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Not Your Negro: Kanye West’s Distorted View of Race in America

7 min read.

In an act of gratuitous self-hatred, the American rapper’s comments on slavery open the wounds of a painful debate. In the Age of Trump, racism is now normalised, enabled even by its victims: Well-heeled Kenyans scrambling for a Ksh 1 million seat to watch a very British royal wedding on a TV screen in Nairobi; a liberal white woman looking for a black lover to erase her guilt. RASNA WARAH surveys the psyche of a very global scourge. 

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Not Your Negro: Kanye West’s Distorted View of Race in America
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I normally would not pay much attention to what Kanye West and his exhibitionist wife Kim Kardashian – whose obsession with her own body has reversed the gains of the women’s movement by several decades and whose ridiculous reality TV show has contributed significantly to dumbing down its viewers – but the American rapper’s ill-informed statement on slavery cannot go unchallenged.

During an interview recently, West is quoted saying: “You hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” When he was criticised for making this comment, West (whose own ancestors were African slaves) responded by saying that what he really meant was that “for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means we were mentally enslaved”.

West’s observation may apply to former settler colonies in Africa, like Kenya, but cannot apply in the Americas, where slavery was not a mental condition but one that was physically and violently enforced. However, West could have been alluding to the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o (though I doubt it as the rapper does not appear to be much of a reader) who said that the liberation of African countries will not be complete until their people “decolonise their minds” – that is, when they stop aping their former colonisers and start respecting their own culture, languages and traditions.

Unfortunately, this has yet to happen in Ngugi’s birthplace, where all things British are still viewed as superior. A case in point is the Kenyan-owned Windsor Golf Hotel and Country Club (probably named after Windsor Castle) in Nairobi that was charging one million shillings (about $10,000) per couple for watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding on the hotel’s television set. This staggering price, which is within the reach of only a handful of people in the country, included a luxurious night at the hotel and a helicopter ride to Mount Kenya for breakfast the next day. (According to news reports, the event was fully booked on the day of the wedding.) Even though the wedding had a distinctly African-American flavour, complete with a Martin Luther-like pastor delivering the sermon and Oprah Winfrey in attendance, it was not lost on many that this was a distinctly British affair paid by British taxpayers. And notwithstanding the bride’s black ancestry, this marriage is not likely to improve race relations in Britain or America.

West’s observation may apply to former settler colonies in Africa, like Kenya, but cannot apply in the Americas, where slavery was not a mental condition but one that was physically and violently enforced. However, West could have been alluding to the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o who said that the liberation of African countries will not be complete until their people decolonise their minds.

Kenya’s mental colonisation also manifests itself in its foreign policy. While much of the world shunned the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem last week, Kenya’s ambassador to Israel made it a point to attend the ceremony, along with a dozen or so other countries, most of which were failed or fragile African, Latin American and Eastern European states. (Meanwhile, Britain, which had a hand in creating the state of Israel, was noticeably absent.)

However, this former British colony’s display of self-loathing and self-colonisation nearly fifty-five years after independence is not comparable to the physical bondage that Africans experienced for centuries in America. Kanye West believes that slaves in America did not revolt for 400 years because they were mentally enslaved. Maybe he doesn’t know that those slaves who tried to revolt or to liberate themselves were met with lynchings, beatings, torture and later with segregation laws.

West should read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which poignantly explains why even after more than a century since slavery ended, black people in the United States are still under the threat of being humiliated, locked up, beaten or killed – both by the police and by ordinary people. (If West is not inclined to read a book, he can watch the documentary I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck.)

The “Black Lives Matter” movement is happening in today’s America, not in Martin Luther King’s America or in 18th century plantation America. Today young black men are more likely to be stopped by police, searched, murdered or incarcerated than any other group in the United States. In his book, Coates wonders how a black man in America can live freely in his body when that body is under constant threat of being exterminated.

In an essay published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University and the author of Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America, wrote that he is often referred to as “a nigger professor” or “a nigger with a PhD”. He says that he received several racist and threatening messages after he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that was in the form of a letter asking readers to accept the truth about what it means to be white in a society created just for white people. One woman even accused him of being a racist. The messages were so vitriolic that campus police were forced to monitor his office.

It is not just the die-hard racists who exhibit this sense of entitlement, or what is known as “white privilege” – the result of distorted history lessons – but so-called progressive or liberal whites as well. At a meeting that brought together human rights activists from around the world, one of the white women (Dutch or Danish, I can’t remember which) admitted to me that she was rather ashamed of the fact that despite having lived in South Africa for several years, she had not yet found a black boyfriend – as if to say that sleeping with a black man would lend more credibility to her activism credentials and define her as a non-racist.

Because I am prone to be rather blunt and tactless, I told her that she need not worry – some of the most racist white slave owners in America regularly slept with/raped their black female slaves, and that did not make them any less racist. (I didn’t tell her that I am married to a black African man and that I have rarely used this fact to gain points with my fellow Kenyans. Or that because most Kenyans are still mentally colonised, and value white skin more than black skin, a detail that often works to my disadvantage, partly also because my husband belongs to a politically and economically insignificant ethnic group.)

I then proceeded to remind the visibly stunned young woman that the sexualisation/fetishisation of the black body is part of the continuum of racism and that in the seaside Kenyan town where I live, European tourists seek out young black women and girls not because they want a relationship with them but because in a country like Kenya, it is easy and cheap to buy sex from impoverished women and girls. The silence that followed this conversation was palpable. I had clearly touched a nerve.

I was reminded then of what the writer James Baldwin had said about racism in America: “At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself.” One of the ways white America lives with the fact that the United States’ wealth is built on the bodies of black slaves is by blaming the latter for their own fate – as Kanye West did. And the only way white people can live with black people is by dehumanising and emasculating them so that they will not be forced to engage with them on equal terms, and therefore, will not have to confront the immorality of their ancestors’ actions.

I then proceeded to remind the visibly stunned young woman that the sexualisation/fetishisation of the black body is part of the continuum of racism and that in the seaside Kenyan town where I live, European tourists seek out young black women and girls not because they want a relationship with them but because in a country like Kenya, it is easy and cheap to buy sex from impoverished women and girls.

This also involves not knowing or telling the truth about oneself, which leads to a schizophrenic existence. White Americans, as Baldwin put it, “are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence” – the kind of incoherence that led a young European woman living in South Africa to apologise for not having an African boyfriend. White liberals suffer most from this, as they cannot even hide behind their racism to avoid making contact with non-white people. It is a sad spectacle to watch. (Relax, I often tell them. And listen, I mean really listen, if you can. )

I will end on a personal note. I am not white, nor am I black. I am in that murky category of people who white people refer to as “people of colour” (who comprise the majority of the world’s people). I have experienced racism and sexism in various shades, but it is only in recent years that I have become more aware of what it means to not be white in this world, perhaps because I am now much more conscious of it, and maybe also because people like President Donald Trump have made racism more acceptable. I have always been aware of my race, having lived in a former colony in Africa where I stand out as a non-black minority. Juggling issues around race is part of the DNA of most people who have experienced racial segregation or European colonisation.

But I never thought that racism could manifest itself in the way it did a few years ago when I was leading a project whose team members were all white. Over the course of the project, the group became sullen and uncooperative to the point where I was forced to abandon the project altogether. When I told a black Kenyan friend about my puzzling experience, she laughed and said, “Can’t you see? You were the only non-white person in the group, and you were leading it. They had to revolt against you and sabotage the project. They had to put you in your place.”

When I told a black Kenyan friend about my puzzling experience, she laughed and said, “Can’t you see? You were the only non-white person in the group, and you were leading it. They had to revolt against you and sabotage the project. They had to put you in your place.”

What I learnt from that experience was that racism is so insidious and so deceptive that it can suck in the most well-intentioned people, including African-Americans like West, whose reckless utterances are lapped up by Trump’s America as evidence of black people’s servility and self-hatred. West owes his people an apology.

Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

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The tyranny of numbers, a phrase first applied to Kenyan politics by one of Kenya’s most well-known political commentators, Mutahi Ngunyi, was repeated ad nauseum during the week of waiting that followed Kenya’s 2013 general elections.

In ads published in the run-up to the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), people were told to vote, go home and accept the results. Encouraged by a state that had since the 2007 post-electoral violence dominated public discourse and means of coercion, the military pitched camp in polling stations. Many streets in Kenya’s cities and towns remained deserted for days after the polls closed.

According to Ngunyi, the winner of the 2013 elections had been known four months earlier, that is, when the electoral commission stopped registering voters.

In a country whose politics feature a dominant discourse that links political party and ethnicity, the outcome of voter registration that year meant that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, would start the electoral contest with 47 per cent of the vote assured. With these statistics, their ticket appeared almost impossible to beat. For ethnic constituencies that did not eventually vote for Uhuru Kenyatta – the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidate in 2013 – a sense of hopelessness was widespread.

For them, a bureaucratic, professionalised, dispassionate (even boring) discourse became the main underpinning of the 2013 elections.

This was not the case in 2017.

Uhuru Kenyatta, pressured by opposition protests and a Supreme Court ruling that challenged his victory and ordered a re-run, met with Raila Odinga – his challenger for the presidency in the 2013 and 2017 elections – and offered a settlement. It became known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

In his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech, Uhuru reiterated that the purpose of the BBI process is to abolish the winner-takes-all system by expanding the executive branch of government.

As he explained it, the challenge to Kenya’s politics is the politicisation of ethnicity coupled with a lack of the requisite number of political offices within the executive branch that would satisfy all ethnic constituencies – Kenya has 42 enumerated ethnic groups.

The revised BBI report that was released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published in November 2019) has now retained the position of president, who, if the recommendations are voted for in a referendum, will also get to appoint a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and a cabinet.

Amid heckles and jeers during the launch of the revised BBI report, Deputy President William Ruto asked whether the establishment of the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers would create the much sought-after inclusivity. In his Jamhuri Day speech, the president conceded that they wouldn’t, but that the BBI-proposed position of Leader of Official Opposition – with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget – would mean that the loser of the presidential election would still have a role to play in governance.

One could not help but think that the president’s statement was informed by the fact that Odinga lost to him in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections –  this despite Odinga’s considerable political influence over vast areas of the country.

The 2010 constitution’s pure presidential system doesn’t anticipate any formal political role for the loser(s) of a presidential election. Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017, when he lost to Uhuru. This did not help to address the perception amongst his supporters that they had been excluded from the political process for many years. In fact, Raila’s party had won more gubernatorial posts across the country’s 47 counties than the ruling Jubilee Alliance had during the 2013 elections.

While Raila’s attempts to remain politically relevant in the five years between 2013 and 2017 were largely ignored by Uhuru, the resistance against Uhuru’s victory in 2017 wasn’t.

The anger felt by Raila’s supporters in 2017 following the announcement that Uhuru had won the elections – again – could not be separated from the deeply-entrenched feelings of exclusion and marginalisation that were at the centre of the violence that followed the protracted and disputed elections.

The reading of Kenyan politics that is currently being rendered by the BBI process is that all ethnic constituencies must feel that they (essentially, their co-ethnic leaders) are playing a role in what is an otherwise overly centralised, executive-bureaucratic state. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to limit the powers of the executive branch by spreading them across other levels of government have often invited a backlash from the political class.

Kenya’s independence constitution had provided for a Westminster-style, parliamentary system of government, and took power and significant functions of government away from the centralised government in Nairobi, placing significant responsibility (over land, security and education, for instance) in the hands of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. The majimbo system was abolished and, between 1964 to 1992, the government was headed by an executive president and the constitution amended over twenty times – largely empowering the executive branch at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. The powers of the president were exercised for the benefit of the president’s cronies and co-ethnics.

By 2010 there was not a meaningful decentralised system of government. The executive, and the presidency at its head, continued to survive attempts at limiting their powers. This has continued since 2010.

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

Beyond the minimum of 35 per cent of national revenue that the BBI report proposes should be allocated to county governments, it is less clear whether the country’s leaders are prepared to decentralise significant powers and resources away from the executive, and away from Nairobi.

Perhaps the real solution to the challenges of governance the BBI process purports to address is to follow the prescriptions of the defunct Yash Pal Ghai team – it went around the country collecting views for constitutional change in 2003-2004.

According to a paper written by Ghai himself, the Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had no doubt that, consistent with the goals of the review and the people’s views, there had to be a transfer of very substantial powers and functions of government to local levels.

The CKRC noted – much like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga now have – that the centralised presidential system tends to ethnicise politics, which threatens national unity.

Kenyans told the CKRC that decisions were made at places far away from them; that their problems arose from government policies over which they had no control; that they wanted greater control over their own destiny and to be free to determine their lifestyle choices and their affairs; and not to be told that they are not patriotic enough!

Yes, the BBI report has proposed that 5 per cent of county revenue be allocated to Members of County Assemblies for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, and that businesses set up by young Kenyans be exempted from taxation for the first seven years of operation. However, this doesn’t amount to any meaningful surrender of power and resources by the executive.

In emphasising the importance of exercising control at the local level, Kenyans told the CKRC that they wanted more communal forms of organisation and a replacement of the infamous Administration Police with a form of community policing. They considered that more powers and resources at the local level would give them greater influence over their parliamentary and local representatives, including greater control over jobs, land and land-based resources.  In short, Kenyans have always yearned for a dispersion of power away from the presidency, and away from the executive and Nairobi. They have asked for the placing of responsibility for public affairs in the hands of additional and more localised levels of government.

This is what would perhaps create the much sought-after inclusivity.

But as the BBI debate rages on, the attention of the political class is now on the proposed new positions within the executive branch. And as the debate becomes inexorably linked to the 2022 Kenyatta-succession race, questions centring on political positions will likely become personalised, especially after the political class cobbles together coalitions to contest the 2022 general elections.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans will be left battling the aftermath of a pandemic, and having to deal with the usual stresses brought on by a political class seeking their votes for another round of five years of exclusion.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others
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Western powers slowly tied a noose round their own necks by first installing Uganda’s National Resistance Movement regime, and then supporting it uncritically as it embarked on its adventures in militarism, plunder and human rights violations inside and outside Uganda’s borders.

They are now faced with a common boss problem: what to do with an employee of very long standing (possibly even inherited from a predecessor) who may now know more about his department than the new bosses, and who now carries so many of the company’s secrets that summary dismissal would be a risky undertaking?

The elections taking place in Uganda this week have brought that dilemma into sharp relief.

An initial response would be to simply allow this sometimes rude employee to carry on. The problem is time. In both directions. The employee is very old, and those he seeks to manage are very young, and also very poor and very aspirational because of being very young. And also therefore very angry.

Having a president who looks and speaks like them, and whose own personal life journey symbolises their own ambitions, would go a very long way to placating them. This, if for no other reason, is why the West must seriously consider finding a way to induce the good and faithful servant to give way. Nobody lives forever. And so replacement is inevitable one way or another.

But this is clearly not a unified position. The United Kingdom, whose intelligence services were at the forefront of installing the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in power nearly forty years ago, remains quietly determined to stand by President Yoweri Museveni’s side.

On the other hand, opinion in America’s corridors of power seems divided. With standing operations in Somalia, and a history of western-friendly interventions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and even Kenya, the Ugandan military is perceived as a huge (and cut-price) asset to the West’s regional security concerns.

The DRC, in particular, with its increasing significance as the source of much of the raw materials that will form the basis of the coming electric engine revolution, has been held firmly in the orbit of Western corporations through the exertions of the regime oligarchs controlling Uganda’s security establishment. To this, one may add the growing global agribusiness revolution in which the fertile lands of the Great Lakes Region are targeted for clearing and exploitation, and for which the regime offers facilitation.

Such human resource is hard to replace and therefore not casually disposed of.

These critical resource questions are backstopped by unjust politics themselves held in place by military means. The entire project therefore hinges ultimately on who has the means to physically enforce their exploitation. In our case, those military means have been personalised to one individual and a small circle of co-conspirators, often related by blood and ethnicity.

However, time presses. Apart from the ageing autocrat at the centre, there is also a time bomb in the form of an impoverished and anxious population of unskilled, under-employed (if at all) and propertyless young people. Change beckons for all sides, whether planned for or not.

This is why this coming election is significant. If there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment. Even if President Museveni is once again declared winner, there will still remain enough political momentum and pressure that could be harnessed by his one-time Western friends to cause him to look for the exit. It boils down to whether the American security establishment could be made to believe that the things that made President Museveni valuable to them, are transferable elsewhere into the Uganda security establishment. In short, that his sub-imperial footprint can be divorced from his person and entrusted, if not to someone like candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, then at least to security types already embedded within the state structure working under a new, youthful president.

Three possible outcomes then: Kyagulanyi carrying the vote and being declared the winner; Kyagulanyi carrying the vote but President Museveni being declared the winner; or failure to have a winner declared. In all cases, there will be trouble. In the first, a Trump-like resistance from the incumbent. In the second and the third, the usual mass disturbances that have followed each announcement of the winner of the presidential election since the 1990s.

Once the Ugandan political crisis — a story going back to the 1960s — is reduced to a security or “law and order” problem, the West usually sides with whichever force can quickest restore the order they (not we) need.

And this is how the NRM tail seeks to still wag the Western dog: the run-up to voting day has been characterised by heavy emphasis on the risk of alleged “hooligans” out to cause mayhem (“burning down the city” being a popular bogeyman). The NRM’s post-election challenge will be to quickly strip the crisis of all political considerations and make it a discussion about security.

But it would be strategically very risky to try to get Uganda’s current young electorate — and the even younger citizens in general — to accept that whatever social and economic conditions they have lived through in the last few decades (which for most means all of their lives given how young they are) are going to remain in place for even just the next five years. They will not buy into the promises they have seen broken in the past. Their numbers, their living conditions, their economic prospects and their very youth would then point to a situation of permanent unrest.

However, it can be safely assumed that the NRM regime will, to paraphrase US President Donald Trump, not accept any election result that does not declare it the winner.

Leave things as they are and deal with the inevitable degeneration of politics beyond its current state, or enforce a switch now under the cover of an election, or attempt to enforce a switch in the aftermath of the election by harnessing the inevitable discontent.

Those are the boss’ options.

In the meantime, there is food to be grown and work to be done.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll
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Dear Readers/Viewers,

For four years now, The Elephant has been one of the premier online sources of news analysis in the East African region with a fast-growing readership across the African continent and beyond.

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

We have further ascertained that the directive to do so came from the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) and was implemented beginning 12 December 2020, when we noticed a sudden traffic drop coming from several providers in Uganda, including Africell and Airtel. A forensics report, which provides technical details on the blocking, is available here.

We have written to the UCC requesting a reason for the blocking but are yet to receive a response.

The Elephant wholeheartedly condemns this assault on free speech and on freedom of the press and calls on the Ugandan government to respect the rights of Ugandans to access information.

We would like to assure all our readers that we are doing everything in our power to get the restrictions removed and hope normal access can be restored expeditiously.

As we do this, to circumvent the block, a Bifrost mirror has been deployed. Readers in Uganda can once again access The Elephant on this link.

Thank you.

Best Regards

John Githongo
Publisher

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