The Children of the Minotaur

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Democracy & Belonging at the End of the World

[Below are excerpts of an essay is written for the Othering and Belonging Institute’s Democracy and Belonging Forum. Read the full essay on Dr. Akomolafe’s website.]

Changes outside the words: An opening  

When Annie Lennox’s wide-eyed muse reminisces about “gracious days of lunacy” in the fabulous 1995 video accompaniment to her song, ‘No More “I Love You’s”’, contemplating the proliferation of monsters around her and the difficulty of keeping up appearances, you get a sense of a maddening effect stealing her away. She is in fact being spirited away by changes outside the grammar she’s used to. The world is changing, and the manner of speaking she’s used to would have to change too. The fine language that collapsed the world to the self-referential travails of two lovers and their vows to each other will no longer do. There is no more drama. No more “I love you’s”, Annie sings. Just a simmering silence where there was once the triumphalist insistence that the “show must go on!” Just little critters littering the stage that was once exclusively ours to fondle.

In the aftermath of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) in 1945, the world – all bent out of shape by its devastating multi-year inquiry into matters of othering that left huge swaths of once liveable territories in Asia and Europe reduced to gnarled piles of metal and fury, dust and despair – came together to reconceptualize belonging within new frameworks of agreements. Colonel Tibbetts had flown the Enola Gay back to friendlier territory after depositing “Fat Man” on the unsuspecting Japanese city, got a medal for his valour, and then became a celebrity. The Japanese had little choice: in an ironically brief 23-minute celebration led by General Douglas MacArthur, the imperial members of the Axis alliance surrendered on the USS Missouri, effectively ending the Second World War.  

In the years that followed, the military powers packed away their toys and deployed it to the rapid production of consumer goods. The US operationalized its Marshall Plan to help allied European nations rebuild their war-torn countries. A global network of alliances began to coalesce around a new order of belonging that had learned costly lessons from the failed experiments at framing sociality via supremacist projects and apartheid protocols. New institutions were born. The universal declaration of human rights.  The United Nations. The World Health Organization. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The curling mushroom of fire and death that had pierced the Japanese sky at 8:15am on August 6 had blasted the world into new perceptions of size and scale. Our dreams, haunted by images of peeling flesh and exploding suns, needed new spaces to escape into. The nuclear universal ‘Human’ became the new ontological ground of belonging – a distant echo of the product of Theseus’s labours. Led by the US, post-Cold War proto-utopian visions of a liberal universalist consensus thrived – a vision where the common good, a final aim, and a single notion of progress were fully accessible to all discerning and ‘reasonable’ individuals [3].

Enshrined in the breasts of the human individual was a nobility that needed to be protected, a sacred power for freedom that was the bedrock of peace, an unrivalled capacity for learning, dignity, and endless growth. To be human was enough. This was the mantra of the post-war world. There had to be rights associated with the identity of being human, inalienable gifts that every creed and nation ought to respect. Anything to stop us from doing what we did to each other just a few years back. The liberal world order was premised on a mutual desire to forget the horrors and monsters of the past, to frame power and track desire along the choreographies of the human self, to begin with belonging as if it were a pre-relational given, a thing to return to, a universal constant and beacon of peace steadily humming its undying tune through the maddening blasts and noise of war.  

For a while, it seemed plausible to imagine we could speak solely in terms of development, growth, science, and education. The discarded chunks of nuclear flesh from the gods of our pre-Human experiments still adorned our doorposts, our hallways, and the inscriptions on the monuments we raised to guarantee a future for ourselves. We would focus on correcting our brethren on the other side of the aisle, the factions within the new territories of the universal Human; we would train ourselves to win arguments; we would dedicate our resources to educating the next generation, to creating welfare states while the algorithms of “free market” economics also found expression. All the while, while we marched on bridges on our way to heaven, and argued about who gets to sit at whatever table of power was prestigious for the moment, something started to happen to the old marks we had scratched into the earth to mark our new paradigm of belonging.

Outside our words and declarative statements, outside our “I love you’s” and monuments to peace and dollars, the borders of belonging began to blister and bleed. A distributed heat rash with yellow pustular formations sprouted from the body of things. Deep in permafrost, the noise of our belonging brought back to life long-dormant viruses; our cities and the clearings they demanded encroached on the bodies of other-than-human ecologies, exposing us to critters our surveillance systems and cleaning lotions couldn’t detect and dismiss. You see, the mushrooming traumas of nuclear pasts never really disappeared; they were merely gestating in amniotic sacs of ravenous desire, biding their time, growing legs and eyes, crafting counterhegemonic questions to the formulas of human gentrification.  

In short, the world kicked back, reminding us that to be human was not enough, and that the thesis of belonging – hitherto framed in the rationalities of the anthropocentric – now needed to meet the decaying effects of a world that exceeds the human. To be human was to be indebted to forces and flows and intensities that we were not and have never been in control of. Belonging was not a matter of human sociality, not exclusively. There were unwieldy posthumanist processes already implied. As such, one could not simply stabilize belonging as an ideal, as an unmoving aspirational destination or convenient background. The paradigm of the human is too narrow to accommodate all the queer things belonging is doing, all the ways that our own skins are travelling, all the ways anasystemic forces and anagrammatic intensities disrupt the calculability of identity.  

To belong is to depart.

It is to be spirited away in little morsels of desire that humanist lenses cannot detect. To belong is to live with the monstrous. It is to meet a world that spills in excess of itself, in excess of aspirational ideals.  

In our days of heat domes, microbial politics, chemical warfare, hormonal fixations and dopaminergic addictions, social algorithms, deepening cripistemologies, and the ever-present mythopoeic prospects of alien life bracketing modern subjectivity, it would seem imprudent to continue to consider the subject of belonging through the historical convenience of the liberal human subject. Through the humbling insights of posthumanist inquiries, ecofeminist questions, and indigenous research, belonging must now be brought down to earth, composted among other immanent things, and allowed to live and die and live again with its contradictory earthlings. It is in the heat of the heap that we revisit belonging’s most persistent modern political project, now stripped of its elite white linen clothes and mired along with earthworms, molecular critters, and ecological processes of all kinds: democracy.

Democracy in peril

I was reminded – of all things – of Lennox’s poetic prophecy about mad changes afoot and being swept away when, recently, I watched news footage of soldiers in arms marching down a street in Niger Republic. The soldiers were celebrating with their fellow Nigeriens. The context of their bizarre encounter was the successful ouster of the country’s democratically elected President, Mohamed Bazoum, in a bloodless coup.  

Bazoum’s removal on 26 July 2023, by members of his own presidential guard sent shockwaves around the world, triggering global condemnation, a confrontation with France, carefully worded but firm statements about the fundamentalism of democracy by the White House, and provocative military preparations by the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) group led by the newly elected Nigerian President, Bola Tinubu, himself facing crippling questions of legitimacy. The industrial world ached and churned, fuming with rage about the audacity of the Nigerien coup. But whatever was going on outside Niger paled in comparison to the mixed upheavals of joy and anguish that swept through parts of Niger’s capital, Niamey, comingling with the earnest resolve of pro-Bazoum protesters to free their President from the palace, crowding the streets with pro-coup parties and wide-eyed youth screaming declarations of independence into their phones.  

Months before Nigeriens danced on their streets, thousands of grandmothers, children, protesters, and workers of all kinds from Mali, Guinea, Sudan, and Burkina Faso had also filled their stadiums and streets with music and jubilation. From Bamako to Khartoum, the reasons were the same: Africans seemed to be collectively saying “no more ‘I love you’s” to the presumptive universality of democracy. In what some hypothesized as an effect of a coup contagion, a rapidly spreading itch for authoritarian intervention would spread through the continent, transforming nine African democracies (especially in the Sahel region) into military juntas within the space of 3 years. To the pro-coup dancers, the men and women in boots had come to restore order in the destructive wake of democracy. The long-promised dividends of democracy had failed to materialize [4].

Questions haunt these proceedings: why is democracy having such a hard time in Africa? Why isn’t it working the way it should as it seems to do in the industrialized nations of the Global North – even though there are significant reasons to believe that democracy is declining in those regions as well? [5]

Several theories have been adduced amid the fever of military takeovers that now holds the continent in an anxious vice. “Coups are becoming more rampant”, says Rotimi Olawale, an Abuja-based political affairs analyst, “because African leaders have failed to deliver quality democratic leadership.”

He continues:

“While ECOWAS and the African Union have a standing reaction on the coup in the continent, what the bodies need to do beyond response to coups is also to sort of subject the democratic credentials of its member states to a peer review mechanism. If democracy is not working for the people, they will seek alternative means of governance that will deliver for them. And many are not delivering” [6].

To analysts like Olawale, democracy is failing on the continent because there’s been a dearth of delivery. It comes down to leadership. People touching other people. However, the gains of electoral victories have not translated into real-life transformations for most people on the continent, a situation that has left many desirous of violent political upheavals like coups.  

Pondering these backsliding tendencies, The Economist recently published its own take on African coups, framing its analysis within a panoramic awareness of declining global attitudes towards democracy (“Africa is not the only part of the world where democratic disillusion is spreading. A whopping 62% of Americans and 56% of French told a Pew poll last year that they were not satisfied with democracy in their countries. Among young Americans, nearly a fifth think a dictatorship would be preferable. The big difference is that rich, mature democracies have solid institutions that make a coup virtually impossible. In much of Africa the army and its cronies are all too ready to seize control.”) For the thinkers at The Economist, “one reason coups have grown more common is that many Africans have lost faith in democracy” [7].

In The Economist, we learn that “Afrobarometer, a pollster, found that the share who prefer democracy to any other form of government has fallen from 75% in 2012 to 66%. That may sound like a solid majority, but it includes many waverers. An alarming 53% said a coup would be legitimate if civilian leaders abuse their power, which they often do. In South Africa, which has one of the world’s most liberal constitutions, 72% say that if a non-elected leader could cut crime and boost housing and jobs, they would be willing to forgo elections.”

From the vantage points of these logical gestures, it’s not hard to see why trust in democracy is dropping: African states are mostly “phoney” systems, authoritarian dynamics masquerading as healthy democracies. Elections are usually manipulated; opposition parties, suppressed; and families of those proximate to power enriched to the nth degree. At the risk of generalizing lessons and insights across the diverse states and communities on the continent, it seems safe to suggest that Africans have learned to live under a tyranny of low expectations: “lower standards are tolerated because of fears of political instability. Foreign election observers frequently overlook irregularities and rubber-stamp contests in Africa that would not be tolerated elsewhere because of the perennial expectation of violence and political unrest. This allows incumbents to subtly manipulate the vote and is deeply subversive to efforts to hold elected officials fully accountable” [8]. What perpetuates itself as African democracy is largely a bully system that has all the trappings of democratic sophistication: voting, oppositional parties, fair electoral adjudicators, laws, and an independent judiciary. However, when the gavel hits the wooden block, only a loud noise disrupts the brewing mutinous silence that knows something is amiss.

Not surprisingly, The Economist joins a chorus of critique that blames graft, economic stagnation, a poverty of resilient democratic institutions, civil wars, poor leadership, and a loss of security on the continent as instigating factors for democracy’s decline in Africa.

What about democracy itself?

But not since Nigerian Afrobeat musician, visionary, and activist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, serenaded his mesmerized audiences in Pidgin English with songs that dissed “democracy” as a “demonstration of crazy” (reflecting some sort of extended slavery within Euro-American thought patterns) has it felt more urgent to investigate if liberal democracy is all it promises to be. Could it be the case that it is not the poison in the pot that should worry us, but the suggestion that the poison is the pot? Is democracy really,  per Churchill, “the worst form of government…except all those other forms that have been tried”? Are there no respectable alternatives to democracy, or should we resign ourselves to thinking of the governance practice as the summit of all politics, the best we can expect of ourselves, the only viable way to concretize belonging?  

Most of the time, when it comes to making judgments about failed or failing democratic states, it seems everything intelligible is mobilized and dragged to the foreground for scrutiny – everything except liberal representative democracy itself. Only this preferred form of governance is allowed the privilege of being obvious, almost incontestable. Everything else varies.  

As such, when we speak about democracy across the globe today and, specifically, about ‘the crisis of democracy,’ we presume this crisis merely defines a want of more of the thing, a critical lack of it. We often speak about democracy in terms of saying there isn’t more of it, that it really hasn’t reached its peak, that what we see on the African continent is a twisted version of the grand thing, or that though the US and France may practice highly evolved iterations of the ideal, they too have a long way to travel. A promissory note appears to be attached to the thesis of democracy: a reminder that it is an ideal, near transcendent, self-evident, and true.  

These kinds of earth-departing moves are however difficult to sustain. To affix the shine of idealism to liberal democracy is often to lose sight of its troubling materiality, its racialized comorbidity with capital and the Christianized idea of progress, with the engineering of worlds upon the bent backs of prosthetic agents. The question or crisis of democracy isn’t adequately held within a preoccupation with how well cultures around the world understand it and if anyone of us measures up to it – as if the dimensions and contours of democracy are already fully known; one must also ask what it is doing now. One must come to touch not the promise but the premise, the dense sociomaterial relations and uneven terrains that give it life.  

I would wager that the coups on the African continent, what we see in Africa, are an outworking of western liberal representative democracy, a direct in-forming of the thing, intimately entangled with the soaring quests for democratic belonging that have graced the lips of everyone from Tocqueville to Obama, instead of a terrible lack of it. The deep underbelly of the organism. A para-ontology of its operations.  

Because most of our questions about democracy begin from the presumed givenness of a transcendent humanist ideal, the assumption that it is the best political arrangement, we miss out on the ways democracy actually plays out in terms of the realms it sustains, what it elides, what it sets into motion, how coups in Africa are part of the processes of democracy, how the killing of a Sikh leader is tied to democratic continuity, how the assassination of journalists and the espionage activities of the CIA are not in fact a deviation from democracy but its ‘creativity’. The question isn’t: why doesn’t Africa have democracy, but how does it have a lot of it?

Yes. Bazoum’s removal from and incarceration within the presidential palace in Niamey; the tyranny of low expectations for African elections; the sweeping coup plots that have now nearly destabilized the continent; Ali Bongo’s (Gabon’s recently ousted president) importation of synthetic snow to the presidential palace so his family could have a snowy Christmas; and Nigeria’s Bola Tinubu’s refusal to resign despite credible allegations that link him with the forgery of college certificates – these are all instances of democracy at work. These are the democratic dividends we in the Global South have long sought. They were not to be found in good roads, new hospitals, refurbished schools, and smart policy.  The dividends were here all along, tucked into the creases of the realization that belonging has shadows.

Read the full essay


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