For Four Hundred Years

For four hundred years, the African was a commercial item in international trade. The Transatlantic Slave Trade flourished from the 15th to the late 19th centuries, at the expense of Africa. For the African was the most sought for item in this trade, also known as the Middle Passage Trade, or the Triangular Trade.

A poster from the period has been widely reproduced in history books. It reads in part, “To be sold, on 23rd day of August next.” This handbill went on to give details of the sale and the goods, “A cargo of ninety-four prime healthy Negroes, consisting of thirty-nine men, fifteen boys, twenty-four women and sixteen girls. Just arrived.”

Other Africans, of course, initially sold these people, mostly from West Africa, to Europeans. This does not negate the reality, however, that the African has been an item of trade in international commerce. She would be exchanged variously for whisky, linen, mirrors, arms and sundry basic industrial goods.

Africa must never forget this whenever she sits at table to negotiate matters of trade with the rest of the world. From being an item of trade, you have now been received at the negotiating table as a partner in trade. It can never be a dialogue of equals, however. A British colonial governor in Rhodesia infamously said that the only partnership possible between the rest of the world and Africa was like the partnership between the horse rider and the horse. The African was the horse in this matrix. He remains so.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) only underscores this reality, even when it comes to Nairobi. The jamboree in our capital this week has not transformed the Western mercantilism of the 16th – 18th centuries. The mercantile system was the economic converse of political absolutism in Europe. Through high tariffs, nations sought to dominate others via trade control, especially in finished goods. Colonies were not permitted to trade with other nations, except through the colonizing power. Even domestic consumption was restricted, through non-tariff barriers!

Any change since the 1700s only amounts to tokenism.  And now for 14 years, the world has failed to make any meaningful conversation on “fair global trade.” From Doha in 2001, the world has stumbled on to Cancun, Mexico. It has moved from Cancun to Hong Kong and travelled from here to Paris, France and on to Potsdam, Germany.  From Potsdam it has gone to Geneva, Switzerland. It eventually came to Africa this week. The issues have remained the same, the positions as hard as ever.

The WTO debates constitute the perfect Einstein paradox of lunacy. The world has done the same thing the same way and expected a different outcome each time. Such is lunacy. Dialogue is only possible among equals. Everything else is receiving instructions from the strong. The powerful will get their way while the weak at the best only have their say. It never goes beyond that. The powerful come to protect their goods and markets, while killing yours.

Tragically, the weak come expecting sympathy, charity and an elusive fairness. But the world is not about fairness. It never has been. Life is not fair. Fairness is indeed what romantic idealists of my kind dream about. In reality, however, we should know that the world does not function that way. It favours the strong.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has reminded us in the novel Petals of Blood that some things eat. Others are eaten. It is the simple law of nature – you either eat or you are eaten. The weak will be eaten. That is why very few have ever seen a limping antelope. It will be eaten the same day it starts limping. In international trade, you are either a lion prowling to eat someone, or an antelope running away from predators. If you limp, you will go. Are Africans the antelopes in international forums? Why do our representatives go to these forums expecting pity?

In the end, such forums are of little value to the people of Africa and those from other poor nations. Simply put, they are useless. Going forward, Africa must seek to be strong. She needs to restore the intra Africa economic dialogue of the 1980s. Then the continent talked about opening up Africa to Africans. Under the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the continent reflected on strengthening economic and commercial ties within Africa. That remains the way to go.

The trade forums that will change Africa must first be exclusive forums of Africans, for Africa. They would focus on how we could trade better among ourselves, beyond existing regional blocks like SADC, COMESSA, ECOWAS and the like. Only when we have solidified our economic cooperation on the continent could we expect meaningful dialogue with the rest of the world. And when it comes to Africa talking to the world, we don’t even need a jamboree like the one just ended in Nairobi.

We only need to send three or four individuals to read to the world our terms. If they want our gold and timber, they must do so on our terms. We will determine our coffee prices, restore our cotton production and generally revamp our agriculture. We will even harness our industrial and manufacturing potential and migrate from primary production to viable value addition. Only then can we sit down as equal partners with those who still think we are items of trade.

When you come to think of it, the slave mode of primary production has not changed. It is only the theatre of production that has migrated to Africa, Latin America and Asia. The dictators who reign on these continents remain the biggest impediment to visionary unity and economic cooperation and liberation.

Today Kenya Marks The 52nd Jamuhuri Divided

Today Kenya marks the 52nd Jamhuri, a divided nation. The very thought of a “divided nation” is of course a philosophical absurdity. How could you be at once a nation and divided? It is a contradiction between two valid realities, a philosophical antinomy. We live together as the Kenyan “nation.” But it is also true that we are acrimoniously divided along group identity lines.

We have lived together as “one sovereign people.” We have our country and our instruments of State and nationhood. We have our Constitution, our national court of arms, our flag and our national anthem. We even have two official languages and operate under one sovereign national leader. However, that is just about as far as it goes. For, our biggest setback is that to be a national leader you must be, concurrently, a big tribal chieftain. Indeed, you must first be a tribal leader. If you are from the so-called “small tribes” you should not even dream of becoming the ultimate national leader.

When you are from a “small tribe” you are less than equal. You wait for tokens from the “big tribes.” This is what Jamhuri, the mother of independence, has brought you. You wait at the doorstep of prayer and hope, trusting that some influence peddler from a big tribe will remember you. But they will only remember you if they need you. As things stand, they don’t need you. For, they have a tyranny of numbers to secure their political and economic interests under a convoluted democratic dispensation. You are small and irrelevant.

Should women forget about leadership? The only room available for them is token space. Even where the law is clear and the mechanisms exist for their inclusion, they are excluded with impunity. The National Assembly is today going through the process of vetting Cabinet Secretaries for a constitutionally non-responsive council. The proposed Cabinet does not meet the constitutional gender threshold. You would expect that the Speaker would return the list of nominees to the President. He would advise the President that the list is flawed and therefore not admissible for consideration. For the law bars the Speaker from allowing unlawful things to be part of the business of Parliament. Yet, just like our President, our Speaker has turned a blind eye to the law. The President and the Speaker having ignored the law, you would expect that the vetting committee would save the day. They would reject the list and ask for a properly constituted one. However, they will not. They are only part of a tyranny of numbers.

The flawed list will eventually end up before the whole House. Once again, an abusive use of majoritarian numbers will carry the day. A wicked application of huge numbers has made our independence a meaningless formation of words for many Kenyans. You cannot deny that we have a democratically elected government. You cannot deny, too, that the elected leaders talk of noble things, like national unity. They probably even try to promote national unity. Their notion of the nation is however duopolistic and gender insensitive. It remains a unity of able-bodied dominant men from two tribes. Women, the disabled, the youth and the rest of the tribes can wait for their own day and independence.

President Kenyatta will today reel off a catalogue of sweeteners. He will tell the world of both real and imaginary things that his government has achieved “in this short time.” He will promise us even greater things. If there is no sense of inclusion, however, the “good things” that the Head of State talks about only generate resentment in the excluded populations. Jamhuri is a good opportunity for all of us to reflect on the Kenya we want and how we could each contribute towards its realization.  The government – and specifically the President – must set the pace. The most urgent assignment today is building national trust and unity among the populations of Kenya.

When I listen to my President today, my interest will be fundamentally in this one thing – national cohesiveness and integration. How is this government helping us to feel that we are one people? How is it making us feel that we are part of its agenda? How does it imbue us with Kenyaphilia – love for Kenya? Does it fill us up with a genuine sense of national pride? For building the nation is about bringing the people together and overwhelming them with a pleasant sense of belonging and fellow feeling.

If the first three regimes failed the test of nationhood, the present dispensation has done extremely badly. Even at its lowest moment, President Moi’s Kanu Government tried to have Kenyan outlook. Even where it did things we would find objectionable, it did not get anywhere near what we have today. President Kenyatta needs to ask himself a few honest questions about the meaning of Jamhuri to marginalized populations. What future does he think marginalizing whole swathes of identity groups promises the country?

Already, we have a worrying “gangster trend” within the political class. Jubilee and Cord leaders prowl about the place in groups that remind you of organized gangs. They materialize menacingly on your TV screen, crowding the picture at hurriedly convened “gang” press conferences. Elite members of the gang take turns to read the press statement. The rest of the gang stands behind, restlessly. They look on clueless, praying that the camera does not miss them. From here, they go out to vomit gang abracadabra before captive crowds in their ethnic backyards. If you have the misfortune of being the President in a country so divided along ethnic lines like ours, you place national reconciliation, trust and unity at the heart of all your plans. This means doing more than addressing two tribes and a third client community.

When You Write A Column You Often Find Yourself In The Wilderness

When you write a column such as I do, you often find yourself in the wilderness. You live in a veritable ideological wasteland. Like the man Isaiah in the Christian Old Testament and John the Baptist in The New Testament, you are permanently crying out in the wilderness, engaged in a lonely dialogue of the deaf.

You are perpetually crying out for a just, free and fair society. You want to clear desert highways and to straighten crooked paths. You desire to fill up valleys and to bring down mountains so that there is justice and fairness. You believe in what some see as an outlandish paradise that will never be. You seem to be negative all the time.

Doubts will accordingly assail you from time to time. What does everybody else see that you cannot see? You listen to Hon. Kipchumba Murkomen and to Prof. Kithure Kindiki apologizing for a decadent political dispensation and wonder whether you have not lost it. So they have found a life and are living? Should you also not find a life and begin living?

Amidst your doubts galore, it is gratifying to listen to the Holy Father, Pope Francis. The Papal visit was a critical moment for ethical and moral rearmament. For the Pope said nothing new. He only reaffirmed and validated the things we keep saying to power. On corruption, ethnicity and poverty, the Pope reaffirmed us.

We live in the land of thieves in high office. Our role models are thieves and plunderers. That is why our children have now learnt to steal exams. Yet this does not seem to rattle our conscience and sensibilities. The very philosophy, purpose, architecture and design of the Kenyan State intend that leadership should be about stealing and not service. In ancient Greece they spoke of ‘kleptes’ (thief) and ‘cratos’ (power). The kleptocrat was a thief in power. Has the Kenyan State been taken hostage by kleptocrats? Is ours a government in the hands of thieves? Is our President a later day Ali Baba in captivity, at the mercy of forty thieves?

Don’t be deceived by the trappings of the good life around them, most of the people you see on the high table are disreputable. Now a thief may dress up in purple and furnish a lavish lifestyle in ornate palaces. However, he remains a thief. He may dress himself up in peculiar honorifics and allied aristocratic titles. He remains a thief. It is important that we should never get tired of pointing this out, especially in this age of mega theft by people in power.

Will we get out of this kleptocracy? The prospects are dim, at least for now. We don’t know how to shun and shame the thief. For the prebendal state is very strategic. It thrives on the support of an adoring zombie ethnic population. First, the leaders get into power with only one focus – to empty the National Treasury into their pockets. When they shop around for people to occupy critical offices, the most important credential is whether these people can help them get money out of the treasury.

As the tribe your role is to be the shield and defender. Like everybody else, you may find the times hard. You may complain about the cost of living in  the country and the straits the country has sunk into. However, you don’t ask why. You suffer a mental black spot. Yes, you hate slavery, but you also love the slave master. Like Wole Soyinka and Ayi Kwei Armah have told us, you are the chichi dodo bird. You detest human waste but you love eating maggots.

If you must eat maggots, don’t complain about human waste, or about slavery if you love the slave master. The task before the Kenyan nation is no longer about urging a bad government to do what is good. It is about emancipation from mental slavery. For we are a community of maggot eaters, both in government and outside. Migration from the present kleptocracy must be preceded by a massive national migration from the chichi dodo mentality.

In the end, Pope Francis’s message goes back to the clergy. Where they should be shepherding the flock away from the maggots, they have also joined the party. They drink from the cup of ruin and desolation, like everybody else. Their lowest moments were in the years 2005 and 2007. With a few notable exceptions, the clergy picked up its script from ethnic political leaders in the futile referendum of 2005 and in the trauma of 2007.

I have often said that we are a society whose values a rat has eaten. We are an educated people and a religious people. We are thrilled when the Pope visits with us.  However, when placed on the weighing scales, our education and piety count for nothing.

Fortunately there is hope in the fact that we are willing to be pious. It means that we recognize that there is something grander than the material things that we want to steal. Our positive passion for the Pope is a demonstration that we could still rise up to the dream of a great nation. The clergy must lead from where the Pope left.

Public intellectuals and civil society should not get tired. Our task is no longer about pleading with bad governments to do good things. We must now focus on avoiding bad government and on how to shun thieves, no matter how  powerful or ornate they may be.