The Photo at the Top of this Blog

This blog is a week old today, but apart from what I wrote in the ‘About’ section I haven’t really had a chance to explain in any length what I want to write about more broadly here (it turns out Malawian elections are VERY distracting), and, more importantly, what the hell that picture at the top of the blog is all about. Explaining that picture is important to me, because in some respects it’s open to interpretation (kind of the point) but it feels important to at least set out for the record MY interpretation.

 

So, the where’s and what have you’s: I took the picture in 2008, opposite the central bus station in Lilongwe, Malawi. In the trips I’ve made to Malawi since then I haven’t been back there, which I kind of regret, so I’ve no idea if the sign is still there or not. At first glance you might think I posted the picture to make a point about ‘funny Malawians’ with their ‘funny Christian spirituality’, opium of the masses and all that. Indeed, I cropped the picture. Had I not you would see in the top left hand corner the logo of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Pentecostal evangelical church with operations all over the world, including London. One conclusion to draw from that then is that if Malawians have ‘silly’ beliefs then so do Londoners ( In his book, Season of the Rains, Stephen Ellis makes a simple but very eloquent point that it is now just as likely for African missionaries to be sent to Europe to evangelise as it is for European missionaries to be sent to Africa, somewhat inverting the historical colonial missionary endeavor. A colonial interregnum perhaps?).

 

However, the point of the picture was not to make a judgement about the beliefs of those who take the promises of the sign seriously. Rather, it was to problematise some of the more conventional leftist perspectives on the legacy of colonial rule in Africa, and in this particular case the legacy of missionary agents and their religious interventions in African life. I need to take you back to a public meeting I was at a couple of years ago at the Marxism Festival in London to explain what I mean by ‘conventional leftist perspectives’. The meeting concerned popular protest in Africa and was attended by Trade Unionists from across the continent. During the Q&A an audience member stood up and said something along the lines of “I’ve been to Zambia, and the problem in Zambia is that there’ll never be any kind of revolution because everyone’s been duped by Christianity”. Now, caveat time: let me put my hand up as a pretty firm atheist. Nevertheless I found this comment incredibly troubling, and incredibly patronising, in that ‘conventional leftist perspective’ kind of way. Thankfully members of the panel dealt with it (MUCH more politely than I probably would’ve done, which is what’s so great about solidarity). Given liberation theology, the spirituality inherent in many of Pan-Africanism’s greatest thinkers, you can’t just dismiss what huge amounts of people believe and then, crucially, ACT upon as standard ‘opiate of the masses’ claptrap. What may have been (partially true) in Western Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century does not automatically become an immutable law of history.

 

David M. Gordon, in his book Invisible Agents: Spirits in a Central African History writes how pre-colonial beliefs about the material agency (i.e. the here and now affect) of the spirit world informed all subsequent Christian development in Northern Rhodesia and subsequently Zambia, fusing with political movements including Kaunda’s humanism and Chiluba’s neoliberalism. Going even further, Jan Vansina illustrated how the BaKuba people of the Belgian Congo fused and even just straight-up ignored Christian eschatology all the way through the colonial period.

 

What does all this mean about the picture I posted at the top of this blog? For me, that picture is precisely a colonial interregnum. I don’t know enough about pre-colonial Nyasa, Yao, Lomwe, Lemba (and the roughly ten or more other groups I don’t know about) spiritual belief systems to know specifically what of those systems has found its way into signs like the one in that photo. What I do know is that the kinds of missionary activity promulgated by the arch Victorian David Livingstone would NOT have included prayers for spiritual healing and cleansing, and certainly no therapies for love! To me, this speaks to the syncretism of the colonial period, the agency that ordinary Africans exerted in their spiritual choices. Of course, these choices were often informed by material rewards, or the end of a chicotte, but there was always agency, representing an interruption in the colonial flow of things, a disruption of colonial – in this case missionary – intention.

 

As I continue writing this blog, I hope it begins to speak to some of the more contemporary interruptions and disruptions posed by African agency to the variety of imperial projects currently at play on the continent.

 

Signing off for now…

 

The Hypocrisy of Joyce Banda

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I know I briefly dwelt on this in my last post, but I was moved to add to this by the coverage of the Malawian elections (such as it has been) in the mainstream British media, and in particular of Joyce Banda’s accusations concerning vote rigging. Both the Guardian and the BBC featured remarkably uncritical accounts of Banda’s accusations, which included claims of computer hacking, pre-filled ballot papers, multiple voting, and more.   Now, of course accusations of rigging shouldn’t necessarily be taken lightly, but the very striking thing about these accusations is that they came at a time when Banda had already lost many of her cabinet ministers in their various parliamentary races, and it was becoming clearer that she might not only be losing the presidential race, but coming in third. To put this into context, concerns about the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) had been raised for many months before the election, with very little action taken to remedy any of them. Specifically, the problems with validating the electoral roll had been known for several months, and yet the MEC had been allowed to carry on as normal right up, it appears, to Banda’s accusations on Thursday.   Let’s broaden the context out further. This was an incumbent President accusing the opposition of rigging the elections. Think about that. An incumbent President, with if not all then at least most of the machinery of state at her disposal, accusing a fragmented opposition of rigging the election. Sounds unlikely? Indeed. In fact, following her accusations Banda made a very public display of her power by forcing the Director General of the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, Benson Tembo, on extended leave because he seemingly refused to broadcast the press conference where Banda announced her accusations (the move was later overturned by the High Court…a sign of opposition rigging?).   I’m going to broaden the scope out again. Joyce Banda, whether because her advisers are many of those who advised her ill-fated predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika, or because she is not so dissimilar to Bingu, Muluzi, et al as she would have everyone believe, has from the very off engaged in the kind of behaviour which had gotten her predecessors a bad press in media outlets like the Guardian and BBC, but which for her seemed to slide right off. There were the sacks of maize emblazoned with her initials, distributed in rural areas to hungry people. Who paid for them? Did Banda personally stump up the cash (in which case was she buying support)? Or was she using (and thus abusing) state funds? We never got an answer. Then there was the plethora of foreign trips, including a room at Claridges in London for her husband during the London Olympics. There was the jet sale that ended up allowing her to continue using the jet, whilst the new owner (an arms firm) benefitted from government contracts. And of course, Cashgate, which was so severe that donors and mainstream media outlets really had to take notice. The point is however that this was always coming. The Joyce Banda hailed by the Guardian in 2012 as ‘Madame President’ never existed. And the fact of the matter is that it is the people of Malawi that knew this all along, and, in no way surprising at all, have sent their message at the polls.

Some reflections on the Malawian presidential elections

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Malawi’s recent (and still ongoing!) elections have in some senses been paradigmatic of issues facing African democracies more broadly. It’s not so much that democracy in Africa is a European imposition and that there is some kind of authentic ‘African way of doing things’ which would be better, but that, on the whole, African politicians don’t behave very differently from politicians anywhere else. It’s just that African politicians are more put under the spotlight because of conventional tropes about Africa being backward and Africans being incompetent.

 

Let’s take the Malawian presidential elections as an example of how politics in Malawi is not so different from elsewhere. We’ve had a major dose of dynastic politics which has seen two largely discredited, and one dead, ex-presidents’ family names being thrust back into the political arena (in the guise of the brother, Peter Mutharika and the son, Atupele Muluzi). We’ve also had an incumbent who was never elected in the first place, had no party to speak of on ascending to the Presidency (before party defections swelled her ranks), and who has been wined and dined by the international community whilst simultaneously actively stimulating increased poverty levels in Malawi through the devaluation of the currency to meet IMF demands (not to mention being ‘on duty’ whilst up to $30 million dollars was being swindled from public accounts, and whose involvement in this remains unclear). Lastly, we have the candidate of the old independence party, a complete political novice fronting up a set of interests still tied to the old way of doing (authoritarian) politics in Malawi. Yes, yes, African politics as normal. But we could insert any number of names here ranging from Georges and Jeb Bush, the Clintons, Silvio Berlusconi, Jaques Chirac, blah blah blah. The point, as the political anthropologist James Ferguson has pointed out elsewhere, is that ‘African politics, so long misunderstood as backward, is starting to look very up-to-date indeed’.

 

What to make of these elections then? Well, first up, they have been far more exciting than either the South African or the Indian elections, far less predictable, and probably far freer of political intimidation. Bar two deaths early on in the campaign, such violence as there has been on the election days themselves seem to have been rooted in public frustration with the incompetence of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) which meant that election materials had still not been delivered to some polling stations nearly 36 hours after polls were due to open at 6am on May 21st. Statements by the British High Commissioner, the African Union and the EU elections monitoring team claiming that the elections had not been visibly tampered with, seemed particularly injudicious with polling stations burning in both Blantyre and Lilongwe. Indeed, the extent to which political manipulation was behind some of this, particularly in Blantyre, which experienced a disproportionate amount of problems, and is (coincidentally?) an opposition stronghold, remains unclear. However, it is important to keep in mind that the violence was first of all pretty low-scale, with no fatalities, and was all about wanting to vote. In most of the country the voting passed off peacefully.

 

What happens now? Well the MEC is still counting votes, and may not release results for several days to come. The digital system has crashed, and the still incumbent Joyce Banda is raising concerns of hacking and manipulation. This is a bit rich of course coming from someone who distributed sacks of maize emblazoned with her initials not so long ago. It is also a bit rich of her to complain about problems with the electoral roll when this has been common knowledge for several months. All in all it smacks of desperation.

 

Nonetheless, whenever the results do come out it is looking very likely that there will be a close and thus contested outcome. What will this mean for the shape of Parliament? Will we see even more party defections than we normally see after an election? And how will the (close) losers react? Mutharika and Muluzi have both put out statements calling for people to respect the results, but how seriously can we take them, and how seriously will people on the ground take them?

 

The people of Malawi have been given a rum old choice for their president this year. With the possible exception of the Malawi Congress Party’s Lazarus Chakwera (although please correct me if I’m wrong!) all the others seem to be in it at least partially for the ‘chop’. As I said when I opened this piece, politicians love to eat the world over, but rarely do so many have to wait for so long, in such uncertainty, to find out if they’ve secured their seat at the table.

Who’s heard of the ‘African Spring’? (Malawi Redux)

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This initially appeared on OpenDemocracy a couple of years ago, but I think it’s still apposite now, especially given current electoral events in Malawi. A lot of Western media (or at least those few outlets which ever bother reporting on Malawi) spent a very long time ignoring Malawian street protest against Joyce Banda, but for those of us who have been following events in Malawi, her likely defeat in the polls sometime today or tomorrow isn’t such a shock. I’ll post more on Malawi shortly…

 

If the under or mis-reported uprisings, protests, revolts and changes of regime in many parts of Africa over the past few years have told us anything, it is that politics on the continent does not always, or mostly, take place at the point of a gun.

‘We’ve heard so much negativity, but can you tell us what you are actually doing about it?’ The question came from the back of the hall at the Africa Centre in London, where over 100 people had gathered to hear about the state of contemporary African protest movements from a panel of African activists including Ayanda Kota of the South African Unemployed Peoples’ Movement, Bayo Oyenuga of Occupy Nigeria, Osama Zumam of the Sudanese Communist Party and the respected commentator and political activist Yash Tandon.

It is true that Africa tends to be a continent viewed through a prism of starvation, disease, violence and most of all, corruption. And when the Arab Spring erupted at the end of 2010, it was largely viewed as a Middle Eastern phenomenon, rather than an African one, even though its main protagonists were all located on African soil. Whilst the media gaze therefore fixed on events to the North-East of Tunisia, events to the South were, and continue to be no less tumultuous.

However, these events have rarely been articulated into an African narrative, with the result that western audiences end up being drip-fed stories reinforcing the impression of stereotypical African instability and ‘Afro-pessimism’. Yet if the under or mis-reported uprisings, protests, revolts and changes of regime in many parts of Africa over the past few years (including, amongst others Cote D’Ivoire, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ethiopia, Swaziland, Uganda, Nigeria, Sudan and Mozambique) have told us anything, it is that politics on the continent does not always, or mostly, take place at the point of a gun. 

By the same token however, it is important to point out that the protest movements we have seen emerge or consolidate over the past few years cannot be reduced to a simple victory for the development industry’s efforts to mainstream western policies of good governance, transparency and liberal democracy in African states. Shrinking the state in Africa (an outcome of these policies as enforced by international donors) has produced the very conditions which protestors have revolted against: corruption, rising utility prices, and growing inequality. African protestors have demanded African solutions to their predicaments, and we should listen carefully if we want to be on the right side of history on the continent. 

Of course, African protest movements do not face an easy route. Confronted with the deregulatory pressures of global development frameworks these movements must contend with mushrooming food and utility prices, and the violence meted out by states when faced with meaningful opposition to neo-liberal economic programmes. Indeed, the negativity questioned by the audience member in London referred to the state-sponsored violence visited upon African protestors which the different protestors repeatedly referred to.

However, whilst it is easy to become disheartened at stories of violence, land appropriation and joblessness, we can interpret such events differently. Indeed, if we are to learn anything from the rapidity with which revolution occurred in Egypt and was then rolled back, it is that social change takes time, and requires a broader social base than just the urban middle class elite which characterised the Tahrir Square phenomenon. What we hear from protest movements across Africa therefore is not negativity, but struggle. And struggle for sustainable indigenous solutions to Africa’s problems requires the kind of mass mobilisation which takes time and effort to build. 

What then are these African solutions? For sure, protestors in any number of the countries which have experienced protests over the past few years have made it clear that they are fed up with the corruption of ruling elites. From Nigeria’s Enough is Enough movement to the protests which rocked Malawi in summer 2011, it has been obvious that the actions of ruling elites, and in the case of Malawi, the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the late President Bingu wa Mutharika, provided sources of public anger. However, to interpret these protests as an outpouring of anger against singularly corrupt African regimes would be a mistake. Calls for greater democracy in Africa are not framed purely within the actions of specific corrupt ruling elites. Rather it is the relationships between these ruling elites and the agents of global free-market capitalism which are the source of much public anger. It is these relationships which have amongst other things shrunk public services and robbed the continent of the bulk of the profits from its most valuable natural resources. And these relationships have been enabled by international donor policies which have shrunk the state in Africa in the belief that it is the state which has been the source of African’s problems. 

So when international donors and western commentators respond to protests in Africa by calling for better governance and accountability amongst ruling elites, they are missing the most vital aspect of these protests; that they are directed just as much against institutions such as the Word Bank and IMF as they are against the corrupt practices of their rulers. This is because it has long been the case that the policies of the former in widening the space between the state and citizens in Africa (through enforced privatisation and subsequent public service disintegration) has enabled the corruption of the latter by contributing to the breakdown of the social contract that had been established in many African states in the immediate post-independence years.

And so, if we search for images of recent African protests what we will find is not an overwhelming number of crowds with placards calling for greater openness in government, but a set of explicitly socio-economic demands relating to price rises and unemployment, or the withdrawal of affordable public services and utilities, all brought on by the skewed position of Africa in the global economy, and the enforced privatisation of land, energy and other resources which have largely fallen into the hands of foreign profit-extractive companies and their collaborators in the ruling elites of African countries. 

Those then who see in these protests a simple continuum of public revolt against African elite corruption dating back to the post-independence regimes are simply missing the point. These protests are much more about the relationships between African elites and international political and economic elites. This is a fundamental point which is often missed by both sides of the critical divide on Africa. 

African elites are not uniquely corrupt, nor do they exist in a vacuum of African corruption, but neither is Africa a pure victim of contemporary economic imperialism.  African elites are as complicit in processes of resource and profit extraction as the multinational corporations such as Shell Oil who so often come in for the vitriol of social justice and anti-corporate activists. What Africans have been railing against over the past few years then is what Thandike Mkandawire called at the turn of the century Africa’s ‘choiceless democracies’. In other words, Africans want a true choice. It is not enough for international donors to call for ‘free and fair’ elections, only for them to enforce, by dint of the implicit threat of aid withdrawal, a complicity amongst all the candidates with neoliberal economic orthodoxy. This is what we find repeatedly in African elections, and in this respect at least it would be fair to say that African elections differ very little from elections in many other parts of the world, including the UK. 

This points towards a second issue worthy of consideration. Anti-austerity activists in the west need to understand the close relationship between what they are protesting against in countries like the UK and what people are protesting against in parts of the world where they have been at the blunt end of austerity for decades rather than years. African activists have much to teach the rest of the world in resisting austerity, and the many obstacles that lie in the path of such resistance, and it is about time more of us started to listen.