On January 3rd 2018, an article which I co-wrote with April Zhu was published on this platform. Its central premise: many years of political reform in Kenya have failed to muzzle dissent within the political establishment. Exactly three years later, Kandara Member of Parliament, Alice Wahome, seems to have sounded the alarm bells.
Rehearsing the message of her speech during the burial of Charles Rubia, a key figure in Kenya’s struggle for democracy, she castigated Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga (she described Raila as Uhuru’s new political mercenary for hire) as the “biggest existential threat to Kenya’s declining economy and democracy”. In short, Wahome was referring to the re-emergence in Kenya of a political culture of intolerance directed by the President himself. In fact, Wahome’s statement, coming as it does at the beginning of the year, may set the tone for opposition politics in the run-up to the 2022 general-elections.
But it has also rekindled memories of a sermon by a young Dr Timothy Njoya at St. Andrews Church in Nairobi thirty years ago, which garnered publicity and uproar in equal measure. During that New Year’s sermon, the young reverend remarked on the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, and speculated about the return of multi-party politics in Kenya, a bold statement at the time. While his speculations would become a reality only two years later, he was immediately rebuked by politicians, all of whom were members of the ruling party, KANU—at the time the only political party in Kenya.
Njoya’s sermon is on my mind as I watch the condemnations that Wahome is receiving for criticising the political establishment. In a political climate akin to the one in which Njoya voiced his remarks, I see the re-setting of a dangerous trend in Kenya, a re-setting whose origins can be traced back to the aftermath of the 2007-08 post-election violence, but which was re-energised by the March 2018 handshake between Uhuru and Raila.
Indeed, since the March 2018 settlement, Kenyans have become accustomed to an increasingly irritable and angry president. He demands, but is not able to command, unfettered loyalty. More often than not, he unleashes in public bitter diatribes in his mother tongue targeted at people who disagree, or poke holes in his leadership. He continues to be on the defensive regarding his under-performing and expensive mega-infrastructure projects.
The climate of intolerance that the president is creating is the public face of a deeper and much more insidious plan. It is part of a wider attempt at remarshalling the forces that have preserved the political status-quo in Kenya since independence, and which the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) process seems to be in the service of. The shouting down of Kipchumba Murkomen, the Senate Majority leader, during the launch of the BBI report at the Bomas of Kenya last November, and the recent jibes that have been thrown at Alice Wahome for criticising Uhuru, are quite revealing and instructive.
I see a dangerous trend that seems to have been re-set in Kenya, a re-setting whose origins can be traced back to the aftermath of the 2007-08 post-election violence
In an insightful piece also published on this platform, Akoko Aketch contends that the BBI exercise is a crisis of how the long-standing beneficiaries of the political establishment—a distinctly Gikuyu elite—can reproduce their domination “after Uhuru Kenyatta’s disastrous economic record, and of how to avert the possibility of having a president who is hostile to this elite’s interests.” He submits that the “BBI is a revisionist project and a mock test of a political formula that has sabotaged Kenya’s democracy since independence.”
The recent extension of the term of the BBI task-force is, for instance, being perceived as a way of creating more time to introduce radical proposals, such as the creation of the position of an Executive Prime-Minister, a position that, as many have argued, Uhuru will be qualified to assume come the next general elections in 2022. This thinking is not entirely pedestrian. While Uhuru has himself stated that he is not interested in another term as president, the push to change the constitution, his public attitudes regarding opposition politics, and the ongoing re-centralisation of power by the central government (despite devolution), leave a lot of room for speculation.
One way in which the elite in Kenya has reproduced its power is by putting the blame for the country’s woes squarely on the Kenyan public. In this script, underdevelopment and political violence is the work of Kenyans of poor judgement, political dissidents and their often-unemployed youthful followers, not the result of years of unaddressed injustices and skewed redistribution of power and resources. In fact, this line of thinking is one of the primary messages of the BBI report. Dr Wandia Njoya, in a recent article published on this platform, summarised the report as a “declaration of war by the political class against the people of Kenya”. In a painfully convoluted manner, the report, in its attempt to locate, or explain the lack of a national ethos, adopted a language that is not only recriminatory and accusatory, but is also regrettably informal.
Ten billion shillings later—as rumour has it—and more than twelve months after the BBI taskforce was appointed, the report that came out of the process was peppered with an embarrassing number of typos and presented in cheap layout and low-quality typesetting. Seductive images of the nation’s (supposedly egalitarian) past are constantly reproduced and projected, as a way of distracting from the realities of the impunity that has repeatedly been unleashed on the Kenyan public by the political class since the country gained independence in 1963. In a tragic misreading of how morality and communal responsibility actually works in Kenya, the BBI report went ahead to castigate Kenyans for “running away” from their culture, and for demanding rights, as opposed to responsibilities.
One way in which the elite in Kenya has reproduced its power is by putting the blame for the country’s woes squarely on the Kenyan public
This mind-set was alive and well during and after the 2013 elections, the first after the post-election violence of 2007-08. During those elections, which were haunted by the fear of a repeat of political violence, calls for peace intensified, and they immediately became disciplinary and forbidding. People were urged not to protest or question the electoral process. Even the media joined the peace bandwagon and began self-censoring.
In the end, the state regained its dominant position in directing political debate, and the political establishment precluded a potential assault on its privileged position. In fact, the only other time when fundamental reforms would have seen the light of day was during the protracted electoral process of 2017.
But if recent revelations by Dr David Ndii regarding events in the run-up to the March 2018 handshake are anything to go by, the critical part of the drama in 2017 took place off-stage, and the elections became a mere subplot. Seen in this manner, the détente between Uhuru and Raila was, in actual sense, a way of subverting fundamental transformation in Kenya and restoring the status-quo. The BBI, as Wahome has now warned, might be the “special purpose vehicle” for this mission.
The triumph of the system
While many people, including the adversaries of the BBI exercise, had expected that the report would make drastic recommendations that would fundamentally alter Kenya’s political landscape, especially the pure presidential system, the ongoing proposals to create the position of a powerful (as opposed to a prefectural) Prime Minister do not offer much promise either. In fact, whether it is true or not that Uhuru plans to become Prime Minister in a post-2022 arrangement with Raila as President, any cursory analysis of how politics actually work in Kenya will reveal that power (even under a parliamentary system that is not undergirded by powerful decentralised units) will continue to be concentrated at the centre.
The only other time when fundamental reforms would have seen the light of day was during the protracted electoral process of 2017
All politics, power and influence will continue to revolve around the Executive branch, whose control will continue to be grounded in its ability to direct political and economic activity across the country. In fact, combined with the minimal proposals that the report has made to restructure elections, the political party from which the President and Prime Minister will come will continue to dominate all key positions in government, producing the same exclusionary effects of the winner-takes-all system that have ailed the country’s politics since the return to multi-partyism in the 1990s.
As the year progresses, the BBI will prove itself to be an exercise that is merely aimed at reproducing what David Throup and Charles Hornsby referred to as “the triumph of the system” in their seminal book, Multi-Party Politics in Kenya. The first triumph was witnessed in the 1960s. Kenya, like many ex-British colonies, was bequeathed a Westminster-style parliamentary system of government when it became independent in 1963. The independence constitution also made provisions that took away power and significant functions of government from the centralised government in Nairobi, that is, a system of eight regional governments of equal status that was known in Swahili as Majimbo.
However, the parliamentary system through which Kenya became independent was dead by 1964. Kenya became a Republic and Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru’s father, became its (unelected) first President. The Majimbo regional system, the next target, was abolished together with a post-independence Senate, at the same time as the first opposition party, the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), was folding itself, citing frustration from the Executive. By abolishing the Senate, the regional governments and the parliamentary system, the first post-colonial elite-pact of domination, or the first triumph of the system, had completed its mission.
As a result, the “Imperial Presidency” was born. From 1964 to 1992, the year multi-party politics resumed, the constitution had been amended over twenty times. The amendments served to empower the Executive branch of the government at the expense of Parliament and the Judiciary. At the height of this madness (in 1990), the office of the president (OP) included a staff of 43, 230, representing a ratio of 1 in 6 civil servants. The OP became a parallel government, with considerably more executive power than actual ministries. The instability that such a structure of government can introduce in a political system—where inequality and regional imbalances are rife, and where ethnicity is inexorably intertwined with how political representation and redistribution actually works—became clearer with the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1992. Trust among the political elite became fickle, leading to the instrumentalisation of violence and ethnic identity in the political marketplace.
After many years of struggle for reforms, the structure of the “bureaucratic-executive” government, at the head of which was the President, survived with minimal alterations. The only significant structural change, many have argued, was the introduction of forty-seven devolved units. However, the mandate of county governments was significantly reduced compared to that which was allocated regional governments in the 1960s. Responsibility over land administration, education, mega-infrastructure and parastatals remained in the hands of the central government, and as such, under the direction of the presidency.
Raila Odinga, who had become the political champion of constitutional reform, especially the proposal to introduce a parliamentary system and strong devolution by 2007, gave up on these demands after the outcome of that year’s elections. At the Great Rift Valley Lodge in Naivasha, where the Parliamentary Select Committee made up of 14 Party of National Unity (PNU) members and 13 Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) members that had been selected to respond to the first harmonised draft that would become the 2010 constitution had met, people feared that the politicians would not find common ground, risking a return to conflict. Indeed, disagreement reigned but some deals were struck, of which the most important—which removed the blockage that threatened a deadlock in the discussions—was made by Raila and Uhuru (reportedly in a room at the lodge). The deal saw ODM let go of the parliamentary system altogether, in favour of the presidential system. In addition, Raila (who at the time was Prime Minister in a coalition arrangement with former President Mwai Kibaki) relaxed his demands for strong devolution, that is, a three-tier decentralised system of government in favour of the two-tier system that was favoured by PNU. As a result, the 2010 constitutional draft provided for a pure presidential system. Pure in the sense that, not only would cabinet ministers be appointed from outside of parliament, but losers of presidential elections, no matter how many votes they had garnered, would not be accorded any public office. The draft also scrapped the regional tier of government, and fixed the number of parliamentary constituencies at 290. Nothing much changed after that.
County governments were quickly reduced by central government bureaucrats to units of administration and development, as opposed to political representation
During the parliamentary debate over the draft that took place in mid-2010, ODM MPs—notably James Orengo—continued to push for the regional governments. Raila had already hit the streets, campaigning for the draft. Orengo was left alone. The draft was eventually promulgated in August 2010, after winning the popular vote at a referendum. The powerful presidency—with slight alterations—triumphed.
Tunakula nyama: politics since 2013
County governments came into place after the 2013 general elections, but they were quickly reduced by central government bureaucrats to units of administration and development, as opposed to political representation. Feelings of exclusion and marginalisation, underpinned by unaddressed historical injustices, continued to exist, despite constitutional change. The pure presidential system that the 2010 constitution provided had worked to the disadvantage of Raila Odinga—who lost both the 2013 and 2017 elections to Uhuru.
Between the two elections, Raila held no public office, yet he continued to exercise personal influence over vast swathes of the country, where ODM, his party, had won considerable numbers of constituency and county seats. To the chagrin of many who felt unrepresented at the centre, Uhuru stated, rather arrogantly, that they—the government in power—were eating the nyama choma [roast meat] and that those who were in the political cold should be content only with the smell. A number of times, Raila would instigate programmes—most notably, the Okoa Kenya initiative—which, incidentally, were part of his attempts to change the 2010 constitution, but which, one could also argue, were part of his struggle to remain politically relevant.
Raila’s strategy did not yield the expected results, but it had its uses. It proved that Raila was adept at combining his political fate with that of his supporters. In this way, the anger of Raila supporters that followed the announcement that he had lost the elections in 2013, and then again in 2017, could not be separated from the perception that they, also, had been excluded from the political process for many years. Following this logic, the feelings of exclusion felt by many of Raila’s supporters after the 2017 elections could only be addressed if Raila himself were to become part of the Executive—very similar to the situation in 2007-08.
While it had become apparent, after the 2017 elections were concluded, that Raila was the biggest victim of a constitution that he had done much to support, his move to “shake hands” with Uhuru was more the result of defeat at challenging the political establishment over the years than it was an effort to usher in fundamental political reforms. What is more important to consider is that Raila’s support of the current Presidential system in 2010 was also the result of an elite-pact with none other than Uhuru Kenyatta, his current partner in the BBI settlement nine years later.
These developments, where the political establishment that has been at the helm since the 1960s is seeking to maintain its hold on power and control, should concern Kenyans. Despite arguments to the contrary, much talk about the BBI will be about political positions, and as the current climate of political intolerance continues, fundamental questions regarding exclusion, injustice, and accountability will be glossed over, as has happened before.
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Why Kenya’s Constitutional Duels Are All About Power Struggles Among the Elite
Kenya is in the throes of another agonised constitutional debate. Proponents of the new push for amendments argue that the time is right to cure deficiencies in the 2010 constitution. Yet that document is only a little over 10 years old, and followed a referendum that ushered in the most comprehensive constitutional reforms since independence in 1963.
A look back in history helps us understand Kenya’s perennial quest for constitutional change.
In the colonial era, constitutional demands were led by white settlers who ruled over the African population. Africans had no rights to land or civil amenities. In 1907, Britain conceded to white settler demands and created the Legislative Council. It began as a nominated, exclusively European institution with no provision for natives. Eventually, it became an elected body and a white missionary was nominated as the first official member to represent the interests of the African community. African elites challenged the privilege of white missionaries speaking for Africans.
Policy changes followed. The government appointed Eliud Mathu the first “native” to the Legislative Council in 1944. His appointment gave birth to Kenya African Union, the predecessor of the independence ruling party, Kenya African National Union. In the 1950s, demands by African led to the Mau Mau War. The armed movement sprang up in protest over colonial land alienation, economic inequalities and political oppression under British rule. The organisation’s mobilisation forced further governance policy adjustments.
In 1960, 1962 and 1963 Britain organised three Lancaster House Constitutional Conferences to decide Kenya’s future. On 12 December 1963 Kenya finally became an independent state.
From then on in constitutional power play became a domestic affair as local power brokers competed against one another. This resulted in power-hungry politicians faulting existing structures and demanding changes to the constitution. This was the case at the outset of colonialism and is still the case in 21st Century post-colonial Kenya.
The current push for constitutional change is reminiscent of these earlier trends – it is all about competition for power among the country’s elite.
Moments of crisis
There have been three major phases to constitutional reform in post-colonial Kenya.
The first followed the death of Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president. The second revolved around the consolidation of power, and the survival, of the country’s second president Daniel arap Moi. The latest is to push to amend the 2010 constitution.
When Kenyatta began ailing, rival politicians engaged in constant mischief as they schemed to identify a suitable successor. Constitutional Affairs Minister Tom Mboya, who belonged to the ruling Kenya African National Union, ensured that the 1963 constitution sidelined his party-mate, Kenya’s first Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in the succession line up.
Ruling party honchos then turned to infighting as the then Vice-President Daniel Moi, formerly the chairman of the opposition’s Kenya African Democratic Union, looked on. Moi began to see how he could use the wrangling to ascend to the presidency. His first opportunity came in 1968 when successful constitutional amendments ruled Mboya out of the succession picture.
The law stipulated that in the event the president died, the vice-president would take office for 90 days and then call an election. In addition, the president was granted powers of detention without trial, meaning that he could detain his opponents as he saw fit.
Moi’s second opportunity came in the 1970s when he himself was the target of proposed constitutional amendments. His proponents wanted to return to the previous formula. Moi outwitted them by forming alliances with influential players across the country.
When he ascended to the presidency in August 1978, part of his control strategy was to constantly remind the public about how he foiled the amendments. That narrative ignored the successful constitutional change in 1968, of which he was the main beneficiary.
Moi’s survival amendments
Moi held the presidency for 24 years. Crafty in exploiting perceived weaknesses, his main constitutional concern was to consolidate his grip on power.
To secure his position, he engineered a constitutional amendment in June 1982 to make Kenya a one-party state. KANU was the “party”. This was the “Section 2A” amendment to the constitution the purpose of which was to stop the former vice-president Oginga Odinga from starting another political party.
A number of additional amendments were added, also designed to give Moi more power. These included the removal of tenure for constitutional office holders and an egregious amendment that replaced secret ballot at elections with voters lining up behind their candidate or agent at the 1988 elections.
These amendments backfired on the president, produced new national heroes, and eventually forced the repeal of Section 2A in December 1991 to pave way for the 1992 multiparty elections.
Following the repeal, the debate centred around Moi’s survival. In 1992, when he was still in control of Parliament, he took three far reaching steps. First, he introduced an amendment that required winning candidates to obtain 25% of votes cast in five of Kenya’s eight provinces. This made it difficult for any opposing candidate to win outright.
Second, he imposed a two-term limit for future presidents, just in case he lost. And third, he appointed retired judge and ally Zacchaeus Chesoni chairman of the electoral commission. Chesoni declared Moi the winner in the contested 1992 elections, despite the president garnering just 36% of the vote, and swore him in immediately probably to avoid court challenges.
After he won the 1992 election, Moi became preoccupied with repealing the two-term limit he had previously imposed. The period between 1993 and 1997 became charged with the constitution debate. This led to the formation of the Inter-Parliamentary Party Group, which committed to a review of the constitution after the 1997 election.
Two other groups had also emerged: the Ufungamano House group comprising religious leaders and civil society activists, and the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, which was convened by Moi and opposition ally Raila Odinga, son of former vice-president Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
Moi and Raila recruited lawyer Yash Pal Ghai who unified the review commission and Ufungamano initiatives, and together the two groups prepared a draft constitution. That draft became the basis of constitutional debate between 2003 and 2005. The debate culminated in the 2005 constitutional referendum. The draft was voted against, setting the stage for the chaotic 2007 elections.
The third post-colonial phase of constitution-making came about as a direct result of the 2007 election chaos.
What finally emerged was a grand coalition government between Raila Odinga and the incumbent Mwai Kibaki. The two finally agreed to a co-presidency with Kibaki as the president and Odinga in the new position of prime minister.
The co-presidency shepherded in the 2010 constitution because they were required to pass the new law as part of the national accord agreement that set up the grand coalition government.
But the document had many flaws which meant that its promulgation created new constitutional conflicts.
Ten years on and gyrations around Kenya’s constitution continue. The current drive for change is happening under the guise of the Building Bridges Initiative. This suggests that, once again, constitutional reform is being driven by political power agendas.
The changes that are likely to be effected will, therefore, not be the last because there always will be groups or individuals who will question the existing power structure. They are interested in grabbing power, not the effective functioning of constitutional structures in a state.
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.
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