“I think we will not understand what is happening in our society until we listen to the tears, the screams, the pain, and horror of those who have crossed a boundary they did not even know exists. To be a whistleblower is to step outside the Great Chain of Being, to join not just another religion, but another world. Sometimes this other world is called the margins of society, but to the whistleblower it feels like outer space.” – C. Fred Alford, Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power (2001).
President Donald Trump’s thinly veiled attacks against the anonymous whistleblower who reported his shady dealings with the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, have once again highlighted what a dangerous activity whistleblowing can be. The US president is reported to have stated: “I want to know who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? With spies and treason, right? We used to handle them a little differently than we do now.”
By equating whistleblowing with treason, Trump is doing exactly what many people in power do when confronted with a revelation that shows them in a bad light – they shoot the messenger by accusing him of being disloyal – a traitor – or of having damaged an organisation’s reputation. For this, the whistleblower is either fired, ridiculed or psychologically tortured. (In the case of Trump, he would prefer that the Ukraine scandal whistleblower be hanged.)
What most people don’t understand is that no one wakes up one day and decides to blow the whistle on their employer. I am sure that the Ukraine saga whistleblower, who is believed to be working for the US intelligence services, did not make the decision to report Trump’s “quid pro quo” request to the Ukrainian president because he sought notoriety. He probably believed that US national security was being compromised by the US president and that some law or code of ethics had been violated. So he reported it internally, which is how most whistleblowers report wrongdoing.
He probably also felt that he would not be able to live with himself if he had done nothing. Now, after being declared a whistleblower, he has to contend with the wrath of the most powerful president on the planet. Imagine the pressure of that.
The media and Democrats in the United States have hailed the Ukraine whistleblower as a hero. But I fear that this designation will not be enough to protect him from harm. I fear for this person, not so much for his life, but for the grim future that lies ahead of him, even within the intelligence community where he works. (I am assuming that the whistleblower is male, although there is a high likelihood that a woman made the official complaint against Trump.)
He may find that after this episode is over and President Trump is allowed to continue as president, he will be sacrificed – in what ways, I am not sure.
Alternatively, if Trump is impeached, a bright future might await him. His bosses within the intelligence services and Democrats in Congress might make a commitment to protect and reward him, as they did with Mark Felt, the “Deep Throat” whistleblower who exposed the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s downfall. He could be among the lucky few.
Most whistleblowers are not so fortunate; they suffer severe retaliation for reporting wrongdoing. Most lose their jobs. They do not receive any medals or awards for their whistleblowing, nor do they get their jobs back after they have been exonerated of any wrongdoing. On the contrary, the financial and emotional toll of whistleblowing affects their physical and mental health. Many lose their families or sink into depression. Others pay the ultimate price for speaking truth to power. For example, not long after the human rights activists Oscar King’ara and Paul Oulu released a report on extrajudicial killings by Kenyan state security authorities, they were gunned down in March 2009 by unknown assassins on a street in Nairobi not far from the State House.
Some whistleblowers do become famous – not because they want to be famous but because someone thought it was important to tell their stories. Some of them have featured in Hollywood films like The Insider and The Whistleblower; the most recent film is the just released Official Secrets, which tells the story of Katherine Gun, a translator who blew the whistle on America’s illegal spying activities at the United Nations prior to the Iraq war in 2003. (Dictionary definition of a whistleblower: a person who reports or discloses information of a threat or harm to the public interest in the context of their work-based relationship.)
Most whistleblowers end up finding out that institutional whistleblower protection policies will do little to protect them, even in institutions that claim to be protecting human rights and enforcing labour laws. For instance, no one protected me when I reported to my supervisors at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) that some $350,000 of donor money was unaccounted for. Not suspecting that the people I reported this to might have been responsible for the theft or inappropriate use of this money, I found myself at the receiving end of various forms of psychological torture, which forced me to leave the organisation. I was publicly humiliated in office meetings; friends and colleagues stopped talking to me; I was threatened with non-renewal of contract and was denied a promotion. In retrospect, when I think of the things that I was forced to endure, I now believe that the amount stolen or “diverted” could have been as high as $1 million – the total amount of funds given by the donor country Bahrain to UN-Habitat the previous year.
The cost of whistleblowing
Many whistleblowers naively believe that their revelations will earn them kudos from their seniors, but usually the very opposite happens; the entire system conspires to make their life so miserable that they quit voluntarily, or comes up with trumped-up charges of impropriety that lead to their dismissal.
It is estimated that between half and two-thirds of all whistleblowers lose their jobs. In general, the more systematic the wrongdoing within an organisation, the greater the reprisal against those who expose it. Most find that their job prospects dwindle significantly after they report wrongdoing; career pathways are blocked, promotions are denied, rumours are spread about their state of mind, which deters others from hiring them.
Most whistleblowers are not so fortunate; they suffer severe retaliation for reporting wrongdoing. Most lose their jobs. They do not receive any medals or awards for their whistleblowing, nor do they get their jobs back after they have been exonerated of any wrongdoing.
Whistleblowers around the world have consistently reported feelings of isolation, betrayal and abandonment after they have denounced incidences of corruption, malpractice or abuse of office. One World Bank whistleblower said that the culture of conformity, silence and fear was so pervasive at the Bank that “as soon as you are seen blowing the whistle, your own colleagues won’t even sit next to you in the cafeteria”.
The case of the Kenyan whistleblower David Munyakei is illustrative of the fate that befalls whistleblowers. Munyakei is credited with bringing to public attention what is known as the Goldenberg Scandal that cost the Kenyan economy about one billion dollars in the early 1990s. Munyakei was arrested and charged with contravening the Official Secrets Act. He was denied bail and taken to remand prison.
While the case against Munyakei was later dismissed by the then Attorney General, the whistleblower found himself on the streets; the Central Bank had fired him on the grounds that they no longer had confidence in him.
Munyakei spent the next few years flitting from one casual job to another. While Transparency International and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights recognised him for blowing the whistle on the biggest scam in the country’s post-independence history, he was not financially compensated by the government, nor did the awards bring him any financial security. He was clearly a broken man. He died penniless in 2006 at the age of 38.
Whistleblowing is extremely risky business in any place where governments or corporations have something to hide. It can also cause deep anguish to the whistleblower. In his book Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power, C. Fred Alford, a Professor of Government at the University of Maryland, College Park, provides a chilling and deeply pessimistic account of whistleblowers who have exposed corruption in high places. Most whistleblowers, he says, are unable to assimilate the experience of whistleblowing or to come to terms with what they have learned.
Whistleblowers see the truth, and that truth shakes their belief in the world they live in. “For many whistleblowers this knowledge is like a mortal illness. They live with it, and it with them, every day and night of their lives,” says Alford.
John Githongo, Kenya’s most famous whistleblower who is the subject of Michela Wrong’s book It’s Our Turn to Eat and who uncovered what came to be known as the Anglo Leasing Scandal in 2005, told me that for him the meaning of “normal” changed forever after he realised that the people he worked most closely with were involved in the theft of public funds, and when friends and colleagues disappeared from his life after he made the scandal public. “It is like post-traumatic disorder,” he explained. “The memories keep coming back and stay with you for the rest of your life.”
It is estimated that between half and two-thirds of all whistleblowers lose their jobs. In general, the more systematic the wrongdoing within an organisation, the greater the reprisal against those who expose it.
Ten years after I blew the whistle at UN-Habitat I still have nightmares about what was done to me, how easily I was sacrificed, and how the perpetrators and defenders of the wrongdoing suffered no consequences (though one of them was later removed from her cabinet position after she was implicated in a major corruption scandal in her country after she had left the UN).
My attempts to seek justice from the UN have so far come to naught. I have used every official internal channel available to me to seek justice, but I have been blocked every single time. Usually my complaint has ended up in the UN’s web-like bureaucracy, a labyrinth that ensures that there is no accountability. Meanwhile, my prospects of returning to a job that I loved – editor of UN-Habitat’s State of the World’s Cities report (which ceased to be published after my departure – because I was no longer at the helm, I would like to believe) – are getting dimmer by the day.
I have since spent a considerable amount of time learning and writing about whistleblowers, and have come to the conclusion that most whistleblowers report wrongdoing not because they hate their organisations, but because they love their work and are loyal to their organisations’ mission and mandate. I concur with the writers of a TIME magazine article on the three female whistleblowers – Worldcom’s internal auditor Cynthia Cooper, Enron’s vice president Sherron Watkins, and FBI agent Coleen Rowley – who the magazine named as “Persons of the Year” in 2002, when they wrote, “Sometimes it is the keepers of the flame who feel most compelled to set their imperfect temple to the torch.”
Alford says that whistleblowers are tortured and sacrificed “so that others might see what it costs to be an individual in this blighted world”. They are also political actors in a world that has been depoliticised by euphemisms such as “development” instead of social justice, “diversion of funds” instead of theft, “national security” instead of gross violation of privacy. Ask Edward Snowden.
Quite often the torture and retaliation will continue even after the whistleblower has left the organisation. Githongo faced libel cases after he left government and went into exile and, thirteen years after he first exposed the Anglo Leasing scandal, he is still fighting these cases – which have drained him both emotionally and financially – in Kenyan and UK courts. In May 2019, the High Court awarded Sh27 million ($270,000) to one of the people he had accused of being one of the masterminds of the Anglo Leasing scam – a ruling that many viewed as excessively punitive and a chilling message to those who might be tempted to expose corruption within the Kenyan government.
John Githongo, Kenya’s most famous whistleblower who is the subject of Michela Wrong’s book It’s Our Turn to Eat and who in 2005 uncovered what came to be known as the Anglo Leasing Scandal, told me that for him the meaning of “normal” changed forever after he realised that the people he worked most closely with were involved in the theft of public funds…
Whistleblowers threaten the very foundations upon which power rests. The very act of whistleblowing is, therefore, a deeply political act. This explains why whistleblower protection policies rarely work. Once a whistleblower is taken seriously, he becomes a threat to the entire power structure. He must, therefore, be sacrificed.
Sometimes whistleblowing can lead to collateral damage; not only is the whistleblower harmed but the perpetrators of the crime go on to commit more crimes that harm other people, especially when they believe that they can get away with them. This further damages the organisation, and creates a toxic work environment where anything goes. These crimes can even lead to innocent people being killed.
I believe that President Trump is an irrational, narcissistic, and dangerous man. I think that he gave Turkey the green light to invade Syria because he wanted to “wag the dog” and divert attention from his impending impeachment. He doesn’t care how many innocent lives are lost as long as he comes out smelling like roses. His belated call to Turkey’s president for a ceasefire is nothing but a lame attempt to exonerate himself when the war gets really ugly and he is blamed for the mass killings. (I have yet to see the UN Security Council reprimand him or Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for waging this illegal and highly dangerous war.)
Whistleblowers threaten the very foundations upon which power rests. The very act of whistleblowing is, therefore, a deeply political act. This explains why whistleblower protection policies rarely work. Once a whistleblower is taken seriously, he becomes a threat to the entire power structure. He must, therefore, be sacrificed.
As a result of this totally senseless war in Syria, hundreds, if not thousands, of people will be killed or displaced, and the world will become a much more dangerous place, just as it did when George Bush and Tony Blair ordered an invasion of Iraq without UN Security Council approval in 2003. Not only has Trump betrayed America’s Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), he has made the region and the world at large much more unstable and unsafe. Just when the world believed that IS had been vanquished, Trump threw the terrorist organisation a lifeline.
As the New York Times commented:
“President Trump’s acquiescence to Turkey’s move to send troops deep inside Syrian territory has in only one week’s time turned into a bloody carnage, forced the abandonment of a successful five-year long American project to keep the peace on a volatile border, and given an unanticipated victory to four American adversaries: Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and the Islamic State.”
Is there a link between the Ukraine whistleblower and Trump’s decision to support this war despite having claimed that as president he will end America’s military incursions in foreign lands? I believe so.
Will the whistleblower who exposed the Ukraine scandal be sacrificed? I hope not, but I do wish him all the strength he can muster to survive what will most likely be a very trying period ahead.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
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.
Long Reads7 days ago
The Anatomy of Kenya Inc: How the Colonial State Sustains and Re-Creates Itself
Politics2 weeks ago
We Didn’t Make It for You: Vaccine Nationalism and the West’s Claim to the COVID-19 Jab
Politics2 weeks ago
For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring
Politics7 days ago
A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class
Op-Eds7 days ago
Is Balkanisation the Solution to Somalia’s Governance Woes?
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
USA: For Right-Wing Extremists the Attack on Capitol Hill Was a Victory
Satire1 week ago
UK Corruption Cover-Up Exposed As US Marks Grim Milestone
Satire2 weeks ago
Storm Deaths in US as Caucasian Spring Spreads