By Andrew Mwenda and Mubatsi A. Habati
Renowned political philosopher, Mahmood Mamdani, speaks to The Independent’s Andrew M. Mwenda and Mubatsi A. Habati about how the West is learning from the rest as Africa is caught at its weakest point.
Tell us about the occupy movement in the West. What does it say about the structural tensions in post-Cold War capitalism in the West?
The interesting move is that the West is learning from the rest. The Occupy Movement was a direct outcome of the Arab Spring in Egypt. They were inspired by Tahrir Square and cast a different image on the screen of the Arab image which used the power of internet to cause revolution. This is more than facebooking and tweeting; it was a mass strike that was non-violent. The history of protests is very long. But protests were an event; people would come in a particular place make speeches, listened and then go home. The new thing about Occupy Movement is to occupy; you go to a place and be there to maintain a constant presence. Tahrir brought a completely new order of protest.
Isn’t this a reflection of a wider crisis facing the post-cold war Western Capitalist system that seems to have shifted incomes largely from the vast majority to the minority working in top financial sector?
The turnaround began with the Reagan administration. But from the great depression and Roosevelt’s response to it, we have social democratic programmes. In the Reagan administration, we begin to see fewer organisations control larger social resources and a greater number of societies at the bottom have declining share in the control of the social resources. When Clinton comes, he takes away the regulatory regime giving banks freedom. As a result the American society is in huge debt. Last year the student debt on tuition loans exceeded the debt on credit cards. American students come out of university with a huge debt and if you can’t get a job how are you gonna pay? More students are declaring bankruptcy on graduation. There is a huge problem. Now the question is whether the Occupy Movement is creating an adequate response.
How does a democratic society like America produce such inequities?
When democratic reforms were introduced i.e. in the 19th century when the right to vote extended to the non-propertied in Britain, the opposition came from the people who said if you give them the vote why can’t they use it to take away our money. People without property were the majority. More research is showing that the vote strengthened the propertied people.
What do you think of America’s indebtedness to China, a communist creditor to a capitalist debtor? What does it indicate?
Markets existed before capitalism as a means of exchange with one another. They existed at the time of the pharaohs. The Chinese until the middle of the 18th century were possibly the strongest in the market place in the exchange of silver. China was the main market for the West. So the Chinese are not newcomers. The period from the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 20th centuries was kind of an aberration in Chinese history. Now they are back to their number one position. If you have been to China this is in their minds as they talk about the 200 years of humiliation.
This shift of the global economy from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the possible shift of the world economy from the USA to China, do you think America will lose that prominent position peacefully? That’s the challenge for the American political leadership. When Obama came to power his promise was that he would negotiate a peaceful transition in America’s position in the world; that he was going to take the middle ground in problems about China, Iran, Israel, and negotiate peacefully. He began his address to the Muslim world Iranians specifically. We have seen the extent to which the complexes have tamed him. Recently he was overheard telling the Russian president that ‘this is my last election after which I will be able to do what I want’.
What do you think of Syria and the American push on the rebels openly fighting a government and America saying the Syrian government should not respond militarily against armed rebellion?
I think Syria is a more complex situation. The opposition in Syria was divided into groups; the stronger groups which began the rebellion was determined and did not want any foreign assistance; they were opposed to a Libya like situation and then began a new group called New Syria Army which had support from the Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia particularly. There was shift from non-violent to armed rebellion and an open appeal to external forces. Syria has moved away from being an internal protest for internal appeal to an externally supported rebellion which will be even more difficult to solve because the two sides are increasingly proxy for regional powers; Iran and Iraq on one side, then Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the West on one side, China, Russia on the other side. All these are converging upon Syria. I think it is unfortunate.
Do you think the original internal democratic reform impetus has been lost with the entry of these powers?
It is not lost but it has been overwhelmed. It has given credibility to military solution to all sides; in the regime, these are proxies for external interests and in the opposition, the only way to end this is through shooting.
Would you have said the same thing about Libya?
This is more serious than Libya. Syria is a society where the government is seen as the Alawis; 15% of the Shia minority population and the Suuni majority (all these add up to 45%) are supporting the regime plus the Suuni merchants. The opposition is led by the Serafinis who are the most right wing of Islamists. These aim to teach the Americans and the French that Islamists are not your enemy and they can be your friends. America is returning to its pre- September 11 post-Iranian revolution when it saw Suuni Islamists as a defence against Shias in Iran.
What do you think of NATO involvement in the removal of Gadaffi? What do you think of Libya now; with different militias controlling different parts of that country and they are not accepting to put down their arms?
You are seeing one of the consequences of Libya in Mali; the Tuareg rebellion and there will be more because what they did to the city of Sirte; they did what they said Gadaffi was going to do to Benghazi. Gadaffi was simply charged with threatening to bomb Benghazi; but they actually bombed Sirte, that’s a crime against humanity. It was no solution. It’s a vendetta they carried out against Gadaffi. The leadership in Benghazi was a combination of Gadaffi people who left the ship but were so excited to join NATO in bombing their own people.
Finally, on Iran and its nuclear weapons: the USA thinks that Iran must be disarmed at all costs. Do you think it is okay for Iran to get nuclear weapons? What’s America’s problem with Iran?
I don’t think it is okay for anybody to have nuclear weapons. Iran is many things; externally it is defiance to the West and internally it is a theocracy but a mild theocracy under the protection of a clergy and democracy whose limits are defined by its clergy. Iran is divided society between the urban, rural, middle class, etc. who support and oppose the regime. Iran is an old society and its regional influence is based on that.
What are your thoughts on the situation in Mali?
The Tuareg question has been there for long and had been negotiated by the deposed president with Gadaffi. They had somehow managed to contain it. Mali is fairly a strong state with democracy and the soldiers saying they wanted a military solution. They are playing on the war on terror. This continent has been an expanded platform for the battle on war on terror and unfortunately the continent is at its weakest point militarily and politically.