The World Bank and its President, David Malpass, must not insult the global movement to end anti-Black racism which was sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the United States.
Until concrete action proves otherwise, the long #EndRacism banners hanging at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington DC merely represent an opportunistic appropriation of the global movement to end racial injustice and window dressing to defuse the growing demands for action within the World Bank and its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
While welcome, President Malpass’ promise to end racism within the World Bank, its programmes and the countries where it works, it must be preceded by an acknowledgment of the systemic racism that has bedeviled the institution for decades, and followed by concrete steps to uproot this scourge.
Legacies of colonialism and racism
The World Bank has for too long perpetuated a racist stratification between developed and developing countries that is the result of centuries of colonialism and has served as a gatekeeper of a global economic system that continues to privilege the developed world of European countries and colonial settler-states such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
If the World Bank is earnest about putting an end to the scourge of anti-Black racism (or “Afriphobia” as some prefer to call it), it must work towards upending centuries of ruthless domination and exploitation—including systematic racial subjugation, colonisation, wars, genocides and enslavement—which have produced a global economy that continues to benefit developed countries to the social, economic and environmental detriment of developing countries, Black countries in particular.
The systemic anti-Black racism of the World Bank and its sister institution the IMF is holding African and Caribbean countries in debt bondage
As United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, put it in his Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on 18 July 2020,
The legacy of colonialism still reverberates . . . We see this in the global trade system. Economies that were colonized are at greater risk of getting locked into the production of raw materials and low-tech goods – a new form of colonialism. And we see this in global power relations. Africa has been a double victim. First, as a target of the colonial project. Second, African countries are under-represented in the international institutions that were created after the Second World War, before most of them had won independence. The nations that came out on top more than seven decades ago have refused to contemplate the reforms needed to change power relations in international institutions.
This racism must end.
Lack of equity and democracy
The racially stratified world order that was established by centuries of colonialism is reflected in the governance structure of the World Bank.
Rather than being elected, the leaders of the World Bank (and the IMF) are appointed by the US and Europe, one result being that the leaders appointed to the World Bank are always American (while the leaders appointed to the IMF are always European).
Moreover, the entire voting system of the World Bank is skewed towards the domination of the US, Europe and other developed countries and the subordination of developing countries, African countries in particular. The largest vote holders are the G7 countries—the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom—while middle- and low-income countries, which represent approximately 85 per cent of the world’s population, have approximately 40% of the vote.
Moreover, the systemic relegation of Black people in particular to the status of second-class global citizens is demonstrated in the gross underrepresentation of African and Caribbean nations on the board of the World Bank. Whereas the majority of World Bank programmes are in Africa and African countries account for more than 25 per cent of the member countries of the World Bank, they are allotted a paltry 5.5 per cent of the voting rights.
Nigeria alone has a population of 196 million people and a $1.1 trillion GDP (PPP), but merely 0.65 per cent of the voting rights in the World Bank. Qatar with a population of less than 2.8 million people and a US$346 billion GDP (PPP) wields more voting power than Nigeria. Ethiopia, one of the 23 founding members of the World Bank, with 109.2 million people and a US$253 billion GDP (PPP) is allotted 0.08% of the voting rights, which is significantly less than that of Luxemburg with a population of 613,894 and GDP of $44 billion.
Institutional racism is a widespread global phenomenon that has virtually excluded over 1.2 billion African and Caribbean people from global economic forums such as the Group of Twenty (G-20). Officially, the G-20 bills itself as “the premier forum for global economic and financial cooperation” and proclaims to be “inclusive” with a vision to “secure sustainable and balanced global growth and reform the architecture of global governance”.
Institutional racism is a widespread global phenomenon that has virtually excluded over 1.2 billion African and Caribbean people from global economic forums
Yet, Africa with a population of 1.2 billion and a GDP of $6.36 trillion is represented by only one country, South Africa. By comparison, South America, with a population of 423 million and a GDP of $6.6 trillion is represented by three countries.
This racism must end.
Perpetuating a racialised global economy
The wealth amassed by the global economic order continues to be concentrated in businesses and peoples in the developed world. And the economies, production and consumption of developed countries continue to rely on cheap access to natural and human resources in developing countries.
This relationship undermines sustainable development, self-determination over natural resources, living wages and other labour rights, manufacturing output, access to higher education, social mobility, peace, security and political stability in developing countries.
This is no less true for Africa. Most of the world’s least developed and poorest countries are in Africa. Fourteen of the 15 least educated countries are in Africa. Twenty-three of the 25 highest infant mortality rates are to be found in African countries. The 30 countries with the lowest life expectancy are all in Africa. And excluding countries in civil war, eight of the ten most corrupt countries in the world are in Africa.
Between 1980 and 2009, US$1.2 to 1.4 trillion was illicitly siphoned out of Africa. This is far more than the money the continent received in foreign aid and loans over the same period. Sixty per cent of the losses Africa suffered are due to aggressive tax avoidance by multinational corporations.
In many cases, African countries were performing better than Asian countries before the World Bank became a fixture on the continent. As World Bank data shows, in 1960 there were 10 sub-Saharan African countries with a GDP per capita (constant 2010 US$) higher than those of China and Korea. Looking at the regional average, in 1960, the GDP per capita for sub-Saharan Africa was more than 300 per cent of that of the average for South Asia. In 2019, the average for sub-Saharan Africa was 14 per cent less than South Asia’s.
In the 1970s, Africa accounted for over 3 per cent of global manufacturing output. In 2016, the figure was down to 1.5 per cent, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit. As World Bank data shows, in 1985 the world traded US$2.47 trillion worth of stocks. In 2017, the figure had shot up to US$77.57 trillion. Sub-Saharan Africa (barring South Africa) is the only region that did not even register a blip on the radar screen of the global capital (stock) markets.
African countries were performing better than Asian countries before the World Bank became a fixture on the continent
After 50 years of the World Bank’s intervention in African countries, the results are damning. Far from alleviating poverty, World Bank-financed projects have “devastating consequences for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet”, as documented by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The Bank’s virulent racism, which has segregated and marginalised Black people in its decision-making governance architecture, has left the fate of Africa to white supremacy.
In effect, World Bank loan conditions and programmes (including “structural adjustment”) have aided foreign investors, corporations and developed countries rather than African peoples; given priority to NGOs, consultants, skilled labourers and development experts from developed countries over those from African and Caribbean countries; increased access of developed economies to African natural resources, cheap labour, and markets, rather than aided the development of African countries; burdened African taxpayers, economies, and societies with ever growing unsustainable and insurmountable debts; and in the process failed to empower African countries to become economically as well as politically sovereign and self-determined.
The Bank’s virulent racism, which has segregated and marginalised Black people in its decision-making governance architecture, has left the fate of Africa to white supremacy
The Bank’s own economic and social data serves as its report card, showing the pillaging and devastation of Africa.
This racism must end.
Black debt bondage
The systemic anti-Black racism of the World Bank and its sister institution the IMF is holding African and Caribbean countries in debt bondage. As the Heritage Foundation has demonstrated with hard data, “most long-term recipients of World Bank money are no better off than they were when they received their first loan. Many are actually worse off”.
This is not least true of African countries that face the highest costs of borrowing in the world when compared to their fiscal and economic capacities.
The vicious cycle of African and Caribbean countries having to borrow to stay afloat rather than develop, while sinking further into debt without any hope of ever repaying it, has recently been demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic emergency loans that they have taken from the World Bank and the IMF. Although African countries seem to have among the lowest infection rates in the world, most COVID-19 emergency loans from the World Bank have gone to African countries. In addition, African countries have taken emergency loans from the IMF to the tune of US$7.5 billion.
The World Bank is perpetuating racism institutionally and globally and is a knee on the neck of Black people around the world.
This racism must end.
Racism in the World Bank as a workplace
Racism is also a problem in the World Bank as a workplace. Since 1979, 17 World Bank reports have documented that anti-Blackness (Afriphobia) in the institution is “systemic”. A 1998 World Bank report revealed that some managers with “cultural prejudice” against Black people “rated Africans as unsophisticated and inferior”. There is no reason to believe that such attitudes no longer prevail. The Bank’s former Senior Advisor for Racial Equality revealed in 2005 that his office “received and reviewed over 450 cases of racial discrimination in five years”. This is 90 complaints per year, amounting to nearly two complaints per week, excluding weekends and holidays. All cases were summarily dismissed.
Although African countries seem to have among the lowest infection rates in the world, most COVID-19 emergency loans from the World Bank have gone to African countries
Over a dozen studies, including those by the US government, the World Bank and the World Bank staff association, have pointed out that claimants of racial discrimination are denied due process. A 2015 29-page report by nine American Civil Rights Organizations documented with detailed evidence that the World Bank has “different judicial standards for Blacks and non-blacks”.
Another 2015 World Bank report, A Strategic Review of Current Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Relations Issues Related to the World Bank Group Workforce, found that the Bank’s race relations is one to two degrees removed from apartheid.
On a graduating scale of 1 to 6—where 1 represents an apartheid-like system and 6 signifies racial equality—the official report found the World Bank “hovering between 2 and 3”. The report further revealed that Black staff members consider the World Bank “apartheid-like” where Blacks are kept at the bottom of the pile.
An outstanding racial discrimination case involving an Ethiopian economist and former World Bank staff member, Dr Yonas Biru, has become a symbol of the Bank’s institutional racism. Even two current members of President Trump’s Cabinet, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr Ben Carson and former Attorney General of Virginia,Ken Cuccinelli, have condemned the injustice against Dr Biru respectively as evidence of a “lack of humanity” and the “systematic destruction of the dignity of a human being”. As documented in numerous newspaper articles and independent reports, Dr Biru’s professional accomplishments were “retroactively downgraded” after the World Bank deemed them “too good to be true for a black man”. To this day, his case has not been resolved, even after the World Bank’s own 2015 official report found it to be a “blatant and virulent case of racism”.
The World Bank is perpetuating racism institutionally and globally and is a knee on the neck of Black people around the world
Despite its very well documented and pervasive institutional anti-Black racism (Afriphobia), the World Bank seems bent on maintaining the status quo while hand-waving and window-dressing for the public. In a recent letter to President Malpass dated July 31 2020, leaders of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund Staff Association complained about the Task Force that the President has organised to address the internal demands for reform triggered by the George Floyd protests. They stated that the under-representation of African Americans in the Task Force is a “tacit dismissal of our voices and a missed opportunity to include the experiential knowledge African Americans would bring to the important process of laying out a framework that could begin ending racism at the World Bank Group”.
This racism must end.
Four steps towards ending racism at the World Bank
First, the World Bank should, in collaboration with African, Caribbean and other developing countries, civil society across the world and the UN, resolutely seek to dismantle its legacies of colonialism and racism by establishing an independent review mechanism with the purpose of periodically reviewing and advising on the structures and activities of the World Bank with a view of halting and repairing these legacies and ensuring that the World Bank supports an equitable, democratic and sustainable international order. This is in line with the Sustainable development Goals and the many resolutions that have been passed by overwhelming majority votes in recent years by the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council towards a new international economic order and an equitable and democratic international order. It is also in the spirit of the ongoing UN International Decade for People of African Descent 2015-2024. Such an independent review mechanism could be discussed and deliberated at the forthcoming 15th UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD15), which will be held in Barbados in April 2021.
Despite its very well documented and pervasive institutional anti-Black racism (Afriphobia), the World Bank seems bent on maintaining the status quo
Second, future leaders of the World Bank should be democratically elected based on democratic and equitable selections of candidates. The Bank’s voting right allocation should be restructured taking into consideration two factors: equal voice between developed and developing nations and equitable distribution by regions. President Malpass, the UN and the world community should be mindful that such reform is among the Sustainable Development Goals. The Declaration for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development affirms that,
We acknowledge the importance for international financial institutions to support, in line with their mandates, the policy space of each country, in particular developing countries. We recommit to broadening and strengthening the voice and participation of developing countries—including African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries, small island developing States and middle-income countries—in international economic decision-making, norm-setting and global economic governance.
Further, Sustainable Development Goal 10.6 calls for “enhanced representation and voice for developing countries in decision-making in global international economic and financial institutions in order to deliver more effective, credible, accountable and legitimate institutions”, whereas 16.8 sets out to, “Broaden and strengthen the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance”.
Third, debt forgiveness must be effected for African and Caribbean countries. This is also in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. It is also part of the 10-point plan for reparatory justice of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) 15 Member States. Centuries of domination, economic exploitation, colonialism, enslavement and systemic racism have left African and Caribbean states in debt, economic and social dire straits without redress.
Finally, an independent mechanism for access to justice must be established at the World Bank. The World Bank must grant whistleblowers and racial discrimination litigants access to external arbitration outside of the World Bank’s internal justice system. Recognising the fact that, since 1998, over a dozen US government, World Bank, World Bank Staff Association and external reports have found that victims of racial injustice and whistleblowing retaliation are denied due process by the internal justice system, the World Bank must meet this demand without delay.
The World Bank must overhaul itself and its relationship to Black people. It must put an end to its systemic anti-Blackness (Afriphobia) and take steps towards halting and reversing centuries of domination, exploitation and oppression of Black people.
Without such resolute actions, its public call for justice for George Floyd, along with a false claim that “racial discrimination and social injustice have no place” in the World Bank, is disingenuous.
This article is an abdriged version of an open letter penned by Civil society organisations to the President of the world bank, David Malpass. You can read the original here.
The Pitfalls of African Consciousness
It took time to digest Beyonce’s Black Is King. Conclusion: it fails to deliver us. Instead, it’s just another capitalist construction of the world.
African American imaginings of Africa often intermingle with—and help illuminate—intimate hopes and desires for Black life in the United States. So when an African American pop star offers an extended meditation on Africa, the resulting work reflects not just her particular visions of the continent and its diaspora, but also larger aspirations for a collective Black future.
Black is King, Beyoncé’s elaborate, new marriage of music video and movie, is a finely-textured collage of cultural meaning. Though it is not possible, in the scope of this essay, to interpret the film’s full array of metaphors, one may highlight certain motifs and attempt to grasp their social implications.
An extravagant technical composition, Black is King is also a pastiche of symbols and ideologies. It belongs to a venerable African American tradition of crafting images of Africa that are designed to redeem the entire Black world. The film’s depiction of luminous, dignified Black bodies and lush landscapes is a retort to the contemptuous West and to its condescending discourses of African danger, disease, and degeneration.
Black is King rebukes those tattered, colonialist tropes while evoking the spirit of pan-African unity. It falls short, however, as a portrait of popular liberation. In a sense, the picture is a sophisticated work of political deception. Its aesthetic of African majesty seems especially emancipatory in a time of coronavirus, murderous cops, and vulgar Black death. One is almost tempted to view the film as another iteration of the principles of mass solidarity and resistance that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.
But Black is King is neither radical nor fundamentally liberatory. Its vision of Africa as a site of splendor and spiritual renewal draws on both postcolonial ideals of modernity and mystical notions of a premodern past. Yet for all its ingenuity, the movie remains trapped within the framework of capitalist decadence that has fabulously enriched its producer and principal performer, Beyoncé herself. Far from exotic, the film’s celebration of aristocracy and its equation of power and status with the consumption of luxury goods exalts the system of class exploitation that continues to degrade Black life on both sides of the Atlantic.
That said the politics of Black is King are complicated. The picture is compelling precisely because it appears to subvert the logic of global white supremacy. Its affirming representations of Blackness and its themes of ebony kinship will resonate with many viewers, but will hold special significance for African Americans, for whom Africa remains an abiding source of inspiration and identity. Indeed, Black is King seems purposefully designed to appeal to diasporic sensibilities within African American culture.
At the heart of the production lies the idea of a fertile and welcoming homeland. Black is King presents Africa as a realm of possibility. It plays on the African American impulse to sentimentalize the continent as a sanctuary from racial strife and as a source of purity and regeneration. Though the movie does not explicitly address the prospect of African American return or “repatriation” to Africa, allusions to such a reunion shape many of its scenes. No doubt some African American viewers will discover in the film the allure of a psychological escape to a glorious mother continent, a place where lost bonds of ancestry and culture are magically restored.
The problem is not just that such an Africa does not exist. All historically displaced groups romanticize “the old country.” African Americans who idealize “the Motherland” are no different in this respect. But by portraying Africa as the site of essentially harmonious civilizations, Black is King becomes the latest cultural product to erase the realities of class relations on the continent. That deletion, which few viewers are likely to notice, robs the picture of whatever potential it may have had to inspire a concrete pan-African solidarity based on recognition of the shared conditions of dispossession that mark Black populations at home and abroad.
To understand the contradictions of Black is King, one must examine the class dynamics hidden beneath its spectacles of African nobility. The movie, which depicts a young boy’s circuitous journey to the throne, embodies Afrocentrism’s fascination with monarchical authority. It is not surprising that African Americans should embrace regal images of Africa, a continent that is consistently misrepresented and denigrated in the West. Throughout their experience of subjugation in the New World, Black people have sought to construct meaningful paradigms of African affinity. Not infrequently, they have done so by claiming royal lineage or by associating themselves with dynastic Egypt, Ethiopia, and other imperial civilizations.
The danger of such vindicationist narratives is that they mask the repressive character of highly stratified societies. Ebony royals are still royals. They exercise the prerogatives of hereditary rule. And invariably, the subjects over whom they reign, and whose lives they control, are Black. African Americans, one should recall, also hail from the ranks of a service class. They have good cause to eschew models of rigid social hierarchy and to pursue democratic themes in art and politics. Black is King hardly empowers them by portraying monarchy as a symbol of grandeur rather than as a system of coercion.
There are other troubling allusions in the film. One scene casts Beyoncé and her family members as African oligarchs. The characters signal their opulence by inhabiting a sprawling mansion complete with servants, marble statues and manicured lawns. Refinement is the intended message. Yet the conspicuous consumption, the taste for imported luxury products, the mimicry of European high culture and the overall display of ostentation call to mind the lifestyles of a notorious generation of postcolonial African dictators. Many of these Cold War rulers amassed vast personal wealth while their compatriots wallowed in poverty. Rising to power amid the drama of African independence, they nevertheless facilitated the reconquest of the continent by Western financial interests.
Black is King does not depict any particular historical figures from this stratum of African elites. (Some of the movie’s costumes pair leopard skin prints with finely tailored suits in a style that is reminiscent of flamboyant statesmen such as Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo.) However, by presenting the African leisure class as an object of adulation, the film glamorizes private accumulation and the kind of empty materialism that defined the comprador officials who oversaw Africa’s descent into neocolonial dependency.
Black is King is, of course, a Disney venture. One would hardly expect a multinational corporation to sponsor a radical critique of social relations in the global South. (It is worth mentioning that in recent years the Disney Company has come under fire for allowing some of its merchandise to be produced in Chinese sweatshops.) Small wonder that Disney and Beyoncé, herself a stupendously rich mogul, have combined to sell Western audiences a lavishly fabricated Africa—one that is entirely devoid of class conflict.
Anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon once warned, in a chapter titled “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” that the African postcolonial bourgeoisie would manipulate the symbols of Black cultural and political autonomy to advance its own narrow agenda. Black is King adds a new twist to the scenario. This time an African American megastar and entrepreneur has appropriated African nationalist and pan-Africanist imagery to promote the spirit of global capitalism.
In the end, Black is King must be read as a distinctly African American fantasy of Africa. It is a compendium of popular ideas about the continent as seen by Black Westerners. The Africa of this evocation is natural and largely unspoiled. It is unabashedly Black. It is diverse but not especially complex, for an aura of camaraderie supersedes its ethnic, national, and religious distinctions. This Africa is a tableau. It is a repository for the Black diaspora’s psychosocial ambitions and dreams of transnational belonging.
What the Africa of Black is King is not is ontologically African. Perhaps the African characters and dancers who populate its scenes are more than just props. But Beyoncé is the picture’s essential subject, and it is largely through her eyes—which is to say, Western eyes—that we observe the people of the continent. If the extras in the film are elegant, they are also socially subordinate. Their role is to adorn the mostly African American elites to whom the viewer is expected to relate.
There are reasons to relish the pageantry of Black is King, especially in a time of acute racial trauma. Yet the movie’s mystique of cultural authenticity and benevolent monarchy should not obscure the material realities of everyday life. Neoliberal governance, extractive capitalism, and militarism continue to spawn social and ecological devastation in parts of Africa, the Americas, and beyond. Confronting those interwoven realities means developing a concrete, global analysis while resisting metaphysical visions of the world.
Fractures and Tensions in the Anti-Racism Movement
Continental Africans have a lot to learn from their African American cousins in relation to race politics and white supremacy, not least because the phases of oppression developed by white supremacists simply keep mutating.
Sometimes tensions between continental Africans and their African American brethren mount over trivial things due to their ostensibly deep-rooted differences. But really these differences ought not be so significant as to weaken the quest to confront and defeat racism wherever it is found. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are all testimonies as to why white supremacy is so toxic.
African Americans are undoubtedly best equipped to read, analyse and deconstruct white supremacy, having been on the battle lines for over four hundred and fifty years. From centuries of slavery to Jim Crow segregation, systematic lynching, civil rights activism and disillusionment and the present age of mass incarceration, African Americans have seen it all, and continue to suffer the devastating effects of living in the trenches of institutionalised racism.
Being minorities in a white-dominated United States, contained in bleak urban ghettoes that are now undergoing steady gentrification, they also have to endure the traumas of constant police brutality. They are a community under siege on multiple fronts as their neighbourhoods are being decimated by fractured and disappearing families, targeted gentrification, mass incarceration, drug abuse and despair.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, death rates among African Americans have been disproportionately higher than other racial groups and this had led to considerable public outcry. Again, their position within American society demonstrates their obvious vulnerability. They are especially vulnerable not only to disease but also have relatively few means of redress.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement has received mixed reactions within the community as many argue that it lacks grassroots support and is being sponsored by white liberal donors and sympathisers. Since the era of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and Huey Newton, amongst others, there has not emerged a cohort of black leaders with the vision, commitment, sincerity and energy to match those illustrious forebearers.
After the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the assassinations of Malcolm and Martin, the penetration of radical activist groups by the FBI, and the heroin epidemic that blighted black neighbourhoods, the political momentum has arguably not been sustained.
Following the gains of the civil rights movement, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton further inflicted harm on the black community through a series of repressive legislation that birthed the age of mass incarceration, chillingly covered by the author and academic Michelle Alexander in her bestselling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
The scourge of crack cocaine must also be added to this already malevolent social equation. Families and neighbourhoods were denuded of health, social services, stability and financial viability. Knowledge, wisdom, and wholesome experience were substituted with fear, paranoia and degeneracy.
Hip hop as a cultural form was in its ascendency, having managed to crawl out of the neglected borough of the Bronx. Just like funk, R&B and other black music forms, this particular genre also aspired to be therapeutic, or at least soul-lifting. For a while, it represented the angst and perplexities of the “hood”, and subsequently, the righteous rage of the bona fide political rebel. But after experiencing phenomenal success, it fizzled out in an anti-climactic tsunami of bling, bombast, shallow consumerism and toxic misogyny.
For the first time in recent memory, blacks were able to produce a music utterly devoid of soul meant to soundtrack the last days of an era indelibly marked by Babylonian excess and decadence. In South Africa, droves of no-talent copycats, seduced by the grand spectacle flashed by mainstream American hip hop, discarded their indigenous traditions and sheepishly adopted American mannerisms.
Hip hop as a cultural form was in its ascendency, having managed to crawl out of the neglected borough of the Bronx. Just like funk, R&B and other black music forms, this particular genre also aspired to be therapeutic, or at least soul-lifting.
A source of tension between Africans and African Americans is the type of black people who are admitted to the United States to live and work. Radical black Americans claim that since the supposedly unfavourable experiences of white supremacists with radicals, such as the redoubtable black pioneer Marcus Garvey, who was originally from Jamaica, and activist Kwame Toure, who came from Trinidad and Tobago, white supremacists in the US have been careful with the type of people they admit from the Caribbean and Africa. An argument is made by black American radicals that only those who readily support and uphold the tenets and institutions of white supremacy are now being admitted.
Those same black American radicals point to the fact that the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama – who is not considered a foundational black American (FBA) by any stretch of imagination – whose father was of Kenyan origin, did nothing for black folk but went out of his way to benefit the LGBTGI community and immigrants, particularly from Mexico and other countries in the region. Obama, they claim, was not accountable to black America, and did not want to be accountable because he had not been made by black America.
Kamala Harris, the current vice presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, has a father originally from Jamaica and an Indian mother. According to radical black Americans, Harris is bound to create the sort of problems they encountered with Obama. They argue that the ever-calculating white media attempts to present her as a credible political representative of black America because she apparently looks like them. But all similarities end there. The white media is trying to foist Harris upon the black electorate with claims that she attended Howard University, a historically black college. But black radicals are not having any of it.
Instead, they (black radicals) dug into Harris’s past professional conduct and discovered that as an attorney working for the state of California, she notched an alarmingly high rate of prosecutions, convictions and incarceration of black people. Indeed these frightening rates could only please white supremacists and not black folk. So black radicals claim that if she is voted into power under a Joe Biden ticket as vice president, black folk are not to expect anything better from her. Before they give her their vote and support, they are asking her for tangible deliverables.
As of this point, Harris isn’t talking. Black radicals claim the days of black political representatives receiving their vote merely because of the colour of their skin are long gone. They now preach the mantra of “tangibles” to any prospective black political representative.
On the question of political and cultural representation in the present culture of hoods created by blacks, there does not appear to be a music genre that can inspire and transform lives as in the days of yore. Policies and strategies of integration pursued by US governments (which were meant to fool everyone) in the wake of the civil rights movement deceive no one. The partiality, inequality, division and bigotry are there for everyone to see.
However, the lives and accomplishments of Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey and a host of other pioneers are not always accorded their rightful place in the American public mind. And only “woke” folk know the true meaning of Pan-Africanism.
Black radicals claim the days of black political representatives receiving their vote merely because of the colour of their skin are long gone. They now preach the mantra of “tangibles” to any prospective black political representative.
On the African continent, befuddled by disemboweled US hip hop culture and the hype of #BlackLivesMatter, we attempt to take hesitant steps towards the blinding glare, unsure of how to act or how we would be received. The derelict hoods of the US seem to mirror our own mismanaged and misgoverned countries, which have variously been described as failed states.
African Americans, on the other hand, are filing into Africa at encouraging rates, tracing their genetic ancestry back to the motherland, often settling permanently along the coast of West Africa, longing to ingest melanin-rich air indefinitely. Away from relatively melanin-deprived political and cultural environments, they genuflect before myriad departed ancestors in rituals of ineffable spiritual communion: “We have come home, receive us steadily into the ceaseless warmth of your unfathomable bosom.”
Lost African youth, on the other hand, see these rejuvenated American returnees and hear the conflicted sounds of Lil Wayne, Kid Cudi, Fetty Wap, ASAP Rocky and Lil Nas X and sense Eldorado, a tortuous and deadly path of escape from the Western media-created images of their insufferable hell holes.
On both sides, namely black America and Africa, mass confusion often abounds, creating expectations that remain largely unfulfilled and hungers that are unlikely to be satiated.
First, in the recent past, the Western media manufactured false narratives about the Dark Continent. Now, children of both black America and Africa often neglect to discover the real truth about their heritage, leaving them both to re-live the unimaginable horrors of their past anew, only that this time around, they are locked in mental prisons entirely of their own making.
Undoubtedly, continental Africans have a lot to learn from their African American cousins in relation to race politics and white supremacy. In this regard, a great deal of humility and restraint is required. As things stand, African Americans have too much on their plate already. The chameleonic properties of racism are remarkably protean. American society was built on the prolonged enslavement of blacks, hence the rise of American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS) activism. Then there was Jim Crow oppression and the destructive infiltration of the civil rights movement and other strategies of containment and suppression specifically targeting blacks.
Under the auspices of ADOS and its growing drive for social transformation and reparations for black Americans due to the multiple forms of suffering caused by slavery, the term African American is becoming obsolete. Black American, once fashionable and then passé, is returning as the appropriate term to call peoples of African descent in the United States. This group makes it abundantly clear that they are quite distinct from Africans and people from the Caribbean based in the US – a distinction that justifies their quest to secure the fruits of reparations. While initially it might prove to be a compact strategy for obtaining reparations, it blurs the Pan-Africanist vision and makes it arguably less potent. In this regard, ADOS, or foundational black Americans (FBA), as they now prefer to call themselves, may be viewed as somewhat shortsighted and unduly materialistic, which throws out of the window the accomplishments of the likes of W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey and John Henrik Clarke.
On the African continent, befuddled by disemboweled US hip hop culture and the hype of #BlackLivesMatter, we attempt to take hesitant steps towards the blinding glare, unsure of how to act or how we would be received. The derelict hoods of the US seem to mirror our own mismanaged and misgoverned countries, which have variously been described as failed states.
The phases of oppression developed by white supremacists simply keep mutating, refining tactile mechanisms of suppression even before their intended victims are able to anticipate them. These strategies have had centuries of experimentation to improve themselves. And then they possess false ideologies to camouflage themselves. Black resistance, on the other hand, is often reactive, kept on its hind legs, forever on the defensive due to the fact that oppressive mechanisms are constantly shifting. This is black America’s greatest challenge – to move successfully from a defensive posture to a proactive one while at the same time keeping in mind the many lessons learnt from centuries of struggle.
The Haitian Revolution, which birthed the first independent black country in the Western hemisphere, continues to be a shining example. In order to accomplish its success, it had to purge itself of its internal doubters and dissenters.
Currently, as mentioned earlier, black America has very few, if any, leaders within its ranks that possess undeniable mass appeal and grassroots support. It is also fractured by numerous ideological factions and tendencies that make it difficult to identify and pursue a cohesive agenda. Furthermore, the various institutions of racism have become more diverse and entrenched.
Nonetheless, all is not lost; true revolution has always been the art of the impossible and black America generally has proven itself, time and again, to be uncommonly resourceful and courageous.
Time Out for the Millennium Dam?
The countries involved in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam are three of the largest in Africa and they could all benefit from coordinated action instead of belligerence and a zero-sum game.
The African Union-led process to arrive at a conclusive agreement on the filling and subsequent operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) did not yield the expected results. Negotiations between legal and technical experts from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to draw up a binding document concluded without consensus at the end of August. Meanwhile, with the heavy rains, the dam has started filling up naturally.
This is a major issue around which Ethiopians have unified as the country confronts existentialist challenges to its federal polity. Sudan perhaps hopes for the best deal as it grapples with internal upheavals, a reduction in oil prices and the aftermath of its separation from South Sudan. Egypt is the most stable of the three countries but seems to be trying to reach out to Libya and possibly Ethiopia.
The reaction in Egypt and Sudan is quite different from the #It’smydam social media campaigns in Ethiopia where nationalist fervour is being stoked, with idolised singer Teddy Afro creating a new song celebrating the GERD as Ethiopia’s pride. Egypt on the other hand is focusing on getting international opinion on its side and has released a short video in several languages.
Constructed in the western Benishangul-Gumuz Region, in 2011, the GERD was initially named the Millennium Dam. Scheduled for completion in 2022, its 6.45 GW generating capacity will make it the world’s seventh largest and the biggest dam in Africa.
The White Nile and the Blue Nile meet in Khartoum in Sudan and flow into Egypt. The White Nile rises in the Great Lakes of East and Central Africa. The Blue and shorter Nile rises in Lake Tana in the Amhara region of Ethiopia and flows to Khartoum, gathering waters from the Dinder and Rahad rivers. Ethiopia had never previously tapped the Nile resources while Sudan has the Al-Ruṣayriṣ and Sannār dams on the Blue Nile. Egypt on the other hand has almost its entire economy dependent on the River Nile having harnessed it through the gigantic Aswan dam project.
Egypt opposed the GERD from the start as it felt that its share of the Nile waters would be diminished. Up until now the waters of the Nile have flowed unchecked through Sudan to Lake Nasser. Ethiopian reports indicate that the GERD will have no impact on annual flows to Egypt but this issue has yet to be resolved and even though the differences between the two countries have been narrowed down, mutual suspicion between the two populous neighbours has been revived, with Ethiopia fearing that Egypt might sabotage and undermine the project.
Moreover, both Egypt and Sudan fear that water flows will reduce to below their requirements during the dry season, negatively impacting the two countries. For its part, Ethiopia believes that it has patiently negotiated but that a common position on dry season flows is difficult to achieve. The country wants to start operating the dam as filling the reservoir may take up to five years, and considers that the dry season issues can be dealt with concurrently. And although the three countries seem to agree that , how to deal with this issue is now in contention.
The GERD project was of particular interest to the former prime minister of Ethiopia, the late Meles Zenawi, who foresaw that environmental factors would prevent Ethiopia from obtaining the support of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries and the World Bank. Ethiopia therefore opted to fund GERD fully from its own resources. Borrowing from the Indian example, the country issued development bonds, tapped into the diaspora and obtained small domestic contributions.
The US$4.8 billion GERD contract was awarded to Salini Impregilo of Italy. The novel fundraising contributed US$3 billion while China provided US$1.8 billion for the turbines. Ethiopia has committed nearly 5 per cent of its GDP to GERD and is therefore unlikely to want a delay or disruption in the completion of the project.
Meles had often discussed Ethiopia’s development with me when I was India’s ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union from 2005 to 2009. He showed great interest in India’s large hydroelectric projects and we discussed the country’s engagement with its diaspora for development, Diaspora Bonds, and India’s terms of engagement with donors following the sanctions that were imposed after the 1998 nuclear tests. Our discussions on the Great Ethiopian Railway plan also focused on carbon-neutral electricity and since Ethiopia is not endowed with coal or oil (unlike Sudan and Egypt), harnessing water resources has become the country’s focus. The smaller dams on the Tekeze, Finchaa, Gilgel Gibe, Awash and Omo rivers are the trendsetters; located in the south of the country and close to Kenya, Djibouti and South Sudan, power exports are under consideration.
Ethiopians recall that Egypt has since the 4th century monopolised the use of the Nile waters and used the edicts of the Coptic Church, whose Patriarch was shared with Ethiopia until 1959, to curtail their usage. Ethiopia’s development plans include exploiting the waters of the Nile but the Nile Basin Initiative and its regional version, the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office, have been unsuccessful in convincing the partners that the project is technically sound and beneficial to all. In 2015, the three countries signed a declaration to abide by “the spirit of cooperation”. Egypt in particular thinks this spirit is lacking; it has committed itself to a negotiated process but the caveat that “all options remain on the table” causes anxiety in Ethiopia.
Egypt seeks access to 55 bcm of water as its Nile rights in perpetuity, based on its increased share in the 1959 treaty with Sudan. The 1929 Anglo-Egypt Treaty ceded almost all Nile rights to Egypt, overlooking the rights of British colonies in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika as well as Ethiopia. Technical discussions indicate a flow of 49bcm to Egypt, slightly more than the 48bcm provided in the 1929 Treaty. Ethiopia refuses to agree to a fixed figure and wants ad hoc decisions since droughts may not allow for such flow levels. It views the Egyptian stand as based on colonial treaties that were signed without Ethiopia’s agreement. Egypt is facing serious challenges due to pollution, climate factors and a growing population but it too did not consult Ethiopia when it built its giant Aswan High Dam. Technical discussions have taken place in various forums for the last eight years where Sudan has been assiduously wooed by both its neighbours. The need for a dispute settlement mechanism on technical issues remains a core concern.
In June 2018 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made a visit to Cairo and pledged mutually beneficial regional cooperation on the basis of scientific evidence. Although the confidence-building visit seemed to have been a success, by 2019 Prime Minister Abiy was talking of mobilisation to counter Egyptian threats. Between November 2019 and February 2020, US President Donald Trump interceded with an initiative, pursued by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, but it reached an impasse with Ethiopia leaving the final negotiations. Egypt approached the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in June 2020 but the UNSC was informed that the AU had been seized of the matter. It is this AU effort which now needs to succeed but is faltering. Meanwhile, the US has suspended aid to Ethiopia in an effort to coerce the country to accommodate Egypt.
Ethiopia and Egypt are well placed to lead an African development process through the use of water resources for mutual benefit. An inclusive regional perspective which will bring the Nile basin countries into a sharing of knowledge and resources is vital for having sufficient water, energy, and food for all Nile Basin countries. Egypt depends on the river for 97 per cent of its water requirements and Ethiopia has invested in its future. Can the northeastern quadrangle of Africa create a new paradigm? The concept of an Eastern Development Corridor proposed by former Egyptian Assistant Foreign Minister Mohamed Higazy seeks multipronged cooperation for a development corridor with dams, irrigation, riverine transport, power distribution and access for Ethiopia to Egypt’s Mediterranean ports.
While Egypt is committed to negotiations and will seek the best possible deal, its occasional jingoism is matched by Ethiopian exhilaration. Egypt believes that the other countries have failed to restrain Ethiopia from filling the dam. This is why the country keeps returning to the UN Security Council option and, with Sudan, will play the Arab card unless the AU is able to bridge the differences.
It appears that South Africa as AU Chair is keeping the UNSC from acting until the AU effort is complete. Meanwhile it is a challenge to South Africa’s ability to keep aligned AU members whose animosity pre-dates the AU itself. Egypt’s twin identities as a member of the Arab League and as an African country are being tested. The country persuaded the League to support its stance when it went to the UNSC in June. Djibouti and Somalia, two Arab countries which border Ethiopia, did not concur fully with the resolution while Ethiopia remains critical of “blind” Arab League support for Egypt. The Arab Committee that was formed to follow up on the matter at the UNSC includes Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, countries which now have weightier US-Israel-Arab matters at hand.
Has Ethiopia outrun Egypt as Emad Al-Din Hussein wrote in the Al-Shorouq newspaper? Or is Egypt running too fast for its own good? Its options may expand if belligerence is replaced with a more visionary approach rather than a zero-sum game. Will Egyptian calm meet with the appropriate Ethiopian response?
The countries involved in the GERD are three of the largest in Africa and they could all benefit from coordinated action. The GERD exists and will function as Ethiopia has determined. Meanwhile the mistrust is deepening as Ethiopia feels empowered to alter past equations. The dry season issue is best left to a technical committee which will monitor the real situation during every season and work on actual water flows. If trust is restored and public belligerence diminishes, the mutual interests of the three countries may be served. With their large populations and growth indicators, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan could be the growth segment of Africa. The immediate need is to avoid diplomatic disagreements from degenerating into physical conflict. In the medium term the three countries could be persuaded to be partners for growth and in this Kenya can play a positive role by engaging all parties, since in 2021 South Africa will cede the AU leadership to DR Congo, a country which may not have an abiding interest in the issue.
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