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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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UN Panel of Experts: Kenya Urged to Back Former CJ Willy Mutunga Candidacy

Willy Mutunga, the former Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya has been nominated by a number of international organisations to be one of the three experts. International human rights activists are calling on the government of Kenya to join with others in Global Africa to support the nomination of Willy Mutunga.

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UN Panel of Experts: Kenya Urged to Back Former CJ Willy Mutunga Candidacy
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On 28 June 2021, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations called on the UN to set up a panel of experts to investigate systemic racism in policing against people of African descent. This call came one year after the police murder of George Floyd in the United States. The UN panel of three experts in law enforcement and human rights will investigate the root causes and effects of systemic racism in policing, including the legacies of slavery and colonialism, and make recommendations for change. Willy Mutunga, the former Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya has been nominated by a number of international organisations to be one of the three experts. International human rights activists are calling on the government of Kenya to join with others in Global Africa to support the nomination of Willy Mutunga.

The government of Kenya is strongly placed to support the nomination of its native son, an internationally respected jurist. Kenya is currently a member of the UN Security Council and an influential member of “A3 plus 1”, the partnership between the three African members of the Security Council and the Caribbean member of the UNSC, St Vincent and the Grenadines. Last week on 7 September, President Uhuru Kenyatta co-chaired the African Union, Caribbean Community summit. This meeting between the AU and the Caribbean states agreed to establish the Africa, Brazil, CARICOM, and Diaspora Commission. This Commission will mature into a politico/economic bloc embracing over 2 billion people of African descent. Kenya, with its experience of reparative justice from the era of the Land and Freedom Army, has joined with the Caribbean to advance the international campaign to end the dehumanization of Africans. African descendants around the world have lauded the 2021 Human Rights Council Report for calling on the international community to “dismantle structures and systems designed and shaped by enslavement, colonialism and successive racially discriminatory policies and systems.”

Background to the nomination of Hon Willy Mutunga

The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 led to worldwide condemnation of police killings and systemic racism in the United States. The African Members of the UN Human Rights Council pushed hard to garner international support to investigate systemic racism in policing in the United States. In the wake of the global outcry, there were a number of high-level investigations into police killings of innocent Blacks. Three distinguished organizations, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the National Lawyers Guild convened a panel of commissioners from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean to investigate police violence and structural racism in the United States. Virtual public hearings were held in February and March 2021, with testimonies from the families of the victims of some of the most notorious police killings in recent times.

In its report, a panel of leading human rights lawyers from 11 countries found the US in frequent violation of international laws, of committing crimes against humanity by allowing law enforcement officers to kill and torture African Americans with impunity and of “severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, persecution and other inhumane acts”.

Among its principal findings, the Commission found the US guilty of violating its international human rights treaty obligations, both in terms of laws governing policing and in the practices of law enforcement officers, including traffic stops targeting Black people and race-based stop-and-frisk; tolerating an “alarming national pattern of disproportionate use of deadly force not only by firearms but also by Tasers” against Black people; and operating a “culture of impunity” in which police officers are rarely held accountable while their homicidal actions are dismissed as those of just “a few bad apples”.

After the Commission’s report was published, the convening organizations’ Steering Committee mobilized international public opinion to publicize its findings. Former CJ Willy Mutunga was one of the jurists in Africa who worked hard to publicize the report’s findings and recommendations.

It was in large part on the basis of these findings that the Human Rights Council issued its own report at the end of June. The United Nations decided to set up a panel of experts to investigate systemic racism in policing against people of African descent, adding international weight to demands in the United States for accountability for police killings of African Americans, and reparations for victims. The panel of three experts will have a three-year mandate to investigate the root causes and effects of systemic racism in policing. Many organizations have submitted names for suggested panel members. Legal experts from Global Africa and international jurists have recommended Willy Mutunga to be one of the three panellists. Thus far, the following organizations have endorsed the candidacy of Willy Mutunga:

  1. The African Bar Association, with membership in 37 African Countries.
  2. The United States Human Rights network (USHRN), a National network of U.S. organizations working to strengthen the Human Rights movement in the US.
  3. International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Decent in the United States.
  4. Society of Black Lawyers of the United Kingdom
  5. Bandung Conference, a Diaspora Human Rights network based in Nairobi, Kenya.

There are now calls for the government of Kenya to step forward to be more proactive to lobby the Human Rights Council and to write letters to its President, H.E. Nazhat Shameen Khan (hrcpresidency@un.org), endorsing the candidature of Dr Mutunga. His CV is included for those who want to write to the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Kenya to lead the endorsement of Willy Mutunga.

The Steering Committee of the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence in the United States is coordinating the campaign for Dr Willy Mutunga to be appointed by the UNHRC as a member of the International Expert Mechanism to monitor compliance of the UNHRC findings and recommendations.

The Government of Kenya and Human Rights groups are kindly asked to send copies of their endorsements to the Coordinator, International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence in the United States, lennoxhinds@aol.com.

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Cutting the Hand That Feeds: Is the UN Silencing the Voices of Farmers and Indigenous Communities?

More than 500 indigenous and farmer organisations across the continents have raised their voices to expose the UN’s Food Systems Summit as only advocating one food system—so they’re being silenced.

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Cutting the Hand That Feeds: Is the UN Silencing the Voices of Farmers and Indigenous Communities?
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The United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) invokes the UN Sustainable Development Goals to demonstrate its purpose—namely, goals 2.1 and 2.2 (to end hunger and malnutrition). At the same time, however, the summit is obstructing another of those goals: goal 2.3 (to increase resources for smallholder farmers).

Because of this contradiction, the summit, planned since 2019 to be held at the UN Headquarters in New York, will now be exclusively virtual (September 23), a measure intended to maximize control and minimize dissent. During the last year, more than 500 indigenous and farmer organizations across the continents have raised their voices to expose the summit as advocating only one food system, the one that is polluting the soil, water, and air, and killing vital pollinators.

In contrast, the food system that feeds 75 to 80 percent of the human population—smallholder farmers practicing biodiverse cropping (in line with the principles of agro ecology)—was only added to the agenda after months of criticism. Those in opposition to the summit say it is advancing industrial agriculture, which is the core problem, not solution, for addressing climate change, malnutrition, and hunger.

A second criticism is that corporations are trying to replace the UN system of one country-one vote with “stakeholders,” a euphemism that may sound inclusive but really only invites those “who think like us” to the table.  Smallholder farmers, who produce the majority of our food, are not invited.

This food summit is about the global business of agriculture, not the livelihoods of those who produce nutritious, biodiverse foods. Governments’ attempts to regulate global food corporations (e.g., labeling unhealthy foods, taxing sugar products) meet strong opposition from these industries. Yet the corporations profited massively from the 2008 food crisis and strengthened their global “food value chain,” contributing to the consequences that over 23 percent of Africans (282 million people) still go to bed hungry every night.

This focus is in stark contrast to the stated aims of the summit. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food explained in August 2021:

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are caused by political failures and shortcomings in governance, rather than by food scarcity ….. How will the [Summit] outcomes identify the root cause of the crisis and hold corporations and other actors accountable for human rights violations?

A third criticism of the UN Food Systems Summit is that it heralds technological advances as the primary answer to overcoming continuing hunger in an era of climate change. Most of us applaud multiple revolutions in genetics while we queue for vaccines, but genetic manipulation of seeds threatens the future of food, because ownership of the technology controls ownership of the seed. Industrial agriculture expands corporate profits from commodification of seed (beginning early 20th century), from the financialization of seed (speculative trading, late 20th century) and continuing today, through the digitalization of seed.

To the industry, a seed is merely a genome, with its genes representing digital points. The genes can be cut and pasted (by enzymes, e.g., CRISPRcas9), much like we edit text.  A seed is no longer a living organism representing thousands 1000s of years of careful selection by expert farmers. For example, biologists today say they no longer need the germplasm of Oaxacan corn from Mexico to access its drought-resistant characteristics.

Promoters of these technologies rarely admit that they are very imperfect, with uncontrolled “off-target mutations.”  Further, a seed variety needs its biome to flourish. It is farmers who understand the intricate interactions, who experiment with changing micro-climates (often in one field) to cultivate adaptive seed varieties.

No farmer denies the importance of scientific advances. But industrial agriculture giants are denying the value of farmers and their knowledge, saying they no longer need them: digitalized seed can be planted, watered, fertilized, and harvested by machines, run via satellites (this is called “precision agriculture”). Taste is irrelevant, because it is chemically added as crops are processed into food products.

Success in derailing the “corporate capture” of UN processes (e.g., UN Committee on World Food Security) to address increasing hunger arises from global, organized resistance by smallholder farmers, pastoralists, and fisher folk. After appeals to transform the agenda, many of these farmers and advocates decided to boycott the summit. This “outside resistance” included African voices, who stated:

The current UNFSS process gives little space to traditional ecological knowledge, the celebration of traditional diets and cuisine . . . ….Indigenous and local community Africans have experience and knowledge relevant to the current and future food system. Any process or outcome that does not recognize this is an affront to millions of African food producers and consumers.

The “inside resistance” worked to advance farmers’ voices within the official pre-summit dialogues, holding a series of webinars among the farmers in Southern Africa, and then globally (July 28).  This trajectory was possible because of allied support within the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.  As stated by one of the convenors of these official dialogues, Andrew Mushita,  “African smallholder farmers are not beneficiaries of the corporate [agriculture] industry but rather co-generators of innovations and technologies adaptive to ecological agriculture, farmers’ needs—within the context of sustainable agriculture.”

To follow the end result of the summit, go here.

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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We Are So Much Better Than the Elites Make Us Out to Be

To resist the efforts of Cambridge Analytica and similar social saboteurs in the media and the academy, we must believe in our capacity to vote on a diversity of issues.

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Theatre scholar Gĩchingiri Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ writes that in 1991, at the height of the clamour for multi-partyism, the government denied a license for the staging of Drumbeats of Kirinyaga, a play by Oby Obyerodhiambo.

The reason given was that the play portrayed an ethnically diverse and politically cohesive Kenya, which contradicted the president’s argument at the time that Kenya was too ethnically divided for multi-partyism.

While President Moi was claiming to care for Kenyans who are too tribal, his government was ironically also suppressing any public display of Kenyans transcending their tribal identities. The government needed to encourage tribalism among Kenyans in order to give itself something to cure.

​We were shocked by the confirmation by a young man, Christopher Wylie, that Cambridge Analytica played a major role in polarizing Kenyans during the 2017 elections. Some were insulted that foreigners would deliberately diffuse messages that would polarize us ethnically. Others, however, argued that Kenyans are tribalist, with or without Cambridge Analytica. I think the reality is more complicated than that.

Cambridge Analytica’s role in polarising Kenyans is part of the larger efforts of global and local elites to keep convincing Kenyans that we vote on nothing else but tribe. The elites manipulate culture in order to coerce us to believe that tribalism comes naturally to us Africans. And yet, the reality is something closer to what the government censor did in 1991.

The role of politicians in keeping ethnic temperatures high has been repeatedly stated. But there are two other pillars that keep Kenyans convinced that they are naturally and inevitably tribalist: the use of culture and research by envoys, journalists, researchers, and now, by Cambridge Analytica.

For instance, while Kenyans called for electoral justice, the US ambassador kept framing Kenya’s problem as “long-standing issues” that should be addressed through reconciliation between NASA and Jubilee. The ambassador was savvy enough to know that using the word “tribal” would evoke memories of colonial anthropology. But even “long-standing” is just as insidious, because it appeals to the colonial narrative of Africans as stuck in the past.

Similarly, articles in the local and international media often used tribal data to predict a Jubilee win. The research they quoted almost always used tribe as the major factor in elections, yet there are other factors that influence the way Kenyans vote, such as income, gender, urban migration, economic inequality or voter frustration with politicians.

If a basic rule of good research is that it cannot always use the same variable, it means that the researchers are perpetuating tribalism through faulty research. Yet the variables exist. For instance, our media rarely mention economic inequality as a factor influencing election outcomes, and yet one article in Jacobin found a strong correlation between economic inequality and votes for Raila Odinga.

In the New York Review of Books, Helen Epstein queried the sampling methods of predictions of election results, pointing out that some researchers worked backwards from a known result to a sample, rather than the other way round. Some researchers went to Luo regions and predictably projected a high Raila vote, and to Kikuyu populations and predicted a high Uhuru vote, but did not go, for example, to Kakamega, Bungoma, Busia, Kisii Nyanza, Garissa and other regions where Jubilee claimed to have won a majority.

Other times, electoral predictions remain unquestioned because claims are made from people with perceived academic clout. For instance, Mutahi Ngunyi gave prestige to the concept of “tyranny of numbers”. Most media did not question the validity of his concept, even when a poorly circulated video done by AfriCOG showed that the premises of Ngunyi’s argument were rather weak.

If Kenyans were naturally tribalistic, the politicians, intellectuals and envoys would not need to keep reminding us of it. And there is a political interest in insisting on our tribalism: it prevents us from asking questions about social justice or worse, from organizing ourselves along other lines such us age, profession, economic status and gender.

If a basic rule of good research is that it cannot always use the same variable, it means that the researchers are perpetuating tribalism through faulty research.

The nightmare of the foreign and local elite is of Kenyans organizing as the poor, youth, women or workers, because then, the numbers would surely have an impact. And politicians would not get automatic godfather status like they do as tribes. They would have to pass through institutions like associations and unions, where success is not guaranteed. For instance, politicians’ efforts to divide the doctors along tribal lines backfired and instead produced a hash tag #IAmaTribelessDoctor.

It does not matter how many Kenyans Cambridge Analytica influenced. Even one Kenyan is one Kenyan too many. What matters is that it appealed to Kenyans’ worst fears, essentially hoping to whip up hysteria, just so that the president could win the vote. Our dignity was cheaper than Muigai’s desire to win. Six million dollars cheaper.

But the worst part of the tribal propaganda is that it is based on convincing Kenyans to believe so little of themselves. To resist the efforts of Cambridge Analytica and similar social saboteurs in the media and the academy, we must believe in our capacity to vote on a diversity of issues. For as Daisy Amdany put it, “We are so much better than what the elites make us out to be.  It’s time to believe it, receive it, be it and live it!”

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