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Populism and "Peopleness" in Africa

I was privileged to listen to Prof. Ruth Kinna’s talk on populism at Loughborough University's Politics and International Studies (POLIS) department and the discussions that ensued, particularly a very lively exchange between Prof. Kinna and Dr. Giorgos Katsambekis (perhaps the biggest Greek Populist Scholar in the making). I must say the way they dissected the subject matter was quite informative to individuals like me who are still novices in this ideology and debates therein. So, I gathered that Anarchism with its fluidity and facelesness seems to have found its corporeality, and which it the face, in the radicalism of contemporary far left politics. One of the things that Prof. Ruth has done is survey the evolution of the concept, asking how radicalism was theorised at the cusp of the transition from the age of ideology to the age of party politics and how anarchist ideas intersected with it. And she ends by framing this debate at the confluence of competing ideas from three key scholars (Margaret Canovan, Ernesto Laclau and Federico Finchelstein).

Of the three, I was particularly interested in Laclau. Not necessarily because of the frequency with which he was mention but because of the idea of "the people". There is a way in which every time people speak about people (yes people about people!), I tend to wake up if I was dosing. This is partly because of how the term "the people" has been misrepresented and even abused from where I come from. I remember things like when Kenya's Kenyatta proclaims that "the people of Kenya know how to vote" or when Museveni says that "the people of Uganda have made their choice" or when Biya of Cameroon says that "the people have requested me to stand again". And then you heard about "Africa and its people are against the ICC"? etc etc Now. Therein lies my trouble with "the people". Who are the people? When do the people become or be? What makes people "the people" anyway? What even is "peopleness." The constitution maybe? But what about when the politicians read and interpret it for the said "people" and then the people are herded to vote in a manner that is decided by the greedy rich (that populism seeks to destroy)?

As I struggle with the concept of the people and becoming the people and participation (even in its abstract form) and horizontal processes etc, I cannot help but wonder what sense these things make to an average citizen of one of the "nations" of the part of the world we call Africa! Before we even talk about participation (forget the quality of participation), how many people in Africa understand that they can and should participate in what and how? How is it even possible for the so called people to participate when they are largely misinformed, uninformed or semi-informed? Two, I could not help but feel, that just as many political ,and indeed other ideologies, this too, is pretty Eurocentric or at best "Western" in its formulation and articulation. Many countries in Africa are just barely (busy so ti would appear) attempting (with remarkable failure) to experiment on democracy. Western democracy for that matter. And even as the "informed" few attempt to support the experiment of democracy, it is already crumpling in the west (from where it was exported to Africa). Institutions are degenerating at an alarming rate and a new wave of populism crafted into a suicidal brand of far right politics is fast sweeping through the West. I remember that when I went to school, all the examples about how democracy works were drawn from the West. I cannot count how many times Prof. Nying'uro mentioned the US and the UK as some of the examples of shining democracies. Well, that was not long time ago. However, neither Trump nor Brexit had happened anyway. I should be looking for the good Professor and get his perception these days. The Abaluyia people of Western Kenya say "bindu bichenchanga," or in Kiswahili "mambo yanabadilika" (things do change). Things have indeed changed and done so very rapidly that many Africans must be, at best perplexed, at worst lost in this confusion.

Now. I am happy to meet someone studying populism in Africa. My guess is that populism may have far reaching implications in Africa than anywhere else in the world. Surely, it is easy to manipulate a population that is largely uninformed, misinformed or semi-informed, society that is perplexed and/or even lost in the political jargon. Worse still when that population is largely not becoming "the people." It would be good to see how someone navigates populism in contexts where "peopleness" is controversial, contested, emotive and even destructive.

Populism and "Peopleness" in Africa Populism and "Peopleness" in Africa Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on November 08, 2018 Rating: 5

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