African Women Lead: A Pan African Dream
Note: this Women’s Media Center Feature is one of several that WMC’s late editor-in-chief, Mary Thom, had assigned prior to her unexpected passing on April 26.
A week prior to the March 30th Kenyan Supreme Court decision affirming the first round presidential election of Uhuru Kenyatta, venerable Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe died at eighty-two. His writing has garnered numerous literary honors in his over fifty year career as a satirist of socio-political machinations in pre- and post-colonial Africa. Before the Nigerian Revolution of 1966, Achebe wrote an ominously prophetic novel entitled “Man of the People” about a fictional post-independence West African nation modeled on Nigeria. In his sardonic rendition of governance in post-colonial Africa, Achebe paints a chorus of sycophants pandering to the whims of a male-dominated authoritarian regime disguised as a republican democracy. “Man of the People” provides a compelling narrative to juxtapose against current politics in Kenya—not to foreshadow revolution so much as to emphasize the need for revolution.
In the novel, the so called ‘man of the people’ is a former school teacher who enters politics for the status and riches that African public service has come to represent since the erosion of Pan Africanism. He ascends the ranks, flattering his superiors, to emerge as the preferred leader of an all-boys club of greedy politicians, of which he is the most self-indulgent, coopting resources and women as he pleases. In time, a former pupil becomes his adversary for political power and Achebe explores the manner in which sexist, elitist, and xenophobic African men inform neo-colonial politics in Africa. For decades men have defined contemporary African politics and the time has come for African women to take the lead.
Within days of the election, Odinga submitted a constitutionally sanctioned Supreme Court petition against president-elect Kenyatta, his running mate William Ruto, and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC)—the independent commission charged with registering voters, managing polls, and tallying votes cast— claiming poll irregularities and calling for a second round election.
Aside from Odinga, two notable special interest groups called for fresh elections. Africa Centre for Open Governance (Africog), masterfully represented by female lawyer Kethi Kilonzo, and the Katiba Institute, led by constitutional law expert Yash Pal Ghai, alleged IEBC poll anomalies and challenged the integrity of Kenyatta/Ruto, respectively. Katiba Institute’s petition was ultimately rejected for bias against Kenyatta and Ruto as outspoken critics regarding their indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on crimes against humanity in the 2007-08 post-election violence.
Within three weeks of the CORD petition, public hearings were broadcast on television and radio through March 30th when the Supreme Court upheld the credibility of the March 4th elections. The Supreme Court, a six-judge panel with only one woman, Hon. Justice Njoki Ndung’u, provided a conservative ruling that suggests Kenyan governance is unable or unwilling to aggressively challenge old guard politics. One cannot help but wonder what the outcome may have been with more women on the panel.
Despite the artifice of a lavish, modern inauguration for Uhuru Kenyatta on April 9, 2013, his presidency continues a 50-year trend of nearly all-male de-facto one-party rule in Kenya. It maintains a tight circle of regime exchange beginning with Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president and father of Uhuru (no pun intended for Swahili speakers…). Uhuru’s predecessor, outgoing president Mwai Kibaki, an economist and fat cat bureaucrat, joined the world of politics during the first Kenyatta administration. Like Kenya’s second president, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, who inherited and expanded the repressive regime of Jomo Kenyatta upon his death in 1978, Kibaki lay in waiting for his turn at the presidency which came in 2002 after two failed election bids.
Although both international observers and the Kenya Supreme Court deemed the election free and fair, the electoral process was nothing more than status quo politics at work. Yes, Kenya maintained “peace” before and after elections (despite violence in coastal Mombasa by a radical faction, state police killing of youth in Kisumu, and uprisings in areas like Mathare Valley, all under investigation). But the rhetoric of peace came at a cost. The national and international super-engine promoting peace before, during and after elections, inadvertently fostered a non-critical malaise or ‘peace coma’ with many fearful of inciting unrest by critical discourse—in short, most of us drank the Kool Aid. Dissenting voices were all but silenced from national conversation, most dramatically during the incredibly long, five-day vote tallying process.
Anti-corruption journalist and activist John Githongo assessed the silence after the first round election of Uhuru Kenyatta as indicative of a more ethnically polarized nation. He argued “…what we have is Brand Kenya instead of a Kenyan Nation; what unites us are transactions rather than shared beliefs and values…” Although Kenya sang hymns of peace in public, ethnic polarization played out heavily online. Indeed, for many, but not all Kenyans, the financially lush Jubilee campaign (seeded by Kenyatta’s millionaire status), the execution of a credible election to assure investors, and Kenyatta’s faux Mau Mau rhetoric aligning the ICC with colonial occupation has bought and sold Kenya to the highest bidder—a second generation father-figure as head of state.
Jomo Kenyatta’s legacy looms large in Kenya’s history as the so-called father of the nation, a paternalistic role attributed to many leaders of newly independent African nations since Sudan gained independence in 1956. These ‘fathers of the nation’ were of varying temperaments, reacting to white domination and balkanized borders drawn up by European powers, and formulating national identities from an amalgam of ethnic communities.
During the African independence struggle, Pan Africanism served as the collectivist ideology for a movement of the same name, meant to redefine a continent of over 50 countries under the banner of self-knowledge and self-determination. To an extent, the presupposition of a broadly definitive ‘Africanness’ was the undoing of Pan Africanism in post-colonial times, as nations clashed intellectually over the nuances of their individual brand of African identity—relative to their colonial experiences, pre-colonial history, and socio-economic policies.
As a movement, Pan Africanism provided a language of mobilization that captured tenets of cooperation resonant to many African cultures and the shared experience of racialized oppression. The movement was prominently male with numerous women serving as unsung leaders, administrators, political advisors, and advocates whose acts of courage are grossly underreported. However, it was counterproductive to international and national interests to exploit African resources that pulled rank on development, so the Pan African Dream faded, giving way to the so-called ‘man of the people.’
In this light, the election of Uhuru Kenyatta continues a disappointing trend, for a number of reasons: First, the all-boys club of Kenyan presidential politics continues. Martha Karua, lawyer and former parliamentarian, contributed to herstory as the third woman to bid for the highest office this election, and came in sixth place. In 1997 entrepreneur turned politician Charity Ngilu and the late Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathaai were the first women to run for president in Kenya. Second, The global trend of electing, by hook or by crook, super rich public servants only asserts growing economic inequality and the pathology of paternal allowances in lieu of structural change. Third, the truth of President Kenyatta’s involvement in crimes against humanity remains in question, and International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, says she is vigilant to convict him and his Vice President William Ruto. However, the recent dismissal of charges against suspect and former civil servant Francis Muthaura follows a trend of witness intimidation, according to Bensouda, and poses a serious question as to whether Kenyatta and Ruto’s pending trials will lead to a conviction. Fourth, Kenyatta and Ruto come from the Kikuyu and Kalenjin peoples, respectively, and these two historically contentious ethnic groups have dominated Kenyan presidential politics since independence in 1963. Although Kenyatta has vowed to unify the nation, class politics and national history paint a different picture with long unresolved issues over land rights and resource distribution.
What is new with this election is, although the constitutional mandate for one-third representation of women is not yet met, parliament has the largest representation of women in public office in history, with more herstory to be made. Also, for the first time ever, Kenya has a constitutional, albeit conservative, Supreme Court. In Raila Odinga, Kenya has an independent, internationally recognized, opposition leader agitating for full implementation of the 2010 Constitution. And finally, as noted by the brilliant woman economist, Dambisa Moyo, Africa has emerging competitive markets while American and European economies experience ongoing stagnation. Nevertheless, as this election may indicate, Africans cannot sacrifice democracy for economic gain for the few and pittance for the many. Paternalistic male leadership must come to an end as women, particularly women committed to structural transformation, take the lead, are recognized as such, and form partnerships with progressive male colleagues. Thus, from the shadows, a more inclusive innovation of the Pan African Dream must emerge.