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Revisiting the Obama Legacy

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His whistle-stop low-key visit to Kogelo may have puzzled some, his rousing speech marking Madiba’s centenary may have been pitch-perfect, but while Obama was a class act (especially when compared to Trump), his capitulation to Wall Street, his foreign policy blunders in Libya and Syria, his drone counter-terrorism and his sustained attack on independent media and whistle-blowers raise disturbing questions about his real legacy. By RASNA WARAH.  

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Revisiting the Obama Legacy
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Unlike his last visit to Kenya in July 2015, when large sections of Nairobi were effectively under lockdown and when the country virtually came to a standstill when the “son of Kogelo” returned to his “homeland”, Barack Obama’s “homecoming” this week did not generate as much excitement or gushing tributes. This was expected, as the former United States president was not in Kenya on an official visit but was here to open a centre for youth in his father’s village, a brainchild of his half-sister Auma Obama. Besides the “welcome home” slogans that usually accompany such visits, Obama’s presence in the country hardly generated the kind of euphoria that was evident the last time he came to Kenya – this time the euphoria was more apparent in South Africa, where Obama delivered an inspiring lecture on the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday after his Kenya visit.

Not to mention that his visit coincided with a highly controversial and embarrassing summit in Helsinki that saw President Donald Trump essentially throw his own intelligence services under the bus in the presence of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, who himself spent some time as a KGB intelligence officer. The contrast between the megalomaniacal, misogynistic and fundamentally dishonest Trump and his predecessor – the charismatic, intelligent and eloquent Obama who has rock star appeal – was painfully evident. When Obama works a room, you can be sure he will gain more converts. His messiah-like messages have silenced even his most vocal critics. On the other hand, Trump’s utterances generally elicit shock, followed by a deep sense of trepidation. After that bizarre summit in Helsinki, Americans and the world are grappling with the idea that the US president might have been “captured” by the Russian state.

And unlike Bill Clinton and Trump, there is also no whiff of a sexual scandal surrounding Obama. Obama never really knew his Kenyan father, who abandoned him when he was just a toddler, but this childhood trauma does not seem to have had a damaging effect on his own relationship with his wife Michelle and his two daughters. Everyone knows, and can see, that he is a man who is deeply committed to his family and is not threatened by strong women.

Obama brought a rarefied dignity to the Oval Office. He will be remembered for his reflective leadership style and the seriousness with which he took his responsibilities as leader of the most powerful nation on earth. He has definitely earned a name in the history books for not just being the first black (or rather, mixed race) president of the United States, but also for mending decades-old fences with countries such as Cuba and Iran. He will be remembered, among many of his other accomplishments, for advocating for the rights of all people, be they racial minorities, gays, people with disabilities or women.

Obama never really knew his Kenyan father, who abandoned him when he was just a toddler, but this childhood trauma does not seem to have had a damaging effect on his own relationship with his wife Michelle and his two daughters. Everyone knows, and can see, that he is a man who is deeply committed to his family and is not threatened by strong women.

However, there are many things that Obama failed to accomplish, and many things that he actually made worse. Despite his African heritage, he failed to bridge the racial divide in America; some believe that race relations may have worsened under his tenure, perhaps the result of a backlash against his presidency and against black people’s aspirations for equality. This backlash is probably what got his successor Trump elected. Racism has now become an epidemic in America, and has demolished the myth that the US is a land where everyone – regardless of race – enjoys equal freedoms and rights. While it was not Obama’s job to fix centuries-old prejudices in America, he failed to address the issue of racism in America forcefully.

But it is Obama’s foreign policy that has left many of his supporters puzzled. Obama strengthened Clinton’s “no American boots on the ground” policy in foreign conflicts by intensifying drone attacks in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, which are believed to have led to many civilian deaths and which are said to have led to more radicalisation. Most people are not aware of the fact that Obama used more drones against terror suspects than his predecessor George Bush, who was more prone to engage American troops in direct combat in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are many things that Obama failed to accomplish, and many things that he actually made worse. Despite his African heritage, he failed to bridge the racial divide in America; some believe that race relations may have worsened under his tenure, perhaps the result of a backlash against his presidency and against black people’s aspirations for equality. This backlash is probably what got his successor Trump elected. Racism has now become an epidemic in America.

When Barack Obama became president, the American public believed that the US government would focus on the economy and scale down its wars and counterterrorism operations. However, while Obama did bring back troops from Iraq, as he promised, the war on terror became more clandestine. He increased the use of drones that targeted suspected terrorists (which also led to several deaths of innocent civilians, including children) and continued with mass electronic surveillance. Yet despite the billions spent on intelligence and security, groups such as the Islamic State still managed to take root under his watch. And Guantanamo Bay, the US detention facility in Cuba established for terrorist suspects, still remains open, though the number of detainees have fallen significantly from about 700 under George Bush to just 40 today.

A few years ago, The Washington Post reported that the Obama administration had built a “constellation of secret drone bases” in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, including one site in Ethiopia, ostensibly to help the US better able to monitor and control terrorists, and also allow the superpower to gain access to the region’s natural resources. Drone activity in Somalia apparently intensified in the country between June and September 2011, weeks before Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in October 2011. Obama’s supporters may argue that targeted drones are less damaging than direct conflict, but those who have suffered from these attacks do not quite feel the same way.

The Obama administration’s support of opposition groups in Syria has also been criticised for turning what might have been a short civil war into a long-drawn conflict that gave birth to terrorist organisations (which masqueraded as moderate Islamist rebel forces) such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. No one knows yet how or where the chips in Syria will fall, but history may judge Obama harshly for his intervention there.

But perhaps Obama’s most harmful intervention in a foreign country was his decision to support a “regime change” in Libya. While most agree that Muammar Gaddafi was a dictator, under his strong-man leadership style Libya remained a stable and prosperous country. When US, British and French warplanes bombed Libya in the name of defending human rights and when Gaddafi was killed, the country descended into chaos and anarchy as factions fought each other for supremacy, just like what happened in Iraq when George Bush decided to lead a regime change there.

The countries that participated in the Libyan bombings are not likely to admit this but there would be no flood of refugees entering Europe via Libya if Gaddafi was still in charge. His regime kept Europe safe from human traffickers who are now exploiting vulnerable Syrians and poor Africans and making a fortune in the process. I am sure this uncomfortable truth doesn’t sit well in Obama’s conscience and will haunt him for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Obama’s decision to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Could it be that this killing was extra-judicial? Bin Laden’s sons have accused Obama of violating basic legal principles by killing an unarmed man, shooting his family and disposing the body in the sea. Bin Laden’s son Omar, who has publicly denounced violence of all kinds, has raised the question of why his father was not arrested and tried in a court of law, but his voice was muted by the self-congratulatory stance of the Obama administration and its cheerleaders who viewed the killing as justified in line with the US government’s war against terror.

Critics of Obama also point out that press freedom worsened under his leadership and whistleblowers were unfairly vilified – despite Obama’s stated commitment to protect freedom of expression. Salon.com commentator Glenn Greenwald has said that the Obama administration launched a broad (and possibly unprecedented) war on whistleblowers and investigative journalists, including harassing WikiLeaks supporters by detaining them at airports and seizing their laptops without warrants.

Former New York Times reporter David Shipler has chronicled the many ways the Obama administration created an atmosphere of fear among journalists and ordinary citizens, including by renewing the notorious Patriot Act that enhanced the US government’s surveillance powers and gave security agents authority to comb databases and emails of suspected criminals and terrorists. Shipler claims that press freedom weakened under Obama and that the US president allowed draconian search-and-seizure methods used by the very dictators he often denounced.

“The most odious aspect of this Climate of Fear is that it fundamentally changes how the citizenry thinks of itself and its relationship to the Government. A state can offer all the theoretical guarantees of freedom in the world, but those become meaningless if citizens are afraid to exercise them. In that climate, the Government need not even act to abridge rights; a fearful populace will voluntarily refrain on its own from exercising those rights,” said Greenwald, who gained notoriety after his disclosures of classified documents by the American whistleblower Edward Snowden that were published in The Guardian newspaper in 2013.

Former New York Times reporter David Shipler has chronicled the many ways the Obama administration created an atmosphere of fear among journalists and ordinary citizens, including by renewing the notorious Patriot Act that enhanced the US government’s surveillance powers and gave security agents authority to comb databases and emails of suspected criminals and terrorists. Shipler claims that press freedom weakened under Obama and that the US president allowed draconian search-and-seizure methods used by the very dictators he often denounced.

Meanwhile, Snowden is still holed up in Russia because he fears he will be arrested if he returns to the United States. Snowden revealed to the world how the terrorist bogeyman has been used to conduct mass surveillance and to spy on civilians through mobile phones and the Internet. These activities are clearly unconstitutional and violate the US Bill of Rights, but they are tolerated because the American public has been made to feel sufficiently afraid to not ask too many questions.

In The Rise of the American Corporate Security State, Beatrice Edwards, the Executive Director of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, shows how the withdrawal of Americans’ rights, including their right to privacy, has been accomplished because Americans have been repeatedly told that they are facing imminent danger. Americans have thus willingly surrendered their civil rights because they are frightened. This clampdown on civil rights intensified during George W. Bush’s administration but became more secretive under Obama’s.

The nexus between government and big corporations has also been strengthened. The war on terror has been extremely lucrative for private corporations providing security and intelligence services. Edwards believes that clandestine electronic warfare is not going to go away any time soon, as the business of intelligence has proved to be extremely profitable for certain corporations. US corporations and the US intelligence agencies are bedfellows in the deal. What’s worse, because this war is silent and invisible, Americans don’t know where or when it is being waged. This is a truly chilling scenario.

Since 9/11, the United States has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence, of which 70 per cent is spent on contracts with private corporations. And because security contracts are deemed to be “secret” in the interest of national security, no one knows what the money is spent on. Edwards shows how increasing budgets for security and intelligence agencies have coincided with greater protection for rogue bankers and financial institutions, as happened during the 2008 financial crisis when Obama bailed out the very institutions that created the crisis in the first place. While Al Qaeda leaders became the targets of intense manhunts, illegal detention and execution, the millionaires who made thousands of people homeless and crashed the economy got away scot-free. Meanwhile, whistleblowers such as Snowden were deemed traitors for exposing unconstitutional and illegal surveillance of civilians around the world.

Edwards admits that Obama is not entirely to blame for this state of affairs because every US president is hostage to the big corporations and to what she calls “the Deep State”, a rogue branch of the US government that does not respond to the president, Congress or the courts. (Trump has given the Deep State a new meaning by referring to all those opposed to his policies as belonging to it.)

Since 9/11, the United States has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence, of which 70 per cent is spent on contracts with private corporations. And because security contracts are deemed to be “secret” in the interest of national security, no one knows what the money is spent on […]increasing budgets for security and intelligence agencies have coincided with greater protection for rogue bankers and financial institutions, as happened during the 2008 financial crisis when Obama bailed out the very institutions that created the crisis in the first place. While Al Qaeda leaders became the targets of intense manhunts, illegal detention and execution, the billionaires who made thousands of people homeless and crashed the economy got away scot-free.

Apologists for Obama claim that he is a pragmatist and could only do so much in a country where partisan politics and Congress determine government policy. Others say that Obama is just an American liberal, not the revolutionary that so many imagined him to be, and so cannot be judged for the radical reforms he failed to bring about but who can be credited for maintaining the model of freedom and democracy that is cherished by the majority of Americans.

The real struggle that Americans and the world faces is not about privacy versus security but about democracy versus tyranny. When large numbers of people around the world willingly give up their rights and freedoms in the name of counterterrorism, they create the perfect conditions for the emergence of dictatorship.

However, Edwards says that the real struggle that Americans and the world faces is not about privacy versus security but about democracy versus tyranny. When large numbers of people around the world willingly give up their rights and freedoms in the name of counterterrorism, they create the perfect conditions for the emergence of dictatorship.

This dictatorship has now manifested itself in the Donald Trump presidency – which may lead future historians to ponder whether Obama’s presidency set the stage for this alarming state of affairs. Obama is no doubt a wiser and much more intelligent president than Trump, but he did not manage to reverse or extinguish the dystopian ideology that led to the rise of Trumpism and its tendencies towards fascism that the world is now witnessing.

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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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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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