Identity Politics, Corruption, Insecurity: Brave New World

The phrase “identity politics” describes a range of political activity focused on shared experiences of injustice and marginalization, suggests the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A global challenge emerges in addressing the activities, whether peaceful protests associated with the Arab Spring or the rise of vicious Islamic State and Nigerian Boko Haram extremists. Partisanship, neglect and corruption in Africa and the Middle East are “emblematic of a largely dysfunctional world with radicals offering increasingly violent response,” explains John Githongo, CEO of Inuka NiSisi in Kenya. This article is based on the 2015 Coca-Cola Lecture he delivered at Yale University. “The most extreme have been franchised and become a multinational of terror at once federated and autonomous, but ultimately feeding off the same narratives of collective alienation and grievance – narratives that have genuine currency among Muslims, but are contorted by both ruling elites and globalized agents of terror.” Githongo cautions that an authoritarian state may appear stable, but corruption and inequality feed off extremist narratives and ultimately undermine security. – YaleGlobal

Identity Politics, Corruption, Insecurity: Brave New World

Arab Spring protests, Islamic State –extremists feed off narratives of injustice, elites punish reformers
John Githongo
Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Violence and identity politics: Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan downplays violence for electoral calculation, top; Islamist Boko Haram on a rampage

NEW HAVEN: On the 8th of January the leader of Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan issued a statement condemning the “dastardly terrorist attack” on Charlie Hebdo the previous day. He joined an outpouring of solidarity in the global “Je Suis Charlie” moment, yet his sentiments were mistimed in the African context. Days earlier, Boko Haram, a vicious jihadist insurgent group in Nigeria’s north had reportedly murdered as many as 2000 innocents in the city of Baga in Borno State, according to Amnesty International. 

Pundits opined that while the Jonathan administration has been manifestly lethargic in efforts to interdict Boko Haram for spreading indiscriminate terror across a broad swathe of Nigeria, it was quick to respond to an attack in Paris. The administration’s first response to the Baga massacre was reportedly a tweet by the presidential spokesman, disputing the number of Nigerians killed. The lame response may have more to do with ethnic calculations in the face of upcoming elections in Nigeria – since postponed – than they had to with the national interest. Bluntly put, the ethnic groups of the north under attack by Boko Haram are not supporters of his party.

Partisanship, neglect and corruption marking Nigeria are emblematic of a largely dysfunctional world with radicals offering increasingly violent response.

Nigeria is not alone.  Identity politics seem to be back with a vengeance after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the winds of change, as the Scorpions’ song put it, that blew across the former Soviet States of Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

A combination of factors including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, WikiLeaks, the Arab Spring and its aftermath has mixed into a rolling reaction among organized and determined minority elements of the global Muslim community. The most extreme have been franchised and become a multinational of terror at once federated and autonomous, but ultimately feeding off the same narratives of collective alienation and grievance – narratives that have genuine currency among Muslims, but are contorted by both ruling elites and globalized agents of terror.

Old nationalisms have begun to bubble up again in Europe, too – a version of identity politics whose cloak of nationalism was so potent that 100 million human beings lost their lives between 1913 and 1945 as the European tribes went to war. Vladimir Putin has deliberately cultivated an image of himself as the most coldly calculating world leader, and it was curious to see this epitome of political testosterone shed a tear in September as the Russian national anthem was played in his honor in Mongolia. In light of still unfolding events in Ukraine, the potentialities are troubling. Across Europe too, political parties on the extremes, while not supplanting their mainstream counterparts, have gained traction at precisely the time when the mainstream parties and their leaders have slid down the ladder in terms of the public trust and confidence. The recent Greek election is a case in point.

Identity politics has brought even greater ravages to the Middle East. The ability of jihadist groups to reinvent, evolve and transform themselves has been striking. It’s clear that they are not trying to win in the conventional sense. They aim to survive, subvert and undermine the essential edifice to which they are inherently opposed, as suggested by David M. Anderson and Jacob McKnight in “Kenya at War: Al Shabaab and Its Enemies in Eastern Africa,” in African Affairs. The definition of victory is not military. Indeed, the propaganda that emerges from groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State and their permutations around the world suggests an ultimate goal of a global caliphate with the black flag fluttering atop the White House. Not being open to any rational response is fatalistic, born out of an intrinsically fragmentary logic – thus the furious contest between the Sunni and Shia. The battle is self-justifying.  For some, to die fighting as a martyr to a greater cause is an end in itself.  

Disconcerting to observers is the ambivalence of the leadership in Muslim countries as extremist groups propagate their ideology – and this in the face of atrocities that have been committed against Muslims on an unprecedented scale leading, for example, to the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. The world ponders why.

Few relationships between those who govern and the governed are as personally humiliating as blatant corruption, with extortion regularly practiced on the relatively powerless. Indeed, in developing countries, the concern for the ordinary citizen is not only about the huge chunks of GDP that elites misappropriate. What ultimately captures the imagination and ire is that corruption is often accompanied by willful and arbitrary repression, conspicuous consumption, and the trampling on the dignity and honor of ordinary citizens. This creates an existential alienation of the kind that caused Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi to snap, setting himself on fire in December 2010. He not only protested confiscation of his wares. but as the story is told and retold, revealed his frustration with ongoing humiliation at the hands of a municipal official.

These words – “honor,” “dignity” and the like – are essential to the recurring narratives of groups like Al Qaeda, al Shabaab, Islamic State and other jihadist groups expressing Islamic discontent over the current age. Muslims as an identity, as an Umma, have been abused, trampled upon, often – it is perceived – by their own elites in partnership with the West. And the alienation is replicated at the international level with the alienation of their own elites and the governments they lead from an international order considered hostile to the interests of Muslims generally and, at the very least, insensitive to the injustices perpetrated against them.

While corruption and accompanying repression, inequality and a sense of helplessness, feed the alienation that caused Bouazizi’s self-immolation, corruption in turn feeds the inability of states to mount coherent responses to terrorism. The past 15 years have demonstrated the extent to which embedded networks of corruption involved in money laundering, drugs, modern slavery, environmental trafficking, terrorism finance and the laundering of illicit proceeds in general increasingly overlap. These involve the same players: politicians, bureaucrats, generals and the private sector represented by brokers and the service sector – multinational banks, international legal and audit firms. These networks can literally own a country. The primary systems of governance are not infiltrated by systemic corruption. Corruption is the system. Citizens are reduced to bit players in a gangster movie where the gangsters are in State House and head the security agencies.

Recent history has taught us that no matter how stable a systemically corrupt authoritarian state appears, inequality that is essential to its neo-patrimonial character plays into the demographic or identity politics of the day undermining security at the personal and ultimately the national level. These contradictions have served as prime fodder for the virulent and intolerant ideologies that extremists have visited upon the world.

John Githongo is the 2015 Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor, Stanford University, and CEO of Inuka NiSisi Kenya. This is adapted from the Coca-Cola Lecture he delivered at Yale University on February 11, 2015.
Copyright © 2015 YaleGlobal Online and the MacMillan Center at Yale

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