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Memo to Uhuru Kenyatta: Finish up and Go

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With nothing but political blunders and policy failures behind him, there is only one thing left that Uhuru Kenyatta can do for Kenya, and that is this. Mr Uhuru Kenyatta, please do us and yourself a big favour; you have neither the mandate nor the wherewithal to shape our political destiny. Just finish up and go.

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December 30 ought to be a memorable day on Kenya’s political calendar. On this day in 2002, Mwai Kibaki took office as the first democratically elected President of Kenya. When it is remembered, though, it is not for the inauguration of Kibaki, but for Moi’s humiliation. The only account we have of the chaotic event is that of Lee Njiru, Moi’s communications chief. According to Njiru, as soon as Uhuru Kenyatta conceded defeat on the afternoon of the 29th, the Kibaki people insisted on an immediate handover. The inauguration was scheduled for the following day without any consultations. At 3 p.m. on that day, Moi got tired of waiting and decided to go down to Uhuru park to get it over and done with. This is how he ended up in the chaotic situation, being jeered at and pelted with mud, bottles and whatever else people could lay their hands on. Kibaki’s description of Moi’s tenure as “years of misrule and ineptitude” did not suggest that there was any intention to treat Moi kindly.

Shortly after assuming power, the NARC administration replaced Moi’s face on the currency with Jomo Kenyatta’s. It was ill-advised. By then, the NARC dream had dissolved into a toxic nightmare. The Kibaki men — later to emerge as the Anglo-Leasing cabal — had walked out of Bomas and gone off to write the Wako/Kilifi draft constitution. Seen through the prism of the NARC fallout, this was not just further humiliation of Moi; it symbolised the resurgence of Kikuyu restorationism — the thing Kikuyu supremacists metaphorise as gūcookia rūūī mūkaro, literally, returning the river to its course, meaning the return of power to where it belongs. For some reason, the Kibaki men seemed to have conflated Moi’s humiliation with the redemption of Jomo Kenyatta. They were mistaken. The rejection of Uhuru Kenyatta in the presidential bid in Central Kenya was, in part, antipathy towards his father’s rule which had already cost him the Gatundu parliamentary seat in 1997. Kaī tūgūthīnjīra hiti keerī? (are we to slaughter our goat for hyenas a second time?), people would ask.

A decade later the humiliation was invoked in conversations that would have seemed completely unrelated — the constitutional debate on the features Kenyan currency should have. It is these sentiments that informed the constitutional provision that outlaws portraits of individuals on the currency. So there was considerable disquiet in many quarters recently when new notes revealed a disingenuous way of keeping Kenyatta’s image on the currency — his statue prominently in the foreground of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre. There are many arresting images of the KICC that do not feature the statue. The State will no doubt seek, and may find defense in legal interpretation, but it is not lost on anyone that the intention is to defeat the spirit of the Constitution. The timing is awful.

I was at a social gathering in Kiambu recently where the dismay and disillusionment with Uhuru Kenyatta hovered over the otherwise succulent goat ribs and aged single malts like the smell of stale beer. The question was raised as to how the gathering would like their sentiments conveyed to Kenyatta. The “session chairman” distilled the sentiments aired into a four-point message: Andū mena thīna mūno (the people are suffering a lot); Ee toro ta Njoramu (he slumbers like the biblical Joram); Nītūmenyete nī mūkoroku ta ithe (we have learned he is as greedy as his father); Nī gūtee (we wasted our votes).

Seemingly unaware of these undercurrents in his backyard, or perhaps all too aware of them, Kenyatta recently appeared at a public gathering where — forgetting that he is the president of all Kenyans — he unleashed a diatribe in Kikuyu, repeatedly addressing the gathering as “andū aitū” (“our people”), and assuring them that he was on top of things. I gather that the outburst was triggered by his deputy arriving at the meeting fashionably late. We witnessed the same thing happen at Kenneth Matiba’s funeral service in Murang’a when Kenyatta came out guns blazing. But his outburst at the Akorino event is of far greater significance.

I was at a social gathering in Kiambu recently where the dismay and disillusionment with Uhuru Kenyatta hovered over the otherwise succulent goat ribs and aged single malts like the smell of stale beer.

The Uhuru-Ruto political pact was sold to the Kikuyu as a peace treaty that would shield the Kikuyu diaspora in the Rift Valley from politically motivated violence — a homegrown solution for which the Kikuyu sacrificed justice for the victims of the 2007/8 post-election violence. The Akorino community has a large presence in the Rift Valley epicenters of political violence. With their distinctive white turbans, this insular, exclusively Kikuyu sect, is a vulnerable, easy target. During Ruto’s trial at the International Criminal Court, evidence was adduced that the Akorino were specifically targeted using the euphemism “plucking mushrooms.” Ruto was personally implicated in the incitement and his defiant arrival at the Akorino meeting would have been unsettling for both Kenyatta and the Akorino — it was as if he had showed up to remind them that they have a deal, and that choices have consequences. Kenyatta, who is not given to introspection or self-restraint, let rip.

The Kenyatta-Ruto succession is the third chapter in the Kikuyu-Kalenjin land-for-power pact which began with the co-option of KADU into the Government, bringing Moi into the centre of power at the expense of Oginga Odinga. In 1967 Moi was elevated to the vice-presidency at the expense of more capable leaders — notably Tom Mboya. Prof. Anyang Nyong’o recalls asking Lee Kwan Yew for his thoughts on how Singapore’s and Kenya’s development trajectories diverged, to which Lee Kwan Yew quipped that we had killed Mboya. The deal with Moi facilitated the migration of the Kikuyu peasantry into the Rift Valley, which in turn enabled Kenyatta and other wealthy Kikuyu notables to acquire for themselves the migrants’ more valuable ancestral lands in central Kenya.

The Uhuru-Ruto political pact was sold to the Kikuyu as a peace treaty that would shield the Kikuyu diaspora in the Rift Valley from politically motivated violence — a homegrown solution for which the Kikuyu sacrificed justice for the victims of the 2007/8 post-election violence

Then came the Kenyatta succession intrigues that can be said to have begun with Mboya’s assassination and the Gatundu oathing ceremonies that sought to ensure that “biki biki itigakīra Chania (the motorcycle outriders will never cross the Chania River, meaning that power would remain in Kiambu). The machinations ranged from an attempt at constitutional change to preclude the Vice President from assuming power in the event of the president’s death (that elicited Charles Njonjo’s decree purporting to criminalise imagining the death of the president) to the more sinister Ngoroko affair, a hit squad embedded in the anti-stock theft police unit suspected to have been meant to assassinate or otherwise incapacitate Moi when Kenyatta died. The scheme was predicated on Kenyatta dying in Nakuru, his favourite retreat, in which case the schemers would have been the first to know. But Kenyatta died at the Coast.

It is now clear that, for whatever reason, Kenyatta and the interest groups he represents have decided that it is not in their interest that he be succeeded by William Ruto. What is unclear is whether there is a Plan B because Plan A, a corruption takedown, is not working. There is only one way to make it work and that is to convict Ruto for corruption. But such is the obsession with neutralising him that they just could not resist the opportunity to weaponise the change of currency notes for a financial takedown. It is believed that a sizeable chunk of William Ruto’s seemingly inexhaustible political war chest is hoarded in cash that he may not be able to convert to the new currency, in effect rendering the stash valueless.

Prof. Anyang Nyong’o recalls asking Lee Kwan Yew for his thoughts on how Singapore’s and Kenya’s development trajectories diverged, to which Lee Kwan Yew quipped that we had killed Mboya

Article 262 (34) of the Constitution — the transitional provision relating to the currency change — states that “Nothing in Article 231 (4) affects the validity of coins and notes issued before the effective date.” Conflating the currency change mandated by the Constitution with this purported war on money laundering has left Ruto’s takedown hostage to the interpretation of this provision by the courts. But even the presumption that repudiating the cash hoards will cripple Ruto financially, and that crippling him financially will neutralise him politically, is wishful thinking. Uhuru Kenyatta’s anti-Ruto schemes are evidently as hare-brained as his father’s acolytes’ ill-fated anti-Moi schemes. And like Moi before him, the longer he survives this onslaught, and the more Uhuru Kenyatta reverts to type — ethnic chauvinism, contempt, dynastic privilege and arrogance of power — the stronger Ruto becomes.

The Kenyatta-Ruto succession is the third chapter in the Kikuyu-Kalenjin land-for-power pact which began with the co-option of KADU into the Government, bringing Moi into the centre of power at the expense of Oginga Odinga. In 1967 Moi was elevated to the vice-presidency at the expense of more capable leaders — notably Tom Mboya

In their “handshake” memorandum, titled “Building Bridges to a New Kenyan Nation,” Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga promised to lead the nation in correcting the sins of their fathers:

We are grateful for our fathers, we stand on their shoulders. Yet we can also see that the promise of our nation has not been met as fully as it should have been; we know there are different measures our founding fathers should have taken as they forged this young nation. H.E. President Uhuru Kenyatta and H.E. Raila Odinga are the two leaders who symbolise the many ways in which the country has gone full circle in its divisions. Intent on not witnessing the country suffer similar future cycles of the same tribulations it has since 1963, they are determined to offer the leadership that prevents future generations inheriting dangerous divisions and offer them a path to a bright future for all.

We have seen none of this. What we see instead is the same shameless politics of self-preservation, cynical ethnic mobilisation, arrogance of power and that quintessential Kenyatta disease — greed.

It has recently emerged that Uhuru Kenyatta is exerting pressure on the government to prioritise the upgrading of the Nairobi Eastern by-pass specifically to benefit the Northlands satellite city project on one of the family’s expansive, dubiously acquired, land holdings. Last week, the official State House twitter handle @StateHouseKenya was promoting Stawi, the lending platform fronted by the Commercial Bank of Africa, the Kenyatta family bank featured in this column some weeks ago. The Central Bank Governor — who is now doubling up as CBA’s chief marketing officer — lied to the public that Stawi will provide cheap credit to small businesses at an interest rate of 9 per cent per year, while in truth, the cost of the loans as measured by the annual percentage rate (APR) averages 35 per cent, and is no different from other digital lenders in the market. Corruption could not be more egregious.

In their “handshake” memorandum, titled “Building Bridges to a New Kenyan Nation,” Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga promised to lead the nation in correcting the sins of their fathers

Yet some Kenyans continue to cling to the hope that he is fighting corruption. Uhuru is not fighting corruption. He is fighting Ruto. And he no longer bothers to hide the fact that he is using state power, his office and public resources to further his private business interests. Much of what we are seeing from him suggests that he may be under the impression that the “Kenya” in Kenyatta is proprietary. One of the sins of the fathers is the personality cult that Uhuru Kenyatta is hell-bent on perpetuating by retaining his father’s image on our currency, against the letter and spirit of the constitution he has sworn to defend. But all is not lost. By showing us the middle finger, Uhuru Kenyatta has ensured that there will come a time to do unto Kenyatta what was done to Moi. And when the music starts, it will not stop at the currency — streets, airports and universities will be fair game.

Having floundered on providing the promised leadership — no surprises there — the handshake is now clinging onto the hope of constitutional amendments to either exclude or neutralise Ruto, a scheme reminiscent of the 1966 Limuru KANU Conference constitutional amendments that replaced the deputy party leader’s position with eight regional vice presidents, in effect ending Oginga Odinga’s chances of succeeding Kenyatta. This constitutional amendment scheme is now a poisoned chalice. We say in Gikuyu, mbūri igūthinjwo ndionagio kahiū (one does not approach a goat for slaughter with the knife in full view).

We have seen none of this. What we see instead is the same shameless politics of self-preservation, cynical ethnic mobilisation, arrogance of power and that quintessential Kenyatta disease — greed.

I have stated many times, and I will restate here again that the leadership that Uhuru and Raila promised behoves them to play the role of honest statesmen who would midwife political reforms leading up to a free and fair election, followed by retirement for both of them. But they have eschewed statesmanship for skulduggery and political intrigue, lending credence to suspicions that the handshake is nothing more than a Kenyatta self-preservation scheme to which Raila Odinga has been enticed with a share of the spoils and a reinstatement of the Odinga clan to the pantheon of Kenya’s ruling dynasties. It is time to end this nonsense.

With nothing but political blunders and policy failures behind him, there is only one thing left that Uhuru Kenyatta can do for Kenya, and that is this:

Mr Uhuru Kenyatta please do us and yourself a big favour; you have neither the mandate nor the wherewithal to shape our political destiny. Just finish up and go.

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David Ndii
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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the country is economically healthy but the reality is that the IMF has come in precisely because Kenya is in a financial crisis.

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Never did I imagine that opposing an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Kenya would be viewed by the Kenyan authorities as a criminal act. But that is exactly what transpired last week when activist Mutemi Kiama was arrested and charged with “abuse of digital gadgets”, “hurting the presidency”, “creating public disorder” and other vaguely-worded offences. Mutemi’s arrest was prompted by his Twitter post of an image of President Uhuru Kenyatta with the following caption: “This is to notify the world . . . that the person whose photograph and names appear above is not authorised to act or transact on behalf of the citizens of the Republic of Kenya and that the nation and future generations shall not be held liable for any penalties of bad loans negotiated and/or borrowed by him.” He was released on a cash bail of KSh.500,000 with an order prohibiting him from using his social media accounts or speaking about COVID-19-related loans.

Mutemi is one among more than 200,000 Kenyans who have signed a petition to the IMF to halt a KSh257 billion (US$2.3 billion) loan to Kenya, which was ostensibly obtained to cushion the country against the negative economic impact of COVID-19.  Kenya is not the only country whose citizens have opposed an IMF loan. Protests against IMF loans have been taking place in many countries, including Argentina, where people took to the streets in 2018 when the country took a US$50 billion loan from the IMF. In 2016, Eqyptian authorities were forced to lower fuel prices following demonstrations against an IMF-backed decision to eliminate fuel subsidies. Similar protests have also taken place in Jordan, Lebanon and Ecuador in recent years.

Why would a country’s citizens be against a loan given by an international financial institution such as the IMF? Well, for those Kenyans who survived (or barely survived) the IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 90s, the answer is obvious. SAPs came with stringent conditions attached, which led to many layoffs in the civil service and removal of subsidies for essential services, such as health and education, which led to increasing levels of hardship and precarity, especially among middle- and low-income groups. African countries undergoing SAPs experienced what is often referred to as “a lost development decade” as belt-tightening measures stalled development programmes and stunted economic opportunities.

In addition, borrowing African countries lost their independence in matters related to economic policy. Since lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF, decide national economic policy – for instance, by determining things like budget management, exchange rates and public sector involvement in the economy – they became the de facto policy and decision-making authorities in the countries that took their loans. This is why, in much of the 1980s and 1990s, the arrival of a World Bank or IMF delegation to Nairobi often got Kenyans very worried.

In those days (in the aftermath of a hike in oil prices in 1979 that saw most African countries experience a rise in import bills and a decline in export earnings), leaders of these international financial institutions were feared as much as the authoritarian Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, because with the stroke of a pen they could devalue the Kenyan currency overnight and get large chunks of the civil service fired. As Kenyan economist David Ndii pointed out recently at a press conference organised by the Linda Katiba campaign, when the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”. It can no longer claim to determine its own economic policies. Countries essentially lose their sovereignty, a fact that seems to have eluded the technocrats who rushed to get this particular loan.

When he took office in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki kept the World Bank and the IMF at arm’s length, preferring to take no-strings-attached infrastructure loans from China. Kibaki’s “Look East” economic policy alarmed the Bretton Woods institutions and Western donors who had until then had a huge say in the country’s development trajectory, but it instilled a sense of pride and autonomy in Kenyans, which sadly, has been eroded by Uhuru and his inept cronies who have gone on loan fishing expeditions, including massive Eurobonds worth Sh692 billion (nearly $7 billion), which means that every Kenyan today has a debt of Sh137,000, more than three times what it was eight years ago when the Jubilee government came to power. By the end of last year, Kenya’s debt stood at nearly 70 per cent of GDP, up from 50 per cent at the end of 2015. This high level of debt can prove deadly for a country like Kenya that borrows in foreign currencies.

When the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”.

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the fact that the IMF agreed to this loan is a sign that the country is economically healthy, but as Ndii noted, quite often the opposite is true: the IMF comes in precisely because a country is in a financial crisis. In Kenya’s case, this crisis has been precipitated by reckless borrowing by the Jubilee administration that has seen Kenya’s debt rise from KSh630 billion (about $6 billion at today’s exchange rate) when Kibaki took office in 2002, to a staggering KSh7.2 trillion (about US$70 billion) today, with not much to show for it, except a standard gauge railway (SGR) funded by Chinese loans that appears unable to pay for itself. As an article in a local daily pointed out, this is enough money to build 17 SGRs from Mombasa to Nairobi or 154 superhighways like the one from Nairobi to Thika. The tragedy is that many of these loans are unaccounted for; in fact, many Kenyans believe they are taken to line individual pockets. Uhuru Kenyatta has himself admitted that Kenya loses KSh2 billion a day to corruption in government. Some of these lost billions could actually be loans.

IMF loans with stringent conditions attached have often been presented as being the solution to a country’s economic woes – a belt-tightening measure that will instil fiscal discipline in a country’s economy by increasing revenue and decreasing expenditure. However, the real purpose of these loans, some argue, is to bring about major and fundamental policy changes at the national level – changes that reflect the neoliberal ethos of our time, complete with privatisation, free markets and deregulation.

The first ominous sign that the Kenyan government was about to embark on a perilous economic path was when the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, made an official visit to Kenya shortly after President Uhuru was elected in 2013. At that time, I remember tweeting that this was not a good omen; it indicated that the IMF was preparing to bring Kenya back into the IMF fold.

Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, shows how what she calls “disaster capitalism” has allowed the IMF, in particular, to administer “shock therapy” on nations reeling from natural or man-made disasters or high levels of external debt. This has led to unnecessary privatisation of state assets, government deregulation, massive layoffs of civil servants and reduction or elimination of subsidies, all of which can and do lead to increasing poverty and inequality. Klein is particularly critical of what is known as the Chicago School of Economics that she claims justifies greed, corruption, theft of public resources and personal enrichment as long as they advance the cause of free markets and neoliberalism. She shows how in nearly every country where the IMF “medicine” has been administered, inequality levels have escalated and poverty has become systemic.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan. Or, through carefully manipulated data, it will make the country look economically healthy so that it feels secure about applying for more loans. When that country can’t pay back the loans, which often happens, the IMF inflicts even more austerity measures (also known as “conditionalities”) on it, which lead to even more poverty and inequality.

IMF and World Bank loans for infrastructure projects also benefit Western corporations. Private companies hire experts to ensure that these companies secure government contracts for big infrastructure projects funded by these international financial institutions. Companies in rich countries like the United States often hire people who will do the bidding on their behalf. In his international “word-of-mouth bestseller”, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins explains how in the 1970s when he worked for an international consulting firm, he was told that his job was to “funnel money from the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development and other foreign aid organisations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s resources”.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan.

The tools to carry out this goal, his employer admitted unashamedly, could include “fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder”. Perkins showed how in the 1970s, he became instrumental in brokering deals with countries ranging from Panama to Saudi Arabia where he convinced leaders to accept projects that were detrimental to their own people but which enormously benefitted US corporate interests.

“In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty. We can draw on them whenever we desire – to satisfy our political, economic or military needs. In turn, they bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people. The owners of US engineering/construction companies become fabulously wealthy,” a colleague told him when he asked why his job was so important.

Kenyans, who are already suffering financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic which saw nearly 2 million jobs in the formal sector disappear last year, will now be confronted with austerity measures at precisely the time when they need government subsidies and social safety nets. Season Two of SAPs is likely to make life for Kenyans even more miserable in the short and medium term.

We will have to wait and see whether overall dissatisfaction with the government will influence the outcome of the 2022 elections. However, whoever wins that election will still have to contend with rising debt and unsustainable repayments that have become President Uhuru Kenyatta’s most enduring legacy.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul

Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.

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Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.

This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.

At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.

Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.

The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.

For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.

The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.

It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.

Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.

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When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.

Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.

The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.

It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.

Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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