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Role of IEBC Chair and Commissioners: What Is in the Name “Returning Officer”?

14 min read.

At the core of the latest IEBC controversy is the question of whether or not commissioners have a role to play in counting, tallying, verifying, and announcing the presidential results. Public opinion is divided but what many pundits have ignored is the role and structure of the IEBC.



Role of IEBC Chair and Commissioners: What Is in the Name “Returning Officer”?
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The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) sent shock waves across the country when different commissioners gave inconsistent positions on the credibility of the recent presidential election. Kenya is no stranger to public drama by IEBC Commissioners. In 2017, an IEBC Commissioner resigned ahead of a re-run of the presidential election and fled to the US. Then followed the resignation of three commissioners alleging the improper removal of the CEO and claiming lack of faith in the IEBC chairperson’s leadership.

Once again, and just as the IEBC chairperson was announcing the presidential election on 15 August 2022, four commissioners rushed to Serena Hotel to issue a presser disowning the results for what they termed as the “opaque” manner in which the results have been handled. Counteraccusations ensued, with the IEBC chairperson accusing the commissioners of attempting to “moderate results”, an allegation that they vehemently opposed. At the core of this IEBC circus is whether commissioners have a role to play in counting, tallying, verifying, and announcing the presidential results. Public opinion has been divided over the role of the IEBC commissioners in the conduct of the presidential election but what many pundits have ignored is the role and structure of the IEBC, as part of the independent commissions, which might shed light on the commissioners’ role in the presidential election.

This piece argues that a holistic reading of the constitution on the conduct of the presidential election reveals that the IEBC, including the commissioners, should be involved in all stages of the election. To prove this, it makes three arguments. First, Article 138(3) (e) of the constitution enshrines the role of the IEBC as a body in the conduct of presidential elections. Second, the jurisprudence on the running of the business of the IEBC provides for the centrality of the commissioners as the “linchpin of the Commission”. Third, the architecture of the independent commissions as watchdogs of democracy ingrains internal checks and balances and disfavours limitless powers of an individual or of one arm of the commission. Lastly, the paper debunks the analogization of the role of the IEBC and chairperson and returning officers. It offers three reasons why the parallelism of the two positions commits the logical fallacy of false analogy or false equivalence.

This article proceeds on the assumption that the IEBC chairperson exercised the role of the national returning officers to the exclusion of other commissioners. It is informed by the chairperson’s statement released on 17 August 2022, where the chairperson quotes the role of returning officers as being to tally, verify, and announce results. He concludes, “The role of the National Returning Officer for Presidential Election is not shared responsibility and not subject to Plenary decision of the Commission.” The paper argues that the chairperson of the IEBC has failed to examine his role in the context of the entire constitutional provisions on the conduct of the presidential election and operations of the commission.

While the failure to involve the commissioners raises an important question, this piece observes that it is not enough to overturn the election. Beyond demonstrating the lack of participation of the commissioners, it must be shown that there is a “substantial effect” on the integrity of the election as a whole.

Role of IEBC chairperson vis-à-vis the other commissioners in the conduct of the presidential election

As in any other election, in the presidential election, under Article 86 (c) of the Constitution, the IEBC is required to ensure that the results from the polling stations are openly and accurately collated and promptly announced by the returning officer. This generic provision lays out the oversight role of the IEBC in the conduct of the election. Public discourse over the election has been engrossed in the question of the exact duty of the commissioners in the conduct of the presidential election. Some have taken their scepticism to the extent of questioning the reason for voting if the commissioners “have a say in the presidential election results”. Others have argued that the law only requires the IEBC commissioners to vote only on the business of the commission, and the presidential election is not a business of the commission.

While the arguments on the commissioners’ role and the perception of subversion of the will of the people raise an essential question, these contentions fail to address the broader context of the presidential election. The presidential election requires a heightened oversight because of its importance and critical nature in Kenyan society. This part considers the constitutional provisions which give the commissioners a general oversight role, including verification of forms 34A and 34B to determine their accuracy.

Some have taken their scepticism to the extent of questioning the reason for voting if the commissioners “have a say in the presidential election results”.

It is crucial to first clarify that this debate is not about the quorum of the IEBC. The quorum of the IEBC has been used to conflate it with the debate on the role of the commissioners in the presidential election. However, the question of the role of commissioners is distinct from the question of quorum. Quorum addresses the question of whether there are enough commissioners to transact business, an issue that was settled in the BBI case. The pertinent issue in the current discourse is the role of commissioners since they were present but did not participate for lack of a part to play in the process. For quorum to be an issue, all commissioners should have received a notice to attend the plenary, but only the minimum number availed themselves.

The structure of independent commissions as commission-centric 

A holistic reading of the constitution on the nature of the independent commissions reveals the integral role that commissioners play in overseeing the implementation of a commission’s functions. In this part, I argue that most proponents of a super-chairperson of the IEBC on the national tabulations of presidential results fail to read the constitution holistically. Specifically, they fail to examine the structure and functioning of the independent commissions, including the IEBC. An isolationist and narrow reading of Article 138 (10) of the constitution on the role of the IEBC chairperson will lead to an erroneous conclusion that the IEBC chairperson collates, tallies, and verifies forms 34A and 34B received from the polling stations. This piece cautions against drawing hasty conclusions regarding the role of the IEBC chairperson from reading a single article of the constitution.

Chapter 15 of the constitution provides for the architecture of the independent commissions. Article 249 of the constitution decrees the object of these bodies as the protection of sovereignty, and promoting democracy and constitutionalism. The commission’s composition and nature are listed in Articles 250 and 253 of the constitution, and it is stated to be a corporate body. The commission as a body functions in a manner that guarantees internal accountability, as depicted by the uneven number of commissioners and the insistence that the existence of the commission depends on the existence of commissioners.

Most proponents of a super-chairperson of the IEBC on the national tabulations of presidential results fail to read the constitution holistically.

Kenyan courts have discussed the place of commissioners in relation to the secretariat. A close look at some of the foundational cases on independent commissions will shed light on the relationship between the chairperson of the IEBC and commissioners as a body. One typical running theme is that the commissioners are the linchpin of the commission, and no duty is beyond the commissioners’ oversight since they are the nub of the commission. This argument does not mean they have unfettered powers—even to the extent of changing election results—but they can oversee and note mistakes on the report to be submitted to the Chief Justice.

At the centre of their function is policymaking for implementation by the secretariat, and oversight. The rationale for the emphasis on the centrality of commissioners is that they are responsible for realizing the mandate of the IEBC as an enabler of democracy and a guarantee of the right to self-determination. The secretariat assists the commission in the discharge of its mandate. Court decisions on the relationship between the secretariat and the commissioners reveal the vital place of commissioners in discharging the commission’s mandate. In the Constitutional Application N° 2 of 2011, the court was emphatic that “the several independent Commissions and offices are intended to serve as ‘people’s watchdogs’ and perform this role effectively”.

Courts in Kenya have termed the existence of commissioners as a foundation for the powers of the secretariat. The implication is that for a commission to exist properly, it must have commissioners; from there, all other functions flow. Ordinarily, the outcome of the functioning of the secretariat should be ratified by the commissioners of the IEBC. In Michael Sistu Mwaura Kamau v Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and 4 others 2017, the court stated,

“The Secretary and the Secretariat can only carry out the powers vested in their offices when the Commission exercises its powers since they implement what the Commission has resolved. The Commissioners must ratify the outcome of the tasks undertaken by the Commission’s staff if they are to be deemed as the decisions of the Commission” (Emphasis mine).

Therefore, given the central position of the commissioners in the conduct of all functions of the IEBC, they cannot be excluded from an essential role in the national conduct of the presidential election. Although officers of the IEBC might have specific statutory duties, the exercise of their functions is subject to general oversight by the commissioners. Therefore, officials such as returning officers assist the commissioners in conducting the election at the lower levels. It is illogical to argue that returning officers can exclude the commissioners from oversighting the elections they are conducting.

Misuse of the tag of national returning officer

The general posture of the Kenyan constitution is that it adopts a pessimistic outlook on those who wield power. This position of the constitution informs the distribution of duties among various parts of the IEBC. Here, I will argue first that Article 138(3) (c) of the constitution provides for the general task of the IEBC as a body, the chairperson’s role being limited to the announcement of the presidential election results under Article 138 (10) of the constitution. Second, I will contend that the constitution does not eliminate the oversight role of commissioners regarding the presidential election. Third, the constitution is aversive to an individual exercising monopoly of power. Put differently, the constitution favours the distribution of powers, oversight, and internal checks and balances. Lastly, I will deflate the false analogies of equating the chairperson of the IEBC in the conduct of the presidential election with other returning officers. I will argue that it is a simplistic view of the conduct of the presidential election.

As a body the IEBC has the role of the conducting of the presidential election. Article 138 (3)(c) of the constitution provides that in the presidential election, the IEBC shall tally, verify, and declare the results after counting the votes in the polling stations. This role is given to the commission as a body to be discharged by its employees with the commissioners’ oversight. At the national level, the IEBC verifies and tabulates forms 34As and 34Bs to generate form 34C. All commissioners have a right to be involved in the tabulations in the exercise of their oversight role over the employees of the IEBC.

Although officers of the IEBC might have specific statutory duties, the exercise of their functions is subject to general oversight by the commissioners.

Unlike Article 138(3)(c), which provides for the general role of the IEBC, Article 138(10)(a) of the constitution provides that the chairperson of the IEBC shall declare the results of the presidential election. The implication of this is that the role of the chairperson is exclusive in so far as the declaration of the presidential result is concerned. The chairperson does not single-handedly oversee the secretariat in the generation of form 34C, which contains the collated presidential election results. Additionally, the commissioners have a role under Article 86 of the constitution to ensure that results are accurately collated and announced by returning officers. In this case, and for argument’s sake, even if we equate the chairperson to the returning officers who announce the results, the commissioners will have an oversight role over him on how the national total results are arrived at. This oversight will ensure that the chairperson of the IEBC is accountable to the commission in the conduct of such an important role. The Court of Appeal in Al Ghurair Printing and Publishing LLC v Coalition for Reforms and Democracy and 2 others 2017 held that the commissioners formulate strategy and oversight IEBC employees and the commission’s functions, meaning that the tabulation of results in the forms was subject to the supervision of the commissioners.

To counter the above arguments on the commissioners’ involvement, some people have argued that commissioners are not required to oversee other elections before various returning officers announce them. This argument fails to consider the unique nature of the presidential election in our constitutional design. Of course, all polls are unique, and in substance, they are supposed to adhere to the same constitutional principles. However, due to the controversies surrounding the presidential election, the constitution favours the involvement of commissioners as a collegial body to guarantee electoral integrity. Because of Kenya’s history in the presidential election, the constitution requires heightened oversight at all election levels, especially the final national tabulations.

The other counterargument offered is that the IEBC chairperson exercises the powers of a returning officer, which are individualized duties not subject to the plenary powers of the commission. To answer this claim, I make three arguments. First, the characterization of the role of the chairperson of the IEBC as a presidential returning officer does not mean that the commissioners are excluded from oversight of the national tallying of the presidential election. Put differently, the characterization should not affect examining the exact constitutional dynamics between commissioners. Thus, the commissioners have a role in oversighting the chairperson of the IEBC because he exercises the commission’s mandate.

Due to the controversies surrounding the presidential election, the constitution favours the involvement of commissioners as a collegial body to guarantee election integrity.

Secondly, while the role of the IEBC chairperson has a similarity with that of the returning officers of other elections, they are not the same. Under section 38 of the Election Act, the returning officer is responsible for conducting the election. Further, section 39(1A) of the Election Act provides that the returning officer is responsible for tallying, collating, and announcing the election results. In contrast, Article 138(3)(c) of the constitution provides that the responsibility of conducting the presidential election lies with the IEBC. While the chairperson of the IEBC exercises specific duties similar to those of IEBC returning officers, the constitution explicitly adopts the language of the IEBC as a body when addressing the specific electoral duties such as counting, verifying, and tabulating the presidential election. Contrasting Article 138(3)(c) of the constitution with Article 138(10)(a) of the constitution, which provides that the IEBC chairperson shall announce the presidential election, demonstrates that he exercises constricted powers. When it comes to the announcement of the results of the presidential election, Article 138 (10)(a) of the constitution drops the language of the commission and specifically identifies the chairperson as the individual with the role of declaring the aggregated results. Therefore, if the constitution wished the chairperson to singlehandedly exercise the role laid out in Article 138(3)(c) of the constitution, it would have included it in Article 138(10) of the constitution or in any other part that exclusively addresses the duties of the chairperson of IEBC.

Thirdly, the involvement of the chairperson of the IEBC in announcing the presidential election demonstrates a constitutional intention of engaging the highest levels of the commission in the national tabulations of results and declarations. The functions listed under Article 138 (3)(c) of the constitution, especially the national tabulation of results, involve the highest organs of the IEBC. The rationale for this involvement of the highest organs of the commission is not hard to discern, owing to the perennial controversy surrounding the presidential election in Kenya. The commissioners are selected with a unique obligation of securing democracy, and what other level epitomizes this democracy if not the presidential election? The stakes in the presidential elections are very high in Kenya, and it would be barmy not to involve the entire commission or vest the national level powers only in the chairperson of the IEBC. Granting the IEBC chairperson the exclusive role of the presidential election returning officer to the exclusion of the commissioners has no serious constitutional value. With regards to the manipulation of results, the presumption should be that the more transparency and involvement, the less likely it is for them to be changed.

Relevance of the Maina Kiai case 

The import of the case of Maina Kiai on the powers of the chairperson of the IEBC has caused considerable controversy in the country. Some have argued that the Kiai case addressed the issue of whether the chairperson can change the results declared at the polling station. Others have argued that Kiai’s statement on the powers of the IEBC chairperson was an obiter dictum. This part seeks to answer these questions and make the fourth argument why the commissioners of the IEBC should have been involved in the conduct of the presidential election.

The answer to the concerns raised regarding the relevance of Kiai on the discourse on the role of commissioners is both “yes” and “no” because the case touches on the role of the chairperson of the IEBC and yet not in the manner in which the four commissioners cite it. On the one hand, the Kiai decision is relevant to the extent that it indicates the scope and nature of the role of the chairperson of the IEBC. Although not exactly dealing with the current crisis, it elucidates the role of the chairperson of the IEBC in the conduct of the presidential election. On the other hand, the Kiai decision does not address the role of the commissioners versus the chairperson of the IEBC in the conduct of the presidential election. The implication is that when the court is discussing the limitation of the powers of the chairperson of the IEBC, it is doing so in the context of whether the chair can alter the results announced at the polling level. Nevertheless, the Kiai case sheds light on the nature of the powers of the chairperson of the IEBC. From Kiai’s case, it is clear that the chairperson exercises limited powers, and the constitution disfavours the chairperson from having exclusive powers in the presidential election other than the announcement of the collated results.

The commissioners have a role in oversighting the chairperson of the IEBC because he exercises the commission’s mandate.

The constitution disrelishes the concentration of powers on one individual in the conduct of an important election such as the presidential one. This is to ensure an effective discharge of the role of the IEBC as the safeguard of democracy and the right to self-determination. The nature of the independent commissions as having embedded checks and balances was articulated by the Supreme Court in the matter of the National Land Commission (2015). The court believed that checks and balances were the mainsprings of accountability. It stated that “the spirit and vision behind the separation of powers are that there be checks and balances and that no single person or institution should have a monopoly of all powers.”

The commissioners provide a heightened level of oversight and verification, which means that the chairperson cannot act unilaterally in the tabulation of forms 34A and 34B. It is illegitimate for the chairperson to conduct the presidential election in an exclusionary way, especially the generation of form 34C without the involvement of other commissioners. This conduct goes against the rationale of the independent commissions, which is to be the people’s watchdog for democracy. The Court of Appeal captured this position in Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission v Maina Kiai & 5 Others (2017):

“To suggest that some law empowers the appellant’s Chairperson, as an individual, to correct, vary, confirm, alter, modify, or adjust the results electronically transmitted to the national tallying centre from the constituency tallying centres, is to donate an illegitimate power . . . We reiterate, as we conclude that there is no doubt from the architecture of the laws, we have considered that the people of Kenya did not intend to vest or concentrate such sweeping and boundless powers in one individual, the Chairperson of the appellant.” (Emphasis mine.)

In sum, while the Kiai case did not directly deal with the role of the commissioners and chairperson, the obiter indicates the limited powers of the IEBC chairperson. The court in Kiai’s case reinforced the need for a limited role of the chairperson of the IEBC in line with Article 138(10) (a) of the constitution. Thus, to ensure the IEBC’s accountability and checks and balances, it is constitutionally absurd to exclude commissioners from verifying the presidential election.

Failure to include the commissioners must substantially affect the election

Overturning an election should not be an easy task for any petitioner. This is because the election represents the people’s will, and the courts should be slow in overturning the people’s expressed will without clear and convincing evidence. There is also a presumption that the actions undertaken by government officials are legal unless they are impeached by evidence. The other concern is that elections are expensive, and for a developing country like Kenya, economic realities should be balanced with constitutional purity.

Globally, no election is perfect, so normal errors do not suffice to overturn an election. The core question is whether the errors or irregularities are substantial enough to overturn an election. Section 83 of the Election Act provides that non-compliance with the constitution and the law must substantially affect the election. In Raila Amolo Odinga & another v Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission & 2 others (2017), the court held that trivial irregularities are not enough to overturn an election, and the error must have a substantial effect on the election. Further, the court noted that the election should be looked at as a whole to determine whether the constitution has been substantially breached.

The Kiai decision does not address the role of the commissioners versus the chairperson of the IEBC in the conduct of the presidential election.

The failure to involve commissioners in generating form 34C should not automatically invalidate the election. The constitution does not adopt a purist approach to the election. Instead, all mistakes must substantially affect the integrity of the election. A presidential election is a highly regulated process. If it is proved that the results in forms 34As and 34Bs were collated adequately at the national level, the non-involvement of the commissioner will not rise to the “substantial effect” level.

However, if it were to be demonstrated that the failure to include the commissioners led to unverified results, which have numerous mistakes, then the non-involvement would have substantially affected the election. The errors would not be characterized as “harmless errors” because they would have a tangible effect on the election’s credibility. The commission as a body would have failed to realize its mandate of conducting a free and fair election as enshrined in Article 86 (c) of the constitution. Thus, the commissioners’ oversight role in the conduct of the presidential election would be unconstitutionally impeded, leading to the unverifiable and inaccurate collation of results at the national level.

To conclude, a hasty and exclusive reading of Article 138(10)(a) of the constitution would lead to the erroneous conclusion that only the chairperson of the IEBC has the role of tallying, verifying, and declaring presidential results in forms 34A and 34B. However, a holistic reading of the constitution and jurisprudence on the structure and the functioning of the IEBC demonstrates that commissioners should be involved in generating forms 34C for the presidential election.

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Ian Mwiti Mathenge is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya. He holds a Master of Laws degree in constitutional law and climate change law from Harvard Law School in United States. He also holds a Master of Laws Degree (with distinction) from University of Pretoria in South Africa. Ian has a Bachelor of Laws Degree (First Class Honours) from Catholic University of Eastern Africa. His academic interests and practice areas are constitutional law, climate change, ESG and legal philosophy.


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.



Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy
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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.

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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.



No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States
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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.

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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.



Jeremy Corbyn: We Must Democratize the Economy
Photo: Chatham House, London
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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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