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Power, Aid and Impunity: How the Aid Industry Sexually Exploited the World’s Poor

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When reports emerged that senior aid officials in OXFAM, the world’s biggest humanitarian charity, had routinely sexually exploited vulnerable young women in Haiti, it touched off a scandal that has left the Western humanitarian industry reeling. It was merely the tip of the iceberg, as a recent UK House of Commons report attests. Impunity is rife within the UN system and the NGOs associated with it. How to rein it in? By RASNA WARAH  

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Power, Aid and Impunity: How the Aid Industry Sexually Exploited the World’s Poor
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For decades, sun-drenched Haiti, with its beautiful beaches and Third World-type poverty, has attracted a vast array of aid and humanitarian workers who have set up camp in this Caribbean nation ostensibly to lift its people out of their miserable conditions. Because of the huge number of local and international NGOs in the country, Haiti is often described as “The Republic of NGOs”.

Despite the large presence of NGOs and aid agencies, however, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere. Both natural disasters and political unrest, combined with a culture of aid dependency, have contributed to this state of affairs. A Western journalist writing about Haiti has described the country as “a poster child for the inadequacies of aid”.

The presence of large numbers of mostly young, naïve and sexually active foreign and local aid workers has also created an environment where vulnerable women and children are being sexually exploited or abused by the very people who are supposed to be helping or protecting them, including United Nations peacekeepers. According to an internal United Nations report obtained by the Associated Press in 2017, at least 134 Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers exploited nine Haitian children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007. One of the victims said that the soldiers would pass her number along to incoming contingents, who would then call her for sex. One boy claimed that he had had sex with more than 20 Sri Lankan soldiers. Another teenage boy claimed that he had been gang-raped by Uruguayan soldiers who even had the audacity to film the attack on a cellphone. Although 114 of these peacekeepers were sent home after the report came out, none of them was prosecuted or court martialed.

Despite the large presence of NGOs and aid agencies, however, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere. Natural disasters and political unrest, combined with a culture of aid dependency, have contributed to this state of affairs. A Western journalist writing about Haiti has described the country as “a poster child for the inadequacies of aid”.

These incidents are not confined to Haiti. A separate investigation published by the Associated Press last year revealed that nearly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers have been made in other troubled parts of the world. However, this number could be a gross underestimation as the majority of victims of sexual exploitation or abuse do not report their cases.

“Sexual exploitation” is defined by the UN as “an actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another”. “Sexual abuse” is defined as “the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions”.

Stories of aid workers, UN peacekeepers and UN employees using their privileged positions to sexually exploit or abuse women and children in poor countries have been in the public domain for a long time but it is only now that the international development community has taken notice and decided to do something about it.

It all started in February this year, when the Times newspaper revealed that staff at Oxfam GB, one of Britain’s most respected charities, had paid local women for sex while carrying out humanitarian work in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country and which led to widespread internal displacement of the quake’s victims. This revelation, at a time when the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum, resulted in several similar exposés, the latest being of a senior UN gender advisor – an Indian male called Ravi Karkara – who is currently being investigated for sexually harassing young men in his office.

Stories of aid workers, UN peacekeepers and UN employees using their privileged positions to sexually exploit or abuse women and children in poor countries have been in the public domain for a long time but it is only now that the international development community has taken notice and decided to do something about it.

The Oxfam scandal also set in motion a series of events, including withdrawal of funding to Oxfam by its leading donors, including the UK’s Department of International Development (DfID), and calls for thorough investigations into allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by those working in the aid sector globally.

This particular scandal prompted the UK’s House of Commons to carry out further investigations, not just on the conduct of Oxfam staff, but on the conduct of staff working for other charities and aid organisations as well. The House of Commons’ final report, released on 31 July this year, sent shockwaves across the aid sector, and has led to demands for stricter measures to be taken against those who commit sexual crimes against vulnerable populations. The report states that “sexual violence, exploitation and abuse against women and girls in endemic in many developing countries, especially where there is conflict and forced displacement.”

The UK legislators who drafted the report and carried out the investigations also found that the aid industry’s response to sexual misconduct had been “reactive, patchy and sluggish” and that very few organisations actually follow up on reports that have raised the red flag about sexual exploitation or abuse by their employees. For instance, no action was taken after the release of a 2002 assessment by the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR and the charity Save the Children of the effects of sexual violence on children in conflict areas. That assessment documented 67 cases of sexual exploitation and abuse of refugee children in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone in which 40 aid agencies and 9 peacekeeping missions were implicated; the majority of the victims were aged between 13 and 18.

And, despite being warned three years ago that internally displaced and refugee Syrian women were being sexually exploited by men delivering aid on behalf of the UN, the UN did little to arrest the problem, even though the UN’s Population Fund had conducted a gender assessment last year that showed that Syrian women were being forced to engage in “food-for-sex” arrangements with aid workers. The House of Commons report, titled “”Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector”, states that “sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers, amongst others, is an entrenched feature of the life experience of women and girls in Syria in the eighth year of the conflict there” and that similar cases around world are merely “the tip of the iceberg”.

The UK legislators further found that a 2007 study for the Humanitarian Partnership conducted in Kenya, Namibia and Thailand found that although the beneficiaries of aid knew that sexual exploitation and abuse was going on, the majority said that they would not report these cases because they didn’t want to risk losing the aid. On their part, humanitarian aid workers were reluctant to report their fellow workers for fear of retaliation.

The House of Commons report does not spare any organisation, not even in the much-revered United Nations, for allowing such abuse to continue. “When it comes to investigating sexual exploitation and abuse allegations, the UN’s approach lacks coherence,” it states. “There is no single body taking an overall interest in the outcomes of investigations or driving them towards resolution…”

What the report failed to recognise is that although the UN has a stated “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse and exploitation, few, if any, of the perpetrators face justice – not only because the UN’s internal justice system is flawed but also because international UN staff enjoy immunity from prosecution, which means such cases are not likely to end up in court.

In addition, because the UN is more concerned about protecting its reputation than about bringing justice to victims, those who are perceived to be tainting the organisation (the people who come out and report such cases) are quickly sacrificed. In 2014, for example, Anders Kompass (who has since resigned as the director of field operations at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) was suspended after he sent an internal UN report to French authorities detailing cases of French peacekeepers sexually exploiting internally displaced boys in the Central African Republic. At that time the UN claimed that Kompass had put the victims at risk but it soon became evident that the UN had no intention to act on the report or to make its findings public. Kompass was only reinstated after there was an outcry in the media about the case, but by then he had already made the decision to resign. He said that his ordeal had left him “disappointed and full of sadness”.

The House of Commons report does not spare any organisation, not even in the much-revered United Nations, for allowing such abuse to continue…What the report failed to recognise is that although the UN has a stated “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse and exploitation, few, if any, of the perpetrators face justice – not only because the UN’s internal justice system is flawed but also because international UN staff enjoy immunity from prosecution, which means such cases are not likely to end up in court.

This is one of the problems afflicting all aid and humanitarian organisations. Because these organisations survive on donations, the whiff of sexual or other type of scandal could mean the drying up of donor funds, which could affect jobs and projects. So to keep the donor funds flowing, incidents of misconduct are quickly covered up or not investigated. In some cases, the perpetrators are allowed to resign quietly or are transferred to a remote duty station. Meanwhile those who report these cases often find themselves out of a job – the UN, in particular, is notorious for not renewing the contracts of whistleblowers.

However, things are likely to change. Aid and humanitarian organisations that fail to report or address the issue of sexual crimes or misconduct by their employees could find themselves having to close shop, especially if their biggest donors pull out. Since the Haiti scandal, for example, Oxfam has been struggling to survive. Bigger multilateral organisations like the UN, which are funded by member states are, however, unlikely to face such threats because “they are too big to fail”, which is a pity because levels of impunity at the UN are extremely high. Whereas small charities and international NGOs have to be accountable to their donors to survive, the UN can basically get away with all manner of wrongdoing because the UN is accountable only to itself. Few, if any, member states have threatened to pull out of the organisation because of its lack of accountability or because its employees are behaving badly.

Former UN employees who have suffered retaliation as a result of their reporting complain that the UN’s internal justice system is heavily biased in favour of the perpetrator, particularly if he or she is a senior manager. Experiences of UN whistleblowers indicate that those who file a complaint against a senior UN official are not tolerated within the organisation and that the majority of whistleblowers suffer severe retaliation, despite the UN’s whistleblower protection policy. For instance, recently the country director for UNAIDS in Ethiopia, who was a key witness in a sexual harassment and assault investigation involving the UNAIDS deputy director, was suspended from her job in March this year, an action that smacks both of a cover-up and retaliation. As a result, several African women activists called for the resignation of the UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibé, but he has consistently ignored this call, as has the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Current and former UN employees have reported a flawed grievance system that is stacked against the victims. One woman told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that she was raped by a senior UN staff member while working in a remote location but did not obtain justice despite medical evidence and witness testimonies. Because UN staff members cannot take their cases to national courts, (because UN employees enjoy immunity from prosecution), they have to rely on the UN’s internal justice systems, which are deeply flawed and which rarely deliver justice. As I have argued in previous articles, the UN has to overhaul its internal justice system and put in place external independent mechanisms that are more transparent and accountable – and which do not victimise whistleblowers.

Now, finally, such an external independent mechanism might just see the light of day. The House of Commons report makes a recommendation that could radically transform how sexual exploitation and abuse cases are handled within the aid sector: the establishment of “an independent aid ombudsman to provide the right to appeal, an avenue through which those who have suffered can seek justice by other means”. This recommendation, which will be discussed at an International Safeguarding Conference in October this year, could drastically alter the way aid organisations operate and could be a game changer for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. It is undoubtedly one of the best recommendations to be put on the table of an industry that has become a cesspit of impunity and which is more interested in self-preservation than actually doing good in this world.

However, my fear is that if this ombudsman lacks the power to investigate and prosecute, then it will merely become an entity that collects and documents complaints rather than one that carries out investigations and brings cases to trial, or one that has the authority to force aid organisations to dismiss or penalise employees who are implicated in sexual harassment, exploitation or abuse.

My hope is that this ombudsman will not just address the issues of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse, but will also be receptive to receiving cases of other types of abuse within the aid sector, particularly the abuse of power and authority, which allows all manner of wrongdoing, including fraud, corruption, nepotism, and gross mismanagement, to continue.

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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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