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We Resigned Not to Kill the Nation, but to Save It

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As media freedoms take a beating around the world, and a culture of authoritarianism creeps across Africa, it was important, says NIC CHEESEMAN about resigning his column in the Sunday Nation, to demonstrate solidarity with those brave colleagues forced to endure threats from the State and censorship from the Board.  

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Media freedom in Africa is under threat. Sadly, this is nothing new. The first attack on press freedom came during the late colonial era in the 1950s, against the new magazines and newspapers being produced by nationalist movements. The second came immediately after independence, when nationalist leaders themselves moved to mute dissent, claiming that unity was necessary for development.

Things became particularly bleak in the 1980s, when in many countries the only way a journalist could critique the president and his policies was through satire – and even that was dangerous. The exceptions to this trend, notably Botswana and Mauritius where media freedoms were respected to one degree or another, only confirmed the general rule: the media was an enemy of the State.

The 1990s brought great hope for democratic renewal. Opposition parties were legalised and governments began to speak the language of democratic reform. However, while constitutional reforms and transfers of power created moments of greater transparency and openness, as in Kenya where the defeat of the Kenya African National Unity led to a resurgence of journalistic activity, governments have very quickly moved to establish control over the flow of information.

This decline has taken different forms in different countries. In established authoritarian states such as Rwanda, there has been a further crackdown on the opposition and an entrenchment of the powers of the president. And even in more democratic states, such as Botswana, there has been a gradual process of democratic backsliding.

This has included the use of a wide range of strategies, including outright censorship, manipulating paid advertising to favour pliant outlets, and repression. The figures are shocking. In 2017 alone, five journalists were imprisoned in the Democratic Republic of Congo, five in Ethiopia, 15 in Eritrea, eight in Uganda and 20 in Egypt. The only other regions of the world where things look this bad are the Middle East and the more authoritarian parts of Asia.

Of course, the media is not the only target of these States. This ongoing trend needs to be placed in a broader context in which governments have sought to re-write the rules of the game, closing off space for dissent. According to Freedom House, the US think tank that ranks the quality of civil liberties and political rights of every country in the world, the average standard of democracy has fallen every year for a decade.

This decline has taken different forms in different countries. In established authoritarian states such as Rwanda, there has been a further crackdown on the opposition and an entrenchment of the powers of the president. And even in more democratic states, such as Botswana, there has been a gradual process of democratic backsliding, with a greater centralization of power in the hands of a small number of individuals.

In those states lying between these two extremes, such as Kenya, which hold relatively competitive elections but in the absence of fully democratic politics, the process has involved the greater use of repression to intimidate the opposition, and the re-assertion of political control over supposedly independent democratic institutions. This has made it harder for opposition parties to win power, especially in countries such as Zambia where sitting presidents have made it clear that they intend to retain power come what may.

But despite the very different trajectories of these states, they share one commonality: in almost all of them the freedom of the press has deliberately been undermined.

Nowhere is this harsh reality better demonstrated than in Eastern Africa. While Eritrea has one of the worst records in the region, the Democratic Republic of Congo is also one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. Since 1992, five have been killed, and many more intimidated and arrested. Things are also very tough in Burundi, where the media is regularly harassed and the Interior Ministry closed down the country’s journalists’ union in 2016.

A couple of years ago, Tanzania would not have been mentioned in the same breath as Burundi, Eritrea and the DRC where press freedom is concerned. But things have changed radically under President John Magufuli. Not only have journalists been arrested for criticising the president, the government has also moved to assert control over the blogosphere, announcing plans to charge social media users $930 for the right to air their views. As I write, government critics are living in fear of what repressive measures the ruling party will come up with next, and what will happen to them if they speak out.

But as Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Things have also taken a turn for the worse in Kenya, where the government has employed a number of different strategies to reign in one of the continent’s more dynamic medias. On the one hand, representatives of senior politicians have taken to calling editors and threatening journalists, demanding that they kill negative stories and publish more positive analysis. On the other, the ruling party has manipulated its control of the government advertising budget – the single biggest source of income for most newspapers – to punish those who refuse to play ball.

For those who care about democracy and press freedom, this raises the question of whether there is anything that can be done. In the face of such broad continental, indeed global, trends it is easy to feel powerless. But as Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The challenge is for us all to do what we can, and have faith that it will build up into something that is more than the sum of its parts.

With that in mind, a few weeks ago I resigned my position with the Daily Nation newspaper, along with seven other columnists. Since then, there has been a fair amount of speculation about why we went, and what our motives were. The Daily Nation was understandably upset, and a number of pieces have emerged that have criticised our decision, going to great pains to point out that those who resigned had been well treated by the paper. This is largely true, but it misses the point.

We did not leave because we felt that we were being censored ourselves. Rather, we left because we wanted to make a point about the injustice done to other Daily Nation colleagues. Our concern was not that we were being bullied or silenced, but that the newspaper was being hollowed out around us. If we did nothing, we thought, we would soon find that we were marooned – our voices drowned out as the default mode of the newspaper became increasingly pro-government or, perhaps more accurately, afraid of the government.

You might put it like this: first they failed to renew Gado’s contract, and we did not resign, because it didn’t affect us. Then they sacked Denis Galava, and we did not resign, because it didn’t affect us. Then they pushed out David Ndii, and we realised that, if they someday decided to get rid of us, there would be no one left to speak out. So we decided to take a stand while we still could.

If that trend had gone unchecked, we would have been left as the fig leaf legitimising the internal decay of a once great newspaper.

You might put it like this: first they failed to renew Gado’s contract, and we did not resign, because it didn’t affect us. Then they sacked Denis Galava, and we did not resign, because it didn’t affect us. Then they pushed out David Ndii, and we realised that, if they someday decided to get rid of us, there would be no one left to speak out. So we decided to take a stand while we still could.

In doing so, we were not motivated by partisan concerns. Despite what some of our detractors would have you believe, we all came to this decision through very different thought processes and personal journeys. Indeed, there are many issues on which we simply don’t agree. But one area of common ground was that we wanted to strengthen the position of the many brilliant and dedicated journalists working for the Nation Media Group who are fighting for its independence from the inside. Our hope was that our actions would highlight just how much the current approach is hurting the Nation in terms of credibility and sales, empowering its many brave editors and reporters whose hearts are in the right place to win out.

In other words, we resigned not to kill the Daily Nation, but to try and save it.

 

*Much of the data used in this piece was collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists. You can support their work by donating here

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Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy and the editor of www.democracyinafrica.org

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No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States

Adam Mayer praises a new collection, Liberated Texts, which includes rediscovered books on Africa’s socialist intellectual history and political economy, looking at the startling, and frequently long ignored work of Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu and Makhan Singh.

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Liberated Texts is a magnificent, essential, exciting tome that feels like a bombshell. This incredibly rich collection is a selection that is deep, wide, as well as entertaining. The book focuses on twenty-one volumes from the previous one hundred years, with a geographical range from the UK, the US, Vietnam, Korea, the Peoples Republic of China, the Middle East, Ireland, Malaysia, Africa (especially East Africa), Europe, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union, focusing on books that are without exception, foundational.

The collection is nothing less than a truth pill: in composite form, the volume corrects world history that Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States offered for the sterile, historical curriculum on domestic (US) history. The volume consists of relatively short reviews (written by a wide collection of young and old academics and activists from every corner of the globe) but together they reflect such a unified vision that I would recommend Liberated Texts as compulsory reading for undergraduate students (as well as graduates!) Although the text is a broad canvas it speaks to our age (despite some of the reviewed book having been written in the 1920s).

Each review is by default, a buried tresure. The writer of this very review is a middle-aged Hungarian, which means that some of the works and authors discussed were more familiar to me than they would be to others. For example, Anton Makarenko’s name was, when the author grew up in the People’s Republic of Hungary, a household word. Makarenko’s continued relevance for South America and the oppressed everywhere, as well as his rootedness in the revolutionary transformations of the Soviet experiment, are dealt with here marvellosly by Alex Turrall (p. 289). In loving detail Turrall also  discusses his hero the pedagogue Sukhomlinsky’s love for Stalinist reforms of Soviet education (p. 334).

There is one locus, and one locus only, where death is given reign, perhaps even celebrated: in a Palestinian case (p. 133) the revolutionary horizons are firmly focused on the past, not on any kind of future. The entire problematic of Israeli society’s recent ultra right-wing turn (a terrible outcome from the left’s point of view) is altogther missing here. Yet it is difficult to fault the authors or editors with this (after all, they painstakingly included an exemplary anti-Nazi Palestinian fighter in the text, p. 152) but it might be in order to challenge a fascination with martyrdom as a revolutionary option on the radical left.

In every other aspect, Liberated Texts enlightens without embarrassment, and affirms life itself. Imperialism is taken on in the form of unresolved murders of Chinese researchers in the United States as a focus (p. 307), and in uncovering the diabolical machinations of the peer-review system – racist, classist, prestige-driven as it is (p. 305).

The bravery of this collection is such that we find few authors within academia’s tenure track: authors are either emeriti, tenured, very young academics, or those dedicated to political work: actual grassroots organizers, comrades at high schools, or as language teachers. This has a very beneficial effect on the edited volume as an enterprise at the forefront of knowledge, indeed of creating new knowledge. Career considerations are absent entirely from this volume, in which thankfully even the whiff of mainstream liberalism is anathema.

I can say with certainty regarding the collection’s Africanist chapters that certain specialists globally, on African radical intellectual history, have been included: Leo Zeilig, Zeyad el-Nabolsy, Paul O’Connell, Noosim Naimasiah and Corinna Mullin all shed light on East African (as well as Caribbean) socialist intellectual history in ways that clear new paths in a sub-discipline that is underfunded, purposely confined to obscurity, and which lacks standard go-to syntheses especially in the English language (Hakim Adi’s celebrated history on pan-Africanism and communism stops with the 1950s, and other works are in the making).

Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu, Makhan Singh are the central authors dealt with here. Rodney is enjoying a magnificent and much deserved renaissance (but this collection deals with a lost collection of Rodney’s 1978 Hamburg lectures by Zeilig!) Nabolsy shows us how Nyerere’s Marxist opposition experienced Ujamaa, and Tanzanian ’socialism’. Nabudere – a quintessential organic intellectual as much as Rodney –  is encountered in praxis as well as through his thought and academic achievements in a chapter by Corinna Mullin. Nabudere emerges as a towering figure whose renaissance might be in the making right at this juncture. Singh makes us face the real essence of British imperialism. Nabudere, Babu and even Hirji’s achievements in analysing imperialism and its political economy are all celebrated in the collection.

Where Shivji focuses on empire in its less violent aspect (notably NGOs and human rights discourse) powerfully described by Paul O’Connell, Naimasiah reminds us that violence had been as constitutive to Britain’s empire, as it has been to the Unites States (in Vietnam or in Korea). An fascinating chapter in the collection is provided by Marion Ettinger’s review of Richard Boyle’s Mutiny in Vietnam, an account based entirely on journalism, indeed impromptu testimony, of mutinous US soldiers tired of fighting for Vietnam’s landlord class.

Many readers of this anthology will identify with those veterans (since the collection appears in the English language) perhaps more than with East Asia’s magnificent, conscious fighters also written about in the book. Even in armies of the imperialist core, humanity shines through. Simply put, there are no imperialist peoples, only imperialist states.

Zeilig’s nuanced take on this important matter is revealed in Rodney’s rediscovered lectures. Also, the subtlety of class analysis in relation to workers versus peasants, and the bureacratic bourgeoisie profiting from this constellation (p. 219) brings to mind the contradiction that had arguably brought down Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s anti-imperialist president who nevertheless found himself opposing working class demands. Rodney’s politics in Guyana invited the same fate as Sankara, as we know.

Nabolsy’s review on Hirji’s The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher touches on very interesting issues of Rodney’s role especially in the context of Ujamaa and Nyerere’s idiosyncratic version of African socialism. Nabolsy appreciates Nyerere efforts but analyses his politics with great candour: Ujamaa provided national unification, but failed to undermine Tanzania’s dependency in any real sense. The sad realization of the failure of Tanzania’s experience startles the reader with its implications for the history of African socialism.

On an emotional and personal level, I remain most endeared by the Soviet authors celebrated in this text. So Makarenko and Sukhomlinsky are both Soviet success stories and they demonstrate that this combination of words in no oxymoron, and neither is it necessarily, revisionist mumbo-jumbo. Their artificial removal from their historical context (which had happened many times over in Makarenko’s case, and in one particular account when it comes to Sukhomlinsky) are fought against by the author with Leninist gusto.

Sukhomlinsky had not fought against a supposedly Stalinist education reform: he built it, and it became one of the most important achievements of the country by the 1960s due partly to his efforts. The former educational pioneer did not harm children: he gave them purpose, responsibility, self-respect, and self-esteem. The implication of Sukhomlinsky and Makarenko is that true freedom constructs its own order, and that freedom ultimately thrives on responsibility, and revolutionary freedom.

As this collection is subtitled Volume One, it is my hope and expectation that this shall be the beginning of a series of books, dealing with other foundational texts, and even become a revolutionary alternative to The London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, both of which still demonstrate how much readers crave review collections. Volumes like Liberated Texts might be the very future of book review magazines in changed form. A luta continua!

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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We Must Democratize the Economy

In the UK, prices for basic goods are soaring while corporations rake in ever-bigger profits. The solution, Jeremy Corbyn argues, is to bring basic resources like energy, water, railways, and the postal service into democratic public ownership.

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Jeremy Corbyn: We Must Democratize the Economy
Photo: Chatham House, London
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On Thursday, December 15, the Royal College of Nursing went on strike for the first time in their 106-year history. Understaffed, underpaid, and overworked, tens of thousands of National Health Service (NHS) nurses walked out after being denied decent, livable pay rises. Hailed as heroes one year, forced to use food banks the next, nurses’ wages have fallen more than £3,000 in real terms since 2010; three in four now say they work overtime to meet rising energy bills.

People will remember 2022 as the year that the Conservative Party plunged this country into political turmoil. However, behind the melodrama is a cost-of-living crisis that has pushed desperate people into destitution and the so-called middle classes to the brink. We should remember 2022 as the year in which relative child poverty reached its highest levels since 2007 and real wage growth reached its lowest levels in half a century. (Average earnings have shrunk by £80 a month and a staggering £180 a month for public sector workers.) These are the real scandals.

For some MPs, this was the year they kick-started their reality TV careers. For others, this was the year they told their children they couldn’t afford any Christmas presents. For energy companies, it was the year they laughed all the way to the bank; in the same amount of time it took for Rishi Sunak to both lose and then win a leadership contest, Shell returned £8.2 billion in profit. SSE, a multinational energy company headquartered in Scotland, saw their profits triple in just one year. Profits across the world’s seven biggest oil firms rose to almost £150 billion.

Tackling the cost-of-living crisis means offering an alternative to our existing economic model — a model that empowers unaccountable companies to profit off the misery of consumers and the destruction of our earth. And that means defending a value, a doctrine, and a tradition that unites us all: democracy.

Labour recently announced “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people.” I welcomed the renewal of many of the policies from the manifesto in 2019: abolishing the House of Lords and handing powers to devolved governments, local authorities, and mayors. These plans should work hand in hand, to ensure any second chamber reflects the geographical diversity of the country. If implemented, this would decentralize a Whitehall-centric model of governance that wastes so much of this country’s regional talent, energy, and creativity.

However, devolution, decentralization, and democracy are not just matters for the constitution. They should characterize our economy too. Regional governments are demanding greater powers for the same reason an unelected second chamber is patently arcane: we want a say over the things that affect our everyday lives. This, surely, includes the way in which our basic resources are produced and distributed.

From energy to water and from rail to mail, a small number of companies monopolize the production of basic resources to the detriment of the workers they exploit and the customers they fleece. We rely on these services, and workers keep them running, but it is remote chief executive officers and unaccountable shareholders who decide how they are run and profit off their provision. Would it not make more sense for workers and consumers to decide how to run the services they provide and consume?

As prices and profits soar, it’s time to put basic resources like energy, water, rail, and mail back where they belong: in public hands. Crucially, this mold of public ownership would not be a return to 1940s-style patronage-appointed boards but a restoration of civic accountability. Water, for example, should be a regional entity controlled by consumers, workers, and local authorities, and work closely with environmental agencies on water conservation, sewage discharges, the preservation of coastlines, and the protection of our natural world. This democratic body would be answerable to the public, and the public alone, rather than to the dividends of distant hedge funds.

Bringing energy, water, rail, and mail into democratic public ownership is about giving local people agency over the resources they use. It’s about making sure these resources are sustainably produced and universally distributed in the interests of workers, communities, and the planet.

Beyond key utilities, a whole host of services and resources require investment, investment that local communities should control. That’s why, in 2019, we pledged to establish regional investment banks across the country, run by local stakeholders who can decide — collectively — how best to direct public investment. Those seeking this investment would not make their case with reference to how much profit they could make in private but how much they could benefit the public as a whole.

To democratize our economy, we need to democratize workplaces too. We can end workplace hierarchies and wage inequalities by giving workers the right to decide, together, how their team operates and how their pay structures are organized. If we want to kick-start a mass transfer of power, we need to redistribute wealth from those who hoard it to those who create it.

Local people know the issues facing them, and they know how to meet them better than anyone else. If we want to practice what we preach, then the same principles of democracy, devolution, and decentralization must apply to our own parties as well. Local party members, not party leaders, should choose their candidates, create policy, and decide what their movement stands for.

Only a democratic party can provide the necessary space for creative and transformative solutions to the crises facing us all. In a world where the division between rich and poor is greater than ever before, our aim should be to unite the country around a more hopeful alternative — an alternative that recognizes how we all rely on each other to survive and thrive.

This alternative is not some abstract ideal to be imagined. It is an alternative that workers are fighting for on the picket line. Even before the nurses went on strike, 2022 was a record-breaking year for industrial action. Striking workers are not just fighting for pay, essential as these demands are. They are fighting for a society without poverty, hunger, and inequality. They are fighting for a future that puts the interests of the community ahead of the greed of energy companies. They are fighting for us all.

Their collective struggle teaches us that democracy exists — it thrives — outside of Westminster. The government is trying its best to turn dedicated postal workers and railway workers into enemies of the general public — a general public that apparently also excludes university staff, bus drivers, barristers, baggage handlers, civil servants, ambulance drivers, firefighters, and charity workers. As the enormous scale of industrial action shows, striking workers are the general public. The year 2022 will go down in history, not as the year the Tories took the public for fools, but as the year the public fought back. United in their thousands, they are sending a clear message: this is what democracy looks like.

This article was first published by Progressive International

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Confidence in Public Institutions Is at an All-time Low

Kenya must raise the bar in service provision now so that we can gain enough ground for our children to enjoy affordable and quality services from public institutions.

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When discussing the state of government services, facilities and infrastructure, some Kenyans on social media propose that there should be a requirement for all public officers to use only government services. This would mean that our cabinet secretaries, our parliamentarians and even the president and deputy president (and their families) be restricted to seeking medical services at public hospitals, and to taking their children to public schools, and so on. The proponents of this policy expect that once high-ranking state officers experience the inconvenience other citizens endure in accessing services from public institutions, they would be more intentional about improving service delivery.

A step further would be for such a policy to also cover the counties. Perhaps if governors, senators, and county assembly members were restricted to only using the health facilities in their respective counties, they would commit more resources to ensuring that these facilities are well equipped, and that the human resource is compensated fairly and in a timely manner.

European nations which are often used as a benchmark for development and governance apply this to a good degree. Public services are efficient, and it is common for even the highest-ranking public servants to use public facilities. When former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson contracted COVID-19, he was treated at St Thomas’ Hospital, a National Health Service (NHS) teaching hospital in central London. The NHS is the publicly funded healthcare system of the United Kingdom. This is the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) equivalent, and St Thomas’ Hospital would be the Kenyatta Hospital equivalent.

The parallel I can draw for Kenya is that at least our president completed his PhD studies at a public university. And there are many more cabinet secretaries (CSs), principal secretaries (PSs), ambassadors and parastatal heads who went through public universities and are top performers in their respective dockets. But on the other hand, we also have several governors who sought to attain undergraduate qualification from beyond our borders.

In contrast, we have had a former health minister seek medical services in another country during his tenure at the health ministry (his contributions to improving the ministry and the sector notwithstanding). I highly doubt the children of cabinet secretaries and other politicians, past and present, have been through public schooling up to the university level. And in December 2022, we took it a step further when the National Police Service and the Kenya Prisons Service ended their comprehensive medical coverage with the NHIF, in favour of a private service provider. Confidence in public institutions appears to be at an all-time low, even among other public institutions.

Kenyans are known to have high standards and high expectations. And rightfully so. We are the regional leader (largest economy in the EAC and COMESA in terms of GDP), and we know our potential to become a continental leader by all metrics. However, as we begin a new year under a new administration that just completed its first 100 days in office, I would recommend that we manage our expectations and start at the bare minimum. The bare minimum for me is a request to the recently appointed cabinet secretaries and county executive committee members to ensure human dignity in service delivery. We are years away from that ideal future where the president, cabinet secretaries and all other high-ranking public officers are confident enough in the system to entrust it with their families’ health and with their children’s education. But if we start raising the bar now, we can gain enough ground for our children to enjoy affordable and quality services from public institutions.

I highly doubt the children of cabinet secretaries and other politicians, past and present, have been through public schooling up to the university level.

The bare minimum for healthcare is for all public health facilities to be well equipped and functioning. Kenyans should not have to travel across counties or to the capital for basic medical services, or prefer private medical insurance cover over NHIF. A bare minimum would be county executives being nominated based on qualification and experience, and county staff being appointed based on the needs of the county in the specific functions they oversee.

In road construction, a bare minimum would be to have all tarmacked roads appropriately marked, well paved (with sidewalks/footpaths where required) and well lit.

Kenyans had to complain on social media about the danger of driving on an unmarked Ngong Road (from Junction Mall to Lenana School) for Kenya National Highways Authority (KenHA) and Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) to act. And the action that resulted from the complaints was specific to that section. While driving to Karen on New Year’s Day, I was disappointed to see that the section of Ngong Road from the interchange after Lenana School to Karen roundabout remains unmarked. Even closer to the centre of the capital, sections of Ngong Road and Kenyatta Avenue around the NSSF building are in a similar state. Another problematic road section is the chaos that is Westlands roundabout including the matatu stages on Waiyaki Way on either side of the roundabout. If we are not meeting the bare minimum in the capital, we likely aren’t fairing any better in the counties.

I have no doubt that the transport CS, and the heads of KenHA and KURA all use these roads at least once a week. The least they could do, the bare minimum, is to ensure we can drive safely on these roads at any hour of the day. If the drivers or friends of these top officials are reading this article, please whisper to them (or share this article with them) and remind them that thousands of motorists and pedestrians are a few phone calls away from a significant positive change in road safety.

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