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Will COVID-19 Spell the Death of Cities?

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The rapid spread of COVID-19 in urban areas is raising questions about whether this pandemic will herald the demise of cities. RASNA WARAH argues that cities will continue to exist and grow despite the coronavirus crisis because of the distinctly human need for social interaction, physical contact and collaboration.

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“Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.” – Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City (2011)

In February this year, just before the coronavirus pandemic forced the Kenyan government to impose a partial lockdown in the country, I moved to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, a city with a population of 4.4 million, from Malindi, a small town along Kenya’s coast with a population of just 120,000. I had been intending to move back home for several years but 2020 seemed an opportune time to do it. I had spent ten long years in Malindi and was ready to get back to the thick of things where the action was.

Now I know, for most people who live in Nairobi, the city is not “home” – the “true north” of most Nairobians, as Alexander Ikawah pointed out in a recent article, is their rural home, the place they identify most with. Ikawah says that Nairobi is just a place where “city villagers” work; where they have “houses”, not “homes”.

But I am not among these people. I was born in Nairobi, and so was my father and my grandfather. Kenyan Asians don’t typically have a rural home (Asians in Kenya were not encouraged to settle in rural or agricultural land both before and after independence and so are concentrated mainly in urban areas). And even if they have an ancestral home in India or Pakistan, they don’t tend to refer to it as “home”, nor does this ancestral home loom large in their imagination. In fact, many Kenyan Asians have never visited their “motherland”.

I have lived in London in the UK and Boston in the USA, and have travelled to many, many, cities around the world – New York (my favourite city), Istanbul (a cultural delight where East meets West), Mogadishu (a wounded city with nice beaches), Kabul (wounded but with majestic snowy peak backdrops), Havana (a salsa-lover’s dream, arguably the world’s most egalitarian city), Paris (a romantic city with many bridges), Mumbai (a buzzing “maximum city” of people, people, and more people), Beijing (interesting but with high levels of air pollution), Cairo (history lives here), Florence (a beautiful outdoor museum), Johannesburg (a legacy of apartheid, not my favourite city), Dar es Salaam (a friendly coastal city with huge potential), to name a few – but for me, Nairobi is not only home, it is also the place where most of my memories reside.

I will not go into the details about my reasons for leaving Nairobi in the first place, but it had a lot to do with trying to regain some perspective on life after having led a busy treadmill-like work existence where career success depended so much on pleasing a boss and undermining colleagues to move up the career ladder. I was hoping that a break would allow me to do things I hadn’t had time for before, like writing and spending more time with my husband. I dreamed of looking out of the window and seeing palm trees swaying in the wind, and breathing in the salty Indian Ocean breeze. Oh what bliss (and it was)…until I discovered that meaningful social interaction was much more important to me than the sounds and smells of nature. Voluntary self-isolation, I discovered, is neither natural nor healthy. Human beings are wired to be social animals – that is how they survived as a species.

While living in a small sleepy town where nothing much happens gave me the freedom to pursue writing (I ended up writing three books during my self-imposed “exile”) and other interests, I had a gnawing sense that I was in danger of disconnecting and self-isolating myself from all that was meaningful in my life. I yearned for intellectual stimulation and missed cultural and literary events. I longed to go to the cinema and hang out with my family. My social interactions in Malindi were superficial; I was in danger of becoming like the many expatriate (mostly Italian and British) retirees in the town, whose lives revolve around bridge parties and afternoon siestas induced by copious amounts of wine.

The truth is, I was lonely. I had not found my “tribe” in Malindi.

Then COVID-19 happened. It is unfortunate that my return to Nairobi coincided with a dusk-to-dawn curfew and partial lockdown, so my intentions of absorbing myself into city life have once again have been put on hold. I am back to self-isolating again.

Cities are not the problem

The coronavirus pandemic has raised questions about whether cities will lose their allure, and whether people will look to leading simpler rural or small town lives. The fact that the virus emanated from the city of Wuhan in China and spread across the world through networks of cities and transport hubs is making people wonder whether we should be seeking more dispersed and less dense forms of settlement.

However, Tomasz Sudra, a former colleague who is now retired from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), told me that it was unfair to blame cities for COVID-19 because the virus could have been contained early if the Chinese government had not decided to suppress “bad news”.

“The medical doctor who blew the whistle on the virus and died from it was forced to confess that he was spreading false news and was arrested,” he said. “The epidemic [in China] became a pandemic because the government suppressed the free flow of information.”

Cities have not only been associated with the rapid spread of diseases, but environmental degradation as well. The concentration of human and industrial activity in cities and the over-reliance on motorised forms of transport have been blamed for the air pollution that characterises so many of the world’s large cities. Images of smog-free cities as a result of lockdowns (especially in China, where air pollution levels are so excessive that city residents routinely wear face masks) have been circulating on social media. People are asking whether the climate crisis could be blamed on cities, and whether COVID-19 will force us to seek alternative lifestyles.

John Gray, writing in the 3 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, says that the current crisis is a “turning point” in history. “The era of peak globalization is over. An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were,” he predicts.

Is the city – itself a product of globalisation and the movement of goods and people from one shore or trading route to another – losing its attraction? Will there be a return to the nostalgic longing for rural life popularised by people like Mahatma Gandhi, who said that “true India” could only be found in the country’s villages? I don’t think so. The world, including India, is more urban than it was in Gandhi’s time. “True India” is no longer only in India’s villages, but in its teeming cities and towns, which currently host 34 per cent of the country’s population.

Just over a decade ago, there were more rural folk on this planet than city folk, but that changed around 2007 when the world’s urban population equaled the world’s rural population for the first time. Though some regions of the world, notably Europe, North America and Latin America, became predominantly urban much earlier (around the 1950s), the rapid urban growth rates in poorer parts of the world in the last fifty years have demonstrated that the pull of the city is stronger than ever. Cities must be offering something that villages don’t, or can’t.

I must confess that I have spent much of my professional life writing about what is wrong with cities and what can be done about it. At UN-Habitat, where I worked as an editor for more than a decade, the emphasis was on urban poverty and all its manifestations, including informal settlements (also known as slums). In 2006, UN-Habitat declared that one out of every three city dwellers lives in a slum, with sub-Saharan Africa having the largest proportion of its urban population living in slum conditions, with little or no access to water, sanitation, electricity and adequate housing. Asia hosted the largest number of slum dwellers, though some sub-regions in the continent were doing better than others. Slums, warned UN-Habitat, were threatening to become a “dominant and distinct type of settlement in cities of the developing world”.

This grim assessment was followed by another one in 2008, when UN-Habitat sounded the alarm on rising inequalities in cities, and warned that economic and social inequalities in urban areas had the potential to destabilise countries and make them economically unsustainable. Highly unequal cities – where the rich lead vastly different lives from the poor – are breeding grounds for social unrest, and social unrest disrupts economic activities, went the argument. UN-Habitat stated that pro-poor and inclusive urban development could significantly decrease these inequalities and make cities more sustainable. While the UN agency acknowledged that energy consumption in cities was impacting negatively on the environment, it made a case for mitigating the impact of carbon emissions through solutions such as environmentally-friendly public transport and the use of green energy.

Cities are not the problem; how we plan them is the central issue, said the experts.

The benefits of city life

Throughout history, cities have a played a central role in creating and sustaining civilizations. Cities are not just places where economic activities are concentrated, they are also crucibles of innovation and culture. The rise and fall of cities has often been associated with the rise and fall of civilizations. Cities such as Rome and Athens had their “golden ages”; some survived a loss of status; others became relics.

In 2006, I was asked to write a short chapter on the benefits of urban living for UN-Habitat’s 2006 State of the World’s Cities report, which focused almost entirely on the gloomy topic of slums. The thinking was that there was a danger that in highlighting the problems in cities and slums, we might inadvertently throw the baby out with the bath water and that as the UN’s “City Agency”, it would be counterproductive to focus only on the negative aspects of urban life. In other words, by presenting cities as places where nasty things happen, we might actually be sending an anti-urban message to the general public and to policymakers.

Because cities were – and still are – viewed as the engines of economic development, and economic growth is generally credited for reducing poverty levels (though this has not been the case in some countries), I had to make an argument that made economic sense to governments and the public at large. So I argued that because so much economic activity in a country is concentrated in its cities, “cities make countries rich”. I further pointed out that the concentration of populations and enterprises in urban areas greatly reduces the unit cost of piped water, sewerage systems, drains, roads, and other infrastructure. Therefore, the economies of scale that cities offer are not replicable in small, less dense human settlements. Building a hospital or a road in a town or village with a population of just 50,000 is far less efficient per capita than building a hospital or road in a large urban area that hosts a population of 5 million (regardless of the ethics of making such a choice).

The central argument was that rural people don’t just up and move to a city; the main driver of rural-to-urban migration is economic opportunities and the chance to lead a better quality of life. In almost all countries, rural poverty levels are higher than urban poverty levels. (For instance, the poverty rate in rural Kenya is about 40 per cent, compared to around 28 per cent in peri-urban and urban areas.) Indeed, the data showed that despite the pathetic and hazardous living conditions in slums, people who lived in slums often viewed them as a “first step” out of rural poverty. As Edward Glaeser, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University, says in his book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, “Cities don’t make people poor; they attract poor people. The flow of less advantaged people into cities from Rio to Rotterdam demonstrates urban strength, not weakness.”

However, villages are not stagnant places either; some, like Mumbai, which was once a fishing village, grow to become megacities (defined as cities with populations of more than 10 million). Some cities, like Nairobi, were not even villages originally; Nairobi literally grew out of nothing except a railway depot built at the beginning of the 20th century. The world’s great cities did not only grow because they were centres of trade and commerce; they also grew because they were religious, political, administrative or cultural centres, and this is what drew – and continues to draw – people to them.

Many rural people move to cities because they believe that they and their families will have better access to health and education. Cities also offer women more opportunities for social and economic mobility. Unrestrained by discriminatory customs and traditions, urban women are more likely than their rural counterparts to have access to property and other assets. Child and maternal mortality rates are also lower in cities, including in slums, compared to rural areas.

The downside is that city life exposes people to hazards such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, congestion, and crime, which significantly impacts the health and lives of urban dwellers. Cities can be incubators of disease, crime and other vices; but these disadvantages have never stopped cities from growing, even when plagues and other health hazards infest cities and kill populations. The 1665 Great Plague of London, for example, killed thousands, but did not diminish London’s stature. COVID-19 has decimated populations in the city of New York – the city with the highest COVID-19-related death rate in the United States – but even images of mass graves of the disease’s victims are unlikely to deter people from moving there.

Safety nets are also weaker in cities, which is one reason why so many people in the developing world (where there are few government-funded welfare systems) identify with their rural homes, where, as Ikawah points out, social capital obtained through filial ties is much stronger (though associational life in slums, through cooperatives and self-help groups, have helped reduce some of this deficit).

Cities have also been derided for promoting mindless consumerism. They have been accused of driving a type of capitalism that encourages people to go on endless shopping expeditions to buy things they might never use or need. Large shopping malls – a distinct feature of modern cities – are filled with products that keep the wheels of capitalism moving. Alain Kamal Martial Henry predicts that the coronavirus will overthrow this “Western bourgeois model” imposed by capitalism. And this may lead to the eventual demise of cities and urban living.

The problem that has no name

I asked Daniel Biau, a former colleague who served as the Deputy Executive Director of UN-Habitat from 1998 to 2005, whether we could from henceforth witness a decline in urban growth levels, and whether people will now seek to move out of large cities to places that are less dense and concentrated.

Biau was not convinced that the coronavirus pandemic will change the way people view cities. “As usual, a few journalists will write about risky cities but their alarming views will be completely ignored by ordinary people who know very well that cities are, above all, places of job opportunities, social interactions, education and cultural development,” he said.

He predicts that in the digital age, it is likely that small and medium-sized cities will grow faster than big metropolises because teleworking will become the norm. “Already in France 40 per cent of the working population is currently teleworking,” he said.

“History has shown that some cities could shrink due to economic or environmental reasons. But cities have never disappeared due to health reasons. This is why the UN should provide guidelines for the promotion of safer and healthier cities as part of the wider sustainable cities development paradigm,” added Biau in an email exchange.

Cities will exist – and continue to grow – because of human beings’ need for social interaction, physical contact and collaboration. As Glaeser points out in his book, “The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from the tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”

However, despite their density and diversity, cities can also be lonely places. The “little town blues” that I talked about earlier are also experienced in large cities. People living in high-rise apartment blocks in big cities or in suburbs on the periphery of cities often report not knowing their neighbours and lacking a sense of “community”.

Some believe that rapid suburbanisation since the 1950s, especially in the United States, led to increasing disillusionment among married women, whose isolated lives in well-planned (but boring) suburbs led them to question patriarchial norms and the virtues of being stay-at-home wives and mothers. This angst (described by Betty Friedan as “the problem that has no name” in her book, The Feminine Mystique) sowed the seeds of the American women’s movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, and led many women to seek careers outside the home.

Some cities are better at fostering human interaction than others through carefully planned urban designs, and more people-friendly infrastructure, such as parks and other public spaces, including pedestrian-only streets. Recently, after a wave of rape cases in India, urban planners have also been thinking about how cities can be made more woman-friendly, with more street lighting and more gender-sensitive public transport. The designers of these cities understand one basic fact: cities are not about buildings and infrastructure; they are about people and communities.

The COVID-19 lockdowns have demonstrated how abnormal and disturbing self-isolation and social distancing can be. The pandemic has underscored the fact that human beings have an inherent need to interact with other human beings, even if it is at a cursory level. This physical connection with a diverse range of people from different backgrounds is what makes cities attractive, and is the reason why the city – in all its beauty and ugliness – is one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

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

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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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African Epistemic Self-Affirmation Is the Ultimate End of Decolonization
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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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