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Education, Social Mobility and the Enclave Economy: Revisiting the Kenya Scenarios Project

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Two decades ago, a group of eighty Kenyans spent the better part of two years thinking about where the country was headed. The product of this effort was Kenya at the Crossroads: Scenarios for our Future. Where is the country now and where is it headed?

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Education, Social Mobility and the Enclave Economy: Revisiting the Kenya Scenarios Project
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The year was 1998, just after the second multiparty elections that, like the first, was marred by ethnicized political violence and allegations of massive fraud. The horizon was ominous. Moi would be coming to his two-term limit in the subsequent election, and there was already talk of a constitutional amendment to remove the term limit as was happening in Zambia and elsewhere at the time. The economy was in free fall. The big imponderable then was whether Moi would go when the time came, and whether the country could survive a conflagration if he sought to cling to power by hook or crook.

The departure point of Scenarios was that Kenya’s business model had reached the end of the road: “Kenya had reached the limits of its chosen political and economic models.” This prognosis was captured by an analogy of an umbrella. We inherited at independence a dualism of the colonial era which created a “modern” enclave sector occupied by Europeans and their Asian and African auxiliaries, and a “native sector” occupied by the excluded African masses. The modern enclave, which I prefer to call the privilege sector, comprised the State, a small corporatized economy with superior social amenities especially education facilities and urban residencies. Colonial Europeans had the exclusive Duke of York, Prince of Wales and other exclusive schools, Asians had their own — the Duke of Gloucester, Allidina Visram, Racecourse Secondary — and the lucky few Africans had Alliance, Maseno, Mang’u and a few others. Even though African schools and urban residencies were below those enjoyed by Europeans they were way above the life of the ordinary native. Once you got into one of these schools, you had made it.

The departure point of Scenarios was that Kenya’s business model had reached the end of the road: “Kenya had reached the limits of its chosen political and economic models.”

Now think of the enclave economy, the privilege sector if you like, as an umbrella. People under the umbrella are protected from the elements, but how well protected you are depends on your position inside the umbrella. People at the centre are completely protected and warm, while those at the periphery are less protected, but they are better than those outside. The trick is to get deeper into the umbrella until you are the guy actually holding it.

Before independence Europeans were at the centre, followed by Asians, and Africans at the periphery. After independence, many Europeans and some Asians left making more room for Africans to move deeper into the umbrella, and a few more to move into the shelter.

A fresh graduate was guaranteed a position previously occupied by a European, and a high school leaver, a position previously occupied by an Asian. Even though there was a whiff of tribalism, with Kikuyus getting the prime jobs, all Africans with university education got on the gravy train. Those with post-graduate degrees went straight to the top of the public service.

We inherited at independence a dualism of the colonial era which created a “modern” enclave sector occupied by Europeans and their Asian and African auxiliaries, and a “native sector” occupied by the excluded African masses.

By the mid-seventies the privilege sector was already feeling the strain of the numbers of people. Up until then anybody with an O-Level Div. 3 was assured a good clerical job in the private sector while A Levels who did not proceed to university or diploma courses joined as management trainees.

By the end of the `80s, the economy was struggling to absorb 2000 university graduates a year.

The problem was about to get a whole lot worse.

In 1990, the labour force was in the order of four million people, of which one million, a quarter that is, were in the “privilege sector” (i.e. public and private sector formal wage jobs). The other three quarters were in the informal non-agricultural and smallholder agriculture. Unemployment was relatively low, since smallholder agriculture and informal sector was absorbing those who did not get into the privilege sector.

Three decades on, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics estimated the economically active population (15-64 year-olds) at 25 million, and the actual labour force (i..e excluding students and others inactive) at 19 million — a five-fold increase. Formal wage employment is estimated at 2.7 million and non-farm informal employment at 14 million, leaving one million unemployed, and implying that there are just about two million smallholder farmers and pastoralists. Out of the increase of 16 million, the privilege sector has absorbed 1.7 million, only 10 percent, and its contribution to employment is down to 8.5 percent from 25 percent three decades ago.

In the meantime, university enrolment has increased to 500,000 which works out to 125,000 graduates a year, or 63 times the rate three decades ago, while the privilege sector is absorbing just over 100,000 a year. Even if they took up all the jobs, the privilege sector simply cannot absorb the annual throughput of university graduates.

In 1990, the labour force was in the order of four million people, of which one million, a quarter that is, were in the “privilege sector”… Three decades on, the economically active population (15-64 year-olds) is at 25 million, and the actual labour forceS at 19 million — a five-fold increase.

This encapsulates what the scenarios team meant by the end of the road: “Radical changes to revive the economy, a comprehensive reorganization of Kenya’s primary institutions, models of governance and relationships between citizenry and the government are all required.” Would it happen?

Two transformational imperatives were self evident, political and economic, making for four possible scenarios. The first is the No Reform scenario, that is, the continuation of the trajectory that the country was on at the time. We called this the El Nino scenario. The second is the economic reform-only scenario. We called this scenario Maendeleo. The third is political reform-only scenario. We called this the Katiba scenario. Initially, these were the only scenarios developed. But when presented to the project trustees, they argued that the presented scenarios were all too pessimistic and insisted that the team develop a fourth scenario with both political and economic reform. The team obliged, even as it felt this was not a viable prospect. We called this the Flying Geese scenario (See ‘Kenya Scenarios Project’ box).

Kenya’s politics for the better part of the last two decades can be characterized as a struggle between the Maendeleo and Katiba scenarios.

University enrolment has increased to 500,000 which works out to 125,000 graduates a year, or 63 times the rate three decades ago.

In 2003, the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) rode to power on a Katiba platform. For a short while, the cross-ethnic unity of purpose displayed by erstwhile bitter political rivals, reminiscent of the Flying Geese scenario, made Kenyans the most optimistic people in the world. It did not last. On assuming office the old order coalesced around Kibaki, sabotaged the constitution-making process, and proclaimed a Maendeleo agenda. Instead of a constitution, we got Vision 2030. Katiba-Maendeleo was not just a battle between politics and economics but it played out in the economic arena, between NARC’s bottom-up-inclusive growth and the trickle-down economics of the privilege economy. A good number of the experts I mobilized to work on NARC’s Economic Recovery Strategy (ERS), Betty Maina, Sam Mwale, Gem Kodhek, Wachira Maina, Richard Ayah, John Kashangaki, Joslyn Ogai among others, were members of the scenarios team, as was Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o, the minister in charge of the ERS. After the 2005 referendum, the transformative political and economic agenda was abandoned. Instead of a new constitution and the economic empowerment agenda that NARC had promised, we got the trickle-down infrastructure-led Vision 2030.

Kenya’s politics for the better part of the last two decades can be characterized as a struggle between the Maendeleo and Katiba

It took the 2007/8 post-election violence to jolt maendeleoism back to reality, and create the impetus for the 2010 Constitution. It is our great misfortune that we put the constitution in abeyance for two years instead of going to election immediately after promulgation as is the norm. This gave time for the old order to regroup behind the anti-ICC narrative. The rest, as they say, is history.

For the 2017 general election, we once again united the opposition around the Katiba platform. NASA was crafted straight out of the 2003 NARC playbook. Those who paid attention to the manifestos may have noted that the NASA manifesto led with the political reform agenda, followed by social and economic priorities in that order, while the Jubilee one led with an economic agenda; social and political reforms were treated almost as an afterthought.

It is our great misfortune that we put the constitution in abeyance for two years instead of going to election immediately after promulgation as is the norm.

The Jubilee government’s plunder and incompetence has no doubt contributed to the economic implosion that is now unfolding. Perhaps distracted by the melodrama of the plunder and blunders, the clawback of the privilege sector has gone, if not unnoticed, then unremarked. Recently, a Principal Secretary gloated on social media that they have secured US$26 billion in pledges from investors for the housing pillar of the so called Big Four Agenda, whose claim to bigness no one seems to know. Twenty-six billion dollars is a lot of money. It is equivalent to the GDP of Uganda. The idea that a government of a country that cannot feed itself can contemplate investing that kind of money in urban middle class housing, let alone shout about it, is astounding. The question I posed to him: what will the houses produce?

According to the National Housing Survey conducted by the KNBS five years ago, 60 percent of Kenyans live in their own houses (88 percent of rural. No surprises there — Kenya is still a predominantly agrarian society — 60 percent of Kenyans are rural and 88 percent live on land they own. Urban home ownership stood at 30 percent but this understates actual home ownership, as many urban residents also own rural homes, and actually see their sojourns into cities and towns as temporary.

Recently, a Principal Secretary gloated on social media that the government has secured US$26 billion in pledges from investors for the housing pillar of the so called Big Four Agenda. Twenty-six billion dollars is the equivalent to the GDP of Uganda. That a government of a country that cannot feed itself can contemplate investing that kind of money in urban middle class housing…is astounding.

More significant perhaps is that over 70 percent paid monthly rents under Sh. 6,000, and 90 percent under Sh.10,000. Realistically, only about 10 percent of urban residents, less than three percent of Kenyans, are in the potential home ownership bracket. It’s hard to see what kind of logic would lead the government to the conclusion that urban middle class home ownership is one of the country’s top four development priorities. But this is the logic of the privilege society.

In the old days, entitlement was rationalized with the graduates being the creme de la creme of society, a merited reward for scaling the heights to reach the pinnacle of academic achievement. Many students did the minimum necessary to graduate. Those who seemed to be “overworking” were often frowned upon. The former were right in a sense. Education replaced Race as a ticket to the top of the social ladder. Not what you do, but who you are, a graduate. Graduates were the new whites. Times and circumstances have changed, but culture dies hard. It is in the rubric of this culture that prioritizing residential housing over enterprises in a country with a monumental unemployment crisis can look perfectly normal.

With Maendeleo imploding, and Katiba proving too potent a threat to privilege, what we see now is a political class in self-preservation mode, laying the groundwork for what I’ve called an eat-and-let-eat grand ethnic coalition—KANU 3.0. In the meantime, the demographic clock ticks, at the rate of 150,000 university graduates a year. Frustrations rise.

Education replaced Race as a ticket to the top of the social ladder…Graduates were the new whites.

Where does the political class think it is going with this? No political reforms, no economic reforms. That would be El Nino:

“The state is captured by a small elite that employs it as an agent of its own private enterprise. On the other hand, the economy is characterized by low productivity which makes it impossible for the population to realize upward economic mobility. Thus, the construction of both the economic and political spaces generates tension and conflict. The result is an implosion.”

The Kenya at the Crossroads Scenarios proved prescient 20 years ago. It may well be yet again.

El Nino: “The state is captured by a small elite that employs it as an agent of its own private enterprise. On the other hand, the economy is characterized by low productivity which makes it impossible for the population to realize upward economic mobility. Thus, the construction of both the economic and political spaces generates tension and conflict. The result is an implosion.”

The Kenya at the Crossroads Scenarios


No Political Reforms, No Economic Reforms: El Nino

In the El Niño scenario, neither the reform of the state nor the restructuring of the economy takes place. It is a story in which the state remains predominantly patron-client based and therefore partisan, subjective and ineffective in the manner in which it performs its functions. The state is captured by a small elite that employs it as an agent of its own private enterprise. On the other hand, the economy is characterized by low productivity which makes it impossible for the population to realize upward economic mobility. Thus, the construction of both the economic and political spaces generates tension and conflict. The result is an implosion.

Economic Reforms with Minimal Political Reforms: Maendeleo

This scenario explores a technocratic attempt to reform the economy with a view to using economic gains as a means of pre-empting or forestalling demands for political reform. The major assumption in this scenarios is that if the economy is growing steadily, there will be little or reduced demand for political reform. Whilst this model is initially successful, as the limits of the system are reached and economic growth slows down, the demands for political reform pick up once again and the system is faced with two basic choices: to be repressive (and perpetuate the economic decline) or negotiate political reforms (and kick-start the economy again). Though this strategy leads to short-term gains, it breeds a lot of inequality. Without addressing the deeper political and structural questions with regard to Kenya’s problems, this success cannot be maintained for a long period. Sooner or later, one has to address these structural questions.

Political Reforms with Minimum Economic Reforms: Katiba

The Katiba scenario presupposes a successful political negotiation that sees the country adopt a new constitution which recognizes the diversity of the peoples of Kenya and puts in place a mechanism of checks and balances which ensure that the centre is not in a position to dominate over any of the regions of the country.nsuccessful, the outcome for the country can only be bleak. The Katiba story is a story of an inclusive long-drawn out but successful political negotiation process which leads to the reform of and creation of key national institutions. This process takes place in an environment in which there is little or no economic growth. It is the story of a stormy, painful, but decidedly successful attempt by Kenyans to resolve the inconsistencies in their political processes and key institutions of public life that have led to domination, marginalization and fostered corruption. The new institutions reflect the diversity of the country, increase the accountability of leadership at all levels and allow a greater role for the citizen in shaping and managing those activities that affect their day-to-day lives.

Simultaneous Economic and Political Reforms: Flying Geese

This is a scenario of inclusive growth and fundamental institutional reorganization. The team is persuaded that with decisive action and a keen interest in redressing the past and capturing the future, sufficient resolve could be brought to bear and this scenario launched. The Flying Geese story explores the renaissance of Kenya through a determined effort to reform the social, cultural, economic and political models in force. This effort is spearheaded by a new leadership which is armed with a vision and the conviction that Kenya deserves better and can be more than it presently is. For simultaneous reforms on both the economic and political fronts to succeed, a huge reservoir of goodwill is required. There is also a need to for there to be a body (or bodies) that can act as guarantors to the process.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Educating the Native and the Ivy League Myth

Elite schools in the US continue to place a premium on institutions, not ideas. Where you went to school is what matters.

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As a young student, I was always fascinated by the “top” universities and the erudite people that emerged from those august institutions. My first contact with Ivy League people was when I arrived at Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia in 1999 to start my MSc research. I met students and faculty from Princeton University (which is a trustee of the research centre) and was reassured that they looked “normal”, given all the academic challenges and foibles that a Kenyatta University student like me had. After I finished my MSc, the administration was impressed enough with my work to offer me a job as resident scientist, which I took up with the alacrity of someone catching a big break through hard work (I got a rude awakening later, but that’s a story for another day). As part of my job, I was to supervise a group of Princeton undergraduates undertaking a senior field project and, wanting impress, I sharpened my ecologist brain, especially because I thought I would be instructing some of the world’s sharpest young minds. Now I laugh at my consternation when, after mapping out clear and easy ecological transects for them, they strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle (they were ladies) and that the boss might be offended.

Later on, I asked a postgraduate student from the same institution how these ladies could be so casual about their studies and she couldn’t hide her amusement at my ignorance. “Grad school is competitive. Undergrads get in because of money and name recognition.” I was stunned, but I remembered this when I saw the poor work they submitted at the end of their study. Being an aspiring lecturer (and a student of the late brilliant Prof R.O. Okelo) I marked them without fear or favour, assuming that they would be used to such standards at Princeton. I was told that I couldn’t give them such low marks because they were supposed to qualify for med school after their biology degrees.

They strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle.

The next cohort included one serious student who I actually enjoyed instructing and who finished her course successfully. By that time though, I was getting restless and had started writing an academic and financial proposal for my PhD, and I finished it about six months after my student had returned to the US to graduate. The then Director of Mpala, Dr Georgiadis, refused to let me do my PhD on the job, so I submitted my proposal to several conservation organizations, including the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. I received a positive response from them (offering me a grant) which hit me with a strange mixture of feelings. First of all, I was elated at the prospect of starting my PhD, but I was completely baffled by the signature on the award letter. It was signed by the undergraduate student that I had supervised about eight months earlier. An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder. It was my rude awakening to the racial prejudice that is de rigueur in African conservation practice. But I had to get my academic career moving, and indulge my first taste of the ultimate luxury that my competence and my work could afford me, which was the ability to say “NO”. It was with extreme pleasure that I wrote and signed my letter of resignation from my job at Mpala, leaving it on the Director’s desk.

Years later, after I finished my PhD and had a useful amount of conservation practice under my belt, I attended the Society for Conservation Biology conference in Sacramento, California, where there was a side event featuring publishers from several Ivy League universities. I excitedly engaged them because at the time Gatu Mbaria and I were in the middle of writing “The Big Conservation Lie”. I pointed out to all of them that there were no books about conservation in Africa written by indigenous Africans, but they were uniform in their refusal to even read the synopsis of what we had written. I later understood why when I learned that in US academia, African names — as authors or references — are generally viewed as devaluing to any literature.

An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder.

From Sacramento, I made the short trip to Stanford University in Palo Alto, to give a seminar to an African Studies group. I felt honoured to be making an academic contribution at an Ivy League university and I prepared well. My assertions about the inherent prejudices in African conservation practice were met with stunned silence by the faculty, many of whom are involved with conservation research in Africa. One bright spot in that dour experience was the brilliant PhD student who echoed my views and pointed out that these prejudices existed within academia as well. I later found out that he was Kenyan — his name is Ken Opalo and he now teaches at Georgetown University.

Fast forward to today. The Big Conservation Lie was published, and after the initial wailing, breaking of wind, gnashing of teeth and accusations of racism, Mbaria and I are actually being acknowledged as significant thinkers in the conservation policy field and our literary input is being solicited by various publications around the world. Now, the cultural differences between how European and American institutions treat African knowledge are becoming clear (certainly in my experience). I have been approached by several European institutions to give talks (lectures), and have contributed articles and op-eds (to journals and magazines) and one book foreword. Generally, the approach is like this:

“Dear Dr Ogada, I am_______ and I am writing to you on behalf of________. We are impressed with what you wrote in _____ and would appreciate it if you would consider writing for us an article of (length) on (topic) in our publication. We will offer you an honorarium of (X Euros) for this work, and we would need to receive a draft from you by (date). . .” Looking forward to your positive response. . .”

When inviting me to speak, the letters are similarly respectful and appreciative of my time. The key thing is the focus on and respect for one’s intellectual contribution. Publications from American Ivy league schools typically say:

“Dear Dr Ogada, I am __________, the editor of __________. We find your thoughts on _______ very interesting and we are pleased to invite you to write an essay of________ (length) in our publication. Previous authors we have invited include (dropping about 6-8 names of prominent American scholars).

The entire tone of the letter implies that you are being offered a singular privilege to “appear” in the particular journal. It is even worse when being asked to give a lecture. No official communication, just a casual message from a young student saying that they would like you to come and talk to their class on__________ (time and date on the timetable). No official communication from faculty or the institution. After doing that a couple of times, I realized that the reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications, or (God forbid) have an African name in the “references” section of their work.

The reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications.

European intellectuals seem to be catching on to the fact that knowledge and intellect reside in people, not institutions. That is why they solicit intellectual contributions based on the source of an idea they find applicable in that space and time. Name recognition doesn’t matter to them, which is why they seek people like Ogada, who doesn’t even have that recognition in Kenya. The elite schools in US still place this premium on institutions, which is why whenever an African displays intellectual aptitude, those who are impressed don’t ask about him and his ideas, but where he went to school. They want to know which institution bestowed this gift upon him.

For the record, I usually wait about a week before saying “no” to the Ivy League schools. Hopefully, they read my blog and will improve the manner in which they approach me, or stop it altogether.

Aluta continua.

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Cuba Can Help Vaccinate the World

On 25 January, the Progressive International will host a special briefing live from Havana with Cuba’s leading scientists, government ministers and public health officials as part of its Union for Vaccine Internationalism.

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2022 began with a “tsunami” of new Covid-19 cases crashing over the world, according to the World Health Organization. Over 18 million cases have been recorded in the past week alone, a record number since the pandemic began two years ago. In the first 10 days of January, nearly 60,000 Covid-19 deaths have been recorded worldwide — though the total death count is far higher than the official statistics describe.

The Omicron variant is reported to have less “severe” implications among vaccinated patients. But the world remains perilously under-vaccinated: 92 of the WHO’s member countries missed the 2021 target of 40 percent vaccination; at the current pace of rollout, 109 of them will miss their 2022 targets by July.

These statistics tell a story of a persistent vaccine apartheid. Across the EU, 80 percent of all adults have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Meanwhile, only 9.5 percent of people in low-income countries have received a single dose. Omicron is a death sentence for thousands in these countries — and as the virus travels across the Global South, new variants will emerge that may be less “mild” for the vaccinated populations of the North.

But the governments of these Northern countries refuse to plan for global vaccination — or even meet their own pledges. By late last year, they had delivered only 14% of the vaccine doses that they had promised to poorer countries through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing initiative. Big pharmaceutical corporations are focused almost exclusively on production of boosters for the world’s rich countries, creating a shortfall of three billion doses in the first quarter of this year.

President Joe Biden could easily help fill this shortfall by compelling US pharmaceutical corporations to share their vaccine technology with poorer nations. But he has so far refused to do so. A new production hub in Africa — where only 3 percent of people are vaccinated — is now trying to replicate the Moderna vaccine. But without Moderna’s help, or Joe Biden’s executive action, production could take more than a year to begin.

Amidst this crisis of global solidarity, Cuba has emerged as a powerful engine of vaccine internationalism. Not only has the island nation successfully developed two Covid-19 vaccines with 90 percent effectiveness, and vaccinated more than 90 percent of its population with at least one dose of its homegrown vaccine, Cuba has also offered its vaccine technology to the world. “We are not a multinational where returns are the number one reason for existing,” said Vicente Vérez Bencomo of the Finlay Vaccines Institute in Cuba. “For us, it’s about achieving health.”

But the US and its allies continue to oppress and exclude Cuba from the global health system. The US blockade forced a shortage of syringes on the island that endangered its vaccine development and hindered mass production. US medical journals “marginalize scientific results that come from poor countries,” according to Vérez Bencomo. Meanwhile, the WHO refuses to accredit the Cuban vaccines, despite approval from regulators in countries like Argentina and Mexico.

That is why the Progressive International is sending a delegation to Havana: to combat misinformation, to defend Cuban sovereignty, and to help vaccinate the world.

Bringing delegates from the Union for Vaccine Internationalism, founded in June 2021 to fight the emerging apartheid, the Progressive International will convene Cuban scientists and government representatives to address international press and members of the scientific community in a showcase of the Cuban vaccine on 25 January.

The goals of the showcase are both local and global. Drawing attention to the promise of the Cuban vaccine and the perils of the US embargo against it, the showcase aims to forge connections between Cuba’s public biotech sector and manufacturers who might produce the vaccine and help the Cuban government recuperate the costs of its development.

In the process, the showcase aims to set an example of international solidarity in the face of the present global health crisis, advancing the cause of vaccine internationalism around the world.

This article was first published by Progressive International.

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DRC: Bring Patrice Lumumba Home

The return of Patrice Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and coverup.

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For much of the past year, there have been plans for the sacred human remains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first post-independence prime minister, Patrice Émery Lumumba, to finally be returned to his children in Belgium, and then repatriated to the Congo. Originally scheduled for a ceremony on June 30, 2021, the 61st anniversary of the country’s independence passed with Lumumba’s remains still in the custody of Belgian authorities. The ceremony with Belgian King Philippe, current Prime Minister Alexander de Croo of Belgium, and Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, was then planned for January 17, 2022, the anniversary of the assassination. Last week, Tshisekedi announced another delay—this time until June 2022. The official reason for the delay was the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Congo, but the pandemic crisis is deeply entangled with a series of other political maneuvers and other crises that are undoubtedly factors in the decision.

At the center of this story, Lumumba’s family continues to be victimized. As Nadeen Shaker recently reported, his children were forced to escape to Cairo during their father’s house arrest, never to see him again. The disturbing fact that the remains of Lumumba spent another Independence Day in Belgium may provide opportunities for metaphor and analogy, but, amid the widespread complicity in this ongoing desecration, the most important outcome must be to respect the ethical and legal claims of his children, which daughter Juliana Lumumba described in an open letter to the Belgian king last year.

The story of the execution and its aftermath is well told by Ludo de Witte in The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was killed along with comrades Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito by Belgian authorities, with the support of neocolonial Kantangan separatists and the US. Two days later, Gerard Soete, Belgian police commissioner of Katanga, and his brother exhumed the body to chemically eradicate all physical evidence of their crime in order to prevent the kind of mobilization which its identification would inspire. Though the execution was kept secret for nearly a month, its announcement inspired exactly what his executioners feared, as African people throughout the world engaged in protest and other revolutionary acts of remembrance—from the well-known demonstration at the United Nations, and other cities throughout the world to a legacy in a visual, musical, and literary culture that continues to this day.

In February 1961, while the Cultural Association of Women of African Heritage organized a major protest at UN headquarters in New York, Lumumba’s widow Pauline Opango Lumumba led a march of family and supporters to the UN offices of Rajeshawar Dayal in Kinshasa. There, she requested that the UN help her receive the remains of her husband for a proper burial. After Ralph Bunche offered “apologies” for the New York protest, Lorraine Hansberry “hasten[ed] publicly to apologize to Mme. Pauline Lumumba and the Congolese people for our Dr. Bunche.” Meanwhile, James M. Lawson of the United African Nationalist Movement and other Black activists organized a wake for Lumumba at Lewis Michaux’s Harlem bookstore. When Pauline died in Kinshasa in 2014, she was still waiting to bury her husband. She, and her iconic demonstration, are memorialized in Brenda Marie Osbey’s poem “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba,” which is part of a long line of African American efforts to uplift the Lumumba family. The immediacy of Pauline’s demands remains after 6 years.

While Lumumba’s body was dissolved in sulphuric acid, Soete, like the US lynchers of Sam Hose and so many others, kept trophies of his victims as he traveled from the Congo to Belgium, often displaying them for friends and journalists. After Soete died, his daughter Godelieve continued her father’s tradition, culminating in a bizarre 2016 interview, during which a reporter found the remains in her possession. (In her efforts to defend her father, Godelieve further revealed that his brutality was visited upon his children.) The Belgian police intervened and, for the past five years, Lumumba’s remains have been held by the Belgian government responsible for his death. In September 2020, a court finally ruled they should be returned to the family.

These most recent delays are occurring at a time when the ongoing mistreatment of human remains is receiving public attention. The case of the Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania led activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad to uncover the ongoing desecration of the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa, who were killed when the city of Philadelphia bombed their family’s home on May 13, 1985, leading to the discovery that the city held additional remains of the victims of its violence against the MOVE organization.

Since 2005, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created the Missing Persons Task Team to identify the remains of the Black victims of the country’s apartheid era. Drawing on the expertise of researchers with experience in similar initiatives in Argentina and elsewhere, this government project has been deliberate in its efforts to include the families of the missing at all stages, while seeing their work as integral to the larger mission of the TRC, and further representative of a larger model of repatriation of human remains and possessions. As different as these cases of violence may be, government sanction—at multiple levels and taking different forms—remains constant.

In an October 2021 program hosted by Friends of the Congo, Juliana Lumumba explained that for her, as the daughter of a martyr, repatriation and memorialization of her father’s remains were not finite events to be completed like items checked off of a to-do list. Rather, the return must be part of a wider and ongoing process: “I told Belgium, that if we want a reconciliation we need reconciliation of memories because we can not make a reconciliation when our memories [are] so different and so contradictory.” Juliana’s words carry a particular weight at a time when the Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgian Colonial History has received a sharply critical historical report that may or may not lead to meaningful action of the sort that the family has demanded.

Lumumba’s son Guy-Patrice Lumumba opposes Tshisekedi’s efforts to exploit the repatriation for political gain. Tshisekedi himself is familiar with some of the political challenges of memorialization after the remains of his own father, longtime popular opposition leader Etienne Tshisekdi, spent more than two years in Europe before their return in 2019 after Felix’s election. Felix is quickly losing whatever claim he had on his own father’s mantle (see Bob Elvis’s song “Lettre à Ya Tshitshi for a recent indictment of the president’s abandonment of his father’s mantle). He may find value in an association with a revered nationalist icon amid political protests from opponents concerned about his overreaching efforts to control the country’s powerful electoral commission as the 2023 election cycle approaches.

Meanwhile, the younger Tshisekedi’s international standing has been consolidated through his position as head of the African Union, where his responsibilities include negotiating for the provision of COVID-19 vaccines for member states. He recently met with President Biden and made an official visit to Israel, the latter of particular concern given its historical involvement in mercenary efforts against pro-Lumumba rebels and its ongoing role in the plunder of the Congo’s resources (to say nothing of Tshisekedi’s support for Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and its status as an observer at the African Union). Such actions highlight the extraordinary distance between Lumumba’s legacy and Tshisekedi’s leadership.

For decades, the Lumumba family has made a series of unanswered demands through formal inquiries and legal appeals. A group of scholars and activists have also asserted the return of Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but rather an opportunity for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and its subsequent coverup.

Hopefully soon, Lumumba’s family can mourn on their own terms and have all of their demands for justice met immediately and without equivocation.

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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