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#PayInterns: Further Reflections on Millennial Angst, Crony Capitalism and the Privilege Economy

8 min read.

As I argued in Social Mobility and the Enclave Economy, today’s university graduate is a victim of a legacy of privilege of those halcyon days of matunda ya uhuru (fruits of independence) when it was an automatic ticket to high-status public sector jobs. Every graduate was automatically employed. What Kenyans seem not to appreciate is this status was not merited, and had no relationship whatsoever with the economic value of university graduates. It was a case of replacing a white with black privilege.

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Two weeks ago, I waded into an emotive Twitter exchange on the subject of unpaid internships for university graduates. It quickly became evident that this was not in fact a debate but the outpouring of pent-up frustrations that is all too common among the youth generally – and more so among the better educated – that was the subject of two recent eReview articles (Hustler Nation: Jobless youth, millennial angst and the political economy of underachievement; Education, Social Mobility and the Enclave Economy: Revisiting the Kenya Scenarios Project).

Having jumped into the fray, seemingly on the side of unpaid internships, I found myself on the receiving end, perhaps deservedly so. Still, I felt that the opportunity to inject some sobriety into the debate was not to be missed.

I will dispense first with a comment on why compulsory remuneration of internships is bad economics.

Hiring workers is costly, and firing is costlier still, both financially and emotionally. The human resource practice has developed various methods to minimise the risk and cost of unsuitable hires, such as screening, references, rigorous interviews, psychometric evaluations, probation, (which minimises the cost of separation), outsourcing (which shifts the transaction costs to employment agencies) and the poaching of proven performers from rivals at a considerable premium.

Internships can serve the same purpose. Consider a firm that employs university graduates and is willing to offer a salary of Sh30,000. If it employs one who turns out to be unsuitable, it incurs a month’s salary and a recruitment cost of a similar amount, a loss of Sh60,000.

Alternatively, the firm can offer three two-month internships and pay an allowance of Sh5,000 a month, at the end of which it offers the most suitable intern a job. It is not hard to see why firms would resort to this strategy in these days when the quality, and even the authenticity, of academic qualifications has become very uncertain. It is also readily apparent from this example that firms using interns as a search strategy ought to pay them. But it would be a mistake, and probably counterproductive, to generalise.

Other firms may be willing to take on interns as part of their corporate social responsibility but may not have the budget for it. And there are also graduates out there who are willing to do unpaid internships. There are also entrepreneurs who could offer valuable internships but may not be able to afford the cost. Think of an entrepreneur who is keeping her struggling technology start-up afloat by earning extra income, say by taking up a part-time teaching position that pays her Sh30,000. If, however, she could get interns willing to pay the amount, she would happily give up the part-time work and concentrate on the start-up. Compulsion to pay interns, whether through policy or through social pressure (such as the trending #payinterns), has the effect of reducing the supply of internships, which is maximised by allowing all three options – paid, unpaid and paying internships – and leaving the market to do the rest.

As I argued in Social Mobility and the Enclave Economy, today’s university graduate is a victim of a legacy of privilege from the halcyon days of matunda ya uhuru (fruits of independence) when it was an automatic ticket to high-status public sector jobs. All Bachelor of Arts graduates were automatically absorbed into the civil service as administrators. Those appointed as “Bwana DO” (District Officer) moved into a large bungalow previously occupied by a white man and were provided with a Land Rover and a bevy of “APs” (Administration Police) to do their bidding. Few university graduates joined the private sector, but those who did went straight to the top and enjoyed lifestyles that their peers in developed countries could only dream of. What Kenyans seem not to appreciate is that this status was not obtained on merit, and had no relationship whatsoever with the economic value of university graduates. It was a case of replacing white privilege with black privilege.

This transition was more or less complete by the late 70s. Since then, university graduates have simply been trickling down the system and displacing the less educated. In the 60s, a graduate was assured of a leadership role, in the 80s a professional and middle management position, in the 90s entry-level work, and, of course, today they are not guaranteed anything all. Up until the 80s, it was inconceivable that a university graduate could be a police constable, but here we are.

In short, university graduates have continued to have expectations of entering employment at a fairly high level and climbing the socio-economic ladder as rapidly as previous cohorts did.

And there is another dynamic at play; intergenerational social mobility has been quite high in Kenya. For example, my grandparents were primary school-educated (quite a high level of education in the 1920s and 30s!). Their children, born in the 1940s and 50s, are mostly high school-educated with a few being university-educated, while all my siblings and most of my cousins born in the 60s and early 70s are university-educated. This has meant that we have, by and large, become accustomed to intergenerational social mobility. But now we are getting to the point where we have a critical mass of graduates whose parents are themselves university-educated and who are finding themselves a notch or two below their parents socio-economic status. This is bound to be stressful.

I came across a new policy document the other day titled the Draft National Automotive Policy. Its goal is to revamp the local motor vehicle assembly industry by way of import protection – what we call import substitution industrialisation. In plain English, this means the strangulation of the used motor vehicle import trade. Twenty years ago, I was involved in a long-running debate in the papers with one Gavin Bennet, then an industry spokesperson, on precisely this subject. At its peak in the late 80s, the industry produced 10,000 vehicles a year. Ownership was limited to institutions and the wealthy, while others had to wait for used cars to trickle down into the market. Choice was limited to less than ten models, and they were not particularly well-made. I argued that liberalisation would broaden vehicle ownership and create more jobs, that the economic benefits would more than offset the jobs that would be lost in the assembly industry. My prognosis carried the day; the cost of motor vehicles came down, variety increased with cars available for every pocket, with the attendant increase in employment in trade and services that we see today in the industry.

According to the policy document, the industry has ramped up its installed capacity from 28,000 to 34,000 vehicles a year. Production increased from a post-liberalisation average of 5,000-6,000 vehicles to 9,000 in 2015 and 2016 but it has since fallen back to the historical 5,000-6,000 range. It is unclear why an industry operating at 20 per cent capacity would increase its capacity. More importantly, it is readily apparent that the implementation of this policy would not stimulate new investment but rather, the utilisation of the existing plants and equipment.

The document goes on to claim that full capacity would create 150,000 jobs. This is balderdash. The same document acknowledges that at its peak, the industry employed 12,000 people, 3,000 directly and 9,000 downstream. If it were proportionate, a fourfold increase in production would translate to 36,000 jobs — but in reality, it would be less than proportionate. Unsurprisingly, the document does not factor in the jobs that would be eliminated in the second-hand imports and trade sector. All said, even 25,000 jobs would be a stretch.

In the intervening period, as globalisation was proceeding, China and India were ramping up motorcycle production, and driving down the cost. Before liberalisation, the cheapest motorcycle would have cost a well-paid university graduate at least a year’s salary. Today you can check one out from the supermarket at about three times the monthly minimum wage. And, of course, the industry has exploded, with an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million boda bodas on the road, and the jobs created also being in the same range. We are informed by the document that there are already eight motorcycle assembly plants operating at 50 per cent capacity (more than double that of the car assemblers), as well as an unknown number of “makeshift/informal” assemblers. This industry has developed in a liberalised environment without the protectionism that is now being proposed for car assemblers.

It is worth noting that the makeshift/informal motorcycle assemblers are mentioned only in passing; we have jua kali operations out there assembling motorcycles, and a proposed industry policy that merely acknowledges their existence. The existence of backyard assemblers tells us that motorcycle assembly requires little capital to set up. In economic lingo, assembling cars is capital intensive, while assembling motorcycles is labour intensive. The low capital requirements that make jua kali motorcycle assembly possible also mean that it is more easily scalable. The regional market for motorcycles is in the order of a million units a year. We already know that car assemblers cannot compete while the potential of an exporting motorcycle assembly industry is readily apparent. Also readily apparent is that this automotive policy is not about jobs but about returns on capital – profits – at the expense of jobs, competitiveness, equity and growth; that is, every important economic policy objective.

First, that it takes five times more capital to create a manufacturing job in Kenya than in India, and 50 percent more than in China, in other words Kenya’s industry is the most capital intensive of the three

The contribution of the owners of capital to our economic underachievement through policy capture – such as seen here – is under-appreciated. A World Bank study, Kenya Growth and Competitiveness Study, estimated our manufacturing productivity in the early 2000s at $3,500 per worker, vis-à-vis China’s $4,400 and India’s $3,400. Our capital (i.e. investment) per worker was estimated at $11,500, China’s at $7,800 and India’s at $2,400, translating to a capital output ratio of 3.3 to India’s 0.7 and China’s 1.74. What exactly are these parameters telling us?

First, that it takes five times more capital to create a manufacturing job in Kenya than in India, and 50 per cent more than in China. In other words, Kenya’s industry is the most capital intensive of the three. Second, that it takes $3.3 dollars of investment to produce a dollar of industrial output in Kenya, less than two dollars in China and less than a dollar in India. Moreover, the same study found that our labour was also the most costly, at $100 per month for unskilled factory workers, against China’s at $85 and India’s at $50. Let us put this into perspective: the amount of investment that creates one job in Kenya would create four jobs in India, and two in China. Moreover, Kenya is the least attractive investment destination as, of the three, it has the highest labour cost, a feature of the protectionist high-profit economy that the proposed motor vehicle policy is designed to restore.

More fundamentally, with close to a million young people joining the workforce a year, should we be protecting industries that require a million shillings to create a job, while the same investment can create five or more jobs elsewhere

We are churning out 150,000 university graduates a year. Let us say that this motor vehicle policy was implemented and indeed did create 25,000 jobs. Let us assume, generously, that a fifth – 5,000 jobs that is – were new university graduate jobs. How many sectors and industries would we need to protect to absorb, say, half the annual supply of university graduates? More fundamentally, with close to a million young people joining the workforce each year, should we be protecting industries that require a million shillings to create a job while the same investment could create five or more jobs elsewhere?

Last week the President took the occasion of the State of the Nation address to announce a financial scheme fronted by his family’s bank. Fish rots from the head.

Why is this policy so fixated on waking up a corpse? Because the policy has been written by the assemblers themselves. In fact, all the industry players are listed in the document by name. This is highly unusual. Analysis of specific enterprises does inform policy, but this is usually contained in studies, memoranda and background papers, not in the final policy documents. Final policy documents of this nature should be neutral. But what does it matter? Last week the president took the occasion of the State of the Nation address to announce a financial scheme fronted by his family’s bank. Fish rots from the head.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Dark Money: Pandora Papers Show UK Must Tackle Its Corruption-Enabling Industry

As long as we have countries that are willing to receive these illicit monies, then it [corruption] will keep happening

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The new head of the Word Trade Organization has delivered a damning critique of Britain’s supposed fight against international corruption, accusing the UK of harbouring a “cottage industry” of financial enablers who cater to corrupt public officials overseas.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was appointed WTO director-general in March and has twice served a Nigeria’s finance minister, said the Pandora Papers showed how UK bankers, lawyers and estate agents help corrupt officials and wealthy individuals in her home country — and in other graft-blighted nations — invest in expensive London real estate through anonymous offshore shell companies.

Delivering the 2021 anti-corruption lecture for Transparency International UK, Okonjo-Iweala earlier this week said: “When public monies are stolen, they are often sent abroad to countries not generally thought of as corrupt, where a cottage industry exists of bankers, lawyers, accountants and others, who launder and sequester the ill-gotten funds.”

She added: “The Pandora Papers — like the Panama Papers before them — shed light on this shadow economy of tax avoidance, luxury homes and shell companies.”

Okonjo-Iweala has for decades been a pioneering campaigner on anti-corruption and transparency issues, both in Nigeria and internationally. For her efforts, she has received death threats and, in 2012, her mother was briefly kidnapped.

In October, Finance Uncovered and Premium Times published the results of its investigation into wealthy Nigerians who anonymously owned UK property. The investigation was based on thousands of leaked shell company documents from the Pandora Papers, Panama Papers and other data sources.

It identified 233 houses and apartments in the UK — worth £350m at current property prices — which had been secretly bought by 137 wealthy Nigerians using 166 anonymous offshore shell companies.

Among those found to have invested in UK property were a senior manager at the Nigerian Ports Authority, one of the longest serving members of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, a former finance commissioner for Lagos State and a major government contractor in the power generation industry.

It is not illegal to secretly buy UK property through anonymous offshore shell companies and documents reviewed by Finance Uncovered found no evidence that funds used to buy UK property amounted to proceeds of corruption or other criminality. In fact, many UK enabler firms routinely advised their Nigerian clients to invest in UK property through offshore companies in order to legally avoid tax.

Also among the real estate identified by Pandora Papers journalists were five UK properties linked to Nigeria’s former aviation minister Stella Oduah — a onetime cabinet colleague of Okonjo-Iweala who is now the subject of corruption charges in Nigeria, which she has denied.

So too were several London properties that, according to U.S. court filings, were bought by oil tycoons allegedly as bribes for the benefit of Diezani Alison-Madueke, then Nigeria’s minister for petroleum resources and yet another former cabinet colleague of Okonjo-Iweala.

Alison-Madueke was arrested in London by UK law enforcement officers in 2015 but has denied wrong-doing. No charges have been brought but investigations into her affairs remain ongoing.

As well as naming several otherwise hidden property investors, Finance Uncovered and Premium Times published further details concerning Nigerians investing in UK real estate in the form of an interactive map.

One in six of the 233 UK properties identified by Finance Uncovered and Premium times were owned by anonymous offshore companies that were once the subject of law enforcement interest — including search warrants, freezing orders, money laundering investigations and suspicious activity reports.

Since 2016, the UK government has been promising to introduce a public register of who owns offshore companies that have bought residential property in Britain. However, ministers have failed to bring the necessary legislation before parliament.

Instead, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has fast-tracked other measures, such as the introduction of eight freeports, which many experts say could increase the flow of dark money to the United Kingdom.

Okonjo-Iweala said she was surprised that findings from the Pandora Papers had not yet generated more impact, suggesting the pandemic crisis may have drawn political attention away. However, she added: “Refusing corruption will be an important part of building back better our economies and societies, so it is an issue we cannot afford to neglect.”

In particular, she called on the UK and other countries that have become well-known destinations for corrupt and laundered funds to provide more efficient means for repatriating stolen assets.

She added: “I think real estate is really the key. There is a huge amount in the UK, in France, in Switzerland, all these countries. And not very much is being done about it, still today.”

In a further challenge to developed countries, she suggested one way to restrict corrupt money flows would be to outlaw anonymous shell companies. “You should challenge lawyers to stop all this helping tax evasion and shell companies. Why don’t we outlaw shell companies? If you want to put money or assets somewhere, put them under your name. Why do you create a shell company and hide all these things?”

Praising the work of Transparency International, Okonjo-Iweala also suggested NGO groups could do even more to help pressure developed countries into anti-corruption measures. Specifically, she suggested TI’s widely-cited Corruption Perceptions Index — which ranks countries in order of the perceived propensity for corruption — should be complemented by a second index that ranked the countries that received proceeds of corruption.

“As long as we have countries that are willing to receive these illicit monies, then it [corruption] will keep happening,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “So that’s why I have been pressing TI that, please, let’s start an index. We need an index of countries that receive corrupt funds. Let’s rank them, and see who is at the top, who is second, who is third. That will help us get a hold of all this because I’m sure no one will want to be listed like that.”

A long-standing campaigner on anti-corruption, Okonjo-Iweala used her time in a previous post at the World Bank, to help set up the Stolen Assets Recovery initiative (StAR), a measure designed to help developing countries retrieve funds stolen by kleptocratic regimes. That initiative followed on from her tireless pursuit through the courts of money looted from Nigeria by Sani Abacha, the country’s military dictator from 1993 to 1998.

Okonjo-Iweala, 67, was appointed as director-general of the WTO in March, becoming the first woman and first African to lead the organisation. Earlier, she had two spells as Nigerian finance minister, though most of her career was spent at the World Bank. She has also held board positions at Standard Chartered Bank and at Twitter.

The Pandora Papers is a leak of almost 12 million documents, largely made up of administrative paperwork from the archives of 14 law firms and agencies that specialise in offshore company formations.

The leak was obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and seen by more than 600 journalists, including reporters at Finance Uncovered and Premium Times, as part of an investigation that took many months and spanned 117 countries.

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Sino-African Relations: Cooperation or a New Imperialism?

The relationship between Africa and China hinges on the question of cooperation and development. Kristin Plys, Amenophis Lô and Abdulhamid Mohamed ask if we should celebrate this relationship as the South-South development that the Global South dreamed of in the mid-20th century, or are contemporary Africa-China relations a new imperialist dynamic?

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Author and activist, Vijay Prashad elucidates in The Darker Nations, the ‘Third World’ is not a place, but a political project. In the mid-twentieth century, at the height of US hegemony, the Global South imagined political, economic, and social emancipation. One important incarnation of this was the Bandung Conference in 1955 where representatives of 29 newly independent Asian and African states met to promote what is now termed, South-South cooperation, in other words, the idea that African and Asian states could come together for economic and cultural cooperation and together oppose colonialism and imperialism.

Bandung was eventually institutionalized in the Non-Aligned movement, a forum that opposed US and Soviet intervention in the Global South. Non-alignment was not without its critics, however. Muammar Qaddafi of the non-aligned movement said, “The world is made up of two camps: the liberation camp and the imperialist one. There is no place for those who are non-aligned. We are not neutral and totally aligned against the aggressor… Long live the liberated. Down with imperialism.” As he saw it, the Global South was not comprised of states who were beholden to US imperialism, states who were beholden to Soviet imperialism and states that opposed either influence. For Qaddafi, there were only those states who are against imperialism and for liberation and those states that are imperialist.

Our understandings of contemporary imperialism, however, are shaped by the lived experiences of US hegemony and the particular way in which it supplanted European colonial rule with new dependent relationships of exploitation of the same character but through new forms of politico-economic relationships between the United States and the Global South. But with the crisis of US hegemony starting in the 1970s, and now with a more pronounced global crisis since 2008, of, perhaps, the capitalist world-system itself, imperialism as we know it will also necessarily change. Forms of power and hierarchy need to be remade so that they can continue as they lose moral authority.

The United States has lost its moral authority for global rule providing openings for a new hegemonic power to emerge and lead the world-economy in overcoming the current crisis. For example, in the transition from British hegemony in the 19th century to US hegemony in the 20th, imperialism persisted, but the form it took changed. Formal colonialism lost its moral authority leading to the important development of flag independence across much of the Global South. But in the absence of formal political rule through colonialism, the United States innovated new articulations of imperialism during the Cold War and beyond.

Any new hegemon, as part of its rule, must convince the rest of the world that it is acting in the best interests of the inter-state system. Part of the establishment of that consent to rule entails forming dependent relationships with the Global South that appear to be in the best interests of the Global South. With the rise of a new world-hegemon, imperialism must necessarily be remade to look like aid, cooperation, and solidarity. This helps the rising hegemon establish a global moral authority as it appears to be acting in the moral interests of the entire world economy. In these phases of world-history where a new hegemon is on the rise, it is critically important that we distinguish true South-South cooperation that has the potential for national liberation from a new incarnation of imperialism in its guise.

Authoritarianism and exploitation

When we examine this distinction between South-South cooperation and contemporary imperialism on the ground, it is essential to examine the local political conditions that create an imbalance of power. Therefore, we must better understand the contemporary dynamics of African sovereignty.

While the 21st century began with revolutions to oust decades of postcolonial authoritarian rule in Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, and elsewhere, these efforts were short lived. Counter-revolutionary forces, particularly those led by right-wing nationalists and conservative religious leaders too often became the eventual beneficiaries of toppled authoritarian regimes. In recent years we have witnessed more counter-revolutions and coups across the continent, in Chad, for example. States succumbing to authoritarianism have become more prevalent and we seldom observe revolutions that have been successful at installing long lasting democratic states committed to promoting the interests of African people.

In this fraught context of authoritarian rule across the continent, it has been easier for imperialists to usurp African sovereignty. Just as European and North American states have found authoritarian rule in Africa more amenable to their politico-economic interests so too has the Chinese Communist Party. In Zambia, copper mining accounts for 65% of the country’s export earnings. Most of the mines are owned by the Chinese state, though a few are mining companies with headquarters in Canada. Foreign mining companies have been able to create pockets of Chinese state sovereignty within Zambia where labour laws are notoriously lax, wages low, accidents and deaths of workers, prevalent. When workers have combined and protested these conditions, they have been met with violence, not from the Zambian state, but from Chinese management who has met workers’ demands by deploying violence without consequence. In 2010, a manager at the Collum Mine shot and killed 13 workers who organised against poor safety standards.

The Lamu Project to build a deep-water port connecting East Africa to Asian export markets is another example of loss of sovereignty. Initially, the Lamu port was to be funded jointly by the Kenyan, Ethiopian and South Sudanese states but because of funding issues and occasional attacks on port construction by Al-Shabaab, Kenyan Defense Forces sought loans from China which were supported through the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ programme, a policy to not only aid China in gaining further access to African resources and markets but also enable the Peoples Liberation Army Navy to establish a counter-terrorism base in Northern Kenya. Ports are crucial to African development as 90% of East African exporters depend on seaports to remain viable, but if Kenya defaults on the debt they have incurred, which seems likely, the Lamu port will soon become yet another space of Chinese state sovereignty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Land grabbing through creating pockets of Chinese state sovereignty and through control of strategic assets has helped China obtain cheap natural resources needed for industrial production, while railroads, other infrastructure, along with access to seaports allows for the extraction of these resources from Africa. Regime change has not been successful in disrupting this dynamic because the movements for regime change have mostly focused on ousting political leaders, but as a result of European and North American imperialism and also through the support of the domestic bourgeoisie, sovereignty in most African states rests with the military. Recent revolutions have done little to disrupt that dynamic or to create states that will serve the interests of its people.

Return to a Pan-African internationalism

There is a difference between globalization done on the terms of more powerful states, and a horizontal internationalism based on solidarity. Africa-China relations in and of themselves could bring great benefit to both regions, but as long as there remains a power differential in African states’ individual dealings with China, it will remain a tie that will ultimately result in economic benefit for China and the exploitation of Africa. One possible solution could be to have negotiations around Chinese development projects in African states done as a regional bloc through a Pan-African union rather than country-by-country.

But beyond this, what we, as an internationalist left can do is decentre the role of the state in Africa-China relations. If civil society and leftist groups in both China and across the African continent could work together across borders it could put pressure on states to realise common social injustices in both China and various African contexts such as the importance of opposing authoritarian regimes that fail to serve the best interests of the people and promoting workers’ rights through a labour internationalism. We can also envision linkages between other Chinese and Pan-African civil society organizations around issues common to the African and Chinese contexts.

Frantz Fanon famously described the ‘Third World project’, as a rejection of the goal of ‘catching up’ to Europe and North America, and instead, saw as its primary goal to innovate a new way of thinking. Fanon believed in the creativity of revolutionary Pan-Africanism and the Global South, that new forms of politics could be envisioned and enacted that would provide solutions to the longstanding social problems.

Internationalism from below

There’s a tendency within the Global North left to see any political development that opposes Western dominance as something to celebrate. But in thinking through the complexity of contemporary Africa-China relations it is evident that we need to be more discerning about the dynamics of power involved in movements that may claim to be South-South cooperation and/or anti-Western. They may yet be an embodiment of the unequal power dynamics and politico-economic exploitation we stand firmly against.

Propaganda, both from the West, and from China, obscures the power dynamics at play on the ground in Sino-African relations. The ability of propaganda to muddy our understanding of the dynamics at play makes organizing around these issues particularly difficult and controversial. But we need to remember, as Pan-Africanists based in Canada or anywhere else for that matter, that just because something is anti-West doesn’t make it liberatory. We need to be thoughtful and discerning in how we think about power and history in our contemporary context.

The central issue facing us going forward with this conversation is how we can pay closer attention to the dynamics of power in politico-economic relations between states without falling into the Sinophobic tropes of most Western states, but also recognising that there is not an equal and symbiotic relationship between African states and Chinese developmentalism.

Perhaps the first step is, instead of celebrating the ties between an authoritarian Chinese state and non-democratic regimes across Africa, we should instead think creatively about what we can do to build more liberatory South-South cooperation between civil society and left movements in Africa and China. Through these common goals of fighting shared social struggles, a truly horizontal Afro-Asian solidarity can be envisioned and enacted.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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African Epistemic Self-Affirmation Is the Ultimate End of Decolonization

Islamic scholarship in Africa and the meaning and end of decolonization in the work of religious studies scholar, Ousmane Kane.

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During the 2018 Miriam Makeba keynote address to the General Assembly of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), the largest and oldest pan-African body of African scholars, Professor Ousmane Kane told his peers that they needed to take religion seriously. This entreaty expressed a basic idea and an urgent project. The idea was that social science, having been elaborated through the secular-modern separation of the spheres of life, has relegated “religion” to the domain of the marginalized specialist. In contrast to the political, the economic, and the sociocultural, religion has become a matter of individual belief and practice within the regime of expertise that governs life globally.

This regime has sometimes been called coloniality. Kane, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, proposed, however, that all social science needs to consider religion if it is to truly understand contemporary Africa and its problems, implying that in Africa, religion is no private matter. “Religious developments in Africa deserve serious attention from African intellectuals, and especially pan-Africanists,” he said. The developments to which Kane referred might be summarized as the emergent publicity of religion, the decentralization (and/or erosion) of authority, and the integration into global networks throughout the African continent. This emergence has proven modernization and development theory to be patently false; religion has not eventually disappeared or become irrelevant for public life. In short, African theory needs to catch up to Africans in their decolonization of the mind and spirit.

The publication of Islamic Scholarship in Africa: New Directions and Global Contexts, edited by Kane, adds to a growing wave of academic work on the histories, cultures, and meanings of Islamic thought in Africa. It features established and emerging voices of the field that takes on the project of overturning many long-held fictions about Africa in the modern imagination. African historicity and mobility, dynamics of orality and literacy, evolving Islamic education, and popular vernacular poetic expression are themes that frame a diverse set of contributions that offer a fair representation of the major issues of the field.

Alongside recent monographs, edited volumes, and translations Islamic scholarship in Africa explores a robust and active field. It is a work that is current, forward-looking, engaged with global issues and directed to a general audience. The bibliography is broad and the glossary of terms are of benefit to the non-specialist. Given that the individual essays in this volume reflect many distinct research agendas, sites, and objects of inquiry, I will not attempt to summarize their contents. Instead, I focus on the broader issue of the decolonization of knowledge flagged for the reader’s attention in both Kane’s introduction and the conclusion by the former executive secretary of CODESRIA, Ebrima Sall.

Questions of decolonization

Sall situates the volume, along with the broader proliferation of academic works on the topic, within CODESRIA’s now decades-long project to bridge knowledge divides within Africa. These divisions are defined by differences in research language, intellectual training, and presumed racial identity. In particular, Kane’s research agenda to recognize the intellectual contributions of Muslim African scholars actualized many of the Pan-African principles of the organization. His Non-Europhone Intellectuals, published as a CODESRIA working paper in 2003, set forth the terms for a new field that would eventually come to be known as Timbuktu Studies. This field has solicited interest and support from international foundations, African governments, and a global network of university-based researchers.

We might ask, however, how does this interest in Islamic scholarship sit in relation to African studies more broadly? The objections that followed Kane’s keynote in 2018 highlight some common resistance to this work. The responses from the floor, as I recall them, were somewhat predictable. Some asserted that Islam was not modern. Others found that the neglect of African traditional religions by Kane was an inexcusable lapse. For them, if social science is to take religion seriously in Africa, it should be truly African religions upon which they must focus their seriousness. Islam and Christianity, they argued were either copies of originally African ideas or antagonistic to what was authentically African. “African” for them, it seems, meant autochthony. It meant differences from other geo-racial types and their specific religiosities that are ultimately products of colonization. These objections were predictable because they form opposing positions, based as much on epistemic commitments as points of view that frame the problem of religion in Africa. Kane and others have responded to such ideas exhaustively.

For example, Islam, from its origins, has been African, from the first hijra, or exodus, to Abyssinia through to the very rapid spread to Fustat, or what is now Cairo, and then with the history of the mostly peaceful and gradual spread of Islam in West Africa. And yet, the idea of Islam’s coloniality, if we can stretch the term so thin, persists. Much like the ideas about primordial African orality, they form discursive structures that seem impervious to empirical invalidation. It is indeed an old idea that West African Muslim scholars have been refuting since at least the 17th century Timbuktu scholar Ahmed Baba, and echoed in the 20th century by Senegalese polymath Shaykh Musa Kamara. Perhaps, that is a good thing for the future of the field.

All of this being said, one wonders beyond the scope of Islamic Scholarship in Africa, how might Timbuktu Studies deal with some of the thornier issues that have emerged in the long history of developing an epistemological alternative. Specifically, I am thinking here of the field’s relation to the older project of the Africanization of knowledge, which sought to consider Africa in indigenously African terms and the Islamization of knowledge/Islamic social sciences, which sought to establish modern social scientific method on Islamic foundations. Is the study of Islamic scholarship in Africa simply a continuation, an evolution of these two separate projects, or does their convergence make a qualitative leap that makes it distinct and uniquely promising? There might also be a generative encounter between Timbuktu Studies with Critical Muslim Studies such as that coming out of South Africa, emanating as it does from post-Rhodes debates on decoloniality.

Decolonization has become a big tent, a broad term enveloping many meanings, a concept that approaches protean status. Much like “religion” and “modernity” it bears different significations that correspond to conflicting epistemological, disciplinary, and political commitments—each one ultimately seeking different objectives. For a radical, anti-historical but utopian decolonial project, Islamic Scholarship in Africa might not satisfy the performance of rupture. However, this volume is vital if one is willing to agree with Sall and Kane, as I do, that African epistemic self-affirmation is the ultimate end of decolonization.

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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