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Ethiopia: What PM Abiy’s Glasnost Means for the Region

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A political miracle is currently underway in Ethiopia. Political prisoners have been freed; parties, once deemed ‘terrorist’ have been unbanned; opposition media, gagged for 25 years, can now freely operate. But it was last weekend’s historic embrace in Addis Ababa, between Eritrea’s Isias Afwerki and PM Abiy Ahmed, marking the end of a bitter 20-year war, that demonstrates the breathtaking speed and extent of Ethiopia’s perestroika – even as East Africa rushes headlong in the opposite direction. By MIRIAM ABRAHAM

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Ethiopia: What PM Abiy’s Glasnost Means for the Region
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“I never thought I would witness this in my lifetime”, remarked an Ethiopian friend. He was referring to the warm embrace between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki in Addis Ababa a few days ago. In the past few weeks, I have heard these words from many colleagues who, like me, shuttled for many years between Asmara and Addis Ababa in our elusive efforts to normalize relations between the two “cousins” The sight of an Ethiopian Airlines flight landing in Asmara reminded us of how during the shuttle diplomacy days, we could not fly directly between the two capitals, even with chartered flights, lest we violated the airspace of sworn enemies.

Since his appointment in April, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been shaking things up in a way that no leader in East Africa has done in decades. It has been exciting to witness the courage of this youthful leader who has formally ended the 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea which killed at least 80,000; rescinded an unpopular state of emergency; announced plans to partially open up the economy; released thousands of political prisoners and taken nascent steps to deal with human rights violations in prisons; and de-listed the Oromo Liberation Front, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, and the ‘Ginbot 7’ from the infamous “terrorist” groups list, among others.

Early this week, a group of us who pride ourselves on our self-proclaimed Pan-Africanism, were recounting the new optimism that Prime Minister Aby has brought to our region especially when one considers the gloomy picture elsewhere. In Kenya, the sham fight against corruption has dominated headlines, only competing with Uganda’s absurd implementation of a social media tax. South Sudan just marked its seventh Independence Day with little reason to celebrate as, among other things, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on the country. In Tanzania, President John Pombe Magufuli has joined his neighbours Rwanda and Burundi, in choosing to rule with an iron fist, curtailing basic freedoms and declaring that the ruling party will reign forever.

While it is too early to uncork the champagne, the men and women of Ethiopia and Eritrea deserve credit for the changes taking place. The grenade attack at the first major rally organized by Prime Minister Abiy in Addis Ababa on the 23rd of June confirms that spoilers will attempt to destabilize the situation. There are still many unanswered questions on the political machinations within the EPRDF, especially with regard to the TPLF. Prime Minister Abiy is moving with lightning speed and we hope that there is a reasonable buy-in from the EPRDF regarding the decisions he is making. On the regional front, while there is much to celebrate at the warming of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, access of the Assab port by Ethiopia potentially bears an economic backlash to some of the neighbours.

Early this week, a group of us who pride ourselves on our self-proclaimed Pan-Africanism, were recounting the new optimism that Prime Minister Aby has brought to our region especially when one considers the gloomy picture elsewhere. In Kenya, the sham fight against corruption has dominated headlines, only competing with Uganda’s absurd implementation of a social media tax. South Sudan just marked its seventh Independence Day with little reason to celebrate… In Tanzania, President John Pombe Magufuli has joined his neighbours Rwanda and Burundi, in choosing to rule with an iron fist, curtailing basic freedoms and declaring that the ruling party will reign forever.

Let me be clear. The changes underway could not have been possible without the sacrifices of many Ethiopians and Eritreans who fought for many years for inclusivity, equality, democracy and justice. In Ethiopia, despite threats to their lives, they fought Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime as well as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)’s system of ethnic-based federalism in place since 1995. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 1,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands arrested for participating in political protests that began in November 2015.

The wind of change in Ethiopia and Eritrea ought to leave many of the current leaders in East Africa anxious, for many reasons.

First, it is a reminder that efforts to clamp down on democracy, stifle fundamental freedoms and rights, promote divisive policies and participate in electoral thuggery inevitably have an end. Elections held since 1994 in Ethiopia have been referred to by observers as “multi-party theatre staged by a single party state”. Despite hundreds of people killed and tens of thousands detained, the people of Ethiopia did not stop organising anti-government protests. Mostly led by the youth, their leaders were detained or killed but they continued to protest against what they perceived as domination of the political and economic levers of power by the minority Tigray community who make up 6.1 percent of the population.

They were not deterred by the fact that they are a country of more than 80 ethnic groups, with the constitution formally providing for ethnic-based political organisations. They organised across the different ethnicities with this unity sending a strong message to the EPRDF that the security crackdown against the Oromia (making up 34.4 percent of the population) was not sustainable as the Amhara (making up 27 percent of the population) and other ethnic groups joined the protests. They mobilised around their grievances, defying ethnic labels and further jolting the EPRDF into making a weak attempt at political reform as a way to placate the protesters. However, the minimalistic changes and violent crackdown did not assuage those pushing for change including within the ruling EPRDF itself, leading to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation in February.

Elections held since 1994 in Ethiopia have been referred to by observers as “multi-party theatre staged by a single party state”. Despite hundreds of people killed and tens of thousands detained, the people of Ethiopia did not stop organizing anti-government protests. Mostly led by the youth, their leaders were detained or killed but they continued to protest against what they perceived as domination of the political and economic levers of power by the minority Tigray community who make up 6.1 percent of the population.

Those in power in East Africa should draw an important lesson from this – when a country is ready for change, there is nothing that any one leader can do to stop it. The aspirations of the people can be suppressed for a period, but not forever. It is also a confirmation that fomenting political divisions along ethnic lines is ultimately counterproductive. Attempts by one ethnic group, the Tigray, to dominate the political and economic levers of power may have appeared successful in the past 25 years but this is no longer tenable. Those leaders in East Africa who are relying on ethnic loyalties or domination to sustain themselves in power should learn from the Ethiopians that populations can organize beyond those ethnic groups when the wind of change blows. And to those struggling to organize for change in the rest of the region, it is important to build a broader coalition beyond ethnic or socio-political groups. Organizing in this generation requires an approach of direct engagement with communities, distributive leadership beyond a core group of leaders and dialogue that allows people to build an ecosystem for change.

When a country is ready for change, there is nothing that any one leader can do to stop it. The aspirations of the people can be suppressed for a period, but not forever. Fomenting political divisions along ethnic lines is ultimately counterproductive. Attempts by one ethnic group to dominate the political and economic levers of power may have appeared successful in the past 25 years but this is no longer tenable. Those leaders in East Africa who are relying on ethnic loyalties or domination to sustain themselves in power should learn from the Ethiopians that populations can organize beyond those ethnic groups when the wind of change blows.

Second, high economic growth does not a cushion against a people’s desire for change. The trajectory of Ethiopia’s economy debunks arguments posited by some political economists that rising per capita income leads to poverty reduction, helping to create stable and peaceful societies. Ethiopia’s economic growth has been one of the highest in the East African region with projections of 10 percent growth in 2017. Yet, as David Ndii argues in his article, the country faces an economic crisis, which partly explains the recent political changes in the country. The economic policies adopted by the regime that have focused on infrastructure-led growth have left the country in a dire political and economic situation.

And yet several countries in East Africa are increasing their economic vulnerabilities by increasing their debt to GDP ratio, investing in moribund infrastructure projects and increasing taxes without incentives for entrepreneurship. There is no doubt that the political changes in Ethiopia have been triggered by the economic conditions in the country. Prime Minister Abiy’s long-term political survival depends on how he manages the economy in the next few months. As an Ethiopian friend of mine recently told me, it was short-sighted of the EPRDF not to have known that increasing opportunities for education, rising levels of corruption without expanding opportunities for employment would accelerate the pressure for change especially in a context where the youth perceived the ruling party as the main beneficiary of economic opportunities. This is a scenario that could repeat itself in any East African country today.

Third, relying on being propped in power by the international community is unsustainable. Legitimacy is not granted by outsiders, it is earned by delivering on the people’s expectations and aspirations. Despite the horrendous human rights violations by the EPRDF over the past twenty-five years, the international community maintained an eerie silence. The geopolitics of the region meant that the United States and other powers propped up the regime rather than calling it to account for its excesses. It was perceived as an ally in the fight against terrorism especially in neighbouring Somalia; playing a balancing act in Sudan and South Sudan; and managing the sensitive Nile water politics with Egypt as well as the broader Gulf politics. The African Union, with its headquarters in Addis Ababa, issued no condemnation of even the gagging of internet that imperilled its own day-to-day operations. All these actions by the international community were not enough to keep Prime Minister Hailemariam in power.

The same could be said of those that hope that external actors will usher change in their respective countries in alone. The demanding work of mobilizing, organizing and building internal coalitions can only be successful if they are homegrown. For many years, Eritrea was reported to have supported the Oromo Liberation Front and other groups from the Somali region of Ethiopia with the goal of changing the regime. Ethiopia is reported to have been supporting opposition groups against Asmara. Many of these groups also had support from other countries involved in proxy wars for several reasons including the Nile Basin politics. Somalia became a proxy theatre for the Eritrea-Ethiopia rivalry. The rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia should potentially improve the situation in the region. The key lesson here is that external interventions either in support of a regime or against it, have their limits.

Those relying on the global North to speak out against human rights violations in Africa need to recognize that these countries have entrenched strategic political and economic interests that override all other considerations. Moreover, the global North is being reconfigured every day by the actions of the current occupant of the White House in Washington DC whose words and actions are not any different from those of Africa’s strongmen. Norm setting institutions such as the African Union and the United Nations have vacated the moral pulpit leaving behind a leadership vacuum.

Those relying on the global North to speak out against human rights violations in Africa need to recognize that these countries have entrenched strategic political and economic interests that override all other considerations. Moreover, the global North is being reconfigured every day by the actions of the current occupant of the White House in Washington DC whose words and actions are not any different from those of Africa’s strongmen.

Yet, despite all the gloom around, I am still cautiously optimistic about the nascent changes in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The ethnic-based federalist system in Ethiopia is being challenged reminding us all that those that seek leadership based on ethnic lines have a short lease in their governance. The future lies in disrupting the current systems of political and economic governance and seeking to build direct and distributive forms of leadership. We will keep holding our breath for the rest of East Africa, including Kenya.

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Ms. Abraham is a governance and institutional development expert.

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An Ambivalent Sense of Belonging

Nationalist gestures, resented privileges, and acute defensiveness—all are components of what it can mean to be a white Kenyan today … their self-consciousness and uncertainties suggest that in some respects, they are of two minds about their entitlement to belong.

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In Kenya, the place occupied by descendants of British settlers in the country is a contentious issue. At times, it explodes into controversy and debate, for instance in 2017 when conflicts occurred between pastoralists searching for grazing land and private white landowners in Laikipia. In 2006, angry debates about the racism and colonial history of white Kenyans erupted when Tom Cholmondeley, the heir of an influential colonial settler in Kenya and a large-scale landowner, shot and killed a man whom he believed was poaching wildlife on his family’s farm. This was the second such incident: a year earlier, he had shot and killed another man on his land.

The uneasy nature of white Kenyans’ sense of belonging in the country is unraveled and analyzed in Janet McIntosh’s fascinating book Unsettled: Denial and Belonging Among White Kenyans. Based on extensive in-depth interviews, and structured poetically into different themes which explore varying components of the white Kenyan experience, McIntosh’s book reveals the complex and often ambivalent positions of white Kenyan subjectivities in contemporary Kenya. She explores their relationships to the land, to Kiswahili, to domestic workers, to other black Kenyans and to their own white community. The last chapter is dedicated to white Kenyans’ relationship to the occult and how they justify or explain their participation in practices that transcend a “rational” European worldview.

Through her interviews, McIntosh discovers an interesting dynamic at play in the white Kenyan consciousness. Their uneasy sense of belonging is expressed through the notion of a “moral double consciousness,” a term borrowed from the phrase “double consciousness,” defined by W.E.B. DuBois, and which in McIntosh’s book is used to describe what results when white Kenyans look at themselves through the eyes of others, and experience the shock of seeing that their community is being seen. They were raised to think of their settler families as good, but now have to grapple with the fact that they were in fact, oppressors and that they are also seen through the same lens. They experience an inner self-doubt, and shift between a moral self-assurance and a sense of anxiety elicited by their critics. As they cannot for long dwell in shame about themselves or about their colonial past, some settle into a “defensive stance” in order to remain in their comfort zone and mystify their structural advantages. Others focus on their felt bonds to Kenya and insist that their personal intentions take precedence over history. A very small number try to find ways to empathize with black Kenyan perceptions. In today’s Kenya, argues McIntosh, white Kenyans are no longer looking to rule, but to belong.

White Kenyans who try to maintain their comfort zone adopt a kind of “structural oblivion;” a position of “ignorance, denial and ideology” which comes from occupying an elite social position, and involves refusing realities like the reasons for the resentment towards them from less privileged groups. This oblivion operates alongside their taking for granted a hegemonic model of the way the world should be—in other words, a liberal individualistic model of personhood and a capitalist model of the economy. In this view of the world, white Kenyans are to be seen as individuals, and cannot be held responsible for the crimes of their forebears.

Perhaps the most glaring and contentious area in which the presence of white Kenyans in the country comes to the fore is around the question of land. As McIntosh notes in her second chapter, land is already a “painful theme” across Kenya which often plays out in terms of which ethnic group was on the land first. Taking the reader back in history, she describes how the British colonial government expropriated land and imposed individual land rights to encourage agricultural production and “proper” land use. The Crown Lands Ordinance of 1902 imposed English property law and forced Africans to give up land that was not occupied or developed, enabling the colonial state to give huge swathes of it in the Rift Valley to European and South African settlers. These fertile areas, so desirable to white settlers, were places where Maasai pastoralists practiced seasonal migration under a complex system of rights to land and water. As the colonial administration created more room for white settlers, the Maasai were coerced into signing away their lands. In 1911 and 1912, thousands of Maasai were herded toward the south at gunpoint and by 1913, they had lost between 50 and 70 percent of the land which they had previously used.

The settler descendants that McIntosh interviews about this history do not seem to know about the land expropriations. Operating out of what she describes as ignorance, collective defensiveness and possibly systematic whitewashing, settler descendants spin their narratives to assert that the Laikipia territories were fairly purchased from the Maasai, or that Laikipia was a no-man’s land at the time of settler arrival, echoing the classic settler frontier ideology of terra nullius. Many believe that their forebears worked to develop the land, and do not think that they should give it up or compensate the Maasai. One settler descendant understands the Maasais’ grievances but cannot accept that they deserve any kind of reparations. In his words, “It’s a romantic effort to recreate an impossible past.” Echoing their colonial predecessors, some of McIntosh’s interviewees undermine the Maasais’ pastoralist lifestyle, deeming it haphazard, unfocused and based on “feelings” rather than deliberation or pattern, in comparison to European notions of responsible land use and ownership. Several of her interviewees evoke childhood memories when describing their attachment to the land and wildlife, encouraging an idea of white belonging as “innocent.” McIntosh writes that “black pastoralists are often seen as abusing the land, whereas white’s relationships to land are described as intimate and sensory,” and white Kenyans can assert that they appreciate the land in ways the Maasai do not.

Although these ways of thinking may seem outrageous today from a non-white Kenyan perspective, they have successfully enabled white Kenyans to assert their entitlement to land in the present day. Those who are sitting on some tens of thousands of acres can claim that they are acting as stewards of the land. This positioning justifies the extensive involvement of white Kenyans in the conservation industry and the expansion of community-based conservation initiatives now widespread on much of the land belonging to settler descendants in Kenya. Although couched in language about empowering local communities, conservation projects do not level the playing field between white and black Kenyans. Rather, as McIntosh writes, “whites reproduce the larger relationship of patrons to black Kenyans;” local communities must rely on the support of white conservationists for their survival and well-being, while whites are re-inscribed in a privileged position. Helping communities has become for some progressive whites, a kind of “cover story” in order to hold onto their resources “in the face of a public that objects to radical inequality.”

The paternalism present in land-based conservation initiatives also carries over into domestic spheres. McIntosh writes about how white Kenyans occupy an ambivalent position, expressing a fondness and kinship for their domestic staff and yet paying lower wages than recently arrived expatriates. When cash is needed for special requests, they dole out extras, encouraging a dependency on the part of the domestic staff while they in turn experience a sense of feeling needed and embedded in the lives of their staff. Such relationships work to create “a sense of belonging to the Kenyan people and, in turn, to the nation.”

Race-class boundaries are trickier to navigate when it comes to marriage and relationships. McIntosh observes how interracial marriages are less common among Kenyans from settler families than among white expatriates. While they profess a desire to belong to a multicultural country, white Kenyan’s intimate relationships are for the most part with other whites and they tend to self-segregate. While interracial marriage is often frowned upon in the white settler community, speaking African languages offers a safer way to connect with black Kenyans. White Kenyans’ attitude toward Kiswahili is described by McIntosh as a kind of “linguistic atonement” that enables them to “mitigate a history of colonial discrimination.” Whereas before independence, Swahili was something that “one condescended” to speak, today, speaking Kiswahili is important to white Kenyans as a way of signaling their belonging to Kenya. For some, it also creates the impression that the race and class-based playing field has been leveled and Kenyans “of all backgrounds can connect with mutual pleasure.” However, their primary use of English over Kiswahili for more intellectual conversations reveals a linguistic hierarchy at play; English remains the language of authority and Kiswahili is essentialized as a less intellectually sophisticated language than English. White Kenyans can therefore move fluidly between the authority of English and the authenticity of Kiswahili, enabling them to feel both white, and privileged, as well as Kenyan and “cosmopolitan.”

One area in which there are some interesting ambiguities is around the occult which until now has been largely thought of in the settler consciousness as the domain of Africans and not whites. In Unsettled, some settlers claim that the occult has no real force, but at the same time, they seem bewildered by how it operates and keep open the possibility that it does have some power. Some even consult occult help to restore their health or to police difficult employees. McIntosh notes that this signals a significant departure from the contempt settlers had for African beliefs.

Things have certainly changed in the decades since Kenya’s independence, and white settlers have attempted to adapt to these changes. Yet, as McIntosh observes, their desire to belong straddles an ambivalent position. They want to integrate, but not to the extent of practicing interracial romance; they want to see the country united, but they self-segregate along “cultural” lines; they feel a kinship with their domestic staff, but “secure affection through economic dependency.” As McIntosh eloquently sums it up, white Kenyans are “wrestling with the incoherence of a consciousness founded on colonialism that is confronted with the imperative to renounce it.”

McIntosh’s book provides brilliantly written, nuanced and insightful analysis into white Kenyan subjectivities in contemporary Kenya. One area in which the book could arguably offer further insight is in analyzing the role of Asian Kenyans in the racial hierarchy, who as she notes “aren’t certain of their entitlement to belong either.” McIntosh explains this absence to her decision to focus on denial and belonging as centering on the anxieties that white Kenyans have towards their community’s treatment of black Kenyans. They must “reckon” with black rather than Asian Kenyans. Nevertheless, given how long and how entrenched the white-Asian-black hierarchy has been in Kenya, some analysis on those dynamics would be a welcome addition.

In considering the question of white Kenyans’ entitlement to belong, it is worth asking what is at stake in their desire to belong. As noted in the book, it is “convenient” to belong when “one wishes to stake a claim to land, jobs or other entitlements.” Instead, the question of whether white Kenyans do in fact belong in the country must assume secondary importance to the question of how Kenyans contend with a legacy of a past which still impinges on the present. This legacy continues in ongoing land dispossessions, in the disproportionally powerful role occupied by white Kenyans in conservation, in the erasure of Kenya’s extremely violent colonial history in public narratives, and perhaps most significantly, in a capitalist development model which is built on the crimes of the past. Perhaps one way for white Kenyans to truly commit to belonging to the country is to accept responsibility for the past, as individuals and as a collective, and to agree to demands for reparations for the crimes of their ancestors.

This post is from a new 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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Saba Saba at 30: The Struggle for Progressive Alternative Political Leadership in Kenya Continues

The struggle for a prosperous, democratic and stable Kenya is not over and despite having successfully fought for a new constitution, three decades after Saba Saba, power is still largely imperial, exercised in a brutal and unaccountable manner by a political elite who have in the last decade taken every step to undermine it.

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Saba Saba at 30: The Struggle for Progressive Alternative Political Leadership in Kenya Continues
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Three decades ago, driven by a quest to reclaim their sovereignty and recalibrate the power relations between the state and society, the people of this country went to the streets to push for political and constitutional reforms, a major inflection point in the history of our nation. Through a protracted, peaceful struggle by Kenyans in the country and in the diaspora, the country finally transitioned into a multi-party democracy.

The struggle is not over; Kenya’s politics have taken a backward trajectory, moving towards dictatorship in the midst of an intra-elite succession struggle that could descend into violent conflict, chaos, and even civil war.

Kenya is a fake democracy where elections do not matter because the infrastructure of elections has been captured by the elites. There is a danger of normalising electoral authoritarianism, where the vote neither counts nor gets counted. The Judiciary is under constant attack and disparagement by the executive while parliament is contorted into a body increasingly unable to represent Kenyans and provide oversight over the executive’s actions. The security services are unleashed on the poor and the dispossessed as if they are not citizens but enemies to be hunted down and destroyed.

A range of constitutional commissions are in a state of contrived dysfunction while our media business model is failing, accelerated by political interference. Grand corruption—perpetrated by a handful of families and by the elites collectively—has been normalised and the fight against corruption has been politicised. In the creeping descent into dictatorship, civilian public services have been militarised and the 2010 Constitution that was in many ways a culmination of the struggle that started on 7 July 1990 when the late Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia called for a meeting at the Kamukunji grounds in Nairobi, is being deliberately undermined.

We have a duty and a responsibility to defend Kenya’s constitution; to resist efforts to undermine devolution in particular; to resist those determined to continue looting an economy already on its knees; to stand up against efforts to brutalise, dehumanise, and rent asunder the essential human dignity of Kenyans as a people.

Three decades is a generation. The generation that voted for the first time in 1992 is a venerated demographic that is 48 years old today. It is the generation of freedom (the South African equivalent of the “born-frees”), and a significant part of the cohort that participated in the struggle as teens or young adults. It is the generation that bore the brunt of the struggle for freedom but which has been denied the opportunity for real political leadership. That part of its membership that has had access to state power is drawn from the reactionary wing of the group—the scions of the decadent YK’92 and drivers of the “NO” campaign against a new constitution.

Despite having successfully fought for a new constitution, three decades after Saba Saba, the frustration felt by this generation and its children runs deep. Why? Power is still largely imperial, exercised in a brutal and unaccountable manner, as institutions flail and falter. The country is still ethnically divided, the fabric of our nationhood is fraying and its stability remains remarkably and frighteningly fragile. Foreign domination, exploitation, oppression is still with us. Poverty and inequality still reign as a tiny economic aristocracy consolidates wealth at the top, while a large pool of the poor underclass expands at the bottom. Why is this the case? Why, after three major successful transitions over three decades—multipartyism in 1992; power transition in 2002; and a new constitution in 2010—are we still being frustrated by our politics and economics? Why is our quest to advance Kenya as a prosperous, democratic and stable country floundering? I see five main reasons why Kenya’s democratisation and development have been stymied.

First, and most importantly, is the moral bankruptcy of Kenya’s elite. It is the loyal facilitator of our continued colonisation by the imperialism of the West and the East. We have a political elite who—together with their acolytes in the middle classes—view this constitution as inconvenient and who have in the last decade taken every step to undermine it, now even audaciously threatening to overhaul it. This mythmaking of how the constitution “doesn’t work for us”; or how it is “expensive” (despite analytical evidence to the contrary), or how it “does not promote inclusivity”, is basically political mischief-making that must be roundly denounced and firmly rejected.

But this hostile attitude by the political class towards the constitution should not surprise us. The constitution was imposed on them by the people through a people-driven process. And we must remember that they proposed more amendments to it on the floor of the House than there were articles in the constitution. To be sure, when the political class finds a constitution, a law or an institution to be an inconvenience, that is a clear indicator of success.

We must actively resist the schemes by the political class to hijack, mangle and wreck the constitution, and thus remove the checks that make the exercise of political power onerous. The constitutional product is only as good—and as secure—as the process that creates it. And whereas we must salute the decision of Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga to stop the grandstanding and step back from the brink to save lives, the framework for dealing with the issues that created the problem in the first place (such as electoral theft right from the party primaries to the general election, ethnicity, police brutality and vigilante massacres) should have been broader, more structured, and more inclusive than the present process which is private, exclusionary, unstructured and partisan.

The moral bankruptcy of the political elite is pushing us into a false choice between “dynasties” and “hustlers”—a very superficial and shallow narrative masquerading as a class-based political contest yet it is merely a joust between gangs. It is a (mis)-framing that obscures the underlying forces that create underdevelopment, instability and violence and those who benefit from the end result. We must not buy into this misframing of our political choices, whose guile in placing a confederacy of familiar surnames on one side, and a well-known economic rustler of public assets on the other, seeks to hide the common denominator of those two groups: the plutocrats within the state that are the beneficiaries. Both are extractive and extortionist, only distinguished by the differences in their predatory styles and their longevity in the enterprise of shaking down the Kenyan public. This is a club, a class of state-dependent “accumulationists” and state-created “capitalists” united by a history of plunder of public resources and unprincipled political posturing, and only divided by the revolving-door cycle of access to the public trough.

My second argument as to why, despite the many progressive political and constitutional transitions the country still feels restless and dissatisfied, has to do with the performance and the posture adopted by parliament. Whereas the judiciary has emerged as an effective and consequential arm of government since 2011, simultaneously playing defender and goalkeeper of the constitution, parliament, has since 2013, and even more so now, acquiesced as an adjunct to the executive. In a complete misreading of the presidential system, parliament sees itself as an extension rather than a check on the executive. The senate is even worse; instead of playing its constitutive role of protecting devolution against the excesses and encroachment of the national government, senators got into the most parochial contest of egos with the governors, bizarrely siding with the executive to stream-roll and undermine devolution. It took the judiciary, through a number of bold decisions, and the public, who rallied around devolution, including in the ruling party’s backyard, to save devolution from an early collapse.

Third is the suboptimal output from devolved governments. Devolution has been good but is not yet great. Because of a hostile national government and endemic corruption in the counties, devolved governments have not performed optimally although, compared to the central government’s record of the last 50 years, they have made a big difference in people’s daily lives. Although devolution has been revolutionary, a combination of frustration from the top (especially from the Treasury the Devolution Ministry (particularly the first one) and the Provincial Administration) and the extremely poor and corrupt leadership of some governors have delayed the devolution dividends.

I dare say that without the strong backing of the judges—a raft of decisions by the High Court and two decisions by the Supreme Court on the Division of Revenue Bill—devolution would long have unravelled. These decisions are part of the reason for the animosity towards the judiciary that we have witnessed in the last decade.

Fourth, political parties have not been operating optimally. Political party primaries have been heavily rigged and violent, which has undermined people’s faith in the democratic process. Further, the Political Parties Fund is operated in an opaque manner, with the size of the allocations to some parties being equal to the allocations that are given to some counties. The disorganisation and privatisation of parties is nurturing a feeling of despondency and a lack of belief in parties, yet our constitution envisages a party-based constitutional democracy.

Fifth is the country’s economic collapse due to mismanagement. This economic failure preceded the COVID-19 pandemic. Never before has the country witnessed such a spectacular mismanagement of the economy. There is absolute incoherence and inconsistency in the public policy priorities. From a glitzy manifesto that has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance, to the Big 4 Agenda, the Nairobi Regeneration Team, the Anti-Corruption, we are all over the place, and are now consumed by succession politics. We have a ballooning debt that is unprecedented in stock (over Sh6 trillion), in composition (much of it expensive commercial debt); and in impact (Eurobond monies are yet to be accounted for).

In this context, it would be extremely foolish to think that individuals who have been partners in this mismanagement could be plausible alternatives. The authors of the last seven years of corruption, debt, and underdevelopment are known and so, if the country is to stand a chance of realising the benefits of the transitions that it has undergone, then it would be utter tomfoolery to consider parading any of these characters as the agents of that change.

Our Constitution is not defective. The quality of our elite is—fatally so. The problem is not in the structure of power as expressed in our constitutional architecture, but in the exercise of power in the conduct, choice and decisions that leaders—and to some extent the masses—make. The structure of power does not command us to have a President, Speaker, Prime Minister (that is what the Majority Leader would be in a parliamentary system), Attorney General, Chief of Defence Forces, Director General of Intelligence, Head of Kenya Police, Director of Directorate of Criminal Investigations, Governor of Central Bank, Commissioner General of Kenya Revenue Authority, and Auditor General, all from one region.

It is the exercise of that power, both by the nominating and confirming authorities, that allows for this construction of an ethnic hegemony at the heart and in the commanding heights of state affairs. This is not to question the competence and patriotism of these compatriots; it is to question the effect of this apparent singular concentration of competence in one ethnic identity on the fabric of our nationhood. The absolute necessity for diversity and inclusion in public positions and policy cannot be gainsaid. That is how you create a strong and united nation. The argument that changing the constitution will, ipso facto, foster inclusivity is a false one. With an already expansive government of 22 ministers, over 40 Principal Secretaries, parastatal chiefs, and an expanded leadership in both Houses of Parliament, how come we are still not able to be inclusive?

Vuguvugu la Mageuzi (VUMA) or Kongomano la Mageuzi. These are possible names of a transformative movement made up of all the social movements that exist in the country and that, going forward, would tackle a number of issues.

First, the middle class civil society must reactivate its engagement and build strategic and effective alliances with grassroots movements and the over 40 social justice centres countrywide to keep both national and county governments in check and create a strong central defence for the constitution. Indeed, the countervailing power of the civil society must be strengthened.

VUMA should be the crucible for the development of alternative leaderships drawn from such movements as The Artist Movements of cartoonists, film makers, singers, poets, and song writers; 100 Days of the Citizens’ Assemblies; Congress for the Protection of the Constitution; DeCOALonise; Friends of Lake Turkana; Inuka Kenya Ni Sisi, Okoa Mombasa, Kenya Tuitakayo Movement and SwitchOffKPLC. There are many others in formation: the movement to protect the rights of tea workers in Kericho; the movement to protect the cane farmers in Western Kenya; the movement to protect devolution in the NFD; the movements that defend community land from commodification; farmers revolts against crony capitalism in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya; and the movement to withdraw our troops from Somalia, among others.

Second, the movement must give voice and support the Council of Governors’ demands for the arrears in development funds that the national government continues to refuse to disburse.

Third, this is a good moment for the emergence of an alternative leadership for Kenya. The political elites are in fear of each other and there is a hurting stalemate in their relationship and negotiations. We need to invest in the rupture of those negotiations.

Fourth, we need to support a principled and fair fight against corruption, both at the national and county levels, and establish whether public policy and the law have been used for public good or private gain.

Fifth, we also need to set up at least three Judicial Commissions of Inquiry, the first one being on the public debt incurred since independence so that we can establish the rationale, basis, terms, impact and beneficiaries of these debts. This includes Ken-Ren, Goldenberg, Anglo Leasing, SGR, Eurobond and other scams. The second one should be on all government technology projects from IFMIS to OT-Morpho, to Huduma Number to E-Citizen. The third commission of inquiry should target police brutality and the vigilante and police massacres of 2017, especially in Western Kenya and in the slums of Nairobi.

Sixth, we should revisit all the solutions devised by the Saitoti Report; the Akiwumi Ethnic Clashes Report; the Ndungu Land Report; the InterParty-Parliamentary Group Report (particularly its unfinished business); the Truth and Justice Commission Report; the Kreigler Report; the Kroll Report; Kofi Annan’s Agenda 4; the Waki Report and all the reports developed by the civil society as solutions to our societal problems. That rich and robust material should be debated and refined for implementation.

Seventh, we must undertake mass civic education on the contents of the 2010 Constitution with a view to triggering the citizenry to demand its implementation;

Eighth, we must form a united front with political parties that are against imperialism and baronial rule and their respective narratives.

Ninth, we must nurture a political party or political parties that will contest for political power in the interests of the motherland.

And lastly, we must ensure that the failure of the ruling elite to secure the social and economic rights of the Kenyan people as provided for under the constitution (the right to food, housing, water, education, health, social security, employment) during the ongoing pandemic is an important lesson about the kind of leadership this country should not have.

The future of the constitution and our democracy will depend on the quality of leaders the country elects. That is when the full dividends of Saba Saba and 2010 will be fully realised. As the United States has shown, even constitutions, institutions, and customs that have been nurtured over hundreds of years can come easily undone by a rogue leadership and a pliant public.

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Lumumba’s Iconography in the Arts

On anniversary of the birthday of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of an independent Congo, we ask, “What iconography arose around him, and why is that iconography so diverse?”

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Patrice Emery Lumumba’s career as Congo’s first post-independence prime minister lasted only three months before he was arrested and executed five months later. Yet he lives on as idea, meme, symbol, icon, model, logo, metonym, specter, image, figure, and projection.

For four years I edited a book, Lumumba in the Arts, that examines Lumumba’s iconography. That book is now available.

Although Lumumba has won a place equal to other political icons like Malcolm X, Che Guevara, and Nelson Mandela, and although an equally rich or even richer imagery has developed around him, his iconography has remained underexposed and unannotated.

In fact, it is a rich iconography. It includes a whole range of renderings and portrayals, spans the whole range of media, and encompasses a variety of representations. It is no coincidence that a historical figure such as Patrice Lumumba has taken on an imaginary afterlife in the arts. After all, his project remained unfinished and his corpse was never buried.

Lumumba’s diverse iconography already started with the different names he received such as Élias Okit’Asombo (heir of the cursed), Nyumba Hatshikala l’Okanga (the one who is always implicated), Osungu (white), Lumumba (a crowd in motion), Okanda Doka (the sorcerer’s wisdom), or Omote l’Eneheka (the big head who detects the curse), starting from his childhood. His iconography was furthered during his lifetime, especially through songs and by the press, but most expressions, however, arose after his death.

Since his murder, Lumumba has been appropriated through painting (e.g. Chéri Samba, William Kentridge), photography (e.g. Sammy Baloji, Robert Lebeck), poetry (e.g. Henri Lopez, Ousmane Sembene), music (e.g. Pitcho, Miriam Makeba), film (e.g. Raoul Peck, Zurlini), theater (e.g. Aimé Césaire), and literature (e.g. Barbara Kingsolver) as well as in public spaces, stamps, and cartoons. No single form of art seems to escape Lumumba. While at first sight his iconography seems to oscillate between demonization and beatification, it is the gap between these two opposites that has proven to be fruitful for a very polymorphic iconography, one which, amongst many things, observes the memory and the undigested suffering that inscribed itself upon Lumumba’s body and upon the history of the Congo.

Karel Teissig, Czech poster of Valerio Zurlini’s 1968 Black Jesus, 1970. Courtesy of Judy and Jozef Mrofka.

Karel Teissig, Czech poster of Valerio Zurlini’s 1968 Black Jesus, 1970. Courtesy of Judy and Jozef Mrofka.

Notable exceptions such as Patrice Lumumba entre Dieu et Diable. Un héros africain dans ses images, edited by Pierre Halen and János Riesz, and A Congo Chronicle. Patrice Lumumba in Urban Art, edited by Bogumil Jewsiewicki, are foundational and seminal to my work on Lumumba’s iconography in regards to mostly literature and poetry in the first case, and to painting in the second one.

Two questions guided our work: What iconography arose around Lumumba and why is that iconography so diverse? One of the most striking paintings about Lumumba is Les pères de la démocratie et de l’indépendance by Sam-Ilus (2018). The painting demonstrates both the beatification of Lumumba and the political recuperation of his figure. It critically shows that artistic creations of Lumumba’s figure and the scenes in which he is reconfigured provide anything but a window on historical veracity; rather, they often reinvent him for political reasons. In this example, Patrice Lumumba is aligned with the anti-Lumumbist Etienne Tshisekedi, who followed Albert Kalonji on his secessionist adventure in Kasai against the central government of Lumumba, and who is the father of the current president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Felix Tshisekedi. In contrast to the more realistically depicted Etienne Tshisekedi (who died in 2017), Lumumba—who died almost sixty years earlier—is more abstracted and iconized. In the image, Lumumba is the reference: the model to aspire to. Tshisekedi tries to pose like him and identify with him, looking for political legitimation and atonement from sin. But whereas Lumumba has both arms up, Tshisekedi is still trying to find the right balance and is not very confident of receiving expiation. Lumumba does not seem to be very happy being cast in this reunion with his foe. His upper body, which is slightly averted from his companion, betrays some discomfort. Not only does Lumumba “seem distrustful because Tshisekedi is probably complicit in his death,” as the artist Sam-Ilus explained to me in a personal interview, but—I would add—also because his figure is being appropriated and dragged into a misplacement. Apart from the beatification, political recuperation, and the contrast with history, Sam-Ilus’s painting also illustrates that the meanings ascribed to Lumumba depend on the interplay of differences and oppositions within the construct. Moreover, these meanings are not fixed but deferred along l’hors cadre: those people below Lumumba holding their protest signs, that is, and also the other artworks in the book, as well as those not reproduced in the book, and those yet to come. The cover thus functions as a possible portal to other fictions that defy to a greater or lesser extent what Alexie Tcheuyap calls the triple censorship inflicted on Lumumba: censorship against his person (his murder), against his discourses, and against all attempts to constitute an alternative discourse on his existence.

The answer to the first question—as to what iconography arose around him—depends on the different art forms, which the book discusses in relation to historiography in the first part, and which the book divides into different chapters in the second part (cinema, theater, photography, poetry, comics, music, painting, and public space). Throughout the different art forms, we can distinguish an iconography that has been grafted onto a Judeo-Christian tradition (as both diabolization or beatification) from a more profane trend. Remarkably, the Janus-faced figure of the scapegoat/martyr—the most recurrent figure among all the different and even contradictory things that Lumumba stood for—are to be found in both. The answer to the second question—why such a diverse iconography – will be answered from as many angles as there are authors. However, four interrelated realms keep recurring: the spectral, the postcolonial, the martyr, and the political.

By discussing the rich iconographic heritage bequeathed to us by Lumumba and by reflecting on the different ways in which he is being remembered, we do not only answer the two questions that guided our work, but hope equally to contribute to this imagery by making his absence more present, though without laying his legacy to rest.

This post is from a new 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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