Connect with us

Op-Eds

My Black Is (Not) Beautiful: The Complex History of Skin Lighteners in Africa

4 min read.

As in other parts of the world colonised by European powers, the politics of skin colour in South Africa have been importantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation.

Published

on

My Black Is (Not) Beautiful: The Complex History of Skin Lighteners in Africa
Download PDFPrint Article

Somali-American activists recently scored a victory against Amazon and against colorism, which is prejudice based on preference for people with lighter skin tones. Members of the non-profit The Beautywell Project teamed up with the Sierra Club to convince the online retail giant to stop selling skin lightening products that contain mercury.

After more than a year of protests, this coalition of anti-racism, health, and environmental activists persuaded Amazon to remove some 15 products containing toxic levels of mercury from its website. This puts a small but noteworthy dent in the global trade in skin lighteners, estimated to reach US$31.2 billion by 2024.

What are the roots of this sizeable trade? And how might its most toxic elements be curtailed?

The online sale of skin lighteners is relatively new, but the in-person traffic is very old. My book Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners explores this layered history from the vantage point of South Africa.

As in other parts of the world colonized by European powers, the politics of skin color in South Africa have been significantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation. My book examines that history.

Yet, racism alone cannot explain skin lightening practices. My book also attends to intersecting dynamics of class and gender, changing beauty ideals and the expansion of consumer capitalism.

A deep history of skin whitening and skin lightening

For centuries and even millennia, elites in some parts of the world used paints and powders to create smoother, paler appearances, unblemished by illness and the sun’s darkening and roughening effects.

Cosmetic users in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome created dramatic appearances by pairing skin whiteners containing lead or chalk with black eye makeup and red lip colorants. In China and Japan too, elite women and some men used white lead preparations and rice powder to achieve complexions resembling white jade or fresh lychee.

Melanin is the biochemical compound that makes skin colorful. It serves as the body’s natural sunscreen. Skin lighteners generate a less painted look than skin whiteners by removing rather than concealing blemished or melanin-rich skin.

Active ingredients in skin lighteners have ranged from acidic compounds like lemon juice and milk to harsher chemicals like sulfur, arsenic, and mercury. In parts of precolonial Southern Africa, some people used mineral and botanical preparations to brighten—rather than whiten or lighten—their hair and skin.

During the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, skin color and associated physical differences were used to distinguish enslaved people from the free, and to justify the former’s oppression. Colonizers paired pale skin color with beauty, intelligence, and power while casting melanin-rich hues as the embodiment of ugliness and inferiority. Within this racist political order, where small differences carried great significance, some people sought to whiten and lighten their complexions.

By the twentieth century, mass-produced skin lightening creams ranked among the world’s most popular cosmetics. Consumers of commercial skin lighteners included white, black, and brown women.

In the 1920s and 1930s, many white consumers swapped skin lighteners for tanning lotions as time spent sunbathing and playing outdoors became a sign of a healthy and leisured lifestyle. Seasonal tanning embodied new forms of white privilege.

Skin lighteners became cosmetics primarily associated with people of color. For black and brown consumers, living in places like the United States and South Africa where racism and colorism have flourished, even slight differences in skin color could have substantial social and political consequences.

The mercury effect

Skin lighteners can be physically harmful. Mercury, one of the most common active ingredients, lightens skin in two ways. It inhibits the formation of melanin by rendering inactive the enzyme tyrosinase; and it exfoliates the tanned, outer layers of the skin through the production of hydrochloric acid.

By the early twentieth century, pharmaceutical and medical textbooks recommended mercury—usually in the form of ammoniated mercury—for treating skin infections and dark spots while often warning of its harmful effects. Cosmetic manufacturers marketed creams containing ammoniated mercury as “freckle removers” or “skin bleaches.”

When the US Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1938, such creams were among the first to be regulated.

After World War II, the negative environmental and health consequences of mercury became more apparent. The devastating case of mercury poisoning caused by industrial wastewater in Minamata, Japan prompted the Food and Drug Administration to take a closer look at mercury’s toxicity, including in cosmetics. Here was a visceral instance of what environmentalist Rachel Carson meant about small, domestic choices making the world uninhabitable.

In 1973, the FDA banned all but trace amounts of mercury from cosmetics. Other countries followed suit. South Africa banned mercurial cosmetics in 1975, the European Economic Union in 1976, and Nigeria in 1982. The trade in skin lighteners, nonetheless, continued as other active ingredients—most notably hydroquinone—replaced ammoniated mercury.

Meanwhile in South Africa

In apartheid South Africa, the trade was especially robust. Skin lighteners ranked among the most commonly used personal products in black urban households. During the 1980s, activists inspired by Black Consciousness and the “Black is Beautiful” sentiment teamed up to make opposition to skin lighteners a part of the anti-apartheid movement.

In the early 1990s, activists convinced the government to ban all cosmetic skin lighteners containing known depigmenting agents—and to prohibit cosmetic advertisements from making any claims to “bleach,” “lighten” or “whiten” the skin. This prohibition was the first of its kind and the regulations immediately shuttered the in-country manufacture of skin lighteners.

South Africa’s regulations testify to the broader anti-racist political movement from which they emerged. Thirty years on, South Africa again possesses a robust—if now illicit—trade in skin lighteners. An especially disturbing element of the trade is the resurgence of mercurial products.

South African researchers have found that over 40 percent of skin lighteners sold in Durban and Cape Town contain mercury. Mercurial skin lighteners tend to surface in places where regulations are lax and consumers are poor.

The activists’ recent victory against Amazon suggests one way forward. They took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper denouncing Amazon’s sale of mercurial skin lighteners as “dangerous, racist, and illegal.” A petition with 23,000 signatures was hand-delivered to the company’s Minnesota office.

By combining anti-racist, health, and environmentalist arguments, activists held one of the world’s most powerful companies accountable. They also brought the toxic presence of mercurial skin lighteners to public awareness and made them more difficult to purchase.

Lynn M. Thomas’s latest book Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners is available from Wits University Press and from Duke University Press.The Conversation

Lynn M. Thomas, History Professor, University of Washington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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.

Avatar
By

Lynn M. Thomas is Interim Executive Director, School of Drama and Professor, Department of History in University of Washington.

Op-Eds

Referendum Without a Constitutional Moment: The Kenyan Story

With the country in the grip of a global pandemic and grappling with an ailing economy, is constitutional reform a priority when it’s not clear that the country is facing a constitutional moment?

Published

on

Referendum Without a Constitutional Moment: The Kenyan Story
Download PDFPrint Article

When they met and shook hands in March 2018, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga pledged to address a number of issues that, to them, bedevil Kenya’s politics. A plan, formally referred to as the Building Bridges Initiative to a New Kenyan Nation—or simply, BBI—was announced in front of an audience that had witnessed a rather chaotic turn of events in the preceding months.

Raila had successfully contested Uhuru’s presidential victory at the Supreme Court and proceeded to boycott a repeat poll, citing lack of a competent and impartial electoral commission. Two months before the two leaders met, Raila had also made real his threat to take a symbolic presidential oath as the “people’s president” in defiance of Uhuru. A joint report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated that the police had behaved appropriately in some instances but, in many others, had shot or beat protestors to death.  Meanwhile, pressure from civil society organisations and the international community to find a political settlement was piling even as a debt-burdened economy was threatening to stall. Uhuru, like former president Mwai Kibaki before him, was probably worried about tarnishing his legacy.

Uhuru appointed an advisory committee in a matter of weeks. The members of the committee were instructed to make actionable proposals to address the BBI agenda, including proposals to review Kenya’s now ten-year-old constitution. The BBI’s nine-point agenda included ethnic antagonism, lack of a national ethos, devolution, divisive elections, security, corruption, shared prosperity, responsibility and inclusivity, as the main areas requiring intervention. It didn’t matter that protestors, including Raila himself, had singled out electoral malpractice as the main problem.

It wasn’t lost on many that nine days prior to the 8 August poll, the body of Chris Msando, the head of information, communication and technology at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), had been found on the outskirts of Nairobi. Very few people, if any, thought that the Kenya 2010 constitution was the poisoned chalice.

Since then, the BBI bandwagon has threatened to change the constitution. It has taken particular issue with the winner-takes-all system, a feature that the 2010 constitution had actually been designed to dampen by diluting the powers of the presidency and distributing them across parliament, and devolving some responsibility to the 47 newly-established county governments.

Despite its pure presidential system, some supporters of the BBI have even argued that the 2010 constitution did not create an imperial presidency, that, in fact, it created a system of checks and balances on how the president should exercise his/her authority. In addition, the terms of reference for the Committee of Experts (CoE) who wrote the 2010 constitution were strikingly similar to those that, ten years later, were assigned to the BBI task force. Similar to BBI, the idea of building bridges and creating a national ethos had also been at the heart of the CoE’s mandate.

The constitutional draft that the CoE proposed (now Kenya’s constitution) not only received the popular vote during a referendum, but it also received the support of a broad section of the country’s political leadership, Raila and Uhuru included. What the 2010 constitution has not received since its promulgation is fidelity and adherence to its spirit.

A key weakness of constitutions the world over is their dependence on traditions put in place by human beings, which often makes them vulnerable to prevailing political interests. In Kenya’s case, the problem has never been a constitutional one in nature, but the result of deliberate efforts by Uhuru Kenyatta, and the Kibaki administration before him, to undermine the constitution and to reassert direct presidential control over devolution and over the other arms of government, the legislature and the judiciary.

I have written elsewhere about the significance of the reduction of the role of county governments by central government bureaucrats—the most significant structural change in Kenya since the 1960s—to simple units of administration and development, while minimising their political features. In this way, feelings of exclusion and marginalisation, underpinned by unaddressed historical injustices, have continued to exist despite constitutional change. Measures that would enable real participation in matters of governance and policy at the local level are frowned upon. Dismissed. Ignored.

Assertive County Governors are viewed as a nuisance that should go away. Responsibility over land administration, education, mega-infrastructure and parastatals has remained in the hands of the central government, and as such, under the direction of the presidency. In fact, matters of devolution have been domiciled within a national government ministry. Despite the establishment of a National Police Service Commission and an Independent Police Oversight Authority, police officers have continued to function outside the law with the express direction and support of higher-ups, with some shooting suspects dead in broad day light. President Uhuru Kenyatta has violated the constitution he wants to amend by refusing to swear in 41 judges appointed by the Judicial Service Commission. A resolution to the land question remains as distant as ever, despite the establishment of a National Land Commission.

These multiple assaults on the constitution and the law by executive fiat mean that it would be very difficult to remove an incumbent president from office through an electoral process, and in 2017 many paid the price of attempting to do so with their lives.

The question is, what has changed since then? Why has it become necessary to review or change a document that was written to avert the very conflict that the BBI task force was assigned to address? Also, should constitutional reform be prioritised when it’s not clear that the country is facing a constitutional moment but is in fact grappling with a global pandemic, an ailing economy, and a political leadership that has a penchant for behaving badly?

The theory

The theory of the “constitutional moment” refers to lasting constitutional arrangements that result from specific, emotionally shared responses to shared fundamental political experiences, or when there are unusually high levels of sustained popular attention to questions of constitutional significance. The constitutions of the United States, nineteenth-century Belgium, post-apartheid South Africa, and the Kenya 2010 constitution come closest to demonstrating this theory.

In the absence of a constitutional moment, a constitutional review usually serves other—more technical—goals and cannot be considered to be a fundamental choice regarding the political design of a country. One of the drawbacks of a constitution that emerges without the blessing of a constitutional moment is that it does not contribute to a sense of union, or the formation of identity, among the members of the society to which it applies.

In short, absent of a constitutional moment, the BBI is beginning to look, feel and behave like no more than a mere pact between the elite.

It is unlikely that the BBI will constitutionalise ordinary politics. Without popular enthusiasm for a new constitution, many Kenyans will perceive the plan to be no more than a pragmatic form of protection of the interests of the elite.

And this, since the handshake in 2018, is what has been taking place.

The problem

For Raila’s supporters, the BBI promises their leader a place in a future government. Uhuru’s supporters continue to be divided over the plan, as some remain suspicious of Raila’s intentions, and others believe that the BBI will consolidate Uhuru’s legacy at the end of his second term in office. For the supporters of the Deputy President, William Ruto, the BBI is meant to frustrate his efforts to succeed his boss come the next elections in 2022.

In an environment devoid of political trust, it is unlikely that the BBI will put an end to political tensions and instability in the country. In fact, a cursory survey of social media language during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals that extreme views and divisive political rhetoric are on the rise.

It is therefore more likely that the BBI will amplify the country’s ethnically polarised politics, setting the stage for future conflict. In this way, the BBI has quickly moved from building bridges to becoming the agent of their imminent destruction.

Kenya’s political class is yet again employing constitutional change as a tool to fight its traditional factional wars.

The results can only be disastrous.

The outcome

Raila Odinga, now BBI’s primary mover, has insisted that it is time to proceed to a referendum. Together with Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila has declared a second BBI report released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published on November 2019) to be final.

In his address to the Siaya County Assembly, Dr Adams Oloo, the BBI Steering Committee Vice-Chairperson and a close Odinga ally, intimated that only Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga have the final say on any further amendments to the document.

It is not clear whether it will be possible to complete the constitutional process in time for the embattled IEBC to effect the necessary changes ahead of the August 2021 referendum—which the IEBC estimates will cost Sh14 billion.

The electoral commission, whose term the BBI report has reduced from six to four years, has itself expressed reservations over the document.

Religious leaders and internally displaced people have also weighed in: the possibility of creating an imperial presidency and the fact that their concerns have not been addressed are, to them, key concerns. After promising the Pastoralist Parliamentary Group (PPG) that their concerns would be included in the document to be put to a referendum vote, Raila has backtracked, insisting that no changes will be introduced to the document after all.

The political struggles undergirding the BBI process have been laid bare. All language regarding consensus building has been thrown out. The main protagonists, in the wider race to succeed Uhuru Kenyatta in 2022, are Raila Odinga and William Ruto.

For the Ruto camp, a “Yes” vote in the referendum would be a disappointing measure of their popularity. For the Odinga camp, a delayed referendum would not leave them with much time to gauge Ruto’s and their own strength in the run-up to the 2022 polls.

Caught haplessly in the midst of these struggles, of course, are Kenyan citizens. They are now meant to forget that the Jubilee Administration had promised to tackle four big agendas –  affordable universal health care, food security, manufacturing and affordable housing –  now a near laughable prospect, given the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disastrous economic record that preceded it. A Jubilee politician has bragged that the BBI is a clever innovation to save the Big Four Agenda from completely turning to ash.

Broadly, the proposals of the second BBI report seem to have tightened control around the presidency. If successful, the president gets to appoint a prime minister from parliament who will also be the leader of the largest political party or the largest coalition of political parties. The president will also appoint two deputy prime ministers and cabinet ministers drawn from within and outside of parliament. The report has also recommended the disbandment of the National Police Service Commission and the creation of a National Police Council to be chaired by a cabinet Sscretary, that is, a presidential appointee. It has also established the office of an ombudsman within the judiciary, to be appointed by the president. A number of (early Christmas) gifts have been presented to various key players, perhaps as seductive (and useful) distractions from the proposed tyrannical changes.

Changing the 2010 constitution will not be easy given the high constitutional guardrails. It requires securing both a majority of the votes in a referendum and a majority of votes from members of the 47 county assemblies. In this way, the BBI report proposes an increase of the minimum revenue distributed to county governments from 15% to 35% of national revenue. Members of county assemblies will be allocated 5% of county revenue for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, modelled on the Constituency Development Fund. Businesses set up by young Kenyans will be tax-exempt for the first seven years of operation. The number of members of parliament has been increased, with an additional 27 new senators and 10 new members of the national assembly. The second runner-up in a presidential contest will be named the Leader of the Official Opposition, with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget.

All this is in complete disregard of the debt overhang that Kenya has found itself in since 2013. In fact, the external debt has grown by 15.6 per cent to Sh3.7 trillion between March and August 2020. Over the same period local debt expanded by 9.7 per cent to Sh3.4 trillion. The overall cost of running parliament is already 2 per cent of the national budget, and that of running the Executive has increased by 20 per cent over the last two years alone. As the government suspends health insurance for COVID-19 patients in the midst of a second, spiking wave, no one is talking about the possibility of the proposed referendum facing funding shortfalls.

In their response to the first constitutional draft that was published by the Committee of Experts in 2009, Kenyans cautioned against the creation of a bloated government—a concern that is still close to their hearts. This also means that Kenyans are not opposed to the existence of an opposition, per se, but that the loser of an election needs to feel that they have lost fairly. The dispute during every electoral cycle is usually over the sloppy manner in which elections are conducted, coupled with a high trust deficit often cultivated by politicians.

The solution, in my view, is to respect the law and cultivate a culture of constitutionalism. The Kenya 2010 constitution is not perfect, but it is also true that the leadership has not adhered to its letter and spirit.

Reviewing the constitution less than a decade after it was first promulgated may be right and proper, but one may ask, what is the constitutional moment this time?

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

Make Amazon Pay

The Progressive International is mobilising with Amazon workers and their allies around the world. Here’s why.

Published

on

Make Amazon Pay
Download PDFPrint Article

Amazon’s size and power place the corporation at the very center of the crises of climate breakdown and economic inequality that grip our planet. The growth of CEO Jeff Bezos’s astronomical wealth — up $100 billion since March, now surpassing that of any other human in history — is directly proportional to Amazon’s human and environmental costs: his corporation mistreats its workers, wrecks the climate, and undermines the public institutions underpinning our democracies along the way along the way.

Taking on Amazon, therefore, will require more than curbing Jeff Bezos’s personal wealth or calling for corporate social responsibility. It will require a global movement that is organized along every dimension of Amazon’s expanding empire: for workers, for peoples, and for the planet.

That is why today — Black Friday — an international worker-activist coalition begins a planetary mobilization to #MakeAmazonPay. From Sao Paulo to Berlin, Seattle to Hyderabad, activists will project this rallying cry onto key Amazon sites, putting the corporation on notice that its days of impunity are over. Bringing together unions, environmentalists, and citizens around the world, this coalition exercises the only power that can meet the force of transnational capital: solidarity.

Amazon’s size and power place the corporation at the very center of the crises of climate breakdown and economic inequality that grip our planet.

In just a few years, Amazon has established itself as a key node in the circuitry of globalized capitalism. Having first revolutionized the links between production, distribution, and consumption on its digital platform, the corporation’s cloud infrastructure and e-commerce give Amazon controlling influence over huge swathes of social and economic life across the planet.

Amazon’s network of corporate power extends through our workplaces and into our lives. Producers and suppliers have no choice but to partner with Amazon to retain or gain access to consumers. Consumers, for their part, feel that they can hardly avoid Amazon, unless they are willing to wait longer and able to pay more. Through mass surveillance technology like Alexa, Echo, and Amazon Ring, the corporation has infiltrated millions of households and collected their most intimate data.

Across this network sits Amazon Web Services, which has played a key role in the operation of extractive industries and law enforcement; as well as Amazon’s recent ventures into sectors like financial services, food provision, and health care. Amazon has, in effect, become a wholly unaccountable, predatory transnational private state – or, indeed, a 21st-century empire.

In the absence of a common movement to challenge it, Amazon has managed to expand its empire to all corners of the global economy. But the tide is beginning to turn. Tech workers’ recent participation in the global climate strike was followed by important concessions by Amazon management, and transnational labor alliances led by UNI Global Union and Amazon Workers International have managed to integrate previously diffused worker resistance. Internationally, public advocacy groups have moved the urgent need to break up Amazon towards the heart of policy debates.

Taking on Amazon, therefore, will require more than curbing Jeff Bezos’s personal wealth or calling for corporate social responsibility. It will require a global movement that is organized along every dimension of Amazon’s expanding empire: for workers, for peoples, and for the planet.

These efforts show us the way forward. To Make Amazon Pay its debts to workers, the planet, and society, we must pursue a three-point strategy:

Firstly, recognize the international and intersectional nature of the Amazon struggle. Secondly, organize across national borders and narrow spheres of activism. Thirdly, politicize this struggle by taking it straight to legislative arenas around the world.

These are the goals of the campaign that launched today.

With respect to the first, our coalition’s Common Demands are global in their scope. We realize that Amazon’s power depends on its ability to exploit differences in national jurisdictions to drive on the global race to the bottom on social and environmental protections.

We recognize, too, the intersections of Amazon’s injustice. The environmental injustice of Amazon’s pollution, for instance, disproportionately affects people of color. The corporation’s monopolization of the cloud computing sector, meanwhile, is the basis of its close ties with Big Oil. Our coalition therefore brings together the environmentalists of Greenpeace and 350 with groups like Data 4 Black Lives, the Athena Coalition, and the Hawkers Federation of India.

With respect to the second point of strategy, today’s action unites workers across Amazon’s supply chain — from the tech workers in Amazon’s Seattle headquarters and warehouse workers organized by UNI Global Union affiliates, the Awood Centre, and Amazon Workers International, all the way to supply chain workers in garment factories in Bangladesh.

And with respect to the third, our coalition does not demand that Jeff Bezos change Amazon’s business model out of the goodness of his heart. Instead, the movement aims to build legislative power that can put an end to the “Amazonification” of our economies and societies. We invite progressive lawmakers across the globe to join us, and stand with this global movement to Make Amazon Pay.

The mission of this campaign is as simple as it is radical: to win a different world. A world in which corporations that primarily serve the interests of their CEOs are replaced by cooperatives that serve the interests of the many. A world in which economic activity does not lead to climate destruction, but to environmental reconstruction and flourishing. A world in which markets are governed by democratic institutions, rather than vice versa. Solidarity is the vehicle to deliver this world. Making Amazon pay is where we start.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

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.

Published

on

Is the BBI a Trojan Horse Disguised as a Guardian Angel?
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading

Trending