In an unprecedented move, the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope Francis, has decided to finally address an issue that has plagued the church for decades: that of sexual abuse of women and children by priests, a scourge that has left many victims around the world broken. The bold step by Pope Francis to confront this uncomfortable issue – even at the risk of tainting the Catholic Church’s reputation – is one that even the aid industry, particularly the United Nations, has been reluctant to tackle head on, despite growing pressure from the #MeToo movement. Many observers, including yours truly, believe that recent efforts by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to address sexual harassment and abuse by UN employees could be merely cosmetic; they will not change anything because the UN has a strongly embedded culture of impunity. As one former UN staff member wrote in the New York Daily News, the UN has “an anti-MeToo culture” and is “an old boys’ club”.
Nine months ago, I wrote an article on why I believed that the #MeToo movement would have little or no impact on the United Nations’ male-dominated, highly hierarchical and secretive work environment. I was convinced that because the UN is generally unreceptive to criticism, it was highly unlikely that victims of sexual harassment or assault would come forward or be listened to. I showed, through various examples that UN employees accused of sexual harassment or assault are rarely reprimanded or punished. In fact, some of those implicated have been conveniently transferred or allowed to resign or retire quietly with full benefits – a practice that the Catholic Church perfected when confronted with sexual abuse cases.
However, internal surveys and pressure from women’s rights advocates may have finally forced the UN to take a good hard look at itself, and could bring about some changes in how the world body is governed and managed. An internal UN survey, conducted by Deloitte, whose results were released in January this year, found that a third of UN staff members surveyed had been sexually harassed. The survey noted that the most vulnerable targets were women and transgender personnel aged between 25 and 44. Two out of every three harassers were male and only one out of every three employees who were harassed took any action against the perpetrator. About one in ten women reported being touched inappropriately; a similar number said they had witnessed crude sexual gestures.
Internal surveys and pressure from women’s rights advocates may have finally forced the UN to take a good hard look at itself, and could bring about some changes in how the world body is governed and managed.
Abuse of authority and defective leadership
However, the UN Staff Union says that sexual harassment is only one among many abuses of authority that take place at the UN. Results from its own survey show that sexual harassment makes up only about 16 per cent of all forms of harassment. Forty-four percent of those surveyed said that they had experienced abuse of authority; of these, 87 per cent said that the person who had abused his or her authority was a supervisor. 20 per cent felt that they had experienced retaliation after reporting misconduct: “The results confirm that this has a debilitating effect on staff morale and work performance, and that there are continued barriers to reporting, including fear of retaliation and a perception that the perpetrators, for the most part, enjoy impunity,” admitted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a letter to UN staff.
An internal UN survey…found that a third of UN staff members surveyed had been sexually harassed. The survey noted that the most vulnerable targets were women and transgender personnel aged between 25 and 44.
Findings from the two surveys come at a time when women’s rights activists, including the International Center for Research on Women, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and Gender at Work, have been advocating for a more “Feminist United Nations” that fosters gender equality and parity, especially at the highest levels. The upper echelons of the UN are still predominantly male and no woman to date has served as the Secretary-General. The activists would also like to see the UN to take sexual harassment cases more seriously.
In response to this campaign and the momentum generated by the #MeToo movement, Guterres has taken some actions, including installing a sexual harassment hotline and establishing a Task Force on Sexual Harassment.
However, he has not taken any action against senior officials accused of sexual harassment or against those who protect the perpetrators. For instance, no action has been taken against the UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe, who has been accused of failing “to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power” at UNAIDS. An independent panel also found that Sidibe’s “defective leadership” had fostered a dysfunctional work environment at the organisation where employees believed they could get away with anything. Meanwhile, Sidibe has not been fired by the UN Secretary-General though he has said that he will step down in June this year, a decision he made voluntarily without any pressure from the UN Secretary-General and without any sanctions.
In response to this campaign and the momentum generated by the #MeToo movement, Guterres has taken some actions, including installing a sexual harassment hotline and establishing a Task Force on Sexual Harassment.
Systematic racial discrimination
A recent spate of revelations by whistleblowers at the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows how ineffective leadership allows abuse to continue. Three emails addressed to WHO directors, which were leaked to the Associated Press, complained of rampant racism at the organisation and theft of funds intended for Ebola victims. At WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, stated one email, African staff members suffer “systematic racial discrimination”.
However, Guterres has not taken any action against senior officials accused of sexual harassment or against those who protect the perpetrators. For instance, no action has been taken against the UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe, who has been accused of failing “to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power” at UNAIDS.
The emails also spoke of widespread corruption and mismanagement of funds. One whistleblower claimed that logistics and procurement officers at WHO are known to be corrupt and that during one Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo last year, a plane was hired to transport three vehicles from a warehouse in Dubai at the highly inflated cost of one million dollars.
Last year, Al Jazeera featured a documentary that showed how Big Pharma is also influencing the way WHO’s senior management makes decisions about global public health crises. The documentary suggested that the 2009 swine flu pandemic might have been fabricated to benefit pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the swine flu vaccine. One former delegate to the European Council stated: “The WHO officials have no idea about such things [pandemics]. They depend on scientists. And the scientists are allocated to them by the countries and by the organisations that finance the WHO. And many of them gave advice and made decisions that benefited the pharmaceutical industry.”
One whistleblower who has for years been seeking compensation from WHO for a work-related injury told me that her ordeal was so harrowing that it had left her emotionally depleted and had ruined her financially…
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s Director General, has promised an internal investigation into the recent racial discrimination and corruption allegations. While this is a good sign, we must also remember that the UN is essentially a political organisation and that influential member states and its biggest donors often have a greater say in how the organisation is run – and who gets punished – than those who have less influence and clout. There is also a general tendency to cover up a wrongdoing than to address it, and to punish those who expose the crimes committed.
Shooting the messenger
Guterres’ stated commitment to improve gender parity and to look more seriously into sexual harassment cases could just be a whitewashing exercise to calm down critics until the dust settles. This is what has happened in the past. For instance, not one company or individual has to this day been charged with diverting money or receiving kickbacks from the scandalous UN Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq, which resulted in the loss of billions of dollars that were supposed to help the Iraqi people. By the time the Kofi Annan-initiated Volcker Commission came out with its findings on the programme and revealed names of those involved in the theft, Saddam Hussein had been deposed by American and British coalition forces, and the programme had been closed.
Similarly, UN peacekeepers accused of raping or sexually exploiting displaced or refugee women and children in strife-torn countries suffer few consequences; recent such cases have not resulted in any convictions though there are now efforts to bar countries whose peacekeepers have been implicated in sexual abuse from serving in peacekeeping missions.
On the other hand, the majority of UN whistleblowers who have reported misconduct, including corruption, abuse of authority and sexual harassment and assault, have been fired, demoted or reprimanded. Few of their allegations are investigated, and even if they are, the findings are rarely made public. In 2014, for instance, Anders Kompass, the director of field operations at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was suspended and even “investigated” after he revealed to French authorities cases of sexual abuse of displaced boys by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Kompass eventually resigned from the organisation. He told a journalist that his ordeal had left him “disappointed and full of sadness”.
Those who have sought justice from the UN’s internal justice systems have hit a wall, which suggests that these systems were designed to protect the perpetrators and the UN’s reputation rather than to safeguard whistleblowers and to bring about remedial action.
The majority of UN whistleblowers who have reported misconduct, including corruption, abuse of authority and sexual harassment and assault, have been fired, demoted or reprimanded.
In my own research, I found that the emotional toll of whistleblowing in the UN is so huge that most whistleblowers never fully recover from their traumatic experience. The decision not to report wrongdoing is thus often based on self-preservation.
The irony is that most UN whistleblowers don’t even realise that they are blowing the whistle; most believe they are simply doing their job by reporting wrongdoing. It is only when the retaliation against them begins that they realise that they have stepped on some very big toes.
Those who are fired from the organisation or whose contracts are not renewed find themselves shut out of the closely-knit international development community, which blocks their future career development. Vindictive senior managers are known to blacklist whistleblowers and ruin their reputations, which results in the latter not being considered for jobs in similar organisations. One whistleblower who has for years been seeking compensation from WHO for a work-related injury told me that her ordeal was so harrowing that it had left her emotionally depleted and had ruined financially – this from an organisation that is committed to promoting global health!
Toxic work environment
Many people have asked me how an organisation that is so multicultural and which is devoted to the advancement of human rights can allow sexism and racism to thrive within its own corridors. I tell them that an organisation is only as good as its people; if you hire racists and sexists, you will end up in a racist and sexist work environment, regardless of the noble aspirations of the organisation.
And if the organisation does not have in place policies and practices that deter abuse and discrimination – and especially if these policies and practices are not followed diligently – then that organisation will simply reflect the negative values of the wider society (possibly at its worst because there are few or no penalties for those who demonstrate racist or sexist behaviour). This creates a highly toxic and unhealthy work environment, especially for women.
As someone who has worked for the UN for more than a decade, I can tell you that the people who work there are not superhuman, nor are they particularly interested in the progress and protection of human beings. Some, especially at the top echelons, are political appointments who come with the baggage and privileges that they inherited from their own particular social, political or cultural backgrounds. They are simply reflections of their societies. And because they are political appointees, they feel no need to follow the dictates of the UN or its global mandate. (This explains why representatives from countries with some of the most dictatorial and repressive regimes end up being voted into the UN Human Rights Council.) There is no test that UN staffers have to pass to show their humanitarian or development credentials. Most are simply careerists who seek a comfortable job abroad with generous tax-free perks. So what you are left with are cynical and paranoid bureaucrats whose only mission is their own career development.
In my own career at the UN, I have seen how senior male professionals will have no qualms about ganging up against a female colleague to intimidate her or to force her out of the organisation. They will even go to the extent of assassinating her character to support a member of their “boys club”. The unwritten rule (which I found out about rather late) is that senior male managers will stick together and defend each other. In a highly publicised 2004 case, for example, the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, publicly stated that allegations of sexual harassment made by a Geneva-based UN staff member against his friend, the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, “could not be substantiated” even though an internal investigation had confirmed her account.
It is possible that the recent push by the #MeToo movement and women’s rights activists may finally turn the tide and make the UN a more egalitarian, woman-friendly workplace. It is possible that the UN is not completely beyond reform – that it can put in place systems that minimise abuse of authority and weed out those who are doing most harm to the organisation and to its ability to fulfill its mandate of promoting human rights and justice around the world.
One reform measure would be to order thorough and credible investigations into allegations of wrongdoing and to punish the perpetrators. This is a tall order because, like the Catholic Church, the tendency at the UN’s top echelons is to cover up the crime (especially sexual abuse and theft) rather than expose it, and also because the people who report wrongdoing are often junior or mid-level professionals who can be easily intimidated by their superiors and bullied into not speaking up. Unless the culture of retaliation against whistleblowers is stopped, there is little hope that whistleblowers will get any justice and that wrongdoing within the organisation will be curtailed.
Like the Catholic Church, the tendency at the UN’s top echelons is to cover up the crime
The most effective method, both in the UN and in other large bureaucratic organisations like the Catholic Church, is for the leadership to take action against those committing offences. Even Pope Francis has acknowledged that this is an important deterrent – and is the kind of justice that victims of sexual abuse would like to see in the Catholic Church. Sexual abusers and their protectors and those who abuse their power should be fired and stripped of their titles. The UN Secretary-General can establish all kinds of hotlines and task forces, but unless he is seen to be going after those who are abusing their authority, sexually harassing employees or sexually exploiting and abusing vulnerable women and children in poor war-torn countries, nothing will change, and the UN will continue to remain a safe haven for sexual predators and bullies.
The UN Secretary-General can establish all kinds of hotlines and task forces, but unless he is seen to be going after those who are abusing their authority…nothing will change, and the UN will continue to remain a safe haven for sexual predators and bullies.
This would be unfortunate, because in a world witnessing rising ultra-nationalism, fascism, misogyny and intolerance, the United Nations is perhaps the only hope for a more just and inclusive world order.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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