On 21 May 2013, Kenya’s Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) handed over a four-volume report to President Uhuru Kenyatta. The report outlines a range of injustices and abuses that occurred in the country between December 1963 and the end of the post-election violence in 2008, and provides a range of recommendations and a clear implementation plan. Six years later, little progress has been made on its dissemination or the implementation of its recommendations.
The TJRC Commission collected over 40,000 statements – the largest number of any truth commission to date – and 1,000 memoranda. The Commission also held public and women’s hearings in 35 locations across the country, as well as a series of adversely mentioned person (AMP) and thematic hearings
This is unsurprising given the fate of previous commissions of inquiry, the credibility crisis that surrounded the TJRC’s chairman, and the limited media coverage that the Commission’s work enjoyed. Nevertheless, I find this depressing.
The reason is that, while many paid the TJRC little attention, a significant number of Kenyans opted to relay their stories, pain and fears. This is evident from the numbers; the Commission collected over 40,000 statements – the largest number of any truth commission to date – and 1,000 memoranda. The Commission also held public and women’s hearings in 35 locations across the country, as well as a series of adversely mentioned person (AMP) and thematic hearings.
To be fair, the TJRC’s founders were aware of the inadequacies of speaking, which is why they included “justice” in the title and gave the Commission powers to recommend further investigations, prosecutions, lustration (or a ban from holding public office), reparations, institutional and constitutional reforms, and a limited amnesty.
It is also evident from my own observations; in 2011 and 2012 I spent months following the TJRC around the country attending hearings, speaking to victims, alleged perpetrators and interested parties. From these interactions it was clear that, while many who came before the Commission welcomed the chance to speak, the majority submitted statements or memoranda or provided testimony in the hope that they would be heard and that some action would be taken. As one woman explained to me after a women’s hearing in Nakuru, she was glad that she had spoken as now the Commission would “come in and help”.
To be fair, the TJRC’s founders were aware of the inadequacies of speaking, which is why they included “justice” in the title and gave the Commission powers to recommend further investigations, prosecutions, lustration (or a ban from holding public office), reparations, institutional and constitutional reforms, and a limited amnesty. However, on the question of whether recommendations would be implemented, the Commission rather naively relied on the TJRC Act (2008), which stipulated “recommendations shall be implemented”. However, such legal provisions proved insufficient; in December 2013, parliament amended the Act to ensure that the report would first be considered by the National Assembly, something that is yet to happen.
But how did the TJRC come about and what was its mandate?
The Commission was informed by the belief that, while the post-election violence of 2007/8 was triggered by a disputed election, it was fuelled by more deep-rooted problems.
The establishment of a TJRC was first considered in 2002 at a moment of great optimism and hope after Mwai Kibaki and the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) ousted President Moi and Kanu from power. However, a task force recommendation that a TJRC be established was ignored by the Kibaki government. The idea was later revived following the post-election violence of 2007/8 and the formation of a coalition government.
The TJRC was established by an Act of Parliament in 2008, began its work in 2009 and submitted a final report in 2013. The Commission was informed by the belief that, while the post-election violence of 2007/8 was triggered by a disputed election, it was fuelled by more deep-rooted problems. It was thus mandated to investigate a wide range of injustices – from perceptions of economic marginalisation and periods of ethnic clashes to state repression and torture – from Kenya’s independence in December 1963 to the end of the post-election violence in February 2008. As a result, while some insights into colonial rule were provided as context for post-colonial realities, the report is silent on Kibaki’s second term in office and Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency.
In addition to documenting the past, the Commission was able to offer various recommendations including further investigations and prosecutions, reparations, institutional reform and amnesty for non-gross human rights violations. The aim was to contribute to truth, justice, reconciliation, and sustainable peace.
The Commission’s task was thus impossibly large and it also faced additional challenges including a credibility crisis around the Commission’s Chairman and limited media coverage. It was also upstaged by parallel proceedings at the International Criminal Court and was working in a context in which there had been no real transition.
Given these challenges, the report is actually pretty impressive.
Critically, it does not pretend to be exhaustive and recognises how – over four years and in a single report – it could not provide a “definitive history of the broad range of violations committed and suffered” over the course of 45 years (TJRC vol. 1 2013: v).
Given this impossibility, I am keenly aware of how my attempt to summarise a report that runs to over two thousand pages involves further simplification and omission – for which I apologise. Despite this, I think it is worth marking the six-year anniversary of the report’s submission – and recognising all those who engaged with the process – by saying something about the Commission’s findings.
First, it was clear that each regime – from the colonial period through the Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki eras – had overseen widespread abuses through acts of commission and omission and that Kenyans had suffered (and many continue to suffer) as a consequence.
The establishment of a TJRC was first considered in 2002 at a moment of great optimism and hope after Mwai Kibaki and the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) ousted President Moi and Kanu from power. However, a task force recommendation that a TJRC be established was ignored by the Kibaki government.
The commission found that all three post-colonial regimes had been responsible for gross human rights violations and concluded that state security forces had been “the main perpetrators of bodily integrity violations of human rights in Kenya including massacres, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual violence” with northern Kenya standing at the “epicenter of gross violations of human rights by state security agencies” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: vii).
More specifically, the report outlined how the Kenyatta regime (1963–1978) was responsible for the largest number of political assassinations, and how the repression of dissent reached its apex under the one-party rule of Daniel arap Moi (1978–2002). In turn, while the commission recognised the reforms initiated by the first Kibaki regime (2002–2007), it also drew attention to ongoing corruption, ethnic favouritism and inter-communal violence, and to the collapse of the NARC coalition and the increase in extra-judicial killings, problems which, in its opinion, prepared “fertile ground (…) for the eruption of violence” in 2007–8 (TJRC vol. 2A 2013: 28–29).
The TJRC also highlighted the socio-economic effects of gross human rights violations. These included, for example, the challenges faced by former political detainees in finishing their education, securing employment and caring for their children. At the same time, the report sketches out some of the ways in which socio-economic factors impacted upon bodily integrity rights at a more general level through, for example, the relative vulnerability of marginalised people during conflict.
In terms of inter-communal conflict, the commission blamed the emergence of “negative ethnicity” on colonial rule and Britain’s adoption of a divide and rule strategy and alienation of large tracts of land, with historical grievances over land cited as the “single most important driver of conflicts and ethnic tension” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: vii).
However, all the post-colonial regimes were blamed for the perpetuation of such politics as, rather than provide redress, successive administrations “alienated more land from already affected communities for the benefit of politically privileged ethnic communities and the political elite” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: xiv) and favoured members of their own ethnic groups in employment and appointment processes (TJRC vol. 1 2013: x). According to the commission, a sense of ethnic competition was then exacerbated by multi-party politics, as “ethnicity became an even more potent tool for political [organisation] and access to state resources” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: ix–x). This combination of factors then led to “a volatile environment in which violence had been normalised and ethnic relations had become poisoned” (TJRC vol. 2A 2013: 29).
The commission also emphasised the “pervasiveness of socio-economic violations” across the country (TJRC vol. 1 2013: xv). More specifically, it found that – in addition to the socio-economic impacts of gross human rights violations – the “government’s exclusionary economic policies and practices in the distribution of public jobs and services inflicted suffering on huge sections of society at different historical moments” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: xv), with corruption in turn linked to everything from violent state security forces to poor health and education services.
In terms of spatial inequalities, the commission found that northern Kenya – taken to consist of former North Eastern, Upper Eastern and North Rift Valley provinces – together with former Coast, Nyanza and Western provinces suffered particularly harsh economic marginalisation as a result of biased or indifferent state policies. However, the commission also recognised how even residents of regions that were not identified as economically marginalised – namely, former Central, Nairobi, South Rift Valley, and Lower Eastern provinces – considered “themselves marginalised at one time or another” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: xv). The implication was that no single province had escaped economic marginalisation, with hardships often passed on to subsequent generations through a cycle of limited education and employment opportunities.
Women, minority groups and indigenous people were also found to have suffered state-sanctioned discrimination. In summary, minority and indigenous peoples were found to “have suffered gross violations of human rights on account of their membership in these communities” (TJRC vol. 2C 2013: 281). Women were found to have “suffered unspeakable and terrible atrocities … in the majority of cases … for no other reason than that they are of the female gender” (TJRC vol. 2C 2013: 151) and children were found to have been “subjected to untold and unspeakable atrocities” (TJRC vol. 4 2013: vii).
However, while the Commission suggested that most (if not all) Kenyans are victims of some injustice, it did not suggest that all Kenyans suffered, or continue to suffer, equally. On the contrary, some individuals were deemed to have suffered more severe harm or multiple injustices, while some groups were presented as having suffered more than others. For example, a minority were found to have suffered direct bodily integrity violations at the hands of state operatives, while, overall, women were said to have suffered more than men, and some regions or ethnic groups to have suffered more than others.
The Commission was “not just interested in what happened…. [but] in why things happened the way they did, what was their impact and who was responsible” (TJRC vol. 1 2013: 43). Regarding the why and the impact, the report is of mixed quality, but it is in establishing the who that the TJRC had the least success. Instead, the report details how the Commission met a wall of silence, denial and justifications. At the same time, the Commission found that the state had historically “covered-up or downplayed violations committed against its own citizens, especially those committed by state security agencies” and had “demonstrated no genuine commitment to investigate and punish atrocities and violations committed by its agents against innocent citizens” (TJRC vol. 4 2013: 10).
The commission concluded that the underlying causes of violations and contributing factors were complex and included centralised power, a culture of impunity, inter-ethnic competition, uneven development, under-employment and patriarchy.
These findings informed wide-ranging recommendations that included further investigations, lustration and prosecution of those allegedly involved in assassinations, massacres, land grabs and so forth. It also included specific apologies by the head of state for various atrocities suffered – from the torture and unlawful detention of political dissidents to acts of sexual violence committed by state security agencies during operations and periods of violence, and the state’s sanction of discrimination against women.
The report also called for the implementation of recommendations from previous commissions of inquiry, the fast-tracking of ongoing reforms of state institutions, such as the security services and judiciary, and the enactment of key pieces of legislation.
It also set out extensive guidelines for individual, collective and symbolic reparations. These included a framework for individual compensation, development policies to address the historic marginalisation of certain regions, and the establishment of public memorials to commemorate particular places, events and people.
Finally, the commission recognised how the recommendations of earlier truth commissions and commissions of inquiry had largely been ignored, stressed the mandatory nature of the commission’s recommendations, and set out a clear timeline for their implementation together with detailed guidelines for an implementation and monitoring mechanism.
The report and recommendations are thus wide-ranging, and their dissemination and implementation was always going to be a problem. However, the collective decision of members of parliament to change the Act in 2013 and their failure to discuss the report to date is – at least to me – a further injustice that marks Kenya’s history.
A full copy of the TJRC report as well as transcripts of many of the hearings can be found online courtesy of Prof. Ron Slye – one of the TJRC commissioners. Parts of this article draw directly from Gabrielle Lynch’s book, Performances of Injustice: The politics of truth, justice and reconciliation in Kenya (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Gabrielle is a Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Warwick in the UK.
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Thomas Sankara: A United Front Against Debt
In 1987, Thomas Sankara called for a united front against debt. His struggle remains as urgent today as it was then.
Mister President, Heads of Delegations,
At this moment I would like for us to speak about another pressing issue: the issue of debt, the question of the economic situation in Africa. It is an important condition of our survival, as much as peace. And this is why I have deemed it necessary to put several supplementary points on the table for us to discuss.
Burkina Faso would like to first of all talk about our fear. Our fear is that there are ongoing United Nations meetings, similar meetings, but less and less interest in what we are doing.
Mister President, how many African heads of state are present here when they have been duly called to come speak about Africa in Africa?
Mister President, how many heads of state are ready to head off to Paris, London, or Washington when they are called to a meeting there, but cannot come to a meeting here in Addis-Ababa, in Africa?
I know some of them have valid reasons for not coming. This is why I would suggest, Mister President, that we establish a scale of sanctions or penalties for the heads of state who do not presently respond to the call. Let’s make it so that through a set of points for good behavior, those who come regularly – like us, for example – can be supported in some of their efforts. For example: the projects that we submit to the African Development Bank should be multiplied by a coefficient of Africanness. The least African should be penalized. With this, everyone will come to the meetings.
I would like to say to you, Mister President, that the debt issue is a question we cannot hide. You yourself know about something in your country where you have to make courageous decisions, reckless even – decisions that do not seem to be related to your age or gray hair. His Excellency, the President Habib Bourguiba, who could not come but had us deliver an important message given this other example in Africa, when in Tunisia, for political, social, and economic reasons, has also had to make courageous decisions.
But Mister President, are we going to continue to let the heads of state individually seek solutions to the debt issue at the risk of creating social conflicts at home that could put their stability in jeopardy and even the construction of African unity? The examples I have mentioned – and there are others – warrant that the UN summits provide a reassuring response to each of us in regards to the debt issue.
We think that debt has to be seen from the perspective of its origins. Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who colonized us. They are the same ones who used to manage our states and economies. These are the colonizers who indebted Africa through their brothers and cousins, who were the lenders. We had no connections with this debt. Therefore we cannot pay for it.
Debt is neo-colonialism, in which colonizers have transformed themselves into “technical assistants.” We should rather say “technical assassins.” They present us with financing, with financial backers. As if someone’s backing could create development. We have been advised to go to these lenders. We have been offered nice financial arrangements. We have been indebted for 50, 60 years and even longer. That means we have been forced to compromise our people for over 50 years.
Under its current form, controlled and dominated by imperialism, debt is a skillfully managed reconquest of Africa, intended to subjugate its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave, of those who had been treacherous enough to put money in our countries with obligations for us to repay. We are told to repay, but it is not a moral issue. It is not about this so-called honor of repaying or not.
Mister President, we have been listening and applauding Norway’s prime minister [Gro Harlem Brundtland] when she spoke right here. She is European but she said that the whole debt cannot be repaid. Debt cannot be repaid, first because if we don’t repay, lenders will not die. That is for sure. But if we repay, we are going to die. That is also for sure. Those who led us to indebtedness gambled as if in a casino. As long as they had gains, there was no debate. But now that they suffer losses, they demand repayment. And we talk about crisis. No, Mister President, they played, they lost, that’s the rule of the game, and life goes on.
We cannot repay because we don’t have any means to do so.
We cannot pay because we are not responsible for this debt.
We cannot repay but the others owe us what the greatest wealth could never repay, that is blood debt. Our blood had flowed. We hear about the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe’s economy. But we never hear about the African plan which allowed Europe to face Hitlerian hordes when their economies and their stability were at stake. Who saved Europe? Africa. It is rarely mentioned, to such a point that we cannot be the accomplices of that thankless silence. If others cannot sing our praises, at least we must say that our fathers had been courageous and that our troops had saved Europe and set the world free from Nazism.
Debt is also the result of confrontation. When we are told about economic crisis, nobody says that this crisis has come about suddenly. The crisis had always been there but it got worse each time that popular masses become more and more conscious of their rights against exploiters. We are in a crisis today because the masses refuse that wealth be concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. We are in crisis because some people are saving enormous sums of money in foreign bank accounts that would be enough to develop Africa. We are in a crisis because we are facing this private wealth that we cannot name. The popular masses don’t want to live in ghettos and slums. We are in a crisis because everywhere people are refusing to repeat the problems of Soweto and Johannesburg. There is a struggle, and its intensification is worrying to those with financial power. Now we are asked to be accomplices in a balancing – a balancing favoring those with the financial power; a balancing against the popular masses. No! We cannot be accomplices. No! We cannot go with those who suck our people’s blood and live on our people’s sweat. We cannot follow them in their murderous ways.
Mister President, we hear about clubs – the Rome Club, Paris Club, club whatever. We hear about Group of Five, Group of Seven, Group of Ten, and maybe Group of One Hundred. And what else? It is normal that we too have our own club and our own group. Let’s have Addis-Ababa become now the center from which will a new beginning will emerge. An Addis-Ababa Club. It is our duty to create an Addis-Ababa united front against debt. That is the only way to assert that the refusal to repay is not an aggressive move on our part, but a fraternal move to speak the truth. Furthermore, the popular masses of Europe are not opposed to the popular masses of Africa. Those who want to exploit Africa are those who exploit Europe, too. We have a common enemy. So our Addis-Ababa Club will have to explain to each and all that debt shall not be repaid. And by saying that, we are not against morals, dignity and keeping one’s word. We think we don’t have the same morality as others. The rich and the poor do not have the same morality. The Bible, the Koran cannot serve those who exploit the people and those who are exploited in the same way. It could be used in favor of both sides, there should be two different editions of the Bible and two different editions of the Koran. We cannot accept to be told about dignity. We cannot accept to be told about the merit of those who repay and the mistrust toward those who do not. On the contrary, we must recognize today that it is normal for the wealthiest to be the greatest thieves. When a poor man steals it is merely a theft, a petty crime — it is solely about survival and necessity. The rich are the ones who steal from the treasury, customs duties, and who exploit the people.
Mister President, my proposal does not aim to simply provoke or create a spectacle. I would just like to say what each one of us thinks and wishes. Who here doesn’t wish for the debt to be canceled outright? Whoever doesn’t, can leave, get into his plane and go straight to the World Bank to pay! All of us wish for this…my proposal is nothing more. I would not want people to think that Burkina Faso’s proposal is coming on behalf of youth without maturity or experience. I would not want people to think either that only revolutionaries speak in this way. I would want one to admit it is merely objectivity and obligation. And I can give examples of others who have advised not to repay the debt – revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries, young and old. I would mention Fidel Castro, for example, who said not to repay; he is not my age, even though he is a revolutionary. I would also mention François Mitterand, who said that African countries, poor countries, could not repay. I would mention Madam Prime Minister [Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland] – I don’t know her age and I would begrudge myself to ask her – but it’s an example. I would also mention President Félix Houphouët-Boigny; he is not my age but he officially, publicly, declared that, at least as far as his own country is concerned, Ivory Coast cannot repay. Now, Ivory Coast is among the wealthiest countries in Africa, at least Francophone Africa; that is also why it naturally has to pay a larger share here. Mister President, this is definitely not a provocation. I would like you to offer us some very intelligent solutions. I would want our conference to take on the urgent need to plainly say that we cannot repay the debt. Not in a warlike or bellicose spirit – but to prevent us from being individually assassinated. If Burkina Faso stands alone in refusing to pay, I will not be here for the next conference! But, with everyone’s support, which I need, with the support of everyone we would not have to pay. In doing so, we would devote our meager resources to our own development.
And I would like to conclude by saying that each time an African country buys a weapon, it is against an African country. It is not against a European country, it is not against an Asian country. It is against an African country. Consequently, we should take advantage of the debt issue to solve the weapons problem. I am a soldier and I carry a gun. But Mister President, I would want us to disarm. Because I carry the only gun I have and others have concealed guns or weapons that they have. So my dear brothers, with everyone’s support, we will make peace at home. We will also make use of our immense potentialities to develop Africa, because our soil and subsoil are rich. We have enough bodies and and a vast market – from North to South, East to West. We have enough intellectual capacity to create or at the very least use technology and science from wherever we find it.
Mister President, let us form this Addis-Ababa united front against debt. Let’s make the commitment to limiting armaments amongst weak and poor countries. The clubs and knives we buy are useless. Let’s also make the African market be the market for Africans: produce in Africa, transform in Africa, consume in Africa. Let’s produce what we need and let’s consume what we produce instead of importing. Burkina Faso came here showing the cotton fabric produced in Burkina Faso, weaved in Burkina Faso, sown in Burkina Faso, to dress citizens of Burkina Faso. Our delegation and I are dressed by our weavers, our peasants. There is not a single thread coming from Europe or America. I would not do a fashion show, but I would simply say that we must accept to live as African – that is the only way to live free and dignified.
I thank you, Mister President.
Patrie or death, we will overcome!
Editors Note: At the 1987 summit of the Organization of African Unity, Thomas Sankara warned that he would not live to attend another meeting if Burkina Faso were alone in resisting its debt obligations. A few months later, he was murdered in a coup backed by France for calling out the neocolonialist and imperial character of the debt imposed on African countries and calling for African unity and freedom.
The Enormous and Underrated Value of Care
What 2020 has given us—is an archive of heart-breaking examples of the need for care labour and the politically transformative power of care as an orientation towards others.
In 2020, I learned the elasticity of time. How every new day arrives with so much need for adaptation and emotional processing that the day before it feels like it happened 10,000 years ago. How the “old normal” of what I have taken to calling “the before times” can be imperfectly resurrected by rituals we used to participate in without concern, but which now seem worryingly, potentially harmful—my sister-in-law blowing out candles on her birthday cake, for instance. Are we still allowed to share birthday cake?
In 2020, I learned the visceral life-saving power of care. How much all of us who are managing to navigate the pandemic are being given that gift of being able to manage by—and at the expense of—a newly-recognised class, the “essential workers” whose jobs require them to care for us. These are the people who keep our hospitals functioning, the people who keep our grocery stores open and make it possible for some of us to move our consumption online, the people who keep freight trains and long-distance trucking going, and—in island nations—the people who work at our borders and our ports. They are also people on whom our lives depend: factory workers who make personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitation workers and janitors at hospitals, bus drivers, meatpackers, and farm workers.
2020 makes me think of the poignant conclusion American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich drew, a generation ago, from her experiments with trying to live on a minimum-wage job in Bill Clinton’s America (spoiler: you can’t—not in any way that encourages human flourishing). Speaking of the attitude she thinks we ought to adopt with respect to “the working poor”, Ehrenreich insists that “the appropriate emotion is shame—shame at our own dependency . . . on the underpaid labour of others.” Presenting this exploited and neglected segment of the labour market as “the major philanthropists of our society,” Ehrenreich explains that “[w]hen someone works for less pay than she can live on—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life.”
I have considerable sympathy for the view that those of us who live well should indeed feel great shame in the face of all the people who provide us with the things we are not able to provide for ourselves. Every paved road, every functional traffic light, the towel I used after my morning shower; I couldn’t provide these for myself no matter how many bootstraps you might give me. But writhing in shame is neither a productive attitude nor an interesting one. It will not absolve our past heedlessness of our dependence on people whose labour is essential—and is devalued so that it can be affordable for us. It will not build a world in which all of the people we now see as necessary are adequately valued.
It has been a really hard year. But oddly, I still find bits of hope and consolation in the fact of this being a truly global experience, possibly the first of my lifetime. Every year is hard for the people who get cruelly sorted into underclasses and marginal subject positions. And there are events so devastating that they reach even into pockets of privilege and become a country’s (or a region’s) shared experience. But this? Everybody, everywhere, has been touched by this pandemic somehow. While the impacts are of course differently distributed, we are all grappling with the same crisis, and I can’t help but wonder whether this might be a moment in which we—all of us, as human communities—can start to see the enormous and under-rated value of care. So many of the people who have been shoved to the margins of global power structures—whole countries of the global south, indigenous populations within wealthy global north nations—have been revealed as people on whom our multinational inter-connected lives depend, or as “elders” who have a lot to teach us about community survival.
Those of us who live well should indeed feel great shame in the face of all the people who provide us with the things we are not able to provide for ourselves.
The first piece I wrote for The Elephant was an analysis of strands of decolonisation theory that are resonating today through the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). Black Lives Matter began as an African-American activist movement to honour blackness and to protest the culture of policing implicated in the killings of unarmed black boys (Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown). Less than a decade after its emergence in the United States, the movement marked 2020 as a year of global protest against American policing in the wake of the killing of yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd. I noted in that first piece BLM’s commitment to “unapologetic blackness” and to building inclusive, intergenerational solidarity against state-sponsored violence, both locally and around the globe. I noted too the unmistakeable echoes of decolonising theorists Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter in BLM calls for solidarity with (for love of) the men and women of colour whose lives have been taken from them.
Both Fanon and Wynter take on the discursive politics of domination that render our social worlds places where people of colour combat a perception that they must prove their humanity—or, even more toxically, learn that they cannot ever prove this humanity of theirs conclusively enough to establish themselves enduringly as persons of value. In her analysis of these ongoing struggles for recognition, Wynter indicts Eurocentric-North American epistemological commitments to hierarchy and to the belief that those at the top of the hierarchy are both the most worthwhile and the most fit to survive. For her, the monetisation of everything in our social worlds results in a warping of our capacity to see humanity, and the consequent capacity to see the value in all human lives. To cast her point in the language of the lessons of 2020: we must rethink what counts as value, in order to learn how to care (better).
Going back to what I wrote in 2019 after living through 2020 brings me that sense of elastic time I cited at the outset as one of this year’s lessons for me. I see in all of the pieces I have contributed to The Elephant a thread of awareness that survival and solidarity are linked. But it has taken the events of this past year for me to fully appreciate how much decolonisation theory and social-justice activism depend on care—both the practice of care work and the theorising of ethics of care. And it is only in retrospect that I see so clearly why empathy-building has been (has needed to be) such a central goal of the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements that I was writing about here and elsewhere throughout 2019. Empathy can be built into solidarity, which (when well directed) manifests as the care that keeps us alive. This observation, I should note, is conceptually a restatement of critical race theorist and Occupy Wall Street activist Cornel West’s dictum that justice is what love looks like in public.
Black Lives Matter has been doing this empathy work—asserting that black lives are indeed among all the lives that matter—through protests and online awareness campaigns that confront and contest police narratives of criminality and justified response through pushing into public consciousness the names, faces, and life stories of individual persons of colour who have been killed. Their success in building a solidarity that can withstand law enforcement’s hostility and the public’s apathy was made evident in 2020; George Floyd’s name, face, and story have been in the foreground of the protests that have taken place in countries as far away as New Zealand.
In similar fashion, the #metoo movement invokes traditions of solidarity and community-building that very clearly aim at normalising and propagating empathy, and are embedded in its very name. “Me too” was the catch-phrase around which Tarana Burke, an African-American community activist against sexual violence, built her outreach efforts (which, years later, were introduced to the global online world through actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet, just as news stories of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation were first being published). Burke’s explanation of this catch-phrase that became, first, a community-organisation project, then an online archive of survival testimonies, was that it was the phrase she wished she had had the presence of mind to utter to the first young girl who disclosed a story of sexual abuse to her. In my 2019 analysis of the “black roots” of “me too”, I argued that this phrase needs to be understood within the context of African-American musical and linguistic conventions: a call demands a response. “Me too”, I noted, is a response resonant of these African-American call-and-response traditions, traditions that build relationship and community through recognition of shared perspectives: “me too’ … “you too?” … ”yes, me too.”
Frantz Fanon, one of the most fiercely beating hearts of decolonisation theory during the days of postcolonial independence that birthed the Third World, knew the importance of both empathy and care in building independence movements and new nations. His account of how Algerian independence forces reached the point of realising that their war against French colonisers would succeed (L’An V de la révolution algérienne, published in English as A Dying Colonialism) is rich with examples of both. Pan-Africanism, in all its variants, is built on appeals to “feeling with” (the literal meaning of “empathy”). What is new—what 2020 has given us—is an archive of heart-breaking examples of the need for care labour and the politically transformative power of care as an orientation towards others. I think, for instance, of the singing and music-making on balconies around the world as community responses to “lockdown isolation”, and the heroic decency of hospital workers who connected people on their deathbeds to loved ones via iPads so they didn’t die entirely alone.
Those of us who are gleaning inspiration and encouragement from online streaming during lockdowns of 2020 might recognise “black traditions” of care work as they are modelled (imperfectly) in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, through the supporting character of Jolene. The show has been criticised for its instrumental use of its most significant character of colour; Jolene is present in the story only as a source of care for the white girl whose life is the story’s focal point. That criticism is fair—Jolene is not drawn with as much nuance as she deserves, nor is her story given adequate weight—but there is something I see in the show’s presentation of her that goes beyond these criticisms. Yes, as a character, she is subordinated to Beth, the centre of the story. (And yes, that is a criticism that needs to be levelled against the show; it ought to bother us that black characters in the show are personified only slightly more than chess pieces.) But it misses the power of what I saw in how Jolene cares. This power of her care is notably (perhaps only?) on display in the scenes where she comforts Beth after the death of the man who taught her to play chess.
Empathy can be built into solidarity, which (when well directed) manifests as the care that keeps us alive.
I’m not at all certain that I would have seen those scenes the way I did if I had watched the show without having lived through 2020. Through this lens, however, I see something about the way Jolene was able to acknowledge the dark, unfair elements of life and death and was able to comfort with clear eyes (characterising the main character’s unexpected grief as “biting off more than you can chew”) that has stayed with me as emblematic of the orientation to care that I think we need in the wake of 2020.
In the white-dominated, (post)British-colonial cultures that raised me, there is a standard response to grief and trauma that involves dismissing or downplaying the trigger incident (it’s not so bad) and encouraging minimised emotional reactions (stiff upper lips). Jolene’s care in the face of grief does neither of those things; she can acknowledge the devastating, shattering experience of grief that Beth is undergoing and can sit with Beth through it. In this model of care, grief is not nothing, or a little thing, or not so bad. And the person who is grief-stricken is not broken, needing to be fixed. The grief-stricken person has been wounded and, in their healing, needs care from others—needs empathy and the authentic comfort that we find in solidarity. All of this strikes me as true of trauma as well as grief, which is why I see “how Jolene cares” as an attitude so well suited to our pandemic times.
All of us who have experienced 2020 have shared a year which has been traumatic for many. Practicing “how Jolene cares” is a project of acknowledging these individual traumas in our ongoing encounters with those who carry them as burdens. And it is a project of searching for ways to give practical, basic-needs-oriented care—not in the triage-inflected levelling-down of care to the barest necessities that characterised so many rushes to lockdown in 2020, but with attention to the other’s needs-within-their-healing-process that, for many of us who have wrestled with either grief or trauma (are they always distinct things?), is the ground out of which trust might be nurtured and grown and is the first nascent re-connection to a world that has been so wounding. If sustained practice of this care model also teaches us to see how much care we are receiving from others every day, all the time, it has the potential to be radically transformative—in exactly the way that Fanon and Wynter’s decolonisation theories urge.
At the very end of 2019, I wrote a piece about Haiti in which I offered an extended digression on a New Year’s Day tradition that builds and celebrates solidarity (January 1 is also celebrated as Haiti’s independence day, the anniversary of its decolonising declaration of itself as a free black nation). This tradition, the making and sharing of a gourd-based soup known as joumou, is a ritualised act of care through food, intended to inspire Haitians to re-dedicate themselves to each other in the coming year, and to build upon the promise of human dignity that was the Haitian Revolution. In that piece, I urged readers of The Elephant to honour the spirit of Haiti’s New Year’s Day tradition, and to recognise the role that Haiti’s revolution has played in creating a world that slowly—incrementally, but undeniably—is becoming less hostile towards blackness. Returning to my discussion of joumou with 2020 behind us, I want to bring to the fore the idea of food as love—something I think I elided in my earlier discussion of food as political symbol.
Many years ago, as a much younger woman, I waitressed in restaurants. I hated being treated like a servant by restaurant patrons, but there were many aspects of that work that I enjoyed and that have stayed with me over the years as behavioural habits. The thing I loved the most about waitressing was being able to bring someone a steaming plate of hot food on a cold day. (This was when I lived in Canada; there were many cold days.) That act of giving one person something they need to sustain their life and well-being was always a deep pleasure for me, because it always made me feel deeply connected to all my fellow human beings. This, I think, is the essence of what is being ritualised in the Haitian tradition of sharing joumou on the first day of the new year. Giving care—giving love, giving what is needed to sustain life—and receiving it can, at its most powerful, form connections among the people in a particular care-interaction that can also weave them all together into a larger community.
When I first discussed the idea for this article with my editor at The Elephant, his judgement was that he too thought “we should end the year with some empathy.” It took a long time to pull together my thoughts—so long that I rendered an end-of-year wish for empathy outdated. What I now offer readers instead is my profound hope that we can begin 2021 with empathy enough to make the new year one in which each of us is empowered by the care that we receive, and by the care that we give.
Lava Jato: The CIA’s Poisoned Gift to Brazil
Recently leaked conversations show shocking levels of US involvement in Brazil’s Lava Jato corruption case against former president Lula da Silva.
“I’m going to celebrate today.”— Laura Tessler
“A gift from the CIA.”— Deltan Dallagnol
These recently leaked quotes refer to the arrest and jailing of former Brazilian President Lula da Silva in April 2018 that changed the course of the country’s history. It opened the door to far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power with the support of the United States and powerful corporate interests.
Although US involvement in the once heralded anti-corruption investigation operation Lava Jato has been publicly known for some time, leaked conversations between its prosecutors like Tessler and Dallagnol and Judge Sergio Moro have revealed a level of collusion that has shocked even the keenest observers.
A petition filed with the Federal Supreme Court (STF) by the defence of ex-president Lula presents such new evidence that ex-judge Sergio Moro colluded with foreign authorities in conducting the process which led to the arrest of the Workers Party leader, and his subsequent barring from a run for the presidency in 2018.
In the latest leaked Telegram conversations, which are now official court documents, the level of illegal collaboration visible between the Lava Jato task force and the internationally promoted judge is the most flagrant yet, and more valuable for Lula’s defence than chats first published by the Intercept in 2019.
The latest excerpts could result in the politically motivated case against Lula being annulled.
Ex-judge Sergio Moro and head of the Lava Jato task force Deltan Dallagnol have been accused of “treason” for their illegal collusion with United States authorities. In 2017, deputy US attorney general Kenneth Blanco boasted at an Atlantic Council event of informal (illegal) collaboration with Brazilian prosecutors on the Lula case, citing it as a success story. In 2019 the U.S. Department of Justice attempted to pay the Lava Jato task force a $682 million dollar kickback, ostensibly for them to set up a “private foundation to fight corruption”.
On April 5, 2018, the day Lula was arrested by Moro, prosecutor Isabel Grobba revealed the news: “Moro orders Lula to be arrested,” and Deltan Dallagnol replied: “Before MA (Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurélio) screws everything up.” Dallagnol was referring to what Marco Aurélio was then preparing; a Supreme Court vote which would potentially see defendants such as Lula freed from jail pending their second appeal.
Had this passed, it would’ve enabled Lula to run for president at the 2018 election. Polling at that point showed him twenty points ahead of nearest rival, U.S. backed far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
After coming to power, Jair Bolsonaro and Sergio Moro — who had been appointed as Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister — made an unprecedented visit to CIA headquarters in Langley, with the backing of Wall Street. The FBI has also massively increased its reach in Brazil since the election and was in direct, legal and illegal collaboration with Lava Jato task force since its inception, with its main liaison and now head of FBI’s international corruption unit, Leslie Backschies, boasting that it had “toppled Presidents in Brazil”.
Cooperation between Brazilian and United States authorities, including the use of FBI hackers to break encrypted files, had become clear long before the arrest of the ex-president. Messages from August 31, 2016, when Dilma Rousseff faced her final impeachment hearing, already prove this.
FBI use of hackers in Brazil dates back to 2012 when they encouraged a group from ‘Anonymous’ to attack Brazilian government and corporate institutions and online infrastructure, in a staged protest against “corruption”. Sérgio Bruno revealed: “Janot (Prosecutor General) was with people from the US Embassy last week and it seems that he commented on this [breaking into files via illegal means], without going into details (sic)”.
On the same day, Brazilian prosecutor Roberson Pozzobon also mentions the task force’s cooperation with FBI hackers: “We asked to see if the FBI has the expertise to break (into encrypted files)”.
The following year, Janot toured the world promoting Operation Lava Jato at investor events, both in the United States, and at the World Economic Forum in Davos, describing the now-disgraced anti-corruption operation as “pro-market”, a political position it was not supposed to have. Cooperation with Swiss and Swedish authorities is also evident from the leaked conversations.
A recent announcement has stated that Lava Jato, or Car Wash, as it was relentlessly promoted in the English-speaking media, will be shut down completely later this year, having helped wreck Brazil’s economy and eviscerate its democracy.
Editorial note: The following is an edited version of the article originally published by Brasil Wire. It has been amended to provide context for the recent developments in the Lava Jato corruption case. You can find all of Brasil Wire’s articles on operation Lava Jato here.
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