A few years ago, in my Monday column in the Daily Nation, I explained why I was not among the millions of Kenyans who are on Facebook. I told my readers that the main reason I had not joined Facebook was because I wanted to keep my private life private.
I said that Facebook allows users to connect and “make friends” with dozens, if not hundreds, of people they would not normally interact with in daily life, which would not be such a frightening prospect if those you interacted with were people you trusted with all your heart. But because Facebook is an equal opportunity friendship-maker, the “friends” you make on the social networking platform could range from your boss to your plumber. This could affect your career development and your home life in significant ways.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, believes that by allowing many people to share more of their personal lives with each other, he is helping to create a virtual global community where “people stay in touch and maintain empathy for each other.” In other words, he believes he is creating a more caring world, where transparency and openness are the modus operandi and where there are no secrets.
However, critics have argued that instead of connecting people in meaningful ways, Facebook actually isolates people, who spend more time online rather than doing things that strengthen relationships, such as talking to each other or sharing a meal. With an estimated 2.7 billion Facebook users around the world and an estimated 10 million users in Kenya alone, that is a scary scenario that has severe consequences on how people socialise and interact.
But what is even scarier is that Facebook – the company – has been sharing users’ private data with third parties without their knowledge, as has been confirmed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed that Facebook users had been manipulated to impact elections in the United States and in Kenya, as well as in the Brexit referendum in the UK. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown that no data is safe and that those with ill intentions can use people’s personal information for nefarious objectives or for political gain.
It is not just companies like Cambridge Analytica (which closed shop as a result of the scandal) that are using Facebook data without users’ knowledge or consent. Recently, a local newspaper revealed that in the first half of 2019 the Kenyan government had on five different occasions demanded that Facebook reveal private information about Kenyan users of the social networking site. According to an article published in the Standard (which somehow did not raise any furore in Kenya perhaps because, as one Twitter user commented, we are so used to being abused that we no longer have the energy or motivation to fight back), “the [Kenyan] State refused to use proper legal channels while demanding the information, insisting on the urgency of the demand”.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown that no data is safe and that those with ill intentions can use people’s personal information for nefarious objectives or for political gain.
The article, based on Facebook’s transparency report, further says that Facebook complied with at least one of these demands, but the company did not give details on the nature of the information the Kenyan government had demanded. The government also asked Facebook to preserve the account information of seven users. Apparently, such requests/demands are not unusual; reports indicate that the United States government requested Facebook to provide data on 82,461 users in the first six months of this year, while India made such requests on 33,324 users.
Data privacy and protection: An illusion?
At a time when data privacy and protection are becoming increasingly important, especially in light of revelations that governments and private companies are using social media platforms to manipulate voters, as happened in the Cambridge Analytica case, and in an environment of increasing xenophobia and fear-mongering, this revelation should have been a cause for alarm. But as is with most things in Kenya, news that the government was spying on its citizens and collecting data on them without their knowledge or consent barely elicited a yawn.
The story becomes even more intriguing given that Facebook is facing heavy criticism for violating users’ privacy. In July this year, Facebook was fined $5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission for violating users’ privacy. The settlement includes several provisions that limit Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg’s decision-making powers, including the creation of a privacy committee on Facebook’s board of directors.
We must also remember that the Jubilee government of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto has not been averse to manipulating social media users to win elections. Not only has this government been implicated as a beneficiary of Cambridge Analytica’s social engineering and “psychological warfare” tactics in the 2013 and 2017 elections, but it also employed a gang of bloggers known as “The State House Boys” to bombard Kenyans with propaganda prior to and during the election period.
But as is with most things in Kenya, news that the government was spying on its citizens and collecting data on them without their knowledge or consent barely elicited a yawn.
Ironically, this is the same government that is now going after bloggers through the controversial Kenya Information and Communications (Amendment) Bill that some view as a gagging order on bloggers and social media users – a form of censorship that will severely curtail what and how Kenyans communicate via the Internet.
The Bill says that bloggers will need a licence to operate. Failure to comply with this requirement and to adhere to the standards set by the Communications Authority of Kenya could lead to fines of up to Sh10 million or two years in prison. Offences include “degrading” and “intimidating” recipients/readers. This leaves the door wide open for politicians and others to charge bloggers with all manner of offences just because they do not like what they have to say about them. Columnists, cartoonists, writers and even photographers could be “criminalised” on spurious grounds.
Huduma Namba and commercial interests
Ironically, while this Bill is being debated, Parliament has finally woken up to the fact that privacy is a right guaranteed by the Kenyan Constitution. A few days before Kenyans learnt that the government was spying on its citizens through Facebook, President Uhuru Kenyatta approved legislation that complies with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. The Data Protection Bill, 2019, which came into force in mid-November this year, prevents governments and corporations from sharing an individual’s personal data without the consent of the owner of the data. Personal data is defined as information relating to a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, marital status, educational background, medical condition, criminal history and financial transactions, among others. (Note: Some data, such as a person’s credit rating, though protected by privacy laws in Kenya and in other countries, are still easily accessible to interested parties.)
A Data Protection Commissioner will also be appointed to ensure that the law is enforced. The Commissioner will not only receive complaints about data privacy violations but will also have the power to investigate breaches of privacy and to impose fines. However, the Data Protection Bill also says that this law will not apply to personal data collected for the purposes of national security or in the public interest.
This law is viewed as critical to ensuring that data is not abused by third parties and is seen as a necessary and important step to increase investor confidence in Kenya and to regulate the use of mobile phone technology and digital apps, which are increasingly becoming the targets of predatory business and corporate interests.
The timing of the law is, however, interesting. It comes into force at precisely the time when the government is being criticised by some for implementing the National Integrated Identity Management System – better known as Huduma Namba – which many view as a surveillance tool modelled on the Chinese “social credit” system, where citizens gain points for “good conduct” and lose points for “bad behaviour. As I have said before, the idea that you can be denied a service because you cannot identify yourself through a number negates basic constitutional freedoms and rights. Various government mandarins have said that those without a Huduma Namba will be denied government services, including obtaining a Kenya Revenue Authority Personal Identification Number (PIN).
Critics have also raised privacy concerns with regard to Huduma Namba, which is perhaps why the Data Protection Bill was passed in a hurry – to reassure Kenyans that their personal biometric data is safe and that government institutions have perfected the art of making digital technology secure. However, as has been witnessed in the recent past, laws in Kenya are not sufficient to protect Kenyans from electoral or other types of fraud and invasions of privacy.
For instance, Kenya’s electoral body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries and Commission, has proved to be completely inept (or deliberately malicious) in using technology, as demonstrated during the 2013 and 2017 elections when the biometric digital systems for voting either failed or malfunctioned. Apart from questions regarding the procurement of the technology, and whether kickbacks were involved, Kenyans watched in horror as the electoral body fumbled through the election results, even claiming that several voting stations could not electronically transmit the election results. Almost all attempts by this so-called “digital” government to introduce computerised systems in government, ostensibly to reduce corruption and to streamline service delivery, have also failed miserably; in fact, corruption has reached unprecedented levels. It is now an accepted fact that the introduction of the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) in government procurement led to the disappearance and theft of billions of shillings from state coffers. If IFMIS can be so easily manipulated by government officials, then how easy will it be to hack or manipulate the Huduma Namba and other data collection systems?
There are also strong rumours that the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) is being routinely robbed by unscrupulous medical officers and NHIF employees. Kenya Power, the country’s only electricity company, has also been accused of stealing from customers by sending them fictitious and inflated bills. All this is possible because employees have access to subscriber/customer data that they can easily manipulate. In other words, no Kenyan is safe from government bodies that provide a service at taxpayers’ expense – you will either be denied the service or will be robbed. –.
Citizens or borrowers? The debt trap
But protecting people’s privacy in order to comply with the Constitution may not be the primary motive of the data protection bill. As David Ndii has suggested in a recent article, the Huduma Namba is not so much a personal identity tool for Kenyan citizens as it is a credit facility that ensures that every Kenyan is a potential “customer” for micro-credit services, and which has the potential to place every adult Kenyan on a borrowing treadmill that will benefit banks and businesses associated with the Kenyatta family.
The scheme could have severe adverse effects on citizens/customers/borrowers who risk getting a negative credit rating, and thus becoming criminalised, not for “bad behaviour” as the Chinese would define it, but for not paying back a loan on time. Remember, unlike a normal credit card, the customers –Kenyan citizens – have not been given a choice whether or not to apply for the card – the government has deemed it mandatory for everyone.
Given the high standards set by international credit card companies on issues such as customer privacy and data protection, it is possible that the Data Protection Bill was a means to make the Huduma Namba (and its local and international commercial partners) compliant with international norms and standards, thus giving the illusion that, unlike rogue betting companies or greedy loan sharks, the Huduma Namba is a respectable and legitimate way of borrowing money.
If IFMIS can be so easily manipulated by government officials, then how easy will it be to hack or manipulate the Huduma Namba and other data collection systems?
The question one must ask is: if the Huduma Namba is essentially a credit card, what business is it of the government to impose credit cards on people who can barely make ends meet, thanks to the same government’s economic policy failures? For the government and its commercial partners to make money from hapless Kenyan borrowers is not only unethical, but raises questions about whether – like the subprime mortgage crisis in America where the US government’s housing agencies encouraged low-income people to buy houses even though they did not have the means to pay the mortgage – this scheme could lead to the collapse of an economy that is already in the doldrums.
Coupled with the “Affordable Housing” pillar of the Jubilee government – which is based on the erroneous premise that a majority of low-income people in the country are eager to own apartments (a notion I refute in this article), I see many Kenyans losing their money and their property because the government has encouraged them to take loans they cannot afford. This government has already set the country on a path to unprecedented and unsustainable debt. Now it wants every Kenyan to become a reckless borrower.
The problem is that, unlike the government, individuals cannot rely on taxpayers or a second credit facility to get them out of a debt trap. Families in the United States who lost their homes during the subprime mortgage crisis have still not recovered, despite President Barack Obama’s efforts to avert a financial crisis in 2008 – a lesson this government is unwilling or unable to process but which signals doom for the many Kenyans who are being made to believe that taking a loan, no matter how risky, is the easiest way out of poverty.
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Educating the Native and the Ivy League Myth
Elite schools in the US continue to place a premium on institutions, not ideas. Where you went to school is what matters.
As a young student, I was always fascinated by the “top” universities and the erudite people that emerged from those august institutions. My first contact with Ivy League people was when I arrived at Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia in 1999 to start my MSc research. I met students and faculty from Princeton University (which is a trustee of the research centre) and was reassured that they looked “normal”, given all the academic challenges and foibles that a Kenyatta University student like me had. After I finished my MSc, the administration was impressed enough with my work to offer me a job as resident scientist, which I took up with the alacrity of someone catching a big break through hard work (I got a rude awakening later, but that’s a story for another day). As part of my job, I was to supervise a group of Princeton undergraduates undertaking a senior field project and, wanting impress, I sharpened my ecologist brain, especially because I thought I would be instructing some of the world’s sharpest young minds. Now I laugh at my consternation when, after mapping out clear and easy ecological transects for them, they strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle (they were ladies) and that the boss might be offended.
Later on, I asked a postgraduate student from the same institution how these ladies could be so casual about their studies and she couldn’t hide her amusement at my ignorance. “Grad school is competitive. Undergrads get in because of money and name recognition.” I was stunned, but I remembered this when I saw the poor work they submitted at the end of their study. Being an aspiring lecturer (and a student of the late brilliant Prof R.O. Okelo) I marked them without fear or favour, assuming that they would be used to such standards at Princeton. I was told that I couldn’t give them such low marks because they were supposed to qualify for med school after their biology degrees.
They strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle.
The next cohort included one serious student who I actually enjoyed instructing and who finished her course successfully. By that time though, I was getting restless and had started writing an academic and financial proposal for my PhD, and I finished it about six months after my student had returned to the US to graduate. The then Director of Mpala, Dr Georgiadis, refused to let me do my PhD on the job, so I submitted my proposal to several conservation organizations, including the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. I received a positive response from them (offering me a grant) which hit me with a strange mixture of feelings. First of all, I was elated at the prospect of starting my PhD, but I was completely baffled by the signature on the award letter. It was signed by the undergraduate student that I had supervised about eight months earlier. An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder. It was my rude awakening to the racial prejudice that is de rigueur in African conservation practice. But I had to get my academic career moving, and indulge my first taste of the ultimate luxury that my competence and my work could afford me, which was the ability to say “NO”. It was with extreme pleasure that I wrote and signed my letter of resignation from my job at Mpala, leaving it on the Director’s desk.
Years later, after I finished my PhD and had a useful amount of conservation practice under my belt, I attended the Society for Conservation Biology conference in Sacramento, California, where there was a side event featuring publishers from several Ivy League universities. I excitedly engaged them because at the time Gatu Mbaria and I were in the middle of writing “The Big Conservation Lie”. I pointed out to all of them that there were no books about conservation in Africa written by indigenous Africans, but they were uniform in their refusal to even read the synopsis of what we had written. I later understood why when I learned that in US academia, African names — as authors or references — are generally viewed as devaluing to any literature.
An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder.
From Sacramento, I made the short trip to Stanford University in Palo Alto, to give a seminar to an African Studies group. I felt honoured to be making an academic contribution at an Ivy League university and I prepared well. My assertions about the inherent prejudices in African conservation practice were met with stunned silence by the faculty, many of whom are involved with conservation research in Africa. One bright spot in that dour experience was the brilliant PhD student who echoed my views and pointed out that these prejudices existed within academia as well. I later found out that he was Kenyan — his name is Ken Opalo and he now teaches at Georgetown University.
Fast forward to today. The Big Conservation Lie was published, and after the initial wailing, breaking of wind, gnashing of teeth and accusations of racism, Mbaria and I are actually being acknowledged as significant thinkers in the conservation policy field and our literary input is being solicited by various publications around the world. Now, the cultural differences between how European and American institutions treat African knowledge are becoming clear (certainly in my experience). I have been approached by several European institutions to give talks (lectures), and have contributed articles and op-eds (to journals and magazines) and one book foreword. Generally, the approach is like this:
“Dear Dr Ogada, I am_______ and I am writing to you on behalf of________. We are impressed with what you wrote in _____ and would appreciate it if you would consider writing for us an article of (length) on (topic) in our publication. We will offer you an honorarium of (X Euros) for this work, and we would need to receive a draft from you by (date). . .” Looking forward to your positive response. . .”
When inviting me to speak, the letters are similarly respectful and appreciative of my time. The key thing is the focus on and respect for one’s intellectual contribution. Publications from American Ivy league schools typically say:
“Dear Dr Ogada, I am __________, the editor of __________. We find your thoughts on _______ very interesting and we are pleased to invite you to write an essay of________ (length) in our publication. Previous authors we have invited include (dropping about 6-8 names of prominent American scholars).
The entire tone of the letter implies that you are being offered a singular privilege to “appear” in the particular journal. It is even worse when being asked to give a lecture. No official communication, just a casual message from a young student saying that they would like you to come and talk to their class on__________ (time and date on the timetable). No official communication from faculty or the institution. After doing that a couple of times, I realized that the reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications, or (God forbid) have an African name in the “references” section of their work.
The reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications.
European intellectuals seem to be catching on to the fact that knowledge and intellect reside in people, not institutions. That is why they solicit intellectual contributions based on the source of an idea they find applicable in that space and time. Name recognition doesn’t matter to them, which is why they seek people like Ogada, who doesn’t even have that recognition in Kenya. The elite schools in US still place this premium on institutions, which is why whenever an African displays intellectual aptitude, those who are impressed don’t ask about him and his ideas, but where he went to school. They want to know which institution bestowed this gift upon him.
For the record, I usually wait about a week before saying “no” to the Ivy League schools. Hopefully, they read my blog and will improve the manner in which they approach me, or stop it altogether.
Cuba Can Help Vaccinate the World
On 25 January, the Progressive International will host a special briefing live from Havana with Cuba’s leading scientists, government ministers and public health officials as part of its Union for Vaccine Internationalism.
2022 began with a “tsunami” of new Covid-19 cases crashing over the world, according to the World Health Organization. Over 18 million cases have been recorded in the past week alone, a record number since the pandemic began two years ago. In the first 10 days of January, nearly 60,000 Covid-19 deaths have been recorded worldwide — though the total death count is far higher than the official statistics describe.
The Omicron variant is reported to have less “severe” implications among vaccinated patients. But the world remains perilously under-vaccinated: 92 of the WHO’s member countries missed the 2021 target of 40 percent vaccination; at the current pace of rollout, 109 of them will miss their 2022 targets by July.
These statistics tell a story of a persistent vaccine apartheid. Across the EU, 80 percent of all adults have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Meanwhile, only 9.5 percent of people in low-income countries have received a single dose. Omicron is a death sentence for thousands in these countries — and as the virus travels across the Global South, new variants will emerge that may be less “mild” for the vaccinated populations of the North.
But the governments of these Northern countries refuse to plan for global vaccination — or even meet their own pledges. By late last year, they had delivered only 14% of the vaccine doses that they had promised to poorer countries through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing initiative. Big pharmaceutical corporations are focused almost exclusively on production of boosters for the world’s rich countries, creating a shortfall of three billion doses in the first quarter of this year.
President Joe Biden could easily help fill this shortfall by compelling US pharmaceutical corporations to share their vaccine technology with poorer nations. But he has so far refused to do so. A new production hub in Africa — where only 3 percent of people are vaccinated — is now trying to replicate the Moderna vaccine. But without Moderna’s help, or Joe Biden’s executive action, production could take more than a year to begin.
Amidst this crisis of global solidarity, Cuba has emerged as a powerful engine of vaccine internationalism. Not only has the island nation successfully developed two Covid-19 vaccines with 90 percent effectiveness, and vaccinated more than 90 percent of its population with at least one dose of its homegrown vaccine, Cuba has also offered its vaccine technology to the world. “We are not a multinational where returns are the number one reason for existing,” said Vicente Vérez Bencomo of the Finlay Vaccines Institute in Cuba. “For us, it’s about achieving health.”
But the US and its allies continue to oppress and exclude Cuba from the global health system. The US blockade forced a shortage of syringes on the island that endangered its vaccine development and hindered mass production. US medical journals “marginalize scientific results that come from poor countries,” according to Vérez Bencomo. Meanwhile, the WHO refuses to accredit the Cuban vaccines, despite approval from regulators in countries like Argentina and Mexico.
That is why the Progressive International is sending a delegation to Havana: to combat misinformation, to defend Cuban sovereignty, and to help vaccinate the world.
Bringing delegates from the Union for Vaccine Internationalism, founded in June 2021 to fight the emerging apartheid, the Progressive International will convene Cuban scientists and government representatives to address international press and members of the scientific community in a showcase of the Cuban vaccine on 25 January.
The goals of the showcase are both local and global. Drawing attention to the promise of the Cuban vaccine and the perils of the US embargo against it, the showcase aims to forge connections between Cuba’s public biotech sector and manufacturers who might produce the vaccine and help the Cuban government recuperate the costs of its development.
In the process, the showcase aims to set an example of international solidarity in the face of the present global health crisis, advancing the cause of vaccine internationalism around the world.
This article was first published by Progressive International.
DRC: Bring Patrice Lumumba Home
The return of Patrice Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and coverup.
For much of the past year, there have been plans for the sacred human remains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first post-independence prime minister, Patrice Émery Lumumba, to finally be returned to his children in Belgium, and then repatriated to the Congo. Originally scheduled for a ceremony on June 30, 2021, the 61st anniversary of the country’s independence passed with Lumumba’s remains still in the custody of Belgian authorities. The ceremony with Belgian King Philippe, current Prime Minister Alexander de Croo of Belgium, and Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, was then planned for January 17, 2022, the anniversary of the assassination. Last week, Tshisekedi announced another delay—this time until June 2022. The official reason for the delay was the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Congo, but the pandemic crisis is deeply entangled with a series of other political maneuvers and other crises that are undoubtedly factors in the decision.
At the center of this story, Lumumba’s family continues to be victimized. As Nadeen Shaker recently reported, his children were forced to escape to Cairo during their father’s house arrest, never to see him again. The disturbing fact that the remains of Lumumba spent another Independence Day in Belgium may provide opportunities for metaphor and analogy, but, amid the widespread complicity in this ongoing desecration, the most important outcome must be to respect the ethical and legal claims of his children, which daughter Juliana Lumumba described in an open letter to the Belgian king last year.
The story of the execution and its aftermath is well told by Ludo de Witte in The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was killed along with comrades Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito by Belgian authorities, with the support of neocolonial Kantangan separatists and the US. Two days later, Gerard Soete, Belgian police commissioner of Katanga, and his brother exhumed the body to chemically eradicate all physical evidence of their crime in order to prevent the kind of mobilization which its identification would inspire. Though the execution was kept secret for nearly a month, its announcement inspired exactly what his executioners feared, as African people throughout the world engaged in protest and other revolutionary acts of remembrance—from the well-known demonstration at the United Nations, and other cities throughout the world to a legacy in a visual, musical, and literary culture that continues to this day.
In February 1961, while the Cultural Association of Women of African Heritage organized a major protest at UN headquarters in New York, Lumumba’s widow Pauline Opango Lumumba led a march of family and supporters to the UN offices of Rajeshawar Dayal in Kinshasa. There, she requested that the UN help her receive the remains of her husband for a proper burial. After Ralph Bunche offered “apologies” for the New York protest, Lorraine Hansberry “hasten[ed] publicly to apologize to Mme. Pauline Lumumba and the Congolese people for our Dr. Bunche.” Meanwhile, James M. Lawson of the United African Nationalist Movement and other Black activists organized a wake for Lumumba at Lewis Michaux’s Harlem bookstore. When Pauline died in Kinshasa in 2014, she was still waiting to bury her husband. She, and her iconic demonstration, are memorialized in Brenda Marie Osbey’s poem “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba,” which is part of a long line of African American efforts to uplift the Lumumba family. The immediacy of Pauline’s demands remains after 6 years.
While Lumumba’s body was dissolved in sulphuric acid, Soete, like the US lynchers of Sam Hose and so many others, kept trophies of his victims as he traveled from the Congo to Belgium, often displaying them for friends and journalists. After Soete died, his daughter Godelieve continued her father’s tradition, culminating in a bizarre 2016 interview, during which a reporter found the remains in her possession. (In her efforts to defend her father, Godelieve further revealed that his brutality was visited upon his children.) The Belgian police intervened and, for the past five years, Lumumba’s remains have been held by the Belgian government responsible for his death. In September 2020, a court finally ruled they should be returned to the family.
These most recent delays are occurring at a time when the ongoing mistreatment of human remains is receiving public attention. The case of the Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania led activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad to uncover the ongoing desecration of the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa, who were killed when the city of Philadelphia bombed their family’s home on May 13, 1985, leading to the discovery that the city held additional remains of the victims of its violence against the MOVE organization.
Since 2005, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created the Missing Persons Task Team to identify the remains of the Black victims of the country’s apartheid era. Drawing on the expertise of researchers with experience in similar initiatives in Argentina and elsewhere, this government project has been deliberate in its efforts to include the families of the missing at all stages, while seeing their work as integral to the larger mission of the TRC, and further representative of a larger model of repatriation of human remains and possessions. As different as these cases of violence may be, government sanction—at multiple levels and taking different forms—remains constant.
In an October 2021 program hosted by Friends of the Congo, Juliana Lumumba explained that for her, as the daughter of a martyr, repatriation and memorialization of her father’s remains were not finite events to be completed like items checked off of a to-do list. Rather, the return must be part of a wider and ongoing process: “I told Belgium, that if we want a reconciliation we need reconciliation of memories because we can not make a reconciliation when our memories [are] so different and so contradictory.” Juliana’s words carry a particular weight at a time when the Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgian Colonial History has received a sharply critical historical report that may or may not lead to meaningful action of the sort that the family has demanded.
Lumumba’s son Guy-Patrice Lumumba opposes Tshisekedi’s efforts to exploit the repatriation for political gain. Tshisekedi himself is familiar with some of the political challenges of memorialization after the remains of his own father, longtime popular opposition leader Etienne Tshisekdi, spent more than two years in Europe before their return in 2019 after Felix’s election. Felix is quickly losing whatever claim he had on his own father’s mantle (see Bob Elvis’s song “Lettre à Ya Tshitshi” for a recent indictment of the president’s abandonment of his father’s mantle). He may find value in an association with a revered nationalist icon amid political protests from opponents concerned about his overreaching efforts to control the country’s powerful electoral commission as the 2023 election cycle approaches.
Meanwhile, the younger Tshisekedi’s international standing has been consolidated through his position as head of the African Union, where his responsibilities include negotiating for the provision of COVID-19 vaccines for member states. He recently met with President Biden and made an official visit to Israel, the latter of particular concern given its historical involvement in mercenary efforts against pro-Lumumba rebels and its ongoing role in the plunder of the Congo’s resources (to say nothing of Tshisekedi’s support for Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and its status as an observer at the African Union). Such actions highlight the extraordinary distance between Lumumba’s legacy and Tshisekedi’s leadership.
For decades, the Lumumba family has made a series of unanswered demands through formal inquiries and legal appeals. A group of scholars and activists have also asserted the return of Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but rather an opportunity for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and its subsequent coverup.
Hopefully soon, Lumumba’s family can mourn on their own terms and have all of their demands for justice met immediately and without equivocation.
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