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Memorials are more about the future than about the past

Volume 12, Issue 1  | 
Published 01/07/2015
Firoze Manji

A Kenyan activist with more than 40 years’ experience in international development, health and human rights. He is the publisher of Daraja Press ( and a member of the editorial advisory board of AwaaZ Magazine.



Tribute to Pio Gama

A few years ago, I visited Guinea-Bissau. While there, I wanted to pay my respects of one of the greatest intellectuals and revolutionaries of Africa, Amilcar Cabral. It took weeks to arrange a visit to the mausoleum located with the military headquarters in Bissau. I had to apply in writing in advance for permission from the military . When we eventually got a formal letter of permission stating that on a given day at a given time we would be allowed to visit, it took another 30 minutes of negotiations to be allowed in. And even then, we weren’t allowed to proceed until we had bought flowers from the shop across the road (which I guess was owned by the military). Some $80 later, senior officers accompanied us to the back of the barracks where we were able to pay our respects and lay our wreath.

As we walked away, I asked the senior military personnel why the mausoleum was in the barracks instead of a place where citizens could have access. The officer insisted to me that anyone could visit the mausoleum any time.

It struck me that the military, descendants of Cabral’s assassins, feared him in death as they did in life. They clearly realized that memorials are more about the future than they are about the past.

Which is why the military, who effectively control a state and economy that depends on the illicit drugs trade have established their headquarters around the mausoleum of Amilcar Cabral.

The erasure of memory is effected through the construction of what symbolizes power today.

What memorials have we built for our Pio Gama Pinto, freedom fighter, nationalist, socialist and internationalist? What have we done for the man who gave sustenance and arms to the Land and Freedom Movement (the so-called Mau Mau) and who supported the movements for freedom in South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, Goa and elsewhere?

It is singularly apposite, if also depressing, that the place where Pio lived and where he was assassinated has not only been grabbed and its history erased, but we have allowed to be built in its place a large shopping centre that epitomizes Kenya today, a temple to commodity fetishism and to conspicuous consumption, where imported goods are sold, goods that have largely killed off indigenous production in Kenya, a temple designed to satisfy the needs of a parasitic and unproductive local capitalist class that is the product of the policies that Pio so vehemently opposed and for which he gave his life.

The polarization between the KANU and Pio, exacerbated by revelations of misappropriation of funds by the Kenyatta regime, erupted around Sessional Paper Number Ten of 1965: African Socialism and its Implications for Planning in Kenya. Authorship of this paper is usually attributed to Tom Mboya. In fact, the key architect of the paper was an American political economist Edgar O Edwards, who was attached to the Ministry of Planning. Edwards was part of a team of Americans who had bona fide credentials at the US Embassy in the 1960s. This team was put at Tom Mboya’s disposal by Ambassador Atwood, to help him write economic blueprints as well as to outwit his adversaries. The paper, despite its claims of ‘socialism’ was a perfect articulation of the prevailing views of how a subservient capitalism would be developed in the post independence period. It was in opposition to this text that Pio wrote a counter proposal which, had he not be assassinated, could very well have led, some believe, to the removal of Kenyatta as president through a vote of no confidence and the emergence of Jaramogi Odinga as the new president.

The Sessional Paper was to give rise to precisely that class that Frantz Fanon predicted in Wretched of the Earth:

The national bourgeoisie discovers its historical mission as intermediary. ... its vocation is not to transform the nation but prosaically serve as a conveyor belt for capitalism, forced to camouflage itself behind the mask of neocolonialism. The national bourgeoisie, with no misgivings and with great pride, revels in the role of agent in its dealings with the Western bourgeoisie. This lucrative role, this function as small-time racketeer, this narrow-mindedness and lack of ambition are symptomatic of the incapacity of the national bourgeoisie to fulfill its historical role as a bourgeoisie.

Over the past 50 years, these small-time racketeers have amassed great wealth gained from handouts, land grabs and other forms of unproductive economic activities. They are managers on behalf of transnational corporations of a rentier economy. Changes in presidencies and the establishment of a new constitution have failed to curtail the parasitic accumulation of this class. Fundamentally, their power has gone unchallenged. Popular movements and organizations that have emerged in Kenya over the last two decades have voiced strong concern at the behavior of this class and have proposed policies that might curtail the more extreme forms of racketeering. But they have hitherto failed to challenge the power of that class.

The challenge of building movements and political organizations that can engage in struggles for real decolonization remains. Struggle is needed to give rise to the new human being: before we were Africans, Amilcar Cabral reminded us, we were humans. How do we reclaim that humanity that the colonial and neocolonial eras have so cruelly damaged in our people? How do we fulfill such ambitions that I believe Pio so desired?

In this short presentation, I would like to offer some thoughts on two areas that I believe we have not sufficiently reflected upon in the past.

First, in contrast to the political trajectory taken by Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army, PAIGC and other movements such as those led by Thomas Sankara, most political movements in Kenya – as in much of Africa – have sought only a limited form of freedom, what I would call licensed freedoms. Licensed freedoms are those whose parameters are set by constraints imposed by others rather than those who seek their own freedom. Those seeking licensed freedoms accept the authority of those who set the limits. Cattle, for example, have the freedom to roam around the field to their hearts’ content: but the fence around the field delimits that freedom. There is no question of breaching the fence or of contesting the right of the farmer to decide on the limits of the freedom granted within the field. In other words, the power of those who rule is not fundamentally challenged.

In contrast, we need to consider the alternative: that is, emancipatory freedoms. Emancipatory freedoms are the fruit of the struggles of a people to invent, assert, release, and ultimately realize their full potential as humans. And being humans, realizing their full potential as social beings. Emancipatory freedoms imply the collective power of peoples to determine their own destiny. These are an expression of what Lewis Gordon characterizes as an historical aspiration, one that continues to exist and transcends the constraints that might have been wrung in any given historical period. Emancipatory freedom implies, therefore, an assertion of dignity, of self-worth, a commitment to a project that transcends frequently even the threat or possibility of death, a proclamation and assertion of, and an insistence upon, a claim to be part of humanity (Gordon, 2008).

This is not just a rehash of the old debates about ‘reform vs revolution’. We have to fight for each and every gain that we can get under the present conditions, and we must protect whatever gains we may have made in the past. But that does not mean that we should lose sight of the freedoms that allow us to reassert our dignity as humans. As Sankara put it, we must have the courage to invent the future.

The second dimension upon which we need to reflect is what kind of state is necessary if we are to achieve real decolonization. On coming to power, most of the nationalist governments (oft supported by the left) believed that all that was required was to take control of the state. But what they ignored was that the state that they sought to occupy was a colonial state, one that was set up to serve, protect and advance the interests of capital, of imperial power and its entourage of corporations and banks. That state has a monopoly over the use of violence. It has police forces, armies and secret police, and a judiciary whose specific task is to protect the interests of the way in which capitalism operates in the peripheries.

Having occupied the state, independence governments essentially sought to make modest reforms consisting primarily of deracializing the state - the so-called ‘Africanisation’ programme – and modernizing it so that the economy could be more fully integrated with the new emerging international order that the US, Europe and Japan were busy creating in the post World War II period. The structures of state control, the police, army, secret services, the judiciary, even the structures and powers of native authority established under colonialism, all these were left fundamentally intact, albeit now dressed up in the colours of the national flag. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that extrajudicial killings, incarceration without trial, excessive use of force against citizen protests and workers strikes, torture and other forms of abuse are as common today as they were under colonial rule. And under conditions of the hegemony of neoliberalism, the interests of financialised capital, of the transnational corporations that grab our land and amputate our natural resources are vehemently protected by the neocolonial state. The minority elites have become filthy rich, while the majority are poorer today than ever.

While many protest at government policies and even sometimes come forward with alternatives, the nature of the state is rarely challenged – indeed, in everyday usage, there is rarely a distinction made between ‘government’ and ‘state’.

Cabral was emphatic: “It is our opinion that it is necessary to totally destroy, to break, to reduce to ash all aspects of the colonial state in our country in order to make everything possible for our people.” It wasn’t, in his opinion, the colour of the administrator that was the problem, but rather that there was an administrator!

Perhaps Pio Pinto never had time to expressly articulate such ideas, but it is clear through his praxis, for the causes for which he fought, that these are some of the ideas that he had had to consider during his short life.

The challenge that we face is to construct a memorial to Pio Pinto that truly represents not only such aspirations, but that also lays the foundation for our own liberation, a memorial that is as much about the future as about the past. Perhaps that future might be the re-establishment of the Lumumba Institute that Pinto founded.

Firoze Manji

Nairobi, March 7, 2015

Last modified on Monday, 06 July 2015 16:52