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Elephant Series: Journaling a Pandemic

14 min read.

In the face of an onslaught of harrowing and, occasionally, life-affirming news, we reached out to our storytellers and editors to reflect on the times. The following is a journal bearing witness and foretelling the effects of an unfolding pandemic seen through African eyes.

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Elephant Series: Journaling a Pandemic
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Oyunga Pala, Curator-in-Chief, The Elephant

Death knocks at your door and before you can tell him come in, he is in the house with you ~ Grace Ogot in Tekayo

Towards the end of January 2020, we discussed the coronavirus outbreak in China during an editorial meeting at The Elephant. At the time, the issue seemed not within the immediate scope of the important world events we should look into. A month later, we published a piece by Nairobi-based writer April Zhu on the experiences of the Chinese diaspora in Kenya, and the subsequent wave of sinophobia that was spreading faster than the coronavirus. By the third week of March, Kenya was in the grip of the COVID-19 global health crisis. The coronavirus has now become our lived reality in a manner that none of us could have predicted.

Our core mandate at The Elephant is to explain society to the people and the advent of COVID-19 has brought society into extraordinary times; the pandemic has provoked an existential crisis across the world, reordering all facets of life in real time.

At a time when good journalism is constrained by corporate interests, a deluge of fake news, state propaganda and sensationalism, The Elephant seeks clarity for its audience. In the face of an onslaught of harrowing and, occasionally, life-affirming news, we reached out to our storytellers and editors to reflect on the times. Even as we adhered to the health protocols of physical distancing, we leaned into the social solidarity of our intellectual community to help us make sense of the incomprehensible. The following is a journal bearing witness and foretelling the effects of an unfolding pandemic seen through African eyes.

Normal Service Will Not Be Resumed

John Githongo is the Publisher at The Elephant

Across the planet, extraordinary circumstances have been precipitated by an invisible deadly viral threat whose freedom of movement has not only caused illness and death. The fear it has provoked, and the measures taken to contain it, have brought humanity to a unique point of inflection. The asymmetrical challenge the coronavirus has posed to governments has caused them to literally throw their economies at the pandemic in a desperate attempt to slow it down. Previous major pandemics have served to reorder society and this one will be no different. Even as the economic consequences of the coronavirus begin to be felt, this crisis has also created a great opportunity for systemic change.

We have come to the stark realisation that, despite the experiments of the past 40 years, governments cannot shirk the responsibility of providing quality healthcare, security and education for all citizens. In the short-term, across Africa, we will have to free up resources to mitigate the economic blast that’s on its way and which will quickly become political if mismanaged. Debt will have to be renegotiated or set aside and if our elites insist on stealing even this, the next extreme stress test will be brought to bear on the security services called upon to manage the revolt of hungry populations. Ironically, the coronavirus has provided us with an opportunity to transform our economy and politics in true service to the people. The greatest crisis will not have been the virus itself but rather, a failure of the imagination in the face of the massive disruption it will have caused.

Advent Season of the Virus

Yvonne A. Owuor is an award-winning writer, editor and theoretician

Elements from a surreal landscape we call earth: Wuhan. Wet Market. Dr. Li Weinliang (RIP), Kenyan students and citizens stranded in moving virus epicentres; an Ambassador who resorts to praying for them—turns out she was right: social isolation + moral support as the most effective solution. Animals strolling into humanity’s silenced cities (at least we now know that in the event of our mass demise, the animals who have been watching us, after all, will take over our cities, and nature, it seems, truly does abhor a vacuum), the halting of work as we know it, a new shared grammar; social distancing, COVID-19, curfew. Verbally adept Italian mayors, Mutahi Kagwe, startling Kenyans by being a state official in an entrenched “mediocraty” that looks and sounds competent and coherent.

The likelihood of a post-virus global economic recession and depression. The roles of States (with the primary pimps of Neoliberal Logic revealing themselves to be oddly inchoate now) and how each performed on the “capacity, management and delivery of public goods” scorecard, in the face of this equalising global existential threat, that has also offered the world a common language. (It has caused (for a while) persistent dumb dichotomies–Us/them; West/Other; Developed/Undeveloped… that sought to assert themselves to fizzle away in the face of chilling reality). The masks that concealed so many cracked facades, even in Kenya, are off and in this humanising moment where the only battle is Life vs Death spin only sounds like garble.

Most significantly, COVID-19 is the defining virus for a new generation. That generation watches in terror at the incompetence of their elders whose instinct it is to apply old tested answers to new untested crises. After this storm, the generation is likely to emerge from the womb of darkness furious and frothing, armed with a collectivised will to uproot the status quo by whatever means. They will use the unique grammar of their generation, wired by a preternatural technological savvy, to programme another imagination of being in the world. They will confuse the Emperor-elders, who they see, through the lenses of the virus, have, in reality been buzzing about stark naked even as they preached robes of many colours. That generation did it (as organised netizens) for Dr. Ai Fen’s article by resorting to assorted censor-algorithm-beating language forms. They succeeded. Something is coming: a virus is its herald. Let the games begin.

Racism, Ecology and Conservation Politics

Dr Mordecai Ogada is a writer, conservationist and co-author of the book The Big Conservation Lie

Our warped conservation sector hasn’t been spared the upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. For many years, I have advised that tourism should be treated as a by-product of conservation, rather than the basis for it, precisely because of the fickle nature of the tourism business. Kenya’s relentless pursuit of tourism at the expense of more resilient indigenous livelihoods like pastoralism, is a fallacy that is only matched by our obsession with tourists of foreign extraction as some kind of validation of our standing as a country. Now that tourism has crashed for the foreseeable future, the weakness of this model has been brutally exposed, with tourism interests begging for donations and bailouts, while livestock production continues unimpeded.

This trauma may just be the “reset” button required to rouse our conservation sector from the slumber that styles the Kenya wildlife service as a tourism organisation under a Ministry of “Tourism and Wildlife”, led by a minister who was a long-term tourism practitioner. A “woken up” Kenya would hopefully come to the realisation that we should conserve first for ourselves and then receive the visitors who come to partake of what we have conserved to serve our own needs. Our obsession with foreign (preferably white) tourists and conservation thinking is what provides fertile ground for the racial prejudice, corruption and unseemly dependence on charity that still persist in this sector. May there be a bright dawn at the end of this dark night.

Pandemics, Tech and the Future of Work

Njanja Mwangi is the founder and Director of Apex College in Sydney City, Australia

The recent discussion online and elsewhere on how the coronavirus will force Kenyan firms to rethink the way work is done, ignores the fact that expectations of a virtual work revolution accelerated by this pandemic are overblown. The optimistic belief is that we will abruptly move into a future where offices and the nine to five workday will be replaced with virtual work and results-only workplaces.

I think this optimism about a revolution around work is premature. Allow me to explain. A question I have often asked any manager I have met over the years is, “What proportion of the workforce would you say is below average to terrible at their job?” I don’t think I have ever heard anyone give me a number of less than 70 per cent. This means that in any workplace or society, 7 out of 10 people can’t be relied upon to consistently understand and effectively execute work instructions.

A number of tools have been perfected over the years to mitigate this reality including in management, human resources departments, offices and work schedules. Talk to any Baby Boomer who owns a business in Kenya and they will tell you that “waKenya ni lazima wakaliwe” (Kenyans must be sat upon, i.e. micro-managed).

This means that, firstly, once this crisis is over, a lot of workplaces will resume business as usual to allow the tools that make up for workplace incompetence to do their thing. Secondly, there definitely will be people who will transition to working from home but I think it would be foolish to assume that this change will not come with a lot of controls, many of which will make working from home much less appealing than it currently appears.

A Braver, Newer World

Rasna Warah is a writer, editor and author of Unsilenced

The coronavirus has heralded an age of uncertainty around the globe, but one thing is certain: the world will never be the same again. After the coronavirus pandemic has run its course, and even after a vaccine against the disease has been developed, a shaken world will be forced to reevaluate its priorities.

We may be forced to ask ourselves difficult existential questions, such as: should we continue ravaging and plundering the earth in the name of profit and economic growth? Can we sustain a world where a tiny number of people own and control the majority of its resources? What kind of planet do we want our children to inherit? One where sharing and cooperation are the norm or one where greed and individualism trump compassion and generosity?

What use are armies when a virus like this one can silently and stealthily decimate unsuspecting populations? How do we prepare for such a disaster in the future? What lessons can we learn from this pandemic? What really is the meaning of life? Maybe human beings still have a chance to redeem themselves. Maybe now is the time to reassert our collective humanity.

Terror, Security and COVID-19

Abdullahi Boru is a security expert and writer with a focus on the Horn of Africa

The COVID-19 outbreak has had a trifecta of impacts: health, the economy and public order.  All are inextricably interlinked.

In the Horn of Africa where the national health infrastructure is fragile and there are hardly any formal social safety fallback options, the proposed iterations of lockdowns announced by the governments as a means of containing the spread of the virus could ignite public order crises. And considering that some of the countries in the region are landlocked, public disruption in one country could spread to neighbouring countries.

Such vulnerabilities provide a window of opportunity for transnational non-state actors. With the security agencies preoccupied with the local public order crisis, non-state actors like Al Shabaab, while sensitive to public opinion, are not averse to inflicting maximum damage to the state at its point of weakness.

The dawn attacks at Camp Simba in Manda show that Al Shabaab’s ambitions are not limited to soft and hard national military targets, but also target American bases in the region. Moreover, AMISOM bases will be particularly in the group’s crosshairs now that drawdown of the forces has been announced. Over the last few months, Al Shabaab fighters have been seeking to acquire Chinese-made, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, and some have been arrested while taking flying classes, an indication of the group’s ambition to remain the pre-eminent Al Qaeda franchise internationally.

Tech and Our Lives Post-Corona

Nanjira Sambuli is a researcher, writer, policy analyst, advocacy strategist and musician

Digital technologies will be a cornerstone of life after the pandemic. Development, investment, policy and governance plans will carry the term “digital” as a prefix.

Today, we may welcome proposals like digitally tracking infected persons’ movements to flatten the curve. The flipside: they are also the building blocks for a surveillance-ridden future. Our consent lies in our desire to see governments “do whatever it takes” to put an end to the rona.

But it won’t be as simple as switching off the apps and algorithms tracking the virus, and by extension, people. These “solutions” are also feeding the appetite that states and tech providers already have for the datafication of every aspect of our lives; to monitor our every move, every transaction, every activity.

The justification to keep the digital surveillance in place will be that there will be other crises for which the activated technology can be put to use. Going cashless today may mean saying goodbye to autonomy tomorrow. Today’s coronavirus victim could be any one of us that will be deemed to be out of line with the system’s rules in the future.

We urgently need narratives and strategies to counter the overwhelming tide of techno-solutionism sweeping in and positioning itself as the silver bullet. Or else, life after the coronavirus will come to imitate our dystopian fictions.

Institutionalised Racism and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Darius Okolla is a writer, editor and curator of audio-visual content at The Elephant 

Many Kenyans will not know that there exists a corpus of colonial-era writings and policies grounded in scientific racism, many of which have been incorporated into the current laws, mindsets and worldviews that govern our public life. The marketisation of basic services – water, education, healthcare – arbitrary application of the law, endemic corruption, and even the theft of blood from our blood banks are the manifestations of this institutionalised racism.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to confront the cluelessness and heavy-handedness of a ruling regime that has perpetuated this historical racism which has engendered feelings of cultural inferiority and encouraged anti-intellectualism, elite ineptitude, collapse of moral courage, predatory public instincts, commercialisation of public life, and corruption, particularly in the healthcare sector.

In imposing a curfew and partial lockdown, the state should have taken into account our communal existence, particularly our conception of space, social relations, interdependencies, and supply chains. How, for example, does this lockdown shape night travel? Marikiti 4 a.m. agro-purchases? Where on the scale of essential services do critical “non-essential” ecosystems like Gikomba fit given their place in the crucial informal economy? Thus far, however, the state’s haphazard policies have only served to precipitate the chaos and pushback that happened in Likoni, the defiance of curfew in Eldoret, and the citizen violence against the police in Malindi.

We need to intellectualise more and securitise less, using a pandemic mitigation advisory panel consisting of epidemiologists, urban planners, public interest lawyers, urban anthropologists, public health teams, virologists, economists, and the clergy to craft county-specific lockdown policies. This pandemic should be a road back to crafting human-centred, data-informed public policy.

Tech, Pandemics and Viruses

Alan Kawamara is a techie and a software developer at The Elephant

With the world quickly realising the benefits of digital-ready workspaces and teleworking, COVID-19 has handed digital transformation evangelists a huge opportunity to spread the tech gospel further and faster. Everywhere in our digital spaces, online workspaces hitherto unknown are mentioned, shared and applied with a new-found zeal as workplaces try to find new ways of keeping the work going.

Going forward, organisations will rethink their working models, embracing Cloud technology and anything-as-a-service (XaaS) solutions to cushion themselves against future disruptions. Therefore, in many ways COVID-19 can be said to be as much a tech virus as it is a biological virus. It has unleashed a disruption similar to the infamous Stuxnet virus, the world’s first digital weapon.

Having gone through the challenges of having to perform in the unpredictable time of the coronavirus pandemic, individuals and organisations will have to embrace cultures of experimentation, being willing to quickly adapt, scale or drop tech solutions depending on new and fast-changing variables.

With greater digitisation, reliance on data and analytics for decision-making will become key, with managers keen on obtaining almost real-time measurement of team and work efficiencies. Governments will make more determined investments in internet infrastructure, allowing for faster and cheaper access to connectivity as an enabler of this new way of working.

Pandemics, Power and Foreign Lands

Shingai Kagunda is an MFA graduate student at Brown University

Isn’t it much harder to write when the speculative possibility of a globalised pandemic becomes reality? The worldwide scourge and its ramifications have now become this bottomless anxiety sitting in our being, making itself comfortable. COVID-19 has ensured that many aspects of national and racial existence now carry with them clear or tacit signs that say “Not welcome here”.

This is an even much more personal loss for those of us who are so far away from home facing so many unknowns. And it was even more strongly felt as I watched the last flight leave New York for Kenya, leaving a sense of “so now?” hanging in the air.

Currently, out here in the US, we have to stay home, and where possible take walks—six feet away from other bodies—and turn to Zoom for classes. This is a whole re-education of our lives. We have to rely on multiple video chats to speak to family and friends at least once a day. Ideally, this is an opportune time to dream up alternative ways of being because the pandemic has interrupted capital, supply chains, human connection, and life as we know it.

We must now begin to imagine what this will mean for the long haul and what our world and lives will be after the pandemic. No doubt, we must prepare for a radical shift of priorities in the after. We will need to set terms that will, and must, gain momentum in healthcare, redistribution of resources; we must choose life over profit. In the end we must sit and reflect and read and write and work and rest and draw and notice the earth breathing.

A New Philosophy of Man

Joe Kobuthi is a philosopher and a curator at The Elephant

For all creation, gazing eagerly as if with outstretched neck, is waiting and longing to see the manifestation of the sons of God. Romans 8:19

The scientific and technological advancements, the military-industrial complex, the sophisticated economic, social and political arrangements of the western hegemonic model now appear futile in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Humanity and nature have been groaning with eager expectation for something other than this five-hundred-year European experiment that has revealed itself to be rapacious and genocidal where the world is concerned. The West now lives at such a crazy, reckless speed that it has lost all reason and moral authority as it sinks into the abyss.

Here in the global south, we must no longer benchmark with this edifice as the standard for human advancement. No, we do not want to catch up to anyone. What we want is to move forward in the company of all men. It is now time for the peoples at the periphery to begin a new history for mankind.

After COVID-19, if our desire is human progress, we must create other ways of being. For Mother Nature and for humanity’s sake, we must rebuild from the ruins, think anew and attempt to set afoot a new philosophy of man. 

Coronavirus and a Changing Media Landscape

John Allan Namu is an investigative journalist and team lead of Africa Uncensored

I’m hoping that mine will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I see a media landscape that will be changed by the virus, in many ways for the better. What we are observing in the face of the pandemic is the resurgence of expert opinion from actual experts, a curiosity and hunger for fact by some (not all) journalists and a deeper appreciation for the importance of quality information by the public. So in that respect, the bones of journalism are relatively intact even if they have been weakened over time.

What is much harder to establish is how journalism will survive. COVID-19 has thrust upon almost every country that it has touched economic strain unseen in the 21st century. The value chains that supported journalism that were already imperiled now seem like they almost certainly will break, and more than ever, media houses in Kenya will have to find a way to ensure a future for themselves. This could be done through decentralising the news cycle and moving resources to create a plethora of news products and a more robust ecosystem. Swanky news studios may either have to become more spartan or be used as much as possible to generate new income.

The best coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic offers us a window into what could be. The very nature of the pandemic is such that the numbers being tracked change every day, and the lack of clarity about when it will end means that journalists have to think deeply about how to make their stories less and less perishable. Hopefully, this will lead to institutional thinking about the kind of investment that must be made for news to be useful.  Otherwise, even more media space will be captured by those who can pay for it.

Alternative media will flourish in the short term, but to survive, boutique media houses will have to search for partnerships that allow them to collaborate on content and share resources. Finally, what I hope for is that people recognise that good journalism is a public good, and fight for a national broadcaster that reports for the nation, not for the holders of office whom we have confused for the overlords of this precious public commodity.

Post-coronavirus and the need for communal solidarity. 

Betty Guchu is a writer and editor

I am returnee, a former long-term remittance woman (in the sense that I was doing the remitting, gladly). I came back, jaded by the world of international development cooperation, where the cooperation seems to benefit only the highly paid functionaries and the development experts that hang on to their coattails, earning a handsome fee with every contract. The waste of resources, the corruption, the nepotism and the cronyism finally got to me and the racism that one day asserted that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives”, to justify the exclusion of the views of the so-called beneficiaries, was the final straw. I started casting about for another way to live and to earn a living. More simply and more meaningfully. Before it was too late.

Out in the Kenyan countryside I have found such a life, in a community where we are each other’s social safety net. A hospital bill is shared, not just among friends and family, but within the community. As is the cost of a burial. My neighbour watches out for me and it doesn’t take long to know who the chicken thief is. Tools are borrowed and lent and seeds and seedlings exchanged. Advice is freely given, some of it old wives’ tales until you find out that it is not, having skeptically applied it. New ideas are welcomed and knowledge freely shared. Projects are initiated, funds raised and labour provided, elected officials showing up at the tail end to bask in the reflected glory. As is their wont.

It is not that folk here are nicer or more generous than folk anywhere else; it is that the environment is less alienating, that the inter-generational relationships are still quite strong, that the gap between the better-off and the less so is not a yawning chasm. But also, it is the realisation that “there, but by the grace of God, go I” that spurs the solidarity, the acknowledgement that unless we help each other, we all sink together. May the coronavirus bring all of us everywhere to that happy realisation.

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Lumumba’s Iconography in the Arts

On anniversary of the birthday of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of an independent Congo, we ask, “What iconography arose around him, and why is that iconography so diverse?”

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Patrice Emery Lumumba’s career as Congo’s first post-independence prime minister lasted only three months before he was arrested and executed five months later. Yet he lives on as idea, meme, symbol, icon, model, logo, metonym, specter, image, figure, and projection.

For four years I edited a book, Lumumba in the Arts, that examines Lumumba’s iconography. That book is now available.

Although Lumumba has won a place equal to other political icons like Malcolm X, Che Guevara, and Nelson Mandela, and although an equally rich or even richer imagery has developed around him, his iconography has remained underexposed and unannotated.

In fact, it is a rich iconography. It includes a whole range of renderings and portrayals, spans the whole range of media, and encompasses a variety of representations. It is no coincidence that a historical figure such as Patrice Lumumba has taken on an imaginary afterlife in the arts. After all, his project remained unfinished and his corpse was never buried.

Lumumba’s diverse iconography already started with the different names he received such as Élias Okit’Asombo (heir of the cursed), Nyumba Hatshikala l’Okanga (the one who is always implicated), Osungu (white), Lumumba (a crowd in motion), Okanda Doka (the sorcerer’s wisdom), or Omote l’Eneheka (the big head who detects the curse), starting from his childhood. His iconography was furthered during his lifetime, especially through songs and by the press, but most expressions, however, arose after his death.

Since his murder, Lumumba has been appropriated through painting (e.g. Chéri Samba, William Kentridge), photography (e.g. Sammy Baloji, Robert Lebeck), poetry (e.g. Henri Lopez, Ousmane Sembene), music (e.g. Pitcho, Miriam Makeba), film (e.g. Raoul Peck, Zurlini), theater (e.g. Aimé Césaire), and literature (e.g. Barbara Kingsolver) as well as in public spaces, stamps, and cartoons. No single form of art seems to escape Lumumba. While at first sight his iconography seems to oscillate between demonization and beatification, it is the gap between these two opposites that has proven to be fruitful for a very polymorphic iconography, one which, amongst many things, observes the memory and the undigested suffering that inscribed itself upon Lumumba’s body and upon the history of the Congo.

Karel Teissig, Czech poster of Valerio Zurlini’s 1968 Black Jesus, 1970. Courtesy of Judy and Jozef Mrofka.

Karel Teissig, Czech poster of Valerio Zurlini’s 1968 Black Jesus, 1970. Courtesy of Judy and Jozef Mrofka.

Notable exceptions such as Patrice Lumumba entre Dieu et Diable. Un héros africain dans ses images, edited by Pierre Halen and János Riesz, and A Congo Chronicle. Patrice Lumumba in Urban Art, edited by Bogumil Jewsiewicki, are foundational and seminal to my work on Lumumba’s iconography in regards to mostly literature and poetry in the first case, and to painting in the second one.

Two questions guided our work: What iconography arose around Lumumba and why is that iconography so diverse? One of the most striking paintings about Lumumba is Les pères de la démocratie et de l’indépendance by Sam-Ilus (2018). The painting demonstrates both the beatification of Lumumba and the political recuperation of his figure. It critically shows that artistic creations of Lumumba’s figure and the scenes in which he is reconfigured provide anything but a window on historical veracity; rather, they often reinvent him for political reasons. In this example, Patrice Lumumba is aligned with the anti-Lumumbist Etienne Tshisekedi, who followed Albert Kalonji on his secessionist adventure in Kasai against the central government of Lumumba, and who is the father of the current president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Felix Tshisekedi. In contrast to the more realistically depicted Etienne Tshisekedi (who died in 2017), Lumumba—who died almost sixty years earlier—is more abstracted and iconized. In the image, Lumumba is the reference: the model to aspire to. Tshisekedi tries to pose like him and identify with him, looking for political legitimation and atonement from sin. But whereas Lumumba has both arms up, Tshisekedi is still trying to find the right balance and is not very confident of receiving expiation. Lumumba does not seem to be very happy being cast in this reunion with his foe. His upper body, which is slightly averted from his companion, betrays some discomfort. Not only does Lumumba “seem distrustful because Tshisekedi is probably complicit in his death,” as the artist Sam-Ilus explained to me in a personal interview, but—I would add—also because his figure is being appropriated and dragged into a misplacement. Apart from the beatification, political recuperation, and the contrast with history, Sam-Ilus’s painting also illustrates that the meanings ascribed to Lumumba depend on the interplay of differences and oppositions within the construct. Moreover, these meanings are not fixed but deferred along l’hors cadre: those people below Lumumba holding their protest signs, that is, and also the other artworks in the book, as well as those not reproduced in the book, and those yet to come. The cover thus functions as a possible portal to other fictions that defy to a greater or lesser extent what Alexie Tcheuyap calls the triple censorship inflicted on Lumumba: censorship against his person (his murder), against his discourses, and against all attempts to constitute an alternative discourse on his existence.

The answer to the first question—as to what iconography arose around him—depends on the different art forms, which the book discusses in relation to historiography in the first part, and which the book divides into different chapters in the second part (cinema, theater, photography, poetry, comics, music, painting, and public space). Throughout the different art forms, we can distinguish an iconography that has been grafted onto a Judeo-Christian tradition (as both diabolization or beatification) from a more profane trend. Remarkably, the Janus-faced figure of the scapegoat/martyr—the most recurrent figure among all the different and even contradictory things that Lumumba stood for—are to be found in both. The answer to the second question—why such a diverse iconography – will be answered from as many angles as there are authors. However, four interrelated realms keep recurring: the spectral, the postcolonial, the martyr, and the political.

By discussing the rich iconographic heritage bequeathed to us by Lumumba and by reflecting on the different ways in which he is being remembered, we do not only answer the two questions that guided our work, but hope equally to contribute to this imagery by making his absence more present, though without laying his legacy to rest.

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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Why Winning a Seat at the UN Security Council is Nothing to Write Home About

The UN Security Council is not a club of equals. The ten rotational non-permanent members of the fifteen-member Council, including Kenya, do not pose a serious threat to the five veto-holding permanent members – though membership does give the former the illusion of being influential.

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Why Winning a Seat at the UN Security Council is Nothing to Write Home About
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The Kenyan government has been congratulating itself for securing a seat at the United Nations Security Council, perhaps believing – mistakenly – that such a “privilege” will somehow allow it to influence security issues affecting the African continent and will bestow on Kenya some kind of legitimacy that it did not enjoy before.

After Kenya was voted into the Security Council last month (after beating Djibouti in a second round of voting), the country’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary, Rachel Omamo, stated: “Kenya will [now] have an opportunity to shape the global agenda and ensure that our interests and the interests of Africa are heard and considered. We now have a voice at one of the most important decision making forums”.

Kenya has now joined a long list of countries that eventually hold membership in the Security Council, which is rotational except for the five countries that have permanent seats and veto-holding power, an arrangement that was made by the victors of World War II, who assigned themselves permanent status in the Council, ostensibly because they could be most relied on not to start another world war. The Council consists of 15 members, of which 10 are rotational non-permanent members elected for two-year terms. The non-permanent members may have a say in decisions made by the Security Council, but the ultimate decision rests with the five permanent veto-holding members, namely the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – also known as the P-5.

The UN Security Council is not a club of equals. The ten non-permanent members of the Council do not pose a serious threat to the P-5, though membership does give these countries the illusion of being influential. In fact, one might even say that Security Council resolutions amount to little, and are acted upon only if all of the five permanent members agree on them unanimously. Disagreements within the P-5 can stall and even stop resolutions and decisions from being implemented.

So non-permanent status has little or no impact on important security-related decisions. The only countries whose opinions matter are the P-5. And the P-5 can make unilateral decisions with only cursory or tokenistic reference to the non-permanent members. So, in essence, nothing moves at the Security Council without P-5 approval.

Let me give you just a few examples of how ineffectual occupying a non-permanent seat in the Security Council can be.

The Security Council did not intervene in Rwanda to prevent a genocide

Rwanda was elected as a non-permanent member of the Security Council in 1994, the very year a horrific genocide took place in that country. The UN Security Council did little to prevent the genocide that ravaged the country and left at least 800,000 people dead. There is speculation that France (a P-5 member) did not want to interfere in the conflict; in fact, Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame has often accused France of being party to the genocide, a claim the latter has denied.

On its part, the United States had a hands-off approach towards conflicts in Africa, having burnt its fingers in Somalia the previous year when 18 American soldiers were killed in Mogadishu during a so-called humanitarian operation, and so it looked the other way when Rwandans were being slaughtered. Meanwhile, Rwanda, the non-permanent member, sat back and watched the genocide unfold before the world’s eyes.

So if the role of the Security Council is to prevent crimes against humanity and war crimes and to promote peace, why is it that it failed miserably in preventing mass killings in a small African country? In fact, why did the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which takes instructions from the Security Council, withdraw troops from Rwanda just when the country needed them most? And why did Kofi Annan, the head of UN peacekeeping at the time, order Roméo Dallaire, who was in charge of the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, to not to take sides as “it was up to the Rwandans to sort things out for themselves”? (Annan later explained to the journalist James Traub that “given the limited number of men Dallaire had at his disposal, if he initiated an engagement and some were killed, we would lose the troops”.)

In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire talks of being extremely frustrated with his inability to convince the UN in New York to allow him to take actions that could have saved lives, if not prevented the genocide from taking place in the first place. In fact, prior to the genocide, when Dallaire informed his bosses that militias were gathering arms and preparing for mass killings, “the matter was never brought before the UN Security Council, let alone made public”, according to the writer David Rieff, author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.  

The UN’s tendency to flee a country experiencing conflict or disaster is very common, as many Rwandans will attest. As génocidaires roamed freely in Rwanda, UN officials were busy packing their bags and catching chartered flights to neighbouring countries. And the UN Security Council members, including Rwanda, remained mum.

The UN Security Council – and by extension, the UN as a whole – has lost its moral authority over other human rights issues as well. For example, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in New York (where the UN Secretariat is based), Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, issued a memo to all UN staff asking them to refrain from participating in the demonstrations, ostensibly because as international civil servants, they were expected to remain apolitical and neutral. Maina Kiai, the former UN special rapporteur on freedom of assembly, condemned the Secretary-General’s directive, saying it was “conflating the right to protest and racial equality with political partisanship”.

The Black Lives Matter protests occurred when the United States was experiencing a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths. The pandemic, which has the potential to become an international security issue (economies that suffer high levels of unemployment and inequality tend to generate disaffection and political unrest, which can sometimes result in armed conflict), has yet to be discussed at the Security Council.

The Security Council did not impose sanctions on the US and Britain for going to war with Iraq

The UN Security Council did absolutely nothing to prevent the United States and Britain from going to war with Iraq in 2003. In fact, the United States went ahead and invaded Iraq in March of that year shortly after making a rather unconvincing argument at the Security Council that Saddam Hussein was harbouring weapons of mass destruction. (No such weapons were found in Iraq.) Yet no member of the Security Council (except France, which made an impassioned plea against the war) had the clout to force the United States and Britain not to go to war.

Even though the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, declared the war “illegal”, as it did not have the unanimous approval of the Security Council, there was nothing much he could do. And despite widespread anti-war protests around the world, President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair went ahead with their misguided plan, which some estimate cost more than 600,000 Iraqi civilian lives. Further, the Security Council did not vote to impose sanctions on the US and Britain for waging an illegal war for the obvious reason that the countries waging the war were part of the P-5.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, a decade earlier, in 1991, the Security Council had imposed sanctions on Iraq for invading and annexing parts of Kuwait.

The Security Council has failed to protect civilians caught in conflict

Now let’s go to peacekeeping, the raison d’être of the Security Council. Currently there are 13 UN peacekeeping missions around the world, mostly in African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali, South Sudan and Western Sahara. However, as the case of Rwanda shows, there is little evidence that the presence of peacekeepers significantly reduces the threat of conflict in these countries or protects civilians.

The UN’s largest peacekeeping mission is in the DRC. Since 1999, MONUSCO, the UN’s stabilising mission in the DRC, has deployed thousands of troops to the country. Yet the DRC, arguably the world’s most mineral-rich country, remains the site of much poverty, conflict and human rights abuses as militias and the Congolese army fight to control mining areas and extract taxes.

Human rights organisations have for years raised the alarm on human rights violations, including rape, committed by both the army and armed groups, but the violence and abuse doesn’t seem to stop. It is estimated that millions have died as a result of resource-based conflicts in the country. The mineral-rich eastern part of the country has also been described as “the rape capital of the world”, where sexual violence is systematically used as a weapon of war.

The question arises: Despite a large presence of peacekeeping troops in the DRC, why are civilians still not safe? Could it be that some peacekeepers might in fact be party to the conflict? Scandals involving the illegal sale of arms by UN peacekeepers have been reported. In May 2007, for instance, the BBC reported that in 2005 UN peacekeeping troops from Pakistan had been re-arming Congolese militia (whom they were supposed to be disarming) in exchange for gold. A Congolese witness claimed to have seen a UN peacekeeper disarm members of the militia one day only to re-arm them the following day. The trade was allegedly being facilitated by a triad involving the UN peacekeepers, the Congolese army and traders from Kenya.

UN peacekeepers in conflict areas have also been reported to have sexually abused or exploited populations they are supposed to be protecting. An investigation by the Associated Press in 2017 revealed that nearly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers had been made in troubled parts of the world. (This number could be a gross underestimation as the majority of victims of sexual exploitation or abuse do not report their cases.)

Peacekeeping missions have also been reported to have underplayed the scale of a conflict in order to prove that they are doing a good job of keeping the peace. When Aicha Elbasri, the former spokesperson for the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), reported that UNAMID and the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations routinely misled the media and the UN Security Council about crimes, including forced displacement, mass rape and bombing of civilians, committed by Sudanese government forces in Darfur, the UN failed to investigate her allegations. It only carried out an internal inquiry after she resigned in protest in 2013 and when the International Criminal Court (ICC) ordered the UN to do so; to this day the UN has not made the inquiry’s findings public, contrary to the ICC’s demand that such an inquiry be “thorough, independent and public”.

Elbasri later publicly released thousands of emails, police reports, internal investigations and diplomatic cables that exposed the failure of the UN to protect millions of Sudanese civilians under its protection.

The P-5 have a vested interest in the military-industrial complex

It is not lost on many people that the P-5 have a vested interest in wars in faraway places because wars keep their military-industrial complexes running. The weapons industry is huge, and countries that supply arms and military equipment would not like to the threat of war to fade away.

When wars occur in far-off places, arms manufacturers have a field day. Wars in former French colonies in Africa keep France’s military industrial complex well-oiled. Wars in the Middle East are viewed by British and American arms manufacturers as a boon for their weapons industries. If there were no wars or civil conflicts in the world, these industries would not be so lucrative.

It was no surprise then that Donald Trump’s first official foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia, which has been buying arms worth billions of dollars from the United States for decades. Arms from the US have kept the Saudi-led war in Yemen going. The connection between arms sales and the arms manufacturers’ silence on human rights violations committed by countries which buy the arms became acutely visible during that visit. This also explains Trump’s lukewarm response to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The Security Council has put no pressure on the United States – which contributes almost a quarter of the UN’s budget – to rethink its policy towards arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other countries. On the contrary, the UN’s campaign in Yemen, for example, is not about ending the war, but raising donations for the millions of Yemenis who are suffering as a result of Saudi-led bombings.

Make the Security Council more representative

The UN Security Council was established 75 years ago at a time when countries went to war with each other, and when Western powers had experienced severe physical and economic destruction and the loss of millions of lives. However, today’s most deadly wars are being waged by insurgents or terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which have become transnational. The Security Council is not equipped to handle this new threat. New forms of international cooperation are required.

If Kenya wants to have real influence in the UN Security Council, it should lobby for the Council to be expanded and be made more representative and democratic. Countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America (regions that hold the majority of the world’s population), must demand to be included as permanent members. Permanent membership should be allocated to those countries that have no vested interest in the weapons industry and which have not waged war in other countries since the Security Council was established in 1945 – countries that are genuinely committed to world peace. No country should have veto powers. Maybe that would make membership in the Council more democratic and meaningful.

However, even if this happens, membership might not amount to much as long as the UN’s purse strings are controlled by a few rich and powerful countries which can sway other countries to vote in their favour and as long as some members have an interest in ensuring that their military-industrial complexes remain operational for a long time. Kenya, being a donor-dependent country, can therefore easily be influenced by rich donor countries. This is how the world, including the Security Council, operates.

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The Upright Man: A Sympathetic Critique of Thomas Sankara

The judgment that Sankara was a hero rests in part on what was politically possible in Burkina Faso in the early 1980s.

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The Upright Man: A Sympathetic Critique of Thomas Sankara
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Over the past few years, several, partly scathing critiques of African political heroes have been published in larger works of history and ethnography. Thus the Patrice Lumumba of David Van Reybrouck’s Congo is a young, inspiring man whose fiery rhetoric outstrips his coalition-building  and governance capacity; the Kwame Nkrumah of Jemima Pierre’s Predicament of Blackness is simultaneously the exponent of a pan-Africanism that was merely “nominally powerful,” and a political leader “dependent” on colonial and industrial apparatus.

Although other, longer-lived revolutionaries from decolonisation and the Cold War saw their stars fade as their time in office extended, the reputation as a worthy presidential martyr enjoyed by Thomas Sankara, who led a short-lived revolution in Burkina Faso, has only grown. Since his death in 1987, he has been hailed as Africa’s Ché Guevara, and seen as a beacon of good and selfless governance. As with Ché, he’s turned into a beret-clad icon with an aura of cool that transcends the tedium of policy.

What shape might a sympathetic critique of Thomas Sankara take?

The life and times of the late Joseph Ki-Zerbo, a leader of regional independence movements originating from Haute (Upper) Volta (how Burkina Faso was known before Sankara took power), and the lifelong face of its leftist opposition, offers a clue. Prior to the 1980s, Ki-Zerbo, as a leader of the Voltaic left before, during, and after independence, was widely respected for his historical and analytic perspectives as well as his political participation, and his unwillingness to compromise his socialist principles for an opportunity of increased power. Haute Volta was rocked almost from the start by a series of coups, and Ki-Zerbo never found a government that he could join with a clear conscience.

At the time when a number of West African states gained their independence. Ki Zerbo had given up a career track in academia (he studied in Mali as well as at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po in Paris) to go to work in government and serve as a public representative: first as a civil servant for Sekou Touré in Guinea-Conakry, the first French colony to gain its independence. Ki Zerbo returned to Haute Volta before Touré’s regime in Conakry turned autarkic and self-consuming. Then, in Haute Volta, Ki Zerbo took up a seat on the opposition benches of parliament, working on things like education policy while the country was being rocked by a series of coups.

Sitting in his country’s parliament, and influenced by his experience studying with the Senegalese historian Chiekh Anta Diop, and by the ideas of the Malian ethnographer Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Ki Zerbo spent years leading the development of a primary school curriculum that tried to reconcile traditional Sahelian ways of knowing with Western-style, classroom-based pedagogy. Before he could do much with his curriculum, Sankara, a young army captain who had been given ever-more powerful portfolios in a series of putschist regimes in Ouagadougou, came to power in a coup in 1983 with the help of his colleague Blaise Compaoré. He quickly renamed the country Burkina Faso, or the Land of Honest Men, and ushered in a remarkable slate of policies: among other things, he broke the country of its decades-long dependence on imported foodstuffs, and put in place unprecedented policies promoting gender equality.

Sankara wore camouflage into office, but his policies harkened back to the heady and hopeful early days of Touré in Guinea, making it all the more surprising when Ki-Zerbo, fearing for his life at the hands of Sankara’s military administration, joined a stream of politicians and professionals who went into voluntary exile from the country.

The Sankara years were marked both by forthright policies and the political repression that led to the most talented members of the political and bureaucratic classes joining reactionaries and incompetents in flight abroad.

Four years into his revolution, Sankara was murdered in another coup; this one installed Blaise Compaoré, minister of defense and a one-time close Sankara ally, as head of state. Ki-Zerbo stayed away for as long as Sankara ruled, returning only after he was executed. The self-sufficiency, anti-corruption, and general moral rectitude of the Sankara years slipped rapidly into the past. Ki-Zerbo, no stranger to being outside of government, found little to like in Compaoré’s platform and regime, and resumed his status as leader of the principled opposition upon his return. In 2008, late in a book-length interview with René Holenstein, Ki Zerbo outlined the difficulties he had with Sankara.

Ki-Zerbo argued that by coming to power in another coup, and thus being required to be suspicious of everyone in the political establishment, including his ideological and partisan allies, Sankara ensured his own immediate failure, setting the ground for a continuation of the countercoups and crack-downs that had already become commonplace. In his view, what was needed was not a better coup-leader, but a turn toward realistic governance.

But Ki Zerbo also held up another figure as a hero he could get behind: the Burkinabé journalist, Norbert Zongo, murdered in 1998 by Compaoré’s army. Ki-Zerbo, no stranger to academic discourse, talks about Zongo as a member of the Gramscian civil society, noting that at the time, civil society declined to align itself forthrightly with the political opposition, preferring a stance of neutrality. That didn’t prevent Zongo, who got his start in the government-sanctioned press, from aggressively covering the excesses of the Compaoré regime, something he continued to do from within the country even after his own life was threatened. From his perch as founder and editor of the newspaper, L’Independant, he investigated the government. When in 1998, this meant looking into the torture and death of the chauffeur of Compaoré’s brother, Zongo and three others were assassinated by agents of the state.

Zongo’s death electrified the opposition, civil society, and progressives in Ouagadougou and other major cities; Ki-Zerbo said that it helped persuade civil society to drop its non-coordination stance in opposition to Compaoré’s government, culminating in more than a decade later in youth protests and coordinated action from the political opposition, civil society, and dissident factions of the military forced Compaoré from power.

It’s easy enough to see why Ki-Zerbo, who repeatedly declined opportunities to exercise political power when he thought he’d be joining administrations that didn’t operate in the long-term interest of the country, might prefer an outsider like Zongo to a cunning political actor like Sankara. And while Ki-Zerbo doesn’t say it himself, it’s possible to imagine that Zongo’s bravery in continuing his work from Ouagadougou even when he knew his life was in danger made the journalist someone he could look up to, having faced a similar challenge in his own career.

Over the last decade, repressive governments around the world have come to recognize the oppositional power of civil society, heavily regulating organizationsraiding offices, and arresting leaders, while painting civil society as a pathway for foreign influence. But in the 1990s, a journalist could still surprise the government and the opposition alike by doggedly pursuing his leads about government malfeasance, and publishing his findings far and wide.

The extent to which a person may agree or disagree with Ki-Zerbo’s critique of Sankara is likely dependent on context. Ki-Zerbo clearly thought that Burkina Faso was, in the mid-1980s, poised for a government that could include a variety of committed voices; furthermore that the rise of Sankara and Compaoré in 1983 set the stage for Compaoré’s nearly three decades of reaction and repression. But if an observer sees the entire last quarter of the 20th century as an insurmountable political dark night of the soul, then the shining example of Sankara, however quixotic it may have been in the moment, would show itself to be just the sort of light in the darkness that could demonstrate to later politicians and citizens what it means to be a leader of principle. The judgment that Sankara was a hero, then, rests in part on a deeper judgment as to what was possible in Burkina Faso in the early 1980s.

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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