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The Coronavirus: The Political Economy of a Pathogen

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The coronavirus crisis has thrown into sharp relief the interlocked embrace of globalisation and nationalism and shown the limits of the neo-liberal globalisation that has reigned supreme since the 1980s. The pandemic has at the same time showed up the fecklessness of some political leaders and the incompetence of many governments.

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The Coronavirus: The Political Economy of a Pathogen
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The global coronavirus pandemic has triggered worldwide panic as the numbers of victims explode and economies implode, as physical movement and social interactions wither in lockdowns, as apocalyptic projections of its destructive reach soar, and as unprepared or underprepared national governments and international agencies desperately scramble for solutions.

The pandemic has exposed the daunting deficiencies of public health systems in many countries. It threatens cataclysmic economic wreckage as entire industries, global supply chains, and stock markets collapse under its frightfully unpredictable trajectory. Its social, emotional, and mental toll are as punishing as they are paralysing for multitudes of people increasingly isolated in their homes as the public life of work spaces, travel, entertainment, sports, religious congregations, and other gatherings grind to a halt.

Also being torn asunder are cynical ideological certainties and the political fortunes of national leaders as demands grow for strong and competent governments. The populist revolt against science and experts has received its comeuppance as the deadly costs of pandering to mass ignorance mount. At the same time, the pandemic has shattered the strutting assurance of masters of the universe as they either catch the virus or as it constrains their jet-setting lives and erodes their bulging equity portfolios.

Furthermore, the coronavirus throws into sharp relief the interlocked embrace of globalisation and nationalism, as the pandemic leaps across the world showing no respect for national boundaries, and countries seek to contain it by fortifying national borders. It underscores the limits of both neo-liberal globalisation that has reigned supreme since the 1980s, and populist nationalisms that have bestrode the world since the 2000s, which emerged partly out of the deepening social and economic inequalities spawned by the former.

These are some of the issues I would like to reflect on in this essay, the political economy of the coronavirus pandemic. As historians and social scientists know all too well, any major crisis is always multifaceted in its causes, courses, and consequences. Disease epidemics are no different. In short, understanding the epidemiological dimensions and dynamics of the coronavirus pandemic is as important as analysing its economic, social, and political impact. Moments of crisis always have their fear-mongers and skeptics. The role of progressive public intellectuals is to provide sober analysis.

In the Shadows of 1918-1920

The coronavirus pandemic is the latest and potentially one of the most lethal global pandemics in a long time. One of the world’s deadliest pandemics was the Great Plague of 1346-1351 which ravaged larges parts of Eurasia and Africa. It killed between 75 to 200 million people, and wiped out 30 per cent to 60 per cent of the European population. The plague was caused by fleas carried by rats, underscoring humanity’s vulnerability to the lethal power of small and micro-organisms, notwithstanding the conceit of its mastery over nature. The current pandemic shows that this remains true despite all the technological advances humanity has made since then.

Over a century ago, as World War I came to an end, an influenza epidemic, triggered by a virus transmitted from animals to humans, ravaged the globe. One-third of the world’s population was infected, and it left 50 million people dead. It was the worst pandemic of the 20th century. It was bigger and more lethal than the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late 20th century. But for a world then traumatised by the horrors of war it seemed to have left a limited impact on global consciousness.

Photo. British Red Cross – American Red Cross volunteers carry a Spanish flu victim, 1919

Some health experts fear Covid-19, as the new strain of coronavirus has been named, might rival the influenza epidemic of 1918. But there are those who caution that history is sometimes not kind to moral panics, that similar hysteria was expressed following the outbreaks in the 2000s and 2010s of bouts of bird flu and swine flu, of SARS, MERS and Ebola, each of which was initially projected to kill millions of people. Of course, nobody really knows whether or not the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will rival that of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, but the echoes are unsettling: its mortality rate seems comparable, as is its explosive spread.

The devastating power Covid-19 is wracking and humbling every country, economy, society, and social class, although the pervasive structural and social inscriptions of differentiation still cast their formidable and discriminatory capacities for prevention and survival. In its socioeconomic and political impact alone, Covid-19 has already made history. One lesson from the influenza pandemic that applies to the current coronavirus pandemic is that countries, cities and communities that took early preventive measures fared much better than those that did not.

Doctors’ Orders

Since Covid-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, in late December 2019, international and national health organisations and ministries have issued prevention guidelines for individuals and institutions. Most of the recommended measures reflect guidelines issued by the World Health Organization.

But the pandemic is not just about physical health. It is also about mental health. Writing in The Atlantic magazine of March 17, 2020, on how to stay sane during the pandemic one psychotherapist notes, “You can let anxiety consume you, or you can feel the fear and also find joy in ordinary life, even now”. She concludes, “I recommend that all of us pay as much attention to protecting our emotional health as we do to guarding our physical health. A virus can invade our bodies, but we get to decide whether we let it invade our minds”.

A Kenyan psychology professor advises her readers in the Sunday Nation of March 23, 2020, to cultivate a positive mindset. “Take only credible sources of information . . . Don’t consume too much data, it can be overwhelming. You may be in isolation but very noisy within yourself. Learn to relax and to convert your energy into other activities in order to nurture your own mental health . . . Such as gardening, learning a language, doing an online course, painting or read that book. Do the house chores, trim the flowers, paint, do repairs, clean the dust in those corners we always ignore . . . Exercise . . . Talk to someone if you feel terrified, empty, hopeless, and worthless. These are creeping signs of depression. This too will pass: Believe me that there will be an end to this”.

Scramble for Containment

Many governments were caught unprepared or underprepared by the coronavirus pandemic. Some even initially dismissed the threat. This was particularly the case among populist rightwing governments, such as the administrations of President Trump of the United States, Prime Minister Johnson of the United Kingdom, and President Bolsonaro of Brazil. As populists, they had risen to power on a dangerous brew of nationalist and nativist fantasies of reviving national greatness and purity, xenophobia against foreigners, and manufactured hatred for elites and experts.

To rightwing ideologues the coronavirus was a foreign pathogen, a “Chinese virus” according to President Trump and his Republican followers in the United States, that posed no threat to the nation quarantined in its splendid isolation of renewed greatness. Its purported threat was fake news propagated by partisan Democrats, or disgruntled left-wing labour and liberal parties in the case of the United Kingdom and Brazil that had recently been vanquished at the polls.

Such was the obduracy of President Trump that not only did he and his team ignore frantic media reports about the pandemic leaping across the world, but also ominous, classified warnings issued by the U.S. intelligence agencies throughout January and February. Instead, he kept assuring Americans in his deranged twitterstorms that there was little to worry about, that “I think it’s going to work out fine,” that “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”.

Photo. Martin Sanchez/Unsplash

Trump’s denialism was echoed by many leaders around the world including in Africa. This delayed taking much-needed preemptive action that would have limited the spread and potential impact of the coronavirus firestorm. In fact, as early as 2012 a report by the Rand Corporation warned that only pandemics were “capable of destroying America’s way of life”. The Obama administration proceeded to establish the National Security Council directorate for global health and security and bio-defense, which the Trump administration closed in 2018. On the whole, global pandemics have generally not been taken seriously by security establishments in many countries preoccupied with conventional wars, terrorism, and the machismo of military hardware.

In the meantime, China, the original epicenter of the pandemic took draconian measures that locked down Wuhan and neighbouring regions, a measure that was initially dismissed by many politicians and pundits in “western democracies” as a frightful and an unacceptable example of Chinese authoritarianism. As the pandemic ravished Italy, which became the coronavirus epicenter in Europe and a major exporter of the disease to several African countries, regional and national lockdowns were embraced as a strategy of containment.

Asian democracies such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore adopted less coercive and more transparent measures. Already endowed with good public health systems capable of handling major epidemics—which capability was enhanced by the virus epidemics of the 2000s and 2010s—they developed effective and vigilant monitoring systems encompassing early intervention, meticulous contact tracking, mandatory quarantines, social distancing, and border controls.

Various forms of lockdown, some more draconian than others, were soon adopted in many countries and cities around the world. They encompassed the closure of offices, schools and universities, and entertainment and sports venues, as well as banning of international flights and even domestic travel. Large-scale disinfection drives were also increasingly undertaken. The Economist of March 21, 2020 notes in its lead story that China and South Korea have effectively used “technology to administer quarantines and social distancing. China is using apps to certify who is clear of the disease and who is not. Both it and South Korea are using big data and social media to trace infections, alert people of hotspots and round contacts”.

Belatedly, as the pandemic flared in their countries, the skeptics began singing a different tune, although a dwindling minority complained of overreaction. Befitting the grandiosity of populist politicians, they suddenly fancied themselves as great generals in the most ferocious war in a generation. Some commentators found the metaphor of war obscene for its self-aggrandisement for clueless leaders anxious to burnish their tattered reputations and accrue more gravitas and power. For the bombastic, narcissistic, and pathological liar that he is, President Trump sought to change the narrative that he had foreseen the pandemic notwithstanding his earlier dismissals of its seriousness.

His British counterpart, Prime Minister Johnson vainly tried Churchillian impersonation which was met with widespread derision in the media. Each time either of them spoke trying to reassure the public, the more it became clear they were out of their depth, that they did not have the intellectual and political capacity to calm the situation. It was a verdict delivered with painful cruelty by the stock markets that they adore—they fell sharply each time the two gave a press conference and announced half-baked containment measures.

Initially, many of Africa’s inept governments remained blasé about the pandemic even allowing flights to and from China, Italy and other countries with heavy infection rates. Cynical citizens with little trust in their corrupt governments to manage a serious crisis sought comfort in myths peddled on social media about Africa’s immunity because of its sunny weather, the curative potential of some concoctions from disinfectants to pepper soup, the preventive potential of shaving beards, or the protective power of faith and prayer.

But as concerns and outrage from civil society mounted, and opportunities for foreign aid rose, some governments went into rhetorical overdrive that engendered more panic than reassurance. It has increasingly become evident that Africa needs unflinching commitment and massive resources to stem the rising tide of coronavirus infections. According to one commentator in The Sunday Nation of March 22, “It is estimated that the continent would need up to $10.6 billion in unanticipated increases in health spending to curtail the virus from spreading”. He advises the continent to urgently implement the African Continental Free Trade Area, and work with global partners.

Cynical citizens with little trust in their corrupt governments to manage a serious crisis sought comfort in myths peddled on social media

In Kenya, some defiant politicians refused to self-quarantine after coming from coronavirus-stricken countries, churches resisted closing their doors, and traders defied orders to close markets. This forced the government to issue draconian containing measures on March 22, 2020 stipulating that all those who violated quarantine measures would be forcefully quarantined at their own expense, all gatherings at churches, mosques were suspended, weddings were no longer allowed, and funerals would be restricted to 15 family members.

The infodemic of false and misleading information, as the WHO calls it, was of course not confined to Africa. It spread like wildfire around the world. So did coronavirus fraudsters peddling fake information and products to desperate and unwary recipients. In Britain, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau was forced to issue urgent scam warnings against emails and text messages purporting to be from reputable research and health organisations.

The coronavirus pandemic showed up the fecklessness of some political leaders and the incompetence of many governments. The neo-liberal crusade against “big government” that had triumphed since the turn of the 1980s, suddenly looked threadbare. And so did the populist zealotry against experts and expertise. The valorisation of the politics of gut feelings masquerading as gifted insight and knowledge, suddenly vanished into puffs of ignoble ignorance that endangered the lives of millions of people. People found more solace in the calm pronouncements of professional experts including doctors, epidemiologists, researchers and health officials than loquacious politicians.

Populist leaders like President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson and many others of their ilk had taken vicarious pleasure in denigrating experts and expert knowledge, and decimating national research infrastructures and institutions. Suddenly, at their press conferences they were flanked by trusted medical and scientific professionals and civil servants as they sought to bask in the latter’s reassuring glow. But that could not restore public health infrastructures overnight, severely damaged as they were by indefensible austerity measures and the pro-rich transfers of wealth adopted by their governments.

Economic Meltdown

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, many countries were unprepared for it. There were severe shortages of testing kits and health care facilities. Many also lacked universal entitlement to healthcare, social safety nets including basic employment rights and unemployment insurance that could mitigate some of the worst effects of the pandemic’s economic impact. All this ensured that the pandemic would unleash mutually reinforcing health and economic crises.

Photo. Rick Tap/Unsplash

The signs of economic meltdown escalated around the world. Stock markets experienced a volatility that run out of superlatives. In the United States, from early February to March 20, 2020 the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by about 10,000 points or 35%, while the S&P fell by 32%. In Britain, the FTSE fell by 49% from its peak in earlier in the year, the German GDAXI by 36%, the Hong Kong HSI by 22%, and the Japanese Nikkei by 32%. Trillions of dollars were wiped out. In the United States, the gains made under President Trump vanished and fell to the levels left by his nemesis President Obama, depriving the market-obsessed president of one of his favourite talking points and justifications for re-election.

There are hardly any parallels to a pandemic leading to markets crumbling the way they have following the coronavirus outbreak. They did not do so during the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, although they fluctuated thereafter. Closer to our times, during the flu pandemic of 1957-1958 the Dow fell about 25per cent, while the SARS and MERS scares of the early 21st century had relatively limited economic impact. Some economic historians warn, however, that the stock market isn’t always a good indicator or predictor of the severity of a pandemic.

The sharp plunge in stock markets reflected a severe economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus pandemic as one industry after another went into a tailspin. The travel, hospitality and leisure industries encompassing airlines, hotels, restaurants, bars, sports, conventions, exhibitions, tourism, and retail were the first to feel the headwinds of the economic slump as people escaped or were coerced into the isolation of their homes. For example, hotel revenues in the United States plummeted by 75 per cent on average, worse than during the Great Recession and the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks combined.

In the United States, the gains made under President Trump vanished and fell to the levels left by his nemesis President Obama

Other industries soon followed suit as supply chains were scuppered, profits and share prices fell, and offices closed and staff were told to work from home. Manufacturing, construction, and banking have not been spared. Big technology manufacturing has also been affected by factory shutdowns and postponing the launch of new products. Neither was the oil industry safe. With global demand falling, and the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia escalating, oil prices fell dramatically to $20.3, a fall of 67 per cent since the beginning of 2020. Some predicted the prospect of $5 oil per barrel.

The oil price war threatened to decimate smaller or poorer oil producers from the Gulf states to Nigeria. It also threatened the shale oil industry in the United States because of its high production costs, thereby depriving the country of its newly acquired status as the largest oil producer in the world, to the chagrin of Russia and OPEC. Many of the US shale oil companies face bankruptcy as their production costs are fourteen times higher than Saudi Arabia’s production costs, and they need prices of more than $40 per barrel to cover their direct costs.

Falling oil prices combined with growing concerns about climate change, dented the prospects of several oil exploration and production companies, such as the British company Tullow, which has ambitious projects in Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana. This threatened these countries’ aspirations to join the club of major oil-producing nations. In early March, 2020, one of Tullow’s major investors, Blackrock, the world’s biggest hedge fund with $7 trillion, made it clear it was losing interest in fossil fuel investment.

Such are the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic that 51 per cent of economists polled by the London School of Economics believe “the world faces a major recession, even if COVID-19 kills no more people than seasonal flu. Only 5% said they did not think it would.” According to a survey reported by the World Economic Forum, “The public sees coronavirus as a greater threat to the economy than to their health, new research suggests. Economic rescue measures announced by governments do not appear to be calming concern . . . The majority of people in most countries polled expect to feel a personal financial impact from the coronavirus pandemic, according to the results. Respondents in Vietnam, China, India and Italy show the greatest concern”.

51 per cent of economists polled by the London School of Economics believe the world faces a major recession

Many economies spiraled into recession. The major international financial institutions and development agencies have revised world, regional, and national economic growth prospects for 2020 downwards, sometimes sharply so. Estimates by Frost & Sullivan, a consultancy firm, show that world GDP which grew by 3.5% in 2018 and 2.9% in 2019, will slide to 1.7% if the coronavirus pandemic becomes prolonged and severe, and it might take up to a year or more for the world economy to recover. The OECD predicts that “Global growth could drop to 1.5 per cent in 2020, half the rate projected before the virus outbreak. Recovery much more gradual through 2021”.

The OECD Economic Outlook, Interim Report March 2020 notes,

Growth was weak but stabilising until the coronavirus Covid-19 hit. Restrictions on movement of people, goods and services, and containment measures such as factory closures have cut manufacturing and domestic demand sharply in China. The impact on the rest of the world through business travel and tourism, supply chains, commodities and lower confidence is growing.

It forecasts “Severe, short-lived downturn in China, where GDP growth falls below 5% in 2020 after 6.1% in 2019, but recovering to 6.4% in 2021. In Japan, Korea, Australia, growth also hit hard then gradual recovery. Impact less severe in other economies but still hit by drop in confidence and supply chain disruption”.

Compared to a year earlier, the once buoyant Chinese economy shrank by between 10 and 20 per cent in January and February 2020. The Economist states,

In the first two months of 2020 all major indicators were deeply negative: industrial production fell by 13.5% year-on-year, retail sales by 20.5% and fixed-asset investment by 24.5% . . . The last time China reported an economic contraction was more than four decades ago, at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

In the United States, the recovery and boom from the Great Recession that started in 2009 came to a screeching halt. Some grim predictions project that as businesses shut down and more than 80 million Americans stay penned at home unemployment, which had dropped to a historic low of 3.5 per cent, might skyrocket to 20 per cent. This spells disaster as consumer spending drives 70 per cent of the economy, and 39 per cent of Americans cannot handle an unexpected $400 expense.

This economic bloodletting removes the second boastful pillar of President Trump’s re-election strategy, the robust health of the US economy

Various estimates indicate that in the next three months the economy will shrink by anywhere between 14 and to 30 per cent, ushering in one of America’s fastest and deepest recessions in history. This economic bloodletting removes the second boastful pillar of President Trump’s re-election strategy, the robust health of the US economy.

UNCTAD has added its gloomy assessment for the world economy and emerging economies. Launching its report in early March, the Director of the Division on Globalisation and Development Strategies at UNCTAD noted that,

One ‘Doomsday scenario’ in which the world economy grew at only 0.5 per cent, would involve ‘a $2 trillion hit’ to gross domestic product . . . There’s a degree of anxiety now that’s well beyond the health scares which are very serious and concerning . . . To counter these fears, ‘Governments need to spend at this point in time to prevent the kind of meltdown that could be even more damaging than the one that is likely to take place over the course of the year’, Mr. Kozul-Wright insisted.

Turning to Europe and the Eurozone, Mr. Kozul-Wright noted that its economy had already been performing ‘extremely badly towards the end of 2019’ . . . It was ‘almost certain to go into recession over the coming months; and the German economy is particularly fragile, but the Italian economy and other parts of the European periphery are also facing very serious stresses right now as a consequence of trends over (the last few) days’.

The UNCTAD announcement continues,

So-called Least Developed Countries, whose economies are driven by the sale of raw materials, will not be spared either. ‘Heavily-indebted developing countries, particularly commodity exporters, face a particular threat’, thanks to weaker export returns linked to a stronger US dollar, Mr. Kozul-Wright maintained. ‘The likelihood of a stronger dollar as investors seek safe-havens for their money, and the almost certain rise in commodity prices as the global economy slows down, means that commodity exporters are particularly vulnerable’.

Africa will not be spared. According to Fitch Solutions, a consultancy firm,

We have revised down our Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) growth forecast to 1.9% in 2020, from 2.1% previously, reflecting macroeconomic risks arising from moderating oil prices and the global spread of Covid-19. While the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in SSA remains low thus far, African markets remain vulnerable to deteriorating risk sentiment, tightening financial conditions and slowing growth in key trade partners. The sharp decline in global oil prices resulting from the failure of OPEC+ to reach agreement on additional production cutbacks will undermine growth and export earnings in the continent’s main oil producers, notably Nigeria, Angola and South Sudan.

In Kenya, there were widespread fears that the coronavirus pandemic would bring the national airline carrier and other companies in the lucrative tourism industry to their knees. Similarly affected will be the critical agricultural and horticultural export industry. Aggravating the sharp economic downturns, some commentators lamented, is widespread corruption. Domestically, the ubiquitous matatu transport industry is groaning under new regulations limiting the number of passengers.

The economy was already fragile prior to the coronavirus crisis. In the words of one commentator in the Sunday Standard of March 23, 2020,

Companies were laying off, malls were already empty even before the outbreak and shops and kiosks and mama mbogas were recording the lowest sales in years. Matters are not helped by the fact that our e-commerce (purchase and delivery) does not account for much due to poor infrastructure and low trust levels.

Another commentator in the same paper on March 17, 2020 wrote, “It’s a matter of time before bleeding economy goes into coma”. He outlined the depressing litany: increased cost of living, gutting of Kenya’s export market, discouragement of the use of hard cash, producers grappling with limited supply, a bleeding stock market, irrational investor fears, and moratorium on foreign travel.

As the crisis intensified, international financial institutions and development agencies loosened the spigots of financial support. On March 12, 2020 the IMF announced,

In the event of a severe downturn triggered by the coronavirus, we estimate the Fund could provide up to US$50 billion in emergency financing to fund emerging and developing countries’ initial response. Low-income countries could benefit from about US$10 billion of this amount, largely on concessional terms. Beyond the immediate emergency, members can also request a new loan—drawing on the IMF’s war chest of around US$1 trillion in quota and borrowed resources—and current borrowers can top up their ongoing lending arrangements.

For its part, the World Bank announced on March 17 that,

The World Bank and IFC’s Boards of Directors approved today an increased $14 billion package of fast-track financing to assist companies and countries in their efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19. The package will strengthen national systems for public health preparedness, including for disease containment, diagnosis, and treatment, and support the private sector.

On March 19, the European Central Bank announced,

As a result, the ECB’s Governing Council announced on Wednesday a new Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme with an envelope of €750 billion until the end of the year, in addition to the €120 billion we decided on 12 March. Together this amounts to 7.3% of euro area GDP. The programme is temporary and designed to address the unprecedented situation our monetary union is facing. It is available to all jurisdictions and will remain in place until we assess that the coronavirus crisis phase is over.

Altogether, The Economist states,

A crude estimate for America, Germany, Britain, France and Italy, including spending pledges, tax cuts, central bank cash injections and loan guarantees, amounts to $7.4trn, or 23% of GDP . . . A huge array of policies is on offer, from holidays on mortgage payments to bail-outs of Paris cafés. Meanwhile, orthodox stimulus tools may not work well. Interest rates in the rich world are near zero, depriving central bank of their main lever . . . What to do? An economic plan needs to target two groups: households and companies.

Some of the regional development banks also announced major infusions of funds to contain the pandemic. On March 18, “The Asian Development Bank (ADB) today announced a $6.5 billion initial package to address the immediate needs of its developing member countries (DMCs) as they respond to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic”.

On the same day, the African Development Bank announced “bold measures to curb coronavirus”, but this largely consisted of “health and safety measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in countries where it has a presence, including its headquarters in Abidjan. The measures include telecommuting, video conferencing in lieu of physical meetings, the suspension of visits to Bank buildings, and the cancellation of all travel, meetings, and conferences, until further notice”. No actual financial support was stipulated in the announcement.

Trading Ideological Places 

As the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic escalated, demands for government support intensified from employers, employees and trade unions. The pandemic is wreaking particular havoc among poor workers who can hardly manage in “normal” times. As noted above, across Kenya jobs were already being lost before the coronavirus epidemic. Those in the informal economy are exceptionally vulnerable because of the extensive lockdown the government announced on March 22, 2020.

Those earning a precarious living in the gig economy face special hurdles in making themselves heard and receiving support. With the lockdown of cities, couriers become even more essential to deliver food and other supplies, but they lack employment rights, so that many cannot afford self-isolation if they become sick. Customer service workers at airports and in supermarkets have sometimes been at the receiving end of pandemonium and the anxieties of irate customers.

The pandemic is wreaking particular havoc among poor workers who can hardly manage in “normal” times

The pandemic has helped bring political perspective to national and international preoccupations that suddenly look petty in hindsight. For example, as one author puts it in a story in The Atlantic of March 11, 2020, “It’s not hard to feel like the coronavirus has exposed the utter smallness of Brexit . . . Ultimately, Brexit is not a matter of life and death literally or economically. The coronavirus, meanwhile, is killing people and perhaps many businesses”.

The same could be said of many trivial political squabbles in other countries. In the United States, one observer notes in The Atlantic of March 19, 2020,

In the absence of meaningful national leadership, Americans across the country are making their own decisions for our collective well-being. You’re seeing it in small stores deciding on their own to close; you’re seeing it in restaurants evolving without government decree to offer curbside pickup or offer delivery for the first time; you’re seeing it in the offices that closed long before official guidance arrived.

The author concludes poignantly, “The most isolating thing most of us have ever done is, ironically, almost surely the most collective experience we’ve ever had in our lifetimes”. And I can attest that I have seen this spirit of cooperation and collaboration on my own campus, among faculty, staff, and students. But the pandemic also raises questions about how effectively democracy can be upheld under the coronavirus lockdowns. Might desperate despots in some countries try to use the crisis to postpone elections?

Also upended by the coronavirus pandemic are traditional ideological polarities. Right-wing governments are competing with left-wing governments or opposition liberal legislatures as in the United States to craft “big government” mitigation packages. Many are borrowing monetary and fiscal measures from the Great Recession playbook, some of which they resisted when they were in opposition or not yet in office.

In terms of monetary policy, several central banks have cut interest rates. On March 15, 2020, the US Federal Reserve cut the rate to near zero in a coordinated move with the central banks of Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The Fed also announced measures to shore up financial markets including a package of $700 billion for asset purchase and a credit facility for commercial banks. Three days later, as noted above, the European Central Bank launched a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme. These measures failed to assure the markets which continued to plummet.

The pandemic has helped bring political perspective to national and international preoccupations that suddenly look petty in hindsight

As for fiscal policy, several governments announced radical spending measures. On 20 March, the UK announced that the government would pay up to 80 per cent of the wages of employees across the country sent home as businesses shut their doors as part of the drastic coronavirus containment strategy. This followed the example of the Danish government that had earlier pledged to cover 75 per cent of employees’ salaries for firms that agreed not to cut staff.

In the United States, Congress began working on a $1 trillion economic relief programme, later raised to $1.8 trillion. The negotiations between the two parties over the proposed stimulus bill proved bitterly contentious. For President Trump and Republicans it was a bitter pill to swallow, given their antipathy to “big government”. It marked the fall of another ideological pillar of Trumpism and Republicanism. For some, the demise of these pillars marks the end of the Trump presidency, which has been exposed for its deadly incompetence, autocratic political culture, and aversion to truth and transparency. We will of course only know for sure in November 2020.

Might desperate despots in some countries try to use the crisis to postpone elections?

In Kenya employers, workers, unions and analysts have implored the government to undertake drastic measures to boost the economy by providing bailouts, tax incentives and rebates, and social safety nets, as well as increasing government spending. Demands have been made to banks to extend credit to the private sector and to the Central Bank to lower or even freeze interest rates for six months. The Sunday Nation of March 22 reported pay cuts were looming for workers as firms struggled to keep afloat, and that the government had scrambled a war chest of Sh140 billion to shore up the economy and avert a recession.

Home Alone

Home isolation is recommended by epidemiologists as a critical means of what they call flattening the curve of the pandemic. Its economic impact is well understood, less so its psychological and emotional impact. While imperative, social isolation might exacerbate the growing loneliness epidemic as some call it, especially in the developed countries.

According to an article in The Atlantic magazine of March 10, 2020, the loneliness epidemic is becoming a serious health care crisis.

Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A lack of social relationships is an enormous risk factor for death, increasing the likelihood of mortality by 26 percent. A major study found that, when compared with people with weak social ties, people who enjoyed meaningful relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over time.

The problem of loneliness is often thought to be prevalent among older people, but in countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, “The problem is especially acute among young adults ages 18 to 22”. Research shows that the feeling of loneliness is not a reflection of physical isolation, but of the meaning and depth of one’s social engagements. Among the Millennial and Gen Z generations loneliness is exacerbated by social media.

Photo. Anaya Katlego/Unsplash

Several studies have pointed out that social media may be reinforcing social disconnection, which is at the root of loneliness. This is because while social media has facilitated instant communication and made people more densely connected than ever, it offers a poor substitute for the intimate communication and dense and meaningful interactions humans crave and get from real friends and family. It fosters shallow and superficial connections, surrogate and even fake friendships, and narcissistic and exhibitionist sociability.

Loneliness should of course not be confused with solitude. Loneliness can also not be attributed solely to external conditions as it is often rooted in one’s psychological state. But the density and quality of social interactions matters. The current loneliness epidemic reflects the irony of a vicious cycle, a nexus of triple impulses: in cultures and sensibilities of self-absorption and self-invention, some people invite or choose loneliness either as a marker of self-sufficiency or social success, while the Internet makes it possible for people to be lonely, and lonely people tend to be more attracted to the Internet.

Among the Millennial and Gen Z generations loneliness is exacerbated by social media

But technology can also help mitigate social distancing. To quote one author writing in The Atlantic on March 14, 2020, “As more people employers and schools encourage people to stay home, people across the country find themselves video-chatting more than they usually might: going to meetings on Zoom, catching up with clients on Skype, FaceTime with therapists, even hosting virtual bar mitzvahs”. Jointly playing video games, watching streaming entertainment, or having virtual dinner parties also opens bonding opportunities.

Besides the growth and consumption of modern media and its disruptive and isolating technologies, loneliness is being reinforced by structural forces including the spread of the nuclear family, an invention that even in the United States has a short history as a social formation. This is evident in sociological studies and demonstrated in the lead story in the March 2020 edition of The Atlantic.


The article shows that for much of American history people lived in extended clans and families, whose great strength was their resilience and their role as a socialising force. The decline of multigenerational families dates to the development of an industrial economy and reached its apogee after World War II between 1950 and 1975, when it all began falling apart, again due to broader structural forces.

One doesn’t have to agree with the author’s analysis of what led to the profound changes in family structure. Certainly, women did not benefit from the older extended family structures, which were resolutely patriarchal. But it is a fact that currently, more people live alone in the United States—and in many other countries including those in the developing world—than ever before. The author stresses, “The period when the nuclear family flourished was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired to obscure its essential fragility”.

He continues, “For many people, the era of the nuclear family has been a catastrophe. All forms of inequality are cruel, but family inequality may be the cruelest. It damages the heart”. He urges society “to figure out better ways to live together”. The question is: what will be the impact of the social distancing demanded by the coronavirus pandemic on the loneliness epidemic and the prospects of developing new and more fulfilling ways of living together?

Coronavirus Hegemonic Rivalries

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, China bore the brunt of being both the victims and the victimised. The rest of the world feared the contagion’s spread from China and before long the disease did spread to other Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Iran. This triggered anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in Europe, North America, and even Africa.

For many Africans, it was a source of perverse relief that the coronavirus had not originated on the continent. Many wondered how Africa and Africans would have been portrayed and treated given the long history, in the western and global imaginaries, of pathologising African cultures, societies, and bodies as diseased embodiments of sub-humanity.

Disease breeds xenophobia, the irrational fear of the “other”. Commenting on the influenza pandemic in The Wall Street Journal, one scholar reminds us, “As the flu spread in 1918, many communities found scapegoats. Chileans blamed the poor, Senegalese blamed Brazilians, Brazilians blamed the Germans, Iranians blamed the British, and so on”. One key lesson is that to combat pandemics global cooperation is essential. Unfortunately, that lesson seems to be ignored by some governments in the current pandemic, although like in other pandemics, good Samaritans also abound.

For many Africans, it was a source perverse relief that the coronavirus had not originated on the continent

As China, South Korea, and Japan gradually contained the spread of the disease, and Italy and other European countries turned into its epicenter, and as the contagion began surging in the United States, the tables turned. While the Asian democracies largely managed to contain the coronavirus through less coercive and more transparent ways, it is China that took centre-stage in the global narrative. As would be expected in a world of intense hegemonic rivalries between the United States and China, the coronavirus pandemic has become weaponised in the two countries’ superpower rivalry.

On March 19, 2020, China marked a milestone since the outbreak of the coronavirus when it was announced that there were no new domestic cases; the 34 new cases identified that day were all brought in by people coming from abroad. An article in the New York Times of March 19, 2020, reports,

Across Asia, travellers from Europe and the United States are being barred or forced into quarantine. Gyms, private clinics and restaurants in Hong Kong warn them to stay away. Even Chinese parents who proudly sent their children to study in New York or London are now mailing them masks and sanitizer or rushing them home on flights that can cost $25,000.

The Asian democracies largely managed to contain the coronavirus through less coercive and more transparent ways

Even before this turning point, as coronavirus cases in China declined, the country began projecting itself as a heroic model of containment. It anxiously sought to furbish its once battered image by exporting medical equipment, experts, and other forms of humanitarian assistance. Such is the new-found conceit of China that, to Trump’s racist casting of the “China virus” some misguided Chinese nationalists falsely charge that the coronavirus started with American troops, and scornfully disparage the United States for its apparently slow and chaotic containment efforts.

Another article in The New York Times of March 18, 2020, captures China’s strategy for recasting its global image.

From Japan to Iraq, Spain to Peru, it has provided or pledged humanitarian assistance in the form of donations or medical expertise — an aid blitz that is giving China the chance to reposition itself not as the authoritarian incubator of a pandemic but as a responsible global leader at a moment of worldwide crisis. In doing so, it has stepped into a role that the West once dominated in times of natural disaster or public health emergency, and that President Trump has increasingly ceded in his ‘America First’ retreat from international engagement.

The story continues,

Now, the global failures in confronting the pandemic from Europe to the United States have given the Chinese leadership a platform to prove its model works — and potentially gain some lasting geopolitical currency. As it has done in the past, the Chinese state is using its extensive tools and deep pockets to build partnerships around the world, relying on trade, investments and, in this case, an advantageous position as the world’s largest maker of medicines and protective masks . . . On Wednesday, China said it would provide two million surgical masks, 200,000 advanced masks and 50,000 testing kits to Europe . . . One of China’s leading entrepreneurs, Jack Ma, offered to donate 500,000 tests and one million masks to the United States, where hospitals are facing shortages.

Some analysts argue that the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the decoupling of the United States from China that began with President Trump’s trade war launched in 2018. American hawks see the pandemic as bolstering their argument that China’s dominance of certain global supply chains including some medical supplies and pharmaceutical ingredients poses a systemic risk to the American economy. Many others believe Trump’s “America First” not only damaged the country’s standing and its preparedness to deal with the pandemic, but also to create the international solidarity required for its containment and control.

In the words of one author in The Atlantic of March 15, 2020,

Like Japan in the mid-1800s, the United States now faces a crisis that disproves everything the country believes about itself . . . The United States, long accustomed to thinking of itself as the best, most efficient, and most technologically advanced society in the world, is about to be proved an unclothed emperor. When human life is in peril, we are not as good as Singapore, as South Korea, as Germany.

Some commentators even go further, contending that the pandemic is facilitating the process of de-globalisation more generally as countries not only lock themselves in national enclosures to protect themselves, but seek to become more economically self-sufficient. It is important to note that throughout history, there have been waves and retreats of globalisation. The globalisation of the late 19th century, which was characterised by massive migrations, growth of international trade, and expansion of global production chains with the emergence of modern multinational and transnational corporations, retreated in the inferno of World War I and the Great Depression.

The globalisation of the late 20th century, engendered by the emergence of new information and communication technologies and value chains, the rise of emerging economies as serious players in the world system, among other factors, had already started fraying by the time of the Great Recession. The latter pried open not only the deep inequalities that neo-liberal globalisation had engendered, but also gave vent to a crescendo of nationalist and populist backlashes.

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is also throwing into sharp relief the bankruptcy of populist nationalism. It underscores global interconnectedness, that pathogens do not respect our imaginary communities of nation-states, that the ties that bind humanity are thicker than the threads of separation.

Universities Go Online

The coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted many industries and sectors, including education, following the closure of schools, colleges and universities. However, fear of crowding and lockdowns has also boosted online industries ranging from e-commerce and food delivery to online entertainment and gaming, to cloud solutions for business continuity, to e-health and e-learning.

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the growth of e-work or telecommuting, and other online-mediated business practices. Before the pandemic the gig economy was already a growing part of many economies, so were e-health and e-learning.

According to the British Guardian newspaper of March 6, 2020, General practitioners (GPs) have been “told to switch to digital consultations to combat Covid-19”. The story elaborates,

In a significant policy change, NHS bosses want England’s 7,000 GP surgeries to start conducting as many remote consultations as soon as possible, replacing patient visits with phone, video, online or text contact. They want to reduce the risk of someone infected with Covid-19 turning up at a surgery and free GPs to deal with the extra workload created by the virus . . . The approach could affect many of the 340m appointments a year with GPs and other practice staff, only 1% of which are currently carried out by video, such as Skype.

Another story in the same paper also notes that supermarkets in Britain have been “asked to boost deliveries for coronavirus self-isolation”.

The educational sector has been one of the most affected by the coronavirus pandemic as the closure of schools and universities has often been adopted by many governments as the first line of defense. It could be argued that higher education institutions have even taken the lead in managing the pandemic in three major ways: shifting instruction online, conducting research on the coronavirus and its multiple impacts, and advising public policy.

Ever since the crisis broke out, I’ve been following the multiple threats it poses to various sectors especially higher education, avidly devouring the academic media including The Chronicle of a higher EducationInside Higher EducationUniversity BusinessTimes Higher Education, and University World News, just to mention a few.

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is also throwing into sharp relief the bankruptcy of populist nationalism

These papers and magazines alerted me early, as a university administrator, to the need to develop early coronavirus planning in my own institution. A sample of the issues discussed in the numerous articles can be found in the following articles in The Chronicle of a higher Education (see textbox below).

Clearly, if these fifty articles from one higher education magazine are any guide, the higher education sector has been giving a lot of thought to the opportunities and challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Some prognosticate that higher education will fundamentally change. An article in the The New York Times of March 18, 2020 hopes that “One positive outcome from the current crisis would be for academic elites to forgo their presumption that online learning is a second-rate or third-rate substitute for in-person delivery”. There will be some impact, but of course, only time will tell the scale of that impact.

Certainly, at my university we’ve learned invaluable lessons from the sudden switch to learning online using various platforms including Blackboard, our learning management system, Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype, not to mention email and social media such as WhatsApp. This experience is likely to be incorporated into the instructional pedagogies of our faculty.

But history also tells us that old systems often reassert themselves after a crisis, at the same time as they incorporate some changes brought by responses to the crisis. As the author of the article on “7 Takeaways” (see textbox below) puts it, “Many forces exerted pressure on the traditional four-year, bricks-and-mortar, face-to-face campus experience before the coronavirus, and they’ll still be there when the virus is conquered or goes dormant”.

It is likely that at many universities previously averse to online teaching and learning, online instructional tools and platforms will be incorporated more widely, creating a mosaic of face-to-face learning, blended learning, and online learning.

Whither the Future

Moments of profound crisis such as the one engendered by the coronavirus pandemic attract soothsayers and futurists. The American magazine, Politico, invited some three dozen thinkers to prognosticate on the long-term impact of the pandemic. They all offer intriguing reflections. For community life, some suggest the personal will become dangerous, a new kind of patriotism will emerge, polarisation will decline, faith in serious experts will return, there will be less individualism, changes in religious worship will occur, as well as the rise of new forms of reform.

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the growth of e-work or telecommuting, and other online-mediated business practices

As for technology, they suggest regulatory barriers to online tools will fall, healthier digital lifestyles will emerge, there will be a boon for virtual reality, the rise of telemedicine, provision of stronger medical care, government will become Big Pharma, and science will reign again. With reference to government, they predict Congress will finally go digital, big government will make a comeback, government service will regain its cachet, there will be a new civic federalism, revived trust in institutions, the rules we live by won’t all apply, and they urge us to expect a political uprising.

In terms of elections, they foresee electronic voting going mainstream, Election Day will become Election Month, and voting by mail will become the norm. For the global economy, they forecast that more restraints will be placed on mass consumption, stronger domestic supply chains will grow, and the inequality gap will widen. As for lifestyle, there will be a hunger for diversion, less communal dining, a revival of parks, a change in our understanding of “change”, and the tyranny of habit no more.

In truth, no one really knows for sure.

Textbox


  1. American Colleges Seek to Develop Coronavirus Response, Abroad and at Home, January 28, 2020. Focuses on limiting travel to China and preparing campus health facilities.
  2. Coronavirus Is Prompting Alarm on American Campuses. Anti-Asian Discrimination Could Do More Harm. February 5, 2020. Focuses curbing anti-Asian xenophobia and racism on campuses.
  3. How Much Could the Coronavirus Hurt Chinese Enrollments? February 20, 2020. Focuses on the possible impact of the coronavirus on Chinese enrollments the largest source of international students in American universities.
  4. Colleges Brace for More-Widespread Outbreak of Coronavirus, February 26, 2020. Focuses on universities assembling campuswide emergency-response committees, preparing communications plans, cautioning students to use preventive health measures, and even preparing for possible college closures.
  5. Colleges Pull Back From Italy and South Korea as Coronavirus Spreads. February 26, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  6. An Admissions Bet Goes Bust: For colleges that gambled on international enrollment, now what? March 1, 2020. Focuses on the dire financial implications of the collapse in the international student market because of the coronavirus crisis.
  7. The Coronavirus Is Upending Higher Ed. Here Are the Latest Developments. March 3, 2020. Focuses on universities increasingly moving classes online, asking students to leave campus, lobbying for stimulus package from government, imposing travel restrictions, and worrying about future enrollments.
  8. CDC Warns Colleges to ‘Consider’ Canceling Study-Abroad Trips. March 5, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  9. Enrollment Headaches From Coronavirus Are Many. They Won’t Be Relieved Soon. March 5, 2020. Focuses on the financial implications of declining prospects for the recruitment of international students.
  10. The Face of Face-Touching Research Says, ‘It’s Quite Frightening’. March 5, 2020. Highlights research on the difficulties for people not to touch their faces, one of the preventive guidelines against the coronavirus.
  11. U. of Washington Cancels In-Person Classes, Becoming First Major U.S. Institution to Do So Amid Coronavirus Fears. March 6, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  12. How Do You Quarantine for Coronavirus on a College Campus? March 6, 2020. Provides guidelines on who should be quarantined, what kind of housing should be provided for quarantined students, the supplies they need, and what to when students fall ill.
  13. As Coronavirus Spreads, the Decision to Move Classes Online Is the First Step. What Comes Next? March 6, 2020. Provides advice on making the transition to online classes.
  14. With Coronavirus Keeping Them in U.S., International Students Face Uncertainty. So Do Their Colleges. March 6, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to help with the travel, visa, financial and emotional needs of international students.
  15. Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start. March 9, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to prepare for course online assignments, assessment, examinations, course materials, instruction, and communication with students quickly.
  16. Will Coronavirus Cancel Your Conference? March 9, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  17. What ‘Middle’ Administrators Can Do to Help in the Coronavirus Crisis. March 10, 2020. Provides advice to middle managers in universities on how to community with their people, be more responsive and available than usual, convene their own crisis response teams, and keeping relevant campus authorities informed of major problems in your unit.
  18. Communicating With Parents Can Be Tricky — Especially When It Comes to Coronavirus. March 10, 2020. Provides advice on how to provide updates to parents some of who might oppose the closure of campus.
  19. Are Colleges Prepared to Move All of Their Classes Online? March 10, 2020. Notes that this is a huge experiment as many institutions, faculty members, and even students have little experience in online learning and provides some guidelines.
  20. Why Coronavirus Looks Like a ‘Black Swan’ Moment for Higher Ed. March 10, 2020. Offers reflections on the likely impact of the move to online teaching in terms of prompt universities to stop distinguishing between online and classroom programs.
  21. Teaching Remotely While Quarantined in China. A neophyte learns how to teach online. March, 11, 2020. A fascinating personal story by a faculty member of his experience with remote teaching while living under strict social isolation, which has gone better than he expected.
  22. When Coronavirus Closes Colleges, Some Students Lose Hot Meals, Health Care, and a Place to Sleep. March 11, 2020. On the various social hardships campus closures bring to some vulnerable students.
  23. How to Make Your Online Pivot Less Brutal. March 12, 2020. Offers advice that it’s OK to not know what you’re doing and seek help, keeping it as simple and accessible as you can, expect challenges and adjust.
  24. Preparing for Emergency Online Teaching. March 12, 2020. Provides resources guides for teaching online.
  25. Academe’s Coronavirus Shock Doctrine. March 12, 2020. Discusses the added pressures facing faculty because of the sudden conversion to online teaching.
  26. Shock, Fear, and Fatalism: As Coronavirus Prompts Colleges to Close, Students Grapple With Uncertainty. March 12, 2020. Reports how college students are reacting to campus closures with shock, uncertainty, sadness, and, in some cases, devil-may-care fatalism.
  27. As the Coronavirus Scrambles Colleges’ Finances, Leaders Hope for the Best and Plan for the Worst. March 12, 2020. Reflects on the likely disruptions on university finances from reduced enrollments and donations.
  28. What About the Health of Staff Members? March 13, 2020. Discusses how best to ensure staff continue to be healthy.
  29. As Coronavirus Drives Students From Campuses, What Happens to the Workers Who Feed Them? March 13, 2020. Discusses the challenges of maintaining non-essential staff on payroll during prolonged campus closure.
  30. 2020: The Year That Shredded the Admissions Calendar. March 15, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  31. How to Lead in a Crisis. March 16. Insightful advice from the former President of Tulane University during Hurricane Katrina.
  32. Colleges Emptied Dorms Amid Coronavirus Fears. What Can They Do About Off-Campus Housing? March 16, 2020. Reports on how some institutions have taken a more aggressive approach to limiting the spread of the virus in off-campus housing.
  33. How to Quickly (and Safely) Move a Lab Course Online. March 17, 2020. The author discusses his positive experiences to move a lab course quickly online and still meet his learning objectives through lab kits, virtual labs and simulations.
  34. University Labs Head to the Front Lines of Coronavirus Containment. March 17, 2020. Discusses how university medical centers have taken the lead in coronavirus research and due to the national shortage of testing kits used tests of their own design to begin screening patients.
  35. Hounded Out of U.S., Scientist Invents Fast Coronavirus Test in China. March 18, 2020. An intriguing story of how the US’s crackdown on scholars with ties to China has triggered a reverse brain drain of Chinese-American scholars to China inadvertently promoting China’s ambitious drive to attract top talent under its Thousand Talent program. It features a scholar and his team that are leading the race to develop coronavirus treatment.
  36. Coronavirus Crisis Underscores the Traits of a Resilient College. March 18, 2020. Discusses the qualities of resilient institutions including effective communication, management of cash flow, and investment in electronic infrastructure.
  37. Coronavirus Creates Challenges for Students Returning From Abroad. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  38. As Coronavirus Spreads, Universities Stall Their Research to Keep Human Subjects Safe. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  39. The Covid-19 Crisis Is Widening the Gap Between Secure and Insecure Instructors. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
  40. Here’s Why More Colleges Are Extending Deposit Deadlines — and Why Some Aren’t. March 18, 2020. Discusses how some universities are changing their admission processes.
  41. How to Help Students Keep Learning Through a Disruption. March 18, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to keep students engaged in learning and support instructors throughout the crisis.
  42. As Classrooms Go Virtual, What About Campus-Leadership Searches? March 19, 2020. Discusses how senior university leadership searches are being affected and ways to handle the situation by reconsidering the steps, migrating to technology, and staying in touch with candidates.
  43. If Coronavirus Patients Overwhelm Hospitals, These Colleges Are Offering Their Dorms. March 19, 2020. Discusses how some universities are offering to donate their empty dorms for use by local hospitals.
  44. As Professors Scramble to Adjust to the Coronavirus Crisis, the Tenure Clock Still Ticks. March 19, 2020. Discusses how at many universities junior faculty remain under pressure to meet the tenure timelines despite the various institutional disruptions.
  45. ‘The Worst-Case Scenario’: What Financial Disclosures Tell Us About Coronavirus’s Strain on Colleges So Far. March 19, 2020. Reports the financial straights facing many universities and that Moody’s Investors Service issued a bleak forecast this week for American higher education.
  46. As the Coronavirus Forces Faculty Online, It’s ‘Like Drinking Out of a Firehose’. March 20, 2020. Recorded video interviews with four selected instructors by The Chronicle to collect their thoughts on how they are managing the sudden change.
  47. A Coronavirus Stimulus Plan Is Coming. How Will Higher Education Figure In? March 20, 2020. The article wonders how universities will fare under the massive stimulus package under negotiation in the US Congress. It notes “Nearly a dozen higher-education associations have also asked lawmakers for about $50 billion in federal assistance to help colleges and students stay afloat” and an additional $13 billion for research labs.
  48. Covid-19 Has Forced Higher Ed to Pivot to Online Learning. Here Are 7 Takeaways So Far. March 20, 2020. The takeaways include the fact that “What most colleges are doing right now is not online education,” “Many of the tools were already at hand,” “The pivot can be surprisingly cheap,” “This is your wake-up call,” The pandemic could change education delivery forever…”, “… but it probably won’t”
  49. ‘Nobody Signed Up for This’: One Professor’s Guidelines for an Interrupted Semester. March 20, 2020. An interesting account on how one faculty changed his syllabus and communicated with his students.
  50. The Coronavirus Has Pushed Courses Online. Professors Are Trying Hard to Keep Up. March 20, 2020. Makes many of the same observations noted above.
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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a Malawian historian, academic, literary critic, novelist, short-story writer and blogger.

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African Evangelicals and President Trump

African evangelicals align themselves with the American right and there are many parallels between American and African evangelicals that may explain why the latter support Trump.

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African Evangelicals and President Trump
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Shortly after the contested November 3rd 2020 US elections, a video of Paula White, President Donald Trump’s spiritual advisor, making an impassioned prayer summoning African and Latin American angels to intercede for President Trump so that he would win the election caused quite a stir throughout Africa, generating not just hilarious memes but also significant debate on social media and in other forums about African evangelicals’ support for Trump. The video that was widely circulated on social media platforms came on the heels of media reports that a section of African evangelicals and Pentecostals and their leaders support Trump and have been holding prayer vigils for his re-election, ostensibly because Trump is viewed as a defender of their faith against the deep state.

The chairperson of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya (EAK), Bishop Mark Kariuki, argued that Trump’s victory would be a victory for “good morals” and that Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Kenya are “thinking about values”. He said that when former President Barrack Obama came to Kenya in 2016, “We told him not to bring his ‘democratic agenda’ in Kenya, an agenda that advocates for abortion and gay relationships. It is against this background that we are praying that the right person wins the USA election.”

It is not just Kenyan evangelicals who support Donald Trump. Similar trends are also evident in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Uganda and many other parts of the African continent where Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have been proliferating since the 1970s. Scholars, social commentators, the media and researchers are baffled by the evangelicals’ support for Trump regardless of his moral and ethical lapses, his divisive, bullish, combative, crude and brash character, his disrespect for women—especially women of colour—his hate for immigrants and Muslims and his inability to condemn white supremacists.

While many people cannot make sense of African Evangelical support for Trump, many scholars and social commentators have tried to rationalise and make sense of this phenomenon. Here I try to make sense of why African and Kenyan evangelicals and Pentecostals in particular, support a man so vile, a man who lacks empathy, compassion, morals, decorum, respect and human decency, values that are at the heart of African Christianity.

But first, let us understand why Trump aligns himself with American evangelicals, particularly white evangelicals. According to a 2019 Pew Research report, 81 per cent of white evangelicals and 62 per cent of white voters without a college degree voted for Trump. While not all American evangelicals support Trump, a significant majority of white evangelicals do.

In her best-selling and influential book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals corrupted Faith and Fractured a Nation, Historian and Gender Professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez argues that President Donald Trump weaponised both Christianity and masculinities to win the support of American evangelicals. Trump projects himself as a strongman, a characteristic that has increasingly defined his presidency since 2016. His machismo, patriarchal ideals and aggressive brand of masculinity are interwoven not just with his politics but also with his relationship with white evangelicals who form a big part of his political base.

Trump—who has cozied up to world dictators, praising authoritarian leaders like Russia’s strongman and dictator Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un—appears to have dictatorial tendencies. According to Professor Du Mez, Christian male evangelicals exude the same machismo and masculine strength that Trump projects. His combative style is also apparently evident in evangelical literature and popular culture, mainly books and films teeming with masculine heroes that shape evangelical beliefs about men and women for millions of evangelicals. This evangelical popular culture and literature is heavily promoted in Africa and elsewhere and also shapes African evangelical conceptualisations of manhood and masculinities.

The values at the heart of American evangelicalism today are authoritarianism, patriarchy, masculinity, aggressive foreign policy, the fear of Islam and immigrants, ambivalence towards the #metoomovemnt, opposition to Black Lives Matter and abortion and LGBTIQ issues. Trump has hijacked these issues and appropriated and weaponised evangelical Christianity and its symbols and language for his own political agenda, aligning himself with social and moral issues that are at the heart of American evangelicalism such as abortion, family values and other conservative agendas.

First, he has surrounded himself with a retinue of spiritual advisors led by Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr. and others who prop up the legend of a God-fearing man who loves God and has the interest of their faith at heart. In September 2020, Trump tear-gassed his citizens so that he could pose for a photo op outside St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC in a way that weaponised the Bible in order to get the support of American evangelicals.

Evangelicals also believe Trump has their interests at heart because he has projected himself as the only protector of family and Christian values that are under serious threat from an increasingly liberal left. Similarly, he promised evangelicals protection and power, and brought them and their concerns to the centre of American public life.

African evangelicals align themselves with the American right because of their conservative positions around family issues including divorce, same-sex relationships, abortion and many others. There are many parallels between American evangelicals and African evangelicals and this may explain why African evangelicals support President Trump.

African masculine and patriarchal evangelical Christianity  

First, African big men of the booming evangelical movement promote a masculine, authoritative and patriarchal gospel similar to that of American evangelicalism. Many male African bishops, archbishops, pastors, evangelists and self-styled prophets exhibit machismo and a masculine strength and character that mirror Trump’s. At the same time, they are beholden to power, influence, and money. They see or desire to see themselves in Trump as well as in American evangelical leaders. African evangelicals also admire aggressive leaders and many are friends to African dictators. Kenyan evangelicals cozied up to the late President Daniel Arap Moi, providing his autocratic and corrupt KANU regime with legitimacy and justifying this with the tired argument that leaders are appointed by God.

Another reason why African evangelicals support Trump is a practical one. It is about money, power and religious influence. The American evangelical right supports humanitarian and non-humanitarian causes across the African continent, from healthcare to education, water and solar projects as well as agriculture and food security.

American evangelical televangelists are not only extremely popular in Africa but their literature and popular culture are also heavily consumed by the African evangelical marketplace. Their books, films, videos, church magazines and motivational books line the bookshelves of Africa’s leading Pentecostal and Charismatic clergy’s personal and office libraries, fill the shelves of Africa’s churches and church and secular bookshops, and are to be found displayed on the second-hand bookstands in the streets.

Their televised programmes are also popular in Africa’s television stations. American televangelists such as Paula White, Joyce Meyer, Jack Van Impe, Benny Hinn, John C. Maxwell, T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, the late Morris Cerrulo, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar and many others are celebrities in Kenyan and African evangelical circles. In fact, Kenyans have their favourite American televangelists and many receive daily inspirational quotes and prayers from these televangelists. Leading African televangelists in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana and many other African countries say they have been mentored by American televangelists.

American televangelists are regular guests in Africa, criss-crossing the continent to hold prayer rallies and crusades. African televangelists offer American televangelists platforms to speak in their churches while African evangelicals get invited to travel to North America on preaching holidays to raise funds for church projects. So there is a relationship that has been cultivated between American evangelical televangelists and their African counterparts. African evangelicals’ support for Trump can thus be understood as support for their brethren across the Atlantic, a kind of solidarity between brethren.

Prosperity Gospel and the money trail

But there is also the influence of the American prosperity gospel in Africa where leading African televangelists espouse the theology of wealth and health or the gospel of money. The gospel of prosperity—also variously and derogatorily referred to as the “health and wealth” gospel, “the faith gospel”, “the gospel of riches”, “the gospel of materialism and consumerism”,  the “gospel of selective abundance”, the “name it and claim it” gospel, the “blab it and grab it” gospel, “the gospel of ‘Panda Mbegu’” or gospel of “planting seeds” — is a direct importation from North America that has exploded in both popularity and prominence in the African continent in the last nearly three and a half decades. It has also  stirred up huge debates and created controversies globally. African evangelical televangelists have increasingly been influenced by American proponents of the prosperity gospel, creating bonds with their brethren in the US and mirroring each other.

But there is also the money trail. American evangelicals support a wide range of causes in Africa, including HIV/AIDs prevention strategies in scores of African nations including Kenya and Uganda and promoting the sexual purity and abstinence theology among many others. At the same time, the American evangelical right has poured in money to promote conservative positions with respect to women’s reproductive health rights including abortion and same-sex relationships.

During contestations over the promulgation of the new constitution, Kenyan Christian churches led by a group of powerful evangelical, Pentecostal and Catholic lobbies vehemently opposed the adoption of the 2010 constitution because they opposed clauses that they viewed as too liberal, in particular clauses concerning abortion and same-sex relationships.

During the Population Conference that took place in Nairobi in 2019, Christian churches held big demonstrations to oppose women’s reproductive health rights and during the debates on the reproductive health bill held in May 2020, Christian churches caused a stir when they opposed the passage of the bill, labelling it the “abortion bill”. Christian churches in Kenya were also instrumental in the closing of Marie Stopes clinics across the country because they claimed that they were abortion centres.

Christian churches and the clergy have also mobilised against same-sex relationships across the continent and especially in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. Christian opposition to these issues is linked to American dollars that have been poured in to fight liberal causes.

Thus American evangelicals have strongly influenced the rise of Africa’s evangelicals, not just in the public sphere but also in their quest to influence public policy with respect to hot-button issues like abortion, gay rights, gender rights and a wide array of liberties and rights. The sexual purity culture is also directly borrowed from the script of the American right and is often preached in evangelical churches.

The fear of liberalism and democratic ideals which are considered anti-family by religious conservatives is one of the other reasons African evangelicals support Trump. He is seen as a protector of family morality through not just his alignment with American evangelicals but also through his recent and contested appointment of conservative judges to the Supreme Court, especially that of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

 Christian Zionism and eschatological concerns

Among the many other reasons why American and African evangelicals support President  Trump is because of his policies and support for Israel. When Trump moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem there were jubilant celebrations not just in the US but also across scores of African countries that have large evangelical Christian majorities. In announcing the move, Trump said he did it for evangelicals. In many parts of the world but especially in the USA and Africa, evangelicals have a special affinity to Israel.

Many Christians also view the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. The promise of the Holy Land is therefore intricately tied to evangelical beliefs. This sort of Christian Zionism has been emerging for a long time and is tied to the Christian belief that God’s promise of the land to the Jews is eternal.

American and African evangelical support for Israel can be seen in light of an emerging Christian Zionism inspired by theological concerns and is connected to Christian eschatological concerns rather than to the larger politics including the Palestinian question. Interestingly, African Christians who support Israel couldn’t care less about Palestinian struggles.

As one pastor said to me in an interview that, “I align myself with God’s special people and Nation. When I need my prayers answered, I pray for Israel. I tell my flock that when they pray for Israel, God answers their prayers.” The emergence of Christian Zionism can thus be understood through eschatological beliefs.

For many evangelical Christians, Jerusalem is the linchpin of their eschatological beliefs. Evangelical Christians, a majority of whom make a literal reading of the bible, believe that Jesus Christ will return to Jerusalem, specifically a Jerusalem controlled by the Jewish people. Israel is therefore intricately tied to evangelical Christians who see it as an important nation in Gods’ larger plan for Christians, especially born-again Christians. Beyond eschatological beliefs, evangelicals also believe that Jerusalem will be the scene of the final battle between good and evil. It is the place where God will finally obliterate his enemies and usher in the millennial reign of Christ.

Such Christian eschatological beliefs are tied to what is generally referred to as pre-millennial dispensationalist theology or end-time eschatological beliefs. The millennial in pre-millennialism, theologians argue, refers to Jesus Christ’s prophesied 1000-year reign of peace on earth. Christians believe that those who are born-again will be raptured to heaven at the end of time.

A majority of African Pentecostal and evangelical clergy are proponents of this pre-millennialism or end-time eschatological beliefs. Consequently, many align with Trump who is seen as a friend of Israel, Gods own “special people and nation”.

When Trump named Jerusalem the capital of Israel, he said that there was more enthusiasm and excitement amongst American evangelicals than there was in Israel itself. This is also true of Africa where there were significant celebrations in scores of African countries that view Israel as a nation with a special place in God’s end-time plans.

Besides, Israel is believed by many Christians to be home to many sacred sites including the Ark of the Covenant and many other sacred objects and artefacts. There is also the prevailing belief that God’s presence resided inside the temple built by King Solomon and later destroyed by the Babylonians. Evangelicals believe that God’s presence still resides in Israel which will play a critical role in Christian end-time beliefs.

Similarly, Christians believe that Jesus Christ was born, lived, walked, died and rose again in Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem therefore conjures up memories of the history of Jesus Christ, a central figure in their personal lives and faith. Thus, for many evangelicals, Jerusalem is a special place and Israel is a holy land which is important in God’s larger eschatological plan.

The importance of Israel for many evangelical Christians as well as for other denominations has spawned a thriving religion-inspired tourism and pilgrimage to the Holy land. Every year, thousands of African Christian pilgrims travel to the Holy Land to renew their faith and walk where Jesus walked.

Patriarchy, misogyny and the weaponisation of masculinities

While Trump is viewed as an increasingly divisive and polarising figure the world over, he remains popular among evangelicals in Africa, especially in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. Trump’s support is evident in countries with a significant evangelical and Pentecostal majority, which is pretty much most of sub-Saharan Africa where Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity has exploded since at least the 1970s, or earlier in some countries. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches dot much of the African landscape. According to a 2019 Pew Research poll, Trump has more support in Kenya and Nigeria where supporters appear unbothered that he referred to African countries as shithole countries in 2018.

Both Nigeria and Kenya are highly religious countries with large numbers of evangelicals. Pastor Chris, a prominent Nigerian televangelist, has argued that people are angry at Trump for supporting Christians. He argues that people who hate Trump hate Christians. Bishop Mark Kariuki in Kenya said that Kenyan evangelicals are praying for President Trump’s re-election because Kenyan evangelicals are thinking about values. A majority of Christian groups in Africa hold conservative views about marriage, abortion, gay rights and scores of other issues.

Trump is seen by African evangelicals as a promoter of family values unlike President Obama who has been pushing a liberal agenda in Africa, a move that drew significant anger and concern from evangelicals in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda in particular. When President Obama came to Kenya in 2016, he publicly but civilly clashed with President Uhuru Kenyatta over the issue of gay rights. Evangelicals had held demonstrations before Obama’s arrival telling him to keep off gay issues.

African and American evangelical support for Trump is not only baffling but it is also very paradoxical given that he is hardly a paragon of morality. Nigerian Pentecostal philosopher and theologian, Professor Nimi Wariboko of Boston University, argues that Pentecostals and evangelicals support Trump because they are doing God’s will and because of the prevailing theology amongst evangelicals that God uses sinners to accomplish his divine purpose. According to Wariboko, for many of these groups Trump is not just their hero but he is also a sort of a messianic figure who will not only lead his followers to Godly redemption, but is also uniquely placed to do this for them and for the whole of America.

Scholars like Wariboko have tried to make sense of this both philosophically and theologically, especially given that Trump does not by any means conjure up any messianic ideals yet he is largely viewed by his evangelical supporters as a sort of a messiah, one who will protect America from liberalism and socialism.

Evangelicals and suspicions about science

Trump denies science, climate change and a wide array of environmental issues. While many evangelicals are not necessarily averse to science, they are also not very enthusiastic about it. Many evangelicals are beholden to the miraculous, spawning an entire faith healing and miracle industry that is at odds with science. For many evangelical clergy, science, climate change and environmental issues are not top of their agenda. They would rather pray for healing for ailments such as cancer, COVID-19, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, asthma and many others. Belief in science and medicine could seriously threaten their booming faith healing miracle industry, rendering many jobless.

With the collapse of healthcare in Africa following the structural adjustment programmes of the 1970s and 80s, the religious industry boomed while faith healers moved into the public sphere, spawning a thriving faith healing ministry that has captured the imaginations of many African Christians leading to the emergence of thousands of faith healing charlatans that have led many people astray. Prophet David Owuor, a scientist-cum-faith healer, has claimed to heal cancers, hypertension, diabetes, HIV/AIDs and various other disabilities. Trump is admired by these types of clergy because he legitimises their trade and gives them the language to oppose science.

Support for dictators: Leaders are appointed by God

Another reason why African evangelicals support Trump is that he appears to admire dictators and has dictatorial tendencies. African evangelicals have a long tradition of not just supporting populist politicians but also providing tacit approval to Africa’s dictators. Kenyan evangelicals supported and provided legitimacy to the late President Daniel Arap Moi. In Nigeria, evangelicals aligned themselves with corrupt leaders who looted the country. Pentecostal clergy have also provided legitimacy to leaders in Zambia, Uganda and Tanzania.

There are also many similarities between Trump and African evangelical leaders many of whom are authoritarian and entertain no criticism from their members or from members of the public. While Trump fires his critics, some evangelical leaders threaten their critics with the famous dictum, “touch not my anointed”, a biblical verse that is often used to silence critics. Others threaten their critics with death and curses. Prophet Owuor has maintained a grip on his thousands of followers using the threat of curses and deaths from cancers and road accidents against anyone who speaks ill about him. This has led to vicious infighting within a ministry that is run by fear to stifle criticism.

At the same time, many African evangelical leaders lack both the theological and philosophical tools of analysis with which to engage the state unlike their Catholic and other mainstream church clergy who have theologically-grounded and philosophical tools of analysis to engage on social and political issues. Many African evangelical clergy frown upon theological education and go into ministry by simply calling themselves to the ministry and relying on the Holy Spirit to interpret the bible.

Islam and evangelicals

There is also the Muslim factor in the evangelicals’ support for Trump. There is enough evidence in his rhetoric against Muslims—many of whom he has banned from entering the US—that Trump hates Muslims and regards them as terrorists who hate America. Evangelicals are suspicious of Muslims and the increase in Islamophobia in Africa, America and elsewhere is directly related to the emergence of Christian nationalism.

In Africa, especially in countries with significant numbers of Muslims, increased islamophobia and emerging and simmering tensions between Christians and Muslim is blamed on the emergence of evangelicals and Pentecostals in public life. We saw this in Kenya during contestations over the Kadhi Courts during the constitution review process. This has also been documented in Nigeria and other countries. Evangelicals feel threatened by increasing numbers of Muslims and Trump’s rhetoric about Islam has emboldened African evangelicals who are suspicious of Islam. Terrorism has also complicated this relationship.

Trump is a tragic hero in African evangelicalism, where many still believe that even though polls show that he lost to Joe Biden, many are still praying for a miracle while evangelical prophets and prophetesses have cast this election between the forces of evil (democrats) and good (Trump and the evangelicals). African evangelicals have cast Trump as a less than perfect person who is being used by God to fulfil his will. In their way of understanding, God uses the weak to accomplish his purpose. Evangelicals have appropriated biblical characters such as Cyrus to save God’s people from their enemies. Trump is therefore seen as a modern day Cyrus who will lead God’s people to peace and prosperity.

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Trump Fired, Biden Hired: America’s Democratic Reawakening

The American nightmare of an unhinged, chaotic, incompetent, cruel, crude, corrupt, authoritarian, and exhausting Trump presidency is over. The United States can now exhale and begin to dig itself out of the abyss of national and global ignominy. But will the euphoria last?

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Trump Fired, Biden Hired: America’s Democratic Reawakening
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Donald Trump will be remembered as one of the worst presidents in American history, a man who brutally and blithely exposed the failings and fragilities of American democracy, the enduring polarisations of its body politic, and the deformities of its institutions. Many commentators have bemoaned how the Trump presidency severely damaged American society and the United States’ global standing.

Trump’s transgressions are aptly captured by leading columnists in the New York Times in the series, “What Have We Lost”. They variously claim that Trump’s shocking election led to the loss of naivety as the country was dragged to the brink of ruin; America was robbed of its innocence and optimism as he extravagantly exposed some of its hideous history and attributes. The perpetual state of emergency impoverished the national imagination, culture, creativity, and thinking; his boorish behaviour smashed the decency floor of society; he emboldened moral cynicism that eroded the spirit of generosity as selfishness was normalised and turned into a national credo; his incendiary populist partisanship systematically undermined the social capital of trust, connectivity and community; his perpetual and pervasive outrage, lies, scandals, and incivility sapped national pride and discourse; his corrosive nationalism and belligerence dimmed America’s aura and standing in the world and accelerated the demise of Pax-Americana, he tarnished democracy,  emboldened autocracies and facilitated China’s great leap past America.

The roots of Trump’s loss lie in the incompatibility of his 2016 electoral promises of authoritarian nationalism and economic populism, and in the Republican Party’s fiercely anti-populist economic agenda by which he actually governed. So instead of enacting a popular infrastructure bill, he supported a massive tax cut that benefitted the rich. His trade war with China did not revive domestic manufacturing; instead it ravaged farmers, and did little to cut the trade deficit.

Trump inherited a growing economy from the Obama administration, which improved little under his tenure. The United States grew at an average annual rate of 2.5 per cent during Trump’s first three years, which is almost identical to the 2.4 per cent rate during President Barack Obama’s final 36 months. This made it difficult to distinguish the Trump economy from the Obama economy, notwithstanding Trump’s promises and boasts of his business prowess, which was fake, given his history of serial bankruptcies, staggering business incompetence, and tax avoidance, as revealed in a sensational expose by the New York Times in late September and early October. Not surprisingly, voters showed increasing faith in Joe Biden’s ability to rebuild a pandemic-ravaged economy.

Photo. Flickr/ jlhervàs

Joe Biden. Photo. Flickr/ jlhervàs

As the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic surged across the country, the Republican Senate balked at passing a new stimulus bill that would have helped millions of people and bolstered Trump’s populist economic agenda. To the delight of Republicans, the Trump administration ended up redistributing “wealth upward even more aggressively than Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush did. But for Trump, the political consequences have been dire”

All too often, condemnation of the Trump presidency becomes a deflection when he is depicted as an aberration rather than an embodiment of the profound and long-standing disabilities and deficits of American society and democracy. The fact that about 40 per cent of the population consistently supported him throughout his presidency, and that he won 70 million votes in the 2020 presidential election, shows he represented a large swathe of American society and embraced their values of intolerance, bigotry, and racism.  But he also made more inroads than any Republican president among non-white voters, especially Hispanics and Black men gesturing to the appeal of his strutting conservative machismo.

In the New York Times series noted above, some acknowledge the ugly truths of the Trump phenomenon. Jamelle Bouie puts it well:

For many millions of Americans, the presidency of Donald Trump has been a kind of transgression, an endless assault on dignity, decency and decorum…But his transgressions are less a novel assault on American institutions than they are a stark recapitulation of past failure and catastrophe…What is terrible about Trump is also terrible about the United States. Everything we’ve seen in the last four years – the nativism, the racism, the corruption, the wanton exploitation of the weak and unconcealed contempt for the vulnerable – is as much a part of the American story as our highest ideals and aspirations. The line to Trump runs through the whole of American history…

But instead of generating a serious reckoning with the uncomfortable realities laid bare by the Trump presidency, another commentator laments that there “has been widespread retreat from revelation, let alone from any subsequent conversion, and a rush back to the comforts of one’s preconceptions and one’s tribe”. The right, the left, and centreof American politics responded to these revelations “sometimes with recognition and adaptation, but more often with denial”.

The backlash and the rise of the Democratic Party 

However, it is also true that the breadth and depth of Trump’s perverse omnipresence and invasion of the fractious nation’s political space and discourse shook Americans out of their complacency; it provoked a massive backlash among women, minorities, aggrieved independents and livid liberals who promised to revitalise American democracy.

In the vanguard of the democratic resistance were Black women, the unshakeable bedrock of the Democratic Party, and the conscience of the beleaguered nation. They marched and mobilised, volunteered and voted overwhelmingly for the Biden-Harris ticket to rescue the country that had oppressed, exploited and marginalised them for centuries.

The fact that about 40 per cent of the population consistently supported him throughout his presidency, and that he won 70 million votes in the 2020 presidential election, shows he represented a large swathe of American society and embraced their values of intolerance, bigotry, and racism.

Trump’s train wreck was brought to a halt by facts he failed to bend to his will, to banish to the fantasies of fake news, to denigrate and deny. He was mauled by the deadly facts of the coronavirus pandemic, the undeniable facts of economic collapse, the haunting facts of tens of millions of lives and livelihoods destroyed, the hideous facts of a country coming apart at the seams, and the humbling fact of a superpower surging towards decline in compressed time before the gaze of an incredulous world.

The election represented the repudiation of Trump by a majority of Americans who had never voted for him in the first place. He has lost to Biden by more than 4 million votes. However, the election of Trump in 2016 and the nail-biting finish in 2020 showed the inherent flaws of American democracy. The election also represented a resounding affirmation of the Biden-Harris ticket.

Six dynamics propelled Biden to victory. First, he captured the mood of the country by campaigning for the “soul of America”. He sold himself as the sober and decent pragmatist who would bring back civility and compromise, pursue national unity and public service, and rescue the country from the abyss of political partisanship, greed, corruption, and moral nihilism. He successfully made the election a referendum against Trump.

Second, like Obama before him, Biden’s was a crisis candidacy, forged in the burning inferno of the worst health and economic crisis in a century that the Trump presidency squandered through staggering ineptitude. Biden seized the moment as he exuded empathy and competence steeled by personal tragedy and a long political career. He said he believed in science, facts, collective action, and government capability and intervention as part of the solution to resolving crises and promoting national well-being. Unlike Hillary Clinton after her bruising 2016 campaign, he managed to unite the party behind him, including the restive left. He also revived the Obama coalition.

Third, he chose an inspiring running mate – Senator Kamala Harris. As a Black and Asian woman, Harris carried the historical weight of struggles against racism and white supremacy and women’s marginalisation in a charged moment of unprecedented national and global protests under the banner of the Black Lives Matter Movement following the murder of George Floyd. Trump’s misogyny had also revitalised the American women’s movement. As a daughter of immigrant parents from India and Jamaica, Harris recreated Obama’s multiracial and migrant appeal and attracted the new African and Asian diasporas at a time of draconian anti-immigration rhetoric and policies.

Photo. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Kamala Harris. Photo. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

As a graduate of Howard University, she affirmed the intellectual prowess and transformative power of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and mobilised the Black middle class produced by HBCUs. The stature of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, soared “and people began to understand precisely what a Black sisterhood is – the strength and support of those bonds. These women, 300,000 strong, organised for the Biden-Harris ticket. And their wondrous blend of accomplishment and poise was writ large”.

Harris has become the first woman, the first Black woman, and the first woman of colour to ascend to the second highest political office in the United States – a monumental achievement that has electrified women across the country and around the world.

Fourth, Biden’s campaign skillfully reinstated the blue wall around the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and looked poised to flip the red and rapidly diversifying states of Arizona and Georgia. He was saved by the cities without alienating the suburbs by his reassuring balancing appeals to the anxieties and aspirations of African Americans and other minorities, as well as white workers and white women, who gravitated towards him in larger numbers than they did towards Hillary Clinton. Particularly challenging was how to address issues of police brutality, law and order, and racial equality and justice.

Fifth, Democrats have progressively won the battle of ideas, so that ideas espoused by the Democratic Party platform in 2020, which would have seemed radical when Barack Obama ran for office, suddenly appeared moderate. Over the last century, four major ideological battles have been fought in American politics and society: on the role of the state and the market; social mores and policy; racial equality and justice; and America’s international relations with its allies, rivals and developing countries.

Following the demise of Keynesian economics and the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, Republicans unapologetically favoured small government and free markets, while Democrats stuck to their preference for larger government and regulated markets. To quote David Brooks, “That debate ebbed and flowed over the years, but 2020 has turned out to be a pivotal year in the struggle, and it looks now as if we can declare a winner. The Democrats won the big argument of the 20th century. It’s not that everybody has become a Democrat, but even many Republicans are now embracing basic Democratic assumptions. Americans across the board fear economic and physical insecurity more than an overweening state. The era of big government is here.”

Harris has become the first woman, the first Black woman, and the first woman of colour to ascend to the second highest political office in the United States – a monumental achievement that has electrified women across the country and around the world.

If the Great Recession dented the neoliberal hegemony of limited government and unfettered markets, COVID-19 has buried it. To quote Brooks again, “Covid-19 has pushed voters to the left. It’s made Americans feel vulnerable and more likely to support government efforts to reduce that vulnerability…This greater support for social safety net programs transcends political ideology.”

About 60 per cent of Americans now believe that the government should do more to solve national problems, and two-thirds believe that it should fight the effects of climate change.

American society has also been moving to the left on contentious social policies, such as gender equality, abortion, and sexuality. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2020, 57 per cent of adult Americans say that the US hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights with men; the figure is 64 per cent among women and 49 per cent among men, and 76 per cent among Democrats compared to 33 per cent among Republicans. Seventy-seven per cent say that sexual harassment is a major obstacle to gender equality. 

On abortion, the majority of Americans (61 per cent) continue to support legal abortion and 70 per cent oppose overturning Roe vs. Wade. Sixty-one per cent support same sex marriage while 31 per cent oppose it – the reverse of attitudes in 2004 when 60 per cent were opposed and 31 per cent were in favour. There are, of course, variations by political party, religious affiliation, and demographic group.

As for foreign policy, 73 per cent say that good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace, while 26 per cent say that military strength is the best way to do this. By a similar margin, more Americans say the US should take the interests of its allies into account, even if it means making compromises, than those who think the US should follow its own national interests when allies disagree (68 per cent vs. 31 per cent). Democrats and Independents score highest, at 90 per cent and 83 per cent, respectively, on the two questions, while Republicans are more evenly split, with 53 per cent and 51 per cent, respectively. Those under the age of 50 are more likely to favour diplomacy and compromise with allies.

On the US’s involvement in the global economy, 73 per cent say it is a good thing, an opinion that is highest among those with a college education (86 per cent) and lowest (64 per cent) among those with a high school education or less.

Clearly, notwithstanding the loud fulminations of America’s right wing that was inflated by the Trump presidency, the United States of 2020 is more liberal than the United States of 2016, or 2000, let alone the United States of 1950 when conservatives sought to restore in their plaintive cry, “Make America Great Again”.

Progressives need to deconstruct the narrative that sees the United States as a naturally conservative country whose authentic overlords are Republicans and in which Democrats come to power only as periodic interlopers. This often leads Republicans playing hardball and Democrats playing softball; the former are always ready for combat and the latter for compromise.

Sixth, America is becoming more diverse and is destined to become a majority-minority nation in the mid-2040s. The demographic shifts are evident even in the electorate in 2016 and 2020. Demography is of course not destiny. The country changes, and so do political parties. At one time African Americans largely voted Republican, the party of Lincoln, then drifted to the Democrats, the party of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that propelled the Republicans to adopt their Southern Strategy of racist appeals to white voters.

However, trends point to what Fessenden and Gamio call “the relentless shrinking of Trump’s base”.  From 1976 to 2018, white voters without college degrees declined from 71 per cent to 39 per cent, while white voters with college degrees doubled from 17 per cent to 34 per cent, and minority voters more than doubled from 11 per cent to 27 per cent. The shifts in age are no less telling. Between 2016 and 2020, voters among the silent and older generations fell from 30 per cent to 9 per cent, baby boomers from 38 per cent to 29 per cent, Gen X from 26 per cent to 23 per cent, while millennials increased from 6 per cent to 25 per cent, and Gen Z from 0 per cent to 13 per cent.

Photo. Flickr/ Geoff Livingston

Young people campaigning for the Biden-Harris ticket. Photo. Flickr/ Geoff Livingston

Notwithstanding the cultural and demographic advantages enjoyed by the Democrats, predictions of a blue wave failed to materialise. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, panic and cheeriness gripped both the Democrats and the Republicans as Trump bagged Florida and Texas, took an early lead in the polls in the battleground states, and Republicans held on to Senate races that had been expected to flip and won House seats from Democrats. Some feared or hoped for a repeat of 2016, and questioned the accuracy of the polls that had shown Biden and Democrats in a commanding lead. But as an editorial in the Washington Post reminded its readers, “Surprise! The election is unfolding as predicted.” As the vote counting continued from hours to days, and Biden’s prospects brightened, the narrative and expectations shifted.

The dysfunctions of American democracy  

Americans are used to getting their projected election results instantly on election night. I teased my African American wife to exercise patience as is common in African and many other countries where election results are often announced several days, even weeks, after the elections. The apparent slowness in declaring the winner of the US presidential election revealed a lot more than American impatience; it reflected the enduring dysfunctions of American democracy. As a member of the new African diaspora in the United States, and a student of international political economy and comparative politics, I have always been struck by the following four structural deficits of the American democratic system.

First, the electoral college is an instrument of minority rule that has primarily benefitted Republicans over the last twenty years, first, George W. Bush in 2000 in which Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000 while losing Florida’s electoral college by 537 votes, and second, Donald Trump in 2016 who lost to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes but clinched the electoral college by a whisker in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Altogether, in American history, five presidents – three in the 19th century (John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888) – won the presidency while losing the popular vote.

Over the past 30 years, only once, in 2004, did a Republican president win the popular vote, but they have been elected three times. Republican minority rule by the presidency and Senate are baked into the system. The US Senate “gives disproportionate power to older, whiter, more rural and more conservative interests”. Right now, states representing just 17 per cent of the nation’s population could elect a majority of senators. By 2040, the 15 most populous states will be home to 67 per cent of Americans yet will be represented by just 30 per centof the Senate. Add up the actual votes received in the winning election of every sitting US senator, and you will see that Republicans haven’t won a senate majority since the mid-1990s. Yet they’ve controlled the Senate for 10 of the last 20 years, and used that advantage to shape the ideological balance on the federal courts.

The electoral college system, writes Bob Carr in the Guardian, represents an unenviable form of American exceptionalism. “It confirms the proposition that the US is simply not a democracy, not in the sense Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are democracies.” If America’s systematic voter suppression and rigged elections “were practised against, say, Caribbean or Asian communities in the UK or Sicilians in Italy or Māori in New Zealand, its peculiarity would be a subject of domestic scandal and international embarrassment. The American electoral system is a shambles defying democratic norms.”

Second, American democracy is haunted by the spectre of voter suppression, which goes back to the nation’s founding. In the US constitution, enslaved Africans were not only deemed three-fifths of a human being, they could not vote, nor could women of any race. After the right to vote was extended in the Fifteenth Amendment that enfranchised all men (but not women), culminating in the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, new voter suppression strategies were devised, which were especially targeted at African Americans.

During Jim Crow, poll taxes and literacy tests were used to disenfranchise African Americans in the South. In the post-Civil Rights era, voter suppression encompassed the disenfranchisement of ex-felons in some states, the purging of voter rolls, the placing of limitations on early and absentee voting, disinformation, and the imposition of discriminatory voting identification requirements. Trump’s angry denunciations against absentee voting is rooted in the tattered undemocratic playbook of voter suppression.

Voter suppression makes a mockery of America’s self-image as the world’s leading democracy. Sam Levin laments:

To understand how voter suppression is shaping the 2020 election, just look at Texas. While many states do not require voters to have a reason to vote by mail, Texas only allows voters to do so if they are 65 or older or meet other conditions. The state does not allow people to register to vote online. Even with a flood of Covid cases, Texas has successfully fought tooth and nail in federal and state courts to uphold those restrictions. Last month, Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, a Republican, abruptly issued an order that limited each county in the state to offer one ballot drop box. The move meant that Democratic-friendly Harris county, which covers more than 1,700 square miles and is home to 2.4 million registered voters, could only offer one place for voters to return their ballots. The state of Rhode Island, which is smaller than Harris county, will have more drop-off locations this year…The battle playing across America is in some ways a continuation of a centuries-long fight over access to the franchise.

Third, the establishment of electoral boundaries and constituencies through gerrymandering is deployed as a powerful weapon to dilute the voting power of an opposition party and concentrate that of the ruling party in a district. In America’s first-past-the-post electoral system, gerrymandering has been used by the two main political parties to reduce competition by maximising the voting power of supporters and minimising that of opponents often segmented on the basis of race, class, religion, or ideology.

In effect, in the absence of a neutral or cross-party agency, the party in power draws the electoral boundaries and chooses its voters. It does so by spreading groups of known or likely opposition voters among several districts or concentrates them in one district to dilute their votes across the state – what political scientists call the wasted vote effect. Gerrymandering is designed to bolster the electoral prospects of incumbents and undermines descriptive or proportional representation.

American democracy is haunted by the spectre of voter suppression, which goes back to the nation’s founding. In the US constitution, enslaved Africans were not only deemed three-fifths of a human being, they could not vote, nor could women of any race.

Fourth, the American judicial system is highly politicised. At the federal level, the president makes judicial appointments, which are reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee before a vote is taken by the Senate. Presidents nominate individuals who fit and are likely to promote their party’s ideology and interests, while the balance of power in the Senate among the two parties often determines who is appointed. Fights over the appointment of Supreme Court justices are fierce because of the court’s extensive powers of judicial review. In 2000, the electoral contest between Bush and Gore was decided by the Supreme Court.

Trump hopes that the Supreme Court will also save him, especially now that it is packed with three of his appointees, and conservatives enjoy a 6-3 advantage. The last appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, was nominated by Trump on September 26, 2020, six days after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a revered liberal icon, and confirmed by the Republican-dominated Senate of October 26. The same Republicans suddenly forgot their injunction against considering a nominee in a president’s last year that was directed at President Obama who sought to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died eight months before the 2016 elections, with Merrick Garland.

No resounding rejection of Trumpism 

The renowned economist, Paul Krugman wonders, “Is America becoming a failed state?” His answer is not reassuring. Even with a Biden victory, “it seems likely that the Senate — which is wildly unrepresentative of the American people — will remain in the hands of an extremist party that will sabotage Biden in every way it can…Every state, of course, has two senators — which means that Wyoming’s 579,000 residents have as much weight as California’s 39 million…An analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight.com found that the Senate in effect represents an electorate almost seven percentage points more Republican than the average voter”.

Larry Diamond, a theorist of democracy, warns in Foreign Affairs that “a new administration won’t heal American democracy” because the “rot in U.S. political institutions runs deeper than Trump”. He argues:

The broad signs of political decay are familiar – and alarming – to comparative scholars of democracy: the growing polarization, distrust, and intolerance among supporters of the main opposing parties; the increasing tendency to view partisan attachments as a kind of tribal identity; the intertwining of partisan affiliations with racial, ethnic, or religious identities; and the inability to forge political compromises across partisan divides – and hence to mount effective policy responses to national issues.

Baskar Sunkara concludes ruefully:

America is a failing state…In 2020, America has shown itself to be exceptional in the worst possible ways…Winning mass support for a program of Medicare for All, green jobs, affordable housing, and more seems within reach. But the left must find a way to not just popularize our goals, but secure the means – institutional reform – to achieve them… But we can’t just stop at the abolition of the electoral college and the Senate filibuster, or even full Congressional representation for Washington DC residents. We must more fundamentally fight to transform the pre-modern political system that we’ve grafted on to our modern economy and society. For progressives, that’s a battle far more daunting than just getting Trump out of the White House – but it’s just as necessary.

Trump will, of course, do everything to subvert the will of the people, including inciting his tens of millions of supporters. As one columnist in the Washington Post put it, there was no “resounding rejection of Trump and Trumpism”  Even with Trump evicted from the White House, “Trumpism will not have been swept into the dustbin of history; it will remain all over the furniture. It’s part of the furniture. Unsweepable.” Another commentator in The Atlantic reminds us, “A large portion of the electorate chose the sociopath. America will have to contend with that fact.”

Zeynep Tufecki warns that compared to Trump, who was ineffective and easily beaten because of his incompetence, “America’s next authoritarian will be much more competent”, like the current politically talented autocratic populists of India, Brazil, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and elsewhere who have mastered winning elections.

Photo. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Donald J. Trump. Photo. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Trumpism – a reincarnation of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy that has been reconfigured to incorporate digitalised angry populism and the laager of white supremacy and racial capitalism – is likely to survive and to cast a shadow over the Biden presidency.

Others are more hopeful that American democracy has survived “its brush with death”. Nell Irvin Painter, the distinguished African American scholar, concedes that the election shouldn’t have been this close, but she sees hope “in the long lines of voters”, and in the indelible images of “Americans in 2020 re-enacting the South African voters of 1994” as they voted the ghost of apartheid into the dustbin of history.

Jonathan Freedland sadly notes:

It’s a form of progressive masochism to search for the defeat contained in a victory… Yes, in a high-turnout election, Trump got more votes than he did in 2016 – but Biden got more votes than any presidential candidate in history, more even than the once-in-a-generation phenomenon that was Barack Obama. What’s more, Biden looks to have done something extremely difficult and vanishingly rare, taking on and defeating a first-term president. That would ensure that Donald Trump becomes only the third elected president since Herbert Hoover in 1932 to try and fail to win re-election. Trump would take his place alongside Jimmy Carter and George Bush the elder in the small club of rejected, one-term presidents.

America’s return to the world

Joe Biden’s victory has been greeted with great relief by many democracies around the world, and with some consternation by authoritarian populists and autocratic rivals who reveled in America’s democratic recession and descent under Trump. “U.S. allies stressed the need to rebuild ties and multilateral cooperation after President Trump’s ‘America First’ approach upended decades of U.S. foreign policy. For traditional allies who endured sharp criticism, unpredictable behavior and new tariffs under Trump, the election of Biden offered a return to normalcy.

In the global environmental movement and the health sector, many anticipate the quick return of the US to the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization to combat COVID-19 and other long-standing and future global health threats. Multilateralism seems poised to enjoy a new burst of diplomatic energy. But the hegemonic rivalry between China and the United States is fated to continue, and the decline of the American model is unlikely to be reversed. The Trump saga and his expulsion from power has exposed both the fragility and resilience of American institutions. In that sense, it has made the United States ordinary.

Trumpism – a reincarnation of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy that has been reconfigured to incorporate digitalised angry populism and the laager of white supremacy and racial capitalism – is likely to survive and to cast a shadow over the Biden presidency.

For Africa, the US can be expected to return to its traditional diplomatic preoccupations of economic development, human rights, anti-terrorism, and competition with China. But the Biden administration will encounter a different continent from that of the Obama years – one that has lived without serious engagement with the departing Trump administration and demands more respect, a continent whose economies have been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and require productive and transformative relationships.

For me personally, it has been fascinating to watch the elections in the two countries whose citizenship I carry: Malawi and the United States. Earlier this year, the Malawi Supreme Court annulled the presidential election of May 2019 because of irregularities by the Malawi Electoral Commission. The opposition proceeded to win the election re-run in June. What I have learned from the two elections is that the notion that American democracy is more mature than that of an African country like Malawi is false.

The Malawian Supreme Court exercised judicial independence that is unlikely to come from the highly politicised US Supreme Court. Moreover, the losing ruling party demonstrated maturity that has not been demonstrated by the infantile, irascible and entitled Trump administration and his unprincipled Republican sycophants. This underscores a sobering and empowering fact: democracy is not a monopoly of developed countries; it is always a work in progress that needs to be jealously guarded.

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Derelict Shards & The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms

Online keynote address given at the International Conference: Colonialism as Shared History. Past, Present, Future, 7–9 October 2020, Berlin. Organized by Ulrike Lindner, Bettina Brockmeyer, Rebekka Habermas, Gerda Henkel Foundation and the German Federal Foreign Office.

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Derelict Shards & The Roaming of Colonial Phantoms
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Thank you for such a generous introduction. Honorable Minister, Michelle Müntefering, Professor Drs Rebekka Habermas, Bettina Brockmeye, Ulrike Lindne, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon from my side of the world. Nicole Gonsior, Katharina Klaus, Simone Baumstark thank you for all your support. To the panellists, audience, some of whom are friends signing in, a big hello. I trust that you are all holding up well in these surreal days.

A quick apology:

My presentations are usually companioned by dramatic visuals, mostly collated from the public library that is the World Wide Web. Copyright issues associated with this session; means I have to forego the visual evidence.

When Professor Dr. Rebekka Habermas contacted me to inquire whether I would be interested in offering a keynote, I reminded her that I am a person of artistic persuasion, not an academic. “That’s what we desire.” She replied. I asked if she was aware that I do not have a single politically correct bone in my body.” She said, “Good.” “I eat sacred cows.’ I pleaded. She implied, “Guten Appetit.”

So here we are.

Derelict Shards: …

An opening quotation by the late Swedish author, Sven Lindqvist, who for me represents those rare human beings who do the hard work of refining and engaging a sense of their moral consciousness and conscience, however disordering that can be, in his extraordinary work,  “Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide, in the first paragraph, he observes: “You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

I concur.

So this is a very preliminary incursion into what I trust will later become for this initiative, among other possibilities, an investigative, excavatory processes. Some figurative bodies might be exhumed in the process of this brief telling, and raise a stink. I don’t apologise. In this offering, Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon make technical appearances, as do other thinkers. Fanon and Cesaire are reminders that the road maps already exist. It is the will to change ourselves through implementing their prophetic imperatives that has been absent.

Also.

About Africa.

For this presentation, do hold its giant and complex pluralities in mind. I refer to the whole of Africa, the pluriversality of it, its essential diversities: there is no subbing of the Sahara in my Africa. Its territoriality extends beyond the seas., its tentacles touch every space that exists in the world.

And, although I am Nairobi and Kenya born, bred, formed and identified, the Occident has and does inform and influence me; this is an intrinsic part of the multiplicities I contain, I live my paradoxes with ease. Note that, yes, I do treat history as one of the paint palettes for my work. However, I prefer and relish the older, deeper and longer histories of the interstices of my people. As brutish as the fairly recent encounter of Africa with the Occident had been, as soul-damaging as it still is, that encounter, in the scheme of things, comparatively speaking, is but a small, viciously irritating, admittedly wildly dramatic phrase with a semicolon in the long, long, long trajectory of the book of African existence. If now it dominates so much of our historical conversations it is because it was an existential wound-creating encounter with structures, systems, ways of thought that penetrate our lives to this moment. It is, however, not the single point upon which our entire African lives pivot. Furthermore, the stories of our encounters with you are myriad, diverse and dispersed; it is not a monolithic tale. The common factor is ‘The Occident’ as metaphor, symbol, wound; as existential threat; as a diversity of forced tragic and horrific experiences, of direct encounter and brutal confrontation with wave after wave of an excess of the unexpected, unimagined, unmitigated evil occasioned by acts of war; and this invasion and its intent was war, and a war that despite the best of the myriad efforts of a people unused to encountering another people able and willing to betray both human hospitality and their word, a people willing to commit random acts of genocide…this is a war our people lost to the Occident totally.

You.

Sie.

It is this ‘you’ that this reflection and initiative first ought to attend to. I think… Before we can arrive at a ‘we’, we must exhaust the accusative, ‘you’, ‘Sie’, not directed at the individual, but to a particular and historical cultural position, idea and consciousness and its world-making choices. The German Colonial idea is fed by, formed by, fuelled by the grander Occidental colonial imperative. The collectivised cultural will that worked as a gang to enforce and sustain the evil genius that was colonial matrix.

Shared is an interesting word in English. Still, whatever is intended by it, we first must prioritise attending to the ‘us’, in community and later in the collective before we can even arrive at a shareable ‘We’. Also, because the colonialism catastrophe did not unfold in isolation, the ‘we’ encompasses other non-African and non-European worlds, who I hope are enjoined in this project, if not the conference.

Now.

This paper went through two major revisions, and I use these to set out a context: The first version prepared for, was it May, offered a point of view that called for a forensic historical reckoning to help stay an inevitable coming explosion of rage. That became moot when fault lines were created by the grotesque public lynching of the human being, Mr. George Floyd, and rumblings started all over the world. History intervening. A second revision was inspired by the world-scape created by the ongoing visitation of the Coronavirus. I was startled by the discombobulations and public health disorders of societies that have behaved for the last eighty years as if they were exempt and excused from the vagaries of human suffering, that have treated the sufferings of others in the world, like nations of Africa, as an intrinsic flaw in their nature. Around that time, I also happened upon a commentary on the June 2017[1] World Bank Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility and the ‘pandemic bonds’ they had floated. The investor nations include the European Union, the USA of course, and Japan. The bonds were oversubscribed. These bunch were betting heavily on reaping profits out of pandemic-caused mass deaths, primarily in Africa and possibly in Asia. These bonds were to, “transfer pandemic risks in low-income countries to the financial markets”. Put simply, here was the commodification of anticipated suffering, the instrumentalization of anguish for profit. The human scavengers then proceeded to package their macabre money grubbing, and obscene feeding frenzy as philanthropy. My visceral disgust focused this presentation. It is now an Aetiological enquiry. There is an urgent human need to interrogate a 400-year old cultural mindset. How does a dynamic culture get to lose grip of the basics of being human? How does this culture come to justify and then amplify its dependency on its predation of other humans? Is there any precedent for a culture seeing itself, and intentionally undertaking a long-history probing of its cultural conscience and collective soul? In the pandemic bond subscription story I found a perfect condensation of the essential character of the European imperialism and colonisation project.

Colonialism as shared history? At this stage of things, a rephrasing of the theme will probably be sought. You see, when a psychopath enters a family’s home and proceeds to rape, rob, eviscerate and murder them, and then settles in, takes over the family pets, the premises, the lands. Starts growing grapes and mines the gold he finds there, and then becomes extremely wealthy in the process, marries a well-brought up delicate lily from his home town, becomes a source of wisdom and starts to host the finest of classical music soirées, builds a reputation as an impressive family patriarch and, later his statue is raised in his home town on the day he establishes an endowment for scholarships in the humanities …now… no matter what, the brutalised, displaced, victimised family upon whose annihilation the psychopath has built an impressive life, that wounded family, if any do survive, cannot engage the atrocity that decimated their relationship with existence as something of a ‘shared experience’. The original inhumanity, the violation of an intrinsic and basic covenant of human relationality, the desecration of human dignity and decency forbid it. With very few exceptions—I can’t think of any—the forced entry of Europe into our worlds linger long as a horror story of brutishness, cruelty, violence, predation and inhumanity, no matter what shining edifices have been built atop the grievous wounds.

But what else might a descendant-beneficiary of a history of heinous crime do when confronted with the reality of this, finds a spark of horror within themselves and is afflicted by a need to make peace? A suggestion: enter naked into the worlds of the shadowed memories and knowing. Undertake to collect and collate memory from out of the crime scenes; approach with reverence the weight of tragic knowing that descendants bear. Listen. Witness. Attend to the truth (Capital ‘T’). Strive for a language for the experiencing. Translate this into heartfelt human grief. Speak it out to another. Acknowledge. Be heard. Endeavour to repair. There are no expiry dates for acts of human reparation, and hope that somehow, somewhere, sometime (it cannot be hurried, demanded) the ‘F’ word—Forgiveness—gently enters the threshold of engagement.

Aime Césaire:

“no one colonizes innocently, …”a nation which colonizes, a civilization which justifies colonization – and therefore force – is already a sick civilization”.

I worry that unless a wilful effort is made to dig around the historical roots of the genesis of what becomes the colonial enterprise—I mean the human mindset and sequence of experiences and thought and cultural compromises that converged to make it unfold in the anti-human way that it did, yet another long season of good minds round and round a dry watering hole will unfold. There are important questions waiting for all of us at the roots. I need to understand, for example, as a human being perplexed by the depth and intensity of evil, who, will billions of others, still lives out colonialism’s resonances and discontents–what was in the European cultural psyche that turned such an excess of its migrating population into sociopaths, psychopaths, and serial killers operating in the world? This was abnormal by any historical standard. Why did it happen to Europe in particular, in the way that it did? Knowing the codes of life, hiding the intrinsic sadism under the veneer of Judeo-Christianity with its ‘Thou shalt not kill-Thou shalt not covet-Love thy neighbour as thyself’ tenets, in confronting the other, the stranger, why was there such a wholesale failure of faith as life and action? Future research processes, probably by combined teams of forensic pathologists, anthropologists and psychoanalysts might uncover some of the reasons for this aberration, which then proceeded, mostly through a hitherto unexperienced will to violence, will to annihilate masses, will to genocide, to turn its derangements into laws of and for the world.

By the way, I use the metonym ‘Occident’ to refer to the ideological space from which the originators and architects of the catastrophe that becomes colonialism emerge for the sake of aetiology and the tomb-poking process that is this presentation.

Oh yes, about those pandemic bonds…Good news. Fortunately for humanity, the winds of fate do sometimes blow fairly. Covid-19, that equal opportunity existential threat has caused the would-be-vampires to join the rest of humanity in reflecting on the meaning of human vulnerability and mass suffering; of dealing with uncertainty and making peace with the unknown. The papers on which the bonds are printed are bulkier and more valuable than the anticipated returns on investment. And this year, the World Bank ditched its second offering.

Colonialism as Shared History. Past, Present, Future? There is a one-word answer to the implied question: What we share most because of colonialism is that Greek word, trauma. But what to do with it when that trauma is a multi-prism, multi-form distinct-character presence? Lay these out, I guess. Listen, at the core of the tragedy of colonialism is the sadness of wilful destruction of the gift and treasure of the intimacy of humanity, of what-could-have-been-had-we-met-differently-and-humanly. Our greatest shared loss occasioned by a violent and hubristic encounter was each other. We lost each other. ‘Derelict Shards’ the title references jutting, sharp and pointy bits that still pierce our ease with one another. These phantom shrapnel from the fallout of our fatal encountering in this ghost-making project, not aided by a faux-innocence and deliberate amnesia that sweeps our many restless dead, the terrible deeds done to secure advantages (yours and ours) under so many metaphorical carpets.

‘Shared colonialism’? So which of the thresholds of our discontent do we cross into first? Epistemic, Economic, Theological, Scientific, Conceptual, Ontological, Philosophical, Historical, Industrial, Economic, Linguistic, Cultural, Militaristic, Technological, Artistic, Scientific, Biological, Civilizational, Imaginational, Aesthetic, Teleological, Psychological, Typological, Natural? Pathological? There is tangible historical evidence to go with each of these and other unmentioned categories.

You wanted a speech. I have none to give. If a type is required for this presentation, then call it a dirge, or an introit for a requiem, or a literary autopsy. A dirge is a call for introspection for both dirge-singer, bereaved family, community and the deceased, whose life, most African cultures understand, is a continuum. The dead must still account for the meaning of their choices, their existence, and the effects their lives had on others. There is a witness. The dirge is a site and space of, among other things, argument, audit and debate. The dirge is a site of witness, and also outpouring and acknowledgment of pain and sorrow. But when there is pain, there is paradoxically, still life; there is hope. And oh yes, after the dirge has detailed the things that needs to be shouted out, the dirge singer is at once forgiven and is not held accountable for things said. (I am indemnifying myself. ) The dirge becomes an outlet for the release of sad ghosts that would lurk restless, for the sorrow that might consume, for the deceased that died afraid their lives, loves and meaning would be forgotten.

A different point: I treasure the word ‘autopsy’[2], in its etymological and aetiological sense, as a method of inquiry and investigations. Autopsy: see for yourself in naked, unvarnished truth the innards of what is before us in a prosaic and philosophical quest. For colonialism’s form-changing, euphemism-dolling phantoms, I wish to offer a ruthless autopsy service.

This presentation unfolds in both a literal, digital and metaphorical Berlin: a city one cherishes, yet a city that is also in itself an unsecured multi-level crime scene of historical proportions. I heard a tentatively hopeful question behind the provocative conference title. Here is my position: it is still premature to ask it. You see, we have not yet even evolved a philosophy or grammar for the reconciling of our rattling skeletons, those dread phantoms and sometimes frolicking ghosts that roam the carnage of the devastated landscapes of tragically generated pasts that leach into the present with a lack of acknowledgment, with excessive noise, with ceaseless conceptualising and abstraction, and with which we collude to do nothing, and through this do-nothingness suffocating the life and keeping sealed the doors of hope for a robust, living, human future between us.

Back to aetiology.

Sie.

You.

The Occident.

Not just Germany.

As with many shape changers founded on ether, the Occidental notion always reshapes and reforms itself. Where are we now? The Five Eyes Alliance? The North, The West, Developed, First World, Nirvana? What is your presently trending metonym? Anyway, the idea of the Occident, was given a dogmatic imprimatur through the June 7, 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas and the associated Papal Bull that launched the alleged Age of Discovery. Didn’t anyone think to interrogate such a ridiculous demarcation of worlds? No?

Ok, let us leap across centuries.

Timeline: Berlin, (Nov. 15, 1884-Feb. 26, 1885):

A summit of the leadership of the world’s thieves, protagonists of the Age of Discovery, plus a few others, gathered ostensibly to resolve the Occidental Invader-created questions connected with the Congo River basin in Central Africa, but in actuality to apportion to themselves pieces of a grand old continent withal its cultures, kingdoms, nations, peoples. They will create borders between villages, assert territorial possession by means of a long, mostly asymmetrical war, flying the twin trojan-horse fig leaves of a civilising mission, and the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, neither of which they believe in. In this event, the real human motive: avarice, lust, obsession, wealth, power is kept concealed. Every gross intention is made to sound like philanthropy and humanitarianism, and is published as such over the objections a few good humans. Has this template ever changed? Soon after, murderous European hordes, mandated by their home nations, will fan out across an ancient continent looting, burning cities to the ground, committing mass murders, erasing humans; raping, spreading thirteen different diseases (ranging from dengue fever to syphilis; measles to the plague), rewriting histories so that, years later an apparently educated French president, Sarkozy, will stand in what had been a trans-oceanic, transmodern trading centre systematically distorted by his earlier compatriots, and confidently state that Africa had no history to speak of until… the European. [3]

Derelict shards:

There are a trillion ‘pieces’ of ‘Colonialisms’ scattered across our worlds, transcending borders and time and space. Your museums, collections, libraries filled with looted artwork, power objects, documents that bear testimony to the egregiousness of your ancestors acts, the intrinsic evil of the catastrophe of our sustained meeting. How come Mr Sarkozy education does not allow him to connect the Senegalese high-value looted art work, the elaborate cultural items, the human body parts in French stolen-good clearing houses (museums and collections) with the young people he addresses in the city where his earlier compatriots had enacted those crimes? Such an unreflective conscience, such a moral void even if it can deliver poetic twaddle with an intensity of super-confidence that is shocked when questioned. Do you ever wonder what psychological processes allows one culture to project an emptiness upon an older, grander, continent and all its people while transporting, and hoarding the bounty of that civilisations to its cities? I ask: what psychic force gives confidence to a European to affirm the sobriquet of cannibal to another’s when it is to Europe that the ripped-up body parts of our numerous dead, the murdered, are transported, are kept, are fetishized, are stored and are even debated over? You Germany, with your shrines and reflections on the devastation of the Shoah, that there is to this moment a dispute about what to do with stolen, appropriated, desecrated human remains, the horrific evidence of the Occident’s inability to come to terms with its own ghastly conscience, its will to murder, its compromise with intrinsic and moral evil. But for how long, my dears? That this depth and scope of unadulterated evil does not seize the national conscience says all that needs to be said, not only about our fundamental disconnect, but the fact that the site where the most difficult work is to be undertaken is in that space of re-humanisation. So, dear Germany, how often have you asked yourself what it means to be human? And having explored that thoroughly, what is your reply to the sibling question: what does the humanity of the other mean for me?

Let me now take this dirge an octave higher.  

For your culture and peoples, what you call ‘colonialism’ was your obscene worship of the Golden Calf, the actioning of your dedication to Mammon to which you gave over your essence and souls in exchange for others’ power, wealth and control, at the expense of a reverence for human existence, and a recognition of the rights of nature. You! You suffocated your own humanity, plunging the earth into grief, tragedy, anguish, sorrow. And you still refuse to reckon with that reality, with your disease distribution, your bewildering necrophilia, to which you are still so attached. You compound your murderousness with an amazing (in a bad sense) inability to agree to let the stolen dead home.

Who are you?

You tell us.

It means your own interrogation of your historo-cultural conscience; but would you dare to undertake this most challenging of tasks, this ‘examen’?

Let’s try this:

Open the crypts today, exhume the graves and put out the formaldehyde bottles where you have stored the bodies and body parts of our desecrated dead, and invite a pathologist to generate a report; that is also an historical document, isn’t it? You cohabit with colonialism quite unbothered, don’t you? The Occident: Why are my ancestors bodies and body parts still mouldering in your museums, those elegant shrines to that gesture to the thieving spirits of your ancestors? Why are you still struggling with respectfully returning the stolen deceased home?

Talk to us.

Is it that you secretly believe that by keeping them you are able to retain a powerful and magical hold over our lives? Are these your vibranium? But seriously, how will we ever bridge the fissure of the daily airbrushed Occidental conscience regarding Africa’s humanity? Will you dare to name the bones of our people you still have in your museums, collections and store-rooms? And while you are at that, shut down your awful zoos: these loathsome legacies of, and evidence of the extent to which your acquisitive savagery extended itself to nature. Must you possess what belongs to others even at the expense of a right to thrive in life? Sharing colonialism? Look well; somewhere in Europe there is an East African Savannah Giraffe named Gretel shivering in an enclosure, a cage, in a winter cold that is most alien to her species. Her role is to satiate ravenous gazes of those who need to feel that they possess her, have access to her essence. But friends, what sort of collective cultural insanity tolerates this sort of sickness, renders it ‘normal’, a signifier of ‘progress’, a mark of ‘civilisation’?

Colonialism, you wonder?

But my dears, it is only a plane ride away.

You have great choices: Australia, Canada, United States of America, Brazil, and New Zealand: cool destinations. Northern Ireland—yes, that too. There are quite a few islands to choose from: Chagos, St. Helena, Reunion, Mayotte, Lampedusa, the Malvinas. Are those places too far from home?

Easy: Your Museums, University store rooms, so many private collection; archived materials, even libraries. Permit me to remind you of a most excellent, oft overlooked site: The grand old banks with mandates that originated in the Colonial feeding frenzy. Their records. Photographs, their listings. And their networks. The Auction houses too. And how could we neglect all the chartered companies? All the imperialistic nations of Europe had plenty of these, including the play-innocent strangely amnesiac Scandinavians. Chartered Companies: mandated beneficiaries of a long, long season of murder, plunder and brigandage. Many of these chartered companies evolved into the myriad companies, with new names; companies you uphold even today as beacons of great light on a benighted world.

The purpose of the colonial project was singular:

Seize wealth and profit by all means necessary, even genocide. And your people did so with extraordinary success. Nothing says ‘shared’ as does African goods building European economies for 400 years. But now…in a cold, business sense, in the interest of sharing proceeds, as part of a new historical mandate, if you are serious, let us share research, collect records and set up an independent forensic accounting project for every one of these ex-chartered companies and their affiliates. There is a Mount Everest of debt to the African continent that that has not ever been repaid, let alone referred to; it includes royalties in commodities illegally benefitted from for over 400 years. These include coffee, diamonds, gold, and uranium. Human labour, taxes. This is just a start. I suggest that in consideration of infrastructure laid, and some compassion (to cushion the shock to the delusional system), perhaps the interest should be calculated over the outstanding debt rather than the full and original amounts and benefits generated from profits made out of African stolen resources. And please, let nobody confuse this settling of outstanding accounts with reparations. Reparations is a completely separate conversation. In this strict accounting process, the acts of violent plunder, the paid militia, the manufactured wars, the human trafficking and slave-making, the genocide mandates these brutish trading companies supported by the state, institutions, and the security apparatus are not factored in. (These can be dealt with in a separate tribunal.) The despicable modus operandi continues to this day in places like the DRC, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Bolivia. The Occident: Is this really what fulfilling the imperatives of living your highest human ideal looks like? Is this what your culture defines as meaningful existence?

You do love to gently insert and tout ‘Development Aid’ as the panacea, the conscience salve, your holy grail—(the poverty and pity economy is a lucrative one, as the pandemic bonds suggest)—but I trust that you know that we know that you your debt to us is far, far more than those couple of coins you toss our way. We are aware that at least 65% of the resources, probably more, from our continent sustain your economies. Colonialism as continuity: does the persistence of this set up, the trade structures rigged entirely in your favour still make any sense to you? Why must a system with roots in that catastrophe that we call colonialism still persist and undergirds what we call ‘economy’ today? It is likely the failure lies fully with us, not you. Evil never yields the advantages it has secured for itself. If we are to trust in the shared intent to repair historical wrongs, are you suggesting that you are prepared to endure what assessing and unravelling the economic matrices would entail? Are you yourselves prepared for what you will lose? I am not necessarily concerned about Occidental angst, as much as I am about having our people sucked into another energy-drinking, seasonal thought laundering machine that will, at its best, yield an excess of hot air.

By the way, I should have asked this earlier: What do you want of us now? What is your agenda this time? Our experience of you is that your interests in Africa have never been without a motive that is only for your benefit. So tell us upfront what you want and what is in this for us. Whatever your answer keep in mind that between us lies a chasm filled with irresolution, of unexpressed sorrow, of systematic erasures; of denial, contempt, and gaslighting aided by willed amnesia, propaganda, rebranding, theorising and appropriation.

Anyway, as we autopsy colonialism what must we effect to gain deep insight into the cultural imperative that was even able to transform human beings into commodities, and hold nature ransom? What pathology infected the Occidental so that it could do this to the earth, wounding it so abysmally? We understand that Europe has had a terribly long history with the slaughter of its own people; the reason for the ghastly Westphalian principle of sovereignty exported worldwide stems from needing to end the thirty-year war, with its over 8 million dead. But what fed this ease with human slaughter so that this becomes an abiding feature of the Occidental hegemony? To explore this theme we would need to call in theologians and theologian-exorcists to work with researchers, for by asking it we understand that we enter into the realm of seeking to understand the mystery of existential evil.

It is true there are only a few states that might have been historically been exempted from experiencing some form of colonisation. The occupation and domination of another’s territory and their physical, imaginative, historical and cultural life seems to be a human habit. Regarding European colonisation though, in my experience, there is often times a certain shudder of secret pleasure at the memory of having once dominated others, a nostalgia and even longing for a time of imagined imperial glory. What many of the Occidentals I encounter find almost impossible to engage with, are the probable sites of shared (de)humanisation, their particular stories of victimisation by others. The Swedes I have met quickly gloss over the history of ancestors turned into serfs in their own country, who were forced into building St Petersburg in horrid geographical conditions, and were mostly worked to death doing so. Now then, as a site of mutual inquiry, of gathering insight of the affect, might the German consider the season it refers to, when it does, as the ‘Occupation by Allies’ as a possible space and place of a profound cultural and human woundedness and humiliation that would find resonances with the colonial experiences of others? I am an outsider—so I am probably bumbling into a volcanic sore point as a bull in a ceramics shop. I mention this, because in my brief sojourns here, I have been struck by the telling absences, the familiar silences, the recognition of the species of ghosts, and the complexity of unease in speaking about this time. Perhaps this has as much to do with why such an occupation took place in a country that was also spliced. Nevertheless, the gaps are interesting: the absences and silences in historical telling and literature. The meanings of occupation and amputation. Displacement within your own home. Of losing worlds. Of living under the insult of mediocrities that lord it over you, and as they do so they inform you how this is for your own benefit. To dare to speak, even of the meaning, affect, sense of this experience in a truthful way, is it not possible? Understand this, such a dangerous (in a good way) space of engagement would help subvert an expectation of an engagement that still strongly preferred, for all manner of reasons including power dynamics, to read Africa as the pitiable perpetual victim, helpless scapegoat upon which so much horror has been visited, to permit the perpetrator(s), now undergoing political repentance, to adorn themselves with the sackcloth of restorer, administrator and deliverer of just balance and goodwill to the once again passive African recipients.

Please don’t do that.

It is debilitating.

Listen, the power of the African space as a listener to the histories of the Occidental, especially its acknowledged miseries, is viable if our mutual goal is towards the re-humanisation of peoples. There are immense possibilities in juxtaposing similar experiences to arrive at a common human jargon of lived and embodied histories. Uncomfortable? Good. You see, if we are to break into the heart where our exchange becomes meaningful, transformative and future-making, then we have to stand metaphorically and historically naked before each other. We traverse a tenebrous nightscape. To survive it, knowledge, order, fearlessness and truth are weapons to seek and wield. Let’s drop the airs, the layers, the sophistry and associated bullshit from the get-go. A visceral, courageous, even messy human engagement is what a new kind of history of us requires.

Oh!

I remembered something else.

My dear Germany, just what the hell was that reparation offer you recently made to Namibia after so many years of negotiations?[4] On top of that you even toss your ‘safe word’ development aid into the mix. Have you gone totally mad? Such obliviousness and mediocre engagement from you, Germany? The Nama and Herero endure a horrible invasion, put up a spirited fight to secure their existence; suffer a gruesome genocide for their efforts, lose their country, their world-view, their self-knowing, and imagined futures because of your choices. A good number of your descendants, your German Diaspora in Africa, live as Namibians in Namibia to this day, and that offer is what you come up with?

We have come to expect this gaslighting thinking outcome from the responsibility-denying, self-mythologising Anglo-Americans, or the perpetual-performance-of-innocence Swiss and Scandinavians, but not you, not a nation and people that has managed to keep a stern, clear gaze on its shadows and chasms. There is probably more behind the scenes than what we hear about, but what was made public suggests intense historical dissonance, a lack of depth reflection and genuine regret at the atrocities committed by known ancestors, and shockingly lazy thinking. What a missed opportunity.

But I also get it: There is an underlying terror that probably informs this insulting gesture. The full opening of that pandora’s box of reckoning would reveal the kind of skeletons that dismantle the slick veneers of imagined civilisation. To admit to and an intrinsic impulse to genocide, to necrophilia, to inhumanity would damage your carefully cultivated civilised Euro identities. Too late! The African space-scapes are a scrying mirror for Occidental culture: look in it. Do not get so entranced by your reflections there. That is not the point. A scrying mirror reveals the depths of soul. Pay attention instead. Try. For the sake of the next generation.

More on this topic.

I looked around for what other imperially offending nations had offered as gestures towards seeking to reconcile a heinous past: You are aware of ‘The Murayama Statement released by former Prime Minister of Japan Tomiichi Murayama on August 15, 1995: “On the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the War’s End”. Murayama apologised for, and named Japanese war and colonial crimes and atrocities, admitting to Japanese responsibility for the deaths of millions. Can this conference imagine such an engaged cultural reckoning with conscience?

By the way, no human desires another to wallow in guilt.

That is selfish.

Guilt will not magically change the past.

What is sought and desired by the afflicted is to be seen, heard, acknowledged, to be soothed, to be given a chance to face the offender. To hear the offender accuse himself of the fault is meaningful. Such courage might unleash a treasury of options that open doors to the imagination of a more forgiving future. Reckoning must be written on the body, then we can really begin to experience history as shared. But one does not hold ones breath. The Occident on its own volition seems incapable of the basics of such a gesture. Hubris. They are however likely to when the ascendant star-ship China locks into place and wishes to finally have a discussion with the descendants of the architects and perpetrators of their ‘Hundred Years of Humiliation’. Don’t hold it against us if at that time we ask China to squeeze from you our apology statement while they are in the process of collecting theirs.

Speaking of China, I note with mild amusement your chattering fluster about Africa’s tryst with the East. First, Chinese historiography is intricately connected with Africa’s older and recent pasts; this is a reactivation. Second, the attraction of China? A change of script is as good as a rest. And the BRI is compelling in its vision. Third, Our continent should also have bound its fate and future to the intentions and ambitions of Bandung I and II, and not pivoted westwards into a modern-era trap.

A brief digression: Just to make things clear; the type of speech I would make for an Africa initiated process would be different. There I would speak of turning within, of observing, re-strategising with a goal to winning this overlong war of worlds; to take a soul audit: and to admit to our own losses, to study the systemic failures of our historical cultural and structures against your onslaught, to note the terrible imaginal and epistemic disruptions, and at last give in to the grief over our millions and millions of stolen and dead, all those humans our ancestors were unable to protect, the nature that was ripped apart. And afterwards to focus on rediscovering a delirious love for ourselves and to make our nations the bounty that they are for our own. And to prioritise Asia, South America, the Middle East, Caribbean and Oceania. End of digression.

Another thing:

There are unseen rarely admitted to layers we will need to engage with in order to call in another kind of future history: How would scholars of the world today engage an Occidental culture that is seemingly committed to nihilistic moral disintegration, of what friend and scholar Dr. Wandia Njoya calls suicide-bombers tantrum-throwing that threatens humanity with annihilation if humanity cannot give it what it wants? Have any of your thinkers ever reflected on how and why the Occident entered that way of being in and with the world?

I have an untested hypothesis.

It is situated within and around the history of the European plague (pestilence) (from mid-1300 up to 1500) which came on the back of the Great Famine (1315-17). An existential terror that penetrates the bones of the cultural spirit, a continent almost annihilated, losing to 60-80% of its entire population. A ceaseless season of extensive trauma and the deepest suffering would thoroughly distort any human psyche, more so because this is an act of invasion and conquest of vast territories by rats and fleas that neither prayer nor monarch nor army could contain. Did Europe suffer a soul wound that unchecked, became a spiritual black hole? I have been struck by how much the plague references show up in your lexicon regarding Africa, although we had little to do with it: you were not as important as Asia and what you come to call the Middle East in our economic and trade networks. But I have been more and more fascinated by how much of your plague shadows are cast upon the black body, upon your imagination of blackness almost as if by doing so revenant keeps away from Europe. ‘The Black Death’, some of your people call it. In this might lie the clue as to the rather bizarre, archetypal, fetishist unreasoning responses received to questions of African agency, beingness or histories.

A Cesairean exhortation is to see and think history clearly, and another important word here, do so dangerously. We certainly need a way to put to rest what broils in our soils and souls, of the intimate losses that happen when one set of humans chose to break a covenant of dignity and decency with other humans, a psychic disruption that not only destroyed the codes of hospitality, but served to calcify the human heart. Whatever gifts and benefits our encountering produced will not be truthfully and wholly articulated before the seeping wound between us is addressed and dressed. The history we seek lies elsewhere; within the ruins and ghosts and sadness of what-could-have-been, inside the lives of descendant-survivors of Occidental depravity. Your ancestors seem to have deployed some preternatural forces that they let run amok: These need to be understood and confronted in order to be returned to the metaphorical bottle. They need to be named. Naming is also exorcism; and this we need between us.

Where else can we look for salvage? Inside older histories. You have somehow conveniently ‘misplaced’ the stories of your much older culture of encountering varieties of Africa; whether through the multi-century German veneration of the unmistakeably African Commander of a Roman Legion, the Christian (before Europe’s own embrace of Christianity) sainted St Maurice, who died in Aganum Switzerland, patron saint of the German Holy Roman Emperors, for whose lance, spurs and sword Henry the Fowler (919-936) ceded the Swiss canton of Aargau to an Abbey, whose items were part of the regalia used at coronations of Austro-Hungarian emperors until 1916 (yes, the twentieth century). There were three early popes from the Roman Africa Province, and Generals like Hannibal Barca, and Scipio Africanus. An ‘Age of (un) Enlightenment’ revisionism constructs and forces on the Occident an unbroken melanin-free European genealogy: Isn’t that daft, don’t you think? The pluralities and diversities of people in a society seemed to have been the norm there as it was elsewhere. Recognising this can lead us to the right and proper question: When and where did the break occur? Why? Who gained? And whose bright idea was it to prioritise pigment and then entrench the psychosis of racism? And why is there still a posse of zealots always disputing the evidence of historically multicultural, multiracial Europe?

Is the repair of the consequentially tragic (recent) past lost to us?

Of course not.

We are human imbued with an infinite imagination.

We can race into realms where ten thousand worldviews that survived the Occidental onslaught still exist to read the lingering memories there. Out of these might a new grammar of history emerge. Is there a kinder more human future for and of and between us? Probably, and most likely under and through the China-originated BRI, since you are a part of it too. We are likely to re-encounter one another again as Mandarin speakers.

But more seriously. Some thinkers-on-trial work is required. Is your culture willing to poke at your Charles Darwins, , John Lockes, Carl Linneaus, Imannuel Kants? Not forgetting that completer of philosophy too, the beloved Georg Hegel who boldly stated that ‘man as we find him in Africa has not progressed beyond his immediate existence.’ And we the non-existent, in a Hegelian sense, have had to live out the strong belief of the Occident in this capsule of condensed stupidity. Will you be stoical as our scholars saw the feet of your gurus and bring them down to their right and proper size? You seek to write a way into another future? Of this we are in agreement; but apart from panoptic-minded thinkers from across the disciplines, we shall need new words, fresh imaginings and imaging. We might also need to recover the old words which your ancestors and you blocked, mocked, derided. To this purpose, will you also allow representatives of the people your ancestors murdered, traumatised, and wounded to meet you in an amphitheatre where memory and history throb, where the rites of repair and reconciliation can be effected? Will you allow yourselves to be silent and listen, or drink bitter herbs and eat the things, the sacraments that lead to wholeness? Will you learn also for your own sake, and the sake of your descendants? You know what, we need gestures. We need an official armistice ceremony, probably in Berlin to close the conference that launched the war against our worlds. We also need to co-create a liturgy of shared grief, a way to reconcile our ancestors, these wandering ghosts. We need to find another phrase to replace the benign ‘colonialism’. I propose, The Horror? Mostly out of mischief. To return to Europe that damn Conradian gaze. We would be needed to ‘do’ history differently: a muscular approach that is transformative and restorative of lost humanity.

Playing with a few scenarios:

One:

I imagine a process created by and for a legion of excellent thinking-persons representing the disciplines, from all parts of the world, who swear allegiance and belonging to no nation, apart from the realms of History, Truth, Justice, Confession, Atonement and Reconciliation, who would oath themselves to the highest human values including integrity, courage, justice, truth, fearlessness, impartiality. They would re-open the records of the old imperial companies, and other private and commercial institutions with long colonial roots. They would audit the museums and collections. List the plundered assets of cultures and prepare a fee note. We are not talking about reparations yet. We mean the first order: the financial settling of outstanding historical accounts. Families and colonial company beneficiaries are known. The money trail is meticulous and the evidence lies in bank vaults, An audit and recovery of assets historical process becomes a necessity if historical truthfulness is to be reached, isn’t it? No one is demanding the trial of beneficiaries, although an apology and acknowledgment would be desirable as part of a reparative activity. They team would visit descendants, or host descendants: they would listen, archive, honour, witness, learn, record, collect, exhume, uncover, audit, analyse, reconstruct histories from communities. They would be film makers, story tellers, dancers, data specialists, biochemists, anthropologists, photographers, coders…those needed to think, create, hear, imagine. They would develop new questions. They would deliver accountability reports to the nations. 

Scenario two:

Are the under-40s represented here? Listen. Flee! Run! Tear away from the elders of another generation, figuratively and metaphorically. Physically too. On your way out, raid the libraries, and pick out the literature that they ignore. Distil these, and evolve a new grammar of action and thought system as you ruminate on the poetry and prophecies. Go beneath the surfaces and evolve a method to guide your original quest to restore humanity to wholeness. Exhume the graves the elders hide from you. Bring up the cold bones in vaults to the sun to be named and to be accounted for. Raid the museum storehouses. Re-write the texts on walls where the bounty from atrocities are on display. That which should not be displayed in the first place, send home. Take the canon and set it on aflame and see what endures. Dismantle the typologies, the boundaries and hedges that sustain a collective stupidity that is obsessed with dissipating truths. Write apology notes for assorted ancestors. Begin, at last, the real age of human discovery of the human and of the custodianship of the earth using the instruments of your time; technology, platforms, codes that confuse us. Judge us ruthlessly. Spare nobody. Doubt everything. Doubt me. Escape before you are seduced into inheriting the stench and weight of a billion ancient ghosts.

Third option: aka, the story-maker’s fantasy:

This scenario is inspired by the aptly named-for-this-moment novel, End of the Affair: Graham Greene has Maurice Bendrix, his protagonist, wrestle with a God that overwhelms everything he understands, a God that also seizes from him that which he loves the most, and he gets to understand that this God is after him: he writes his relinquishment of the fight as a final prayer:

“I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood; “O God, You’ve done enough. You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”

Standing here in the swirl of a long, long epoch of a toxic relationship with the Occident (its associates, its satellites, its proxies), I offer this prayer: not that you are God, although you have heretically appropriated that role for yourselves.

To the Occident:

You’ve done enough. You have plundered enough from us. You expect us to account for your inhumanity ad infinitum, to diagnose your pathologies and also deliver your absolution. We are weary and wary of you. The truth, unless you define it is alien to your mind, goodness unless you decree it is alien to your conscience, as for beauty—see what your money-grubbing, mammon-worshipping choices have made of our earth. And like the planet, we are weary and wary of you. We are tired of bleeding every time we meet you. You are exhausting. Often, whenever you open your mouths in reference to us, bile and venom pour out, maledictions saturated with saccharine, as if you are the odious scions of the Three Witches of Macbeth. You are soul-draining. You feed off violence. You tranquilise your corruption by turning them to laws that you then raise as sacrosanct. Your existential insecurity drives you to endlessly compare yourselves with others just to affirm that you are still at the summit of some fantastical pinnacle. Who cares? We are tired of your appetite for blood, your moral void, your soul loss, all those phantoms entrapped in your cold-glittering necropols. Gaslighting, absurdity and amnesia: your preferred methods of interpretating us. We are exhausted by your theatre of innocence, your primordial resentments. Our spirits need distance to process the effect of the four centuries of your hungry-angry frenzy. We have our own long outstanding appointment with grief; the ghosts in and of our history will not let us rest. It is time for us to attend to them. We have a date with our history: we must learn how earth’s wealthiest continent, cradle and crucible of human knowledge trade allowed itself to be bamboozled, bullied, weakened, possessed, and disordered by a vicious, delusional, bubonic-plague tormented race that arrived at cosmopolitanism so, so late in history, whose primal parochialism keeps it superstitious about pluralism and diversity. Your insanity, its tenacity do not matter to us anymore. With this in mind, apart from the basics of meet and greet, and the cool pragmatics of settling your 400-year old outstanding business debt to us…Please… Leave us alone. Just leave us alone. (Lasse uns… in Ruhe)

‘Derelict Shards: The Roamings of Colonial Phantoms’ by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Copyright © 2020, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited. No changes shall be made to the Work without the written consent of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor or her representative. No further use of this material in extended distribution, other media, or future editions shall be made without the express written consent of The Wylie Agency. All rights not expressly granted herein are hereby reserved and retained by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-11/pandemic-bond-investors-brace-for-wipeout-as-coronavirus-spreads

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/425m-in-world-bank-catastrophe-bonds-set-to-default-if-coronavirus-declared-a-pandemic-by-june

https://www.ft.com/content/70dd05ac-54d8-11ea-8841-482eed0038b1

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/feb/28/world-banks-500m-coronavirus-push-too-late-for-poor-countries-experts-say

[2] autopsy (n.) 1650s, “an eye-witnessing, a seeing for oneself,” from Modern Latin autopsia, from Greek autopsia “a seeing with one’s own eyes,” from autos-“self” (see auto-) + opsis “a sight” (from PIE root *okw-“to see”). That is my attempt to extend the many meanings of autopsy, it was shipped into necropsy, which is still Ok. The idea of colonialism as an always morphing phantom that needs to be exorcised/autopsied, faced fearlessly. I like the dimensions of that word.

[3] The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future. The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this realm of fancy … there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.” July 27, 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy. Speech at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/12/namibia-rejects-german-compensation-offer-over-colonial-violence

https://www.dw.com/en/namibia-germany-reparations/a-54535589

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