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 I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
man can’t breathe, my face
just get up
I can’t breathe
please, a knee on my neck
I can’t breathe
I can’t move
my stomach hurt
my neck hurts
some water or something
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 I can’t breathe”
George Floyd was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 organizations, raiding 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.
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