One Cheer for Democracy

Commentary on Global Culture and Politics

One Cheer for Democracy

Kenya: developing the margins (and the unfinished business of making a nation state)

Turkana herder by gas flare

Remote. Marginalised. Left behind. In Kenya, these journalistic and development clichés apply not just to one or two neglected backwaters but to vast expanses of arid and semi-arid land that make up fully 80 percent of the national territory. In those areas, now highly vulnerable to climate change, relatively sparse populations of pastoralists continue to raise cattle, donkeys, goats and camel on their ancestral land, but they have lived at the margins of national development since Kenya’s independence in 1966.

The end of complacency: Fukuyama on the grand accident of democracy

In 1989, as communism was collapsing across Eastern Europe, Francis Fukuyama achieved intellectual celebrity—and notoriety—with a short essay, The End of History?  “We may be witnessing,” he wrote, “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” A quarter of a century later, he has not quite recanted. His latest work, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy, elaborates a notion of “political development” that still presents liberal democracy as a culmination of human progress. But getting there requires “three sets of institutions in perfect balance: a competent state, strong rule of law and democratic accountability” [25]. Developing these becomes “a universal requirement for all human societies over time” [37]. But develop them out of sequence or balance and you can end up end up with militarism (Prussia, Japan); clientelism (Greece, Italy), or authoritarianism (China). And even if you get everything about right, the institutions may atrophy and decay—as in today´s U.S.A—because of state capture by powerful interest groups and a surfeit of checks and balances that make government action extremely difficult.

Yellow peril in Africa? White folks should stop fretting.

At the outbreak of Algeria’s war for independence in 1952, there were one million French settlers living in that country alone. Today, an estimated 250,000 people of Lebanese descent live in West Africa. Some two million people of Indian descent live in East and Southern Africa (not counting a million or so more on the islands of Mauritius and Réunion.) Numbers like these are worth bearing in mind when approaching Howard French’s book of anecdotal reportage, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa. (Knopf, New York, 2014)

France’s post-imperial stress disorder

A prizewinning novel explores France’s identity crisis with lyrical panache—and a painful look back at the not-so-glorious past. But hang on a minute. A weird undertow appears to suggest that the answer to present troubles lies in more, er, sexual congress.  Vraiment?  I thought it was more a matter of politics.

Alexis Jenni

L’Art Français de la Guerre (The French Art of War)

(Gallimard, Paris, 2013 folio edition, 776 pp)


France had a terrible 20th century.  One million six hundred thousand dead in a First World War that historians remain at a loss to explain. A squalid struggle with Britain for control of the Middle East, with a continuing legacy of seemingly endless violence.  Defeat and occupation in a Second World War that brought the additional ignominy of a puppet government collaborating with Nazism. Then a barbaric, failed effort to hold on to colonies in Indochina and Algeria. Finally, as the century drew to a close, propping up a crumbling dictatorship in Rwanda and intervening to protect its génocidaires. This was a long and hard fall for a nation whose 18th and 19th centuries saw prodigious scientific, intellectual and cultural achievement, prodigious imperial power, and prodigious belief in the virtues of French civilisation.

Don't fuck with America

Captain Phillips (Directed by Paul Greengrass, 2013) 

The most interesting question about this morality tale of American power efficiently eliminating vermin is whether it should be seen merely as a feel-good pot boiler or whether its uncompromising resistance to depth betrays a wider anxiety about the way the world is going.

“Imagining” genocide

Rwandans living or travelling in the West must, I imagine, hate encountering the casual question, “So where are you from?” The answer will surely evoke either polite confusion or else impertinent enquiry. Were you (or your parents) among the killers or the victims, the interlocutor is too likely to wonder, so notorious is the Rwanda genocide brand. And are you a Tutti or a Frutti, or whatever they’re called? If I were Rwandan I would definitely make a habit of claiming to originate from Burundi—a place so few people outside of Africa have heard of that you could be fairly sure of keeping the conversation on an innocuous keel.

Having this year happened to become a temporary resident of Rwanda, I felt the need to situate myself with a bit of reading. And it’s impossible to get away from the genocide as the defining publishing event. So here’s my response to five of the most readily available texts—one ‘novel,’ one memoir, one work of ‘reportage’, one of journalistic analysis, one of scholarship. I review these in the order I read them. Four were written by white North American men, so there was a clear risk that they might say more about North American men, and their way of seeing, than about Rwanda. That’s certainly the case with the first, which disturbed me most but taught me least.

Petroleum could make or break the East African community

This piece was published in The East African in April, 2012, at a time when I busy getting Oil in Uganda up and running. That project occupied me for a year, but it is doing okay by itself now so am I free to think about other things.

The announcement last week of a promising oil discovery in Kenya, combined with news that Tanzania’s offshore gas fields are proving even richer than at first thought, raises the prospect of an East African region transformed by hydrocarbon wealth.

Deafblindness shows rights activism must be tempered with realism

I offered this piece to The East African in early 2012. I wasn’t surprised that they turned it down. No-one likes to hear that equal rights have a price tag.

It was recently my privilege to do some consultancy work for SENSE International. This UK-based NGO is working in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda with children and young people who are both deaf and blind.

China cannot avoid the messiness of African politics

This piece was published in The East African (Nairobi) February 6-11 2012. (Web version, missing a by-line, here.)

China’s gift to the African Union of a US$200 million headquarters in Addis Ababa symbolises not only the Asian giant’s increased engagement with Africa, but also the nature of that engagement.

Whilst the West has—since the end of the Cold War, at least—ostensibly striven to promote ‘sound macroeconomic management’ and ‘good governance,’ China’s style has simply been to do business with whoever is in power. Air-conditioned debating chambers for ruling elites are a logical sweetener.

Uganda’s anti gay bill is a smokescreen for missing oil debate

This commentary (minus the last paragraph, which was requested as a supplement but arrived too late to be included!), was published on The Guardian (UK) website on February 10, 2012. Back in 2009, when the Anti Homosexuality Bill first hit international headlines, I discussed it in a longer piece, The strange geometry of an anti-gay rumpus.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has distanced himself from the noxious Anti Homosexuality Bill that has resurfaced in the country’s parliament, saying that he cannot interfere in the country’s democratic process. This is ironic coming from a man who, after a distinctly sleazy election victory last year, ordered violent crackdowns on peaceful protests at rising food prices and proposed a new crime of “economic sabotage.”


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