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SPEAK OF ME AS I AM: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa

Does a country create a people, or do a people create a country? KALUNDI SERUMAGA responds to Mahmood Mamdani’s recent analysis on the political situation in Ethiopia.

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Speak of Me as I Am

The Westphalian principles, rooted in the 1648 Treaties signed in the European region of that name, have been monstrously mis-applied when it comes to the African continent, yet they established modern international relations, particularly the inviolability of borders and non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built. Everything else, especially that dreaded category, ‘ethnicity’ is cast as a diversion and dangerous distraction.

This is the tone that runs through Ugandan Professor Mahmoud Mamdani’s one thousand-word opinion piece: The Trouble With Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism, published on 3rd January for the New York Times by (and patriotically reproduced in Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper), bearing a total of fifty-four iterations of the word ‘ethnic’.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built.

At Independence, the Westphalia protocols were conferred on to the former colonial contraptions. The results were economic stagnation and political repression. For over five decades, these new nations have been the focus of intellectual and political agitation among Africa’s thinkers. When, after all that rumination and fulmination, our thinkers still get things horribly back to front, we all get stuck at a crossroads.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction. Current Prime Minister, the youthful Abiy Ahmed is faced with a many-sided series of demands from a deeply frustrated population. Many of these relate directly to the lack of an economic growth model that palpably raises living standards. Others reach further back to the age-old question of land ownership and reform. Naturally, the demand for greater civic rights to speech and assembly come as a prerequisite. One feature common to these demands is the tendency for the Ethiopians to speak through, and/or on behalf of the various constitutionally recognised native identities within the country. Some may have even formed militias for this purpose.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics. “Fears of Ethiopia suffering Africa’s next interethnic conflict are growing,” he warns.

Prime Minister Abiy has been quick to concede much, and roll out as many reforms as he can. Most notably, he has ended the two-decade stand-off with his northern neighbour, Eritrea.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics.

This may not be enough, Mamdani tells us. The real problem, as he sees it, is the introduction of ethnicity into Ethiopian governance, and its central position in the Ethiopian constitution. This, Professor Mamdani says, was done by former Prime Minister, the late Meles Zenawi, who served as the de facto Ethiopian strongman from 1991 to 2012. Mamdani describes this as an attempt to replicate a similar strategy of ethnic organization that, in his view, was introduced to Africa as part of the colonial method of governing:

“In most of Africa, ethnicity was politicized when the British turned the ethnic group into a unit of local administration, which they termed ‘indirect rule.’ Every bit of the colony came to be defined as an ethnic homeland, where an ethnic authority enforced an ethnically defined customary law that conferred privileges on those deemed indigenous at the expense of non-indigenous minorities.”

This analysis fails to stop itself there, which would have been bad enough.

“The move,” continues the Professor, “was a response to a perennial colonial problem: racial privilege for whites mobilized those excluded as a racialized non-white majority. By creating an additional layer of privilege, this time ethnic, indirect rule fragmented the racially conscious majority into so many ethnic minorities, in every part of the country setting ethnic majorities against ethnic minorities.”

Describing native homelands as a “fiction”, the Professor goes on to say that while such ethnic labelling and selective privileging may have served the colonial purpose, it had the effect of first, “dividing a racially conscious African population” and second, turning them into people who saw themselves as “tribes” first and foremost.

Thus, he concludes, “Wherever this system continued after independence, national belonging gave way to tribal identity as the real meaning of citizenship.”

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

These words have many meanings, none of them good for Africans, at least.

First, this is the same thing as saying that before European arrived in Africa, “ethnic” identities were not politicized, and neither were they units of administration. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is to say that there were no ‘politics’ in precolonial Africa, and neither were there forms of administration.

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

Africans seem to have been roaming the continent as a cohort of an undefined but also homogenous mass, with wholly insignificant identities, which were only solemnised, formalized, and bestowed with political meaning with the arrival of a European power amongst them.

Second, it also implies that only the European had the skill to animate these identities, without them tearing the (therefore necessary) European-planted state apart.

Third, that the tragedy of modern Africa began when the European withdrew his controlling hand. Left to their own devices, the identities he had created, mutated into a Frankenstein’s monster of tribal strife.

Fourth, that there is such a thing as ‘national identity’ that sprung to life fully formed at independence, a good by-product of the European-planted state, and that it is African ‘tribalism’ that destroys it. In other words, European-invented African tribalism spoils the one good thing (nationalism) that Europe brought to Africa.

Finally, that belonging to the European-planted nation in Africa is the only viable means of an African citizenship. But if the British were pre-occupied with “ethnicizing”, and the resultant people’s feelings and loyalties were exclusively ethnic, where then does “national belonging” come from at independence?

The entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Naming

Why are 34 million Oromo in Ethiopia an ‘ethnicity’, and 5.77 million Danes a ‘nation’?

Why are the three great wars that shaped modern Europe (Franco-Prussian, the 1914-18 and 1939-1945 great wars), not conceptualized as ethnic conflicts?

Mamdani’s entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Why are there only a handful of contemporary states in Africa whose names bear a relation to the identity of people actually living there. Everyplace else is a reference to a commodity, or an explorer’s navigational landmarks.

This frankly malevolent labelling offers the space for the linguistic demotion of entire peoples. To wit: 34 million Oromo, seven million Baganda, 43 million Igbo, 10 million Zulu will always remain ‘ethnicities’ and ‘tribes’ to be chaperoned by ‘whiteness’. 5.77 million Danes, 5.5 million Finns, and just 300,000 Icelanders can be called ‘nations’, complete with their own states with seats at the UN.

Some of these states were only formed less than two centuries ago (Italy: 1861, Germany: 1815, Belgium: 1830), while some of those ‘tribes’, and most critically for the argument, their governing institutions had already been created.

Why has the ethno-federalization of Great Britain itself, not been seen as such, and as a recipe for conflict?

This, in fact, is the real ‘fiction’, and it has led to decades of instability. But just because Westphalia does not see them, does not mean the African nations don’t exist. The denial of their existence is in fact, an act of violence.

This is what led a thus exiled Buganda’s Kabaka Edward Muteesa II to write: “I have never been able to pin down precisely the difference between a tribe and a nation and see why one is thought to be so despicable and the other so admired.”

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity. The starting point of this enterprise is to invite the African to agree to see our own identities as a liability to African progress, by labelling them “ethnic”.

When “ethnic” conflicts do flare up, those natives who have refused to jump on to this bandwagon are subjected to a big “I told you so”, as Mamdani’s essay now seeks to do.

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity.

This was the position of the OAU member states, and many African political parties, including those in opposition to their increasingly repressive post-Independence governments.

But Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism.

Since his initial assertion when introducing the issue of ‘ethnicity’, was that it was a result of European labelling leading to a “divide and rule” situation, Mamdani is then faced with the difficulty of explaining where those particular Ethiopian ‘ethnicities’ spring from if there were no Europeans creating them. Unless, to develop his assertion of homelands being a ‘fiction’, he thinks Ethiopia’s various nationalities are fictional too?

Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism

He covers up this logical gap by pre-empting a proper discussion of that history. Then changing tack, he suggests that the presence of “ethnic” problems in Ethiopia, despite the country’s lack of a European colonial history actually shows that “ethnicity” is somehow a congenital defect in the body politic of all Africa.

“The country today resembles a quintessential African system marked by ethnic mobilization for ethnic gains.”

Of course the correct answer to all the above questions is that Africa’s Africans had their ‘ethnic’ identities well known and in place long before the arrival of any European explorer or conqueror. And these were not anodyne proto-identities, but actual political institutions and methods of organization and governance. But this is an inconvenient truth, because then it forces the proper naming of these alleged ‘ethnicities’: nations.

All told, deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations. It serves to fetishize the colonial project as the godsend device to rescue the African ethnic strife and predestined mayhem.

But if the 34 million Oromo are an ethnicity, then so are the 5.77 million Danes. More so for our situation so are the English, Scots and Welsh who field national teams during the World Cup and the Commonwealth games. We need consistency, people must be spoken of as they are.

Deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations.

Naturally, the emergent Independence-era African middle class was more than happy to go along with this erasure, in what Basil Davidson called an attempt at “the complete flattening of the ethnic landscape”, and even fine-tuned it. Where some concessions had been made to the existence of the old nations, these were quickly, often violently, dispensed with.

In British Africa, the politics of trying to dispense with this reality is what dominated virtually all the politics of pre-independence constitutional negotiations. The question informed even the political alliances that emerged at independence.

In Zambia it required a special constitutional pact between the new head of state, Kenneth Kaunda and the ruling council of the Barotse people – they have recently sought to repudiate it and return to their pre-colonial status.

Ghana’s Asante kings were against the British handing power to Nkrumah’s government. They argued that since they had ceded power to the British via treaty, then the departure of the British meant a termination of those treaties. Logically, therefore, that power should be re-invested in the ones it had been taken from under treaty.

In Kenya, the Maasai and the Coastal peoples used the same argument during the decolonisation conferences at Lancaster House. Significantly, the Somali rejected inclusion in the independence Kenyan state, insisting that they wanted to be integrated into independent Somalia. Unable to resolve the ‘Three Questions’ the Foreign and Colonial Office cynically kicked them into the not-very-long grass for the incoming leadership to deal with. The Mombasa Republican Council of today draws its political legitimacy from the updated colonial-era Witu Agreement of 1906, signed between their ancestors and the independence government.

Histories

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

It is a two-stage challenge. First: to understand Ethiopia’s history. To do that, one must first recognise and accept the possibilities of an African history not shaped, defined and animated by European imperatives. Africans, like all people, have been making their own history. And like people elsewhere, this has as much narration of the good as it does the bad.

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

As his title implies, this was not a nation, but an Empire: a territory consisting of many nations, brought into his ambit by one means or another.

Menelik’s motives and method can, and should be debated, but the fact is that Europe met its match in the Ethiopian Highlands, and were forced to leave Menelik to it.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

Yes. Africans also produce momentous historical events. It is not an exclusive trait of white people.

We must get into the habit of discussing our own non-European driven history as a real thing with real meanings. Just as we may talk about the continuing long-term effects of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the European Balkan region, so can we talk about how the demise of Menelik’s empire continues to impact on the greater Horn region.

If that sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that since Menelik’s passing 120 years ago, Ethiopia has had only six substantive rulers: Zewditu/Selassie, Mengistu, Zenawi, Dessalegn and now Abiy.

On his passing, Menelik left a region covering more than three times the area he inherited. Prince Tafari, upon eventually inheriting the throne as Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 simply sought to consolidate it.

In his 2002 biography: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood, the Ethiopian author Nega Mezlekia tells the story of him and his family, as one of many Amhara families that migrate to Jijiiga, a region in the far east of Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Selassie. This was part of a government programme of Amhara settlement to many parts of the Ethiopian countryside. Jijiiga is home to ethnic Somalis. Amhara expansion, one of several factors, eventually provokes an armed revolt. Ironically, the author in his youth joined the insurgents.

Emperor Selassie can be said to have made some errors, but the context is critical: his reign spanned a period that saw immense changes in global politics, and social ideas.

Consider his life and times:

He witnessed the two great inter-European wars, the fall of its empires (Italian, German, Ottoman, Japanese) and the end of direct European occupation of Africa. He suffered two European invasions of his realm, and lived in exile. He was a regent during the Bolshevic Revolution in 1917, and saw the emergence of the Soviet Union as a world superpower and the Cold War that followed. He may have been one of only a handful of world leaders to have been a member of both the United Nations, and the League of Nations that preceded it.

This sweep of history also had its impact on the Ethiopian peoples. One response was a growing demand for social, economic and political reform, including loosening the bonds of Selassie’s empire.

By the time of the 1975 coup against him, the world was a fundamentally different one than the one he had met when he took the throne. He was, in fact, so “old school” that his captors were taken aback when he calmly informed them that he had no personal income or savings to look after himself.

He took a hard line on Eritrea, which had settled into an uneasy federation, provoking a war of secession; continued Amhara settler expansion into Oromo and elsewhere; and he failed to manage Tigrayan nationalism, rooted partly in their dynastic loss of the imperial throne to that of Menelik’s Shewa kingdom. Critically, he did not effectively address agrarian land reform, one of the roots of the country’s political and agricultural crises.

So, to sum up Emperor Selassie: ultimately, he neither succeeds to fully consolidate his empire, nor does he re-order the empire’s boundaries and strictures, which he had inherited in a fundamentally different era. He found himself fighting the more conservative elements of his aristocracy opposed to his reforms; the modernist republicans concerned that he was not reforming fast enough; and the increasingly radical nationalists in the regions demanding self-determination.

Enter Colonel Mengistu, something of a zealot, but who, for all his violent tendencies, was more of the “social reform” persuasion, and sympathetic to the “land to the tiller” demands of the early radical youth movements. Having overthrown a monarch, he saw himself in the image of the Soviet Union’s Communist party in Russia which had deposed the Russian King Tsar Nicholas II. His task, as he saw it, was to create a socialist state.

However, Mengistu had basically taken over the same state that Selassie inherited and he was still wedded to it. His modernist concept of history and the world prevented him from understanding that he was dealing with a home-grown imperial history, and that he was in effect therefore, running an empire.

This blinds him to the “nationalities question”, and only intensifies the agitations among the various indigenous nations trapped in his now secular empire.

So, he basically tries to kill everybody opposed to him.

This is the reality Mamdani fails to see, and mistakenly calls Mengistu’s state a ‘unified republic’; interestingly, he does not offer any of the gruesome details of how Mengistu ‘instituted’ this so-called unification. The only places where Ethiopia was unified and a republic was in Mengistu’s mind (and in his armory). What the various territories wanted was recognition of their separate identities, and an unchallenged say over the land of their ancestors.

Mengistu’s response was to raise even higher the levels of violence needed to keep these rebellions in check, simultaneously fighting Tigrayan, Eritrean, Somali and Oromo insurgencies.

Theory and practice.

Ideologically, the leaderships of the Ethiopian insurgencies were taken over by persons claiming to be as Marxist as Lenin was. Eventually, all the belligerents, including the regime, claimed to be Marxist organisations, yet they were in conflict with each other. What intensified the crisis was the conflicting understandings of what Marxist practice should therefore be, in their context. It was at this point that a number of left-ideological debates came into play, and where a lot of left-ideologues lost their way.

Marxist theory, which mobilized millions of people worldwide, and its practical implications, should be examined with some care. History on this point is necessary.

These nationalist struggles based their arguments on the Leninist principle of “The Right of Small Nations to Self-Determination”, which had been partially applied in the Soviet Union from its formation in 1917. After Lenin’s death in 1924, his successor, Josef Stalin, found less time for it, and, in the face of sustained Western European aggression seemed to see it as a liability to the security of the revolution.

The 1975 coup that brought Mengistu to power (or, more accurately, the coup that Mengistu then subsequently violently hijacked) was a response to widespread unrest, particularly among youth and student movements. This led to a number of practical problems on the ground, in relation to ideology.

At the heart of both the Dergue and the later Tigrayan movements was the issue of land reform. Mamdani does note that the initial upheavals of the 1970s were driven by this, but then fails to make the correct links.

For the vast majority of Africans, especially back then, land is not just a place to live, but also a place of work. To be without land is to be without a secure job. Subsistence peasant agriculture is back-breaking, often precarious, and not financially lucrative. It is also – and many progressives fail to recognize this – autonomous. To a very great extent, the subsistence peasant is not dependent on the state or the global economy. If anything, those entities depend on the farmer whose austere lifestyle acts as a hidden subsidy in providing the market with cheaply-grown food at no investment risk to the consumer or the state. Clearly, one thing that can transform and undergird this existence is sensible reforms to the way the farmer secures tenure of the land they work.

But what happens when land rights encounter cultural rights based on land? A “homeland” is certainly not the “fiction” of Mamdani’s assertion. It hosts the identity and worldview of the people that occupy it. It holds their sacred sites, and places marking their cultural consciousness. More so, that culture underpins their ability to keep producing autonomously. To suggest that it does not exist or does not matter, actually shows a complete failure to grasp who black African people are and how they live, and think. It is a fundamentally anti-African statement implying, as it does, that black Africans do not have an internal intellectual and spiritual logic, developed indigenously, and augmented by physical spaces and objects within them, that informs a worldview. Africans, the suggestion is, are inherently transposable, as they are not tied to any thing or any place.

The captains of the old transatlantic slave ships could not have theorized it better.

Coming from someone who lives in Africa, this is a bit surprising. Coming from a professor heading an institute within one of Africa’s new universities, designed to bolster the colonial state’s mission of deracinating the African, perhaps less so.

However, the current crisis in Ethiopia is very real, and failure to finally resolve it holds huge implications for the entire region. That is precisely why a correct analysis is needed. Not a comfortable one rooted in essentially racist tropes.

The allegedly ‘ethnic demands’ were demands for a different type of guarantee to land rights than those being promoted by Mengistu. For example, would an Amhara family like Nega Mezlekia’s, originally settled by Emperor Selassie in Jijiiga, have a legally equal claim to land against the ethnic Somali communities native to the area, just because they now happen to be the ‘tillers’ there? Would there be a hierarchy of claims? In any event, who should decide? A central authority in Addis Ababa, or a federated unit representing the historic native community?

There are no easy answers. But the regime’s (and other ‘progressives’) complete refusal to even consider the issue, is what led to the conclusion that for there to be justice in Ethiopia, the issue of native nationalities, and their land-based cultural rights, would have to be physically resolved first. In short, it became clear that the land reform question could not be effectively addressed without also addressing the underlying question of productive cultural identities and the historical land claims that arise from that.

This was particularly sharp in those areas of the country –such as Oromo and Tigray- that are dominated by pastoralist communities. Historically, much of Africa’s land grabs have taken place against pastoralist communities, the great city of Nairobi being a prime example.

This is the basis of the ‘ethnic’ movements that have so perturbed Professor Mamdani. It was, in fact, a debate of the Left, and not some right-wing atavist distraction.

So, the great irony is that Ethiopia, home to that great bastion of mis-applied Westphalian thinking, the Organisation of African Unity, becomes ground zero for the great unresolved National Question as it applies to Independent Africa: what is an African nation, and is it the same thing as a given African state (or, more accurately, a state located in Africa)?

The armed struggle began in Eritrea, after Selassie’s unilateral abrogation of the federal arrangement. The original fighting group, called the Eritrean Liberation Front was soon violently displaced from the field by a more radical Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front of Isias Afwerki, espousing those aspects of Leninism and Maoism that enabled it to mobilise a broad front of all classes affected by the feeling of Occupation.

The rebels’ demands were clear: a federation of Ethiopia or separation from it; control of their own lands, and an equal recognition of cultures.

For his part, Mengistu, now fighting five separate militant groups, including a very militant hard-line the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front based in urban Ethiopia, placed all his faith in military might. He ended up building the largest armed force in Sub-Saharan Africa (if not Africa as a whole) of some half- a million soldiers, and being heavily dependent on the Soviet Union, which saw him as a vital foothold in Africa, for war materiel and other supplies. He also received military support from Cuba. It again may not be widely known that at the height of the fighting, these different forces which had grown in to wholesale armies, were fighting some of the largest engagements (including tank battles) since the 1939-1945 European inter-ethnic conflict called the Second World War.

The fight progressively turned in favour of the rebels. With Mengistu’s main arms supplier, the Soviet Union, finally capitulating against the US in the Superpower contest in 1989, his forces were routed and he was driven from the capital in 1991.

The Eritrean armed struggle started in 1961, the Tigrayan one in 1975 and Oromo’s in 1973. All end with Mengistu’s fall.

If Mamdani genuinely believes these nationalities are just “ethnicities”, and that Ethiopia is now running the risk of hosting “Africa’s next inter-ethnic conflict”, then this history shows that Ethiopia has in fact already had the “next inter-ethnic” conflict. Mamdani’s fears, this is to say, are 30 or 40 years late.

To sum up Mengistu: he seized power in response to a severe political crisis, and then, misreading his position, sought to impose his concept of “socialism” on the various peoples still caught in the net of Menelik’s Empire state. This led to a situation of mounting violence, in which he saw just about everyone as an enemy to be physically crushed. His regime eventually succumbed to the overwhelming resistance.

Enter Meles Zenawi, who came out of that generation of student activists who took up the nationalities and land reform demands during the time of the Emperor. To many of them, Mengistu’s high-handedness in dealing with the matter was a disappointment. Tigrayans today do not easily recall that when Meles led the the youth to start the war, they sought refuge in Eritrea, and were nurtured and trained there by Isias Afwerki’s EPLF forces already at war against the Ethiopian state.

The issue of identity does not therefore mean that Africans are perennially and illogically at each others throats in some kind of primordial frenzy. They do politics, and are fully capable of defining their interests and maintaining relations, or breaking them off, as needs may dictate.

Zenawi (to an extent like Daniel Ortega on the other side of the world, and even Yoweri Museveni, in his own way), found himself in charge of a state now encountering a new, neo-liberal global world order being enforced by the only super power left standing. Like Selassie, the circumstances around them had changed greatly from when they had begun their political journeys.

Far from simply “introducing” a federal constitution whose “ethnic” nature Mamdani is problematizing, Zenawi’s regime was finally having the Ethiopian state recognise the long-standing historical realities that had emerged from decades of political and armed struggle.

To reduce the product of all that sweeping history to a notion of “fictions”, is a dangerous over-simplification.

In this quest for erasure, Mamdani applies the same misleading thinking backwards by calling the 1994 Ethiopian constitution a “Sovietificaton” of Ethiopia. The Russian nationalities were no more an invention of Lenin than the Ethiopian ones are of Meles Zenawi’s creation. The various units that made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were based on nationalities long in place before the 1917 communist revolution took place there. The responsible thing to do, as a starting point, was acknowledge that fact, which the communists did (and Stalin to a greater extent than Lenin before him).

Yes, Meles was a dictator. And yes, the constitution is based on indigenous nations. That does not automatically suggest causality: Meles Zenawi did not “turn Ethiopia to ‘ethnic’ federalism”. Its long history did.

In fact, events show that Zenawi and the dominant faction he governed with, were no longer in support of the “rights of small nations” by the time they took power.

With the exception of holding the pre-agreed referendum on Eritrean independence (he may have had little choice in the matter: friends in Addis used to like to tell the story of how Meles’ own stepmother, who happens to be Eritrean, and who raised him, left him in his official Addis residence to go and vote for independence in Eritrea, then returned after), he fails to implement the spirit and the letter of the new arrangements that were based on principles forged in the course of the long war.

The best example is found in the very incident that sparked the current uprising: if the regime knew that – as Mamdani points out – the 1994 federal constitution guaranteed the nationalities concerned authority over their land, why then did it try to expand the boundaries of the Federal capital Addis further into Oromo territory over the objections of people there?

In other words, the problem in Ethiopia is the exact opposite of what Professor Mamdani sees. It is not the “ethnic” constitution at fault; it is the failure by the Zenawi regime to genuinely implement it, by negating the spirit of the idea in private, while pretending to uphold it in public.

In particular, Zenawi’s “Woyane” regime repeated Mengistu’s mistake of trying to hold on to Menelik’s state. Critically, he too failed to address the historic issue of land reform that began the whole shake-up of Ethiopia with the student protests against the Emperor. In practice, land is still the property of the state, to be handed out for “developmental” purposes, upholding the Mengistu mentality, but now in the context of global neo-liberalism.

“Derg and [the TPLF] took a very similar approach to the land question. Which is why, three decades after TPLF comes to power, they have still been unable to do land reform, abandoned agrarian reform and ironically, put rural Ethiopian land on the international auction. Something like four million acres of rural farmland, mostly in southern Ethiopia has been leased out to foreign investors since the mid-2000s, ” observes journalist Parselelo Kantai, who frequents the country.

Power comes with its temptations, and a state machine comes with its own institutional imperatives. It would appear that once a group finds itself in control of the apparatus of an empire such as Menelik’s, they become very reluctant to abandon its workings. Perhaps it is only the armed forces in Portugal, having overthrown their autocratic Caetano regime in 1974, that ever went on to immediately dismantle their empire and allow the conquered to go free.

The politics of the armed coalition coming together and finally driving Mengistu out may well have been the moment for this change in attitude to begin, not least because the Meles’ TPLF was by far the militarily dominant faction of the alliance.

To sum up Meles Zenawi: he evolved into what many ‘revolutionaries” became after the Cold War era: a technocratic autocrat placing his hopes in a neo-liberal approach to solving the country’s deep economic problems through a “developmentalist” strategy. He quite literally burned himself out hoping that, by bringing rapid infrastructural development, he could perhaps outpace the historical political claims, and thus render them redundant.

This essentially meant a new form of what Mengistu and Selassie had done before him: overlook people’s ancestral claims to this or that, and simply see the whole landmass as a site for “development” projects, no matter who they may displace or inconvenience.

But “any notion of ‘progress’ or ‘modernization’ that does not start from a peoples’ culture is tantamount to genocide.” the late Professor Dan Nabudere warned us.

Meles Zenawi sought to hold on to the very imperial state he had once fought. His unwillingness to fully honour the terms of the broad alliance of all the fighting groups, and instead consolidated his armed group to take factional control of the whole state and set the course for new upheavals. His sudden death became the opening for these issues to spill out into the streets.

His immediate successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, soon found that the kind of extreme state violence that had served Zenawi, and Mengistu before him, and Selassie before them both, no longer worked, forcing Deslaegn to resign in failure.

Abiy Ahmed must finally deal with these realities. Ultimately, any attempt to do politics based on the imperatives of the Menelik-created state was, and is, going to come up against the fact that this state actually started life as an empire. If the history of Ethiopia has shown one thing, it is that this approach has always provoked rebellions.

Ethiopia, one could say, is back to the pre-war situation it was in just before Mengistu’s coup.

The problem is conceptual; the same one that confronted Selassie and Mengistu: are we running a nation, or a homegrown empire made up of several? 

Mr Abiy Ahmed would be wise not to go down that path.

His challenge is to dismantle the remnants of Meles’ personal military apparatus, genuinely re-orient the country back to its federal constitutional ethos, begin to address the land tenure question, and quickly, before the political grievances – and the economic challenges underlying them – completely boil over.

As the world becomes less secure and with fewer overlords, there will be more and more examples of Africa’s invisible nations asserting themselves to manage control of their resources.

Dismissing them as “ethnic” is simply laying a foundation to justify violence against them.

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Mr Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

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Slaying the Monster: How to Win the War on Corruption in Kenya

The Judiciary is under sustained assault from the Executive branch of government and buck-passing has come to distinguish Kenya’s war on corruption. Beyond the blame games, there exist opportunities for Kenyans to break the yoke of oppressive corruption and chart a new course towards a liberated future argues WILLY MUTUNGA.

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The social cost of corruption in this country is incalculable. It has emptied our ethical contents, hemorrhaged our economy, corroded and destabilized our politics.  It must be confronted directly and boldly, employing the full panoply of instruments of public education, sanction and restitution. Both administrative and legal measures must be summoned in this fight.

One significant but often ignored truth is that fighting corruption is primarily a political project. The political will leading that fight will only succeed if it is credible. Vehemence, however boisterous and loud; righteous but false indignation, however shrill, are all “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

We must ponder. Why did wananchi undertake citizens’ arrest of corrupt officers when NARC (National Rainbow Coalition) came to power? Why did harambees, land allocations and the attendant corruption around public land die during the Kibaki years? If the link between harambees and corruption had long been established (see several Transparency International reports on this subject), why did we resurrect them in 2013, sometimes in total disregard of the law that prohibits public servants from conducting them?

The big question we pose, is do the political elite now leading the fight against corruption have the moral standing sufficient to win public credibility? If they do not then how can they win? My view is the lifestyle audit from the top that was promised a year ago would have come close to conferring that credibility. And that credibility will be long in coming until we clear the dark clouds surrounding issues like Eurobond, the Afya House Scandal, Laptop and Medical equipment leasing to name but a few and make public the sovereign debt for debate.

So, which arm of state is the most corrupt?

This is a false question that is at the core of the blame games being played over the “War on Corruption.”

Over two years ago when I still worked in the Judiciary, Hon Duale, the majority leader in the National Assembly and I, had an interesting spat on Twitter. He had posted a tweet decrying corruption in the Judiciary. I retorted that there was corruption in the Judiciary but not the magnitude found in Parliament. I believe very few people would doubt the enormity of corruption in the Executive and Legislative arms. One only needs to read the Auditor-General reports since independence to confirm this.

Historically, whereas the Judiciary has faced its own independent corruption challenges, part of this problem has been driven by the fact that the Judiciary has been an appendage of the colonial and postcolonial Executive. What is not common knowledge is that until 2010, the Judiciary was closely weaved into the structure and organization of government, listed as a Department of the Attorney General’s Office.

Staff were under the public service and the Judiciary was the place where ‘problematic’ civil servants were banished as punishment.

District Treasuries held Judiciary accounts (some are still in their control even though we began the delinking process). Ironically, since the Judiciary never dared stand up to the Executive, it did the latter’s bidding, but also created spaces for it to shake down litigants, the Judiciary well protected by the Executive in this form of corruption.

The state has always known who the corrupt judicial officers and staff are. The incorruptible ones have had to struggle against the pressure of the Executive and other forces to save their integrity. I believe that is the challenge the Judiciary faces in its quest for integrity and independence. Therefore, the issue is not which of the arms ( of government) is more corrupt but rather how the arms and their organs reflect the integrity and independence decreed by the Constitution.

“War on Corruption” is a National Project

For the “War on Corruption” to be operationally successful, it has to be a national project where the entire justice chain must work in coordination and in concert.  This requires that investigation (police), prosecution (Director of Public Prosecution), and the adjudication (Judiciary) should be seamless, effective, incorruptible, and focus on the national interest.

The National Council for the Administration of Justice (NCAJ), which the Honourable Chief Justice chairs, brings together representatives of the Executive (Attorney-General, DPP, Prisons, Inspector-General of Police) and representatives from civil society and the private sector. This provides the institutional framework for the attainment and monitoring of this objective.

It is the arena where approaches to the fight against corruption should be discussed and any outstanding issues resolved. If NCAJ worked properly, the public altercation that we have seen in this fight would not occur. It is the peer review chamber in the administration of justice where each of the agencies can be held to account.

There has been a consistent policy of blame games by the members of this chain for the administration of justice, that does not serve national interest. The investigations are supposed to be as thorough as the prosecution with the Judiciary promising no delays or compromises in its administration of justice. I believe it was also once suggested that the Inspector-General of Police, through the Director of Criminal Investigations, could utilize the services of the lawyers upfront to make sure that all the relevant and admissible evidence was collected. I believe it was also a practice that once the investigations were complete and the suspects given the chance to respond, the Office of the DPP would peruse the file to make sure the charges taken to court were in order and backed by evidence. Bail applications would be dealt with on this basis and there would be no applications for time to complete investigations, secure exhibits and so on. The NYS criminal prosecution (among others) clearly demonstrates the policies of the NCAJ, are not being adhered to.

The integrity of the organs and institutions in the entire chain for the Administration of Justice is premised on the integrity and independence of such organs and institutions. So who protects their independence? It is the organs and institutions themselves, the citizens, and other arms of state, the corporate sector, civil society and international interests.

All these organs and institutions face pressure from different quarters anyway, including ethnic communities, families, friends and other insidious demands. Politicians and their masters, the cartels and foreign interests, do not support the independence and integrity of these institutions and they seek continuously and consistently to capture and enslave them. Rarely, do they talk about their corruption, and politics of division and inhumanity. Indeed, when politicians attack institutions that have integrity they invariably do great job in guarding the integrity and independence of these institutions. The attacks by politicians can be construed as the frustration and failure on their part in their quest to enslave these institutions.

The Constitutional Oath of Office

Officers in the three arms and all organs of the State  swear to uphold the Constitution. Yet as soon as you are sworn in to serve, this duty seems to be constantly and summarily forgotten. Most politicians have not read the Constitution. If they did why would they argue publicly that one cannot be granted bail when charged with murder? Why would they be quiet about the right of appeal against decisions granting or denying bail? I am quite sure they could get basic constitutional education from the learned lawyers if they chose to be honest about the issue of bail. I have heard the two main ‘hand-shakers’ attack the Judiciary on issues of bail. How will they protect the integrity and independence of institutions if they constantly abuse and disrespect them? It seems using the Judiciary as a punching bag is not restricted to presidential petitions and their outcomes. The independence and integrity of institutions have to be nurtured by a culture of respect and dialogue.

The speeches of President Uhuru and the Right Honourable Raila Odinga in the recently concluded Multi-Sectoral National Anti-Corruption Conference profiled the Judiciary as the weakest link in the “War on Corruption.” It is a clearly predictable critique because the investigatory and prosecution processes are in the departments controlled by the Executive. Indeed, for the entire chain in the War on Corruption to work seamlessly and effectively the Executive must respect their integrity and independence. The Inspector-General of Police and the Office of the DPP must resist compromising their integrity and independence as decreed by the Constitution. Every institution under the Constitution has delegated powers from the Kenyan people. Protecting the human rights of the Kenyan people in the processes of investigating corruption and prosecuting it are cardinal considerations to bear in mind. Investigations and prosecutions must never be selective or politically motivated.

The speeches of President Uhuru and the Right Honourable Raila Odinga in the recently concluded Multi-Sectoral National Anti-Corruption Conference profiled the Judiciary as the weakest link in the “War on Corruption.”

It pains me when I hear Right Honourable Raila Odinga subvert the Constitution by arguing that suspects of murder and corruption must prove their innocence. The Constitution provides otherwise. Indeed, he knows that the provisions on bail in part are historically explained by the trials and tribulations he and other patriots went through in the courts captured by the Jomo Kenyatta-Moi-KANU dictatorships. I was shocked by his proposal in the said conference that suspects must prove their innocence and the courts, notwithstanding the provisions of the Constitution, must deny such suspects bail. President Uhuru, himself a beneficiary of soft bail from an international court that enabled him to run and campaign for office, earlier criticized the courts for giving soft bail terms. We are told that the courts must decide based on the will of the Executive notwithstanding the provisions of the Constitution and the Oath of Office taken by all judicial officers to uphold the Constitution and protect it. I hope that both our leaders never rue the day they uttered these words in the future. An independent Judiciary is critical to all politicians, as is indeed, to all citizens.

What has always surprised me is how those who attack and refuse to nurture the integrity and independence of institutions forget that they need those institutions more than the ordinary citizens. If as a politician or a cartel you enslave an institution, what guarantees you that your enemies, once in the same privileged position as you, will not use the institution against you? In this regard, all politicians and other interest groups should not influence (in any way) the integrity and independence of the Judiciary. They will not have to yell from the rooftops that “money has been poured (sic) or we are being finished” when their turn comes to answer the crimes they have committed. Judiciaries are temples of justice where the oppressed, discriminated, bullied, tortured, and intimidated run to. You do not want to run there and find your worst enemy at the entrance of the temple of justice!

Paying Lip Service to Corruption

Let us not pay lip service to War on Corruption. Let us not be selective in the prosecutions. Let us be consistent in our narratives in support of the War. What became of lifestyle audits that would start from the very top of our political leadership? Why, in the observation of the constitutional values of integrity, transparency, and accountability should we not make accessible all management and loan agreements, and details of our sovereign debt? Why do citizens have to go to court under Article 35 (freedom of information) of the Constitution to get these agreements and details? What is being hidden from the Kenyan public? It is on the basis of this disclosure that we can have a national dialogue on what these debts are, and who will ultimately pay for them.

I believe some are not even legally recoverable.

Under the 2010 Constitution, the State cannot live to its historical reputation of “Siri Kali/Vicious Secret” on matters of finance, security, investments, and the use of people’s resources. Kenyans must still demand the implementation of the Constitution in its entirety in their quest to change our unacceptable and unsustainable status quo.

The War on Corruption in Kenya is also an intra-elite struggle about looting, succession, corruption, and how fruits of corruption are shared. The War is also about struggles between national cartels and foreign interests. Like any other war it is an industry where profits are found in buying elections, oiling the machinery of state violence, and investing the ill-gotten gains internally and externally. The corrupt have no loyalty to any country or relationship. The elite hate the people they rule. How does one view all these merchants of death in any other way? The so-called illicit economy (money laundering, piracy, terrorism, human trafficking, trafficking in human body parts, counterfeit, corruption, wildlife crimes) co-exists with legitimate ones – there is no distinction. Legal corruption (such as exploitation) is a twin of illegal corruption reflected in the illicit economy. Ultimately, a system that puts profits before people controls and owns both legal and illegal corruption.

Under the 2010 Constitution, the State cannot live to its historical reputation of “Siri Kali/Vicious Secret” on matters of finance, security, investments, and the use of people’s resources.

The War on Corruption must extend to foreign interests and forces (economic, social, military, financial, communications and surveillance, the entire system of imperialism of the West and East) if the War is to be won.

What can we do in the short-term?

Political leaderships the world over and the interests they serve (economic, social, military, financial) are the root cause of corruption. The joint control of resources by leaders and their interests mean that only by bringing, by all means possible, leaderships that are alternative to the current ones can we hope to end corruption, or at least start mitigating it.

In the case of Kenya, we are yet to even occupy the vacuum that exists for authentic opposition. Such opposition is the beginning of this struggle. We have many uncoordinated social movements that need to come together in a national convention against corruption and their delegates elect interim leaders to start the People’s War on Corruption.

This will be a national convention by delegates of all social movements and non-baronial parties and their affiliates. I believe there has been enough discussion on the critiques and consequences of corruption on our development. The national convention should collate and coordinate solutions and actions to achieve them. We have various precedents of national conventions. We had one in Limuru in April 1997. There have been other formats like the one adopted by the Kenya Tuitakayo Initiative.

Public intellectuals will definitely play an important role.

We have many uncoordinated social movements that need to come together in a national convention against corruption and their delegates elect interim leaders to start the People’s War on Corruption.

The convention will also draw a four-year program of activities by social movements and parties and the holding of a yearly national convention. It will have sub-committees to deal with specific issues. I believe all these initiatives can be funded by Kenyans. The convention will determine a funding strategy. And there are many more issues to come out of the convention such as its manifesto, ideology, politics, and membership. It is not rocket science.

The time to end the baronial politics narratives that only the rich who can rule this country is now. The time to reject baronial promises on fighting corruption is now.

We need to protect and secure our national resources. Out of these movements, and political parties that are not captured by baronial elites, a national progressive party can be formed to contest political power over the next ten years. The window of opportunity is now. The time for the politics of issues is now. The opportunity for implementing the Constitution, particularly its fundamental pillars are now. The time to end the baronial politics narratives that only the rich who can rule this country is now. The time to reject baronial promises on fighting corruption is now. This can only be done by political formations that will contest political power and wrestle it away from the barons.

Kenya gained its nominal independence because of the Mau Mau War of Independence and the collapse of the British Empire. There followed the second liberation that resurrected multipartyism. There was the third liberation brought about by the promulgation and implementation of the 2010 Constitution. Together with citizens of the world, we must bring about a humane, peaceful, non-violent and non-militaristic planet that is ecologically safe, equitable, The fourth liberation is about consolidating the gains of all these liberations, rescuing their fundamental weaknesses, and bringing the end of baronial rule in Kenya. just and prosperous.

The fourth liberation is about consolidating the gains of all these liberations, rescuing their fundamental weaknesses, and bringing the end of baronial rule in Kenya.

We in Kenya must start our effort for an alternative world. Let us think freedom and emancipation of our country, our continent, and our planet. To do so we must imagine the defeat of the imperialism of West and East. Such a world cannot exist under these current corrupt systems. Our Constitution’s vision is socially democratic and its implementation will put us into the trajectory of the fourth liberation forming the basis of the fifth liberation to come.

The views expressed are personal to the author and do not in any way reflect those the Office of the Former Chief Justice

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Battle of Ideas: The Social Responsibility of Intellectuals in Building Counter-Hegemonies

In a capitalist society divided into classes, you have broadly two types of intellectuals. There are those who produce rationalizations, justifications and mystifications to maintain and reproduce the status quo of inequality and inequity in favour of capital. Then there are those who question and challenge dominant knowledge and try to demystify and debunk hegemonic forms of knowledge and ideologies. Some go further to produce and articulate alternative forms of knowledge and ideologies to propel the struggle of the ruled, the oppressed and the downtrodden. They are involved in constructing counter-hegemonies. By ISSA SHIVJI

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Battle of Ideas: The Social Responsibility of Intellectuals in Building Counter-Hegemonies

Intellectuals pride themselves as producers of knowledge. They are also articulators of ideologies, a role they do not normally acknowledge. Respectable universities worth the name call themselves sites of knowledge production. I say “respectable” because these days many neo-liberalised universities have abandoned the role of knowledge production in favour of packaging disparate information and branding their “products” (students) to make them saleable on the market. That is a story for another day. Today I don’t want to talk about packaging factories. Today I want to address those intellectuals who still consider themselves producers of knowledge rather than assembly line supervisors of packaging industries.

In a capitalist society divided into classes, you have broadly two types of intellectuals. There are those who produce rationalizations, justifications and mystifications to maintain and reproduce the status quo of inequality and inequity in favour of capital. These are the producers and purveyors of what we call hegemonic ideologies. Then there are those who question and challenge dominant knowledge and try to demystify and debunk hegemonic forms of knowledge and ideologies. Some go further to produce and articulate alternative forms of knowledge and ideologies to propel the struggle of the ruled, the oppressed and the downtrodden. They are involved in constructing counter-hegemonies. Thus there is a battle of ideas. One of the foremost sites of the battle of ideas is the University. Battle of ideas precedes battle at the barricades.

Hegemony by definition means acceptance of an ideology voluntarily, by consent as opposed to, by coercion. It was Gramsci’s great insight that the bourgeoisie rule by mobilising consent through its ideological apparatuses, both in the state (for example, courts) but – and this is important to note – also in civil society, for example, institutions of education, media, CSOs, art, literature etc. The wheels of ideological apparatuses are always churning. They generate and refurbish hegemonic ideologies and make it the ‘common sense’ of the time. During normal times, therefore, the coercion of the bourgeois state does not appear on the surface. It is there – but always in the background. This is the case in normal times. What happens in times of crisis – in times when the underlying capitalist system itself is in the crisis of reproducing itself? It is the crisis that interests me most because, I believe, we are currently in such a crisis of the global imperialist-capitalist system. I will not go into the details of the economics of the crisis because I want to focus more on its ideological expressions.

Battle of ideas precedes battle at the barricades.

Today we are witnessing an upsurge of fascism, narrow nationalisms and parochialism (for short, I’ll call them “new nationalisms”) both in the Centres (the global North) and in the Peripheries (the global South). In the North, rightist parties and formations wave the flag of racism and nationalism against immigrants. Given the electoral victories of the right in recent times, even mainstream center and centre-left parties, fearing the erosion of their electoral base, buy into the anti-immigrant rhetoric. Brexist is one such example; the other is Trump’s laughable but tragic Mexican wall project.

In the South, there is a rise of demagogic and populist leaders who wave the flag of narrow ethnic, racist, religious and parochial patriotism. Modi of India, Duterte of Philippines and Bolsonaro of Brazil, well illustrate populist and demagogic languages. Modi waves the flag of Hindutva which is nothing but an assertion of Hindu supremacy. Inevitably this unleashes street violence against minorities – Muslims, Christians and Dalits. Bolsonaro deploys his populist slogans against Blacks, women and LGBT communities. In Latin America, another Bolsonaro is in the making. This is the gentleman called Juan Guaido who has “democratically” declared himself the president of Venezuela. He is supported by the “champions of democracy” in America and Europe and recognised, among others, by the only “democracy” in the Middle East – Israel. [Please note the term “democracy” and all its derivatives here are in inverted commas.]

Hegemony by definition means acceptance of an ideology voluntarily, by consent as opposed to, by coercion

I’d suggest that the upsurge of “new nationalisms” is a backlash to neoliberalism gone wild. Ironically, neo-liberalism itself paved the path for the rise of “new nationalisms”. Neo-liberal ideologies did not have a long staying power but for some four decades of its rule it caused havoc. Market and monetarism were its mantra. Neo-liberalism attacked bourgeois liberalism in the Centres and assaulted post-colonial, radical and progressive nationalism in the Peripheries. Socially, it rested on individuation as opposed to bourgeois individualism. The best description of individuation comes from Margaret Thatcher who rhetorically exclaimed: ‘Society, what society! There is no such thing as society!’ There are only disparate individuals. Bourgeois individuals stood for rights and obligations. Neo-liberal individuates don’t stand for anything – except for self-enrichment and aggrandizement. They will sell their rights and trample on others’ rights so long as they can “move on”. And ‘obligation’ has no place in their utterly self-centered mindsets.

On economic level, neo-liberalism is based on the endless creation of fictitious commodities and their privatisation. So public goods – education, health, water, energy and air are commodified and owned; so also flora and fauna, mountains, rivers and forests; bio resources and genetically modified life organisms become private property to be owned and traded for profit. Even languages and cultural practices get patented and owned. (Recently Walt Disney took out a patent on the Kiswahili phrase: Hakuna Matata!) Debt, including sovereign debt, becomes a commodity and is traded. Financial oligarchies offer cheap credit – so every one from individuals through households to states borrow heavily becoming indebted. Debt slavery has become a new kind of slavery. We all exist in debt to financial sharks, literally and figuratively. Descartes’ famous saying, “I think therefore I am” becomes “I am indebted therefore I am”. Underlying it all is rampant primitive accumulation by a small financial oligarchy overshadowing ‘accumulation by expansion’ in the productive sphere. Financialisation becomes the name of the game. Fictitious economy takes leave of real economy and begins to believe in self-regulation and self-reproduction. When the hiatus between the real and fictitious economy becomes unsustainable, the bubble bursts like the 2007-2008 prime mortgage crisis in the US that spread like wild fire to other countries. But the state pumps in trillions of dollars to save financial institutions, which duly resume their nefarious transactions. The outcome of the crisis is further concentration of wealth and power in fewer hands.

The wheels of ideological apparatuses are always churning. They generate and refurbish hegemonic ideologies and make it the ‘common sense’ of the time.

Inequality, unemployment, poverty, despair and hopelessness rise as wealth concentrates in a small minority. Angry masses become cannon fodder on which rising fascist and right-wing feed. In the absence of a feasible alternative, this is the way the masses hit back at neo-liberal excesses.

Neo-liberalism was primarily an ideological assault on radical nationalism and its relatively independent policies. It devastated our social fabric and the neo-liberalisation of our universities destroyed counter-hegemonic, progressive discourses and debates. The University structures were corporatized. Courses lost their integrity as they were semesterised and modularised. Short courses proliferated. Basic research was undermined as policy consultancy overwhelmed the faculty. Knowledge production was substituted by online information gathering. A few resisted but many surrendered. Voices of resistance from staff and students were stifled and suppressed. University authorities spent more on surveillance gadgets to keep students in check rather than on sanitation facilities in dorms to keep students healthy. This campus, once known for its intellectual salience, is today cited for its selective silence. The kind of discourse that I’m indulging in today, I bet, must sound Greek and Latin to our neo-liberal generation of both students and faculty. This is the story of many African campuses.

As a consequence, the rise of “new nationalisms” caught intellectuals by surprise. Neither did they anticipate it nor do they know how to react to it. The knee-jerk reaction on many African campuses – not all of course – has been to join the bandwagon either out of choice or because of lack of choice.

Today we are witnessing an upsurge of fascism, narrow nationalisms and parochialism both in the Centres and in the Peripheries. In the North, rightist parties and formations wave the flag of racism and nationalism against immigrants. Given the electoral victories of the right in recent times, even mainstream center and centre-left parties, fearing the erosion of their electoral base, buy into the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“New nationalisms” across the global South share certain characteristics, albeit manifesting in different forms and languages, depending on concrete conditions. Some manifestations are undoubtedly progressive but are invariably eclectic.

Firstly, populism speaks in the name of the poor against the poor. Secondly, it privileges ‘God and country’ instead of peoples and nations. Thirdly, it concentrates power and destroys other potential centres of actual or potential power. Fourthly, it seeks legitimacy in “gods and ancestors” rather than its people. Fifthly, it makes fetish of “industrialisation-as-development” while marginalising agriculture and pillorying “development-as-freedom”. In Africa, no doubt, we need industrialisation to develop but development is more than industrialisation. Development, as Mwalimu Nyerere used to say, is a social process of enlarging the terrain of freedom and constricting the tyranny of necessity.

Sixthly, ”new nationalism” mounts a concerted assault on veritable centres of thinking, especially universities. My Indian friends from Jawaharlal Nehru University tell me that Modi’s regime has repeatedly tried to destroy radicalism at JNU, by slapping criminal charges on radical faculty and students, by mounting direct attacks by police on the Campus and by appointing regime’s stooges as vice-chancellors, and so on.

The upsurge of “new nationalisms” is a backlash to neoliberalism gone wild

Seventhly, the anti-imperialist rhetoric of “new nationalisms” is eclectic and selective. It is couched in the language of “they”, the foreigners, and “we”, the indigenous, rather than as an anti-systemic project.

Finally, in Africa, the “new nationalism” is singularly bereft of the Pan-African dimension. This is very much unlike the first wave of nationalism, which was born of Pan-Africanism and tried to keep it on the political radar in spite of its problems and shortcomings. Paraphrasing Mwalimu Nyerere, I would say that African nationalism could only be Pan-Africanism otherwise it becomes “the equivalent of tribalism in the context of our separate nation states.” (Nyerere)

Under the circumstances, it is squarely the social responsibility of intellectuals to construct a counter-hegemonic project that would resonate with the lives of the vast majority. Instead, African intellectuals have reacted to “new nationalisms” by falling back on the ideological rhetoric of bourgeois liberalism, which they know best but which, in my view, falls far short of giving the people a vision and a cause to fight for. The liberal language of political pluralism, social diversity, ideological identity and party politics is, in my view, inadequate and does not touch the hearts and minds of our people. We must always remember that it is liberalism constructed on capitalist foundations that created the soil for the rise of neo-liberalism and its offshoot “new nationalisms” in the first place.

One cannot construct a counter-hegemonic project in the abstract and I do not intend to do so. Such alternatives are built in the course of struggle. By way of conclusion, though, I’d like to suggest for our consideration that any counter-hegemonic project must be based on four building blocks. These are: popular livelihoodspopular participationpopular power and popular rights and freedoms.

‘Popular’ is used in two senses: one that it is anti-imperialist and two, that it is based on a ‘bloc of popular classes’, which together I call working people. The term popular helps us to distance ourselves from populisms emanating from the term ‘people’. The term popular livelihoods does not require any further explanation. Needless to say it has to be based on a people-centered development. (And by ‘people’ I mean working people.)

Popular participation is meant to interrogate the limits of parliamentary and party politics and rethink the institutions of the state. The idea is to posit a new mode of politics. Politics are where the masses are. And masses are in villages and urban ghettoes and neighbourhoods. So popular participation and popular power is meant to re-locate power and politics from the state to villages and neighbourhoods.

African intellectuals have reacted to “new nationalisms” by falling back on the ideological rhetoric of bourgeois liberalism, which they know best but which, in my view, falls far short of giving the people a vision and a cause to fight for.

In popular rights and freedoms I include two fundamental rights and four fundamental freedoms. The fundamental rights are right to human existence to live life with dignity and right to organise means that an organised working people are able to defend their interests themselves through their own organisations – whether these are trade unions, workers’ associations, working women’s organisations, peasant co-operatives or peasant parties. Forms of organisation arise from concrete conditions. People have always been innovative in organising themselves for resistance and for fighting for alternatives.

Four fundamental freedoms are: freedom from want, freedom from fearfreedom from violence (both state and social violence) and freedom from enforced silence – in other words, right to speak out. Time does not allow me to elaborate further on the building blocks of an alternative Project. My aim was simple: to jolt us from the slumber of silence. My hope is – and I’m eternally hopeful – that this type of discourses will morph us from the state of unthinking to the state of thinking.

This article adopted from a Keynote address at the University of Dar es Salaam was first published in Sauti ya Ujamaa on February, 2 2019.

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The Swan Song of Electoral Democracy: From Kenyatta to Kabila, the Rise of a New Impunity

The farcical rigging of the DR Congo election was only a surprise to the extent that fellow African presidents and international observer missions were not in on Joseph Kabila’s novel innovation: fixing the election for an opposition candidate. With 20 African elections set for 2019, does the threat of the Congolese example confirm a final retreat of electoral democracy on the continent? What is to be done? By MIRIAM ABRAHAM

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The Swan Song of Electoral Democracy: From Kenyatta to Kabila, the Rise of a New Impunity

The normalization of electoral pilferage in Africa is baffling. Election management bodies, long the political tools of incumbents, can’t stop outdoing each other in their mediocrity. And ready to legitimise these atrocities, are African presidents who compete to be the first to convey congratulatory messages. Not to be outdone, international and regional organizations continue to provide technical support for these sham processes, releasing bland observation reports that rubber-stamp electoral fraud. And the diplomats, who while investigations are launched on sabotage of elections in their own countries, undermine electoral justice in their host countries.

The recent charade in the Democratic Republic of Congo is only the latest in the disturbing trend. Similar processes in Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Rwanda and Kenya, in the past year or so, confirm this. In these four situations, the incumbent retained power, despite detention of political opponents, massive irregularities, blatant theft, intimidation of voters and in some cases, brutal murders by security operatives. With elections scheduled in more than 20 countries this year including Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa and Malawi, we should expect this trend to continue unabated.

Turning to the Democratic Republic of Congo: it has the world’s most complex and longest running humanitarian crisis. It is estimated that since 1996, violence has claimed over six million lives (without including the period between its independence from Belgium in 1960 to 1995). Historically, the country has never had a bloodless transfer of power. Former President, Joseph Kabila, who inherited the seat from his assassinated father, Laurent Kabila in 2001, managed to cling to power for 18 years. He could have probably postponed elections again, if the Congolese, led by the Catholic Church, did not keep the pressure on him finally to conduct them.

The recent charade in the Democratic Republic of Congo is only the latest in a disturbing trend. Similar processes in Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Rwanda and Kenya, in the past year or so, confirm this. With elections scheduled in more than 20 countries this year including Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa and Malawi, we should expect this trend to continue unabated.

With this background, most people would agree that the people of Congo need some semblance of stability (the strict meaning of which usually excludes the violence prosecuted by countries and multinationals pillaging Congo’s rich minerals and timber). But must electoral justice and political stability be mutually exclusive? Several colleagues, working in support of the Congolese election management body, CENI, have expressed their shock and disbelief at the swapping of the presidential results and the manipulation of the legislative vote. These are colleagues who are hardened electoral experts – they have seen it all, from Cambodia to Afghanistan and everything in between.

Most people would agree that the people of Congo need stability (the strict meaning of which usually excludes the violence prosecuted by countries and multinationals pillaging Congo’s rich minerals and timber). But must electoral justice and political stability be mutually exclusive?

In our conversations, I have sought to understand why the Congolese case gets them more perturbed than say, Kenya or Zimbabwe – places in which they recently worked. It is clear that it is because the game played by Kabila deviated from the usual script. These international organizations, complicit in aiding theft in favour of incumbents or their anointed successors, cannot relate to a situation where an incumbent does this in favour of an opposition candidate.

As one of my colleagues said to me, “The difference is that in Kenya, it was not as blatant, there was no paper trail.” I should have been shocked to hear this, that the Kenyans were more adept at creating a farce of an electoral process than the Congolese. What many of these colleagues of mine do not understand is that the end game is the same. In both cases, the will of the people was subverted. For the diplomats and international organizations, their private outrage was that the Congolese were too obvious in their deceit. Perhaps even more outrageous was that Kabila had excluded them from his game plan. They were checkmated with the rest of us. They were not among the usual plotters of the game plan. They were prepared to make a case for how the ruling party had won, because of the power of incumbency, the divisions among the opposition and the sheer constructed tyranny of numbers. They were not prepared for what author and journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo dubbed the ‘Kabila Method’. It partly explains why contradictory statements were issued by the African Union, SADC and some European capitals, in support of the legitimate winner of the race, Martin Fayulu, before capitulating and vowing to work with President Felix Tshisekedi.

I have sought to understand why the Congolese case gets my colleagues more perturbed than say, Kenya or Zimbabwe…It is because the game played by Kabila deviated from the usual script.

If elections are indeed ritual processes to confirm the incumbents or their chosen successors, then why should we invest our hopes, blood, emotions and resources in them? Would we not be best served by monarchs such as those in Morocco and Saudi Arabia? According to several sources, and data collected by ACE African countries rank among the highest in spending on organizing elections. (This does not include campaign financing, for which the United States is off the charts.) Curiously, the higher the amount of money handed over to the ‘independent’ election management body, the lower the country ranks in the Democracy-Index maintained by The Economist.

It is estimated that in 2017 Kenya spent $ 25.4 per registered voter (not including the repeat 26 October 2017 presidential election, petitions and by-elections) and ranks 98 out of 167 states in the Democracy-Index. Botswana ranks 28th in the Index and spends an average of $2.07 per voter, although this may increase in 2019 if the country proceeds with the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).

[International observers] were prepared to make a case for how the ruling party had won, because of the power of incumbency, the divisions among the opposition and the sheer constructed tyranny of numbers. They were not prepared for what author and journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo dubbed the ‘Kabila Method’.

African leaders are getting more emboldened in methods of securing legitimacy, even amidst blatant electoral theft. They know that they can rely on the African Union and other regional organizations such as IGAD and SADC to issue observation reports lauding their illegitimate electoral processes. Prime Ministers, Presidents (sometimes sprinkling onto their official delegations, erstwhile opposition leaders, recent victims of electoral theft now co-opted by the incumbent) will troop to their inauguration ceremonies. They can count on the United Nations to issue statements congratulating the people “for voting peacefully” (as if voters were ever the problem) and taking note of the decisions of the ‘constitutionally established institutions’, even when their own staff have concrete evidence of the foul play and state capture of these institutions.

These leaders are aware that they can use excessive violence and repression to silence their opponents with impunity. And if this does not work out, they will buy off the opposition with the proverbial thirty pieces of silver and repeat the charade in the next electoral cycle. Or they will promise their victims that, in joining government, the same system that rigged them out could well rig them in, next time. Which begs the question of why we spend billions on elections. Why do we put ourselves through the emotional wringer to end up with leaders we did not choose? Why participate in a charade that ends up keeping the political barons, as former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga calls them, in power?

Electoral disillusionment is not unique to Africa. One could argue that there exists today a global democracy deficit as acute in Europe and North America as it is in Africa. Political scientist Larry Diamond has produced many publications on the subject of ‘democratic recession’. Many more researchers have studied in detail whether democracy is in retreat or not. It is however safe to say that what we have recently seen in Latin America, the US, and Europe is a backlash against leftist policies that pushed the middle class to the edge, with leaders, perceived as unrepresentative and out of touch, playing xenophobic dog-whistle politics with immigrants. Many of these countries have ended up electing populist, nationalist and right-wing leaders, who as expected have not provided solutions to their woes but rather introduced divisive and polarizing politics and policies.

Electoral disillusionment is not unique to Africa. One could argue that there exists today a global democracy deficit as acute in Europe and North America as it is in Africa.

While one could question the quality of the electoral processes in these countries, these leaders are not in power because election results were swapped blatantly, either electronically, as was in Kenya, or manually as in the DRC. It is also evident that, as was the case in the mid-term elections in the US, voters are still determined to organize and repudiate values that they deem not representative of their views. The fact that a 70-year tradition of habitually low voter turn-outs was broken – turn-out was a record 60 percent, yielding the most diverse (youth, women, Muslims) US Congress ever – holds hope for electoral democracy elsewhere. Social movements are growing in Slovakia, Romania and even in Poland to push back against these populist tendencies.

There are examples galore in Africa of what happens when people lose hope in electoral democracy— a system – a strict definition is worth restating in these strange times – in which citizens, through universal suffrage, choose and replace their leaders in regular, free, fair, and meaningful elections. This stands true even in cases where there is a façade of democracy created by the autocrats, such as Kenya. From Algeria to Zimbabwe, political changes have taken place, mostly peacefully through social and political movements. Whether in Burkina Faso or The Gambia, citizens have proven their will and capacity to alter their political fate.

Electoral democracy requires patience and hard work, both of which are acutely deficient, especially as we fall victim of the establishment’s distractions. For now in Kenya, the ‘Ruto Bogeyman’ has been created. Instead of spending time nurturing alternative leadership, the public has consented to being used as State House’s battering ram against him. It’s worth recalling that between 2013 and 2017, we were subjected to the ‘Raila Bogeyman’ regime campaign. We have long forgotten about demanding a public inquiry into the 2017 electoral fiasco – or the 2013 debacle. Those who managed the 2017 electoral thuggery continue to receive public funding and tour the world in the name of exporting “lessons learned” from their experience of managing two presidential elections in less than a year! We are collectively distracted by the smoke and mirrors ‘fight’ against graft. We have even signed on to blaming the judiciary for its handling of poorly prosecuted corruption cases designed to fail. Our social media platforms still have messages appealing for unity against terrorists, without questioning why Al-Shabaab successfully targets Kenyan towns and cities, and fails to do so against Addis Ababa whose troops have been in Somalia longer than us. We even get to spend time celebrating or bemoaning (depending on your political stripe) that Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i is now empowered to coordinate the achievement of the government’s agenda while all along his official title reads exactly that (CS, Interior and Coordination of National Government).

It is tempting to write off electoral democracy in Kenya, especially now. However, there may be still room to begin laying the foundations for overturning the ‘faux democracy’ of the past 50 years. It might be tempting to focus only on de-registering ourselves from the IEBC’s voters roll, which anyway by law needs to be discarded and a new voter registration process to be initiated before the 2022 election.

We owe it to our children to do more than this. To play our role in shaking the current system that has been controlled by the dynasties and elite political ‘barons’ for the past five decades. It requires organizing around a movement that advocates for a different type of leadership – a Third Liberation, if you will. This is an arduous task, requiring time and dedication. It requires going back to the basics of defining the kind of leadership we deserve as a people to end impunity, theft of public resources, to protect our environment and to guarantee public safety and security for all. This is possible. It has been done before in Kenya, with varying levels of success, and it can be done again.

We owe it to our children to do more than this. To play our role in shaking the current system that has been controlled by the dynasties and elite political ‘barons’ for the past five decades. It requires organizing around a movement that advocates for a different type of leadership – a Third Liberation, if you will.

But even as we chart this path, we must remember to hold the leaders of these movements accountable to the people. Most of today’s autocrats in Africa were yesterday’s defenders of democracy. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda toppled the Tito Okello military dictatorship 33 years ago; today, he ranks among Africa’s longest serving despots. In Guinea, President Alpha Condé, a long-time opposition leader, became the first democratically elected president in 2011 and appears to be preparing to remove term limits in addition to his ongoing repressive tendencies against his opponents. In Cote d’Ivoire, the hope that Alassane Dramane Ouattara embodied has long been replaced by the very same tactics of his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo. Closer home, one of the prominent leaders of the ‘second liberation’ Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga and the ‘Young Turks’ have joined forces with the ruling Jubilee Party to undermine the same values and aspirations they allegedly fought to protect.

The journey to real change, to electoral democracy, must advance by the dismantling of the entrenched structures that enable the rise of populism, divisive politics, corruption and impunity. It is a journey that we as a nation have really not yet begun. The jury is still out on how far we shall proceed before we are enjoined in the distractions set up by the political ‘barons’ and the dynasties. Until then, electoral democracy is a mirage. And ours will remain selection, not election processes. Just with more pomp, more pillaging and unfortunately, more deaths.

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