Power, domestic violence and term limits in Africa; and when planting a tree becomes an act of revolution

It's the way power works – you can’t compartmentalise it, it seeps through all the cages that you may create, your whole society takes on that tone

I HAVE a friend who says that buying and selling land is the most absurd thing of our world today.

He isn’t a communist that believes in the abolition of private property or anything like that, or an anarchist, marijuana-smoking hippie.

If anything, he is a white shirt, starched collar, 9-5 kind of person, but he once said – quite seriously – that there is something morally wrong about buying and selling a “piece of the world”, as the literal translation from Kiswahili would render it (“Unawezaje kuuza dunia?”)

In essence, he was saying – how can a piece of the world be yours to sell? How did you get those kinds of rights over the earth – something that existed long before you, from whence you actually came?

It’s a disturbing thought, once you think about it critically. But property rights, and fundamentally, the right to own land, is something we rather take for granted in the modern economy.

Once you have taken a piece of the world for yourself, you then have to regulate how people relate to it, to stop people from picking “your” fruit and bringing cows to graze on “your” grass.

 And to do that, you then must have laws about what people can and cannot do – in other words, you can now control people’s behaviour, which is actually the definition of power.

Great for humanity, bad for humans

I’m not going to argue the merits or demerits of capitalism per se, and scholars such as Jared Diamond and others have demonstrated convincingly that agriculture was great for “civilisation”, as surplus harvests brought centralised government, hierarchical societies, and powerful states – but terrible for actual people, leading to social and sexual inequality, disease and despotism.

The relationship between the right to “own” a part of the world, and the right to control people, can take some unexpected dimensions in Africa.

Growing up, I remember watching Wangari Maathai (who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize) being chased by Kenyan police, being arrested, tear-gassed and detained, all because she wanted to plant trees, and stop the destruction of forests. This was during the authoritarian presidency of Daniel Moi.

She looked like an ordinary, rather harmless woman; in her flowing kitenge should could easily be my grandmother, pinching my cheeks and telling me to eat more. I couldn’t understand why the regime at that time would persecute someone for just wanting to plant trees.

But it goes to the relationship between the powerful and the less powerful. People in power – such as presidents, politicians, and the powerful elite in Africa – believe that they own the country in its entirety, for perpetuity.

So Wangari Maathai speaking up and saying: “this forest actually doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the country, and to the future”, takes on a political tone, because you are directly challenging their power. That’s how planting a tree becomes a subversive act.

In fact, to any authoritarian or quasi-democratic regime, any notion of equity or the rule of law is politically dangerous.

recently released report from the World Bank found a large “human development penalty” to living in a resource rich African country. I was particularly intrigued with the fact that people living in resource-rich countries tend to have a higher incidence of domestic violence (higher by 9 percentage points, compared to countries that aren’t resource rich).

 There are many possible reasons for this higher risk of domestic violence, but one of them is that there is a political reason to have a lax enforcement of the rule of law.

Worse quality of life for resource rich African countries
Create bar charts

It allows the political elite to make a fortune through illegal and unethical means, ordinary people to skim on paying taxes, and everyone goes home happy. The only “real” crime in a regime like that is when you challenge the state itself, that is, the power of the elite.

But once you introduce the idea that women are humans too, and have the right to live free from the terror of physical or sexual violence, you are also suggesting something else – that the less powerful can make certain demands on the more powerful. 

Throwing in the towel

One day, that may even include making demands on the political elite itself.

That’s how fighting for abusers and batterers to be prosecuted, child support paid, and women not to be harassed on the street is ultimately a much bigger struggle about the way power is distributed in a society. 

It’s the way power works – you can’t compartmentalise it, it seeps through all the cages that you may create, and your whole society takes on the political tone that you have set for it.

Last week, Kenya’s Chief Justice Willy Mutunga basically threw in the towel and said that Kenya is a “bandit economy”, run by mafia-style cartels similar to Al Capone’s mob in 1920s America.

Before becoming Chief Justice in 2011, Mutunga had made a name for himself in fighting dictatorship and defending human rights. Averse to the pomp and self-regard that is the hallmark of many Kenyan politicians, he came into the top job as an “outsider”, who would be the one to reform the notoriously corrupt judiciary.

Loud and clear

His declaration that the monster is basically irredeemable is shocking and depressing, to say the least.

But I’m not surprised. This is a country that allowed suspects facing charges of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to run for president, and elected them - Uhuru Kenyatta (the case against him has since been dropped) and his deputy William Ruto - and invested vast diplomatic resources denouncing and discrediting the ICC itself, and the very notions of justice, at every turn.

The message was loud and clear – that we (the powerful elite in Africa) never need to answer for what we do to our own “small people”. We are sovereign, Africa is ours to ruin if we want to.

Now the president gets  stern-faced when he rails against the “cartels” that have taken over the country and are undermining his rule. Hypocrisy much?

And this is why term limits and third terms in Africa are more than just about who gets to rule for five more years. It’s about the broader message about rules, and who gets to break/ massage/ alter/ adjust them. The slippery slope is real.

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