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I ACCUSE THE PRESS: Why the Kenyan media must ‘get with the programme’

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Drowning fourth estate
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Charles Onyango-Obbo is an astute media practitioner with loads of experience. For many years, he has been writing three weekly columns, one in Kenya’s Daily Nation, another one in Uganda’s Daily Monitor, and one in the regional newspaper The East African.

Onyango-Obbo has also held various editorial management positions at both the Nation and the Monitor. So when he writes, especially on issues to do with the media, he writes from a position of authority. His piece, on the move by the Kenyan government to move all their advertising to a single portal managed by Government Advertising Agency (GAA) – in effect denying the media revenue from government advertisements – is hugely instructive. Onyango-Obbo believes that the media should stop wringing their hands and crying red murder, and instead use this as an opportunity for growth and innovation.

However, Mutuma Mathiu, a top editor at the Nation Media Group, took a moral stance against the move by the Kenyan government, equating it to publishing in the Soviet era publication Pravda.

One thing both pieces missed was how the media found itself in the present predicament in the first place.

Binge growth and failure of imagination 

Until recently, the four biggest media houses in Kenya – the Nation Media Group (NMG), the Standard Group Limited, Royal Media Services, and the Radio Africa Group – witnessed exponential growth, which blinded them to the shifting media reality of technological growth and demography.

Further, the media also failed in its role in holding the authorities to account. As a result, the media has been stuck in a time warp, which has inevitably led to a sense of misplaced entitlement, and also their alienation from the citizens.

In the early 1990s, the Standard newspaper, the oldest newspaper in the country, saw the future in broadcast, and so acquired the Kenya Television Network (KTN), the first non-pay, privately owned TV-station in Africa. The newspaper’s close alliance with the state, especially during the Daniel arap Moi era, ensured steady government advertising revenue. (President Moi owned shares in the Standard Group.)

KTN, which was initially a bold step forward, got locked into an imaginary internecine cat-and-mouse fight with the Nation Media Group’s NTV station over who had the best programing, which resulted in the poaching of individual journalists and producers – a carryover of print turf wars into broadcast. This allowed Royal Media’s Citizen TV to beat them both. KTN has since been playing catch-up with Citizen TV.

As a result, and also considering they had good programming, KTN became a runaway success. However, this masked the lack of creativity at the Standard newspaper. Therefore, the Standard continuously lagged behind the Nation, the region’s largest media enterprise, in revenue and growth.

Further, KTN, which was initially a bold step forward, got locked into an imaginary internecine cat-and-mouse fight with the Nation Media Group’s NTV station over who had the best programing, which resulted in the poaching of individual journalists and producers – a carryover of print turf wars into broadcast. This allowed Royal Media’s Citizen TV to beat them both. KTN has since been playing catch-up with Citizen TV.

Application of the wrong models

While the Nation newspaper overtook the Standard in terms of market leadership and growth, the Nation’s broadcasting division struggled from the outset. Its original sin was convergence, and the application of the print model to broadcast.

Nation assumed their print model could be transferred to the broadcast medium; so confident were they in their model that they initially gave air slots to their senior print journalists.

Just as the Standard hid under KTN’s success to cover up their deficiency in print, the Nation also hid under print’s success, and ignored the broadcast division’s inadequacies, including its staid programming.

Last year, the Nation Media Group’s management finally pulled the plug, and opted for an all-digital broadcast unit. Too little, too late.

If they were guilty of applying the newspaper model to broadcast, Patrick Quarcoo, Radio Africa’s proprietor, was similarly guilty of applying the radio model to the Star newspaper, which has largely been a failure. The Star has been bleeding dry radio revenue.

Had Quarcoo stayed in radio, where both Kiss TV and Classic FM have been incredibly successful, he would have been crowned the “King of Radio”. With all the new county/community radio stations coming up, he would also be controlling a substantive radio advertising market.

If the Nation Media Group and Radio Africa applied the wrong model for the right medium, S.K. Macharia, the owner of Royal Media, after the initial mistake of trying his hand in print, decided to stick with what he knows best – broadcast. The result has been phenomenal growth of both his radio and TV stable.

Demography and technology are destiny  

The median age in Kenya is 19 years and 80% of the country’s population is below the age of 35. Mobile phone penetration in Kenya was 88% in 2016. Facebook has approximately 5 million (and growing) active users in Kenya, while Twitter had slightly over 1.5 million. These few statistics are incredibly sobering for the media of the future.

As a means of engaging younger audiences, all the big four media houses have news apps. However, none are regularly updated, have good user experience, or have locally customised stories. Instead, they tend to carry old and international stories rather than national/local ones. Most of the people in the age-bracket to whom the apps would have appealed already get their international stories online, especially on social media platforms, since most of them are glocal and worldly.

The median age in Kenya is 19 years and 80% of the country’s population is below the age of 35. Mobile phone penetration in Kenya was 88% in 2016. Facebook has approximately 5 million (and growing) active users in Kenya, while Twitter had slightly over 1.5 million. These few statistics are incredibly sobering for the media of the future.

The failure to creatively engage younger audiences has left the media with a huge revenue loss, for which media managers have no answer. This has revealed the media’s incapacity to serve the changing tastes and media usage of the younger generation.

Younger audiences are not the only segment neglected by the media; women have also been ignored. On any day, most of the panelists on radio and TV are likely to be men. The only time women are included is when the panel discusses the role of women. A survey of newspaper columns in the main newspapers also reveals that the number of female columnists is disproportionately lower than that of men. This tokenism, despite the presence of qualified women in various fields, has seen many make a conscious effort to ignore the media.

The struggle against technological disruption is not limited to the Kenyan media. The New York Times, in its first report on how to be innovative in the face of breathless disruption of traditional media, which was released in 2014, stated: “Our core mission remains producing the world’s best journalism. But with the endless upheaval in technology, reader habits and the entire business model, The Times needs to pursue smart new strategies for growing our audience”.

In a subsequent report, the Times observed: “In the third quarter of 2016, our digital subscriptions grew at the fastest pace since the launch of the pay model in 2011 — and growth then exceeded that pace during the fourth quarter, in a post-election surge. We now have more than 1.5 million digital-only subscriptions, up from one million a year ago and from zero only six years ago. We also have more than one million print subscriptions, and our readers are receiving a product better than it has ever been, with rich new standalone sections.”

One would be hard-pressed to read any account of Kenya’s media in being forthright about their reflection on the state of the media.

Multimedia deep-dive storytelling

One way of addressing the deep apathy among the youth towards the media is through multi-media storytelling. The UK’s Guardian newspaper and the Economist, both well respected publications, offer a best practice in new ways of telling stories. The Guardian is a centre-left publication while the Economist espouses economic liberalism that includes free trade, globalisation, and freedom of movement. Yet both publications, despite suffering the natural readership decline of hardcopy, have a solid online and subscription base. They have blazed the trail of innovation, especially on digital platforms. The Guardian provides a raft of products: the Long Read that is also produced as a podcast; and multi-media productions, including short documentaries and videos. All these products are available on the website, but also on the app.

Similarly, the Economist has an army of digital, graphic and data visualizations, especially for their long reads. It also has a slew of podcasts on technology, business, finance, etc. Unlike the Guardian, the Economist has limited the number of articles that one can access for free per week; if one wants more, one needs to subscribe.

Nothing illustrates the death of serious journalism than Jeff Koinange. His show on KTN, Jeff Koinange Live, was a circus. His clowning on national TV with a fire extinguisher was a sad example of how low a once renowned journalist – who had even been a correspondent for CNN and who many looked up to as a role model – could sink. The line between serious TV journalism and fantasy became hard to discern.

In Kenya, so far, only the Daily Nation engages in data journalism through its Newsplex. This long form immersive journalism rather than the he-said-she-said variety is the future of journalism. This form moves away from the traditional “5Ws and H” to the “so what?” that is central to fulfilling audience’s needs.

Dereliction of duty

The Kenyan media played a sometimes not fully acknowledged critical role in the expansion of democratic space in Kenya in the late 1980s and early 1990s during Moi’s repressive era. The media, against multiple odds, continuously exposed human rights violations and the massive corruption of the Moi administration. By setting the agenda for an open, pluralistic and transparent administration, as opposed to the centralised version Moi advocated for, the media reflected the aspirations of many Kenyans.

For this, the Kenyan media paid a steep price. Nothing exemplifies this more than the People Daily, against whom the recently deceased once powerful minister, Nicholas Biwott, won multi-million-shilling libel cases. The People Daily never recovered financially from those dubiously awarded costs.

After Moi’s Kanu party was defeated in the 2002 elections, the media was keen to quickly cash in on the role they had played in expanding the democratic space. But because they were not keen to kill the goose that lays the golden egg – the advertiser, which included the government – they lost sight of their principal role. The broadcast media, especially, moved away from hiring serious journalists and instead put on air men and women, some with fake accents, who behaved more like actors or comedians, rather than journalists, to increase ratings.

Nothing illustrates the death of serious journalism than Jeff Koinange. His show on KTN, Jeff Koinange Live, was a circus. His clowning on national TV with a fire extinguisher was a sad example of how low a once renowned journalist – who had even been a correspondent for CNN and who many looked up to as a role model – could sink. The line between serious TV journalism and fantasy became hard to discern. When Jeff was off the air, the air waves were filled with third-rate Mexican soap operas.

Morning radio shows are a mixture of soft porn, where even the former Harambee Star Coach, Jacob “Ghost” Mulei, has a morning show with others where he has turned into a marriage counsellor of sorts. Mid-morning radio shows are pretty much driven by the Top 100 music formatting.

In Kenya today it is not uncommon to hear someone, even a trained journalist, remark nonchalantly, “You know, I don’t read the newspapers.” For some, it is even considered a badge of honour to say, “I don’t watch TV.” While these sentiments are anecdotal, they speak volumes about a larger problem.

This inevitably has led to many having little regard for the media. In Kenya today it is not uncommon to hear someone, even a trained journalist, remark nonchalantly, “You know, I don’t read the newspapers.” For some, it is even considered a badge of honour to say, “I don’t watch TV”. While these sentiments are anecdotal, they speak volumes about a larger problem. There was a time when watching the 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. news was a must in many households. Even if your family did not have a TV set, you would head to the neighbour’s house to catch the news. Buying a newspaper was seen as a status symbol and a sign that one follows current affairs. That golden age of the media is gone.

Newspapers are for wrapping meat

In December 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta said newspapers were only good for wrapping meat because they publish false news. Some journalists took umbrage at this statement, but few, if any, cared. It was a kind of poetic justice and a commentary on the state of journalism and media in Kenya. The media’s standing has plummeted thus far to the point that a president can nonchalantly dismiss the media without attendant costs. For the media, the lack of distinct response from the public regarding the president’s statement should be instructive. Once the mainstream media relinquished its critical agenda-setting credentials, they stopped speaking for Wanjiku.

On 17 July this year, Kenyans expected to watch televised presidential running mate debates. But the politicians from the major political parties did not show up, except Eliud Muthiora Kariara, a former banker-turned-running mate and independent presidential candidate Japhet Kavinga Kaluyu. If the media had any doubt about their status with politicians, this episode served up another reminder that, in an election year, politicians can ignore the media, and expect to bear no costs politically.

Instead of seeing the failure to show up as politicians’ abdication of their duty, all the media could see was the money they lost in preparation for the debates. It was bizarre watching visibly irritated media talking heads expressing anger at losing the money they would have made, since that was not the primary reason for the debates in the first place.

This gap has been filled by individual bloggers, like Owaahh, whose treatment of the Imperial Bank explosion was incredible, way better than any business pages, and the disparate collection of individual citizen “journalists” called Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT). This irreverent group of individuals have sometimes broken stories and pushed agendas mainstream media are either afraid of or not interested in pursuing. One such story is the maize scandal, which the mainstream media was slow to warm up to. #KOT “sleuths” asked the hard questions regarding the origin of the maize after searching the ship’s online manifest, something the mainstream could have done.

With the explosion of Fake News, which is mostly generated and transmitted through social media, a robust and credible mainstream media has never been more needed.

While individual bloggers and conscious citizens on social media platforms have done an admirable job, they cannot be a substitute for a functioning mainstream media. With the explosion of Fake News, which is mostly generated and transmitted through social media, a robust and credible mainstream media has never been more needed. During the political party’s primaries, photoshopped newspapers claiming that Dr. Paul Otuoma had left the ODM party to join Jubilee started circulating in Busia town. These stories were wildly shared on social media platforms. People had to turn to mainstream media to find out if they were true.

With the elections just days away, the media have a real opportunity to distinguish themselves. If they don’t use this opportunity, their relevance will decline further, if not completely.

By Abdullahi Boru Halakhe

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Abdullahi Boru Halakhe is a security analyst from the Horn of Africa.

Politics

Death by Ink: How Uganda’s Constitution Has Broken the Country

This entire fraud – which effectively began with the 1996 presidential election – has been continually buttressed by the “constitutional” rejection of all complaints by the courts. Basically, of the three arms of governance, the Executive does as it pleases, and neither the Judiciary nor the Legislature can stop it, nor can they help shield each other from the its rampaging effects.

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Uganda does not have a constitution; it has a career-distributing patronage device disguised as one. This device serves the important function of immunising the presidency from serious challenges from what was historically a very cantankerous and militant middle class. Instead, this class has been tranquilised by all the jobs, careers and postings created by the 1995 document.

The just-concluded proceedings in Uganda’s Supreme Court – in which a petition against the 2018 passing of a law that removed the constitutional requirement for a presidential candidate to be below 75 years was heard and dismissed – is the latest proof that the constitution was never going to deliver constitutionalism, nor was it designed for that purpose.

The petition was in itself an appeal against the same ruling made by the Constitutional Court the previous year. That first petition was itself borne out of the very unconstitutional manner in which the Ugandan Parliament had passed the amendment. First –and not for the first time – there were obvious material inducements offered to the parliamentarians before their decision. Second – and more critically – the supposed sanctity of Parliament was violated through an invasion by Uganda’s Special Forces Command, who proceeded to violently carry out the core group of MPs opposed to the amendment who were attempting to impede its progress through filibuster. Third, legal minds had already also weighed to counsel that, given the country’s singular experiences with unrestrained presidents, an amendment of such importance should perhaps first be put to a public referendum before it is tampered with such a historically-birthed rule.

This also came three years after the same court heard a petition against the Ugandan Electoral Commission’s declaration of President Yoweri Museveni as the lawful winner of the 2016 election.

Naked bias

The retired Supreme Court judge, George Kanyeihamba, has described the age-limit ruling as “an exhibition of naked bias, cowardly disregard for rights and an orgy of contemptuous indifference to democratic principles”.

But this game has been going on for a very long time. I recall one incident over fifteen years ago, in which the government side got around the obstacle of a parliamentary rule of procedure that required a period of weeks before a motion they wished to have discussed could be debated. They simply mobilised their numbers to first vote to suspend that procedural rule, then tabled, debated and passed their motion, and then voted to reinstate the troublesome rule.

And of course, Uganda’s MPs had already famously voted to remove presidential term-limits from the constitution in 2006, in time for President Museveni to stand for a previously not permissible third term in 2006. This time round, on top of removing age limits, they voted to reinstate the two-term limit that had been removed in 2005. At the same sitting, the court found this reversal to be “unconstitutional”.

We are going to have to look again at “democracy”, and think about the quest for representation that underlies it, instead. It is clearly possible to hold a presidential election, and not get the candidate everybody voted for, but still have the entire process dubbed “legal” and constitutionally above board. What is presented as democracy can actually fail to be actually representative of anyone.

This entire fraud – which effectively began with the 1996 presidential election – has been continually buttressed by the “constitutional” rejection of all complaints by the courts. Basically, of the three arms of governance, the Executive does as it pleases, and neither the Judiciary nor the Legislature can stop it, nor can they help shield each other from the its rampaging effects.

This situation is rooted in two things. First was the merging of the powers of the executive Prime Minister with those of the ceremonial president, and the abolition of the Prime Minister post by the self-appointed president, Milton Obote, in 1966. Thus, a highly centralised presidency was born, and lives on to this day. It was in keeping with this spirit that the members of the then Parliament were menacingly obliged to vote in favour of the 1966 document before being allowed to read it.

Over-centralised presidency

As long as you have an over-centralised presidency, then you basically will still have the 1966 constitution and the 1967 one in which federation was also abolished. The 1995 constitution is, therefore, basically the 1967 document with donor-designed and funded upgrades in which some “civil society” scaffolding was arranged around the Executive.

Uganda’s pre-eminent problem remains political exclusion, or the monopolisation of power for the purpose of enabling the material enrichment of a few. This is literally what colonialism was. Such exclusion necessitates political repression, which leads to the subversion of justice and the undermining of the judicial system as a whole, which, in turn, begets human rights violations across the board.

A key adjustment, whereby a president’s electoral destiny was determined separately from the rest of his party, only cements this further. (In the earlier pretence to democracy that was the 1980 elections, it was the leader of the party that won the most seats in Parliament who became president. He also had to have won a parliamentary seat.) This presidency has always been able to reach through the scaffolding, and over-ride any other aspect of the constitution at will.

Before the military infringement on parliament, there was a long list of extra-constructional shenanigans being carried out by the Executive against the other constitutional branches:

  • In November 2005, soldiers invaded the High Court premises in an attempt to prevent rebel suspects being granted bail.
  • In an epic showdown during October 2011, the Executive flatly refused to subject the details of oil contracts to proper parliamentary scrutiny.
  • Various well-connected individuals who become key suspects in serious crimes regularly have their files delayed or missing when required by court, leading to delays or abandonment of the cases.
  • A local government minster and well-known bush war veteran once invaded a district local council meeting, and forced it to abandon a tabled motion regarding the handing back of land under its control to the original owner (the Kingdom of Buganda).
  • As a factotum of the presidency, the former Inspector General of Police, General Kale Kayihura, built up a prodigious record of violations against all constitutional provisions regarding policing. Bail terms, bond terms, detention lengths, media rights, stipulations against torture and the like were all repeatedly trampled by his operatives. This culminated in the 2011 mobilising of a mob to assemble outside a magistrate’s court where a civil case against the IGP had been lodged. Court officials hid, and the case was never heard.
  • Ruling party MPs hold their caucus meetings regularly at State House, the official residence of the President.

In short, whatever aspect of this constitution that has not been violated is simply whatever aspect has not yet come into conflict with the intentions of this unrestrained Executive.

Monopolisation of power

Uganda’s pre-eminent problem remains political exclusion, or the monopolisation of power for the purpose of enabling the material enrichment of a few. This is literally what colonialism was. Such exclusion necessitates political repression, which leads to the subversion of justice and the undermining of the judicial system as a whole, which, in turn, begets human rights violations across the board. Ultimately, constitutional order itself has to then be violated so as to enable the regime to hold on to this exclusionary power by entrenching itself above its provisions. An unrestrained Executive becomes the whole state.

This is Uganda today. Once again.

The historical challenge has been to find the means by which Ugandans do not find themselves under the rule of yet another unrestrained Executive. This, in fact, was the aspiration behind the crafting of the new constitution between 1993 and 1995. As the Daily Monitor writer, Ivan Okuda, has pointed out, political documents of such magnitude do not come about in the abstract, but rather are shaped by the political history they seek to now legislate for. It is for this reason that the preamble to the 1995 constitution sternly proclaims:

“….Recalling our history which has been characterised by political and constitutional instability; Recognising our struggles against the forces of tyranny, oppression and exploitation;…”

The authors naturally felt they had every right to see the moment as significant: it represented an opportunity to turn the corner on all the spectacular political failures of the past.

But it was doomed from the start. Stillborn.

To understand that, let us remember the process briefly. It began with a Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Benjamin Odoki, which gathered views countrywide through a template known by all and accepted by the authorities. The resultant Odoki Report represented then the most up-to-date information on Ugandans’ political views. Its findings were then presented to the country, and in 1993, an elected Constituent Assembly was convened to design the new constitution.

In 1995, Uganda received the design of its new constitution. The critical point here is that while this new constitution contained many things, new and old, it conspicuously lacked the two key findings of the Odoki Commission: multipartyism and federation.

The failure to base the constitution on Odoki’s primary findings – and not even reflect them – was like an unwell person going to hospital with an ailment, then being treated for everything else except that ailment, and then also being discharged with new illnesses picked up from the ward.

What had started out as a well-meaning exercise was revealed as a project benefitting a confluence of elite interests: a section of the local middle class, the regime, and the Western Empire deeply entrenched in Uganda’s economic affairs.

“As it stands, legislative processes, right from 1966 to 2019, have stood in favour of those who controlled the means of coercion and state power and the courts have found nice English to cover up politicians’ mess,” observes the journalist Ivan Okuda.

This latest Supreme Court ruling simply confirms that the constitution does not have anything to do with the presidency, which functions fully according to its own necessities. This is not in itself new. The office of the colonial governor was basically what we call a president today: their “Excellency” title is the same, as is their official residence. In this period of extreme neoliberalism, they even answer directly to the same Western powers. Like the colony before it, the neo-colony can only be effectively governed for its owners by such over-centralised means.

“As it stands, legislative processes, right from 1966 to 2019, have stood in favour of those who controlled the means of coercion and state power and the courts have found nice English to cover up politicians’ mess,” observes the journalist Ivan Okuda.

In the sense that it is not fooling anyone any more, it has reached the end of its useful life. This realisation is a final step in a long process. We began with the ritual dismissals of all four petitions brought against the twenty years of five sham elections, then the dismissals of petitions against the removal of constitutionally-provided-for term limits; and now this.

The Empire strikes back

The constitution has performed three functions: it serves as a fig leaf protecting Western donor pretensions to “democracy and good governance”, while covering up the dictatorial machine the West needs. The Empire gets guaranteed access to the resource wealth that brought them to Africa in the first place; other donors acquire a blank slate upon which they can practise their social engineering; and it diverts a significant part of the political elite from their historical role as fomenters of anti-dictatorial agitation. This last factor has been achieved through stage-managed elections, and also the creation of a very wide variety of jobs for the political elite to aspire to. Add up all the boards, commissions, inquiries and the like enumerated or made possible by the constitution “document”, and one ends up with a very long list of actual and potential vacancies that can be filled only by a certain type of educated citizen.

There have now been elite individuals bouncing around from one appointment to another as minister, judge, ambassador, director of some authority, or chair of some commission for the last two decades or more. These functions are an act of sedation, whereby the only thing they see worth agitating for anymore is how high up the command chain there is an awareness of their CV.

This started life as the colonial-era strategy that derailed the original independence movement, which was done because the movement was rooted not just among ordinary people, but also organised around economic demands expressed through various unions, trader associations, and peasant societies. Such demands went to the very core of the raison d’être of the colonial project: money.

The strategy had the following key features: suppressing the radicals, isolating the masses, and undermining native institutions. In this way, a noisy and energetic type of middle-class politician was placed centre stage in the unfolding process of decolonisation. These types of politicians became the “owners” of post-independence politics, which they went on to ruin through continuing the culture of any one faction in power always seeking to exclude all others.

Governor Andrew Cohen, appointed in 1952, was given the task of addressing the crisis caused by the violent anti-colonial “disturbances” that erupted under the rule of his predecessor, Governor John Hall. Cohen laid out his strategy out very clearly. He advised his bosses that not all African nationalism should be seen as a bad thing. He pointed out that much as there was a lot of agitating and strong language, not every strand of nationalism was fundamentally opposed to Western rule and Western lifestyles. Some, he said, were simply in disagreement over the pace of change, but shared values and goals “that were not fundamentally different from our (the British) own”.

He therefore advocated identifying the key voices in this tendency, and working with them to deliver a more manageable (“responsible”) independence movement.

The strategy had the following key features: suppressing the radicals, isolating the masses, and undermining native institutions. In this way, a noisy and energetic type of middle-class politician was placed centre stage in the unfolding process of decolonisation. These types of politicians became the “owners” of post-independence politics, which they went on to ruin through continuing the culture of any one faction in power always seeking to exclude all others.

Such elites were to remain pre-eminent in this way in the two decades after independence. Up until the emergence of the peasants (Joseph Kony and Alice Lakwena before him in the late 1980s), virtually every coup, attempted coup, exile movement and armed rebellion was planned, resourced, led and organised by individuals from this elite class. And even then, Lakwena and Kony only came to leadership as a result of the slow-motion collapse of the initial anti-Museveni armed rebellion in northern Uganda led by former Obote-era Prime Minister Eric Otema Allimadi, who had thrown in the towel and accepted a government amnesty.

Salary-based political process

Prof Amii Otunnu describes our political culture as one of “using fear if not violence to access State resources for upward socio-economic mobility and in some cases for the sheer physical survival of social groups.”

Consider just one law: The Local Government Act, which is an outgrowth of the constitution. A quick analysis tells us that as is the practice, each new district usually produces three members of parliament: two directly elected from constituencies created therein, and one as the district woman MP. In addition, the district must convene an elected council, as well as a technical administrative structure headed by a Chief Administrative Officer. By these means, at least eighty new jobs will be immediately created, all to be supported by the public purse. As result of this, Uganda’s districts have increased in number from 33 in the 1990s to 127 today.

And as a result of that, Uganda’s Parliament now has 426 members, who in total consume 11.4 billion Uganda shillings ($3,041,349) monthly as pay and allowances for MPs. Their mandatory extra perks cost extra.

In general terms, the same demographic group that provided logistical support to armed rebellion now uses the same skill-set to feud over parliamentary seats, local government seats, and tenders.

The establishment of the 1995 constitution can, therefore, also be understood as an act of mass demobilisation of these historically troublesome elites from their historical activity through their mass co-option into a salary-based political process. Through its members in the main going along with the hollowing out of the meaning of the Constituent Assembly process by dodging Odoki’s findings, the Assembly became essentially an exercise in which the middle class wrote the job descriptions for their future jobs, and laid the foundations for their now two decades of well-paid public careers.

Cohen’s strategy has thus had a very far-reaching impact on Uganda politics. Basically, what we saw under him was the creation of space in which only a non-threatening, modernising form of “acceptable” politics was enabled to thrive. The 1995 constitution now essentially performs the same function.

With a middle class finally rendered docile, it is natural that the current dictatorship should go on to have the longest run of any dictatorship in the country’s history.

Maybe it is a good thing, in terms of what is called “peace-building”. But what is “peace” if there is no justice?

The 1995 constitution was a document that – despite the aspirations cited in its preamble – did not really see our history. It simply did not take cognisance of Uganda’s governance failings, and attendant dramas of the past, to create real representation.

Back to square one. Uganda is going to have to try again.

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Politics

Enter the Dragon: China’s Media War in Africa

China, an emerging global power, and Britain, a retreating and politically troubled former colonial power, will channel their “media wars” from their bases in Nairobi. It will be a battle between a new Eastern power that hopes to gain a foothold in the continent’s unexplored extractive sector and a nostalgic Western power keen not to lose its control over African and Asian Commonwealth countries.

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“The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy so he can’t fathom the real intent.” – Sun Tzu (Chinese war leader, strategist and philosopher)

On New Year’s Eve 2016, President Xi Jinping of China sent a congratulatory message to the China Global Television Network (CGTN), which had rebranded and relaunched its former label, the China Central Television (CCTV).

“Tell China stories well, spread China stories as well, spread China’s voice well, let the world know a three-dimension colourful China and showcase China’s role as a builder of world peace,” extolled the president while inaugurating the channel’s newly enlarged and sophisticated production studios in Beijing.

CGTN, which is the biggest news network and production house in mainland China, sustained its operations by beaming and broadcasting news as CCTV, just like before, and therefore was not affected by the rebranding. It has continued to telecast news and make documentaries and news programmes tailored for local consumption that are sanctioned by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. CGTN is the equivalent of the state-run Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), but with the clout and financial muscle that makes KBC look like one of its many news production departments.

But it is the CGTN’s operations and manoeuvres geared to cast China as a global phenomenon in the 21st century and beyond that the Central Committee is really keen to see. It would like its wings to spread worldwide so as to, “showcase China’s role as a builder of world peace”, as President Jinping mildly put it more than two years ago. Delivered as a message to a world that is undergoing tumultuous political shocks, it was a statement that camouflaged China’s real and serious global expansionist intentions as we enter the third decade of the 21st millennium.

That statement, as innocuous as it sounded, is a characteristic of Chinese foreign policy lingo that deliberately seeks to not frighten or scare its neighbours, such as India, Japan and South Korea, into alertness (military or otherwise), or to not arouse suspicious feelings (which might lead to heightened escalation of global drums of war) among fellow world economic powers, such as Germany, Japan, the United States and the militaristic Russia. Such a statement also serves to calm and reassure countries in Africa and Asia that China hopes to extract raw materials from.

It is a philosophical underpinning that was underscored by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese post-modern reformist leader who ruled between 1978 and 1989, who famously stated in the early 1980s: “Observe development soberly, maintain your position, meet challenges calmly, hide your capacity and bide your time, remain free of ambition, never claim leadership.”

Yet, beneath the carefully crafted and worded statements by the president and the senior Central Committee members that portray China as a humble and benevolent Big Brother – whose only agenda is world peace and harmonious co-existence – is a hidden, subtle, and ruthless ambition and pursuit of global power that China hopes to use to conquer the world and re-establish China as the dominant civilisation that it once was in the centuries gone by.

It is a philosophical underpinning that was underscored by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese post-modern reformist leader who ruled between 1978 and 1989, who famously stated in the early 1980s: “Observe development soberly, maintain your position, meet challenges calmly, hide your capacity and bide your time, remain free of ambition, never claim leadership.”

CGTN is a consolidation of six carefully picked foreign-language operations. Apart from Chinese, the channel broadcasts in Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish. It is a convergence of print, radio, TV, and online (new media) publication. In 2009, the Chinese government had already set $6.5billion aside for CCTV’s rebranding and expansion into CGTN. In November 2018, CGTN opened a state-of-the-art bureau in Chiswick, a wealthy London suburb. That bureau is supposed to cover the length and breadth of continental Europe.

The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative is the combination of railway lines (belts) and (silk) roads that are supposed to link mainland China with the rest of the world, collapsing distances for a hungry China in need of raw materials for its economic quantum leap and eventually its world political power. It is China’s latest massive agenda, which it hopes will catapult it to an economic power house that rivals every other world economic power within 25 years.

Italy, Portugal and Greece are among Europe’s rancorous democracies that have bought into the idea of OBOR. China will be building a road and railway line into Italy and with that link, create trade routes and have access to continental Europe’s goods as it taps into its engineering and technological advancement. The newly opened CGTN bureau in London, one of the biggest financial hubs in the world, will, among other things, capture and tell the story of the entry and success of OBOR in Europe.

Nairobi and news out of Africa

However, it is the CGTN’s Nairobi bureau that continues to elicit excitement and which is being closely watched (pun intended) by Western powers who once totally commanded and controlled the information flow entering and leaving the country and region. The bureau officially started broadcasting from Nairobi on January 11, 2012 as CCTV. On December 31, 2016, the bureau launched its CGTN operations and was made the biggest bureau in Africa, whose operations cover the entire continent, especially in regions that China has a keen interest in. Just around the same time, Xinhua, China’s largest news agency, signed a pact with Nation Media Group (NMG), ostensibly to trade news, but really for Xinhua, to have access to tell its stories in the largest newspaper in the region.

“Nairobi’s geopolitical strategic location – its nearness to the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes region, the Indian Ocean littoral and maritime connection, its physical infrastructure and communications advancement and the fact that it’s the diplomatic corps’ hub in the region, easily persuaded the Central Committee of the Communist Party to make Nairobi the centre of its media operations outside of Beijing.”

Other CGTN bureaus in Africa exist – in Johannesburg, Lagos, and Cairo. The other major bureau outside of Beijing and Nairobi is the Washington DC bureau. The Washington bureau gives the Chinese an opportunity to show the Americans that they can also operate on their soil. However, in terms of strategic significance, geopolitical importance and long-term plans, the Nairobi bureau far outflanks the Washington bureau.

“Nairobi’s geopolitical strategic location – its nearness to the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes region, the Indian Ocean littoral and maritime connection, its physical infrastructure and communications advancement and the fact that it’s the diplomatic corps’ hub in the region, easily persuaded the Central Committee of the Communist Party to make Nairobi the centre of its media operations outside of Beijing,” said a senior CGTN producer based in Nairobi. “It is also the best place to scoop the Western media’s presence in this region and indeed in the whole of Africa.”

The re-organisation of the state-controlled CGTN in Nairobi did not go unnoticed by the Western media based in the city. At just about the same time, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), another state-run media conglomerate, was also expanding and moving its Nairobi operations from the central business district offices at Norfolk Towers to the quiet suburb of Riverside Drive. Its first move was to raid CGTN’s experienced staff – editors, reporters and mainly producers – and to hike their salaries and remunerations as an incentive to luring them from the heavily-funded Chinese media house, where money was the least of its problems. In its expanded offices, the BBC Nairobi bureau, which has been reporting on Kenya and the East African region for the last five decades or so, employed 300 journalists (four-fifths of whom were locals) to boost its image and presence.

“Our most important investment,” opined the Director of BBC News, Francesca Unsworth, “will be training the next generation of African reporters and producers to world class standards.”

This dramatic shift in the BBC’s policy does not surprise Gray Phombeah, who was the BBC’s Nairobi bureau chief from 2006 till 2008. When he became bureau chief, the BBC’s Nairobi office was tiny, comprising only around ten people. By the time he left in October 2008, it had expanded to more than 30 staff members, the majority of whom were Kenyan journalists. “It was during this time that the BBC broadcast for the first time the Swahili programme, Amka na BBC, from outside its London headquarters,” he says.

However, Phombeah is aware that “Africanising” the BBC bureau in Nairobi does not necessarily mean that Kenyan or African stories will be told from an African perspective and without bias. “We have to remember that the BBC World Service is Britain’s soft power, and so who controls and manages its bureaus abroad is part and parcel of that. The fact that the BBC has recognised the importance of having African journalists telling the continent’s stories is a good thing, but we must also accept the fact that only those stories that are palatable or acceptable to the British ruling class and Foreign Office mandarins get told.”

Clearly CGTN’s serious rebranding and infusion of more money by the state for its expansion and penetration into the African continent merited the BBC’s re-evaluation of its operations in Africa – whether by default or design. The BBC also “relaunched” in November 2018 to position itself as the premier global broadcaster that takes the African continent seriously.

Two decades ago, in 1998, the BBC World Service had already opened its office in Nairobi. “The BBC began by moving its operations from Johannesburg to Nairobi,” said a senior BBC editor, who is not authorised to comment on the BBC’s Africa media plans. “Several things mitigated the shift: labour issues – the trade unions in South Africa are very powerful and strong – the worrying issue of escalating xenophobia and the fact that Johannesburg oftentimes is far removed (geographically and its heartbeat) from the continental issues that are central to the rest of the African countries.”

Africa is as important to the BBC as it is to CGTN. The BBC, in a project it is calling World 2020, in which its strategic expansion plans in Africa from its Nairobi headquarters are expected to have reached their zenith, is also expanding into Asia, building networks and partnering with local radio and TV stations to create as big a BBC audience as it possibly can.

“The Kenyan journalists working for CGTN have no say whatsoever on content development or editorial matters,” said an editor, who has since left the global television network. “That’s the prerogative of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party.”

“Today, the United Kingdom’s best known and strongest foreign policy brand is the BBC,’ said the BBC senior editor. “With the Brexit imbroglio, the UK must look outwards and reach out to countries that it has had past relations with.” (Many of these countries, it goes without saying, are former colonies.)

The Propaganda Department

CGTN currently employs 150 local journalists who work as camera personnel, studio technicians, editors and producers, but the managerial and editorial decisions remain solely in the hands of the expatriate Chinese staff.

“The Kenyan journalists working for CGTN have no say whatsoever on content development or editorial matters,” said an editor, who has since left the global television network. “That’s the prerogative of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party.”

CGTN is not in the business of making profits, but countering what it considers to be the Western media’s distortion of the Chinese presence on the continent, said the former CGTN editor. “The major agenda for CGTN in Africa is propaganda, that is propagating China’s interests in Africa, through its own voice and medium.” To this extent, said the editor, “the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department heavily channels inexhaustible funds to CGTN as part of it global information warfare.”

But a senior assistant director of news at CGTN, a Kenyan, refutes the assertion that CGTN is an out-and-out self-censorship propaganda channel. “True the Managing Editor is Chinese, but his substantive editors are international staff, and they are anybody else but Chinese. CGTN only controls news that touch on Chinese interests and its foreign policy, its Asian neighbourhood, and major state conferences, like the just concluded One Belt, One Road International Forum that took place in Beijing last month…every other news is fair game.”

The most boring time to work for CGTN, said the director of news, is the month of March. “It’s the political season in China. That’s when the executive committee of the Communist Party meets and deliberates on issues. It also the time Parliament does the same, as it passes legislative laws deemed appropriate for the country. On these matters, nobody is better placed to handle them than the Chinese staff themselves. You easily could lose your job for ‘misreporting’ these events.” Misreporting here meaning reporting impartially and being critical, if need be.

CGTN may not be as thorough as the BBC, but by and large it is building its content for its Africa coverage, said the director of news. “China has a 100-year-long term plan for Africa and a fully-fledged news coverage of Africa is part of the plan. When CCTV started in 2012, it used to have only 30 minutes of African news. Soon, it was broadcasting the one-hour lunchtime Africa Live. Africa Live soon had two editions – the lunchtime one between 1 pm and 2 pm and the 8pm one. Now, they even have Global Business Africa, a one-hour programme dedicated to African business news daily between 9pm and 10pm.”

Other programmes include the weekend shows, Face of Africa and Talk Africa. Face of Africa, a documentary, is shown on Sundays for 30 minutes, while Talk Africa is televised on Saturdays, between 8.30pm and 9pm. Talk Africa touched on various African issues, be they economic, political or social. There is also 30 minutes of African sports reporting on Saturdays. CGTN’s goal in Africa is to eventually sell China’s brand image to every corner of the continent, said the director of news.

In this current world of media explosion and Internet influence, if you can control the information warfare globally, you have half won the battle against your adversaries, said CGTN’s former editor, who added that China has taken this dictum extremely seriously. China believes that it is only by controlling and telling its narratives through its own kaleidoscopic lenses that it will achieve its own goal and pursuit of ultimate power and influence in the world.

But more than telling its own narratives and controlling what kind of news comes from its channels, the Chinese also realised that the Western media in Africa does not report positively about the continent. “They understood there is a gap they can plug in, even as they plot on how to maximize and rationalise their presence on the vast continent,” said the CGTN news director.

“In Africa, CGTN is competing with the Americans especially, whose media presence in the continent has been waning. The Cable News Network (CNN) and the Voice of America (VOA) are the only American news media outlets that report anything on Africa and when they do, it’s not all positive. Even then, CNN has one single correspondent dedicated to the whole of Africa.” The director of news said many American journalists consider being posted to Africa as a downgrade – in their minds Africa is still this backward, backwaters continent.

In the information warfare in Africa between America and China, “America has unfortunately been losing the (propaganda) war,” said the CGTN producer. “Today, when CNN wants to report on Africa, it relies on just one leanly-staffed bureau based in South Africa, and if it needs support, it flies in one of its various correspondents, who jet in in the morning and by evening have jetted out.”

For example, when David McKenzie, the CNN reporter stationed in Johannesburg, or Nina Elbagir, the Sudan-born CNN foreign correspondent, report on Africa, it is usually about a tragedy and generally bad news. “The only time CNN reports big time on Africa is when a calamity has taken place…CNN’s model on reporting Africa has remained the same since the days of Jeff Koinange – who was also the sole reporter from Cape to Cairo, Dar es Salaam to Dakar, Luanda to Lagos. Hence, with the exception of BBC, the Western media doesn’t have a major presence in Africa,” said the director of news.

Natural resources diplomacy

The decision by China to pick Nairobi as its continental operational base was a well- calibrated move and a “diplomatic coup” to bolster its grip on the country’s and the continent’s strategic extractive resource materials. China, through CGTN, views itself as a friend of Africa and enabler of its developmental progress and peacekeeping force, hence, its “favourable” reporting on its working relations with some of the countries it is directly dealing with.

The producer observed that “CGTN will not do ‘human rights stories’…the kind of stories that Al Jazeera, BBC and other international media organisations are wont to doing in Africa because the Communist Party has a clearly spelt out non-interference [foreign] policy that states that China will not seek to influence any country’s domestic politics.”

“China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in July 2017 – People’s Liberation Army (and) Navy (PLAN) – from there it coordinates its peace keeping missions in Africa,” said the CGTN producer. “Nairobi is close enough to be reporting (positively) on the Chinese force working in trouble spots such as Mali and South Sudan, helping to stabilise those countries (peacefully) without China necessarily interfering with their domestic affairs.” According to the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think-tank, China in 2017 contributed about 2,500 troops and military experts to six United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa.

The producer observed that “CGTN will not do ‘human rights stories’…the kind of stories that Al Jazeera, BBC and other international media organisations are wont to doing in Africa because the Communist Party has a clearly spelt out non-interference [foreign] policy that states that China will not seek to influence any country’s domestic politics.”

Hence, “China’s entry into Africa – with its value-neutral ‘natural resources diplomacy’ – has outflanked the West and forced a donor retreat from democracy,” recently wrote Wachira Maina, a constitutional lawyer.

To shut its (Western media) critics, CGTN has ostensibly been reporting good news coming out of Africa, such as innovation and technological advancement in relation to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and business concerns all over Africa, said the CGTN producer. “CGTN content is heavily slanted towards their investments in Africa – mainly in infrastructure and telecommunications, light industries (solar panels and green energy), mobile telephony assembly, mobile gadgets customised for Africa, and heavy commercial vehicle assembly in South Africa.”

China’s First Auto Works (FAW), the long distance truck engines and body works, opened its first plant in Johannerberg and CGTN never ceases to report about how China is partnering with Africa to build and develop its future production plants. Until Huawei, a Chinese telecommunication company, entered the African market in 1998, Africa’s telecommunication industry was controlled and dominated by Western multinational corporations, such as Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia. A dozen years later, the stiff market competition triggered by Huawei and other Chinese private companies have altered the terrain completely. The cost of telecommunications equipment and rates have gone down drastically.

Five months after CGTN was inaugurated in Beijing, in May 2017, Kenya launched a $3.2 billion standard gauge railway line funded by China, linking the capital Nairobi to the port of Mombasa, arguably making it the biggest infrastructure project in Kenya since independence in 1963. Popularly known as the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), the railway line is part of the OBOR project. That railway line is supposed to run all the way to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), passing through Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. It is also supposed to divert to South Sudan and Ethiopia.

The East-West media war

“Under the One Belt, One Road initiative, China is investing nearly $900 billion in what it thinks of as a trunk silk-road. One trunk is an overland network of rail, road and power grids that link China’s industrial heartland to the vast oil, natural gas and mineral resources of Central Asia and on the market of Eastern and Western Europe,” observed Wachira. “The second trunk is a maritime silk road with two branches – an Indian Ocean link to sub-Saharan Africa and a Red Sea link to North Africa and Europe where ‘maritime road and overland belt’ converge.”

China, an emerging global power, and Britain, a retreating and politically troubled former colonial power, will channel their “media wars” from their bases in Nairobi. It will be a battle between a new Eastern power that hopes to gain a foothold in the continent’s unexplored extractive sector and a nostalgic Western power keen not to lose its control over African and Asian Commonwealth countries. Either way, both have decided to use the media as soft power to endear themselves to the continent.

In China in Africa: Power, Media Perceptions and a Pan-Developing Identity, Shubi Li and Helge Ronning argue that China’s media presence in Africa has increased in the last couple of years. “The country’s major media representative, Xinhua News Agency, added five more branches in 2011.”

The authors point out that 150 journalists and 400 local staff in Nairobi dispatch 1,800 pieces of news in English every month. “Radio has been an indispensable means of transmitting soft power, especially in a continent where half of the countries have a 30 percent illiteracy rate,” says the book’s authors. “In February 2006, China Radio International (CRI) launched is first overseas FM radio station in Nairobi with a schedule of daily programmes for 19 hours in English, Kiswahili and Chinese,covering China’s economic, social and cultural development.”

But China’s penetration of the Africa media scene has not been without criticism: “China has a record of jamming transmissions that it finds unpalatable,” said an editorial in the Zimbabwe Independent, which is quoted in the book. The editorial said that China also passes this technology to its (African) friends. Said the editorial: “China’s strict control of media and the Internet is not helping when it attempts to offer media aid in Africa.”

On the other hand, observe Li and Ronning in their book, “Chinese media following instructions from the Central Propaganda Department has been educating the public about the importance of building up soft power internationally and exporting the Chinese development model.”

China’s growing global dominance in the last quarter of a century has grown significantly. Indeed, the recently concluded One Belt, One Road International Cooperation Forum in Beijing further cemented Chinese dominance as a fast-rising global superpower. The country’s media presence in Africa is its latest strategy for global supremacy.

However, unlike that of other superpowers, the Chinese model of world domination is more subtle, as observed by the great Chinese war leader, strategist and philosopher, Sun Tzu, who said, The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy so he can’t fathom the real intent.”

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Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s Political Baptism by Fire in Crazy Town

The Somalia-born Ilhan Omar arrived in Washington DC with the kind of backstory that synergised the attention focused on the quintet of new minority Congresswomen. Omar walked into the national spotlight and took a seat in the high profile Congressional Committee for Foreign Relations. A successful proposal to adjust the ban on head covering saw Omar became the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor.

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Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s Political Baptism by Fire in Crazy Town
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Donald Trump’s election victory dismissed many conventional assumptions about the conduct and content of American political discourse. Once in office, the new president began hollowing out the nation’s foreign policy institutions. He threw allies under the bus, embraced dictators, and took every opportunity to undermine the multilateral institutions sustaining the post-World War II order. By jettisoning the framework containing nuclear weapon proliferation and withdrawing from the Paris consensus on global warming, he ratcheted up the risk factors facing the planet. On the domestic front, he bulldozed his party and staff into lining up behind him. The generals tried to limit the damage his maverick foreign policy was wreaking abroad. They failed.

Unlike the tweeting, dissembling, and mocking the norms governing national politics for generations, most of the president’s agenda represented policy positions that can be contested or debated. But when Trump came to the defence of the Charlottesville neo-Nazis, it confirmed many critics’ worse-case scenarios. The number of hate groups in the United States increased by 7 per cent last year and hate crime reports increased by 17 per cent, according to the FBI.

In a polity where elected leaders usually gravitate towards the middle to implement their agenda, Donald Trump continues to weaponise the polarising subterranean logic that turned Washington into what General Kelley, the former Chief of Staff, described as “Crazy Town”.

Enter Ilhan Omar

The Democratic Party captured the US House of Representatives in the 2018 by-elections. Eighty-one of the record number of 102 women elected to the House are Democrats. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, expressed the hope of many: “When our new members take the oath, our Congress will be refreshed and our democracy will be strengthened by the optimism, idealism and patriotism of this transformative freshman class.”

Progressives celebrated Ilhan Omar as a victory for inclusion, the Somali nation claimed ownership of their daughter, and The Intercept announced that she was “Trump’s Worst Nightmare.”

The Somalia-born Ilhan Omar arrived in Washington DC with the kind of backstory that synergised the attention focused on the quintet of new minority Congresswomen that included the Palestinian American, Rashida Mtlaib, and the 23-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Omar walked into the national spotlight with panache and charisma, and took a seat in the high profile Congressional Committee for Foreign Relations. A successful proposal to adjust the ban on head covering saw Omar became the first woman to wear a hijab on the House floor.

Progressives celebrated Ilhan Omar as a victory for inclusion, the Somali nation claimed ownership of their daughter, and The Intercept announced that she was “Trump’s Worst Nightmare.”

Omar has constructed her political career on domestic social issues: affordable housing and healthcare, support for a living wagestudent loan debt forgiveness, universal access to higher education, proactive climate change policies, and the protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). She strongly opposes the immigration policies of the Trump administration and the Muslim travel ban.

The pivot to Foreign Relations encouraged expectations in this part of the world that she would focus fresh attention on African issues and insight into the shifts accompanying renewed interest across the greater Horn of Africa region.

Beto O’Rourke, the presidential hopeful exemplar of the new blood political wave, was recently revealed as a member of the Cult of the Dead Cow hacker collective. An ex-hacker running for national office would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. A reporter covering the story declared, “There has been no better time to be an American politician rebelling against business as usual.”

Omar proceeded to put the hypothesis to the test by igniting a firestorm that quickly escalated into the resurgent Democratic Party’s first internal crisis. It began when she tweeted lyrics from a rap song, “Its all about the Benjamins.” The reference to the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC)’s financial tentacles was far less derogatory than calling Mogadishu Somalis ‘”skinnies”, or Iraqis “towelheads”. But Omar was vilified for promoting ethnic stereotypes, and then accused of being anti-Semitic after she defended her position.

In a Democratic primary campaign devoid of any religious or ethnic animosity, the Congresswoman defeated the Jewish incumbent of over forty years. But now she was in Trump’s Crazy Town. Instead of mollifying the critics, her attempt to place her opposition to AIPAC in context provoked even more intense condemnation. Some of the strongest reactions to her statement came from within her own party. It did not help that she broke ranks with the Party’s opposition to Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro, the one foreign policy issue enjoying bipartisan consensus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used AIPAC’s annual conference to attack her, unleashing the formidable clout of the US pro-Israeli media industry.

The impunity that AIPAC has enjoyed within the Washington establishment over the years is a basic fact documented in analyses by many Jewish critics of Israel’s policies. When CNN’s Jake Tapper invoked the “words count” meme, the context implied that the person who utters them counts even more. A Somali news website observed that Ilhan Omar was singled out for three intersecting reasons: she is black; she is Muslim; and she is a woman.

The tweet detonated a firestorm of vindictive rage and self-righteous condemnation. The range of supporters who came to Ms. Omar’s defence, including a delegation of Jewish rabbis, received considerably less coverage. Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hassan speculated that “she, perhaps naively, thought she was highlighting a powerful and reactionary lobby group, no different to the NRA.”

The impunity that AIPAC has enjoyed within the Washington establishment over the years is a basic fact documented in analyses by many Jewish critics of Israel’s policies. When CNN’s Jake Tapper invoked the “words count” meme, the context implied that the person who utters them counts even more. A Somali news website observed that Ilhan Omar was singled out for three intersecting reasons: she is black; she is Muslim; and she is a woman.

At the time when Ilhan Omar was being placed on the rack, Trump avoided being sucked into the anti-Semitism maelstrom. He was given a pass despite his flagrant stereotyping of ethnic minorities, including a history of insulting Jews. Private citizen Trump is on record for saying only “short guys that wear yarmulkes” should count his money—itself a dig at the black accountants working for his organisation. He used to keep a book of Adolf Hitler’s speeches on his bedside table. After he became president, as the author of an article differentiating anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism reported, Trump invited Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress (who is on record for saying Jews are going to hell for not accepting Jesus) to lead a prayer at the ceremony inaugurating the US embassy in Jerusalem. The “good people” marching with Charlottesville Neo-Nazis he defended were chanting, among other things, anti-Jewish slogans.

In 2016 Trump tweeted a “Crooked Hilary” campaign ad showing Clinton next to a Star of David superimposed against a background of 100 dollar “Benjamins”. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grandmaster of the recent Spike Lee BlacKKKlansman fame, completed the circle by congratulating her: “Ilhan Omar is now the most important member of the House of Representatives”.

Instead of interrogating the long tradition of hate resurfacing in the recent series of anti-Semitic violence across the US and Europe, the Ilhan Omar news cycle provided a timely gift for the Trump White House that diverted attention from Jared Kushner’s controversial security clearance, reports of the ballooning 51-billion-dollar trade deficit, and the farcical Kim Jong Un summit in Hanoi.

The House Democrats’ motion to condemn crimes of hate in its diverse forms passed with only four dissenting Republican votes. The March 15 attack by a Trump-inspired white extremist on the mosque in Christchurch in New Zealand provided the counterpoint that placed the debate in its proper perspective.

The dual loyalty contradiction

Ilhan Omar was already a marked woman who has had to fend off attacks from conservative media outlets since she ran for a seat in the Minnesota Legislature. The controversy provided a fresh entry point for recycling the kind of vicious allegations the fake news industry has raised to a commercialised art form. She vented on the hypocrisy of her critics in a robust response delivered at an informal gathering in Washington. This an abridged excerpt of what she said:

“We know what hate looks like. We experience it every single day. We have to deal with death threats. I have colleagues who talk about death threats. I have people driving around my district looking for my home, for my office, causing me harm. I have people every single day on Fox News and everywhere, posting that I am a threat to this country. So I know what fear looks like. The masjid I pray in in Minnesota got bombed by domestic white terrorists. So I know what it feels to be someone who is of faith that is vilified. I know what it means to be someone whose ethnicity is vilified. I know what it feels to be of a race—like I am an immigrant, so I don’t have the historical drama that some of my black sisters and brothers have in this country, but I know what it means for people to just see me as a black person, and to treat me as less than a human. And so, when people say, ‘you are bringing hate’, I know what their intention is. Their intention is to make sure that our lights are dimmed…What people are afraid of is that there are two Muslims in Congress that have their eyes wide open, that have their feet to the ground, that know what they’re talking about, that are fearless, and that understand that they have the same election certificate as everyone else in Congress.” 

Instead of setting the record straight, a semantic stumble re-energised the backlash:

“So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. I want to ask, why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil-fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby that is influencing policy.”

The politics of dual loyalty has a long history in the United States, dating back to the role of British royalists during the Revolutionary War. It evolved into an unwritten rule that capped the political mobility of minorities like Jews and Catholics. Joseph Kennedy came to understand that it was a glass ceiling that he would never be able to rise above. He curbed his presidential ambitions and instead devoted his resources and political influence to position his sons to break the myth of American Catholics’ loyalty to the Vatican. John F. Kennedy cleared the way for Catholics and Irish Americans to vie for the highest political office.

The politics of dual loyalty has a long history in the United States, dating back to the role of British royalists during the Revolutionary War. It evolved into an unwritten rule that capped the political mobility of minorities like Jews and Catholics. Joseph Kennedy came to understand that it was a glass ceiling that he would never be able to rise above.

Despite the inroads made by African, Muslim, and other ethnic candidates vying for elected offices—including Bernie Sanders’s challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination—the dual loyalty question never went away as a convenient prism for challenging the patriotism of minority communities. For American Muslims, the problem of Western Muslim radicalisation has recast the dual loyalty issue in stark terms. During the Republican primaries, Ben Carson openly stated that a Muslim should never become president of the United States.

According to American intelligence sources, as many as 20,000 foreign fighters joined ISIS’s ranks, about 3,400 of them from Western nations. FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee placed the statistic in perspective. He reported that “upwards of 200 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to participate in the conflict”. The Nazi’s Bund operated openly in the US during the run-up to World War II without generating a significant backlash against German Americans, even while the U-boats were sinking hundreds of American vessels. Japanese-Americans, in contrast, were interred in camps after Pearl Harbor.

The integration process in the United States has evolved since these events, as Ilhan Omar’s and the election of less prominent ethnic candidates to local offices indicate. But her “foreign allegiance” reference triggered an avalanche of alt-right and pro-Israel reactions focusing on her own political connections to Somalia and Islam.

PJ Media challenged Omar’s automatic security clearance by citing her activism within the Somali community. It focused on a meeting with Somalia’s then presidential candidate, Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmajo”, referring to his subsequent victory as “one of the most fraudulent political events in Somalia’s history”. It alleged that the meeting led to Ilhan Omar’s brother-in-law, Mohamed Keynan, being appointed to a high-level position in the Somali government.

Another website stated that her allegiance to the Qu’ran outweighs any allegiance she may have claimed to make to the US constitution.  A petition launched to remove her from office claimed that the “Qur’an appears to legalise hatred of specific people groups.” Anti-Israeli views gathered from ethnic Somalis serving in Minnesota jails backed up their claims while reinforcing the accusations of Omar’s Islamist affiliations repeated in Saudi and Israeli press attacks during her campaign.

In an insightful analysis of citizenship, Stephen Njuguna pointed out that most Africans are dual nationals by birth. He used Kenya’s post-multiparty political violence to illustrate how allegiance to community can undermine a citizen’s obligations to the nation.

For Somalia – now a nation no longer tethered to a contiguous territory or physical boundaries – its diaspora citizenship combines sanctuary from the event horizon of clan politics, while supporting many unique opportunities. For example, a Somali friend of mine is an Australian-Bimaal dual citizen. He ran a business from Kenya, was appointed to serve as liaison to the diaspora by the first transitional federal government in Somalia, and assisted the Australian navy with critical intelligence on the western Indian Ocean piracy epidemic.

The Red Sea region is now an important arena for a new Great Game drawing in a complicated array of great and second-tier powers. The Somali government facilitates American military operations in one of the Forever War’s most turbulent theatres. Djibouti is the base for AFRICOM (US Africa Command) operations across the continent. Both Farmajo and Keynan are American citizens; many other diaspora elites have held high political offices in the succession of post-collapse Somalia governments.

My guess is that Western intelligence mandarins for the most part view such dual nationals as insider assets – a long-term soft power advantage not available to the likes of Xi JinPing and Vladimir Putin – not a dual loyalty threat.

American Jews became the most successful exemplar of minority success in the US by turning the Israel dual loyalty issue into a proxy for national security. On the other hand, Omar’s relationship with Somali leaders reinforces her anti-Islamist credentials.

But at this juncture, there is nothing to be gained and much to lose from her pre-congressional links to the Somalia homeland. As one contributor on a Somali blog stated, “If I was her I would stay out of Somali politics. You don’t want to alienate US Somali voters and people back in Somalia don’t care about her or her endorsement.”

The 2020 reckoning

 The upside-down methods and polarising narratives that date back to the culture wars of the Ronald Reagan era now fuel the alt-right’s dumbed-down clash of civilisations algorithm. Their media warriors manipulate the dual loyalty issue to promote America’s own tribal rebellion.

PJ Media is the country’s ninth most conservative website, and the Omar-Farmajo story spawned comments associating Democratic voters in Minnesota with the “enemy”: “The simple-minded Left-wing voters are just as much an enemy as any Jihadi, but they are too stupid to figure out how much damage they are doing to this country.” Another commenter said the problem would persist until the coming civil war sorts things out.

These words function as a thinly-veiled call for action, like the August 2017 bombing of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Minneapolis by three members the White Rabbits militia. Donald Trump’s threatening reference to his own simple-minded supporters endorsed these sentiments: “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough – until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

It remains to be seen how the AIPAC furore will influence Omar’s long-term contribution to the “optimism, idealism and patriotism” Nancy Pelosi referred to. The incident underscored some cautionary observations regarding timing and strategy.

Around the same time, the few hundred MAGA-hatted protestors gathered at the March 23 event in Los Angeles where Omar was giving a speech signaled the passing of this particular storm. These kind of warnings nevertheless raise the stakes for the potentially “transformative freshman class” in the much more challenging battles now taking form. Nate Silver and his data-driven 548 crowd estimated that Donald Trump would stand a 50-50 chance of being re-elected if the national elections were to be held now.

It remains to be seen how the AIPAC furore will influence Omar’s long-term contribution to the “optimism, idealism and patriotism” Nancy Pelosi referred to. The incident underscored some cautionary observations regarding timing and strategy.

Omar’s freshman colleague from Brooklyn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, reset the climate change debate by tabling her comprehensive Green Plan that featured policy positions that demanded a sober response. Although a number of Democrats dismissed the document as unfeasible, the Plan moved the discussion forward and expanded the space it occupies.

Ilhan Omar would do well to use a similar comprehensive policy agenda to connect the dots between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s failed war in Yemen and Trump’s callous abandonment of the Kurds (the real warriors who defeated ISIS). She should cultivate bipartisan support for causes, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s condemnation of the Chinese re-education camps in Xinxiang and made-to-order issues like the horrors visited on Africans trafficked through Libya. Above all, she needs to retake control of her narrative.

Israel was not the ideal subject for a maiden foray into foreign policy, however inadvertent. In any case, the country that now ranked fourth among the world’s most unpopular governments has its own long-term security dilemmas, as highlighted by the in-house critique authored by the University of Jerusalem professor, Martin von Creveld.

On the other side of the divide, the emergent Muslim female leadership personified by Omar and Tlaib and many other less recognised advocates elsewhere may over time invert Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations focus on the disruptive impact of the young Muslim male demographic.

There are, however, more immediate concerns at this moment. The two outspoken female representatives are popular in their constituencies but not so much elsewhere. Positive poll ratings at the national level for the articulate Alexandria’s Ocasio-Cortez hover around 25 per cent, disapproval slightly higher, and her Democratic socialist colleagues are probably lower after the recent cat fight.  Their rock star status and the aggressive positioning accompanying the new representatives’ high profile entrance has created frictions among the Democratic Party’s rank and file politicians who grind out the results. Their fascinating but too large field of presidential candidates is a potential damper on voter turnout, and Donald Trump is riding the crest of a vibrant economy that has seen real worker income rise for the first time in a decade.

I expect Ilhan Omar will prove to be resilient in the face of challenges like the representation trap, which arises when controversy involving prominent minority individuals encourages more self-policing from within their community.

The shit storm over the Benjamins was a timely warning puncturing the euphoria over the new Democrats. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is already using their agenda as a campaign wedge. Instead of worst nightmare, Ilhan Omar is exactly the kind of prop Trump exploits to mobilise support.

I expect Ilhan Omar will prove to be resilient in the face of challenges like the representation gap, which arises when controversy involving prominent minority individuals encourages more self-policing from within their community. When Rashida Mtlaib uttered her “We’re going to impeach the motherfucker” statement, one blogger backed the American Muslims who criticised her because “when you are a minority, people judge you not as an individual but as the group you belong to”.

She responded to this scenario by declaring: “There is an interest in putting us in the box of constantly defending our identities and I am not interested in being in that box. I am interested in defending my ideas and not my identity.” Ayaan Hersi created a political niche for Muslim women by blowing up the box. Ilhan Omar faces a more difficult escape route. But focusing on what she does well, supporting working class social issues, and turning out the vote, she increased voter participation by 37 per cent in her district – a good place to start.

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