delamere. We also learnt about the struggle for independence, the Lancaster Constitution and its mutilation in the post-independence years. In that sense, not much of what Githu presents here is new. Githu’s innovation—that I find incredibly helpful—is in drawing clear linkages between the various historical events that were presented to us as distinct and somewhat unrelated. He helps the reader to see the bigger picture.
Githu offers us some important historical insights that many readers will not have encountered. While the emergence of the Kenyan state is quite well known, the nuances of how the Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) company adopted and applied Indian Laws to Kenya are less well known. From Githu’s book, I learnt that the idea of dividing the territory into provinces and districts emanated from India. Additionally, Githu offers an interesting and nuanced historical analysis of the politics of European settlers in Kenya. We learn, for instance, that the settlers campaigned for Kenya to be made a colony in 1905 through their lobby group that was called The Colonists Association. Githu notes that their claims for Kenya to be made a colony were based on the idea that “a system of taxation without representation was unsatisfactory”. He also shows divisions between them as illustrated by the refusal of Lord Delamere, the leader of the settlers, to take up his appointment in the Legislative Council (Legco) in March 1913.
Githu’s innovation is in drawing clear linkages between the various historical events that were presented to us as distinct and somewhat unrelated. He helps the reader to see the bigger picture.
While I find the nuanced and complex picture of the settlers that Githu presents fascinating, it is also one of the sources of my frustration with the book, especially with respect to the treatment of Africans in the text. It is painfully obvious that Africans are completely absent from the early part of the book. As such, it appears as if the Kenyan state emerged in the complete absence of Africans. Assigning the same level of complexity to Africans as he does to the European settlers would have led Prof Muigai to note the collaboration and resistance of Africans to colonial rule. In fact, the first African to emerge in the book is Eliud Mathu (on page 72). We learn that he was a graduate of Balliol College at the University of Oxford who was nominated to the Legco in 1940s. This points to another challenge I have with the book: its focus on the elites. Notably, only the political elite and Western scholars are named in the main text of the book. Even where some Kenyan scholars are quoted directly and their contributions seem central to the argument being advanced in the text, Githu refers to them in generic terms, such as “student”, “scholar”, “historian”, with their names being relegated to the footnotes.
I need not go into his elaborate examination of pre-colonial constitutional change from 1945 to 1960, which he examines in Chapter 3, as this is probably well understood by anyone who is familiar with Kenyan colonial history. It is worth noting, however, that he presents a very useful overview of the various constitutions, from the Lyttleton Constitution to the Lennox-Boyd Constitution. He then proceeds, in Chapter 4, to examine the Lancaster conferences and the making of the Independence Constitution. Again, as these developments are widely presented in Kenya’s political history, it is not necessary to go into much detail here except to note how some of the conflicts between the political elite continue to resurface, albeit in varied forms, in present-day Kenya. One example here is on the structure of the executive representation. Here, Githu demonstrates that change has been a core part of our constitutional history because we have consistently postponed the most complex political questions that we face as a country.
Githu’s core argument is very adequately advanced in the latter part of the book (Chapters 5 to 8), where he examines constitutional change in post-colonial era. There are many gems here showing how elite conflicts were converted into constitutional questions, followed by constitutional amendments in some cases. Whenever the law was seen as an impediment to the exercise of power, it was changed. While society groups and foreign actors are completely absent in Githu’s analysis of the political and constitutional development of the 1960s to the 1980s, they emerge in a strong sense in the analysis of the period from the 1990s onwards. A divide that I find interesting here is between the mainstream churches, many of whose leaders stood against autocracy, and the evangelical churches that did not, saying that they were committed to “praying for the Government in obedience to the word of God and praying for those in authority”. This is an area that will require more scholarly engagement in the coming days especially given the ascendancy of evangelical Christianity in Kenya.
There are many gems here showing how elite conflicts were converted into constitutional questions, followed by constitutional amendments in some cases.
Githu also presents a good overview of the politics of expertise. He notes that the role of experts in the constitutional review process began with a consultancy offered by the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) to draft a model constitution. He then traces how “experts” came to increasingly occupy a central place in the drafting of the constitution that was eventually adopted by Kenyans in 2010. Here, it is curious that Githu fails to acknowledge that he was one of these “experts”. Even the reader who is not aware, going into the text, that Githu was a key actor in those processes will be made aware in the foreword by Prof Willy Mutunga, legal scholar and former Chief Justice, that Githu was a commissioner in the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (2000-2005). Githu would later become Attorney General. This is a crucial omission. Honesty about his involvement in these processes would be crucial at this point because it would not only help the reader understand the lens through which Githu is presenting his analysis of the processes that he is involved in but also how his experiences shape how he interprets the past. It is important to acknowledge that, ultimately, there is no such thing as a neutral observer, let alone a neutral participant. This section of the book leaves the reader feeling that there is a wealth of insight that we have not been offered. Perhaps, this is reason enough for Githu to document his experiences elsewhere.
My key takeaways from the book are that inter-elite conflicts have been and will continue to be central to the making of constitutions in Kenya and that the core areas of conflict in Kenya are never fully resolved, meaning that they will keep resurfacing.
On the inter-elite conflicts, Githu adds to the existing commentary showing how our political leaders play an ongoing game of musical chairs (forming and leaving alliances constantly) and changing their policy positions guided by contingent political realignments. One may vehemently oppose a constitutional amendment today and become its most ardent defender tomorrow and vice-versa. There are so many examples of this phenomena that it is not necessary to present any here.
On the “never-quite-done” point, devolution presents a good example. It has been an issue from the pre-colonial days to the present day, and as Githu observes, is likely to continue being debated into the future. The structure of the national executive is another example whose continuity is best illustrated by the efforts of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to re-establish the position of Prime Minister—by whatever name—and the appointment of Musalia Mudavadi to such a position (Prime Cabinet Secretary) by President Ruto recently.
Following his extensive historical survey of constitutional development in Kenya, I think that Githu aptly identifies the areas where efforts to review the 2010 constitution will emerge: devolution, senate, gender representation and the system of government, particularly as it relates to the structure of the executive. I would add that paying attention to the ascendancy of the evangelical movement, the issues on which the evangelical movement and the leadership of the current government campaigned against the 2010 constitution, such as abortion and Kadhi’s Courts, are likely to re-emerge.
Githu aptly identifies the areas where efforts to review the 2010 constitution will emerge.
In the end, Githu is optimistic about the 2010 constitution. He argues that “a rigid Constitutional amendment procedure, an active and vigilant citizenry, and the presence of activist judges in the Judiciary” will serve to anchor the resilience of the 2010 constitution. As such, he predicts that the fate that befell the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) is likely to befall many of the reform efforts that are likely to emerge. I would like to agree with him. However, my reading of Kenyan politics, and given that none of the factors he notes are immutable, makes me more reticent about this outcome. To me, the resilience of the 2010 constitution remains to be seen; that is, if one is to say that it is the resilience of the constitution that matters more to the Kenyan people rather that its dynamism.
The Crisis of the US dollar: Lessons From the Meltdown in Britain
The progressive forces in Europe and North America must join with the Global Social Justice Movements and embrace the global call for a New International Economic Order
Citizens of the Global South need to organize at all levels to abort the threat of neo fascism internationally. These societies will have to organize to defend living standards, save the environment and build effective finance and trading blocks to stop the transfer of the costs of the financial crisis onto the backs and shoulders of the peoples of the Global South. The accelerated push for the de dollarization of the international financial system will intensify the push of US militarists and prop up neo fascist forces.
Where are we now?
The political and economic implosions in Europe in the midst of the global meltdown of capital has tremendous implications for all peoples of the world, but especially for peoples of the Global South. Within the countries of Africa there are military interventions, increased hunger, massive displacements of youth, instability for poor farmers and workers along with a reckless outflow of capital generated by the supine African political class. In most of Asia, the working peoples are seeking defensive measures to ensure that global capital does not intensify the pain of the people. Especially in the ASEAN states, the presence of alternative bases for financial and trading relations ensure that finance capital does not have full sway over all sections of society.
The COVID -19 pandemic has alerted peoples in all parts of the world to struggle for universal health care and to control the big pharmaceutical industries. Within the Americas, it is in the region of Latin America where there is now a vigorous social movement to challenge the local forces that represent the International Monetary Fund and finance capital. From Bolivia to Chile and from Colombia to Peru, the mass of the peoples has resorted to electoral struggles to oppose the local representatives of foreign capital. These electoral victories provided some political space for Cuba and Venezuela.
Within the USA, the ruling Democratic Party controls all three branches the political system: the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, but they have been too compromised to stand up to finance capital, the barons of Wall Street and big Pharma. With the frustrations of the working people bubbling over, the conservative sections of the political class have resorted to nativism and the crudest forms of white supremacist mobilization to divide the over 160 million employed in the country. The traditional trade union formations have been unable to build a coherent organizational platform to address the needs of a diverse workforce. After four decades of the deindustrialization of the society, with capital shifting jobs to cheaper labor markets, the traditional working class hubs in the midwestern states have succumbed to the appeals of those who are demanding to Make America Great Again (MAGA). The strategy of mobilizing collective ignorance and illiteracy about the realities of the global economy ensures that even so-called economists and pundits are naive about global shifts. Dependence on the narrow band of information coming from their English counterparts reinforce a false sense of the global balance of forces. In this narrow frame, the so called ‘special relationship’ represents another blinder from grasping the dynamic forces at work globally, and especially in Europe. The challenges posed by the war in Ukraine and by the move to neo fascism are whether the entire planet will be engulfed in the unforeseen circumstances of the weaponization of everything.
All over Europe, the political and economic disasters have been exacerbated by the intensification of militarism in the Ukraine front. This Russian invasion of Ukraine emanated from the unresolved contradictions that precipitated two imperialist wars starting in 1914. This current war has brought to the surface the full implications of the fragility of the US political system as de dollarization accelerates around the world. Citizens in all continents are confronted with the deep effects of runaway profiteering by the billionaire class, escalating food and energy costs, inflation, extreme climate catastrophes, insecurities and deteriorating economic conditions for all but the super-rich. In the absence of the tools available to the Federal Reserve in North America, the European political managers have increased interest rates to the point where many homeowners cannot afford to pay their mortgages. Many small businesspersons are finding it difficult to survive. Workers are threatening to carry out industrial actions to defend their standard of living.
The United States energy czars are demanding that the Europeans pay four times the price for natural gas so that the Europeans can disconnect their energy supplies from Russia. So far, the Germans have been able to offer a 200 billion Euro subsidy to the German people for the coming winter, but most of Europe are sacrificing their societies to please the militarists in the United States. In the midst of these economic pressures, it is the white racists and neo fascists who are reaping the political benefits. One has seen this trend already in Italy and Sweden where the neo fascists are coming to dominate the political spaces. In France, the neo–Fascist National Party are now the top political force in the country. The political strength of the extreme right in the USA forced President Biden to warn the society of ‘the threat of a rising fascistic movement to the stability of the republic, which is to say that undercurrents, or elements of fascistic politics in America have steadily grown more extreme in recent decades, particularly in recent years under Trump’s presidency.”
It is in the British Isles where the delusions of Global Britain are manifest in the circus variety performance with the political ups and downs of the ruling conservative party. After succumbing to the xenophobic appeals of the push to leave the European Union (Brexit), the British workers are now faced with a political and economic class who have no interest in seeking to lessen the pain of the working people. The ascension of the multi-millionaire Rishi Sunak to be the Prime Minister is being celebrated as the advent of diversity with a nonwhite as the Prime Minister, but Sunak is openly contemptuous of working people. His utterances have been consistent with his social class, with the added naivete of one who have been cut off from the reality of working people all of his short life. The British media welcomed his becoming the third Prime Minister in four months saying, “Ultra rich, young and the first person of colour to become UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak will also make history as the first practising Hindu to lead the country.” Sunak once boasted that he had changed Labour party policies “which shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas” so that funding could go to wealthy towns instead.
This is the current imperial strategy to shift resources from the poor to the rich. As the dominant imperial power for centuries, Britain had been the master at covering up genocidal policies and criminal acts of plunder. The Global Reparations movement has brought out these crimes to the point where even insiders such as Ferdinand Mount have written on the “The Tears of the Rajas.” Rishi Sunak is not about to call on Britain to account for the crimes of the British East India Company.
For four centuries, Britain had presented itself as a bastion of the rule of law, fair play and the stability of the financial and political system. This exaggerated representation of British capital had been challenged by the anti-colonial forces in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. After the Suez debacle of 1956, the British rulers had been able to attach themselves to the US dollar in a ‘special relationship’ which meant that Britain would be junior partners in halting self-determination projects globally. In this 2022 moment, even that ‘special relationship’ is being tested as the IMF and the US ruling classes are seeking to punish the British for not carrying out the necessary propaganda work to ensure that now dead Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng subsidies to capital were properly marketed by the right-wing media. The now disgraced Liz Truss and her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng attempted to force the subsidies for the capitalists in a mini budget after the funeral ceremonies of Queen Elizabeth II. The plan, presented by Kwarteng on September 23, promised huge tax cuts and increased borrowing. Kwarteng’s proposed mini budget included a plan to scrap the highest rate of income tax to 40% from 45%, which was later abandoned after public anger. A removal of the cap on bankers’ bonuses also deep fury amid a cost-of-living crisis hitting British families. It quickly plunged the value of the pound and government bonds over fears that it would further juice inflation at a time when prices are already rising at their fastest rate in about 40 years. That prompted the Bank of England to warn of a serious risk to UK financial stability and announce three separate interventions to calm a bond market meltdown that put some UK pension funds on the brink of default.
The objection of the IMF and the money markets was not that billions of dollars were to be handed out to the corporations and the super-rich. It was that they were not funded by cutting spending but by an increase in government debt to the tune of close to 70billion pounds.
The current implosion of the ruling elements in Britain is now opening the eyes of working peoples in other parts of the globe. Because the British represented themselves as global players, the effects of the political crisis in Britain have global implications. It is now important to have a short review of the new tensions that have arisen for the pound and the dollar in the face of the current global crisis of capitalism,
Bring back Thatcherism in the 21st century
After the decolonization struggles of the sixties and the failure to roll back the forces of national independence, the bankers of North America and Europe popularized the ideas of Milton Friedman that capital should be given free rein to the point of rolling back the social gains of health, education, pensions, and social security of social democratic capitalism. Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were two economists from the period of World War II who opposed Keynesian economics. These economists were rescued by the conservative political wave of Reaganism and Thatcherism at the end of the seventies when most of the countries of the world were calling for a New International Economic Order (NIEO). By1971, the refrain of Friedman was that sole responsibility of a company is to its shareholders, the mantra of shareholder value and the relentless pursuit of profits must be the raison d’être of capital. This was the ideological legitimation to conceal the big push for the US dollar to recover and for the United States to launch a campaign of the military management of the international system.
The story of Thatcherism and Margaret Thatcher is now well known by citizens who oppose hyena type capitalism. Her party in 1979 enthusiastically agreed to this deal of the military management of the system with the City of London and the financial sector of Britain acting as the back stop for the forms of illicit financial activities that could not pass the eyes of the tame US Congressional Committees. The Thatcherite years of so called ‘growth, growth’ economic agenda was pushed through on the basis of the massive repression of the British working class, most vividly expressed in the crushing of the mine workers union. Finance capital cheered on both sides of the Atlantic as the banks and financial houses with Goldman Sachs in the lead went on a vigorous campaign to roll back social democracy all over Europe.
Despite the Friedman doctrine that the state should leave economic outcomes to the market, after four years of the Reagan Administration, the US was faced with a large budget deficit and high interest rates. The twin problems of budget deficit and high interest rates had fueled a relentless climb in the dollar, opening a huge gap in the trade balance. The state did not stay out of the marketplace. In September 1985, the Reagan Administration forced the Germans and Japanese buy yen and marks to reduce the value of the dollar. (The Plaza Accord, 30 Years Later | NBER) When the Germans and the Japanese attempted to protest by calling on the US to be fiscally responsible and cut their budget deficit, Reagan quipped that the sacrifices of Germany and Japan were needed because the US had troops on their soil protecting them from communism.
The folly of the Wall Street strategy of feeding greed and speculation was brought out in the open in the big stock market crash of the US in October 1987. In response to the crash—at more than 22 percent, one of the largest one-day fall in history—then chair of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, committed the Federal Reserve to supply the stock market with all the liquidity it needed. This policy of the Federal Reserve was to become a permanent component of US militarism as the US understood that every major financial crisis led to the strengthening of the US dollar. Hence since 1987, this Greenspan Guarantee to the financial market became official policy. This was policy that whenever the speculative activities of Wall Street produced a crisis, the Fed would be on hand to bail it out and provide more money with which to finance new levels of speculation. This was the Fed’s response to every financial storm in the 1990s and into the first years of the new century. This promise was to be restated after the 2008 financial meltdown when the US came up with the policy of Quantitative Easing (QE) where the federal Reserve of the US bought up treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities, which was basically printing dollars.
After the October 1987 crash which reverberated around the world, the German French alliance had deepened in the face of the dollar becoming a fiat currency. The removal of the gold backing for the US dollar in August 1971 had induced the, then, French president Charles De Gaulle to rail against the Exorbitant Privilege of the Dollar. France and Germany were going to align to challenge the Exorbitant privilege by the expansion of German capital in Europe, the deepening of French imperial exploitation of Africa.
The push for deeper European financial and monetary integration accelerated with the Treaty of Maastricht that laid the legal architecture for the emergence of the European Union. The Union was established after the enlargement of the German base for accumulation across Southern Europe spread to Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today the EU embraces 27 states across Europe. After the Reagan bullying of the Plaza accords, both former President Valery Giscard d ‘Estaing of France and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany mooted the idea of the European Monetary System (EMS) but this idea was pushed through after the German unification in 1990 culminating with the arrival of the Euro to contest the dollar as the dominant global currency. Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany had taken the diplomatic offensive to unite Germany and immediately took the offensive to engage with the new emerging capitalist forces of China and the ASEAN countries. Years earlier, Chancellor Schmidt and President Giscard d’Estaing encouraged joint French-German aerospace and arms production, as well as joint nuclear reactor development: inaugurated regular EU summits that took Europe’s political direction away under the thumb of the US military. Later the German Chancellors, Kohl and Merkel sought to extend the independence of Europe by building closer relations with Russia with massive German investments in Russia.
The solidarity of western capital behind Anglo American finance capital had held as long as there was a challenge to the capitalist mode of production. Once the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the solidarity had evaporated, and the European capitalists led by France and Germany embarked on establishing an alternative to the dollar hegemony. The Germans and the French started discussing creating their own military alliance (PESCO) to distance Europe from the domination of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) was the Franco German Initiative to pave the way for the creation of a European army. The plan was for the European army to back up the European currency.
Deepening of the Capitalist Crisis in the 21st Century.
The dawn of the 21st century saw the expansion of US military adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and in Africa. Britain had joined with the USA as junior partners in these military escapades with NATO becoming the military force to prop up the financialization of energy markets. By the start of the Iraq war, German and French leaders were outspoken against this brand of overt militarization. German Finance Capital was seeking room to enforce its own brand of neo liberalism to roll back social democratic gains and to strengthen the German banking system with the context European Central Bank as the backbone of the Euro system.
European capitalists in all parts of that continent could not escape the contagion from the 2007/8 financial crisis. The underlying instability generated by the recklessness of the Wall Street bankers had brought the western financial system close to disaster with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. In that crisis, the Greenspan Guarantee was to be implemented via the Obama administration and under the stewardship of Ben Bernanke. For that period of crisis management, Bernanke was in 2022 awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics.
The Federal reserve spent more than $4tn in its various rounds of bond buying. Most defenders of the money managers have produced reams of papers to convince the world that the first round of printing money was a success – it was big enough, and lasted long enough, for in the eyes of the opinion makers, this printing of money had prevented a more dire economic situation. These opinion makers drowned out the calls for the nationalizing of the banks and to make the financial sector accountable to elected officials who were not dependent on Wall Street. The Fed increased its holdings of government debt from around $800 billion to about $4 trillion, leading to the creation of a mountain of debt and fictitious capital, reflected in the rise of Wall Street to record highs after reaching its nadir in March 2009. By the time of the COVID -19 pandemic ten years later, this impulse of printing dollars had gone out of control. After perfunctory meetings of the G20 in 2010, the Federal Reserve of the US alone more than doubled its holdings of financial assets, almost overnight, from $4 trillion to nearly $9 trillion, and became the guarantor for all forms of debt, government and corporate. The total amount injected into the financial system by central banks is estimated to be around $13 trillion.
For a moment after the 2008/9 Wall Street Meltdown became global, the social movements for peace and social justice expanded all over the world with electoral victories for progressive forces in Brazil. In the USA, the alliance between the peace, environmentalists and anti-capitalist forces had merged in the Occupy movement. This briefly galvanized people, but the forces of darkness organized the extremists (epitomized by the Tea Party) while the Obama administration doubled down to support Wall Street. A massive offensive against the Occupy movement was sustained internationally by the assault on the last vestiges of social democracy in Europe. Austerity measures at the economic level provided the economic background for the drastic social expenditures on health, housing, education, and pensions. Many of the surviving social democratic alliances crumbled in Europe. The Eurozone crisis deepened in the absence of the ability of the Europeans to fully unleash Quantitative Easing. By 2015, the Bernanke forces allowed the Japanese and the Europeans to implement their own Quantitative Easing, but by then the US had to resort to the weaponization of finance to coerce countries such as China, Venezuela, Iran and Russia to abide to the dictates of Wall Street.
Effects of printing Money
The weaponization of finance by the USA had rippling effects across the planet. The Iranian and Cuban economies demonstrated that despite tremendous hardships, Third World societies could navigate the weaponization of the dollar. In Asia, the ASEAN countries refined the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) to be beefed up as the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM), a single pooled reserve scheme to protect the ASEAN countries from the bullying of the IMF. According to McKinsey, Asia is on track to contribute more than 50 percent of global GDP by 2040 and to drive 40 percent of the world’s consumption. Asia’s share of global capital flows now stands at 23 percent, compared to 13 percent just a decade ago. Quiet as it is being kept, it is the countries of the ASEAN states and the RCEP that are the most aggressive in the current push for de dollarization. Singapore is positioning itself as the hub for new and innovative digital transactions outside of the sphere of the dollar.
China and Russia began to experiment with the establishment of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) bank. Russia took the lead within BRICS to call for ending the dominance of Wall Street and the dollar as the dominant reserve currency. After the collapse of the centrally planned system of the USSR in 1991, there had grown a class of Russian billionaires, but the political class was still nationalist and did not seek to become a client state of the USA. This nationalism within Russia placed the leadership on a collision course with the barons of Wall Street and their gendarme represented by NATO. The provocations generated by the plans to expand NATO right up the borders with Russia in Ukraine precipitated a new war which is still unfolding.
Within Latin America and the Caribbean, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States called CELAC rallied to short circuit the military and economic push to remove the Venezuelan government. Inside Brazil, Lula has been campaigning for the creation of a Latin American currency capable of overcoming the region’s dependence on the dollar.
Despite the nationalist responses in CELAC, BRICS and the ASEAN societies, global capital was immeasurable strengthened in relation to the mass of the peoples of the planet. The Fitch Ratings-London-21 October 2022 noted that,
“The Federal Reserve continues to act aggressively on interest rates, pushing the US dollar to historically high levels against several Fitch20 currencies. Given that other central banks are also tightening in response to rising inflation, government bond yields are rising to levels not seen in years.”………… “Many Fitch20 currencies including the euro, the Japanese yen, the British pound, the Australian dollar, the Canadian dollar, the Chinese yuan and many other emerging market currencies have lost ground against the US dollar.”
If convertible currencies have lost ground, Fitch and the financial rating agencies have not begun to compute the impact of the Global South. Raising rates draws capital toward the US economy and away from emerging markets. As capital inflows push up the dollar’s value, capital outflows pull down emerging-economy currencies, which makes it much harder for governments and companies to service their US-denominated debt. The global poor are hit especially hard by food and energy costs, because those commodities are priced in dollars on the world market. US and EU sanctions on Russia are also ruining economies around the world by creating acute scarcity of key commodities and supercharging
Transferring wealth from Poor to Rich
If Rishi Sunak boasted that he steered resources from poorer communities to richer communities in Britain, he is now a key partner for his former employers Goldman Sachs to steer resources from the poor in the world to the rich countries. The neo liberal policies of the past 35 years facilitated the transfer of wealth into the hands of a global corporate and financial oligarchy. Despite the scandals of the LIBOR corruption among bankers, the British accomplices of Wall Street still seek to be global players giving offshore cover to billionaires.
Data published by Forbes in April showed that in 2020 alone the collective wealth of the world’s billionaires increased by 60 percent from $8 trillion to $13.1 trillion, described by the magazine as “the greatest acceleration of wealth in human history.” According to Institute for Policy Studies analysis of Forbes data, the combined wealth of all U.S. billionaires increased by $2.071 trillion (70.3 percent) between March 18, 2020 and Ocobter 15, 2021, from approximately $2.947 trillion to $5.019 trillion. Of the more than 700 U.S. billionaires, the richest five (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Elon Musk) saw an 123 percent increase in their combined wealth during this period, from $349 billion to $779 billion.
Thomas Piketty in seeking to grasp the impact of Capital in the 21st century had focused on inequality, but Income inequality was only one indicator of the inbuilt relations of finance capital, the front line shock troop for modern imperialism. Piketty had excluded the military component of the expansion of capital and modern imperialism. Michael Hudson succinctly outlined three ways in which the flooding of dollars through debt leverage and QE supports the US military.: (1) the surplus dollars pouring into the rest of the world for yet further financial speculation and corporate takeovers; (2) the fact that central banks are obliged to recycle these dollar inflows to buy U.S. Treasury bonds to finance the federal U.S. budget deficit; and most important (but most suppressed in the U.S. media, (3) the military character of the U.S. payments deficit and the domestic federal budget deficit. He continued, “Strange as it may seem and irrational as it would be in a more logical system of world diplomacy the “dollar glut” is what finances America’s global military build-up. It forces foreign central banks to bear the costs of America’s expanding military empire effective “taxation without representation.” Keeping international reserves in “dollars” means recycling their dollar inflows to buy U.S. Treasury bills U.S. government debt issued largely to finance the military.”
One limitation of Hudson’s analysis is that he has not sufficiently grasped the impact on Africa since he wrote the ‘Sieve of Gold’ over fifty years ago.
It is in Africa where the intensification of exploitation was manifest in militarism, massive flights of capital, instability, and general looting. Britain and France had orchestrated the destruction of Libya in order to shore up the European economies with the massive foreign currency reserves of Libya. European workers were suborned to the destructive activities by finance capital by raising the twin bogey of terrorism and the massive immigrant flow to Europe. European workers were not informed of the collaboration of the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council in stoking instability in Africa. The US military strengthened its military operations all across Africa with the US military actually training coup plotters in Guinea when the working people wanted to organize the workers to fight for better conditions. The Pentagon stoked the fires of war and destruction in the Indian Ocean and West Asia area by deploying former top generals to manage warfare in places such as Yemen as consultants.
The military management of the international system received a major setback for US capital with the military defeat of the US military in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. With every military setback overseas, militarism and white supremacy surged in the USA with the billionaire class bankrolling MAGA. Six billionaires stood out from among the billionaire class in supporting the extreme nativism of the MAGA forces. Peter Thiel, Stephen Schwarzman, and Ken Griffin, Steve Wynn, Mike Lindell and Patrick Byrne represented one faction of Global Capital that had the Fox organization of Rupert Murdoch to amplify the neo fascist ideas of the MAGA elements. As the COVID 19 deaths and suffering escalated around the world in 2020, the Federal Reserve government handed Larry Fink of Blackrock the authority to manage its massive corporate debt purchase program in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Larry Fink (of Blackrock private equity) and Stephen Schwarzman (of Blackstone private equity) were ring leaders for the Donald Trump Strategic and Policy Forum. Once the COVID 19 pandemic exploded on the world, Fink and Blackrock were handed the responsibility to manage the US $4.5 trillion corporate slush-fund. Millions died from this pandemic while Wall Street and the corporate media silenced those sections of the globe who were calling for universal health care and for reigning in the power of the billionaires.
Like the Occupy movement of 2010, the Black Lives Matter movement erupted as a social force to oppose militarism and white supremacy. But by the middle of the COVID -Pandemic and the launch of the war in Ukraine there was a convergence of interests between the MAGA forces and those in the Democratic party who were beholden to Wall Street.
From Crisis to Crisis: COVID 19, war and neo fascism.
From the economic downturn of 2001 through the financial meltdown of Wall Street to the Euro zone Crisis to Brexit and the War in Ukraine, economic polarization and political repression in Europe went hand in glove. The climate crisis demanded state intervention and international cooperation, but with every climate calamity, the right-wing media doubled down to oppose closer international cooperation to turn a new leaf in economic management. British Capital had been a weak link in the chain of imperial domination since the Suez crisis of 1956. Britain held grudgingly to its position as an offshore base for speculative capital basing a lot of illicit financial flows in Britain or in colonial outposts such as the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. In the face of the strength of German capital in Europe, those elements of British capitalism that wanted to be free of German domination in Europe orchestrated the exit of Britain from the European Union. The British Economy had been stagnating throughout the 20 year period after 2001, with the economy of India overtaking the economy of Britain by 2022. At the time of the Brexit vote in 2016 the British economy was 90 per cent the size of Germany’s. Now in 2022 it is less than 70 per cent. For the British ruling class a return to the era of Rule Britannia was to be the basis for the recovery of British capital. This was based on a false understanding of the new multi polar realities of Global capital.
The ruling Conservative alliance in Britain had mobilized the British workers against European workers and divided the British workers with racism and jingoism. Boris Johnson as the right-wing puppet master had imploded in 2022 leading to a change in political leadership. However, this change in leadership did not evince any change in the supine role being played by the British military in Ukraine. When the Russian army invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the British were the leading cheerleaders for supporting the militaristic forces in Europe and opposing negotiations. Germany and France had been negotiating with Russia over the outstanding issues between Russian and Ukraine since the breakup of the USSR in 1991. Among the outstanding issues that had been discussed at Minsk 1 & 2 were the future of Crimea, the future of the Russian speaking areas of Ukraine, the expansion of NATO and the brazenness of the neo fascist forces. These issues can only be resolved by diplomatic interventions and not by war.
The USA was willing to push the war to the last Ukrainian and to force the working peoples of Europe to subsidize the war. It was in the escalating cost of food, energy and basic necessities where a new political leadership was necessary. But the baggage of the neo liberal ideas of Thatcherism prevented any kind of serious alternatives to austerity measures. Boris Johnson was forced to resign in July and by September a new leader appeared in the person of Liz Truss. Two days afterTruss was formally appointed prime minister the very aged, 96 year old Queen Elizabeth II decided to exit the scene. This exit robbed the ruling elements in the City of London one distraction that could divert them from the intense social crisis.
But the crisis would not go away, high prices for energy, food and the high interest rates fell on the backs and the shoulders of the British workers.
The political and economic crisis in Britain deepened by the day with the absence of clear thinking on how to curb the greed of the capitalist class. US capital is now isolated, even if it seems to be riding out this moment with the rise in the value of the US dollar. In many respects, Ukraine War represents one front in the multi-dimensional struggle to save the US dollar as the currency of world trade. The German and European dependence on Russia for energy had to be undermined because the possibilities of the Euro replacing the dollar as the currency of energy transactions in Europe was real.
The Ukraine War speeds de dollarization
Temporarily, collective Western sanctions has seized all the foreign exchange reserves of the Central Bank of Russia that were held in the West. The US led campaign against Russia is inspiring states all over the world to develop alternative financial and monetary platforms, systems and nerve centers beyond the direct control of Washington. In 2014, the Central Bank of Russia has already created its own messaging System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) to replace the SWIFT system dominated by the dollar and the EURO. The SWIFT system- Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is technically a Belgian cooperative society created in 1973 and providing services related to the execution of financial transactions and payments between banks worldwide. Up to February 2022, this SWIFT messaging service successfully linked 11,000 banks and institutions in more than 200 countries, cushioning the dominance of the US dollar and its subaltern the Euro in polite competition.
With the SWIFT system drawn into the financial and trade wars, Russian banks have deepened their relations with Chinese state banks in order to build a substitute for SWIFT. With the System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) in place since 2014, the Russian leadership is now working with China to connect to China’s Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS). CIPS is a Chinese alternative to SWIFT which processes payments in Chinese Yuan. The Russian leaders have stated that they are in no rush to refine this new payment system. If the SWIFT system has served the dollar since 1973, Russia can slowly develop this new system with China. In the words of one financial leader in Russia,
“We proceed from the need for a gradual transition from SWIFT to financial information transfer mechanisms protected from external pressure, for which we are actively developing the System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) of the Bank of Russia. This is a forced, but completely natural decision in an environment where Russian banks and their clients regularly encounter problems with routine international payments.” ..
The weaponization of finance has reinforced the determination of the BRICS countries to bypass and even challenge both the status of the US dollar as the hegemonic reserve currency and the transnational financial arteries organically linked to its circuits through vehicles such as gold and other hard assets with intrinsic value. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have applied to be members of BRICS while the leaders of Saudi Arabia have explicitly signaled a new alliance with Russia and China away from the US dollar. China and Saudi Arabia are negotiating oil being sold to China in Yuan. China is Saudi Arabia’s largest customer purchasing about 2 million barrels per day. The U.S. only purchases about 500,000 per day. Allowing China to purchase its oil in Yuan would reduce Dollar oil transactions by around 20% daily. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Qatar and are all queuing to become members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).The SCO is a military alliance which comprises of eight members (China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan ) Formed as a security alliance to counter the advance of NATO ,at the September summit of the SCO, the leaders of the SCO agreed on to take steps to increase the use of national currencies in trade between their countries. The group – – said “interested SCO member states” had agreed a “roadmap for the gradual increase in the share of national currencies in mutual settlements”, and called for an expansion of the practice.
As one Venezuelan news outlet commented,
“the message now is plain enough – if even a prominent G20 state can have its reserves cancelled at a flick of the switch, then, for those who still hold ‘reserves’ in New York, take them elsewhere whilst the going is good! And if you need to keep something of value in reserve against a rainy day, buy and hold gold.”
There is now a major push in all parts of the world to hoard gold in the face of the lessons of the sanctions against Iran, Venezuela and Russia. Buying and hoarding gold means intensified militarization in Africa with Russia aligning with France, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in the Sudan and West Africa. The full extent of the Ukrainian conflagration exposes the interconnections between military, finance, cyber, economic and psychological warfare. The current war in Ukraine has set in motion a chain of events that will lead to unintended consequences for all of humanity.
Mobilizing oppressed peoples internationally against neo fascism and war
The interconnecting crises have pointed to the need for an alternate social system. Movements for social justice have emerged in all parts of the planet, but at this moment there is no central organizing strategy among these forces. The environmental justice and movements for reparative justice and healing from racial capitalism have seized the intellectual, moral and political leadership embracing peoples from all parts of the world. Thus far the traditional ‘left’ forces in Europe and North America have remained outside of the struggles for reparative justice. Even those inside the environmental justice movements have not seen the logical alliance between the struggles for environmental justice and reparative justice. It is inside Latin America where the alliances between indigenous peoples and African descendants have shifted the political balance where the reparations question is now front and center of the political agenda.
In one country where this alliance is most manifest, Colombian President, Gustav Petro, in his remarks to the General Assembly of the UN last month, stated: “The US is Ruining Economies Around the World” The new Colombian political leadership has pledged to demilitarize public life in Colombia and to strengthen the political place of African descendants and indigenous peoples.
The peoples of Chile, Brazil are also faced with the challenges of protecting property and privilege or dismantling centuries of militarism and oppression. These societies are faced with the stark choices between elaborating the rights of citizens or entrenching the traditions of neo fascist elements from the Pinochet era. Brazilian right wing forces are seeking to bring back the kind of repression and murder that came with the military dictatorship in Brazil, April 1964 to March 1985. The coup d’état by the Brazilian Armed Forces, with support from the United States government, against President João Goulart was a blow to all oppressed in the world. We are now on the threshold of whether the US will support anther right wing political destruction in Brazil. Lula has brought new energy to repair the militaristic traditions that Bolsonaro wants to revive.
German capitalists have some experience in managing a reparative platform while strengthening German capital. From Willy Brandt’s apology in Poland, to the apologies for the Holocaust and the apologies for the genocide in Namibia, the German intelligentsia have been able to massage the reparative claims by mobilizing the kind of reparations enterprise which would strengthen global capital as in the case of the reparations paid to the state of Israel and the descendants ofthose who perished in the Holocaust. White supremacists in North America are totally opposed to any opening of admission of crimes committed in the period of racial capitalism to the present. The Make America Great Again movement is instead calling on peoples of European descent to celebrate the crimes of genocide, enslavement, and colonialism.
Already in Europe the economic disruptions unleashed by rising energy prices has generated the new energies for right wing populism with pressures inside Europe to reassess the strategic pertinence of sanctions against Moscow. Serbia and Hungary have already broken ranks with the NATO sanctions. The big challenge is that the beneficiary of this war situation is the neo fascists. The neo fascists are forcing the progressive forces to combine their efforts to oppose war and neo fascism. Within the Global South, the client states of the US empire are threatened by massive resistance. Even the allies of US imperialism in West Asia are seeking room for maneuver outside the hegemony of the dollar. The decision of the Saudi Arabians to index their sale of oil to China in the Chinese currency (the Yuan) has only exacerbated their differences with the USA over the current energy prices. That the nominal leader of Saudi Arabia has chosen an alliance with Russia spoke volumes to the political tensions among militarists.
The combined opposition of the BRICS societies, RCEP, CELAC, Gulf Cooperation Council and France with Germany (supporters of the Euro) point to the increased isolation of the United States. As the weaponization of the dollar deepens, there is the alternative demand for a new international monetary system. All over the world the economic disruptions unleashed by rising energy prices, health pandemics, IMF calls for the devaluation of the return to workers and militarism has generated the new energies for progressive forces. It is in Europe where the baggage of racial capitalism holds back the ability of the left to build a new internationalist political program. Into this vacuum the right has stepped in with right wing populism. This populism is a double edged sword, because some sections of the people may pressure their leaders to reassess the strategic pertinence of sanctions against Moscow. Serbia and Hungary have already broken ranks. The big challenge is that the beneficiary this war situation are the neo fascists.
The progressive forces in Europe and North America must join with the Global Social Justice Movements and embrace the global call for a New International Economic Order. The challenge of the left is to understand the outline of the alternative social project and translate this into practical day to day programs so that wherever one lives and works one should not succumb to despair and pessimism.
This article was first published on Counter Punch.
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