The world is undergoing profound and tumultuous transformations. Africa’s participation is likely to be uneven, messy, and unpredictable, but undoubtedly critical. The continent and its peoples have been an integral part of all momentous historical developments ever since the emergence of the modern world system half a millennium ago, indeed since the evolution of humanity on our incredibly beautiful but fragile planet increasingly despoiled and damaged by human activities.
However, more often than not Africa has been, as the late great Kenyan intellectual, Ali Mazrui, used to put it, a pawn rather than a player. What are the prospects for the continent becoming a key driver rather than a hapless passenger on the locomotive of global dramas and transformations in the 21st century? It is tempting to assume the ineluctability of Africa’s history of internal underdevelopment, external dependency, and global marginality. Evidence for such continuities is not hard to find in the voluminous data and indices churned incessantly by international agencies, consultancy firms, and academics on development, democracy, higher education, and even happiness in which Africa tends to score lower than other world regions.
Yet, beneath the invented and imaginary immutability of Africa’s fate, sanctified in the calcified and contemptuous narratives of Afro-pessimism, there are other developments, possibilities, and trajectories. Indeed, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Afro-optimism arose from Africa’s purported hopelessness proclaimed by The Economist in 2000 or the “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s in Africanist discourse, with new hopes for self-determination, democratization, and development, the triple dreams of the enduring nationalist project. The “Africa Rising” narrative briefly captured the imagination of the ubiquitous development industry that is always looking to reinvent the frontiers of capitalist super exploitation. That optimism has faded a little, shuttered in part by the Covid-19 pandemic and apparent recessions of democracy and development.
Still, the 21st century is only in its infancy, and the future that is endlessly long cannot be foreclosed by the present. As a historian, I’m trained to be wary of crystal-gazing, indulging in futuristic fantasies of bliss or fears of blight, of forthcoming nirvana or damnation. As a scholar, I’m suspicious of both unbridled Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism. I veer towards Afro-realism that entails candidly acknowledging the structural weight of history on the present, as well as the power of human agency, of contemporary social movements and reconfigurations of power, to refashion the future. The past, present, and future are inextricably intertwined by the subterranean material and superstructural ideological forces through which the dialectical dance of history takes place.
In this presentation, I would like to discuss three forces out of several that will affect the place of Africa and African peoples in the 21st century. They include demography, diaspora, and culture. Let me say at the outset that these are exceedingly complex, contradictory and rapidly changing dynamics that will be conditioned by equally complicated, conflicting, and shifting constellation of global forces. My argument is quite simple: Africa is likely to become an increasingly important player in global affairs. I will begin by briefly outlining the unfolding changes in the world political economy. Then, I will discuss at greater length the three major transformative forces for Africa’s repositioning mentioned above. I’ll conclude with a few reflections on the implications for international relations and higher education.
Global Crises and Transformations
Please allow me to preface my remarks by referencing two of my books, one published, another under preparation. In 2021, I published Africa and the Disruptions of the Twenty-First Century. In one chapter covering what I regard as momentous developments in the 2010s, I identified six key trends. At the moment, I’m working on a book tentatively titled, The Long Transition to the 21st Century: A Global History of the Present, in which I seek to elaborate on several of these themes.
The first trend is what I call the globalization of tribalism, which refers to the spread of ethnocultural, xenophobic, racist, fundamentalist, and jingoistic nationalisms. Second, democratic recessions manifested in democratic backsliding, polarization and breakdowns in civic discourse even in the so-called mature democracies, which is accompanied by countervailing resistance by social movements. Third, there is rising economic disequilibrium evident in slower economic growth in many world regions, deepening inequalities, and significant shifts in the world economy.
Fourth, the world is undergoing shifting hierarchies and hegemonies evident in intensifying international tensions and rivalries that are fueling the specter of decoupling and de-globalization. The economic and political weight of emerging economies has risen; in 2018 middle-income countries accounted for 53.6% of global GDP in terms of purchasing-power parity. In PPP terms China overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2014, and by 2018 its GDP stood at US$25.3 trillion compared to US$20.7 trillion for the United States.
Fifth, is the emergence of digital capitalism embedded in the unfolding Fourth Industrial Revolution that is transforming all aspects of economic, social and political life as digital, biological and physical systems increasingly converge. Sixth, is what I term the rebellion of nature which refers to the accelerating onslaught of extreme weather events, from hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, tsunamis, floods, and blizzards to droughts, dust storms, and wildfires, to melting icecaps and rising sea levels that threaten the survival of many islands and coastal settlements. Scientific consensus, global consciousness, and commitment to sustainable development goals and climate mitigation and adaptation have grown led by indefatigable environmental moments.
Since the end of World War II when the development industry emerged and poverty was discovered as a global problem amenable to policy interventions, scholars and policy makers have grappled with explaining why some countries are developed and wealthy and others remain underdeveloped and poor. These questions have been addressed differently in the various academic disciplines and from divergent ideological perspectives informed by Marxist and neo-Marxist, neo-classical, neo-liberal, feminist, constructivist, postcolonial, and ecological theories.
In more popular discourses, there are the various determinisms of geographical location, cultural norms, historical pathways, and ideological predilections. Undoubtedly, geography, culture, history, and ideology affect the processes and patterns of development. But notions that civilization, modernity, or development are a monopoly of selected peoples in Euro-America are intellectually untenable and emanate from odious imperialist, racist, and white supremacist ideologies.
More compelling explanatory frameworks of development are those that stress the quality of institutions, social trust, and human capital. Time does not allow for elaboration. Suffice it to say, the quality of human capital refers to the knowledge, skill sets, experiences, and attributes that people possess, which reflects their levels of education and state of health. Since independence the imperative of building human capital has been widely recognized by African states, international and intergovernmental agencies, and civil society.
There are three critical dimensions to consider in relation to the continent’s human capital development. First, is the demographic explosion from the centuries’ long demographic devastations of the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism both perpetrated by Europe. While demography is not destiny, without population growth future destinies are compromised. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Africa’s share of the world population returned to what it had been in 1750 when the slave trade intensified. Population growth began to accelerate from the 1960s.
Africa’s share of the world population grew from 9.3 percent in 1960 to 10.7 percent in 1980 to 13.2 percent in 2000 to 17.2 percent in 2020. In raw numbers, there were about 283 million Africans in 1960, the so-called year of African independence. The population skyrocketed to 811 million in 2000, and 1.341 billion in 2020. On current trends, it is projected to rise to 25.6 percent in 2050 (2.489 billion) and 39.4 percent in 2100 (4.28 billion). Thus, whatever the challenges of postcolonial Africa, the continent has been enjoying a historic rate of population growth which points to improvements in material conditions and more subterranean changes in collective mentalities, moral economies, and cultural ecologies.
The youth bulge is a demographic phenomenon which occurs when child mortality declines but the fertility rate remains high so that a large share of the population is comprised of young people. Currently, about 60 percent of the African population is below 25 years old and by 2100 the continent will still have the world’s youngest population with a median age of 35. The relationship between population growth and economic development is a matter of fierce debate. In a world of fixed resources, Malthusian pessimists contend population growth undermines economic growth. But empirical evidence in the 1970s and 1980s showed that incomes in many regions continued to rise despite rapid population growth.
The optimists argue that population growth spurs increased competition, knowledge, innovation, and technology that fuels development. In contrast to the demographic pessimists and optimists, neutralists maintain there is no significant connection between population and economic growth. The reality is that population growth can become an asset or a brake on development depending on its evolving age structure and quality of human capital. The youth explosion, I believe, gives Africa unprecedented opportunities for development and democracy so long as the youth are fully mobilized through quality education and smart and targeted investment.
Writing in Foreign Affairs on the recent authoritarian wave in West Africa, Gyeman-Boadi, states, “citizens have taken matters into their own hands. Activists, journalists, opposition politicians, ordinary citizens, and even some state officials have forged a kind of resistance movement to demand accountability across the region. The most formidable foot soldiers include the new generation of creative young people, who are using a mix of new technology and old-school protest tactics to challenge corrupt officials and agitate for better governance.” Living in Kenya from 2016-2021, I was struck by the irrepressible energies, creativity, and entrepreneurial mindsets of the youth.
Second, then, is the question of the policies adopted by governments to build socioeconomic systems that can harness the youth bulge into a demographic dividend. The term refers to the economic benefit arising from a significant increase in the ratio of working-aged adults relative to young and old dependents. In countries with a high proportion of children or the elderly, a high proportion of resources is spent on taking care of these groups, which is likely to depress the pace of economic growth. When the youth bulge transitions into working age, it becomes, if it is endowed with good health and education, quality human capital that can generate the demographic dividend of economic growth.
However, the demographic dividend is not automatic or inevitable. It is driven by a complex mix of policies and investments through the mechanisms of labor supply, savings, and human capital. As Africa undergoes a demographic transition previously traversed by other regions, it has an opportunity to turn its current population boom into faster economic growth and development along the path of the economies of East Asia. There is now a huge literature and policy documents on the subject that time doesn’t allow for further elaboration.
Third, building capabilities is imperative, a concept that is well-articulated in reports by the United Nations Development Program. Defined as people’s freedom to choose what to be and do, which is closely related to the notion of opportunities, capabilities are critical for human development. The UNDP distinguishes between basic capabilities, such as early childhood survival, primary education, entry level technology, and resilience to recurrent shocks, and enhanced capabilities including access to quality health at all levels, high quality education at all levels, effective access to present-day technologies, and resilience to unknown new shocks.
The challenge for Africa is to raise both sets of capabilities and to improve what the UNDP calls the inequality adjusted HDI, which was introduced in 2010. The IHDI discounts the HDI according to the extent of inequality. The data is disaggregated in terms of the gender development index and the gender inequality index (a composite measure of gender inequality using three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment, and the labor market). HDI and IHDI rankings vary from conventional GDP per capita rankings. For example, in 2019, the world’s largest economies, the United States and China, were ranked 17th and 85th, respectively.
Education and employment are key indicators of human development. There have been remarkable improvements in education. For example, in 1959 there were only 76 universities across Africa concentrated in North Africa and South Africa. The number increased to 294 in 1979, and exploded to 784 in 2000 and 1,690 in 2021. But this accounted for only 8.39% of the world’s universities. Primary and secondary enrollments also improved raising the literacy rate to 65.6 percent, still the lowest in the world. The UN Economic Commission for Africa estimates that $39 billion in annual financing is needed to improve access to the quality of education.
Also in need of massive investments and improvements is employment. According to data from the International Labor Organization, World Employment and Social Outlook Trends 2020, the sub-Saharan Africa region suffers from high rates of unemployment, labor under-utilization, decent work deficits that are especially prevalent in the informal economy, the largest source of employment, and extreme rates of working poverty.
However, the narrative of Africa’s unemployment crisis has been challenged. According to Louise Fox of the Brookings Institution, “While there are exceptions—most notably South Africa and several resource-rich or fragile states—the economic growth registered since 2000 was accompanied by a steady growth in wage jobs, at a rate significantly faster than the growth of the labor force. Meanwhile, youth unemployment has been below world averages, controlling for income level. Unfortunately, this progress was interrupted by the COVID-19 health and economic crises, but it demonstrates the importance for job creation in African countries of getting back onto the path of economic stability and balanced economic growth as well as maintaining this trajectory through this decade.”
One of Africa’s biggest assets is its global diaspora created in successive waves of dispersal from the continent following the emergence of the modern world system. As the late renowned Egyptian intellectual, Samir Amin, often reminded us, Africans and Africa played a pivotal role in the development of the modern world system notwithstanding their exploitation and subjugation. Being oppressed doesn’t mean being marginal; as we know the oppression of women and workers doesn’t entail their irrelevance to the intersected system of racialized and patriarchal capitalism.
Diaspora Africans from the Iberian peninsula were among the conquerors of the Americas, and enslaved people from Western Africa, whose numbers outstripped European migrations until the staggered abolitions of the slave trade and slavery, helped lay the demographic, economic, social, cultural, and political foundations of the emerging colonial settler societies. As Walter Rodney taught us 50 years ago in his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, that became the canonical text of my generation as college students, slavery profoundly defined the development of modern capitalism, its institutional arrangements, and intellectual and ideological scaffolding.
Rodney’s powerful thesis echoed age-old writings by political activists and public intellectuals across the diaspora. In the United States, they ranged from Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells to W.E.B. Dubois to Mary McLeod Bethune. In his magisterial 2021 book, Out of Africa: The Real Roots of the Modern World, Howard French boldly takes the mantle of retrieving Africa from the mute presence and marginality imposed by Eurocentricism’s enduring epistemic conceits. Compellingly, he illuminates Africa’s centrality in the birth of the modern world.
Once academic discourses enter the popular media, they are deployed by dueling partisans and pundits. And so it was with the 1619 project by the New York Times that repackaged well known academic analyses that put enslaved Africans and their descendants at the center of American history, society and culture, and the development of the country’s economic, political, judicial, and educational institutions, as well as the struggles in the fiercely contested and unfinished project of democracy. The series inflamed America’s already incendiary racial politics, that was followed by the global racial reckoning forced by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
Recentering the histories of Africa’s old diasporas is essential for repositioning the centrality of Africa in world history and its multiple futures. There are nearly 200 million African descended peoples, the largest number being in Brazil with approximately 97 million, the United States with 43 million, and the Caribbean with 28 million. The new diasporas created out Africa’s recent global migrations number more than 15 million. In 2020, Africa had 40.6 million emigrants representing 14.5 percent of the world’s total of 280.6 million; the respective percentages were for Asia 40.9, Europe 22.6, the Americas 16.8, and Oceania 1.1. Twenty-five million of the continent’s international emigrants lived on the continent representing 1.9% of the population. Globally, emigrants represented 3.6% of the world population up from 2.8% in 2000 (or 183 million). So much for the myth that the world is facing an unparalleled invasions of migrants!
For the past two decades, I have been investigating the complex patterns and processes of engagement between Africa and its diasporas in Afro-America, Afro-Europe, and Afro-Asia. In my work, I focus on six sets of flows—demographic, cultural, economic, political, ideological, and iconographic. Particularly well-known is the important role played by the historic diaspora in the development of Pan-Africanism and the process of decolonization, which reverberated with civil rights struggles in the diaspora. Equally fascinating are the intricate cultural and artistic exchanges from religion to the performing and visual arts that I’ll briefly discuss shortly.
The new diasporas, are enmeshed in complex and contradictory relations with the historic diaspora and Africa encompassing physical movements, exchanges of cultural practices, productive resources, organizations and movements, ideologies and ideas, images and representations. The new diaspora is Africa’s biggest donor to use the language of the development industry. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic, remittances to Africa reached $84.3 billion; they represented between 8.8 percent of GDP for Egypt which received $26. 4 billion, the largest, and 2.9 percent of GDP for Kenya that garnered $2.9 billion.
The opportunities for the remittances of social capital including what I call intellectual remittances are immense. For example, the approximately 2.1 million immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa in the United States, to quote a report by the Migration Policy Institute, “tend to have higher levels of education than the overall foreign- and native-born populations. In 2019, 42 percent of sub-Saharan Africans ages 25 and over held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33 percent for both all foreign- and U.S.-born adults.”
Relations between Africa and its global diasporas, old and new, must be scaffolded to a Pan-Africanism of the 21st century that simultaneously looks back and forward. The first requires critically examining the diverse and complicated histories of Pan-Africanisms in their ideological, political, economic, cultural, social, and artistic articulations across the interconnected local, national, regional, continental, trans-continental, and global historical geographies, paying attention to the work, struggles, activities, imaginations and aspirations of elites and ordinary people, men and women, and young and old. The second entails locating Pan-Africanism in the maelstrom of the contemporary world and its difficult demands and tantalizing possibilities. We need to decipher, systematically, strategically and smartly, what the political economies and ecologies of the 21st century entail for African peoples around the world.
In a world obsessed with the materialities and imperatives of economic growth and development it is easy to underestimate the centrality of cultural production and consumption, how the cultural and artistic artifacts of the human imagination embody and endow us with profound ontological and epistemological meanings. African cultural economies need to be understood from historical, expansive, and open-ended epistemic, aesthetic, and sociopolitical perspectives.
Under the authoritarian gaze and logic of empire, sanctified by the primitivist fantasies and desires of colonial anthropology, the authenticity of African cultures was frozen in an ethnographic present and premised on eternal difference and inferiority to Europe. African “tradition” interpolated as an eternal African past was counterposed to a dynamic western “modernity.” The former purportedly represented the “real Africa” and the latter imported mimicry.
In reality, during the colonial encounter African cultures were produced and reproduced through the dialectical interplay of domination, resistance and conversion in which imperial ideologies, practices and spectacles, and colonial transactions, negotiations, and struggles clashed and coalesced in messy, unpredictable, and tumultuous ways as historical processes tend to. The metropoles and colonies became imbricated, although each valorized the representations of difference, in stressing, reproducing and performing their respective ontological distinctions, despite the fact that the social formations of both were being reconfigured.
This points to the inherent complexity in the project of cultural decolonization. Colonialism and globalization make the recuperation of precolonial African cultures, which were themselves neither static nor uniform, idealistic gestures at best. Unpacking the historical processes of colonial cultural production is exceedingly demanding but critical to theorizing Africa’s cultural transformation. Part of the challenge is that during the colonial period, and after, cultures on the continent were also influenced by diaspora cultures and vice-versa.
In an article on musical engagements, for example, I show that “the influence of diasporan music on modern African music, especially popular music, has been immense. These influences and exchanges have created a complex tapestry of musical Afro-internationalism and Afro-modernism and music has been a critical site, a soundscape, in the construction of new diasporan and African identities. A diasporic perspective in the study of modern African music helps Africa reclaim its rightful place in the history of world music and saves Africans from unnecessary cultural anxieties about losing their musical ‘authenticity’ by borrowing from ‘Western’ music that appears, on closer inspection, to be diasporan African music.”
The creative arts “have constituted critical media of communication in the Pan-African world through which cultural influences, ideas, images, instruments, institutions and identities have continuously circulated in the process creating new modes of cultural expression” in both spaces. “This traffic in expressive culture is multidimensional and dynamic… it is facilitated by persistent demographic flows and ever-changing communication technologies and involves exchanges that are simultaneously transcontinental, transnational, and translational of artistic products, aesthetic codes, and conceptual matrixes.”
We have to go beyond the depoliticized, dehistoricized, idealistic and technicist approaches that treat African cultures within the continent and in the diaspora as separate from each other and divorced from political economy by reducing and equating “African culture” to “tradition” and imagined precolonial pasts. The term precolonial should be banished into the dustbin of Eurocentrism as it makes colonialism the pivot around which Africa’s history, the longest in the world, spins in eternal enthrallment to Europe.
The versatility and irrepressible exuberance of popular African cultures and creative arts, their irreverent and exhilarating yearnings for all-inclusive liberation mocks and subverts the singular elite narratives of African nationalism, their aspirations for social uniformity and conformity.
The importance of African cultural and creative industries (CCI) is increasingly recognized by governments, the corporate sector, social movements, and among the creative communities themselves within Africa, the diaspora, and around the world. Some value CCIs for their economic contributions to development. Others stress their dynamism and demonstrative power of African energies, excellence, and empowerment. There also those who applaud them for their capacity to forge shared Pan-African identities, understanding, and comity.
The African CCIs are of course not new, although the discourse is. It brings together earlier debates sponsored by UNESCO and the OAU about culture and development, and deliberations on the “culture industry” and later “creative industry” in the global North, which continues to dominate theorization of the concept. In 2008, the African Union adopted a Plan of Action on Cultural and Creative Industries. It applauded “the significant increase in the share of culture, information and the services sectors of the world market,” due to the liberalization of political systems and industries as part of globalization and increasing youthful population.
A year later, in 2009, UNESCO published a new framework for cultural statistics to better capture the sector’s breadth and depth, develop direct metrics measuring its economic and social dimensions, facilitate international comparative assessment, and integrate conceptual debates and new developments. It divided the cultural economy into six categories: first, cultural domains encompassing several practices and products; second, intangible cultural heritage comprising oral traditions and expressions, rituals, languages, and social practices; third, education and training; fourth, archiving and preserving; fifth, equipment and supporting materials; and sixth, the related domains of tourism and sports and recreation.
The growth of cultural industries in Africa is quite impressive. One consultancy report enthuses: “Emerging markets, particularly those in Africa, are home to vibrant creative and cultural industries (CCI) with massive investment potential. From the Yoruba to the Kongo, African civilizations have shaped the aesthetics, music, sculpture, textiles, and architecture of regions from North America to Latin America and Europe for centuries.”The vibrancy and potential of the CCI is attributed to the continent’s rapid urbanization, explosion in the youth population, expanding middle classes, and increased internet and mobile penetration.
African artists are effectively using digital technologies to produce their work, access and expand their audiences, and dialogue with them. The consumption of music through streaming services has grown, and the Covid-19 pandemic made virtual concerts and performances vital for survival. Similarly, digital technology has revolutionized the African film industry as the consumption of films expands through on-demand streaming services, smartphones, the internet, and television. African films are increasingly distributed through such domestic platforms as iRoko, Showmax, and Viusasa launched in Nigeria in 2011, South Africa in 2015, and Kenya in 2017, respectively, and international platforms including Netflix and Amazon’s Prime.
African fashion has also experience remarkable growth and local designers are increasingly patronized by the expanding middle classes keen to wear their national pride on their sleeves. African fashion shows are now common in major African and world cities. E-commerce has expanded the regional, diaspora and global reach of some fashion brands.
Sports is an arena in which the historic diaspora has long enjoyed prominence in the Americas as it was open to enslaved Africans to entertain whites. Now the new diaspora is registering its presence in popular sports in the United States especially in basketball and football, and in the lucrative soccer leagues of Europe. Writers from the new diasporas are joining their historic diaspora counterparts in raising their visibility in the literary, cinematic, and comedic arts.
Thus, the appeal of the African CCIs goes beyond Africa. There is a huge market in the diaspora, both the new and historic diasporas. The consumption of African cultural and creative products provides a powerful platform to perform and consume diaspora identities.
African cultural producers are increasingly subject to the push and pull of local and global appeal. The former matters for them in signifying their African authenticity and in generating revenues and driving their international influence that can be even more lucrative. The rising attractiveness of African creative products to consumers in the global North and some regions of the global South other than the diaspora is premised, in part, on their prior domestic popularity, the power of the diaspora especially African Americans as trendsetters of popular culture, the expansion of global tourism to Africa before covid-19, and the proliferation of social media.
Moreover, there is a long history of Western artists, Picasso being one of the most well-known in the 20th century, mining, borrowing, and exploiting African cultures and arts for inspiration and novelty, for new styles, motifs and expressive languages. More recently, major western entertainment firms are expanding their corporate footprint in Africa, especially in music. In the contemporary global conjuncture, there can be little doubt that culture and economy are interconnected. The challenge for Africa’s cultural economies is to develop paradigms and practices in which culture is a site of resistance and radical dreams and visions of a different future, rather than being relegated to one more “raw material” to be exported from Africa.
Africa’s cultural economies must simultaneously pursue the enduring struggles for decolonization, as well as the reconfiguration of the creative arts and cultures and their expressive and performative ethos, motifs and aesthetics that unapologetically reflect African and diaspora modernities. It must help us reimagine ways of being whole, of knowing, seeing, and fully living in the contemporary world, of seizing and possessing the 21st century as truly ours, to paraphrase and realize Kwame Nkrumah’s long deferred dream for the 20th century. The power of the creative arts goes beyond its economic and social value. It is fundamental to people’s identities, their emotional and mental health, and ultimately their humanity.
Africa’s demographic, diaspora, and cultural resurgence, together with equally complex and contradictory transformations in various political, economic, social, and ecological spheres that I have not examined in this presentation, have far reaching implications for the world. Africa has never been a peripheral region, and certainly what happens on the continent will shape the rest of the world in this century and subsequent ones.
This is a reality the major emerging economies including China are increasingly embracing. The United States is behind the curve, its Africa policy locked in outdated humanitarian and security impulses, increasingly overlaid by re-emerging Cold War imperatives. Take trade, for example. In 2021, while trade between China and Africa reached $254 billion, for the U.S. it declined to $64 billion from $142 billion in 2008. Chinese investment also eclipses America’s as the latter clings to the necrophilia of dead aid as Dambisa Moyo calls it in her renowned book.
In an article published two days ago in Foreign Affairs, “The Unkept Promises of Western Aid,” Ian Mitchell and Nancy Birdsall, lament “in truth, wealthy Western donor countries are not always honest about the assistance they provide. They find ways to exaggerate their real commitments through creative and dubious accounting practices meant to expand the definition of development-aid spending. And when it comes to the other category of assistance that wealthy countries owe to developing ones—finance to help the global South mitigate and adapt to climate change—rich countries fall egregiously short of what they have pledged, which is in turn tragically short of what poorer ones need.”
Any productive American engagement with Africa requires, argues Jon Temin, also in Foreign Affairs, reframing Africa geographically by abandoning the Eurocentric division of sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, supporting strong institutions over individual leaders, repudiating “the narrative that it is battling China for primacy in Africa,” and embracing African voices in international forums and geopolitical interests by reforming the United Nations Security Council and the architecture of international financial institutions.
Ignorance or disregard of African geopolitical interests will not serve any global power well, as its ill-informed pressures will be met by African resentment and resistance. Current American diplomatic pressure on African countries over Ukraine, including a proposed law in Congress that only targets the African region to toe the Western line, is deeply problematic and will not succeed. As Nanjala Nyabola reminds us in Foreign Affairs as well, “For many Africans, the current overtures from both Russia and the West are not about friendship. They are about using Africa as a means to an end… the dominant African position, given the large uncertainties about the war and its outcome, has been to demand peace and urge diplomacy—and, whenever possible, to avoid having to take sides in a conflict that seems unlikely to offer much to Africa, particularly if it turns the continent into a new theater of proxy war.”
What does all this mean for higher education institutions in the global North? In a recent presentation on rethinking global higher education partnerships, I propose a twelve-pronged agenda. Time only allows me to say that fundamentally this entails epistemic diversity, humility, and inclusion of African knowledges by institutions in the global North, and forging productive partnerships between them and African institutions premised on the ethical principles of respect, co-creation, and mutuality of benefits.
Since modern human emerged in Africa 300,000 years ago, from where they spread to other continents between 65,000 and 50,000 years ago, the long arch of history has bent towards two inexorable forces of globality, which override the periodic ruptures of great wars and the moral panics of othering outsiders. One is the expanding cycle of spatiotemporal compression that intensifies connectedness, communication, and the circulation of people, plants and pathogens, cultures, commodities and capital, and ideas, ideologies and institutions. The other is the rise and fall of civilizations, the periodic shifts in the geographies and technologies of hegemony and domination that the world is currently undergoing.
Ali Mazrui ended his celebrated 1986 television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, with an intriguing paean: “We are the people of the day before yesterday and the people of the day after tomorrow.” I read this as a tribute to the ancestral primacy of Africa, and its assured presence in the world’s futures as a player, not the pawn it has been over the last few centuries. The historic and humanistic project of fashioning African futures entails retrieving the past and reconstructing the present, and investing our imaginations and energies in envisioning a world that valorizes our duality as social beings and ecological beings, living in harmony with each other and sustainably with nature.
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Pan-Africanism in the Age of Globalization: Capitalism and Poverty
This is the second of a two-part series that assesses the historical progress of the Pan-African movement and considers the global political economy, the relevance of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century and its potential to impact economic and political development within Africa and its diaspora.
In Chinweizu’s “Africa and the Capitalist Countries” found in General History of Africa, Volume VIII: Africa since 1935, the author discusses various aspects and key points in history that have affected African states that pursued the capitalist road to development. The author explains that after WWII, the leaders of the anti-Axis alliance sought to prevent economic rivalries and hostile competition from capitalist countries, and thus a new economic arrangement was created to “manage peace”.
The arrangement, the “Atlantic Charter”, was outlined by United States President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and instituted multilateral organizations to maintain political, economic, and military control of designated regions of the world. The Charter led to the development of the Bretton Woods agreement of 1945, where several economic institutions were created such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank system, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to manage international economic and political affairs, as well as the United Nations Organization and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which were established to manage world affairs and secure the collective defence of American and European powers, respectively. The European Economic Community (EEC) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) were later instituted to manage commerce, trade, and other economic areas of development.
The aforementioned organizations collectively made up the international structure of rules, laws, and regulations that oversaw the affairs of African states as they were co-opted into them. Moreover, the West was admittedly preoccupied with preventing the spread of Soviet influence in Africa, although such instances exist where African nations received Soviet assistance.
Chinweizu details how the West was determined to maintain its economic order and African dependence on Western powers and how, as a means of reassuring African leadership, it allowed economic development to experience forms of Africanization in order to accommodate Africans who desired political independence. This created a pattern where during the first 25 years of African political independence, any nation’s attempt towards economic development was met with efforts by the West to ensure said development maintained a pro-capitalist form. Despite African nations’ attempts to lead their own economic development in alliance and aligned with capitalists’ interests, they ultimately maintained a position similar to that prevailing in colonial times, and remained the source of economic growth for foreign nations while the economic conditions of African states deteriorated. Chinweizu states that “If anything the colonial economic relations waxed stronger” as African nations did the biding of the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, NATO, end eventually the European Union.
Is Pan-Africanism still relevant in the 21st century
Harris and Zeghidour highlight that internationally there is a need to grow the awareness of the actual numbers of majority black nations and communities, and broaden the awareness of the cultural and social influences of Africans and their descendants as they have roots and are present in South (and North) America, Asia, and the Middle East. They also provide great context about the situation and conditions African states endure in the current global political economy and note that under such conditions it is difficult for diaspora Africans and continental Africans to consistently engage free of external influence such as ideology and national issues. Moreover, the authors declare that African leaders also endure great challenges because they are faced with the prospect of either choosing to serve the interests of African descendants and Africans and affiliating themselves with an international Black network, or aligning themselves with the interest of global superpowers, which were/are apparently against the interests of Africans and African descendants based on deductive reasoning and consideration of historical events.
For example, as noted in “The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited”, “in 1945, at the end of World War II, some 700 million people around the world lived under imperial rule. They were “subject peoples”, with no freedoms, no parliaments, no democracy, and no trade unions to protect workers. Post-WWII, many former colonies throughout the world, especially within Africa, were motivated to pursue political independence based on the promises of liberation from colonial states who asked for their support during the war, and the betrayal that ensued when colonization resumed after European nations and their allies adopted the newly instituted Bretton Woods system. Harris and Zeghidour conclude by highlighting that, in their modern form, most African nations are only a generation old and that African leaders have been trained by the former colonial powers, which increases the need for Pan-African efforts among continental Africans as well as diaspora Africans, and the need to advance the welfare of Africa and its descendants.
Any nation’s attempt towards economic development was met with efforts by the West to ensure said development maintained a pro-capitalist form.
The only Pan-African Congress that has been organized in the 21st century thus far has actually occurred in phases, since the 8th Pan-African Congress took place in 2014 at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and in 2015 at the University of Ghana. Significant developments of the 8th Pan-African Congress included resolutions which upheld that: Arab and Western countries should compensate with due reparations for the damages inflicted on African people, and this should be pursued vigorously; there should be a day when black workers throughout the world stay away from work to mark the need for reparations; there is a case for reparations regarding the extensive economic and psychological damage that colonialism has done to the African people globally, and which continues today via neoliberal policies; the perspectives, roles, and actions of African women should be considered a foremost priority in all Pan-African movement initiatives; a policy including youth in all phases of future Pan-African work should be established; a commitment should be made to dedicate resources to creating and operationalizing a new Pan-African education curriculum that would not only teach STEM courses but would also teach all African children to see themselves as Africans first, and only secondarily as members of the Wolof, Zulu, or any other ethno-tribal group.
Unfortunately, African nations are only allowed to engage in economic development efforts as facilitated by international overseers such as the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, the European Union, and the United States. This point is further exemplified by developments in the international economic order such as the G20 Conference, which has South Africa as its sole African nation. Unsurprisingly, South Africa’s economic policies benefit the racial minority population, which is classified as “white”, even as the nation continues to endure high levels of economic poverty (underdevelopment) and a population that is segregated or socially stratified by income and economic status.
The example above demonstrates the need for collaboration among Africans and members of the diaspora, as opportunities to obtain education and employment in developed non-African states do little to contribute to the development of Africa and the diaspora. No matter how many recognitions of “progress” the African diaspora receives, the first Black or African this or that means very little if those individuals do not critically attempt to contribute to the diaspora en masse. Such examples of “progress” can be deduced to be gradualism and tokenism, as they celebrate “acceptance” from the global political economy, much like the Africans who had the opportunity to receive education and employment in developed nations during the 20th century.
As noted in Part I, Pan-Africanism evolved into two distinctive schools during the 20th century: racial Pan-Africanism, which seeks to unite African descendants based on racial classification and social hierarchy, and continental Pan-Africanism, which seeks to unite around issues facing the continent of Africa and African descendants world-wide. In the 21st century, both schools are more than necessary as the conditions of colonialism, slavery, and racialism have only transformed and adapted to the global economy. Therefore, it is also necessary for advocates of the Pan-African movement to develop their treatments and adapt to the current international economic order.
Pan-Africanism is undoubtedly relevant in the 21st century. However, several internal issues and exogenous factors need to be addressed by the African diaspora and by Pan-Africanists. The issues that need to be addressed are significant because they limit the ultimate capacity of Pan-Africanism and its application within the international global order.
Opportunities to obtain education and employment in developed non-African states do little to contribute to the development of Africa and the diaspora.
Whereas the miseducation of African descendants is a by-product and a necessary condition of the global political economy, this absolute truth is hardly told in public and is usually discussed in closed quarters such as the ivory towers, the policy community, and among non-profit, private, or government officials. That said, advocates of Pan-Africanism bear the responsibility of confronting and removing the self-imposed limitations, as the implications of these issues affect the entire African diaspora directly or indirectly. As mentioned above, the mistreatment and marginalization of women, the inclusion and integration of youth into Pan-African agendas, and ideological differences among Pan-Africanists are three areas of primary concern due to the diverging perspectives. The decision of the 7th Congress to create an international secretariat to manage the day-to-day affairs of the movement is an invaluable step in the right direction as it enables adherents of Pan-Africanism to meet frequently.
Thus far, the 21st century has seen many attempts to practice and operationalize Pan-African political, economic, and social ideals in contemporary society. In addition to various members of the African diaspora who are committed to raising awareness about the importance and usefulness of Pan-Africanism in modern society using digital and mobile applications such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, and Skype, as well as social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, other advocates have developed websites, podcasts, and dedicated YouTube channels to the Pan-African cause.
Students, activists, scholars, and human rights advocates interested in economic and social justice have utilized the aforementioned applications to organize protests and movements such as South Africa’s #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, Nigeria’s #EndSARS, the international Black Lives Matter movement, and most recently Howard University’s #BlackburnTakeover have all made pan-African demands and declarations. Established in 2011, Black Power Media (BPM) is an example of Pan-Africanists collaborating via YouTube to distribute news and conduct productive conversations from a Pan-African perspective. BPM describes itself as “a Black-radical independent media project” that seeks to “challenge the narrative about Black politics and the [international] Black condition.”
The contemporary era of Pan-Africanism has received significant contributions from members of civil society, elders, activists, advocates and scholars who continued to uphold the ideology and philosophy. A slew of international and national social and political grassroots organizations and campaigns, such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, and the All-African People Revolutionary Party, have organized local sections and continued to advance the movement. As members of the African diaspora continue to engage in world affairs, groups of private, multilateral, and non-governmental advocacy, policy and economic development organizations have emerged with pan-African aims, such as the African Union, the Pan-African Council and others.
The miseducation of African descendants is a by-product and a necessary condition of the global political economy.
In 2016, the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation was established at the University of Johannesburg as a flagship centre of excellence to conduct research and provide a forum for scholars, practitioners, and members of civil society across Africa and the diaspora to exchange ideas and contribute to the production of pan-African knowledge and culture. Academic journals and conferences around the world continue to receive considerable scholarship from proponents of Pan-Africanism in fields such as African and African American studies, economics, political science, history, public policy, governance, conflict resolution and more. Moreover, publishers in Africa, Europe and the US have continued to discuss the topic and, with the development of the digital era, online publications such as The Elephant have emerged as leading platforms for pan-African discourse, culture and information.
Can Pan-Africanism catalyse development in Africa?
Economic development and policy reform are boosted by political liberation, yet Africa’s new democracies continue to experience economic underdevelopment. In Democratization in Africa: Progress and Retreat, Peter Lewis considers this the “democracy-development disconnect” in his essay “Growth Without Prosperity in Africa”. Lewis notes:
“Officials and average citizens alike often note the ‘disconnect’ between macroeconomic indicators and microeconomic performance…data on poverty and human development are showing few significant improvements, and citizens report discouragement when surveyed about attitudes and economic conditions… This paradox presents a basic challenge for Africa’s new democracies. However desirable democracy may be in its own right, political liberalization does not ensure economic regeneration or improved popular welfare [and] the tension between democracy and welfare is evident…”
Lewis continues his analysis and suggests that while early observations of democracy in Africa did not outperform non-democratic African governments economically, a recent study by Brian Levy assessed 21 African states between 1975-2000 and found that African states pursuing democracy and economic reforms were more successful than non-democratic states. Despite the metrics used to assess economic growth in Africa, (GDP growth, income per capita, etc.) – which led to Levy’s assertion that democracies in Africa were economically successful – such metrics are deceiving as they conceal two important limitations. Firstly, African states are under the purview of the international economic order, which ensures that non-African states benefit from African labour more than African states due to the extraction and commodity-based economy. Secondly, democratic African states that experienced “economic progress” according to Levy, also suffered from welfare state policies, as the public welfare of citizens did not improve, which further illustrates Lewis’ point of “growth without prosperity in Africa”.
Pan-African attempts to development are centred around African-led methods to development that supersede the obstructions of capitalism, and seek to improve the political, economic and social conditions of Africa’s states as well as the diaspora en masse, despite geography. That said, one could assume that if African leaders, heads of state, institutions, and lay people within the diaspora were genuinely given the opportunity to collaborate and construct ways to catalyse said development, they would be at least moderately successful. Whereas the continent of Africa is extremely diverse, with varying histories and cultures, absolute consensus is not necessary. Members of the diaspora and Africa’s stakeholders do not need to agree on every aspect of economic and political developmental approaches; they only need to agree to eliminate any obstruction and hinderance to development, whether capitalist or non-capitalist.
Revitalised Pan-Africanism: An egalitarian and humanitarian approach
African states continue to be politically and economically dominated by a minority of global citizens who reside in developed nations (note that some of these individuals take residence on the continent), while Africans are only seemingly valued as labour. Considering the nature of development in Africa, as well as the legacy of slavery, colonialism, and contemporary issues of racialism within the diaspora, it is important to consider how the African diaspora’s unique way of creating, surviving, and thriving under extreme conditions can be applied to political and economic development in Africa. Development in Africa in the era of globalization has occurred under the guidance of international organizations and developed nations with either capitalist or socialist economic systems, which ultimately benefits foreign nations, international organizations, and non-Africans more than Africans en masse. This relationship should be mutually beneficial for Africa’s economically and socially marginalized populations to experience uninterrupted development.
In order for the 21st century to witness the improved potential of the movement, Pan-Africanists need to abolish the marginalization of African women and integrate the perspectives and input of women who have lived on the frontlines and at the intersections of the movement for centuries. Historically the role of African women has been reduced yet Pan-Africanists should be aware of the political, economic, military, social, and cultural feats and contributions of African women. Beyond their historical role as woman warrior queens, queen mothers, queen-regents, and commercial and agricultural masters, African women continue to lead, stabilize, restore and heal, and innovate social, cultural, professional, political, and economic processes and activities in nations all around the world. No nation would exist or function without the contributions, acknowledged or unacknowledged, of African women. The movement must consider these facts and reorganize or recalibrate itself so that African women are not only viewed as equal, but also that social and institutional mechanisms support women in the same fashion as women have supported the efforts of male African descendants.
African states are under the purview of the international economic order, which ensures that non-African states benefit from African labour more than African states.
Pan-Africanists must also identify mechanisms to transcend the political, economic, and socially constructed limitations imposed by political, economic, or socio-cultural ideologies and paradigms such as race, class, gender, sex, religion and political party affiliation. For example, the international Black middle class could practice Amilcar Cabral’s theory of class suicide in order to foster connections with members of the diaspora who do not have proportionally higher incomes.
Pan-Africanists must openly and actively discuss the issues brought about by miscegenation (sexual reproduction with people outside of the African diaspora) and colourism, which directly relate to what I consider the “politics of sex” and the “politics of race”. Pan-African enthusiasts need to collectively understand the unspoken rules of so-called “interracial reproduction”, or miscegenation, and social hierarchy based on skin complexion, or colourism, which are socio-political mechanisms to marginalize/reduce, or to domesticate their African-ness/Blackness (Africanity) and draw them closer to people who identify as white.
Lastly, Pan-Africanists must identify mechanisms to reduce xenophobia in all its forms within the African diaspora, including but not limited to: misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ethnic and religious-based discrimination, prejudice against immigrants, elitism, anti-homelessness, anti-intellectualism, gerontophobia (discrimination and fear of aging and the elderly), Islamophobia, and Africanophobia (fear of Africa/n related concepts).
In order to generate an example of an applicable method of Pan-African development in the 21st century and beyond, a more inclusive and global perspective is needed that incorporates all members of the diaspora. Rather than seeking consensus among supporters of Pan-Africanism, proponents need to understand the aims of the movement, create spaces for all African descendants to contribute, and not perpetuate the dehumanizing practices that were used to politically, culturally, and socially separate African descendants.
No nation would exist or function without the contributions, acknowledged or unacknowledged, of African women.
As an example, this essay suggests “Black Equalism”, which is a human rights philosophy rooted in Pan-Africanism and egalitarianism. Black Equalism seeks to advance the cultural, social, economic, and political parity of African descendants and the world at large, and to inspire and promote egalitarian thought, principles, and practices. Should such a philosophy be utilized and promoted within the diaspora, it could possibly ameliorate the impact of capitalism, which is rooted in classism and imperialism.
Egalitarianism can be defined as “the doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities”. Egalitarianism is the opposite of elitism, promotes a classless society, and advances the notion that “all members of society deserve equity and are equal despite social, political, and economic status”. By synthesizing Pan-African thought with egalitarianism in the 21st century, Black Equalism seeks to advance the cultural, social, economic, and political parity of African descendants, and to inspire and promote egalitarian thought, principles, and practices. Black Equalism seeks to promote and facilitate the development of bonds, paradigms, campaigns, entities and institutions, and social, economic, and political systems that feature, serve, develop, and incorporate all members of the African diaspora regardless of educational background, income level, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, residence, geographic location, and political and/or religious affiliations (otherwise known as social, political, or economic status).
To that effect, should individuals including but not limited to: artists, designers, writers, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, investors, philanthropists, performers, musicians, poets, community organizers, business people, scientists, engineers, technologists, teachers, or anyone interested in collective action to change the status quo actually work together, one can deduce that the diaspora and the continent would benefit.
Within the Margin of Error? — A Post-Election Polling Retrospective
Assessing the accuracy of survey results and examining the five factors that contributed to pollsters missing the mark in the 2022 elections.
Now that nearly all of the election “dust” has settled, it is appropriate to revisit the results of the final round of pre-election presidential contest polls that were presented in my last piece. In doing this I shall compare them with the official/IEBC results and attempt to explain the apparent contrasts.
But has nearly all the ‘dust’ really settled?
Before undertaking the main task at hand—analysing the degree to which the last round(s) of surveys generated presidential results that were reflected in those declared by IEBC Chair Wafula Chebukati—it seems necessary to explain the delay in finishing this piece for The Elephant.
Ever since the return of election polls ( themselves coming in the wake of the return to multi-party competition in the 1990s) a major challenge in assessing their accuracy has been the credibility-deficit often associated with the official results. Leaving aside the assumed willingness of survey respondents to “honestly” reveal their voting intentions, as well as the impossibility to exactly predict voter turnout, a number of factors have been identified—and on some occasions, well documented—including: the buying of IDs/voters’ cards, threats to/physical obstruction of would-be voters, intimidation of/interference with campaign activities, ballot-stuffing, and fraudulent vote-counting. As such, one survey firm that had undertaken pre-election polling since 1997 decided prior to the 2013 contest not to do this (at least for public release) “until and unless we are confident that the official results are credible”—although just how this might be determined raises additional issues.
For last year’s election as related to this piece that seeks to assess the accuracy of survey results, it was thus necessary to wait to see if any credible evidence emerged that might at least cast doubt on the official presidential results, especially since, as shown below, nearly all of the final pre-election survey results were “wrong”—that is, not just showing a “different” candidate winning, but also doing so by a figure that was well outside the margins-of-error of the reported polls. The author therefore paid close attention first to whatever grounds the four dissenting IEBC commissioners had for refusing to confirm the results announced by their chairman, and then to the nine “consolidated” petitions that were taken to the Supreme Court, and the issues that the Court sought to scrutinize and determine. However, the commissioners remained silent, with three of them subsequently resigning, apparently to avoid interrogation by the tribunal established by the president following its authorization by the Kenya Kwanza majority in the National Assembly. Court proceedings also yielded far from sufficient evidence to “prove” that the election was “stolen”, even if not all of the arguments used to overcome these petition challenges were entirely convincing.
As such, it was possible to complete a draft of this piece within several months of the election. However, almost immediately thereafter, one of the IEBC commissioners, Ms Irene Masit, declared that rather than resign as did her three “dissenting” colleagues, she would contest her possible removal through the above-noted tribunal . In this context, shortly before her first scheduled appearance before it, she announced her intention (in mid-December) to release a “bombshell” about the official presidential results. It was, therefore, rather an anti-climax when she failed to appear at the hearing, instead sending her lawyer, the focus of whose complaint was the composition of the tribunal rather than any substantive refutation of the results. Indeed, despite several additional tribunal sittings, no such “bombshell” was ever dropped, with Masit remaining silent throughout (even if doing so may have contributed to the tribunal’s ultimate decision to recommend her removal from office), leaving the motivation behind her initial statement quite up in the air.
On the other hand, a different “explosive device” was lobbed by Raila Odinga on 18 January—and repeated several times thereafter in several public rallies and press statements: that a “whistle-blower” from within the IEBC had made available the full constituency results of the presidential contest (which are yet to be posted on the IEBC’s website) showing that Odinga had won with a margin of over two million votes, giving him some 57 per cent of all votes cast. Just why it had taken so long for these “true results” to be made available (either by the ‘whistle-blower’, or by Azimio depending upon when they were provided) was never explained, however, and a rigorous scrutiny of them by a long-term observer-analyst of Kenyan elections, Dr Charles Hornsby, cast serious doubt about their credibility. Central here was his comparison of the supposedly “true” presidential tallies in a number of key constituencies (“key” in the sense that these results amounted to a complete reversal of the official presidential figures), but where, almost without exception, the parliamentary results, none of which the “whistle-blower” sought to refute, amounted to overwhelming victories for Ruto’s UDA party and its affiliates, thus making such reversed presidential results incredulous. (It is also curious why Masit remained silent about them, whether during the tribunal’s hearings or at any other time, as well as why the “whistle-blower” had not made them available to her or to any of the other dissenting commissioners before they resigned—assuming this was the case.)
Just why it had taken so long for these “true results” to be made available by Azimio was never explained.
Even more recently, the investigative and civic education NGO, Inform Action, released a report that assessed the degree to which last year’s election met the standards demanded by the constitution and relevant statutes. While it identified numerous failings at all stages of the electoral process, none was identified as having significantly affected the presidential results.
In sum, then, no incontrovertible evidence has come to light since the election that calls into question the validity of the declaration of William Ruto as the winner. This includes the claim, also made on several occasions by Azimio leaders, that an exit poll confirmed the results released by the IEBC “whistle-blower”. Yet no figures were released in connection with this poll , let alone the identity of the agency that conducted it or any details of the methodology used (i.e., sample size and distribution across which polling stations, the number and wording of the questions asked, the proportion invited to be interviewed who refused and their distribution over the map, etc.) Such doubts were magnified by the fact that (especially if the results were favourable to Odinga) the results were not released immediately all the polling stations had closed, as is the general case globally, or at least prior to the announcement of the official results five days later. Further, an effort to obtain such information by writing to a senior Azimio official yielded no fruit. (Why various media interviews with Azimio leaders since this claim was first made failed to raise any of these questions is also curious.)
No incontrovertible evidence has come to light since the election that calls into question the validity of the declaration of William Ruto as the winner.
With this context (which, it should be noted, however, is at least potentially subject to change), the main issue examined in this piece can be addressed: what (if anything) can explain the significant gap between nearly all of the final round of polls and the official results?
Were the pollsters ‘wrong again’?
Notwithstanding the usual disclaimers from survey firm representatives that their results were “snapshots-in-time” rather than predictions, questions about the accuracy of their work arose immediately enough constituency-level results had been tallied to indicate that even if Odinga was going to emerge the winner—or even whether either he or Ruto would get over the 50 per cent + 1 hurdle—the margin between these two main contenders was going to be far smaller than the final polls had indicated, with one exception: that of Radio Africa, the only one that put Ruto in the lead, although within that poll’s margin of error, as indicated in the following table containing all these results as well as their collective average:
Moreover, and as I have noted in previous pieces in this series, since ballots do not provide any “undecided” or “no response” options (and those left unmarked or spoilt by any “stray” marks are removed from the total of “valid votes cast” that is used to calculate the 50 per cent + 1 requirement), it would make sense this close to an election to also calculate survey results with those no-named-candidate results removed, which are presented in the table below for TIFA (and which were included in its 3 August media release) and the five-survey average, as well as the official/IEBC results:
In other words, Ruto obtained about 6.5 per cent more votes than his five-poll average of 44 per cent, and Odinga obtained about 5 per cent less than his average of 54 per cent.
So, what might explain this “error”? (And note that the margin of error in none of these “incorrect” polls does so.) To answer this question, five factors will be considered: the “evaporation” of expressed support for the two minor candidates; the postponement of gubernatorial contests in two counties; the variable distribution of voter turnout; respondent dishonesty; and a possible late “wave” in Ruto’s favour.
Factor one: burst of the Wajackoyah ‘balloon’
I had previously suggested that the expressed intention to vote for George Wajackoyah—which was recorded at 4 per cent in TIFA’s late June survey—could have been largely “for fun”, and that some, if not most, of those respondents who actually vote would bring themselves to choose between the only two serious contenders.
That this was a likely scenario was suggested by the drop in expressed support for him by more than half (to 1.8 per cent) in TIFA’s final pre-election survey. Given the fact that—as was the case previously—in that survey Ruto had rather more support among voters under 35 and that Wajackoyah had nearly three times more support among such voters than among the more elderly, it can be assumed that on 9 August, Ruto was the main beneficiary of the “evaporation” of Wajackoyah’s votes to less than 0.5 per cent.
Factor two: the two postponed gubernatorial contests
A second factor is the failure to hold elections for governor in two counties where Odinga received clear majorities. As may be recalled, it was immediately clear on 9 August that there had been a “mix-up” of the gubernatorial ballot papers in Mombasa and Kakamega counties, with the candidates’ images on the ballots failing to match their names. This meant that the elections for these positions had to be postponed, raising the question as to how much that might depress voter turnout in these two counties. That this was a concern on the Azimio side was evident when Mvita MP and ODM gubernatorial candidate, Abdulswamad Nassir, cried foul on the basis that these “are all ODM strongholds and we read ill-motive to reduce the number of votes in favour of Raila Odinga”, an allegation also contained in one of the Supreme Court election petitions subsequently filed on Odinga’s behalf.
Buttressing Azimio’s argument (though not mentioned in the petition) were the results of a question in TIFA’s final pre-election survey, released on 3 August, which revealed that Kenyan voters perceived the importance of the position of governor as equal to that of president, and thus its absence from the ballot would most certainly have a negative impact on voter motivation.
In its full judgment, the Supreme Court, having first affirmed the IEBC’s authority to postpone elections under various conditions including those at issue here, held that the petitioners had failed to prove that the postponement led to a suppression of voter turnout, and that it was motivated by malice.
Leaving aside the second point about any “malice or bad faith”, a more precise estimate than that which was presented to the Supreme Court helps to reveal the extent to which voter turnout in these two counties was, in fact, depressed, and how this impacted on the presidential results in those counties.
In answering these questions, a more detailed review of the presidential election results is helpful. First, according to the IEBC, 65.1 per cent of nationally registered voters cast votes, 99.2 per cent of which were valid, making a total of 14,213,137 valid votes. Of these, 50.49 per cent were cast for Ruto and 48.85 per cent for Odinga. Ruto’s total was based on receiving 233,211 more votes than Odinga, and 69,573 votes above the 50 per cent + 1 required for an outright win. However, national turnout was rather lower than it was in the 2017 election (77 per cent). Among several national level factors that may account for this, most widely acknowledged was the absence of a serious presidential candidate from the Mt. Kenya region, so that voter turnout there was 15 per cent below the 2017 figure.
Kenyan voters perceived the importance of the position of governor as equal to that of president.
With specific regard to Kakamega and Mombasa, five years ago the turnout was 75 per cent in the former and 59 per cent in the latter. This time, apparently (but not conclusively) due to the absence of gubernatorial ballots, these figures were 60 per cent and 44 per cent, respectively. By comparison, the average for the other four counties in the western region was 64 per cent, and in the other five coastal region counties, 59 per cent, both considerably higher than in the two counties at issue.
At the Supreme Court, however, the petitioners used an average turnout of 72 per cent for the last three elections in Kakamega, and posited an average of 56 per cent in Mombasa, yielding a 12 per cent turnout gap in both counties on 9 August. However, given the credibility issues regarding voter turnout in previous elections, using regional county averages from 2022 as well as the differentials between Kakamega and the rest of western and between Mombasa and the rest of the coast region, yields a more accurate estimate of what the turnout in these two counties would likely have been had all six positions been on the ballot.
In order to arrive at such an estimate, the difference in average turnout in the 2017 and 2022 elections for the counties in each of the two regions—aside from the two at issue—was calculated. For the western region, aside from Kakamega, turnout in 2022 was 12.1 per cent below what it was in 2017. Based on this reality, since turnout in Kakamega in 2017 was 74.9 per cent when all six positions were on the ballot, it may be assumed that in 2022 it would have been about 63 per cent, or 3 per cent higher than the 60.3 per cent recorded on 9 August.
A similar calculation for the coast region (leaving aside Mombasa) yields a figure that is 11.2 per cent below the 2017 level for its five other counties. As such, taking into account that turnout in Mombasa in 2017 was about 9 per cent lower than it was in the region as a whole (60.0 per cent), it appears that in 2022 it would have been 51 per cent. However, given that the 2022 gubernatorial contest was considerably more competitive (in which Abdulswamad Nassir of ODM defeated Hassan Omar of UDA by a mere 20,000 votes) than in 2017, a slightly higher turnout may be assumed compared to 2017 when Ali Hassan Joho had no serious challenger. Thus, perhaps 53 per cent is a more likely figure, about 9 per cent higher than what occurred on 9 August.
Based on the above pair of assumptions, the disadvantage Odinga suffered through these two postponements can be estimated. For Mombasa, 9 per cent of all registered voters represents 57,813 votes. Assuming that these “extra” votes would have been split in the same proportions as were the votes that were cast on 9 August, Odinga (having obtained 58.07 per cent) would have garnered an additional 33,571 votes, and Ruto (who obtained 41 per cent) an additional 23,702 votes. Similarly, in Kakamega, Odinga would have garnered an additional 18,002 votes, and Ruto an additional 7,101 votes, had voter turnout been 3 per cent higher.
Taking these “lost” votes into account, the national totals for both candidates would therefore have risen to 7,206,944 for Ruto and 6,994,503 for Odinga. The quite modest gain for Odinga thereby reduces the overall gap between them from 233,211 to 212,441. Further, if we assume that the two other candidates would between them have gained another 800 or so votes (based on totals of 0.93 per cent in both counties, giving them a combined national total of 94,756), that would have brought the total national vote to around 14,296,000 valid votes. This, in turn, means that Ruto would have obtained about 50.41 per cent of all valid votes (rather than 50.49 per cent), while Odinga would have obtained 48.93 per cent (rather than 48.85 per cent). Overall, these figures would have slightly narrowed Ruto’s margin above 50 per cent: from 69,573 to 58,944 votes.
As can be seen, these calculations do not affect the overall result, but they are measurable, and it may be asked why the petitioners were not more precise in their submission to the Court, if they were going to be presented at all. At the same time, given the dismissive language in the Supreme Court’s eventual full judgment, it is unclear how large such a turnout gap would have had to be in order for this aspect of the IEBC’s performance to be taken into account, or whether any such gap would have been enough to force such a consideration unless one or more petitioners could have convinced the Court that such errors were deliberate as opposed to being only “accidental” ballot-printing errors by the Greek firm that supplied them.
Factor three: turnout differential – Ruto vs. Odinga ‘strongholds’
The next and potentially much weightier “suspect” for the pollsters’ “error” is national voter turnout, as TIFA emphasized in a “Cautionary Note” that accompanied its 3 August media release: “The outcome of the election depends on voter turnout and this cannot be predicted by surveys.” Even earlier, in several of its pre-election survey-release, TIFA had also made clear that far more respondents were claiming to be registered voters than was indicated by the IEBC’s figures. For example, in its second-to-last pre-election survey (conducted at the household level from 21 to 26 July), 93 per cent of randomly selected respondents claimed to be registered voters, yet based on the adult population as identified in the 2019 Census plus the youth who came of age since the last voter registration exercise was concluded in February of last year, the correct figure is only slightly aove 80 per cent.
Such a “reality-check” is bolstered by comparing the proportions among those claiming to be registered voters in the nine zones used by TIFA in presenting its findings who stated that they would “definitely” or “probably” vote with the IEBC’s actual – and significantly lower – figures:
As shown, while the national level gap is a hefty 30 per cent, it varies across these 9 zones from a high of 34 per cent in the coast region to just 1 per cent in the South Rift. The key question, therefore, is to what extent the variations in actual voter turnout explain TIFA’s (and several other firms’) “erroneous” final survey figures.
To answer it, we can first look at the voter intention figures from the same late late July TIFA survey and compare these with the percentages actually won by each candidate in the nine zones:
In doing so, several points emerge. First, in the respective home-zone areas (Nyanza and Central Rift) of the two main presidential candidates, the gaps between TIFA’s results and those of the IEBC are minimal (i.e., only 2 per cent higher in Nyanza, and only 1 per cent lower in Central Rift). Second, Ruto did almost as well in the second zone in which he obtained a majority—Mt. Kenya—as he did “at home”: 79 per cent vs. 83 per cent, only a 4 per cent difference. By contrast, in the zone where Odinga obtained his second largest majority—Lower Eastern—his majority was considerably smaller than it was “at home”: 75 per cent vs. 87 per cent, a 12 per cent difference. As has been noted, Odinga’s running-mate in this election came from Mt. Kenya region, as did Ruto’s, and not from Lower Eastern, the home of Kalonzo Musyoka who had been his running-mate in the previous two elections. Third and finally, Odinga suffered decreases in his actual vote proportions as compared with his TIFA figures in two zones – South Rift and Nairobi—amounting to 18 per cent in total, whereas Ruto’s negative difference-gap in Central Rift was only 1 per cent.
It is unclear how large such a turnout gap in Mombasa and Kakamega would have had to be in order for this aspect of the IEBC’s performance to be taken into account by the Supreme Court.
With these contrasting regional results in mind, does differential voter turnout explain any of the pollsters’ pre-election “error”? The simple answer is “yes”, but to what extent requires another “deep dive” into the official/IEBC data.
First of all, of all 48 electoral units, Odinga obtained more votes than Ruto in 28 (27 counties plus the Diaspora), leaving 20 counties in which Ruto out-scored him. In the former category, there were 7,968,238 valid votes, while in the latter there were 6,244,799. However, whereas Odinga obtained only 70.6 per cent of all valid votes in his “dominant” areas, Ruto obtained 78.3 per cent in his. Or to put it the other way round, while Ruto obtained 28.7 per cent of all valid votes in Odinga-dominant areas, Odinga managed only 21.1 per cent in Ruto-majority areas. In terms of actual votes, Odinga got 5,627,630 votes in his “strongholds”, while Ruto garnered 4,889,909 in his. However, what got Ruto over the line is that while Odinga obtained only 1,315,300 votes in Ruto’s areas, Ruto obtained 2,286,232 in Odinga’s.
What got Ruto over the line is that while Odinga obtained only 1,315,300 votes in Ruto’sareas, Ruto obtained 2,286,232 in Odinga’s.
Such figures underscore the importance of voter turnout in explaining Ruto’s advantage. Specifically, whereas it was about 69 per cent in the 20 Ruto-dominant counties, it was only about 62 per cent in Odinga’s 27 (leaving out the few Diaspora voters).
This analysis can be extended by answering another specific hypothetical question: what would the results have been if voter turnout had been identical to the national average of 65.1 per cent in all 47 counties? In terms of votes, Odinga would have obtained 7,140,924 as compared to Ruto’s 7,078,521 (with the remaining 98,319 divided between Wajackoyah and Mwaure), thereby pushing the former up to 49.9 per cent vs. 49.8 per cent for Ruto. Further, when Odinga’s “lost” votes from Kakamega and Mombasa are added, his total would have stood at 50.3 per cent as opposed to 49.7 per cent for Ruto, giving the former an outright/first round win, though with a victory-margin of just over 0.5 per cent, almost equal to that of Ruto’s official win, although still less than what nearly all of the final polls reported. Why so many more of Odinga’s potential voters failed to show up at their polling stations on 9 August is a question I shall leave for others to answer.
Factor four: respondent dishonesty
An additional factor that could help to explain the discrepancy between the last round of polls (average) and the official results is respondent dishonesty. It is of two types: unfulfilled intentions and outright falsehood. An example of the latter, as noted above, is respondents claiming to be registered who in fact were not, and thus never voted. Indeed, in selecting respondents for its two final pre-election surveys, TIFA excluded those who “confessed” to not being registered, although it was not possible to verify the registration claims of the remainder, let alone to match those non-voters with their expressed presidential voting intentions.
TIFA sought to identify the “liars” in its July survey, which was conducted in person at residences, by asking all respondents to name their polling stations, but only 94 per cent could do so. Here it should be recalled that in terms of expressed presidential vote-choice in that survey, Odinga out-scored Ruto by 46.7 per cent to 44.4 per cent, a 2.3 per cent difference. Yet when results are limited to those who could name their polling station, Odinga’s lead shrinks to just 0.2 per cent, from 46.4 per cent to 46.2 per cent, suggesting that there was more “dishonesty” about being registered among Odinga supporters. Moreover, the likelihood that, in comparison with the TIFA findings, Odinga “lost votes” by such dishonesty is also suggested by the fact that among those who failed to name their polling station, far more expressed voting intentions for Odinga than for Ruto (53 per cent vs. 19 per cent), and that another 19 per cent said they were “undecided” as to whom they would vote for, as compared with only 5 per cent among those who did name their polling station.
One other factor that could explain part of the discrepancy between the last round of polls (average) and the official results is respondent dishonesty.
(At the same time, asked about their likelihood of voting, the combined figures of “will probably not” and “not sure” are the same for those expressing vote-support for both Odinga and Ruto—3 per cent—countering an assumption that those not registered would be more likely to express doubts about their participation in the election at all. In light of such issues, it is unfortunate there was no exit poll even if limited to a few counties, since ipso facto it would have involved only actual voters.)
The above analysis leads to an obvious question: why would at least a significant number of survey respondents have claimed they would vote for Odinga when they had decided otherwise? While this issue could be explored in subsequent surveys, at this point two closely related factors seem to have encouraged at least some “dishonesty” of this nature. One is the visible support given to Odinga’s campaign by the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta government, which according to reliable reports, involved both financial and rhetorical support, the latter including exhortations, if not clear threats, by local administration officials. While the impact of such direct involvement on voting is unclear, it seems reasonable to conclude that it served to intimidate at least some respondents, making them uneasy about declaring their intentions to vote for Ruto even in surveys conducted by non-state entities.
Such a conclusion is suggested by the responses TIFA obtained in its April survey to a question (that had also been included in five previous surveys) asking which presidential candidate, if any, respondents thought President Kenyatta supported. Overall, 73 per cent named Odinga. However, rather more of those expressing an intention to vote for him held this view than did those stating they would vote for Ruto (85 per cent vs. 79 per cent). In other words, the fact that more of Odinga’s expressed supporters believed the incumbent president was supporting him than did Ruto’s may have really been an indication that they were not being “honest” but rather sought to align themselves with incumbent presidential power.
Such ‘unease’ is also indicated by the finding in TIFA’s late-July survey that found that among the substantial minority of those who reported having voted for Odinga in 2017 but who intended to vote for Ruto in this election, two-thirds explained their ‘defection’ from him as a consequence of his ‘handshake’ with President Kenyatta. As such, even those still stating they would vote for him may have likewise had this as their main motivation for not doing so, but not wanting to ‘confess’ the same to TIFA and other survey firms.
Another related factor is the widespread assumption that Odinga, being the recipient of such state support, would inevitably win (which likewise appears to have contributed to lower turnout in Odinga “strongholds” as already suggested). As such, even some of those committed to voting for Ruto were likely reluctant to risk getting on the “wrong side” of an expected Odinga government by declaring their true voting intentions, even to private/independent survey firms such as TIFA.
Further, in TIFA’s final survey, a total of 7 per cent of respondents declined to identify their presidential voting intentions, with 4 per cent claiming to be “undecided” and the rest simply remaining silent. Even if 78 per cent of those without a stated presidential vote-preference also failed to identify with any political party (thus suggesting a general lack of interest in politics and thus a lower likelihood of voting at all), this proportion on their own could have been enough to eliminate the polls-vs.-IEBC gap between Odinga and Ruto, and then some.
Factor five: a possible ‘late wave’
Aside from “dishonesty” among those 7 per cent in TIFA’s final survey who declined to reveal their presidential voting intentions, it is possible not only that some of them failed to vote at all, but that others only made up their minds at “the last minute”. Moreover, a small proportion who had honestly expressed an intention to vote for Odinga changed their minds in the intervening period between these final surveys and 9 August, for whatever reasons, and voted for Ruto. Recall here that according to The Publication of Electoral Polls Act (2012), no such results can be published within five days before election day. This means that even the last such survey undertaken and released in this election cycle was completed a full week before that day. In this case, also, it should be possible to identify at least some of these “last-minute” decision-makers in a post-election survey. And several commentators and political actors indicated that such a “wave” was likely, and after the election, that it did, in fact, occur.
For example, just a week before the election, during a discussion of the most recent polls on one of the morning TV political talk-shows, Dr Peter Kagwanja dismissed Odinga’s modest lead by claiming that in the Mt. Kenya region, at least, “You will see a major swing towards Odinga when the votes are tallied because people from this area, not having a presidential contender for the first time, are determined to be where power will be for the next five years, and it is clear that will be an Azimio government.” But such a “swing” could have been in the opposite direction.
Indeed, several weeks after the election, one senior Kenya Kwanza leader from this region claimed to the author that “in our final rallies, we could feel the surge in our direction, such as at Kirigiti in Kiambu, which was our last big rally.”
Altogether, then, while impossible to substantiate without further post-election research, such a ‘late wave’ cannot be ruled out, and to the extent it did occur during the final week, it could not have been captured in the final surveys, once again highlighting the value of an election day exit poll.
A few longer-term take-aways
While each of the five factors examined above could have contributed to Odinga’s loss, it is not possible to precisely measure their impact (even if an attempt was made to do so with regard to the second and third of these). The question that remains is whether, taken together, they could sufficiently explain why the official results deviated significantly from nearly all of the polls conducted towards the end of the campaign period. While the answer must be left for readers to answer, it seems certain that if the outcome had been an Odinga win, even by a narrower margin than Ruto obtained, the media would have most certainly reported that “the pollsters were correct”, even if this result would have been outside these polls’ margins of error!
Even some of those committed to voting for Ruto were likely reluctant to risk getting on the “wrong side” of an expected Odinga government by declaring their true voting intentions.
Whatever the case, and despite the fact that far more use was made of such survey tools by the major presidential campaign teams (and also by many candidates below that level), it seems that “serious” survey firms may have to re-think certain aspects of their methodology, in terms of both the selection of respondents (for example, trying to discover why some people decline to be interviewed in case such non-participation might create a “silent” bias, even within particular ethnic groups) and the reliability of the answers they give to certain critical questions. Likewise, they may need to publish their final results in terms of several potential scenarios, beginning, perhaps, with variable voter turnout figures in both national and regional terms. Indeed, in his last pre-election blog, Hornsby, using such a multiplicity of factors – including the most recent polls – ‘guessed’ that Ruto would win within a 1 per cent margin – which is exactly what happened.
Such considerations raise one question this piece has yet to address: “What about the ‘correct’ Radio Africa/Star poll?” A valid question, but an answer seems elusive. In the US, following considerable embarrassment associated with the performance of a number of reputable pollsters in the last two elections, they sat down together to share their thoughts as to what ‘went wrong’, and what steps could be taken – mainly with regard to sampling models – to remedy such errors. But doing so required a level of data-sharing transparency that has no precedent in Kenya, where the few firms that conduct these surveys have never (to my knowledge) engaged in such a collective exercise, which would clearly have to include a comparison of the ethnic distribution of their samples, given the salience of this factor in voters’ choices.
Recall, however, that an early June poll by Radio Africa gave Odinga a six per cent lead, whereas late-May surveys by Infotrak and TIFA placed him ahead of Ruto by only 4 per cent. And in April, while a TIFA poll put Ruto ahead of Odinga by 7 per cent, Radio Africa gave the former DP an advantage of just 5 per cent. As such, the basis for Radio Africa’s ‘predictive success’ in that poll remains unknown, least for now.
But beyond any such “errors”, those involved in the conduct, dissemination and use of such data in a still-young democracy such as Kenya must not get distracted from the larger—and, it can be argued—more important question: Do such research tools contribute to the strengthening of democracy, both among those competing for office and those with the power to determine winners and losers—that is, the voters themselves?
Religion and the Tragedy of the Kenya Middle Class
The Kenyans who are really blinded by religion are not the ordinary ones who are actively religious, but the educated ones who are against religion. It’s an intellectual entanglement so spectacular that would put the emotional entanglement of the Smiths to shame.
When William Ruto won the 2022 general elections to become Kenya’s fifth president, local and international media were awash with discussions of Ruto as an evangelical president. The excitement, however, was informed less by Kenyan religion or politics and more by right-wing Evangelical America and its war on homosexuality and abortion. Le Monde, a major newspaper from a country that boasts of being the home of the Enlightenment, was understandably preoccupied with Kenya’s adherence to secularism. The BBC was curious about the president’s stand on homosexuality, but not about secularism, which would have been strange for the public broadcaster of a country whose head of state is also the head of the Anglican church.
Kenyan intellectuals, who are largely educated on Western liberal values and human rights, were also inclined to focus on concerns about secularism. Editorials of Kenyan media waxed lyrical about the need to separate the church from the state. Other observers, inspired by the reversal of Roe v. Wade in the US, voiced concerns that women might suffer an attack on their reproductive rights under a Ruto presidency.
Much of this analysis misses major nuances of religion and politics in Kenya, and comes from rigid adherence to the false dichotomy which Eurocentrism has placed between reason and faith.
The ambiguity of Evangelicalism
It is important to note that most Kenyans cannot distinguish the doctrines of different Christian faiths. In the 70s and 80s, they might have defined that distinction largely by the concept of “getting saved,” because Catholics stood out as the only branch of Kenyan Christianity that did not believe in salvation from a personal relationship with Jesus. From the late 80s onwards, a Kenyan might have offered a vague distinction of Protestantism from other faiths based on the style of worship, pointing out that mainstream Protestant churches sang hymns, listened to choirs singing in four-part harmony and prayed silently, while Pentecostals and African traditional churches sang vibrant songs to musical instrumentation, danced in the sanctuary and prayed loudly in tongues.
But by early 2000, however, that difference had largely disappeared, because many mainstream churches changed their worship to a more Pentecostal style, thanks to some clergy who felt that the Pentecostal expression was more “spiritual,” and others who felt that adopting the Pentecostal style of worship would prevent the youth from leaving the church. Children who grew up since that time would therefore scarcely know the difference between a Protestant and an Evangelical.
Therefore, there is little clarity in the Kenyan mind about what constitutes the Evangelical church. Most of the churches called “evangelical” in Kenya do not consciously profess the evangelical faith, if by evangelical, we mean those who believe in the centrality of the bible in faith, and who profess to be “born again” after having a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. In any case, the concept of being “born again” was already in Protestant circles in the 1930s, thanks to the East African Revival Movement, and back then, British missionaries were irked by their African converts who claimed to be “born again.”
But that lack of clarity on Evangelicalism is evident even in academic scholarship. Kenyan scholars who are close to American evangelical circles, and who seem at pains to prove that even Evangelicals are interested in social issues, often cite Protestant clergy and academics who are vocal on faith and society as “evangelical.” They do so even when those whom they cite would not consider themselves Evangelical and are even critical of Evangelicals.
Christianity and the state
Part of this confusion emanates from the failure to appreciate the different political attitudes of American and European missionaries towards the state, and how that difference influences Christianity in Kenyan political life today. European missionaries tended to be driven by liberal ideas and to collaborate with the colonial state in providing education, but they also took a stand against human rights abuse by the colonial government. The American missionaries, however, wanted to keep their distance from the colonial government because they believed that Christian mission work should rely on God (meaning on donations from fellow believers). Neither side fundamentally challenged the concept of colonialism itself.
After independence, the mainstream churches continued their engagement with the ex-colonial Kenyan state, either in agreement or opposition. For instance, in 1969, mainstream churches opposed Jomo Kenyatta’s adoption of the oath to solidify political support of his Kikuyu ethnic group against Kenyatta’s political rivals. That Kenyatta listened to the church shows that his use of traditional spirituality to bind people to his political project, and of the church to maintain his hold on the ex-colonial state.
After independence, however, American missionaries continued to distance themselves from the state. Much of that conceptual work was done through the concept of culture. The argument of American missionaries was that faith was expressed through culture, and no culture was superior to the other. The utopian implication was that under Christ, there was no African or American, no black or white. In reality, however, this focus on culture supported the imperial project of the Cold War by steering African Christianity away from politics. The cultural focus of theology was important for US imperialism to block the development of African solidarity with black theology, which influenced by the Black Panther movement, and liberation theology which was influenced by Marxism.
During the 80s and 90s, as Moi’s rule became more draconian and as the economic conditions deteriorated, mainstream clergy were at the forefront of speaking out against the shrinking democratic space. By contrast, American missionary founded churches like the AIC, Moi’s home church, took the stance that leaders are chosen by God and should be supported spiritually rather than criticized, and that the church should keep off commenting on political matters.
The Evangelical Alpha Male
But as the Protestant churches focused on the relationship of Christianity to the state, the evangelical churches modeled for us how to live as Christians. In the context of Structural Adjustment Programs that gutted down the few public services available, and the rise of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, Evangelicalism gained momentum by offering personal lifestyle responses to social problems.
For instance, evangelicalism filled the intellectual space in the public sphere which had been evacuated by the persecution of academics, students, professionals and artists, and by the reduction of funding for education. As Dr. Damaris Parsitau has demonstrated in her scholarship, that vacuum was rapidly filled by the omniscient Evangelical preacher.
At the same time, a socio-political vacuum was developing due to the privatization of social services. For the youth who were joining the job market and expecting to start families, the charismatic churches provided practical remedies to the social services falling apart. The churches promised private services like homeschooling to compensate for education, miracle healing for failing medical services, and abstention from sex for the HIV-AIDS pandemic.
Thus rose the figure of the pastor as the alpha male. He exuded a positive attitude as approach to all problems in life. He was the intellectual who explained how to navigate the crippling economy. He was the educator who exemplified homeschooling through the work of his wife. He was the model husband who motivated his wife to do that work. He was also the entrepreneur who embodied the promise of neoliberal capitalism, because he had started his own church with a few members and was now living a lavish lifestyle as the head of a mega church.
As such, the word “evangelical”, though not commonly used in Kenya, usually refers to a certain profile of churches and their clergy. The churches which Kenyans call “Evangelical” loosely refer to churches which revolve around the personal enterprise of the pastor in the case of men, or of the pastor and his wife, or sometimes of unmarried women pastors. In such churches, major decisions, including the management of church property and finances, are managed almost exclusively by the pastor, as opposed to an elders’ council or a general assembly, and so the evangelical pastor embodies the figure of the CEO. Most of these churches are morally conservative, but any missteps in their own morality, like fathering children out of wedlock, receives a generous lathering of Christ’s forgiveness to wash away a multitude of sins.
By contrast, mainstream Protestant churches are identified by institutionalization, church hierarchy, leadership elections whose chaos often mirrors the elections for political leadership, and clergy who are likely to take positions on political issues.
This landscape suggests that despite the denominational differences, spirituality in Kenya is one continuous space where Kenyans navigate their political and social lives in the face of local and global dilemmas. That spiritual whole includes local and ethnic African spiritualities, which Kenyans revert to even though they may continue to attend church.
Victorian morality as “African culture”
One major confusion in Kenya that is directly related to Evangelicalism is the discourse of morality. This confusion comes from the fact that Kenya is governed by a rigid manufacture of consent, where public discourse on a wide range of issues is tied to how such matters relate to the state. When it comes to the personal space, especially in matters of femininity and sexuality, this discursive control is expressed as concern for “African traditions,” and often includes quotations from the bible. However, when one scratches beneath the surface of those concerns, one finds what is being called African tradition is closer to Victorian morality.
As such, Kenyans will criticize women for wearing their hems above the knee as flouting African tradition, and have nothing to say when reminded that in many African traditional fashions barely cover the body. Kenyans will share pictures of men on catwalks in Europe wearing skirts and declare that those catwalks flout African morals, forgetting that most African traditional wear for men is in the form of clothes that flow from the shoulder or from the waist.
One must therefore avoid reading statements about African culture as exclusively expressions of Kenyan right-wing conservativism. When Kenyans say that something “is not culturally African,” they could be saying less about African culture and revealing more about the limited intellectual space in which Kenyans can contemplate anything outside what is acceptable to the state. They could be expressing the fear that allowing minorities to have a voice, or their right to life and social services, or autonomy of one’s body or sexuality, requires disentangling many other convoluted beliefs which Kenyans must uphold, if they are to avoid a direct confrontation with what the late ES Atieno Odhiambo famously called Kenya’s “ideology of order.”
This entanglement explains the contradictory signals on homosexuality that confound Western and liberal journalists. Most of the pronouncements by government officials against LGBTI are made in situations of crisis, or in reaction to news reports, or in interviews by foreign journalists, rather than as political campaign issues.
For example, Ezekiel Mutua, a state officer, often weaponized homophobia in his drive to censor the arts in the name of morality. In 2016, his office proposed laws with draconian requirements that would have gagged artists using bureaucracy. When the artists protested, Mutua sought the support of the church by justifying censorship as a concern about morality. He was hoping that the public would pick up the fact that one of the prominent faces in the protest against censorship was gay gospel musician Joji Baro.
However, the state’s issue with the arts is not morality; it’s control. Together with the church, the state has always had a fractured relationship with the arts because of the power of the arts to influence society independently of Kenyan institutions. Arts are an intrinsic threat to the “ideology of order.“ Many artists, of whom Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of the most famous, were persecuted for their creative work. Campaigns against arts education have been led by politicians, the media and the business sector who call the arts irrelevant to the job market, and by the church whose schools expel children for drawings which are dubbed “demonic.” Ruto has repeatedly called arts education the teaching of irrelevant facts such as when Vasco da Gama came to Africa, yet his government is actively trying to coopt artists into the state under the banner of the “creative economy.” Mutua’s appeal to homophobia was therefore an additional alibi for the suppression of the arts.
Mutua once again weaponized homophobia to rally the church to endorse state ban against Wanuri Kahiu’s film Rafiki. Viewing was eventually opened up for a week, apparently to help the film qualify for international film festivals. Thus we see an ambiguity that “morality” faces when the state is confronted with the international arena. A similar ambiguity occurred when CNN journalist Richard Quest, who is gay, visited Kenya, and was a guest of the Jubilee Celebration Centre, one of the quintessential “evangelical” churches of Nairobi.
My focus here is not the cliché intersectionality of struggles of class, gender, religion and sexual orientation, which obviously applies. It is that hostility to women and sexual minorities is intertwined with other forms of incoherence in Kenyan life, including our visceral hatred for the youth which is seen in the violence in schools and in extra judicial killings. To challenge these injustices inevitably touches other live wires of social traumas which may not necessarily be an expression of Evangelicalism, even when they borrow expressions from Evangelicalism.
All this to say that the place of the church in Kenyan politics, and especially what constitutes the “Evangelical” church in Kenya, is more fluid than a Euro-American reading would allow. A rigid subjection of Kenyan Christianity to the framework of European secular thought or American Christian fascism, hides the impact of US militarism and capitalism on Kenya through the suffocation of cultures, diversity and ideas. More than that, it is largely a project of intellectual class.
The obsession of the Kenyan middle class with enforcing Enlightenment secularism is an intellectual tragedy of major proportions.
Ruto’s faith and political career also demonstrate these ambiguities. In the run up to the 2010 constitutional referendum, for example, Ruto was the most prominent politician in the “No” camp against the constitution, but his interest was largely driven by his own political ambitions. More strange is that his opposition to the constitution was that it was not capitalist enough on the land question.
Meanwhile, the Kenyan pastors who waged war against the constitution voiced their concerns as moral concerns about abortion, and they argued that the inclusion of the Kadhi courts in the constitution went against the principle of secularism because it promoted Islam. The deal with the Kadhi courts was a political one made before independence to maintain Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline as part of Kenya, but the evangelical clergy chose to ignore the politics and restrict the question to religion. What’s ironic is that now, the same clergy who claimed to be concerned about secularism in 2010 are now asking for state appointments. American evangelicals had sponsored some Kenyan pastors to oppose the constitution, on the claim that the constitution promoted abortion and homosexuality, as an extension of America’s own cultural politics.
During the referendum campaigns, therefore, Ruto and the clergy were largely partners of convenience. Mark Kariuki, who would pray fifteen years later at Ruto’s swearing in as president, even clarified that “No yao si no yetu” (Their “no” is not our “no”), meaning that Ruto and the clergy may have been on the same side against the constitution, but for different reasons.
The moral posturing of the clergy was not enough to persuade Kenyans to forget the legal and political agendas that had brought Kenya to this new constitutional moment. Contrary to their expectations, Kenyans – many obviously Christian – ratified the constitution. To date, many Evangelicals, especially professionals, carry that rejection of the clergy’s position as a trauma, as one member of that group inadvertently informed me.
The greater manifestation of Ruto’s faith is in his economic thinking. Four years ago, Kenyan journalist Christine Mungai wrote a brilliant analysis of Ruto’s “gangster theology,” arguing that Ruto’s camaraderie with evangelical churches was a tactical strategy in propping himself up as a hustler. To distinguish himself from Uhuru Kenyatta as a dynasty, Ruto had to portray himself as a person who pulled himself by the bootstraps to become a politician of national prominence. His religion therefore needed to reflect that image of “Kenyan ordinariness.” Aligning himself to a mainstream, stiff-necked institutional church would have been detrimental to his image. He had to align himself with pastors who had begun their churches in abandoned buildings with a few congregants before they became wealthy heads of mega churches.
Despite rooting for hustlers, Ruto is no socialist, as the West initially feared. He hates the arts and believes that science, technology and finance, not social change, are the solution to Kenya’s economic challenges. He has called arts and humanities education useless knowledge that has no relevance to Kenya’s problems. As such, his answer to crippling economic inequality has been to avail cheap micro-credit to the poor, otherwise dubbed as the “Hustler fund,” and promise very little in terms of social support. If the evangelical God blesses individuals for the work of our hands, then that theology perfectly aligns itself with micro-credit as a route out of poverty. It is up to the poor to “work hard” using the loans they receive, albeit at high interest rates, in the same way that Ruto says he rose from a chicken seller to become president, and in the same way pastors became owners of mega churches. In other words, there is an economic, and fundamentally neoliberal logic to the alliance between Ruto and the evangelicals, as opposed to an exclusively cultural, moral and anti-secular one.
To focus on Ruto’s stereotypical answers on women and sexual minorities is therefore to miss the basic gist of Ruto’s politics. That is not to say that the human rights of these groups are not important, or to minimize the spectacular violence that they suffer. It is to point to the socio-economic and political dimensions of this violence – which are the crippling inequality, the narrow public sphere and the cruelty of daily life under neoliberal policies. These dynamics are often obscured when critics engage in moralistic, human rights-centric discourses. Many times, their hard stance locks out potential allies in faith who would also oppose violence against those minorities and would raise concerns about inequality. And most of those who dominate this exclusionary discourse are Kenyans who have received advanced education and are likely to be working in close contact with Western liberal journalists, lawyers and human rights advocates. The possibility that the ordinary Kenyan from outside that class profile, can be religious or not, and can hold politically progressive views, does not feature on their radar, yet those in whose name they speak belong to the same group outside the middle class.
The concern about secularism is largely a form of snobbery that minimizes the sophistication with which ordinary Kenyans without education navigate their lives through religious spaces. For many Kenyans, religion provides the spaces where they can meet without the state shooting them down. It provides the spaces where they get social status and community leadership outside of politics. It’s where they can carry out both traditional and modern rituals like weddings, birth, initiation and death. It’s where they get education, because the government is not providing enough schools and the church has often stepped in to fulfil that role. But many of the Kenyan middle class ignore this material reality and share extreme incidents of abusive pastors, sort of to depict ordinary Kenyans without similar education as stupid for being religious.
A problem within Euro-America itself
This complete misunderstanding of educated Kenyans is a failure of education. The war against arts education, which began during colonial rule and is still waged by Ruto, has denied educated Kenyans a historical understanding of religion, be it in Europe or in Africa. And the greater irony is that Kenyan schools are notoriously religious, despite not teaching anything useful on religion.
As such, educated Kenyans do not understand that the problem here is the fundamentally Euro-American framework in which religion represents the conflict between the traditional monarchy, liberal secularism, fascist conservatism and anti-religion left politics. For Europe, religion has always been read through the lens of the power of the state and its accountability to the people. During feudalism, religion justified the monarchy, and inheritance of power and wealth by birth, as the will of God. After the Reformation, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants was fundamentally a political one on divine rights to power and the people’s right to have a say about power. This new shift caused a lot of bloodshed in Europe, leading to atrocities such as the St Bartholomew Massacre against French Protestants, and the Thirty Years War whose casualties were only rivalled by those of the 20th century great wars.
To protect their revolution from the return of the monarchy, the French literally had no choice but to declare a secular state. Other Western European countries who still have monarchs had to compromise and create state churches, headed by the monarchs, as a compromise to the church’s divorce from Rome. Left politics, which sees religion as a weapon of the ruling class, has been successfully muzzled in Euro-America, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ironically, many Kenyans who would not normally quote Karl Marx cite his statement on religion as the opium of the masses.
For Europe therefore, Christian denominations are necessarily political positions on the relationship between power and the will of the people. In the United States, however, the religious dynamics are different and reveal a struggle over the voice of faith in social life. While European Christians in the US wanted no ties with the state, they were implicated in dispossession of the indigenous people and in the enslavement of Africans. Slave holders justified the enslavement of Africans as biblical, and during the Civil War, some American churches split, because some argued that slavery was not a religious issue, since justice was not a “fundamental” of faith like baptism and repentance. At the other end of the spectrum, white Christians became abolitionists,. Some like William Lloyd Garrison would cite the book of Isaiah in calling the much venerated American constitution a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” after the constitution was amended to institutionally support the enslavement of African peoples.
For the people of African descent, however, expressions of faith are not tied to monarchies and republics but to liberation. For the last four centuries, freedom has been the fundamental spiritual and religious preoccupation of Africans on the continent and in its diaspora. Enslaved Africans sang spirituals as songs of resistance in the plantation. The spark of the Haitian revolution was the Boukman prayer, where the proclamation of freedom was a spiritual articulation about the God “who orders us to revenge our wrongs” and against “the white man’s god who is so pitiless.” The Rastafari movement in Jamaica and the Candomble in Brazil are just some of the many religious articulations that voiced the political aspiration of freedom. In Africa, Kimpa Vita, Simon Kibangu, Elijah Masinde and Lucas Pkech are some of the Africans who used contrapuntal readings of scripture in resisting colonialism.
The civil rights movement in the United States followed the same tradition, for both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X grounded their struggles in faith. If anything, the modern articulation of right-wing, white Evangelicalism has piggy backed on the impact of the liberation theologies and struggles. White racism learned from the victories of the civil rights movement that raw racist ideologies and violence had made the United States a laughing stock of the world and had given credibility to Communism during the Cold War. The American right, led by figures like Paul Weyrich, therefore made a deliberate effort to coopt the Evangelical religion in the fight against the social gains of the civil rights movement while hiding behind the façade of faith and morality. To counter desegregation of schools, the right-wing offered homeschooling and faith schools. In the place of diversity and social welfare, it offered family values. Against the political gains of women, it turned abortion into its rallying cause.
But rather than attack this theology, the Euro-American acolytes of the Enlightenment have blocked the development of theological responses to fascism. In the place of theology, they offer reason, human rights and landmark court cases, claiming that religion automatically made one a conservative, and often implying that peoples of the Global South who wanted to harness religion had failed to decolonize their minds. The silence which they have imposed on emancipatory readings of religion have created space for right-wing, anti-political and hateful theology to gain momentum, and that momentum was used to capture the US Supreme Court. And now, instead of learning their lessons and removing the walls which Eurocentric ideas have constructed around religion, these intellectuals are trying to force African politics and religion into restrictive Eurocentric boxes of constitutionalism and human rights activism.
The anti-colonial alibi
Here at home, educated Kenyans have unsuccessfully tried to adapt European Enlightenment into the framework of anti-colonial struggles. On social media and in their op-eds, their enthusiasm makes them repeat inaccurate facts. A year or so ago, I got into an argument with someone who shared a poster that said that enslaved Africans were forced to read only the bible. I tried to point out that that is not true, that reading in and of itself was forbidden to enslaved Africans. I even urged people to read what Frederick Douglass said about the risks he took to learn how to read. The reaction to my comment was literally hysterical. I was accused of defending Christianity when I was simply stating a fact that slave masters did not want enslaved Africans reading any material, bible or not.
Since then, I’ve noticed many similar posts on social media, such as statements that all enslaved Africans became Christians, suggesting that Africans in the Americas acquiesced to their enslavement because they were stupid enough to accept the white man’s religion. The fact that many of these falsehoods refer to the enslavement in the Americas has made me suspect that these posts are pro-American psyops which are trying to prevent any African connection of religion or spirituality to politics.
My suspicion is strengthened by the way Kenyan theological education was depoliticized in the 1960s. American churches gave scholarships to Kenyan clergy to study biblical studies or missiology instead of theology. In the 1970s, J S Mbiti, whose book “African religions and philosophy” has become a classic, vehemently criticized black theology for being “bitter” and of no use to Africans who now had independent states. Kenyan theological studies are notoriously preoccupied with culture and sociology, rather than with prophetic insights into the impact of state power on ordinary life. This focus on acculturation is consistent with the effort of the US missionaries to distance themselves in Africa from colonial missionaries, and to present American and African Christianities as cultural equals, in order to deflect theological consideration of the role of US economic and military imperialism in Africa. Meanwhile, African and liberation theologies barely feature in the curriculum of Kenyan schools or of the few seminaries that churches have not converted into faculties offering business degrees.
Theology is political
What this middle class activism denies is that interpretation of religion is fundamentally political, because interpretation informs and is informed by decisions we make in society. That reality is not affected by secularism, for as Ali Mazrui said many years ago, the separation between the church and the state does not necessarily translate into a separation between religion and politics. By the same token, blocking discussion of religion is fundamentally political as well, but worse, it depoliticizes people by imposing moral conversations (the goodness of individuals) where there should be political ones (what people should do about power and wealth).
A large part of the Euro-American oversimplification of religion emanates from the Euro-American state’s discomfort with knowledge outside of the rational. Unlike reason, religion and spirituality allow more space for ambiguity, fluidity, contradiction and intersection, which is inconvenient for forms of power that rely on the letter of the law, precision and empirical proof. Add to that racism, which is notoriously impatient with appreciating Africans as complex human beings, and humanity as having limits, especially in the exploitation of the planet. This potent mix produces the misreading of African political theology and an obsession with depicting religious Africans as stupid and colonized.
This delusion leaves the political space for neoliberalism to entrench itself in Kenyan life through religion. To date, there is no pro-poor theology from our pulpits, or pro-poor politics from our political parties, that tackles the question of whether micro-credit is a way out of poverty, or whether deteriorating living conditions should be the price we pay for balancing the economy to please the IMF. Meanwhile, the government is committed to restricting the arts to economics by coopting artists into state appointments, while actively engaging in a war against arts education. The middle class have not understood this larger impact of Ruto’s religion. And the moral superiority with which they refuse to listen to logic is spectacular.
Instead of addressing the plight of the “least of these,” the middle class is wailing about secularism and calling the poor stupid for going to church. So we’re back to the days Fanon described in The Wretched of the Earth, where the native intellectuals equated cultural nationalism with anti-colonialism and missed the larger struggle against exploitation of the majority. The Kenyans who are really blinded by religion are not ordinary ones who are actively religious, but the educated ones who are against religion. It’s an intellectual entanglement so spectacular that would put the emotional entanglement of the Smiths to shame.
This article was first published in Wandia Njoya’s blog.
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