On the Haitian Revolution

This is from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History:

The Haitian revolution therefore entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened. Official debates and publications of the times, including the long list of pamphlets on Saint-Domingue published in France from 1790 to 1804, reveal the incapacity of most contemporaries to understand the ongoing revolution on its own terms. They could read the news only with their ready-made categories, and these categories were incompatible with the idea of a slave revolution [p. 73]

The discursive context within which news from San-Domingue was discussed as it happened has important consequences for the historiography of Saint-Domingue/Haiti. If some events cannot be accepted even as they occur, how can they be assessed later? In other words, can historical narratives convey plots that are unthinkable in the world within which these narratives take place? How does one write a history of the impossible?

As the power of Louverture grew, every other party struggled to convince itself and its counterparts that the achievements of black leadership would ultimately benefit someone else. The new black elite had to be, willingly or not, the pawn of a “major” international power. Or else, the colony would fall apart and a legitimate international state would pick up the pieces. Theories assuming chaos under black leadership continued even after Louverture and his closest lieutenants fully secured the military, political, and civil apparatus of the colony….. [p. 94]

I read Silencing the Past right after reading C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins, and strongly recommend reading both together.

As I read both books I couldn’t help but wonder why my high school history had nothing on the Haitian revolution (which proves Trouillot’s point). It seems like the Haitian revolution, even if in sanitized form, would have been a good fit with the sanitized versions of the Mau Mau insurgency and the Algerian and Malaya wars that I was exposed to as a teenager.

More broadly, it seems like the teaching of decolonization in Kenya could benefit from more Haiti and Fanon, side by side with Mandela, Gandhi, and MLK. It is not a stretch to imagine that the threat of violence made the successes of the Mandelas of history more likely. To talk about the ANC without mentioning Umhonto we Sizwe is to stick one’s head in the sand.

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Spring break reading list

I just finished reading Daniel Branch’s Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya. It is an excellent blend of an academic take on theories of violence and counterinsurgency and a historical narrative of Kenya’s war of independence (as I was taught in primary school) or the “Kikuyu civil war” (which is a lot closer to the truth). The book sheds light on the foundations and dynamics of the Mau Mau rebellion and dispels previous accounts which argue that the cleavages that defined the war (Mau Mau vs. loyalist) was primarily class-based and existed before the onset of the rebellion in 1952. I highly recommend the book for the readers interested in Kenyan history or COIN, or violence and civil war.

I also currently reading William Reno’s Warfare in Independent Africa, an account of the evolution of the nature of civil wars in Africa and the type of leaders that led them. Reno groups Africa’s rebel groups into anti-colonial rebels (e.g. FRELIMO), majority-rule rebels (a southern African animal, e.g. SWAPO), reform rebels (who fight against oppressive regimes, e.g. RPF, EPLF, etc) parochial rebels (who fight for circumscribed community rights e.g. OPC in Nigeria) and warlord rebels (e.g. LURD, NPLF, etc).

The book gives an account of how the socioeconomic origins of rebel leaders and the wider political context in which they operated influenced the trajectories of conflict in African states over time.  It also attempts to tackle the question of why most African rebels (even those from Ruritania) have tended to fight for the capital instead of secession, even in states with limited capacity like the DRC (this is however changing, Sudan, Somalia, and Mali are good examples). If you had lingering questions after reading Jeremy Weinstein’s Inside Rebellion (on the industrial organization of rebel movements) then this is a good book for you to read.

Lastly, I finally took Debt, The First 5000 Years by David Graeber off the shelf. Graeber is an anarchist anthropologist who was one of the brains behind the Occupy movement. I took his last Intro to Cultural Anthropology class at Yale before he got fired. Graeber sometimes goes into the deep end, but his ideas are refreshingly provocative. I look forward to reading it and availing my comments soon.

Also need to get my hands on this book when it comes out.

Kenyan politician John Michuki dead at 80

John Michuki, MP for Kangema is dead at 80. The late Michuki was a Kenyan politician that many learned to love (and sometimes love and hate). As Transport Minister he brought sanity to the rowdy matatu sector with the much-loved “Michuki Rules”. As Minister for the environment he cleaned up Nairobi River.

His less illustrious contribution was in the security ministry. It is under his watch that the Standard Media group was raided by masked thugs under the pretext that they were about to publish information that would have “impinged on the person of the president.” It later emerged that the media house had information about alleged illegal dealings by a woman rumored to be an illegitimate daughter of president Kibaki. The war on the Mungiki sect was also carried out under his watch – with numerous allegations of extrajudicial killings of hundreds of young men.

The son of a paramount chief, Michuki was among the group of super-wealthy conservative elites who at independence took over power and managed to quiet the more radical elements of the independence movement. Under their watch Kenya emerged as a capitalist enclave even as its many neighbors flirted with communism and African Socialism, with disastrous consequences. For better or worse, Kenya benefited from this “home guard generation” (see Bates 1989, for instance; for a different view see AfriCommons).

The Kenyan political scene will sorely miss Mr. Michuki’s straight talk and ability to deliver. He was among a handful of government officials that actually stood for what they believed, and he had results to back up all his talk. As the Nation reports:

Michuki gained the reputation of being a “ruthless” and efficient manager, who is widely acknowledged as being among the best performing ministers in President Kibaki’s government.

May he rest in peace.

quick hits

Mau Mau veterans allowed to sue the UK government for atrocities committed during Kenya’s independence rebellion. The court might have just opened a pandora’s box for a whole lot of lawsuits.

Kim on the ongoing protests in Malawi. Kenya’s Daily Nation reports that at least 12 people have died in the protests over the last two days.

Pardhan on the limits of the NGO movement in global development.

Some cool graphics showing the cellular connection map of the US.

The US will, after all, be sending humanitarian aid to Al-Shabab controlled areas suffering the ongoing famine in Somalia. I hope this does not turn into a farcical repeat of Ethiopia in the 1980s. Back then food aid was used as a weapon of war by both government and Meles Zenawi’s rebel forces.

Lastly, remember Glencore? The firm that has been involved in not so clean mineral deals in the DRC? Well, they are now in South Sudan. I hope Juba doesn’t go this route. You can’t stay clean while playing with someone covered in mud.

celebrating kenyatta day

Macharia Gaitho has a rather hard hitting editorial piece in the Daily Nation today. His rather utopian idealization of the revolutionary Kenyan peasantry aside (they are very complicit in the creation of the mess that is Kenya today), I think he raises some serious questions that the country – and especially the ruling class – needs to revisit as it celebrates Kenyatta Day.

Happy Kenyatta Day!!