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How Kenya’s Anti-Intellectual Culture Impacts Public Health Policies

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If the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed anything, it is that health is a multi-faceted sector that requires the cooperation of people with specialisation in the humanities, social sciences, life sciences and physical sciences. In other words, every discipline has to be involved in the discussions, knowledge and politics of health.

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A few years ago, I noticed an interesting phenomenon in the profile of applicants for language faculty positions. A number of degree holders had studied, especially in the UK, language teaching, rather than linguistics or education. This meant that the interviews revealed gaps in the candidates’ theoretical and technical grasp of either field.

​An additional phenomenon, which was more worrying, was that when we asked some about their PhD aspirations, some of the applicants were not interested in pursuing their discipline. Some wanted to go into development and related fields, others into the more attractive degrees like communication. More disturbing among the literature aspirants was that some were not familiar with the latest fiction and other artistic output by Kenyans.

Because of Kenya’s anti-intellectual culture rooted in colonial rule and post-independence autocracy, most Kenyans reading this will collapse into the age-old narrative that Kenyan universities are at their usual game of producing graduates with “useless degrees”. However, I will argue in this article that these gaps are not just structural, but also neoliberal and global.

My interest in this issue has been ongoing. I am especially concerned that key professions in Kenya are being overwhelmed by administrative bloat, where the bulk of decisions are made by people who do not have the experience or training in the professional area they are making decisions about.

My concern got a boost recently during a conversation about the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and the current debates about privatisation of healthcare.  The thing that struck me about the conversation was the faith in policy to fix structural problems. This faith is not unique to health. However, I find it interesting that in several cases, many of these policies are foreign or “international” (to remove the overt Euro-American provenance), and Kenyans are taking the assumptions about the policies for granted. As such, people get surprised when I question the policy itself, or its ability to resolve the problems it claims to solve.

I therefore decided to sample the syllabi of postgraduate degrees in public health in universities in Kenya, the UK and the US. Of key interest to me were:

  1. Were these degrees for medical practitioners?
  2. Was there any unit that potentially tackles imperialism, capitalism and privatisation as a health financing model; non-Western forms of medicine; and the history of imperialism and medicine in the global South?

In answer to the first question, the degrees were open to graduates not just from medicine, but from a wide range of disciplines. I am not against this in principle, but I am concerned that in a country like Kenya where business graduates have colonised the professions, this degree baptises such graduates with healthcare qualifications they do not possess.

On the second question, none of the topics is explicitly addressed, but more interesting is that there is at least a unit or two on traditional economics and on management systems. With international pharmaceutical companies and financiers interested in commercialising health, the absence of units on racism, imperialism and neoliberalism raises a flag about the possibility that universities are creating a cohort of policy bureaucrats to infuse the neoliberal logic in public healthcare systems worldwide. This would explain the rise in such scholarships from Western government bodies to students in the global South.

I am especially concerned that key professions in Kenya are being overwhelmed by administrative bloat, where the bulk of decisions are made by people who do not have the experience or training in the professional area they are making decisions about.

And yet, if this pandemic has revealed anything, it is that health is a multi-faceted sector that requires the cooperation of people with specialisation in the humanities, social sciences, life sciences and physical sciences. In other words, every discipline has to be involved in the discussions, knowledge and politics of health.

So why do I question interdisciplinary degrees like public health? Am I against interdisciplinary studies in principle?

Interdisciplinary degrees are a luxury

In every conversation where we are reminded how pathetic we Kenyan academics are, there is a mention of the need for interdisciplinary research. African scholars abroad also emphasise the need for African universities to introduce more interdisciplinary programmes and do more interdisciplinary research.

The problem is that advocates for interdisciplinary research do not address the culture of the Kenyan university as it now stands. These days, each discipline and department is a competitor, not a collaborator. We are all competing for student numbers to avoid the risk of being shut down or losing our jobs. That means that people whose disciplines sound job-oriented, like media studies or conflict resolution, or even “public health”, attract more students than language, performing arts, history, political science or medicine. Departments would now rather create units in their departments that cover the necessary skills from traditional disciplines than allow their students to come study in the departments of traditional disciplines. Some faculty even go as far as telling their students that the units are not available in sister departments.

The problem is that advocates for interdisciplinary research do not address the culture of the Kenyan university as it now stands. These days, each discipline and department is a competitor, not a collaborator.

To compound matters, the managerial overload in Kenyan universities means that the spontaneous interdisciplinary conversations among academics have basically died. Large class sizes mean that we can afford little time to chat and think. When we meet, we are meeting to troubleshoot inefficient systems, or to discuss administration matters such as how to fulfill the government’s regulation requirements or which new programme would attract students.

This culture of self-consciousness and competition is carried into academic conferences. We don’t read or discuss each others’ work, partly because, as I noticed when I was researching on education, our research agendas are dominated by government policy and not by public conversation or challenges.

With universities divided like this into silos, students can graduate without ever hearing people from disciplines outside their degrees. The days when Anyang’ Nyong’o was a political science student publishing poetry, or when Kivutha Kibwana was a law student writing plays, have gone.

Education in the Age of Corona: Dr Wandia Njoya Speaks

Watch: Education in the Age of Corona: Dr Wandia Njoya Speaks

For those of us in the arts, the bulk of our students are now in our classes just to meet the bureaucratic requirements and to sign the attendance sheet. And when we try to tie our discipline to actual issues in society or to other disciplines, the students feel that we are deviating from the syllabus. We are asking them to think, but university education is not for their minds. University education is for employers.

This situation has been brought about by the failure of Kenyan academics to challenge the language of the market imposed by the government and the private sector, who often accuse universities of offering programmes that are “too theoretical” and which have no practical use in the market.

But a more serious problem is now gaining root. We have fewer workers in the fundamental areas because Kenyans are shunning arts and science-based courses and going for interdisciplinary degrees in the belief that they will pursue careers as policy makers in either government, business or the NGO sector.

This scenario has produced the frustration of professionals in the arts and sciences. As a literary scholar, for example, I was recently frustrated by journalism which collapsed melodrama into investigative reporting. Mordecai Ogada, an ecologist, writes of the strange situation of seeking an internship at Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and being told by no less than the research director that KWS did not need research scientists but wildlife managers (who are often trained in business schools).

This situation has been brought about by the failure of Kenyan academics to challenge the language of the market imposed by the government and the private sector, who often accuse universities of offering programmes that are “too theoretical” and which have no practical use in the market.

Some time back, a medical doctor expressed frustration with public health graduates, saying that their top applicant for a job “couldn’t differentiate between airborne diseases and waterborne diseases. Or give an example of a bacterial STI [sexually transmitted infection]”.

Interdisciplinary courses are failing our students because they are teaching students to integrate and apply knowledge which the students have not mastered in the first place. It is my opinion that we need a moratorium on these programmes in Kenya until such a time that we have enough health workers to treat, enough teachers to teach, and enough professionals to practise their skills in the field. Interdisciplinary fields are flooding the market with health professionals who can’t or have never treated, with education bureaucrats who make policy that does not work in the classroom, and, as Ogada said, with research officers who are basically revenue collection agents.

Disciplinary healing

In his book, Disciplinary Decadence: Living Thought in Trying Times, philosopher Lewis Gordon addresses this silo mentality of university departments, noting that disciplines have collapsed on themselves and stopped talking to each other. Instead, he notes, everybody attacks the other for not being them. For instance, philosophers attack religion scholars for not being philosophical, literature scholars attack medics for not being literary, and medics attack artists for not being medical. The economists attack everybody else for not being entrepreneurial. What is lacking, Gordon argues, is the recognition that education is necessarily interdisciplinary, and requires conversations across disciplines.

These silos need to be replaced with the “teleological suspension” of our subject areas in our pursuit of knowledge. Teleological suspension, Gordon explains, “is when a discipline suspends its own centering because of a commitment to questions greater than the discipline itself.” We implement this suspension because it is more important to answer real life questions using knowledge from various disciplines than it is to be a stickler for rules and insist that a question can only be answered by one’s own discipline, and that people who are not trained in that area cannot participate in the conversation. Just like we suspend reality when we read fiction or watch a play, we professionals and academics should be able to suspend our professional titles and training as doctors, philosophers, literary scholars, scientists or anthropologists, and be able to talk to people in other disciplines over the common issues confronting all of us.

What is lacking in Kenya is not graduates; it is real education in its true interdisciplinary character. Kenyans are unable to talk with each other across the disciplines because they have been compartmentalised by the market logic imposed by the private sector, enforced by the government and popularised by the media.

We need to return to true education because education is the space in which society suspends disciplinary boundaries and discusses real life issues. Instead of bureaucratising interdisciplinary-ness through degrees, we should reconstruct the university to become a community where the public – not just academics and students – come together from across the disciplines to discuss issues facing all of us. Education needs to return to being the public space through which, as Gordon says, “the unpredictable can leap forth and the creative can shine”.

Achieving such an education system requires the following:

  1. Constant debunking of the market logic that is imposed on education. Academics need to stop bowing to the private sector’s demands for employees who subsidise company profits by paying for their own specialised training. In its demands for work-ready graduates, the private sector behaves as if the entire society must revolve around it. We need to resist this abuse.
  2. A university environment that creates the opportunity for conversation and human interaction because the supremacy wars between departments and disciplines will have ended together with the market logic. With more academic faculty and a lower teaching load, departments can invite people outside their discipline to give lectures and debates on real-life issues which can be attended by students and the general public. The discussions and questions from the audience will nurture interdisciplinary thinking without universities needing to invent interdisciplinary degrees for the students. And students will get to build inter-professional relationships with their classmates, relationships which they can use once they are working in the larger society.
  3. Revive theoretical studies in universities. The popular idea of “theory” as irrelevant has scared academics away from theoretical engagement and towards interdisciplinary degrees to display their “relevance”. However, theory is, simplistically put, a story, no matter which discipline the story is told from. Different disciplines unite when they discuss theory. For instance, the work by Frantz Fanon is relevant to his professional training in medicine, and to education, literature, politics, psychology, environmental studies and so many other disciplines. And yet Fanon is little spoken about in Kenyan academic spaces.

The war against theory, Gordon says, is in reality a war against truth and reality. In fact, one striking feature of the public health programmes I surveyed is that there is no unit dedicated to theory. How are the students able to talk across diversity of disciplinary backgrounds with no theory?

Life and reality, in and of themselves, are already interdisciplinary. There is therefore a need to heal Kenyan higher education so that it reflects life itself. Universities need to be communities

Kenyans are unable to talk with each other across the disciplines because they have been compartmentalised by the market logic imposed by the private sector, enforced by the government and popularised by the media.

COVID-19 raises questions about interdisciplinary degrees where skills are taught in the classrooms for professionals to practise in society, but interdisciplinary thinking is practised through collaboration facilitated by the institutional culture. With only 2% of the Kenyan population having attended university, and with the number of health workers way, way below minimum per population, we cannot afford to pour resources into interdisciplinary degrees, especially not for health.

Let us emulate the Cubans and train and employ more health workers who actually treat Kenyans, and who can resist being outnumbered and overpowered by bureaucrats implementing the neoliberal and bureaucratic logic that is destroying our healthcare. The health workers can then team up with the “useless” graduates in the arts and social sciences to come up with an experience-based, technically robust and human response to health challenges such as pandemics. That way, we would not rely on bureaucratic and “policy” responses that are proving to be more neoliberal than anything else.

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Wandia Njoya is a scholar, social and political commentator and blogger based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sino-African Relations: Cooperation or a New Imperialism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authoritarianism and exploitation

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

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

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

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

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

Return to a Pan-African internationalism

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

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

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

Internationalism from below

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

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

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

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

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

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African Epistemic Self-Affirmation Is the Ultimate End of Decolonization

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

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

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

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

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

Questions of decolonization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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