Babylon System is the Vampire!
June 6, 2005 12 Comments
Why OGs and mababi, two generations of the African elite, are under attack
When I attended primary school in Pumwani in the early 1980s, babi was a teasing term for a softie: a spoiled kid who couldn’t hang. In the intervening decades, a babi has become a detested and shunned individual who cannot participate in most public spaces in Nairobi. His presence is experienced by most as an imposition, an invasion by a Babylon system that dirties all it touches with its contempt, sense of entitlement, foreign airs and corruption. To put it simply, a babi is a child of the OGs: the original gangsters who took over the reins of the colonial state in the 1960s and their hangers-on. While crime is widespread, to be identified as a babi marks you as a target for hyper-violent criminality; the failings of the political system that gave birth to him shall be visited on his flesh.
The Kibaki administration, the Official Opposition and the foreign-funded civil society are all mababi. While they are busy arguing about corruption, the constitution and speeches by Edward Clay, they have not noticed that they are speaking to themselves. People are hearing the political chatter, but listening is an act of faith that would be naïve given what has happened in the last two years not to mention the preceding forty. Many are realizing that the system has never worked for them. In fact, the problem is not that it has failed but that it was never designed to deliver. Those occupying the higher reaches of the state have not noticed that politics are moving out of the political arena. The people – that featureless mass perpetually invoked by the babi system as the recipient of its political efforts – have checked out of the building. But in many African countries, they have only been inside the national building for brief periods of postcolonial history.
Mababi cradle their drinks in expensive restaurants, often discussing, amid the sounds of tinkling glasses, mwa-mwa-mwa kisses and modulated Spanish music, politics. They tend to demand a return to a clean, green, criminal-free capital city – an Eden that only they, and the colonial settlers before them, ever occupied. Their concerns are reminiscent of colonial settlers who sipped sundowners during Empire’s high noon and complained that the city had gone to hell, that the Africans were becoming more criminal by the day. Can it not be asked whether the mababi are the colonialists of the 21st Century?
Their parents’, the OGs’, takeover of the colonial reins was a cosmetic change – the barest mention of words like revolution or struggle produces an uncomfortable shuffling of feet, clearing of throats – never meant to address the state’s toxic relationships to the many publics of the newly independent colony. The mode of OG governance was classically colonial: divide and rule, patronage, brutality and relentless speeches urging the ignorant rural folk to modernize and develop. They took over and whitewashed the colonisers civilizing mission: a confused, racist attempt to subjugate the ‘savages’ presumably in order to save us from ourselves.
Modernization and development in the OG dictionary have meant ‘come with me on a merry run-around where I pretend to do stuff for you while I pad my bank account with your taxes’.
It is true that the nationalists in their heyday captured the imagination of many people. Unfortunately many of them secretly aspired to be like the White dude they saw during a Speech Day in school. And so many of them became not the connecting voices of their different peoples, but the bridge between the village and the European metropolis, the commodity brokers who sold their people short. They turned their faces to London, Havana, Moscow or Washington; anywhere, provided it was not the smoky huts in which they were born. But they still sought to brandish those poor, church-attending relatives as a political base in order to get hold of the Governor’s Mansion or State House as it is now known.
The initial strategy was to shout down imperialism, flirt with socialism and declare that as panafricanists, they now represented all Africans. Simultaneously, switching from the language of revolution, they used their smooth talk to assure the colonial powers that it would be business as usual after independence. They were everything to everyone: fellow revolutionaries to Fidel Castro and Malcolm X; visionary leaders to many Africans; and business partners to colonialists.
The OGs in the next twenty years after independence engaged in an orgy of thievery. Its dire public cost was only relieved by infusions of Western aid, commodity exports and the fading memory of colonial administrative know-how. It is during these years that they gave birth to the mababi. Though OGs remain in control of the higher terraces of the state, their babi children are attempting the second inheritance. Where the former used nationalism and panafricanism to satisfy a hunger for power, the latter are using ideas from conferences held in Beijing, Davos and Monterrey. The cry is no longer yesteryear’s Viva La Revolución; it is now the Western liberalism of the UN’s Millennium goals, NEPAD, Feminism, Human Rights and Environmentalism. To mababi, the state is theirs to inherit. They are already working hard to create the impression that they are the representatives of – you guessed right – the people. They point an accusing finger at the OGs for bad governance – as if the opposite has ever been true in most of Africa – and conveniently forget that it is a sin to disrespect their parents. The citizen’s role in this plan: help the mababi clean up the OG system.
As the African publics endure insult heaped on injury, the numbers who still believe that forming legal parties, voting and raising kids to do well in exams can change the rules of the game shrinks. Increasingly, the view that it is not the rules of the game that are wrong but rather the entire class of people who dominate it is gaining a foothold. It is those who hold this conviction and have turned to crime that should concern everyone whose lifestyle seems babi-like even if they are not well connected members of this small tribe.
Adherents of the growing outlaw culture in Nairobi have a code that utilises violence above and beyond the call of criminal duty. When a babi is targeted, he commonly experience the whack of the pistol butt across the face, a humiliating undressing after a car jacking and unprovoked stabbings or shootings. The victim is held in such scorn that the assailants believe he deserve no humane consideration. Many innocents have been victimized and even the babi is often not personally guilty of any crime. But because so many have turned their back on the political process, and on the laws it is meant to create and enforce, they regard those on the wrong side of the babi divide as fair game.
To those who experience the quiet desperation of trying to survive in Africa – despite some personnel changes at State House – further talk of reform is a mockery. The only way out of this impasse is to ruthlessly limit the state’s functions and resources. Its reach should be shrunk to the point that there is little incentive for the OGs and mababi to control its coffers. The only institutions we need as people of initiative and industry are the judiciary, the legislature and law enforcement. Demands for privatization, decentralization, low taxes and the retreat of the state from the economy will not be bywords of a neo-liberal agenda set in Washington. Rather, they will be the start of a much needed and long-awaited process of decolonization. Africans do not want promises of better governance by the same old crowd or its anti-corruption rhetoric or seminars lecturing us about sustainable development. We want to be left alone by a vampire state and its little vampire children who never saw a con they didn’t like, a donor they could not kneel before and a poor person they couldn’t pity, hate or fear.