Researcher and co-author of ‘Kremlin’s Renewed Interest: Russia’s Emerging Threat to Elections in Africa’, Tabitha Mwangi, is sceptical about foreign interest in Africa: ‘Having experienced colonialism, African countries need to be careful in their relations with external powers, knowing well that their interactions will always have peace and security implications.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
There were always many books in my house as I was growing up because my mother would buy books and radio cassettes each month, a trait that I seem to have picked up with the exception being that the internet has replaced radio cassettes. Also, being a Presbyterian Reverend’s daughter my house was full of books on theology which my dad often brought home. As such, I often read Bible commentaries and books on Church History, although there were a few classics.
Some of the most memorable titles were Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Maria Von Trapp’s When the King was a Carpenter, Stephen Mansfield’s Men of Fire, C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, Francis D. Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City, and Carolyn Custis James’ Lost Women of the Bible. And of course, I was one of the many kids who read Ben Carson’s books and aspired to be a neurosurgeon, which I am glad I didn’t become.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
I recently read The Art of the Good Life by Rolf Dobelli, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and picked several insights from it as it provides several reminders on how one can take control of their life to make each day count. I highly recommend reading this book over a course of time to allow enough time to reflect on the 52-pointers that he outlines as being key to living your version of the good life.
However, I disagreed with Dobelli’s notion that the best way to give back to the community is through giving money only and forgetting that the problems in the community exist. I am of the opinion that giving time and one’s skills are crucial ways of reaching out to people in one’s local community to grow one’s social capital and touch individual lives because to whom much is given much is expected. For instance, I believe that money is not the best way to help young people looking for employment, as helping polish their CVs and LinkedIn profiles, providing them with one-on-one soft skills training, networking opportunities and individualized mentorship are more impactful.
African leaders and institutions like the African Union need to do more to cushion African people abroad from indignity and rehumanize African bodies…
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
The 5 AM Club by Robin Sharma changed my perspective towards waking up early as I am naturally not a morning person. I prefer to work late into the night and sleep in if I can, but I have come to appreciate the refreshment that comes with waking up early to work out and plan one’s day.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
A mix of both, though I try to write first but I always find myself taking off chunks and adding others as I write. I first read widely on the topic that I am writing about and then make little notes on the most important points that I must include in my writing. After this, I then get down to writing.
Afterwards, I share my work with my fiancé for proofreading and feedback which is always a very helpful process. His way of thinking is very different from mine thus he is able to identify gaps and ask for clarity on areas that need rephrasing or further research.
Another very instrumental person in my writing is a close friend who just like my partner has a very keen eye for details, always asks important questions that I may have overlooked, and challenges my thinking to ensure that my writing is more balanced.
What was your process for writing ‘Kremlin’s Renewed Interest: Russia’s Emerging Threat to Elections in Africa’?
After researching the topic and having brainstorming sessions with my co-author, we wrote the article and then had a back and forth editing process. We then took a break from the paper to ensure that we could come back with fresh eyes and ideas that we may have missed, or communicated better. Later we shared the article with The Republic for publishing and had another editorial process with the editor to clarify the ideas discussed after which it was published.
What’s one significant thing that has changed in Russia-Africa relations since writing this essay?
The escalation of tensions between Ukraine and Russia into a full-scale war has had far-reaching implications for Russo-Africa relations. The conflict was a reminder that African leaders and institutions like the African Union need to do more to cushion African people abroad from indignity and rehumanize African bodies by working as a collective to evacuate stranded Africans. They need to speak with one voice, presenting a unified stand on issues of international concern such as human rights and international security.
Lastly, the conflict has brought to the fore the indisputable fact that Africa is a diverse continent with different states relating differently to Russia thus the different voting patterns in the conflict.
Africa is a diverse continent with different states relating differently to Russia thus the different voting patterns in the conflict.
And in what ways has the threat posed by Russia which you wrote of manifested/developed in the last couple of years?
‘Kremlin’s Renewed Interest…’ focused on online interference in elections which still remains a major threat to the integrity of elections in Africa. This is a very concerning phenomenon given the recent wave of coups since 2020. African governments must work hard to provide basic services, fight corruption and strengthen weak state institutions to prevent incidents of coups and coup attempts. Non-state armed groups like Al Shabaab are very sleek in their quest to gain legitimacy and public support by quickly identifying the needs and priorities of communities in the areas that they seek to control and positioning themselves as the alternative solution providers to gain community trust. As free and fair elections are an important conflict prevention mechanism and crucial for effective governance, ensuring that neither local nor international actors interfere in them is crucial for national and regional peace and stability. This requires extensive civic education campaigns, vetting of potential candidates to ensure they have high standards of integrity, cleaning up voter registers before elections, training electoral personnel on how to conduct free and fair elections, and working with the media to reassure the public on the credibility of elections.
Additionally, although our article focused on renewed interest in Africa by Russia, it is worth noting that although China has been the most spoken about entering into Africa, there are other powers that are newly interested in Africa, and whose activities have peace and security implications. For instance, the Gulf States and Turkey are competing for spheres of influence in Africa in countries in the Horn of Africa and in some cases using violent tactics to pursue their interests e.g. the 2019 interception of a call between a Qatari diplomat and a Qatari businessman in which there was a claim that a recent Al Shabaab attack had been carried out ‘on behalf of Doha in order to drive out the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its interests in Somalia.’
Having experienced colonialism, African countries need to be careful in their relations with external powers, knowing well that their interactions will always have peace and security implications. This line of thinking should form the basis on which relations between Africa and the rest of the world are built as a short-term vision of relations is likely to bring to the fore underlying tensions and conflicts in an already highly volatile region given the complexity of the actors involved. Having a long-term vision for each country is important to avoid oversimplification of Africa, and to counter the notion that Africa is a homogenous region as this is a recipe for disaster.
There is an urgent need for innovative ways of benefitting from relations with external players to ensure that the continent benefits from effective natural resource management, work towards climate-proofing climate change vulnerable regions, and conflict transformation. Lastly, African countries should use their resources such as membership in international organizations like the United Nations Security Council and regional organizations to speak with one voice on international peace and security issues.
Having experienced colonialism, African countries need to be careful in their relations with external powers, knowing well that their interactions will always have peace and security implications.
What do you think is missing or under-discussed in conversations about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Firstly, the horrendous and infuriating reports of normalized and globalized systemic anti-black racism that was publicly displayed in the removal of Africans from trains fleeing conflict zones, denial of automatic and unconditional entry into Poland, and widespread harassment through beatings and other degrading practices such as being forced to go to the back of long queues to make space for those deemed more worthy to save—non-blacks.
Second, a reminder that there is an urgent need for an overhaul of the global multilateral systems and global governance to reflect today’s world as some countries have weaponized international peace and security mechanisms instead of using these institutions to protect human rights and stabilize the multilateral global order.
Will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have any noticeable geopolitical and security impact across Africa?
Due to globalization and increased interconnectivity, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has had major trade, social and security implications on food security and energy security in Africa. As many African countries are still struggling with the socio-economic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic (which has had political implications in different countries), there is an urgent need to actively advocate for peaceful resolution of conflict, respect state institutions, strengthen democracy and participatory politics, and protect human rights. Also, Africa’s voting patterns on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further show a divided continent. This is a reminder of how diverse the continent is and that all member states of the African Union have agency and the freedom to vote for what best suits their national and regional interests.
There is an urgent need for an overhaul of the global multilateral systems and global governance to reflect today’s world…
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
During my time as a fellow at the African Leadership Centre, the writing process was simplified into three steps to ensure brevity and clarity of thought:
- Say what you want to say.
- Say it.
- Say what you have said.
Moreover, the need to step away from one’s writing to ‘freshen one’s eyes’ is crucial as it provides an opportunity to reflect on what has been written so far, and objectively critique it. Most importantly, printing out the final piece and reading everything out loud is an understated pointer that makes a big difference in improving one’s writing.
Who’s an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Malcolm Gladwell. I love how he breaks ideas into easy-to-understand points. Also, I marvel at how much research goes into his work!
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
I am excited about two authors, Munyao Kilolo and Abdi Yussuf, whom I know personally. Kilolo’s passion for writing has seen him work with various platforms promoting African literature. These have included Jalada, the Safal-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African literature, and now Ituĩka—a platform devoted to African languages and translation. His projects to promote African languages have garnered popular and critical reviews, and to me it’s inspiring and a breath of fresh air. For instance, Munyao led a translation project that saw one story in an African language translated io more than 100 languages, most of them African. This was Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Gikuyu short story, ‘Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ’ translated into English as ‘The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright’, which achieved the feat of the single most translated short story in the history of African writing.
Kilolo’s translation work is a much-needed reminder that African languages matter and should be used to tell our stories. His work has been featured in African Literatures as World Literature, a volume by Bloomsbury Academic, The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism, as well as the 26th issue of Absinthe: World Literature in Translation.
The second person I am very excited about is Yussuf whose work focuses on security in Africa. Some of his works focus on terrorist financing and security force assistance in the fight against terrorism. Given his strong academic background in counter-terrorism, balanced analysis, keen eye for details, curiosity, courage to speak truth to power, and genuine desire to contribute to relevant knowledge to inform different stakeholders, his in-depth analysis of peace and security issues in Africa is admirable. He is undoubtedly one of my favourite security researchers!
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
International security, terrorism and anything on conflicts in Africa.
What are you currently working on?
If I tell you, I will have to kill you! *Insert smiley face*
Question from Blessing Simura: What advice do you give to budding writers?
Read and write. Do not wait until you are good at it, start where you are and by your 10,000th hour you will have become an expert. Stephen King stated, ‘To write is human. To edit is divine.’ Given that you cannot edit what is not yet written, put in the work to get to the divine bit. Lastly, write in your own way as that is what sets you apart from others.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
How do you balance wanting to write original thought pieces/ books, and delivering to readers what they want to read?⎈
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