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American Spring: How Trump ‘Africanised’ the United States and Sparked an Anti-Racism Movement

8 min read.

For Africans watching the unfolding uprising in America, the scenes seem eerily familiar, but disconcerting. Suddenly the tables have turned: America is being described in the same way that many African countries are depicted by the Western media; the US is beginning to resemble a failed African state.

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The huge human cost of the coronavirus pandemic, the economic shock brought about by high levels of unemployment and business closures, and the suffocating to death of a black man by a white police officer in Minneapolis have created a perfect storm in America: like the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian hawker who set himself on fire in an act of protest against police corruption and ill-treatment (an incident that ignited what is referred to as the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa), the death of George Floyd has sparked an “American Spring” of sorts, with protesters demanding racial justice and equality in a country that has been divided along colour lines for four centuries, since the first slave ship arrived on America’s shores.

A week after Floyd’s murder, the streets of American cities were flooded with paramilitary security forces known as the National Guard, which shot at protestors. Many stunned Africans could not believe the kinds of scenes being played out in the United States – riots on streets, burning of shops and cars, and a leader under siege by citizens who, in the middle of a pandemic, have thrown caution to the wind and taken to the streets in anger, defying social distancing directives.

US President Donald Trump, who has all the traits of a narcissistic African Big Man, threatened to call in the military to quell the violence. (If this had happened in an African country, the international media would have had no hesitation in labelling him a dictator.) America is beginning to look like a failed African state.

Protests across the United States, some of which have turned ugly and resulted in a number of deaths and thousands of arrests, have turned American cities into battlegrounds. The video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed black man who died as a result of suffocation has mobilised an entire country to take to the streets in protest against systemic racism. (In Kenya, on the other hand, where at least fifteen people have died as a result of police brutality since a night curfew was imposed on 27 March, nobody has taken to the streets to protest the brutality or to demand justice for the victims. Extrajudicial killings by the police are quite common here, even during normal times.)

For Africans watching the unfolding uprising from afar, the scenes shown on television screens and on social media sites seem eerily familiar, but disconcerting. Suddenly the tables have turned: America is being described in the same way that many African countries (and other countries that elicit a combination of shock, horror and pity) ) are depicted. The façade of democracy that America has been showing to the world appears to be crumbling. As the Ugandan journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo half-jokingly suggested in a tweet, the Western media usually interviews Western experts every time there is a disaster or political turmoil in an African country; maybe now it is time for African experts to be interviewed by the same Western media on the consequences of state failure, democratic fragility and regime illegitimacy in the United States.

The impact of the coronavirus on the United States was also hard to digest, given that America is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with among the most sophisticated and well-equipped hospitals. People on the African continent, who are used to receiving food aid (when it is not stolen or diverted), watched in horror as millions of unemployed and homeless Americans queued for food and other supplies donated by charities. Those who have suffered epidemics like Ebola cannot believe their eyes when they see unclaimed American bodies ravaged by COVID-19 being buried in mass graves. (Mass graves in Africa are usually associated with genocide, ethnic cleansing or other atrocities, not disease.)

The late Binyavanga Wainaina, author of the satirical essay, “How to Write About Africa”, would no doubt have felt vindicated had he been around to see how American journalists are now having to apply the adjectives that they reserve for African basket-case banana republics to describe their own country. With the highest death toll from the coronavirus, and nationwide anti-racism protests, including in the capital Washington DC, the United States is beginning to look like Egypt during its tumultuous Arab Spring uprising (which, unfortunately, did not bring about the expected radical change) and Sudan during its recent revolution.

It is an important moment for Africans who view America as the land of equal opportunity. That rosy image has forever changed since Trump assumed office, and since the pandemic, which neither the president nor his trusted aides seem to be able to contain. Africans eager to study or live in the United States are now having second thoughts. A Kenya-born academic I recently had a conversation with wondered whether moving to the US was the right choice after all. Despite her US passport, she now feels trapped in a country where black lives are under constant threat. Will Africans living in the US move back to their home countries where at least they do not suffer racial discrimination?

Racism: The problem that never went away

Or perhaps America has always had the potential for a revolution like this one and Trump has only helped Americans and the world to see the fault lines that lie hidden beneath the country’s democratic ideals and shining skyscrapers. Now we all know that America is a deeply divided society both racially and in terms of income. It carries the scars of slavery and inequality to this day. The transatlantic slave trade, America’s “original sin”, it seems, has not only damaged African Americans, but their white tormentors as well. America has not learned what history tells us: You cannot move forward as a society until you have addressed and healed from the wounds of the past.

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr, whose assassination in 1968 sparked similar protests, talked of America as a society that had been “poisoned to its soul by racism”. The Nobel laureate Toni Morrison described racism as “a social construct” and an “insult”. She believed that the main function of racism was distraction – to keep black people so busy explaining themselves to white people that they would not have time for anything else.

James Baldwin, the celebrated black American author, described black people as “the scapegoat” of America’s ills. He wrote that bigotry in the United States was “enough to make prophets and angels weep” and that black people in America lived under “martial law” where the police operate with “arrogant autonomy”. The way America deals with its “Negro problem”, he said, was either by killing black people or incarcerating them. He also said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time”.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the contemporary African American writer who has been described as “the new James Baldwin”, explains how racism “disembodies” black people. The question Coates seeks to answer is: How does a black man live freely in his body when that body is under constant threat of being exterminated?

Through personal anecdotes of his youth in a rough neighbourhood in West Baltimore, to his days at Howard University, the first all-black university in America, Coates shows how fear is an ever-present feeling among African Americans, and why this fear transcends generations. He poignantly explains in his book, Between the World and Me, why, after more than a century since slavery ended, black people in the United States are still under the threat of being humiliated, locked up, beaten or killed.

He describes white America as a syndicate arranged to protect white power and privilege, which are used to dominate and control black bodies. “Sometimes this power is direct (lynching) and sometimes it is insidious (redlining)”.

Donald Trump’s presidency seems to have entrenched white power and privilege to heights that have not been witnessed in the United States in recent decades. His nonchalant attitude towards white supremacists and his belittling of women (including television journalists) and minorities have apparently not diminished his allure among his base. Trump represents an alt-right that is uncivilised and unapologetic. The anti-racism fury engulfing his presidency now is a reaction to his unadulterated bigotry.

However, we must also accept that no US president, not even Barack Obama, successfully handled the scourge of racism in America. Obama, the great hope of black Americans, failed to deliver racial justice and equality, even though he had a large number of people of colour in his administration. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged during his tenure at the White House. Obama, like most of his predecessors, did not overtly seek to address the race question in America. It’s possible that the fact of him being black (or rather, mixed race) prevented him from adopting an explicitly anti-racism agenda for fear of appearing too “radical”. Unfortunately, because the race question remained unresolved, white supremacists found a firm foothold in the Trump camp.

“Perhaps the deepest frustration of thinking about 1968 and 2020 is the time elapsed, the opportunities squandered, the lip service paid,” wrote David Remnick in the 31 May 2020 edition of The New Yorker. “In the realm of criminal justice, the prison population began to skyrocket under Ronald Reagan and kept on accelerating for decades, until midway through the Obama Administration. Black Lives Matter began, in 2013, at least in part because even the Obama Presidency, for all its promise, proved unable to exert anything like a decisive influence on issues of racism and police abuse”.

Many analysts believe that the current outburst of rage is a natural outcome of the financial crisis of 2008, when big corporations and banks were bailed out while thousands of working and middle class people lost their homes in what is known as the subprime mortgage crisis. This gave birth to the Occupy Wall Street movement, and perhaps sowed the seeds of a Trump presidency, which capitalised on people’s mistrust of government.

However, although Trump appears to appeal to white working class people, his rhetoric belies a man who has deep contempt for those who are outside mainstream corporate America, of which he is a prominent member. He lashes out at minorities, be they Mexicans, Muslims or women. He racialises everything, including the coronavirus, which he refers to as “the Chinese virus”. He names and shames his adversaries on Twitter, and even announces his policies via this social media platforms – which is unprecedented in the history of the United States.

Trump is not just a conservative with a loud mouth and bad manners, he is an ultra-conservative of the alt-right variety. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and a man with a vision of a dystopian world where might is always right, was Vice President of Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced data mining company that is associated with the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election (as well as with Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2013 election campaign).

White men on their necks

In a radio interview in Chicago in 1961, James Baldwin said: “The only thing that unites all black men everywhere is, as far as I can tell, the fact that white men are on their necks. What I’m curious about is what will happen when this is no longer true. For the first time in the memory of anybody living, black men have their destinies in their own hands. What will come out then, is a very great, a very loaded question”. (African leaders who fought against European colonialism, but who, after gaining independence for their countries, ended up domesticating the European colonial model in these countries – a model that did not deliver dignity, wealth or emancipation to the majority of their people – might want to pay attention to Baldwin’s prophetic words.)

Now, nearly sixty years after that interview, a black man with a white man literally on his neck has galvanised America. Will his death bring about the change that America needs? It is hard to tell, but one thing is certain: the United States of America will never be the same again.

And lest we forget, here are the final words of George Floyd before his untimely death.

“It’s my face man
I didn’t do nothing serious man
please
please
please I can’t breathe
please man
please somebody
please man
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
please
(inaudible)
man can’t breathe, my face
just get up
I can’t breathe
please, a knee on my neck
I can’t breathe
shit
I will
I can’t move
mama
mama
I can’t
my knee
my neck
I’m through
I’m through
I’m claustrophobic
my stomach hurt
my neck hurts
everything hurts
some water or something
please
please
I can’t breathe officer
don’t kill me
they’re gonna kill me, man
come on man
I cannot breathe
I cannot breathe
they’re gonna kill me
they’re gonna kill me
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
please sir
please
please
please I can’t breathe”

George Floyd was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sino-African Relations: Cooperation or a New Imperialism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authoritarianism and exploitation

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

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

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

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

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

Return to a Pan-African internationalism

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

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

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

Internationalism from below

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

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

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

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

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

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African Epistemic Self-Affirmation Is the Ultimate End of Decolonization

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

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

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

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

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

Questions of decolonization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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