Terrorism Joins the Traditional Quartet of War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death
Developments of the past two decades have elevated security concerns within every domain. Issues ranging from data to employment to identity now invoke the need for protection in some manner or form. Hot viruses and Biblical climatic events lie in wait. It is as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have dismounted, mutated, and insinuated themselves into everyday life. Our collective sense of angst has spiked since terrorism joined the traditional quartet of war, famine, pestilence, and death.
The demand for protection has never been so high. The rapid pace of global change in general feeds the post-truth perception that we inhabit a planet of unprecedented threat. In a world where we are constantly under attack from something real, imagined, or invisible, sowing terror has become the underdog’s weapon of choice. Safety has become a commodity and the bazaar has responded with gadgets and elixirs to keep uncertainty at bay. And for decades, Western governments and their military technologies have dominated the marketplace.
In a world where we are constantly under attack from something real, imagined, or invisible, sowing terror has become the underdog’s weapon of choice. Safety has become a commodity
There are compelling reasons — like the combination of capacity, donor funds, and diplomatic capital — that explain why the United States in particular has dominated responses across security-related fields. We can add science, and a dose of Christian morality and secular ethics into the mix. All of these factors have made ‘security’ a ubiquitous but tricky word. This is why some governments are still trying to figure out the practical impact of the Donald Trump government for their nations and regions.
East African policy makers do not have that problem. Kenya is a case in point. Because it is a primary theatre in the Long War Against Terrorism, the national government’s many shortcomings are routinely overlooked. The new administration in Washington is likely to reinforce the prevailing status quo even if it negates the substantial investment in promoting democratic governance that preceded it.
The buzz in Washington indicates that Peter Pham of the well-respected Atlantic Council will be appointed Undersecretary of State for Africa. Although progressive by the standard of Trump appointees, he is hawkish on security issues, and in sync with currently influential proponents of the boots-on-the ground school.
But there are voices challenging the sustainability of this relationship. For years, conservative and military critics abroad have been questioning the foundations of the LWOT, asking why those in charge of its unsuccessful execution on the ground are not held to account. Their liberal counterparts have interrogated the waste of trillions of dollars and the political capital squandered along the way.
Yet the architects of LWOT policies continue to enjoy immunity. We can therefor expect support for the military sector to continue for now, albeit with some major strategic modifications. One forward thinking military analyst, John Robb, recently tweeted that ‘US counter-terrorism policy has been on autopilot for over a decade.’ Donald Trump’s policies, including investing in obsolete conventional and nuclear weapon systems, is actually a step backward.
Unfortunately, Trump’s budget for militarisation comes with a corresponding reduction in American funding for developmental and humanitarian assistance.
In a letter sent to Congress, a group of 121 three-star and four-star generals wrote to Congress that, ‘Many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone,’ adding that ‘the military needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism.’ When questioned on the cuts, Trump security spokesman Sebastian Gorka replied, ‘If poverty was the problem, half of India would be terrorists.’
Military Funding Greases the Wheels of the Multinational Convoy
The extended drought ravaging the East African region provides the backdrop for the new American president’s promise to eradicate Islamist extremism. Double the numbers affected by the 2011 famine are at risk. The US provides one-third of the emergency assistance demanded by such natural disasters across the world.
Documenting problems of waste, top-down approaches, counter-productive projects, and dependency has catalysed improvements in the design and delivery of external assistance. The same cannot be said for the counterterrorism industry: The US State Department counted 348 terrorist attacks worldwide in 2001, compared with 11,774 attacks in 2015.
For years, African governments have bought into the political narrative supporting the retaliatory responses adopted by the likes of Bush and Blair. Military funding used to grease the wheels of the multinational convoy is usually diverted from other developmental initiatives. Choices, as a former American undersecretary of state declared, have consequences.
For example: USAid’s Secure Project in Lamu was assisting some of the area’s most marginalised inhabitants to understand and utilise Kenya’s new land laws to protect their communal lands. The project was abruptly suspended and Lamu found itself instead hosting a contingent of marines and drone operators at Camp Simba. The presence of the best army in the world, however, did not deter subsequent actions such as the series of bloody raids across the Lamu mainland in 2014.
The attacks were used to promote Al Shabaab videos and messages about the Christian usurpation of local lands. The high quality production and on-target messages about land and social justice generated by the jihadi propaganda machine should not be underestimated. Even if Shabaab is eradicated, the influence of their social message will endure, and can seed new episodes of violent resistance long after the current generation of combatants is gone.
Kenya is already paying a high price in the form of terrorist taxes like the shift of the Uganda oil pipeline to the Central Corridor route, several years of dead tourism on the Coast, and the ineffective if not misconceived military misadventure in Somali.
When questioned on the cuts in humanitarian funding, Trump security spokesman Sebastian Gorka replied, ‘If poverty was the problem, half of India would be terrorists’
A decade of COIN has seen Al Shabaab, like the mythical Anteus, remain firmly rooted in the ground while becoming more elusive as the demoralising attacks on the Kenya Defence Forces in the Baure, El Adde, and Kulbiyow bases demonstrate. The KDF suffered significant casualties in all these raids while the vigour of Al Shabaab to carry out missions is undiminished.
Such LWOT-related costs should serve as a recurring reminder that currently prevailing notions of security, however strongly imprinted on our psyches and burnt into our brains through years of mainstream media and government-sourced reports, are illusory.
The now common use of the term, existential threat, is a rather ironic example of the conundrum. I personally do not know who introduced ‘existential’ to the lexicon of security; in most of the contexts in which it is used the meme appears to connote a zero-sum threat to material existence. For Trump advisor Steve Bannon, it fits his polarising vision of the world of Judaeo-Christian capitalism at war articulated at a Vatican conference in 2014.
Citing existential threats as the reason for combating Islamic terrorism makes it necessary that we clarify the current use or misuse of the term.
The original concept dates back to the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who said that individuals must take responsible for imparting meaning to their existence. The search for existential authenticity allows us to live with sincerity and a passion for life. Kierkegaard saw modernity as a threat to these qualities. After two world wars, a new generation of European intellectuals adopted his concern over the increasingly mechanical quality of material existence.
Writers like Camus and Sartre identified the term existentialism with an enduring quest for meaning. This requires that the individual define one’s being in terms of their essential humanistic values, and not submit to the labels and definitions imposed by society. Finding one’s inner identity was an antidote to the sense of dread that comes with living in a confused, disoriented, and apparently meaningless and absurd world.
Much existential thought focused on being entrapped by the absurdity of the contemporary world. The resulting angst is born out of the perpetual danger of having everything meaningful break down. The philosophers proposed an escape: We are defined by our actions. The praxis associated with this existentialism was one of the behind-the-scenes drivers of the anti-war movement and environmental activism that gathered speed during the 1960s.
The validity of an idea is confirmed when it comes back in different forms. The practice of Islam now helps fill the gap for Muslim and converts who feel trapped by monolithic economic and political forces. This is why variations on the secular existentialism of the mid-20th century are discernible in the accounts of self-confessed jihadis who survived to write about their conversion to Islamist extremism.
The Only Philosophic Problem Is Suicide
This line of thinking influenced the essay by Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, where the author observed that in the absurd world we now inhabit, ‘There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.’ The angst and existential dread permeating the post-Christian capitalism Islamic world made it easier for the theologians of jihad to weaponise suicide bombing as a way out, with the added incentive of martyrdom.
Nuclear warfare, climate change, the very real possibility of a global pandemic are existential threats. Poverty in the form of 17 million people facing starvation is an existential threat. Religious violence with its long historical pedigree is not.
Can IGAD and Kenya Succeed Where Goliath Has Failed?
The writing on the wall is now in boldface. The fiscal impact and human suffering incurred by the region’s real crises now demand that influential actors and thinkers across the greater Horn region look within for solutions.
Writing in the Sunday Nation of March 12, Peter Kagwanja notes that world powers have always cultivated and utilised soft power to justify their foreign interventions; colonialism and its aftermath are proof of how Africa has fared poorly in the battle of ideas. These observations reinforce his call for a new breed of policy think tanks mandated with the ‘extraordinary task of decolonising the policy space where decisions affecting Africa are negotiated and made.’
The revisionary political trends disrupting business as usual in Western democracies indicate the time is ripe to act on Kagwanja’s challenge. The failure of hard power to counter violent extremism points to redefining what security means in the regional context as a good place to start. The process is actually underway on the regional level.
In another Sunday Nation article, Kagwanja describes the formulation by Igad of a regional initiative to counter violent extremism (CVE) in its different forms. The Igad project is reviewing conventional securitisation policies with a view to formulating long-term strategies specific to the security needs of this region. Actions already underway include the development of CEWARN, the regional conflict early warning system that serves the same objective through its activities on the ground.
The angst and existential dread permeating the post-Christian capitalism Islamic world made it easier for the theologians of jihad to weaponise suicide bombing as a way out, with the added incentive of martyrdom
CEWARN is a practical tool for conflict prevention based on local information networks that collect and document relevant information and data on cross-border and related pastoral conflicts. It combines the accumulation of big data with a unique combination of national, regional, civil society, and grassroots relationships. Operationalisation over the past decade focused on testing its methods in three cross-border clusters across the region. The success of the predictive algorithm developed over this period sets the stage for its rollout on a larger scale, and for its application to other problems such as the spread of Ebola, circulation of small arms, and counterterrorism.
Although still a work in progress, adoption of the CEWARN model by other regional organizations like Ecowas attests to the efficacy of CEWARN’s methodology. A book documenting the vision, methods, and evolution of the CEWARN system since its inception in 2002 will provide a robust picture of the progress achieved so far. In the meantime, this writer can affirm that CEWARN is a positive presence in the areas where it works, and that the replication of the early warning model across the continent will enhance the scope of African Union operations.
Administratively, the AU has a long way to go. This does not contradict the value of its human resources and knowledge of the region’s problems. Subsequent developments in Libya showed the arguments made by Secretary General Jean Ping to involve the African Union as a mediator to be correct. More recently, the AU’s negotiation of the succession impasse in the Gambia contrasts favourably with the messy outcome resulting from the UK’s quasi-diplomatic intervention in Sierra Leone a decade earlier.
The directionality of developments in this domain reinforces Kagwanja’s thesis across a number of important policy domains. It is now reasonable to expect that a combination of regional co-operation, economic integration, and the bottom-up dynamics now gathering momentum will over the long run counteract the sources of the region’s endemic insecurity. Resilience conditioned by years of low-intensity conflict and uncertainty is indicative of local communities’ ability to stay the course.
By the same measure, we can anticipate that national governments will continue to be the weak link as the continent’s age of capital gathers momentum.
In his 1981 book on The Emergence of African Capitalism, John Illife posited that the solution for most the continent’s problems lies in the rise of a truly indigenous and creative capitalist class. Although we can see signs of this emergence in the private sector in the likes of Alex Dangote and Mohammed Ibrahim, the influence of rent-based accumulation will dominate for the time being. The region’s unexploited oil reserves, strategic minerals, and the large tracts of land coveted by foreign agribusiness investors will continue to encourage elites to place their interests above the public good while they and their clients on the ground compete to claim their share of the spoils.
Kenya is a significant test case of this emergence due to its status as the region’s most advanced exemplar of indigenous capitalism. It is also a crucible of internal and external conflicts. The violent forces incubating in post-state Somalia also gave rise to Africa’s most dynamic example of trans-border economic synergy. Kenya straddles both.
The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa
The operations of the new regional political marketplace paralleling the state-brokered capitalism of the Kenya model is the subject of Alex De Waal’s 2016 book, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa. De Waal’s regional case studies illuminate how political entrepreneurs operating in the new transactional space sustain many of the violent struggles for socioeconomic resources complicating conventional securitisation policies.
In an earlier discussion paper, De Waal addresses the ‘notoriously difficult’ task of assessing class forces in Somalia’s predominantly pastoralist economy. He analyses how what appear to be clan and factional driven struggles to control resources camouflage the class-based factors operating underneath. Siad Barre’s government elites could not penetrate the livestock export economy that was generating 80% of the country’s revenue. Instead, they usurped control of the agrarian economy of southern Somalia.
The commercial class dominated by livestock traders managed to reassert control of the livestock trade networks extending deep into the hinterland. Their co-operation with the weak new state institutions in Somaliland and Puntland accounts for the relative stability of the northern region.
De Waal observed that the failure to consolidate similar control in southern Somalia and the exports passing through Kismayu’s port would result in the region’s livestock exports passing through Kenya. This assessment, made in 1996, came to pass.
The disenfranchisement of agro-pastoralists, herders, and peasant farmers in Juba and Shebelle river regions was exacerbated by the competing warlords’ efforts to take over where Barre left off. Sorting out the economic disruptions and land ownership in the country’s most productive region, according to De Waal, is a basic prerequisite for establishing any effective national government. This prediction also proved true.
The region’s unexploited oil reserves, strategic minerals, and the large tracts of land coveted by foreign agribusiness investors will continue to encourage elites to place their interests above the public good while they and their clients on the ground compete to claim their share of the spoils
The AK-47 was invented as an anti-capitalist weapon. But together with Sharia law, it reinforced formal principles regulating mercantile capitalism in Somalia. Local business communities supported the Islamic courts, which operated as a court of appeal for Somali customary law. Case studies of African rebel movements attest to how the practical task of governing typically moderates the extremism of insurgents. In any event, radicals controlled only three of the 16 Islamic courts in the capital and this was beginning to happen before the defeat of the ICU saw Al Shabaab grow from a militia with less than 50 men under arms in 2005 to a regional vehicle combining Somali nationalism with international jihadi extremism.
History repeated itself. In the 1996 paper, De Waal advised, ‘It is worthwhile to study its approach to the land question in the riverine areas it formerly controlled.’ Several consultants who spent time there before the KDF invasion of 2013 personally reported to me that the southern areas under their control had stabilised under Al Shabaab, and that administration of local affairs was efficient, peaceful, and equitable.
KDF Empowers Shabaab’s Jihadi Faction
The 2013 occupation empowered Al Shabaab’s international jihadi faction at the expense of the nationalist faction, and encouraged militant recruits from Kenya’s Al Hijra chapter to carry out their attacks in Nairobi, Lamu, and Garissa.
The renewed international interest in land and extractive resources is now transforming the Horn of Africa into the world’s latest theatre in the Great Game. The contest between state-based forces and agents of De Waal’s political marketplace in this scramble will influence how the current phase of capital penetration and infrastructural investment plays out.
Over time, the region’s states will either harness its natural and human resources for the benefit of its people, or they will lapse into a collection of ethnically divided regimes with pockets of semi-stateless territory where local compradors and political warlords cut deals with the masters of international capital.
The provision of security as a public good lies at the centre of the equation, but where will it come from? In the case of Kenya, only 3% of the 2,998 respondents participating in the recent National Constitutional Socioeconomic Audit approved the state’s handling of security issues.
Sustained commitment to implementing the country’s new Constitution will reduce the nation’s internal frictions. The current template for dealing with Al Shabaab is a trickier proposition.
Kenya’s uniquely symbiotic relationship with Somalia inscribes a basically positive trajectory when not zigzagging between episodic violence and tit-for-tat security operations
Impunity, corruption at the top, and the poor morale among the rank and file has undermined the KDF’s mission to isolate Al Shabaab. Other practical examples of Kenyan-Somali co-operation serve as a counterpoint to the failures of state and international interventions.
Kenya’s uniquely symbiotic relationship with Somalia inscribes a basically positive trajectory when not zigzagging between episodic violence and tit-for-tat security operations. Conflict has contributed to the convergence of Kenya’s capitalist economy and the creative problem solving of Somali entrepreneurs. The rise of Eastleigh in Nairobi as a prototype of transnational commerce is very much a Kenya-Somali hybrid phenomenon that Neil Carrier documents in his recently published book, Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Global Economic Hub.
Even nomadic capital seeks out the protection provided by a functional state from marauding militias and angst-driven religious zealots. A lot of the investment capital generated by the Somali diaspora ends up in Kenya. The spread of peace infrastructure on the ground, co-operation among state administrators working in border zones, and spontaneous community policing including interventions like the selfless actions of ethnic Somalis in Mandera to protect their Christian countrymen represent a strategic alternative to the increasingly meaningless cycle of violence.
In the final chapter of his book, De Waal concludes that the ‘greatest dangers facing the Horn region are mineral rents and counterterrorism funding, followed closely by any form of international security co-operation (including peacekeeping) that increases the size and opacity of military budgets.’
Regional rivalries have hampered Igad’s prospects for effective collective action in the past. In an interview appearing in the CEWARN Compendium mentioned above, a former director, Dr Martin Kimani, connects the points made by Illife, Kagwanja, and DeWaal in his nuanced overview of the organisation’s peace-building mission:
We are moving into a period of more intensified conflict. But that does mean more intensified violence. Let’s make it clear that in fact the Horn, given its contradictions, is far more peaceful than might be the case. In fact, the people of the Horn by and large are far more patient, far more flexible than many other people on the planet in light of the challenges we have here. The Igad region is actually at a very important moment in which countries and governments must decide how exactly are we going to handle having much more economic activity in our territory because there is going to be a gap between that and the time when all the people in the countries are included in that prosperity. Dealing with that gap requires intensified peace building, inclusion, and awareness that, since some people will be left behind, we need to keep the peace with each other.
Igad’s peace infrastructure, CVE policies, and early warning mechanism are adaptive homegrown initiatives designed to contain the multiple sources of violent extremism and the circulation of modern weapons abetting them. The rapid response protocol now under development recognises that properly calibrated use of force will always have a role. There will be blood.
Kenya and its neighbours, despite the mistakes and bungling characterising its anti-terrorism efforts up to now, are better off reconceptualising how to domesticate the range of threats to public security than following the lead of those calling the shots from abroad.
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From Shifta to Terrorist: A Shifting Narrative Of Northern Kenya
A section of Kenyan citizens has been labelled dangerous to the main body of the country and denied a national identity and equal status with their fellow citizens.
As Kenya was celebrating her independence in 1963, the people of the Northern Frontier District were mourning the death of their dream of self-governance under British rule. In the spring of 1962, at the Lancaster House Conference, the region’s delegation had demanded self-determination for the NFD. The colonial government appointed an independent commission to look into the question and a referendum to determine the region’s future was subsequently held. The results of the plebiscite were however cancelled under suspicious circumstances even though they indicated that the overwhelming majority supported self-determination. The people felt cheated, and the north exploded in rebellion.
Northerners, especially those from the northeast, accuse the British colonial government of craftily handing over the region to Kenyatta. The colonialists had promised the separatists’ leaders that they would delay independence for the region to facilitate the orderly transition from colonial rule to self-rule.
The British played both sides after the Northern Frontier District delegation rejected the terms of independence and demanded a different path for the district. The colonial government decided to disregard the wishes of most of the inhabitants and handed over the region to the post-independence Kenyan government. Somalia protested the move, which further complicated the north’s struggle for independence.
What had been a people’s quest for self-rule became a political tussle between Kenya and Somalia. This issue has yet to be settled six decades later, and the north has become a victim of unending sabre-rattling. Kenya became independent on the 12th of December 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta as its Prime Minister. A State of Emergency was declared for the north-eastern region on the 27th of December 1963.
The Shifta war
The rebellion that followed the declaration of independence was, to the separatists, a struggle for self-determination. To the Kenyan government, the separatists were Shifta, the name used to reduce the separatists and the NFD population to bandits, outlaws, thieves, criminals, and murderers.
The Shifta label has stuck, although the events surrounding the coining of the term have been carefully erased from the history books. The Shifta narrative was meant to unite the rest of Kenya against the menace of the separatists. The media effectively adopted the new term as a standard reference to the rebels. Newspaper headlines reported shifta attacks almost daily throughout the period of the conflict.
The “war” was mainly skirmishing between the ill-equipped ragtag army of northern rebels and the Kenya military backed by British planes and tanks. It is the population in the north that bore the brunt of the fighting. The nomads had to sustain the fighters in their midst with their meagre resources while dodging the military operations and bombings.
The conflict began on the 22nd of November 1963 when NFD rebels burnt down a camp in Garissa. The rebellion took its toll on the inhabitants, forcing them to flee in droves to the neighbouring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia. Kenyan security forces considered everyone a rebel and the Shifta label was liberally applied without discrimination to men and boys from the region. Villagisation and shooting of camel herds were used extensively by the government to force the nomadic pastoralists to settle.
The secessionists expected to receive arms and ammunitions from Somalia, but Somalia’s loud noises were more bark than a bite. Nothing of material import came from Somalia in the four years of the war.
While fanning the conflict through declarations and radio broadcasts, Somalia was unwilling to train, arm and fight alongside the secessionists. The significant material support provided to the Kenya government by the British and the superior training of the military forces eventually turned the tide of the war in Kenya’s favour.
The end of the war began in 1966 with the exodus of the nomadic population. By 1967, the secessionists were out of arms and had no resources to rely on as the nomads crossed the border into Somalia in droves in what is known as John kacarar (escaping John). The secessionists surrendered in groups throughout 1967.
Realising that the rebels were at the end of their tether, Somalia accepted peace terms with Kenya mediated by Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. An agreement to end their differences and restore diplomatic relations was signed on the 14th of September 1967. The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north and on terms that were never declared public to the residents of the NFD. Four years of bombings, shootings and plunder had left the northeastern region — where the fighting was concentrated — destitute.
Once the war was over, reconstruction failed to begin. The schism remained in place. The military went on with operations aimed at clearing the region of “shifta elements”. The cost of the war was never enumerated. The hopelessness that descended on a defeated community required leadership, which never came.
A new narrative of bandits roaming in the unsafe wild north began to take shape. Collective punishment was the modus operandi during this period. Whenever armed criminals committed a crime, the nearest settlements were decimated by the soldiers.
In the late 1970s, an incident occurred along the Kenya-Ethiopia border where a military vehicle was burnt. The locals claimed the action was perpetrated by armed Ethiopian militia. In what came to be known as the Malka Mari Massacre, the Kenyan military detained over two hundred men and stoned them to death. None of the men was armed, and the military did not fire a shot.
In the period that followed, poaching became rampant as the stockpiles of small arms fell into the hands of poachers. Overnight, the “Somali Poacher” was born. The parks were now under threat from a new breed of armed men motivated by nothing more than money, and allegedly backed by influential people close to the government. Throughout the 1970s, the Somali poacher terrorised Kenyan elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs.
The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north.
In 1980, the security forces burned down Garissa after detaining and killing many of its inhabitants. This was an incident directly resulting from a disagreement between poachers and their contacts in government. A disgruntled poacher took matters into his own hands and killed several soldiers and other government officials.
The 1980s also saw the infamous Wagalla Massacre of 1984, where thousands were tortured and killed at an airstrip in Wajir, ostensibly during a military operation to curb banditry.
While Shifta and poachers were the competing narratives used by the government to explain its inability to bring the northern region under proper government control, the region suffered wanton neglect and underdevelopment.
The Somali-Ethiopia war ended in 1978, sparking the return of thousands who had fled the region during the war of secession as Somalia descended into clannism and corruption under military dictatorship. That same year, Vice-President Daniel Arap Moi gave a speech that sparked the alien debate when he threatened that the government would register all Somalis and deport anyone found to have allegiance to Somalia. It took 11 years for this policy to be implemented.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970. Traders from the north-east were deemed vagrants and deported from areas in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya back to their home region.
Citizenship documents were tightly controlled, and a system of verification was put in place to make it impossible for the region’s inhabitants to register as citizens. The police were given orders to stop and ask for IDs from anyone looking like a Cushite, a Somali or other related tribes who were distinctively identifiable.
The pink card
In 1989, the famous Kenya-Somali verification and registration took place. The system was designed to catch anyone who could not be linked to a sub-location and known clan.
People had to state their family tree up to their sub-clans, and a pink card with these details was issued to the successful ones. The system was designed to force out of Kenya those unaffiliated to any of the groups “indigenous” to the country.
It is estimated that at one point hundreds were crossing the border into neighbouring countries daily. People were detained, women with young children appeared in court accused of being in the country illegally. Suspected aliens were loaded on military lorries and dropped off in Liboi across the Kenya-Somali border. Many families, especially those elites with businesses, crossed into Uganda and left for Europe or America. The pink cards eventually became available for a fee, and it is believed registration officials took hefty bribes in the process. The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost when entire families were deported with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
As the “aliens” narrative waxed and waned, a new event triggered the updating of the terminology.
In 1991, the Somalia government of Siad Barre collapsed, spilling hundreds of thousands of refugees into the neighbouring countries. Kenya was grappling with its fear of Somalis and now had to face the eventuality of hosting desperate refugees, including the deposed president.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970.
The refugees were allowed in and settled in camps where they were fed and housed by the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. Throughout the 1990s, Somalia was controlled by warlords who divided the country into green zones, fought viciously among themselves and continued to spill out new refugees.
Apart from participating in efforts at reconciliation and in hosting refugees and facilitating their resettlement in Europe and America, Kenya stayed out of Somalia’s affairs. As the refugees were too many to be housed in the sprawling camps in Dadaab, Dagahaley and Kakuma, some ended up living in towns with the alien cards issued by the UNHCR as identification.
The idea of controlling the movement of refugees soon became fashionable. For the security forces it is difficult to differentiate between locals and refugees and soldiers engaged in random stop-and-searches and nighttime raids in the main towns to flush out illegal aliens.
The controls placed on refugees living in towns illegally sparked lucrative human trafficking where the police and traffickers facilitated the movement of people from the Somali border to the interior. IDs and passports became available for those who could pay but were impossible to acquire for genuine inhabitants of northern Kenya.
While Somalis and their Cushite cousins were getting used to the “alien” idea, a new term landed on Kenya’s shores: terrorism. International terrorists bombed the American embassy in Kenya in 1998. The perpetrators had names similar to those of the northerners and the refugees. The “terrorist” label did not stick for another decade and during this period Somali businesspeople invested heavily in the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi, creating a vibrant market where initially had been an unremarkable residential estate with a few wholesale and retail shops.
This economic boom coincided with the emergence of piracy on the Somali shores of the Indian Ocean. Suddenly the Kenyan media were reporting that piracy money was flooding the markets and making life costly for the residents. The Somali pirates were real, but this was part of international piracy having its operations on the lawless Somali coast. How the piracy money was siphoned into Kenya was never explained. The piracy issue occasionally crops up when overzealous reporters make disparaging references to piracy and the real estate boom in Kenya.
In 2011 Kenya sent troops into Somalia in an operation dubbed “Linda Nchi” after a tourist was kidnapped at the coast and probably taken across the border. There were other cross-border raids. However, significant Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya began in 2012 when Kenyan forces were integrated into the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As Kenya became embroiled in state-building in Somalia, with the creation of Jubaland floated as the reason for the invasion, Al-Shabaab started bringing its terrorism into Kenya.
In 2013, the Westgate Mall shootings led to the death of 67 people. More than 67 others also died in attacks in Mpeketoni in Lamu in 2014. The attacks on Garissa University attack were the worst, leading to 150 dead, many of them students. These brazen attacks were attributed to Al-Shabaab. Although the terror group had already internationalised and was recruiting with no regard to ethnicity, Kenyan Somalis became the target for blame, name-calling, and arrests.
In 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “You are all terrorists”. The terrorist narrative drives xenophobia, arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture. After the terror attacks in 2014 in Eastleigh and Mpeketoni, the security forces conducted an indiscriminate door-to-door operation targeting anyone who did not have an ID card to hand. This security operation was dubbed Usalama Watch. Those who did not have the document were taken to Kasarani Stadium and held there for two weeks. About 900 people were taken to the stadium, the majority being young people who could not acquire IDs due to discriminatory bureaucratic procedures , and a haphazard and corrupt system that barred genuine citizens from receiving the document.
The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost.
Over half a century of negative portrayals of people from the north means that the official government policy is skewed when it applies to them. The acquisition of a passport is generally a straightforward process. To ensure that aliens from the north do not acquire this critical document, the immigration department and security agencies have an illegal and discriminatory step in place for border communities — vetting. It is not enough that a northerner provides sufficient genuine documentation. The applicant must appear before a group of government officials, security officers and appointed individuals to prove their citizenship. To pass this step, one must know their location chief, the genealogy of ones’ clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
The emergence of one label does not lead to the dropping of the existing labels. Shifta, Poacher, Refugee, Pirate and Terrorist shape the thinking behind public actions. These negative portrayals have an impact on how national matters are debated and resolved.
A section of Kenyan citizens is considered as dangerous to the main body of the country. The secession war that ostensibly ended in 1967 is still being fought; the terms of the agreement that ended the war have never been the subject of a national conversation. Did the agreement include such important matters as citizenship, identity, development, and non-discrimination? The security agencies have not discarded their belligerent attitude towards the population and the civil service retains the policies of the 1960s towards the people of the north.
One must know their location chief, the genealogy of one’s clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
National identity is at stake as those who rejected becoming part of Kenya at independence cannot have equal status with everyone else. They are aliens, and “they all look like”. The most dangerous portrayal is the association with terrorism; poachers and pirates are small fish compared to terrorists. In the last few years, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings related to the war on terror have become commonplace. It is hard to fight for the rights of one who is labelled a terrorist and is disappeared or killed.
Public association with a terror suspect is a stigma that nobody is willing to be associated with. Crimes are committed under cover of fighting terrorism, and there is nothing the targeted community can do about it. That is the power of a label; it obscures the truth, gives authorities cover to commit genocidal crimes and permits the practice of xenophobia in public.
The End of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018 Abiy Ahmed elicited goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia but the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing him friends.
Ethiopia will go to the polls on June 22, buffeted by various crises domestically and abroad. But the upcoming election has many echoes of the May 15 2005 election, whose impact continues to shape Ethiopia’s domestic politics and politics in the Horn of Africa. Central to Ethiopia’s current domestic crisis and the border dispute with Sudan, is the Abiy-Amhara compact.
The 15 May 2005 elections were the third national elections to be held under the 1994 constitution following the ouster of the Marxist-Leninist Derg. In the 1995 and 2000 elections, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government harassed the opposition parties, forcing the influential ones to boycott the polls, with the result that the EPRDF won both elections with over 90 per cent of the seats.
Ahead of the 2005 election, the EPDRF signalled the significant participation of the opposition parties so that Western observers—whose support was critical for Meles—would declare the elections to have been free and fair. The incumbent party acceded to the pre-election demands of some opposition parties, allowing in international election observers and giving the opposition parties a chance to sell their manifestos on the national broadcaster. These conditions were absent in the previous elections. While these were not among the chief demands of the opposition parties prior to the polls, they indicated reasonable good faith on the part of the government compared to previous elections.
As a result, for the first time in Ethiopia’s history, a nationwide multiparty competition seemed possible; neither the ruling party nor the opposition had ever faced a competitive election before.
Internal turmoil within the EPRDF preceded the election. The Central Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s core support base—broke up into two rival factions in 2001. With his base in the Tigray heartland at risk, Meles took advantage of his central position within the broader EPRDF coalition and outmanoeuvred his rivals. He sacked several senior officials and successfully weathered the storm, but the fault line remained and emerged during the 2005 elections.
The pre-election period saw the unprecedented participation of the opposition parties and civil society organisations in the campaigns. Election Day went peacefully, and the early results in Addis Ababa and other major urban areas showed the opposition parties making significant electoral gains. According to unofficial preliminary results, the opposition had won 172 parliamentary seats—its most considerable showing yet in the 547-member assembly. On the night of the election, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a one-month ban on public demonstrations in the capital and brought the Addis Ababa security forces (which would have come under the opposition’s command had they been sworn in) under the control of the Prime Minister’s office.
Opposition parties boycotted their seats in parliament, alleging rigging by the incumbent. Their refusal to take up their seats in parliament handed Meles Zenawi and his party a third term in office. Meles interpreted his “mandate” as a licence to take the authoritarian path. Hundreds, if not thousands, of political opposition and human rights activists were arbitrarily detained, with some facing the spurious charge of treason. Ethiopian security forces killed almost 200 demonstrators in post-election protests in June and November 2005 and arrested tens of thousands of people.
With the domestic front “sorted”, Meles turned to regional matters. In December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to root out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had brought stability for the few months they were in charge. The Ethiopian forces captured Mogadishu in less than a week, and the UIC dissolved and surrendered political leadership to clan leaders.
Ethiopia’s ouster of the UIC tapped into a deep historical hostility between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab, the youth wing of the UIC, exploited with a mix of latent Somalia nationalism and anti-imperialism.
Ethiopia’s actions provided Al Shabaab with an opportunity to translate its rhetoric into action. Al Shabaab began targeting the nascent Somalia government, Ethiopian forces, the Transitional Federal Government security, political figures, and any Somalis collaborating with Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s and TFG’s heavy-handed counterinsurgency responses played into the hands of Al Shabaab.
Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, had met with then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Sixteen years later, Ethiopia goes into another election whose consequences could transcend Ethiopia.
The limits of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed elicited a groundswell of collective goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia. He embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
At home, Abiy released political prisoners, appointed the country’s first female as the ceremonial president and a cabinet half-filled by women. He nominated a once-jailed opposition leader as the new chairwoman of the electoral board. In the Horn of Africa region, Abiy had a rapprochement with Eritrea, a country with which Ethiopia had fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000. Abiy also attempted to mediate the Sudan political crisis.
The Nobel Committee awarded Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize “For his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, particularly for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”
Federalism vs centralisation
While the trigger for the Abiy-led military operation against the Regional Government of Tigray in the north of the country is the alleged attack of the federal army base by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the attack was only a symptom and not the actual cause.
The battle between Abiy and the TPLF and other groups is a battle between those who champion the multi-ethnic federalism constitution and those who prefer a centralised state. Abiy favours centralisation to federalism.
The Tigray region is not the first to bear the brunt of the military and federal security forces to achieve Abiy’s centralisation agenda. The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
Abiy embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
Throughout its long history of state formation, Ethiopia was for thousands of years ruled by emperors under a monarchy with a unitary system of government. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974 and from then on until 1991, the country came under a dictatorship with a unitary system of government.
The creation of the EPRDF in 1989—an ethnic coalition of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM; later Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO; later Oromo Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM)—had changed that.
Abiy’s shot across the bow was the dissolution of the EPDRF and the launching of the Prosperity Party (PP) on December 1 2019. The OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM voted overwhelmingly to join the party, while the TPLF rejected the idea as “illegal and reactionary”. The timing of the move was convenient, coming just a few months before the election that was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The EPDRF’s multi-ethnic federalism and the inclusion in the constitution of the right to secede for all “nations and nationalities and peoples” of the country were innovative breakthroughs in a country with 80 different ethnic groups. But the constitution was also a product of ideological foment and political necessity. The leaders who revolted against the Mengistu junta had emerged from the student movement that had adopted the “nationalities and the land question”, redefining Ethiopian statehood.
The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
While the multi-ethnic federalism has been imperfect, especially its implementation and the domination of the EPDRF by the TPLF, in a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
Abiy and Amhara expansionism
The Amharas are Abiy’s vociferous supporters at home. They, especially their elites, have an axe to grind with the TPLF for diluting their decades of uninterrupted state power and control. Amhara language and culture are the state’s language and culture, and the language and culture of the Orthodox Church which wields unfettered power. But with its political nous, its deep bureaucracy and know-how, the TPLF was always a challenging prospect for Abiy, a political novice with limited federal-level experience and hardly a political base. The connecting tissue of Abiy-Amhara unity is the lowest common denominator that is the fear and loathing of the TPLF. After dissolving the EPDR, a coalition in which the TPLF was a strong partner, the next step was to defeat the TPLF militarily. Even before the November military incursion into Tigray, Amhara militias were massed at the border with Tigray. If Abiy’s anti-TPLF move was intended to destroy them as a political force, for the Amharas this was an opportunity to regain some of the territories they had lost to Tigray in 1991.
Ethiopia also has a boundary dispute with Sudan. The dispute centres on the al-Fashaga region, Sudan’s fertile breadbasket located in Gedaref State, which borders Ethiopia’s Amhara region in the north-west. According to the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 the area belongs to Sudan and, unlike the regime of Omar al-Bashir, for the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok, settling this dispute is a priority. However, the Abiy-Amhara alliance has made resolving the dispute complicated.
Sudan is also a critical factor in resolving the Tigray crisis; the country is the only remaining supply route for the TPLF as Eritrea is closed to them and bringing in supplies and fuel through other routes is risky. Sudan could also determine how the GERD dam conflict will be resolved. Unlike Egypt, Sudan could benefit from cheap electricity if the dam is filled, but the country will not countenance losing al-Fashaga. Abiy faces difficult choices: cede al-Fashaga to Sudan and gain a partner in the dam negotiations while also denying the TPLF a supply route or keep al-Fashaga and lose Sudan in the GERD dam discussions, leaving the TPLF to use the Sudan border for supplies.
The Tigray conflict, which Abiy initially promised would be a straightforward law enforcement operation, has instead metastasised into a slow-grinding counterinsurgency operation. The continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing Abiy friends.
On May 23, the US State Department announced visa restrictions for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals—including Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the resolution of the crisis in Tigray.
In a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
America’s sanctions came on the heels of the European Union’s suspension of budgetary support worth €88 million (US$107 million) until humanitarian agencies are granted access to people in need of aid in the northern Tigray region.
On the 7th of June 2021, Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), who is also Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, together with Karen Bass (D-CA) and Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), respectively Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights, issued a joint statement after tabling a resolution condemning violence and human rights abuses in Ethiopia.
The sanctions come as Ethiopia awards its first telecom licence for US$850 million to a consortium that includes the UK’s Vodafone in what could herald the opening up of Ethiopia’s closed economy.
Before the EPDRF came into power, Ethiopia was a posterchild of famine and incessant conflict, especially under the Derg regime. Abiy and Amhara nationalism is bringing back the echoes of the Derg era and the upcoming June election is unlikely to resolve current crises; if anything, it will exacerbate them.
We Still Can’t Breathe: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo
Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could get back to normal.
Sometimes even the “biggest” victories can ring hollow. That especially seems to be the case several months into 2021, and 11 odd months after George Floyd had his life snuffed out in front of a red-brick grocery store in South Minneapolis, around the corner from the “Little East Africa” neighbourhood. That Derek Chauvin, the cop who laid his blatancy in the form of a knee across Floyd’s neck in a gutter finally faced some form of consequence in the form of a guilty verdict, may, in and of itself be of little consequence in the grandest of schemes.
Yes, right now it seems as though the verdict that has come down harshly on Chauvin is a rebuke of all things heinous, nothing less than a massive moral victory for racial progress, black America and global equality.
Indeed, rainbows shall now shine through and if you listen to many pundits within the American (and for that matter, Western) broadcast media, racism against Black America has been solved once and for all — à la the presidential election of Barack Obama way back in those heady days of 2008.
Chauvin will be sentenced on June 25th of this year. Much of Black America is already lowering their expectations away from the 40-year maximum prison sentence.
Life is full of disappointments.
In itself, the Chauvin verdict is not one of them; it is just another opportunity for a larger collective sadness, another opportunity for an eventual letdown, a reminder of the global system of injustice that is, frankly, far as hell from ever being permanently resolved.
I haven’t been in Minneapolis since the end of May 2020, the Saturday following the Floyd killing, when the very landscape and fabric of the “Twin Cities” of Minnesota and Saint Paul were irrevocably changed. Walking around that day, the sense of despair was palpable. All of Lake Street — all seven kilometers of it — seemed to have been hit by varying degrees of madness. Some buildings were completely burnt out, husks of their former selves; others had smashed windows or had “BLACK OWNED BUSINESS: DON’T BURN!” scrawled in graffiti across the boarded-up doors. Thousands of people trudged around with shovels, cleaning up debris ahead of the inevitable next night of chaos.
In the weeks that followed, the protests spread across the United States, and even took root on a global scale, spreading as far as Nairobi, London, Kampala, Rome and dozens of other cities. In Minneapolis, all the tension of a tense superpower seemingly dying of its own hubris during the chaotic early months of the COVID-19 pandemic descended on an idyllic neighbourhood. By the day I arrived, May 30th, the United States National Guard was being deployed to put down any form of violence with their own forms of violence. But the damage had been done and the rest of the country was experiencing its own varying levels of chaos. At least two people were killed in Minneapolis alone (and at least 19 across the rest of the US, though this number seems to be low). Dozens of people were injured in Minneapolis alone (although the exact numbers are hard to confirm; personally I talked to at least three people who had sustained non-lethal injuries during the protests, so the real number could be much higher).
Thousands were injured across the US, with hundreds more incidents of police brutality filmed and shared widely. In Minneapolis there was approximately KSh 53 billion worth of damage related to the unrest. Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis who allegedly had white supremacist ties retired at the beginning of 2021. The Minneapolis Police Department was defunded following the reckoning that fell upon the Twin Cities in those warm early summer weeks.
Among pundit across America, talk of alliance and “listening” rapidly became the norm. Many leading neo-liberals put out statements, Republicans and Democrats alike. Trump ordered the beating up of peaceful protesters in front the White House and goodhearted liberals were shocked and appalled. Everyone said it was a “sea change” in American race-relations.
Less than three months after the George Floyd protests kicked off there was a “monumental change” — Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in the city of Kenosha, in my home state of Wisconsin. The NBA boycotted games, more conversations were had and the world kept right on turning, same as it ever has.
When it comes down to issues of inequality, racism and oppression the status quo is always maintained, especially in America. Two steps forward and three steps back seems to be the pattern, one that is only reinforced by the pattern of police getting away with the murder of Black Americans — whether on tape or merely under “suspicious” circumstances in which “the officer felt their life was threatened and required a response of lethal force”.
Perhaps it is this constant pattern of impunity that has caused the most damage, a pattern that in the US can be traced to well before the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, California. The riots were sparked off by the acquittal of cops who had been caught on film beating and kicking King senseless on the shoulder of a freeway.
It’s the same as it ever was.
Over the years since, especially in this age of social media ubiquity, incidents police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
Horrifying, but not at all surprising. Everyone within the Black community in the US has long known the score. “Officers under threat” deaths, cases failing to be investigated, rumours of pistols being planted, delays in emergency responder times, ties to white supremacy, “warrior cops” getting more military equipment, stop-and-frisk policies, higher incarceration rates among Blacks, continual harassment, talking to children about keeping hands visible when dealing with police, media bias, fetishisation of police, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement — the list of systemic issues within US police forces could fill the remainder of this article.
In this age of social media ubiquity, incidents of police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
The American judicial system itself is inherently flawed. The narrative among much of the “upstanding” upper middle-class elements of society is that somehow race relations were, if not solved outright, repaired with a sustained “upward” trajectory somewhere around the funeral of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in 1968.
They paint a rosy picture of race-relations in the US in which all segregationist judges were replaced with forward thinking progressives, where all cops with KKK ties were unceremoniously fired, where the ghosts of “Jim Crow” laws (designed to suppress, segregate and subjugate post-slavery Black America) simply faded into the distant memories of a bygone era. The result was a sort of racial Cold War, where proxy wars were fought through the war on drugs, mass incarceration, neoliberalism and police impunity.
“At least segregation is illegal now”, says White America when pressed, as if cities, schools, hospitals and police actions were not still segregated sans overt painted signs.
Such sentiments bled into the politics of the US’s two major parties, Republicans spearheading the “War on Drugs” under the Reagan presidency of the 1980s and the Clinton administration cutting social programmes and accelerating mass incarceration during the 90s under the all-American ideal of “pulling oneself up by your bootstraps”. Such proponents of America’s neo-liberal ethos cared little whether there were any boots to begin with.
Slowly the technology caught up with the reality, and the anger felt across the marginalised communities in America had a focal point on which to pour out their frustrations. The images were there on film, little snippets sent into cyberspace by countless onlookers. The anger was in the bloody and lifeless body of Michael Brown lying for hours in a Missouri street. It was in Eric Garner pleading that he couldn’t breathe while being choked to death by cops in New York City. It was in Philando Castille being shot and killed in his car seconds after telling the officer who had pulled him over that he had a licensed gun in the car and reached for his wallet. (This shooting also happened in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.) It was in Breonna Taylor being shot dead on a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky only for the officers to be charged with “wanton endangerment” for firing bullets into a neighbouring apartment.
None of the officers in the above incidents were convicted. Some were never even brought into a courtroom.
On April 11th 2021, Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a cop during a traffic stop in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Details and footage of the incident are scant. The officer involved has been charged with second-degree manslaughter (a lesser charge than homicide in the US court system). Protests have sprung up around the US, youth wearing surgical masks — the hallmark of the smoldering COVID-19 pandemic — clashing with police and facing arrest, and “non-lethal weapons being deployed by officers to quell pockets of unrest”. This killing occurred at the epicentre of the “defund the police” movement — Minneapolis.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
The police are just the visible agents of the systemic suppression of Black people that stretches far beyond the shores of the US.
If COVID-19 has shown up anything, it is the brutality of police worldwide. Most times their actions go on with impunity. Cops in Kenya beat up people without mercy and enforce curfew by leaving motorists stranded on highways. In Uganda cops extort commuters under threat of jail. In Rwanda the stranglehold on the nation continues to tighten under threat of harsh penalties.
There is no equality when it comes to the Global South, particularly for much of Africa whose suffering at the hands of the police echoes the oppression faced by the Black community in the US.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
Through this lens of warranted cynicism, the “guilty” verdict handed down to Derek Chauvin by a jury in Minnesota is not a massive turning point. The very pundits stating that the verdict is such a monumental moment of change inherently prove that it is nothing remotely close to such a trend. There will be other failed indictments, other cops walking away, more cases of mysteriously “lost” body-cam footage. More will die, protests will spring up and be quelled with extreme prejudice.
Chauvin, the smirking killer that he is, did prove one thing and one thing only: where the “line” truly is, where the grey areas that the police hide behind blur over into black and white, from a “justified act of lethal self-defense from a frightened officer” into outright murder. His actions were so unquestionably heinous that they had to be dealt with. What Chauvin did derives directly from an ugly history; he lynched that man and at the time thought he would get away with it, hands in pockets, cocky half-smile on his face while his bodyweight cut off George Floyd’s air supply in that street gutter. Bystanders begged him to stop as the other officers watched in idle complicity. Paramedics were not allowed to give medical aid and Chauvin continued to apply pressure for minutes after Floyd had become non-responsive.
The systems, after all, stay much as they are in America. Profit margins must be maintained and “order” by way of the status quo must be upheld. The Twin Cities, of which Minneapolis is the more visible twin, would have simply exploded if the verdict had come back anything less than guilty. After a year of protests, COVID-19 lockdowns, electoral strangeness, Trumpian policies, political divisions, economic challenges and continued incidents of police violence, the tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
If that had happened the resulting violence would have dwarfed any incidents of unrest in America’s past. It is likely that weeks later clashes with police would be continuing on a nightly basis in dozens of cities across America. Minneapolis, where major corporates are headquartered, would have been engulfed in flames so huge the smoke would have been seen in the neighbouring state of Wisconsin.
The tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
Chauvin’s true legacy is that of an outlier, the ultimate talking-head example that “things are different now”, that something has truly been accomplished on a systemic level when it comes to police treatment of Black America.
In reality, Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could “get back to normal”.
For Black America in 2021 however, normal life is chockful of disappointments.
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