My grandfather lived to around 100 years old. He was a teenager during the First World War and as a young adult was hired as a casual labourer on a white colonial settler’s farm. One afternoon the labourers left the fields on that farm in Kiambu to the sound of a screaming man. As they approached the estate’s work buildings, they came upon a shocking sight. One of the African workers had been accused of theft and the British farm owner had ordered him stripped naked and tied onto the corrugated roof of one of the buildings. It was the hottest time of the day and the entire workforce, that included women and children, was forced to watch as the man moaned and screamed in pain as he literally roasted on the sizzling tin roof. The episode traumatised and outraged my grandfather. When the Mau Mau was formed, he was an eager early conscript.
Though he grimly told the stories from the dark days of the “State of Emergency” that was declared by the colonial governor in October 1952 to confront the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule, he never regretted the choice he made despite the cost to himself individually and to his family.
The sheer military power of the British Empire was awesome but to my grandfather the most deadly and most insidious element of the imperial project were the missionaries. He enjoyed reading the Bible and particularly appreciated the man called Jesus of Nazareth, describing him as “mũndũ wa kĩhooto”—a man who appreciated manifest truth and who was courageous, humane and honest.
My grandfather was far more suspicious of the “men of the skirt”—the missionaries who brought Jesus’ message to the colony. These fellows, my grandfather observed, were very much unlike the man Jesus about whom they preached. They were willing to lie, denigrate local customs and traditions, sell out members of their congregation and were unwilling to debate the more ridiculous elements of the gospel they preached. Despite the military might of Empire and its power to manipulate people’s view of the world, my grandfather was always clear that, “One day the whites will go. This is not their place. . .”
Towards the end of February, the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin embarked on an invasion of its neighbour Ukraine. Since then the Russians have pummelled Ukrainian cities in a punitive military expedition that has provoked outrage in the West and in other parts of the world. Last week US President Joe Biden called what was happening in Ukraine a “war crime” —invoking language from the lexicon of human rights that is a unique contribution of “the West” as an idea, and the world order since the end of WWII, an essentially Western rights and rules-based order in the management of human affairs. It has meant a period of unprecedented peace, especially in Europe where, in the past few hundred years, some of the most devastating wars have been fought. Indeed, one of the exceptional attributes of European cities that Africans observe when they visit them are the impressive monuments to war and to the men who fought them.
The war crimes of Putin and his regime in Ukraine are ongoing. At the United Nations General Assembly of 2 March, 28 out of 54 African countries (51 per cent of African countries) voted in favour of a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression. In contrast, 81 per cent of non-African countries voted in favour of the resolution. Thirty-five African countries (48.6 per cent) abstained. Eight African countries did not vote and Eritrea voted against the resolution. Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Amb. Martin Kimani, was widely lauded in the West for an outstanding speech criticising the disproportionate and unprovoked Russian action.
Events since this grim renewal of large-scale European hostilities have served to demonstrate a number of profound new realities. First, I was struck that Putin so brazenly embarked on the operation. But the world has changed. I was also struck that US President Joe Biden”—perhaps the US president most experienced in foreign affairs in a long while”—consulted with Chinese President Xi Jinping rather than rushing into action that would be too drastic even for the US in the current context. There was a time, not so long ago, when the US could do more or less what it wanted anywhere on the globe. Its presence in Asia, and in the Pacific generally, has been dominant since 1945. This era has ended and the world senses it. For African leaders, China is today their most significant investment partner. Russia is one of their biggest suppliers of wheat and by far their biggest supplier of weapons, and both countries combined were steadfast supporters—in real terms—of decolonisation and the anti-apartheid struggle on the continent. They have lots of chips to call in.
American might—political, military, economic and soft power—has implicitly and explicitly underwritten the global liberal order. This seemed set to become the norm with the fall of the Soviet Union; it was as if we all wanted to become like America. In many countries, we copied its constitution, adopted its position on individual rights, capitalism, etc.
In the US itself some right wingers were even more robust and sought to export the model of governance and rights through war—changing regimes that did not fit into the new world order. This latter hubristic project fell apart in the Middle East and most dramatically in Afghanistan last year. But a hegemon also maintains power via the mythology and values it imbues and imparts; what other peoples believe it can do and believes in; the sense that it is the source of most things great and good—inventions, health, education, happiness and joyful life. But the events of the last decade have shattered this myth, especially for the youth in the world’s poorest countries. New types of media have demonstrated that for all the talk of “rights”, geopolitics is in actual fact often the highest and most delicate form of hypocrisy and, more often than not, trumps rights.
Events since this grim renewal of large-scale European hostilities have served to demonstrate a number of profound new realities.
In the meantime, a host of nations have risen economically, politically and militarily, and importantly, in confidence when it comes to projecting their geopolitical interests via both soft and hard power. Russia is one such country but the dragon in the room is China, which is using its superpower status to systematically and unapologetically evict the US from Asia. China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative is so vast in scale and ambition it reaches across the planet. (I write this article sitting in the lobby of a spanking new airport terminal in Lusaka still under construction by a Chinese contractor.) And then there is India, another rapidly growing behemoth. On the global stage, Turkey and a host of other countries in the Middle East now punch way above their apparent geopolitical weight.
Clearly, a new world order is emerging and it does not conform to the ostensibly liberal values that have underpinned the Western-dominated post-1945 world order. It is partly because of this that so many African countries were cautious about criticising Russia when it invaded Ukraine. Africa has been caught in the middle of big power competition before—from the 1950s to the 1990s—and our politics has never been the same.
As the Western hegemon ends, authoritarians are flourishing. What academics called a global democratic recession has become a depression. But despite a spate of dramatic reversals in Africa over the past two years, with a return to coups and attempted coups and the capture of elections by elites, research shows that two-thirds of Africans still support democracy. We have tried Big Man rule and the trauma lingers. What is clear is that the West—and America in particular – is diminishing as a guarantor of this system of governance.
A new world order is emerging and it does not conform to the ostensibly liberal values that have underpinned the Western-dominated post-1945 world order.
As Africans, we are going to have to come up with our own mechanisms for dealing with the accountability of our leaders and managing conflicts when they take place. The reality is that some of our most solid partners in delivering public goods—like education, health, infrastructure, security, etc.—will no longer be predominantly the colonials and former colonials of the West but will hail from a cross-section of countries with an assortment of governance systems, some of them inimical to African aspirations.
My grandfather’s story of the man roasting on the roof was searing and, to this day, I regret not having asked what happened to him at the end of it all. Still, the settler farmer who was meting out his own form of arbitrary justice did in the end leave—they all do, even the local pretenders who take over from them and build their own blackface oligarchy eventually fall under the weight of the contradictions upon which they thrive. A story for another day. . .