The just ended Forum of Chinese–African Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing may prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the United States, long irritated by Africa’s relationship with an Asian country as powerful as itself. The 2018 forum was attended by more African leaders than attended the last AU Summit. Only six heads of state did not show up; Tanzania, Burundi, DRC, Eritrea and Algeria and were represented by vice presidents and prime ministers. Swaziland alone had nothing at all to do with FOCAC.
On 3 August, the day FOCAC 2018 opened, sixteen US senators wrote to Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury and Michael Pompeo, Secretary of the Department of State demanding to know what the Administration proposes to do to stop China’s attempt to dominate the global economy. First signatory is Senator David Perdue, described as ‘Donald Trump’s Man in the Senate’. The letter is therefore guaranteed to get attention.
The senators point out that 23 of the 68 countries hosting Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects are at risk of debt distress. Eight countries with future BRI infrastructure investments are also at risk of debt distress. China is accused by the Senators of ‘predatory lending’,’weaponizing’ capital and holding poor countries to ransom when they fail to repay.
On 3 August, the day FOCAC 2018 opened, sixteen US senators wrote to Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury and Michael Pompeo, Secretary of the Department of State demanding to know what the Administration proposes to do to stop China’s attempt to dominate the global economy.
This is not to say that the West has not weaponized capital as a matter of course. Sometimes literally. For example, International Lending Institutions will lend to countries that suppress political opposition. Such oppression means citizens cannot fulfil their right and duty to oppose unsustainable debt through democratic processes. In Uganda, electoral violence prevents the citizenry from freely campaigning for elections. Knowing this, Western sovereign lenders provide the means of repression by arming, for example, Uganda’s Special Forces Command while lending to the perpetrators of violence.
The core of the argument the US Senators are preparing against China’s BRI is this: countries in debt distress caused by BRI projects are also in debt to the IMF and turn to the IMF for bailouts. The US is the IMF’s biggest shareholder. As such, IMF bailouts to countries in debt-distress from Chinese loans would be transferring US taxpayers’ money to China. Sri Lanka’s bailout in 2016 did not prevent the loss of Hambantota Port.
However the major immediate cause of concern is Pakistan, reportedly planning to apply for an IMF bailout after her BRI indebtedness under the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor put Gwadar Port at risk. Djibouti whose debt to China is equivalent to 75% of her GDP (its total foreign debt to GDP ratio is 85%) is said to be at risk of losing Doraleh Container Terminal to China, an asset strategically important to the United States.
Uganda is not mentioned but is likely one of the other countries alluded to. Uganda’s debt–distress has been on the horizon for at least two years. The Auditor General signaled it in 2016. A recent attempt to increase tax revenues led to the #ThisTaxMustGo movement, an outcry from a public that sees little in the way of public services, and more recently, the disruption of a tax policy conference attended by donors.
What is important to Uganda is the questions put by the senators to the American Administration;
“As the largest contributor to the IMF, how can the United States use its influence to ensure that bailout terms prevent the continuation of ongoing BRI projects, or the start of new BRI projects?”
An understanding appears to have been reached with Kenya which this year applied for a bailout and simultaneously suspended all new infrastructure projects apparently in return for assistance.
The senators also require the Treasury and the State Department to investigate: i) which other countries are likely to require bailouts; ii) how BRI countries in debt distress can be assisted to repay their loans; and iii) alternative sources of infrastructure funding.”
The closing paragraph of the senators’ letter indicates that another proxy war is about to be fought on the African continent. It is clear the senators want the United States to disrupt Chinese–African cooperation:
“In his speech to the 19th Party Congress, President Xi declared, ‘China’s development does not pose a threat to any other country. No matter what stage of development it reaches, China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion.’ It is apparent that this statement is fundamentally false, and the goal of BRI is the creation of an economic world order ultimately dominated by China. It is imperative that the United States counters [emphasis mine] China’s attempts to hold other countries financially hostage and force ransoms that further its geostrategic goals.”
African leaders attending FOCAC have been promised $60 billion in development assistance. It will be made up of grants and more importantly, loans from Chinese financial institutions. China in 2018 has promised to import more non–commodities (finished goods) from Africa. At FOCAC 2015, the same amount was promised. Given that several countries are already struggling to repay Chinese debt, which carries higher interest and is repayable over a shorter period than loans from other sources, the offer is not necessarily an altruistic gesture.
At the end of FOCAC 2015 held in Johannesburg, the dysfunctional relationship between Africa and China was already evident. The relief of the Chairman of the Africa Union as he welcomed the blandishments of President Xi Jinping was palpable. Probably remembering the Bandung Conference of 1955, in a quivering voice President Robert Mugabe (for it was he) delivered one of those lyrical declamations he was so good at, “Here is a man representing a country once called poor, a country which was never our coloniser. But there you are, he is doing what we expected those who colonised us yesterday to do.”
With the colonial and especially settler–state experience, and after the Continent has been all but disembowelled so that its endowment of natural resources has failed to translate to a decent standard of living as the norm, the current belief that China or anyone else is going to do the work, is astounding in its naïveté.
The relationship between China and Africa is said, over and again, to be rooted in friendship and equality. It is this that is expected to provide the impetus to begin to deliver on goals whose attainment is long overdue: industrialization, modernisation of agriculture, poverty reduction, technological capacity building and economic development. These are expected to be reached by means of Chinese capital, technology and personnel for the construction of roads and other infrastructure, investment and trade facilitation and environmental protection. Sino–sceptics recall the very same development goals were discussed at great length with Europe and America in the immediate post-independence period and beyond.
For his part, President Museveni expressed the hope in Beijing 2018, that the relationship with China would allow Africa to, “more easily work with our friends in the EU and the USA on the basis of win-win arrangements, not the win–lose arrangements of the last 500 years […] many African countries and the former colonizers can put to good use the historical relations with the British Commonwealth or the French Community. What was previously negative could become much more positive than it has been hitherto.”
The relationship between China and Africa is said, over and again, to be rooted in friendship and equality. It is this that is expected to provide the impetus to begin to deliver on goals whose attainment is long overdue: industrialization, modernisation of agriculture, poverty reduction, technological capacity building and economic development…Sino–sceptics recall the very same development goals were discussed at great length with Europe and America in the immediate post-independence period and beyond.
In the interim, raw materials have continued to dominate African exports. Structural Adjustment Programmes led to deindustrialisation on a grand scale. Despite mineral and other endowments dwarfing anything available in the West or the East, African countries continue to occupy the lower rungs of the Human Development Index.
Listening to Xi Jinping’s address at FOCAC 2015, one would have thought China has no needs of her own – they were not mentioned either by China or her African hosts – and that China is in it for purely altruistic reasons. Mugabe, the AU chairman, claimed that the -Sino-African relationship goes far deeper than mineral extraction. The 50,000 elephants we lose to poachers every year did not feature either.
Pro–FOCAC leaders no doubt recall the heady days of Bandung and the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement, when there was an Afro–Asian bloc at the UN General Assembly. Back then, African countries were proactive and saw themselves as actors on the world stage rather than as mere props in other people’s scripts and proxies in their wars. An episode that occurred during the Cold War illustrates this. The US sought to bar China from membership of the UN General Assembly and African leaders were lobbied by high-level American officials to vote against China. Just a week after Nigeria gained independence in October 1960, Prime Minister Balewa called on President Eisenhower. Having assured Eisenhower that he was not a Communist, Balewa made a request for bilateral aid and was assured aid would be available through the UN Special Fund. He was advised that the United States preferred making loans to giving grants.
Later in the conversation in answer to a question from Prime Minister Balewa, President Eisenhower said that a vote by Nigeria in favour of Red Chinese representation at the UN would “constitute such a repudiation of the U.S. that we would be in a hard fix indeed.” [i] Balewa in turn expressed surprise that a nation of 650 million should be excluded from representation at the world body. In the event, Nigeria voted against the U.S. position on the Chinese delegation.
Nowadays things are different. Uganda abstained from the historic UN General Assembly vote against the United States’ endorsement of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem when Washington announced that the US was moving her Embassy there. Kenya dodged the vote altogether. In an earlier resolution (December 2016) against, among other things, Israel changing the status of internationally recognized Palestinian territory via settlements, Uganda abstained.
FOCAC 2015 provided US$5 billion in grants as a sweetener and US$ 55 billion in loans. In 2018 a further $60 billion has been pledged. Going on precedent, the majority of these funds will not reach their intended beneficiaries, for easily understandable reasons. Apart from the bureaucracy surrounding the loan applications, most African countries lack a strong regulatory framework. The result: massive waste and theft of public funds. Uganda, for example, has spent billions of dollars of tax revenues and loans on civil service reform, and millions on programmes to deepen democracy yet an enabling environment for sustainable development continues to elude her citizens. State brutality is on the increase.
Uganda’s allegiance to China does not require her to address failures in deepening democracy and inclusive development even for public relations purposes. Although the Western development industry too has tolerated what it calls ‘democratic deficits’ their leaders can be called to account because unlike China, they continually profess democratic values. What follows below is a brief run-through of recent examples of kleprocracy and incompetence supported in Uganda:
The National Roads Authority (UNRA) was established in 2006 to make road construction more efficient than it was under the Ministry of Transport. With its large budget, the UNRA quickly became known for some of the country’s more colourful corruption scandals. In 2015 UNRA excelled itself when the country lost in the region of UGX 24.7 billion (US$ 6.5 million at current rates) in the Mukono–Katosi road scam. The Inspector General of Government found that the Minister for Transport, Abraham Byandala, abused his office by inducing the supposedly independent UNRA to give a contract to one Eutaw, a firm claiming to be related to an American firm of a similar name. The firm, which turned out to have no relation to its American ‘parent company’, was paid advances for work it was unable to complete. Byandala was acquitted in August 2018, for insufficient evidence.
Uganda’s allegiance to China does not require her to address failures in deepening democracy and inclusive development even for public relations purposes. Although the Western development industry too has tolerated what it calls ‘democratic deficits’ their leaders can be called to account because unlike China, they continually profess democratic values.
Meanwhile in the south, the brand new highway to Rwanda literally split in two with one half sliding down the hill. The much–praised Northern By–pass in Kampala was closed as the swamp through which it was built began to reclaim it in the March rains. The Roads Authority is slated to be disbanded by presidential decree as a waste of resources.
The Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), was established in 1983, “to enforce standards for protection of public health and safety and the environment against dangerous, counterfeit and substandard products; ensuring fairness in trade and precision in industry; strengthening Uganda’s economy….” Given that the disposal of disused short–life cheap goods imported from China is becoming an environmental hazard and counterfeit drugs a health hazard, UNBS and other specialised quality assurance agencies would need to be much stronger if the goals of green development, health and prosperity are to be attained.
The CEO of UNBS was suspended in 2015 with various management weaknesses cited as the reason. In 2018, the situation has deteriorated to the degree that foods have been found to be adulterated, notably meat preserved with formaldehyde.
The judiciary (Justice Law and Order Sector) is at once a source of hope and a constant source of disappointment. Sovereign debt has legal and constitutional ramifications. For example, Uganda’s constitution requires the state and its citizens to ‘defend the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Uganda’ and to build national strength in political, economic and social spheres to avoid undue dependence on other countries and institutions.’ This is meant to be done mainly through Parliament which approves or rejects debt. Clearly unsustainable debt flies in the face of independence.
Other indebted countries too have fallen into debt in contravention of the law. Mozambique’s $2 billion secret loans (one from a Russian bank) were taken out by the finance minister who was not authorised to do so. He later admitted that he was unaware when he signed the guarantee that he gave the creditors sovereign powers over all Mozambican assets until the debt was repaid.
Sovereign debt has legal and constitutional ramifications. For example, Uganda’s constitution requires the state and its citizens to ‘defend the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Uganda’ and to build national strength in political, economic and social spheres to avoid undue dependence on other countries and institutions.’ This is meant to be done mainly through Parliament which approves or rejects debt.
This is what the US Senators refer to as ‘predatory lending.’ However, the same administrative weaknesses taken advantage of by Chinese and Russian lenders are relied on by Western lenders despite the claim that they operate under different standards.
It was expected that the Constitutional Court would strike down Parliament’s removal of presidential age limits further reducing the chance of removing the incumbent kleptocratic regime.. What came as a shock was the ruling on the invasion of Parliament by the Special Forces beating, torturing several Members of Parliament” physical assault on the elected representatives of the people by ‘security operatives’.
During the appeal against age limit removal, only one out of five judges ruled that state violence is unconstitutional in all circumstances and that it therefore rendered the Age Limit Act null and void. Justice Kenneth Kakuru said,
“The Constitution demands that citizens of this Country be treated with respect and dignity by all agencies of the State. Again I am constrained to refer to the maiden speech of President when in 1986 he promised Ugandans that no citizen would be beaten by the army (read or the Police) as it had been the norm in the past regimes.
The police in Uganda have no right to frog march Members of Parliament, beat them and humiliate them the way they now routinely do which this Court takes judicial notice of being a notorious fact [emphasis mine].”
The rest of the judges were of the view that the attack on Parliament did not nullify the Age Limit Act opening the way for President Museveni’s life tenure and also for assaults on members of parliament.
Many blame the constitutional court’s failure to condemn state violence for the subsequent attack on members of parliament and their supporters in the Arua by–election weeks later.
For two weeks beginning in Arua on 13 August 2018 the armed forces indulged in a wave of electoral violence that spread to other cities. At the time of writing, a high level press conference has just ended in Kampala. Briefing the media about the electoral violence, the Minister for Security said the armed forces acted with restraint and that had they not, casualties would have been more severe. In other words – be grateful we let you live. A further update: President Museveni addressing his party caucus warned them that he has the power to shut down Parliament.
Justice, law and order, health, education, immigration, infrastructural development and tax administration, are all sectors important for development which have exhibited persistent weaknesses. Neither debt nor grants (Chinese or Western) have removed precarity from the manner in which the country is governed or from the day–to–day existence of the majority of Ugandans. Increased debt and grants are not the answer.
In any case, the Chinese project is about to receive major push–back from the United States. A decade ago, correspondence between the US Embassy in Kampala and Washington indicated concern about the manner in which China beats American firms in bids for oil concessions and infrastructure projects by bribing government officials. (Email-2011-10-19 07:38:18 From: email@example.com To: firstname.lastname@example.org. Source: Wikileaks). At some point, officials discussed (with the UK) but did not implement travel bans on the senior government officials taking bribes, possibly leaving room for negotiation. That era may have ended.
There are two possible outcomes for Africa. It is just possible that African, Asian and South American countries could become active negotiators this time around. If they were to engage regional blocs they would be able to come away with more profitable and transparent financial arrangements. The best case scenario would include repudiation of illegitimate debt; all monies recklessly loaned to kleptocrat administrations and all those used to perpetuate despots in power.
The best case scenario would include repudiation of illegitimate debt…Failing that China, Europe and the United States will simply agree to a second partition of Africa into new spheres of influence…The current crop of African leaders, noted mainly for bribe-taking and theft of public resources is more likely to cooperate in the second partition of Africa than to restructure the basis of the Continent’s relationship with the imperial powers.
Failing that China, Europe and the United States will simply agree to a second partition of Africa into new spheres of influence. Which brings us to the main ingredient lacking: leadership. The current crop of African leaders, noted mainly for bribe-taking and theft of public resources is more likely to cooperate in the second partition of Africa than to restructure the basis of the Continent’s relationship with the imperial powers.
[i] FRUS 1958-1960 v.14 Newly Independent States, Document 77, Memorandum of Conference with President Eisenhower, October 8, 1960.
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Lessons From India’s COVID Calamity
Neglect of the public healthcare system, suppression of scientific information and sacrificing citizen welfare for political mileage have led to the public health crisis facing India today.
An Australian newspaper called it “Modi’s COVID apocalypse”. The Indian activist and author Arundhati Roy calls it “a crime against humanity”. These descriptions of India’s current public health crisis may seem alarmist, but they are not far from the truth. By the end of April, India was recording more than 300,000 new COVID infections and nearly 3,000 deaths per day, a 30-fold increase from September last year, when the country reported a new infection rate of 11,000 per day. Media reports are showing overflowing crematoriums and hospitals overwhelmed by the number of patients seeking treatment. Reports of people dying in ambulances outside hospitals because the latter did not have enough beds or oxygen cylinders reveal a healthcare system that is on its knees.
However, according to those who are witnessing the catastrophe first-hand, the horrifying images shown in the local and international media are just a microcosm of what is really happening on the ground. Even those with money and connections are unable to secure the healthcare they need. Barkha Dutt, a famous media personality in India who lost her father to COVID last week, told ITV that despite her privileges and connections, she could not get access to the treatment her father needed. She never imagined that she would become the story that she has been covering for months. She said lack of drugs and equipment in New Delhi’s hospitals is even forcing people to go to Sikh temples, which are supplying oxygen for free to those who need it. Many families in New Delhi and other large cities are treating their sick relatives at home with oxygen cylinders, some bought at exorbitant rates on the black market. Crematoriums cannot keep up with the number of bodies arriving at their gates. The smell of death is everywhere.
Many of the current deaths are not exclusively due to the virus, but also to a lack of preparedness on the part of India’s healthcare system, which suddenly became overwhelmed due to a dramatic spike in corona cases. Analysts say the easing of restrictions and complacency on the part of Indians in general led to the crisis. People went back to work and continued with their daily lives as if there was no pandemic. The winter wedding season was in full swing in cities like New Delhi.
On its part, the government did little to avert the crisis by allowing the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering that is held along the banks of the Ganges river, to take place. The gathering became a superspreader event, as did the many political rallies held in states like West Bengal, which were attended by hundreds of people. At one such rally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi even boasted that the presence of large numbers of people at the rallies showed that his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had massive support. Social distancing and wearing of masks were not prevalent at these crowded meetings.
In January, Modi told leaders at the World Economic Forum that India had “saved humanity from a disaster by containing corona effectively”. He said that India had defied expectations of “a tsunami of corona infections”. Now he is having to eat his own words. Not only has India, the world’s second most populous country, become the epicentre of the disease – with new aggressive variants being reported every week – but it is in the very awkward position of having to seek aid from other countries, including its long-time rival Pakistan, which has offered to help. The UK, USA and other governments plan to send oxygen and other medical supplies to India.
India has tended to view itself as a regional economic powerhouse, and so being reduced to a recipient of humanitarian aid is having a wounding effect. This is not how Modi, whose Hindu nationalist rhetoric has ignited a “Hindu First” movement in India, would like India to be viewed. India’s prime minister now finds himself reduced to having to accept medical aid for a country that has marketed itself as a destination for medical tourism and the “pharmacy of the world” that manufactures affordable drugs for developing nations. The Serum Institute of India is currently producing a large proportion of the AstraZeneca vaccine that is being rolled out in many countries. But Modi has decided to nationalise the institute as well, and has banned exports of the vaccine until the country sorts out its own health crisis, leaving millions of people around the world, including Kenya, in limbo.
India’s public healthcare system was already strained before the pandemic. The government spends a measly 1 per cent of its budget on health. The medical needs of Indians are met mostly by the private sector. Nearly 80 per cent of the healthcare in urban areas is provided by private facilities. In rural areas, 70 per cent of the population relies on private clinics and hospitals, which are unaffordable for the majority. This privatisation of healthcare has come at a huge cost. Poor Indians suffer disproportionately from preventable diseases. Malnutrition rates among mothers and children are also among the highest in the world. What we are witnessing is how neglect of public healthcare systems can have long-term negative consequences, especially during a disaster or an epidemic.
India is also a lesson in how leaders can impact the spread of a disease. Since he took office, Prime Minister Modi has tried very hard to control public perceptions about his achievements and the virtues of the BJP, which he has filled with spin doctors who try to present a rosy image of India under his leadership. Several journalists have been arrested under Modi’s watch and media organisations that call him out are dismissed as unpatriotic. News channels in India are dominated by pro-government news anchors and journalists who have twisted the narrative in favour of Modi, even when he stands in the way of press freedom. In March 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, Modi asked India’s Supreme Court to stop media organisations from publishing any COVID-related news without getting government clearance first. Thankfully, because the Supreme Court is obliged to protect the rights and freedoms enshrined in India’s constitution, including freedom of the press, the court refused his request.
What we are witnessing is how neglect of public healthcare systems can have long-term negative consequences.
Like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the USA, Modi underplayed the scale of the pandemic and painted independent media and journalists who questioned his policies as enemies of the people. As a result, more than half a million Americans, nearly 400,000 Brazilians and some 200,000 Indians have died from COVID-19. The link between a paranoid, media-hostile leadership and negative health outcomes is evident in these cases.
Many independent journalists and observers believe that the official figures on COVID deaths and infections put out by the Indian government are a gross underestimation, and that the actual figures could be two or three times more than those that are being reported. Crematoriums are reporting more cremations adhering to COVID protocols than what is being given as the official death toll from COVID-19. This could be partly because many deaths are occurring at home and so are not being reported. In addition, people who die from COVID but who were not tested are not recorded as having died from the disease.
Meanwhile, the BJP government, is assuring India’s 1.4 billion citizens that it is doing everything to increase the supply of oxygen and increase vaccination levels among those over the age of 18, but these measures are coming a little too late. The death toll is likely to rise significantly over the coming weeks.
Lack of trust in the government may be the biggest hurdle countries face as they try to contain the virus. In Kenya, the theft of COVID-19 donations last year and massive corruption scandals at the state-run medical supplies agency, KEMSA, have severely diminished citizens’ faith in the government’s willingness and ability to protect them. Moreover, apart from periodic lockdowns and curfews, there seems to be no strategy on how prevention measures will be instituted in the long term. Also no one is quite sure when vaccination will reach “herd immunity” levels; people like me who have received their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine under the COVAX facility – a global mechanism for pooled procurement and distribution of vaccines for low and middle income countries – still don’t know for sure if they will get their second jab, a scenario complicated by the fact that Modi has temporarily banned the Serum Institute from exporting the vaccines.
India has three important lessons for Kenya and the rest of the world.
Lesson 1: Do not neglect the public healthcare system
Countries around the world such as South Korea and Uganda that have successfully contained the coronavirus, managed to do so because the containment measures were led and funded by the public sector. Mass testing and other measures could not have taken place if the government did not initiate them, and ensured their successful implementation through a nationwide network of public healthcare facilities. But for this to happen, people must have faith in the government, which is sorely lacking in many countries.
The emphasis on private healthcare in countries such as Kenya and India has also left millions of poor and low-income people completely vulnerable to epidemics and pandemics. Public healthcare systems in all countries should be beefed up so that countries are not caught unawares in the future. Like public education, public health is an investment that reaps economic and social dividends in the future. COVID-19 has shown us the folly of relying solely on the private sector to meet citizens’ health needs and the importance of investing in robust public health systems that play a key role in detecting, containing and stopping the spread of infectious diseases.
Lesson 2: Do not suppress or distort scientific information and data
Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro consistently underplayed the threat posed by the novel coronavirus disease. Trump initially referred to it as a minor flu even as hospital beds were filling up, and even as infection rates were rising. Both leaders also mocked the wearing of masks and social distancing, which American and Brazilian scientists advocated. Trump’s rallies were filled with people who ignored corona protocols. In India, some politicians even said that the pandemic was a hoax intended to prevent farmers in Punjab from organising protests against the government’s agriculture policies. By ignoring the science, and peddling false information, these leaders put their countries’ citizens in immense danger. Vilifying the press – which is often the public’s main source of corona-related data and information – in the face of a pandemic is also not a good idea.
Lesson 3. Do not sacrifice public health to gain political mileage
Politicians should not sacrifice people’s lives at the altar of politics. Prime Minister Modi could have banned pilgrims from attending the Kumbh Mela, just as he ordered a nationwide lockdown early last year. But he chose not to do so because he wanted to appease Hindus and his Hindu nationalist base. In addition, he attended massive political rallies where few people wore masks, thereby facilitating the spread of the virus. He put people’s lives in danger because he wanted to score political points for his party. In the United States and Brazil, leaders chose to keep the economy running even if it meant losing hundreds of thousands of lives. In Kenya, politicians engaged in Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) rallies even as corona cases were rising. Moreover, parliamentarians are discussing BBI amendments to the constitution rather than what measures could be taken to protect Kenyans not just from the coronavirus disease and its various variants, but also from the hardships they have had to endure in the past year due to job losses and business closures. This is the type of shortsightedness and lack of compassion and vision among the country’s leadership that has led to the public health crisis facing India today.
Towards an African Revolution: Fanon and the New Popular Movement (Hirak) Engulfing Algeria
Sixty years after the death of the revolutionary Frantz Fanon and the publication of his masterpiece, The Wretched of the Earth, Algeria is undergoing another revolution. In the first of a two-part blogpost, Hamza Hamouchene provides a brief historical account of Fanon’s anti-colonial thought, his critique of the postcolonial ruling elites and the new popular movement (Hirak) engulfing Algeria.
During the upheavals that the North African and West Asian region witnessed a decade ago – what has been dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’- Fanon’s thought proved to be as relevant as ever. Not only relevant, but insightful in helping to grasp the violence of the world we live in, and the necessity of a sustained rebellion against it.
Fanon’s wrote during in a period of decolonisation in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South. Born in Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean, though Algerian by choice, he wrote from the vantage point of the Algerian revolution against French colonialism and of his political experiences on the African continent. Today, we might ask: can his analyses transcend the limitations of time? Can we learn from him as a committed intellectual and revolutionary thinker? Or should we just reduce him to another anti-colonial figure, largely irrelevant for our post-colonial times?
For me, as an Algerian activist, Fanon’s dynamic and revolutionary thinking, always about creation, movement and becoming, remains prophetic, vivid and committed to emancipation from all forms of oppression. He strongly and compellingly argued for a path to a future where humanity ‘advances a step further’ and breaks away from the world of colonialism and European universalism. Fanon represented the maturing of anti-colonial consciousness and he was a decolonial thinker par excellence.
Despite his short life (he died at the age of 36 from leukaemia in 1961), Fanon’s thought is rich and his work, in books, papers and speeches, prolific. He wrote his first book Black Skin, White Masks in 1952, two years before Điện Biên Phủ (the defeat of the French in a crucial battle in Vietnam) and his last book, The Wretched of the Earth in 1961. His 1961 classic became a treatise on the anti-colonialist and Third-Worldist struggle, one year before Algerian independence, at a moment when sub-Saharan African countries were gaining their independence – an experience in which Fanon was deeply and practically involved.
In Fanon’s intellectual journey, we can see the interactions between Black America and Africa, between the intellectual and the militant, between theory and practice, idealism and pragmatism, individual analysis and collective action, the psychological life (he trained as a psychiatrist) and physical struggle, nationalism and Pan-Africanism and finally between questions of colonialism and those of neo-colonialism.
Fanon did not live to see his adoptive country become free from French colonial domination, something he believed had become inevitable. Yet his experiences and analysis were the prism through which many revolutionaries abroad understood Algeria and helped to turn the country into the mecca of Third World revolution.
Six decades after the publication of his masterpiece The Wretched, Algeria is witnessing another revolution, this time against the national bourgeoisie that Fanon railed against in his ferocious chapter ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.’
Fanon and colonial Algeria
The Algerian independence struggle against the French was one of the most inspiring anti-imperialist revolutions of the 20th century. It was part of a wave of decolonisation that had started after the Second World War in India, China, Cuba, Vietnam and many countries in Africa. The wave of decolonisation inscribed itself in the spirit of the Bandung Conference and the era of the ‘awakening of the South’, the Third world as it was then known, which has been subjected to decades of colonial and capitalist domination under several forms, from protectorates to settler colonies.
Frantz Fanon methodically unpicked the mechanisms of violence put in place by colonialism. He wrote: ‘Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.’ According to him, the colonial world is a Manichean world (to see things as having only two sides), which goes to its logical conclusion and ‘dehumanises the native, or to speak plainly it turns him into an animal.’
What followed the insurrection on November 1, 1954, launched by nationalist forces against the French, was one of the longest and bloodiest wars of decolonisation, which saw the widespread involvement of the rural poor and urban popular classes. Huge numbers of Algerians were killed in the eight-year war against the French that ended in 1962, a war that has become the foundation of modern Algerian politics.
Arriving at Blida psychiatric hospital in 1953 in French controlled Algeria, Fanon realised quickly that colonisation, in its essence, produced madness. For him, colonisation was a systematic negation of the other and a refusal to attribute humanity to them. In contrast to other forms of domination, the violence here was total, diffuse, and permanent.
Treating both French torturers and liberation fighter, Fanon could not escape this total violence. This led him to resign in 1956 and to join the Front de libération nationale (FLN). He wrote: ‘The Arab, alienated permanently in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalisation.’ He added that the Algerian war was ‘a logical consequence of an abortive attempt to decerebralise a people’.
Fanon saw colonial ideology being underpinned by the affirmation of white supremacy and its ‘civilising mission.’ The result was the development in the ‘indigènes évolués’ (literally the more evolved natives) of a desire to be white, a desire which is nothing more than an existential aberration. However, this desire stumbles upon the unequal character of the colonial system which assigns places according to colour.
Throughout his professional work and militant writings, Fanon challenged the dominant culturalist and racist approaches on the ‘native’: Arabs are lazy, liars, deceivers, thieves, etc. He advanced a materialist explanation, situating symptoms, behaviours, self-hatred and inferiority complexes in a life of oppression and the reality of unequal colonial relations.
Fanon believed in revolutionary Algeria. His illuminating book A Dying Colonialism (published in 1959) or as it is known in French L’An Cinq de la Révolution Algérienne, shows how liberation does not come as a gift. It is seized by the popular classes with their own hands and by seizing it they are themselves transformed. He strongly argued the most elevated form of culture – that is to say, of progress – is to resist colonial domination. For Fanon, revolution was a transformative process that created ‘new souls.’ For this reason, Fanon closes his 1959 book with the words: ‘The revolution …changes man and renews society, has reached an advanced stage. This oxygen which creates and shapes a new humanity – this, too, is the Algerian revolution.’
Bankruptcy of the post-colonial ruling elites
Unfortunately, the Algerian revolution and its attempt to break from the imperialist-capitalist system was defeated, both by counter-revolutionary forces and by its own contradictions. The revolution harboured the seeds of its own failure from the start: it was a top-down, authoritarian, and highly bureaucratic project (albeit with some redistributive aspects that improved people’s lives in the reforms carried out in the first years of independence).
However, the creative experiences of workers’ initiatives and self-management of the 1960s and 1970s were undermined by a paralyzing state bureaucracy that failed to genuinely involve workers in the control of the processes of production. This lack of democracy was connected with the ascendancy of a comprador bourgeoisie that was hostile to socialism, workers control and staunchly opposed to genuine land reform.
By the 1980s, the global neoliberal counter-revolution was the nail in the coffin and ushered in an age of deindustrialization and pro-market policies in Algeria, at the expense of the popular classes. The dignitaries of the new neoliberal orthodoxy declared that everything was for sale and opened the way for mass privatization.
Fanon’s work still bears a prophetic power as an accurate description of what happened in Algeria and elsewhere in the Global South. Fanon foretold the bankruptcy and sterility of national bourgeoisies in Africa and the Middle East today. A ‘profiteering caste’, he wrote, that tended to replace the colonial ruling class with a new class-based system replicating the old structures of exploitation and oppression.
By the 1980s, the Algerian national bourgeoisie had dispensed with popular legitimacy, turned its back on the realities of poverty and underdevelopment. In Fanon’s terms, this parasitic and unproductive bourgeoisie (both civilian and military) was the greatest threat to the sovereignty of the nation. In Algeria, this class was closely connected to the ruling party, the FLN, and renounced the autonomous development initiated in the 1960s and offered one concession after another for privatizations and projects that would undermine the country’s sovereignty and endanger its population and environment — the exploitation of shale gas and offshore resources being just one example.
Today, Algeria – but also Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Gabon, Angola and South Africa, among others – follows the dictates of the new instruments of imperialism such as the IMF, the World Bank and negotiate entry into the World Trade Organisation. Some African countries continue to use the CFA franc (renamed Eco in December 2019), a currency inherited from colonialism and still under the control of the French Treasury.
Fanon predicted this behaviour of the national bourgeoisie when he noted that its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation but rather consists of ‘being the transmission line between the nation and capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neo-colonialism.’ Fanon’s analysis of the class basis of independence speaks to the contemporary postcolonial reality, a reality shaped by a national bourgeoisie ‘unabashedly…anti-national,’ opting he added, for the path of a conventional bourgeoisie, ‘a bourgeoisie which is stupidly, contemptibly and cynically bourgeois.’
Fanon also noted in 1961 the international division of labour, where we Africans ‘still export raw materials and continue being Europe’s small farmers who specialise in unfinished products.’ Algeria remains in a extractivist model of development where profits are accumulated in the hands of a foreign-backed minority at the expense of dispossession of the majority.
The Hirak and the new Algerian revolution
Fanon alerted us sixty years ago that the enrichment of this ‘profiteering caste’ will be accompanied by ‘a decisive awakening on the part of the people and a growing awareness that promised stormy days to come.’ In 2019 Algerians shattered the wall of fear and broke from a process that had infantilised and dazed them for decades. They erupted onto the political scene, discovered their political will and began again to make history.
Since 22 February 2019, millions of people, young and old, men and women from different social classes rose in a momentous rebellion. Historic Friday marches, followed by protests in professional sectors, united people in their rejection of the ruling system and their demands of radical democratic change. ‘They must all go!’ (Yetnahaw ga’), ‘The country is ours and we’ll do what we wish’ (Lablad abladna oundirou rayna), became two emblematic slogans of the uprising, symbolising the radical evolution of a popular movement (Al Hirak Acha’bi). The uprising was triggered by the incumbent president Bouteflika’s announcement that he would run for a fifth term despite suffering from aphasia and being absent from public life.
The movement (Hirak) is unique in its scale, peaceful character, national spread – including the marginalised south, and participation of women and young people, who constitute the majority of Algeria’s population. The extent of popular mobilisation has not been seen since 1962, when Algerians went to the streets to celebrate their hard-won independence from France.
The popular classes have affirmed their role as agents in their own destiny. We can use Fanon’s exact words to describe this phenomenon: ‘The thesis that men change at the same time that they change the world has never been as manifest as it is now in Algeria. This trial of strength not only remodels the consciousness that man has of himself, and of his former dominators or of the world, at last within his reach. The struggle at different levels renews the symbols, the myths, the beliefs, the emotional responsiveness of the people. We witness in Algeria man’s reassertion of his capacity to progress.’
The Hirak succeeded in unravelling the webs of deceit that were deployed by the ruling class and its propaganda machine. Moreover, the evolution of its slogans, chants, and forms of resistance, is demonstrative of processes of politicisation and popular education. The re-appropriation of public spaces created a kind of an agora where people discuss, debate, exchange views, talk strategy and perspectives, criticize each other or simply express themselves in many ways including through art and music. This has opened new horizons for resisting and building together.
Cultural production also took on another meaning because it was associated with liberation and seen as a form of political action and solidarity. Far from the folkloric and sterile productions under the suffocating patronage of authoritarian elites, we have seen instead a culture that speaks to the people and advances their resistance and struggles through poetry, music, theatre, cartoons, and street-art. Again, we see Fanon’s insights in his theorisation of culture as a form of political action: ‘A national culture is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover the people’s true nature. It is not made up of the inert dregs of gratuitous actions, that is to say actions which are less and less attached to the ever-present reality of the people.’
The struggle of decolonisation continues
Leaving aside largely semantic arguments around whether it is a movement, uprising, revolt or a revolution, one can say for certain that what is taking place in Algeria today is a transformative process, pregnant with emancipatory potential. The evolution of the movement and its demands specifically around ‘independence’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘an end to the pillage of the country’s resources’ are fertile ground for anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and even ecological ideas.
Algerians are making a direct link between their current struggle and the anti-French colonial resistance in the 1950s, seeing their efforts as the continuation of decolonisation. When chanting ‘Generals to the dustbin and Algeria will be independent’, they are laying bare the vacuous official narrative around the glorious revolution and revealing that it has been shamelessly used to pursue personal enrichment. We see a second Fanonian moment where people expose the neo-colonial situation and emphasise one unique characteristic of their uprising: its rootedness in the anti-colonial struggle against the French.
Slogans and chants have captured this desire and made references to anti-colonial war veterans such as Ali La Pointe, Amirouche, Ben Mhidi and Abane: ‘Oh Ali [la pointe] your descendants will never stop until they wrench their freedom!’ and ‘We are the descendants of Amirouche and we will never go back!’
The struggle of decolonisation is being given a new lease of life as Algerians lay claim to the popular and economic sovereignty that was denied to them when formal independence was achieved in 1962. In Fanon’s prophetic words: ‘The people who at the beginning of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manichaeism of the settler – Blacks and Whites, Arabs and Christians – realise as they go along that it sometimes happens that you get Blacks who are whiter than the whites and the hope of an independent nation does not always tempt certain strata of the populations to give up their interests or privileges.’
This two-part long read is an extract from a chapter in a forthcoming book Fanon Today: The Revolt and Reason of the Wretched of the Earth (edited by Nigel Gibson, Daraja Press 2021).
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.
South Africa: Why an Amnesty for Grand Corruption Is a Bad Idea
A full confession can bring amnesty and immunity from prosecution or civil procedures for the crimes committed. Therein lies the central irony. As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done they get closer and closer to amnesty and it gets more and more intolerable that these people should be given amnesty.
South Africa’s former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, provoked a political storm recently when she suggested that public servants implicated in grand corruption should be given the chance to apply for amnesty.
Many South Africans, weary of rampant, unchecked and unaccountable corruption, could be forgiven for asking: what on earth was she thinking?
Madonsela won the admiration of many South Africans because of her steely resolve in the face of malfeasance and breaches of the rules of integrity in public office. Her proposal suggested she might be going soft on corruption.
To be effective as the Public Protector Madonsela required many attributes, as I set out in my 2013 book, The Zuma Years. These included independence of mind, a very thick skin and a certain contrarian eccentricity that rendered her far less susceptible to the numerous attempts to intimidate her as she took on then president Jacob Zuma and his state capture network.
Her amnesty idea displays all of these characteristics.
It should be taken seriously, if only to affirm the merit of a diametrically opposed position.
It’s an inherently bad idea.
Madonsela’s timing is especially unfortunate. It is only in very recent times that the Hawks, the priority crimes investigating police unit, and other agencies of the criminal justice system appear to have recovered the institutional capacity to begin prosecuting those responsible for the deep-lying state capture project.
Recent developments have begun to suggest that the net is finally tightening around the bigger fish that are the true architects of systematic corruption in the country.
This has been widely welcomed. Accountability, at last.
Against the grain of this public view, Madonsela, a law professor, entered the fray to suggest that instead of being tough on the perpetrators, an olive branch should be extended.
This is an example of the “independent-mindedness” for which Madonsela was rightly acclaimed during her seven-year term as Public Protector from 2009-2016.
It is also not only contrarian, but also eccentric in that it makes so little sense.
To be fair to her, she tried to clarify later that she did not mean amnesty for every perpetrator, and certainly not the big fish. Her idea is targeted at those whose “status”, she says, “in the food chain is quite junior”.
But the first of a series of fatal flaws in her idea is about where to draw the line: on what basis should one distinguish the smaller from the bigger fish?
Those who had played a “minor but critical” role was how she framed her idea. There is already a problem here: is it possible for something to be both “critical” to a (criminal) enterprise and yet still “minor”?
I think not.
Madonsela confirmed that amnesty should be available on a legal rather than a moral basis. Yet, in a radio interview after she’d floated the idea, and drawn a lot of flak, she added to the confusion.
At first Madonsela spoke of people who may have “bent the rules” unwittingly, in which case, they may well have a legal defence to criminal conduct. Later, she clarified that she intended to cover individuals with “agency”, even to the extent that their palms have been “greased with money” (which, she argued, they would have to pay back in return for amnesty).
If the right to amnesty was indeed to be a legal entitlement, then the terms on which entitlement to amnesty applies have to be very clearly and carefully drawn. This much has been revealed in Constitutional Court decisions concerning the legal rationality of presidential amnesties or pardons in the case of women convicts and perpetrators of apartheid era offences.
Madonsela’s public policy rationale appears to be that without an inducement, the smaller cogs in the bigger wheels of state corruption may seek to hide and avoid prosecution when what is required is that they should come forward with information about the bigger fish.
Perhaps, then, an offer of amnesty – in effect, a legal right to indemnity from prosecution – deserves to be given serious consideration. This, especially if it is the case that the National Prosecuting Authority is struggling to pull together the evidence to bring strong prosecutions against the most powerful perpetrators of state capture corruption.
But there is no evidence that this is the situation. And, moreover, there are major downsides to be weighed in the balance.
The case against amnesty
First of all: deterrence.
The fact that amnesty has been granted in the past may encourage future corrupt actors to take the risk. The corollary is that the successful prosecution of corrupt officials is likely to discourage repetition.
Secondly, the arguments put forward by Madonsela would, in my view, provide grounds for mitigation in sentencing – not for amnesty. One example would be “small fish” cooperating with the investigative authority and providing evidence about the bigger fish. Another example would be if someone could show that they were bullied into bending procurement rules by a superior and more powerful individual in the system.
Another possible avenue – common practice in criminal justice systems around the world – is the use of a “plea bargain”. Here an accused person trades information in return for facing a less serious charge.
Amnesty would, in effect, deprive them of this opportunity and could thereby undermine the integrity of the whole criminal justice system.
The other major consideration is perception – both in the eyes of key stakeholders, such as the investment community and, secondly, the general public.
Investors are especially eager to see if South Africa has the capacity to hold to account those who contaminated the democratic state and so undermined fair competition by enabling a rent-seekers’ paradise. It is about the strength of the rule of law. Investors want to feel confident that this is one destination where the rule of law holds and where, because of state capture prosecutions, there is less risk of a repeat.
And surely, above all else, the public will feel cheated if perpetrators of state capture corruption, however “minor”, get away scot-free. This, more than anything, would encourage a lawless society, steeped in a culture of impunity rather than accountability.
A dangerous path to tread
Attempts to trade amnesty for information about state corruption have caused conflict as well as controversy in other countries. One notable example was in Tunisia in 2017.
But the biggest danger is that it simply sends the wrong message. This was aptly spelt out by esteemed South African artist William Kentridge reflecting on a previous attempt at taking the amnesty road in South Africa through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process.
Admittedly, Madonsela has a different purpose in mind than the national reconciliation ambition of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. But, no, Advocate Madonsela, a blanket amnesty would send the wrong message at the worst possible time.
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