Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics
The Uncertainty of Africa in an Age of Certainty
David William Cohen


In the United States, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11/2001, it was not only the Mayor of New York who advanced a strong attack on relativism. The state's answers to 9/11 terrorism were conceived and promoted as an anti-relativist triad: an ascendance of Western or American values, a clear and universal definition of terrorism, and an unquestionable approach to eliminating terrorism from the global stage. Only certainty mattered. Today, what are the fates of epistemologies of certainty and uncertainty based in "Western" or "universal" reason and science amidst, first, these post-9/11 attacks on relativism and, second, the failures in defining and addressing terrorism?

Africa—the broader discourses on Africa—are of special interest here, as the brief for certainty, while given heightened privilege in the 9/11 aftermath, has long held Africa subject to relatively basic and direct understanding, explanation, and remediation, and has long underwritten a failure to comprehend the complexities of Africa in its past and present. A brief for uncertainty opens the way to more pluriversal repertoires, to other histories, and to different narratives as well as to new frames of critique and debate, and to a more complex and more appropriately complex understanding of the course of Africa's past, and of its present situation in the world. [1]

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At the beginning of this century and of this millennium, Africa occupies an awkward position in the world. This awkwardness is not merely the accumulation of crisis and misfortune or the outcome of the inherent contradictions of decolonization. It is hardly the consequence of the many false starts and unfulfilled promises and fantasies associated with projects of African development. [2] And it is neither the effect of proclaimed, yet hardly realized, shifts in Africa's global location toward "the South" nor the product of the incompleteness and failures of global integration. [3]

Africa's awkward position builds from one very significant force: the will to comprehend and to explain Africa from a distance within an economy of knowledge grounded elsewhere. [4] While finding its motors and directions outside Africa, this will to explain Africa from a distance has at times been reinforced through engagements with programs of knowledge production on the African continent. [5] Indeed, these programs of knowledge production on the African continent have themselves become deeply implicated in the protocols and powers of knowledge production at a distance such that today it would be quite idiotic to posit distinctive exterior and interior frames of knowledge production.

The will to explain Africa from a distance is not simply a present condition but builds upon the constantly reproduced and hardly ever challenged inventions of "Africa" as an entity within a larger system of global fates and identities over the past 1000 years. [6] It is as old as travelers viewing and imagining Africa from the deck of a ship or from a well-worn path. It is a will reflected in an American President's hours-long July 2003 Africa journey organized around a restricted set of issues: questions of trade, AIDS, democratization, and terrorism, four key measures of the globe's present imagination and representation of the continent. It is a will that presents scholars with challenges every day, as experts on Africa in the United States and other countries form interpretations and representations, whether in the classroom, or in articles and monographs, or in constructing interventions regarding public policy.

"What was the impact of Europe on Africa?" "Who underdeveloped Africa?" "What is the cause of the 'African crisis'?" Such questions and their force, persistence, recurrence, indeed their naturalization as the core questions for scholars and teachers, also and especially bring attention to the epistemological location of Africa amidst the circuits of learning, advocacy, representation, andPage  241 pedagogy of our present and recent times. Knowledge production within and about Africa has long been subject to extreme economies: the productions of handbooks and ethnographic guides and surveys providing ready knowledge to outsiders; foreshortened inquiries and so-called "rapid assessments"; commissions of inquiry; urgent research protocols relating to dying and disappeared informants (and the very concept of the informant), or dying cultures, or disappeared civilizations; satellite mapping; broad surveys of geomorphology, agrarian structures, and economic histories; popular treatments of varying political stripes [7]; utilitarian and relevant research producing generalizable findings; the composition of cultural and environmental explanations for Africa's past, present, and future; the notion of giving Africa a history, and, yes, the introductory survey course and the textbook in the North American university. Whatever the cause, the program, the difficulty, or the issue at hand, the mandate for the production of knowledge has pressed for direct, simple, and whole answers and accounts. In a consistent way, yet without formal orchestration, this mandate has been constructed by textbook publishers and curriculum committees (from the Afrocentric initiatives in the United States and South Africa to UNESCO and Cambridge and Oxford University Press editorial committees), by research groups seeking cases or analogies from "an African context" (for example, in respect to reproductive behavior, or paleo-ethnography, or mental illness, or development theory), by international agencies and missionary organizations, by business and investment houses, promoters and advertisers, by investigative and legislative bodies such as Senator Frank Church's committee in the United States of the 1970s and the anti-slave trade advocates in the British parliament at the end of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, and by the information gathering bodies on the African continent both during and after colonialism. One could also add in here the centrality, and perhaps growing centrality, of forecasting instruments and institutions, predictions of African population change, development, political reform, and health (especially predictions of AIDS occurrences). Students in African history courses in North American colleges and universities insist on knowing not only where Africa has been (and insist on a neat and comprehensible narrative) but even more so on where it is going. Greater value is accorded the firmness and credibility of projections of futures than is associated with the quest to sort through the very murky and rather indecipherable complexities of the present and recent past. Page  242Projections of futures—for example, that 30% of Africans alive today will die of AIDS—seem to claim the ground of certainty ... in comparison to fraught efforts to reconstruct, for example, African fertility rates in the first decade of the twentieth century, which appears to be a project expressing the very uncertainty of the African past.

Diagnostic of an enduring and constrained economy of knowledge production within and about Africa are the relentless or resilient workings, effects, of a limited set of recurrent interpretative frameworks within the academic literatures—the continuity-change paradigm, the strong state-weak state nexus, the internal versus external frames of explanation—which appear to restrict the range and possibilities of analysis and interpretation. [8] The first—continuity versus change—focuses on such questions as whether Africa is prone to the retention, as tradition, of dysfunctional elements or whether Africa has not been able to keep up with the process of, or need for, change, or whether Africa is throwing off its past too quickly, as if its institutions are on the one hand unchangeable or on the other too open to change. The second—strong/weak—refers to long-running questions regarding the formation and reproduction of states in Africa, whether they are for example oriented toward very strong leadership (divine kings, charismatic leaders, one party states, strongly centralized democracies) or on the other hand toward institutions that inhibit strong centralized structures: power dispersing institutions including strong kin ties (extended kinship, clans, lineages), age-based cadres, clientelism, ethnicity, communalism, and patriarchy. The third—internal/external—refers to whether Africa's processes of change, as well as its crises, are the products of internal or external forces or conditions, for example the slave trade, the expansion of European capitalism and imperialism, or African environmental, political, and cultural conditions in the present. One the eve of the June, 2004, G8 Summit at Sea Island, Georgia, President Thabo Mbeki published an op-ed piece taking to task Henry Kissinger for his view that Africa's fate rests with the "moral commitment of the American people and the international community." Mbeki offered that "The premise is that Africans lack the capacity to save themselves and must rely upon the kindness of strangers. Conscious or unconscious, this assumption pervades discourse on Africa." [9]

These interpretative frameworks thoroughly define the terms of engagement of such discussions as the Rwanda genocide, or whether Africa hasPage  243 now to solve its internal problems—civil war, poverty—on its own, or whether external intervention and subsidy is in fact deleterious ... whether globalization and deeper African relations with the world through trade and consumption are unavoidable answers to the so-called "African crisis". Seeking to evolve an internally animated conceptual framework, and one that transforms the course of history, the recently emergent concept of "the African Renaissance" beautifully condenses these three problematics into a unified idea and program. [10]

We may ask how a limited set of interpretative frameworks have continued to maintain presence discursively and theoretically in the interpretation and representation of complex processes and events on the continent, a presence that traces back to the era of the slave trade? And how have these recurrent interpretative frameworks shaped knowledge and knowledge processes within Africa and on the African past? How might observers and scholars of Africa be able to free their (our) writing from these powerful frameworks? The engagement of some historians of Africa with research and writing in the general field of cultural studies, more broadly than Africa, and the experimentation with what have been called, or denounced as, "post-modern approaches" to the study of the past, may yet provide refreshed and differentiated frameworks of interpretation and analysis through attention to the position of subject, observer, and audience in discourses about the past and through recognition of the multiplicity of sites, moments, and conditions in which the history of the African past (or any past for that matter) is produced beyond the formal academy. [11] The attentions of historians of Africa to the histories of public debates, to court cases, to programs of cultural revival and "inventions of history", and to the histories of cultural and social movements, hold promise of a much refreshed paradigmatic repertoire. Recent interest in rethinking "the modern" and the play of ideas of "modernity" on the comprehension of Africa's fate suggests the values of more complex understandings of the early work of literacy, the rough and unsettled underside of nationalism, and the deeper tensions and struggles engaging and shaping gender. [12] The extraordinary densities of experience regarding science, public policy, implementation, and personal loss and meaning in the HIV/AIDS struggles in Africa, overwhelming North-South and scientific vocabularies, cannot but result in closer attention to difference or variation in the representations of Africa. [13] In all these areas, the opening to understanding, to revision, to moving beyond the restricted setPage  244 of long-dominant interpretative frameworks, has been located in the recovery of alternative and different histories and in the recognition of the pluriversal: other, multiple, and contending productions of values, interests, and meanings in intellectual communities beyond those most directly engaged with the Western academy. [14]

A not insubstantial element of the constrained economy of research on and representation of Africa—the means of reproduction of the restricted set of interpretative frameworks—has been the force of "presentism": the formulation of historical subjectivities in terms of present concerns and interests—from the incubation of nationalist paradigms within African historiography in the 1960s, to the dependency critiques of the late 1960s and 1970s, to the partial constitution of Africa as pathology from the mid-1980s, to the focus on privatization, and more recently AIDS, terrorism, and failed states. These presentisms, emerging as popular social science and popular ecologies, drive shallow depth analyses of epidemics, refugee crises, civil wars, environmental degradation, and urban decay. They are hardly informed by close readings of the literature since the 1920s on African epidemiology, African sexuality, African demography, African nutrition, and African urbanization. Nor are they informed by the long debates on soil erosion and the carrying capacity of the land, African land tenure and animal husbandry, language, literacy, religion, and race. In a word, they are not informed by the eight decades of academic debate of social change that have engaged four generations of African scholars from Dr. D. D. T. Jabavu in the 1930s to Prof. Tabitha Kanogo in 2001. [15] The debates developing within or around these issues have hardly begun to be subjected to close inspection as to the sociologies and politics of their production. [16] An economy of knowledge giving privilege to presentism may lie in the pressures for relevance ... a large and populous continent in crisis, relatively sparse institutions and personnel to monitor and evaluate its condition and direction ... and for certainty ... establishing claims to focused, simple, direct, and affordable solutions to major challenges. The events of and following 9/11/2001 have given greater presence to the challenge of relevance and the demand for certainty, and the struggles for more complex and appropriately complex understandings of Africa are made all the more difficult, if not also more dangerous.

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To date, the will to explain Africa from a distance has been most powerfully drawn in terms of race, négritude, africanité as a reference to blackness, as if the challenge to comprehending Africa's past and future—the means to explanation—is the full disclosure of the essence of 550 million people on a continent. [17] Race continues to matter in referencing Africa from outside. [18] Indeed, in global discourse from at least the fifteenth century, it is the continent of Africa that gives the fraught concept of race a social biography. Those who teach Africa in the North American university find the confrontation with layers and layers of race-thinking the first occupation of their pedagogy. Among ranges of shifting variables, race seems a constant, conjuring certainty, against more tendentious, uncertain, forces and conditions in the world.

While race would seem to hold overwhelming power in constituting the place of Africa in the world, race has offered and continues to offer but restricted and confounded epistemic grounds for rendering the complexities of Africa into knowledge and into the world. Race suggests restricted economies of interpretation, explanation, and representation—the reduction of complex realities into apparently simple formulations. But, explanations through race are inadequate because they fail by reference to empirical and objective criteria and they are inadequate because they fail to achieve philosophical conviction. As a heavily worked generalizing meta-narrative, race is itself difficult to deconstruct and historicize in an era of liberal thought in which race is so strongly associated with violence, hatred, genocide, and oppression.

Albeit tactically treacherous, race is inevitably productive of fresh narratives and alternative generalizations. The turn to race, the embedded nature of race-thinking, complicates. Explanations through race and race narratives always produce next and alternative accounts, deferring settlement of not only understanding but justice. Substantially, the search for essential explanations through race works orthogonally to universal values and discourses emphasizing transcendent human qualities and emergent global agreements. It is a paradox of the moment that race is supremely present and active and divisive as nations, organizations, and experts search for universal grounding across those experiences, practices, and ideas that divide. [19]

Race may be a pre-eminently accessible and heavily worked system of referents, shaping and deforming knowledge of Africa, but race hardly worksPage  246 autonomously. Here, I want to shift attention from the search for essence, and essential understandings through reference to race as explanation, toward a different frame of production of knowledge. The argument here is that the will to explain African from a distance—including sustaining race as a key referentis substantially underwritten by economies of knowledge that speak closure, recognizable answers, simple conclusions, certainties. Uncertainties hold no interest; only certainties are recognized to have value. The paradox of race is that it has carried with it the attributes of certainty: that peoples of complex origins and histories can be assigned definitive categorical identity; that difference can be read through race; that race can be taken to trump all other distinctions; and that race (or by extension ethnicity) can be assigned explanatory status. Race trumps because race and race-thinking conjoin easily with the privileging of certainty. And, arguably, the very substantial status of certainty, the heightened values of confidence, may lie in part in the long and influential work of race. Uncertainties confound the race referent, shattering confidence in categorical identities, complicating representations of difference, and destabilizing explanations via the referent of race.


In the autumn of 1996 I was traveling in Europe, studying, writing, and giving talks. Over dinners, drinks, and coffee, I enjoyed conversation with a range of people inside and outside the academy. Whatever the frame or content of the conversation, whatever the degree of learning of my companion or companions, one question came up again and again as it was learned that my research was located on Africa. In varying language, the question was "why have Africans been killing Africans in Rwanda?" It was a time of still extensive reporting of the 1994 genocide and its aftermath. What I first heard in this question was a request for an explanation. While over the ten weeks I tried consistently to disabuse my companions of the idea that I was an expert on this particular topic, the questions continued. Over time, my responses evolved and were reframed. At first I confronted the notion that "tribalism" explained genocide. I sought to work up a critique of "tribalism" which seemed to control the references to Tutsi and Hutu, to reset difference in Rwanda in a more complex understanding of history, class, and caste. In this, I moved into, but suppressed, my own observations that while North American andPage  247 European scholars of Africa were rejecting both the rhetorical and explanatory frames of tribe and tribalism, Africans in everyday life were finding these frames functional and powerful, and deadly.

I also sought to draw my interlocutors into at least an elementary understanding of the histories of colonialism and the off-times constructedness of colonial categories such as "ethnic groups". I tried to include in my responses some attention to the issues of regional and rural impoverization, hunger (in the sense of diet shift and caloric deficits occurring over five or six decades), the economic devastation brought on this part of the African continent with the substantial jumps in petroleum—and thus transport and thus connection to the world market—costs in the 1970s, and land hunger in that region of Africa since the 1950s. I thought about including—but hardly had the moment to move into—other issues, including arm sales to Africa and the changing shapes of international attentions to local, national, and regional issues on the continent, which would have invited attention to the history of the Cold War in Africa.

As these disquisitions unfolded as a series of conversations over the ten or so weeks in 1996, I began to observe these conversations as if I were a surveillant third party. One of the consistent aspects of these conversations was that the Rwanda discussion tended to last no more than about five minutes. There seemed to be dissatisfaction with the answers of the "expert", who was certainly avoiding direct answers to the questions focused on "why are Africans killing Africans in Rwanda?" In several of the conversations, the questioner moved the ground toward non-African settings in which individuals, or groups, of color, of African descent, were held responsible for killings, suggesting to the "expert" that the questioner's Rwanda interest was essentially a racialist inquiry on race and violence.

As I became more practiced in handling these conversations, I became more confrontational as the exchange moved along from Rwanda to other fields. [20] I called the question of racism in one conversation. And then in two conversations in Germany with individuals whom I have respected as progressive intellectuals, I asked why they assumed that in a couple of minutes I or anyone could explain genocide in Rwanda when genocide in Europe, the Holocaust, Shoah, had been opened to continuing research, reconstruction, analysis, interpretation, explanation for over fifty years without closure. WhatPage  248 is or was there about genocide in Africa that is susceptible to simple and direct explanations, the gist of which can be conveyed in conversation in five minutes? Is race the explanation for conversations so constructed or, beyond race, is there a determining economy of knowledge that restricts reflection, insight, further investigation?

A Smoldering Corpse

But my purpose in Europe in 1996 was not to travel the cities of the European continent to explain, or resist explanation, of the Rwanda horror. I had been granted leave from the University of Michigan to give some motion to a project of writing that I had begun some five years earlier. This was (and is) a manuscript on the multiple investigations into the disappearance and death of Robert Ouko, the distinguished Kenyan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, in February 1990. There have been several significant inquiries into Ouko's death that have been at least in part open to public inspection; others seem to have developed behind closed doors and their respective realities, findings, and conclusions remain obscure. In March, 2003, the Kenya Parliament authorized a new official investigation of Ouko's death, and in February 2004, almost on the fourteenth anniversary of the murder, this new commission began its public hearings.

The more accessible investigations of Ouko's disappearance and death have included a New Scotland Yard inquiry in 1990, a Commission of Inquiry which ran for thirteen months in 1990-1991, and a nearly four year long unsuccessful prosecution of one Kenyan official indicted for the murder. The two trials of this individual began in 1992. The death of Ouko was taken up not only in a book-length treatment by the individual prosecuted but also in a chapter of a former U.S. Ambassador's account of his time in Kenya and in a section of Andrew Morton's evidently authorized biography of former Kenya President Daniel arap Moi. Morton's treatment in effect places Robert Ouko alongside Bill Clinton and Prince Charles as dark and complex figures ventilating the sales of Morton's treatments of Monica Lewinsky and Princess Di. In a way, John le Carre's 2001 Kenya-centered thriller The Constant Gardener is also deeply engaged in the issues of globalization and state violence that swarmed around Ouko's demise and continued to reverberate through the 1990s.

An international dynamic within the investigations of Ouko'sPage  249 disappearance and death was first revealed amidst the unfolding accounts of Robert Ouko's journey to Washington, D.C., in late January, 1990, as part of a President Moi-led unofficial delegation to a prayer breakfast in the American capital. Ouko was said to have severely damaged his station within the Kenyan leadership by upstaging his President in D.C. and running the gauntlet of severe criticism from Moi's closest government colleagues. Many observers of Ouko's end have considered the prayer breakfast in Washington as his knell, opening a breach with President Moi that was not to be overcome.

A few days after his disappearance, and a little over two weeks after the Washington journey, Ouko's smoldering and mutilated corpse was found at a site only 2-3 kilometers from the western Kenyan farm where Dr. and Mrs. Ouko had been building a second life away from the Kenyan capital and away from the lands of their birth in western Kenya. At the time Ouko was last seen alive, Mrs. Ouko was herself in Nairobi, sent away from the farm by the Minister just a day before his disappearance. Both Mrs. Ouko and the Minister's Foreign Office staff were awaiting his return to Nairobi by air from Kisumu, the nearest airport to the Ouko farm and Kenya's second largest city. The Foreign Office was preparing for Ouko's upcoming mission to the Gambia; they were expecting that, from Kisumu, Ouko would board a flight in Nairobi for West Africa.

At the farm, located an easy driving distance from Kisumu, sixteen of seventeen of the Oukos' employees were purportedly asleep or away from the farm at the estimated time of Ouko's departure from the farm in the darkness of February 12-13, 1990. How Ouko disappeared from his farm was and continues to be a matter of debate and speculation. Even the facts of discovery of Ouko's corpse on a hill near the farm have been a matter of dispute ... what day was his found corpse actually reported to the local authorities? ... Did he die where his body was found or was he killed elsewhere? ... Were his remains substantially disturbed after his death? ... Was the scene of discovery reconstituted between one and another "discoveries" of his body?

The time of Robert Ouko's departure and the means of his departure have been reckoned from but one employee, the Oukos' housemaid Selina, who has claimed in scores of settings that she was awakened by a sharp sound at around 2 a.m. on February 13, 1990, and in the night saw a white car of unknown make, with an unknown number of occupants, move away down thePage  250 Oukos' farm drive. Her uncorroborated sighting gathered authority and conviction the more that some investigators heard it, and as it was juxtaposed to virtually incredible police theories that a very despondent Ouko had wandered off from his farm-house and taken his own life. The white car on a moon-lit drive provided almost unlimited scope for Kenyans to imagine who was in the car, whose car it was, and with what purpose, producing extraordinary narrative frames for Robert Ouko's demise, as well as important critiques of Kenya's government.

Indeed, since the first word on February 15, 1990, from Kenya Radio on the Minister's disappearance, Kenyan publics have followed the course of the Ouko investigations with intense, detailed interest and they have in fact pushed them forward. An accounting of Ouko's demise has stood in for a more general accounting of justice in Kenya, but it has been pushed further into a program of critique of corruption, leadership, governance, and the one-party state. The search for answers to Ouko's disappearance and death has been multiply animated.

The Ouko Project

This project (I have a co-author, the historian of Kenya E. S. Atieno Odhiambo of Rice University) has sought to use the quite vast, though incomplete, public record developing through the inquiries and investigations as a means to understand Kenya in the closing decades of the twentieth century, as if this public record were a found inquisitional text from France, Italy, Spain, or Mexico from the 16th century. Beyond this interpretative and representational opportunity—which draws on my own long-standing interests in the epistemologies of historical anthropology—the public record of the Ouko saga has also permitted us to study the protocols of investigation by different bodies, how inquiry proceeds between method and practice, and how inquiries are remade in their unfolding. Additionally, we have taken up the examination of the ways in which interest, contention, performance, location, and temporality weigh in the production and deconstruction of authority and truth. But everywhere we have taken presentations of our work—whether these are venues of African or Kenya interest or venues interested more generally in historical methodology—audiences are interested primarily in but one question: "Who killed the Minister?"

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This has been an uncomfortable question, both because we—the two authors—have been trained as historians, with some sense of the value of answering questions and reconstructing events, and because we are deeply concerned about the violence and injustice that removed this brilliant individual from our midst. And it has also been an uncomfortable question because it reminds us that this now decade-long project of collaboration is attending to the experience of one death in Africa. In our Ouko project, we do acknowledge that we have almost obsessively, certainly relentlessly, pursued a single event. But we have done so with an intent that reaches beyond the immediate circumstances of the Ouko saga. Amidst an Africa reflected through images of mass death and genocide, the manuscript seeks to draw meaning and understanding from the tensions regarding the facts of but one death. [21] Our project has pushed to the side these questions of "Who killed Ouko?" and "How did Ouko die?" to situate the work of historians within a broader range of discovery and narration of truth and to understand the powers and poetics of uncertainty and indeterminacy in the productions of knowledge. Here, the want of certainty, the demand for a final answer, seeks to claim a privileged political position against other interpretative usages, against other political projects, against the immeasurable possibilities of uncertainty.

Those in Kenya and beyond, including ourselves, who have used the corpse and life of Ouko to tell powerful stories about Kenya and the world are doing something readily comprehended within Africa at the end of the twentieth century; that is, the search for ways to speak more powerfully to larger issues within the liberties allowable in speaking about specific cases, single events, life histories, and about the dead especially. Our position is that the power in events and in histories is constructed within, and often sustained, not so much through the constitution of answers or solutions, but rather in these interstitial and unfinished moments and contexts in which people and interests raise questions, demand answers, and struggle over meaning. We find intriguing that those who would want to shut down these inquiries somehow do inevitably keep them alive, while those who have sought to complete them have found that their essential interests are most fully worked by the absence of closure. To refuse to answer the question "Who killed Ouko?" is to sustain attention to a broader array of critical concerns.

Most importantly, we are hopeful that readers will travel with us pastPage  252 the death of a single African towards more complex and subtle readings of Africa, whether within the academy or beyond. The search for a comprehension of Ouko has unfolded in an age when doubt is everyday super-imposed on confidence, when questions face off against impunity, when answers and certainty appear conjoined with political limits and control, and uncertainty seems the fragile formative ground of debate and critique.

Last Hours

The last persons who observed the living Ouko on the evening of February 12, 1990, saw him sitting on the edge of his bed in his residence at his Koru farm in the new Luo homeland of western Kenya. One was his sister Dorothy Randiak who, with several friends, was visiting Ouko at Koru that evening. They found him so preoccupied in his papers and files laid out on his bed that they noted that he hardly attended to the momentous evening news on the Oukos' television, news of Nelson Mandela's release from prison. The other was the Oukos' housemaid at Koru, Selena Ndalo Were, who had observed the Minister at work on his papers over several days. She was present throughout the evening, providing food for the visitors; she also saw the files on the bed.

Around 10:30 p.m., Dorothy Randiak came to Ouko's bedroom to tell him she and the others were leaving. Ouko was sitting on the left side of his bed, facing the bedroom door. He had two briefcases on the floor and several files on the bed in front of him. One was an orange file, marked "Confidential," with an orange ribbon tied around it. The Minister joined his guests to show them out and gave Kasuku some money for gas. Dorothy tarried behind a bit longer with her brother, while the rest of the party moved to the car. She and Ouko talked about some problems with their brother Barrack Mbajah, and Ouko promised to talk to him when back in Nairobi. On leaving she noticed that the outside door to the minister's study was open, and she instructed Selina [Ndalo Were] to lock it up, which the maid did with Ouko's help. Finally, the visitors drove off together. [22]

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Evidence advanced in the New Scotland Yard investigation and in the Judicial Commission of Inquiry indicated that from late 1989 Robert Ouko had been collecting documentation [23] regarding the much conflicted effort to restart the Kisumu Molasses project, the largest capital investment in twentieth century western Kenya, a long developing project that never achieved its promise. It was terminated by the Government of Kenya in 1982. Then, Ouko, with the encouragement of overseas consultants, pressed for a resuscitation program as part of the run-up to the 1988 parliamentary elections. At a large rally in Kisumu not far from the defunct works, President Moi announced his support for the molasses project. But as planning for the resuscitation, including substantial new capital investment, moved "forward" Ouko faced strong opposition from some of Moi's closest allies in the Kenya Cabinet and senior administration.

As Kenyans learned about the observations of the documents on the Oukos' bed at Koru, different lines of interpretation emerged: one held that Ouko was preparing the documentation for the U.S. Government, the IMF, and the World Bank as part of a misconceived and politically dangerous strategy to save Ouko's and perhaps Kenya's credit in Washington and other capitals [24]; another held that Ouko was assembling the documentation to take to his President, Daniel arap Moi, to reestablish his credit with Moi and thereby to best, and to undermine the position of, Ouko's adversaries in Moi's inner circle. In either instance, Ouko was recognized as aware of a political and/or literal death sentence hanging over him. These interpretative gambols variously fit prominent narratives of Ouko's last hours: one, that Ouko was preparing to flee Kenya and to carry these documents with him; or, that Ouko was grasping for a last meeting with the President so as to save his skin, revealing to his President "the truth" via the compiled documentation [25]; or that Ouko had reached a state of hopeless despondency and chose to take his own life. [26]

Justice in Africa

During the searches for Ouko in the days following his disappearance, the Minister's brother Barrack Mbajah observed police or Special Branch investigators removing papers, files, and briefcases from Ouko's bedroom and study. Ouko's purported dossier has not been seen since. To all intents and purposes the Ouko dossier defies reconstruction, but in all its ambiguity andPage  254 uncertainty—and, of course, it is the imagination of the dossier as opposed to its definitive contents that accords it a certain power—the dossier sits at what might be thought of as the center of the question of justice in Africa. Ouko sought reversal of the state of things, whether that be his own rehabilitation into Moi's inner circle; or the reestablishment of Kenya's "credit" with the international financial institutions and development lenders; or a reform of the thickly corrupted regime of development, international capital markets, and overseas investment; or the turn of his western Kenya toward being a central player in the Kenya economy; or the retrieval of the best of an ambitious important substitution program in the Kenya.

Whatever complement of motives that he may have had in those last weeks, Ouko was evidently seeking to construct a documentary record of the events surrounding the molasses project and related development initiatives in Kenya. He would have been doing so with a conviction that a truthful account was a thoroughly documented one that would reveal the motives, interests, errors, and misconduct of various players. As well, Ouko would have been clearly aware of multiple and differentiated audiences for his documentation, including not only the international consulting firm which assumed that they had their prominent Kenyan Minister of Foreign Affairs doing their bidding but also the President and those around him as well as his World Bank friends and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker (with whom he had a private audience in D.C. at the time of the prayer breakfast, annoying Moi no end because Moi was refused private audiences with Bush and Baker). [27] Here, we see the complexity of Ouko's task ... getting it right, closure, certainty, was not the only contingency of his "narrative" ... there were a host of other interests and audiences in play.

Knowing Africa

There is a problem with knowing Africa, and it is not only one of stylistics, and it is not only one of risks, such as Robert Ouko seems to have taken on in trying to unveil corruption in high places in Kenya. Authorities, experts, and audiences have trained themselves, or been trained, to expect and to produce simple, general, and useable narratives about Africa, expositions that conform to already imagined and established scripts, narratives that may seek to privilege a certainty but hardly ever achieve that objective. There arePage  255 economies in these productions of knowledge of Africa, in the search for a privileging certainty, whether in the hands of Ouko as he sought information on corruption possibly to take to his President, or in the hands of international experts such as members of the New Scotland Yard team, or in the hands of a public Commission of Inquiry which met for thirteen months. In our Ouko project, the sustenance of a tension between the quest for Ouko's murderer/s and the quest for knowledge of Africa is an explicit act to force attention onto the naturalized or pre-scripted understandings or renderings of Africa's past or present. The quest for Ouko's murderers and the quest for a useable knowledge of Africa are projects of a similar cast, though of a very different scale. Our struggle to sustain attention to a wider array of processes surrounding the death of Robert Ouko is also a struggle for a more complex, and more appropriately complex, rendering of Africa's past/s and present/s. Africa must be understood in its specificity, not only in its generality. And, as hinted above, this program of complexity must involve an engagement with the contingencies of interest and risk that saturate such efforts as Ouko's to make a case and ours to produce a narrative on the Ouko saga. It will not, importantly, assume the frame of reference of the state or other relevant and investigative bodies in defining the protocol and scope of inquiry. As with the problem of audience that Ouko faced in constructing his account, it will not assume that there is one reader, with a restricted set of assumptions, but rather it will acknowledge the multiple, differently positioned, and pluriversal nature of the audiences attending to the question of Ouko's and Africa's fates.

The unfinished story of Ouko's demise, as the unfinished account of the Rwanda genocide, are in part the consequence of the still unfinished investigations, of evidence and knowledge still to be unearthed, still to be brought into public view and expert analysis. But it is inevitably also a consequence of a will to keep open important stories, to sustain the powers and poetics imparted by uncertainty, by narratives that will not or cannot be completed, narratives that work their powers in the absence of closure, in the unsettlements of knowing. [28] Here, uncertainty stands as an accessible and alternative political frame against the confidence underlying various development protocols, structural adjustment programs, population control campaigns, democratization and civil society initiatives, health interventions, and global campaigns against terrorism.

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A Polemic of Uncertainty

9/11/2001 produced a new politics and a new economy of knowledge in North America and beyond. A demand for certainty trumped attendance to the pluriversal repertoires and multiple voices and alternative narratives that reflected new approaches to the wider world within the North American academy. In an age of the privileged position of epistemologies of certainty, now challenged by a much voiced anguish about uncertainty—that our present uncertainty is disabling, that we somehow must get rid of uncertainty, whether via politics, therapy, or war—extraordinary interpretative possibilities arise from the uncertainty of the subject position. For analogy, I am drawn away from the post-9/11 anguish to the voyages of discovery and mapping before the production of accurate marine time-pieces in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. These time-pieces made possible exact measurements of longitude. Prior to these marine chronographs, the fates of mariners and the fates of knowledge lay in modes of observation and record-keeping—say, of the shapes of coastal estuaries and the nature of landscapes and also the local nomenclatures and toponyms—that became unnecessary with the establishment of confidence in the mariner's or explorer's precise position of observation. With the accurate clock aboard, the observations of mariners and explorers could express and pursue other interests and determine other realities beyond the subtle modes of seeing and recording which previously assured their own success and those of others who would follow them. What capacities of seeing and recording were lost in this modernity of instruments and time-space standardization? We can go back to W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape, and read Hoskins suggesting that we have lost the means of reading our landscape and yet have the opportunity to learn it anew.

In a broader sense—beyond the specific work that Hoskins had in mind, and beyond the metaphor of the longitude problem—we can note the extraordinary interpretative possibilities that are made available through animating the uncertainty of the subject position, of gaining a fuller sense of the formative powers and poetics of the uncertainty of Africa in an age of certainty. I seek here to draw uncertainty out of what I take to be "the hermeneutical shadows." I do not mistake uncertainty as a subordinate element of the objectivity question. Objectivity privileges itself as the defining scientific protocol of thePage  257 social sciences. For the historical profession, objectivity is reckoned the essential condition that makes possible the construction of elaborate narratives and complex historical explanation, as well as democratic institutions. Uncertainty operates along a different axis. Uncertainty draws attention to the unfinished status of knowledge. Uncertainty bears both powers and poetics. Uncertainty signals a distance from closure in the construction of the historical record. And, not inconsequentially, yet often without notice, uncertainty is itself constitutive of social and political life and, also, historical knowledge, historical understanding. Uncertainty underlines the importance of justice as process, and not simply as closure. While there has been much attention to the question of objectivity in the historical sciences, uncertainty does not seem to claim any hermeneutical status within the important conversations regarding the making of the historical record, though I stand to be corrected on this point. Yet all narratives are ultimately contingent upon and conditioned by the workings of uncertainty as these narratives are constructed ... in the same vein, justice is itself contingent on the recognition of the powers of uncertainty, of alternative possibilities, of the values of hesitancy in seeking closure.

Kenyan publics have resisted the state's efforts to tell the Ouko story in one way; they have nurtured relativism and milked uncertainty, and they have not necessarily trusted certainty. [29] In doing so, since February 1990, they have not only opened to view other accounts but also pressed their democratization agendas, ended the one-party system, assured a freer press, a livelier civil society, and a new popularly elected government, which, in its own time, has opened a new inquiry into the murder of Robert Ouko.

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1. I am grateful not only to those who participated in the Ann Arbor meetings in August 2002 but also to members of the "Constitution of Public Intellectual Life" program at the University of Witswatersrand and the History Workshop at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, as well as faculty and students at the University of Michigan (most particularly Michael Kennedy and Monica Patterson) who generously and eloquently brought valuable critique to portions of this paper at various stages of its development.

2. For an important collection of writings on development, Fred Cooper and Randall Packard, eds., International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

3. See Fred Cooper, "What is the concept of globalization good for? An African historian's perspective," African Affairs 100, 399 (April 2001), 189-213.

4. Of course, see Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978) for a more elaborated and more original framing of this argument. For especially valuable and still pertinent views of the academic disciplines and the state of African studies, see Angelique Haugerud, ed., "The Future of Regional Studies," Africa Today (special number), 44, 2 (April-June 1997); also, Steven Feierman, "Colonizers, Scholars, and the Creation of Invisible Histories," in Beyond the Cultural Turn, ed. Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 182-217.

5. An especially important intervention here is Gaurav Desai, Subject to Colonialism: African Self-Fashioning and the Colonial Library (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); see also Simon Gikandi, Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

6. See V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Christopher Miller, Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985); and Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universal and Particulars: An African Perspective (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

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7. Marking a range, René Dumont, False Start in Africa (New York: Praeger, 1966) and Keith B. Richburg, Out of Africa: A Black Man Confronts Africa (New York: Basic Books, 1997); Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1982).

8. For a somewhat elaborated discussion of this point, see David William Cohen, "Doing Social History from Pim's Doorway," in Reliving the Past: The Worlds of Social History, ed. Olivier Zunz (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 225-27.

9. "Building a Better Africa," Washington Post, June 10, 2004 <>. Mbeki's reference to "discourse on Africa" implicates not only the substantive elements of the "discourse" in respect to knowledge of Africa but also the power and perdurance of Western or, more specifically, North American logocentrism. In a seminar in which a draft of this paper was discussed, Windsor Leroke productively asked how or why Americans accept and support and rely upon a logocentric economy of knowledge when alternative economies of knowledge might be more efficacious.

10. The recent unfolding of the "African Renaissance" framework is especially associated with the initiatives and speeches of Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa. See, for example, Thabo Mbeki, "The African Renaissance, South Africa and the World," Tokyo, April 9, 1998 (<>); "Statement by Deputy President Mbeki at the African Renaissance Conference," Johannesburg, September 28, 1998 (<>); and "Speech at the Launch of the African Renaissance Institute," Pretoria, October 11, 1999; (<>). But also see reflections on the challenges and complexities of realizing a vision of an "African Renaissance," Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane, "Where there's no Vision the People Perish—Reflections on the African Renaissance," (<>). For an extensive archive of writings on "the African Renaissance," see AfricAvenir (<>).

11. For an extraordinarily rich collection of reflections on archives, history, and culture, see Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid, and Razia Saleh, eds., Refiguring the Archive (Cape Town: DavidPage  260 Philip, 2002).

12. A benchmark collection in the field of gender is Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron, eds., Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa (New York: Routledge, 1995); for an important new intervention into the fields of race and gender, see Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2002). For an highly original engagement with the concept of modernity, see James Ferguson, Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1999).

13. I am especially grateful to Mandisa Mbali of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, for locating the significance of HIV/AIDS in the transformation of dominant paradigms. Addresses to HIV/AIDS, in respect to HIV/AIDS in southern Africa, has unmade the internal-external reference, reframed the critique of the state, and claims a new analytical position in respect to the question of the capacity of society to manage critical change.

14. See, for an especially promising opening, Thomas C. McCaskie, Asante Identities: History and Modernity in an African Village, 1850-1950 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).

15. E. S. Atieno Odhiambo, "The Mind is for Education, the Heart is for Thinking," in Reflections on Systems of Education in Africa, ed.Lawford Imunde(Rehburg-Loccum, Germany: Locummer Protocolle, 2002) 5/2, 125.

16. Within the "moments" of debate, specific work has been critiqued in terms of "correctness" of position, in the process inoculating work against close critical inspection of methodological or empirical soundness. Most recently, attentions to gender—though more accurately to the history of women in Africa—have defined new frames of study, and to a certain extent reproduced criteria of "correctness" of perspective or interpretative position as the medium of critique.

17. Christopher L. Miller, Theories of Africans: Francophone Literature and Anthropology in Africa (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990).

18. For example, Richburg, Out of Africa ... , and Robert D. Kaplan's writings on Africa more generally. More substantially, on race and Africa, see Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: Norton, 1999), especially 376-401.

19. Attention is obviously drawn to the World Conference Against RacismPage  261 held in Durban, South Africa, which finished its meetings on September 7, 2001. See <>.

20. Of course, this was before the publication of Philip Gourevitch, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda (New York: Picador, 1998), but soon after Gourevitch's first writings on and from Rwanda were appearing in The New Yorker. I could have done no better than refer my European conversationalists of 1996 to the 1998 Gourevitch volume.

21. It should also be said that in each of our presentations, and in the book-length manuscript, we have ourselves asked and attempted to address the question of "Why should we spend ten years studying, and writing on, the death of one African amidst mass death from genocide, civil war, hunger and AIDS?" I use the word "address" here rather than the word "answer"—I cannot assume that a reader would accept our reasoning, as laid out in the longer manuscript, as an "answer".

22. From David William Cohen and E. S. Atieno Odhiambo, The Risks of Knowledge: Investigations into the Death of the Hon. Minister John Robert Ouko in Kenya, 1990 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2004), 88. Kasuku was one of Ouko's old friends, among the visiting party. Eston Barrack Mbajah was one of Ouko's younger brothers who arrived from Nairobi after hearing of his brother's disappearance. So strong were the reports of dissension between Ouko and Mbajah that Mbajah, with his wife, were the first individuals detained by New Scotland Yard in their investigations. They were released after a few days; upon their release, the New Scotland Yard leader dispatched any notion of them being serious suspects in the disappearance and murder.

23. Ouko's evident efforts at documenting corruption in Kenya overlapped with work in the Italian parliament to document Mafia influence over the course of Italian development programs in Africa, particularly Kenya. According to some witnesses before the Commission, in the last months before his death Ouko had in his hands the Italian parliamentary reports.

24. This interpretative path encompasses two different lines of reasoning: on the one side, Ouko was a "golden boy" in the Bush and Thatcher circles and was being groomed by Kenya's western allies as the next President of Kenya. Ouko was clearly being pressed by the U.S. Government and the international financial institutions to clean up Kenya's act and thus an Ouko project toPage  262 provide a definitive account of the course and locations of corruption in Kenya would serve that purpose. On the other side, Ouko, like other African foreign ministers of the 1970s and 1980s, was considered too much an internationalist, moving the foreign relations and development agendas outside the register of immediate national political interests. To those in Moi's inner circle, this smacked of disloyalty to the nation and the government. Documents placed into public view through the Judicial Commission of Inquiry suggest that Ouko's dossier at Koru was also being constructed under intense pressure from the chief officer of an international consulting firm that wished to recover its position in the development business in Kenya, a business that basically collapsed when the tide turned against the molasses resuscitation project.

25. One could also venture that Ouko's game might have been still more dangerous, that a dossier being developed by Ouko could have been read as an effort to blackmail Moi's inner circle, that once developed such a dossier could be used in a variety of ways and moments to destroy Ouko's enemies and build support with external institutions and foreign governments.

26. Despite the extraordinary physical evidence pointing to a brutal murder and subsequent attempts to cover-up some of the traces of the murder, police officials and the Chief Pathologist of Kenya continued to push the suicide theory for more than a year. While the suicide theory was eventually dispatched as simply ludicrous, the Government of Kenya released statements and reports throughout the 1990s which pressed interpretations that Ouko's murder was a result of family conflict, cuckoldry, or dissension among local political figures in western Kenya, all playing on reports of Ouko's despondency in his last weeks of life.

27. If we have any glimpse at all of the frame of reference of Ouko's dossier, it comes from the various recollections of his sister and closest intimates as they were presented to the Judicial Commission of Inquiry, regarding the unfolding conflicts over the molasses resuscitation scheme.

28. Of course, there is an ethics and there is a politics here. Revisionists and denialists of different stripes and evil motives also seek to keep stories open, unsettled.

29. One astute observer of the Ouko saga, Joyce Nyairo, has suggested that, in paradoxical ways, Ouko himself may have been a victim of this thing "certainty". In returning to his western Kenya farm at Koru and in his relyingPage  263 on his Luo networks at a moment of critical need—two settings of a certain security—Robert Ouko may have set an opportune stage for those who would draw him out of his farm compound and to his death.