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Uganda Since 1986: Museveni, the World Bank and the Coming of Neoliberalism

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Was Uganda’s economic miracle a donor-inspired lie? A new book mines the data and presents an alternative economic history of the Museveni era. By MARY SERUMAGA

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Uganda Since 1986: Museveni, the World Bank and the Coming of Neoliberalism
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Title: Uganda, The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation
Editors: Jörg Wiegratz, Giuliano Martiniello and Elisa Greco
Pub.r: Zed Books, 2018
Pages: 408
Reviewer: Mary Serumaga, January 2019

Any political debate about Uganda tends to become polarised very quickly. Champions of the prevailing economic orthodoxy speak of the past 30 years as an almost unqualified development success. Critics of the establishment point to the absence of tangible benefits for a broad range of the population. These positions came into sharp focus in 2018 when the People Power movement gained momentum following the international outcry triggered by the abduction and torture of its de facto leader, R. Kyagulanyi, MP.

It is possible to argue either position depending on where one sits on a sliding timeline between 1986 and the present. After four coups d’état in the 24 years following independence – a time when, as was often pointed out to me by an NRM diehard, ‘Even Kampala Road was murram!’ – the economic developments after the NRM takeover in 1986 look like miracles: the introduction and spread of mobile telephony and the internet, construction and tarmacking of major highways, the availability of foreign currency, freedom to travel abroad, etc. It is this contrast, with its racist undertones – what more does a Third World country expect? – on which the ‘Uganda as a success story’ argument is built. It is the line adopted by champions of neoliberal policies, the IMF (“This is an African success story”, Lagarde in 2017), the ruling junta and the bilateral partners and foreign investors who benefit from the liberalization of key sectors of the economy and dismantling of the public service. They are positioned in or close to 1986.

After four coups d’état in the 24 years following independence the economic developments after the NRM takeover in 1986 look like miracles.

Those outside that elite circle, referred to by the authors of this timely collection of essays on the neoliberal project in Uganda, as ‘the wretched of the earth’, are located in the present day. Economically and spatially removed from elite society, what they witness and experience 33 years after the NRM took power is described thus: “High levels of suicide (especially among the youth), poverty-driven deaths, preventable illnesses and generalised destitution.” There is more: 80% youth unemployment, collapse of the education system, ever-recurring stock outs of essential drugs, high maternal and neo-natal death rates, land-grabbing by the rich, embezzlement of public funds, fraudulent grabbing of commercial banks by the Central Bank for sale to the competition or elimination from the market.

In 2018, President Museveni and his Foreign Minister, Sam Kutesa, were cited in a New York criminal court for receiving bribes in exchange of access to public assets. These things are all connected, and held in place by state brutality.

Those outside that elite circle…’the wretched of the earth’, are located in the present day. Economically and spatially removed from elite society, what they witness and experience 33 years after the NRM took power…is “high levels of suicide (especially among the youth), poverty-driven deaths, preventable illnesses and generalised destitution.”

For ‘the wretched of the earth’, this is the story of ‘Uganda in crisis’.

While affirming the physical, political and economic transformation of Uganda since 1986, the authors interrogate both the drivers of the changes (the regime or its foreign financiers?) and identify the beneficiaries.

First the changes. Taking Nystrand and Tamm’s definition of neoliberal interventions, they can be summed up as: “downsizing of the public sector, including retrenchment of staff; privatisation of social services and social protections; and decentralisation or devolution of state power.”

The main premise of the collection is that in addition to the sliding timeline, the discourse is skewed by the lack of scholarly attention to the ongoing processes of transformation. One important dynamic remarked on is that much of the existing social science analyses has been carried out by donor-funded academics and consultants who have in turn produced studies that have tended to support the ‘Uganda as a success story’ point of view. Their collective check-list has included progress in: governance, poverty reduction and political power dynamics including political settlements, political emergencies, party and electoral politics, patronage politics, conflict management, humanitarian assistance, or peace-making. Testing this proposition, it is clear to see how apologists for the military junta that rules Uganda can be portrayed as developmental. For example, poverty as measured by the neoliberals (dubbed by the authors as ‘official poverty’) fell sharply in the first decade reaching a low of 19% from a high of over 50%. (It has risen two percentage points to over 21% in recent years.)

In 2018, President Museveni and his Foreign Minister, Sam Kutesa, were cited in a New York criminal court for receiving bribes in exchange of access to public assets. These things are all connected, and held in place by state brutality.

However the recent sharp rise in undernourishment of 13% between 2006 and 2015 went largely unremarked. Similarly, wealth inequalities created by the restructuring were overlooked in the celebrations. As with the health sector, analyses of governance have been managed by gatekeepers and reported in Bank-speak. For example, small shifts in Uganda’s Transparency International rankings based on the perceptions of foreign investors have been reported as progress, regardless of the facts presented by Uganda’s own Auditor General, Ombudsman, local media and the public. (Note: Transparency International was discredited by its 2018 award to President Museveni for his ‘fight’ against corruption in the same year that he was named as a recipient of a bribe from the now convicted Patrick Ho.)

Much of the existing social science analyses has been carried out by donor-funded academics and consultants who have in turn produced studies that have tended to support the ‘Uganda as a success story’ point of view.

This narrow approach excludes areas of research that would address the issues raised by the increasingly vocal and genuinely suffering majority:

“The first gap is the impact of global capitalism and global political economy on Uganda. This requires a study of the dynamics of Western and Eastern imperialism and their political, economic and cultural dimensions. The second under-researched area concerns the processes of societal transformation, including class formation, consolidation, struggle and compromise (and related core aspects such as dispossession, exploitation etc.), and the ways in which they shape, for instance, political power and market structures. A third overlooked area is the interaction of local and national power structures and dynamics with international political economic patterns.”

More directly put, the impact of Western and Eastern imperialism manifested in the debt-trap, privatization and the foreign direct investment for which privatization made room, and which provides free assets, has not been adequately scrutinized. Indeed, the emergence of a ruling oligarchy (beneficiaries of said privatization, and FDI), and a faux middle class (founded on patronage and corruption – not production), is treated as anecdotal evidence of something amiss rather than a serious existential issue for the majority. This book is timely in pointing out a lack of interrogation of capital accumulation by the politically connected and its impact on the rest of the population by current social science studies on Uganda.

Nor is due attention paid to the fact that 60 years after independence Uganda is still an exporter of primary commodities because that is what her ‘development partners’ require for their own development. All of this occurs alongside the ‘successes’ such as regular elections, ‘concessions’ or ‘reforms’ such as decentralization, expenditure on civil service reform (without actual civil service reform) and the universal primary education programme (which fewer than 50% of programme pupils complete) and which in turn trigger further disbursements of foreign loans and grants.

The emergence of a ruling oligarchy (beneficiaries of said privatization, and FDI), and a faux middle class (founded on patronage and corruption – not production), is treated as anecdotal evidence of something amiss rather than a serious existential issue for the majority.

The authors confirm this reviewer’s assertions elsewhere that the facts were deliberately distorted. For example, the Bank publishes impressive statistics for vaccination coverage in Uganda ranging between 82% and 93% (Source: World Bank database – Health Nutrition and Population Statistics as updated on 12/18/2017). It has stopped publishing the percentage of immunizations actually paid for by the government of the country which is nowhere near as impressive. If the percentage of coverage funded by government resources is stagnant or falling, that is not just a development issue. It is a crisis. And with changing funding priorities owing to the rise of nationalism in Europe and America, will most likely result in further reductions in health sector aid.

The authors predict a future of ‘enclave economies’: large-scale plantations – tracts of land are already being distributed free of charge to foreign investors – tax and other concessions for ‘investors’ in mining, oil and gas. These enclave economies will have minimal linkages to the rest of the economy and will aggravate poverty and accelerate environmental degradation. A proposal for a Chinese fishing project on River Katonga is a case in point. It will come with 300 Chinese staff precluding any possibilities of indigenous job creation, and adding to the current trend of imported unskilled and semi-skilled labour. Fiscal delinking occurs when foreign investors are given tax holidays.

60 years after independence Uganda is still an exporter of primary commodities because that is what her ‘development partners’ require for their own development.

In his December 2018 report, the Auditor General points out for the second time in three years that there is no clear policy regarding tax waivers for investors. In 2016 one hotel was in its fifth year of an open-ended tax holiday. In 2018:

“[…] because of lack of a proper policy, tax incentives are given to Investors without an accompanying budget. Close of financial year debts for the incentives had grown by 83% to UGX 153.6 billion up from UGX 83.8 billion in the previous year.”

Therefore, a lot of development is not accompanied by jobs and only yields limited tax revenues. Activists find that discussions of the impact of corruption on lives unsupported by relevant studies are easily and routinely derailed with one or a selection of approved Bank statistics. It is gratifying to see apologist denials of these simple facts revealed as mere political gaslighting of opposition politicians and activists. The World Bank, through its monopoly of knowledge production about its clients has developed what is called here “Bank Speak’ with which it disseminates “severely a-historical, abstract and flawed accounts” of Uganda’s political-economic history (Mitchell 2002 cited by Wiegratz et al). By becoming the gatekeeper, the Bank has succeeded in manufacturing consents to their global programme of which Uganda has been made a partner through the NRM ruling class, itself a product of the Bank.

The authors confirm this reviewer’s assertions elsewhere that the facts were deliberately distorted.

Apart from important omissions in telling the Uganda story, the veracity of Bank statistics is questioned. Note the authors say ‘veracity’ as well as ‘accuracy,’ again suggesting intent.

Their finding that the World Bank minimizes embezzlement and incompetence in the public service is in line with the misreporting of planning, implementation and outcomes of Uganda’s foundational economic and social reform programmes comprehensively documented in The Case for Repudiation of Uganda’s Public Debt (Serumaga, cadtm.org, 2017). This book makes it clear that in addition to relevant studies, there is a need for an audit to establish completeness, accuracy and timeliness of World Bank and IMF data and other information on which Uganda’s development policies are based.

The authors predict a future of ‘enclave economies’: large-scale plantations – tracts of land are already being distributed free of charge to foreign investors – tax and other concessions for ‘investors’ in mining, oil and gas…[with] minimal linkages to the rest of the economy…

Also debunked is the link between public service reform and poverty reduction claimed by earlier studies. They are inapplicable in much of Eastern and Northern Uganda where poverty has barely been dented. In these studies, deep wealth inequality; wealth concentration among politically powerful beneficiaries of reform programmes, unemployment (and under-employment), and food insecurity is found to be a characteristic of neoliberalised countries (say WB/IMF clients) the world over.

In Uganda, corruption and incompetence, major barriers to implementation of the planned transformation from a peasant to an industrialized economy has created the opportunity to transfer public service delivery functions to the military. Notably Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) which has over the past five years edged out NAADS, the government agency responsible for distribution of and sensitisation about farm inputs (Wiegratz et al). NAADS was established with a repayable US$50 million loan (and the same amount in grants). OWC is run by the President’s brother and, unsurprisingly, has featured strongly in reports of the Auditor General. In 2016 deliveries of farm inputs worth close to UGX 3 billion were unverified; UGX 1.1 billion said to be expenditure on fuel lacked supporting documents. The fisheries department of the Ministry of Agriculture is now also under military command.

The World Bank, through its monopoly of knowledge production about its clients has developed what is called here “Bank Speak’ with which it disseminates “severely a-historical, abstract and flawed accounts” of Uganda’s political-economic history.

In the meantime, accumulated wealth has driven up land speculation, making it unavailable for productive investment.

What is interesting is that the current crop of political commentators and activists, the punditocracy increasingly visible in debates around politics, governance and development happen to have been founded, financed or otherwise supported by International Financial Institutions (IFIs). Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda (ACCU), Uganda Debt Network (UDN), Civil Society Budget Advocacy Group (CSBAG), Private Sector Foundation Uganda (PSFU).

Apart from important omissions in telling the Uganda story, the veracity of Bank statistics is questioned…Their finding that the World Bank minimizes embezzlement and incompetence in the public service is in line with the misreporting of planning, implementation and outcomes of Uganda’s foundational economic and social reform programmes.

While the book was produced primarily as a source to enable future scholars to avoid the omissions and errors of the past, the introduction alone is invaluable for navigating the miasma of Ugandan political affairs. It goes some way in answering the rhetorical demand put to activists: what are your policy alternatives? After reading this it should become evident what needs to be done.

Part I. The State, donors and development aid

Although much is made of the purported partnership between Uganda and the WB and indeed other development partners, Lie is of the view that the concept of partnership is merely a cover for the WB’s indirect rule over Uganda through its poverty reduction strategy mechanisms. In Donor-driven State Formation: Friction in the WB–Uganda Partnership he demonstrates with evidence that partnership “‘exists when they [government] do as we [WB] want them to do, but they do so voluntarily’” (Lie citing Randel et al. 2002: 8)

The current crop of political commentators and activists, the punditocracy increasingly visible in debates around politics, governance and development happen to have been founded, financed or otherwise supported by International Financial Institutions (IFIs).

He uses the gradual displacement of Uganda government’s Poverty Eradication Action Plan by the WB’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) to demonstrate this unequal relationship. The author reveals how Bank staff evaluate the implementation in four visits made during the year, putting a gloss on unfavourable outcomes to allow further disbursements for budget support yet sending messages of disapproval by reducing the amounts released (and disrupting implementation). He calls this process ‘developmentality.’

It is a little irksome that Lie’s chosen example dates from 1999 and no attention is given to the beginning of the relationship, the Economic Recovery Programme circa 1987. It is under this umbrella that work meant to provide the administrative foundation for future work like PEAP and PRSP was done with frankly disastrous results and undermined the possibility of success of later work.

Most importantly the legal implications of ‘developmentality’ are not addressed in the essay, namely that the appearance of voluntary cooperation gives the unsustainable loan agreements some legal standing in the event of attempted repudiation in the future. Lie’s conclusion after he has so ably demonstrated indirect rule by the WB, is that the WB is not hegemonic and that the government has not fallen prey to the donor community is perverse.

Readers of this collection will find a vocabulary with which to capture Uganda’s situation and to relate it to countries facing the same predicament – particularly useful are concepts such as ‘procedural democracy” as opposed substantial democracy. Rubongoya in his essay ‘Movement Legacy’ and neoliberalism as political settlement in Uganda’s political economy describes a transaction between the junta and foreign implementers of neoliberalism. In return for a free hand in forming and introducing policies favourable to their own constituencies, foreign actors provide the NRM the means to consolidate and prolong its grip on the State.

A related transaction took place in Acholi. There, even though the armed conflict continued for two decades after 1986, there was an agreement to treat it as a post-conflict zone. In Our Friends at the Bank? The Adverse Effects of Neoliberalism in Acholi Atkinson reveals that development partners turned a blind eye as increasing amounts of aid intended for development of the ‘post-conflict’ zone were channeled to the armed coercion of the Acholi.

Readers of this collection will find a vocabulary with which to capture Uganda’s situation and to relate it to countries facing the same predicament – particularly useful are concepts such as ‘procedural democracy” as opposed substantial democracy.

Without the more recent experience of the Arua Atrocities in 2018 and the internet connectivity that allowed the news to spread across the country it would be difficult to believe that foreign actors could be so cynical. Yet in August 2018, the donor community that had armed the junta sat silent as elected leaders were abducted and tortured. These essays serve to open eyes and minds to the magnitude of what is at stake for them and why in fact their cynicism is to be expected.

African dependency is a myth created to gain access to resources without which Western populations would have to live within their means and in relative austerity. The myth allows austerity and poverty to be permanently transferred to Uganda and other African countries via neoliberal policies. This reviewer has argued elsewhere that this manufactured poverty is mitigated by emergency aid, post-conflict aid, humanitarian aid and non-specific aid from Western tax-payers. The fears surrounding Brexit and the stocking up of emergency drugs and foodstuffs are a further indication that they enjoy a standard of living subsidized for example by Ugandan farmers, that would be otherwise impossible to maintain.

African dependency is a myth created to gain access to resources without which Western populations would have to live within their means and in relative austerity.

But they are secondary beneficiaries. The primary beneficiaries of neoliberalism are a class unto themselves: the Davos elite which includes individuals in autocratic regimes like the NRM, IFIs and foreign investors all of who became fabulously wealthy and influential via the proceeds from this system. Like their counterparts in other African IMF outposts, billionaires Museveni, Sam Kutesa, Muhwezi were all penniless in their pre-regime lives.

Part II: Economic restructuring and social services

As with many of the findings of these studies, the basic facts will not be new to Ugandans, for instance the rise in poverty alongside increasingly visible trappings of extreme wealth of the oligarchs. In The Impact of neo-liberal reforms on Uganda’s Socio-economic Landscape Asiimwe throws light on the mystery of how development by-passed some and benefited others.:

“Asiimwe’s chapter shows that the economic growth miracle was to a significant extent based on the effect of large sums of aid, which sometimes constituted half of the national budget, creating public-expenditure-driven growth. The reforms induced stagnation, decline or minimal growth in key productive sectors, such as agriculture and industry. Small-scale producers and workers –mostly youth and women – were systematically marginalised by the policy reforms. Asiimwe argues that Uganda’s growth is not based on a structural transformation of the economy, but rather on a deepening of primitive accumulation occurring through corruption – which is the use of extra-economic force to access and control resources – aid dependence, widespread economic trickery and the dumping of low quality foreign products that crowd out local products. Asiimwe observes that donors’ policy preferences systematically produced anti-poor and anti-development effects, as the commodification of health and education left the majority of the population with sub-par access, or denied access altogether.” (Wiegratz et al).

The primary beneficiaries of neoliberalism are a class unto themselves: the Davos elite which includes individuals in autocratic regimes like the NRM, IFIs and foreign investors all of who became fabulously wealthy and influential via the proceeds from this system. Like their counterparts in other African IMF outposts, billionaires Museveni, Sam Kutesa, Muhwezi were all penniless in their pre-regime lives.

The impact of neoliberal reforms on social services has been equally damaging. In Social service provision and social security in Uganda: entrenched inequality under a neoliberal regime Nystrand and Tamm describe how the commodification of basic healthcare and education – they are now consumer products rather than citizen entitlements – has increased inequalities along class, regional and urban/rural lines. Those locked out from access to the services evolve into the ‘chronic poor’.

“Those who have gained from neoliberal reform are, for example, not primarily the Ugandan business sector at large – as the domestic private sector is very weak with the exception of a few large companies and individual businesspersons close to the ruling elite – but rather the ruling elite, which has been able to use donor funding to preserve their power through patronage.” (Nystrand and Tamm citing Whitfield et al. 2015)

Primary health and education, two of what used to be known as priority programme areas, are reviewed in detail, restating familiar data showing low completion rate, high teacher absenteeism (60 percent on any given day), and demonstrating how the majority of UPE pupils never attain functional literacy or numeracy. The result has been migration to proliferating private services to avoid the deterioration and the gradual fall in the quality of public education. The authors thus demonstrate that migration was the goal of neoliberalisation but that decentralized government has failed to either improve or maintain quality.

Ssali in Neoliberal health reforms and citizenship in Uganda also states that quality as well as availability of health services has suffered. Although expenditure per capita on healthcare has increased threefold, service delivery has not improved. Her essay highlights the way in which governments surrendered health services to market forces thus creating two streams, a service for the spatially marginal (the rural population) and poor, and one for the rich. This is borne out by the previously known fact that even where maternal and neo-natal services are available, less than 20 percent of women use them opting for reliance on the extended family and other support networks.

Those who have gained from neoliberal reform are…not primarily the Ugandan business sector at large – as the domestic private sector is very weak with the exception of a few large companies and individual businesspersons close to the ruling elite – but rather the ruling elite, which has been able to use donor funding to preserve their power through patronage.

As with education, so with health. The sector is characterised by inadequate resources and high absenteeism (50 per cent no-shows on any given day). Competence is a major challenge: “It was found that only 35 per cent of public health providers can correctly diagnose at least four out of five of the most common conditions, and only one out of five knew how to manage the most common maternal and neo-natal complications.” Public health and education services have thus become the preserve of the poorest and most physically marginalized. Heavily dependent on donor funding, they are assessed to be unsustainable in the long run. (Nystrand and Tamm)

Part III: Extractivism and enclosures

Commodification of forests was executed via the doling out of concessions to private sector players for management. It has had the same result, namely, privileging of capitalist interests over smallholder indigenous interests. Readers may find Nel’s Neoliberalisation as Ugandan Forestry Discourse useful in understanding the impact of privatization on the crater lakes of Kabarole in 2017, which left fishermen without a livelihood and made the lakes vulnerable to environmental degradation. Wedig discusses this in relation to Lake Nalubaale (Victoria) in Water-grabbing or Sustainable Development? The same applies to more recent sand-mining concessions granted by the President’s brother, Caleb Akandwanaho (aka Gen Salim Saleh) to Chinese investors to the exclusion of indigenous artisanal miners.

As Smith and Van Alstine show in Neoliberal oil development in Uganda, any resistance to rampant dispossession is prevented by the deployment of the armed forces. In the case of oil, it has been the presidential elite Special Forces Command armed and trained by the United States. Military deployment together with the use of Public Order Management legislation to subdue populations that make the debt incurred during this phase of history odious and liable to repudiation.

There is similar commercial pressure for land and similar dispossession for the implementation of the envisaged transformation to an industrialized economy as discussed by Nakayi in The politics of land law reform in neoliberal Uganda.

Race, culture and commoditization

A new proposition is that even cultural identity has been commoditized in the neoliberal dispensation. Youth, race and faith are looked at from this perspective. In Youth as ‘Identity Entrepreneurs’; Emerging Neoliberal Subjectivities in Uganda, Vorhöller studies a group of dancers in Northern Uganda and concludes that: “They tend to prioritise short-termism, instrumentalism, flexibility, pragmatism and self-interest and often switch cultural styles and political allegiances depending on situational contexts and according to calculations of expected benefits.

The youth market their youth to the myriad NGOs promoting neoliberal policies and looking for exemplars of how they support and are embraced by the youth. Once sponsored, the youth adapt to the required value system of their sponsors. Another example would be the youth marketing their youth and numbers to political parties. They form savings groups at the behest of the President, which groups are then given cash at public events to demonstrate the regime’s interest in the youth. New enterprises such as radio calling, telephoning radio discussion programmes to push propaganda are performed by groups such as the Lango Radio Callers group. That the group is short-termist and not rooted in ideology or any belief is clear from the fact that it publicly announced its intention to desert the NRM for the opposition if it was not paid the millions of shillings and iron roofing sheets promised before the elections. Besides ethnicity, other identities emerging from youth celebrity culture, academic qualifications and even internet presence are also available for political branding.

The role of Pentecostal-charismatic churches in politics and their rise to prominence (originating in the rise of NGOs and faith-based organisations, the result of the government’s withdrawal from its role as principal driver of development) is covered by Barbara Bompani in Religious Economics: Pentecostal-charismatic Churches and the Framing of a New Moral Order. Bompani posits that PCCs endorsed neoliberal policies by their close relationship with the ruling class, legitimising neoliberalism and provide a moral framework within which those living (or enduring) the neoliberal experience can maintain hope in a country in crisis. It is further argued that they share an exclusionary world view with neoliberalism in which “the sinful, immoral, non-conforming are to be targeted for discipline, reform and legal action.”

The framework provided by this book, its definitions of neoliberal policy and examination of its effects, will facilitate public discussion even of issues as sensitive as race. The elitism created by the exaltation of FDI, where those with access to foreign capital are perpetually entitled to special favours such as tax waivers, is analysed in African Asians and South Asians in Neoliberal Uganda: Culture, History and Political Economy in which Anneeth Kaur Hundle proposes that “the FDI policy opens up new possibilities for racial elite class formation.”

Taken together, this collection of essays is a commendable effort in achieving its objective of determining by whom, why, how and to what effect Uganda was transformed since 1986. A criticism might be that few Ugandan analysts were cited by any of the contributors even where the same ground has been extensively covered by them. Secondly, the book may be slightly behind the curve. Much of this data has been available but is only being published in this context when the effects of the reported activities are leading to seismic changes. The great value of the collection is that it finally ‘mainstreams’ the discourse and will perhaps provoke debate on those issues of which Ugandans have been aware but which have languished in the ‘informal sector’ of scholarship and public debate.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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Lumumba’s Iconography in the Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Winning a Seat at the UN Security Council is Nothing to Write Home About

The UN Security Council is not a club of equals. The ten rotational non-permanent members of the fifteen-member Council, including Kenya, do not pose a serious threat to the five veto-holding permanent members – though membership does give the former the illusion of being influential.

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Why Winning a Seat at the UN Security Council is Nothing to Write Home About
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The Kenyan government has been congratulating itself for securing a seat at the United Nations Security Council, perhaps believing – mistakenly – that such a “privilege” will somehow allow it to influence security issues affecting the African continent and will bestow on Kenya some kind of legitimacy that it did not enjoy before.

After Kenya was voted into the Security Council last month (after beating Djibouti in a second round of voting), the country’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary, Rachel Omamo, stated: “Kenya will [now] have an opportunity to shape the global agenda and ensure that our interests and the interests of Africa are heard and considered. We now have a voice at one of the most important decision making forums”.

Kenya has now joined a long list of countries that eventually hold membership in the Security Council, which is rotational except for the five countries that have permanent seats and veto-holding power, an arrangement that was made by the victors of World War II, who assigned themselves permanent status in the Council, ostensibly because they could be most relied on not to start another world war. The Council consists of 15 members, of which 10 are rotational non-permanent members elected for two-year terms. The non-permanent members may have a say in decisions made by the Security Council, but the ultimate decision rests with the five permanent veto-holding members, namely the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – also known as the P-5.

The UN Security Council is not a club of equals. The ten non-permanent members of the Council do not pose a serious threat to the P-5, though membership does give these countries the illusion of being influential. In fact, one might even say that Security Council resolutions amount to little, and are acted upon only if all of the five permanent members agree on them unanimously. Disagreements within the P-5 can stall and even stop resolutions and decisions from being implemented.

So non-permanent status has little or no impact on important security-related decisions. The only countries whose opinions matter are the P-5. And the P-5 can make unilateral decisions with only cursory or tokenistic reference to the non-permanent members. So, in essence, nothing moves at the Security Council without P-5 approval.

Let me give you just a few examples of how ineffectual occupying a non-permanent seat in the Security Council can be.

The Security Council did not intervene in Rwanda to prevent a genocide

Rwanda was elected as a non-permanent member of the Security Council in 1994, the very year a horrific genocide took place in that country. The UN Security Council did little to prevent the genocide that ravaged the country and left at least 800,000 people dead. There is speculation that France (a P-5 member) did not want to interfere in the conflict; in fact, Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame has often accused France of being party to the genocide, a claim the latter has denied.

On its part, the United States had a hands-off approach towards conflicts in Africa, having burnt its fingers in Somalia the previous year when 18 American soldiers were killed in Mogadishu during a so-called humanitarian operation, and so it looked the other way when Rwandans were being slaughtered. Meanwhile, Rwanda, the non-permanent member, sat back and watched the genocide unfold before the world’s eyes.

So if the role of the Security Council is to prevent crimes against humanity and war crimes and to promote peace, why is it that it failed miserably in preventing mass killings in a small African country? In fact, why did the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which takes instructions from the Security Council, withdraw troops from Rwanda just when the country needed them most? And why did Kofi Annan, the head of UN peacekeeping at the time, order Roméo Dallaire, who was in charge of the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, to not to take sides as “it was up to the Rwandans to sort things out for themselves”? (Annan later explained to the journalist James Traub that “given the limited number of men Dallaire had at his disposal, if he initiated an engagement and some were killed, we would lose the troops”.)

In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire talks of being extremely frustrated with his inability to convince the UN in New York to allow him to take actions that could have saved lives, if not prevented the genocide from taking place in the first place. In fact, prior to the genocide, when Dallaire informed his bosses that militias were gathering arms and preparing for mass killings, “the matter was never brought before the UN Security Council, let alone made public”, according to the writer David Rieff, author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.  

The UN’s tendency to flee a country experiencing conflict or disaster is very common, as many Rwandans will attest. As génocidaires roamed freely in Rwanda, UN officials were busy packing their bags and catching chartered flights to neighbouring countries. And the UN Security Council members, including Rwanda, remained mum.

The UN Security Council – and by extension, the UN as a whole – has lost its moral authority over other human rights issues as well. For example, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in New York (where the UN Secretariat is based), Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, issued a memo to all UN staff asking them to refrain from participating in the demonstrations, ostensibly because as international civil servants, they were expected to remain apolitical and neutral. Maina Kiai, the former UN special rapporteur on freedom of assembly, condemned the Secretary-General’s directive, saying it was “conflating the right to protest and racial equality with political partisanship”.

The Black Lives Matter protests occurred when the United States was experiencing a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths. The pandemic, which has the potential to become an international security issue (economies that suffer high levels of unemployment and inequality tend to generate disaffection and political unrest, which can sometimes result in armed conflict), has yet to be discussed at the Security Council.

The Security Council did not impose sanctions on the US and Britain for going to war with Iraq

The UN Security Council did absolutely nothing to prevent the United States and Britain from going to war with Iraq in 2003. In fact, the United States went ahead and invaded Iraq in March of that year shortly after making a rather unconvincing argument at the Security Council that Saddam Hussein was harbouring weapons of mass destruction. (No such weapons were found in Iraq.) Yet no member of the Security Council (except France, which made an impassioned plea against the war) had the clout to force the United States and Britain not to go to war.

Even though the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, declared the war “illegal”, as it did not have the unanimous approval of the Security Council, there was nothing much he could do. And despite widespread anti-war protests around the world, President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair went ahead with their misguided plan, which some estimate cost more than 600,000 Iraqi civilian lives. Further, the Security Council did not vote to impose sanctions on the US and Britain for waging an illegal war for the obvious reason that the countries waging the war were part of the P-5.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, a decade earlier, in 1991, the Security Council had imposed sanctions on Iraq for invading and annexing parts of Kuwait.

The Security Council has failed to protect civilians caught in conflict

Now let’s go to peacekeeping, the raison d’être of the Security Council. Currently there are 13 UN peacekeeping missions around the world, mostly in African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali, South Sudan and Western Sahara. However, as the case of Rwanda shows, there is little evidence that the presence of peacekeepers significantly reduces the threat of conflict in these countries or protects civilians.

The UN’s largest peacekeeping mission is in the DRC. Since 1999, MONUSCO, the UN’s stabilising mission in the DRC, has deployed thousands of troops to the country. Yet the DRC, arguably the world’s most mineral-rich country, remains the site of much poverty, conflict and human rights abuses as militias and the Congolese army fight to control mining areas and extract taxes.

Human rights organisations have for years raised the alarm on human rights violations, including rape, committed by both the army and armed groups, but the violence and abuse doesn’t seem to stop. It is estimated that millions have died as a result of resource-based conflicts in the country. The mineral-rich eastern part of the country has also been described as “the rape capital of the world”, where sexual violence is systematically used as a weapon of war.

The question arises: Despite a large presence of peacekeeping troops in the DRC, why are civilians still not safe? Could it be that some peacekeepers might in fact be party to the conflict? Scandals involving the illegal sale of arms by UN peacekeepers have been reported. In May 2007, for instance, the BBC reported that in 2005 UN peacekeeping troops from Pakistan had been re-arming Congolese militia (whom they were supposed to be disarming) in exchange for gold. A Congolese witness claimed to have seen a UN peacekeeper disarm members of the militia one day only to re-arm them the following day. The trade was allegedly being facilitated by a triad involving the UN peacekeepers, the Congolese army and traders from Kenya.

UN peacekeepers in conflict areas have also been reported to have sexually abused or exploited populations they are supposed to be protecting. An investigation by the Associated Press in 2017 revealed that nearly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers had been made in troubled parts of the world. (This number could be a gross underestimation as the majority of victims of sexual exploitation or abuse do not report their cases.)

Peacekeeping missions have also been reported to have underplayed the scale of a conflict in order to prove that they are doing a good job of keeping the peace. When Aicha Elbasri, the former spokesperson for the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), reported that UNAMID and the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations routinely misled the media and the UN Security Council about crimes, including forced displacement, mass rape and bombing of civilians, committed by Sudanese government forces in Darfur, the UN failed to investigate her allegations. It only carried out an internal inquiry after she resigned in protest in 2013 and when the International Criminal Court (ICC) ordered the UN to do so; to this day the UN has not made the inquiry’s findings public, contrary to the ICC’s demand that such an inquiry be “thorough, independent and public”.

Elbasri later publicly released thousands of emails, police reports, internal investigations and diplomatic cables that exposed the failure of the UN to protect millions of Sudanese civilians under its protection.

The P-5 have a vested interest in the military-industrial complex

It is not lost on many people that the P-5 have a vested interest in wars in faraway places because wars keep their military-industrial complexes running. The weapons industry is huge, and countries that supply arms and military equipment would not like to the threat of war to fade away.

When wars occur in far-off places, arms manufacturers have a field day. Wars in former French colonies in Africa keep France’s military industrial complex well-oiled. Wars in the Middle East are viewed by British and American arms manufacturers as a boon for their weapons industries. If there were no wars or civil conflicts in the world, these industries would not be so lucrative.

It was no surprise then that Donald Trump’s first official foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia, which has been buying arms worth billions of dollars from the United States for decades. Arms from the US have kept the Saudi-led war in Yemen going. The connection between arms sales and the arms manufacturers’ silence on human rights violations committed by countries which buy the arms became acutely visible during that visit. This also explains Trump’s lukewarm response to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The Security Council has put no pressure on the United States – which contributes almost a quarter of the UN’s budget – to rethink its policy towards arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other countries. On the contrary, the UN’s campaign in Yemen, for example, is not about ending the war, but raising donations for the millions of Yemenis who are suffering as a result of Saudi-led bombings.

Make the Security Council more representative

The UN Security Council was established 75 years ago at a time when countries went to war with each other, and when Western powers had experienced severe physical and economic destruction and the loss of millions of lives. However, today’s most deadly wars are being waged by insurgents or terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which have become transnational. The Security Council is not equipped to handle this new threat. New forms of international cooperation are required.

If Kenya wants to have real influence in the UN Security Council, it should lobby for the Council to be expanded and be made more representative and democratic. Countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America (regions that hold the majority of the world’s population), must demand to be included as permanent members. Permanent membership should be allocated to those countries that have no vested interest in the weapons industry and which have not waged war in other countries since the Security Council was established in 1945 – countries that are genuinely committed to world peace. No country should have veto powers. Maybe that would make membership in the Council more democratic and meaningful.

However, even if this happens, membership might not amount to much as long as the UN’s purse strings are controlled by a few rich and powerful countries which can sway other countries to vote in their favour and as long as some members have an interest in ensuring that their military-industrial complexes remain operational for a long time. Kenya, being a donor-dependent country, can therefore easily be influenced by rich donor countries. This is how the world, including the Security Council, operates.

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The Upright Man: A Sympathetic Critique of Thomas Sankara

The judgment that Sankara was a hero rests in part on what was politically possible in Burkina Faso in the early 1980s.

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The Upright Man: A Sympathetic Critique of Thomas Sankara
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Over the past few years, several, partly scathing critiques of African political heroes have been published in larger works of history and ethnography. Thus the Patrice Lumumba of David Van Reybrouck’s Congo is a young, inspiring man whose fiery rhetoric outstrips his coalition-building  and governance capacity; the Kwame Nkrumah of Jemima Pierre’s Predicament of Blackness is simultaneously the exponent of a pan-Africanism that was merely “nominally powerful,” and a political leader “dependent” on colonial and industrial apparatus.

Although other, longer-lived revolutionaries from decolonisation and the Cold War saw their stars fade as their time in office extended, the reputation as a worthy presidential martyr enjoyed by Thomas Sankara, who led a short-lived revolution in Burkina Faso, has only grown. Since his death in 1987, he has been hailed as Africa’s Ché Guevara, and seen as a beacon of good and selfless governance. As with Ché, he’s turned into a beret-clad icon with an aura of cool that transcends the tedium of policy.

What shape might a sympathetic critique of Thomas Sankara take?

The life and times of the late Joseph Ki-Zerbo, a leader of regional independence movements originating from Haute (Upper) Volta (how Burkina Faso was known before Sankara took power), and the lifelong face of its leftist opposition, offers a clue. Prior to the 1980s, Ki-Zerbo, as a leader of the Voltaic left before, during, and after independence, was widely respected for his historical and analytic perspectives as well as his political participation, and his unwillingness to compromise his socialist principles for an opportunity of increased power. Haute Volta was rocked almost from the start by a series of coups, and Ki-Zerbo never found a government that he could join with a clear conscience.

At the time when a number of West African states gained their independence. Ki Zerbo had given up a career track in academia (he studied in Mali as well as at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po in Paris) to go to work in government and serve as a public representative: first as a civil servant for Sekou Touré in Guinea-Conakry, the first French colony to gain its independence. Ki Zerbo returned to Haute Volta before Touré’s regime in Conakry turned autarkic and self-consuming. Then, in Haute Volta, Ki Zerbo took up a seat on the opposition benches of parliament, working on things like education policy while the country was being rocked by a series of coups.

Sitting in his country’s parliament, and influenced by his experience studying with the Senegalese historian Chiekh Anta Diop, and by the ideas of the Malian ethnographer Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Ki Zerbo spent years leading the development of a primary school curriculum that tried to reconcile traditional Sahelian ways of knowing with Western-style, classroom-based pedagogy. Before he could do much with his curriculum, Sankara, a young army captain who had been given ever-more powerful portfolios in a series of putschist regimes in Ouagadougou, came to power in a coup in 1983 with the help of his colleague Blaise Compaoré. He quickly renamed the country Burkina Faso, or the Land of Honest Men, and ushered in a remarkable slate of policies: among other things, he broke the country of its decades-long dependence on imported foodstuffs, and put in place unprecedented policies promoting gender equality.

Sankara wore camouflage into office, but his policies harkened back to the heady and hopeful early days of Touré in Guinea, making it all the more surprising when Ki-Zerbo, fearing for his life at the hands of Sankara’s military administration, joined a stream of politicians and professionals who went into voluntary exile from the country.

The Sankara years were marked both by forthright policies and the political repression that led to the most talented members of the political and bureaucratic classes joining reactionaries and incompetents in flight abroad.

Four years into his revolution, Sankara was murdered in another coup; this one installed Blaise Compaoré, minister of defense and a one-time close Sankara ally, as head of state. Ki-Zerbo stayed away for as long as Sankara ruled, returning only after he was executed. The self-sufficiency, anti-corruption, and general moral rectitude of the Sankara years slipped rapidly into the past. Ki-Zerbo, no stranger to being outside of government, found little to like in Compaoré’s platform and regime, and resumed his status as leader of the principled opposition upon his return. In 2008, late in a book-length interview with René Holenstein, Ki Zerbo outlined the difficulties he had with Sankara.

Ki-Zerbo argued that by coming to power in another coup, and thus being required to be suspicious of everyone in the political establishment, including his ideological and partisan allies, Sankara ensured his own immediate failure, setting the ground for a continuation of the countercoups and crack-downs that had already become commonplace. In his view, what was needed was not a better coup-leader, but a turn toward realistic governance.

But Ki Zerbo also held up another figure as a hero he could get behind: the Burkinabé journalist, Norbert Zongo, murdered in 1998 by Compaoré’s army. Ki-Zerbo, no stranger to academic discourse, talks about Zongo as a member of the Gramscian civil society, noting that at the time, civil society declined to align itself forthrightly with the political opposition, preferring a stance of neutrality. That didn’t prevent Zongo, who got his start in the government-sanctioned press, from aggressively covering the excesses of the Compaoré regime, something he continued to do from within the country even after his own life was threatened. From his perch as founder and editor of the newspaper, L’Independant, he investigated the government. When in 1998, this meant looking into the torture and death of the chauffeur of Compaoré’s brother, Zongo and three others were assassinated by agents of the state.

Zongo’s death electrified the opposition, civil society, and progressives in Ouagadougou and other major cities; Ki-Zerbo said that it helped persuade civil society to drop its non-coordination stance in opposition to Compaoré’s government, culminating in more than a decade later in youth protests and coordinated action from the political opposition, civil society, and dissident factions of the military forced Compaoré from power.

It’s easy enough to see why Ki-Zerbo, who repeatedly declined opportunities to exercise political power when he thought he’d be joining administrations that didn’t operate in the long-term interest of the country, might prefer an outsider like Zongo to a cunning political actor like Sankara. And while Ki-Zerbo doesn’t say it himself, it’s possible to imagine that Zongo’s bravery in continuing his work from Ouagadougou even when he knew his life was in danger made the journalist someone he could look up to, having faced a similar challenge in his own career.

Over the last decade, repressive governments around the world have come to recognize the oppositional power of civil society, heavily regulating organizationsraiding offices, and arresting leaders, while painting civil society as a pathway for foreign influence. But in the 1990s, a journalist could still surprise the government and the opposition alike by doggedly pursuing his leads about government malfeasance, and publishing his findings far and wide.

The extent to which a person may agree or disagree with Ki-Zerbo’s critique of Sankara is likely dependent on context. Ki-Zerbo clearly thought that Burkina Faso was, in the mid-1980s, poised for a government that could include a variety of committed voices; furthermore that the rise of Sankara and Compaoré in 1983 set the stage for Compaoré’s nearly three decades of reaction and repression. But if an observer sees the entire last quarter of the 20th century as an insurmountable political dark night of the soul, then the shining example of Sankara, however quixotic it may have been in the moment, would show itself to be just the sort of light in the darkness that could demonstrate to later politicians and citizens what it means to be a leader of principle. The judgment that Sankara was a hero, then, rests in part on a deeper judgment as to what was possible in Burkina Faso in the early 1980s.

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

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