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India Under Modi: Gucci Capitalism Embraces Hindu Nationalism

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Four years since Narendra Modi’s Hindu supremacist BJP took power, dismantling the old Congress Party elitist stranglehold on power, RASNA WARAH returns to New Delhi for the first time in 30 years, to discover, among the chattering reasporan tech and financial privileged classes, a world of globalised sophistication peppered with rightwing prejudice. 

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I am in a fashionable neighbourhood in South Delhi with a group of 40-somethings who could be described as the New India, the aspirational India, the India of the dot-com generation – English-speaking, affluent, tech-savvy, well-travelled. During before-dinner drinks that include the finest imported wines and whiskies, the conversation inevitably turns to the Indian stock market – what shares are most profitable, when to invest and how much, and how to reap the greatest profits.

Not too long ago, this same group might have been looking to leave India for greener pastures in places like America or Australia. Today, they and their age-mates couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. One of them has just given up a job in Dubai to return to his home in New Delhi. “Life is so much better here – we are spoilt, by servants, cooks and the lifestyle. Who would want to give all this up?” he commented as we debated whether to sample the spicy Chinese dumplings or the cheese and crackers that the dinner party host had on display.

New Delhi thirty years ago, when I last visited the city, was a different place. It was more akin to V.S. Naipaul’s India where those who had the means or the opportunity to do so couldn’t wait to leave, “to shake India off, shake off what they see as the retarded native element in dhotis and caste-marks, temple-goers…bad at English” than to Indian author Siddhartha Deb’s more recent description of the subcontinent, where people are “devoted to efficiency, given to the making of money and the enjoyment of consumer goods while retaining a touch of traditional spice, which meant that they did things like use the Internet to arrange marriages along caste and class lines”.

Shopping malls were an alien concept then and Louis Vuitton, BMW, Gucci and other luxury brands had not yet entered the Indian market. Pre-1991, then Finance Minister, who would become Prime Minister over a decade later, Manmohan Singh had not yet liberalised the economy. India produced everything from matchsticks to refrigerators for domestic consumption. In 1977, even Coca-Cola withdrew from the Indian market and an Indian company filled the gap by producing Thums Up, a local version of the soft drink. (Coca-Cola re-entered the Indian market in 1993.) The mantra of self-reliance, or Swadesh, popularised by Mahatma Gandhi, extended even to motorcars – the Indian-made Ambassador, a slow, bulky vehicle, was the main mode of transport of ministers and senior government officials. It was rare to see a Mercedes Benz or a Toyota on the roads.

New Delhi thirty years ago, when I last visited…was a different place…more akin to V.S. Naipaul’s India where those who had the means or the opportunity …couldn’t wait to leave, “to shake India off, shake off what they see as the retarded native element in dhotis and caste-marks, temple-goers…bad at English” than to Indian author Siddhartha Deb’s more recent description of the subcontinent, where people are “devoted to efficiency, given to the making of money and the enjoyment of consumer goods while retaining a touch of traditional spice, which meant that they did things like use the Internet to arrange marriages along caste and class lines”.

This protectionist (some might call it nationalist) “Made in India” policy lost favour in the early 1990s with the opening up of the economy. With liberalisation came an aspirational generation that could dream the American Dream that Indian IT engineers in places like Silicon Valley were already experiencing. Thanks to a government policy initiated shortly after independence to promote and subsidise higher education in science and technology, India’s top state-run engineering institutes churned out graduates that could find a job anywhere in the world. Many of these engineers eventually returned home to establish software companies like Infosys in IT hubs like Bangalore, so much so that by 2006, the software industry in India was worth $25 billion and employed over a million people. The success of India’s IT sector and the outsourcing of services like call centres to Indian hubs by companies in the US and Europe spawned a generation of young Indians who had money to spend on luxury goods.

Meanwhile, India’s hospitals and medical facilities polished up their image and improved the quality of specialised health services, giving birth to what is now known as the “medical tourism” industry in the country. “India Shining”, the mantra of the 1990s and early 2000s, seemed to be bearing fruit. India’s GDP today stands at $2.6 trillion, making India the sixth largest economy in the world. (Only the US, China, Japan, Germany and the UK have larger economies.) With an annual economic growth rate of roughly 8 per cent, it is likely that India will soon make it to the top five economies.

Thanks to a government policy initiated shortly after independence to promote and subsidise higher education in science and technology, India’s top state-run engineering institutes churned out graduates that could find a job anywhere in the world…By 2006, the software industry in India was worth $25 billion and employed over a million people. The success of India’s IT sector and the outsourcing of services like call centres to Indian hubs by companies in the US and Europe spawned a generation of young Indians who had money to spend on luxury goods.

But is India really shining and have these achievements come at a price? Unlike China’s economic reforms in the late 1970s and early 80s, which managed to lift half a billion people out of poverty within one generation, and which saw this communist country evolve from a command economy to “market socialism with Chinese characteristics”, economic reforms in India have not had a significant impact on poverty levels. More than 260 million people – or about one-fifth of the population – are still classified as extremely poor, though there is a noticeable growth in the middle classes, whose numbers vary from between 300 million to 600 million, depending on who is doing the counting.

Rural India remains steeped in tradition and ignorance; caste still determines destiny. While the IT and retail sectors have grown, the agricultural sector is facing a crisis, with an increasing number of farmers committing suicide due to their inability to service loans taken to pay for higher-yield seeds marketed by multinational companies. This agrarian suicide crisis, which began in the 1990s, has left many wondering whether liberalisation has had a negative impact on the country’s agricultural sector.

But something fundamental has also shifted in India. Two things have happened in the last decade that have both affirmed and negated India’s assertions about being among the world’s fastest growing economies and most tolerant democracies. The first is the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader Narendra Modi who dismantled the old elitist structures that characterised Indian politics. The second is the growth in the popularity of a type of Hinduism that has given birth to new hierarchies and divisions based on religion.

While the IT and retail sectors have grown, the agricultural sector is facing a crisis, with an increasing number of farmers committing suicide due to their inability to service loans taken to pay for higher-yield seeds marketed by multinational companies.

Modi, who boasts of once being a chaiwallah, or tea seller, has injected a kind of egalitarianism in Indian politics. He has toppled the elitism that characterised the Indian Congress Party (India’s Grand Old Party). Although the Congress Party prides itself in representing the poor and minorities, under Indira Gandhi and her successors, it developed an elitist culture and sense of entitlement. As Ramesh Thakur commented in an op-ed piece in the Times of India, “Inevitably this [Congress Party culture] morphed into the VIP culture that Indians by and large detest with a depth of contempt, anger and resentment” – a situation that Modi fully exploited.

Modi, who is not averse to getting his hands dirty and leading by example, including taking a broom and cleaning the streets of the capital city, does not display conspicuous consumption or ostentatiousness. And unlike most of his predecessors, he did not attend elite English-medium schools and did not go abroad for higher education. His ascent to power had little to do with family connections or patronage networks, but more to do with his charisma and populist rhetoric. His stand against corruption is viewed by many as a refreshing attempt to tackle a vice that has plagued India for decades. He claims to be committed to eliminating the rot that had festered under Congress Party leadership, which allowed India’s ruling elite to capture power, wealth and privilege while allowing the majority of the country’s population to wallow in poverty and illiteracy.

But Modi’s brand of politics is also deeply flawed – and has proved to be divisive. The BJP’s “Hindutva” philosophy, which embraces militant Hinduism and imagines a “pure” India comprised only of Hindus, has led to increasing religious intolerance. Muslims, Christians and lower-caste Hindus have increasingly come under attack by Hindu mobs. While the Indian Prime Minister promised a more egalitarian and inclusive India, where an office clerk can aspire to become an office manager, he also created a more exclusive India, where minorities, Muslims in particular, have no place. Attacks against Muslims have been on the rise in India since he took office in 2014; Hindu vigilante groups, emboldened by a leader who believes that India belongs to just one religious group, have been targeting Muslims and other religious minorities. Some states in India have even banned the eating of beef. The Indian writer Arundhati Roy recently quipped, “it’s safer to be a cow than a woman or Muslim in India”.

Modi…does not display conspicuous consumption or ostentatiousness…[H]e did not attend elite English-medium schools and did not go abroad for higher education. His ascent to power had little to do with family connections or patronage networks… His stand against corruption is viewed by many as a refreshing attempt to tackle a vice that has plagued India for decades. But Modi’s brand of politics is also deeply flawed…[and] has led to increasing religious intolerance…[The] Prime Minister [has] also created a more exclusive India, where minorities, Muslims in particular, have no place.

Interestingly, the BJP’s brand of Hinduism has found a willing following among India’s so-called aspirational classes, who like to see themselves as modern and cosmopolitan. In his book The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India, the writer Siddhartha Deb says that Modi’s brand of Hinduism received a new life in the liberalised 1990s “when the Indian elites simultaneously embraced free-market economics and a hardened Hindu chauvinism”.

Deb says that the Gita, Hinduism’s religious text, was adopted by these Hindu revivalists/fundamentalists because in it they discovered “an old, civilisational argument for maintaining the contemporary hierarchies of caste, wealth and power…they read an endorsement of a militant, aggressive Hinduism that did not shirk from violence, especially against minorities and the poor”. In other words, while the economic pie has grown larger in India, the biggest slices are still being eaten by Hindu elites, who now find justification in religious texts for excluding and discriminating against those who have traditionally been marginalised.

Modi’s right-wing government is also silencing the dissenting voices of left-leaning writers like Arundhati Roy. Roy’s radical views have also not endeared her to the aspirational classes, such as the group I met at the South Delhi dinner gathering, who consider her to be an “unpatriotic” rabble-rouser intent on spoiling India’s reputation.

[D]issenting voices left-leaning writers like Arundhati Roy are also being silenced…Roy’s radical views have also not endeared her to the aspirational classes…who consider her to be an “unpatriotic” rabble-rouser intent on spoiling India’s reputation. Recently five human rights activists were also arrested and accused by the government of being members of India’s Communist Party…Under Narendra Modi, India may be rising, but it is certainly not going in a direction that promises a more tolerant and diverse society.

Recently five human rights activists were also arrested and accused by the government of being members of India’s Communist Party. Among them were lawyers and a professor. India has not witnessed such intolerance since Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency in India in the late 1970s.

Under Narendra Modi, India may be rising, but it is certainly not going in a direction that promises a more tolerant and diverse society.

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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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Not Yet Uhuru: Why Postcolonialism Doesn’t Exist in France

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans.

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Racism and exclusion have always been at the heart of France’s neocolonial project in Africa. What is new, however, is the pervasive and active discursive process of making invisible, and therefore containment, of the violent reality of France’s policies and its devastating consequences for France’s racialised citizens as well as the African populations on the other side of the Mediterranean. Today it is important to consider what France has become: to slightly stretch the words of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, a one-dimensional society where repressive and exploitative forces of domination and injustice that have been at the heart of France’s national consciousness challenge any possibility of a genuine vision of change.

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans. The state, the media, and the academy in France actively embody the role of new agents of state neocolonialism to reject any resistance against racism and Islamophobia through complex methods of containment and abstraction.

Race blindness for instance becomes an effective tool to safeguard the neocolonialist foundation of France’s state apparatus and contain any possible threats to its national consciousness. As writer Lauren Collins observes, “There is a common belief that there cannot be racism in France because in France there is, officially, no such thing as race. The state, operating under a policy of “absolute equality,” does not collect any statistics on race or ethnicity.” By doing so, the state apparatus in France ignores its racialised and ethnic citizens and represses their rights to be fully acknowledged.

State neocolonialism in France has been impregnated in its national consciousness to the extent that its networks of domination and dehumanization have blurred the traditional distinctions that are made on the basis of colour and between racialised and ethnic citizens emigrating from Africa. In France, to draw upon Fanon’s analysis that racism is fundamental to the economic structures of capitalism, the political infrastructure is also a superstructure: you are French because you embody France’s state neocolonialism, you embody France’s state neocolonialism because you are French. The French state no longer presupposes certain racial and aesthetic characteristics of the ideal citizen: Black African intellectuals and brown Maghrebi media pundits can also be incorporated as new agents of state neocolonialism. In contemporary France, Africans are not othered and excluded on the basis of race, ethnicity, or colour, but rather on the basis of their politics, culture, and religion.

When Emmanuel Macron, the French president, decided in October 2019 to share his views on immigration and Islamophobia, he chose the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuellesdeclaring that “the failure of our (economic) model coincides with the crisis of Islam” and adding that this crisis leads to the emergence of more radical forms of political Islam. Macron criticized a demonstration in support of the right to wear veils as “non-aligned Third-Worldism with Marxist tendencies” (he used the word “relents,” which can be translated to hint or trace, but also to stink or stench). This interview was published a few days after a mosque shooting in Bayonne, in south-west France. No terrorism offenses were brought by the French government against the white shooter.

The media’s complicity overwhelms any possibility of a meaningful public debate. At its basic form, the process of invisibilisation in a one-dimensional society involves the dispersal of productive energies through diversion and abstraction so to ensure that a revolutionary momentum is as unattainable as the end of capitalism itself.

This complicit relationship between the media and the state in France is carefully exposed in Serge Halimi’s Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde (translated to The New Watch Dogs, 1997-2005). Halimi, the chief editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, lays down a seething critique of a “capitalist” press and media in France that are heavily influenced by the elite interests of politicians and powerful corporations and likely to manufacture propaganda to serve their agenda.

This is exemplified by the controversial debate in France around returning works of African art, stolen during colonial times, to the continent after the publication of the report by the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr, and commissioned by Macron, which recommends to cancel the project of long-term loan of items to African museums and to support the full and unconditional restitution of the looted heritage back to Africa. The glaring discrepancies in reporting the ambivalent position of the French Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, a right wing politician, regarding the return of the stolen artifacts to Africa highlight the dangerous complicity between state institutions and the media in France. There were two opposing reports of this event: on the one hand, major French media outlets celebrated the efforts of the French government to return 26 works of art to Benin. Radio France International, for example, chose the title: “Restitution of works of art in Benin: France goes a step further” while Libération opted for: “Restitution of works in Benin: Paris says it works for a quick return.” But once we dive into these articles, we are faced with the many approximations and “possible scenarios” under which France will actually return the art. The conditional supplants the affirmative, and what remains is the strong belief that much has been left unsaid.

On the other hand, The Art Newspaper, a leading global art magazine, commented differently on the same event: “France retreats from report recommending automatic restitutions of looted African artefacts” ran the article. Here, what is emphasized is the strong opposition of France’s powerful gallery owners and art collectors against any form of permanent restitution and the pressure they put to change the “restoration without delay” decision into a “temporary return.” The new scenario, according to the minister’s comments, refers now to a temporary “exhibition dedicated to the diversity, complexity and aesthetic richness of these works” that will be held, not in Africa, but across France this summer as part of Macron’s highly publicized event entitled “Africa 2020.”

While most news outlets in France continue to briefly comment on the ongoing debate between supporters and critics of Savoy-Sarr report on the restitution of African art, The Art Newspaper insisted that “the report made international headlines, recommending the restitution of African artifacts in French museums, but the country has not returned a single item to Africa.” A year after the publication of Savoy-Sarr recommendations and Macron’s promise for a quick return, “neither the 26 pieces from Benin nor indeed the 90,000 other Sub-Saharan artifacts in French museums” have been returned to Africa.

What is often dismissed from the debate on the restitution of African heritage is the capacity of the French president to secure political and economic gains while asserting the hegemonic power of France over its neo-colonies. Macron accepted to temporarily return El Hadj Omar Tall’s sword to Senegal for a period of five years during another highly publicized ceremony, and at the same time he persuaded Macky Sall, the Senegalese President, to sign a new, multi-hundred million euro contract “for the construction of three offshore patrol vessels for the Senegalese Navy.” Again, there is nothing new here: as Sally Price reports, “[R]estitution is part of a two-way interaction, based on inequality and demanding something in return.” However, Macron successfully manages to obscure this inequality through a highly-calculated, affective, and Africa-friendly communicative strategy.

In France, as the old world is dying and the new is waiting to be born again, a specific breed of pseudo-intellectuals highjacks the public discourse to further promote a republicanism of inequality and exclusion. Among white French intellectuals, the complexity of the postcolonial field is often reduced to a corrupt discursive technology of deceptive arguments, false readings, and deliberate confusion. It is unconceivable to think of a public debate about, say, the case for reparations.

Whenever I am faced with the abysmal state of postcolonialism in France, I remember how Carina Ray, associate professor at Brandeis University, at a panel on the racial politics of knowledge production in November 2018, described the state of African studies in Europe: There are still issues that are “so 1940s and 1950s.” “White Europeness” has made it difficult to bring new perspectives on the postcolonial question. As she put it blatantly: it is a disaster.

The dangerous pseudo-intellectualism of Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Éric Zemmour, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Houellebecq, Renaud Camus, Robert Ménard, and others – the list is absurdly long – has caused a permanent damage to any possibility of a qualitative change. There is no pause here: these figures have always been central to France’s neocolonial project of domination and exploitation.

As Marcuse writes, “The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” The omnipresence of Lévy, Finkielkraut, and Zemmour in public discourse in France is meant to turn meaningful propositions of liberation into obsolete forms of insignificant punditry.

In an infamous manifesto signed by 80 figures of the French intelligentsia such as the reactionary Alain Finkielkraut and published in 2018 postcolonialism was deemed “a hegemonic strategy” that attacks the ideals of republican universalism, and it involves “the use of methods of intellectual terrorism reminiscent and far exceeds what Stalinism once did to European intellectuals.”

What is often recurring in these incendiary attacks on postcolonialism among the white French elite is this amalgam of postcolonialism with the North American scholarship. There is the tendency to believe that postcolonial studies, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry and activism, is due above all to the contributions of the American and Anglo-Saxon schools to the developments of its theories and practices. When the existing tensions between France (and Europe) and the United States on issues of knowledge production and cultural superiority is taken into consideration, one is inclined to consider that their attacks against postcolonialism are a deep and irrational fear of hegemonic American interventionism.

The view of postcolonial thought as a universal, progressive praxis that has been forged by the struggles of the peoples of the South is dismissed. The fundamental thrust of postcolonialism as moving beyond racial and identity issues to rethink also political, cultural, and utopian ideals is attacked. While the Americans and others have grasped that, in a world in flux, we cannot afford not to be postcolonial, France’s established networks of neocolonial power continue to dismiss postcolonialism as unpatriotic and as a homogeneous threat.

Faced with Finkielkraut’s racist and misogynist attacks during a televised debate, Maboula Soumahoro, the activist and chair of the Black History Month in France, was succinct in her reply: “Your world is ending! You can be panic struck as long as you want, it’s over!”

Meanwhile, the complicity between the political, media and cultural institutions in France continues to silently enforce the state neocolonialism against the African diaspora. The death of Zineb Redouane, the islamophobic attack against a French Muslim women by a white far-right politician during a school trip with her son and other children to the regional parliament in eastern France, the outrageous and ignorant falsehoods made-up by a white French writer about slavery, the racist mural of Hervé Di Rosa in the National Assembly, the decision of the French government to backtrack on the full and permanent restitution of stolen works of African art, and France’s murky role in Libya’s ongoing civil war are all visible signs of a pervasive state of neocolonialism that dictates the violent relationship between France and Africa.

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What COVID-19 Has Revealed About Our Callous and Clueless Leaders

The insensitivity displayed by the Kenyan government during the COVID-19 lockdown has confirmed that the country’s leaders are oblivious to the challenges facing ordinary citizens. This don’t-care attitude could, however, give rise to demands for a more progressive and caring leadership.

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If Kenyans had any doubt that the government is oblivious to their worries and concerns, the COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed their worst fears: the Kenyan government is not only ignorant about how the majority of the country’s citizens live, but it also simply doesn’t care. The level of insensitivity displayed by the president and his cabinet has stunned even those who would normally sing the government’s praises.

A few examples:

1. Bludgeoning citizens during a curfew

When the government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and a partial lockdown at the end of March, images of police officers brutally beating up people waiting for ferries and other forms of public transport filled social media. There have been at least three reported deaths as a result of the violence inflicted on ordinary citizens by the police. No public apology by the police has been forthcoming, nor has there been any statement on who died and in what circumstances. The cruelty with which the curfew was enforced shocked even the international media, prompting the president to urge the police to use restraint. Yet, the beatings continue to this day. One recent video on social media showed police officers dragging a person from his house for not wearing a face mask – in his own house!

The new Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, has adopted a similar “disciplinarian” approach to the pandemic, which has instilled more fear than confidence in the government. Instead of reassuring Kenyans, he has resorted to scolding them, even admonishing those who dare to eat “only one sausage” with their beer at restaurants (Restaurants have been asked to only serve alcoholic drinks to patrons who order food as well.)

2. No safety net for the poor and vulnerable

Meanwhile, President Uhuru Kenyatta, begging bowl in hand, has been imploring donors/lenders to give money to Kenya to allow the country to effectively handle the coronavirus crisis. (It must be noted that the president belongs to among the wealthiest families in the country, running a large monopolistic and highly profitable milk processing enterprise. Yet, there has been no talk of reducing milk prices during this current crisis, nor has the president or his family donated money or milk to charities helping the jobless and the vulnerable.)

Promises of cash transfers and food to those who are suffering extreme hardship as a result of the curfew and lockdown don’t seem to have materialised. A cynical citizenry is already wondering if the funds raised will go towards the intended beneficiaries or will simply line some politically-connected pockets. Anecdotal evidence and other reports indicate that the Sh2,000 (about $20) monthly stipend that was promised to the most vulnerable people has still not been disbursed to them despite assurances by various government officials that cash transfers started in April. A quick, highly unscientific survey I conducted on people living in Kawangware, a large informal settlement in Nairobi, showed that none of the people, who have either been laid off or have had to close down their small businesses, have seen a cent of the stipend.

As Mercy Mwenda, a columnist with the Daily Nation lamented, “Given the current government’s treatment of poor Kenyans, one would be mistaken to assume that one of the key strategies of fighting poverty by this government is by creating more poor . . . It is now that we realise that our interaction with the government, as poor people, starts and ends with elections. In between, only the tragedies affecting the rich and brought by the rich will be focused on”.

3. Flowers for UK medics but no rewards for Kenyan doctors and nurses

Cowed by the state, and with no support system to see them through the crisis, Kenyans had to endure another slap in the face when it was announced that the Kenyan government had sent flowers grown in Kenya to National Health Service (NHS) workers in the United Kingdom in appreciation of their efforts in treating COVID-19 patients. This public relations stunt (probably a misguided attempt by Kenya’s once thriving flower-exporting industry to ensure future exports) backfired. Disgusted Kenyans – who have witnessed a deterioration in their public healthcare system, where doctors and nurses barely have the tools to treat any patient, let alone one suffering from COVID-19, were aghast that the president saw it fit to reward healthcare workers abroad when doctors and nurses in local hospitals have been complaining of lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and poor wages.

Uhuru responded to his social media critics by admitting that sending flowers to people in a rich country was not just a kind gesture by a poor country; it was a marketing strategy. He told Kenyans that the 300 bouquets of flowers were sent to the UK “to show the world our product” and to protect the country’s flower industry. Kenyans on social media were told to “think before you talk nonsense”.

4. Making people homeless in the middle of a lockdown

There were more shocking events to follow. About three weeks into the lockdown and curfew, some 5,000 people were forcibly evicted from a low-income neighbourhood in Nairobi and left homeless. Images of houses being demolished and women and children pleading for mercy did not move the government or the security personnel sent to the scene to halt the eviction.

The eviction happened during a time when no one could leave Nairobi due to containment measures, which meant that the evicted people could not even seek refuge in their rural homes. The 7 p.m. curfew also made it difficult for the evictees to find alternative accommodation at short notice. No one in government wondered how these people would enforce “social distancing” in their homeless state or where they would sleep during a night curfew.

The details about why this eviction was ordered at this time are scanty, but there is speculation that the order was made to pave way for a large development scheme nearby. Even if this is the case, why were the residents not given enough notice? More importantly, why was the eviction exercise (overseen by the police) ordered during a lockdown and curfew?

The international media and social media picked up the story and aired it for the world to see, but there was no apology or explanation from the state, nor any stated plans for resettling, housing or compensating those whose houses were torn down. John Githongo, the publisher of The Elephant, commented on Twitter: “That the demolition of houses of over 5,000 residents of Kariobangi North Ward can take place in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic lockdown demonstrates an official callousness and disregard for the lives and basic dignity of Kenyans that is staggering”.

Jubilee’s poor scorecard

What these tragic events have demonstrated is not just the government’s callousness in the midst of an extremely difficult period, but also its cluelessness, accompanied by extreme greed and an anti-intellectual posture, which has raised levels of mediocrity and incompetence in government not witnessed under Daniel arap Moi’s highly repressive regime. (Even the former president knew that you need intelligent people in government.)

State capture of media organisations has also made a disturbing comeback, with stories of editors taking instructions from State House, and with corporate interests aligning with state interests. (Uhuru’s contempt for the media – and for reading in general – was evident after he assumed the presidency when he stated that newspapers were only good for “wrapping meat”.)

When the coalition Jubilee government of Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto first took over in 2013, I thought it merely incompetent. But as the years passed, and as one corruption scandal after another threatened to taint the government’s legacy, it dawned on me that something more sinister was afoot. The corruption scandals were of such huge magnitude that Kenyans stopped counting the zeros in the amounts that were looted. Shady “tenderpreneurs” were blamed, but many Kenyans wondered how such large amounts could pass through important ministries without ministers or permanent secretaries noticing.

Belated attempts to curtail corruption in government have led to the sacking of a Treasury Cabinet Secretary, but this anti-corruption campaign appears to be targeting one side of the coalition government, which has raised questions about its impartiality.

It has also became apparent that the people running the show haven’t a clue about the challenges facing ordinary Kenyans. Election promises – such as the laptop for every Standard One pupil made by Uhuru during his 2013 election campaign – failed to consider that large numbers of Kenyan students go to schools that have no running water or electricity. Some schools, especially in remote areas, don’t even have roofs. One school board member told me of a case where tablets (and not the promised laptops) were delivered but they lie unused because they are not sufficient in number and, in any case, the teachers have not received training.

During the current crisis, government honchos encouraged school children to embrace e-learning at home, not realising that a personal computer is a luxury even for many university students, let alone primary school students.

Despite attempts to paint Uhuru’s “legacy” as one that has delivered tangible benefits to Kenyans, citizens now know that promises made by him and his deputy (like the stadiums that were to be built in various towns across the country) have not materialised. On the contrary, Kenyans have suffered a steep decline in their standard of living, thanks to high rates of inflation and a declining shilling.

And as if Kenyans are not already suffering financially on account of the current lockdown and curfew, the Treasury Secetary, Ukur Yatani, recently proposed a raft of additional taxes, which will make life for poor and middle class Kenyans and those who have lost their jobs or businesses even harder. He wants to impose 14 per cent VAT on liquefied petroleum gas (which was previously exempt from tax); he wants to tax pensions paid to people over the age of 65; he even wants to impose a 14 per cent tax on machinery and equipment used in plastic recycling plants (a real disincentive to those who recycle waste and care for the environment).

These and other new taxes are no doubt a response to the ballooning debt now standing at Sh6.29 trillion (about $60 billion or around 60 per cent of the country’s GDP) that the Jubilee government has inflicted on the country, and which it appears unable to repay. Early this month, Moody’s, the international credit rating agency, downgraded Kenya’s credit rating from “stable” to “negative” owing to the country’s huge repayments on external debt, heavy local debt obligations with less tax income (thanks to a mismanaged economy that saw several small and medium enterprises fold up due to high energy and other costs, including high taxation) and dollar loans that could see repayments rise if the shilling declines sharply. Given that Kenyans are also suffering – and will continue to suffer – from the effects of the COVID-19-related lockdown for several months, if not years, it is deeply insensitive to increase their suffering through punitive taxation.

The Jubilee government’s extortionate methods of taxation remind me of the notorious “hut tax” imposed by the British colonial administration which, having forcibly alienated the indigenous peoples from their land, then proceeded to impose a tax on them as a means of coercing them into paid employment on white settler farms, a form of extortion that eventually led to the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion.

An unholy alliance

Part of the problem is that the ruling elite in Kenya, particularly Uhuru Kenyatta, have never experienced real poverty. Uhuru’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, came from a humble peasant background, but within a decade of his rule after independence, he had become one of the wealthiest people in the country, with landholdings all across the country, some acquired through coercion.

Deputy President William Ruto has never hidden the fact that he comes from a poor family and even sold chickens by the roadside to earn a living when he was a young man. But it is not lost on Kenyans that the vast fortune he has today is the result of crooked deals he made when he was close to Moi, who groomed him to be a campaigner for his KANU party when it appeared that he might be losing his grip on power. Ruto has since been named in various land-related scandals, allegations he continues to deny.

The unholy alliance between these former International Criminal Court (ICC) indictees opened the floodgates of impunity. When Uhuru and Ruto joined hands to form the Jubilee Party in the run-up to the 2013 election – which they dubbed “a referendum against the ICC” – they were essentially telling Kenyans that any crime – even one against humanity – can be overlooked as long as the people vote overwhelmingly for those accused of that crime. Their election campaign encouraged a wave of known criminals to vie for political office, contrary to Chapter Six of the 2010 Constitution that demands that leaders in government be people of integrity.

However, now, seven years after that marriage of convenience, Uhuru seems to have switched sides. A clear example of the dishonesty that has pervaded his administration is the sidelining of allies of the deputy president, who in 2013 was paraded as the president’s best friend, ally and fellow indictee wrongfully charged by an international court. Both men often appeared in public holding hands and dressed in similar attire (another publicity stunt no doubt concocted by the various PR companies that the president hired to whitewash and shore up his image).

Now that Uhuru has joined hands with his former foe and leader of the now defunct opposition, Raila Odinga, he thinks nothing of dumping his deputy. Ruto is not known to be a man of integrity or honesty either, but when a man he helped to win an election dumps him like an old wet sock, it says a lot about the man doing the dumping. And given that Uhuru is capable of throwing people who helped him win an election under the bus, what guarantee is there he won’t do the same to Raila?

A bumpy ride and possible rebirth

Kenyans are in for a bumpy ride in the months leading up to the 2022 election, what with an ailing economy, thanks to mismanagement and now COVID-19, and a highly charged political environment where friends and foes have become highly interchangeable. In other countries, the mismanagement of the economy and the callous treatment of citizens would normally lead to a change of guard during elections. But this being Kenya – where loyalty to one’s tribe trumps qualifications – all we can expect is more of the same. Or perhaps COVID-19 may have finally helped to unmask our leaders to show their true colours, which could alter the way Kenyans view leadership.

Going forward, I envision a “lost development decade” for Kenya, much like the one that African countries experienced in the 1990s during the implementation of the World Bank-IMF Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) that led to withdrawal of essential services by the state and huge job cuts in the public sector, increasing the levels of hardship across the continent. The repayment of unsustainable and reckless loans will no doubt leave Kenya economically much weaker, and halt progress in key sectors. COVID-19 has only served to hasten the country’s inevitable economic decline.

However, we must also remember that the 1990s also gave birth to pro-democracy movements in Kenya and in many other African countries. As then, an angry, disillusioned and impoverished citizenry may now finally say, “Enough is enough!” This could give rise to a progressive alternative leadership that actually cares about the country and its citizens, and which has the vision and capacity to unleash Kenya’s unlimited potential.

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Returning the Gaze: How COVID-19 Is Inverting Colonial Imaginaries

COVID-19 spreads from Europe to Africa, inverting colonial imaginaries of African disease and challenging inherited hierarchies.

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Returning the Gaze: How COVID-19 Is Inverting Colonial Imaginaries
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Five days after the first COVID-19 case in Kenya—a young, middle-class returnee to Nairobi—was announced, the word “corona” was beginning to go around in western Kenyan villages. We had come here to look for the sedimented remains of past epidemics and anti-epidemic interventions. We were looking for latent residuals of colonial sleeping sickness and malaria, AIDS and cancer, when this future pandemic caught up with us. At this point, people still shook hands and touched (a week later, many didn’t), and young people played with the word “corona” like it was a novel token. Sylvanus, proud father of seven and devout member of the Legio Maria Church, seemed thrilled by exclaiming the name of the new affliction, followed by somewhat surprising bursts of laughter. He rather enjoyed challenging our seriousness about the matter. He did not fear it, “No, because this is a disease for whites.”

We took a stroll along the shore of Lake Victoria facing the Ugandan border, passing a fishing settlement. It was some years since we had been there and the children ran after us in friendly excitement. Their high-pitched calls rang out like the familiar: “Mzunguuu (white person), how are youuu?” But there was an unexpected variation: “Coronaviruuus, how are youuu?” As we continued walking, the childrens’ choir shifted to a cheekier whisper behind our backs: “Corona! Corona!” which went quiet each time we turned around—probably the point of the game. Returning to the main road, the looks of fishermen and market women felt more intense than usual, though not (yet) hostile. As we climbed in the car, Sylvanus whispered “Corona … ” and shared a bright, disarming laughter with those around us. Driving back towards town, many eyes seemed to follow us. Young men shouted “Corona” as we navigated speedbumps. One added “bye-bye.” A mother waiting for a bus waved us away dismissively. “As if we were Chinese,” our colleague Jehu remarked indignantly.

“Mzungu” had for the moment morphed into “Corona.” White man had become a virus. As we got back to Kisumu city, the address began to carry a latent sense of threat (though the market women during the evening’s shopping were cheerful as ever). This scene was not unfamiliar. Twenty-five years earlier, when Wenzel and his colleagues from the Kenyan Ministry of Health collected blood and stool samples from schoolchildren in the area, they had been called kachinja, “blood-stealers” and once were attacked.

Since colonial occupation, similar scares have occurred all over Africa (as depicted by the Congolese painter Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu). As we were writing this blog, social media posts emerged about COVID-19 vaccine research, one picturing French doctor Didier Raoult, allegedly warning “Africans not to take Bill Gates’s vaccine that contains poison”; another claiming that Obama promised “not to allow white people to kill Africans with their toxic vaccines.” Nothing new here—except that now, the calls for resistance, as well as the menace itself, originate from afar, and are given credibility by the faces of “international” figures appearing on one’s smartphone.

There is a rich literature on African stories about (post-)colonial Europeans and their African government-helpers, especially doctors and scientists, deploying alien tools (electricity, cars, syringes, condoms, tape-recorders, etc.) for nefarious aims. Much of this writing concedes some truth to the “rumors” arguing against their colonial dismissal as mere “misunderstandings.”

Such stories, the argument goes, reference experiences of oppression and exploitation (be it specific local situations, layered colonial histories, or the global political economy) and translate racist violence into locally meaningful, some call them “cultural” idioms. The scholarly value of these interpretations of rumor notwithstanding, there was something else at stake as the young men waved us the corona bye-bye. One quarter century ago, we could displace their accusations by means of interpretation. These were not really about the tiny blood samples Wenzel collected for his doctoral thesis as a medical anthropologist seeking to contribute to peoples’ health, but expressed an awareness of historical and global exploitation. And his respectful and critical recognition of these covert meanings served to position himself as different from the colonial agents at whom the rumors were really targeted.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, the white man is actually the threat they make him out to be. He, or she, is more likely than others to carry the virus. Instead of washing his hands after visiting someone’s household, he should do so before greeting anyone. The COVID-19 epidemic has an inverted directionality. It runs against both a century-old colonial narrative of Africa as a diseased continent and millennial pandemic predictions of bushmeat-eating African villagers unleashing viral threats to the world.

Now, Europe is the pandemic epicenter, even though within Europe, the disease still follows well-worn tracks of racial and social inequality. Europeans, and the Kenyans close to them, bring it to Kenya, not Chinese builders and businesspeople as initially claimed (and who were the first to offer their help). The Kenyan president therefore prohibits European planes from landing and quarantines their crews. And urban, middle-class Kenyans carry the virus upcountry to forest and bush. On Kenyan TV, villagers urge their educated urban relations to stay in the city, as they threaten the lives of their elders if they come home to visit (or to shelter from draconian anti-epidemic measures).

Whites feature here as a threat in a direct, embodied way—not as mere symbols of historical violence or effigies of the global economic order. Their touch and breath can be lethal. And yet, the epidemic also reveals the same whites as terminally weak, challenging centuries-old assertions of enlightened mastery over humans and non-humans alike. Nigerian film producer Moses Inwang’s much-shared list of lessons from corona opens with “China won the 3rd world war without firing a missile,” followed by “Europeans are not as educated as they appear” (a similar point was made in The Lancet), and “rich people are less immune than the poor.” In other recent “African” epidemics—HIV and Ebola—the figure of the benevolent and potent white person still prevailed. Help flowed from north to south to stem an affliction perceived as originating in Africa. Now, this image is replaced by a combination of danger and impotence mutually enforcing each other, which evokes neither gratitude nor inferiority. One of the most recent anti-vaccination trial memes features a painting of an African woman wielding a knife below the face-mask of a white, male doctor, underscoring that “we’re different from our ancestors.”

Nairobi MP John Kiarie captures the paradox of residual power and infirmity in a tweet from March 28, which warns of harrowing COVID-19 death-tolls and calls for radical action. Before his climax, “Ignore and die!” he says:

Where does this leave the European anthropologists, who departed from Kenya on one of these last planes that arrived empty at night? Our traditional interpretation of local fears as (significant) rumors no longer offers redemption—we are what they address us as. Our knowledge about what happens is not superior, nor more effective than that of those who call us “Corona.” More importantly, our detached and benevolent claim to ethnographic participant observation, always from a position of privilege and relative security, is put into question at precisely the moment when true participation finally becomes inevitable.

Now it is us who “are participated” (as the old aid-worker joke went) by the pervasive virus that is in every touch—maybe in our body, maybe in that of the other. It challenges differentiation, threatening pathogenic communion. And the escape route that we had been able to count on for six decades of post-colonial anthropology is finally being withdrawn—the return flight home, in the worst case the medical evacuation at “unlimited expense.”

It was the Kenyan president’s ban on flights to Europe that gathered us all in the eerie silence of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, as we boarded the flight just before the midnight curfew deadline. We got away ok, on the last plane, and did not turn into pumpkins. But, we left with a sense of an ending brought about by coronavirus. As if some irreparable damage has been done to the position of the old white man of any age or gender, and it is not yet evident what new anthropological persona will emerge from it. It is “bye-bye Corona” indeed, and maybe it was time. And yet, we know that COVID-19 has not yet fully arrived in Kenya, along with the inevitable suffering that the epidemic and the anti-epidemic measures is likely to bring about.

This post is from a new partnership between the African website Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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