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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 Education, Inside Higher Education, University Business, Times 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Colleges Pull Back From Italy and South Korea as Coronavirus Spreads. February 26, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- 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.
- 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.
- CDC Warns Colleges to ‘Consider’ Canceling Study-Abroad Trips. March 5, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- 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.
- 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.
- U. of Washington Cancels In-Person Classes, Becoming First Major U.S. Institution to Do So Amid Coronavirus Fears. March 6, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Will Coronavirus Cancel Your Conference? March 9, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Preparing for Emergency Online Teaching. March 12, 2020. Provides resources guides for teaching online.
- Academe’s Coronavirus Shock Doctrine. March 12, 2020. Discusses the added pressures facing faculty because of the sudden conversion to online teaching.
- 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.
- 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.
- What About the Health of Staff Members? March 13, 2020. Discusses how best to ensure staff continue to be healthy.
- 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.
- 2020: The Year That Shredded the Admissions Calendar. March 15, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- How to Lead in a Crisis. March 16. Insightful advice from the former President of Tulane University during Hurricane Katrina.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Coronavirus Creates Challenges for Students Returning From Abroad. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- As Coronavirus Spreads, Universities Stall Their Research to Keep Human Subjects Safe. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- The Covid-19 Crisis Is Widening the Gap Between Secure and Insecure Instructors. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- ‘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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”
- ‘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.
- 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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Polls and Ballots: Getting Into the ‘Weeds’ of Election-Based Survey Research
This is the third in a series of articles that will review and comment on surveys related to the August 2022 general election, providing analytical tools to enable the reader to assess their credibility and potential impact.
Given that it is well over a month since my last piece in the series, it is an understatement to say that much has happened in the intervening period. The three main developments that are covered here are: the changing positions of the two main presidential candidates, the earlier use of polls by political parties in the selection of candidates to augment or replace the usual nomination contests, and the announced selections of deputy presidential running mates by the two main presidential candidates just hours before the official deadline for doing so. In addition, a brief comment on TIFA’s more recent Nairobi County survey is offered.
‘Horse race’ update
Although several other firms have recently released presidential contest polls, I will ignore them here due to their lack of credibility (but shall take up this issue in a subsequent article) and concentrate on the three “mainstream pollsters” whose results this series has been tracking: TIFA Research, Infotrak and Radio Africa. The table below shows the reversal of fortunes of Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga found by all three firms:
|Survey Firm||Sample Size / No. of Counties||Survey Dates||Odinga||Ruto||Others||Undecided / Won’t Vote/NR|
|TIFA Research||1,719 / 47||17 May||39%||35%||3%||23%|
|Infotrak||9,000 / 47||23-27 May||42%||38%||1%||19%|
|Radio Africa/The Star||4,780 / 47||8-9 June||45%||39%||3%||13%|
Several comments help to explain these figures.
First, regarding data collection dates, although the TIFA survey was conducted the day after the announcement of former Gichugu MP and cabinet minister Martha Karua as Odinga’s DP running mate—with the announcement of Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua as Ruto’s running mate having been made the day before—not all respondents were able to name them. Specifically, while 85 per cent of all respondents could name Karua, only 59 per cent could name Gachagua. Several factors may account for this discrepancy, the two main ones being the much more public and “celebratory” event revealing Karua at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre compared with the more restrained and entrance-restricted one for Gachagua at the DP’s Karen residence, and Karua’s far larger public and political profile. This contrast notwithstanding, TIFA also provided correlation data that showed no statistical difference in expressed voting intentions for the two presidential candidates between those who did and those who did not correctly identify their running mates. (These correlations were based on the somewhat greater proportion of such Karua/Gachagua running mate awareness among those who elsewhere indicated that they intend to vote for Odinga or Ruto: 90 per cent and 69 per cent, respectively).
Specifically, the TIFA data reveals that slightly more of those aware of Karua as Odinga’s choice declared their intention to vote for him—41 per cent vs. 39 per cent for all respondents, and only 25 per cent among those who did not name her. Further, among women only, there is a 9 per cent difference in this regard: 37 per cent vs. 28 per cent. Yet similar results for Ruto’s running mate invite caution in concluding that knowing that Karua was Odinga’s choice itself made the difference. That is, considerably more of those respondents who could name Gachagua expressed a Ruto voting intention than those who could not (42 per cent vs. 26 per cent), with a nearly similar gap among women (37 per cent vs. 26 per cent).
Of course, if Gachagua were female, one would be tempted to conclude that gender per se accounts for this difference among respondents of both genders. That not being so, however, it would be necessary to explore other variables to account for this clear association of running mate knowledge with the propensity to vote for either Odinga or Ruto. A possible variable here is simply an interest in the presidential election/politics generally. This is apparent in that, among only those stating they are “undecided” about their presidential vote choice, significantly more could not name either Karua or Gachagua as compared with those who could: 23 per cent vs. 13 percent with regard to the former, and 18 per cent vs. 11 per cent with regard to the latter.
Specifically, the TIFA data reveal that a fifth of those who stated their intention to vote for Odinga as president also declared their intention to vote for Sakaja as governor.
Moreover, since neither Infotrak nor Radio Africa provided any such “running mate awareness” profile among their respondents, it was not possible to pose this question with regard to their data. The question as to whether—and how—any of these firms will attempt to measure this “running mate” effect in their forthcoming polls thus remains.
Next, compared to the results in the most recent previous surveys of these three firms, Odinga’s gains are significant. In TIFA’s late April survey, Ruto enjoyed a 7 per cent advantage (39-32 per cent), in Radio Africa’s, a 5 per cent lead (46-41 per cent), while in Infotrak’s previous poll, he and Odinga were tied (42 per cent each). In other words, Odinga’s most recent ratings give him gains of 11 per cent by Radio Africa and TIFA, and a 4 per cent gain by Infotrak.
In addition, if all the respondents who declined or failed to name any candidate in these three polls are removed from the calculation, the most recent results are as follows:
|Survey Firm||Total / Named Candidates Only
Re-Adjusted Margin of Error
|TIFA Research||1,719 / 1,324: +/-2.7%||51%||46%||5%|
|Infotrak||9,000 / 7,290: +/-1.1%||52%||47%||5%|
|Radio Africa/The Star||4,780 / 4,135: +/-1/5%||52%||45%||7%|
In other words, since “Undecided”, “No Response”, and “Won’t Vote” are not options found on ballot papers, removing such survey responses from the calculation gives a more accurate picture of where the race actually stands: Odinga now enjoys leads that are beyond each firm’s margin of error (the slightly greater ones reflecting the reduced effective sample sizes). This is so even if it is reasonable to believe that some of these “no preferred candidate” respondents actually have one but were shy about revealing it for one reason or another. (An attempt to “dig deeper” into the likely preferences of such respondents —at least those who will vote on 9 August—will be included in a subsequent piece in this series.)
At the same time, aside from those respondents who state that they will not vote—and even among those who declare that they will “definitely” vote in the surveys that included the relevant question—it is impossible to predict the levels and variations in voter turnout, even if, as Charles Hornsby has shown, such turnout rates have followed a fairly consistent pattern over the nearly six decades of Kenya’s independence.
Odinga’s most recent ratings give him gains of 11 per cent by Radio Africa and TIFA, and a 4 per cent gain by Infotrak.
All the above notwithstanding, given Odinga’s still quite modest lead in all three of these recent polls, the period remaining between when these three surveys were conducted and the election itself, together with expected (if unknown) differential turnout rates across the country, could still be the deciding factor (with turnout itself being a function of a complex combination of self/communal motivation and “external” mobilization, i.e., by individual candidates and/or political parties).
Nevertheless, it may be concluded that the DP’s campaign team and supporters would have cause for considerable concern if the next round of survey results reveal a further increase in Odinga’s lead. Moreover, it can also be concluded that unless the proportion of votes for all other presidential candidates (of which there are just two as of now) amounts to more than at least 3 per cent, a runoff contest is unlikely. That said, the fact that George Wajackoyah received 7 per cent in a mid-June Nairobi poll conducted by TIFA does at least raise this possibility.
A final set of additional comments about these three polls may be offered.
First, while both TIFA and Infotrak employed their previous methodology of telephone (i.e., CATI) interviews, Radio Africa for the second time conducted its poll via SMS messages. Based on 4,780 respondents, the margin of error is shown as +/-1.5 per cent. This is correct, but contrasts with the incorrect figure in its previous survey of +/-4.5 per cent for a sample of 3,559, a mistake that I had noted in my previous piece. At the same time, however, this Radio Africa survey once again reports a considerably smaller proportion who declined to name a preferred presidential candidate as compared with the other two surveys—13 per cent, as opposed to 19 per cent by Infotrak and 23 per cent by TIFA. Could this be because of the methodology used? That is, if those who receive the initial SMS can tell that it aims to collect data for a presidential elections survey, do many of those who have not made up their minds decline to participate so that a significant proportion of “undecided” responses are not even captured or reported? The fact that a source at the Star indicated that fewer than 10 per cent of those contacted via SMS for these surveys choose to participate suggests that this might be the case. This would also mean that for an achieved sample of 4,780, nearly 50,000 SMSs were initially sent out inviting participation. Further, unless the Radio Africa data-base has fairly detailed demographic details for all the interviewed respondents, it seems it would be impossible to weight the data so as to accurately depict the “population universe” the respondents purport to represent—whether the entire Kenyan population as per the 2019 Census or the total of registered voters, at least as reflected in the 2017 Register (since the current, updated version was not available at the time of these surveys). That the Star’s report on this survey fails to include any demographic information about the achieved sample (even education levels as required by the Publication of Electoral Polls Act, 2012) makes it impossible to know.
The above discussion raises one other question about the achieved samples. As I pointed out in my first piece for The Elephant, there are two basic requirements for “representative” samples. One is that the pool or data base from which respondents are selected must accurately represent the purported “population universe”. The other is that the process of selecting the relatively small number of respondents for interviews must be absolutely random, that is, without any bias, whether intentional or otherwise. While it is safe to assume the latter condition is strictly adhered to for the surveys reported here, a question may be raised about the former. That is, how precisely do these companies’ data bases reflect the “population universe” of adult Kenyans (or of registered voters, if respondent selection is restricted to them)?
For Infotrak and TIFA, this boils down to the mobile phone numbers from which their samples are drawn. How many do they have, and do their distributions for both their national and sub-national results reflect the country’s reality on the ground, at least as captured in the 2019 Census? It has been stated that both of these firms regularly collect mobile numbers in the course of conducting household or “face-to-face” surveys, whether the phone number acquired belongs to survey respondents themselves or to another household member (in cases where the respondent does not personally possess one).
It may be concluded that the DP’s campaign team and supporters would have cause for considerable concern if the next round of survey results reveal a further increase in Odinga’s lead.
In any case, two questions arise here. First, how many Kenyan households lack even one mobile phone owner/user? Second, at least in terms of the content of the questions being asked in CATI surveys, would a survey on public and political issues, such as one dealing with the forthcoming election, produce measurably different results if the data obtained came entirely from such phoneless individuals or households? While it is possible to compare the demographic profiles from respondents with and without such phones in previous surveys, the most precise way to answer this question is to conduct two surveys with the same content and at the same time but with respondents drawn from these two distinct “population universes”, an undertaking that I am not aware of having been done by any of these firms. (During the period of my previous employment, I did undertake such an experiment, but that was over ten years ago when mobile phone ownership was far less extensive than it is now. Consequently, I do not feel it would be useful to present those results here.)
One reality that can be reported, however, is that according to the 2019 Census, some 20 million households have (or had then; the number has surely increased) such phones, most of those without being found in parts of the country outside the networks of all of the mobile network providers. Still, even in parts of the country covered by such networks, a few people, mostly the very poor, are without them. With an adult population (i.e., 18 years and above—those who are routinely included in the sort of surveys discussed in this series) of around 25 million, this equates to some 85 per cent. And here I must correct Prof. Karuti Kanyinga who asserted in a recent Sunday Nation article that CATI surveys cannot be representative, since “only 47 per cent” of Kenyans owned mobile phones at the time of the 2019 Census. He evidently failed to notice that such census figures apply to all Kenyans aged three and above, and thus vastly underestimated phone possession by adults. As for Infotrak, in presenting presidential contest results for all 47 counties, one would want to know how extensive—and how representative—their mobile phone database is for each one, especially those mainly northern counties that still lack extensive network coverage.
Also, in the latest Infotrak survey, the 47 counties were divided into three categories: Odinga “strongholds”, Ruto “strongholds” and “battle-grounds”. Yet the lists are slightly misleading, in that the margin of error for these county results in several cases exceeds the difference between these two candidates. That is, the apparently impressively large sample of 9,000, when divided by 47 counties, yields a sub-sample average of only about 190 respondents per county, which has an associated margin of error of +/-7.1 per cent—equal to about a 14 per cent spread. This means that any county results that fall within this range indicate that, in reality, either candidate could actually be leading. For Odinga, this removes Mombasa and Garissa from his list of 20 “strongholds”; for Ruto, the same applies to Laikipia and Isiolo from his list of 16.
One notable aspect of this electoral cycle is that, based on statements by key political actors themselves, as well as in various media reports, there has been an unprecedented level of polling by both of the main campaign teams. These have been conducted not just for measuring presidential candidate and party/coalition popularity as well as the salience of particular issues at the national, regional and county levels, but also, in particular contexts, for the selection of candidates so as to avoid the “messy” process of nomination contests. Just where and when such polls were used, whether as the sole basis for the awarding of nomination certificates, and whether they were used together with “consensus” and even voting, remains a subject for very rigorous research (hopefully by some energetic doctoral students). What is clear, however, is that party and coalition leaders saw their main benefit as eliminating or at least significantly reducing the cost and acrimony of holding nomination elections, and even more potential acrimony when nominations were awarded in the absence of any competitive process at all (i.e., “dished out”, in Kenyan parlance). As the Sunday Nation reported just as the nomination period began, “The issuing of direct tickets to Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) hopefuls has caused unrest in the party strongholds, marking the start of a traditionally tumultuous season of political party nominations.”
Kanyinga evidently failed to notice that such census figures apply to all Kenyans aged three and above, and thus vastly underestimated phone possession by adults.
The Azimio coalition, and the ODM party in particular, have trumpeted their use of such research tools—albeit in particular, and limited, contexts—in selecting their flag-bearers. This first came to my attention early this year when this coalition’s campaign chairman, Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Muriithi, who is known for his appreciation of “hard” data, was reported to have declared that the services of a pollster had been engaged “to conduct research that will help in determining popular candidates to fly the coalition’s flag in the August General Election”. This same media report, quoted “a source” in the Odinga camp as saying that the data collected would be used to identify the “most popular candidates for all positions from MCA to governor”, and that this method was also aimed at “curbing violence” that is often generated by contested primaries. ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna was even more specific, revealing that the (unnamed) pollster had so far covered 15 counties with this figure to double “in the coming weeks.” As he put it, “We want science to guide us. We need not subject aspirants to an elective process when we know who is ahead of the others”, and he indicated that such direct tickets would be given to aspirants with “more than 20-30 percentage points over” their nearest rivals.
Subsequently, however, we saw controversy erupt in such places as Mombasa, where the opinion poll “losers” complained that they were being “unfairly” deprived of the chance to test their popularity with actual party members through primaries—one of the several methods allowed for such candidate selection by the ODM party’s constitution.
While it cannot be denied that such competitive primaries have often triggered intra-party violence among rival supporters, several questions arise in connection with this “opinion poll” option.
First, as the chairperson of ODM’s National Elections Board, Catherine Muma, explained in a TV interview at the time, these polls were not restricted to party members as documented in the list that was filed with the Office of the Registrar of Political Parties, but to all people in a particular electoral unit. Given that actual ballot choices on 9 August are not limited to candidates of one party, this makes sense. But here, one would want to know if any “filter” questions were used, so that only those registered as voters in that unit were interviewed (since, especially in a town like Mombasa, a substantial minority are registered and vote in other parts of the Coast region, and even beyond). Also, were respondents asked to indicate who they thought would be actually vying for particular seats before being asked to indicate their preference? If not, how could the popularity of any candidate be gauged against that of others? And if they were asked, but mentioned only a few of them, then what? That is, with polls conducted a full four months before the election, it was unrealistic to expect that the eventual ballot “menu” for such seats could be known. More generally, at this preliminary stage of the electoral calendar, which factors determine an aspirant’s popularity that a poll could measure? In particular, do incumbents have an advantage because of their name recognition, or a disadvantage, at least among those unhappy with the status quo and who are looking forward to punishing incumbents? And further, if the samples for such polls were not limited to party members, does this not diminish, if not completely negate, the value of such membership itself?
Based on statements by key political actors themselves, as well as in various media reports, there has been an unprecedented level of polling by both of the main campaign teams.
Even if such polls were used much closer to the election—perhaps based on an understanding between coalition partners that those who performed poorly would drop out (at least before the ballot papers are printed!)—how “scientific” are they in terms of reliably indicating actual outcomes? ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna, as reported by NTV on 5 April, made the curious assertion that: “There is not a single time when the science has misled us, and those on this podium can bear me witness. When we did the scientific poll in Msambweni [before the 15 December 2020 by-election] the actual results were exactly the same as what the science [of the poll] was telling us. The science and the results were spot-on.”
Since he did not identify the poll (or polls) he had in mind, I can only refer to the two polls I am aware of, both released in early December, just a few weeks before the by-election when voters should have been aware of all the candidates, and knew at least something about the main ones. Their results, together with the IEBC’s official results, are as follows:
Msambweni By-Election Poll/IEBC Results (Rounded Figures – Main Candidates Only)
|Survey Firm/IEBC||Publication Date||Margin of Error||Feisal Bader||Omar Boga|
|Radio Africa/The Star||3 December, 2020||5.5%||29%||54%|
|TIFA Research||3 December, 2020||5.5%||36%||46%|
|IEBC: Official Result||15 December, 2020||——||56%||39%|
Both surveys had a margin of error of about +/- 5.5 per cent based on their respective sample sizes. That means, for example, that in the Radio Africa poll, Boga’s support could have been as low as about 49 per cent, and in the TIFA poll, his support could have been as high as about 51 per cent, an indication that their results were pretty much in agreement. But the conclusion should be clear: both polls were “wrong”.
So, was Sifuna referring to some other poll, perhaps one never made public? (Surely not the poll results released by the Bader campaign on social media on 18 November showing him with 74 per cent as against just 23 per cent for Boga!) In that case, and if the official results mirrored it “exactly” (according to Sifuna—that is, an “upset” ODM loss), then we must assume either that the ODM campaign team, believing the contest was a lost cause, simply gave up (which surely would have caused Bader’s margin of victory compared to the poll to increase), or continued its campaign efforts to try to overcome Bader’s lead, but without any effect whatsoever.
There are several possible explanations, none mutually exclusive, as to why the two published polls failed to match “the reality”, perhaps most important among them: that, as in any election, differential voter turnout across any electoral unit cannot be predicted precisely. Moreover, by-elections invariably attract fewer voters than do general elections. In this Msambweni case, it was just under 40 per cent, and quite varied across the wards. As such—and especially in such a by-election context—even “scientific sampling” can often yield misleading results. In addition, however—and evidently more important—is that according to other reports at the time, Boga’s team was not nearly as active on the ground as Bader’s, in large part (I was told during a visit to the area this January) because the Boga campaign team “relaxed” after seeing these two polls, whereas Bader’s put even more energy into their efforts.
This is not to say that such polls are useless when parties/coalitions seek to identify their most-viable-candidate options. But it is clear that their use should be accompanied by considerable caution, since their “science”, in terms of predicting popularity—and thus an election’s outcome—may be limited at best, especially when voters are not yet aware of the full and final ballot menu.
Choosing running mates
Let me turn finally to what has been perhaps the most remarkable use of surveys so far in this pre-election period: that conducted by UDA in identifying a running mate for their presidential candidate, William Ruto.
The DP himself made clear just prior to his announced choice at his Karen residence 15 on May that a “general public” poll of some 10,000 respondents had been conducted (although it remained unclear by whom) in the greater Mt. Kenya region, an exercise that was supplemented by an “electoral college” poll among area MPs. In both cases, we were told, Tharaka Nithi Senator, Prof. Kithure Kindiki, was the overwhelming choice (“90 per cent”). Yet almost in the next breath, the DP revealed that he had settled on Rigathi Gachagua (as noted above). In fact, prior to this announcement, it was reported that the DP had made this decision some time earlier—the “rag sheet” Weekly Citizen had headlined this choice in its 1-7 November publication! It remains unclear to me why such contrary results were made public, or even why the polls had been undertaken in the first place. The fact that Senator Kindiki chose not to attend this event, and only issued a statement later, served to underscore his own dissatisfaction with the process, or at least with the decision. Whether he would have attended had these poll results not existed or been released must be left to speculation; he subsequently re-joined Kenya Kwanza’s campaign activities.
Aside from whatever internal polling was conducted by the main presidential campaign teams, publicly released surveys exploring this issue were at least equally off the mark. In both Radio Africa’s early April survey and TIFA’s a few weeks later, the “best” running mates for Odinga in terms of bringing in the most additional votes as identified by respondents were Peter Kenneth, Kalonzo Musyoka and Karua, in that order. Likewise, both Radio Africa and TIFA identified Musalia Mudavadi as Ruto’s “best” choice, with the ultimate “winner”, Rigathi Gachagua coming in second in the Radio Africa poll—followed by Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro—and third in TIFA’s, behind Kirinyaga governor Anne Waiguru.
Closer to the actual day of the announcements, Infotrak results were nearer to the eventual reality with regard to Odinga’s “best” choice, Karua placing first, followed by Musyoka and Kenneth. For Ruto, however, the results were less “accurate” than in either of the two other polls on the issue, with Gachagua nowhere among the top three, those positions being taken by Mudavadi, Kindiki and Waiguru, respectively.
In none of these three cases would it be “fair” to criticize the pollsters for “getting it wrong”, since it would be expected that respondents’ choices are far more a reflection of their general familiarity with these political figures, rather than of any intimate knowledge of the factors being considered by the presidential candidates themselves and their closest associates. For the latter, while adding “the most votes” is clearly a critical one, other factors include, especially, the “depth” of one’s (and one’s friends) pockets for campaign resources, the personal “chemistry” between the would-be president and deputy as well as the “fit” of their policy agendas and priorities, and the perceived capacity of the deputy to run the executive in the president’s absence (or even permanent exit from office for whatever reason). In other words, the “ideal” running mate must have enough political stature and following to help the two of them win the election and then govern, but not so much as to constitute a rival or threat to the dominant position that the constitution bestows on the president.
It remains unclear to me why such contrary results were made public, or even why the polls had been undertaken in the first place.
At the same time, in this 2022 context, several of these factors—whatever the weight given to each—are unlikely to apply equally to considerations by the Ruto and Odinga sides. This stems from the widespread assumption that whereas if he wins, Ruto would certainly attempt to extend his incumbency in 2027, there is rather less certainty that Odinga would do so due to his age, however healthy and vigorous the 77-year-old appears to be at present; indeed, some unconfirmed reports have indicated he has agreed to a single term. As such, there is likely to be more jockeying for influence—and ultimately, executive power in 2027—on the Azimio side of the partisan equation following the inauguration ceremony, eventually if not immediately.
TIFA’s Nairobi County Survey (20 June)
|Contest||Candidates and Percentages|
|Governor||J. Sakaja – 40%||P. Igathe – 32%||Others – 9%||Undecided/NR – 28%|
|President||R. Odinga – 50%||W. Ruto – 25%||Others – 8%||Undecided/NR – 18%|
The results of TIFA’s Nairobi County Survey carried out on 20 June have invited numerous queries as to how Johnstone Sakaja, the UDA/Kenya Kwanza candidate for governor, could clearly be more popular than Polycarp Igathe of Jubilee/Azimio, whereas the former’s presidential candidate is only half as popular as the latter’s (25 per cent vs. 50 per cent). While the data does not suggest an explanation, several “common sense” factors do. First, Sakaja has been in Nairobi public life for nearly a decade, first as a nominated MP, and then as the current senator. He has also been highly visible, frequently appearing on TV talk shows and taking well-publicized positions on various county and national issues. Prior to the 2013 election, he served as chairman of presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta’s The National Alliance Party (TNA), at the time “the youngest person in the world” to hold such a position (according to Wikipedia). By contrast, relatively few (in Nairobi, at least) had heard of Igathe before he was selected by then Nairobi gubernatorial candidate Mike Mbuvi Sonko to be his deputy governor running mate for the 2017 election on behalf of the winning Jubilee party. He then largely vanished from public life after only six months, when he resigned from this position, having fallen out with Governor Sonko, who would later be removed from office through impeachment. More broadly, given the general absence of clear policy or ideological differences in Kenya’s political parties, especially perhaps in terms of county-level issues, it is clear that “personality”, including one’s personal “track record” is more salient for many voters. Specifically, the TIFA data reveal that a fifth of those who stated their intention to vote for Odinga as president also declared their intention to vote for Sakaja as governor. As such, while party/coalition identity certainly has some salience, it is far from overwhelming, at least for this forthcoming Nairobi gubernatorial contest. Regardless, how much rhetorical attention/support Sakaja will give to Ruto during his Nairobi campaigns between now and the election will still be interesting to watch. However, should the current investigation into Sakaja’s Uganda Team University degree result in his disqualification, this issue may become moot though at the time of TIFA’s survey, an impressive 20 per cent of those who declared their intention to vote for him also indicated they do not believe his Team degree is valid!
Concluding point: heading to the home stretch
Whatever the frequency of both public and internal polls so far, it may be expected that it will increase in the remaining five weeks or so prior to 9 August. In addition to the regular, roughly monthly, surveys by Radio Africa, TIFA and Infotrak, it is rumoured that Ipsos will emerge from its nearly four years of “survey silence” with at least one poll before the election. The main media houses have also shown an increased interest in these surveys, in terms of sponsorship as well as coverage (in both news bulletins and talk shows).
It is rumoured that Ipsos will emerge from its nearly four years of “survey silence” with at least one poll before the election.
Just how much such poll results—and their accompanying/reactive commentary—may influence actual voting patterns remains a subject for a future piece in this series. So, too, does a consideration of how such devices might help to answer another major question about Kenyans’ voting behaviour: how can the split about presidential choices, especially within particular ethnic groups, be understood? In this context, it will be argued that simply posing this question should help to dilute the greatly overstated mantra that “all Kenyan politics is ethnic”!
Where is Exiled Former Rwandan Journalist Cassien Ntamuhanga?
In spite of the official denial of involvement, the arrest and disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga is proof that the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana and the Rwanda genocide that followed is, tragically, still claiming new casualties.
The last time eyewitnesses saw former Rwandan journalist and activist Cassien Ntamuhanga alive was on the 23rd of May 2021 when he was arrested by agents of the Mozambique National Criminal Investigation Service (SERNIC). On arrival in Mozambique, Ntamuhanga had asked for asylum and refugee status because of persecution back home in Rwanda and, therefore, according to international humanitarian law, he was a protected person in Mozambique—at least until his request for asylum was heard and determined by the competent authority in Mozambique. Those protections included protection from arrest and refoulement—forced repatriation back to Rwanda, his country of origin, which he had fled because of persecution.
Ntamuhanga was first taken to the Inhaca Island Police station before being transferred to Maputo. He had been living on Inhaca Island since he fled Rwanda in 2017. At the time of Ntamuhanga’s arrest, a man in civilian clothing who had accompanied the policemen who arrested him was heard speaking to him in Kinyarwanda. The SERNIC, Mozambique’s police service and the embassy of Rwanda in Maputo have all denied any knowledge of the “alleged” arrest of Cassien Ntamuhanga although several eyewitnesses in Inhaca have confirmed having witnessed the arrest.
As of this writing, the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga are unknown. The fact of the matter is that the last time Cassien Ntamuhanga was seen in public he was under the custody of men in the uniform of the Mozambique police service and SERNIC. The arrest of Cassien Ntamuhanga, former Rwandan journalist and critic of the Rwanda government has rung alarm bells because his disappearance, which has been denied by both Mozambique and Rwanda police, falls into a pattern of such disappearances of Rwandans in Rwanda or in exile only for their bodies to be found days later.
Both SERNIC and Mozambique’s police service have denied holding Ntamuhanga in custody. Ntamuhanga had fled Rwanda after escaping from custody after he and Kizito Mihigo had been arrested and charged with treason. Both had been arrested in 2014 and charged with plotting terror attacks against Rwanda and plotting to overthrow the Rwandan government. These very serious charges had been brought against Ntamuhanga and Mihigo by the Rwanda prosecutor. At the trial of the two, the Rwandan court sentenced Kizito Mihigo to twenty-five years in jail on a verdict of treason and terrorism against the state. Ntamuhanga, who was accused of terrorism, inciting disaffection against the government of Rwanda and for genocide denial, was convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison in 2015. In 2017, Cassien Ntamuhanga escaped from prison and fled to Mozambique from Rwanda.
On the 6th of May 2021, Cassien Ntamuhanga was tried in absentia in Rwanda and handed a 25-year prison sentence for facilitating terrorist activities and for financing from abroad the making of bombs to be exploded in Rwanda. At Cassien’s trial, his alleged accomplice told the court that Ntamuhanga had paid the accomplice to make bombs to be used to overthrow the government of Rwanda. And then, on 23rd May 2021, Cassien Ntamuhanga disappeared.
“Be a hero, my child
I love you and through that
I love Rwanda
That’s why I am dedicating it to you
Be a hero,
Be important for Rwanda”
Uzabe Intwari, Be a Hero, is a song Kizito Mihigo sung in 2019 urging peace and reconciliation. Rwandans admiringly called him Inuma, the Dove, because of his courageous campaign for peaceful coexistence and reconciliation among all Rwandans. A year after he sang this song, Kizito Mihigo hung himself with a bedsheet from the window of a police cell that has no windows.
To win us with honest trifles, then to betray us in deepest consequence
Given the disappearances of Rwandans in Rwanda and abroad, a deeper look at the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga demands of us that all voices speak up and refuse to be silent any longer following this latest disappearance. For, in the end, even Macbeth had to listen when the cries of Scotland’s many widows demanded of King Macbeth an accounting. There is an aptness in seeing events in Rwanda through the frame of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. For Shakespeare’s play is very much the needed journey into the psyche of the repressive and coercive Rwandan state. Here are the events that precede General Macbeth’s accession to the throne of Scotland, which at the time was fighting both a Civil War and an Invasion by a foreign army (Norwegian).
A year after he sang this song, Kizito Mihigo hung himself with a bedsheet from the window of a police cell that has no windows.
As Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, and Banquo his fellow general, walk from the latest battlefield in the Civil War in Scotland, three witches hail Macbeth with the titles of Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cowdor and King hereafter. And then immediately afterwards, news comes that King Duncun has invested Macbeth with the titles and dignities of Thane of Cowdor, the rebel who General Macbeth had just recently killed on the field of battle. After this surprising news, Banquo comments on how startled and deeply disturbed Macbeth looks—when what the Witches had just told Macbeth is nothing but good news on his fortunate new stature. But Macbeth looks reflectively at Banquo and reminds him that the witches who have made him (Macbeth) the Thane of Cowdor had also prophesied that Banquo would be the father of many Kings who would go on to rule Scotland although he (Banquo) himself would never be King—the Witches had called Banquo lesser than Macbeth yet greater. And then, reflecting on Macbeth’s rapid change of fortune, Banquo warns:
But ’tis strange,
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence. (Act I Scene 3, Macbeth by William Shakespeare)
Shortly thereafter Macbeth invites King Duncun to his estate and there murders the King and seizes the throne. The promises given to Macbeth by the instruments of darkness have been fulfilled—Macbeth is now the King of Scotland and among his first acts is to murder Banquo whose son Fleance barely escapes his father’s assassins to join the growing force of opposition to the King in exile. In his palace, Macbeth the new King of Scotland finds the Ghost of Banquo haunting his every waking moment. And so “to make assurance double sure” as Macbeth says, he goes back to the Witches for prophecies of the future and to learn how to protect his throne from the fate that had befallen his predecessor, King Duncan.
At his second encounter with the Witches, the Weird Sisters warn Macbeth to beware of Macduff, a Scottish nobleman and leader of the opposition against his (Macbeth’s) increasingly repressive rule. The Witches further advise Macbeth to harshly stamp out all dissenting voices without fear of any consequences because none of woman born shall ever harm Macbeth—his power and that of the state of which he is the head is proof against any and all opposition and conspirators because Macbeth “shall never be vanquished until great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come”—an impossible proposition because no forest can walk up the hill to attack Macbeth’s well defended castle at Dunsinane. Macbeth builds a formidable intelligence service and sends them out to spy against opponents at home and abroad. And so he can boast that:
“There’s not one of them but in his house I have a servant fee’d” (Act I Scene 3)
As in Rwanda, so in repressive and authoritarian Scotland; Macbeth has good reason for the fact that his trust in his well-educated and highly trained state intelligence service is absolute, justified. Yet his wife is driven insane and then to death by the unwashable sight of King Duncan’s blood on her hands. Macbeth finds that in spite of all his powers of command over the state, he cannot command a calm and stoic forbearance in his partner in crime. What drives Lady Macbeth insane and kills her is the fact that she cannot wash away the haunting blood of King Duncun from her hands that she keeps obsessively washing. And it is from the moment of these scenes of dread unknown to Scotland inside his own home and marriage that Macbeth discovers that the power that the instruments of darkness had put in his hands is power, yes, but also, to his horror he discovers that it is a power against which his own humanity is helpless. It is a horror that Macbeth cannot even share with anyone else outside of his inner circle. And to his greatest horror, this same dread turns the power that he had craved so much into but ashes in the soul.
A deeper look at the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga demands of us that all voices speak up and refuse to be silent any longer following this latest disappearance.
And thus, the instruments of darkness begin their work of betraying Macbeth “in deepest consequence”. In the end, after all his trust in their dark powers, the Instruments of darkness that he had embraced forsake him when indeed great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill comes. The forces which will liberate Scotland from Macbeth’s dictatorship have arrived led by Macduff—he that was “none of woman born” because he was ripped prematurely from his dead mother’s womb. Having assassinated Scotland’s leader, King Duncun, Macbeth finds that the only way to assure his security is through more bloodshed. This in spite of the warning that the Weird Sisters had given him: security is mortal’s chiefest enemy. In his quest for will-o’-the wisp security, Macbeth embarks on an endless campaign of repression and assassination world without end.
Poignantly, Macbeth will have to watch helplessly as the horrors of his Faustian bargain destroy the mind of his steely iron lady, Lady Macbeth. The only security for him now is to remain in power forever, but mortals are mortal—or, as Lennox sardonically puts it, men must not walk too late—or else when they die violently, the fearful son fled into exile might find himself ever so rightly, ever so easily, accused of being the murderer of his luckless father.
The original sin
Right from the assassination of Seth Sendashonga in exile in Kenya in 1998, to this latest outrage—the forced disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga on 23rd May 2021—there is a context that Rwandans silently acknowledge but which the rest of the world may need to understand because the violence that these exiled Rwandans are subjected to reflects the situation, the larger context of violence and impunity, that birthed post-genocide Rwanda. And it is that context that the rest of the world needs to understand given the indifferent silence coming out of Rwanda on the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga just as has happened when other Rwandans have met a tragic end either within Rwanda or abroad.
Much like Scotland in the grip of murderous King Macbeth, Rwanda is in the grip of a murderous regime at whose head is a ruler haunted by the assassination of Rwanda’s president Juvenal Habyarimana. Rwanda will only know peace when the true facts of the death of President Habyarimana are publicly investigated and accounted for in Rwanda by all Rwandans. There is a divinity hedges the person of the King, the Bard of Avon once said—the assassination of the president is no small matter to be swept aside because Rwanda must move on past the genocide. In the meantime, as in Scotland after the murder of King Duncan, Rwanda and Rwandans continue to pay the terrible price of that death that has never been acknowledged, never been investigated, never been accounted for.
The assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana is Rwanda’s Original Sin, which unless acknowledged and expiated, there is never going to be any peace for the current powerholders in Rwanda, however many more Rwandans are assassinated in the name of national security. Until the assassination of President Habyarimana is publicly investigated and accounted for in Rwanda, the death of the President is the terrible cross that every Rwandan must bear. Yet the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana was not a horrific aberration, it did not come out of the blue. There is a precedent, and that precedent is the haunting, poignant figure of Fred Rwigyema, the leader of the Rwanda Patriotic Front until his assassination in Uganda just before the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPC) began its last major incursion into Rwanda that would set the stage for the terrible last phase of the civil war and the genocide that followed as inevitably as night follows day.
Fred Gisa Rwigyema. Magnanimous Rwigyema—for his superlative battlefield tactics and treatment of outpaced and outmanoeuvred opponents in northern Uganda, he was gratefully nicknamed the god of war by those he had defeated on the battlefield. In Africa’s vicious counterinsurgency operations, it is very rare for such accolades to be bestowed upon the victorious government’s battlefield general by those he has just defeated. It is indeed a rare accolade by rebels to a government soldier anywhere in Africa. General Fred Rwigyema was that rare African General who earned battlefield honours from his defeated opponents. And there is more: for General Fred Rwigyema was a soldier’s soldier—even apart from the fact that he was that rare soldier whom his defeated enemy was always happy to surrender arms to.
Macbeth finds that in spite of all his powers of command over the state, he cannot command a calm and stoic forbearance in his partner in crime.
Fred Rwigyema’s vision of the RPF was of the RPF as a movement for all Rwandans. All. General Fred Rwigyema’s vision of Rwanda was of a country where all Rwandans would find a place as Tutsi, Hutu and Ba’Twa—and still find the space to live together as Rwandans. Rwanda first and always. That was the vision of General Fred Rwigyema—and it was the reason why Hutus joined the RPF without any doubts as to the motives of the rebel army. The General’s vision was the reason why the Ba’Twa, who are always so afraid of the latest turn of national events in Rwanda —formed the formidable, silent and unseen backbone of his intelligence service. After witnessing and hearing of his storied counterinsurgency campaigns in northern Uganda, the Ba’Twa had embraced the General with open arms, for General Fred Rwigyema’s RPF were all Rwandans fighting for a better day for their country. Their return to Rwanda from exile was anticipated with joy and love for Rwanda. And in Rwanda, the return of General Fred Rwigyema was as eagerly anticipated by the Rwandans in the north who had heard of the General’s reputation for magnanimity, especially in the north of Uganda where he had led a fabled counterinsurgency war against the remnants of the Obote regime.
Counterinsurgency warfare is scorched earth war, war to the knife, war to the death. And yet, General Fred Rwigyema executed counterinsurgency operations in northern Uganda that left the locals full of admiration for this soldier-statesman. On the 1st of October 1990, the RPF invaded Rwanda from Uganda. And on the 2nd of October, General Fred Rwigyema was dead. Shot dead accidentally, according to later RPF reports. If the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana triggered the Rwanda genocide, the death of General Fred Rwigyema on the second day of the invasion of Rwanda by his motivated RPF was a tragedy whose cost Rwandans would not discover for decades. Like Banquo’s Ghost upending national events in Macbeth’s Scotland, General Fred Rwigyema’s enigmatic smile haunts Rwandans wherever they go. The haunting vision of a Rwanda that acknowledges Hutu as Hutu, Tutsi as Tutsi, Ba’Twa as proudly Ba’Twa—and still forges these three into the supple bladed steel of a proud and stable Rwanda. O General Fred Rwigyema. What a vision. And what a tragedy. For that vision of a Rwanda of the three proud nations (Hutu, Tutsi, Twa) died on the second day of the invasion that General Fred Rwigyema intended would rid Rwanda of ethnic supremacy once and for all time.
In General Fred Rwigyema one sees the Rwanda that could have been. And in his death, one sees the prologue to all the horrors that would afflict Rwanda and her neighbours in the decades to come. The death of General Fred Rwigyema was a loss with which the African Great Lakes Region is only now beginning to reckon. The cost of the General’s death has been too high for this region. Yet in this poignant loss there is a hard lesson for the Great Lakes Region: our perennial instability and its terrible toll in blood and treasure always springs from that same place where the adulation of General Rwigyema springs from: we in the Great Lakes Region are always greatly enamoured of charismatic leaders, not institutions. When such a great leader passes from the scene prematurely or in the fullness of a life well lived, we are always left bereft. The lesson, as ever, is a poignant one: in our failure to cultivate viable, lasting national institutions, we have left ourselves and our countries open to the vagaries of capricious fate. Get a charismatic leader of vision and magnanimity like President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and the nation reaps big in terms of stability. Get a charismatic leader of capricious intent like Iddi Amin and suffer the cost in lives lost and spend decades trying in vain to repair the irreparable damage. And even when the visionary leader comes, his departure is always a catastrophe to the nation because his successors feel called upon to knock down his legacy—just for the sheer pleasure of boy-like cruelty, malice and revenge.
In General Fred Rwigyema one begins to understand the driven vindictiveness, the unquenchable rage that drives the state to expend scarce resources in pursuit of exiles in faraway countries like South Africa, Canada, and Mozambique. Behind every question that Rwandans ask about the horrors that the state is inflicting upon all Rwanda, there is the patient, enigmatic smile of General Fred Rwigyema. Behind the driven insatiable pursuit of the wealth of neighbouring countries, there stands the Ghost of General Fred Rwigyema: quizzical, gentle, aloof, questioning, mocking, never to be appeased by the baubles looted from neighbouring countries in the grip of their own national traumas. And the unaccounted for deaths continue to haunt Rwanda: King Mutara III Rudahigwa, President Grégoire Kayibanda, General Fred Rwigyema, President Juvenal Habyarimana, Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Umwamikazi Rosalie—the gathering of the angry and the impatient and the forgiving and the patient ghosts grows ever bigger, the list of their names ever longer.
It is hard to live up to the high standards of the illustrious dead. And so we lash out at those who would, even unintentionally, remind us of their unreachable visions, their rigorously high standards. Self-questioning, consensus seeking, patience, an instinctive empathy for the humanity of the other side: inhumanly high standards. Hence the impatience with that past. Hence the taboo on any talk of involving the old royals in any attempts at reconciliation. And, please, whatever you do, do not mention the monarchy. And please, whatever you do, do not mention the foundational covenant which, for the sacred stability of the land, the illustrious Gihanga, founder-hero, made with Rwanda. And please, whatever you do, do not talk of reconciliation. Reconciling with whom? Reconciling for what? And, hence the taboo on the mentioning of that name, Fred Rwigyema, in the hearing of the leader.
Rwanda will only know peace when the true facts of the death of President Habyarimana are publicly investigated and accounted for in Rwanda by all Rwandans.
Yet that self-mocking smile accompanies us everywhere we go. We see the ineradicable face in every face in the crowd. So we lash out at any idealist young man, woman who reminds us of that enigmatic presence who sits ever so patiently at the head of the dinner table every evening. Is it the Ghost of Banquo? Or is it the Ghost of that troublesome Fred Rwigyema and his nostalgias for a bygone time? We lash out at any questioner whose patriotism is instantly questioned—because they were not there when we were fighting for all this. What do they know? And so we lash out, single them out. Crush them. One by one—or all at once. For we live a charmed life—and we have this divine cachet to turn these naïfs into meat for the crocodiles. So we make them our training partners even if they are unwilling and they pay in blood—pay like Sewell, that naïf who faced General Macbeth in the naive innocence of callow youth and paid with his life; let every callow opponent come forth one and all. Just so that we can give the intelligence apparatus some live fire practice. And there is a kind of glee, a kind of insane greed for violence in the heart of the state when yet one more opponent is discovered and state resources are mobilized against him. Then, at the presidential intelligence headquarters, one notices an increased tempo in affairs, a quickening of pace, a tighter, happier smile, a sense of the blood beating faster in the heart, the pulse ticking steadily at the temple. Like an eager Macbeth putting on his armour gleefully, greedily even, before the time of battle arrives, these Rwandans now in the grip of a fate they no longer control, are driven to put on a greater show of national purpose. Even when the enemy threat is no longer a more restrained Congo or a wiser Uganda but a lonely exiled Cassien Ntamuhanga, heartsick for the fabled hills of his beloved Rwanda.
That famed Rwigyema sense of proportion, that calm sense of perspective, that lucky coup d’oeil that Fred was so famed for in the midst of a developing crisis—that is all gone now. It is all about hunting down lone Rwandans in foreign lands and caning domestic servants. So we lash out. And the language gets more intemperate, more brazen too; even as a distraught family mourns the murder of Patrick Karegeya, the head of state can warn the other exiles that, for them too, it is but a matter of time. And there is no need for any pretence anymore at consultation, at listening to the other side’s view: the other ones whom General Fred Rwigyema would always listen to so patiently. So what of them? Who needs them? Rwanda does not need them. We are all Rwandans here. General Fred Rwigyema’s vision of a Rwanda of Hutu, Tutsi, Twa? No need. We are all Rwandans here so do not ask me whether I am Tutsi or what have you. And so we lash out. And the remembrance days get longer, the memorials more lavish, more obscene, more outrageous each year. Kwibuka: lest we forget—and naïfs like young Sewell standing gangly and callow before Macbeth with a sword in his right hand—these naïfs did not even know what there was that so needed to be forgotten in the first place. They did not even know that we lead a charmed life. So their questioning, their ridiculous demands for an accounting are all a naive tilting at windmills. And so young Sewell falls to the General’s sword without even seeing where the blow that cut off his life came from. They cannot see me coming: I am as the leopard, the eagle, the silent running predator. I will come at them out of left field.
In this journey of anguished self-examination at the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga, one knows that wherever Cassien Ntamuhanga is, as the strong Christian that he is, were he able to reach out, he would ask that the Church in Rwanda pray for him. So once again, the Church finds itself called upon to intervene for the sake of Rwanda on the side of the beleaguered individual whose life forever stands forfeit because the state is yet to address the value of the life of the Rwandan. Only the Church can help Rwandans to retrace the path towards the sacredness of life. As the Church in Rwanda stood with Rwandans when Rwanda descended into the abyss, some clergy, unfortunately, walked with them that pushed Rwanda unto the abyss of the damned. The sacredness of the life of every Rwandan—leader or ordinary faithful— is a call in which all of us still look to the Church. Only the Church has the stature to stand with the ordinary Rwandan against the might of the unaccountable Rwandan state. Only the Church will help Rwandans to rediscover the sacredness, the cherished value of human life in Rwanda. For without that reverent realisation of the sacredness and the worth of each Rwandan’s life, all life is forfeit in Rwanda, and if the sacredness of life in Rwanda is forfeit, then Rwanda itself is forfeit.
In General Fred Rwigyema one begins to understand the driven vindictiveness, the unquenchable rage that drives the state to expend scarce resources in pursuit of exiles in faraway countries.
Mwami Mutara III Rudahigwa’s unexplained death in Bujumbura would set the stage for the deaths to come in Rwanda. The death of the king while on a visit to Burundi planted the seeds of the rancour that corrodes Rwanda’s national psyche to this day. Allegations of his poisoning by Belgian authorities have persisted to this day. The unexplained death of the king robs Rwanda of stability because whenever followers of another assassinated leader demand an investigation, their demands are blithely ignored because of the precedent set by Rwanda’s failure to judicially investigate the death of Mwami Rudahigwa and thus give his followers closure. His followers’ calls for an investigation have always been ignored by the successive rulers who have come to power in Rwanda since the revolution of 1959. Yet any Rwandan leader who ignores the calls to investigate the king’s unexplained death is giving hostages to fortune. “There’s such divinity doth hedge the person of a King” (Act IV Scene 5, Hamlet by William Shakespeare). No Rwandan leader has ever acknowledged the need to investigate the death of King Mutara III Rudahigwa – and the followers of the current leaders have been equally silent about the King’s unexplained death abroad. As for King Mutara III Rudahigwa’s followers, the death of the King on the 25th of July 1959 is an occasion for such deep mourning that you would think the king has just died this past July.
So what happens when your leader, in his turn, dies an unexplained or an unnatural death—which tends to be the special end Rwanda inflicts on its leaders? Whenever his followers gather to commemorate the life of King Rudahigwa, the current occupant of state house Kigali should look back to the fate that overtook his predecessors who blithely ignored the pained call for closure by King Rudahigwa’s followers. It is a call that has been ignored every year by each subsequent ruler of Rwanda. The meaning of this act is deafeningly loud, for when a ruler deems the life of his predecessor to be without worth, he speaks urgently, insistently, imperiously, to the future. And such a leader will not value the life of any of the citizens from whom he expects due regard as the leader. The stability of Rwanda is anchored in the sacredness of each individual’s life. When the ruler forfeits the life of but one of his subjects, his is forfeit. It is the unresolved end to the life of King Rudahigwa that has made the life of each subsequent Rwandan leader such a fraught life. And the fragility of the life of the leader is at the foundational roots of the instability that has rotted the core of the Rwandan state.
Like Banquo’s Ghost upending national events in Macbeth’s Scotland, General Fred Rwigyema’s enigmatic smile haunts Rwandans wherever they go.
All Rwandans have mocked and excoriated the ceremonial that surrounded the life of the King. But as Rwanda continues to pay this very high price in instability, the unappeased presence of His Majesty King Mutara III Rudahigwa waits out there in Nyanza. The unspeakable crimes perpetrated by the monarchy against Rwandans in the past have precluded any mention of the monarchy in the national non-discourse in Rwanda. Rwandans, like the son who rejects the name his father gave him, have the right to try to reject their monarchical heritage; yet they will fail in this—as they have failed in the past. And the cost of failure is this periodic decent into the abyss because the unrestrained Rwandan state does not recognize any right to life, liberty or life’s pursuits. Any call for accountability, for restraint when it comes to the king, is immediately dismissed out of hand as an unrealistic attempt at returning the monarchy to power. As genocide denial, even. Yet the continued dismissal of the King’s followers’ call for justice is but a measure of how fragile the new normal in Rwanda is. The call for an accounting for the fate of the king is a call for justice; the decision on the fate of the monarchy in Rwanda was the prerogative of Rwandans—and they did exercise it. In embracing the state with its arrogant lack of restraint when it comes to the fate of the king, Rwandans continually signal to the state that it can continue on its unrestrained, unaccountable path—even though that road is guaranteed to lead all Rwanda into the abyss.
The life of the individual is only as sacred as the life of the leader is; the life of the leader is only as sacred as the life of the individual is. Cassien Ntamuhanga’s life is as sacred as is the life of Rwanda’s leader; and the converse is also absolutely true. The fate of Grégoire Kayibanda, Rwanda’s first President, speaks to the urgent need to reckon with the fate of the king. When President Grégoire Kayibanda was overthrown, he was placed under house arrest and starved to death. There has been no attempt to atone for this terrible tragedy for Rwanda. President Kayibanda was Rwanda’s president and the worth of a Rwandan hinges on the worth that Rwanda places on the life of President Kayibanda. Atonement is overdue here and Rwanda stares deep into the abyss as each day it ignores the harrowing fate that his successors visited upon President Kayibanda. For the leader of the nation to starve to death is for the nation to starve to death. Rwanda needs to raise its voice for and speak the name of President Grégoire Kayibanda for the sake of the nation’s continued good health and stability. Rwandans must act with restraint towards their leaders if they expect Rwanda to act with wise restraint and forbearance towards each Rwandan. It must be a living nightmare to be the leader of a country where you live with the horrific knowledge that the citizens who call you excellency starved your predecessor to death. It is the kind of history that does not bode well for an enlightened and forbearing leadership.
Perhaps the unpredictable quicksilver character of Rwandan leadership (which is glossed over as Rwandan leader-order) is learnt from the nightmare mirror that is the fate of President Kayibanda. And yet Rwanda continues to ignore the roaring voice of this quintessence of the Rwandan psyche. President Kayibanda’s cold unconcern at the rampaging mobs who executed the seed-genocide of his reign was but a harbinger of things to come for Rwanda. In the shrieking ghost of President Kayibanda one hears the shrieking cries of the dying and the howling roars of the marauding mobs. His reign was but a rehearsal for the Rwanda that would be. He stands present there in the Rwandan national psyche together with the roaring mobs of his reign dancing to bloodcurdling songs while the dying shriek the name of Grégoire Kayibanda in all their despair.
Rwanda’s failed rendezvous with President Grégoire Kayibanda and his traumatic reign is Rwanda’s failed rendezvous with fate. It is a failure of national nerve that means that each generation of Rwandans cruelly kicks this overdue reckoning down the road to the next generation—their own children. It is a cruel father who points the vengeful ghosts of his own forefathers in the direction of his toddler son. Mama ni mama, angali mvi, your mother is your mother even if she is whitehaired. Mercurial President Grégoire Kayibanda belongs in the Rwandan national arena as surely as the thousand hills belong to Rwanda. Of course, it does not follow that just because he stands present in the national psyche Rwanda will do right by President Grégoire Kayibanda. Yet the price Rwanda has already paid for its amnesia over Rwanda’s first president is a price very few nations are willing to pay. Yet Rwandans seem ever ready for their periodic plunge into the abyss. Is it stoicism? Or is it a national death wish? A stoicism that makes you hand over the fate of your daughters into the hands of your worst enemies? A death wish that plays Rwandan roulette with the lives of other peoples’ sons? There is a mercurial side to the Rwandan psyche that mirrors the quicksilver Rwandaness of President Grégoire Kayibanda.
Even as a distraught family mourns the murder of Patrick Karegeya, the head of state can warn the other exiles that, for them too, it is but a matter of time.
The assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana through the mid-air shooting of his plane over Kigali on the 6th of April 1994 as he returned from the Arusha peace talks together with Burundian head of state Cyprien Ntaryamira is as harrowing as anything that the unaccountable Rwandan state is capable of inflicting upon Rwandans. After decades riding the roller coaster that is Rwandan leadership, Rwanda sent this favourite son for African Union-mediated peace talks in Arusha, Tanzania beginning in 1992. At first, these talks looked like the usual game of Rwandan roulette. That appeared to be the forgone conclusion regarding the Arusha peace talks—until Kinani took to them in earnest. And, suddenly, a vision of the future of Rwanda peeps through the communiqués from Arusha that takes your breath away. Suddenly, in Arusha, this African strongman looks his rebel opponents in the eye and calls them Rwandans. Yes, Rwandans. Men whose fathers and mothers and siblings he had locked out of Rwanda forever when he had famously declared that Rwanda is full and cannot accommodate any other person in the name of returnees. And suddenly, out there in Arusha, the armed opposition looks at President Juvenal Habyarimana and in him they see their leader, the President of Rwanda. And suddenly, not so suddenly, out there in Arusha, a vision, a vista of a Rwanda of all Rwandans opens out before the astonished gaze of all Rwandans and the watchful international community. In the annals of peace talks and peace-making, the Arusha peace talks rank right up there with the treaties that established the post-war European system after the Second World War. Alas, Rwanda. Alas, President Juvenal Habyarimana.
Alas, Africa. These moments in Arusha are as supernal as the vision that the future shows Macbeth, and that he spectacularly misapprehends. If ever there was a moment when all Rwandans looked into the future of Rwanda—and there saw a Rwanda at peace with itself—it was at these peace talks in Arusha. And like a Macbeth convinced of his special place in Scotland’s fate, the protagonists in Arusha each misapprehend and misinterpret the vision of the future that, for a moment, Rwanda had shown them. The extremists on both sides rush to claim centre stage—and two shrieking surface-to-air missiles curve the bloody signature to the Arusha peace talks over Kigali’s beautiful night skies that tragic April evening. The vision in Arusha vanishes and like a Macbeth vowed to put all opponents to the sword—babes in their mothers’ arms and all—from Arusha a terrible note is sounded for the first time when there in Arusha a vow is made to return to Rwanda and execute “the Apocalypse”.
President Juvenal Habyarimana returned with the signed peace document aboard the presidential Dassault Falcon. But that evening the presidential plane would never land at Kigali International Airport. Those two shrieking surface-to-air missiles raced for the presidential plane—two fiery javelins streaking over Kigali’s darkening evening skies. And the presidential plane exploded into a ball of flame and crashed into the grounds of state house Kigali, Rwanda. On board were the presidents of two countries—Rwanda and Burundi. The Apocalypse had claimed its first victims. And as the genocide gathered pace and the RPF forces fanned out of the north and roared for the east and the south in a race against time to save the lives of doomed Rwandans, the shattered former government forces raced westwards towards Zaire and with them they carried the remains of slain President Juvenal Habyarimana. Eventually they would give the president’s remains a haunting hasty ceremonial Hindu burial at Ndjili Airport in Congo ex-Zaire.
The anguish that the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana has occasioned Rwanda and the whole of the Great Lakes Region is incalculable. As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, Rwanda will not know peace as long as President Juvenal Habyarimana’s mortal remains are not returned to Rwanda and accorded the burial honours the president deserves. Any attempt at a lasting peace in Rwanda is doomed to fail as long as the president’s name remains but a silent, unspeakable, unspoken, tabooed name even as Rwanda’s national discourse gathers pace abroad. Of course, within Rwanda you cannot at present talk of any credible national discourse. Much like Macbeth’s Scotland where any mention of slain King Duncun was taboo, within Rwanda any mention of President Juvenal Habyarimana is fraught with danger. Yet Kinani stands there waiting for that national discourse to reach and start being heard within Rwanda—waiting, waiting, a dark, enigmatic, brooding presence. In the imposed amnesia over President Juvenal Habyarimana’s fate, Rwanda dances on the edge of the abyss. Rwanda is a country on the razor’s edge, and only in an honest reckoning with the fate it has meted out against its leaders is there a glimmer of a possible pathway to the future. For Rwandans deeply crave peace. And yet, the man who brought Rwanda peace languishes unmourned in the outer darkness out there in exile and at the shadowy edge of the Rwandan national psyche. For Rwanda, the road to peace must pass through President Juvenal Habyarimana’s mausoleum right there in Kigali, Rwanda—whenever it is in future that Rwandans will decide to build that mausoleum to Kinani, Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana. When that day of reverence for the lives of the leaders of Rwanda comes, then citizens like Cassien Ntamuhanga will walk freely in Rwanda knowing that their lives, too, are sacrosanct under law.
Only the Church has the stature to stand with the ordinary Rwandan against the might of the unaccountable Rwandan state.
No Rwandan leader has ever paid a higher price while in power as Agathe Uwilingiyimana paid while in office as Rwanda’s premier. A patriot who embraced the vision of a Rwanda in which all Rwandans would have an equal space as of right, Premier Agathe paid a price that no leader should ever be asked to pay for the sake of his or her country. Yet, illustrious stateswoman that she was, Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana stoically rose above her personal tragedy to serve Rwanda faithfully to the very end. When you look at Premier Uwilingiyimana, it is Simonides’ epitaph for King Leonidas and the valiant three hundred which immediately comes to mind: “O, Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here obedient to their commands we lie.” Stoic courage against impossible odds: Agathe Uwilingiyimana. Courage over and above the call of duty: Agathe Uwilingiyimana. Fidelity to one’s oath even when the price already paid and yet to be paid is an impossible one: Illustrious Agathe Uwilingiyimana. To stand at one’s station to the last hour and even if there was yet a glimmer of escape, refusing to take it so as to stand with those who had no one to offer them any escape: stalwart Agathe Uwiligiyimana. Like the fierce lioness standing between her cubs and death, to stand between your loved ones and catastrophe knowing full well that it means that your life is forfeit: Stateswoman Agathe Uwilingiyimana. Teacher of a nation. Mwalimu we are ever so sorry. And even after Rwanda visited a traumatic horror upon her, she still served Rwanda as its leader. And even when, on the second day of the Apocalypse, the genocidaires came for her, she came forth to face them. Alone. Unarmed. Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Rwanda’s leader. Words cannot speak fully to the true measure of Agathe Uwilingiyimana’s leadership in Rwanda.
And yet, even after the horrors it inflicted on this stalwart leader, Rwanda and the United Nations still dare to call Rwanda’s national catastrophe the Genocide Against the Tutsis. As for the United Nations, that august body has a long tradition of abandoning Rwanda at the country’s hour of need. The latest being the tepid response it has made over the forced disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga. As for Rwandans, their silence even as Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana’s memory suffers this treacherous damnatio memoriae, the message is as plain as day: until the day that Rwanda will choose to atone for the national wrong it has done to the premier, Rwanda will not know true peace. And yet it is unthinkable that Rwanda will ever abandon its obscene and self-serving “Genocide Against the Tutsis” to mourn all Tutsis who died in the Genocide and all Rwandans who died defending Tutsis. It is an impossible thought—yet in its unthinkableness is the harbinger of Rwanda’s future. Rwanda must punish all those who committed atrocities against Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana to the full extent of the law. Only then can Rwanda expect to deserve the full measure of its claim to sovereign statehood. The Rwandan will only get the full measure of his or her rights when Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana is accorded these same rights posthumously. “O, Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here obedient to their commands we lie.”
When President Grégoire Kayibanda was overthrown, he was placed under house arrest and starved to death.
The full measure of the national treasure that Rwanda expends in pursuit of perceived enemies like Cassien Ntamuhanga beyond the borders of Rwanda is the same full measure that Rwanda must expend to accord Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana justice if Rwanda expects to know peace. No individual Rwandan can claim safety so long as Rwanda refuses to atone for its atrocities against Premier Agathe Uwiligiyimana. Rwanda will not find atonement until Premier Agathe Uwiligiyimana is accorded the full measure of justice and redress by Rwanda. The harrowing fate that has overtaken Cassien Ntamuhanga is the fate that Rwanda reserves for each Rwandan so long as there is only silence when it comes to Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana. “O, Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here obedient to their commands we lie.” The lesson is that Rwanda must treat its leaders with wise restraint and utmost dignity and honour. To be the leader of a nation is a thing of great honour and reverence. Once appointed to office, a leader is a person that all Rwanda must honour and revere unconditionally.
The caveats Rwanda puts on the honour and regard due its leaders is the unwitting curse that each generation of Rwandans just picks up unthinkingly on the journey towards the latest iteration of the national catastrophe. The fate that befell Rwanda for its cavalier show of disrespect towards Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana is the reason why the aged, like the leader, were sacrosanct beings in Rwandan culture. The hand that Rwanda lifted to strike at the Premier is the curse that led Rwanda unto the abyss. Them that the gods would damn they first make proud. Even as Rwanda walked into the Apocalypse, the anticipation and the eagerness of Rwandans was the one noteworthy fact that observers noted of Rwanda’s national mood at that time. And the fact that even now there is no move in Rwanda towards redress for the wrongs a reckless nation inflicted on this gracious leader, that fact alone, is enough of a riposte unto them that claim the mantle of Rwanda’s infallible leaders. “O, Stranger passing by, go tell the Spartans that here obedient to their commands we lie.” It is Rwandans who will convince their leaders that the life of a leader is a sacrosanct treasure, that the life of an ordinary Rwandan like Cassien Ntamuhanga is a sacrosanct treasure.
The genocide raced right across Rwanda in all its fury that April of 1994 and, finally, the mass slaughter reached Butare, Southern Rwanda, where Umwamikazi (Queen) Rosalie Gicanda had been banished to internal exile ever since Rwanda chased her out of the royal palace in Nyanza after the Rwanda Revolution of 1959. Rosalie Gicanda became Rwanda’s Queen in 1942. In 1959, King Mutara III Rudahigwa died in questionable circumstances in Bujumbura, Burundi, and in the same year, the Rwanda Revolution abolished the Rwanda monarchy. Speaking in Cape Town, South Africa, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan used the phrase “wind of change” to describe the epochal political changes that were sweeping through Africa in the 1960s. In Rwanda, the Revolution is called Muyaga, the wind of destruction, because it destroyed the structure of Rwandan society that was anchored in the balance of power between the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa, with the monarchy as the arbiter between the different sectors of Rwandan society.
With the monarchy—the shield that stood between Rwanda and the abyss—removed, Rwanda now begun its bloody race to the bottom that would culminate in the Rwanda genocide of 1994. When in 1962 Rwanda stripped Umwamikazi Rosalie of her titles and hounded her out of the royal palace, the Queen stoically settled to a quiet life in Butare in the hope of protecting her subjects from retaliation by the murderous mobs that periodically targeted her for vilification and persecution. Throughout the decades of internal exile and banishment in Butare, Queen Rosalie Gicanda kept her head down and avoided any public pronouncements that would lead to further pogroms against the remnant of her subjects who still lived in Rwanda after the revolution.
Rwanda’s failed rendezvous with President Grégoire Kayibanda and his traumatic reign is Rwanda’s failed rendezvous with fate.
Banished from the royal palace, stripped of all her titles after the abolition of the monarchy in 1962—for Rwanda that was not enough. A campaign of sustained vilification selected Queen Rosalie to be Rwanda’s bête noire in the years after Muyaga. On the 20th of April 1994, a detachment of the Rwanda intelligence service arrested the Queen and her small retinue and murdered them near the Rwanda National Museum. One little girl survived to speak of the murder of revered Queen Rosalie Gicanda. The assassination of Umwamikazi Rosalie Gicanda in the Rwanda genocide is a curse that Rwanda will struggle for decades to expiate. Full atonement for the death of the Queen is the only way for Rwanda to protect the lives of all Rwandans from the vagaries of a lawless and unaccountable state. As long as Rwanda does not recognize the sacredness of the life and person of Umwamikazi Rosalie, Rwanda cannot begin to even accept that atonement for this horrific crime is overdue. And yet, Rwanda will never accept that, in assassinating Umwamikazi Rosalie Rwanda, Rwanda damned itself. And in that refusal to recognize the fateful crime against revered Umwamikazi Rosalie, Rwanda walks with an albatross round its own neck. Indeed, there are sections of Rwandan society where these words of abiding sorrow at the fate of the Queen instantly meet with violent rejection. Until all Rwanda embraces the true symbolic meaning of the role of Umwamikazi Rosalie in the life and future of Rwanda, Rwanda will continue to stare at the abyss. The sheer rage that Rwanda still fans against the Queen, that is the seductive siren song of the abyss to which Rwanda is still listening with eager attention. Rwanda is still courting the abyss, Rwanda is still stoking the flames of a new genocide because Rwanda has adamantly refused to atone for the ills committed against this great African stateswoman, Umwamikazi Rosalie.
Gentle, gracious and stoic in her decades of sorrow in the wilderness, Umwamikazi Rosalie never accepted the continual offers to go into exile. The calls for the queen to flee Rwanda grew insistent once those two surface-to-air missiles had brought down President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane. Even as the genocide approached Butare, the queen refused the many insistent and desperate offers of safe passage for her out of Rwanda. Umwamikazi Rosalie stayed in Butare to the bitter end. Stoically, the Queen stayed with her subjects who were being slaughtered in the Rwanda genocide. And in Butare the genocide came with an especial fury because Butare is not only the spiritual heart of Catholicism in Rwanda. Butare, this beautiful city of soaring plainsong is also the mystical heartland of Rwanda as a nation and of Rwandans as a people. Butare of high learning and philosophical debates, Butare the spiritual home of Rwanda And so, in this chronical of tears and abiding sorrow, Queen Rosalie saw it fitting that, here in Butare of religious visions and soaring plainchant, she would stand to the bitter end.
Much like Macbeth’s Scotland where any mention of slain King Duncun was taboo, within Rwanda any mention of President Juvenal Habyarimana is fraught with danger.
The debt the Rwanda owes Umwamikazi Rosalie is the very survival of Rwanda as a nation now and into the future. In her decades-long persecution and suffering, Umwamikazi Rosalie is Rwanda’s curse. In her stoic acceptance and forgiveness of Rwanda’s atrocities against her, Umwamikazi Rosalie is Rwanda’s possibility of future blessings and prosperity and peace. Yet there are sections of Rwandan society that would pluck up and burn to cinders the black marble of her mausoleum in Rwanda. Rwanda’s rejection of the Queen, Rwanda’s fury against Rosalie Gicanda, that is the measure of Rwanda’s damnation. As we seek for even a whispered word about the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga, Rwanda must acknowledge the roots of its cavalier disregard for the rule of law, due process, rights of the accused and the value of the life of each Rwandan. The roots of Rwanda’s lawless lie in Rwanda’s horrific persecution of Umwamikazi Rosalie. Every Rwandan hopes for safety and the chance for prosperity for themselves and for their loved ones. Every year on the 4th of July, Rwandans celebrate Liberation Day and declare anew their aspirations for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There, in the person of Rosalie of Splendour, there in the person of persecuted, excoriated and exiled Umwamikazi Rosalie, there in the person of Queen Rosalie, is every Rwandan’s claim to the right to safety, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—even if they violently reject the Queen.
What will the United Nations ever tell the Premier?
In the above reprise of Cassien Ntamuhanga’s fate against the backdrop of Shakespeare’s “Scottish” play, there speaks to us an urgent message because ever since the Rwanda genocide, the hounding of Rwandans like Cassien Ntamuhanga by the state is a totalitarian horror that has engulfed not only Rwandans within but also those abroad. Cassien Ntamuhanga’s targeting by the Rwandan state finds strong resonance in King Macbeth’s Scotland. In post-genocide Rwanda, opponents of the RPF powerholders face jail and assassination both inside and outside Rwanda. And like Macbeth boasted, the president of Rwanda has boasted that Rwanda has one of the best intelligence services in the world—resourceful enough to strike at Rwanda’s “enemies” anywhere in the world. And with this we come to the harrowing events that have overtaken the life of Cassien Ntamuhanga, the former Rwandan journalist who was arrested in Inhaca, near Maputo, Mozambique.
It is Rwandans who will convince their leaders that the life of a leader is a sacrosanct treasure, that the life of an ordinary Rwandan like Cassien Ntamuhanga is a sacrosanct treasure.
Cassien Ntamuhanga has not been seen in public since his abduction—and abduction is the right legal term here because ever since his arrest, state officials in Mozambique and in Rwanda have denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. For its part, the government of Mozambique must publicly state the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga, for he had applied for refugee status in that country. And the government of Rwanda must tell the world of the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga given previous patterns of forced disappearance and murder or attempted murder of Rwandans living outside the country. At least one Kinyarwanda-speaking foreigner was present at the moment of Cassien Ntamuhanga’s arrest in Inhaca. The forced disappearance of former journalist Cassien Ntamuhanga must be the urgent concern of all Africans and humanity concerned for peace and reconciliation in Rwanda—and for peace and stability in the countries neighbouring Rwanda. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must tell the world of the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga as he had applied for refugee status in Mozambique at the time of his disappearance. By virtue of his refugee application in Mozambique, Cassien Ntamuhanga had automatically acquired the legal protection of the UNHCR. Even before the determination of his refugee application, the UNHCR owed Cassien Ntamuhanga a moral duty of care. Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, must intervene in Cassien Ntamuhanga’s case and demand that the latter be handed back into the care of the UNHCR because seeking asylum and safe refuge abroad is a basic right of all persecuted persons fleeing their country of birth. As an applicant for refugee status in Mozambique, Cassien Ntamuhanga is legally protected from repatriation to Rwanda and, setting aside the fact that the two countries do not have an extradition treaty, Mozambique cannot legally deport Cassien Ntamuhanga back to Rwanda. If Cassien Ntamuhanga ends up in Rwanda through a forced repatriation, Mozambique—and the UNHCR—would be in serious breach of international treaties governing the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
As for the United Nations, that august body has a long tradition of abandoning Rwanda at the country’s hour of need.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances needs to take up the case of Cassien Ntamuhanga because failing to intervene in this case will see Rwanda sink further into repression to the detriment of all Rwandans’ efforts at reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. Further, the case of Cassien Ntamuhanga is urgent to all because peace in Rwanda is vital for the whole Great Lakes Region. As past wars have proven, when Rwanda descends into anarchy, the whole of East and Central Africa pays an inhuman price in lives lost and livelihoods destroyed. This is a special call to the Commonwealth because had it not been for the global health crisis occasioned by COVID-19, Rwanda would have been handed the chairmanship of the Commonwealth in 2021. The Commonwealth bears a moral responsibility and a duty of care towards events in Rwanda and thus this appeal to the Right Honourable Patricia Scotland, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth to convene an urgent meeting with Rwandan authorities and get answers on the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga. Having invited Rwanda into the august body, the Commonwealth needs to impress upon Rwanda the need for it to abide by the Commonwealth values of adherence to due process rights, accountable government, political pluralism and, above all else, respect for human rights.
This call on the international community to intervene is made without being blind to the fact that the Rwanda government has worked hard to convince the world of the justice and rightness of its position—witness the successful Rwandan efforts to rewrite the narrative on the Rwanda Genocide. For years, the Rwandan government wanted the world to see the genocide as targeting the Tutsi population only. In the end, in 2017, Rwanda finally convinced the United Nations to change the designation of the Rwanda genocide to the Genocide Against the Tutsi. This is a great disservice to those non-Tutsi Rwandans who died because of their opposition to the genocide and to the genocide ideology. The name change is a great disservice to illustrious Agathe Uwilingiyimana, the valiant Rwandan leader who paid a very high price indeed for her patriotism to Rwanda. Even before the genocide, Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana and her family paid horrifically for her love of Rwanda and her courageous decision to stand by the vision of a Rwanda that stands for inclusivity and respect for the rule of law. During the genocide, many Rwandans who opposed the killings were targeted and killed together with the Tutsis whom they sought to protect from harm. What can the international community tell Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana who lost her life in the genocide now that the United Nations has agreed to call it the Genocide Against the Tutsis? Rwanda now quotes the United Nations to justify the erasure of dead Rwandans from the record by calling it the Genocide Against the Tutsis. What can the United Nations tell Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and the Hutus and the Twa who were killed because they opposed the genocide? The Twa lost a very large number of men, women and children to the genocide so what can the United Nations tell them of their loss now that the murders which took place are only the Genocide Against the Tutsis? Or are the lives of Hutus who died protecting Tutsis from the slaughter not worth a bullet as the genocidaires told these valiant Hutus before killing them too? What of the Twa? Does the United Nations General Assembly not consider their lives worth a bullet just as the genocidaires had said? Are the lives of these Hutus and Twa not worth honouring through remembrance? Is the United Nations agreeing now with the genocidaires who prophetically boasted that by the time they would be through with their “work” of mass murder, there would be none left to tell the tragic stories of their victims? Is the United Nations now in agreement with this horrific boast of the genocidaires? It is a terrible irony that the United Nations, which abandoned these Rwandans at their hour of greatest need, has now abandoned them in death too. It is a case of rubbing salt into the wound. It is a horrific travesty of all the values that the United Nations claims to stand for. Thus, it is absolutely no wonder that the UNHCR has failed Cassien Ntamuhanga just as it failed Rwandans at the start of the genocide by evacuating foreign nationals and leaving Rwandans to the tender mercies of the Interahamwe. Cassien Ntamuhanga is in the hands of the Rwandan security services. There can be no doubt about that. The only urgent thing remaining to be done is for the Rwandans to be pressured to produce Cassien Ntamuhanga in open court to answer to lawful charges—if any.
When remembering the dead is an act of high treason
The pattern of events surrounding Cassien Ntamuhanga’s forced disappearance mirrors and is closely intertwined with the story of gospel singer Kizito Mihigo. Before detailing the events surrounding Ntamuhanga’s disappearance, it is important to first recall the events surrounding the tragic end of Kizito Mihigo. In 2014, the Rwanda government arrested Kizito Mihigo and charged him with conspiracy to kill the president, plotting against the state, complicity in terrorist acts and murder. The Rwanda government then banned Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu and all of Kizito Mihigo’s songs. Kizito’s song Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu had urged reconciliation among Rwandans but it had also urged the remembrance of all of Rwandans who had died in 1994—both Tutsi and Hutu. At the end of his trial in 2015, Kizito Mihigo was sentenced to ten years in prison for planning to kill the president of Rwanda and for conspiring against the government of Rwanda.
The assassination of Umwamikazi Rosalie Gicanda in the Rwanda genocide is a curse that Rwanda will struggle for decades to expiate.
After Kizito Mihigo’s conviction and jailing, he was pardoned by President Paul Kagame in 2018 but was rearrested in February 2020. On 17th February 2020, the Rwanda Bureau of Investigations announced that Kizito had hanged himself in his cell in Remera Prison, Kigali, Rwanda. In interviews before his death, Kizito said that the charges against him arose from his songs—especially Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu—that urged Rwandan reconciliation. Kizito Mihigo’s mission of peace and reconciliation urged Rwandans to look towards forgiveness and remembrance of all of Rwanda’s dead. This message of remembrance of all of Rwanda’s dead during the Rwanda genocide—both Hutu and Tutsi—struck a raw nerve within the Rwanda government of President Paul Kagame. The Rwanda government condemned the song Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu, The Meaning of Death, as an act of genocide denial because in his song, Kizito Mihigo had equated the deaths of the Tutsis who died in the genocide to the deaths of Hutus who allegedly died in revenge killings in Rwanda and in the Congo where Hutu soldiers, militia and civilians had all fled to after participating in the mass slaughter of Tutsis, moderate Hutus and Ba’Twa. Singing in remembrance of the Tutsi victims of the Rwanda genocide and at the same time singing in memory and remembrance of the Hutus who died in revenge killings after the genocide was seen as an unforgivable act of moral equivalence—and an act of genocide denial. In Rwanda, the charge of genocide denial carries a heavy penalty.
Now, Cassien Ntamuhanga, Kizito Mihigo’s co-presenter on Radio Amazing Grace and co-accused in the 2014 trial in Rwanda, is missing, last seen in Maputo, Mozambique in the company of Mozambique’s security agents and at least one Rwandan-speaking stranger. As Al Jazeera says in its flagship programme “Inside Story”, “Rwanda is often portrayed as a shining example of what can be achieved in Africa.” One thing that post-genocide Rwanda has shown that it can achieve is the kidnap, forced disappearance and murder of government critics in foreign countries in America, Europe, the Arab world and extensively throughout Africa. Now Cassien Ntamuhanga’s forced disappearance has once again shown that Rwanda is a shining example of what the African state can achieve once it sets its mind to the task. Because Cassien Ntamuhanga had applied for refugee status in Mozambique, it is urgent and vitally important that the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees speaks out and demands to know from the Rwandan and Mozambique government of his whereabouts. The office of the Special Rapporteur on forced disappearance and torture, Houri es Slami must stand with Rwandans and call for the immediate release of Cassien Ntamuhanga as the initial step towards restoring the latter’s human rights. Protecting the rights of Cassien Ntamuhanga and according him protection as a refugee in Mozambique is a difficult but noble task. This is vitally important because in spite of his long tenure, President Paul Kagame will one day surely vacate office. And when that time comes, he will want to leave Rwanda in the hands of a man whose respect for the rule of law and the constitution is unwavering. A basic principle in jurisprudence is that the ruler must make laws that he would be happy to see executed, implemented by his own worst enemy. The whole of Rwanda must strive for this principal to be included in Rwanda’s stymied process of reconciliation and peace with justice.
Rwanda must acknowledge the roots of its cavalier disregard for the rule of law, due process, rights of the accused and the value of the life of each Rwandan.
If the international community is unable or unwilling to call Rwanda to account, then Rwandans from all sectors of the nation must be willing to initiate this process of reconciliation. Every Rwandan has a state—and a stake in the stability of that state. Speaking out against abuse Rwandans will be entrenching the culture of accountability. And it is only through a constant and sustained engagement with the state through the accountability institutions of Rwanda (the courts, the national assembly, the church, etc.) that the rights of all Rwandans and the rights of the individual will be protected in a sustained, sustainable Rwanda that is ready to protect the rights of the individual. Protecting the rights of the individual Rwandan is the only guarantee that the state and Rwanda itself will survive the looming transition from the leadership of the current Rwandan president.
In the meantime, the president lives like a man under siege. And the future stretches ahead of the president as a barren wasteland of empty tomorrows and more tomorrows. The sense of futility and entrapment is the reason why the long gone despised African dictators constantly changed their countries’ constitutions—all in search of the elixir of immortality that would make them life president in fact and not just on paper in those constitutions that in their hearts they despised so heartily even as they rewrote them to anchor their desire for immortality on paper. Like a terrible fever, the desire of the African ruler for immortality has caught up with the current crop of progressive African leaders. As the darlings of the western world, these African leaders can do no wrong—the New York Times once admiringly characterised President Paul Kagame as the world’s favourite dictator. Like the Weird Sisters whom Macbeth encountered on his way to the throne through a sea of blood, western media loves these African rulers and their authoritarian crackdown on the very institutions that brought them to power in Africa.
Like the Scotland led by Macbeth, the African state is a graveyard for the opponents of the regime who are prosecuted and persecuted under the war on terrorism clauses that were written into these African constitutions at speed. Their sense of futility is the reason why the leadership lashes out at exiled opponents and neighbouring states—if only for the giddy excitement and sense of national purpose. In the meantime, Rwandans and neighbouring states suffer the consequences of the leaders’ constant attempts to justify their actions to the ever-smiling Ghost of Fred Rwigyema and the enigmatic dark presence of the president who is waiting ever so patiently for an accounting of Rwanda’s role in his assassination. Thus, in the meantime, Rwanda feels justified in trying a singer and a journalist under the terrorism clauses of the amended Rwandan laws. We lash out.
The Renaissance Africans
For Rwanda, and for Africa, the tragedy is that after the admired “African Renaissance” presidents have violently killed and silenced the legitimate opposition to their rule, there remains no middle ground in Rwanda just as there remains no legitimate dissent in many of the African countries led by these African Renaissance leaders. In Rwanda, as elsewhere in Africa, what now stands between the ruler in state house and immortality is the armed opposition in exile and underground. The current powerholders will easily dismiss this discredited and exiled force as genocidaires and effete intellectuals. Yet Rwanda’s powerholders must remember that they, too, were once discredited and despised exiles. The lesson is taught over and over again every time a Rwandan seeks reform in Rwandan society only to be confronted with the charge of treason and genocide denial. Every time legitimate dissent is delegitimized in this manner, the message gets across to all Rwandans: the illusion of freedom is just that. The message gets across that there is no real freedom in spite of the beautifully written statutes. When moderate reformers like Kizito Mihigo, Cassien Ntamuhanga, Andre Kagwa Rwitsereka, Seth Sendashonga, Patrick Karegeya are killed or exiled or abducted and disappeared or murdered in exile; when the legitimate opposition—Victoire Ingabire Muhoza, Diane Rwigara, Fred Barafinda—is discredited and criminalised, the message gets across that in Rwanda freedom of speech, assembly, the right to choose one’s own leaders, these are not human rights, these are crimes. Eventually the legitimate opposition will be eliminated in Rwanda. Eventually the legitimate voices of dissent will all be criminalised, murdered, silenced.
As past wars have proven, when Rwanda descends into anarchy, the whole of East and Central Africa pays an inhuman price in lives lost and livelihoods destroyed.
Then what? The next lesson is there in the past of the RPF powerholders themselves, in their childhoods as stateless exiles and as despised foreigners: once all legitimate dissent is either killed or driven into exile, it transforms. The years of exclusion drive underground all alternative voices and there they become transformed into an armed rebel force. Discredited as they are, insignificant in number as they are, mocked and laughed at by the Rwandan president as they are, many Rwandans are starting to listen keenly to the message of the exiled opposition like the Rwanda National Congress. And the RNC itself is working hard to reach out to all sections of Rwanda society. Rwandans in exile learnt the message from the RPF powerholders: it is always a work of the long haul, a work of generations. This patience, this willingness to take the long view is the one asset that the Rwandan president does not have. Hence his constant intemperate outbursts against the liberal opposition. It was a shock to the whole world when the president openly boasted that he is ready to hunt down opponents even abroad when, after the assassination of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former head of the external intelligence service in South Africa. The president said, “Whoever betrays the country will pay the price, I assure you,” and on another occasion, “You cannot betray Rwanda and not get punished for it,” and “Any person still alive who may be plotting against Rwanda, whoever they are, will pay the price. . . Whoever it is, it is a matter of time.” It was with a feeling of horror that the world listened to the president telling the world after the death in police custody of Kizito Mihigo that he is not a singer. It was with a feeling of dread and deep anguish that the family of Assinapol Rwigara pleaded with the police to allow them access to him as he struggled within the wreckage of his car in that 4th of February 2015 road accident from which the police took him alive only to announce that he had died of his injuries.
Leaders like Karegeya and Mihigo are the moderate forces in Rwanda. Eliminating them leaves a vacuum that extremists from both sides are only too glad to fill. Looked at against the background of the exile and the return of the current powerholders in Rwanda, the current Rwandan exiles are making baby steps. Eventually they will grow and walk and start to run for the hunger for the return; in this world there is nothing more powerful than this in the mind of the exile. This hunger for the return home is a force that the current powerholders in Rwanda know well. Perhaps they no longer understand the power that sustained them for decades as despised exiles and refugees until the call of home pulled them back into the fray in Rwanda.
The sustainable long-term route for all Rwandans can only be the route of dialogue that is inclusive of all sectors of Rwandan society, whether they are living inside or outside Rwanda. Rwanda cannot survive yet another cataclysm, even though the powerholders in Kigali are ever orchestrating “incidents” in neighbouring countries with the aim of provoking yet another major regional conflagration. The current leadership of Rwanda came to power through a catastrophic regional crisis in the Great Lakes region triggered by an apocalyptic implosion in Rwanda. As a result of this origin, the current leaders in Rwanda are fatally wedded to the idea that in a crisis they thrive, that in a crisis they are the masters of the strategic long game. Hence the eagerness from Kigali for continual crises in the Great Lakes Region. Hence the periodic irruption of lawless groups like the M23 Movement in Eastern Congo. What the leaders in Kigali have not learnt is that the Great Lakes Region has learnt the bitter lesson that the Rwandan strongmen have been teaching it.
What can the United Nations tell Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and the Hutus and the Twa who were killed because they opposed the genocide?
Rwanda will continue to engineer provocations in the region, but as the M23 experience showed, the region is learning how to call the RPF’s bluff. It has been a bitter lesson learnt the hard way – but the region must not forget this lesson. The RPF adventurists must be mustered through a combination of regional containment and the nurturing of a viable alternative culture within Rwanda, a culture of inclusiveness and non-supremacist acceptance of all Rwandans. The hard lesson that Rwanda has taught the Great Lakes region is that East and Central Africa cannot survive another Rwandan Apocalypse. It is urgent that Africans and the international community intervene in Rwanda to support and sustain the legitimate opposition for that is the only sustainable route out for Rwanda. This is why the RPF’s policy of rendition or assassinations of its opponents abroad—which is a policy that the RPF has executed right from the beginning of its accession to power in 1994 (Seth Sendashonga’s assassination in 1998 as the noted tragic case example)—is an unlawful policy that the international community must counter and contain.
Containing Rwanda’s external aggression and adventurism is a cost effective alternative to reacting to another regional cataclysm ignited by Rwanda. External aggression, renditions and assassinations abroad, this part of Rwanda’s foreign policy must be challenged by the international community.
As a refugee fleeing persecution in Rwanda, the United Nations failed to protect Seth Sendashonga in Nairobi in 1998. Looking back one can see that Seth Sendashonga’s assassination in Nairobi was a tragic missed opportunity for all. The RPF’s self-justifying reaction to the death of Seth Sendashonga set the stage for all the subsequent assassinations abroad. There is a terrible poignancy to the fate of Seth Sendashonga after he fell out with the RPF powerholders. Had the international community challenged the assassination of Seth Sendashonga more aggressively, more collectively, the assassinations that followed that of Seth Sendashonga would have been harder to execute for the RPF powerholders. The indifference to Seth Sendashonga’s fate signalled to the RPF that it could get away with murder but the international community will find that one day it will have to make a start somewhere; at some point, the international community will have to draw a red line against the RPF’s policy of assassinations inside Rwanda and abroad. This is why the disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga must be a red line for all peoples inside and outside Rwanda. Through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the international community has the structure in place to challenge these forced disappearances and assassinations.
The RPF’s self-justifying reaction to the death of Seth Sendashonga set the stage for all the subsequent assassinations abroad.
Of all the nations that have a moral obligation towards Cassien Ntamuhanga, Belgium—which lost ten soldiers through savage torture while they were protecting Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana—deserves to take centre stage in the pursuit of justice for Cassien Ntamuhanga. Belgium spent decades in the pursuit of justice for its valiant soldiers who met a tragic fate while protecting Premier Agathe Uwilingiyimana after Rwanda abandoned her. The deaths of these Belgian soldiers was a tragedy of its own kind; they were the only ones who died while defending Rwandans. Belgium owes these valiant soldiers the honour of continued engagement with Rwanda in order to nurture the culture of respect for the worth of the individual.
Throughout the centuries of persecution in exile, Israel has always found one or two who would with honour stand with the House of Israel. Out of a profound gratitude for the courageous ones who have succoured Israel in Exile, Israel designated a special honour for them by designating them “the Righteous Among the Nations”. One hopes that one day, in the not too distant future, Rwanda too may enrol these courageous Belgian soldiers and recognize them as “The Righteous Among the Nations” who have succoured Rwandans when they have suffered persecution in Rwanda or, like Cassien Ntamuhanga, abroad.
Above all others, however, it is the United Kingdom which has both the moral and the strategic imperatives to intervene to thwart this policy of assassinations both inside and outside Rwanda that is a documented continual breach of international norms by the RPF powerholders. Through targeted sanctions against the leaders who bear direct responsibility for this murderous policy, the Rwandan state must be made to realise the high cost of assassinations and political repression of the legitimate opposition. Only through such targeted sanctions will the Rwanda government realise the very high cost that comes with extra-judicial killings in Rwanda and abroad. The disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga can so easily turn into the death of yet another Rwandan in police custody. Cassien Ntamuhanga deserves better than the indifferent silence with which Rwanda has greeted his disappearance. Rwanda knows the whereabouts of Cassien Ntamuhanga. Rwanda must be compelled to produce Cassien Ntamuhanga in public, safe and well—as safe and as well as he was on that 23rd May 2021 when he was arrested in Inhaca by that combined force of officers in Mozambique police uniform, the SERNIC and Kinyarwanda speaking strangers.
And you all know, security is mortals’ chiefest enemy – (Act III Scene V, Macbeth)
There is a deeper lesson here as well on Rwanda’s search for that elusive will-o’-the-wisp called security. Just as Macbeth, in a vain bid to assure his own security in power, killed all opponents and drove the rest into exile, so has president Kagame killed opponents and driven the rest into a terrible exile in order to assure his own hold on power. Yet, as the Weird Sisters warned Macbeth, security is mortal’s chiefest enemy. The driving ambition for security is what drove all African dictators to embrace murder and repression. It is the drive, the spiritual hunger in the soul, which drove Macbeth one more time to make a Faustian bargain with “the instruments of darkness”. Yet when Macbeth is shown the vision that his heart demands that the three Weird Sisters show him, his heart breaks at what he sees: the Weird Sisters show Macbeth a vision of a long line of Kings of Scotland ruling far into the centuries to come—all descended from the bloodline of his hated slain enemy, Banquo.
A basic principle in jurisprudence is that the ruler must make laws that he would be happy to see executed, implemented by his own worst enemy.
The deeper lesson is that in the longer term the violent powerholders in Rwanda have no future in the Rwanda to come. Rwanda will survive its current turmoil just as it survived its descent into the abyss in the Apocalypse, the name that the genocidaires called their genocidal attempt to wipe out the Tutsi race, their Hutu opponents, and the Ba’Twa. In the reckoning with the Rwanda genocide, the world always forgets the near annihilation of the precarious Ba’Twa. And therein is fate’s trump—always. For the fact that the Ba’Twa lost ten thousand of their number from a population of merely thirty thousand in 1994 speaks of the catastrophe staring all Rwanda in the face in future should Rwanda fail to reckon with the genocide which overtook the Ba’Twa.
The future of Rwanda is out of the hands of Rwanda’s current powerholders. Try as they might, rewrite constitutions as they have, jail opponents at home and assassinate critics abroad as they have, the ruling powerholders in Rwanda are helpless against the tide of time which Macbeth saw only as one bloody red tide. Rwanda will not descend into another apocalypse. Rwanda will not descend into yet another genocide—even though that is the card that the current powerholders in Rwanda are holding over a cowed and silent Rwanda. For feared dictator Macbeth, when it was that mysterious time for the great Birnam Wood to move against high Dunsinane, it seemed impossibly against the laws of physics. And yet. And yet the King still felt that he had a trump card up his sleeve that he could play: the prophecy of the Weird Sisters that none of woman born could kill or dethrone Macbeth.
This is the constant refrain that autocratic African Renaissance leaders always repeat to their countrymen, that without them their countries would have sunk into the abyss never to rise again. Against their silent African subjects, these enlightened African despots always brandish their impeccable credentials. It is no accident that in the military academies of the world, current and future elites study Paul Kagame’s military campaigns under the admiring rubric of “the world’s greatest living general”. At West Point, Sandhurst, Saint Cyr and points East, General Kagame’s campaigns are the high point of graduate and postgraduate work in military school. Yet the world’s greatest living General forgot the caution which fate speaks to him above. It is a warning arising from an instinctive people’s touch that General Rwigyema worked like a charm: national strategy is more than winning battles as Von Clausewitz repeatedly insists. Strategy is what you do with the battle, and that means hour two after you have defeated your opponent. General Rwigyema knew how to win over defeated enemies to the cause of nation building.
In Rwanda, as elsewhere in Africa, what now stands between the ruler in state house and immortality is the armed opposition in exile and underground.
The Rwanda now celebrated at Saint Cyr is an armed camp where any spark can set alight the powder keg. There is no way in which Rwanda can be viable before President Juvenal Habyarimana’s death is thoroughly investigated in public in Rwanda and a reckoning made. There is no way that Rwanda will know peace while the remains of President Habyarimana languish abroad. The president is all of a piece with the national catastrophe of Rwanda—but in the name of all that is sacred, President Habyarimana was the President of Rwanda. He was the President. The failure to bring closure for Rwanda on the death of the president has plunged Rwanda into deeper trauma. Hence the quick resort to assassinations. Hence the quick resort to violence—it is the enigmatic dark presence of the president demanding an accounting by all Rwandans. Failing to account for the president’s death only legitimizes the next set of genocidaires intent on seizing power in Rwanda. Even as the Renaissance Men are fated abroad, back home in Rwanda they are buying up whole armouries for the genocidaires waiting in the darkened corners of Rwanda’s psyche.
As they are fêted abroad, back home in Rwanda, back home in Africa, this has created an aura of invincibility around these African Renaissance statesmen. This admiration on the world stage directly translates into oracular infallibility at home. He is the president, he is the one the world is lauding, feting, not some dead name in a long ago battlefield, not some forbidden name whose charred remains came down on a fiery aeroplane. He is the one. He, not some singer because He is not a singer. He, not some obscure journalist who fled abroad. He. Because of their stature on the world stage, these African statesmen have the cachet of Macbeth; none of woman born shall ever harm them. These African Renaissance leaders are protected by the best security in the world, the best health care that money can buy, the best education from the most prestigious universities and academies in the world. These leaders are African Immortals but the people they rule with an iron fist can disappear without trace, without any consequence to the leaders. As Cassien Ntamuhanga has disappeared without any consequences for the rulers in Rwanda and in Mozambique.
Rwanda will continue to engineer provocations in the region, but as the M23 experience showed, the region is learning how to call the RPF’s bluff.
That aura of invincibility that surrounds African Renaissance leaders is even more palpable around these Rwandan powerholders—but with a fateful twist. The current Rwandan leaders are wrapped in the special aura of the Rwanda genocide even as the genocide itself has become contested ground between the Rwandan government and the survivors. Survivors are especially distressed at the way in which the genocide has become a strategic political tool of the government: the insistence by the government that the remains of the genocide dead must remain on continuous display even when survivors want the remains of their loved ones back so that the survivors can accord their dead honoured burial. Insidiously, these survivors have themselves found the charge of genocide denial being levelled against them. As a journalist, Cassien Ntamuhanga found himself grappling with this deeply traumatic dilemma. Those at Radio Amazing Grace where Cassien Ntamuhanga once worked have not hesitated to condemn the Rwandan government on this matter on the charge of “heathen practices”. On this contested ground, even the remains of the dead of the genocide have now been weaponized. A deeply Christian man, Cassien Ntamuhanga grappled with this matter to the day he fled Rwanda. To grapple with this extremely sensitive matter does not take away from the historic role that the RPF played in saving the remnant of the Tutsis and rescuing Hutus from the grip of the genocidal ideology of the Habyarimana MRND government.
Looked at against the background of the exile and the return of the current powerholders in Rwanda, the current Rwandan exiles are making baby steps.
When it comes to this matter, the deep and abiding distress and moral dilemma of the Rwandan survivors of the genocide is palpable. The treatment of the remains of the victims of the genocide is an explosive matter in Rwanda and it has split families down the middle—just like the genocide itself tore families apart. With sensitivity and compassion, Cassien Ntamuhanga had struggled with this matter for years as a survivor and as a journalist on the frontline of reportage in post-genocide Rwanda. It was a poignant turn of events for Cassien Ntamuhanga when his activism on behalf of survivors and memorialising the dead was turned by the state into a charge of destabilizing Rwanda, terrorism, inciting disaffection against the government of Rwanda and for genocide denial. It is ironic that a man who had grappled deeply and sensitively with the issue of the remains of the genocide dead should now find himself facing these charges.
In raising the charge of genocide denial against Cassien Ntamuhanga the state had driven a burning sword right into the heart of the survivors’ activism. And Cassien Ntamuhanga was now facing the spurious charge of genocide denial. In a Rwanda where authority is sacrosanct, there was going to be no questioning of the charge of genocide denier against Cassien Ntamuhanga. In a deeply hierarchical society where respect for authority is deeply ingrained, the fact of the charge of genocide denial against Cassien Ntamuhanga was itself enough to sow the seeds of doubt even among those who had stood side by side with him in the long years of fighting for the memories of the genocide dead. For Kizito Mihigo this matter would lead directly to his death when he composed Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu, his meditation on the meaning of the deaths of Rwandans in the genocide and in its apocalyptic aftermath in Congo ex-Zaire. For Cassien Ntamuhanga it would lead to a 25-year prison sentence until his escape from prison and from Rwanda. Cassien Ntamuhanga’s activism would lead, in absentia, to another 25-year prison sentence in 2021.
Their bodies turned into a fiercely contested battleground, the remains of the victims of the Rwanda Genocide had been weaponised. Speak of honoured burial at your peril: genocide denier. The dead will not know peace while the leadership still has need of them: the world must not be left to forget, never mind the fact that memory cannot be commanded at gunpoint. Such talk is genocide denial, a high crime in this Rwanda. Cassien Ntamuhanga is a victim of this existential fight for the right to craft and tell the official narrative of who is a Rwandan and what colours the national team wears. Contested ground: even all of Kizito Mihigo’s songs were banned and banished from Rwanda’s airwaves. Cassien Ntamuhanga found his way out of Rwanda with state agents hot on his trail. Now he has joined the ranks of “the disappeared” in Rwanda. May Cassien Ntamuhanga’s family reach him soon. And when his family finds him, may Cassien Ntamuhanga be found safe and well.
The Politics and Economics of Knowledge Production: Crucial Aspects of the Struggle Against Western Imperialism
Long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage.
What is knowledge? Is knowledge as objective as mountains, valleys, oceans, lakes and rivers, or is what constitutes knowledge determined by culture? We usually presume that knowledge has to do with understanding the world as it is rather than as we might imagine it to be. Many of us assume that the more academic certificates one has, the more knowledge one possesses. Yet scholars now point out that knowledge can only be properly understood if we consider insights from a variety of disciplines, including history, sociology, psychology, economics, politics and philosophy, among others. In ancient Athens, “politics” was understood as the management of the affairs of the city-state (polis). However, in line with the thought of Niccolò Machiavelli, many now understand politics as the activities of acquiring and retaining coercive power, and it is in this latter sense that I speak here of the politics of knowledge production. “Economics” comes from the Greek words oikos (“household”) and nomos (“law”, “management” or “principle”), literally “the law, management or principle of the household”, but has come to refer to the management of a society’s resources.
Knowledge production directed by politics and economics
As I pointed out in “Concrete Data and Abstract Notions in the Philosophical Study of Indigenous African Thought”, knowledge production is an integral part of social processes, and therefore necessarily laden with social, moral, political, and, most importantly, economic considerations. As the late Nigerian social scientist Claude Ake observed in Social Science as Imperialism, science in any society is apt to be geared to the interests and impregnated with the values of the ruling class that ultimately controls the conditions under which it is produced and consumed by financing research, setting national priorities, controlling the education system and the mass media, and in other ways. Thus, the choices of subject matter and methodology are heavily influenced by priorities identified in specific economic, social and political contexts: this set of dynamic interactions with economics as its foundation is what the late Egyptian economist, Samir Amin, following Karl Marx, referred to as “political economy”.
Besides, the transmission of knowledge reflects a society’s economic structures. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire memorably highlights the distinction between “banking education”, in which the learner is a docile and passive recipient of knowledge from the teacher, and which therefore reflects the capitalist power hierarchy, and “problem-solving education” entailing a dialogical approach in which both “teacher-students” and “student-teachers” teach and learn. Tragically but not surprisingly, six decades after formal independence, most schools and universities in Africa continue to deploy banking education in line with the capitalist power relations characteristic of the societies in which they function.
To illustrate the point that the production and transmission of knowledge are greatly influenced by politics, Leonhard Praeg, in A Report on Ubuntu, presents a hypothetical conversation between a South African philosophy professor of European descent and a young African postgraduate law student who is considering registering for a second master’s degree in philosophy. At one point, she challenges the professor’s presentation of philosophy as an objective and universal enterprise by highlighting the fact that the choice of who to include in any philosophical discourse is itself a political one:
Well, it seems obvious to me . . . that the most fundamental starting point for any philosophical conversation should be questioning the mechanisms that decide who is included and who is excluded from that conversation and whose traditions of thought will or will not be invoked in that conversation. Perhaps the most fundamental questions, the questions that every conversation should start with are political, questions such as: How is the difference between the included and excluded legitimized and what kind of institutional arrangements exist to safeguard and perpetuate certain kinds of knowledge at the exclusion of others?
Colonial devastation of indigenous systems of knowledge
In The Invention of Africa, the Congolese philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe explains that colonialism and colonization basically mean “organization”, “arrangement”. The two words derive from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate or to design.” He goes on to point out that the Western colonisers organized and transformed non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs:
[I]t is possible to use three main keys to account for the modulations and methods representative of colonial organization: the procedures of acquiring, distributing, and exploiting lands in colonies; the policies of domesticating natives; and the manner of managing ancient organizations and implementing new modes of production. Thus, three complementary hypotheses and actions emerge: the domination of physical space, the reformation of natives’ minds, and the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective. These complementary projects constitute what might be called the colonizing structure, which completely embraces the physical, human, and spiritual aspects of the colonizing experience.
Indeed, the Western imperialists only left their colonies in Africa and elsewhere after putting in place numerous structures to ensure their ongoing, albeit covert, control of the economies of the said territories. For example, in the late 1930s France created the CFA Franc Zone, comprising 14 West and Central African countries as well as the Comoros, bound by a monetary cooperation policy ostensibly to ensure the financial stability of its members, all of who used one or other of the two versions of the CFA Franc as their currency. Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”. Similarly, in the 1950s, the Swynnerton Plan in Kenya sought to mitigate the unpopularity of the British colonial regime by creating an African land-owning petty middle class that would be driven by an imperative to protect its property, and thereby view itself as having shared interests with the European settlers after the country’s independence.
Furthermore, the Western imperialists “left” only after ensuring that their former colonies adopted liberal democratic constitutions based on individualist capitalist values rather than on the communalistic outlooks of the peoples of Africa. They also ensured that the colonial territories embraced Western legal systems. For example, on 12th August 1897, the British invaders declared what they called The Reception Date, referring to the decree that the English statutes of general application passed before 12th August 1897 are law in Kenya, unless a Kenyan statute, or a latter English statute made applicable in Kenya, has repealed any such statute. In short, the British invaders declared the legal systems of the peoples of present day Kenya null and void, or, at best, relegated them to the status of “customary law” presumed to be inferior to the British legal system. This situation still holds to date, as evident in the way in which advocates and judges in Kenya frequently refer to English law, but very rarely to the jurisprudence of Kenya’s various peoples. No wonder “customary law” remains a highly marginalised area of study in most universities in Africa decades after independence.
Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”.
Similarly, the colonisers demeaned the diverse intellectual inventions and innovations of the peoples of Africa in areas such as medicine, environmental conservation, culinary arts, and creative works (such as songs, poems, fables and legends) among others. For example, they used the paradoxical and pejorative term “witch-doctor” to refer to indigenous healers, thereby deliberately conflating the restorative roles of healers with the destructive acts of wizards and witches. Indeed, due to that outrageous deliberate colonial conflation, most Kiswahili speakers in Kenya now do not appreciate the distinction between mganga (“healer”) and mchawi (“witch/wizard”), thereby failing to appreciate that even a medical doctor trained in a Western-type medical school is a mganga, and only refers to him or her as daktari from the English word “doctor”. No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19, or that any innovations they might develop to manage the scourge must be validated in Geneva, Washington DC or elsewhere outside the continent or under the direction of institutions based outside the continent.
No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19.
A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom. The colonial establishments therefore systematically downgraded indigenous languages, referring to them as “vernaculars”—a term used to denote languages spoken by “uncivilised” communities and contrasted with “literary” or “cultured” languages. Thus, the typical child in Africa undergoes instruction at school using English, French, Portuguese or German, thereby losing his or her cultural grounding through the lack of proficiency in his or her mother tongue; and it is much worse than that, for he or she begins to disparage indigenous languages. Many of us have heard the claim by our compatriots that the languages of the peoples of Africa are incapable of mediating scholarly discourses. This claim is oblivious to, or deliberately ignores, the fact that the Western languages with which many associate academic discourses have acquired their proficiency in scholarship only because of borrowing heavily from a variety of languages, and nothing, except a colonised mentality, prevents speakers of the indigenous languages of Africa from enriching them in similar fashion.
Unshackling contemporary scholarship in Africa from Western hegemony
In The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe is particularly unhappy that, long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage:
The fact of the matter is that, until now, Western interpreters as well as African analysts have been using categories and conceptual systems which depend on a Western epistemological order. Even in the most explicitly “Afrocentric” descriptions, models of analysis explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, refer to the same order.
This sorry situation, Mudimbe tells us, is partly due to the fact that “[S]ince most African leaders and thinkers have received a Western education, their thought is at the crossroads of Western epistemological filiation and African ethnocentrism.” He also points out that the structures of the colonial establishment remained firmly in place after formal political independence:
In the early 1960s, the African scholar succeeded the anthropologist, the “native” theologian replaced the missionary, and the politician took the place of the colonial commissioner. All of them find reasons for their vocations in the dialectic of the Same and the other.
Mudimbe further observes that colonialism creates an imaginary African past in a bid to fabricate “the other”, perhaps best exemplified by tourist art. He notes that in this subjugating environment, any solid evidence of science or philosophy in Africa is dismissed by the colonisers, as illustrated by the case of Dogon astronomy which holds that the planets rotate around their axes and revolve around the Sun, but which Western authors such as Carl Sagan explain away as knowledge obtained from a Western visitor to the Dogon. Mudimbe is emphatic that anthropology was specifically designed as a tool of Western imperialist domination with which to paint the peoples of Africa as frozen in a stage of “development” long transcended by Western societies.
A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom.
According to Samir Amin, current academic programmes in the social sciences in African Universities have been prescribed by the World Bank and allied authorities in order to destroy any capacity to develop critical thought. Unable to understand concrete existing systems that govern the contemporary world, the brainwashed cadres are reduced to the status of “executives” implementing programmes decided elsewhere, unable to contribute to changing that world rejected by their own people. Similarly, Claude Ake observes, “The West is able to dominate the Third World not simply because of its military and economic power, but also because it has foisted its idea of development on the Third World through the institutions and activities of knowledge production.”
The humanities (such as literature, music and philosophy) are not doing any better, as the Western canons continue to enjoy an exalted status in the various disciplines under this category: many philosophers from Africa still take great pride in their knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, and so on, while thinking very little of philosophical works by scholars from their own continent, and much less of the intellectual creations of their compatriots with no Western-type formal education. In like manner, many literary critics from Africa enjoy a sense of great accomplishment from their mastery of European literary classics while tacitly believing that nothing of similar grandeur is to be found among their own peoples. Besides, many scholars in Africa take great pride in having their works published in Western Europe and North America by what they happily refer to as “international journals” and “international publishers”, while considering publications from university presses in places such as Kigali, Dar es Salaam or Harare as of inferior status, thereby continuing to lend credence to the almost hegemonic Western system of knowledge production decades after formal independence.
Yet another important aspect of the hierarchical process of knowledge production has to do with the way in which events are reported. Many think that reports in media such as books, print and electronic news outlets are objective sources of knowledge. However, scholars of critical discourse analysis have repeatedly illustrated that such reports promote the interests of the economically dominant classes. Thus in a capitalist context, the bulk of mass media promotes the interests of the owners of capital. For example, where the police violently stop a workers’ demonstration, the media are likely to report “Four Demonstrators Shot” rather than “Police Shoot Four Demonstrators”, thereby suppressing the fact of who shot them. Similarly, school textbooks covertly and overtly promote capitalist values and advance the view that any challenge to such values is a threat to “stability”.
Long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage.
In Fourth Industrial Revolution: Innovation or New Phase of Imperialism?, I pointed out that humanity is currently confronted by a world dominated by artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and blockchain, resulting in a fusion of technologies that is integrating the physical, digital and biological spheres. Think of how all manner of people can determine where you are if you forget your mobile phone “Location” function on, or listen to your conversations and view your actions if you unwittingly allow an app to access your microphone and camera. Already phone manufacturers are including contact tracing apps in their devices, and many phones now have the option of a fingerprint instead of a series of numbers for passwords. Through the enormous power of artificial intelligence (“AI”), all these data are quickly analysed to produce detailed profiles of phone users—where they go, what they like listening to and watching, what they buy, among others. In short, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (“4IR”), privacy is now an illusion. Yet the bulk of these new technologies are owned by large corporations domiciled in the West and East, reducing the peoples of Africa to mere consumers subject to the whims of the owners of the technologies. All this raises the real possibility of a global dictatorship headed by the owners of these technologies reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, and it boils down to who controls knowledge production.
In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker argues that there is a distinctively epistemic type of injustice, in which someone is wronged specifically in his or her capacity as a knower. This is precisely what Western imperialism has subjected the peoples of Africa to. Similarly, in the preface to his celebrated work, Epistemologies of the south: Justice against Epistemicide, Boaventura de Sousa Santos indicates that he seeks to defend three important postulates:
First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammars and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.
Nevertheless, there are several encouraging initiatives to address the epistemic injustice in Africa. The valiant struggle of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has consistently pointed out that using African languages in creative writing is an act of decolonising the mind, Kwasi Wiredu, who advocates for the same approach in African philosophy, and the six African philosophers who wrote book chapters in their mother tongues for the edited volume Listening to ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy, are all efforts at challenging the hegemonic Western system of knowledge production. Besides, the research and teaching projects in African languages, African oral and written histories, African oral and written literatures, African music, African art, African philosophy, among others are evidence that a sizeable number of academics in Africa have perceived the problem, and are determined to contribute to the turning of the tide.
Yet several intellectuals who have raised their voices against global capitalism and the attendant hegemonic Western system of knowledge production have borne the brunt of state violence: Samir Amin was forced into exile from his native Egypt in 1960 for his Marxist but anti-Stalinist views; Paulo Freire’s success in teaching Brazilian peasants how to read landed him in prison and a subsequent long and painful exile; Walter Rodney’s exposition of the damage inflicted on Africa by European mercantilism that evolved into capitalism in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa resulted in his imprisonment in his native land of Guyana, and his death as a result of a car bomb blast in Georgetown, Guyana, remains a mystery, as does the plane crush that cut short Claude Ake’s life during the autocratic reign of Sani Abacha in Nigeria; Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Sani Abacha regime in Nigeria, and Wole Soyinka escaped Abacha’s murderous hand by a whisker; Ngugi wa Thiong’o spent time as a detainee without trial in a Kenyan maximum security prison for organising a peasants’ theatre group to perform his anti-capitalist plays, and later went into decades of exile, and the list is much longer than this. Nevertheless, the intellectuals of the exploited and oppressed peoples of Africa must continue to innovate in a bid to contribute towards the true liberation of their continent.
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