It would seem that Kenya is going into an election this August that’s largely about nothing. No big idea, no galvanising issue. This hasn’t happened since the reintroduction of political pluralism in late 1991 and the elections that followed in 1992. That said, there are those who will be voting against either William S. Ruto or Raila A. Odinga come August. This group is committed and energised. It is seized by the election. Ironically, in the 2007 election Raila Odinga was the bogeyman of Kenyan politics – the man to fear, the master of chaos, etc. Today the very people who spewed that narrative are in wild reverse and the deputy president is the new bad guy in town. Unfortunately for him, Ruto has in the past seemed to embrace and project his darker side, to revel in the fear he engenders. As a bogeyman to the middle class, he has proven to be a good fit. That so many of his foes have met an untimely end adds to this dark myth.
Since 1992, and in 1997 and 2002 in particular, our elections have not lacked what some like to call “the vision thing”. We were voting against Moi’s authoritarianism and the one-party state, yes, but we were also voting for political pluralism, a new constitution and devolution. We were voting for good governance, anti-corruption, human rights, transparency and all those other nice woolly things that have created the open society we enjoy today. In the meantime, a host of new governance arrangements have come into being. In 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta and William S. Ruto sought the vote under a new constitution promulgated in 2010 and went to the polls under the heavy cloud of the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments. The “dynamic duo” promised to spend money, to spend on everything for everyone. They did the same in 2017 – no big idea, just spending – but this time round, the 2017 election failed dramatically after the Supreme Court annulled it, leading to a legitimacy deficit for the Jubilee government.
Prior to these two polls, there were clearly articulated political forces forged by Moi arrayed against the grand issues of the day and those who defined themselves for them – a mixture of the political opposition, media, civil society, the religious sector, etc. In 2022 this clarity is gone – emphatically so! The latter are in disarray while the former are resurgent.
As we head into the August polls what is striking is that, beyond the avowedly populist but ultimately hollow “hustler” narrative, there is as yet no other game in town in the contest of political ideas. There is no other big narrative. More importantly, there is no other compelling hopeful narrative. The chattering classes are appalled that so vacuous a narrative as the “hustler” and the “wheelbarrow” has gained enough traction with a wide section of, in particular, the youthful population. Indeed, for the first time in Kenya’s history, the sitting head of state apparently doesn’t command the electoral numbers in his own political backyard as a result of this trend. This could yet change but it has never been like this so late in the day. In the dark days of KANU, these inconveniences were fixed by simply rigging the polls. This habit has of course continued since the rigged polls of 2007.
The truth is that we are going into an election believing in nothing, standing for nothing. At best, we are searching. All the leading political formations are born of each other and birthed by many profound compromises, and this in part explains the blankness. At a slightly lower political level, those consumed by making money off the state, cutting deals, winning contracts and fiddling tenders can barely contain their excitement as August approaches and new snouts can dip into the trough.
Kenyans love their politics. They obsess about it. Or rather they used to.
An entire generation below 35 years of age has grown up that finds watching our political leaders on the seven o’clock news boring and, some even argue, detrimental to mental health. They catch the outrageous highlights on Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram. The thundering statements of ministers, the head of state and his deputy have been reduced to fleeting minutes of entertainment to be taken as seriously as a Nollywood thriller.
This transformation is not too much unlike others we are witnessing around the world as younger citizens lose faith in their leaders and institutions. Still, I was struck that, with 150 or so days to the next election, our major political formations have split into two behemoths – Azimio, led by Raila Odinga and President Kenyatta, and UDA, led by Deputy President Ruto. Despite this, polls show the number of undecideds and those refusing to respond regarding whom they’ll vote for in August hovering around 30 per cent. Experts I spoke to this week also find this figure curious. Despite the giant political split, that a third of voters remain ambivalent should, on the face of it, be sufficiently polarising to seize the minds of most Kenyans.
Before the landmark election of 2002, about four months to the polls, the number of undecideds was under 10 per cent. In 2013, five months before the polls, the undecideds were around 3 per cent. Days before the 2017 polls, the undecideds and those who said they were not sure who they would vote for were at 8 per cent. The question is: Why does the number of undecideds remain high even though we effectively have a two-horse race going into the August 2022 poll? When I asked experts, they responded that a little probing by pollsters yielded responses from undecideds such as “We’re waiting for their manifestos”, “We’re waiting to learn more about their policies”, etc. Clearly, neither Azimio nor UDA has caught the imagination of the vast majority of Kenyans, allowing them making a clear decision. Either that or they don’t want to share their true views.
Why does the number of undecideds remain high even though we effectively have a two-horse race going into the August 2022 poll?
For our sins, we therefore find ourselves in a twilight zone of the kind Putin’s Grey Cardinal – Vladislav Surkov – manufactured for him. A situation where nothing was real or true and what seemed true could change. Where there was no difference between the opposition and the ruling party because Surkov funded both. Where public life was reduced to theatre, reality could be manufactured and all politics had become ornate thespianism and make-believe. Kenya is not Russia. We have a freer media and an even more widely open social media. Surkov, however, created a system that seemed open, engaged in campaigns and held elections but where the outcome was predetermined. Too much freedom, he argued, was destabilising, so he manufactured a fake Truman Show type of freedom that Russians, especially those who watched state-controlled TV, could participate in.
And so, in our version of political Vitimbi theatre, we are confronted with confusing choices. Raila Odinga, the repository of progressive politics for the last four decades, has partnered with his former political arch-enemy and one-party progeny, Uhuru Kenyatta, to create the Azimio formation. It is rallied against Deputy President Ruto’s UDA party that hit the campaign trail in 2017 with a brilliant populist narrative of “us versus them”, of “hustlers versus dynasties”. The latter, however, lacks even the pretence of dealing with the major issues of the day. Indeed, UDA’s spokespersons have said that they don’t plan to deal with corruption at all! Raila Odinga has progressive pedigree – and here I admit I am subjective – and is clearly counting on both that and the trust of those who remember all he has struggled for to win the presidency. This is tempered by profound fears among progressives that our political victories – such as the constitution – are about to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency, that the eating machine that has pushed our public debt to US$100 billion is the most organised formation of our political reality. The defining issues of yesteryear, such as the constitution, corruption, the very essentials of democracy, deepening poverty and the cost of living, are being handled far more gingerly by the political class this time round.
The eating machine that has pushed our public debt to US$100 billion is the most organised formation of our political reality.
This political mishmash and the lack of clarity could in part explain the resounding lack of genuine excitement in our politics among Kenyans. Add to this the impact of COVID-19, the dramatic deepening of economic inequality, increases in the cost of living and poverty, and it’s understandable that Kenyans seem just tired with it all. The con has been exposed as a con, an empty debe making noises that are incoherent and sometimes amusing, as they say. Still, it does not help that we have entered the most expensive campaign in the history of East and Central Africa with no grand issues to define it. The 2017 election cost US$1 billion and was a washout, shredding the legitimacy of the political elite. Now we find ourselves in the curious twilight zone of Putin’s Gray Cardinal – a lot money being spent, a lot of campaigning underway. For what? What’s the big change being promised beyond a reorganisation of the elite on the deckchairs of the Titanic? Kenyans are no longer being inspired with ideas but with things – we’ll build a stadium, a hospital, a road, a school, an airport, etc. And of course, the elite has these contracts “under control”, as they say. But it seems we haven’t the faintest idea what will be taught in those schools and what kind of Kenyans they will produce. Where the roads lead to and why. The era of big ideas would seem to have been put on pause for now.
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Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy
If Rwanda is to attain its stated ambition to become of a middle-income country by 2035 driven by the knowledge economy, then it must inject significant investments in the education and related sectors.
Rwanda has shown commitment to bring improvements to its education sector. The development of Human capital that involves the enhancement of the education and health sectors was one of the main pillars of Rwanda’s development programme launched in 2000 to transform the country into a middle income state driven by the knowledge economy by 2020. Many developed countries joined in to financially support Rwanda to fulfil its development ambitions.
But while Rwanda did not meet its target to transform into a middle-income state by 2020, it has nevertheless made progress in the education sector that should be recognised. The country has now near-universal access to primary education with net enrolment rates of 98 per cent. There are also roughly equal numbers of boys and girls in pre-primary, primary and secondary schools in Rwanda. Compared to other sub-Saharan African countries, Rwanda has made great improvements in the education sector based on the gains made in primary school gross enrolment, out-of-school and retention rates and considering that the country came out of a genocidal civil war in the 1990s. Those of us living and travelling across the country can also see that the government of Rwanda has built more schools across the country to address congestion in classrooms.
However, education in Rwanda is faced with serious challenges which, if not addressed, the country will not attain its ambition to become a middle-income by 2035 and a high-income by 2050. The World Bank’s comparison with middle- and high-income countries, to whose ranks Rwanda aspires to join, shows that Rwanda lags far behind in primary and lower secondary school completion levels.
The gains made in education are not equally distributed across Rwanda. There are, for instance, wide disparities in lower secondary education by income and urban–rural residence. Whereas lower secondary school gross enrolment ratio level is 82 per cent in urban areas, it is only 44 per cent in rural areas. Moreover, transition rates between primary and lower secondary education are 53 per cent in urban areas, and 33 per cent in rural areas. School completion is 52 per cent among the richest quintile while it is 26 per cent among the poorest. Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.
The standard of education in Rwanda is another major challenge. At the end of Grade 3, 85 per cent of Rwandan students were rated “below comprehension” in a recent reading test, and one in six could not answer any reading comprehension question. In my view, the quality of education has been partly affected by the abrupt changes in the language of instruction that have taken place without much planning since 2008.
Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.
Learning levels in basic education remain low in Rwanda. Children in the country can expect to complete 6.5 years of pre-primary and basic education by the age of 18 years. However, when this is adjusted for learning it translates to only about 3.8 years, implying that children in Rwanda have a learning gap of 2.7 years. This is a concern.
Education in Rwanda is also impended by high levels of malnutrition for children under 5 years. Although there have been improvements over time, malnutrition levels remain significantly high at 33 per cent. Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings. It also deprives the economy of quality human capital that is critical to Rwanda attaining its economic goals and sustaining its economic gains. In 2012, Rwanda lost 11.5 per cent of GDP as a result of child undernutrition.
Because of low learning levels and high levels of malnutrition in children under 5 years, Rwanda has consistently ranked below average on the World Bank’s Human Capital index since 2018, the year the index was first published. HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens.
If Rwanda is to develop the competent workforce needed to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy and bring it into the ranks of middle-income states, the government must put significant public spending in basic education. This has not been the case over the past decades. According to the World Bank, Rwanda’s public spending on primary education has been significantly lower than the average for sub-Saharan African countries with similar coverage of primary school level as Rwanda. This low spending on primary education has translated into relatively modest pay for teachers and low investment in their professional development which in turn affects the provision of quality education in Rwanda. The government recently increased teachers’ salary but the increment is being eroded by, among other things, food price inflation in Rwanda.
Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings.
Going forward, Rwanda’s spending on education needs to be increased and allocated to improving standards. Considering that the underlying cause of the high rate of malnourishment in children is food insecurity, the government needs to spend more on the agriculture sector. This sector employs 70 per cent of the labour force but has received only 10 per cent of total public investment. Public investment in Rwanda has in the past gone to the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions sector rather than towards addressing pressing scarcities. This approach must be reviewed.
Increasing public expenditure in education and connected sectors should also be combined with strengthening accountability in the government institutions responsible for promoting the quality of education in basic schools and in promoting food security and livelihoods in Rwanda. This is because not a year goes by without the office of the Rwanda auditor general reporting dire inefficiencies in these institutions.
Strengthening institutional accountability can be achieved if the country adapts its consensual democracy by opening up the political space to dissenting voices. Doing so would surely enhance the effectiveness of checks and balances across institutions in Rwanda, including in the education sector, and would enable the country to efficiently reach its development targets.
No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States
Adam Mayer praises a new collection, Liberated Texts, which includes rediscovered books on Africa’s socialist intellectual history and political economy, looking at the startling, and frequently long ignored work of Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu and Makhan Singh.
Liberated Texts is a magnificent, essential, exciting tome that feels like a bombshell. This incredibly rich collection is a selection that is deep, wide, as well as entertaining. The book focuses on twenty-one volumes from the previous one hundred years, with a geographical range from the UK, the US, Vietnam, Korea, the Peoples Republic of China, the Middle East, Ireland, Malaysia, Africa (especially East Africa), Europe, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union, focusing on books that are without exception, foundational.
The collection is nothing less than a truth pill: in composite form, the volume corrects world history that Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States offered for the sterile, historical curriculum on domestic (US) history. The volume consists of relatively short reviews (written by a wide collection of young and old academics and activists from every corner of the globe) but together they reflect such a unified vision that I would recommend Liberated Texts as compulsory reading for undergraduate students (as well as graduates!) Although the text is a broad canvas it speaks to our age (despite some of the reviewed book having been written in the 1920s).
Each review is by default, a buried tresure. The writer of this very review is a middle-aged Hungarian, which means that some of the works and authors discussed were more familiar to me than they would be to others. For example, Anton Makarenko’s name was, when the author grew up in the People’s Republic of Hungary, a household word. Makarenko’s continued relevance for South America and the oppressed everywhere, as well as his rootedness in the revolutionary transformations of the Soviet experiment, are dealt with here marvellosly by Alex Turrall (p. 289). In loving detail Turrall also discusses his hero the pedagogue Sukhomlinsky’s love for Stalinist reforms of Soviet education (p. 334).
There is one locus, and one locus only, where death is given reign, perhaps even celebrated: in a Palestinian case (p. 133) the revolutionary horizons are firmly focused on the past, not on any kind of future. The entire problematic of Israeli society’s recent ultra right-wing turn (a terrible outcome from the left’s point of view) is altogther missing here. Yet it is difficult to fault the authors or editors with this (after all, they painstakingly included an exemplary anti-Nazi Palestinian fighter in the text, p. 152) but it might be in order to challenge a fascination with martyrdom as a revolutionary option on the radical left.
In every other aspect, Liberated Texts enlightens without embarrassment, and affirms life itself. Imperialism is taken on in the form of unresolved murders of Chinese researchers in the United States as a focus (p. 307), and in uncovering the diabolical machinations of the peer-review system – racist, classist, prestige-driven as it is (p. 305).
The bravery of this collection is such that we find few authors within academia’s tenure track: authors are either emeriti, tenured, very young academics, or those dedicated to political work: actual grassroots organizers, comrades at high schools, or as language teachers. This has a very beneficial effect on the edited volume as an enterprise at the forefront of knowledge, indeed of creating new knowledge. Career considerations are absent entirely from this volume, in which thankfully even the whiff of mainstream liberalism is anathema.
I can say with certainty regarding the collection’s Africanist chapters that certain specialists globally, on African radical intellectual history, have been included: Leo Zeilig, Zeyad el-Nabolsy, Paul O’Connell, Noosim Naimasiah and Corinna Mullin all shed light on East African (as well as Caribbean) socialist intellectual history in ways that clear new paths in a sub-discipline that is underfunded, purposely confined to obscurity, and which lacks standard go-to syntheses especially in the English language (Hakim Adi’s celebrated history on pan-Africanism and communism stops with the 1950s, and other works are in the making).
Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu, Makhan Singh are the central authors dealt with here. Rodney is enjoying a magnificent and much deserved renaissance (but this collection deals with a lost collection of Rodney’s 1978 Hamburg lectures by Zeilig!) Nabolsy shows us how Nyerere’s Marxist opposition experienced Ujamaa, and Tanzanian ’socialism’. Nabudere – a quintessential organic intellectual as much as Rodney – is encountered in praxis as well as through his thought and academic achievements in a chapter by Corinna Mullin. Nabudere emerges as a towering figure whose renaissance might be in the making right at this juncture. Singh makes us face the real essence of British imperialism. Nabudere, Babu and even Hirji’s achievements in analysing imperialism and its political economy are all celebrated in the collection.
Where Shivji focuses on empire in its less violent aspect (notably NGOs and human rights discourse) powerfully described by Paul O’Connell, Naimasiah reminds us that violence had been as constitutive to Britain’s empire, as it has been to the Unites States (in Vietnam or in Korea). An fascinating chapter in the collection is provided by Marion Ettinger’s review of Richard Boyle’s Mutiny in Vietnam, an account based entirely on journalism, indeed impromptu testimony, of mutinous US soldiers tired of fighting for Vietnam’s landlord class.
Many readers of this anthology will identify with those veterans (since the collection appears in the English language) perhaps more than with East Asia’s magnificent, conscious fighters also written about in the book. Even in armies of the imperialist core, humanity shines through. Simply put, there are no imperialist peoples, only imperialist states.
Zeilig’s nuanced take on this important matter is revealed in Rodney’s rediscovered lectures. Also, the subtlety of class analysis in relation to workers versus peasants, and the bureacratic bourgeoisie profiting from this constellation (p. 219) brings to mind the contradiction that had arguably brought down Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s anti-imperialist president who nevertheless found himself opposing working class demands. Rodney’s politics in Guyana invited the same fate as Sankara, as we know.
Nabolsy’s review on Hirji’s The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher touches on very interesting issues of Rodney’s role especially in the context of Ujamaa and Nyerere’s idiosyncratic version of African socialism. Nabolsy appreciates Nyerere efforts but analyses his politics with great candour: Ujamaa provided national unification, but failed to undermine Tanzania’s dependency in any real sense. The sad realization of the failure of Tanzania’s experience startles the reader with its implications for the history of African socialism.
On an emotional and personal level, I remain most endeared by the Soviet authors celebrated in this text. So Makarenko and Sukhomlinsky are both Soviet success stories and they demonstrate that this combination of words in no oxymoron, and neither is it necessarily, revisionist mumbo-jumbo. Their artificial removal from their historical context (which had happened many times over in Makarenko’s case, and in one particular account when it comes to Sukhomlinsky) are fought against by the author with Leninist gusto.
Sukhomlinsky had not fought against a supposedly Stalinist education reform: he built it, and it became one of the most important achievements of the country by the 1960s due partly to his efforts. The former educational pioneer did not harm children: he gave them purpose, responsibility, self-respect, and self-esteem. The implication of Sukhomlinsky and Makarenko is that true freedom constructs its own order, and that freedom ultimately thrives on responsibility, and revolutionary freedom.
As this collection is subtitled Volume One, it is my hope and expectation that this shall be the beginning of a series of books, dealing with other foundational texts, and even become a revolutionary alternative to The London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, both of which still demonstrate how much readers crave review collections. Volumes like Liberated Texts might be the very future of book review magazines in changed form. A luta continua!
This article was first published by ROAPE.
We Must Democratize the Economy
In the UK, prices for basic goods are soaring while corporations rake in ever-bigger profits. The solution, Jeremy Corbyn argues, is to bring basic resources like energy, water, railways, and the postal service into democratic public ownership.
On Thursday, December 15, the Royal College of Nursing went on strike for the first time in their 106-year history. Understaffed, underpaid, and overworked, tens of thousands of National Health Service (NHS) nurses walked out after being denied decent, livable pay rises. Hailed as heroes one year, forced to use food banks the next, nurses’ wages have fallen more than £3,000 in real terms since 2010; three in four now say they work overtime to meet rising energy bills.
People will remember 2022 as the year that the Conservative Party plunged this country into political turmoil. However, behind the melodrama is a cost-of-living crisis that has pushed desperate people into destitution and the so-called middle classes to the brink. We should remember 2022 as the year in which relative child poverty reached its highest levels since 2007 and real wage growth reached its lowest levels in half a century. (Average earnings have shrunk by £80 a month and a staggering £180 a month for public sector workers.) These are the real scandals.
For some MPs, this was the year they kick-started their reality TV careers. For others, this was the year they told their children they couldn’t afford any Christmas presents. For energy companies, it was the year they laughed all the way to the bank; in the same amount of time it took for Rishi Sunak to both lose and then win a leadership contest, Shell returned £8.2 billion in profit. SSE, a multinational energy company headquartered in Scotland, saw their profits triple in just one year. Profits across the world’s seven biggest oil firms rose to almost £150 billion.
Tackling the cost-of-living crisis means offering an alternative to our existing economic model — a model that empowers unaccountable companies to profit off the misery of consumers and the destruction of our earth. And that means defending a value, a doctrine, and a tradition that unites us all: democracy.
Labour recently announced “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people.” I welcomed the renewal of many of the policies from the manifesto in 2019: abolishing the House of Lords and handing powers to devolved governments, local authorities, and mayors. These plans should work hand in hand, to ensure any second chamber reflects the geographical diversity of the country. If implemented, this would decentralize a Whitehall-centric model of governance that wastes so much of this country’s regional talent, energy, and creativity.
However, devolution, decentralization, and democracy are not just matters for the constitution. They should characterize our economy too. Regional governments are demanding greater powers for the same reason an unelected second chamber is patently arcane: we want a say over the things that affect our everyday lives. This, surely, includes the way in which our basic resources are produced and distributed.
From energy to water and from rail to mail, a small number of companies monopolize the production of basic resources to the detriment of the workers they exploit and the customers they fleece. We rely on these services, and workers keep them running, but it is remote chief executive officers and unaccountable shareholders who decide how they are run and profit off their provision. Would it not make more sense for workers and consumers to decide how to run the services they provide and consume?
As prices and profits soar, it’s time to put basic resources like energy, water, rail, and mail back where they belong: in public hands. Crucially, this mold of public ownership would not be a return to 1940s-style patronage-appointed boards but a restoration of civic accountability. Water, for example, should be a regional entity controlled by consumers, workers, and local authorities, and work closely with environmental agencies on water conservation, sewage discharges, the preservation of coastlines, and the protection of our natural world. This democratic body would be answerable to the public, and the public alone, rather than to the dividends of distant hedge funds.
Bringing energy, water, rail, and mail into democratic public ownership is about giving local people agency over the resources they use. It’s about making sure these resources are sustainably produced and universally distributed in the interests of workers, communities, and the planet.
Beyond key utilities, a whole host of services and resources require investment, investment that local communities should control. That’s why, in 2019, we pledged to establish regional investment banks across the country, run by local stakeholders who can decide — collectively — how best to direct public investment. Those seeking this investment would not make their case with reference to how much profit they could make in private but how much they could benefit the public as a whole.
To democratize our economy, we need to democratize workplaces too. We can end workplace hierarchies and wage inequalities by giving workers the right to decide, together, how their team operates and how their pay structures are organized. If we want to kick-start a mass transfer of power, we need to redistribute wealth from those who hoard it to those who create it.
Local people know the issues facing them, and they know how to meet them better than anyone else. If we want to practice what we preach, then the same principles of democracy, devolution, and decentralization must apply to our own parties as well. Local party members, not party leaders, should choose their candidates, create policy, and decide what their movement stands for.
Only a democratic party can provide the necessary space for creative and transformative solutions to the crises facing us all. In a world where the division between rich and poor is greater than ever before, our aim should be to unite the country around a more hopeful alternative — an alternative that recognizes how we all rely on each other to survive and thrive.
This alternative is not some abstract ideal to be imagined. It is an alternative that workers are fighting for on the picket line. Even before the nurses went on strike, 2022 was a record-breaking year for industrial action. Striking workers are not just fighting for pay, essential as these demands are. They are fighting for a society without poverty, hunger, and inequality. They are fighting for a future that puts the interests of the community ahead of the greed of energy companies. They are fighting for us all.
Their collective struggle teaches us that democracy exists — it thrives — outside of Westminster. The government is trying its best to turn dedicated postal workers and railway workers into enemies of the general public — a general public that apparently also excludes university staff, bus drivers, barristers, baggage handlers, civil servants, ambulance drivers, firefighters, and charity workers. As the enormous scale of industrial action shows, striking workers are the general public. The year 2022 will go down in history, not as the year the Tories took the public for fools, but as the year the public fought back. United in their thousands, they are sending a clear message: this is what democracy looks like.
This article was first published by Progressive International
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