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Crony Capitalism and State Capture: The Kenyatta Family Story

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With business interests in the heart of the Kenyan economy, how has Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency benefited The Family? Has Kenya benefited from the Kenyattas? DAVID NDII looks at the numbers.

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Crony Capitalism and State Capture: The Kenyatta Family Story
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Nothing is more dangerous than the influence of private interests in public affairs, and the abuse of the laws by the government is a less evil than the corruption of the legislator, which is the inevitable sequel to a particular standpoint. In such a case, the State being altered in substance, all reformation becomes impossible. ~ Jean Jacques Rousseau

In November 2013, seven months into Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency, one of the dailies carried a story profiling what it termed as the Kenyatta family business “expansion drive”. “Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency” it averred, “has injected fresh energy into his family’s commercial empire, putting a number of units on an expansion mode that is expected to consolidate its position as one of the largest business dynasties in Kenya.” The paper listed interests in hospitality, dairy healthcare, media, banking and construction. The feature went unremarked in public debate. Conflict of interest is not part of Kenya’s political lexicon.

At the time, Brookside Dairy, the family’s flagship business, was completing an acquisition spree that has swallowed up all the large private milk processors leaving only the state-supported and erstwhile processing monopoly, Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC), and the farmer-owned Githunguri Dairies (owner of the “Fresha” brand) as serious competitors.

The pay-off has been remarkable. During Uhuru Kenyatta’s first term the consumer price of milk increased 67 percent (from KSh 36 to KSh 60 per half-litre packet), while producer prices remained unchanged at KSh 35 per litre), effectively increasing processors’ gross margin by 130 percent (from KSh 37 to KSh 85 per litre). Given the industry’s 400m litre annual throughput and Kenyatta family’s market share, which stands at 45 percent, the consumer squeeze translates to an increase of the Kenyatta Family’s turnover from KSh 13 billion to KSh 22 billion, and gross margin from KSh 6.7 billion to KSh 15 billion a year.

Two years ago, it emerged that the president’s sister and cousin (or niece) had abused procurement reserved for disadvantaged women and youth to supply the health ministry. The company involved was registered after Kenyatta assumed office. The website, which has since been taken down, listed their business as supplying healthcare products, building materials, construction equipment, dry foods and supplementary foods to “government entities, parastatal entities, non-governmental organizations, corporates and counties”. It also advertised investment consultancy and “facilitation” services, also known as influence peddling. The business was set up specifically to profit from Kenyatta’s presidency.

During Uhuru Kenyatta’s first term the consumer price of milk increased 67 percent (from KSh 36 to KSh 60 per half-litre packet), while producer prices remained unchanged at KSh 35 per litre), effectively increasing producers’ gross margin by 130 percent (from KSh 37 to KSh 85 per litre). Given the industry’s 400m litre annual throughput and Kenyatta family’s market share, which stands at 45 percent, the consumer squeeze translates to an increase of the Kenyatta Family’s turnover from KSh 13 billion to KSh 22 billion, and gross margin from KSh 6.7 billion to KSh 15 billion a year.

Koto Housing, associated with Uhuru’s sister and specialising in expanded polysterene (EPS) modular construction technology was cashing in on police housing. No sleuthing is required to establish this— it’s on the company’s website. Since then, the family has established an even bigger EPS building company C-MAX, which also showcases police housing on its website. Instructively, the website also markets “affordable housing” as one of the product lines. Affordable housing is one of Kenyatta’s “big four” agenda.

That the Kenyatta family would set up businesses to trade with the government during his tenure, and have no qualms showcasing government business on their websites, is astounding. But nothing brings home the family’s obliviousness to conflict of interest than its entanglement with the Rai family, the timber and sugar merchants now embroiled in the contaminated sugar import scandal. Parallels have been drawn between Kenyatta’s engagement with Rai and the South African Gupta state capture saga.

Two years ago, it emerged that the president’s sister and cousin (or niece) had abused procurement reserved for disadvantaged women and youth to supply the health ministry. The company involved was registered after Kenyatta assumed office. The website, which has since been taken down, listed their business as supplying healthcare products, building materials, construction equipment, dry foods and supplementary foods to “government entities, parastatal entities, non-governmental organizations, corporates and counties”. It also advertised investment consultancy and “facilitation” services, also known as influence peddling. The business was set up specifically to profit from Kenyatta’s presidency.

Sometime in the early 90s, the Rai siblings sued one of their brothers, Jaswant Rai, alleging that he had secretly been siphoning money from the family business and investing it on his own. They alleged that the money was invested in two Kenyatta Family businesses: Timsales, a timber merchant, and the Commercial Bank of Africa.

Raiply, the Rai family’s flagship plywood manufacturing business came to prominence for what appeared to be a carte blanche license to log public forests during Moi’s tenure. The case confirmed what the public had long suspected: that Moi had a stake in the business. Kabarak Limited, a name synonymous with Moi, had a 1.4 percent stake in Raiply. Moi banned logging of hardwoods from indigenous forests in 1986. According to the task force the Jubilee administration appointed recently, the Kenya Forestry service has continued to give Raiply licenses to log these invaluable forests for plywood.

Sometime in the early 90s, the Rai siblings sued one of their brothers, Jaswant Rai, alleging that he had secretly been siphoning money from the family business and investing it on his own. They alleged that the money was invested in two Kenyatta Family businesses: Timsales, a timber merchant, and the Commercial Bank of Africa.

Rai’s clout in the Jubilee administration became apparent during the disposal of the bankrupt Pan Paper Mills, Kenya’s lone pulp paper mill and a monument to failed import substitution industrialisation. Established in 1971 as a joint venture between the Government and an Indian investor, Pan Paper’s claim to fame is that it has never made a profit, even though during the pre-liberalization era, the Indian investors paid themselves handsomely through transfer pricing, management fees and royalties. Pan Paper collapsed in 2009, was bailed out and reopened by the government in 2010, but it closed down again a year later. A second revival failed.

In 2014, Pan Paper’s receiver managers resigned abruptly, protesting that a powerful hidden hand was manipulating the transaction to ensure that Pan Paper’s assets were sold cheaply to Rai. A new receiver was promptly appointed and the assets, reportedly worth KSh 18 billion were sold to Rai, for KSh 900 million – even less than the Ksh 1 billion the government had injected in the failed revival.

Kenya’s current sugar production according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics data is in the order of 600,000 tons a year, against a consumption of 830,000 metric tonnes, making for an annual deficit of 230,000 tons. Kenya has been accorded safeguards to protect the domestic sugar industry by COMESA trading partners, but these safeguards dictate that Kenya imports the deficit from COMESA countries. Also, it was the practice, as I remember it, that preference was given to the domestic millers in proportion to their market share.

It has now come to light that mid last year, in the run-up to the election, the government, citing drought, opened the floodgates and allowed all and sundry to import sugar duty-free. The KNBS data shows 990,000 tons imported during the year—more than a year’s consumption. To be sure, 376,000 tons, the volume of domestic production, was well below normal, but this translates to a deficit in the order of 450,000 tons – less than half of what was imported. Moreover, it is unclear why duty was waived—sugar withdrawal symptoms are not fatal.

Sugar importation was the Moi era’s default election financing racket. In those days, the racket was a closed shop controlled by a small cabal of Moi’s associates known as the “sugar barons”, not the feeding frenzy we are witnessing today. Jubilee’s dynamic duo may be Moi’s political children but one among the many things they did not learn from him was disciplined corruption. Little wonder that Moi once described them as “ndume hawajakomaa”.

Domestic sugar industry protection in these parts borders on the irrational. Sugar is classified as a “sensitive item” under the EAC’s Common External Tariff, which means it attracts punitive import duties, set at 100% or US$460 a ton, whichever is higher. With sugar currently trading at U$265 a ton on the world market, the applicable rate is US$460, which is effectively an import duty rate of 170 percent. Regular goods are taxed at 0,10 and 25 percent while rates for other sensitive items range from 35 to 60 percent.

Sugar importation was the Moi era’s default election financing racket. In those days, the racket was a closed shop controlled by a small cabal of Moi’s associates known as the “sugar barons”, not the feeding frenzy we are witnessing today. Jubilee’s dynamic duo may be Moi’s political children but one among the many things they did not learn from him was disciplined corruption. Little wonder that Moi once described them as “ndume hawajakomaa”.

But even with the punitive import duty, the landed cost still works out to between KSh 80-85 a kilo, which allowing for distribution costs and trade margins, would still have put sugar on the shelf in the KSh 110 to Ksh 120 range at which it has been selling. In effect, the foregone duty has been pocketed by the importers. For 960,000 tons, we are talking US$ 455 million (KSh 45.5 billion). If the importation had been done by the sugar millers, and at the right quantity, a duty waiver would have translated to revenue in the order of KSh 20 billion – enough, if properly managed, to turn the struggling mills around. Instead, when they most needed the financial cushion, the government let the dogs out.

When the contaminated sugar scandal first broke with a raid on a backstreet operation in Eastleigh (Nairobi’s “Somali Quarter”), with the culprits caught packing the contraband as “Kabras” sugar, it created the impression that this was a crackdown on the Somalia-Kenya border smuggling racket. Kabras is the brand name of the Rai-owned West Kenya Sugar Company. Then, Aden Duale, Jubilee’s motor-mouthed Parliamentary majority leader turned the guns on Rai. This immediately elicited a stern, sanctimonious public statement from West Kenya Sugar. It admitted to importing sugar, but did not disclose how much. It was not long before sugar hoardings popped up in various Rai establishments up and down the country, including Pan Paper.

It has been reported that Rai imported 189,000 tons of sugar, close to a fifth of the total duty free imports last year. The tax benefit to Rai, and loss to the public, for this amount of sugar is in the order of US$86 million (KSh 8.6 billion). We are talking here of the annual budget of an entire county. The sugar itself is worth upwards of US$50 million (KSh 5 billion). Businesses seldom have this kind of cash lying around, so it is most likely that the transaction was bank financed. If so, it would be interesting to know which bank this is.

It is western Kenya’s misfortune that the region was the hub of both the sugar industry and Pan Paper, Kenya’s most disastrous import substitution industries. The people of Webuye, and the larger Western region, have nothing to show for it. A log of wood typically converts to 8000 sheets of A4 paper worth Ksh. 60,000 (US$600). This is about the same as the value of raw timber. The same log converted into furniture will have a final value twenty times that amount (e.g. three dining tables worth KSh 40,000 each) or higher depending on quality. The furniture industry is a relatively low capital requirement, labour intensive industry that would have utilized Webuye’s forest resources for a locally-owned job and wealth-creating industry.

In its lifetime, Pan Paper has consumed 25,000 hectares of public forests — about 600 hectares per year. Pan Paper at its peak employed 1,500 people. A timber-furniture industry cluster utilising the same resource would have created ten times as many jobs, injecting more than Ksh 100 billion a year into the region’s economy.

In a previous column, I posed the question as to what made the leaders of the East Asian Tigers pursue export-led industrialisation going against the dominant development paradigm of the day. I postulated that they did not set out to perform economic miracles, but rather to improve the lot of their people, which led them to the realisation that capital intensive import substitution industries would not create jobs for the masses.

Half a century on, Uhuru Kenyatta, who claims to be inspired by Lee Kuan Yew, is taking the country back to crony capitalist import substitution. In recent months, import tariffs have been raised on timber, vegetable oils and paper products, in all of which the Kenyattas and Rais are players. It was rumored that the Rai purchase of Pan Paper was a Trojan Horse to access public forests for their timber business. The rumour was all but confirmed by the recent appointment of Jaswant Rai to the board of the Kenya Forestry Service. As I opined, “when East Asian leaders were asking prospective investors what they needed to do for them, ours were asking what was in it for them”. Nothing has changed. The “big four” manufacturing pillar is also about profits for Kenyatta & Co. – not about jobs. The president’s bread is buttered on the side of capital, not labour.

Kenyatta’s presidency has increased the profits of his family’s conglomerate by at least Ksh 10 billion a year, and that is not including the side lines of family members’ “tenderprises” such as the sister’s health ministry tenders and the uncle’s NYS fuel supplies. The best-run businesses in competitive markets typically make profits in the order of five percent of turnover. In effect, the presidency translates for the Kenyatta conglomerate the equivalent of a KSh 200 billion turnover business —a business the size of Safaricom (whose hefty earnings are due to inordinate market power).

When East Asian leaders were asking prospective investors what they needed to do for them, ours were asking what was in it for them. Nothing has changed. The “big four” manufacturing pillar is also about profits for Kenyatta & Co. – not about jobs. The president’s bread is buttered on the side of capital, not labour.

It should not surprise then that no expense has been spared, no price has been too high not only to keep Uhuru Kenyatta in power, but also to roll back the constitutional dispensation and restore to the presidency the unfettered power on which the family fortune rests.

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David Ndii
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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the country is economically healthy but the reality is that the IMF has come in precisely because Kenya is in a financial crisis.

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SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan
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Never did I imagine that opposing an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Kenya would be viewed by the Kenyan authorities as a criminal act. But that is exactly what transpired last week when activist Mutemi Kiama was arrested and charged with “abuse of digital gadgets”, “hurting the presidency”, “creating public disorder” and other vaguely-worded offences. Mutemi’s arrest was prompted by his Twitter post of an image of President Uhuru Kenyatta with the following caption: “This is to notify the world . . . that the person whose photograph and names appear above is not authorised to act or transact on behalf of the citizens of the Republic of Kenya and that the nation and future generations shall not be held liable for any penalties of bad loans negotiated and/or borrowed by him.” He was released on a cash bail of KSh.500,000 with an order prohibiting him from using his social media accounts or speaking about COVID-19-related loans.

Mutemi is one among more than 200,000 Kenyans who have signed a petition to the IMF to halt a KSh257 billion (US$2.3 billion) loan to Kenya, which was ostensibly obtained to cushion the country against the negative economic impact of COVID-19.  Kenya is not the only country whose citizens have opposed an IMF loan. Protests against IMF loans have been taking place in many countries, including Argentina, where people took to the streets in 2018 when the country took a US$50 billion loan from the IMF. In 2016, Eqyptian authorities were forced to lower fuel prices following demonstrations against an IMF-backed decision to eliminate fuel subsidies. Similar protests have also taken place in Jordan, Lebanon and Ecuador in recent years.

Why would a country’s citizens be against a loan given by an international financial institution such as the IMF? Well, for those Kenyans who survived (or barely survived) the IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 90s, the answer is obvious. SAPs came with stringent conditions attached, which led to many layoffs in the civil service and removal of subsidies for essential services, such as health and education, which led to increasing levels of hardship and precarity, especially among middle- and low-income groups. African countries undergoing SAPs experienced what is often referred to as “a lost development decade” as belt-tightening measures stalled development programmes and stunted economic opportunities.

In addition, borrowing African countries lost their independence in matters related to economic policy. Since lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF, decide national economic policy – for instance, by determining things like budget management, exchange rates and public sector involvement in the economy – they became the de facto policy and decision-making authorities in the countries that took their loans. This is why, in much of the 1980s and 1990s, the arrival of a World Bank or IMF delegation to Nairobi often got Kenyans very worried.

In those days (in the aftermath of a hike in oil prices in 1979 that saw most African countries experience a rise in import bills and a decline in export earnings), leaders of these international financial institutions were feared as much as the authoritarian Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, because with the stroke of a pen they could devalue the Kenyan currency overnight and get large chunks of the civil service fired. As Kenyan economist David Ndii pointed out recently at a press conference organised by the Linda Katiba campaign, when the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”. It can no longer claim to determine its own economic policies. Countries essentially lose their sovereignty, a fact that seems to have eluded the technocrats who rushed to get this particular loan.

When he took office in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki kept the World Bank and the IMF at arm’s length, preferring to take no-strings-attached infrastructure loans from China. Kibaki’s “Look East” economic policy alarmed the Bretton Woods institutions and Western donors who had until then had a huge say in the country’s development trajectory, but it instilled a sense of pride and autonomy in Kenyans, which sadly, has been eroded by Uhuru and his inept cronies who have gone on loan fishing expeditions, including massive Eurobonds worth Sh692 billion (nearly $7 billion), which means that every Kenyan today has a debt of Sh137,000, more than three times what it was eight years ago when the Jubilee government came to power. By the end of last year, Kenya’s debt stood at nearly 70 per cent of GDP, up from 50 per cent at the end of 2015. This high level of debt can prove deadly for a country like Kenya that borrows in foreign currencies.

When the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”.

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the fact that the IMF agreed to this loan is a sign that the country is economically healthy, but as Ndii noted, quite often the opposite is true: the IMF comes in precisely because a country is in a financial crisis. In Kenya’s case, this crisis has been precipitated by reckless borrowing by the Jubilee administration that has seen Kenya’s debt rise from KSh630 billion (about $6 billion at today’s exchange rate) when Kibaki took office in 2002, to a staggering KSh7.2 trillion (about US$70 billion) today, with not much to show for it, except a standard gauge railway (SGR) funded by Chinese loans that appears unable to pay for itself. As an article in a local daily pointed out, this is enough money to build 17 SGRs from Mombasa to Nairobi or 154 superhighways like the one from Nairobi to Thika. The tragedy is that many of these loans are unaccounted for; in fact, many Kenyans believe they are taken to line individual pockets. Uhuru Kenyatta has himself admitted that Kenya loses KSh2 billion a day to corruption in government. Some of these lost billions could actually be loans.

IMF loans with stringent conditions attached have often been presented as being the solution to a country’s economic woes – a belt-tightening measure that will instil fiscal discipline in a country’s economy by increasing revenue and decreasing expenditure. However, the real purpose of these loans, some argue, is to bring about major and fundamental policy changes at the national level – changes that reflect the neoliberal ethos of our time, complete with privatisation, free markets and deregulation.

The first ominous sign that the Kenyan government was about to embark on a perilous economic path was when the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, made an official visit to Kenya shortly after President Uhuru was elected in 2013. At that time, I remember tweeting that this was not a good omen; it indicated that the IMF was preparing to bring Kenya back into the IMF fold.

Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, shows how what she calls “disaster capitalism” has allowed the IMF, in particular, to administer “shock therapy” on nations reeling from natural or man-made disasters or high levels of external debt. This has led to unnecessary privatisation of state assets, government deregulation, massive layoffs of civil servants and reduction or elimination of subsidies, all of which can and do lead to increasing poverty and inequality. Klein is particularly critical of what is known as the Chicago School of Economics that she claims justifies greed, corruption, theft of public resources and personal enrichment as long as they advance the cause of free markets and neoliberalism. She shows how in nearly every country where the IMF “medicine” has been administered, inequality levels have escalated and poverty has become systemic.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan. Or, through carefully manipulated data, it will make the country look economically healthy so that it feels secure about applying for more loans. When that country can’t pay back the loans, which often happens, the IMF inflicts even more austerity measures (also known as “conditionalities”) on it, which lead to even more poverty and inequality.

IMF and World Bank loans for infrastructure projects also benefit Western corporations. Private companies hire experts to ensure that these companies secure government contracts for big infrastructure projects funded by these international financial institutions. Companies in rich countries like the United States often hire people who will do the bidding on their behalf. In his international “word-of-mouth bestseller”, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins explains how in the 1970s when he worked for an international consulting firm, he was told that his job was to “funnel money from the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development and other foreign aid organisations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s resources”.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan.

The tools to carry out this goal, his employer admitted unashamedly, could include “fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder”. Perkins showed how in the 1970s, he became instrumental in brokering deals with countries ranging from Panama to Saudi Arabia where he convinced leaders to accept projects that were detrimental to their own people but which enormously benefitted US corporate interests.

“In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty. We can draw on them whenever we desire – to satisfy our political, economic or military needs. In turn, they bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people. The owners of US engineering/construction companies become fabulously wealthy,” a colleague told him when he asked why his job was so important.

Kenyans, who are already suffering financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic which saw nearly 2 million jobs in the formal sector disappear last year, will now be confronted with austerity measures at precisely the time when they need government subsidies and social safety nets. Season Two of SAPs is likely to make life for Kenyans even more miserable in the short and medium term.

We will have to wait and see whether overall dissatisfaction with the government will influence the outcome of the 2022 elections. However, whoever wins that election will still have to contend with rising debt and unsustainable repayments that have become President Uhuru Kenyatta’s most enduring legacy.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul

Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul
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Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.

This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.

At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.

Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.

The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.

For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.

The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.

It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.

Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.

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When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.

Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.

The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.

It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.

Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.

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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