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Trump, Ukraine, and the Whistleblower: Why Reporting Wrongdoing Remains a Perilous Activity

9 min read.

The American media and Democrats have hailed the anonymous whistleblower who reported the US president’s shady dealings with his counterpart in Ukraine as a hero. However, most whistleblowers are not so fortunate; the financial and emotional price they pay is extremely high, and can even lead to collateral damage.

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“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.

Collateral damage

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.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sino-African Relations: Cooperation or a New Imperialism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authoritarianism and exploitation

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

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

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

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

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

Return to a Pan-African internationalism

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

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

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

Internationalism from below

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

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

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

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

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

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African Epistemic Self-Affirmation Is the Ultimate End of Decolonization

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

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

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

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

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

Questions of decolonization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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