Connect with us

Op-Eds

The West Must Return the Artifacts They Stole Back to Africa

5 min read.

There can no longer be false justifications for holding Benin Bronzes, and other pilfered materials, in museums outside of Africa.

Published

on

The West Must Return the Artifacts They Stole Back to Africa
Download PDFPrint Article

In 1909, Sir Ralph Denham Rayment Moor, British Consul General of the British Southern Nigerian Protectorate, took his life by ingesting cyanide. Eleven years earlier, following Britain’s “punitive” attack on Benin City’s Royal Court, Moor helped transfer loot taken from Benin City into Queen Victoria’s private collection and to the British Foreign Office. Pilfered materials taken by Moor and many others include the now famous brass reliefs depicting the history of the Benin Kingdom—known collectively as the Benin Bronzes.

This is in addition to commemorative brass heads and tableaux; carved ivory tusks; decorative and bodily ornaments; healing, divining, and ceremonial objects; and helmets, altars, spoons, mirrors, and much else. Moor also kept things for himself, including the Queen Mother ivory hip-mask. After Moor’s suicide, British ethnologist Charles Seligman, famous for promoting the racist “Hamitic hypothesis” undergirding much early eugenicist thought, purchased this same mask, one of six known examples.

With his wife Brenda Seligman, an anthropologist in her own right, Charles amassed a giant collection of “ethnographic objects.” In 1958, Brenda sold the Queen Mother mask for £20,000 to Nelson Rockefeller, who featured it in his now-defunct Museum of Primitive Art before gifting it in 1972 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That’s where I visited it this week in New York City—and as Dan Hicks pointed out in a recent tweet, if you are reading this in the global North, there’s a good chance that an item taken from the Benin Court is in the collection of a regional, university, or national museum near you, too.

For Hicks, author of The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, this provenance history of the Queen Mother mask—and every single other history of the acquisition and transfer of objects from Benin City to museums across the “developed” world—is a history that begins and ends in violence. Indeed, the category of ethnographic museums emerged in the nineteenth century precisely out of the demonic alliance between anthropological inquiry and colonial pillage.

In 1919, a German ethnologist observed that “the spoils of war [Kriegsbeute] made during the conquest of Benin … were the biggest surprise that the field of ethnology had ever received.” These so-called spoils buttressed these museums’ raison d’être: to collect and display non-Western cultures as evidence of “European victory over ‘primitive’, archaeological African cultures.”

The formation of ethnographic museums, including the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, where Hicks currently works, “have compounded killings, cultural destructions and thefts with the propaganda of race science [and] with the normalisation of the display of human cultures in material form” (my italics). For Hicks, the continued display of these stolen objects in poorly lit basement rooms, sophisticated modern vitrines, and private collections is an “enduring brutality … refreshed every day that an anthropology museum … opens its doors.”

After this book, there can be no more false justifications for holding Benin Bronzes in museums outside of Africa, nor further claims that changing times mean new approaches are sufficient for recontextualizing art objects. This book inaugurates its own paradigm shift in museum practices, collection, and ethics. While there are preceding arguments for returning Western museums’ holdings in African art (most notably Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy’s Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, or Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain), the comprehensiveness of Hicks’s argument is extraordinary.

In chapter after chapter, shifting agilely between historical perspectives and conceptual frameworks, he revisits the siege on Benin and its afterlives in museums across the globe. From Hicks’s detailed appendix, we learn that these stolen objects can be found in approximately 161 different museums and galleries worldwide, from the British Museum to the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, with only 11 on the African continent.

For part of the book, Hicks engages in a kind of conventional historiography, tracing how the Benin Punitive Expedition was justified, planned, and funded by a range of individuals and institutions in chartered joint-stock companies, the military, the British government, and the press. The 1897 British “expedition” to Benin City in present-day Nigeria was defended by the British as a necessary “punitive” response to the killing of at least four white men.

These men had been murdered trying to make their way to the City of Benin, doing so despite the strict injunction given previously by the Oba that they not attempt entry or else they would face death. Hicks traces how the British regularly fabricated reasons for this kind of retributive violence (often even in the name of abolitionism) to mask what was actually a concatenation of overlapping “small wars” and punitive expeditions reaching back into the middle of the 19th century.

An accretion of details halfway into the book—the maneuvers and lines of attack, the catalogues of officers, Hausa soldiers and carriers, the weight and numbers and types of guns and other weaponry (“Dane guns (muzzle-loading smooth-bore flintlock muskets), pistols, machetes, cutlasses, spears, bows and arrows, knives”)—makes the book sag a little in the middle.

While this will grab the attention of those readers interested in plumbing colonialism’s ultraviolent depths and its flagrant disregard for the legal limits of what was permissible in war (we learn of bullets filed down “to convert them into expanding bullets [to] cause a more extensive wound when hitting a human target,” for instance), for those most interested in Hicks’s arguments about the ethnographic museum today, I recommend skipping ahead to the last chapters.

For after all, Hicks’s details recount a history that has been woefully told and retold in different incarnations: a narrative of extraction, ultraviolence, racism. The Brutish Museums’ most forceful contribution lies ultimately in Hicks’s assessment and condemnation of the present state of affairs of museum curatorship, especially within anthropological museums and associated institutions.

The complicity of museum curators and staff in efforts to justify the looting is not unique to the early collectors and anthropologists. Hicks deplores the rhetorical ruses of contemporary curators and museum officials who gloss over the problem at the heart of museums’ acquisitions by arguing instead that museums have become “international,” “borderless,” and “universal” spaces showcasing “world culture.” These claims that a kind of international inclusivity can be brought about under the banner of the “universal museum,” and that this is sufficient to remedy the violences inherent in the collections themselves, sidestep the fact that that such frameworks do nothing to dislodge the colonial geographic logic of metropole and periphery that brought the museums into existence in the first place.

Hicks also picks a fight with art history’s love affair with Object Studies, a field which treats an object’s meaning as determined mainly by its context and reception. As he points out, this often allows us to detach an object from the (often violent) human histories that brought those newer meanings into being. The misuse of Mary-Louise Pratt’s concept of the “contact zone” as a way to organize museum collections comes under similar attack, since curators have used it to emphasize colonial cultural encounters as exchanges and “entanglements” rather than as relations of subordination and pillage under duress.

Today, Hicks avows: “A time of taking is giving way to a time of returns.” As Greer Valley has pointed out, there have been endless debates; action is the only possible way forward. Some museums and galleries have heeded the call to repatriate stolen material culture, and museums such as Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar and the soon-to-be-built Edo Museum of Western African Art in Benin City (designed by architect David Adjaye) indicate that shifts are occurring at the level of action as well as idea.

In order for repatriation to be accelerated and standardized, museums particularly need to be more transparent about their holdings. Hicks notes that “it is … currently unclear how many skulls and other human remains taken from Benin survive in museums and private collections—although at least five human teeth found their way from Benin City in 1897 to London, and are now lying at the British Museum in a divination kit, strung on a necklace, and contained within a brass mask.” It’s not apparent to me why museums aren’t able to give an appropriate account of both what objects they have and how they have come to have them. In recent debates in the US about human remains held at the University of Pennsylvania’s Archeology and Anthropology Museum, the Smithsonian, Harvard University, and elsewhere, similar obstacles are regularly raised about these problems of counting collections. But catalogs need to be clear and made public, and museums must hold themselves accountable in both material and ethical senses. This, they all know now, means the first necessary step is to return what is not theirs. How they then reinvent themselves as spaces of accountability will be the next task of the curator.

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.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Lily Saint is Associate Professor of English at Wesleyan University and author of 'Black Cultural Life in South Africa' (U. of Michigan Press 2018).

Op-Eds

BBI and Kenya’s Finest Jurists

For Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga, the dim prospects of the Bill process could upend any succession plans they have hatched together. Political analysts believe that Mr. Kenyatta could back Mr. Odinga for the presidency next year against Mr. Ruto.

Published

on

BBI and Kenya’s Finest Jurists
Download PDFPrint Article

On May 13 this year, a five-judge bench of the Kenya High Court struck down a state effort to amend Kenya’s 2010 Constitution. With the possible exception of the 2017 ruling of the Supreme Court of Kenya overturning the re-election of Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta – a first for Africa – no judicial opinion has been more consequential. The ruling struck like a thunderbolt and upset Mr. Kenyatta’s legacy, and possibly upended his succession plans. It is not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Kenyatta has pegged his tenure on the fate of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a project ostensibly designed to rid Kenya of perennial electoral violence, rampant corruption, and ethnic and sub-national exclusion and marginalization.

From the “Handshake” to BBI

In 2017, Mr. Kenyatta sought re-election against a strong challenge from Mr. Raila Odinga, without doubt Kenya’s key opposition figure. Mr. Odinga had run against pro-establishment candidates before, each time coming up short. On several of those occasions, Mr. Odinga had claimed fraud and ballot-stuffing. But each time, he was eventually declared the loser. That pattern repeated itself in 2017. Citing irregularities, the Supreme Court annulled that election and ordered a fresh vote. Mr. Odinga boycotted the re-run, assuring Mr. Kenyatta of victory. Mr. Odinga refused to concede and swore himself in as the “people’s president.” Deadly violence, often with ethnic undertones, broke out. The economy was paralyzed. Then on March 9, 2018, Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga shocked the nation by declaring a truce.

The rapprochement between Kenyatta and his archrival Mr. Odinga came to be known as the “Handshake.” Out of it grew BBI, which they termed a historic initiative to right Kenya’s past wrongs and firmly put it on an irreversible path to full citizenship and belonging for all its diverse peoples. Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga unilaterally appointed the Building Bridges Initiative Task Force, a fourteen-member body composed mainly of status quo apparatchiks and politicians. In October 2020, the task force released its report and a constitutional amendment bill. Articles 255-257 of the Constitution provide for the process of amending the Constitution through a referendum after approval by Parliament and a simple majority of Kenya’s 47 counties.

In March 2021, Parliament approved the BBI bill. However, groups of NGOs and citizens sued the State, the legislature, and the Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to stop them from conducting the referendum. The suit alleged, inter alia, that the process of the BBI was illegal and unconstitutional. It argued that the BBI bill would usurp the sovereignty of the people and abridge the constitution. They submitted further that Parliament was powerless to pass bills that would negate the “basic structure” doctrine which allows only the people – not the legislature – to fundamentally alter the basic logic and architecture of the constitution. This last point was a novel one in Kenyan jurisprudence because no one had hitherto invoked it in live proceedings.

Kenya’s Finest Jurists

Sitting at the High Court in Nairobi to hear the petition were arguably Kenya’s finest jurists. The bench was led by Presiding Judge Joel Ngugi. Justice Ngugi, a Harvard-trained academic, had been a professor of law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, one of America’s finest law schools. He is also a reputable member of the school of thought known as TWAIL, or Third World Approaches to International Law. He is recognized as a leading intellectual in Kenya and elsewhere. Early in his judicial career, he led the Judiciary Transformation Institute (JTI) when Dr. Willy Mutunga was Chief Justice in 2012-2016. His judicial rulings have been original, progressive, and stretch the scope of human rights.

Justice Ngugi was joined on that bench by four other judges, including Justice George Odunga, a leader in expanding the rights of the citizenry against an illiberal state bend on curtailing the rule of law. Justice Odunga is one of a small cadre of brilliant and courageous judges who are leading a judiciary long held captive by executive overreach and corrupt cartels to a more independent posture. The others on that bench – Justices Chacha Mwita, Teresia Matheka, and Jairus Ngaah – have themselves been lauded for standing up to an executive prone to the abuse of power. The bench had been appointed by former Chief Justice David Maraga, who had often clashed with Mr. Kenyatta for failing to carry out court orders.

The ruling was a shocker when it came down. In a scathing – even disdainful – ruling, the judges uprooted tree, stem, and branch of the entire BBI process. The bottom line was that the judges viewed the whole BBI process as the fruit of a poisoned tree, and therefore wholly unsalvageable as a constitutional matter. In a tongue lashing the likes of which Kenyans were unaccustomed to, the court laid waste to every one of the basic arguments for the BBI initiative. After the five-hour ruling, there was hardly anyone who thought the BBI project could be revived. Its proponents were shell-shocked, and its opponents supremely elated. The state and the initiative’s backers have gone to the appeals court to reverse the ruling.

A Jurisprudential Milestone

Several of the court’s findings deserve special attention. The court agreed with the petitioners that the BBI initiative was irregular, illegal, and unconstitutional. First, in the televised ruling, the judges held that Mr. Kenyatta had failed the integrity test of leadership and violated the norms contained in Chapter Six of the Constitution. This is significant because no one should hold office – and is liable to impeachment if they do – once they are found in violation of Chapter Six. It is not clear what the political implication for Mr. Kenyatta is on this finding. But the judges warned that Mr. Kenyatta could be sued in his individual capacity. The import was to pull the moral rug from under him.

Secondly, the judges rubbished the five million votes collected from citizens by the BBI task force to support the referendum push. They ruled that the initiative was not started, or led, by citizens. The court ruled that only the people, not the government, can initiate and conduct a process to amend the constitution through a referendum. In other words, the state cannot hide behind a murky process to take away the people’s will.

Thirdly, the judges held that the IEBC – several of whose members had resigned – was not properly constituted and therefore lacked quorum to conduct any legal business. As such, any decisions that the IEBC had taken, or would take, on the BBI process were null and void.

Fourth, the court ruled that only a people-driven initiative (exercising constituent authority) as opposed to a state-driven exercise (exercising constituted authority) can change the fundamental architecture of the Constitution. Thus, the “basic structure” doctrine prohibits the state from taking a machete to the Constitution and mutilating its foundational assumptions, norms, and basic edifice. The larger meaning of this finding is a jurisprudential milestone for Kenya because it disallows the piecemeal and selfish amendments to the constitution by Parliament in cahoots with the executive. It says only the people have the power to fundamentally reconstitute the state either through enacting a wholly new constitution, or carrying out deep reforms of the extent one. This preserves the notion of popular sovereignty.

Fifth, the court held that Parliament did not have the power to allocate 70 more constituencies in the BBI bill. The judges ruled that only the IEBC – and no other entity – could allocate new constituencies. The largest share of these additional constituencies were allocated to Mr. Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic strongholds as way of enticing his supporters to support BBI. Mr. Kenyatta has been locked in a battle of supremacy in his backyard against Mr. William Ruto, the Deputy President. Mr. Kenyatta had vowed to support Mr. Ruto, a Kalenjin, as his successor, but then reneged. Mr. Ruto then went behind Mr. Kenyatta’s back to peel away a large chuck of the Kikuyu electorate and turn it against BBI.

Do or Die

For now, the state and the backers of the BBI bill have gone to the Court of Appeal seeking to overturn the High Court’s historic ruling. It is anyone’s guess what the appellate process will yield. Anything is possible given the capture of large sections of the judiciary by the executive. The appeal could result in a reversal in whole, or in part, of the High Court ruling. Or it could wholly reaffirm the lower court’s ruling. One thing is undeniable – it is now an open question whether a referendum is even feasible given the election calendar in 2022. Time may simply run out on the BBI clock. Mr. Ruto and his supporters have celebrated the court’s ruling.

For Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga, the dim prospects of the Bill process could upend any succession plans they have hatched together. Political analysts believe that Mr. Kenyatta could back Mr. Odinga for the presidency next year against Mr. Ruto. The BBI agenda could’ve been an important calculus in that matrix. One of its proposals was to expend the executive to include a prime minister and two deputy prime ministers. These offices would have been an important carrot to bring on board a broader ethnic coalition of major communities to support Mr. Odinga. It is clear that Mr. Kenyatta and his family and political orbit cannot risk a Ruto presidency because of the bad blood between the two men. BBI for him is a do or die proposition. Will the courts rescue, or sink, him?

This article was first published in Verfassungsblog.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

India’s COVID-19 Surge Is a Warning for Africa

The surge in COVID-19 cases in India, spurred by a more transmissible variant and complacency, provides a stark warning to African populations to remain vigilant to contain the pandemic.

Published

on

India’s COVID-19 Surge Is a Warning for Africa
Download PDFPrint Article

India has been grappling with a deadly COVID-19 surge that hit the country like a cyclone in early April. Within a month, new daily cases peaked at over 400,000. On May 19, India set a global record of 4,529 COVID-19 deaths in 24 hours. Over 500 Indian physicians have perished from COVID since March. The actual figures on these counts are likely to be much higher due to testing limitations. Conservative estimates indicate India has experienced over 400 million cases and 600,000 deaths overall.

India’s hospitals are overflowing with patients in the hallways and lobbies. What hospital beds are available are often shared by two patients. Thousands more are turned away. Entire families in the cities are falling ill, as are whole villages in some rural areas. Countries in the region, such as Nepal, Thailand, and Malaysia, have also experienced a sharp uptick in cases fueled by the highly transmissible Indian variant.

India’s surge is also remarkable considering the country largely avoided the worst of the earlier stages of the pandemic.

India’s COVID-19 surge is a warning for Africa. Like India, Africa mostly avoided the worst of the pandemic last year. Many Sub-Saharan African countries share similar sociodemographic features as India: a youthful population, large rural populations that spend a significant portion of the day outdoors, large extended family structures, few old age homes, densely populated urban areas, and weak tertiary care health systems. As in India, many African countries have been loosening social distancing and other preventative measures. A recent survey by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) reveals that 56 percent of African states were “actively loosening controls and removing the mandatory wearing of face-masks.” Moreover, parts of Africa have direct, longstanding ties to India, providing clear pathways for the new Indian variant to spread between the continents.

So, what has been driving India’s COVID-19 surge and what lessons might this hold for Africa?

The Indian Variant Is More Transmissible

In February, India was seeing a steady drop of infections across the country, and life was seemingly returning to normal. Unfortunately, this was just a calm before the storm. That same month, a new variant, B.1.617, was identified in the western state of Maharashtra, home to India’s largest city of Mumbai. Now widely known as the “Indian variant,” B.1.617.2 (or “Delta” variant according to WHO’s labeling) is believed to be roughly 50 percent more transmissible than the U.K. or South African variants of the virus, which, in turn, are believed to be 50 percent more transmissible than the original variant, SARS-CoV-2, detected in Wuhan.

Some experts say the emergence of B.1.617.2 represented a significant turning point. Within weeks, the new variant spread throughout southwest India and then to New Delhi and surrounding states in the north. Densely populated urban centers of New Delhi and Mumbai became hotspots. The virus then started spreading rapidly in poor, rural states across the country.

The Rapid Spread of India's COVID Variant

Medical professionals are saying the new variant is infecting more young people compared to the transmissions of 2020. Multiple variants are now circulating in India, including the Brazil (P.1) and U.K. (B.1.1.7) variants. Moreover, a triple mutant variant, B.1.618, has been identified and is predominantly circulating in West Bengal State. A triple mutant variant is formed when three mutations of a virus combine to form a new variant. Much remains unknown about B.1.618, though initial reports suggest it may be more infectious than other variants.

Complacency and the Loosening of Restrictions

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a global threat in 2020, Indian authorities implemented a strict and early lockdown, educational campaigns on mask wearing, and ramped up testing and contact tracing where they could. However, since the peak of infections in September 2020, a public narrative started to emerge that COVID-19 no longer posed a serious threat. It was also believed that large cities had reached a measure of herd immunity. The relative youth of India and its mostly rural population that spends much of its time outdoors, further contributed to the sense that India had escaped the public health emergencies seen in other parts of the world.

“Government messaging during the first few months of 2021 boosted the narrative that India was no longer at risk.”

Government messaging during the first few months of 2021 boosted the narrative that India was no longer at risk. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory over the coronavirus in late January. In March, India’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, proclaimed the country was “in the endgame of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Behavioral fatigue also set in. Mask wearing waned, as did social distancing, all while tourism opened up and people began traveling to other parts of the country as in pre-pandemic times. Leaders in the western state of Goa, a popular tourist destination, began ignoring pandemic protocols and allowed entry to tens of thousands of tourists in an effort to bounce back from the economic fallout of the 2020 lockdown. Instead, Goa is believed to be the epicenter of the 2021 surge and now has one of the highest rates of infection in the country.

People began socializing in large gatherings elsewhere in the country as well. Contradictory COVID-19 protocols that called for strict night curfews and weekend lockdowns while simultaneously allowing large weddings and mass religious festivals only added to the collective sense of confusion and complacency. Contact tracing and follow-up in the field largely stopped.

Super-Spreader Events

India’s COVID-19 surge was also seemingly driven by a variety of super-spreader events. Most prominently were two international cricket matches in Gujarat State in western India where 130,000 fans converged, mostly unmasked, at the Narendra Modi Stadium.

Unmasked crowds fill the streets during India’s Kumbh Mela Festival in April 2021. (Photo: balouriarajesh)

Unmasked crowds fill the streets during India’s Kumbh Mela Festival in April 2021. (Photo: balouriarajesh)

Prime Minister Modi, himself unmasked, campaigned in state elections at rallies of thousands of maskless supporters in March and April. In West Bengal, where voting is held in eight phases, infections have since spiked.

Thousands gathered in the state of Uttar Pradesh to celebrate Holi, the weeklong festival of colors that began on March 29. Meanwhile, millions pilgrimaged to the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand State in April, which possibly led to “the biggest super-spreader [event] in the history of this pandemic.”  Leaders in Uttarakhand not only allowed the festival to take place but also openly encouraged attendance from all over the world saying, “Nobody will be stopped in the name of Covid-19.”

Warning for Africa

The recent surge in COVID-19 cases in India underscores why African countries cannot let their guard down or succumb to myths that cast doubt on how to bring the pandemic to a halt. Most directly, the Indian variant has already reached Africa. It was first detected in Uganda on April 29, 2021, and is now circulating in at least 16 African countries. Moreover, hospitals and ICUs in Uganda are now reporting an overflow of cases linked to the Indian variant. Many of the incoming patients are young people. India also shares similar social features with Africa: a young population, extended family structures that include caring for the elderly at home, and returning to less-populated rural areas of origin when crisis strikes.

COVID-19 Variants Spreading in Africa

Previous analysis has shown that there is not a single African COVID-19 trajectory. Rather, reflective of the continent’s great diversity, there are multiple, distinct risk profiles. Two of these risk profiles—Complex Microcosms and Gateway Countries—seem particularly relevant when assessing the Indian surge risk for Africa.

Complex Microcosms represent countries with large urban populations and widely varying social and geographic landscapes. Many inhabitants of countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Sudan, Cameroon, and Ethiopia live in densely populated informal settlements, making them particularly susceptible to the rapid transmission of the coronavirus. This group also has a higher level of risk due to their weaker health systems, which limits the capacity for testing, reporting, and responding to transmissions. Both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria are among Complex Microcosm countries that have already detected the Indian variant.

Gateway countries, such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and South Africa, have among the highest levels of international trade, travel, tourism, and port traffic on the continent. This makes them more exposed to potentially more infectious and deadly variants that have emerged from other parts of the world, such as India. The interconnected nature of South Asia and the African continent is seen by the early detection of the Indian variant in Algeria, Morocco, and South Africa.

India and the African continent have strong historical, cultural, and economic bonds. Roughly 3 million people of Indian origin live on the continent, and India is Africa’s second most important trading partner after China. Southern and East Africa, in particular, have deep ties to India and large Indian populations with families on both continents. In short, there are many economic and socially driven pathways for the Indian variant to reach Africa.

Priorities for Africa
Lessons from India show that its unprecedented COVID-19 surge was driven by both a more transmissible variant as well as by letting its guard down on preventative public health measures. This exposed the vulnerability of India’s closely integrated and densely populated demographics. A number of African countries also face elevated risks to the spread of the pandemic. Learning from India’s experience highlights several priorities for Africa.

Skyline in Mombasa, Kenya. (Photo: Leo Hempstone)

Skyline in Mombasa, Kenya. (Photo: Leo Hempstone)

Sustained Vigilance. Africa must remain vigilant since some of the same presumed protections India claimed, such as large rural populations that spend much of the day outside, may not guard against the next wave. The new Indian variants are spreading rapidly among young populations, and there is evidence that these newer variants, rather than just exploiting compromised immune systems, are causing some young healthy immune systems to overreact, resulting in severe inflammation and other serious symptoms.

This was the pattern observed in Africa during the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic. The second wave of this pandemic was the result of a significantly more infectious and lethal strain that devasted the continent, infecting the young and the healthy. Countries outside Africa exposed to the mild first wave seemed to experience a reduced impact during the second wave, even though the two strains were markedly different. Having largely escaped the mild first wave, Africa was particularly vulnerable to the virulent second wave.

Continued Importance of Mask Wearing and Social Distancing. The strength of Africa’s public health system is its emphasis on prevention over curative care. African health systems do not have the infrastructure or supplies to respond to a crush of cases. Yet, many African countries have been actively loosening mask mandates and social distancing controls. On May 8, the Africa CDC hosted a Joint Meeting of African Union Ministers of Health on COVID-19 to encourage governments to overcome pandemic fatigue and invest in preparedness. With an eye toward India, prevention measures such as mask wearing, social distancing, and good hand hygiene are still as important as ever until vaccines become more readily available.

“Africa must remain vigilant since some of the same presumed protections India claimed, such as large rural populations that spend much of the day outside, may not guard against the next wave.”

Public Messaging. India suffered from confusing messaging at the early stages of the surge with prominent leaders and public health officials downplaying the severity of the risk and not modeling safe practices with their own behaviors. As they did with the initial onset of the pandemic, African leaders must convey clearly and consistently that the COVID-19 threat persists. Special outreach must be made to youth, who may feel they are immune, but who face greater risks from the Indian variant than previous variants that were transmitted on the continent. In cases where there is a low level of trust in government pronouncements, communication from trusted interlocutors such as public health practitioners, cultural and religious leaders, community leaders, and celebrities, will be especially important.

Ramping Up of Vaccine Campaigns. According to the Africa CDC, the continent has administered just 24.2 million doses to a population of 1.3 billion. Representing less than 2 percent of the population, this is the lowest vaccination rate of any region in the world. With the Indian and other variants coursing through Africa, the potential for the emergence of additional variants rises, posing shifting threats to the continent’s citizens. Containing the virus in Africa, in turn, is integral to the global campaign to end the pandemic. Recognizing the global security implications if the virus continues to spread unchecked in parts of Africa, the United Nations Security Council has expressed concern over the low number of vaccines going to Africa.

While this can largely be attributed to the limited availability of vaccines in Africa during the early part of 2021, this is changing. A number of African countries are now unable to use the doses they have available as a result of widespread vaccine hesitancy driven by myths surrounding the safety of the vaccines. Meanwhile, several African countries have not yet placed their vaccine orders with Afreximbank.

African governments and public health officials, therefore, need to ramp up all phases of their COVID-19 vaccine rollout—public awareness and education, identification of vulnerable populations for prioritization, and logistical preparations and outreach—for a mass vaccination effort to reach as large a share of their populations as possible. Africa’s well-established networks of community health workers provide a vital backbone as well as a trusted and experienced delivery mechanism to successfully achieve these objectives. With technical, financial, and logistical support from external partners, African vaccination campaigns can rise to meet the challenge.

This article was first published by the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

Mr President, in the Name of the Constitution, Swear in the Judges

President Uhuru Kenyatta should live up to his oath of office to obey the constitution and resist the temptation to be garlanded in the pettiness of performing power, writes former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga.

Published

on

Mr President, In The Name Of The Constitution, Swear In The Judges
Download PDFPrint Article

Mr. President

I have elected to speak elaborately and strongly on this issue because when apparently innocuous and blithe breaches to the Constitution begin to occur, especially from the highest office in the land, they signal a dangerous dalliance with impunity. This is particularly so when these occurrences are intentional, persistent, defiant, and brazen – fuelled by an inexplicable determination to overrun the barricades of Kenya’s constitutional order.

There is a reasonable presumption that anyone seeking public office would be familiar with the Constitution. The presumption is even stronger that such persons have read, re-read, and understood provisions specific to the office they seek and, consequently, fully comprehended the allocation and demarcation of power and authority thereto. If they haven’t, then they don’t deserve to be in those offices in the first place. If they have, they have an obligation to respect every provision. That’s the meaning of public officers taking an oath before assuming office to protect, defend, and promote the Constitution, and to abide by all other laws of the Republic.

Nothing in the oaths says, ‘I will obey and protect only those aspects of the Constitution that I find convenient and self-fulfilling; so help me God’. The oath is comprehensive, total, and unqualified; and its administration is not an exercise in jest, but rather a very solemn commitment to conscience and to country; to self and to the public, in the performance of public duty held in trust for the Kenyan people. If any public officer does not like the powers the Constitution donates to them, or find the exercising of those powers annoyingly inconvenient, they have no business continuing to occupy those offices. Resignation and early voluntary retirement are readily available options that the Constitution merrily provides, in order to protect itself from individuals who may find further fidelity to its edicts a burdensome enterprise.

The provision on the appointment of judges is clearly articulated in Article 166, as well as the Judicial Service Act. The JSC discharged its mandate properly and completely in 2019 by recommending for appointment 41 judges. The president, by dint of plain, clear constitutional provisions, and numerous court orders, is obliged to appoint all the recommended judges without hesitation, review, or negotiation.

It is disappointing that this standoff, needlessly occasioned by presidential obduracy, has recurred. Sadly, it has done so in a manner that lowers the esteem of the office, undermines the rule of law, and erodes public confidence both in the elevated majesty of statecraft, and in the granularity in administration of justice.

In 2015, when this issue first emerged, the JSC and the president openly discussed the matter, and agreed on a framework that not only respected the constitutional processes but also acknowledged the unique nature of the presidency. Under this framework, it was agreed that, if the president has any adverse reports on any shortlisted candidates for judgeship, he, both in his privileged position as Head of State, and as a citizen of Kenya and a member of the public, would share that report with the JSC at that stage (not later) in the recruitment process. However, in the interest of fairness, these reports or allegations – just like all the others the JSC receives – would be put to the candidate for his or her response, before the Commission makes a determination on the suitability of that candidate. This is such a fair and common-sense approach that has worked before. In the recruitment of the 41 judges, the president did not present any adverse reports at the appropriate stage, leaving JSC with no option but to make recommendations for appointment.

I rehash this account in the public interest, and because statesmanship requires honour. It abjures petulance. The president’s conduct in this matter has been beneath the dignity of that high office. For two years he has subjected several advocates to untold personal suffering for no reason at all and called into question the integrity of serving judges and judicial officers without any due process. That the president has finally gazetted 34 of the 41 (one had in the meantime died) advocates recommended two years ago following an inexplicable and dishonest delay, speaks to an exercise of power that is egregious, reckless and insensitive.

Most disturbing is the president’s decision to omit the names of six judges and judicial officers from the list. Strikingly, the presidential ‘list of hate’ has even mysteriously changed, meaning that the objection to the judges’ nomination is driven more by personal pique rather that principle. That is not the way to conduct the serious business of state.

The scientific formulation in the provision of the Constitution on the appointment of judges was intended precisely to be an antidote to this kind of whimsical and capricious presidential conduct such as is being seen in ugly display in this matter.

State offices are not the personal property of any individual or officer. All Kenyans have a right to seek to serve in the manner prescribed by law and no individual or authority can arbitrarily renounce, withdraw, or abrogate this right.

The constitution is clear on the mechanisms for raising any issue the president or any other person may have against a sitting judge or judicial officer at whatever level. The JSC has been tested on these issues and has dealt openly and fairly with complaints against judges of ranks even higher than the Court of Appeal. Even Chief Justices, myself included, have had to answer to public petitions in an open and fair process — and that is as it should be. That the president has delayed appointments for two years without presenting any evidence to the Commission in spite of active and repeated solicitation points to bad faith, and most likely, absence of any actionable information on the judges.

And this is not the time to commence muck-racking adventures in a feeble and abominable attempt to besmirch the character of the judges and judicial officers.

The president must resist the temptation to be garlanded in the pettiness of performing power, particularly by those who have built a thriving pettiness cottage industry, completely consumed by the pursuit of personal vendetta, at the expense of the national good and Kenya’s fledging constitutional democracy.

It is urgent that the president immediately appoints the six judges, many of whom are exceptional, because that’s what fairness, common decency, the rule of law and the Constitution require. The independence and accountability of the judiciary is not negotiable. And in the fullness of time, everybody gets to learn this lesson — some rather too painfully, too late, having played a part in undermining it.

Mr President, you bear a burden of history to do the right thing for Kenya’s Constitution, her institutions, and the general public. Discharge this burden. Simply do the right thing.

Mr. President I remain sincerely,

 

Willy Mutunga

Chief Justice & President, Supreme Court of Kenya,
Republic of Kenya,  2011-2016

Continue Reading

Trending