We Must Free Our Imaginations — Binyavanga Wainaina

A great thinker. A great artist. A great Kenyan.

Part One (see also Parts Two, Three, Four, Five and Six)

Joyce Nyairo of the Daily Nation has written a stinging critique of Binyavanga’s short documentary. Nyairo takes umbrage at Binyavanga’s bashing of Pentecostals and giving a dumbed down, even simplistic, account of Kenyan history over the Moi years. 

The ultimate tragedy of Binyavanga’s documentary is the ease with which he slides into a diatribe against Pentecostals — as if homosexuality can only be popularised by bashing something or someone else’s conformity…..

Each one of the titles of this six part “documentary” is a quote from Binyavanga’s long and frighteningly convoluted tirade against the hypocrisies of Africa’s discourse on homosexuality.

The quotes are as clever as they are memorable. But they represent isolated flashes of brilliance in a text that is neither articulate nor lucid. Binyavanga struggles too hard to be profound, repetitively swinging from mimicry and lazy stereotyping to banal imagery that does nothing to enlighten. His style is unworthy, an injustice to his subject.

I think Nyairo has missed the point of this short “tirade” by miles. The style of delivery and everything about this documentary show that Binyavanga’s intended audience is not the class of Kenyans who go to Blankets & Wine. He is not trying to preach to the choir – most upper middle class Kenyans already have liberal views on homosexuality and those that don’t often have to hide them behind their middle class civility. Neither is he trying to engage in an enlightened rebuttal of the claim that homosexuality is “un-African.” No. What Binyavanga is trying to do is to take the conversation to the streets, and the homes of regular Kenyans. He is aiming at the middle middle class and lower. Binyavanga knows that this is the demographic that will matter the most in changing Kenya, whether it is economically or in the further expansion of human rights.

Yes, Binyavanga has hoisted up the Pentecostal movement as his ultimate straw man. But that’s just in reaction to the hijacking of the conversation on homosexuality in Africa by religious moralists. It is hard to see how one can have an open conversation about homosexuality in Kenya today without addressing the question of sin and hell and Sodom and Gomorrah. This precedes even the macho talk of “natural African” (read heterosexual male) and “un-African” sexual habits. The language of “rights” alone will simply not fly, and when attempted will most likely result in an ugly backlash. This is what Binyavanga is speaking to.

Insecurity in Kenya and the upcoming March 2013 elections

It is a mere three and a half months before the March 4th elections in Kenya and compounding the problems facing the electoral commission (which is riddled with corruption allegations and is yet to register voters) is the fact that insecurity in the country appears to be on the rise. The recent killing of at least 40 police officers in Baragoi (in northwestern Kenya) says it all. This comes just a couple of months after the Tana River massacre that left over 100 villagers and police officers dead in mid-September.

(credit: Gado)

The Tana Delta and Baragoi massacres exposed the failures of the intelligence and policing operations in the less-governed parts of Kenya (roughly the northern half and most of the east and southeast of the country). In both cases the government was caught flat-footed and unable to respond rapidly to emergent security threats.

A lot of finger pointing followed both incidents, with the police claiming that their hands were tied by strict laws on the use of force (thanks in part to the justifiably hyperactive human rights crowd in Nairobi) and the politicians blaming one another for incitement of the perpetrators of the crimes.

The latest incident in Baragoi has forced the president to order the deployment of the Kenya Defense Forces to assist in bringing to book the bandits behind the murder of dozens of policemen.

But the deployment of the security forces alone will not bring an end to the cycle of killings that have plagued Kenya in the last several months. In order to clean up the toxic mix of archaic cultural practices, local politics and economic interests, the government will have to be a little bit more broad and nuanced in its approach. What ought to be done about the cultural practices behind cattle rustling? How, if at all, are local leaders ever involved in these operations? What is the local political impact of these raids?

Which brings me back to the 2013 elections. The electoral commission has only one month beginning on Monday Nov 19 to register 18 million voters. Serious lapses in security that seem to be commonplace in large parts of the country do not inspire confidence in the agents of the commission who are supposed to traverse the whole country to build a new voter roll.

A failure to register enough voters for the election due to insecurity will de-legitimize the whole process, with dire consequences.

I hope that the electoral commission is following the investigations of these incidents of violence closely (especially since it has the power to punish those in contravention of election laws). Many Kenyans trust that the commission will be fair on election day. It is therefore not inconceivable that knowing that they won’t change the results after people have voted, crooked politicians have resorted to gerrymandering by other means – by dislocating certain pockets of voters or instigating violence to suppress voter registration and eventual turnout.

There is no way around the basics: Development will take time

I just read Chris Blattman’s response to the UK Prime Minister’s op-ed in the Journal. It reminded me of a lot of the things that I have been reading lately in preparation for my fieldwork (My dissertation will tackle the subject of legislative (under)development in Africa, with a focus on the Kenyan and Zambian legislatures).

Cameron’s sentiments in the op-ed are emblematic of the problems of development assistance. Like in all kinds of foreign intervention, developed states often try to externalize their institutions (and more generally, ways of doing things). These attempts often ignore the lived realities of the countries being assisted.

Forgetting the history of his own country (think autocratic monarchs, monopolies, limited suffrage), Cameron thinks that democracy, human rights and free markets (all great things) will magically create jobs in the developing states of the world. They don’t. In fact, they often lag the job creation process. For development assistance to be effective it must eschew these feel-good approaches to the problem of underdevelopment.

Blattman is spot on on a number of points:

  1. Unchecked leaders are bad for economic development (this is why I am so much into PARLIAMENTS!!!): Also, democracy is NOT synonymous with limited government. Heads of state like Queen Victoria or Hu Jintao or Bismarck or even Seretse Khama were in no measure democrats. However, they reined under systems with strong (sometimes extra-constitutional) checks to their power. That made a difference.
  2. Institutions rule, yes, but the right kinds of institutions: 1688 moments do not drop out of the sky. They are often preceded by decades if not centuries of civil strife, economic change and plain old learning. Institutional development takes time. Plus each society requires its own unique and appropriate mix of institutional arrangements to meet unique economic and social needs. A procrustean approach to institutional development (embodied in global capacity building) will inevitably fail. Institutional development must never be allowed to be captured by those who think that we can transform Chad simply by having them adopt Swedish institutions.
  3. Growth will require creation of jobs, i.e. industrial development: The poor countries of the world need real jobs for high school-leavers and other less educated people. The present focus on the “sexy” entrepreneural sectors – whether they are small businesses for the poor or tech hubs for the very highly educated – as the engines for growth in the developing world is misguided. I reiterate, starting a business is a very risky venture that should be left to the wealthy and the occasional dare devil. The poor in the global south need stable 9-5 jobs. Lots of them.

And lastly, where do strong institutions come from? There is no easy answer to this question. What we know is:

  1. History matters: Present countries with a long history of stateness have a better track record of building strong institutions for development. Yes, they may not always be democratic, but countries with a long history of centralized rule have strong states (and institutions) that deliver for their people (for more on this see Englebert and Gennaioli and Rainer).
  2. Democracy does not always create strong institutions: Since 1945 many have chosen to forget the fact that universal suffrage is a pretty recent phenomenon in the political history of the world. For the longest time world polities were ruled by power barons who held de facto power (as opposed to the procedural de jure power in democracies). When democracy came along after the Enlightenment the resulting structures of rule often reflected these de facto configurations of power. Over time institutions in these countries were cemented enough to allow for complete outsiders like say the current president of the United States to be elected without upsetting the balance of power (in another era he would have had to have mounted a coup). This is the challenge of the democratization in the new post-WWII states. How do you make democracy serve the interests of the people, rather that purely that of the elite? How do you use democracy to create strong institutions? Is this even possible? And if not, what other options do we have?

failed states index

Foreign Policy, in its July/August issue has 2010′s failed states index. The Continent has 12 of the top 20 worst performers on this index, with Somalia, Chad, Sudan, Zimbabwe and the DRC being in the top five respectively. Kenya is 13th on this index, performing worse than Niger, Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone, among other basket cases. The substantive meaning of the rankings aside (I’d rather be in Kenya than in Sierra Leone on any day), the index is a grim reminder of how badly governed the Continent is. The best ranked mainland African state is Ghana, at number 54. Mauritius leads the Continent at number 30, out of 177.

Also in the FP issue is an exposé of Bozize’s Central African Republic. I used to think that he was doing a relatively good job. Turns out he is full of bucket-loads of horse manure:

“Bozizé has fared no better than his predecessors, ruling a territory the size of Texas with a GDP significantly smaller than that of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.”

And don’t miss out on Ayittey’s ranking of the world’s worst dictators. Our good friend Rob is second only to the crazy guy who runs North Korea.

Lastly, I must say something about my favorite punching bag Idriss Deby’s Chad. Idriss Deby is a study in ineffectual leadership and is on the list of Africa’s many ‘wasted dictatorships.’ In 2006 he successfully conned his way out of the World Bank brokered plan to use revenue from the Chad-Cameroon pipeline to reduce poverty among his country’s extremely impoverished 10.3 million souls. He now uses most of Chad’s oil revenue to fund his poorly-run security forces that remain vulnerable to any rebel group that can land its hands on a technical. But with over 1.5 billion barrels in reserves and a world thirsty for oil, it appears that this Zaghawa “warrior” is here to stay, his incompetence notwithstanding.

The HDI numbers tell it all. The literacy rate in Chad is at a dismal 25%. Life expectancy stands at 48 years. 80% of Chadian’s live on less than a dollar a day. The growth rate of the economy, -1% last year, -0.2% in 2008 and 0.6% in 2007, cannot keep up with the population growth rate of more than 2% (despite a rather high infant mortality rate of 97 deaths/1000 live births) – which means that Chadians’ living standards will continue to decline into the foreseeable future.  The bulk of Chadians (more than 80%) make do with subsistence agriculture. Oil, cotton, cattle and gum arabic are the country’s main export commodities.

sources: FP and The CIA World Factbook

intolerable intolerance

Drastic changes in cultural and societal norms can be destabilizing. In light of this fact, when it comes to society and the  changing of values to reflect the zeitgeist I am aligned with the Burkean argument for gradualism. That said, such madness as was witnessed in Mtwapa, Kenya is unacceptable. This type of religious fascism should not be tolerated. I am all for church freedom, but only to the extent that churches serve their rightful purpose of catering to the spiritual needs of citizens while promoting comity in society. In cases where church teachings go against citizens’ interests – like in this particular case in Mtwapa or with regard to reproductive rights – I think it is imperative that the state steps in. Church leaders, and their followers, should know that issues to do with the after-life need not necessarily be put before security, order in society, and general well being in the present.

guinea-bissau has no prisons??

IRIN reports that Guinea-Bissau has no prisons. Yes, seriously. A “sovereign” state in 2009 has no formal prisons. According to the US State Department the Guinea-Bissau government detains suspects in make-shift detention centres and military bases.

Don’t you wish it was 1894 and it was still cool to move into Bissau and change things a bit? How does the international system sit back and pretend that Guinea-Bissau, as currently constituted, is a viable state? The number one function of the state should be to protect its citizens – from both foreign aggressors and internal thugs. A state that has no prisons is clearly sending a very loud signal that it cannot perform its basic function and in effect should be game, if only it was still 1894.

Continuing the human rights debate

The dysfunction within the UN system is common knowledge. I am a believable in UN causes such as humanitarian relief, peacekeeping and protection of the environment. However, when things get abstract or unenforceable, I am usually disappointed by the UN’s proclivity to shift to issuing statements and pronouncements that it cannot enforce or does not want to enforce.

Here is Bill Easterly’s take on the UN’s definition and pretension to enforce the observance of human rights.

on poverty and human rights

Check out this fascinating debate. I am going to avoid taking sides and say that both sides of the debate are right. William Easterly is right when he warns of the pitfalls of a conceited rights-based approach to poverty alleviation in the Global South. However, it is also true that most people in the Global South are poor not just because they lack incomes but also because of structural factors (like poor governance, political and economic marginalization and so on) that perpetually disadvantage them and deny them a chance to live the lives they would want to live. In such instances, poverty alleviation decidedly becomes a human rights issue.

al-Bashir is crazy, like seriously

President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has announced that he wants all foreign aid groups out of the country in one year, adding that the aid agencies can drop off their aid at airports and let the Sudanese distribute it on their own – yeah right.

If we ever doubted the sanity of this man here is the confirmation that he is certifiably insane. It may have been political posturing on his part but he is president and should not be saying such crazy things. Nearly 3 million Sudanese have been displaced thanks to this man’s genocidal rule since he took over power in a coup in 1989. There is no way on earth that he can be trusted with relief food, or any other supplies. His airforce continues to bomb villages, killing innocent civilians. His bands of militia in Darfur, Abyei and other areas continue to run around raping women and terrorizing villages in a sick and twisted genocidal mission to “Arabize” certain regions of the country.

There has to be a way of forcing him to allow aid to reach civilians. The international community ought to invoke the ‘right to protect’ clause and intervene (force him to allow aid in) before this man’s madness leads to even more deaths.

clinton statement is bad news for Darfuris

“Human rights cannot interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises.” These were the words of Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state on her current visit to China. In an effort to warm up relations with the Asian mammoth (the party preferred to have a Republical White House), the Obama Administration seems to be willing to turn a bling eye to some nagging questions, at least for now.

But I say that this is the wrong approach. Chinese poor record on human rights issues at home and abroad cannot be ignored. China should be embarrassed into stopping its support for the genocidal regime of Mohammed al-Bashir in Sudan. The US  (and the world) cannot afford to put aside human rights issues just because of the world economic crisis. Indeed this might be the only time in the near future when China would feel vulnerable enough to feel threatened by international condemnation. Letting this opportunity pass by will be a big mistake for secretary Clinton and the Obama White House.