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BROKEN NEWS: Kenyan Media’s Election Coverage Betrayed Kenyans

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Media Ignore Elections

The Kenyan Supreme Court surprise decision at the beginning of September to annul the country’s presidential election wrong-footed most commentators. It has left egg on many, including the diplomatic corps as well as local and international observers, who had prematurely declared the election free, fair and credible, wiping egg of their embarrassed faces. But perhaps none have been as badly exposed as the country’s famously rambunctious private press.

For more than half a century, the independent Kenyan media has carefully cultivated an image of vibrancy and defiance. It has frequently declared itself to be the people’s watchdog and its mission as speaking truth to power. However, for much of that time, the media has been more concerned about its survival and profitability in the face of an overbearing and dictatorial state.

This is not to say that the Kenya media has not been a thorn in the government’s backside. Quite the opposite. From the early days of colonialism, the media had been an arena for anti-government agitation. As Njeri Ng’ang’a details in her article on the Kenyan press, early as the 1920s, a nationalist press emerged that opposed colonial policies such as racial segregation and acted as a mouthpiece for the independence movement. From the 1930s through to the early 1950s, the colonial state enacted a series of ordinances meant to control publications it deemed seditious such as Sauti ya Mwafrika, Uhuru wa Mwafrika, African Leader and Inooro ria Agikuyu, culminating in a total ban following the 1952 Mau Mau uprising and the declaration of a State of Emergency. But as Kenya approached independence, a more conciliatory approach allowed the publishing of newspapers affiliated to local political associations, though these continued to be subjected to legal restrictions.

For more than half a century, the independent Kenyan media has carefully cultivated an image of vibrancy and defiance.

The post-Independence government retained many of the schizophrenic policies and attitudes it had inherited from its British forebears. The Kenyatta administration treated the private press with suspicion while still allowing it a limited room to operate and attempting to use it for propaganda and nation-building purposes. The regime of Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi, who as Vice President had had a contentious relationship with the media, clamped down hard, especially once agitation for political reform and a new constitution begun in the late 1980s.

Newspapers such as The Daily Nation and newsmagazines such as Hilary Ngweno’s Weekly Review, the National Council of Churches of Kenya’s Target and Beyond, and others like Society, the Financial Review and the Economic Review, which had blazed a trail of independent and analytical reporting, often drew official ire and retribution. Many became targets of police raids, had journalists and editors detained without trial, were starved of advertising and some were eventually forced to close. Later, independent-minded reporters and editors at KTN, the first privately owned TV channel, would also feel Moi’s rage.

Survival, even defiance, in the face of such meant that by the time Moi was forced out of power, the press had a pretty solid reputation among Kenyans for fearlessness. Under Moi’s successor, Mwai Kibaki, however, the mainstream press appeared to settle into what Charles Onyango Obbo in 2013 described as Establishment mode – “they cease to aggressively challenge the political system, become vested in “stability”, and begin to worry about what will happen if the system breaks down.”

He writes: “The media had been part of the pro-democracy crusade, and Kibaki’s election was also its triumph. Many of its allies in civil society became big men and women in the Narc government. The pressure for the media to cash in its democracy activist chips was very high, as was the distraction of the seductions it faced from its former friends in civil society, who were now in government.”

Under Moi’s successor, Mwai Kibaki, however, the mainstream press appeared to settle into what Charles Onyango Obbo in 2013 described as Establishment mode – “they cease to aggressively challenge the political system, become vested in “stability”, and begin to worry about what will happen if the system breaks down.”

Following the 2007/8 post-election violence, during which much of the press -especially vernacular radio- was accused of fanning the ethnic hatred which led to the deaths of over 1600 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more, Kenyan media made a wholesale retreat from its role as a public watchdog. It essentially took the wrong lesson, conflating responsible reporting with incitement. This was to become manifest five years later in its coverage of the 2013 and 2017 elections.

In 2013, it was widely pilloried for seeming to gloss over the many problems with experienced during he elections under the banner of peace. I wrote at the time: “When nearly all the measures the [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] deployed to ensure transparency during the election failed, this was not allowed to intrude into the reverie. Instead the media continued to put on a show and we applauded them for it. Uncomfortable moments were photoshopped out of the familial picture.”

Which brings us to this year’s polls.

In a landmark ruling delivered in April last year and subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal, the High Court had declared that elections results publicly declared at polling stations and at constituency tallying centres were final and not subject to alteration by the IEBC mandarins at the national tallying centre in Nairobi. One of the effects of this judgement was that the media no longer needed to wait on the official pronouncement of the outcome of the presidential election by IEBC officials at the Bomas of Kenya where the national tallying centre was located. It could simply send is reporters to either the 40,883 polling stations or the 290 constituency tallying centres across the country and then do its own sums.

Initially, the media gave every indication that it would do exactly this. And there is little doubt it had requisite capacity. Testifying on behalf of the Media Owners Association before the Senate in January, Royal Media Services’ S.K. Macharia revealed that the press had actually been monitoring results declared at polling stations in every election since 1992, including the contentious 2007 one. Macharia stated his intention to track the 2017 polls, vowing to take the IEBC or the government to court if it tried to block prevent it.

However, on polling day, none of the country’s media houses reported results as announced at either polling stations or constituency tallying centres, despite having correspondents posted there for that very purpose.

A month to the election, the government did issue such a threat. “If any media houses decides to release their own results we will switch them off immediately,” warned ICT Cabinet Secretary, Joe Mucheru. “Anybody can have their own tallying centres wherever they want but the final results will be those of the IEBC,” he added, eliciting howls of protest. “Mucheru’s warning to media houses is repugnant and retrogressive” The Standard declared in an editorial. Yet, perhaps tellingly, it fell to civil society to take the matter to court where Justice George Odunga opined thus: “It is, therefore, my view that a decision to shut down systems of any entity purporting to announce the results of the August 8 polls if they are not the ones released by the IEBC would be premature in light of provisions of Article 24 of the Constitution, which bars limitation of any right”.

However, on polling day, none of the country’s media houses reported results as announced at either polling stations or constituency tallying centres, despite having correspondents posted there for that very purpose. There seemed to be a consensus among them that they would only report on what was announced in Bomas. TV stations, after a day of covering the peaceful voting, retreated into streaming numbers beamed to them by the IEBC in Nairobi, even though there was little indication which polling stations they were coming from and despite an earlier promise from the IEBC that it would wait for constituency tallies. It was these numbers that the IEBC itself would later disown as mere “statistics”.

Even as disputes about the forms and tallies delayed the official announcement of the winner of the presidential poll, the media kept the tallies declared at constituency level to itself. As pundits such as myself ruled the airwaves with long-winded analysis of what was happening, the only numbers on show were those disputed “statistics”, not the promised independent tallies of final results. At times, the coverage degenerated into farce. KTN proudly offered the results of an “exit poll” it had commissioned which asked voters every question except the one that really mattered – How had they voted?

KTN proudly offered the results of an “exit poll” it had commissioned which asked voters every question except the one that really mattered – How had they voted?

As I write this, 38 days after the election and two weeks after the Supreme Court ruling annulling it, the media is yet to reveal what was publicly announced there or whether there indeed were announcements made as required by the law.

If, as asserted on Twitter by the Media Council of Kenya Deputy CEO, Victor Bwire, “the correct reliable tallies weren’t there to media in many cases. Those results weren’t posted as expected (sic)” then why didn’t the media report this? The coverage, or more accurately, lack of coverage, even mystified Martin Mulwa, a former senior journalist who had covered many an election campaign, with whom I sat on a KTN News panel for nearly 7 hours on election night. He kept wondering why announcements even from constituency centres like Starehe in Nairobi, a stone’s throw away the city centre where the show was being filmed from were not being broadcast live as had happened previously.

Speaking on NTV’s Press Pass a week after the election, veteran journalist Macharia Gaitho, who was helping run the Nation Media Group’s election coverage, maintained that he was yet to receive all the results from journalists posted at constituency tallying centres and promised to publish them once he did. A month later, the results are yet to materialize.

In the light of the Supreme Court finding that the election was characterized by illegalities and irregularities and subsequent revelations of serious tampering with the results, the performance of the Kenyan press takes on an even darker hue.

It raises profoundly disturbing questions about whether the media had been scared or bribed into silence. “It now appears that some media houses were ordered not to report on constituency contests, which might lead to suspicion that something deeper was amiss,” Charles Hornsby, author of Kenya; A History since Independence, wrote in The Elephant. In an article published in the Washington Post, I opined that the media had sold its soul for millions of illegal advertising shillings.

In the light of the Supreme Court finding that the election was characterized by illegalities and irregularities and subsequent revelations of serious tampering with the results, the performance of the Kenyan press takes on an even darker hue. Had the polling station counts and constituency tallies been reported, the public would have had an independent way of verifying whether what was being announced in Bomas was a true and accurate reflection of what how they had voted. By not doing so, the media has opened itself up to accusations of colluding in the stealing of the election.

Further, its refusal to provide timely coverage of the small election-related protests that broke out in the run up to the official declaration of the President-Elect, many of which were covered in the international press, opened the door to a veritable flood of fake news on social media which further polarized the country.

Kenyans have repeatedly stood up for the media, but when it came the media’s turn to stand up for them, it was nowhere to be seen.

It is a bitter pill for Kenyans to swallow. The fight to secure freedom of the press has seen many lose their lives and endure police beatings as well as incarceration. A media that today takes so lightly its duty to hold the authorities to account and to keep the public informed in effect spits on that sacrifice and seriously undermines the effort to democratize the country.

Kenyans have repeatedly stood up for the media, but when it came the media’s turn to stand up for them, it was nowhere to be seen. The fresh presidential elections slated for October 17 offers Kenyan media another shot at redemption. Whether it will take the opportunity to atone for its previous and continuing misdeeds however remains to be seen.

By Patrick Gathara
Mr Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi

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Mr. Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi.

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THE DISILLUSIONED AND THE DISCONTENTED: Will the ‘Born-80s’ generation finally rescue Kenya?

Progressive millennials should avoid the nationalistic approaches of their elders and focus their energies on undoing the exploitative colonial state rather than improving the poor quality of its political leadership. By MWONGELA KAMENCU

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THE DISILLUSIONED AND THE DISCONTENTED: Will the ‘Born-80s’ generation finally rescue Kenya?

Disillusionment seems to be the predominant feeling in the country, an assessment based on analyses of some of the political events and the economy. A number of articles from The Elephant’s millennial edition seem to bring out this sense of despondency among the younger generation of Kenyans. How does this shape or how should it shape the political outlook of millennials, particularly those who are politically progressive and interested in socio-political change? How do these times compare with the times of their forerunners who organised under the Moi and Kenyatta dictatorships? Is there a need for a different approach in political organising by progressive Kenyan millennials?

As argued by Darius Okolla, a generation congeals as an identity when members of an age cluster develop an actual peer bond, thanks to a specific event of a certain type that knits them together into largely observable mindsets and world views. Based on this premise, the construction of a generational identity has some merit.

But who or what gets to define the length of this cluster? Is it the Anglo-linguistic definition of 30 years that defines a generation? Or is it the period of 30 to 40 years when the ituika ceremony would be held in the Kikuyu community to symbolically show that power had been transferred to a new generation? Or did the political realities of the post-colonial Kenyan state make the length of this cluster more elastic than the Western or pre-colonial Kikuyu definitions? Maybe. The membership of underground, multiparty or constitutional movements, such as the December 12th movement, Mwakenya, the Forum for Restoration of Democracy and Kenya Tuitakayo, had a huge age range – few were born in the thirties, some were born in the forties while others grew up in the seventies, but as movements they nonetheless pass Okolla’s litmus test: they had a largely observable nationalistic and patriotic political outlook. They may have had differing approaches and ideologies in their political struggles – approaches that were partially informed by their various classes, as Willy Mutunga demonstrates in his book Constitutional-Making from the Middle – but they had faith in the Kenyan state as a functional unit. I will demonstrate why.

The progressive wing of the “Generation X-extended”, as I would brand them, were either born or came of age during the heady years of independence or at a time when the Kenyan state’s social services had not been privatised. Admittedly, this argument has some grey areas – it does not address Northeastern and other regions, which by far had less investment compared to Central Kenya and Nairobi, or the discontent that brewed in the Rift Valley and the Coast in the 1960s and the Shifta War in the North. The disillusionment of citizens who had been promised Uhuru na kazi but rallied around the Uhuru na taabu call, as well as fighters like Baimungi and Chui who later picked up arms and went back to the forest, also refers. Nonetheless, the zeitgeist of the 60s for the most part was one of relative optimism that was further bolstered by the Harambee call for nation-building. Some of those, like Willy Mutunga, who were born during the colonial era, celebrated the lowering of the Union Jack and the hopes of modernisation and nation-building. They were invested in the nation-building project and the nation-state.

The progressive wing of the “Generation X-extended”, as I would brand them, were either born or came of age during the heady years of independence or at a time when the Kenyan state’s social services had not been privatised.

Compared to the public university students over the past two-and-a-half decades, the students of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s occupied a more privileged position in society. They did not have to worry about a cafeteria system through which they would pay for meals or about supplementing their student loans – a scheme that began in 1974 – with other sources of money to pay for their university fees. In confrontations with the government, these students were constantly reminded, not only by government officials but also by members of the public, about their privileged status and the fact that their privilege came at the Kenyan taxpayer’s cost. Employment prospects for them were not as dim as they are today. Repression aside, the government to a large extent did not violate its social contract with this budding intelligentsia. There lay a caveat, however. The implied, unspoken rule was that the government would not violate the “social contract” with the university students for as long as they kept their heads down. Agitating for political freedom came at a cost – suspensions, expulsions, withdrawal of scholarships and/ or detentions.

Millenial Generation

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State industries, such as Rivatex, Kikomi and Muhoroni, employed Kenyan workers in their hundreds. A public transport system – OTC, later the Nyayo Bus and the Kenyan Bus Services – ferried people from one point to another in the city of Nairobi. It was a state that managed to keep up an image of functionality. Under Jomo Kenyatta’s regime, in particular, the mainstream media were complicit in promoting the government’s project of nation-building, a project that provided a platform for a patriotic outlook to take root. This focus on nation-building obscured a parallel but insidious development – the use of state power to amass wealth for the president, his family and his cronies. Alternative and dissenting interpretations of nation-building, muffled by repression, took the form of underground movements, like the clandestine Workers’ Party of Kenya, whose outlook was Marxist-nationalist, a forerunner to the December 12th and Mwakenya movements that in the 1980s, organised with the aim of deposing an acquisitive political elite that had frustrated and subverted the meaning of independence.

Those born in the early to the late 1970s may have turned out differently had they not encountered a rebirth of nation-building initiated by a man who was compelled to create a legend for himself owing to the gravitas his leadership lacked in the public eye in the early years of his presidency. The “Nyayo legend” had to lean on Jomo Kenyatta’s Harambee nation-building legacy to get the goodwill that Daniel arap Moi needed to command a semblance of credibility. This legend was designed to create a particular kind of citizen and the “Born-70s” became its prototype.

The Generation X, born between 1945 and 1960, as posited in Okolla’s article, also had to be extended. This extension scaled totalitarian heights as state machinery ensured that the Nyayo philosophy permeated all corners of society, from the corridors of power to school classrooms. The Born-70s, or children of the 1980s, underwent a brainwash reinforced by a repertoire of techniquesNyayo milk that showed how benevolent the president was, songs that extolled the virtues of Baba wa Taifa and repeating a loyalty pledge that underscored fealty to him and to the republic.

Those born in the early to the late 1970s may have turned out differently had they not encountered a rebirth of nation-building initiated by a man who was compelled to create a legend for himself owing to the gravitas his leadership lacked in the public eye in the early years of his presidency. The “Nyayo legend” had to lean on Jomo Kenyatta’s Harambee nation-building legacy to get the goodwill that Daniel arap Moi needed to command a semblance of credibility.

These children were the real watoto wa Nyayo; they were the first set of child inductees into the Nyayo-brainwashing programme, and for a better part of the 1980s the image they had of the Nyayo nation-building project held strong partly because of the state benefits they enjoyed, as well as the repression which on the surface put a lid on Kenyans’ frustrations and fear. The discontent was there but it was costly for it to be shown; hence they were shielded from processing some of the violent confrontations between citizens and the state police that were to be witnessed in the following decade. Later in their lives, they would have trouble reconciling their constructed love for Moi with the hard times that his administration produced. As explained by Binyavanga Wainaina, the idea of “demons” as a rationalisation for the deteriorating economic times took root as Kenyans were afraid of attributing this state of affairs to Moi’s incompetence.

But this illusion propped up by authoritarianism could not hold for long. The opening up of the democratic space in the early 1990s coincided with the introduction of cost-sharing measures for social services, particularly in educational institutions. These austerity measures produced dwindling fortunes, unemployment and inequality, which in turn radicalised this group. Its discontent would be manifested in the university student unrest in the 1990s, as well as its militancy in Kenya’s reform movement. The harsh economic conditions, accompanied by the repressive environment that they grew up in, produced progressive individuals who served as the foot soldiers of the country’s reform movement. It is important to note that in their role as “foot soldiers”, some of these individuals felt that they endured frustration from the senior generation of activists who were perceived to be the leaders of the reform movement.

Although the progressive youth of the reform movement may have been more radical than the senior activists in their approach, their outlook for the most part was similar – the Kenyan state was to be rescued. The predominant assumption amongst them was that constitutional reforms would usher in an era of good governance and address the challenges that they faced. They were wrong. Although the country got a new constitution almost two decades after their struggles, the colonial logic of the state remained intact. To be fair, we can’t blame this group and their forerunners; they were merely people of their time. They played the hand that they were dealt.

The Born-80s “millennial” generation

The childhood of the Born-80s came at a time when Kenya was a cauldron of different political contestations. The Nyayo nation-building project continued in our schools against a backdrop of wider events that did not portray the government of the day in as good a light. I remember the time when I was a pre-unit student in St. George’s Primary School receiving Kenyan flags alongside my classmates from our teachers and being walked to State House Avenue where we were prompted to wave our flags at President Moi who shared a car with Queen Elizabeth in his motorcade during her visit to Kenya in 1991.

I also recall watching in the previous year the TV footage of women wailing in reaction to the news of the murder of the Foreign Affairs Minister, Robert Ouko. I remember reciting the loyalty pledge and shortly after or around that time the tense atmosphere under which the first Saba Saba rallies occurred; my parents forced me and my siblings to stay at home without offering us any explanation – our home was relatively close to Nairobi city centre.

I remember my Malkiat Singh Class 5 GHC workbook that glorified Moi and other KANU nationalists for their fight for independence but at the same time I also remember the country’s mood in 1997 when police followed pro-reform crusaders into a church and clobbered them mercilessly. How brutal could a government be?

The 90s decade saw the decline of social services. By the end of the 1990s, government-provided public transport had collapsed and was in private hands. While the nation paid most of its attention to political liberalisation, its economic arm wreaked havoc on the economy. Free trade, as dictated by the IMF and the World Bank, meant that we had to open our markets to imported goods such as mitumba (cheaper clothes than the local alternatives but which had already been used). As a result, a host of textile industries collapsed, which also rendered cotton farming a redundant exercise.

The economy was on its knees with corruption taking centre stage. The effects of the grand corruption of the Moi administration manifested itself in high levels of crime and low-level corruption. In sync with the global music trends, a somewhat new generation of artists emerged, such as Kalamashaka, K-south and Eric Wainaina, whose music spoke to social ills such as corruption and crime. This was the Kenya that we were growing up in – one characterised by disillusionment that we picked up from this new breed of artists as well as from the experiences and insights shared between our parents and our older relatives.

This disillusionment would be a running theme throughout our adult lives. The country’s short-lived optimism during the 2002 election quickly evaporated after the NARC government, with Mwai Kibaki as President, betrayed the unity and goodwill that elevated it to leadership. A re-emerging Mount Kenya Mafia, which was later linked to the Anglo Leasing scandal, frustrated a pre-election memorandum of understanding. NARC became Nothing Actually Really Changes. Political realignments based on the betrayal of the 2002 pre-election MOU took shape, rekindling the ethnic animosities witnessed in the past decade.

This disillusionment would be a running theme throughout our adult lives. The country’s short-lived optimism during the 2002 election quickly evaporated after the NARC government, with Mwai Kibaki as President, betrayed the unity and goodwill that elevated it to leadership.

The 2005 referendum became a dress rehearsal for the shambolic 2007 elections, with a period of economic growth amid structural adjustment which, to a large extent, did not benefit the poor, serving as a bridge between these events. The bungled 2007 elections were merely a trigger for violence that provided a vent for pent-up frustrations and disillusionment with the Kibaki regime. People were killed, raped, maimed. Their houses and places of business were gutted. The violence, of course, was limited to those outside of Kenya’s power structure.

The political settlement between our elite in February 2008 managed to bring the temperatures down. It, however, set the stage for an electoral paradigm shift in Kenya – peace over justice by any means necessary – a shift that would shape the outcome and administration of elections in Kenya for the next decade.

However, the spectre of state violence still lingered – in Mt. Elgon, in the disappearances and murders of suspected members of the Mungiki sect and in the political assassination of Oscar King’ara and my college mate John Paul Oulu who investigated these murders and disappearances. The elite consensus produced by the settlement brought out contradictions between those we thought fought for us – the political elite – and those of us who supported them. In addition, a litany of scandals presided over by the coalition government showed that both of the former feuding camps were on the take. While national unity codified as political leaders from the major political parties serving in government, was sold to Kenyans as a means to end the 2007-2008 impasse, the grand corruption overseen by a 40-member cabinet did little to inspire Kenya’s newfound hope. Disillusionment again defined the times. No elite could save us.

The promulgation of the 2010 constitution could not “pack a patriotic punch”. Young people would later close ranks to form the Unga Revolution that protested the high cost of living at the time. A colleague described its poetry when he said, “It was the President’s office on one side and the Prime Minister’s on the other. We were in the middle. The lines were well defined.” This political formation, however, soon disintegrated in the run-up to the 2013 electoral contest, which Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto won – a contest whose results, however, were said by an observer mission to be wholly lacking in transparency.

Born-80s millennials under Jubilee’s first and now second terms in office have had to endure unemployment, a high cost of living and extrajudicial killings, all taking place against a backdrop of corruption scandals that crop up in the media with worrying frequency. The SGR scandal, the NYS scandal (Seasons 1 and 2), the Eurobond scandal, the health scandal, and the maize scandal have been reported before our eyes with the main perpetrators walking away with impunity. While the media focuses on token perpetrators of these scams, the dumbest thing would be to assume that the youth do not know that there are bigger players in the game who walk away scot free.

Born-80s millennials under Jubilee’s first and now second terms in office have had to endure unemployment, a high cost of living and extrajudicial killings, all taking place against a backdrop of corruption scandals that crop up in the media with worrying frequency.

It was no surprise, therefore, when the father of two sons casually attributed his arrested sons’ alleged involvement in the Thika bank heist to the culture of impunity that allows senior government officials to get away with grand corruption. Unable to secure formal employment after both had scored straight A’s in their A-level examinations, these youth were arguably inspired to rob a bank by the culture of impunity which from time immemorial has routinely shielded the political elite whose grand corruption is responsible for the impoverishment of many young Kenyans. Those who fell through the cracks of our education system and grew up in more hostile neighbourhoods have had to contend with extrajudicial killings for their suspected or real crimes while the officials in government who have done much worse do not pay any price for their crimes; on the contrary, they get to use their largesse to get elected or re-elected to office.

This flavour of impunity, a defining feature of the Jubilee administration, was one of the reasons why it should have been voted out in the previous election. This did not pan out, however. The 2017 August election was nullified by Kenya’s Supreme court over its lack of transparency while the repeat election was boycotted by the National Super Alliance opposition, which in pursuit of “electoral justice” held demonstrations and public meetings that were sabotaged by the Jubilee administration, resulting in several deaths, mostly of youth.

This cause was abandoned by the opposition leader Raila Odinga in his handshake with Uhuru Kenyatta, a handshake that legitimised the crimes of the Jubilee administration. Odinga’s statement at the time of the handshake ignored the impunity and extrajudicial killings that he had campaigned against with his supporters and seemed to disingenuously attribute Kenya’s problems to ethnic diversity. There were casualties, the youth probably the hardest group hit, in pursuit of these causes. Odinga’s dramatic about-face begs the question whether he cared for such causes or whether he simply piggybacked on the discontent of his supporters to secure a deal for himself. For this, Kenyan youth are justified to be disenchanted with the candidate regarded as the “lesser of two evils”.

A case for a different approach in organising

What is the pragmatic way forward for progressive Born-80 Kenyan millennials who have grown up in this era of recurrent despondency? A senior progressive, drawing upon lessons from the handshake, recently called upon Kenyans to continue building PATRIOTIC, alternative politics, for a free, just, equitably, democratic united and prosperous Kenya. But how can one, in full knowledge of the Kenyan state’s past excesses, as well as the disillusionment we have been through, “love” the Kenyan state? Wouldn’t love for the Kenyan state obscure painful histories that it has been responsible for? On a personal level, why should the Born-80s love a state that they witnessed commercialising essential social services? Their times are different from those of their forerunners.

As products of despondency, progressive Born-80s need to ask why the excesses of the Kenyan state have recurred and still recur in worrying frequency. How have four consecutive elections (including the repeat election) not commanded the credibility they should? How is it that senior government officials can get away with grand corruption that impoverishes other Kenyans and causes them to turn to crime? Why is it that young people, particularly those who reside in informal settlements, are gunned down in cold blood for their suspected or imagined crimes, a treatment that the corrupt political elite don’t have to contend with? How can a politician dramatically abandon a cause that some of his supporters died and suffered for and suddenly strike a boardroom deal?

Progressive Born-80s millennials, consequently, need to move away from the patriotic and nationalistic approaches advocated by our seniors and to examine the institution of the state. This would mean recognising that the problems they face emanate from the exploitative colonial nature of the Kenyan state rather than from the poor quality of its political leadership.

The answers to these questions would inevitably draw one’s attention to the nature of the Kenyan state, which started out as the IMPERIAL BRITISH East African COMPANY, not the East African Cooperative. It was formed to serve its shareholders; all else, including its workforce, were a means to an end – profit and the protection of it. That’s why elections were designed to serve the ruling elite, that’s why impunity is a privilege conferred to the elite by the Kenyan state, that’s why citizens can die for a politician’s gain – they are simply units of political capital ploughed into the Kenyan company for profit, the enjoyment of the benefits that come from holding state power. The company’s workers – state machinery like the police – exist to serve their masters. The company’s customers – Kenyans not part of the political elite – are mere commodities to be used for profit. The Kenyan state is simply doing the work it was originally set out to do – serving the political elite who were the descendants of the shareholders and the former colonial settler class.

Progressive Born-80s millennials, consequently, need to move away from the patriotic and nationalistic approaches advocated by our seniors and to examine the institution of the state. This would mean recognising that the problems they face emanate from the exploitative colonial nature of the Kenyan state rather than from the poor quality of its political leadership. This would speak to Kenya’s political culture rather unlike laws, some of which legitimise the nature of the state and its colonial legacies. It would mean adopting a regional, Pan-Africanist approach in organising that would shift the focus of contestation from the state level to a regional level, thereby undermining the colonial configurations of Kenyan/African states. A clear Pan-Africanist ideology ought to be sought out, one that would serve those who live on the margins of the continent and act as an effective bulwark against inter-state elite interests.

It appears that this approach is gradually shaping up, as demonstrated by the recent show of Kenyan solidarity with the detained Ugandan artist Bobi Wine. Julius Malema’s recent condemnation of xenophobic attacks against other Africans in South Africa and his suggestion to have Kiswahili as the continents’ lingua franca is equally encouraging.

Progressives from the Born-80s generation can learn from the progressives from the Generation X- extended who organically organised during repressive times. (A crop of Born-80s progressives, however, have been somewhat somnambulant in their social media activism.)

Going forward, this group of progressives needs to speak its times – they are the link between the previous generation and the Born-90s generation, which was born into a more or less dysfunctional state and which, therefore, easily accepts this dysfunction as a given reality that it cannot change.

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MWALIMU vs THE BULLDOZER: Has Magufuli overturned Nyerere’s legacy?

The Tanzanian president has turned his back on Nyerere’s open, cosmopolitan and Pan-Africanist vision. By ABDULLAHI BORU HALAKHE

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MWALIMU vs THE BULLDOZER: Has Magufuli overturned Nyerere’s legacy?

Julius Nyerere cultivated an enduring Pan-Africanist domestic and foreign legacy. While his towering clarity is indisputable, in practice, some of his signature achievements are under threat. Domestically, President John Magufuli is emerging as the antithesis of everything Nyerere stood for.

The late Prof. Ali Mazrui once described Mwalimu Julius Nyerere as a Philosopher King. Mazrui was probably compelled by, among other things, Nyerere’s translation of two of Shakespeare’s works: The Merchant of Venice (Mabepari wa Venisi) and Julius Caesar (Juliasi Kaizari) into Kiswahili.

Nyerere and Tanzania remained the intellectual and material well-spring of Pan- Africanism. In political terms, for Nyerere, socialism was not an esoteric adventure; it was a lived experience, and thus, his experimentation with socialism with an African flavour. When it failed, especially in the economic realm, he readily accepted his mistakes.

Nyerere believed in his ideas. He once got into a spat with Kenya’s former Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, when he described Kenya as a “man-eat-man society” because of its adoption of capitalism, prompting the latter to retort that Tanzania was a “man-eat-nothing society”. Nyerere preferred “Ujamaa”, or “familyhood”, as opposed to individualism.

Nyerere believed that Tanzania would not be completely free until all African countries were free from colonialism. He, therefore, provided arms, training and sanctuary to many revolutionary movements across Africa – the ANC in South Africa, FRELIMO in Mozambique, and the NRM in Uganda, to mention a few. In the process, Nyerere turned Dar es Salaam into a fervent base of Pan-Africanism, where soldiers and scholars mingled and shared ideas.

Nyerere believed in his ideas. He once got into a spat with Kenya’s former Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, when he described Kenya as a “man-eat-man society” because of its adoption of capitalism, prompting the latter to retort that Tanzania was a “man-eat-nothing society”.

Mobutu and the New World Order

Once the white minority governments were defeated in South Africa and Zimbabwe, Nyerere turned his attention to Zaire, which was later renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). If Nyerere was the Dean of Pan-Africanism, Mobutu Sese Seko was the godfather of counter-revolutionary movements and governments. During the Cold War, Mobutu cleverly exploited the West’s existential fear of the spread of Communism in Africa, and thus acted as the conduit through which the CIA and Western governments supported movements like Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated government of President Juvenal Habyarimana.

Mobutu came to power in Congo, which he renamed Zaire, in November 1965 after colluding with the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies to murder his predecessor and erstwhile ally Patrice Lumumba, who had been in power for only three months.

To the West, the mere mention of Communism was enough to open unfettered largesse, Mobutu’s human rights and economic mismanagement record notwithstanding. The wisdom went: “Yes Mobutu is a bastard, but he is our bastard.”

The end of the Cold War saw the tide change against Mobutu and his ilk; in South Africa, apartheid was defeated and Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island and elected as the country’s first black president.

Across Africa, at around the same time, a core cohort of young, “revolutionary” if not overzealous, leaders were coming into power across Africa. In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi assumed power after defeating Mengistu Hailemariam’s regime in a bloody insurgency in 1989; in Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki took power in May 1991; and Yoweri Museveni took over in Uganda in January 1986, with the help of Nyerere. These leaders shared Nyerere’s visceral dislike of Mobutu’s government – the last of the remaining “Old Africa” regime.

Globally, after the end of the Cold War, buoyed by the defeat of the USSR, US foreign policy embarked on creating “The New World Order”. The US saw itself – and acted – as the uncontested leader of this New Order. Mobutu and leaders who were previously used to contain the spread of Communism in Africa now had to adopt market liberalisation and political pluralism if they were to stay in America’s good books.

For Mobutu, who had presided over a patrimonial state with neither functioning state institutions nor accountability, the rise of neo-Pan Africanist leaders presented a mortal danger to the survival of his regime.

Neo-colonialists and Neo-Pan Africanists

In Africa, the end of apartheid generated a good-feel factor and heralded a new dawn. However, the bubble was burst by the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which at least 800,000 people were killed. In its wake, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded and defeated the Juvénal Habyarimana government. Not one to miss an opportunity, Mobutu welcomed the remnants of Habyarimana’s government into Eastern Congo as a bargaining chip with the West.

For the new Rwandan government of Paul Kagame, Mobutu’s support for the old guard crossed a red line; it would not tolerate a génocidaire former government with complete state apparatus in Congo, protected and armed by Mobutu.

Mwalimu Nyerere saw a means of operationalising the removal of the Congolese dictator. Yoweri Museveni naturally welcomed anything Mwalimu Nyerere proposed as he saw himself as his natural heir and so agreed to be part of the effort. Nyerere’s appeal also easily pulled in the new victorious Ethiopians and the Eritreans governments. They all agreed that the process of removing Mobutu should be given a Congolese face.

The coalition settled on Laurent Kabila, who at that time was living in Butiama, Nyerere’s birthplace, and who was engaged in small-time farming. Kabila had well-worn, if sketchy, Pan-Africanist credentials. Che Guevara had described him as having “genuine qualities of a mass leader” but lacking “revolutionary seriousness”. While the coalition countries put in their support, Rwanda’s military, under James Kaberebe, led the military Blitzkrieg in late 1996 that finally saw Kabila installed as the president on May 17, 1997.

Comrades at war

Immediately after Kabila was installed as president in 1997, troubles that were initially overlooked during the anti-Mobutu’s military operations started emerging. Kabila’s poor political judgement, weak management skills and the divergence of Congolese and Rwandese visions for a post-Mobutu state became a cause for concern.

For Rwanda, the raison d’être of overthrowing Mobutu was to secure its border from attacks coming from the DRC, and its support for Kabila was contingent upon that. But once Kabila started supporting anti-Rwandan forces in Congo, he had to be overthrown. In less than three years following Mobutu’s ouster, Rwanda initiated another regime change campaign in Kinshasa, again with the help of Uganda.

Nyerere died in 1999 in a London hospital while undergoing treatment for leukemia. Sixteen years after his death, John Joseph Magufuli became Tanzania’s fifth president.

#WhatMagufuliDid

When Magufuli first came to power, he was widely applauded domestically and across Africa for his unostentatious folksy approach to public policy. His fight against official corruption resonated with many countries across Africa where entrenched corruption has stymied service delivery and bred disenchantment. Many roundly applauded him. This catapulted him to a moment of pop culture cachet, complete with the Twitter hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo, which cast him as an unfailing superhero who could do anything.

When Magufuli first came to power, he was widely applauded domestically and across Africa for his unostentatious folksy approach to public policy. His fight against official corruption resonated with many countries across Africa where entrenched corruption has stymied service delivery and bred disenchantment.

But his likeability quotient depreciated significantly once his administration took an authoritarian turn.

One of Magufuli’s signature policies, after fighting corruption and sloth, was Operation Timua Wageni (Operation Remove Foreigners). This was not limited to the multinational corporations with whom he had fraught relations, but also to citizens from neighbouring East African countries like Kenya.

Nyerere was an outward-looking globalist who saw Tanzania as a leader in world affairs. He invited people of African and non-African origin to witness Tanzania’s nascent experiment with an alternative model of governance and economic independence that was not controlled and exploited by global capital. Magufuli, on the other hand, is an inward-looking provincial nativist who wants a Tanzania for Tanzanians alone.

It is not just Magufuli; even the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), has turned away from being a bastion of intellectualism into a populist outfit. In many cases, instead of reining Magufuli in, CCM has become an enabler of his worst instincts.

Nyerere was an outward-looking globalist who saw Tanzania as a leader in world affairs. He invited people of African and non-African origin to witness Tanzania’s nascent experiment with an alternative model of governance and economic independence that was not controlled and exploited by global capital. Magufuli, on the other hand, is an inward-looking provincial nativist who wants a Tanzania for Tanzanians alone.

Nyerere saw himself and Tanzania as the vanguard against imperialism. In explaining his vision, he stated: “We the people of Tanganyika, would like to light a candle and put it on top of Mount Kilimanjaro which would shine beyond our borders giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where there was before only humiliation”.

But Magufuli has turned his back on this open, cosmopolitan and Pan-Africanist vision. Since taking the presidency, he has not travelled outside the East African Community countries. In this aspect, has more in common with the nativist nationalists in Europe and President Donald Trump.

Julius Nyerere was a trained teacher, but he always maintained he was a teacher by choice and a politician by accident. Even when he was a politician, he couldn’t help being a teacher, educating Tanzanians through his many speeches, like a school master. Nyerere did not just speak, he also changed the fortunes of Tanzania. During his tenure, the proportion of Tanzanians who could read and write stood at a phenomenal 83 per cent. Hence his title Mwalimu.

Magufuli was also a trained Chemistry and Mathematics teacher. But he made his name at the Ministry of Works where he got things done in a civil service that is not reputed for efficiency, earning him the moniker “Bulldozer”. He became the president by “accident” after CCM failed to agree on a single candidate. Since becoming the president, he seems determined to take his bulldozer mindset to wrong-headed extremes. Last year he declared: “As long as I am president…no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school…After getting pregnant, you are done.” Such a statement from a president who was a teacher no less is incredulous.

Women and girls are not the only group that Magufuli has picked a fight with; he has also antagonised a wide array of actors, including the media, civil society organisations, international organisations, and opposition Members of Parliament. Kenyans, who have had a complicated relationship with Tanzania following the manner in which the East African Community collapsed in 1977, were particularly on the receiving end of Magufuli’s harsh measures. Recently, the Tanzanian government burned 6,400 one-day-old Kenya-sourced chicks because they were allegedly imported illegally into the country.

Magufuli believes that foreigners are taking away jobs from Tanzanians. Granted, immigration tends to be a complex and complicated issue that doesn’t always necessarily lend itself to sober policy interventions, but making a 360-degree turn away from established Nyerere norms mirrors the views of the nativists politicians on the Right across Europe who have made African and Muslim immigrants their bete noire. Magufuli’s opposition to the free movement of people, goods and services is rooted in his belief that the privatisation of state corporations in the 1990s went too far and, therefore, needs to be reversed. While the diagnosis could be accurate, its policy prescription is misguided.

Domestically, the transformation of Tanzania from a bastion of Pan-Africanism into a government that shares anti-immigration values with right-wing populists in Europe and the United States has done tremendous injustice to Nyerere’s legacy.

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SIR VIDIA’S DARKEST SHADOW: V.S. Naipaul (1934-2018)

Naipaul’s racism appears to have been transactional right-wingery by one who knew there was a cash-paying audience that loved that sound. By A.K. KAIZA

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SIR VIDIA’S DARKEST SHADOW: V.S. Naipaul (1934-2018)

The first and only time I saw him, Sir Vidia looked frail. Face like a mask, pudgy fingers suspiciously handling the microphone, and eyebrows firmly chiseled in place, he looked as though he had been dragged to school on a day he would have rather stayed home in bed. That day, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was at Makerere University, replaying the character he had played four decades earlier, as misanthrope in residence. The Naipaul event was immediately after lunch on a late March afternoon. The sun was beaming down directly over the equator and I remember the hall being hot with precipitation.

It’s a decade now since that March 2008 afternoon. Looking back, it seems that V.S. Naipaul, sitting there in Makerere University’s Main Hall, looked like a piece of wood carving. Like one of those giant Chinese wood reliefs, there was his grand magnificence. The brilliance of his finish was outstanding. And this magnificence, this brilliance, was all the more magnified because he was forever on the verge of becoming, tantalising the audience with the possibility that this rendering might come alive.

Arrested in 2D by a physique in distress, Naipaul’s dyspeptic mien marked the entire afternoon. He kept sinking into his chair, till at the end of the event we could only see his head and shoulders. Perhaps he had come expecting a hostile audience. Perhaps it was the heat and the stuffy air. Maybe he had been unwell. Maybe it was the sight of us, a room full of black people.

A farcical afternoon. Exhibit A: What was Naipaul doing in Makerere? Who comes to Makerere anymore?  Even ten years before that, when I had been a student there, we had not thought we could rate a writer, even a third-rate one. And here was a Nobel laureate, Sir Vidia, in person.

Had he come to mock us – again? But seated there in plain sight, Mr. Naipaul looked done with mockery. He had mocked Trinidad. He had mocked India. He had mocked Africa. He had found Ugandans disgusting. He had been the founding CEO and majority shareholder of the flourishing global literary corporation of jibing sneers.

That was back in the day when he looked chipper, when Makerere – the university – had been of enough value to make a killing out of mocking.  By 2008, Makerere (“Maka Ray Ray” as Naipaul reportedly pronounced it) was too far gone for anybody to be interested in mockery or disdain. By 2008, the mocking of black people for profit had been tarnished for a while, which meant that the days of Naipaul’s unqualified standing as a brilliant truth teller were behind him. “Controversial” had replaced “brilliant”, “controversial” being what you call an oaf you are too fond of to let go despite mounting evidence of his oafishness. Even in its time, “brilliant” had been used by certain British right-wing media in a way that you felt meant Naipaul gave the n****rs what they deserved.

We, the few hundreds of us, and Naipaul, who we had all come to stare at, could not have been more mismatched. Right there you could understand why the first time round in the 1960s, Mr. Naipaul had been unenthused about actually having to live in Makerere.

We, as no doubt our fathers’ generation had been then, were not very impressive specimens. Too black for our own good, we were too frayed around the racial edges. We squatted at the university, unable to fit in with the masonry and the woodwork, which had been cut for Europeans.  Unaware of the value of glass windows and flush toilets, we had run down a once famous university. We came from the bush to line up for maizemeal and boiled beans in dining halls built for three-course meals with salad dressing.

There was everything imperfect about us. We had not invented the wheel. We had never manufactured steam locomotives. We still imported, rather than made, paper, which meant that we were still attempting to beat out novels on drums. Yes, we still did that, make drums, and still beat them. Civilisation was wasted on us. And outside the hall, footpaths crisscrossed the once immaculate green lawns laid out in the 1930s and 1940s by Oxbridge visionaries. Six decades after Prof. C.S. Turner transformed the technical school founded in 1922 into a university, tribalism had long become the most important criterion for staff appointments.

Naipaul’s coming hence, four decades since he had last been, could have been for any number of reasons. Self-flagellation would not have been the least of possibilities. Material for a new book? Why? He was a brilliant writer. Could he not have invented some sordid tales about us from England, where they had been inventing marvelous things (and steam engines) for centuries?

His was a complexity of prose, rather than of ideas, so why the effort? If he was gathering material for a book, why fly so far when he was already in his 70s?

Naipaul’s coming hence, four decades since he had last been, could have been for any number of reasons. Self-flagellation would not have been the least of possibilities. Material for a new book? Why? He was a brilliant writer. Could he not have invented some sordid tales about us from England, where they had been inventing marvelous things (and steam engines) for centuries?

And us? Why did we turn up? We had never been enthralled by any of the things he had said about us. The admiration we had for his prose style outstripped our love for his books. But we had admired him because we wished that the people with power liked us as much as they liked him. We wanted his good luck (which can look like agreeing with him). Were we self-flagellating too? Could we not have simply read his comments from the safety of our houses? Or was some sado-masochist strain still alive within us?

The collision was utterly unavoidable, a true literary crash. A room filled with the undesirable, coming to an unwanted event to see an unpleasant guest. And that, more rather than less, summarises Naipaul’s oeuvre. In this iteration, hostile questions from the audience: a university lecturer asking a clever question about Tagore, and Naipaul, sensing his Indian roots intruded upon, rapidly slaps it down. Poor chap, he had spent his life teaching V.S. Naipaul books, and had stayed awake all night choosing which question would be best for the event. Next, a Ugandan of Asian descent takes too long with the mic, speaking up too fondly, getting on Nadira’s nerves and deserving what was coming his way; Lady Naipaul cuts him cold and says, next question?

If nothing else, this ping-pong moment was it. Naipaul was in town, game on. Right on cue, Lady Naipaul took charge. She had become the moderator, leaning forward all afternoon while Naipaul slunk back in his chair. The real moderator must have wondered if he had come to the wrong stage.

Naipaul murmured his responses. One thing he said still rings clear in my memory. He said “Africa came to me intuitively. It was not by searching.”

And then the hall emptied. Naipaul shuffled out. The thick entourage that had brought him in taking him out.

Like everyone else present, my journey to that afternoon had begun long ago, albeit in my case, not far away from that hall. Two decades earlier, I had gone to secondary school at Makerere College School, tucked inside the university itself, and read my first Naipaul book there. On the morning of his visit, I had packed my copies of Naipaul’s books, just like you do when you go to a speaking event and the author will be present, and afterwards you line up and confess your besotted heart, and the author, having to wear a droll, heard-it-all-before face, nonetheless signs the books with a flourish. I looked at my collection: a 1957 edition of The Mystic Masseur that I had procured from a flea market and the still fresh-smelling Enigma of Arrival reissued after the Nobel Prize of 2001. I recollected the contents of that, and of another book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow (hatchet job on Naipaul by one-time disciple, the American writer, Paul Theroux).

I then remembered how the opening of The Middle Passage had alerted me to something alarming about Naipaul that only expanded in later books and became all you saw in him. Some things not even magnificent prose could conceal.

I left the books on the top of the workbench in my workshop and headed out for Makerere. Naipaul’s wife Nadira and the university’s literature department staff staged a praetorian guard around him, an impenetrable phalanx of reverence. Asking him to sign books was impossible. Naipaul looked like he would suffer a mental breakdown if an African spoke to him. By day’s end, he looked like he needed to see a doctor. Still, he might have persevered and signed the books, and you would have had to throw them away later.

There was something terribly Naipaulish about the university that stuffy afternoon. Eighteen years before, at the age of 14, when my journey to that afternoon commenced, I had read my first Naipaul, Miguel Street, on Makerere hill at Makerere College School. The edition I read had a foreword by Laban Erapu that mentioned Naipaul’s time in Uganda. I had assumed then that Naipaul was Ugandan.

Miguel Street – that sardonically cheerful primer, of which there had not been that many copies in the school – had exchanged hands many times among us kids and we talked much about it. It had been something of a staple. You had to know Miguel Street. Elias and the posse of Bogart et al, their comical putter, the mother with as many husbands as children.  A sing-song toned collection of stories, curious names, absurd accents. Miguel Street was the book from a man who had a twinkly view of life as a thing to be had to the full. We related to these tales. We laughed.

It was in this mind-frame that five years later, in 1995, I had picked up from the university library an old copy of A House for Mr. Biswas. I half-expected to find in this book the loveable characters from Miguel Street. Certain things were similar. Mohun went off to England, to study, as Elias had dreamt.

Back in the 1990s, with Empire still within striking cultural memory, we too had dreamt of going to English universities. We were starting off from the same place as Naipaul, his clutch of characters so recognisable to us, their sense of the future our own. You understood that fever in A House for Mr. Biswas.

What drove Naipaul’s characters was what drove us. Empire had emptied its subject populations of their subjective selves and their metaphysical heritage, which had been replaced by England, Oxford, high tea, biscuit and crumpets, Piccadilly. An equal opportunity impoverisher, the British Empire had left penury and hurt in so many parts of the world that a book from any of these parts tended to speak to all parts. What a Sir Hathorn Hall committed in Aden, or Trinidad, he repeated in Uganda – serial murderers leaving tell-tale signatures of their deeds dotted along the grim, imperial trail.

Naturally, we got Trinidad.

What drove Naipaul’s characters was what drove us. Empire had emptied its subject populations of their subjective selves and their metaphysical heritage, which had been replaced by England, Oxford, high tea, biscuit and crumpets, Piccadilly. An equal opportunity impoverisher, the British Empire had left penury and hurt in so many parts of the world that a book from any of these parts tended to speak to all parts.

Empire had taught us to believe in the same things and we had come to believe in them. We dreamt of red letter boxes. Oh, but these lucky red letter boxes lived in London.

As I read deeper, I began to protest. A House for Mister Biswas got heavy. Some leaded weight pulled down the mirth of Miguel Street to darker places. Still you soldiered on, expecting some lift, a sliver of sunlight. Yes, you would always remember Mrs. Tulsi. One day I thought I found her running a bakery in Kampala. And then I thought I met Mr. Biswas himself nursing big-time literary ambitions as a sourpuss editor in a newsroom.

The darkness in the novels was piling up, getting heavier, in that way readers know when the plot has advanced to that point where you size up the remaining pages and determine them too few for the story to work its way back to a different tenor.

I was young and not entirely appraised of what novels were capable of. As young readers tend to, I simply thought I had landed on the wrong novel. Another Naipaul might bring back that Miguel Street thing. In the meantime, A House for Mr. Biswas was teaching me just how serious novels could be. They could also detail stark-real ugliness. The novelist did not have to imagine, as a pot boiler author had to; he could simply observe. Mr. Naipaul made you see how it was possible to weld art into social reality. He made half a millennium of globalising history his material.

Naipaul could be called the Anti-Jane Austen. Miss Austen had examined the same history; you must see through her writing to know it is detailing crimes of history. But she had seen only the other side: the English manors, the indolence, the unbelievable wealth that the slave trade had made possible in the English countryside. She never questioned where the wealth of the characters in her novels came from. She never asked what those young men in need of a wife did when they went overseas. Naipaul laid out the exhibits.

The exhibits – the deformed progeny of Empire’s victims, the craven, the dehumanised – were his material (a Naipaul word). He looked with the dispassionate temper of a forensics expert. These novels were not for escapist reading. It seemed to me that this was as serious as writing would ever get. Naipaul’s craft made everybody else seem to be winging it, wanting it, sleight-of-hand bathos that quickly drained you of interest. Others write so their brilliance could be praised. Naipaul? His was meditation, a haloed temple of letters. He had convened a one-man caucus and solely written a constitution of looking. To have not seen the world as Naipaul had seen it was to have been guilty of sheer unconstitutional acts. The writer was chief justice, high priest.

There had been Graham Greene; but he could be unconvincing in the role, and he tended to overdo the disgust. There had been Joseph Conrad, but he had tended towards sentimentality. Ernest Hemingway had haunted the same geography as Naipaul. Against what Naipaul had to say, the American was a mere flower girl. Hemmingway loved Kenya; he just never saw Africans (natives, savages) the entire time. Naipaul saw Africans; he was grimly aware of us.

At the age of 20, when I read A House for Mr. Biswas, I could not as yet tell what that thing was, what had made Naipaul’s voice so stately, for I was sure that it was a stately voice. I had not found any of Miguel Street in it. Rather, I emerged from A House for Mr. Biswas overawed by grandeur. The plunge to pathos happened with the steadiness of a murderer strangling his victim. An unrelenting vision of dystopia.

There had been Graham Greene; but he could be unconvincing in the role, and he tended to overdo the disgust. There had been Joseph Conrad, but he had tended towards sentimentality. Ernest Hemingway had haunted the same geography as Naipaul. Against what Naipaul had to say, the American was a mere flower girl. Hemmingway loved Kenya; he just never saw Africans (natives, savages) the entire time. Naipaul saw Africans; he was grimly aware of us.

I was in my 20s when I got the full measure of Mr. Naipaul. By then, Uganda had begun to normalise; books were available once more and we had been liberated from borrowing dog-eared texts from friends and relatives. That was when I began to tell that the early books of Naipaul were fundamentally different from his later books, books of he wrote between his late 30s and into his 50s.

The overriding themes of the early books is escape from the colony. The barbs of later years were already there, the mockery, the casual racism; except back then Naipaul thought of them as jokes. The later books are about settling in, and once that project got underway, the books became about the world, its expansiveness. But also about sharpening. Mr. Naipaul begins to grind and file and sand his prose, the sharp defining of edges, the details focused on. His prose knows what to search for, with just the right emphasis, a few strokes that hint at a larger form without overstating. He was becoming a master craftsman.

The novels carry something extra, a certain uncheerful enjoyment even. Ralph Singh, the protagonist narrator of The Mimic Men, has that quality. The Mimic Men signalled the arrival of the man who would later write The Enigma of Arrival.

And then there were the travel writings. The Middle Passage brings to life the Caribbean in ways you, as an outsider, are grateful to Mr. Naipaul for, even though you have a pile of indictments against him. Then in India, in An Area of Darkness, Naipaul goes for broke. He writes with an urgency he has hitherto not displayed, nor will again. One feels, reading the travelogue, that Mr. Naipaul writes faster than he sees. He arrives in Bombay like a tightly-packed grenade, the ejector of a lifetime’s hearing, reading, expecting, ready to go off. This book defined Naipaul like no other. In comparison, there is something processional about The Middle Passage, a processionalness you find in his Caribbean books, novels and travelogues. Explosions, of theme and prose, don’t go off. But they contain the toxins and poisons that came out of Naipaul whenever he met black people.

Naipaul went out of his way, beyond necessity, in a Trumpian gratuitousness, to mock black people even when there was no discernible literary gain. He made no effort to engage with black people. He treated Indians with less contempt, but the derision was still there. It might look like he gave some thought to Ramnath the “steno” in An Area of Darkness, or to Jivan, but no. It is fascinating how decidedly uncurious Naipaul’s brand of curiosity was.

His first book on India may have been his most connected (Naipaul was drawn to India), but it was written by a man trapped in a certain view of colonial peoples. Even from the depth of Africa, we could tell that Naipaul failed to see that India was a bigger place than his commentaries offered. Jivan’s refusal to stop sleeping on the pavements despite having a job and owning a taxi is interpreted by Naipaul as India’s foolhardy attachment to the Gita, Hinduism’s religious text. To the rest of us, Jivan was displaying an imperviousness to colonialism’s and capitalism’s crass anti-metaphysics. For me, this vignette of Jivan was too two-dimensional. After all, by the 1960s, Naipaul’s view of “conquered” peoples was already antiquated, even amongst the ranks of colonial anthropologists, who had a more nuanced view of colonised peoples.

Naipaul went out of his way, beyond necessity, in a Trumpian gratuitousness, to mock black people even when there was no discernible literary gain. He made no effort to engage with black people. He treated Indians with less contempt, but the derision was still there. It might look like he gave some thought to Ramnath the “steno” in An Area of Darkness, or to Jivan, but no. It is fascinating how decidedly uncurious Naipaul’s brand of curiosity was.

In Naipaul’s world, we Africans are “Negroes” with “physique”, “nursing racial injustice”. There is always the hint of violence towards us when we appear in his books. In The Mimic Men, we show up at the British Council, garishly dressed up, the gold-rimmed spectacles Naipaul places on us are there so that they can clash against the darkness of our skins. We expect “sex” like a tribute, a right, because we are racially wronged. But that’s in the diaspora. In Africa, in A Free State (so now we come to Uganda, although the reason Mr. Naipaul came to Uganda in the 1960s was so he could write The Mimic Men), we are deeply indolent, with our bush ways and our lazy eyes. We are a backdrop to Europeans lives, and often the backdrop to breaking European marriages.

Deep into his career, Mr. Naipaul, like Ganesh Ramsumair in The Mystique Masseur, adopted the identity of an Englishman with an Oxbridge accent that replaced his Caribbean intonation. Ganesh, the shape-shifting artist, remains an enigma in Naipaul’s oeuvre. Who is he? What does he mean? What indeed do these middling characters in Naipaul mean? They people his writing entirely, the Jimmy’s of Guerrillas, the characters upon whom instances are mounted? As if of necessity, the author is decidedly nasty to these sorts. They are de riguer (a la Naipaul), angry, pretentious, dangerous, always without fail, dark-skinned. Naipaul is afraid of them. He is also violent towards them.

Is understanding these mid-level characters key to understanding the politics of Naipaul? Why is Naipaul afraid of them? One clue, but no overall explainer, is that they have a politics. They are confronting Empire. They are the reverse of the Naipaul hero, if that is not an oxymoron. They are not enthusiastic about Oxbridge accents. They are not changing names from Ganesh Ramsumair to G. Ramsay Muir (a typical Naipaul joke of the earlier books). They are changing names from James to Haji or Ngugi.

But do we have a right to be brutal in our assessment of Mr. Naipaul? He was born at a time when Empire looked like extending and consolidating, rather than crushing. How deep did the psychology of that go? For him to have written as he did, to see the world through only one measure (Britain, Europe) – a measure in which other races failed to measure up, a measure in which being African (“bow and arrow people”), Arab (“Mr. Woggy”) was failure in itself, speaks of something other than penetrative insight. To not allow for the validity of a different world is to have been immensely delimited. But might Mr. Naipaul have escaped it? Was it necessary for him to have been the writer and the man he was in order for him to see with clarity?

It would be simplistic to say that the need, indeed, the entire undertaking of having to fight for liberation, was too much for Naipaul. His position on the most important movement of the 20th century (independence from colonial rule) might be described as ambivalent, except, if you are ambivalent about freedom, then what exactly are your values?

It could be as simple as this: Mr. Naipaul was that all-too-typical, but special, victim of Empire, the favoured colonial subject. There was divide and rule – some colonised people were considered less savage than others, people who displayed almost-white qualities. These divisions marked the entire breadth of Empire, from the aristocrats of Buganda (convinced into collaboration by effusive British praise), to the Tutsi of Rwanda (whose position the Belgians tragically imperiled by calling them semi-white Africans), to the Singhala of Sri Lanka (treated more favourably than the black Tamils). In the Caribbean, the indentured Indian labourers were taken to the Atlantic, not as slaves, as the black Africans had been. It is very important to remember that. It was this thin substratum of Empire that tended to oppose liberation movements. They actively collaborated, often virulently, as in the case of Kenya, against fellow Africans, in the fight for independence.

It would be simplistic to say that the need, indeed, the entire undertaking of having to fight for liberation, was too much for Naipaul. His position on the most important movement of the 20th century (independence from colonial rule) might be described as ambivalent, except, if you are ambivalent about freedom, then what exactly are your values?

In Empire, this modicum of elevation from the bottom was very important and so when the British said you were not that dark, not that negroid, your status protected you against slavery and forced labour. This bred its own psychosis. We may want to describe Naipaul in elevated terms, but his own unease once in India (he finds the land of his forefathers too unhygienic) speaks of this. The elevated elite in Empire knew that once they accepted the bribe of racial elevation, they would become accomplices. It was hence in their interest to perpetuate colonial rule, for once it ended, their position would become terribly exposed. The liberation fighters whom Naipaul mocks were a threat against the collaborator class.

In Empire, this modicum of elevation from the bottom was very important and so when the British said you were not that dark, not that negroid, your status protected you against slavery and forced labour. This bred its own psychosis.

When the worst came, the bargain was to choose the racialist humiliation because the patronising treatment at least guaranteed some goods. Mr. Naipaul’s English reviewers perhaps understood this – a brown man acknowledging the hegemony, affirming that the Empire was appreciated by the middle races (hence at least intelligent) as civilisation. They praised his books at a time when they were fighting a losing battle against their black subjects.

You could understand the racism of Joseph Conrad. But Naipaul? The relationship of his narrators to Europeans is telling. It is always to prove how they are better than white people. There are the clueless young white people whom his narrators are proud to dominate intellectually. The white women in his books have to be degraded; the violence and contempt with which his characters treat them appears like the acting-out of suppressed rage. White people are his main audience and he must show them how he is neither Negroid nor Indian. These are the people who either granted or denied scholarships to the Eliases of Miguel Street.

It was thus easy to be bullied into calling V.S. Naipaul a brilliant writer. But you had to have occupied his very position – to have had an ambivalent position towards the colonial project – to have called him so.  What you needed was just that much politic education to see that the 20th century was changed by the men and women despised in Mr. Naipaul’s books. To understand the minds of those who imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 27 years, you have to absorb Naipaul. His was one of the attitudes that had to be defeated for people of colour to become free.

It was important for me to go through Mr. Naipaul’s books after his death. But the realisation that I was reading him the last time in this involved manner, with the heat with which I once did when the writing was not yet done, when he was still around, was hard.

Now Naipaul’s forced racism – for it feels like that – does not really feel like that. Rather, it appears to be transactional right-wingery by a certain savvy type who knew there was a cash-paying audience that loved that sound.

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