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The Swan Song of Electoral Democracy: From Kenyatta to Kabila, the Rise of a New Impunity

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The farcical rigging of the DR Congo election was only a surprise to the extent that fellow African presidents and international observer missions were not in on Joseph Kabila’s novel innovation: fixing the election for an opposition candidate. With 20 African elections set for 2019, does the threat of the Congolese example confirm a final retreat of electoral democracy on the continent? What is to be done? By MIRIAM ABRAHAM

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The Swan Song of Electoral Democracy: From Kenyatta to Kabila, the Rise of a New Impunity
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The normalization of electoral pilferage in Africa is baffling. Election management bodies, long the political tools of incumbents, can’t stop outdoing each other in their mediocrity. And ready to legitimise these atrocities, are African presidents who compete to be the first to convey congratulatory messages. Not to be outdone, international and regional organizations continue to provide technical support for these sham processes, releasing bland observation reports that rubber-stamp electoral fraud. And the diplomats, who while investigations are launched on sabotage of elections in their own countries, undermine electoral justice in their host countries.

The recent charade in the Democratic Republic of Congo is only the latest in the disturbing trend. Similar processes in Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Rwanda and Kenya, in the past year or so, confirm this. In these four situations, the incumbent retained power, despite detention of political opponents, massive irregularities, blatant theft, intimidation of voters and in some cases, brutal murders by security operatives. With elections scheduled in more than 20 countries this year including Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa and Malawi, we should expect this trend to continue unabated.

Turning to the Democratic Republic of Congo: it has the world’s most complex and longest running humanitarian crisis. It is estimated that since 1996, violence has claimed over six million lives (without including the period between its independence from Belgium in 1960 to 1995). Historically, the country has never had a bloodless transfer of power. Former President, Joseph Kabila, who inherited the seat from his assassinated father, Laurent Kabila in 2001, managed to cling to power for 18 years. He could have probably postponed elections again, if the Congolese, led by the Catholic Church, did not keep the pressure on him finally to conduct them.

The recent charade in the Democratic Republic of Congo is only the latest in a disturbing trend. Similar processes in Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Rwanda and Kenya, in the past year or so, confirm this. With elections scheduled in more than 20 countries this year including Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa and Malawi, we should expect this trend to continue unabated.

With this background, most people would agree that the people of Congo need some semblance of stability (the strict meaning of which usually excludes the violence prosecuted by countries and multinationals pillaging Congo’s rich minerals and timber). But must electoral justice and political stability be mutually exclusive? Several colleagues, working in support of the Congolese election management body, CENI, have expressed their shock and disbelief at the swapping of the presidential results and the manipulation of the legislative vote. These are colleagues who are hardened electoral experts – they have seen it all, from Cambodia to Afghanistan and everything in between.

Most people would agree that the people of Congo need stability (the strict meaning of which usually excludes the violence prosecuted by countries and multinationals pillaging Congo’s rich minerals and timber). But must electoral justice and political stability be mutually exclusive?

In our conversations, I have sought to understand why the Congolese case gets them more perturbed than say, Kenya or Zimbabwe – places in which they recently worked. It is clear that it is because the game played by Kabila deviated from the usual script. These international organizations, complicit in aiding theft in favour of incumbents or their anointed successors, cannot relate to a situation where an incumbent does this in favour of an opposition candidate.

As one of my colleagues said to me, “The difference is that in Kenya, it was not as blatant, there was no paper trail.” I should have been shocked to hear this, that the Kenyans were more adept at creating a farce of an electoral process than the Congolese. What many of these colleagues of mine do not understand is that the end game is the same. In both cases, the will of the people was subverted. For the diplomats and international organizations, their private outrage was that the Congolese were too obvious in their deceit. Perhaps even more outrageous was that Kabila had excluded them from his game plan. They were checkmated with the rest of us. They were not among the usual plotters of the game plan. They were prepared to make a case for how the ruling party had won, because of the power of incumbency, the divisions among the opposition and the sheer constructed tyranny of numbers. They were not prepared for what author and journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo dubbed the ‘Kabila Method’. It partly explains why contradictory statements were issued by the African Union, SADC and some European capitals, in support of the legitimate winner of the race, Martin Fayulu, before capitulating and vowing to work with President Felix Tshisekedi.

I have sought to understand why the Congolese case gets my colleagues more perturbed than say, Kenya or Zimbabwe…It is because the game played by Kabila deviated from the usual script.

If elections are indeed ritual processes to confirm the incumbents or their chosen successors, then why should we invest our hopes, blood, emotions and resources in them? Would we not be best served by monarchs such as those in Morocco and Saudi Arabia? According to several sources, and data collected by ACE African countries rank among the highest in spending on organizing elections. (This does not include campaign financing, for which the United States is off the charts.) Curiously, the higher the amount of money handed over to the ‘independent’ election management body, the lower the country ranks in the Democracy-Index maintained by The Economist.

It is estimated that in 2017 Kenya spent $ 25.4 per registered voter (not including the repeat 26 October 2017 presidential election, petitions and by-elections) and ranks 98 out of 167 states in the Democracy-Index. Botswana ranks 28th in the Index and spends an average of $2.07 per voter, although this may increase in 2019 if the country proceeds with the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).

[International observers] were prepared to make a case for how the ruling party had won, because of the power of incumbency, the divisions among the opposition and the sheer constructed tyranny of numbers. They were not prepared for what author and journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo dubbed the ‘Kabila Method’.

African leaders are getting more emboldened in methods of securing legitimacy, even amidst blatant electoral theft. They know that they can rely on the African Union and other regional organizations such as IGAD and SADC to issue observation reports lauding their illegitimate electoral processes. Prime Ministers, Presidents (sometimes sprinkling onto their official delegations, erstwhile opposition leaders, recent victims of electoral theft now co-opted by the incumbent) will troop to their inauguration ceremonies. They can count on the United Nations to issue statements congratulating the people “for voting peacefully” (as if voters were ever the problem) and taking note of the decisions of the ‘constitutionally established institutions’, even when their own staff have concrete evidence of the foul play and state capture of these institutions.

These leaders are aware that they can use excessive violence and repression to silence their opponents with impunity. And if this does not work out, they will buy off the opposition with the proverbial thirty pieces of silver and repeat the charade in the next electoral cycle. Or they will promise their victims that, in joining government, the same system that rigged them out could well rig them in, next time. Which begs the question of why we spend billions on elections. Why do we put ourselves through the emotional wringer to end up with leaders we did not choose? Why participate in a charade that ends up keeping the political barons, as former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga calls them, in power?

Electoral disillusionment is not unique to Africa. One could argue that there exists today a global democracy deficit as acute in Europe and North America as it is in Africa. Political scientist Larry Diamond has produced many publications on the subject of ‘democratic recession’. Many more researchers have studied in detail whether democracy is in retreat or not. It is however safe to say that what we have recently seen in Latin America, the US, and Europe is a backlash against leftist policies that pushed the middle class to the edge, with leaders, perceived as unrepresentative and out of touch, playing xenophobic dog-whistle politics with immigrants. Many of these countries have ended up electing populist, nationalist and right-wing leaders, who as expected have not provided solutions to their woes but rather introduced divisive and polarizing politics and policies.

Electoral disillusionment is not unique to Africa. One could argue that there exists today a global democracy deficit as acute in Europe and North America as it is in Africa.

While one could question the quality of the electoral processes in these countries, these leaders are not in power because election results were swapped blatantly, either electronically, as was in Kenya, or manually as in the DRC. It is also evident that, as was the case in the mid-term elections in the US, voters are still determined to organize and repudiate values that they deem not representative of their views. The fact that a 70-year tradition of habitually low voter turn-outs was broken – turn-out was a record 60 percent, yielding the most diverse (youth, women, Muslims) US Congress ever – holds hope for electoral democracy elsewhere. Social movements are growing in Slovakia, Romania and even in Poland to push back against these populist tendencies.

There are examples galore in Africa of what happens when people lose hope in electoral democracy— a system – a strict definition is worth restating in these strange times – in which citizens, through universal suffrage, choose and replace their leaders in regular, free, fair, and meaningful elections. This stands true even in cases where there is a façade of democracy created by the autocrats, such as Kenya. From Algeria to Zimbabwe, political changes have taken place, mostly peacefully through social and political movements. Whether in Burkina Faso or The Gambia, citizens have proven their will and capacity to alter their political fate.

Electoral democracy requires patience and hard work, both of which are acutely deficient, especially as we fall victim of the establishment’s distractions. For now in Kenya, the ‘Ruto Bogeyman’ has been created. Instead of spending time nurturing alternative leadership, the public has consented to being used as State House’s battering ram against him. It’s worth recalling that between 2013 and 2017, we were subjected to the ‘Raila Bogeyman’ regime campaign. We have long forgotten about demanding a public inquiry into the 2017 electoral fiasco – or the 2013 debacle. Those who managed the 2017 electoral thuggery continue to receive public funding and tour the world in the name of exporting “lessons learned” from their experience of managing two presidential elections in less than a year! We are collectively distracted by the smoke and mirrors ‘fight’ against graft. We have even signed on to blaming the judiciary for its handling of poorly prosecuted corruption cases designed to fail. Our social media platforms still have messages appealing for unity against terrorists, without questioning why Al-Shabaab successfully targets Kenyan towns and cities, and fails to do so against Addis Ababa whose troops have been in Somalia longer than us. We even get to spend time celebrating or bemoaning (depending on your political stripe) that Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i is now empowered to coordinate the achievement of the government’s agenda while all along his official title reads exactly that (CS, Interior and Coordination of National Government).

It is tempting to write off electoral democracy in Kenya, especially now. However, there may be still room to begin laying the foundations for overturning the ‘faux democracy’ of the past 50 years. It might be tempting to focus only on de-registering ourselves from the IEBC’s voters roll, which anyway by law needs to be discarded and a new voter registration process to be initiated before the 2022 election.

We owe it to our children to do more than this. To play our role in shaking the current system that has been controlled by the dynasties and elite political ‘barons’ for the past five decades. It requires organizing around a movement that advocates for a different type of leadership – a Third Liberation, if you will. This is an arduous task, requiring time and dedication. It requires going back to the basics of defining the kind of leadership we deserve as a people to end impunity, theft of public resources, to protect our environment and to guarantee public safety and security for all. This is possible. It has been done before in Kenya, with varying levels of success, and it can be done again.

We owe it to our children to do more than this. To play our role in shaking the current system that has been controlled by the dynasties and elite political ‘barons’ for the past five decades. It requires organizing around a movement that advocates for a different type of leadership – a Third Liberation, if you will.

But even as we chart this path, we must remember to hold the leaders of these movements accountable to the people. Most of today’s autocrats in Africa were yesterday’s defenders of democracy. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda toppled the Tito Okello military dictatorship 33 years ago; today, he ranks among Africa’s longest serving despots. In Guinea, President Alpha Condé, a long-time opposition leader, became the first democratically elected president in 2011 and appears to be preparing to remove term limits in addition to his ongoing repressive tendencies against his opponents. In Cote d’Ivoire, the hope that Alassane Dramane Ouattara embodied has long been replaced by the very same tactics of his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo. Closer home, one of the prominent leaders of the ‘second liberation’ Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga and the ‘Young Turks’ have joined forces with the ruling Jubilee Party to undermine the same values and aspirations they allegedly fought to protect.

The journey to real change, to electoral democracy, must advance by the dismantling of the entrenched structures that enable the rise of populism, divisive politics, corruption and impunity. It is a journey that we as a nation have really not yet begun. The jury is still out on how far we shall proceed before we are enjoined in the distractions set up by the political ‘barons’ and the dynasties. Until then, electoral democracy is a mirage. And ours will remain selection, not election processes. Just with more pomp, more pillaging and unfortunately, more deaths.

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Ms. Abraham is a governance and institutional development expert.

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SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the country is economically healthy but the reality is that the IMF has come in precisely because Kenya is in a financial crisis.

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SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan
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Never did I imagine that opposing an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Kenya would be viewed by the Kenyan authorities as a criminal act. But that is exactly what transpired last week when activist Mutemi Kiama was arrested and charged with “abuse of digital gadgets”, “hurting the presidency”, “creating public disorder” and other vaguely-worded offences. Mutemi’s arrest was prompted by his Twitter post of an image of President Uhuru Kenyatta with the following caption: “This is to notify the world . . . that the person whose photograph and names appear above is not authorised to act or transact on behalf of the citizens of the Republic of Kenya and that the nation and future generations shall not be held liable for any penalties of bad loans negotiated and/or borrowed by him.” He was released on a cash bail of KSh.500,000 with an order prohibiting him from using his social media accounts or speaking about COVID-19-related loans.

Mutemi is one among more than 200,000 Kenyans who have signed a petition to the IMF to halt a KSh257 billion (US$2.3 billion) loan to Kenya, which was ostensibly obtained to cushion the country against the negative economic impact of COVID-19.  Kenya is not the only country whose citizens have opposed an IMF loan. Protests against IMF loans have been taking place in many countries, including Argentina, where people took to the streets in 2018 when the country took a US$50 billion loan from the IMF. In 2016, Eqyptian authorities were forced to lower fuel prices following demonstrations against an IMF-backed decision to eliminate fuel subsidies. Similar protests have also taken place in Jordan, Lebanon and Ecuador in recent years.

Why would a country’s citizens be against a loan given by an international financial institution such as the IMF? Well, for those Kenyans who survived (or barely survived) the IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 90s, the answer is obvious. SAPs came with stringent conditions attached, which led to many layoffs in the civil service and removal of subsidies for essential services, such as health and education, which led to increasing levels of hardship and precarity, especially among middle- and low-income groups. African countries undergoing SAPs experienced what is often referred to as “a lost development decade” as belt-tightening measures stalled development programmes and stunted economic opportunities.

In addition, borrowing African countries lost their independence in matters related to economic policy. Since lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF, decide national economic policy – for instance, by determining things like budget management, exchange rates and public sector involvement in the economy – they became the de facto policy and decision-making authorities in the countries that took their loans. This is why, in much of the 1980s and 1990s, the arrival of a World Bank or IMF delegation to Nairobi often got Kenyans very worried.

In those days (in the aftermath of a hike in oil prices in 1979 that saw most African countries experience a rise in import bills and a decline in export earnings), leaders of these international financial institutions were feared as much as the authoritarian Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, because with the stroke of a pen they could devalue the Kenyan currency overnight and get large chunks of the civil service fired. As Kenyan economist David Ndii pointed out recently at a press conference organised by the Linda Katiba campaign, when the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”. It can no longer claim to determine its own economic policies. Countries essentially lose their sovereignty, a fact that seems to have eluded the technocrats who rushed to get this particular loan.

When he took office in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki kept the World Bank and the IMF at arm’s length, preferring to take no-strings-attached infrastructure loans from China. Kibaki’s “Look East” economic policy alarmed the Bretton Woods institutions and Western donors who had until then had a huge say in the country’s development trajectory, but it instilled a sense of pride and autonomy in Kenyans, which sadly, has been eroded by Uhuru and his inept cronies who have gone on loan fishing expeditions, including massive Eurobonds worth Sh692 billion (nearly $7 billion), which means that every Kenyan today has a debt of Sh137,000, more than three times what it was eight years ago when the Jubilee government came to power. By the end of last year, Kenya’s debt stood at nearly 70 per cent of GDP, up from 50 per cent at the end of 2015. This high level of debt can prove deadly for a country like Kenya that borrows in foreign currencies.

When the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”.

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the fact that the IMF agreed to this loan is a sign that the country is economically healthy, but as Ndii noted, quite often the opposite is true: the IMF comes in precisely because a country is in a financial crisis. In Kenya’s case, this crisis has been precipitated by reckless borrowing by the Jubilee administration that has seen Kenya’s debt rise from KSh630 billion (about $6 billion at today’s exchange rate) when Kibaki took office in 2002, to a staggering KSh7.2 trillion (about US$70 billion) today, with not much to show for it, except a standard gauge railway (SGR) funded by Chinese loans that appears unable to pay for itself. As an article in a local daily pointed out, this is enough money to build 17 SGRs from Mombasa to Nairobi or 154 superhighways like the one from Nairobi to Thika. The tragedy is that many of these loans are unaccounted for; in fact, many Kenyans believe they are taken to line individual pockets. Uhuru Kenyatta has himself admitted that Kenya loses KSh2 billion a day to corruption in government. Some of these lost billions could actually be loans.

IMF loans with stringent conditions attached have often been presented as being the solution to a country’s economic woes – a belt-tightening measure that will instil fiscal discipline in a country’s economy by increasing revenue and decreasing expenditure. However, the real purpose of these loans, some argue, is to bring about major and fundamental policy changes at the national level – changes that reflect the neoliberal ethos of our time, complete with privatisation, free markets and deregulation.

The first ominous sign that the Kenyan government was about to embark on a perilous economic path was when the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, made an official visit to Kenya shortly after President Uhuru was elected in 2013. At that time, I remember tweeting that this was not a good omen; it indicated that the IMF was preparing to bring Kenya back into the IMF fold.

Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, shows how what she calls “disaster capitalism” has allowed the IMF, in particular, to administer “shock therapy” on nations reeling from natural or man-made disasters or high levels of external debt. This has led to unnecessary privatisation of state assets, government deregulation, massive layoffs of civil servants and reduction or elimination of subsidies, all of which can and do lead to increasing poverty and inequality. Klein is particularly critical of what is known as the Chicago School of Economics that she claims justifies greed, corruption, theft of public resources and personal enrichment as long as they advance the cause of free markets and neoliberalism. She shows how in nearly every country where the IMF “medicine” has been administered, inequality levels have escalated and poverty has become systemic.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan. Or, through carefully manipulated data, it will make the country look economically healthy so that it feels secure about applying for more loans. When that country can’t pay back the loans, which often happens, the IMF inflicts even more austerity measures (also known as “conditionalities”) on it, which lead to even more poverty and inequality.

IMF and World Bank loans for infrastructure projects also benefit Western corporations. Private companies hire experts to ensure that these companies secure government contracts for big infrastructure projects funded by these international financial institutions. Companies in rich countries like the United States often hire people who will do the bidding on their behalf. In his international “word-of-mouth bestseller”, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins explains how in the 1970s when he worked for an international consulting firm, he was told that his job was to “funnel money from the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development and other foreign aid organisations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s resources”.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan.

The tools to carry out this goal, his employer admitted unashamedly, could include “fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder”. Perkins showed how in the 1970s, he became instrumental in brokering deals with countries ranging from Panama to Saudi Arabia where he convinced leaders to accept projects that were detrimental to their own people but which enormously benefitted US corporate interests.

“In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty. We can draw on them whenever we desire – to satisfy our political, economic or military needs. In turn, they bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people. The owners of US engineering/construction companies become fabulously wealthy,” a colleague told him when he asked why his job was so important.

Kenyans, who are already suffering financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic which saw nearly 2 million jobs in the formal sector disappear last year, will now be confronted with austerity measures at precisely the time when they need government subsidies and social safety nets. Season Two of SAPs is likely to make life for Kenyans even more miserable in the short and medium term.

We will have to wait and see whether overall dissatisfaction with the government will influence the outcome of the 2022 elections. However, whoever wins that election will still have to contend with rising debt and unsustainable repayments that have become President Uhuru Kenyatta’s most enduring legacy.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul

Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul
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Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.

This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.

At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.

Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.

The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.

For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.

The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.

It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.

Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.

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When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.

Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.

The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.

It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.

Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.

This post is from a 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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