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Building Bridges to Nowhere: Notes From an Insider

7 min read.

Returning to play her part in changing Kenya after years abroad, MIRIAM ABRAHAM encountered cynicism and greed from her age mates among the professional elite. Yet it paled in comparison to her experience in an independent public body. Back in her adopted home, she reflects on the March 9 handshake, a deal sealed for the survival of a treacherous elite.  

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It was January 2017, and instead of enduring another bitter winter in my adopted home, I was having nyama choma with friends in Nairobi. It was refreshing watching the children playing nearby, as adults indulged in our national hobby- politics. Although the setting made me miss my children terribly, I was full of optimism. I was back in my motherland to play my part in making my country better. The call to national duty after over 15 years abroad justified the family, financial and professional sacrifices I had decided to make.

A friend tapped me on my arm. I had temporarily forgotten that this was not just a nyama choma event but a crash course from my friends on “how to survive in Kenya”. I listened attentively as my friends gave me tips. One reminded me that this was my opportunity to pay any outstanding mortgages and debts and invest in choice property in Nairobi. Another reminded me that every time I raise my hand to vote during board meetings, there should be an amount equivalent to my five fingers, in millions, deposited to my account. Yet another told me of how I needed to ensure that I surrounded myself with “my people” to protect me. Not to be outdone, another reminded me that since I could never understand how to “make deals” as a “foreigner”, I needed to introduce him to the person in charge of procurement and the rest would be taken care of.

It was not clear to me how much of this was serious talk and how much of it was said in jest – the sarcasm that those of my generation have resorted to in an attempt to escape the helplessness they face as the country careens into a pit. The advice nevertheless captured what I ended up experiencing throughout my time in Kenya. It is assumed that the only reason one takes up a public service position is to enrich themselves, their families and their cronies. And it is indeed not a far-fetched conclusion, in most cases.

I listened attentively as my friends gave me tips. One reminded me that this was my opportunity to pay any outstanding mortgages and debts, invest in choice property in Nairobi. Another…that every time I raise my hand to vote during board meetings, there should be an amount equivalent to my five fingers, in millions…Yet another told me of how I needed to ensure that I surrounded myself with “my people” to protect me… Not to be outdone, another reminded me that since I could never understand how to “make deals” as a “foreigner”, I needed to introduce him to the person in charge of procurement and the rest would be taken care of.

My conclusion at the end of my brief Kenya sojourn is that we, the professional elite, celebrate mediocrity, shun integrity and worship corruptly acquired wealth. The end justifies the means, even if this includes taking the lives of children, men and women. We easily forgive those that rob from public coffers and forget those that sacrifice their lives in the fight for justice and good governance.

Ours is a transactional country. It is therefore not a coincidence that Kenyans quickly satirised the 9 March 2018 “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga as a handcheque. Because how else could one explain the political convergence of views between those who disenfranchised millions of Kenyans by organizing violent protests against the sham October 2017 election and those that benefited from a circus of a presidential election?  As a friend of mine reminded me in January, “it will be just a matter of time before the political elite sit around the table and share the loot”. I do not know whether there is any financial loot that has been shared. But certainly, we can all see the associated trappings of power being openly enjoyed by those who just two months ago were victims of State harassment.

Recent developments make it difficult to argue against those who have always held that politicians cultivate their ethnic bases to increase their political bargaining chips in preparation for the next ‘handcheque’. Even when the larger strategic interests of political parties and alliances are at stake, if there is an opportunity to make money, the financial imperative invariably wins the day. It reminds me of July last year when the lawyers of two opposing coalitions walked hand in hand to negotiate a procurement deal, which in the larger scheme of things would have negatively affected the chances of one of the coalitions “winning” the presidential election. But it appears that any opportunity to make money could not be left unattended.

Ours is a transactional country. It is therefore not a coincidence that Kenyans quickly satirised the 9 March 2018 “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Prime Minister Raila Odinga as a handcheque. Because how else could one explain the political convergence of views between those who disenfranchised millions of Kenyans by organizing violent protests against the sham October 2017 election and those that benefited from a circus of a presidential election?

This partly explains why almost all the constitutional bodies, the media and even the legislature in the country are under State capture. At the moment, the Judiciary is the last bastion of hope. Now that President Kenyatta and his Deputy President have ‘apologized’ to Kenyans for unnamed trespasses, we should expect these institutions to remain under the spell of the looters. They have free rein. The press has caved in, civil society is severely constrained, bloggers and activists are constantly harassed by the State and the majority of Kenyans remain silent, puzzled as they watch those on whom they had pinned their hopes to “save” the country make numerous “handshaking” tours.

We who easily forgive have “moved on” and are leaving it to a tiny political elite to implement its Putin-esque plan. Let me refresh your mind on this.: in what the Russians call ‘castling’, President Vladimir Putin, restricted from serving a third consecutive term as president in 2008, had Dmitry Medvedev run for President while he took over the Prime Ministerial position. Putin was still the de facto President. In 2012, he formally returned as President and then “overwhelmingly won” his “second” term in this year’s election, assuring him of power until 2024.

This appears to be the model the political establishment is using, if we are to take seriously what we are hearing from informal regime mouthpieces such as Tiaty Member of Parliament, William Kassait Kamket and COTU strongman, Francis Atwoli. Hon. Kamket has proposed the creation of a ceremonial presidency and a premier position, while Atwoli believes that President Uhuru Kenyatta is too young to retire and must continue in power. This is the Ka-Putin plan, articulated in Kenyan-ese. In their thinking, the Luo will be happy to finally achieve their long sought-after presidential dream while the Kikuyu will maintain their own “young man” in power. It gives the plotters plausible deniability for not “paying back the debt” to the Deputy President and thus protect the Kikuyus living in the Rift Valley. In their wisdom, there are only three ethnic groups in Kenya. Once their interests are taken care of, all other socio-economic and grievances of marginalisation are a non-issue.

In what the Russians call ‘castling’, President Vladimir Putin, restricted from serving a third consecutive term as president in 2008, had Dmitry Medvedev run for President while he took over the Prime Ministerial position. Putin was still the de facto PresidentIn 2012, he formally returned as President and then “overwhelmingly won” his “second” term in this year’s election, assuring him of power until 2024.

Constitutional changes to prolong terms of office or satisfy elite demands are the flavour du jour. Apart from the Russians, the Chinese have done it recently. Rwanda and Uganda have done it and the Burundians are set to give a soft landing to President Kenyatta’s agemate, Pierre Nkurunziza, when they change the Constitution on 17 May. It appears that our elite are itching to join the bandwagon.  And as always happens with our national politics, there will be a bogeyman who has to be deterred by any means – the justification for the planned constitutional amendments. Kenyans will be reminded of the violence in the Rift Valley in 1992, 1997 and 2007 and be warned of Armageddon if the Constitution is not amended to deter the Deputy President from ascending to the presidency.  Operation Stop Ruto is gaining steam and Kenyans will soon be convinced that this is the only way to save Kenya.

A friend I have known for many years recently wrote to me: “The goose is cooked. No way of stopping that train. I am just scared of that guy.” I did not respond to the message. I could not. Not because I did not share my fear for the guy he was talking about – our Deputy President.  I have been a victim of his threats and I know that they are not empty.

I watched how he remotely controlled and manipulated a constitutional body for which I worked. I still wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares of the ordeals I was subjected to, carried out with express instructions from him.

I did not respond to the message because it hit me that even those that I thought to be “progressive” have bought into the bogeyman notion, a red herring to turn public attention to the urgency of removing an individual, like we did with the Moi must go slogans, without questioning the underlying system that has allowed such leaders to thrive. I did not respond because as I was reading his message, the building bridges to nowhere initiative was being launched. And once again, the political elite were gaming the system, as they always do.

Let me be clear, I am not against reconciliation. It is long overdue. But building lasting bridges needs to be anchored in more than declarations and photographs of handshakes. The central motivation cannot be an attempt by a government to buy legitimacy after what was largely a sham October 2017 presidential election. It cannot be about an opposition party attempting to join the “meat eating” team instead of “salivating from the outside”, to use President Kenyatta’s own words. It cannot be about an icon in the fight for democracy seeking relevance as he ponders his next step. Nor can it be just about stopping the Deputy President from inheriting the big seat.

Reconciliation, building bridges, requires difficult conversations and hard work. It requires us to ask tough questions about our national ethos. It requires the kind of concerted effort that we witnessed in the1990s during the struggle for the Second Liberation, so called. The Young Turks who led that struggle are clearly now failing to practice what they previously espoused. When given the opportunity to govern after the controversial elections in 2007, they joined the looters, as narrated by John Githongo in his recent article, The State of the Nation: Corruption: A brief history- 1997 to 2018.

 Back to the January 2017 nyama choma outing: I defied the advice on how to survive in Kenya. I chose not to join the looters. There are many Kenyans like myself. That is why, like Prof. Makau Mutua, I will still hold onto the naïve, childish optimism for a better Kenya. I still believe that there is a constituency of millennials ready to wrest the baton from the “Young Turks”. I still believe that millennials have a chance to fix the current crisis of leadership and develop an alternative leadership to the current elites that continue to divide the country rather than unite it.

The “Young Turks” have failed to deliver the vision they had in their heyday. They will resist change by any means necessary.  They will conjure up the spectre of “Ruto bogeyman” to justify constitutional amendments precisely to entrench themselves in power or ‘return from the ‘cold’, as they are wont to put it.  But the millennials have more going for them to deliver the change. History is on their side. The future of Kenya is in their hands, not in those busy building bridges to nowhere.

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Ms. Abraham is a governance and institutional development expert.

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Dark Money: Pandora Papers Show UK Must Tackle Its Corruption-Enabling Industry

As long as we have countries that are willing to receive these illicit monies, then it [corruption] will keep happening

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The new head of the Word Trade Organization has delivered a damning critique of Britain’s supposed fight against international corruption, accusing the UK of harbouring a “cottage industry” of financial enablers who cater to corrupt public officials overseas.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was appointed WTO director-general in March and has twice served a Nigeria’s finance minister, said the Pandora Papers showed how UK bankers, lawyers and estate agents help corrupt officials and wealthy individuals in her home country — and in other graft-blighted nations — invest in expensive London real estate through anonymous offshore shell companies.

Delivering the 2021 anti-corruption lecture for Transparency International UK, Okonjo-Iweala earlier this week said: “When public monies are stolen, they are often sent abroad to countries not generally thought of as corrupt, where a cottage industry exists of bankers, lawyers, accountants and others, who launder and sequester the ill-gotten funds.”

She added: “The Pandora Papers — like the Panama Papers before them — shed light on this shadow economy of tax avoidance, luxury homes and shell companies.”

Okonjo-Iweala has for decades been a pioneering campaigner on anti-corruption and transparency issues, both in Nigeria and internationally. For her efforts, she has received death threats and, in 2012, her mother was briefly kidnapped.

In October, Finance Uncovered and Premium Times published the results of its investigation into wealthy Nigerians who anonymously owned UK property. The investigation was based on thousands of leaked shell company documents from the Pandora Papers, Panama Papers and other data sources.

It identified 233 houses and apartments in the UK — worth £350m at current property prices — which had been secretly bought by 137 wealthy Nigerians using 166 anonymous offshore shell companies.

Among those found to have invested in UK property were a senior manager at the Nigerian Ports Authority, one of the longest serving members of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, a former finance commissioner for Lagos State and a major government contractor in the power generation industry.

It is not illegal to secretly buy UK property through anonymous offshore shell companies and documents reviewed by Finance Uncovered found no evidence that funds used to buy UK property amounted to proceeds of corruption or other criminality. In fact, many UK enabler firms routinely advised their Nigerian clients to invest in UK property through offshore companies in order to legally avoid tax.

Also among the real estate identified by Pandora Papers journalists were five UK properties linked to Nigeria’s former aviation minister Stella Oduah — a onetime cabinet colleague of Okonjo-Iweala who is now the subject of corruption charges in Nigeria, which she has denied.

So too were several London properties that, according to U.S. court filings, were bought by oil tycoons allegedly as bribes for the benefit of Diezani Alison-Madueke, then Nigeria’s minister for petroleum resources and yet another former cabinet colleague of Okonjo-Iweala.

Alison-Madueke was arrested in London by UK law enforcement officers in 2015 but has denied wrong-doing. No charges have been brought but investigations into her affairs remain ongoing.

As well as naming several otherwise hidden property investors, Finance Uncovered and Premium Times published further details concerning Nigerians investing in UK real estate in the form of an interactive map.

One in six of the 233 UK properties identified by Finance Uncovered and Premium times were owned by anonymous offshore companies that were once the subject of law enforcement interest — including search warrants, freezing orders, money laundering investigations and suspicious activity reports.

Since 2016, the UK government has been promising to introduce a public register of who owns offshore companies that have bought residential property in Britain. However, ministers have failed to bring the necessary legislation before parliament.

Instead, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has fast-tracked other measures, such as the introduction of eight freeports, which many experts say could increase the flow of dark money to the United Kingdom.

Okonjo-Iweala said she was surprised that findings from the Pandora Papers had not yet generated more impact, suggesting the pandemic crisis may have drawn political attention away. However, she added: “Refusing corruption will be an important part of building back better our economies and societies, so it is an issue we cannot afford to neglect.”

In particular, she called on the UK and other countries that have become well-known destinations for corrupt and laundered funds to provide more efficient means for repatriating stolen assets.

She added: “I think real estate is really the key. There is a huge amount in the UK, in France, in Switzerland, all these countries. And not very much is being done about it, still today.”

In a further challenge to developed countries, she suggested one way to restrict corrupt money flows would be to outlaw anonymous shell companies. “You should challenge lawyers to stop all this helping tax evasion and shell companies. Why don’t we outlaw shell companies? If you want to put money or assets somewhere, put them under your name. Why do you create a shell company and hide all these things?”

Praising the work of Transparency International, Okonjo-Iweala also suggested NGO groups could do even more to help pressure developed countries into anti-corruption measures. Specifically, she suggested TI’s widely-cited Corruption Perceptions Index — which ranks countries in order of the perceived propensity for corruption — should be complemented by a second index that ranked the countries that received proceeds of corruption.

“As long as we have countries that are willing to receive these illicit monies, then it [corruption] will keep happening,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “So that’s why I have been pressing TI that, please, let’s start an index. We need an index of countries that receive corrupt funds. Let’s rank them, and see who is at the top, who is second, who is third. That will help us get a hold of all this because I’m sure no one will want to be listed like that.”

A long-standing campaigner on anti-corruption, Okonjo-Iweala used her time in a previous post at the World Bank, to help set up the Stolen Assets Recovery initiative (StAR), a measure designed to help developing countries retrieve funds stolen by kleptocratic regimes. That initiative followed on from her tireless pursuit through the courts of money looted from Nigeria by Sani Abacha, the country’s military dictator from 1993 to 1998.

Okonjo-Iweala, 67, was appointed as director-general of the WTO in March, becoming the first woman and first African to lead the organisation. Earlier, she had two spells as Nigerian finance minister, though most of her career was spent at the World Bank. She has also held board positions at Standard Chartered Bank and at Twitter.

The Pandora Papers is a leak of almost 12 million documents, largely made up of administrative paperwork from the archives of 14 law firms and agencies that specialise in offshore company formations.

The leak was obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and seen by more than 600 journalists, including reporters at Finance Uncovered and Premium Times, as part of an investigation that took many months and spanned 117 countries.

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Sino-African Relations: Cooperation or a New Imperialism?

The relationship between Africa and China hinges on the question of cooperation and development. Kristin Plys, Amenophis Lô and Abdulhamid Mohamed ask if we should celebrate this relationship as the South-South development that the Global South dreamed of in the mid-20th century, or are contemporary Africa-China relations a new imperialist dynamic?

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Author and activist, Vijay Prashad elucidates in The Darker Nations, the ‘Third World’ is not a place, but a political project. In the mid-twentieth century, at the height of US hegemony, the Global South imagined political, economic, and social emancipation. One important incarnation of this was the Bandung Conference in 1955 where representatives of 29 newly independent Asian and African states met to promote what is now termed, South-South cooperation, in other words, the idea that African and Asian states could come together for economic and cultural cooperation and together oppose colonialism and imperialism.

Bandung was eventually institutionalized in the Non-Aligned movement, a forum that opposed US and Soviet intervention in the Global South. Non-alignment was not without its critics, however. Muammar Qaddafi of the non-aligned movement said, “The world is made up of two camps: the liberation camp and the imperialist one. There is no place for those who are non-aligned. We are not neutral and totally aligned against the aggressor… Long live the liberated. Down with imperialism.” As he saw it, the Global South was not comprised of states who were beholden to US imperialism, states who were beholden to Soviet imperialism and states that opposed either influence. For Qaddafi, there were only those states who are against imperialism and for liberation and those states that are imperialist.

Our understandings of contemporary imperialism, however, are shaped by the lived experiences of US hegemony and the particular way in which it supplanted European colonial rule with new dependent relationships of exploitation of the same character but through new forms of politico-economic relationships between the United States and the Global South. But with the crisis of US hegemony starting in the 1970s, and now with a more pronounced global crisis since 2008, of, perhaps, the capitalist world-system itself, imperialism as we know it will also necessarily change. Forms of power and hierarchy need to be remade so that they can continue as they lose moral authority.

The United States has lost its moral authority for global rule providing openings for a new hegemonic power to emerge and lead the world-economy in overcoming the current crisis. For example, in the transition from British hegemony in the 19th century to US hegemony in the 20th, imperialism persisted, but the form it took changed. Formal colonialism lost its moral authority leading to the important development of flag independence across much of the Global South. But in the absence of formal political rule through colonialism, the United States innovated new articulations of imperialism during the Cold War and beyond.

Any new hegemon, as part of its rule, must convince the rest of the world that it is acting in the best interests of the inter-state system. Part of the establishment of that consent to rule entails forming dependent relationships with the Global South that appear to be in the best interests of the Global South. With the rise of a new world-hegemon, imperialism must necessarily be remade to look like aid, cooperation, and solidarity. This helps the rising hegemon establish a global moral authority as it appears to be acting in the moral interests of the entire world economy. In these phases of world-history where a new hegemon is on the rise, it is critically important that we distinguish true South-South cooperation that has the potential for national liberation from a new incarnation of imperialism in its guise.

Authoritarianism and exploitation

When we examine this distinction between South-South cooperation and contemporary imperialism on the ground, it is essential to examine the local political conditions that create an imbalance of power. Therefore, we must better understand the contemporary dynamics of African sovereignty.

While the 21st century began with revolutions to oust decades of postcolonial authoritarian rule in Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, and elsewhere, these efforts were short lived. Counter-revolutionary forces, particularly those led by right-wing nationalists and conservative religious leaders too often became the eventual beneficiaries of toppled authoritarian regimes. In recent years we have witnessed more counter-revolutions and coups across the continent, in Chad, for example. States succumbing to authoritarianism have become more prevalent and we seldom observe revolutions that have been successful at installing long lasting democratic states committed to promoting the interests of African people.

In this fraught context of authoritarian rule across the continent, it has been easier for imperialists to usurp African sovereignty. Just as European and North American states have found authoritarian rule in Africa more amenable to their politico-economic interests so too has the Chinese Communist Party. In Zambia, copper mining accounts for 65% of the country’s export earnings. Most of the mines are owned by the Chinese state, though a few are mining companies with headquarters in Canada. Foreign mining companies have been able to create pockets of Chinese state sovereignty within Zambia where labour laws are notoriously lax, wages low, accidents and deaths of workers, prevalent. When workers have combined and protested these conditions, they have been met with violence, not from the Zambian state, but from Chinese management who has met workers’ demands by deploying violence without consequence. In 2010, a manager at the Collum Mine shot and killed 13 workers who organised against poor safety standards.

The Lamu Project to build a deep-water port connecting East Africa to Asian export markets is another example of loss of sovereignty. Initially, the Lamu port was to be funded jointly by the Kenyan, Ethiopian and South Sudanese states but because of funding issues and occasional attacks on port construction by Al-Shabaab, Kenyan Defense Forces sought loans from China which were supported through the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ programme, a policy to not only aid China in gaining further access to African resources and markets but also enable the Peoples Liberation Army Navy to establish a counter-terrorism base in Northern Kenya. Ports are crucial to African development as 90% of East African exporters depend on seaports to remain viable, but if Kenya defaults on the debt they have incurred, which seems likely, the Lamu port will soon become yet another space of Chinese state sovereignty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Land grabbing through creating pockets of Chinese state sovereignty and through control of strategic assets has helped China obtain cheap natural resources needed for industrial production, while railroads, other infrastructure, along with access to seaports allows for the extraction of these resources from Africa. Regime change has not been successful in disrupting this dynamic because the movements for regime change have mostly focused on ousting political leaders, but as a result of European and North American imperialism and also through the support of the domestic bourgeoisie, sovereignty in most African states rests with the military. Recent revolutions have done little to disrupt that dynamic or to create states that will serve the interests of its people.

Return to a Pan-African internationalism

There is a difference between globalization done on the terms of more powerful states, and a horizontal internationalism based on solidarity. Africa-China relations in and of themselves could bring great benefit to both regions, but as long as there remains a power differential in African states’ individual dealings with China, it will remain a tie that will ultimately result in economic benefit for China and the exploitation of Africa. One possible solution could be to have negotiations around Chinese development projects in African states done as a regional bloc through a Pan-African union rather than country-by-country.

But beyond this, what we, as an internationalist left can do is decentre the role of the state in Africa-China relations. If civil society and leftist groups in both China and across the African continent could work together across borders it could put pressure on states to realise common social injustices in both China and various African contexts such as the importance of opposing authoritarian regimes that fail to serve the best interests of the people and promoting workers’ rights through a labour internationalism. We can also envision linkages between other Chinese and Pan-African civil society organizations around issues common to the African and Chinese contexts.

Frantz Fanon famously described the ‘Third World project’, as a rejection of the goal of ‘catching up’ to Europe and North America, and instead, saw as its primary goal to innovate a new way of thinking. Fanon believed in the creativity of revolutionary Pan-Africanism and the Global South, that new forms of politics could be envisioned and enacted that would provide solutions to the longstanding social problems.

Internationalism from below

There’s a tendency within the Global North left to see any political development that opposes Western dominance as something to celebrate. But in thinking through the complexity of contemporary Africa-China relations it is evident that we need to be more discerning about the dynamics of power involved in movements that may claim to be South-South cooperation and/or anti-Western. They may yet be an embodiment of the unequal power dynamics and politico-economic exploitation we stand firmly against.

Propaganda, both from the West, and from China, obscures the power dynamics at play on the ground in Sino-African relations. The ability of propaganda to muddy our understanding of the dynamics at play makes organizing around these issues particularly difficult and controversial. But we need to remember, as Pan-Africanists based in Canada or anywhere else for that matter, that just because something is anti-West doesn’t make it liberatory. We need to be thoughtful and discerning in how we think about power and history in our contemporary context.

The central issue facing us going forward with this conversation is how we can pay closer attention to the dynamics of power in politico-economic relations between states without falling into the Sinophobic tropes of most Western states, but also recognising that there is not an equal and symbiotic relationship between African states and Chinese developmentalism.

Perhaps the first step is, instead of celebrating the ties between an authoritarian Chinese state and non-democratic regimes across Africa, we should instead think creatively about what we can do to build more liberatory South-South cooperation between civil society and left movements in Africa and China. Through these common goals of fighting shared social struggles, a truly horizontal Afro-Asian solidarity can be envisioned and enacted.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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African Epistemic Self-Affirmation Is the Ultimate End of Decolonization

Islamic scholarship in Africa and the meaning and end of decolonization in the work of religious studies scholar, Ousmane Kane.

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During the 2018 Miriam Makeba keynote address to the General Assembly of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), the largest and oldest pan-African body of African scholars, Professor Ousmane Kane told his peers that they needed to take religion seriously. This entreaty expressed a basic idea and an urgent project. The idea was that social science, having been elaborated through the secular-modern separation of the spheres of life, has relegated “religion” to the domain of the marginalized specialist. In contrast to the political, the economic, and the sociocultural, religion has become a matter of individual belief and practice within the regime of expertise that governs life globally.

This regime has sometimes been called coloniality. Kane, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, proposed, however, that all social science needs to consider religion if it is to truly understand contemporary Africa and its problems, implying that in Africa, religion is no private matter. “Religious developments in Africa deserve serious attention from African intellectuals, and especially pan-Africanists,” he said. The developments to which Kane referred might be summarized as the emergent publicity of religion, the decentralization (and/or erosion) of authority, and the integration into global networks throughout the African continent. This emergence has proven modernization and development theory to be patently false; religion has not eventually disappeared or become irrelevant for public life. In short, African theory needs to catch up to Africans in their decolonization of the mind and spirit.

The publication of Islamic Scholarship in Africa: New Directions and Global Contexts, edited by Kane, adds to a growing wave of academic work on the histories, cultures, and meanings of Islamic thought in Africa. It features established and emerging voices of the field that takes on the project of overturning many long-held fictions about Africa in the modern imagination. African historicity and mobility, dynamics of orality and literacy, evolving Islamic education, and popular vernacular poetic expression are themes that frame a diverse set of contributions that offer a fair representation of the major issues of the field.

Alongside recent monographs, edited volumes, and translations Islamic scholarship in Africa explores a robust and active field. It is a work that is current, forward-looking, engaged with global issues and directed to a general audience. The bibliography is broad and the glossary of terms are of benefit to the non-specialist. Given that the individual essays in this volume reflect many distinct research agendas, sites, and objects of inquiry, I will not attempt to summarize their contents. Instead, I focus on the broader issue of the decolonization of knowledge flagged for the reader’s attention in both Kane’s introduction and the conclusion by the former executive secretary of CODESRIA, Ebrima Sall.

Questions of decolonization

Sall situates the volume, along with the broader proliferation of academic works on the topic, within CODESRIA’s now decades-long project to bridge knowledge divides within Africa. These divisions are defined by differences in research language, intellectual training, and presumed racial identity. In particular, Kane’s research agenda to recognize the intellectual contributions of Muslim African scholars actualized many of the Pan-African principles of the organization. His Non-Europhone Intellectuals, published as a CODESRIA working paper in 2003, set forth the terms for a new field that would eventually come to be known as Timbuktu Studies. This field has solicited interest and support from international foundations, African governments, and a global network of university-based researchers.

We might ask, however, how does this interest in Islamic scholarship sit in relation to African studies more broadly? The objections that followed Kane’s keynote in 2018 highlight some common resistance to this work. The responses from the floor, as I recall them, were somewhat predictable. Some asserted that Islam was not modern. Others found that the neglect of African traditional religions by Kane was an inexcusable lapse. For them, if social science is to take religion seriously in Africa, it should be truly African religions upon which they must focus their seriousness. Islam and Christianity, they argued were either copies of originally African ideas or antagonistic to what was authentically African. “African” for them, it seems, meant autochthony. It meant differences from other geo-racial types and their specific religiosities that are ultimately products of colonization. These objections were predictable because they form opposing positions, based as much on epistemic commitments as points of view that frame the problem of religion in Africa. Kane and others have responded to such ideas exhaustively.

For example, Islam, from its origins, has been African, from the first hijra, or exodus, to Abyssinia through to the very rapid spread to Fustat, or what is now Cairo, and then with the history of the mostly peaceful and gradual spread of Islam in West Africa. And yet, the idea of Islam’s coloniality, if we can stretch the term so thin, persists. Much like the ideas about primordial African orality, they form discursive structures that seem impervious to empirical invalidation. It is indeed an old idea that West African Muslim scholars have been refuting since at least the 17th century Timbuktu scholar Ahmed Baba, and echoed in the 20th century by Senegalese polymath Shaykh Musa Kamara. Perhaps, that is a good thing for the future of the field.

All of this being said, one wonders beyond the scope of Islamic Scholarship in Africa, how might Timbuktu Studies deal with some of the thornier issues that have emerged in the long history of developing an epistemological alternative. Specifically, I am thinking here of the field’s relation to the older project of the Africanization of knowledge, which sought to consider Africa in indigenously African terms and the Islamization of knowledge/Islamic social sciences, which sought to establish modern social scientific method on Islamic foundations. Is the study of Islamic scholarship in Africa simply a continuation, an evolution of these two separate projects, or does their convergence make a qualitative leap that makes it distinct and uniquely promising? There might also be a generative encounter between Timbuktu Studies with Critical Muslim Studies such as that coming out of South Africa, emanating as it does from post-Rhodes debates on decoloniality.

Decolonization has become a big tent, a broad term enveloping many meanings, a concept that approaches protean status. Much like “religion” and “modernity” it bears different significations that correspond to conflicting epistemological, disciplinary, and political commitments—each one ultimately seeking different objectives. For a radical, anti-historical but utopian decolonial project, Islamic Scholarship in Africa might not satisfy the performance of rupture. However, this volume is vital if one is willing to agree with Sall and Kane, as I do, that African epistemic self-affirmation is the ultimate end of decolonization.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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