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Burkina Faso: The Age of Revolution Is Back and a Student Movement Is Leading It

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Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. Now, a student movement could slowly transform society.

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Burkina Faso: The Age of Revolution Is Back and a Student Movement Is Leading It
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“Nan lara an sara! Nan lara an sara!”: A crowd of roughly 300 students throngs the “freedom square” and chants defiantly, clenched fists in the air. The scene is the campus of Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo, in Ouagadougou. The students are members of Deux Heures pour Nous, Deux Heures pour Kamita (Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita; referred to here as DHK). “Kamita” is an Afrocentric term, designating the continent. The group is a throwback: A radical student organization dedicated to ideology and analysis, that intends to break from the complacency that has taken hold on African campuses in recent years.

As the meeting builds, a young man roars in the middle of the circle, a megaphone in his right hand, his left hand following the rhythm of the crowd: “nan lara!” (if we lie down!). The crowd responds “an sara!” (we are dead!). After several minutes of call and response, the young man opens the meeting. “Comrades, welcome! Thank you for dedicating two hours today for our beloved Kamita. Today, we seek wisdom from one another in addressing the topic before us: the presence of French military on the free and independent land of Burkina Faso.” He proceeds to lay out the agenda of the day, and the modalities for taking the floor.

Meetings like this one, which I attended in August 2019, take place every day, from 1 to 3 pm, on the campus. They have continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic which compelled attendees to wear facemasks; I have kept in touch with members and interviewed leaders as well as occasional attendees. The meetings are arranged in an open space and amplified with loudspeakers. No position is invalid. No topic is taboo. The group emphasizes innovative radical thinking about democracy, social change, and liberation. But weak arguments are booed, while carefully crafted ones are applauded—especially when they are considered ideologically sound, in the tradition of Frantz Fanon or Thomas Sankara.

Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. As older student organizations become ossified and discredited, emerging ones seek credibility by leaning toward pan-African ideologies. The country and its politics offer a particularly fertile scene for the youth to develop ideological and political organizations that aim to transform society. Slogans such as “Plus rien se sera comme avant!” (Nothing will be as before!) and “Nan lara an sara!” signal such a desire for change and willingness to act. DHK represents a new militancy, with power and potential—but also contradictions and challenges.

DHK formed in 2013, a time when social discontent was growing in Burkina Faso. Workers’ strikes paralyzed many sectors, including higher education. Civil society groups and opposition parties were engaged in a power struggle against then-President Blaise Compaoré, who was attempting to pass a constitutional amendment to extend his rule. The academic community was caught in this malaise. It was in this context that students at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University chose to experiment with a new form of participatory democracy by creating a performative venue on campus.

Over the years, DHK has become prominent among the burgeoning youth movements in Burkina Faso. Beyond the boastful, intellectual verbiage and rhetorical skills that its members show, the organization has built a reputation as a leftist movement that focuses on social justice, political emancipation, and environmental stewardship—both at the national and international levels. In February 2019, for instance, the organization sent a delegate to Venezuela “to support the people of Venezuela in their struggle against imperialism,” a post on its Facebook page reads.

Developing and sustaining a pan-African ideology on a campus where student conferences and intellectual exchange outside the curriculum are almost non-existent is a challenging task. Yet DHK has managed to establish a respected forum where uncensored conversations take place every day, gathering up to several hundred attendees. Every week, a series of discussion topics is chosen and published on Facebook. Often, they respond to the news of the day. At other times, the reflection is oriented toward historical events. There are guest speakers, such as Kemi Seba, the Franco-Beninese activist, or Yacouba Sawadogo, a Burkinabe farmer known as “the man who stopped the desert” for successfully bringing to life a 40-hectare forest on a barren land.

The daily gatherings constitute moments of deliberation, healing, strategizing, and planning. On the day that I attended, social media abounded with polemical information about the alleged opening of a new French military base in Djibo, a small northern town 45 kilometers from the border with Mali. The meeting was an opportunity to condemn the base and discuss the role of France’s counterterrorism activities in the region. Participants equated France’s current presence with its 19th-century pacification doctrine that justified colonialism. “We are inviting France to the school of civilization. We invite her to finally learn to be a nation that respects the sovereignty of other nations,” one man said.

Sometimes, the organization brings speakers who do not have formal education, such as farmers and small craft traders, challenging the perception of what constitutes knowledge in a university setting. This initiative is “an uninhibited approach to learning by uninhibited students who have conscience that development is homemade,” Bayala Lianhoue Imhotep, secretary general of DHK, told me. “No one has the monopoly of imagination. Our farmers are an inexhaustible source of knowledge if we cared to listen to them.”

At first, campus authorities rejected DHK for its radical positions concerning the university and student life. They sought to shut it down and push it off campus. Now, civil society movements beyond campus including Balai Citoyen seek them out. They constitute a force that can mobilize adherents, an antidote to the general fatigue among youth following the 2014 popular revolution.

DHK represents in many ways a revival.

Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo has a tradition of being a center of social movements, with student strikes that often led to a general paralysis of the capital city. The roots of Burkinabè student militancy go back to student unions in the 1950s in Dakar and in France, where Burkinabè and other francophone Africans went to study. Those unions were an avant-garde in political mobilization, a breeding ground of activists in the late colonial period and after independence.

In the early post-independence era, student activism aligned ideologically with the emerging political tendencies in the country. In 1966 the Voltaic Student Union supported the popular insurrection that ousted President Maurice Yameogo. The successive military regimes did not favor the emergence of a strong student unionism. However, during the Sankara years (1984-1987), college students mobilized to support the revolution. In the following two decades, student activism became progressively belligerent toward the Compaore regime. In the 1990s when the Structural Adjustment Programs compelled the government to adopt a much more democratic attitude, granting civil liberties, student militancy reclaimed a momentum. While student militancy never ceased to exist, it suffered in its vivacity since internal divisions and state repression weakened toward the end of the 1990s.

Recent renewal of political consciousness among Burkinabè youth took form through events such as the assassination of the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998, long worker strikes in 2011 and 2015, student protests leading to violent confrontations with police, and the closing of the university for over three months in 2008 and 2011. Other contributing factors were changes in Franco-African political dynamics following French intervention in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-11 to topple President Laurent Gbagbo, along with a persistent perception that the international community is hypocritical. Along the way, the memory of Thomas Sankara and his political discourse have re-emerged in popular music and activist rallies.

What is the potential of this revival? On one hand, student militancy today has inherited unresolved structural problems and grievances from their predecessors: deficient infrastructures, mismanaged academic calendar, deteriorated social services, etc. On the other hand, however, the ideological foundation behind student militancy is much more profound. Student activists are not only seeking to resolve their immediate needs, but they question the root causes of their predicament. While their struggle is locally rooted, it is open to other currents from the South. They often extrapolate their perception of inequalities at home with the struggles of other peoples elsewhere such as in Palestine, Venezuela, and Taiwan. They adhere to an Afro-centric understanding of history in their attempt to take control of their destinies as young Burkinabè.

For groups such as DHK, the traditional student associations and unions have become irrelevant, not because they lack grievances to address, but because they do not propose any sound ideology to solve them. DHK positions itself as an anti-imperialist movement, but also one that is opened to the struggles of other contemporary Black liberation movements. At the August 2019 meeting where attendees discussed French counterterrorism in the Sahel, some participants pointed out that the French could easily rid the Sahel of its insurgent groups if France really wanted to—peddling some conspiracy theories that were already circulating in the social media.

DHK is a promising unconventional revival activist group that promotes intellectual and democratic debates. Since its creation seven years ago, it has grown in membership and its ability to mobilize for action. At times however, it can be provocative in its ideas and approach when it connects with controversial figures such as Kemi Seba or when it takes side in some global issues without expertise in their historical complexity such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, this revival is taking place under the radar of most scholars and media attention, who often gloss over it as “growing anti-French sentiment.”

In Ouagadougou, university student militancy is the last stronghold of students’ civil discourse. It is one that still grapples with its own issues, but nonetheless is ideologically promising. As foggy and muddy as some of their thoughts and ideas may be, the youth of DHK are informed by their quotidian reality. It is an ideology rooted in a Sankarist ideology that is daring and even risky at times. But this discourse still represents the clearer demarcation line between civil discourse and what is perceived as growing radical or fundamental discourse in Burkina Faso. Unlike the growing non-state armed movements that are terrorizing the country, student ideological militancy is disruptive, but it is still organized within the limits of free speech and freedom of association guaranteed by the constitution.

Today, the days of grand pan-African reveries espoused by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara seem far behind. The dominant neoliberal economic systems that African nations have adopted and the persistence of neocolonial meddling in the post-colony blunted Afrocentric idealism. Even in academic research, we talk about it in the past and we do not envision it in the present. Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita gives us a compelling case study to rethink that position.


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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Lassane Ouedraogo is an inaugural Africa Is A Country (AIAC) Fellow.

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Elections? What elections? Abiy is Counting on a Military Victory

Abiy Ahmed’s legitimacy hangs on conjuring up an improbable military victory in the total war he has declared on the people of Tigray.

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Elections? What elections? Abiy is Counting on a Military Victory
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Selected by the ruling party and later appointed by the Ethiopian parliament in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was expected to deliver the long hoped for post-EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) era. For some of his domestic and international backers, the post-EPRDF era meant the ushering in of political democratization, further economic liberalization, and “post-ethnic” Ethiopian politics. He has failed to deliver on all three counts.

More than ever, Ethiopian politics is bitterly polarized along ethnic lines. Ethnic divisions have split the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF). Now, Ethiopia has two armies: the Tigrayan Defence Force (TDF) and the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF). Nor is economic liberalization faring any better. In 2020, foreign direct investment (FDI) dropped significantly to US$2.4 billion from US$ 7.1 billion in 2016. Creditors are not more optimistic. The birr has become the worst performer among 20 African currencies following a slump of 11 per cent against the dollar.

After a decade of double-digit GDP growth, Ethiopia is now growing at only two per cent, an economic slowdown Kevin Daly describes as “the shine [having] come off the star in a big way”. Ethiopia’s democratization, which is the focus of this piece, has also stalled, as illustrated by the uncompetitive and non-participatory elections of 21 June 2021.

False start 

Ethiopia’s new leadership was widely expected to spearhead a democratic dispensation in which elections would be freely and fairly contested by all the major political forces in the country. The June 21 election was expected to be both participatory and competitive. It was neither and its outcome was predictable, if not preordained. As everyone expected, the ruling party won overwhelmingly, with some leftover seats going to other parties.

Against the hopes of many, Abiy Ahmed found ways to effectively exclude the real contenders with any chance of defeating the incumbent.

Liquidating the former ruling party and extending the term of office

The first step was to liquidate the former ruling party, the EPRDF, and place the new Prosperity Party in power. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, one of the core parties forming the EPRDF and currently ruling Tigray, vehemently opposed the formation of the new party, and decided not to join it.

The second step was to postpone the much-anticipated 2020 elections on the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic. The legality and legitimacy of this decision was fiercely contested, especially by opposition leaders from Oromia and Tigray. Inevitably, those opposition leaders from Oromia with a large following and constituency were jailed or placed under house arrest.  By opting to postpone the election and arresting opposition leaders, Abiy extended his own tenure by using a controversial constitutional interpretation.

Waging war

The third step was waging war on Tigray. The postponement of the election qualifies as one of the triggers of this war. The ruling party in Tigray rejected the postponement, asserting that regular elections are a necessary tool for the exercise of a people’s right to self-determination. Accordingly, Tigray conducted its regional election on 4 September 2020. The election was considered illegal by the incumbent and the federal government cut ties with the Tigray government and suspended the transfer of the regional budget, a move viewed by Tigray as a declaration of war. On 4 November 2020, Tigray was invaded by the combined Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces.

Subverting the will of the people

These early steps to subvert the will of the people call into question the incumbent’s commitment to a fair and democratic process. Providing a detailed contextual analysis on the state of Ethiopia before the polls, US Senator Bob Menendez and Representative Gregory Meeks said:

Against this grim backdrop, few believe Ethiopia’s upcoming national elections stand a real chance of being free or fair. . . . Prime Minister Abiy and his ruling Prosperity Party have made it clear they intend to continue working from the same authoritarian playbook as their predecessors, squandering Ethiopians’ hopes for the country’s first-ever genuinely democratic elections.

The EU withdrew its earlier decision to send election observers. Though it fell short of denouncing the election, the US government in its statement provided precise reasons why the election would not meet the requisite democratic standards:

The United States is gravely concerned about the environment under which these upcoming elections are to be held. The detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities by local and regional governments, and the many inter-ethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia are obstacles to a free and fair electoral process and whether Ethiopians would perceive them as credible. In addition, the exclusion of large segments of the electorate from this contest due to security issues and internal displacement is particularly troubling.

The US statement added, “these elections [are conducted] at a time when so many Ethiopians are suffering and dying from violence and acute food insecurity caused by conflict”.

Elections without credibility

The credibility of elections is assessed based on international standards such as those set by the United Nations. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s recent election does not meet the minimum international threshold of being free, fair, participatory and competitive.

First, this election was conducted during a period of violent conflict that effectively denied the citizens their fundamental democratic rights and the opportunity to participate on an equal basis. Over 100 constituencies in Tigray, Somali, Harari, Afar, and Benishangul-Gumuz, representing well over 18 per cent of parliamentary seats, did not vote. For close to 4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), this election was a luxury. In Tigray, constituencies in Oromia, Amhara (Oromo special zone and parts of north Shewa), and the border areas of the Amhara, Oromia, Somali and Afar regions face violent conflict. With 7 per cent and 1.7 per cent of the total constituency in Tigray and Benishangul-Gumuz respectively, wars for survival still rage. In parts of Oromia, the region with the largest population and 33 per cent of the total constituency, armed conflict continues. Furthermore, the election was conducted under conditions of pervasive discrimination and profiling based on ethnicity that targeted Tigrayans, Oromos and Gumuz.

The postponement of the election qualifies as one of the triggers of this war.

Second, at the subnational levels and in some urban areas such as Amhara regional state, a few “opposition” parties did manage to win seats. However, in terms of presenting alternative policy options for Ethiopia, these parties failed, as their electoral manifestos were just versions of that of the ruling party. In addition, such results at the subnational level are anomalies, not trends. The trend is the incumbent attempting to re-establish a durable authoritarian regime, this time with a centralizing vision at its core that is diametrically opposed to the federalist vision set out in the current constitution.

Third, this election – like the previous one – was marred by claims of killings, assault, detention, intimidation and harassment of opposition candidates and supporters. In addition, the cancellation of political parties’ registration, litigation, anomalies in voter and candidate registrations, and ballot printing problems have damaged the credibility of the electoral bodies. Moreover, the deferral in holding referenda on requests for state formation in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region has stoked discontent. And nor did the media environment allow competitive elections; local media was rigorously censured, and journalists were killed, arrested, and intimidated. International media outlets were not spared either, with the permits of many foreign correspondents cancelled.

It thus came as no surprise when five parties criticised the ruling Prosperity Party for allegedly influencing the electoral process to favour its candidates. The National Movement of Amhara, Ethiopian Social Democratic Party, Afar People’s Party, Balderas for Genuine Democracy and Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice complained of heavy security and cited a failure to meet minimum standards.

Legitimacy hanging on military victory

Abiy has clipped the wings of democracy. A day after the country went to the polls, and as Addis Ababa enjoyed the fanfare surrounding its “first democratic election”, the Ethiopian army continued its indiscriminate aerial bombardment of Tigray.

Abiy has plunged the country into a civil war that is now spreading from Tigray to other parts of Ethiopia. The war has been manipulated with a view to bolstering Abiy’s popularity and serves as the glue holding his internally fractured support base together. Military victory in Tigray has replaced an electoral win as the litmus test for the legitimacy of his rule.

Yet following the defeat and withdrawal of the Ethiopian army from Tigray, Abiy’s popular base is fast eroding. Now his legitimacy hangs on conjuring up an improbable military victory in the total war he has declared on the people of Tigray. The recent military advances made by the Tigray Defence Forces show that it is not just Abiy who is losing the unwinnable war in Tigray. Ethiopia is also losing its army.

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The Second Sex: Women’s Liberation and Media in Post-Independence Tanzania

Fatma Alloo (of the Tanzania Media Women’s Association) on how women used the media and cultural spaces to organize and challenge gender norms.

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The Second Sex: Women’s Liberation and Media in Post-Independence Tanzania
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Fatma Alloo’s activism grew in the decades following Tanzania’s independence in 1961, when she worked as a journalist under Julius Nyerere, or Mwalimu, the first president of Tanzania; co-founded the feminist advocacy group Tanzania Media Women’s Association (TAMWA) in 1987; and co-founded the vibrant Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) in 1997. Here, she unpacks how women used the media and cultural spaces for social mobilization and shifting patriarchal norms, particularly in periods where they were marginalized from state power. In the “Reclaiming Africa’s Early Post-Independence History” series, and the Post-Colonialisms Today project more broadly, we’re learning from African activists and policy makers from the early post-independence era, to understand how their experience of a unique period of economic, societal, cultural, and regional transformation can aid us in the present day, when questions of decolonization and liberation are more pressing than ever.

Heba M. Khalil: You have lived through so many changes in so many different political systems, from the Sultanate, colonialism, the Nyerere years; you’ve seen the dawning of liberalism and neoliberalism.

Fatma Alloo: As you say, I’ve been through a lot of “-isms” in Tanzania. The other day I was reflecting that although I grew up under colonialism in Zanzibar, as a child I was not aware that it was colonialism, I was not aware there was a Sultanate. We used to run and wave to the Sultan because he was the only one with a shiny, red car and we used to love that car, a red Rolls Royce. But as I reflect now, I realized that these were the years Mwalimu was struggling for independence in Tanganyika.

Then, of course, as you grow, life takes you on a journey, and I ended up at the University of Dar es Salaam in the 1970s, where the Dar es Salaam debates were taking place. Tanzania hosted liberation movements, and that is where socialism, communism, Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, and feminism were being debated, and that’s where my consciousness grew, because I was in the midst of it. As the progressive, international community at the university was ideologically fired up by Mwalimu’s socialism, I began to understand that even my feminism had come from the West. Nobody had taught me that women lived feminism on the continent. This realization came when, as a student, I participated in an adult literacy program launched by Mwalimu. As students, we were sent to a rural and urban factory to teach literacy, but I emerged from those communities having been taught instead!

Heba M. Khalil: What do you think the role of women was in Tanzania in particular, but also on the continent, in defining the parameters, the choices and the imagination of post-independence Africa?

Fatma Alloo: Women had always been part and parcel of the independence movement in Africa. In Southern Africa and Tanzania they stood side-by-side with the men to fight, so they were very much part of it. The unique thing about Tanzania was that Mwalimu established a party called the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), which had five wings with women being one of them. The others were youth, peasants, and workers, so as to mobilize society as a whole.

Post-independence is another story, one that very often has been narrated by men in power. There was a struggle for the visibility of women. I remember the debates in South Africa, where the African National Congress was arguing about the women’s wing wanting to discuss power relations. And there was resistance to this, the party leaders would argue first let’s just get independence, let’s not waste our time, women’s liberation will come later. It was a very bitter struggle, and of course after independence, women lost out quite a bit.

Heba M. Khalil: Why were post-independence power structures and ideologies defeated and replaced at some point by new ideologies of liberalism and, eventually, neoliberalism?

Fatma Alloo: The western media portrays Mwalimu as a failure. He has not failed, from my point of view. The whole issue of national unity is important. Tanzania has been a relatively peaceful country. Why? It did not happen by accident, it had to do with Mwalimu’s policies—he realized he had to deal with profound divisions, and he understood the role of education. Administratively, the nation had been inherited after decades of divide and rule policies. It was divided on racial and religious bases, as Tanzania is half Christian and half Muslim. We could have had a civil war, like in Lebanon, or a tribal-oriented conflict, like in Kenya or Libya. Mwalimu really understood this from the very beginning. I remember when we started TAMWA, when the women came together, we had no idea who belonged to what tribe. He was that successful.

We had free medicine, free education, but of course, all that went away with neoliberalism. My generation remembers this, and I think we have to make sure that the younger generation knows the history of the country, knows the literature that emerged from the continent. In my opinion, of all the contributions of Mwalimu, the most important was the peace and unity—amani, in Kiswahili.

Because Mwalimu was so successful, the West, especially Scandinavian countries, made him their darling. As you know, Scandinavian countries had not colonized Africa much, so people also trusted them and accepted their development aid. Very sadly, it did eat away at the success of Mwalimu with his people, and eventually made us dependent on that development aid, which continues to date. Without development aid we don’t seem to be able to move on anything. We have stopped relying on ourselves.

Heba M. Khalil: What was your experience of organizing during the rapid growth of the mass media sector in Tanzania?

Fatma Alloo: I was very active, first as a journalist in the 1980s and early 1990s, and it was extremely different. We were very influenced by Mwalimu’s ideology and ready to play our role to change the world. Mwalimu had refused to introduce television because, he argued at that time, we did not have our own images to portray, to empower our younger generations. He said if we introduce television the images shown will be of the West and the imperialist ideology will continue. In Zanzibar, however, we already had the oldest television on the continent, and it was in color. When Abeid Karume attained power in Zanzibar in 1964, after a bloody overthrow of the sultanate in power, the first thing he did was to introduce not only television, but community media, so every village in Zanzibar already had these images. But television didn’t come to Tanganyika until 1992 (Mwalimu stepped down in 1986), when it was introduced by a local businessman who established his own station. Until then the state had controlled the media, so history began to change as businesses were allowed to establish media.

I remember I was then in TAMWA and we had to encourage a lot of production of plays and other visuals, for which there was no market before. The radio had been powerful; when the peasants went to the countryside, they would take the radio and listen as they ploughed the land. So, the radio was the main tool that was used to mobilize society during Mwalimu’s era.

The press gave women journalists little chance to cover issues of importance to women. We were given health or children to cover as our issues. Before, Tanzania had one English paper, one Kiswahili, Uhuru, and one party paper. By 1986, there were 21 newspapers, and it became easier for us to really influence the press, and TAMWA began talking about issues like sexual harassment at work. But it was a double-edged sword, because the television stations recruited pretty girls to do the news reading, and the girls also wanted to be seen on television as it was a novelty. So, while we were expanding the conversation on the portrayal of women, here was television, where women were used as sex objects. The struggle continues, a luta continua.

Heba M. Khalil: How are movements trying to achieve change on the continent, particularly youth movements or younger generations, by utilizing media and cultural spaces?

Fatma Alloo: The youth need to develop tools of empowerment at an educational level and at an organizational level. Africa is a young continent, and our hope is the youth. Many youth are very active at a cultural level, they may not be in universities but at a cultural level they are extremely visible, in music, dance, and street theater.

At the moment, you see the pan-African dream has sort of lost the luster it had during independence. Even if you look at the literature of that time, it was a collective dream for Africa to unite—Bob Marley had a song “Africa Unite,” we used to dance to it and we used to really identify with it, and the literature—Franz Fanon, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Sembène Ousmane, Miriam Ba, Nawal al Saadawi—and also the films that came out. In fact, Egypt was the first country to produce amazing films; when we established the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), in our first year we showed a film from Egypt, The Destiny by Youssef Chahine.

Zanzibar International Film Festival was born because we asked the question, “If we in Africa do not tell our stories, who will?” We ask that question particularly to train and stimulate the production of films on the continent, including in Kiswahili, because while West Africa has many films, East Africa lags behind. The festival has been in existence for 21 years. This part of the world has more than 120 million people who speak Kiswahili, so the market is there. We also encourage a lot of young producers and we encourage putting a camera in children’s hands, because from my own experience, children get so excited when they can create their own images. Twenty-one years later, these children are now adults, and they are the directors and the producers in this region. So, one has to play a role in impacting change and liberating consciousness on our vibrant and rich continent.

This article is part of the series “Reclaiming Africa’s Early Post-Independence History” from Post-Colonialisms Today (PCT), a research and advocacy project of activist-intellectuals on the continent working to recapture progressive thought and policies from post-independence Africa to address contemporary development challenges. Sign up for updates here.

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The State of Judicial Independence in Kenya: A Persistent Concern

Judicial independence is Kenya’s last buffer line, stopping the country from degenerating into absolute tyranny. Judicial independence is a collective national good. It will be protected as such. So long as we may have an independent Judiciary, the great interests of the people will be safe.

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The State of Judicial Independence in Kenya: A Persistent Concern
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On Thursday 22 July 2021, Justice Aggrey Muchelule and Justice Said Juma Chitembwe were subjects of arbitrary search, intimidation, and interrogation by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) on the basis of unfounded allegations of corruption.

The arrest, coming in the wake of constant and relentless attacks on the judiciary by the Executive and politicians, left a very sour taste in the mouths of many, bearing in mind that nothing was found to implicate the judges upon searching their respective chambers. Let it be clear that NOBODY is above the law  (nemo est supra legis)! Not even the President of the Republic, let alone the judges.

However, there are reasons why there are arguments for special procedures when arresting or dealing with criminal allegations against a sitting judge: the need to preserve the sanctity of the office and the need to manage perceptions with regard to the judicial office. The Supreme Court of India in the case of  Delhi Judicial Service Association v. State of Gujarat  AIR 1991 SC 2176, (1991) 4 SCC 406 recognized the fact that whereas judges were not above the law, certain guidelines had to be in place to guide the conduct of arrest  “in view of the paramount necessity of preserving the independence of judiciary and at the same time ensuring that infractions of law are properly investigated”. The concept of judicial independence, it must be recalled, recognizes not only realities but also perceptions that attach to the judicial office.

Chief Justice Howland in the Canadian Supreme Court case of  R v. Valente  [1985] 2 SCR 673 stated as follows with regards to perception as an ingredient of judicial independence: “it is most important that the judiciary be independent and be so perceived by the public. The judges must not have cause to fear that they will be prejudiced by their decisions or that the public would reasonably apprehend this to be the case.’ There is therefore the need to guard and jealously so, the image of the judiciary such as to manage how the judiciary is perceived by the public.

The unsubstantiated claims of corruption, and knee jerk searches without an iota of evidence does not bode well for the perception of the judiciary as a whole, and specifically, for the individual judges involved whose reputations are dragged through the mud, and needlessly so. There are germane reasons why the arrest of a judge should not be a trivial matter. The deference and respect to a judicial office informs the caution exercised in the conduct of arresting a judge. The judicial office fuses with the person of the holder and therefore it becomes necessary to err on the side of caution.

Indeed, Courts elsewhere have endeavoured to engage cautiously in this exercise of delicate funambulism. The Supreme Court of India in the case of  K. Veeraswami v Union of India and others,  1991 SCR (3) 189  found that a sitting judge can only be undertaken with permission from the Chief Justice or if it is the Chief Justice who is sought to be prosecuted, from the President.

Equally, the Court of Appeal of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in the case of Hon. Justice Hyeladzira Ajiya Nganjiwa V. Federal Republic of Nigeria  (2017) LPELR-43391(CA) held that a sitting judge cannot be prosecuted for offences that would have otherwise been a ground for removal from office.

It is important to note that the grounds for the removal of any judge from office are captured in article 168 of the Constitution of Kenya and they include a breach of the code of conduct and gross misconduct or misbehaviour.

Noteworthy it is to remark that the High Court of Kenya, in laying a principle of constitutional law in the case of Philomena Mbete Mwilu v Director of Public Prosecutions & 3 others; Stanley Muluvi Kiima (Interested Party); International Commission of Jurists Kenya Chapter (Amicus Curiae)  [2019] eKLR ably stated that, “While the DCI is not precluded from investigating criminal misconduct of judges, there is a specific constitutional and legal framework for dealing with misconduct and/or removal of judges.

Consequently, cases of misconduct with a criminal element committed in the course of official judicial functions, or which are so inextricably connected with the office or status of a judge, shall be referred to the JSC in the first  instance.” The cumulative conclusion was that the gang-ho recklessness meted on Justices Muchelule and Chitembwe by an increasingly overzealous Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) was an affront to judicial independence in its functional sense and also in terms of perception. It was a careless move.

If there is any evidence linking any of the judges to any conduct unbecoming, then out of constitutional edict and commonsensical pragmatism, the first point of call should be the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). The Office of the Chief Justice must also be subject of focus during this unfortunate debacle.

The statement emanating from that office in the aftermath of the unfortunate events of 22nd  July 2021, was at best timid and disjointed. The statement did not appear to reinforce the constitutional principle that judges cannot be arrested over matters that really ought to be addressed by the Judicial Service Commission. The office of the Chief Justice should have done better.

In summary, let it be proclaimed boldly that judicial independence is too precious a public good that it will be protected at all costs. Let it be lucid that incessant interference with judicial independence will not be tolerated from any quarters.

Judicial independence is Kenya’s last buffer line, stopping the country from degenerating into absolute tyranny. Judicial independence is a collective national good. It will be protected as such! And in the words of John Rutledge, a scholar, jurist and the second Chief Justice of the United States of America; “So long as we may have an independent Judiciary, the great interests of the people will be safe.”

This article was initially published at THE PLATFORM For Law, Justice and Society Magazine

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