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Battle of Ideas: The Social Responsibility of Intellectuals in Building Counter-Hegemonies

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In a capitalist society divided into classes, you have broadly two types of intellectuals. There are those who produce rationalizations, justifications and mystifications to maintain and reproduce the status quo of inequality and inequity in favour of capital. Then there are those who question and challenge dominant knowledge and try to demystify and debunk hegemonic forms of knowledge and ideologies. Some go further to produce and articulate alternative forms of knowledge and ideologies to propel the struggle of the ruled, the oppressed and the downtrodden. They are involved in constructing counter-hegemonies. By ISSA SHIVJI

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Battle of Ideas: The Social Responsibility of Intellectuals in Building Counter-Hegemonies
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Intellectuals pride themselves as producers of knowledge. They are also articulators of ideologies, a role they do not normally acknowledge. Respectable universities worth the name call themselves sites of knowledge production. I say “respectable” because these days many neo-liberalised universities have abandoned the role of knowledge production in favour of packaging disparate information and branding their “products” (students) to make them saleable on the market. That is a story for another day. Today I don’t want to talk about packaging factories. Today I want to address those intellectuals who still consider themselves producers of knowledge rather than assembly line supervisors of packaging industries.

In a capitalist society divided into classes, you have broadly two types of intellectuals. There are those who produce rationalizations, justifications and mystifications to maintain and reproduce the status quo of inequality and inequity in favour of capital. These are the producers and purveyors of what we call hegemonic ideologies. Then there are those who question and challenge dominant knowledge and try to demystify and debunk hegemonic forms of knowledge and ideologies. Some go further to produce and articulate alternative forms of knowledge and ideologies to propel the struggle of the ruled, the oppressed and the downtrodden. They are involved in constructing counter-hegemonies. Thus there is a battle of ideas. One of the foremost sites of the battle of ideas is the University. Battle of ideas precedes battle at the barricades.

Hegemony by definition means acceptance of an ideology voluntarily, by consent as opposed to, by coercion. It was Gramsci’s great insight that the bourgeoisie rule by mobilising consent through its ideological apparatuses, both in the state (for example, courts) but – and this is important to note – also in civil society, for example, institutions of education, media, CSOs, art, literature etc. The wheels of ideological apparatuses are always churning. They generate and refurbish hegemonic ideologies and make it the ‘common sense’ of the time. During normal times, therefore, the coercion of the bourgeois state does not appear on the surface. It is there – but always in the background. This is the case in normal times. What happens in times of crisis – in times when the underlying capitalist system itself is in the crisis of reproducing itself? It is the crisis that interests me most because, I believe, we are currently in such a crisis of the global imperialist-capitalist system. I will not go into the details of the economics of the crisis because I want to focus more on its ideological expressions.

Battle of ideas precedes battle at the barricades.

Today we are witnessing an upsurge of fascism, narrow nationalisms and parochialism (for short, I’ll call them “new nationalisms”) both in the Centres (the global North) and in the Peripheries (the global South). In the North, rightist parties and formations wave the flag of racism and nationalism against immigrants. Given the electoral victories of the right in recent times, even mainstream center and centre-left parties, fearing the erosion of their electoral base, buy into the anti-immigrant rhetoric. Brexist is one such example; the other is Trump’s laughable but tragic Mexican wall project.

In the South, there is a rise of demagogic and populist leaders who wave the flag of narrow ethnic, racist, religious and parochial patriotism. Modi of India, Duterte of Philippines and Bolsonaro of Brazil, well illustrate populist and demagogic languages. Modi waves the flag of Hindutva which is nothing but an assertion of Hindu supremacy. Inevitably this unleashes street violence against minorities – Muslims, Christians and Dalits. Bolsonaro deploys his populist slogans against Blacks, women and LGBT communities. In Latin America, another Bolsonaro is in the making. This is the gentleman called Juan Guaido who has “democratically” declared himself the president of Venezuela. He is supported by the “champions of democracy” in America and Europe and recognised, among others, by the only “democracy” in the Middle East – Israel. [Please note the term “democracy” and all its derivatives here are in inverted commas.]

Hegemony by definition means acceptance of an ideology voluntarily, by consent as opposed to, by coercion

I’d suggest that the upsurge of “new nationalisms” is a backlash to neoliberalism gone wild. Ironically, neo-liberalism itself paved the path for the rise of “new nationalisms”. Neo-liberal ideologies did not have a long staying power but for some four decades of its rule it caused havoc. Market and monetarism were its mantra. Neo-liberalism attacked bourgeois liberalism in the Centres and assaulted post-colonial, radical and progressive nationalism in the Peripheries. Socially, it rested on individuation as opposed to bourgeois individualism. The best description of individuation comes from Margaret Thatcher who rhetorically exclaimed: ‘Society, what society! There is no such thing as society!’ There are only disparate individuals. Bourgeois individuals stood for rights and obligations. Neo-liberal individuates don’t stand for anything – except for self-enrichment and aggrandizement. They will sell their rights and trample on others’ rights so long as they can “move on”. And ‘obligation’ has no place in their utterly self-centered mindsets.

On economic level, neo-liberalism is based on the endless creation of fictitious commodities and their privatisation. So public goods – education, health, water, energy and air are commodified and owned; so also flora and fauna, mountains, rivers and forests; bio resources and genetically modified life organisms become private property to be owned and traded for profit. Even languages and cultural practices get patented and owned. (Recently Walt Disney took out a patent on the Kiswahili phrase: Hakuna Matata!) Debt, including sovereign debt, becomes a commodity and is traded. Financial oligarchies offer cheap credit – so every one from individuals through households to states borrow heavily becoming indebted. Debt slavery has become a new kind of slavery. We all exist in debt to financial sharks, literally and figuratively. Descartes’ famous saying, “I think therefore I am” becomes “I am indebted therefore I am”. Underlying it all is rampant primitive accumulation by a small financial oligarchy overshadowing ‘accumulation by expansion’ in the productive sphere. Financialisation becomes the name of the game. Fictitious economy takes leave of real economy and begins to believe in self-regulation and self-reproduction. When the hiatus between the real and fictitious economy becomes unsustainable, the bubble bursts like the 2007-2008 prime mortgage crisis in the US that spread like wild fire to other countries. But the state pumps in trillions of dollars to save financial institutions, which duly resume their nefarious transactions. The outcome of the crisis is further concentration of wealth and power in fewer hands.

The wheels of ideological apparatuses are always churning. They generate and refurbish hegemonic ideologies and make it the ‘common sense’ of the time.

Inequality, unemployment, poverty, despair and hopelessness rise as wealth concentrates in a small minority. Angry masses become cannon fodder on which rising fascist and right-wing feed. In the absence of a feasible alternative, this is the way the masses hit back at neo-liberal excesses.

Neo-liberalism was primarily an ideological assault on radical nationalism and its relatively independent policies. It devastated our social fabric and the neo-liberalisation of our universities destroyed counter-hegemonic, progressive discourses and debates. The University structures were corporatized. Courses lost their integrity as they were semesterised and modularised. Short courses proliferated. Basic research was undermined as policy consultancy overwhelmed the faculty. Knowledge production was substituted by online information gathering. A few resisted but many surrendered. Voices of resistance from staff and students were stifled and suppressed. University authorities spent more on surveillance gadgets to keep students in check rather than on sanitation facilities in dorms to keep students healthy. This campus, once known for its intellectual salience, is today cited for its selective silence. The kind of discourse that I’m indulging in today, I bet, must sound Greek and Latin to our neo-liberal generation of both students and faculty. This is the story of many African campuses.

As a consequence, the rise of “new nationalisms” caught intellectuals by surprise. Neither did they anticipate it nor do they know how to react to it. The knee-jerk reaction on many African campuses – not all of course – has been to join the bandwagon either out of choice or because of lack of choice.

Today we are witnessing an upsurge of fascism, narrow nationalisms and parochialism both in the Centres and in the Peripheries. In the North, rightist parties and formations wave the flag of racism and nationalism against immigrants. Given the electoral victories of the right in recent times, even mainstream center and centre-left parties, fearing the erosion of their electoral base, buy into the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“New nationalisms” across the global South share certain characteristics, albeit manifesting in different forms and languages, depending on concrete conditions. Some manifestations are undoubtedly progressive but are invariably eclectic.

Firstly, populism speaks in the name of the poor against the poor. Secondly, it privileges ‘God and country’ instead of peoples and nations. Thirdly, it concentrates power and destroys other potential centres of actual or potential power. Fourthly, it seeks legitimacy in “gods and ancestors” rather than its people. Fifthly, it makes fetish of “industrialisation-as-development” while marginalising agriculture and pillorying “development-as-freedom”. In Africa, no doubt, we need industrialisation to develop but development is more than industrialisation. Development, as Mwalimu Nyerere used to say, is a social process of enlarging the terrain of freedom and constricting the tyranny of necessity.

Sixthly, ”new nationalism” mounts a concerted assault on veritable centres of thinking, especially universities. My Indian friends from Jawaharlal Nehru University tell me that Modi’s regime has repeatedly tried to destroy radicalism at JNU, by slapping criminal charges on radical faculty and students, by mounting direct attacks by police on the Campus and by appointing regime’s stooges as vice-chancellors, and so on.

The upsurge of “new nationalisms” is a backlash to neoliberalism gone wild

Seventhly, the anti-imperialist rhetoric of “new nationalisms” is eclectic and selective. It is couched in the language of “they”, the foreigners, and “we”, the indigenous, rather than as an anti-systemic project.

Finally, in Africa, the “new nationalism” is singularly bereft of the Pan-African dimension. This is very much unlike the first wave of nationalism, which was born of Pan-Africanism and tried to keep it on the political radar in spite of its problems and shortcomings. Paraphrasing Mwalimu Nyerere, I would say that African nationalism could only be Pan-Africanism otherwise it becomes “the equivalent of tribalism in the context of our separate nation states.” (Nyerere)

Under the circumstances, it is squarely the social responsibility of intellectuals to construct a counter-hegemonic project that would resonate with the lives of the vast majority. Instead, African intellectuals have reacted to “new nationalisms” by falling back on the ideological rhetoric of bourgeois liberalism, which they know best but which, in my view, falls far short of giving the people a vision and a cause to fight for. The liberal language of political pluralism, social diversity, ideological identity and party politics is, in my view, inadequate and does not touch the hearts and minds of our people. We must always remember that it is liberalism constructed on capitalist foundations that created the soil for the rise of neo-liberalism and its offshoot “new nationalisms” in the first place.

One cannot construct a counter-hegemonic project in the abstract and I do not intend to do so. Such alternatives are built in the course of struggle. By way of conclusion, though, I’d like to suggest for our consideration that any counter-hegemonic project must be based on four building blocks. These are: popular livelihoodspopular participationpopular power and popular rights and freedoms.

‘Popular’ is used in two senses: one that it is anti-imperialist and two, that it is based on a ‘bloc of popular classes’, which together I call working people. The term popular helps us to distance ourselves from populisms emanating from the term ‘people’. The term popular livelihoods does not require any further explanation. Needless to say it has to be based on a people-centered development. (And by ‘people’ I mean working people.)

Popular participation is meant to interrogate the limits of parliamentary and party politics and rethink the institutions of the state. The idea is to posit a new mode of politics. Politics are where the masses are. And masses are in villages and urban ghettoes and neighbourhoods. So popular participation and popular power is meant to re-locate power and politics from the state to villages and neighbourhoods.

African intellectuals have reacted to “new nationalisms” by falling back on the ideological rhetoric of bourgeois liberalism, which they know best but which, in my view, falls far short of giving the people a vision and a cause to fight for.

In popular rights and freedoms I include two fundamental rights and four fundamental freedoms. The fundamental rights are right to human existence to live life with dignity and right to organise means that an organised working people are able to defend their interests themselves through their own organisations – whether these are trade unions, workers’ associations, working women’s organisations, peasant co-operatives or peasant parties. Forms of organisation arise from concrete conditions. People have always been innovative in organising themselves for resistance and for fighting for alternatives.

Four fundamental freedoms are: freedom from want, freedom from fearfreedom from violence (both state and social violence) and freedom from enforced silence – in other words, right to speak out. Time does not allow me to elaborate further on the building blocks of an alternative Project. My aim was simple: to jolt us from the slumber of silence. My hope is – and I’m eternally hopeful – that this type of discourses will morph us from the state of unthinking to the state of thinking.

This article adopted from a Keynote address at the University of Dar es Salaam was first published in Sauti ya Ujamaa on February, 2 2019.

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Issa Shivji
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Prof. Issa G. Shivji is an author and academic, one of Africa's leading experts on law and development and former Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Research Chair in Pan-African Studies of the University of Dar es Salaam.

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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 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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