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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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How Kenya’s Anti-Intellectual Culture Impacts Public Health Policies
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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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Is the BBI a Trojan Horse Disguised as a Guardian Angel?

The Building Bridges Initiative fails to inspire because it offers simplistic solutions to problems that have more to do with poor leadership than with Kenyans’ inability to be responsible citizens.

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Is the BBI a Trojan Horse Disguised as a Guardian Angel?
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I have resisted commenting on the recently launched Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report, mainly because in Kenya today if you oppose the BBI, you are labelled as being in Deputy President William Ruto’s camp, and if you support it, you are seen as being on the side of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his new ally, former opposition leader, Raila Odinga. And since I do not belong to either of these groups, I was afraid that by commenting on the report, I might inadvertently be labelled pro-Uhuru or pro-Ruto.

Critics of the BBI have mainly focused on whether amending the constitution through the BBI process is, in fact, unconstitutional as it would bypass many of the requirements for amending the 2010 constitution, which are onerous and virtually impossible to fulfill without a national consensus. Some critics, like the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, say that by giving the president power to appoint a prime minister and two deputy prime ministers, the BBI is calling for a return to an imperial presidency.

On the other hand, supporters of the BBI – particularly the “handshake” stakeholders and many commentators in the mainstream media – have lauded the BBI for being the magic pill that will unite the country and spur social and economic development.

Intellectual surrender 

Having now read the abridged version of the BBI report, I can conclusively say that it has failed to address the biggest crisis facing this country – that of poor leadership. The most offensive and egregious section of the report is undoubtedly the opening Validation Statement, which places the responsibility for all that is wrong with this country squarely on the shoulders of Kenyans – not on our leaders, who got us into the mess we are in in the first place.

The report states: “Kenyans decried the fact that Kenya lacked a sense of national ethos and is increasingly a nation of distinct individuals instead of an individually distinct nation. And we have placed too much emphasis on what the nation can do for each of us – our rights – and given almost no attention to what we each must do for our nation: our responsibilities.”

As Wandia Njoya pointed out in a recent article, what the BBI has effectively done is told Kenyans that they are to blame if their rights are violated. And if moral and ethical standards have dropped across the country, it’s not because the country’s politicians have lowered moral and ethical standards and have set a bad precedent, but because Kenyans just don’t know how to behave properly. It’s called blaming the victim.

It suggests that Kenyans are somehow wired to be evil or corrupt, that decades of state-inflicted brutality against citizens – an offshoot of a neocolonial dispensation where citizens are treated as gullible and exploitable subjects – has nothing to do with the culture of impunity we find ourselves in. That the contemptuous way in which we are treated by state institutions – at police stations, in public hospitals, in government offices – is somehow our fault. And that the example of how to behave was not established by the state and its officials that consistently fail to deliver justice to Kenyans and turn a blind eye to violence committed by state and security organs, especially against the poor. Remember, this is a country where a chicken thief can end up spending a year in jail, but a minister who has stolen billions from state coffers can get away scot-free.

Njoya writes:

We are told that discussing history is blaming colonialists and refusing to take responsibility for our own actions. That discussing ethnic privilege and patronage is attacking every single member of that ethnic group. That discussing patriarchy is blaming men. That explaining systemic causes of problems is explaining away or excusing those problems. Every public conversation in Kenya is a war against complex thinking. We have reached the point where Kenyan public conversations are pervaded by this system of intellectual simplification.

Hence the BBI’s proposal to set up a new commission to address “indiscipline in children, breakdown of marriages and general erosion of cultural values in today’s society”. Presumably, this commission will take on the role of parents, school teachers and community leaders “by mainstreaming ethics training and awareness in mentoring and counselling sessions in religious activities and through community outreach programmes”.

What is being implied here is that if only Kenyans were more religious, they might not behave so badly. (I wonder if the drafters of the report know that Kenyans are among the most religious people in the world. Yet we are consistently ranked as among the most corrupt countries on the planet.)

The BBI report recognises that ethnic divisions have polarised the country, but it does not acknowledge that ethnic polarisation is the result of a political leadership that forms opportunistic tribal alliances for its own advantage and is happy to pit one ethnic community against another in order to win elections.

Moreover, its recommendations on how to reduce ethnic animosity appear to be based on the idea that if you force different ethnic communities to live in close proximity to each other, Kenya will miraculously become a society where all ethnic groups live together in peace and harmony.

There is also this misguided belief that if the people in authority are from an ethnic group that is distinct from the ethnic group that these people lord over, there will be more accountability (a model borrowed from the Kenya Police and the colonial and post-colonial district and provincial commissioners’ templates). Hence the Ministry of Education should “adopt policy guidelines that discourage local recruitment and staffing of teachers”.

Many sociologists and behavioural scientists might argue that, in fact, if you want more accountability and cohesion in a community, the leadership should come from that same community. So, for instance, if police officers belong to the same ethnic community that they serve and protect, they are more likely to be more accountable to that community because any signs of misconduct on the part of the officer will be perceived as having a direct bearing on the welfare of that community. A bribe-taking officer is more likely to be reprimanded by his community because it is his community that suffers when he takes a bribe. A Kalenjin police officer posted in Malindi, for instance, will not care what the Giriama community he is extorting bribes from or is brutalising think of him because he is not part of them and is not accountable to them or to their community leaders and elders. This accountability is further diminished by the current practice of police officers regularly being transferred to different localities.

Similarly, in schools, particularly those in remote or marginalised areas, it is important that the teachers be from that community because they also play the role of mentors and role models. We are more likely to follow in the footsteps of someone who looks like us and who has a similar history than someone who doesn’t. Which is why Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has opened the doors to leadership for so many girls and women of colour in the United States.

This is not to say that the BBI report glosses over the problems facing marginalised communities. On the contrary, it makes it a point to highlight that “the marginalised, the under-served and the poor” are suffering and are in urgent need of “an immediate helping hand and employment opportunities to help them survive”. What the report fails to recognise is that the Constitution of Kenya 2010 was designed to ensure that such communities are not condemned to perpetual poverty. Devolution was supposed to sort out issues of marginalisation by ensuring that previously marginalised communities and counties are empowered to improve their own welfare. By making them recipients of hand-outs, the BBI has added insult to their injury.

Thankfully, the report does recommend that previous reports by task forces and land-related commissions, including the Ndung’u Land Commission and the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC), be implemented. My question is: If President Uhuru Kenyatta did not implement the recommendations of the TJRC, which handed its report to him in May 2013 shortly after he assumed the presidency, what guarantees do we have that he and his BBI team will implement the recommendations now? The president has also failed on his promise of a Sh10 billion fund for victims of historical injustices. What has changed? Clearly not the leadership (and here I mean the entire leadership, not just Uhuru’s).

Silences and omissions

Moving on to another marginalisation issue: women’s representation. We all know that Parliament has actively resisted the two-thirds gender rule spelled out in the constitution. So what epiphany has occurred now that suddenly there is an urgent desire to include more women in governance institutions? If Parliament had just obeyed the constitution, there would not be a proposal in the BBI to ensure that no more than two-thirds of members of elective or appointive bodies be of the same gender. It would be a given.

And yet while BBI gives with one hand, it takes with the other. The BBI task force proposes that the position of County Women’s Representative in the National Assembly be scrapped.

What’s worse, the BBI actually appears to welcome the recommendation of “some Kenyans” that Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) commissioners be appointed by political parties. Really? If you think that the 2007, 2013 and 2017 elections were fraudulent and chaotic, then wait for serious fraud and possible violence in an election where the electoral body’s commissioners represent party interests. (If I had my way, I would disband the IEBC altogether and put together a non-partisan body comprising foreign officials to run elections in this country. Maybe then we would have some hope of a free, fair and corruption-free election.)

The BBI is also silent on the role of the IEBC in vetting candidates, and ensuring that they adhere to Chapter Six of the Constitution on leadership and integrity. Let us not forget that many of the candidates in the last two elections had questionable backgrounds, and some were even facing charges in court. Why did the IEBC not ensure that those running for office had clean records?

On the economy, or what it calls “shared prosperity”, the BBI, emphasises the role of industry and manufacturing in the country’s economic development but is silent on agriculture, which currently employs about half of Kenya’s labour force and accounts for nearly 30 per cent of Kenya’s GDP, but which remains one the most neglected and abused sectors in Kenya. It’s a miracle that our hardworking and much neglected farmers are able to feed all of us, given that they receive so little support from the government, which consistently undermines local farmers by importing cheap or substandard food and by providing farmers with few incentives.

Besides, it is highly unlikely that Kenya will become a factory for the region, let alone the world, like China, because it simply does not have the capacity to do so. Why not focus on services, another mainstay of the economy?

The BBI also talks of harnessing regional trade and cooperation and sourcing products locally but, again, we know this is simply lip service. If Uhuru Kenyatta’s government was keen on improving trade within the region, it would not have initiated a bilateral trade agreement with the United States that essentially rubbishes and undermines the country’s previous regional trade agreements with Eastern and Southern African countries and trading blocs.

On the yoke around every Kenyan’s neck – corruption – the BBI’s approach is purely legalistic and administrative. It wants speedy prosecution of cases involving corruption and wastage of public resources and it wants to protect whistleblowers. (Good luck with the latter. In my experience, no whistleblower protection policy has protected whistleblowers, not even in the United Nations.)

BBI also wants to digitise all government services to curb graft. But as the economist David Ndii pointed out at the recent launch of the Africog report, “Highway Robbery: Budgeting for State Capture”, if corruption is built into the very architecture of the Kenyan government, no amount of digitisation will help. Remember how the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) was manipulated to steal millions from the Ministry of Devolution in what is known as the NYS scandal? Computer systems are created and run by people, and these people can become very adept at deleting their digital footprints from these systems. As the former Auditor-General, Edward Ouko, pointed out, when corruption is factored into the budget (i.e. when budgets are prepared with corruption in mind), corruption becomes an essential component of procurement and tendering processes. So let’s think of more creative and innovative ways of handling graft within government.

Which is not to say that the BBI task force has not struggled with this issue. There are various proposals to amend public finance laws to make the government more accountable on how it spends taxpayers’ money. But we know that these laws can be undermined by the very people responsible for implementing them, as the various mega-corruption scandals in various ministries and state institutions have shown.

A Trojan horse? 

Many Kenyans suspect that perhaps the real and only reason for the BBI is that it will allow for the creation of new powerful positions – such as that of prime minister to accommodate both Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta – and will set the stage for a return to a parliamentary system of governance instead of the current presidential “winner-takes-all” system. But while the latter might appear to be a worthwhile endeavour, the fact that former opposers of the new constitution and the parliamentary system now appear to be endorsing both suggests that there is something more to this than meets the eye. As Prof. Yash Pal Ghai has repeatedly stated, the constitution endorsed at Bomas was premised on a parliamentary system and was only changed at the last minute to accommodate a presidential system. That is how we ended up where we are now.

It also appears strange that those who benefitted most from the presidential system now want to change the constitution.  As Waikwa Wanyoike, put it:

Worse, those hell-bent on immobilising the constitution have done so by conjuring up and feeding a narrative that it is an idealistic and unrealistic charter. Because they wield power, they have used their vantage points to counter most of the salutary aspects of the constitution. Uhuru Kenyatta’s consistent and contemptuous refusal to follow basic requirements of the constitution in executing the duties of his office, including his endless defiance of court orders, stands out as the most apt example here.

Yet all this is calculated to create cynicism among Kenyans about the potency of the constitution. Hoping that the cynicism will erode whatever goodwill Kenyans have towards the constitution, the elites believe that they can fully manipulate or eliminate the constitution entirely and replace it with laws that easily facilitate and legitimise their personal interests, as did Jomo Kenyatta and Moi.

If indeed we want to go back to a parliamentary system through a referendum, then we should hold the referendum when the current crop of politicians (some of whom, including Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, were opposed to the 2010 constitution in the first place) are not in leadership positions because many Kenyans simply don’t trust them to do what is in Kenyans’ best interest. After all, a fox cannot be relied on to guard a chicken coop.

Already the president has urged Parliament to pass laws that conform to the BBI proposals – this even before the proposed referendum that will decide whether the majority of the country’s citizens are for or against the BBI’s raft of recommendations. In other words, the BBI proposals may become laws even before the country decides whether these laws are acceptable and are what the country needs.

Are the goodies proposed in the BBI, such as providing debt relief to jobless graduates and allocating a larger share of national revenue to the counties, just enticements to lure Kenyans onto the BBI bandwagon so as to ensure that the current political establishment consolidates its hold on power? Is the BBI a Trojan horse disguised as a guardian angel? Only time will tell.

One possibility, however, is that a groundswell of public opinion against the BBI might just overturn the whole process.

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Kenyan Statues Must Fall

What could or should full decolonization in Kenya look like?

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Kenyan Statues Must Fall
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In the last few months, Kenyans on Twitter have been circulating images of statues of political elites replaced by deserving national heroes. Most notable is the replacement of the statue of the first president Kenyatta with that of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi. This movement has been spurred by the toppling of statues in the US and Europe, where protestors are demanding that their countries grapple with the protracted systemic racism that pervades quotidian Black life.

Calls for the removal of statues that serve as colonial and racist relics have become common means of subverting power structures. In 2015, the #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town in South Africa successfully called for the removal of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes statue. Rhodes, a British imperialist and mining magnate, was at the forefront of laying the foundations of apartheid in South Africa. This decolonizing movement sparked similar outrage on other campuses, as in Oxford, where protesters are now demanding the removal of the Rhodes statue by the university. Similarly, in the US, the politics of memorialization remain contentious, as calls for institutions to atone for their involvement in slavery continue.

Closer to home, in Kenya, what does the fall of statues mean for most postcolonial cities that are mired in complex and intricate histories, whose architecture centers colonial rulers and the postcolonial elite? Cities were, and remain, arenas of power contestations, political games, and socio-cultural constructions. These conjunctural spaces are important sites of study in that they not only inform us about the larger political situations in the country, but also the relationship between the nation-state and its citizens, the pre-independent state, and its former metropole. Borrowing from Marxist thinker Henri Lefebvre who contends that conceptions of space have always been political, analyzing city structures is paramount.

Attempting to trace the history of Nairobi’s statues and monuments brings up the city’s deep ties to British colonialism, manifested in the politics surrounding this memorial architecture. During the colonial period, England’s proclivity for erecting monuments and naming streets and physical features to honor their own heroes was a tool for their imperial project as they established Western dominance. For example, the Duke of Connaught unveiled the Queen Victoria statue in 1906, signifying the ascendancy of British rule in Kenya. Alibhai Jevanjee, an Indian who owned a shipping company that worked with the Imperial British East Africa Company—a colonial enterprise that administered the protectorates before the British government assumed full responsibilities—paid for its construction. The Queen’s statue was located in the Jevanjee Gardens in the Central Business District until 2015 before it was vandalized. And, in celebration of King George V’s 25-year reign, his life-like statue graced the newly built High Court Square in the city center. Later, during a state of emergency (1952-1959) imposed by the British colonial government in response to growing anti-colonial upheavals, the administrators erected the East Africa Memorial and the King George VI Memorial. The East Africa Memorial, built in 1956 in the Nairobi War Cemetery, recognized the efforts of the multi-racial troops that fought in Italian Somaliland, Southern Ethiopia, Kenya, and Madagascar in an effort to prop up loyalty to the colonial government. In 1957, the King George VI memorial plaque was put up along Connaught Road, now Parliament Road, to assert colonial presence. These statues and monuments were taken down in 1964 after Kenya was recognized as a republic, signaling the end of British rule.

Some might argue that the tearing down of colonial monuments reduced Nairobi’s significance as a site of memory, however telling accurate history to prevent erasure of the past should be emphasized. Initially, removal of the statues, as well as renaming exercises, were a means to promote nationalism and reduce imperial domination in post-colonial Nairobi. Political elites co-opted this process to position themselves at the forefront of the country’s independence struggle, erasing the efforts of deserving nationalists and groups that fervently fought colonization, such as the Mau Mau.

The erection of monuments in Nairobi after independence was strategically undertaken to inscribe power and shift the landscape. These notable monuments were important instruments in asserting authority over Kenyan citizens and especially those who lived in the city and interacted daily with these structures. In 1973, the government commissioned a London-based sculptor, James Butler, to design a twelve-foot seated statue resembling President Kenyatta, showing continuity with the colonial monumental landscape by replacing King George VI plaque at the city square. The statue stands as an island in front of the Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) square—the conference center being one of the more salient buildings in Nairobi. The KICC was the tallest building in the city for about 26 years, underpinning the strategic position of the Kenyatta statue. Interestingly, President Kenyatta launched the conference center and the statue during the 10th anniversary of Kenya’s independence.

President Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi came to power in 1978, after Kenyatta’s sudden death and his era was also riddled with monuments as commemorative tools. Just as Kenyatta had the Harambee (pulling together) philosophy, which emphasized collective participation and self-help in development, Moi developed Nyayo, (footsteps) as he was keen on following Kenyatta’s ideals. Nyayo, intended to be a moving force and denoting peace, love, and unity, would later be legitimized as Kenyan law. To be “anti-Nyayo [was] to be anti-Kenya.” Moi set about building monuments all over the city that reflected an ideological philosophy that those around him deeply espoused. On the 20th anniversary of Kenya’s independence in 1983, two monuments were launched: a grand water fountain in Central Park and an intricate National Monument at Uhuru Gardens, just outside the city.

Prior to these celebrations, rumors spread of an alleged coup by Charles Njonjo, a member of the cabinet challenging Moi’s credibility. In response, Moi called for impromptu elections, ensuring that Njonjo’s cronies would be kicked out of the government. The decision to erect these two monuments at the end of the year was, therefore, a strategic signifier that the Moi/Nyayo government was still in power. Geographically, the locations of these monuments were no coincidence either. The Nyayo Fountain was built in Central Park, one of the few remaining public green spaces that most Nairobians frequented to unwind and where most political rallies were held. The National Monument was erected at Uhuru Gardens, the site for the symbolic lowering of the Union Jack at independence. This prominent white Nyayo monument was flanked by two black sculptures to show, ironically, that the government stood for peace and purity.

Erecting statues, as well as renaming streets, institutions, and buildings in Nairobi was meant to signal new political leadership and ideologies. It was also meant to recognize freedom fighters, whose efforts the independent government criminalized and largely ignored. Memorialization is ongoing to date, and despite the practical justifications to erect statues in memory of freedom fighters, the motives of such projects have remained deeply political. For example, it was not until 2007 when Dedan Kimathi’s statue was unveiled, finally recognizing the tremendous efforts of the Mau movement. This statue was put up following surviving fighters’ outcry to honor their marshal. Previously, Kenyan leaders had considered the movement a “terrorist” organization, dropping this colonial-era categorization in 2003, more than 50 years after it was imposed. This would finally allow freedom fighters to demand compensation from the British government for the torture they endured during the rebellion. While Kimathi’s statue is a pride of the city and remains a site of protest and prayers, it has been neglected—unlike Kenyatta’s statute that remains guarded in a controlled space. Furthermore, despite this symbolic recognition of the war heroes, Kimathi’s family, as well as other Mau Mau veterans, continue to live in squalid conditions dispossessed of their land, as the political dynasties plunder our country.

Nairobi remains a space where imperial and postcolonial ideas continually collide to create a new political hybrid that uplifts elite actors while disenfranchising the majority. Monuments celebrating members of the political elite dominate the political landscape, shaping public opinion through farcical reputation-building. As Ugandans call for their streets to be renamed in Kampala, we also insist on not only interrogating and falling our physical structures, which belie the deeds of our “founding fathers,” but also providing history about these monuments that foregrounds the efforts of those who actually fought for our independence.

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Jacinda Ardern, a New Leadership Paradigm and the New Zealand Miracle

New Zealand’s Prime Minister is a very nice centrist. People in the rest of the world, including Africans, calling for her to be emulated should be careful what they wish for.

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Jacinda Ardern, a New Leadership Paradigm and the New Zealand Miracle
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Ever since first coming to power in 2017, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been lauded around the world as a refreshingly empathetic and competent contrast to the increasingly right-wing and often inept leadership seen in countries including the US, the UK, Australia, Brazil, and India. The African continent has been no exception to “Jacindamania,” with people in Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and more expressing their admiration for Ardern and their desire for a similar leader.

When she won a second term in mid-October on the back of a landslide victory for her center-left Labor Party, for example, Zimbabwean opposition leader Nelson Chamisa tweeted congratulations. Chamisa also used the opportunity to unfavorably contrast Zimbabwe’s election infrastructure (“humbling and refreshing to see others holding clean, free, and fair elections”), though some wished to remind him that he was no Ardern: “at least they lead from the forefront and are very strategic, not just on Twitter writing bible verses!” Elsewhere on social media, some South Africans compared her gender and youthfulness to their revolving door of old, underwhelming leaders. Their Nigerian counterparts, in the midst of a national strike against police brutality, concurred: “Nigeria needs a President like Jacinda Ardern. Young, passionate, hardworking consistent and a listener…” (It helped when one of her party’s candidates, Terisa Ngobi, partly of Samoan descent and married to a Ugandan immigrant, defeated a white South African running in Ōtaki, near the capital Wellington, for the far-right New Conservative party. Martin Flauenstein, who finished fifth out of eight candidates, claimed to be an “apartheid survivor,” only to push for “reduced” immigration and to criminalize abortion. For this, he was thoroughly mocked online by South Africans back home.)

But the international hype around Ardern often obscures what it is she represents, and her actual record to date. While there is no doubt that Ardern is a charismatic and effective leader, she has yet to deliver on her promise to lead a truly transformational government.

Ardern’s first term in office was largely defined by multiple unprecedented crises and she rightly deserves significant praise for her response to them. She has demonstrated calm, compassionate, and effective leadership in steering the country through the white supremacist massacre in Christchurch, the deadly volcanic eruption at Whakaari, and now COVID-19. Her response to the Christchurch massacre and the Whakaari eruption prompted journalist Toby Manhire to describe Ardern as bringing “an empathy, steel and clarity that in the most appalling circumstances brought New Zealanders together and inspired people the world over.” Arden has brought the same approach to the COVID-19 response, where her government’s clear communication and swift and decisive action has resulted in one of the most effective responses in the world.

Yet, despite Ardern’s effective leadership and some scattered positive changes—including tightening the country’s gun laws, increasing New Zealand’s refugee quota, investing a record amount in mental health, and decriminalizing abortion—she has largely failed to live up to her own progressive rhetoric and vision for the country. After coming to power in 2017, Ardern promised a “government of transformation” that would “lift up those who have been forgotten or neglected” and “build a truly prosperous nation and a fair society.” Instead, across a range of areas the reality of her government’s action has often been limited and underwhelming.

On climate change, Ardern described it in 2017 as her “generation’s nuclear-free moment.” And yet while her government banned new offshore oil and gas exploration permits and passed the Zero Carbon Act setting a target of net zero emissions by 2050, existing exploration permits remain valid and the act lacks enforcement mechanisms. Moreover, there is no systematic approach to overhauling different sectors of society to address emissions, particularly in transport and agriculture, and to create a green economy. On voting rights, Ardern’s government partially undid the previous National Party government’s ban on prisoner voting. But in only restoring voting rights for prisoners with sentences of three years or less, the government ensured that most prisoners remain disenfranchised. On welfare, the government made some improvements, including introducing a small increase to benefits—but well below the amount recommended by a working group the government had convened, and ignoring, thus far, the majority of the working group’s other recommendations. On tax reform, despite proposing a modest change to the top tax rate, Ardern has repeatedly ruled out a capital gains tax (to tax the sale of assets) and more recently ruled out a wealth tax proposed by the left-wing Greens. On drug reform, while the government made changes to improve access to medical marijuana, the legalization of recreational use was put to a referendum. Ardern then refused to use her political capital to advocate for legalization or say how she would vote in the referendum, only revealing she voted in favor of legalization after results were announced and the public had narrowly voted against it.

If people across the African continent want nice, competent, centrism then Ardern is certainly a leader to emulate. But if they want truly progressive change then it remains to be seen whether she will provide a compelling example to follow. While Ardern tinkers, the climate crisis worsens, inequality increases, housing becomes ever more unaffordable, and poverty and homelessness persist at alarming levels.

Following the recent election, Labor’s former coalition partner and center-right populists New Zealand First (generally regarded as a handbrake on progress during Ardern’s first term) are now gone from government and parliament and Ardern arguably has more political capital than ever. The resounding victory for the left in New Zealand, with the Labor Party and the Greens combined winning over 70 seats in the 120-seat parliament, means there are now no excuses for Ardern not to enact a coherent transformational progressive agenda.

The next three years will ultimately show whether Ardern has the political will and imagination to do so, but so far she has given little indication that her second term will be significantly different from her first. All we are left with then is centrist tinkering and the seemingly endless accumulation of political capital without ever using it.

This post is from a new 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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