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Kamala Harris and the Politics of Race in America

6 min read.

Both African Americans and Indian Americans want a piece of her. Is she black or brown? Does it matter? Americans would do well to focus instead on what Joe Biden’s running mate stands for.

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Many people do not know what to make of Kamala Harris. They don’t quite know whether to see her as black or Indian. Joe Biden’s presidential running mate has confused both Indian Americans and African Americans in the United States. Her mixed parentage – an Indian mother and a Jamaican father – has led to a situation where both groups want a piece of her but do not really know where to place her.

It’s sort of like what happened to Barack Obama in the initial stages of his presidential campaign, when Obama’s mixed Luo/Kenyan and white American parentage led many African Americans to wonder whether they could really claim him as theirs (though Kenyans had no qualms about calling him “the first Kenyan president of the United States”) and whether he had the credentials to qualify as an African American given that his ancestors has not been brought to America from Africa as slaves. In the end, African Americans embraced Obama and he ended up being the first black president of the United States.

The question of who qualifies as an African American or “black” person was muddied even further by the New York Times and other media organisations, which in responding to the Black Lives Matter movement, decided to revise their style guides and to capitalise the “b” in the word “black”. (In the Western world, a person is categorised as “black” even if the bulk of his or her genetic composition is made up of white genes; just one black gene in his or her ancestry is enough to qualify him or her as black.) The New York Times stated that this decision was made because the newspaper believes that an upper case “B” “best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflect our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover”.

So all people who have links to Africa (as does Kamala’s Jamaican father) are Black. Black people in Africa are also Black. “People of colour” (Asians, Latinos and all those who are not white) can also claim Blackness when it is used in opposition to whiteness in the context of racialised America. Being Black is not just a recognition of shared heritage, but also of shared oppression.

But if the word “Black” is being capitalised, shouldn’t the word “White” be capitalised too? And does capitalisation denote some kind of recognition? In fact, why should racial categories matter at all? Aren’t they reactionary, “one of the most banal and vulgar ways to think of humanity”, as Ralph Leonard, a British-Nigerian writer, posed in an essay published in UnHerd?

Leonard says that capitalisation is merely a cosmetic change that does little to topple racism in America:

The real problem with uppercasing racial categories is that – like many of the symbolic actions that have followed this “racial awakening”, from toppling statues to woke rebranding by corporations [in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer] – it creates the illusion that wide-ranging change is “finally” happening. But real progress will only occur when the material conditions of black Americans has improved, and when laws and institutional practices that empower police to brutalize citizens have been overturned. In other words, the prize is not symbolic concession, but radical social transformation. The former is easy and superficial; the latter is hard and substantive.

How Indian is Kamala?

But I digress. Now back to Kamala Harris. Is she black or brown? And does it matter?

Her biographical data states that Kamala Devi Harris was born in Oakland, California, on 20 October 1964, which means she is 56 years old. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was a cancer researcher from India, and her father, Donald Harris, was an economist from Jamaica. Her parents met at the University of California at Berkeley when they were pursuing their graduate degrees. They both shared a passion for the civil rights movements. They married but then got divorced when Kamala was just seven, and so Kamala and her younger sister were raised by their mother.

Kamala ate South Indian food, such as idli and sambar, at home. Her mother wanted her daughters to be independent, and often encouraged them to be strong-willed. She also made sure they had links with India. Kamala visited India often as a child and was heavily influenced by her maternal grandfather, a high-ranking government official, and her maternal grandmother, an activist who taught poor Indian women about birth control.

After high school, Kamala attended Howard University, the prestigious black university in Washington DC, where she studied political science and economics. She then joined law school in San Francisco. She rose high in the legal profession, first becoming District Attorney of San Francisco and then Attorney General of California. In 2014, she married Douglas Emhoff, a lawyer who also happens to be Jewish.

If Joe Biden wins the US presidential race this year, Kamala will become the first woman, the first African American and the first Asian American to be the vice president of the United States.

African Americans have embraced the black side of Kamala, much like they did with Barack Obama. But it is the Indian in her that has got a lot of people, especially Indians, rattled.

Normally, Indians are quick to adopt people of Indian origin or ancestry who do well abroad or in their adopted countries. For instance, they tend to see Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s handsome medical correspondent, as Indian, not American. Though reluctant to accept that he was gay, they proudly embrace the late Zanzibar-born British singer Freddie Mercury (previously known as Farrokh Bulsara), whose parents were Indian Parsis. They rejoice in the fact that Boris Johnson appointed Priti Patel, a woman of Indian origin whose family moved to the United Kingdom from Uganda in the 1960s, as Home Secretary (even though her regressive immigration policies might actually make it harder for people like her parents to emigrate or get visas to the UK). But when it comes to Kamala Harris, Indians don’t quite know how to claim her.

The Indian media is awash with articles with headlines such as “How Indian is Kamala?” An article published in India Today noted that Kamala’s mother had a strong South Indian accent, which cost her many promotions. It also said that Kamala’s walks on Chennai’s beaches with her maternal grandfather and India’s democratic culture had a profound impact on her thinking.

But questions are being raised about whether Biden’s running mate is Hindu enough. (As a child, Kamala went to both a Black Baptist church and a Hindu temple.) In Narendra Modi’s India, this question was bound to come up. (Incidentally, Kamala, also spelled Kamla, is the Hindi and Sanskrit word for “lotus”, which also happens to be the symbol of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP.)

Some Indian commentators have asked why Kamala is so reticent to claim her Indian (read Hindu) identity while being so vocal about being Black. Is it because this way she can garner more votes? (African Americans outnumber Indian Americans in the United States by a huge margin.) After all, Kamala was closer to her Indian family than to her Jamaican one. If she identified as Indian, they argue, she would have a better chance of strengthening diplomatic ties between India and the United States.

A question of loyalty

The question, inevitably, boils down to loyalty. Will Kamala be swayed politically by her Indian roots or will she stay true to American interests? It is a question I have also been confronted with, and which I find quite disturbing in a multiracial and multiethnic society like Kenya. I remember a senior adviser in the Mwai Kibaki administration telling me that I could never be appointed in the Kenyan government because it would be assumed that my loyalty is to India, not to Kenya, even though I am a Kenyan citizen. (In Kenya, it seems, small ethnic minorities are presumed to be non-Kenyan until they can prove otherwise.)

Incidentally, this same Kenyan adviser later emigrated to the United States. I have often wondered if his loyalty is being questioned there. Of course, I found his reasoning to be absurd. I was born in Kenya. My great grandfather came to Kenya in 1897 and never went back to Lahore (which was then in British India but which became part of Pakistan in 1947, which means I have no ancestral home left in India). My father was born in Nairobi (River Road, to be precise). I have held only one citizenship – Kenya’s (though to be honest, I have often wondered whether my life would have been different if I lived in India, where I would not be a minority, and where I would never have to explain myself.) I speak three Indian languages, love Indian food and enjoy Indian movies. Does that make me less Kenyan? My husband’s father was Malawian and his mother was Kenyan. He was born in Kenya and has never visited Malawi. Does that still make him Malawian?

Is obsession with ancestry and heritage healthy, especially in multiethnic societies? Shouldn’t we be focusing on what Kamala Harris stands for and is committed to instead of her skin colour or parentage? While her ascent to the vice presidency will be symbolically important for “people of colour” in the United States and around the world, her blackness and femaleness do not guarantee that she will champion progressive policies that benefit black people and women. For instance, more people were deported from the United States under the Obama administration than in any previous administration. The Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, enforced a State of Emergency in her country in the 1970s that clamped down on dissenting voices. Her counterpart in Britain, Margaret Thatcher, clamped down on labour unions, which hurt working class men and women.

As one Asian American woman stated on Twitter, “I find it surprising how many people find it hard to define Kamala Harris’ identity. It’s easy. She’s American. She is Black. She is of Indian and Jamaican heritage. She is not ONE of those things. She is All of those things”.

Americans would do well to remember that and focus instead on what Kamala Harris stands for, and on whether her brand of politics will positively transform the lives of not just women and black people in the United States, but of all Americans.

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

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Four Reasons Why Ruto’s Cabinet is Unconstitutional

By creating “cabinet-level” portfolios, President William Ruto commits a subterfuge in an attempt to circumvent the two-thirds gender rule. Ruto’s cabinet also fails to reach ethnic and regional balance while including nominees who fail the leadership and integrity test.

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There are at least four reasons why President William Ruto’s cabinet is unconstitutional. First, the cabinet fails the foundational composition rule of not more than two-thirds of the same gender. Two, the cabinet fails the Article 130(2) test that requires the national executive to reflect regional and ethnic balance. Three, some cabinet members fail the Chapter Six of the constitution test on leadership and integrity, tainting the entirety of the cabinet. Four, and finally, the creation of two cabinet-level portfolios is not only illegal but also indignifies women, contrary to Article 28 of the constitution.

I will not discuss chapter six issues in this piece as they require acres of space on their own. I discuss the other three.

Two-thirds gender rule

It is unfortunate that, in 2022, a cabinet formed by a president who without end hollers about his belief in the rule of law, does not meet the bare constitutional gender minimum of not more than two-thirds. It is both a maths issue and a constitutional subterfuge issue.

First, the math issue.

Article 152(a) clearly defines and caps the membership of cabinet. Cabinet comprises of the president, the deputy president, not more than 22 cabinet secretaries and the attorney general. Essentially, the ceiling is 25 members. No more. But this number could be less, because the president can appoint as few as 14 cabinet secretaries. Ruto used all his 22 cabinet cards and more. The more—two positions—he christened “cabinet-level portfolios” on gender and national security and assigned women to superintend them.

Now, here is the problem. Article 27(8) establishes a two-third gender ceiling rule on the composition of any state or public body. The courts have said that the cabinet is a body for the purpose of Article 27(8) gender-capping. Ruto and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua are men. Justin Muturi, AG-nominee, is also a man. Additionally, of the 22 cabinet secretary nominees, 15 are men. Hence, of the 25 cabinet slots, 18 are reserved for men and 7 for women. In the case of Marilyn Kamuru versus Attorney General decided by Justice Onguto in 2015, the Judge said that Article 27(8) math would require computing the number of the lesser gender against the entirety of the cabinet including the president, deputy president and the AG. For Ruto’s cabinet then, the 7 women would be the numerator against a denominator of the total and maximum 25 cabinet slots. This results in 72 per cent men in cabinet whereas the constitutional cap should, at the minimum, limit them to not more than 66 per cent.

Now, on to the subterfuge.

I know there are those who will ask what about the two cabinet-level portfolios and the secretary to the cabinet who are all women. Again, the comprehensive response is to be found in Articles 152(a) and 154 of the constitution. Article 152 caps the number at 25. In that capping it does not say that secretary to the cabinet is a cabinet member. Article 154 tells us who a secretary to the cabinet is. It is an office in public service but, unlike Article 152 which explicitly says that the AG is a member of the cabinet, Article 154 does not make a secretary to the cabinet a member of the cabinet.

And this is where Ruto commits a constitutional subterfuge. By explicitly naming the four positions—the two advisers, the secretary to the cabinet, and the AG—as cabinet-level portfolios, he was constitutionally mixing apples, oranges and tomatoes. But it seems the intention was to dangle a red-herring both regarding the two-third math and the legality of the two offices. In fact, his supporters misleadingly insist that in computing the two-third rule, the three portfolios—that is, the two cabinet-level advisers and the secretary to the cabinet—should be factored in.

This is how smart people try to circumvent the constitution. But the constitution is quite conscious that public officers will try such tricks so it says—and the court has confirmed—that its violation can be direct or through effect. Both levels of violations are present here.

Regional and ethnic balance

This is straightforward albeit controversial. Article 130(2) says that the composition of the national executive shall reflect the regional and ethnic diversity of the people of Kenya. Again, it is a little more than a bean counting exercise.

The two critical operative elements are ethnic and regional. Regional is obviously geographic although the constitution does not delineate what a region is. It leaves that to common sense, practice, rhetoric and legitimate expectation. In this regard, and in our political rhetoric, there is a region christened Mt Kenya. While defined to some extent by proximity to the mountain (Mount Kenya), it also imports into its defining characteristic some ethnic component. So, while Isiolo may be closer to Mt Kenya than Kiambu, the majority of communities resident in Isiolo are not legitimately and in political rhetoric terms considered to be part of Mt Kenya. On the other hand, Kiambu people are, even though they are much further away from Mt Kenya than Isiolo is. But this is where it gets even messier: I believe if you are a GEMA community member living in Isiolo, you are considered Mt Kenya. The opposite is not true. You may wish to argue this point, but it is one of those facts that make political but hardly any logical sense; still, the constitution would recognize the argument in the context of Article 130(2).

Article 130(2) says that the composition of the national executive shall reflect the regional and ethnic diversity of the people of Kenya.

In this sense, it is possible that some of the members from the GEMA group who have been nominated to the cabinet may identify as hailing from the Rift Valley or from elsewhere in the country. But when Article 130(2) is purposively read, a question arises whether the numbers of those included in the cabinet who are from Mt Kenya region, or are from one of the pre-dominant Mt Kenya regional ethnic groups (when one considers the demographics and diversity of the country), disproportionately constitute the cabinet. My answer is yes.

Illegal cabinet-level portfolios

This is not about the attorney general or the secretary to the cabinet. As I have explained above, the constitution explicitly says that the AG is a member of the cabinet. Article 154 also creates the position of secretary to the cabinet, although it does not make the holder a member of the cabinet. Whether the position of secretary to the cabinet is a cabinet-level portfolio is a discussion for another day. What I am interested in here is the legality of the other two cabinet-level portfolios Ruto has created on gender and national security.

The constitution and the law are explicit on how state office or offices in public service are to be created. The constitution is also implicitly inundated with the logic of circumscribing a strict criteria and processes of creating such offices, among them to curb wastage of public funds by creating unnecessary or duplicative offices.

The agency with the power to create a public office is the Public Service Commission (PSC). True, the president may request the PSC to create a position in public service—but when he does so, the PSC is required to conduct a thoroughgoing needs assessment to determine whether the position is necessary. The constitution anticipates this and the courts have said as much. If, in fact, the two positions are offices in public service, the strict requirements of Article 234 have not been complied with.

The constitution and the law are explicit on how state office or offices in public service are to be created.

There are only two other avenues through which Ruto could have created the two offices. The first is under Article 234(4) which allows the PSC to create a position of “personal staff” to the president. We shall settle this quickly because it would be oxymoronic to argue that a “cabinet-level portfolio” is a “personal staff” position for the president. In any event, did the PSC sanction it?

The second avenue is to be found under Article 260, which provides that parliament can create a state office but even then only through legislation. Question: under which law are the two offices created?

Dignity

Constituting a cabinet is perhaps one of the most intense of boardroom wheeler-dealer activities. It is, for instance, hard to find the logic why, for example, Ababu Namwamba was assigned the sports and youth docket while Alfred Mutua was assigned foreign affairs. However, at times, the constitution is able to find logic in some of these nocturnal deals and I think, in this case it would easily discover the logic behind why the two tentative and illegal positions of cabinet-level portfolios ended up with women as nominees.

Article 28 is about human dignity. If there are two positions to be assigned, one that is constitutionally recognized and secured and the other constitutionally suspect and tentative, it is no secret that being appointed to the constitutionally secure position is more dignifying. Historically, and as Ruto has demonstrated with his list of cabinet nominees, women are always an afterthought when allocating consequential positions of leadership. This is not conjecture. Instead, it is a compelling argument under Article 259 of our constitution, a provision that requires the constitution to be interpreted in a purposive way. It is a position also supported by many other relevant and endless re-enforcing provisions of the constitution. So, the two most tentative positions are ultimately assigned to women, because, after all, in the animal farm context (but not under the 2010 constitution), all animals are equal but some are more equal than others.

Plum as the positions may seem, in contextual terms they raise an Article 28 issue. An issue of human dignity.

What to do?

There are two ways to deal with these constitutional infirmities. One: Ruto can withdraw his list and amend it accordingly to comply with the constitution. If he is too married to this strange concept of “cabinet-level portfolios” he should at least push some of the Mt Kenya men there and move the women to the real cabinet portfolios. We can then deal with the illegalities of where the men end up later. But that may all be wishful thinking.

Historically, and as Ruto has demonstrated with his list of cabinet nominees, women are always an afterthought when allocating consequential positions of leadership.

Second: In the Marilyn Muthoni case, Justice Onguto chastised the national assembly for aiding and abetting Uhuru (gleefully, may I add) in violating the constitution by failing to conduct, during the vetting of cabinet secretary nominees, a “strict scrutiny” (the judge’s words) on the constitutional compliance of the composition of cabinet for gender, regional and other factors – but primarily gender because the pith of the case was the violation of the two-third gender rule.

Moses Wetangula and the national assembly will soon have a choice to make: whether their primary allegiance and loyalty is to William Ruto or to the constitution.

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TPLF Cannot Survive a Day Without Its Hypocrisy

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Lying pathologically is the perennial character of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. From the cradle to the grave peddling lies is the bread and butter of this terrorist clique. On 04 November 2020, after mercilessly slitting the throats of members of the Northern Command in their sleep, the TPLF cried wolf that the Federal Government (FG, henceforth) pre-emptively attacked it. In the wake of this gruesome massacre, Sekoutoure Getachew, declared that by “pre-emptively striking the TPLF has destroyed the Northern Command”, exposing the facade of the clique awash with deception, brutality and an insatiable appetite for war.

Similarly, on 13 October 2021, the TPLF cabal brazenly declared that it is “willing go to hell to destroy Ethiopia”. After pre-emptively attacking the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), once again, the TPLF shamelessly proclaimed that the ENDF attacked it from all fronts. With these heinous provocations, the TPLF showed to the world that it cannot live without shedding the blood of innocent civilians. The blatant, sadistic, self-contradictory proclamations of the TPLF distinctively deviate from the moral standards of a civilized society. There are no limits to its hypocrisy.

While wreaking havoc in the Amhara region unprovoked, the TPLF now alleges it was attacked by the ENDF from the Raya front. The spokesman of the TPLF claimed that the “truce has been broken”, which is true as it is the TPLF’s action, last straw that broke the camel’s back. Yet it is paradoxical to cry foul when it was meticulously self-inflicted. The TPLF is deafening us with its destructive, utterly irrational narratives emblematic of its siege mentality. The TPLF terrorist junta cannot survive without an ecosystem of betrayals, lies, siege mentality and chaos. Put simply, the TPLF cannot dwell in the sphere of the humane, the compassionate and the empathetic. Hence, the suffering of the people of our Tigrayan brothers and sisters under the TPLF’s captivity.

The words and deeds of the TPLF inarguably prove that it has no regard for the dignity of human life including the children it touts as soldiers. Its quotidian transgressions and its anarchic tendencies attest to this very fact. The forceful conscription of Tigrayan children as “soldiers” and the coercive mobilization of the general Tigrayan populace in the service of its suicide mission is a constant demonstration of its insatiable appetite to destabilize Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa by any means necessary, even if it means exterminating hapless civilians. Sadly, the international community doesn’t seem to care about the loss of countless lives. It is a deafening silence, at best. This must change here and now and the international community needs to pass an unambiguous verdict that the genocidal campaigns and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the TPLF in Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions must cease unconditionally in favour of a negotiated settlement.

While the FG has been undertaking confidence-building measures to peacefully resolve the conflict in Tigray, the TPLF is hell-bent on thwarting the peace process. On the one hand, the TPLF is paying lip service to the idea of negotiating with the Federal Government. On the other hand, it is incessantly engaged in an extensive military offensive and flagrantly violating the humanitarian truce. By doing so, it has been impeding government efforts to provide unfettered access to humanitarian assistance in Tigray. Many in the international community have corroborated these well-known facts, including UN agencies.

On 12 July 2022, the FG established a High-level Peace Committee (HLPC) led by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs to lead the government’s efforts to end the conflict in northern Ethiopia through negotiations. By instituting the HLPC the FG demonstrated its commitment to pursue a constructive engagement with the TPLF in good faith. On the contrary, the TPLF unequivocally refused to list a negotiating team. Even in the face of this awful conundrum, the government persistently appealed to partners to jointly work on restoring basic services to the Tigray region as well as the adjacent Amhara and Afar regions.

As we can all deduce from the history of the world, at a certain stage warring parties who have a genuine desire for peace go back to the negotiating table draw up short, medium and long-term solutions for sustainable peace. To this end, they also address the root socio-political and economic causes of the conflict and forge consensus to put in place a roadmap for peace. However, the TPLF lacks legitimate political demands that could be dealt with through negotiations. It still lacks a valid reason for its insolence and contempt for the people and government of Ethiopia. Every time the FG extends the TPLF an olive branch, it resorts to carnage for fear of becoming utterly irrelevant.

What is even more unnerving is its vexing assertion that without its brutal rule “Ethiopia will fall apart”!. With these diabolical ideals founded on the personality cult of its founding fathers, the TPLF is a specter of violence both in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region, while adding fuel to global conflagrations, threatening world peace. Whilst relegating all efforts of peace by the Government of Ethiopia to the museum of intellectual curiosity for fear of becoming extinct for lack of relevance, the TPLF dispatched an ominous letter to foreign dignitaries threatening another bloody war if its fantasy demands are not met.

On the morning of Wednesday, 24 August 2022, the TPLF launched an extensive military offensive with the made-up pretext of “being attacked on the Raya front”, reigniting an unsolicited conflict and flagrantly violating the humanitarian truce the Government of Ethiopia had worked so hard for. Ironically, the TPLF alleges that the FG commenced another “full-fledged war” at 5 a.m. local time via multiple fronts. The TPLF’s propaganda machine is a double-edged sword spreading this falsehood and betraying efforts for peace and reconciliation. Its latest actions accelerated its death wish while galvanizing the Ethiopian people to come to the rescue of their Tigrayan sisters and brothers, who are being held hostage by the TPLF. Through its various social and digital media outlets, the TPLF’s propaganda machinery has also been intensively engaged in undermining the peace efforts, denigrating and attacking the African Union, the leadership of the Commission, and the High Representative for the Horn of Africa, H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo. This is a regrettable reality that is giving Ethiopians, people of Ethiopian origin and friends of Ethiopia around the world sleepless nights. This needs to stop unconditionally.

It is the firm conviction of the Government of Ethiopia that the peace efforts under the auspices of the African Union must be conducted without preconditions, and the international community should condemn the TPLF’s intimidation of the AU Officials and frustration of the peace efforts in unison. The international community must also support the African Union in leading the facilitation process to bring about sanity and security to one of the most troubled regions in the world. Despite repeated unsubstantiated allegations, the government will continue with its efforts to find a lasting solution for the country’s various social and political challenges through the National Dialogue mechanism. There is every reason to believe that the worsening situation in Tigray could ameliorated through this indispensable means. Parallel to this, it is high time that the TPLF menace is buried, once and for all, through the concerted efforts of Ethiopians, the Ethiopian diaspora and friends of Ethiopia around the globe, near and far, by advocating for peace while singularly condemning the reckless terrorist activities in Tigray, Amhara and Afar. The boundless cruelty of the TPLF continues to result in a massive physical, spiritual and psychological trauma that will take years if not decades to come to terms with, let alone overcome. Lastly, the international community needs to unanimously condemn this reckless violence by sending out a clarion call to the TPLF to lay down arms and come to the negotiating table pronto, as the road to peace begins with the silencing of the guns.

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Why Kenyans Are Not Mourning the Queen

Those who know the psychological, social and economic damage that colonisation caused in their countries have been vocal about Queen Elizabeth’s failure to acknowledge the harm her empire inflicted on colonised subjects, or even to issue an apology.

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The non-stop coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s death on international media for more than a week was met with various levels of disbelief in countries that were once colonised by Britain. The BBC, naturally, covered the Queen’s death and funeral as if it was a global tragedy, while CNN and Al Jazeera devoted hours to the ceremonies preceding the funeral, including interviewing the thousands of people who stood in long lines to pay their respects to the late monarch. The coverage reeked of British exceptionalism, as if what happens to Britain and its royal family is of immense significance to the entire world.

There seems to be a general sense of amnesia surrounding the Queen Elizabeth and her rule, especially the horrors her empire was unleashing in many parts of the world when she ascended to the throne in 1952.  A friend based in Oxford told me that the police are even arresting people in Britain who are publicly protesting the Queen’s legacy. This kind of censorship seems bizarre in a land that describes itself as a champion of democracy and freedom of expression. It has become almost blasphemous to criticise the Queen and the monarchy.

Worse, British colonialism under her rule has been whitewashed and sanitised as if it never happened, or was a good thing. Most British people have also conveniently forgotten that the wealth their country enjoys today was built on the backs of African slaves who worked on the British Empire’s plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean, and through the exploitation of its colonies around the world, including in Africa.

For those who see the British Empire as a sinister force that destroyed communities and plundered people and territories, the extensive coverage of the Queen’s funeral appears like a slap in the face. An outfit called Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa even issued a statement describing Queen Elizabeth as “the head of an institution built up, sustained, and living off a brutal legacy of dehumanisation of millions of people around the world”.

Kenya stood out as one country where the Queen’s death did not generate mass grief, even though the newly elected president William Ruto made an obligatory trip to London to attend her funeral and the outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta declared four days of mourning. Kenyans on Twitter and other social media spaces did not send out messages of condolence to the Queen’s family, nor were there special state-led commemorations for the late monarch. This is not because Kenyans disliked the Queen; frankly, most of us view her as a nice – albeit extremely privileged – person who was trapped by her royal duties and did the best she could under the circumstances. But that is not the point. It is not the Queen that we resented but the institution she represented – and her failure to acknowledge the harm that the institution inflicted. As Kenyan journalist Rose Lukalo commented, “The Queen’s death and burial has resurfaced the uneasy truth of Kenya’s unfinished business with colonialism.”

Kenya stood out as one country where the Queen’s death did not generate mass grief, even though the newly elected president William Ruto made an obligatory trip to London to attend her funeral.

Many British people actually believe that the net impact of British colonialism around the world was positive because it established schools and railways and introduced Christianity to people who purportedly had no religion. They are not told that British colonialism in Kenya and other places was brutal and exploitative. It robbed indigenous people of their land, and created a class of landless people and squatters – terms that were virtually unknown in traditional African societies because all land was communally owned.

The history of slavery and Britain’s role in it is similarly whitewashed. Britain is often lauded for abolishing slavery in 1883, but what is not widely known is that when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, there were more than 40,000 slave owners in Britain. What is also not talked about often enough is that one year after slavery was abolished, Britain and other European powers embarked on colonising Africa at the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, thereby unleashing another form of slavery on Africans.

The British Empire’s establishment of a “settler colony” in Kenya was particularly pernicious. In 1923, Britain forcibly possessed the most fertile parts of the Rift Valley – the so-called “White Highlands”, an area comprising 5.2 million acres.  The locals were moved to “reserves” where they were expected to pay taxes to a government that basically stole their land from them.

When the locals rebelled, the Empire’s lackeys tortured them and put them in concentration camps. Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag, documents these atrocities in detail, including the rape of women deemed sympathetic to Mau Mau freedom fighters that had taken hold in Central Kenya, and whose members were jailed and tortured by the colonial regime. It is worth noting that the places where these Mau Mau revolutionaries were arrested, detained and tortured in the 1950s was not far from the Kenyan Aberdares mountain range where the young Elizabeth and her husband found out that her father, King George VI, had died and she was the new British queen.  It is also worth noting that it took some 5,000 former Mau Mau members more than 60 years to receive compensation from the British government, a legal battle that has been lauded for its tenacity and boldness.

Colonialism’s lingering impact

Societies that have experienced the trauma of colonisation often become dysfunctional. Forced to abandon their traditional values and social security systems, uprooted from their ancestral lands and natural resources, and brainwashed to believe that they are inferior beings, these societies begin to manifest all the symptoms of a sick society. Colonisation separated families and introduced an economy based on exploitation, which changed the nature of African societies and economies.

Post-colonial governments did not reverse this sad state of affairs. On the contrary, post-independence Kenyan elites benefitted from colonial policies that alienated Africans from their own land and became the biggest beneficiaries of post-independence land grabs disguised as land redistribution or adjudication. It is believed that one of the main reasons Jomo Kenyatta was selected to lead the country’s transition to independence was because he had made a secret pact with the British colonial government not to hurt British and white settler interests in the country.

It took some 5,000 former Mau Mau members more than 60 years to receive compensation from the British government, a legal battle that has been lauded for its tenacity and boldness.

According to Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report, “rich businessmen and businesswomen, rich and powerful politicians who were loyal to the colonial administration, managed to acquire thousands of acres at the expense of the poor and the landless.” Hence, “instead of redressing land-related injustices perpetrated by the colonialists on Africans, the resettlement process created a privileged class of African elites, leaving those who had suffered land alienation either on tiny unproductive pieces of land or landless.” Even today in Kenya, members of freedom fighting movements remain landless and poverty-stricken while those who sided with the colonialists are among the richest people in the land.

No royal apology 

People who know the psychological, social and economic damage that colonisation caused in their countries have been vocal about Queen Elizabeth’s failure to acknowledge the harm her empire inflicted on colonised subjects, or even to issue an apology. Many royalists have insinuated that perhaps the Queen was not aware or had not been informed of the atrocities committed by British colonial officers in places like Kenya. But as Elkins stated in a recent article published in TIME magazine, this argument is highly implausible. She wrote: “Beginning with her first prime minister Winston Churchill, the queen’s ministers not only knew of systematic British-directed violence in the empire, they also participated in its crafting, diffusion and cover-up, which was as routinised as the violence itself. They repeatedly lied to Parliament and the media and, when decolonization was imminent, ordered the widespread removal and burning of incriminating evidence.”

Shashi Tharoor, the Indian author and politician, has a similar view. He believes that even if the Queen was not in charge when the Empire committed the most violent atrocities, she had a duty to at least acknowledge that these atrocities took place. “We do know that much of colonialism’s horrors over the centuries were perpetrated in the name of the Royal Family but when she and her consort visited Jallianwallah Bagh, she could only bring herself to leave her name in the visitors’ book, without even an expression of regret, let alone of contrition or apology, for that vile British act of deliberate mass murder,” he said. (Jallianwallah Bagh was a site in the city of Amritsar where hundreds of pro-independence activists were killed or injured in April 1919. Although Elizabeth was not queen then, the scale of the massacre was so shocking that it has been viewed as one of the worst atrocities that the British Empire committed against civilians.)

Now that the Queen is dead, will her son King Charles take the responsibility of confessing to the sins of his mother and the Empire she presided over? Not likely, given that the idea that the British monarchy is above reproach has become even more entrenched since her death.

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