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Nyerere: Africa’s Philosopher King

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A new biography of Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, reveals a complicated legacy.

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Nyerere: Africa’s Philosopher King
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Julius Nyerere was one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century. Tanzania gained independence from Britain in 1961 and Nyerere, known as Baba wa taifa (father of the nation), became its first president. Under Nyerere’s leadership, the state declared ujamaa (African socialism) as its postcolonial path forward and signaled its intention to build a society based on human equality and dignity. His commitment to nonalignment in the midst of cold war tensions and his support of African liberation movements garnered the attention of many around the world. Even after he stepped down in 1985, Nyerere continued to hold remarkable influence over Tanzanian politics. Today, twenty-one years after his death, his contested legacy continues to loom large in the nation, as his presence in the discussions surrounding the upcoming elections attests.

In early 2020, Tanzanian publishing house, Mkuki Na Nyota, released the three-part biography, Development as Rebellion: A Biography of Julius Nyerere. Penned by Saida Yahya-Othman, Ng’wanza Kamata and Issa Shivji, the books offer an impressively nuanced examination of a man who has been, in the words of the authors, “revered and demonized in equal measure.” Yahya-Othman is a retired professor of English Linguistics who taught at the University of Dar es Salaam, Kamata is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Dar es Salaam and Shivji is a retired Professor of Public Law and the first holder of the Julius Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan-African Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam. A detailed exploration of Nyerere’s personal and political lives, this is also a multifaceted history of Tanzania and the political context in which its first and most influential leader emerged. Monique Bedasse had a brief conversation with Issa Shivji about his installment of the biography, Rebellion Without Rebels. Professor Shivji took on this biography after decades of thinking and writing about Nyerere and Tanzanian politics more broadly.

Monique Bedasse: What motivated you and your co-authors to write this biography?

Issa Shivji: It is a long story but I’ll cut it short. Even while Mwalimu [Swahili for “teacher;” how Nyerere is generally referred to in Tanzania] was still alive, I used to say half-jocularly that when the philosopher-king ceases to be a king—meaning he has left power—I’d like to do his biography. It never came to pass. Meanwhile, Mwalimu passed on in 1999.  Between 2008 and 2013, I was the Mwalimu Nyerere Chair in Pan-African Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam under which, together with my co-authors—Professor Saida-Yahya Othman and Dr Ng’wanza Kamata—we organized many intellectual activities around Mwalimu’s ideas generally and his perspective on Pan-Africanism specifically. In the process we learnt that our younger generation knew very little about Mwalimu and his times. Unrelenting criticism, albeit subtle, of Mwalimu’s policies of Ujamaa and its alleged failure during the two decades of neo-liberalism had taken its toll. Our youth had a very lop-sided view of their recent political history. A more nuanced story of Tanzania under Nyerere and his uncompromising stand on nationalism against the constant onslaught of neo-colonial forces needed to be told.

Five years of working together also brought the three of us closer. Fortunately, at the time, the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology under its Director General Dr. Hassan Mshinda was amenable to consider our application for funding. Thus was born the Nyerere biography project. After some six to seven years of extensive research and writing, the three-volume biography was finally published in March 2020 by a leading local publisher Mkuki na Nyota.

Monique Bedasse: One of the strengths of this biography is that you force the reader to confront conflicting accounts of particular histories. An example of this is your treatment of the contested circumstances that led to Edwin Mtei’s resignation after the International Monetary Fund’s mission visited Dar es Salaam in 1979. Not only does this make for an engaging read, but it also ensures that we never lose sight of the fact that Nyerere and the other members of the Tanzanian government with whom he worked were fully human. Furthermore, it reminds us that the IMF’s visit is connected to both the larger story of the “transition from socialism to neo-liberalism” in Tanzania within a global context, and to the local history of contestation within the government. You bring together a vast array of sources to provide us with such complexity. Tell me about the research process for this book.

Issa Shivji: Hunh! Monique, it is like you read our minds. Yes, we wanted to tell a story which was both human and social. The widespread belief that Mwalimu always got his way was simply not true. Mwalimu’s ideas were contested and there was the ubiquitous struggle, class struggle if you like, like in any other society.

As for the research process, it was rather unconventional. We did exactly what we warn our PhD’s not to do. We entered the field without any pre-conceived ideas or hypothesis or even a research plan. The only guiding principle we agreed on was that in telling the man’s story we must also tell the story of his country and society; that we should desist from projecting Mwalimu as the hero and, broadly, we should apply the method of historical materialism. I leave it to the readers to assess how far we succeeded. With the wisdom of hindsight, for me personally, I think we succeeded pretty well in our first two objectives, but I am not sure if we equally succeeded in consistently applying the method of historical materialism.

I must say our research was very extensive and intense. We spent considerable time in the United Kingdom combing the UK archives but also visiting several university libraries and conducting interviews. We did over 100 interviews. Thankfully the retired leaders of the ruling party (CCM) and the state were very co-operative. We also were lucky to get access to the CCM archives and Mwalimu’s personal State House files kept at Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation. At the end of the process we found that we had collected piles of material and it was a challenge how to synthesize and analyze without falling into the trap of not being able to separate wheat from the chaff. Having said that, I must also underscore that we did not always eschew details where we felt that they needed to be recorded for future generations. It is the details, I believe, which helped us to bring out Mwalimu as human rather than some abstract political actor.

Monique Bedasse: You write that “what is specific to Nyerere’s idea of equality is that it is inseparable by definition from the idea of utu—best translated as “human dignity” or “humanness.” You also argue that at the end of his career, “he could rightly take pride” in having successfully made this the basis of the nation he worked to build. I have long thought about Nyerere’s use of the word “dignity “and its meaning for postcolonial nations and for non-European peoples in particular. Would you please say more about that?

Issa Shivji: I’m absolutely wedded to the idea of human dignity and Mwalimu in his splendid language clarified this idea to me—it ceased to be a cliché and became a fundamental concept around which the idea of equality is woven. We, therefore, argued that Nyerere’s idea of equality which has been around for at least a thousand years is fundamentally different from the liberal (bourgeois) idea of equality. For the latter, equality resolves itself in equal rights. For Nyerere, the essence of equality is dignity or humanity which cannot be captured by the notion of rights. Excuse me but I never tire of quoting Mwalimu’s beautiful poem on equality; in particular the following two stanzas. (I quote it first in Kiswahili, then in translation.)

Watu ni sawa nasema, zingatia neno “watu”,
Siwapimi kwa vilema, ambavyo ni udhia tu,
Siwafanidi kwa wema, ambao ni tabia tu,
Lakini watu ni watu, mawalii na wagema.

Niseme maji ni maji, pengine utaelewa,
Ya kunywa ya mfereji, na yanayoogelewa,
Ya umande na theluji, ya mvua, mito, maziwa,
Asili yake ni hewa, hayapitani umaji.

I say people are equal, note the word “people”,
I don’t judge them by their disability, which is only a bother,
I don’t compare them by their goodness, which is only a habit,
People are people, holy men and (palm-)wine tappers alike.

If I say water is water, you may understand,
Water to drink, water to shower,
Of dew and snow, of rain, rivers, lakes,
Its ancestry is in air; it does not deviate from its wateriness.

“Humanness” is the “wateriness” of people. In a concomitant article he wrote on human equality, he explained it thus:

Human beings are equal in their humanity. Juma and Mwajuma do not differ in their humanity. In all other matters, Juma and Mwajuma are not equal, but in their humanity, they do not differ an iota. Neither you, nor me, not anybody else, nor God can make Juma to be more of a human being than Mwajuma or Mwajuma to be more of a human being than Juma. God can do what you and me and our fellow beings cannot do—God can create Juma and can make Mwajuma to be a different creature better or worse than a human being, but God cannot make Juma or Mwajuma to be better or worse human beings than other human beings; God can neither reduce nor increase their humanity.

What more can I say? Let me venture to suggest, though, that I think Nyerere’s concept of equality possibly gives us an anchor to construct an alternative discourse from the liberal discourse of equality and rights which is so hegemonic and yet it is so inadequate for postcolonial peoples to locate themselves in.

Monique Bedasse: After stepping down from the presidency, Nyerere spent the time between February 1986 and August 1987 traveling to different regions in an effort to recharge the party. In responding to complaints from the people about the failures of the party leadership, Nyerere reflected on the past and deduced that the leaders lacked the “same fire and fight” of their predecessors. As he saw it, “during the struggle for independence, the party was fighting for freedom and knew its enemy. It was united in its objective and mission.” As your analysis suggests, the question of “who is the enemy?” is an important one. Are you implying that Nyerere would have avoided certain challenges had he sought to answer that question at various points as the political terrain in Tanzania evolved?

Issa Shivji: It is a valid question but, frankly, answering it would be indulging in hypothetical history. What we can say is “what happened” rather than “what could have happened if …!” Were choices available at strategic conjunctures? Yes, they were. Why was this and not the other course of action chosen? Well, that can be explained only partly by the constraints of circumstances. The individual actor does make choices given his or her own outlook and social interests that he, consciously or otherwise, represents. The driving force for Nyerere was nation-building which demanded unity and which resulted in suppressing diversity or what he believed to be dissipating forces. So, in spite of formulating a beautiful phrase “development as rebellion”, the title of the biography, he could not tolerate rebels who pointed towards a different course of action at strategic junctures. This is captured in the title of book three of the biography: Rebellion without Rebels.

Monique Bedasse: You end the book with a question: “Was Julius Nyerere more of Plato’s Philosopher Ruler than Machiavelli’s Prince?” Many authors attempt to resolve such an analytical problem; to tell us in more pointed terms how we should remember a particular historical figure. Why did you decide to end with a query?

Issa Shivji: We wrote this biography with utmost respect for our readers guided by the dictum, “People think.” People are capable of resolving the query in their own way—we have provided sufficient material and analysis. But, more importantly, the query underlines the oft-repeated observation that great persons in history are enigmatic. Enigma is the stuff of which greatness is made. Let me end by quoting from our preface to the biography:

Our biography of Nyerere is grounded in the history of people’s struggles in which Nyerere, the man, was immersed and from which his greatness emerged. Our narrative does not shy away from recounting controversies surrounding Nyerere the man, or providing a reasoned critique, occasionally severe, of Nyerere the politician. All this does not detract from his greatness. Controversies and critiques constitute the stuff of which great men and women of history are made.

About the Interviewee

Issa Shivji is Director of the Nyerere Resource Centre at the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology in Dar es Salaam.

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

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Dr. Monique Bedasse is an award-winning historian based in the departments of history, and African and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

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The Lies They Tell Us About Education, Work, and the Arts

Society pays a heavy price when the arts are not about human beings but about institutions. We become an autocratic society, and a society without soul.

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In my open letter to Kenyans, I talked about how the arts are a divine calling. The arts make us human, because the arts provide a space for us to be social and individual at the same time. With the arts, we accept what we can’t change and change what we can, while producing something creative and sometimes new.

Let me give an example of what I mean. The rituals we perform when someone we love dies help us accept death as something we all must face. However, we cannot raise our hands and say death is inevitable, because if we do, we would not have reason to live our lives to the fullest. So the arts is where we deal with that contradiction. When Amos and Josh sing “Tutaonana baadaye”, they are singing, “We accept your going is inevitable, but until we join you, we must still live our best lives, love with all our hearts.” And from this deep truth, Amos and Josh and King Kaka produced a beautiful song.

​That’s what the arts are – beauty that carries deep truth.

This beauty that carries deep truth is not liked by the people who want power. For them to be powerful, they must block us from the truth, and so they block us from the arts. The people in power combine the force of education, religion, business and media to make sure that either they block us from the arts, or they distort the arts so much that the arts don’t lead us to the truth but to a false impression of the truth.

So I’m going to talk about how education boosts this system.

The thing to remember is that the school system hates the arts for the same reason that the government hates them. Schools have structures of power, like principals, who in turn have their deputies and middle-level managers. The power they exercise is no different from that of the state, and in fact, in many instances their appointments are made by the state.

So the education system hates the arts for the same reason as politicians, the clergy and business people: arts will make teachers and students start asking questions about the education system, including questions about content and whether we must use violence to educate. For this reason alone, schools do not want arts education because it would make teachers and students less easy to control.

And how does the education system fight against the arts? By capturing and telling lies about three things: education, work, the arts.

Lies about education

The biggest lie that has been told to us is that schooling = education. I’m sure you know this, because I hear artists saying it, except that it doesn’t mean what they think it means.

Let’s start by defining education. Education is the formal way in which people expand their knowledge and refine their skills. In other words, education is done deliberately. This means two other truths that Kenyans, including artists, seem not to fully understand.

One, that people can expand their knowledge and refine their skills unconsciously, through life, habit and experience.  In this letter, I will call that process “culture”. In other words, you may learn to dance not because you deliberately decided to learn, but because dancing was happening around you and you also learned to dance. The fact that you did not learn your knowledge or skill consciously with the purpose of becoming a dancer does not mean that your knowledge and skill are less important than what others learn in the formal school. Culture was just another way of learning for you.

Two, formal learning is not restricted to going to school alone. Formal learning includes apprenticeship and mentorship. When we are mentored by or apprenticed to someone else, we are going to school, even though we are not sitting in a classroom to be taught by someone called a teacher, and then getting a certificate for it. One of the reasons why I used to invite artists to meet my students is because I wanted my students to hear that even other artists put time into learning their craft from others. So we heard from Juliani that he learned his craft from Ukoo Flani, or from Suzanna Owiyo that she learned to play the nyatiti from her grandfather.

So it is extremely important, and I cannot emphasize this enough, that artists must learn from others. When our artists are not being mentored artistically by anybody, we have reason to worry.

I have heard some artists say on TV that they didn’t learn their craft from anyone. I find that upsetting, because even if they didn’t go out deliberately to learn from elders the way Juliani and Suzanna Owiyo did, they were learning from what was being played in the house or what they heard or did as children. By saying they did not go to school, they are basically dissing their cultures and backgrounds. Or they don’t know them at all.

When we are mentored by or apprenticed to someone else, we are going to school, even though we are not sitting in a classroom to be taught by someone called a teacher.

But the second reason why that statement is upsetting is because it means that such artists see no value in creating arts traditions or archives. It means that if you didn’t learn from anyone, no one needs to learn from you. That means that we will always start our arts from scratch, over and over again. It means that with the arts, we are always reinventing the wheel. And the people in power like that, because the larger society never builds an archive of knowledge.

And without an archive of knowledge about the arts, society has no obligation to respect the arts as work that people spend their time doing, or that it is a skill they learn. And I’m sure you can know the rest of the story. But I’m going to go over it.

Lies about work

The second lie that the education system tells us is that going to school is for employment, and employment is for national development. And we artists know the second part of that lie: to develop, we don’t need the arts; we need STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

And to support these lies, the educators and the media tell us junk like 80 per cent of students are in arts subjects. It’s not true. Let me just give the worst example of arts education in Kenya: out of 70 universities in Kenya, only six universities teach music. Only one university teaches fine arts. There is no Master of Fine Arts degree in Kenya.

But the other problem with the lie about employment is that without arts education, we are not able to teach generations of Kenyans to appreciate the importance of arts in society, whether they become artists or not. We need to teach arts education to create a society that will support artists. In other words, if we want the Kenyans to buy your albums, your books and your paintings, to go to the cinema to watch your films and to the theatres to watch your plays, they need to have grown up learning the importance of the arts for their own lives and for society as a whole. They need to understand the importance of protecting public parks and social halls where musicians can perform. They also need to understand the work that goes into art, so that they stop negotiating with you to pay almost nothing, if they pay you at all.

When you go on TV and talk badly about schools and not needing to go to school to be an artist, you are encouraging schools not to provide arts education, so that the next generation of farmers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, teachers will not spend their resources paying for your work. In other words, you are encouraging people not to see your work as work that needs to be paid for. So please think again before talking badly about schools.

When you go on TV and talk badly about schools and not needing to go to school to be an artist, you are encouraging schools not to provide arts education.

Also, when the school system says that the only work worth respect is the work you went to school for, we are encouraging schooling-based discrimination. There is a lot, a lot of work done in Kenya, not only by artists, but also by people who did not get certificates in order to do it. The rich still profit from that work, but they pay even less for it because the workers did not learn it in school. That is why the government is actively discouraging people from pursuing university education. They want Kenyans to learn university level work but not pay them for the value of their work. This problem is no longer about artists alone. It’s affecting all young people.

So the lesson here is 1) value your education, even if you did not get it in the school system, and 2) do not diss the school system as irrelevant to the arts.

Lies about the arts

This third lie about the arts is repeated by artists so much, it’s embarrassing. The lie that the arts are about “talent”. The problem with “talent” is that it suggests that arts is not work that takes skill and time. In fact, businesspeople exploit artists precisely because of the attitude that “Why do you want me to pay for just shaking your body around or splashing colour on a canvas? Si it’s just talent? Even I can do the same work if I wanted to.” For them, performance has no rehearsals, painting has no sketches, and writing has no drafts. You’re just talented. Your art required no work or skill.

This lie was picked up by the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development, so that you believed the government when it said that Competency-Based Curriculum is different because it will have a pathway for the “talented” students who do not do well in the sciences. How on earth could you accept such madharau as “arts education”? And yet, as I explained on Citizen TV, the “talent” pathway is where they are going to throw the kids who are poor or needed extra help from teachers. In other words, the arts are the place to dump the students let down by the education system.

With that kind of attitude expressed about the arts, we should not be surprised that professionals coming out of the school system don’t see the arts as worth paying for.

But there is another insidious thing happening within the education system that should make us very worried. We are producing periphery professionals without the core artistic skills. Universities, for example, are producing film-makers who don’t learn to tell stories, journalists who don’t learn language or how to write, conflict experts who have no knowledge of history, politics and anthropology, or musicians who cannot play instruments. How is this acceptable?

It is acceptable because the universities have bought the lie that the arts are not “marketable” and are not investing in teaching these subjects. So universities are cheating students that they will produce good films and produce good music without learning story-telling and composition work.

And as a country, we pay the price for this mess with our inability to produce art that we Kenyans can be proud of and that can put us on the international map. For instance, Hollywood makes its biggest and most award-winning films from stories of real people, or from their own novels and plays. Lupita Nyong’o won her Oscar for a film based on a real-life story.

But year after year, Kenyan film-makers guilt-trip us into watching local films but are yet to produce the story of Wangari Maathai or Syokimau or Elijah Masinde on screen. We have few of our oral stories in cartoons, and instead we watch Lion King. By now the column “Surgeon’s Diary” should be an ER-type series, “Mwalimu Andrew” should be a sitcom. But why can’t Kenyan filmmakers think like this? Because they don’t study stories. They study cameras and scripting and Western film festivals. Remember what I said about “reinventing the wheel?” That is what we do.

The last concern I have about education is the most serious of all. This one pains me.

Arts in Kenyan education is taught like science. Literature, the most prominent example, is taught so badly, that students leave school hating it. They are not taught to enjoy stories for what they are.

There are three main ways in which literature is taught. One is to cut up literature scientifically into themes, characters, style and other details and make students repeat those analyses without ever enjoying or understanding the story. The other is to insist on morals, a development agenda or a specific anti-colonial story. The last is to shame students into saying they have no identity because they don’t know the songs their great-grandparents used to sing.

The purpose of all these methods is to prevent the type of arts I talked about in the previous letter. It’s to prevent individual enjoyment and expression through the arts. It’s also to reinforce the idea that the arts are not for us, human beings, but for grades (the school), the church (morals), the state (development) or politics (limited to anti-colonialism).

We pay the price for this mess with our inability to produce art that we Kenyans can be proud of and that can put us on the international map.

This view of the arts explains some disturbing things I notice in my classroom. Our students can’t enjoy art or talk about real life. For instance, when I recently gave some love poems for students to analyze, they said that the praise of a loved one was a lie or an exaggeration. These days, when we are in class, students will tell me about fascinating things in society, but when they hand in the write-up, I find they have not written what they said in class, but have written notes like a schoolteacher. One class finally got what I was complaining about when I said that in Kenya, if I wear a nice dress, people will not say, “That dress is beautiful” or “You look nice.” They will give an analysis: “I always find kitenge dresses very smart.” That’s how disconnected the Kenyan psyche has become. We’ve lost our human warmth.

When the arts are not about us, human beings, but about institutions, then we become an autocratic society. When the arts are treated in this way, it gives permission to the government to censor us, to businesses to exploit us, to churches to condemn us, and to society to not value us. And the price the whole society pays is the loss of our soul.

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Kenyan Media and the War in Somalia: In Bed With the Troops

Ten years ago this month Kenyan troops invaded Somalia. Coverage of the incursion by the Kenyan media has consistently and uncritically favoured the Kenya Defence Forces.

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Kenyan Media and the War in Somalia: In Bed With the Troops
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Precisely ten years ago, Kenyans woke up to the news that about 2,000 troops of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) had been deployed to fight al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based terror group.

In an invasion dubbed Operation Linda Nchi, the troops made their way into southern Somalia through the semi-arid porous border that divides the two neighbouring nations. The deployment followed news reports that al-Shabaab was behind abductions targeting aid workers in northern Kenya and tourists along Kenya’s coast.

But while there is no shortage of reports on the hidden reasons behind this decision, analysis of how the Kenyan press has constructed the narratives about the conflict for its audiences is limited. Scholars and analysts have scrambled to put forth solid analyses of the dynamics of the Kenyan elites, al-Shabaab, and other actors involved in Somalia yet few have attempted to address the question of how the Kenyan mass media mediates this war.

Further, researchers have undertaken the essential task of informing us how media outlets in the global north cover wars involving troops from their countries’ perspectives. However, analysis on how invasions in countries like Somalia are mediated by news media organizations from invading countries like Kenya remains minimal.

Wars and the news media 

The intersection of news media and conflict is complex. There is consensus in the existing academic research that journalists throw away their professional hats when covering wars involving their home countries. This is explained by the fact that they are guided by military elites who control the information coming in from the frontline. The shared cultures and ideologies with soldiers on the battlefield render journalists sympathetic to their governments’ interests. In short, they remain patriotic and loyal.

As primary agenda setters, the news media remains a powerful force. In Kenya, the existing digital divide reminds us that the traditional press still dominates the dissemination of information across the country. This requires that we explore what shapes the decisions of Nairobi-based editors when bringing the war in Somalia to Kenyan living rooms.

The KDF has participated in numerous peacekeeping missions across the world since its inception. From the Bosnian war in the 90s to the Sierra Leone civil war that ended in the early 2000s and Sudan’s Darfur conflict, the Kenyan government has generously contributed its military troops to UN-led peacekeeping missions. These missions largely go uncovered by the Kenyan press since the country is effectively not at war, and also because distance discourages editors from spending resources on these countries.

However, the October 2011 decision to invade Somalia, a country that shares a border with Kenya, was unprecedented. The unilateral decision by former President Mwai Kibaki’s government opened a decade of countless terror attacks across the country. And for the first time, Kenyan journalists were covering a war in which their own country was prominently involved.

Undoubtedly, Kenya’s hasty decision to invade Somalia cemented al-Shabaab’s prominence as one of the deadliest terror groups in the continent. Helped by Kenya’s weak security system which was a result of rampant corruption and limited resources, al-Shabaab executed some of its worst attacks in the country.

The unilateral decision by former President Mwai Kibaki’s government opened a decade of countless terror attacks across the country.

The group was behind the killing of over 4,000 people across East Africa in 2016 alone. The Garissa University terror incident in early 2015 that led to the deaths of 147 students and staff remains the deadliest attack by the group in Kenya. Inside Somalia, the group was behind the January 2016 massacre in El Adde and the 2017 attacks in Kulbiyow that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of KDF personnel. Thus, the Kenyan mass media found itself covering a war that was killing military personnel in Somalia and Kenyan citizens across the country.

KDF and the media

It is almost impossible not to think about patriotism when discussing the intersection of the Kenyan mass media and the country’s military institutions. Even before its invasion of Somalia, the KDF consistently enjoyed favourable media coverage and, with the exception of the people of northern Kenya who carry the scars of attacks such as the Wagalla massacre perpetrated in Wajir in 1984, Kenyans’ perception of the KDF was positive.

The Kenyan media’s uncritical treatment of the KDF when the invasion commenced was therefore not surprising. Kenyan journalists share cultures and ideologies with the troops and this creates a bias in how they view this war.

We have often seen how citizens of African countries—with Kenyans leading by example—react to Western media misrepresentations of their stories. From #SomeoneTellCNN to #SomeoneTellNewYorkTimes, Kenyans have taken to social media platforms like Twitter to vociferously criticise how the Western press covers terror in their country. And while pushback against misrepresentations and negative portrayals by foreign media is necessary, it is equally important to question how our own news media portrays war and terror in Somalia.

It is common knowledge that US reporters tend to interpret foreign news with American audiences in mind. But this is not only true of Western reporters; journalists across the globe tend to behave this way when they cross their borders to report on a war led by or involving their own country.

Kenyan news media gatekeepers <> through the lens of nationalism when reporting conflict across the border and within the country. Moreover, whether it be the shifta war, the atrocities in Somalia, the Somali refugees in the Dadaab camp, the Kenyan mass media places Somalia and northern Kenya within the same frame, and the published stories are perceived as synonymous with Kenya’s policy in Somalia. Kenyan reporters write these stories with Kenya in mind, creating the ideal environment that enables Kenyan citizens to accept and approve of the conflict.

After conducting a content analysis of how the Daily Nation and Standard newspapers have covered the war, Cliff Ooga and Samuel Siringi conclude that the Kenyan press has “relied a lot on the news from government agencies instead of residents and eyewitnesses accounts of the combat in Somalia.” This cements the argument that the sources used in covering the conflict frame the KDF as the winning side and shape a favourable public opinion that approves the mission.

My findings of an analysis of over 200 articles in Kenyan and US newspapers about the 2013 Westgate Mall attack were consistent with those of scholars who had examined other attacks such as the Garissa University and Dusit Hotel terror attacks. More than 70 per cent of the sampled articles received episodic framing, meaning they were covered as a single event.

This type of framing doesn’t inform the audience about why these attacks are occurring. It lacks in-depth analysis, nuance, and thematic demonstrations of how Kenya found itself in the conflict. Tellingly, these findings were synonymous with how American newspapers covered the same attacks.

Embedded journalism 

The primary reason behind the Kenyan news media’s uncritical reportage of the war in Somalia is embedded journalism. This type of journalism occurs when reporters are invited and attached to military personnel in the battleground to cover conflicts. This approach defeats critical journalistic values—fairness, neutrality, and impartiality are replaced by patriotism, loyalty and empathy. The value of ethical journalism and independence on the battlefields is lost since military personal provide security to these reporters.

Moreover, the military covers the journalists’ costs and sets the ideal timing for combat. The location of the coverage, how and who is interviewed,  these are strategically structured so as to portray Kenya as winning the war, a classic example of public relations through the mass media. Kenyans are presented with news coming in from the battlefield wrapped in such headlines as KDF, No Retreat, No Surrender in Somalia Operation, and The Frontline: KDF Continues to Combat al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The concept of embedded journalism flourished in the 2003 Iraq war. The US military was eager to control information coming out of the oil-rich country. The use of this tactic by American military elites was motivated by the embarrassment it experienced in the Vietnam War, often referred to as the “first television war”. The advent of television technology took journalists to the frontline, a perilous yet enticing undertaking that brought with it recognition among their peers and prestigious prizes that acknowledged their prominence in the realm of journalism.

The primary reason behind the Kenyan news media’s uncritical reportage of the war in Somalia is embedded journalism.

With unrestricted coverage, positive reportage of the Vietnam War soon turned to critical reporting that portrayed the government in a bad light. With journalists having free access to the affected communities, bloody images of innocent victims of the war found their way onto television screens in American living rooms. The footage contradicted “the official war narrative and undermined public support for the war effort” and calls by anti-war activists for the American government to end the war in Vietnam escalated. This is why military elites in Washington DC view the unfettered access of news media to the frontline as a threat that needs to be contained.

In 2003, embedded journalism played a significant role in advancing the interests of the US in the Middle East and beyond. Reporters were given protection by the military in cities across Iraq. This is little more than tourism on the battlefield, where the troops are the tour guides who control journalists during the adventure that is war coverage.

Imitating the West, the KDF employed this tool to deal with the news media. Coverage of Kenya’s invasion of Somalia is Kenyan-centric, with sources comprising of military personal and the personal views of the journalists. Somalis are completely disregarded and the few who are interviewed are beneficiaries of KDF-driven humanitarian efforts such as free medical camps and distribution of foodstuff.

A culture change is needed

How can the Kenyan news media change this culture of violating journalistic values? Can Kenyan journalists redeem themselves by giving us a clear picture of the KDF’s engagement in Somalia?

These questions need immediate attention as we enter the second decade of Kenyan military activity in Somalia. We have witnessed how the lack of critical coverage of war and terror in countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere has derailed efforts towards finding durable solutions to end these wars.

Kenyan journalists need to acknowledge that their coverage of Kenya’s incursion into Somalia has uncritically embraced the government’s position and that Kenyans have not been given an accurate picture of the ongoing conflict. Their editors, the decision-makers in the newsroom, should strive to allocate resources for journalists to be deployed independently to cover this conflict. This essential element in the news production process is key to a fair, impartial, and critical coverage of Kenya’s engagement in Somalia.

This is tourism on the battlefield and the troops are the tour guides who control journalists during the adventure that is war coverage.

Journalists covering these stories should strive to reach out to different sources. Including the voices of those in the local communities who face the wrath of both the KDF and al-Shabaab would be a bold step towards constructing clear narratives for citizens in Kenya and elsewhere.

Newsrooms should also hire full-time, Somali-based journalists to cover the conflict; deploying journalists from Nairobi who lack contextual knowledge will make it difficult to produce fair and impartial reporting. Perhaps engaging properly remunerated local correspondents would address some of the challenges of the last ten years.

When news of the invasion was announced a decade ago, elites in Nairobi were quick to promise that it would be a short war. However, our troops are still “fighting terror” that has killed thousands of Kenyans inside and outside Somalia. It is conceivable that critical news coverage of this war by the Kenyan mass media would lead to the long-overdue exodus of KDF from Somalia.

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Open Letter to Kenyans Who Do Not Behave Like Jonah

Democracy is supposed to be this magical space where we come together with our unique individual contributions and make something beautiful to the glory of God and in praise of our ancestors. Democracy is modelled on the arts, and that is why we must do our art.

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Open Letter to Kenyans Who Do Not Behave Like Jonah
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This is an open letter to all of us Kenyans who do not behave like Jonah who tried to evade his divine calling to preach God’s message in Nineveh.

​I know that I speak for many when I say that in Kenya, the arts sector is abusive. To enter it is not for the faint-hearted, and few of us come out of it intact. Many of us, myself included, have experienced depression or panic attacks. A number of us have been shot in the neck or are victims of rape. And each time the violence happens, the public winks and says we should have seen it coming. They say that we brought it on ourselves by talking, dressing or thinking differently.

When we work as artists, our work is demeaned. It is treated as “talent” and therefore not requiring any pay. We are cheated out of our earnings by not being paid at all, or by accountants lying to us that the cheques are not yet signed so that they can buy more time to play with our hard-earned money. When we are asked “What do you do for a living?” and we say that we are writers or painters or photographers or musicians, we are told, “That’s fine, but what do you do from 8 to 5?” When we say that we are studying the arts, we are asked, “So where do you hope to get a job with that?” One of my students studying music was once advised to have a back-up plan.

The only time we get recognized in Kenya is when we succeed abroad or get recognized abroad. Even here, because the politicians have grabbed the cinema halls, the playgrounds and the social halls, we cannot find anywhere where people can gather to watch or listen to a performance. Instead, we find ourselves running to the halls built by foreign embassies in the Central Business District, far from the neighbourhoods where we live.

Why is being an artist so abusive?

I will tell you why. In Kenya, the state, businesses, the church, the media and the education system (the hegemony) are united in making our lives as artists a living hell.

Divine calling

The hegemony hates us because the arts is where human beings suspend institutional rules. In the arts, we privilege listening to God and the universe over listening to human power. When we dance, for instance, we switch off our consciousness about who is looking at us. We concentrate our minds on following the beat and on being in sync with other dancers. This means that, for that moment, we are focused on the arts – we suspend what the church thinks, what the government thinks, what the school thinks or what the media thinks.

In Myth, Literature and the African World, Wole Soyinka says ritual (or what I will call here the arts) is the space in which human beings collectively come to terms with their place in the world. Through the arts, we accept life as it is, both the good and the bad, and at the same time – not like an accounting balance sheet. We accept pain and love, life and death, as inevitable. We also accept that despite being human, the world operates on rules that even we humans cannot change. In the arts, Soyinka argues, we are even allowed to collectively call the gods to account, as Mother Nature and the gods also hold humanity to account.

The hegemony hates us because the arts is where human beings suspend institutional rules.

So the arts is the space where we bend the rules and break the barriers. It is where we reset the cosmic balance and provide justice to the vulnerable and clip the powers of the mighty. In the arts, we love people for who they are despite what the world tells us, and we reflect the image of God through becoming creators ourselves.

All these things I have described defy the human institutions of the hegemony. That is why the hegemony fights back at the arts.

The autocratic foundations of Kenya

In order to understand why Kenya is this way, it is important to understand that Kenya was constructed on a very narrow agenda – to control the resources (including us) for the profit of the few who did not even live here.

How do absentee plantation owners control a proud people with their own histories, identities and livelihoods? By creating a fiction or stories about how we are such degraded human beings who can only be helped to survive by the very same people who get rich from exploiting us. The arts inevitably became the enemy of our exploiters because the arts are where we can suspend these rules and connect to ourselves and to each other as human beings.

If you understand how power was handed over at independence, through careful selection of the Kenyan colonial sympathizers who joined the colonial civil service, then you’ll understand why that system has remained intact to this day.

The colonial rules which we never got rid of are still constructed on a narrow path to “success”, namely going to Western schools, getting employment, joining politics and becoming rich and displaying that wealth with cars, houses, children in foreign schools and other symbols of Western consumerist wealth.

For this system to continue, it also needs the stories that the colonizers told our ancestors. In church, we’re told that God loves the exploiters and that God is disappointed that we are not like them. In school, we are told to learn so that we become the next generation of exploiters, and that the only purpose of learning is to join the market. In the media, we are told that those who are successful are those who make the most money, not those who do the best for society. Meanwhile, the government sees its only role as setting laws and policy to rule us and sending us the police to punish us.

In the arts, we love people for who they are despite what the world tells us, and we reflect the image of God through becoming creators ourselves.

As you probably know, the system supported by these stories is brutal. In school, children are on their feet from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. In the workplace, the more we work, the more we are insulted and the less we are paid. In the media, we are told that we are irrelevant to development. At church, we are told that God is disappointed in us. The government calls us immoral and the politicians patronizingly call us “talented youth”.

Many Kenyans who go through this brutal system make peace with it. But we artists don’t. And often, that’s not even a decision that we make. It’s just that the fire of God and the universe that burns inside of us is so strong, that we start to ask questions like, “What if God is not as brutal and punitive as we are told? What if we had another definition of success? What if I love the person whom the politician is telling me to hate? What if I dance instead of being miserable? What if I wear orange instead of brown? What if I sing instead of being quiet? What if I admit that I am sad? What if. . . .”

And that scares the people in power, because their power depends on us thinking we have no alternatives. And so, at the pulpits, on the airwaves, in the classroom, at the workplace and in government offices, people are taught to hate us for being different and for refusing to conform. We grow up being told that there is no future in a career in the arts and that we are responsible for immorality and underdevelopment. We are lied to that 80 per cent of students in university are in arts programmes, when the number is below 20 per cent.

Team Courage

So I want to encourage you not to give up. You are on the right track. The road may be difficult now, the system may be abusive, but we are suffering because we reveal the truth about the powerlessness of the system. If we try to suppress the creativity God put in our hearts, God will send a fish to swallow us and spit us out with the command that we must be artists. So we have no choice but to see this through.

We must see our calling through because society depends on it. The arts are the soul of a people. Without the arts, we will feel powerless to change anything, or too much in despair to hope. The arts are the quintessential space for democracy and freedom, because in the arts, we come together collectively but at the same time express our individuality. It is this magic that we know as freedom.

Think of a painting with different colours, or a choir with different voices. Although each colour or each voice is unique on its own and remains unique in the painting or in the singing, the combination of colours produces a sight that is pleasing to the eye and the combination of voices produces a sound that is pleasing to the ear.

That is what democracy is supposed to be. Democracy is supposed to be this magical space where we come together with our unique individual contributions and make something beautiful to the glory of God and in praise of our ancestors. Democracy is modelled on the arts, and that is why we must do our art.

I know that this encouragement does not mean much when courage does not pay the bills or put a roof over our heads. But in my further letters to you, I will explain what we can do to resist the abuse. We have a lot of work to do in terms of education, media, economy and faith. I will talk about how each sector abuses us, but also how we also are sometimes complicit in the abuse.

Joy will come in the morning.

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