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Remembering Walter Rodney’s Invaluable Legacy

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For Walter Rodney, underdevelopment is a condition historically produced through capitalist expansion and imperialism. He situates Africa’s underdevelopment within the contradictory process of capitalism, one that both creates value and wealth for the exploiters while immiserating the exploited.

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Remembering Walter Rodney’s Invaluable Legacy
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A number of African economies have experienced a massive boom in wealth and investment over the past decade. Yet most ordinary Africans live in dire poverty, with diminished life expectancy and high unemployment and in societies with low levels of industrialisation. For the roots of these conditions of “under-development,” one historical account stands alone in importance: Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972).

Walter Rodney was a scholar, working class militant and revolutionary from Guyana. Influenced by Marxist ideas, he is central to the Pan-Africanist canon for many on the left. In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Rodney situates himself in several theoretical traditions: the writings of Caribbean revolutionary Frantz Fanon, the dependency theories of Andre Gunder Frank and others, the Pan-Africanist tradition, including George Padmore and C.L.R. James, and African socialism as popularised by national leaders such as Tanzania’s Julius Kambarage Nyerere and Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré. As Horace Campbell describes, “His [Rodney’s] numerous writings on the subjects of socialism, imperialism, working class struggles and Pan Africanism and slavery contributed to a body of knowledge that came to be known as the Dar es Salaam School of Thought. Issa Shivji, Mahmood Mamdani, Claude Ake, Archie Mafeje, Yash Tandon, John Saul, Dan Nabudere, O Nnoli, Clive Thomas and countless others participated in the debates on transformation and liberation.”

Rodney’s scholarship and leadership in the working-class movement thus had a long reach, including within the revolutionary movement in his native Guyana. He was assassinated on June 13, 1980, likely by agents of the Guyanese government. The Nigerian novelist, Wole Soyinka, in noting Rodney’s legacy, wrote how “Walter Rodney was no captive intellectual playing to the gallery of local or international radicalism. He was clearly one of the most solidly ideologically situated intellectuals ever to look colonialism and exploitation in the eye and where necessary, spit in it.”

Rodney’s work has assumed a foundational place in understanding the legacies of slavery and colonialism in the underdevelopment that unfolded, over centuries, on the continent. The core of his analysis rests on the assumption that Africa – far from standing outside the world system – has been crucial to the growth of capitalism in the West. What he terms “underdevelopment” was in fact the product of centuries of slavery, exploitation and imperialism. Rodney conclusively shows that “Europe” – that is, the colonial and imperial powers – did not merely enrich their own empires but actually reversed economic and social development in Africa. Thus, in his extensive account of African history, from the early African empires through to the modern day, he shows how the West built immense industrial and colonial empires on the backs of African slave labour, devastating natural resources and African societies in the process. As he emphasises throughout How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, “[i]t would be an act of the most brazen fraud to weigh the social amenities provided during the colonial epoch against the exploitation, and to arrive at the conclusion that the good outweighed the bad.”

Wole Soyinka, in noting Rodney’s legacy, wrote how “Walter Rodney was no captive intellectual playing to the gallery of local or international radicalism. He was clearly one of the most solidly ideologically situated intellectuals ever to look colonialism and exploitation in the eye and where necessary, spit in it.”

For Rodney, underdevelopment is a condition historically produced through capitalist expansion and imperialism, and very clearly not an intrinsic property of Africa itself. He thus situates underdevelopment within the contradictory process of capitalism, one that both creates value and wealth for the exploiters while immiserating the exploited.

Rodney writes:

The peasants and workers of Europe (and eventually the inhabitants of the whole world) paid a huge price so that the capitalists could make their profit from the human labour that always lies behind the machines…There was a period when the capitalist system increased the well-being of significant numbers of people as a by-product of seeking out profits for a few, but today the quest for profits comes into sharp conflict with people’s demands that their material and social needs should be fulfilled.

As Rodney describes, African trade was central to its growth, most importantly through the slave trade from approximately 1445 to 1870, transforming Africa into a source of human raw material for the new colonies in North America and the Caribbean. It was to the three major powers involved in the slave trade – Britain, France and Portugal – that massive profits accrued. Trade with Africa was closely tied up with the growth of European port cities such as England’s Liverpool, with the exchange of slaves for cheap industrial goods established as the primary motor for profits of European firms. Drawing on the work of Eric Williams’s classic Capitalism and Slavery (1944), among others, Rodney concludes that the slave trade provided England with the capital for the Industrial Revolution to take off and with the dominant edge over its rivals.

Yet as Rodney shows, the “development” of African societies was thwarted in this process of capital expansion, first and foremost through the lost labour potential due to the slave trade. From its economic foundation in slavery, the range of exports from Africa narrowed to just a few commodities, undermining the development of productive capacity in Africa itself. These trade relations meant that technological development stagnated, creating a barrier to innovation within Africa itself, even in regions not directly engaged in the slave trade, because of the distorting influence on relations overall. The result, concludes Rodney, was “a loss of development opportunity, and this is of the greatest importance…The lines of economic activity attached to foreign trade were either destructive, as slavery was, or at best purely extractive.”

The Scramble for Africa and its aftermath

The nineteenth century “race for Africa” broke out, with European “explorers” seeking out access to raw materials. By the 1870s, colonial powers had expanded into new African territory, primarily through the use of force, further consolidating imperial powers and rivalries. By 1876, on the eve of the “Scramble for Africa”, European powers controlled only 10 per cent of the continent, namely Algeria, Cape Colony, Mozambique and Angola. Yet after the infamous Berlin Conference of 1885 and the partition of Africa, “The number of genuinely independent states outside of Europe and the Americas could be counted on one hand – the remains of the Ottoman Empire, Thailand, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.”

Racist ideology justified and facilitated European imperialism in Africa as a “civilizing mission”. As Rodney remarks, “Revolutionary African thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral…spoke of colonialism having made Africans into objects of history. Colonised Africans, like pre-colonial African chattel slaves, were pushed around into positions which suited European interests and which were damaging to the African continent and its peoples.”

Nonetheless, Africans met European expansion with great resistance, targeting forced labour schemes and taxation, restrictive land ownership laws and later, imposed forced conscription during World War I. Workers went on strike and engaged in boycotts, and nationalist organisations – many of them illegal – were formed from the earliest days of colonial rule.

Yet African resistance during that period was caught between larger forces. The European “Scramble for Africa” subjected independent states to colonial rule, transforming peasant and trading societies within a short span of time into a wage labour and cash crop system. The increasingly intense economic competition in European capitalism that eventually exploded into World War I likewise spilled over into military clashes in Africa. Alliances between and against the various powers attempted to block each other’s rivals, with France and Britain seeking competing axes of control over the continent.

Colonial brutality was the standard practice across virtually the entire continent, with the chief aim of leveraging force to subdue resistance and to extract profits. Turning Africa into a conveyor belt for raw materials and industrial goods required transportation and communication systems and, as Rodney describes, a pacified – and minimally educated – labour force. The major powers on the continent set up administrative apparatuses that in some cases utilised local rulers, but, as Rodney writes, in no instance would the colonisers accept African self-rule. Infrastructure such as roads were built not only to facilitate the movement of commodities and machinery, but also that of the colonial armies and police relied upon to “discipline” the indigenous population – whether through the expulsion of people from their land or the forced cultivation of cash crops. Industrial development was thwarted in Africa itself because manufacturing and the processing of raw materials happened exclusively overseas.

Compradors and sell-outs

Europeans divide-and-conquer tactics allowed a tiny section of African rulers to back the annexation by one power versus another. As Rodney puts it, “One of the decisive features of the colonial system was the presence of Africans serving as economic, political or cultural agents of the European colonialists…. agents or ‘compradors’ already serving [their] interests in the pre-colonial period.” Following Fanon on the role of local elites, Rodney is scathing in his contempt for the “puppets” of “metropolitan” capitalism, where “the presence of a group of African sell-outs is part of the definition of underdevelopment.”

According to Rodney, “The colonisation of Africa and other parts of the world formed an indispensable link in a chain of events which made possible the technological transformation of the base of European capitalism.” Copper from the Congo, iron from West Africa, chrome from Rhodesia and South Africa, and more, took capitalist development to unprecedented heights of what Rodney calls “investible surpluses”. The tendency within the drive for profit towards innovation and scientific advancement built a “massive industrial complex,” as Rodney described it. African trade not only generated economic growth and profits, but created capacity for future growth in what he called the “metropoles”, meaning the global centres of political and economic power located in Europe.

Colonial brutality was the standard practice across virtually the entire continent, with the chief aim of leveraging force to subdue resistance and to extract profits. Turning Africa into a conveyor belt for raw materials and industrial goods required transportation and communication systems and, as Rodney describes, a pacified – and minimally educated – labour force.

Colonial policies heightened exploitation, such as those preventing Africans from growing cash crops, which drove them into forced labour like the building of infrastructure to facilitate extraction. Thus, capital accumulation was derived at the expense of greatly-weakened African states and economies, effectively reversing previous development.

These two processes were dialectically related. As Rodney writes, “The wealth that was created by African labor and from African resources was grabbed by the capitalist countries of Europe; and in the second place, restrictions were placed upon African capacity to make the maximum use of its economic potential.”

This process of underdevelopment only intensified over time: as Rodney points out, investment and “foreign capital” in colonial Africa was derived from past exploitation and provided the historical basis for further expansion. “What was called ‘profits’ in one year came back as ‘capital’ the next…What was foreign about the capital in colonial Africa was its ownership and not its initial source.”

Development by contradiction

Rodney argued that development in the so-called “periphery” was proportional to the degree of independence from the “metropolis”, a central tenet of the dependency theorists. He looked to state-directed, national development in the post-colonial period as a template for growth, a model proven – particularly in the years after Rodney’s death – not to be viable. National development in Africa, as elsewhere, proved unable to overcome the legacy of colonialism and weak economies. The wake of such failures and the onset of global crises pushed many African states into the vice-grip of neoliberal structural adjustment “reforms” that brought only austerity and crushing Third World debt.

These ideas had a distinctive imprint on Rodney’s variant of Marxism and that of many leftists of his day. For Rodney, independence in Africa rested on “development by contradiction”, by which he meant that the contradictions within African society were only resolvable by Africans’ regaining their sovereignty as a people. In his view, the disproportionate weight and importance of even a small African working class offered potentially a more stable base of resistance.

However, he emphasises that this possibility cannot be fully realised as in the “developed” world because production in Africa proceeded on a different path than in Europe. In the latter, the destruction of agrarian and craft economies increased productive capacity through the development of factories and a mass working class. In Africa, he argues, that process was distorted: the local craft industry was destroyed, yet large-scale industry was not developed outside of agriculture and extraction, with workers restricted to the lowest-paid, most unskilled work. “Capitalism in the form of colonialism failed to perform in Africa the tasks which it had performed in Europe in changing social relations and liberating the forces of production. “So, concludes Rodney, the African working class is too small and too weak to play a liberatory role in the current period. Instead, somewhat reluctantly, he identifies the intelligentsia for that role:

Altogether, the educated played a role in African independence struggles far out of proportion to their numbers, because they took it upon themselves and were called upon to articulate the interests of all Africans. They were also required to…focus on the main contradiction, which was between the colony and the metropole…The contradiction between the educated and the colonialists was not the most profound…However, while the differences lasted between the colonizers and the African educated, they were decisive.

Thus, while Rodney sees the “principal divide” within capitalism as that between capitalists and workers, the revolutionary role for the African working class was nonetheless a task for another day. On this score, Rodney was mistaken: mass upheavals by workers across the continent have shown the capacity for struggle, from the colonial period up to the present day.

Crumbs from the colonial table

Yet, however contradictorily, Rodney’s ideas on political leadership and liberation indicate the potential for resistance under today’s conditions. First, as we have seen, Rodney – following Fanon – was keenly aware of the class contradictions embedded in the new African ruling classes, tensions bound to be thrust to the surface with greater clarity. He writes: “Most African leaders of the intelligentsia… were frankly capitalist, and shared fully the ideology of their bourgeois masters…As far as the mass of peasants and workers were concerned, the removal of overt foreign rule actually cleared the way towards a more fundamental appreciation of exploitation and imperialism.” This dynamic has only been accentuated over time.

National development in Africa, as elsewhere, proved unable to overcome the legacy of colonialism and weak economies. The wake of such failures and the onset of global crises pushed many African states into the vice-grip of neoliberal structural adjustment “reforms” that brought only austerity and crushing Third World debt.

Furthermore, Rodney implies that internationalism on a class basis lay in the historical development of capitalism and solidarity as a crucial “political” question. “European workers have paid a great price for the few material benefits which accrued to them as crumbs from the colonial table,” he writes. “The capitalists misinformed and mis-educated workers in the metropoles to the point where they became allies in colonial exploitation. In accepting to be led like sheep, European workers were perpetuating their own enslavement to the capitalists.”

Rodney’s characterisation of European workers “led like sheep” may be too simplistic a description of workers’ understanding of capitalism. But Rodney is correct in stressing that racist ideas undermined their own liberation. The “crumbs” Rodney describes are the products of divisions sown by ruling class ideology, and not of insurmountable material barriers. Actually realising this (future) possibility – that of an international movement of workers of Africa and the West – has much to be gained from Rodney’s invaluable research and analysis.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

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Lumumba’s Iconography in the Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Security Council has failed to protect civilians caught in conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make the Security Council more representative

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

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

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

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The Upright Man: A Sympathetic Critique of Thomas Sankara

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

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

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

What shape might a sympathetic critique of Thomas Sankara take?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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