Title: Uganda, The Dynamics of Neoliberal Transformation
Editors: Jörg Wiegratz, Giuliano Martiniello and Elisa Greco
Pub.r: Zed Books, 2018
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.
The Fate of the Human Experiment Depends on the Outcome of This Struggle
Noam Chomsky’s keynote speech at the Progressive International’s inaugural summit.
Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, all are international, and two internationals are forming to confront them. One is opening today: the Progressive International. The other has been taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a Reactionary International comprising the world’s most reactionary states.
We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future. The Progressive International has a crucial role to play in determining which course history will follow.
We are meeting at a moment of confluence of crises of extraordinary severity, with the fate of the human experiment quite literally at stake. The issues are coming to a head in the next few weeks in the two great imperial powers of the modern era.
Fading Britain, having publicly declared that it rejects international law, is on the verge of a sharp break from Europe, on the path to becoming even more of a US satellite that it already is. But of course what is of the greatest significance for the future is what happens in the global hegemon, diminished by Trump’s wrecking ball, but still with overwhelming power and incomparable advantages. Its fate, and with it the fate of the world, may well be determined in November.
We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the world is concerned, if not appalled. It would be difficult to find a more sober and respected commentator than Martin Wolf of the London Financial Times. He writes that the West is facing a serious crisis, and if Trump is re-elected, “this will be terminal.” Strong words, and he is not even referring to the major crises humanity faces.
Wolf is referring to the global order, a critical matter though not on the scale of the crises that threaten vastly more serious consequences, the crises that are driving the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock towards midnight – towards termination.
Wolf’s concept “terminal” is not a new entry into public discourse. We have been living under its shadow for 75 years, ever since we learned, on an unforgettable August day, that human intelligence had devised the means that would soon yield the capacity for terminal destruction. That was shattering enough, but there was more. It was not then understood that humanity was entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are despoiling the environment in a manner that is now also approaching terminal destruction.
The hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The hands have oscillated since, as global circumstances have evolved. Every year that Trump has been in office, the hands have been moved closer to midnight. Two years ago they reached the closest they had ever been. Last January, the analysts abandoned minutes, turning to seconds: 100 seconds to midnight. They cited the same crises as before: the growing threats of nuclear war and of environmental catastrophe, and the deterioration of democracy.
The last might at first seem out of place, but it is not. Declining democracy is a fitting member of the grim trio. The only hope of escaping the two threats of termination is vibrant democracy in which concerned and informed citizens are fully engaged in deliberation, policy formation, and direct action.
That was last January. Since then, President Trump has amplified all three threats, not a mean accomplishment. He has continued his demolition of the arms control regime that has offered some protection against the threat of nuclear war, while also pursuing development of new and even more dangerous weapons, much to the delight of military industry. In his dedicated commitment to destroy the environment that sustains life, Trump has opened up vast new areas for drilling, including the last great nature reserve. Meanwhile, his minions are systematically dismantling the regulatory system that somewhat mitigates the destructive impact of fossil fuel use, and that protects the population from toxic chemicals and from pollution, a curse that is now doubly murderous in the course of a severe respiratory epidemic.
Trump has also carried forward his campaign to undermine democracy. By law, presidential appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. Trump avoids this inconvenience by leaving the positions open and filling the offices with “temporary appointments” who answer to his will – and if they do not do so with sufficient fealty to the lord, are fired. He has purged the executive of any independent voice. Only sycophants remain. Congress had long ago established Inspectors General to monitor the performance of the executive branch. They began to look into the swamp of corruption that Trump has created in Washington. He took care of that quickly by firing them. There was scarcely a peep from the Republican Senate, firmly in Trump’s pocket, with hardly a flicker of integrity remaining, terrified by the popular base Trump has mobilized.
This onslaught against democracy is only the bare beginning. Trump’s latest step is to warn that he may not leave office if he is not satisfied with the outcome of the November election. The threat is taken very seriously in high places. To mention just a few examples, two highly respected retired senior military commanders released an open letter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, reviewing his constitutional responsibility to send the army to remove by force a “lawless president” who refuses to leave office after electoral defeat, summoning in his defense the kinds of paramilitary units he dispatched to Portland Oregon to terrorize the population over the strong objection of elected officials.
Many establishment figures regard the warning as realistic, among them the high-level Transition Integrity Project, which has just reported the results of the “war gaming” it has been conducting on possible outcomes of the November election. The project members are “some of the most accomplished Republicans, Democrats, civil servants, media experts, pollsters and strategists around,” the Project co-director explains, including prominent figures in both Parties. Under any plausible scenario apart from a clear Trump victory, the games led to something like civil war, with Trump choosing to end “the American experiment.”
Again, strong words, never before heard from sober mainstream voices. The very fact that such thoughts arise is ominous enough. They are not alone. And given incomparable US power, far more than the “American experiment” is at risk.
Nothing like this has happened in the often troubled history of parliamentary democracy. Keeping to recent years, Richard Nixon – not the most delightful person in presidential history – had good reason to believe that he had lost the 1960 election only because of criminal manipulation by Democratic operatives. He did not contest the results, putting the welfare of the country ahead of personal ambition. Albert Gore did the same in 2000. Not today.
Forging new paths in contempt for the welfare of the country does not suffice for the megalomaniac who dominates the world. Trump has also announced once again that he may disregard the Constitution and “negotiate” for a third term if he decides he is entitled to it.
Some choose to laugh all this off as the playfulness of a buffoon. To their peril, as history shows.
The survival of liberty is not guaranteed by “parchment barriers,” James Madison warned. Words on paper are not enough. It is founded on the expectation of good faith and common decency. That has been torn to shreds by Trump along with his co-conspirator Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has turned the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” as it calls itself, into a pathetic joke. McConnell’s Senate refuses even to consider legislative proposals. Its concern is largesse to the rich and stacking the judiciary, top to bottom with far right young lawyers who should be able to safeguard the reactionary Trump-McConnell agenda for a generation, whatever the public wants, whatever the world needs for survival.
The hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The hands have oscillated since, as global circumstances have evolved
The abject service to the rich of the Trump-McConnell Republican party is quite remarkable, even by the neoliberal standards of exaltation of greed. One illustration is provided by the leading specialists on tax policy, economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. They show that in 2018, following the tax scam that was the one legislative Trump-McConnell achievement, “for the first time in the last hundred years, billionaires have paid less [in taxes] than steel workers, school teachers, and retirees,” erasing “a century of fiscal history.” “In 2018, for the first time in the modern history of the United States, capital has been taxed less than labor” – a truly impressive victory of class war, called “liberty” in hegemonic doctrine.
The Doomsday Clock was set last January before the scale of the pandemic was understood. Humanity will sooner or later recover from the pandemic, at terrible cost. It is needless cost. We see that clearly from the experience of countries that took decisive action when China provided the world with the relevant information about the virus on January 10. Primary among them were East-Southeast Asia and Oceania, with others trailing along, and bringing up the rear a few utter disasters, notably the US, followed by Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Modi’s India.
Despite the malfeasance or indifference of some political leaders, there will ultimately be some kind of recovery from the pandemic. We will not, however, recover from the melting of the polar icecaps, or the exploding rate of arctic fires that are releasing enormous amounts of greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere, or other steps on our march to catastrophe.
When the most prominent climate scientists warn us to “Panic Now,” they are not being alarmist. There is no time to waste. Few are doing enough, and even worse, the world is cursed by leaders who are not only refusing to take sufficient action but are deliberately accelerating the race to disaster. The malignancy in the White House is far in the lead in this monstrous criminality.
It is not only governments. The same is true of fossil fuel industries, the big banks that finance them, and other industries that profit from actions that put the “survival of humanity” at serious risk, in the words of a leaked internal memo of America’s largest bank.
Humanity will not long survive this institutional malignancy. The means to manage the crisis are available. But not for long. One primary task of the Progressive International is to ensure that we all panic now – and act accordingly.
The crises we face in this unique moment of human history are of course international. Environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, and the pandemic have no borders. And in a less transparent way, the same is true of the third of the demons that stalk the earth and drive the second hand of the Doomsday clock towards midnight: the deterioration of democracy. The international character of this plague becomes evident when we examine its origins.
Circumstances vary, but there are some common roots. Much of the malignancy traces back to the neoliberal assault on the world’s population launched in force 40 years ago.
The basic character of the assault was captured in the opening pronouncements of its most prominent figures. Ronald Reagan declared in his inaugural address that government is the problem, not the solution – meaning that decisions should be removed from governments, which are at least partially under public control, to private power, which is completely unaccountable to the public, and whose sole responsibility is self-enrichment, as chief economist Milton Friedman proclaimed. The other was Margaret Thatcher, who instructed us that there is no society, only a market in which people are cast to survive as best they can, with no organizations that enable them to defend themselves against its ravages.
Unwittingly no doubt, Thatcher was paraphrasing Marx, who condemned the autocratic rulers of his day for turning the population into a “sack of potatoes,” defenseless against concentrated power.
With admirable consistency, the Reagan and Thatcher administrations moved at once to destroy the labour movement, the primary impediment to harsh class rule by the masters of the economy. In doing so, they were adopting the leading principles of neoliberalism from its early days in interwar Vienna, where the founder and patron saint of the movement, Ludwig von Mises, could scarcely control his joy when the proto-fascist government violently destroyed Austria’s vibrant social democracy and the despicable trade unions that were interfering with sound economics by defending the rights of working people. As von Mises explained in his 1927 neoliberal classic Liberalism, five years after Mussolini initiated his brutal rule, “It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aimed at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has for the moment saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history” – though it will be only temporary, he assured us. The Blackshirts will go home after having accomplished their good work.
The same principles inspired enthusiastic neoliberal support for the hideous Pinochet dictatorship. A few years later, they were put into operation in a different form in the global arena under the leadership of the US and UK.
The consequences were predictable. One was sharp concentration of wealth alongside of stagnation for much of the population, reflected in the political realm by undermining of democracy. The impact in the United States brings out very clearly what one would expect when business rule is virtually uncontested. After 40 years, 0.1% of the population have 20% of the wealth, twice what they had when Reagan was elected. CEO remuneration has skyrocketed, drawing general management wealth along with it. Real wages for non-supervisory male workers have declined. A majority of the population survives from paycheck to paycheck, with almost no reserves. Financial institutions, largely predatory, have exploded in scale. There have been repeated crashes, increasing in severity, the perpetrators bailed out by the friendly taxpayer, though that is the least of the implicit state subsidy they receive. “Free markets” led to monopolization, with reduced competition and innovation, as the strong swallowed the weak. Neoliberal globalization has deindustrialized the country within the framework of the investor rights agreements mislabeled as “free trade pacts. ”Adopting the neoliberal doctrine that “taxation is robbery,” Reagan opened the door to tax havens and shell companies – previously banned and barred by effective enforcement. That led at once to a huge tax evasion industry to expedite massive robbery of the general population by the very rich and the corporate sector. No small change. The scale is estimated in tens of trillions of dollars.
And so it continues as neoliberal doctrine took hold.
As the assault was just beginning to take shape, in 1978, the president of the United Auto Workers, Doug Fraser, resigned from a labor-management committee that was set up by the Carter Administration, expressing his shock that business leaders had “chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country – a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and had “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress” – during the period of class collaboration under regimented capitalism.
His recognition of how the world works was somewhat belated, in fact too late to fend off the bitter class war launched by business leaders who were soon granted free rein by compliant governments. The consequences over much of the world come as little surprise: widespread anger, resentment, contempt for political institutions while the primary economic ones are hidden from view by effective propaganda. All of this provides fertile territory for demagogues who can pretend to be your savior while stabbing you in the back, meanwhile deflecting the blame for your conditions to scapegoats: immigrants, blacks, China, whoever fits long-standing prejudices.
Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, all are international, and two internationals are forming to confront them. One is opening today: the Progressive International. The other has been taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a Reactionary International comprising the world’s most reactionary states.
In the Western Hemisphere, the International includes Bolsonaro’s Brazil and a few others. In the Middle East, prime members are the family dictatorships of the Gulf; al-Sisi’s Egyptian dictatorship, perhaps the harshest in Egypt’s bitter history; and Israel, which long ago discarded its social democratic origins and shifted far to the right, the predicted effect of the prolonged and brutal occupation. The current agreements between Israel and Arab dictatorships, formalising long-standing tacit relations, are a significant step towards solidifying the Middle East base of the Reactionary International. The Palestinians are kicked in the face, the proper fate of those who lack power and do not grovel properly at the feet of the natural masters.
To the East, a natural candidate is India, where Prime Minister Modi is destroying India’s secular democracy and turning the country into a racist Hindu nationalist state, while crushing Kashmir. The European contingent includes Orban’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary and similar elements elsewhere. The International also has powerful backing in the dominant global economic institutions.
The two internationals comprise a good part of the world, one at the level of states, the other popular movements. Each is a prominent representative of much broader social forces, which have sharply contending images of the world that should emerge from the current pandemic. One force is working relentlessly to construct a harsher version of the neoliberal global system from which they have greatly benefited, with more intensive surveillance and control. The other looks forward to a world of justice and peace, with energies and resources directed to serving human needs rather than the demands of a tiny minority. It is a kind of class struggle on a global scale, with many complex facets and interactions.
It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the human experiment depends on the outcome of this struggle.
The Violence in Ethiopia
The imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.
The deadly violence that rocked Ethiopia this summer following the death of artist Hachalu Hundessa has been a subject of much speculation and contention. The facts as we know them are that immediately following the assassination close to 250 people died and thousands were jailed, mostly in the regional state of Oromia and Addis Ababa.
What is contested, and less clear, is the nature of the violence, its perpetrators, and victims. Two prominent narratives have emerged following the crisis to explain what unfolded. One holds that the violence was a brutal government crackdown on Oromo protesters grieving Hundessa’s death. The other describes the events as targeted attacks by armed Oromo youth against ethnic and religious minorities. While both narratives contain elements of truth, ignoring one or the other is either ignorant or intentionally misleading.
A recent Africa Is a Country article highlighting the poor coverage by Western media of the situation in Ethiopia, for example, makes no mention of ethnic and religious violence, aside from denouncing media outlets that reported it. Rather, the author’s objective is to “set the record straight” by showing that the underlying cause of violence and instability in Ethiopia is the consequence of a political struggle between an oppressive government and Oromos who have been and continue to be marginalised.
Such a viewpoint is erroneous and polarising in the current political climate. To advance a narrow agenda, it glosses over human rights violations and the brutal killing of innocent bystanders by non-state actors.
To provide more context, the agenda I speak of is tied to the Oromo struggle for greater autonomy and recognition. That struggle, which paved the way for Abiy Ahmed to assume power as the first Oromo Prime Minister two years earlier, now seeks his departure. At the heart of this reversal is the Prime Minister’s consolidation (rather than actual dismantling) of the ruling ethnic-based EPRDF coalition into the Prosperity Party, which has, nonetheless, left intact Ethiopia’s unique system of federalism based on ethnic majoritarianism.
The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause.
Leaving that aside, the EPRDF had always been a highly centralized institution in practice, and the mere symbolism of this move, in addition to the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about unity, have left some Oromos feeling betrayed. Furthermore, fractionalisation among Oromo elites, including within the former Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) faction of the EPRDF (now Prosperity Party), which recently ousted key leader and Defense Minister, Lemma Megersa, has divided and weakened the movement.
Within this broad movement, one vocal part led by diaspora-based Oromo elites and recent returnees has galvanised the energy and anger of many Oromo youth behind a perspective of anti-Ethiopiawinet (anti-Ethiopian-ness). The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”). Though prominent Oromo activists stand behind their use of these terms, those who are familiar with the context know that these labels are loaded with ethnic connotations.
The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause. Accusations that “they killed him” were recklessly thrown around and left open for interpretation. Within hours of the assassination, allegedly at the behest of Oromo leaders like Bekele Gerba, targeted attacks against non-Oromos unfolded.
In towns like Shashamene and Dera in the Oromia region, several accounts of killings and looting targeting Amharas and other minorities by Oromo youth have been independently verified, in addition to accounts of police and federal forces injuring and killing civilians. Witnesses describe how perpetrators relied on lists detailing the residences and properties of non-Oromos and circulated flyers warning bystanders to not help those being targeted (or risk reprisal), indicating a significant level of organization.
Minority Rights Group International, accordingly, sounded the alarm, warning that these actions bear the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. Despite this and concerns from Ethiopians throughout the world, Oromo activists and other prominent human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have remained largely silent about these attacks while condemning the government’s violent response to Oromo protestors.
Government figures provide an ethnic breakdown of the July causalities with the majority of those killed being Oromos within the Oromia region, followed by Amharas and other smaller ethnic groups. Yet, rather than disproving, as some claim, that targeted attacks by Oromo mobs occurred, this highlights what scholar Terje Ostebo describes as the complexity and inherent interconnectedness between ethnicity and religion within Ethiopia.
According to Ostebo, “the term Amhara, which is inherently elastic, has over the last few years gradually moved from being a designation for Ethiopianess to gaining a more explicit ethnic connotation. It has, however, always had a distinct religious dimension, representing a Christian.” Hence, in parts of Oromia some Orthodox Oromos were referred to and referred to themselves as Amhara. For example, one Oromo farmer interviewed by local journalists reportedly said, “we thought Hachalu was Oromo” after watching the singer’s televised funeral rites that followed the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church.
The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”).
According to investigations undertaken by the church, a large number of its parishioners (at least 67 confirmed cases) were among the July causalities—a troubling trend, which also includes a spate of church burnings and attacks on Christians that brought large numbers of Orthodox followers out into the streets in protests last year.
To be clear, the violence that occurred was not only ethnic and religious violence. Growing state violence in Oromia and SNNPR has been and continues to be of great concern. As Oromo activists have made clear, it is necessary to end the abuse of force and ensure accountability for these crimes. Yet, when concerns and demands for accountability for non-state violence are raised, these same advocates deny, ignore or dismiss them as part of a propaganda campaign to discredit the Oromo movement. In effect, this dishonesty, itself, has discredited the movement and lost it support by many Ethiopians—both non-Oromo and Oromo.
The recent political turmoil lays bare that the future of an Ethiopian state is hanging by a delicate thread. The polarization that exists today goes beyond disagreements on institutions and policies to the very question of whether we can continue to co-exist as a multi-ethnic nation. Regional elections in Tigray, slated for this week despite the disapproval of the national House of Federation (HoF), and its aftermath may bring these tensions to a boil, again.
As unrest, violence and grievances continue to mount, it is clear that Ethiopia is far from consolidating its transition to a stable democracy. The government continues to curb freedom of speech, jail political opponents and is responsible for violence against civilians. But, if history teaches us anything, it is this: the imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.
Let It Never Be Said That Kenyans Went to War Over Mammary Glands
The Kenyan government’s aggressive response to Oscar Sudi’s comments, and the open defiance of Sudi’s supporters, suggest that we might be on the brink of a civil war. As one Kenyan on Twitter wryly commented, BBI has turned into a “Burning Bridges Initiative”.
The furore over Kapsaret MP Oscar Sudi’s recent comments regarding the first family has left many Kenyan women baffled, not least because Kenyan men are not known to be great defenders of women or their body parts. It has been alleged – and the media has erroneously reported – that, in alluding to her breasts, Mr Sudi insulted Mama Ngina, the former first lady and mother of the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta.
When I first heard about this on social media, I thought it was yet another typically crude example of Kenyan misogyny. There are countless examples of Kenyan men, particularly politicians, insulting and deriding women. Female politicians and activists are a favourite target. Women who dare to defy patriarchal norms do not find a comfortable home here. In fact, they have to fight tooth and nail to be recognised.
The late President Daniel arap Moi, for instance, once referred to Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai as a woman who had “dudus in her head” when she was protesting the building of a tall office block in Uhuru Park. Recently, Mutahi Ngunyi, a State House operative, referred to Martha Karua, a former Minister of Justice and a presidential candidate in the 2013 election, as “a grandmother with average intelligence and a bloated ego” after she gave a TV interview that challenged the president and Raila Odinga to come clean on the motives behind their rapprochement. (Note: Ngunyi’s use of the word “grandmother” was to suggest that Karua had reached her sell-by date and that she should focus on family matters, not politics. In this case, the insulting of grandmothers was not viewed as hate speech by the authorities.)
Those of us who have cared to listen to the speech that caused so much uproar in the country will agree that Sudi did not insult Mama Ngina’s breasts. He merely stated that Uhuru Kenyatta should not believe that the breasts that he suckled are better than the breasts that Sudi suckled.
What Sudi was simply trying to say (and which got lost in the state’s accusations of “hate speech” and “incitement”) was that all Kenyans are equal and that Uhuru and his family should not believe that they are more important than the rest of Kenyans or that the country belongs to them.
In any other period in our political history, these comments might even be considered heroic – an act of rebellion against hegemonic forces. I would go further to say that Sudi has the right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by our constitution, so he can say what he wants as long as his utterances are not inflammatory or based on lies. After all, did the young Jomo not say similar things against the British in London’s famous Hyde Park? Is this not what the Mau Mau were saying to the British colonialists when they took up arms against them? Is this not what was conveyed to President Moi during the “Second Liberation” protests? Did Raila Odinga (who was once the leader of the opposition) not challenge election results several times because he wanted Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta to know that Kenya does not belong to just one tribe or to one political party? Fighting for your rights is guaranteed by the 2010 constitution.
But then you have to remember that it was during Jomo Kenyatta’s time that insulting the first family became a criminal offence. Jomo’s Machiavellian Attorney General Charles Njonjo deemed that even imagining the death of the president was punishable. Are we returning to those days of the imperial presidency?
Before I return to the issue of breasts and their significance in the Kenyan imagination, let us recall how we got to this place.
You may remember that prior to the 2013 elections, Uhuru Kenyatta made a Faustian pact (some call it a marriage of convenience) with William Ruto – his fellow indictee at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The deal – amplified by the likes of Cambridge Analytica, which manipulated a highly gullible electorate – was that the election should be viewed as “a referendum against the ICC”. Part of the pact was that if the duo won the presidency, Uhuru would rule the country for ten years and then hand over to Ruto for the next ten years. In other words, Jubilee – their coalition party – would rule Kenya for the next two decades.
But maybe promising to honour a deal was not part of that deal. That Faustian pact has been broken. Ruto has now been relegated to the sidelines following another Faustian pact called the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) that has brought Raila into the Uhuru fold, and which has resulted in an orchestrated assault against Ruto. Some might say that it is Kikuyu privilege and hegemony reasserting itself by coopting dissent. Others says it is a way of healing past wounds and uniting a country fractured by political divisions and disillusionment. Only time will tell which scenario will unfold.
Unfortunately, this pact might lead to more, not less violence. The government’s unreasonably aggressive response to Sudi’s comments, complete with police raids on Sudi’s home, and the open defiance of Sudi’s Kalenjin supporters, who threaten to go to war to defend their leader, suggest that we might be on the brink of a civil war. As one Kenyan on Twitter wryly commented, BBI has turned into a “Burning Bridges Initiative”.
The “handshake” between Uhuru and Raila, instead of easing tensions, has created different forms of polarisation. Ruto’s Kalenjin supporters feel betrayed. Opposition and civil society activists who would have come to Sudi’s defence are now taking sides; those who might have defended his right to free speech are now silent because speaking up might be construed as siding with Ruto. These fractures are most evident on social media.
Let us be very clear on one fact, which somehow gets conveniently brushed under the carpet. The 2013 election was premised on fear. Fear that if the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu do not unite, there will be a constant threat of violence and mass displacement of Kikuyus in the Rift Valley. Fear that historical injustices will resurface as a rallying cry during elections – a scenario that neither the Kikuyu nor the Kalenjin elite want because both have blood on their hands.
Although many analysts insist that the UhuRuto victory was simply a mathematical probability, in that it united two of Kenya’s largest ethnic groups into one formidable voting bloc, thereby outnumbering the opposition, some believe that the alliance between the two politicians was based more on primal instincts that had to do with self-preservation vis-à-vis the ICC, and the general fear in the country that the 2013 election would be as bloody, if not more, than the 2007one, as the issues that turned Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic group against Ruto’s Kalenjin in 2007/8, and vice versa, had still not been resolved.
“Though tribe was the watchword in this  election, their alliance, and their victory, was nationalistic, not tribal,” wrote James Verini, a Foreign Policy contributor based in Nairobi. “Their unspoken but resounding message was this: Yes, we killed. We killed for you, for Kenya. And we’ll kill again. It’s the most seductive platform in politics.”
At that time, anti-corruption crusader John Githongo said that the wounds of the violence in the Rift Valley – the site of most of the ethnic conflicts that have taken place during every election cycle since the first multiparty elections in 1992 – had still not healed, despite the public hand-holding and hugging among the Jubilee Alliance’s leaders. “Those who doubt his [Ruto’s] grip and the extent of his leverage need only consider the fact that despite the alliance of ‘peace’ and ‘reconciliation’ between the Gikuyu and the Kalenjin that now prevails, Rift Valley IDPs are not racing back to farms from which they were evicted in 2008. All of us know, quietly and without too much fuss, that we aren’t even close. It is such inconveniences that interrupt the ‘move on’ narrative for now,” he wrote in African Arguments on 22 May 2013.
Breasts in the Kenyan imagination
The Faustian pact between Uhuru and Ruto, and now between Uhuru and Raila, has lessons for Kenyans. In the classic German legend from which this pact gets its name, Faust is a highly successful but dissatisfied man who makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. By selling his soul to the devil, Faust is condemned to “The Eternal Empty”. However, female spirits of the earth intervene on his behalf and forgive him for his foolish mistake. Faust suffers some tragedies because of his folly, but in the end he is granted redemption and his soul ascends to heaven in the presence of God and the Virgin Mother. (One moral of the story: female energy is more powerful than the devil.)
We might be tempted to believe that the attacks on Sudi and his ilk are invoking female power. The fact that so many Kenyans (including elderly Kikuyu women who have threatened to strip in front of Sudi) have come out in defence of Mama Ngina’s breasts might suggest that we have reached a Faustian moment. Or perhaps we have evolved into country that actually cares about women and their dignity.
But let us not fool ourselves. For one thing, Mama Ngina, arguably the richest woman in Kenya, is hardly “Wanjiku”. I do not recall her ever defending the rights of poor Kenyan women, or women in general. Two, we are not invoking female energy here to seek redemption. If Kenyan politicians, including Sudi, really cared about women, the two-thirds gender rule would have been enforced in parliament by now.
What we are doing is weaponising the former first lady’s breasts. And sexualizing them, which is very un-African. As Sylvia Tamale writes in African Sexualities, African women’s sexualities were the antithesis of European mores of sex and beauty. Traditional African women had no problems displaying their breasts because breasts in African culture were not objects of sexual desire or titillation; they had one primary purpose – feeding an infant. So talking about breasts was no different from talking about a nose or a leg. If Sudi had “insulted” Mama Ngina’s ear, would we be so upset? The African breast became the object of forbidden fantasy and fetishisation during colonialism when Christian missionaries began their “civilizing mission” in Africa.
In fact, in certain African societies, nakedness was associated with defiance. The Kenyan mothers of political prisoners who “cursed” the Moi government in the early 1990s by stripping at Uhuru Park – because seeing your mother naked is considered a curse in certain Kenyan communities – were not displaying their sexuality; they were displaying their anger. They were defying Moi. Kenyans with a political conscience saw them as heroines. In fact, these mothers will forever remain as symbols of defiance in the annals of Kenyan history.
Maybe now is the Faustian moment when positive female energy can be invoked, not to redeem those who have made selfish pacts, but to take Kenyans down a more enlightened path.
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