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The United Orwellian Nations

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As the United Nations celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, a former UN staffer reveals the hypocrisy of the UN Security Council, which claims to protect the human rights of the world’s people, but which in essence only serves the political and economic interests of its most powerful member states. The UN whistleblower explains what finally drove her to resign from the UN after a decade-long career.

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The United Orwellian Nations
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Some days are simply unforgettable. Thursday, 31st March, 2005, was one of them. I was a United Nations press officer back then, and terribly proud of being paid to help make the world a better place. Working at the UN headquarters in New York felt like entering Plato’s Ideal City, where realpolitik mixes with utopia. Despite its failures, I still had faith in the organisation’s willingness to make a difference in people’s lives. I used to think the UN’s imperfections were humane, and “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”, as Immanuel Kant put it.

On that Thursday, a colleague and I at the French desk of the Press Release Section were asked to cover a “historic” meeting. The UN Security Council was considering the referral of the horrific crimes committed by the regime of President Omar al-Bashir in Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The meeting kept being delayed all day long. We were told that behind the closed-door, tense deliberations were raging. In Darfur, the victims, yearning for justice, were holding their breath, as many feared China would block the resolution to protect its client-regime of Bashir.

Late that night, at around 22:30 hours, we had to rush off to the meeting. Finally, the vote was going to take place. As I was making my way to the Security Council room, I was rather surprised by the smell of alcohol and the overwhelming joy and delight manifested by a loud diplomatic crowd. I was shocked to learn that the much-awaited vote was delayed, not due to some “tense deliberations”, but because diplomats were indulging themselves at a dinner party with plenty of booze. The Brazilian mission had organised a party to celebrate its presidency of the Council on the last day of the month, as the UN tradition goes.

The diplomats took their seats around the horseshoe-shaped table and tried hard to wear a serious face on top of their alcohol-induced red one. One representative after the other took the floor, delivering speeches they sometimes struggled to read. But since the fun was still in the air, the permanent representative to the UN of the Philippines, Mr. Lauro Baja, cracked this joke about the third resolution on Sudan on that month, which he compared to the third child of the Security Council:

“There was a middle-aged couple who had two stunningly beautiful teenage daughters, but who decided to try one last time for the son they had always wanted. After months of trying, the wife became pregnant, and, sure enough, delivered a healthy baby boy nine months later. The happy father rushed to the nursery to see his new son. He took one look at him, but was horrified to find that he was the ugliest child he had ever seen. He went to his wife and said that there was no way that he could have fathered the child. ‘Look at the two beautiful daughters I fathered,’ he cried. Then he gave her a stern look, and asked, ‘Have you been fooling around?’ The wife smiled sweetly and said, ‘Not this time.’”

Before Mr. Baja wrapped up his joke, a ripple of laughter erupted in the room. Even the usually stern Kofi Annan flashed a smile. Regardless of the point Baja was trying to make about the legitimacy of the resolution, I felt that such humour was inappropriate. Unsurprisingly, the video of that session was never posted on the UN website. Some editors must have felt it lacked the minimum of decency to be shared with the public.

This incident made me question the seriousness of the Council. It also convinced me to leave the protocol-ridden and speech-oriented UN headquarters for the field. The following month, I embarked on an eight-year long journey in the field, across Iraq, Jordan, Sudan and Egypt. At the headquarters in New York, most of my work was limited to summing up delegates’ speeches. But, in the field, I had to generate stories and pitch them, speak to the media, organise media events and run public information teams. Whether serving at the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), the UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) or the UN Development Programme in Sudan (UNDP-Sudan), my work consisted of promoting what the UN does, and how and why it does it.

Before Mr. Baja wrapped up his joke, a ripple of laughter erupted in the room. Even the usually stern Kofi Annan flashed a smile. Regardless of the point Baja was trying to make about the legitimacy of the resolution, I felt that such humour was inappropriate.

I enjoyed working with people from around the world, from Fiji to Chile. Bringing people from different places to work together is the best thing the UN does. Perhaps each staff had her or his own reason for joining the organisation. Some enrolled for the generous paycheck, others for the organisation’s ideals, and still others, including myself, wanted it all: the paycheck and the good conscience. But my experience in Iraq and Sudan taught me I couldn’t have it both ways. It also taught me a great deal about the double face of the organisation, the bright and the ugly one.

In Iraq, UNAMI staff worked hard with the Iraqi civil society to track and expose human rights violations, promote the freedom of the press, champion women’s, children’s and minorities’ rights and promote good governance, but their work kept being blocked by UNAMI itself. While working to expand people’s rights and freedoms in Iraq, UNAMI was also empowering the US-installed Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the main perpetrator of human rights violations in the country and the prime obstacle to good governance. UNAMI, under the leadership of the German diplomat, Martin Kobler, helped the US and Iran’s man in Baghdad take the country from chaos to tyranny and terrorism.

Soon after he took office on October 2011, Kobler told a meeting I attended: “Al-Maliki said that the only thing he wanted UNAMI to do in Iraq is to help shut down Camp Ashraf. And this is what we are going to do.” Maliki’s plan was to force some 3,400 unarmed Iranian dissidents out of the camp, where Saddam Hussein (whose death warrant was signed by Al-Maliki in December 2006) had hosted them since 1986. He wanted them transferred to a location near Baghdad’s International Airport, and then out of the country. This was none of UNAMI’s official business, but it would soon become one.

While working to expand people’s rights and freedoms in Iraq, UNAMI was also empowering the US-installed Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the main perpetrator of human rights violations in the country and the prime obstacle to good governance.

Kobler was acting under the instructions of Lynn Pasco, the American chief of the UN Political Department in New York. Pasco was implementing American foreign policy, using UNAMI and other political missions. Since Exon Mobile was thriving in Iraq, al-Maliki had to be pleased and appeased. This meant that the transfer of the Iranian dissidents had to take priority over the inclusiveness of the Iraqi political process and other urgent matters, the raison d’être of UNAMI’s presence in Iraq.

The only opposition Kobler faced was from us, the mission staff. Throughout my UN career, I had never seen so many colleagues intensely opposing their chief as in Iraq. “I am a lawyer and I am telling you: don’t sign the damn thing [memorandum of understanding],” a senior colleague shouted at Kobler’s face in a desperate effort to stop him from making us do al-Maliki’s dirty work. We wanted him to focus on helping Iraq, but our call fell on deaf ears. The fate of Iraqis was sealed in New York.

While UNAMI and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, were busy transferring the Iranian mujahideen from Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty, al-Maliki was firming his grip on the power he had grabbed, thanks to Iran’s maneuvering and the consent of the administration of President Barack Obama. Nothing could’ve been worse for the Iraqi people than the UN looking the other way when the US was offering al-Maliki a carte blanche to violate the Iraqi Constitution, wreak havoc on the newly formed institutions, and cleanse or disenfranchise Sunnis from Iraqi politics (which ultimately drove the most disenchanted ones into the arms of Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State).

All along, Kobler was acting as one al-Maliki’s top aides. As the deputy chief of the Public Information Office, I found myself disagreeing with him, but often failing to stop his propaganda. My frustration had reached unbearable levels when I was head-haunted for the post of the spokesperson for UNAMID in Darfur in western Sudan. I didn’t hesitate to accept the offer, as I couldn’t imagine the UN appeasement of criminal regimes could get worse.

Soon after I arrived in Darfur in August 2012, I finally got the Philippines representative’s joke. The Security Council was a laughing matter. The many resolutions on Darfur signed off by Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States – the five permanent veto-holding members of the UN Security Council, also known as the P-5 – had degenerated into a farce. For each of these big powers, President Omar al-Bashir was a good client-regime that had to stay. But faced with mounting international outrage, the P5 had to be seen taking many steps against Khartoum. In reality, each step was purposely flawed, allowing al-Bashir to remain in power and get away with mass murder.

The farce started in 2004, when the Council “demanded” that the Sudanese government disarm the Janjaweed militias who were raping and killing civilians in Darfur and bring their leaders to justice or face “further actions”. One year later, al-Bashir began integrating most of his Janjaweed death squads into the armed forces, handing them heavier weapons and a license to kill civilians. In reaction, the Council’s threat of “further actions” turned out to be a partial and flawed arms embargo that allowed Khartoum to buy weapons, and use them in the entire country, except the western region. Obviously, without any mechanism to enforce this ridiculous arms embargo, Chinese and Russian weapons continued to flow into Darfur, in violation of these two countries’ own resolution!

Continuing this charade, the Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC in 2005. Al-Bashir and other suspects were later indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, in the absence of a mechanism to secure their arrest, al-Bashir (who was toppled in April last year) and his aides are yet to face justice at the Hague, even though al-Bashir has been charged and sentenced for corruption in a Sudanese court.

For each of these big powers, President Omar al-Bashir was a good client-regime that had to stay. But faced with mounting international outrage, the P5 had to be seen taking many steps against Khartoum. In reality, each step was purposely flawed, allowing al-Bashir to remain in power and get away with mass murder.

The last step of this farce was the 2007 Council decision to send UNAMID, the largest-ever toothless peacekeeping force, to Darfur. Al-Bashir only accepted this decision after the P5 caved in to his main condition: that UNAMID had to be drawn principally from African nations. This meant that Khartoum could kill, injure and humiliate African peacekeepers with absolute impunity. The Council also accepted a shameful Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement that put the genocidal Sudanese government in charge of the protection of UNAMID personnel. This is how immoral and farcical the P5 could get.

The eight months I spent in Darfur were long enough to convince me to resign and expose the UN’s systematic cover-up of the deadly bombing, mass assault on civilians, rape and forced displacement (mainly committed by Sudanese government forces), along with the daily harassment, humiliation and deadly assault on UNAMID peacekeepers. By April 2013, I had had enough of the UN’s hypocrisy. On the one hand, it claims to protect the people, help democratise societies, ensure respect of human rights and many other noble causes I still believe in. But, on the other hand, the essence of the UN’s work is to serve the P5 and their allies in their respective “spheres of interest” – a new euphemism for the former colonial concept of “spheres of influence”. This often entails shielding criminal and corrupt Third World governments. With one face, the UN caters to the people of the world, and with the other it serves first and foremost the P-5 governments. It’s “We the peoples” utopia versus “We the governments” reality.

The conclusion I reached is that what I witnessed in Iraq and in Sudan cannot be blamed on a few bad apples, or the poor performance of UNAMI and UNAMID. The problem was much bigger and ran much deeper in the system. It was a policy issue that starts in New York, at the UN Security Council. The colluding P5 have been using the UN to salvage their client-regimes facing threats from internal democratic forces and/or armed rebellion. They are also using it to throw the regimes that don’t know how to accommodate them, as happened in Côte d’Ivoire. France had had enough of Laurent Gbagbo’s rebellion and planned to install its new protégé, Hassan Ouattara, through the 2011 election. When Gbagbo lost the election but refused to quit, France dragged UN forces and weaponry into a joint bombing of his palace. It blatantly used and abused the UN for a “humanitarian” regime change to save the interests of its multinational corporations in its former colony.

But the Big Five could not have done it without a network of diplomats, including Western “democrats” like Kobler, who cherish democracy and peace in their own countries, but sustain dictatorship regimes across the world. Kobler is an excellent example of the UN’s revolving door politics. Once he accomplished his American-Iranian mission in Iraq, he was rushed to DR Congo in 2013 to head a 26,000- strong force and wage a UN war against armed militias on behalf of the government of Joseph Kabila. Under the Kabila family, the P5 countries had full access to the country’s precious reserves of diamonds, gold, cobalt, uranium and, of course, oil and related business. They had to protect the regime that accommodated their economic interests in return.

The conclusion I reached is that what I witnessed in Iraq and in Sudan cannot be blamed on a few bad apples, or the poor performance of UNAMI and UNAMID. The problem was much bigger and ran much deeper in the system. It was a policy issue that starts in New York, at the UN Security Council.

Having defeated some rebel groups for Kabila, Kobler headed to Libya, another oil-rich country the P5, under NATO, had bombed, in another “humanitarian” regime change. Kobler’s new mission consisted of installing in the capital Tripoli an Islamist government made up of militia leaders that would capture state funds and institutions. By imposing this UN-supported rebel faction against the resistance of others, the UN became a party in the Libyan conflict.

It’s precisely in Libya where one could see how the P5 are nothing but the world’s most dangerous gang and top arms’ producers and traders. Following his resignation, the UN envoy in Libya, Ghassan Salame, revealed that most of the Security Council members gave the retired Lieutenant Haftar the green light to militarily attack the very Tripoli-based government they had installed and claimed to support. When an intergovernmental organisation reaches such levels of hypocrisy and immorality, it simply needs to be resisted, scrapped and dismantled, instead of being reformed. Since the Security Council cannot be reformed – unless one thinks it’s possible to convert Dracula or Jack the Ripper into a saint – it has to go. And We the People can build another one, a better one.

My UN journey undoubtedly broke the blind trust I used to have in others. I learned to be more sceptical, without being cynical. This journey showed me my own limitations, flaws and mistakes too. I realised how big the gap is between who I am and the person I truly want to be.

I also learned to compromise on many things except two: Goodness and Truth. Truth “has been, is, and will be beautiful”, Tolstoy said.

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Aicha Elbasri is a journalist and former spokesperson for the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sino-African Relations: Cooperation or a New Imperialism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authoritarianism and exploitation

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

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

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

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

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

Return to a Pan-African internationalism

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

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

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

Internationalism from below

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

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

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

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

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

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African Epistemic Self-Affirmation Is the Ultimate End of Decolonization

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

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

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

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

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

Questions of decolonization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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