DiA’s Nic Cheeseman discusses global knowledge inequalities, political neutrality and media repression in his latest piece for Kenya’s Sunday Nation newspaper, and asks whether he should continue to write his column – giving readers the power to decide.
Being able to write regularly for a newspaper that reaches thousands of people is a great privilege and a dream come true. I have never wanted to be the kind of academic whose work can only be accessed in long books found in a small number of libraries. If knowledge is worth acquiring, it is worth sharing, and so I was thrilled when this newspaper offered me the opportunity to communicate ideas and arguments beyond the walls of the academic ivory tower back in 2014.
But in the last few months, and especially in the days following the publication of the fake obituary for businessman and Nasa financier Jimi Wanjigi, I have been thinking hard about whether I should be writing this column.
Underpinning this doubt is a pair of ethical questions. First, is a British academic writing a column in a Kenyan newspaper not contributing to the global inequality in the knowledge economy, in which too many column inches are produced in the North and not enough in the South? Second, does writing in the Kenyan press risk conferring a veneer of legitimacy on a media that is increasingly being censored and bullied into submission?
Over the last few years, I have worked out what I think about a lot of issues by writing this column. It is often by putting words on paper and trying to make them consistent and persuasive, that I have clarified what I think about an issue. Given this, I hope that readers will forgive me if I use this column to determine whether or not I should be writing columns at all.
MORALITY OF KNOWLEDGE
I usually get a positive response to my pieces. This might just be because people who enjoy them are more likely to get in touch, but it is what has encouraged me to keep going during the difficult periods when I didn’t really have the time.
Indeed, the feedback from readers has easily been the best thing about doing this column – I now have hundreds of correspondents and quite a few friends that I would never have met otherwise.
Complaints are much less common, and tend to take one of two forms. On the one hand, people sometimes get in touch to argue that I have been too hard on one party or too kind to another – especially around elections.
It is hard to avoid the accusation of bias when you write about Kenyan politics. Partisans on both sides of the political divide want you to support their point of view completely and if you don’t, you risk being branded a traitor.
In a polarised political environment such as Kenya’s, the prevailing logic is often “if you are not with us, you are against us”.
Although I always think through whether these accusations have any merit, these complaints do not bother me too much because deep down I know they are not true.
I have tried to be politically neutral in these pages and to simply say it like I see it. Over the years, I have criticised the government for human rights abuses and criticised the Opposition for not carrying out its own primaries more democratically. I have also pointed out the limitations of the international community.
As a result, I often receive email one week claiming that I am “so Jubilee”, only to get even more the week after asking why I “love Nasa” so much. My hope is that the reasonable reader, looking across everything that I have written, will conclude that at times I may have been wrong, but that I was rarely unfair.
The second kind of complaint is that “someone like” me should not be writing about Kenya at all. This comes in a variety of forms, but is usually abusive. A sample from a few weeks ago: “Why don’t you keep your opinions to yourself and go save your own ******* democracy from Trump you American ****”.
Leaving aside the fact that I am not American, and that I reject the inherent racism contained in this kind of comment, I take it seriously when Kenyans ask me why a foreigner is writing about their politics.
Of all the inequalities between the global North and South, the geographical divide in the knowledge economy is one of the worst. Whether we talk about books, academic journal articles or Internet hits, countries such as the UK and US are over-represented, while voices from countries like Kenya often find it hard to be heard.
For example, a recent article on the academic study of Africa found that while the proportion of articles published in the two most highly cited journals that were written by women increased over the last 20 years, the proportion of articles by those based in Africa declined.
The reasons for this are well known and include inherited colonial inequalities, differential government expenditure on education, the financial power of Western publishing and media houses and the interests and prejudices of Northern consumers, who seem to be increasingly uninterested in what is happening beyond the borders of their own bedrooms.
By writing in the Nation, I am contributing to this problem – another Westerner taking up column inches that could go to a Kenyan. Can this be justified? I am not sure. I believe that it is important to share ideas across national boundaries, and that while I know much less about Kenya than those born and raised in the country, sometimes an outside perspective can be useful.
I have also been able to use the column to engage with hundreds of students across Kenya. In a number of cases, I have been able to help the people who write to me by giving advice on their essays and articles, publishing them on my website (www.democracyinafrica.org), and helping them to apply to university. In a very small way, I hope that this has helped to deepen and broaden the next generation of Kenyan academics and journalists.
But is this enough? As I read my own words back, they sound more like an excuse than a justification.
The second ethical question is whether those of us who believe in democracy and civil liberties should resign our positions in protest against the censorship of the media. Since I have been writing in the Kenyan press, some of my best friends in the media, and the journalists that I respect the most, have lost their jobs.
Their main “crime” seems to be that they had offended figures in the government. In every case, I thought about quitting myself, but those who had been pushed out encouraged me not to. Their logic was fairly straightforward and persuasive – if all the independent minded people quit, the quality of media coverage will get worse and the bullies will win.
A second and related reason to keep writing is that I have never felt that I could not express myself. So far, touch wood, I have never had a column “spiked”. That includes a piece in which I listed the failures of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission in the August election last year, and one that argued that the “fresh” election on October 26 had no real winners.
Instead, I have always felt well supported by my own editors, who are smart and hard working people of integrity. On this basis, I was fairly happy to keep writing. But that changed following the publication of the fake obituary. The mocked up note with his photograph was, effectively, a death threat.
I have received one death threat and one “warning” while working on Kenya. The first was designed to stop me discussing in the international media why the 2007 election was not credible. The second came more recently and was intended to dissuade me from discussing the limitations of the 2017 election.
Neither was pleasant, but neither worried me in the way that the fake obituary would have worried Mr Wanjigi’s family. I am painfully aware that as a white British citizen, my skin colour and nationality protects me. When the going gets tough, I can go home. Many Kenyans, including Mr Wanjigi, have no such luxury and so – whatever your political persuasion – they deserve our support.
Frustrated and dismayed, I responded by tweeting that I would have to resign unless a thorough investigation exonerated the newspaper.
The best thing to come out of this episode was that everyone I know who works for the Nation was as upset and angry as me. The paper also took a number of positive steps, releasing the CCTV footage of the individual that placed the obituary, turning the matter over to the police, and explaining that obituaries are not checked in the same way as news coverage.
But that still leaves a number of questions unanswered. Is it really plausible that the person who took the order did not recognise the picture? How did it slip through the net?
I have been pondering these, and other questions, for the last week. My gut feeling is those of us who write in the media need to respond, but this leaves open the question of how. In my tweet I talked about resigning, but it now strikes me that this would be futile. Put simply, I am not well known enough for it to make any difference. Chances are, few people would notice.
The other approach is to stay and use my 1,500 or so words every two weeks to highlight and resist the abuse of media freedom. There will be plenty to write about, given the way that the government is going and I can increasingly test what can and cannot be said – starting with this column.
But again, is this enough?
As usual, the act of writing has helped me to come to a conclusion. Drafting my Nation column is the highlight of my fortnight, and I would hate to give it up. The more sentences I type, the more I find my fingers resisting certain ideas and racing to put others down on the page. Which means that I am probably not the best person to make the decision.
As a committed democrat who has spent his career arguing the case for democracy and human rights in Africa, I should also listen to the people. I can’t exactly hold a vote – and I think we have all had enough of those for now – but you can tell me what you think on Twitter(@fromagehomme), and if you want to communicate something longer than 280 characters, I’ll follow you so that you can send me a direct message.
So, if you think I should keep writing, please let me know. If you don’t, tell me that also – but, I’d be grateful if you could say it without swear words and insults. I’m an academic not an activist and I’m more likely to leave if you make a reasoned argument than if you send hate mail. Of course, most people will be indifferent, but I won’t take it too badly if no one gets in touch either way – after all, academics are used to being ignored.
Should the well-reasoned “stays” outweigh the well-reasoned “goes”, you’ll see me (or rather some words of mine) next week. If not, thanks for reading – it has been an honour to write for you.
Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of Democracy in Africa: Successes, failures, and the struggle for political reform (CUP, 2015).
This column first appeared in the Sunday Nation