August 30, 2004

A Tale of Two Victims

The African author Ngugi wa’ Thiongo was recently severely assaulted and his wife Njeeri raped when they returned to Kenya for a lengthy tour. Ngugi had been living in exile for many years after being imprisoned for his opposition to Daniel arap Moi’s government. With Moi out of office, the time seemed ripe for his return to his native land.

There has been a lot of anger, shock and sadness both in Kenya and abroad about the attack. The African Literature Association (ALA) just issued a statement of support and sympathy for Ngugi and his family. But it’s a statement that I think accidentally reveals some gaps in Africanist (e.g., Western scholars with an interest in Africa) understanding of this horrible event.

The ALA’s statement mostly confines itself to an expression of support and solidarity with the victims. It adds, entirely properly and importantly, that it is crucial to rally around the freedom of expression of all writers everywhere, and to defeat the use of rape as a weapon against women.

There’s more that ought to be said, though, and it’s not said in part because Africanists in the humanities (including history and cultural anthropology) haven’t really known how to say it. In the Kenyan and East African press, there have been two parallel stories unfolding since the attack. The first is speculation that the attack was “political” or retaliatory in some respect, possibly staged by people with shadowy ties to the former (or present) regime. A family member of Ngugi’s was charged on August 27th with involvement in the attack, so there’s very possibly something complicated going on here. Ngugi himself has made statements that he sees the attack as a deliberate attempt to humiliate and intimidate him as a writer rather than a simple act of violent theft. On the other hand, some observers, including the police, continue to report that the attack seems to have been one of the many more ordinary assaults and thefts that occur in Nairobi regularly: three of the men charged so far are guards at the secured apartment building that Ngugi was living in, which is something of a familiar story in the annals of robbery in urban Africa in the past ten years.

The second story that has run through the East African press is a meditation on criminal violence in general, and the ways it has transformed life in most of urban Africa since Ngugi began his exile.

The ALA’s defense of the freedom of expression nods towards the first of these two stories. Even here, though, it’s worth noting the miles traveled between Ngugi’s detention decades ago by a repressive state and this brutal assault, because it encompasses a kind of vicious decomposition of oppressive power in Africa, a mutation of centralized authoritarianism into something that is hard to distinguish from organized crime. What used to be the almost-hidden subtext of the postcolonial African state has become increasingly blatant even as that state has lost its ability to wield more conventional forms of centralized repression.

In almost every African nation, there have been stories of conspiratorial assassinations and brutalizations since independence, or even before independence within liberation movements and nationalist parties. The leadership of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF telegraphed the moral character of its postcolonial rule through almost certain involvement in the assassination of several leading figures within the party as a result of internal struggles. Given the rate of highway fatalities in many African nations, most car accidents are surely just car accidents, but it’s natural to suspect in many cases when a politician or dissident dies in such an accident that it was anything but accidental.

Somehow that has flip-flopped from being the shadow face of the postcolonial state to being its major manifestation in African societies. Many Africanists have written about this fact: we’ve coined a host of terms: the vampire state, the gangster state; we’ve charted the social networks through which the dispersed official capacity for violence flows in increasingly decentralized fashion. Now it gets harder and harder to interpret what the intention or meaning of violence connected to elites or officials might be, perhaps because they themselves no longer know: violence merely proves the ability to mobilize violence, and the networks that can mobilize violence now operate largely to reproduce themselves rather than the abstract idea of “the state”. The Kenyan government, after all, is no longer Daniel arap Moi’s; it is now Ngugi’s ally, not his enemy. Wherever this attack came from, it did not come from the people who sit at the center of Kenyan national power—but maybe sitting at the center of national power is no longer a particularly meaningful relation to power.

Certainly it is not if we follow the old idea that the state is defined by its monopoly on legitimate violence. Which is why it is sort hard to sort out whether the main story of this attack is of the ordinary, careless violence and sadism of organized criminals looking to steal laptops and other valuable possessions—a story that permeates Nairobi and Johannesburg and Lagos like the air and soil—or a story of something more. Because it is entirely possible that it is both, that violent power in many African states has metamorphosized into a part of the social ecology. Like lightning, it may be drawn towards anything and all things which may ground it: valuable possessions, a dissident author, a woman to be raped. Metal at the high point, waiting to be struck. And it is now as hard to fight as stormclouds, as hard to succeed as Canute holding back the waves. A nation of victims looks on helplessly: the criminals are nowhere and everywhere.

Africanist scholars readily acknowledge the presence and importance of quasi-official criminal networks in postcolonial states, both informally in conversations and formally in our scholarship. Cars get stolen in South Africa or Kenya all the time, and most of us know what the citizens of those nations know, the traffic in those cars generally draws in elements of the police or other official figures. We know that the line between gangs that assault people on the streets and corrupt petty officials or soldiers who extort bribes is very thin, even sometimes non-existent.

But all this really wasn’t on our political agenda in the formative years of Africanist scholarship, and the ALA statement suggests that it still really isn’t. We’re comfortable attacking rape as a crime against women. We’re comfortable calling for the freedom of expression. But we weren’t ready to think politically, prescriptively, about crime. The typical indebtedness of Africanists to either (or both) the nationalist problematic or to the socialist and Marxian left made that a very difficult thing to do. We didn’t talk much about the issue of crime in 1960 or 1970. South African academics studied the history of criminality extensively in the 1980s, but politically almost no one was looking ahead to or anticipating the problem of criminality as one of the major challenges of the post-apartheid era.

Even Ngugi himself has gone out of his way to restore the usual nationalist framing of such an event after being attack: he insisted that it says nothing about the Kenyan people, the Kenyan nation. It’s just a few bad apples, just thugs.

Indeed so, that's true. The vast majority of ordinary Kenyans are the victims of crime, not its perpetrators. And yet also not, any more than American military misbehavior at Abu Ghraib is just about some bad apples. It’s about institutions on one hand and about everyday practice on the other. It’s about both the state and civil society in postcolonial Africa, about reaping the bitter and horrible fruit of years of looking the other way or speaking instrumentalist cant when the state claimed for itself unrestrained power. If South Africa today is awash in guns wielded by men who recognize no moral constraints, that has a lot to do with the vicious immorality of the apartheid state, and rather less—but still something—to do with a liberation movement that tortured its own fighters in training camps, looked the other way when tsotsis claimed to be comrades, and rewarded corrupt hacks with ministerial positions after the end of apartheid. If Nairobi is crumbling from neglect and criminal predation, that has a lot to do with a government that existed to enrich itself and rather less—but still something—to do with a widely distributed nationalist sensibility that saw competency and moral rectitude of officials and ordinary citizens alike as the least of its concerns after independence and which continues on occasion to rally around a defensive conception of patriotism that is less about pride in one's birthplace and more about hiding the dirty laundry.

Charles Onyango-Obbo, writing in The East African, says that the attack on Ngugi “started in our libraries”. What he is pointing to is not the reading of books, but the fact that national and academic libraries in many postcolonial African states have lost most of their collections to theft in the past three decades. When books are not outright stolen, notes Onyango-Obbo, they’re often missing pages. The link may seem a tenuous one, but I know what Onyango-Obbo means. It’s the thing Africanists were least prepared to think about and address, the possibility that civic virtue is a matter of everyday practice, and the society where that goes neglected at the top may find that some of the rot begins from below.