Elections are supposed to flip power relations. During an electoral process, a country’s political elites remember their fundamental jobs and are – more than ever – the servants of the people. While campaigns are ongoing, the elites need voters’ support, their attention…and most importantly, their votes. During this time, it is voters who can sit back and evaluate their leaders, deciding whether or not their actions are deserving of another term in office. Over the years and around the world, however, this power structure has often been reversed. In the quest to win and/or retain power, political elites have managed to shape the electoral process to their advantage, creating loopholes and amending laws that dilute public power.
PUBLIC CONFIDENCE IN THE KENYAN ELECTORAL PROCESS
Kenya is no exception to this rule, and voters have taken note. Over the past fifteen years, the Kenyan public’s confidence in elections has dropped precipitously. In fact, between 2005 and 2015, the proportion of Kenyans who strongly agreed that elections were the best way to choose leaders decreased by more than ten percentage points. Unsurprisingly, faith in the credibility of elections has also suffered. In fact, there has never been a time over the last three election cycles (including the current one) when a majority of Kenyans has felt that the last election was completely free and fair.
With the next general election in Kenya scheduled to take place in less than three months, it is critical to think about how to urgently address this marked dearth in voter confidence. An important first step is the assessment of potential vulnerabilities. Reflection about what went wrong last time and what is at risk of going wrong again is useful, not only for policymakers but also for voters, who can and should take time to critically assess whether or not their electoral processes prioritize their roles and voices.
There are, of course, many issues to consider. These include poorly enforced electoral laws, delayed timelines, the lack of intra-party democracy, incidents of pre-election violence, and shrinking space for vigorous public debate on the most contentious and timely election-related issues. At this stage in the electoral cycle, however, it is most urgent to focus attention on the factors that most significantly impacted the credibility of the last election and which continue to haunt this election cycle. Together, unresolved questions regarding leadership and integrity, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), voter registration and the process of counting and tallying threaten the credibility of the upcoming elections.
LEADERSHIP AND INTEGRITY
To begin, the 2013 election was the first to take place under the guiding principles of the country’s new, internationally lauded constitution, itself the result of a decades-long struggle. The constitution included many new provisions that would have a bearing on elections, but one of the most fundamental, overarching issues concerned the qualifications for and conduct expected of state officers. Indeed, Chapter Six of the constitution, devoted to leadership and integrity, is groundbreaking in the context of Kenyan political history, confronting, as it does, some of the most longstanding and deeply embedded obstacles to good governance.
Over the past fifteen years, the Kenyan public’s confidence in elections has dropped precipitously. In fact, between 2005 and 2015, the proportion of Kenyans who strongly agreed that elections were the best way to choose leaders decreased by more than ten percentage points.
Chapter Six fundamentally shifted the relationship between state officers and the people, requiring the former to selflessly serve the latter. Despite the dramatic weakness of the Leadership and Integrity Act that was passed to operationalize Chapter Six provisions, the lead-up to election day in 2013 did include bold efforts to test the letter and spirit of the law. The most notable of these was a lawsuit filed by the International Center for Policy and Conflict and five others, which asked a deeply controversial question: were Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto in violation of Chapter Six standards, and therefore ineligible to run for office, based on the International Criminal Court’s indictments against them for their alleged commission of crimes against humanity in the aftermath of the 2007 election?
The High Court’s judgment was disappointing, leaving the public doubting that state institutions were in fact committed to the standards of the constitution. Although the Court claimed that it lacked jurisdiction on matters related to the presidential election, its judgment did define the standard of integrity required by a person seeking public office. According to the Court, such an office-seeker should be beyond reproach and should not have unresolved questions about his/her character and commitment to the national values in the constitution. On the other hand, however, it also ruled that there is a distinction between appointive and elective positions. For the latter, the Court was of the opinion that it is up to the voters to decide who to choose, based on candidates’ “honesty, rectitude, uprightness and scrupulousness.” After the judgment was handed down, a lawyer for the petitioners remarked, “Today marks the official death of one of the chapters in the constitution. That is Chapter Six.”
Uhuru and Ruto were thus free to run for office, and Kenyans were told that questions about their character related to the indictments against them were “a personal issue.”
More importantly, since the substantive issues of the case were never appealed to the Supreme Court, Kenyans were left with an electoral context that was marked by the severe limitations of the candidate pool. After all, the Court had not considered that by attempting to leave it up to voters to decide how strictly candidates should be judged with regard to factors of integrity, it could well be that voters ended up with little substantive choice. With no enforcement of Chapter Six provisions for elective office-seekers, voters could well be faced with a slate of candidates, all of whose characters were tainted by integrity-related problems. The ruling also made it clear that there was little political will to apply the leadership and integrity laws across the board, thus cementing the status quo of elite impunity.
Unsurprisingly, unresolved leadership and integrity issues continue to plague this electoral cycle. In 2016, PricewaterhouseCoopers conducted a survey on the prevalence of economic crimes in the world and found that Kenya topped the list of 78 countries in the study. A shocking one percent of the country’s national budget had been properly accounted for in the previous year. Theft and misappropriation was the most common type of crime. As of 2016, there were 17 MPs who had been charged in court for committing serious criminal offenses, including fraud, forgery, hate speech, rape, corruption and incitement to violence. At least 90 others were under suspicion for graft.
The public has noticed. When asked how much they trusted the ruling party, the opposition and MPs, Kenyans reported significantly low levels of confidence.
Table 1: Trust in Parliament, the Ruling Party and Opposition Parties
|Not at All||Just a Little||Somewhat||A Lot||Don’t Know|
Source: Afrobarometer R6 2014/2015
Such findings are telling, and they are especially relevant in the context of upcoming elections. Given the lack of political will to seriously implement and enforce constitutional standards of integrity, the public has little reason to put its trust in the state, or in the electoral process. Without proper enforcement of Chapter Six provisions, voters’ choices are always restricted. Over time, such an environment can lead to increasingly low levels of public confidence. In the long run, this endangers democratic resilience.
In an attempt to address the gaps in Chapter Six enforcement, the IEBC recently convened what is known as the Chapter Six Working Group on Election Preparedness. The group, which includes several state institutions, plans to vet parties’ lists of nominated candidates to ensure that they adhere to the Attorney General’s recently published guidelines. It is unclear, however, what authority this group has to carry out its stated purpose, especially given that the Court’s ruling in the case against Uhuru and Ruto made it clear that the presumption of innocence holds until cases are concluded.
THE INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL AND BOUNDARIES COMMISSION
Closely linked to public confidence in elected leaders is trust in the body charged with administering elections, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). In fact, one study found that public confidence in a country’s electoral management body (EMB) is tied to public faith in the credibility of the election. Specifically, in a paper on Nigerian elections, Nicholas Kerr found,
The strongest correlate of citizen’s perceptions of election quality is the performance of [Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)]…when citizens are highly satisfied with the performance of INEC, they are thirty-eight percent more likely to consider the 2007 elections free and fair… But even more importantly, it highlights that ordinary Nigerians associate their evaluations of EMB performance more with their assessments of election quality, despite how strong their partisan attachments may be.
In Kenya, public confidence in the IEBC has fluctuated dramatically over the last five years. At the end of 2012, surveys showed that 70 percent of Kenyans had faith that the IEBC was carrying out its work impartially and 72 percent believed in the Commission’s independence. One month before election day in 2013, 91 percent of respondents said that they had faith in the IEBC’s competence to manage the election and 89 percent believed in the Commission’s impartiality. 91 percent of respondents also said they believed the IEBC was independent enough to conduct the election in a free and fair manner.
These pre-2013 election levels of confidence were a high point for the Commission, which suffered from plummeting levels of public faith after the 2013 election. The drop in confidence was due to a combination of factors, the most notable of which included procurement delays and irregularities in the lead-up to election day, problems with technology during voter registration and on election day, the failure of the electronic results verification system and the subsequent delay in announcing the result. The Supreme Court case challenging the integrity of the entire process, filed by the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) and the Kenyan Asian Forum, also publicly highlighted the multiple technical and administrative problems throughout the process. Indeed, post-election polls revealed a precipitous drop in public confidence in the Commission. In the immediate aftermath of the election, 44 percent of Kenyans reported that they were confident in the IEBC. In Nyanza, only 8 percent of respondents felt this way. By 2015, the figures had not changed dramatically, with 43 percent of Kenyans reporting confidence in the IEBC. Among opposition supporters, 71 percent reported that they did not have confidence in the Commission.
After the judgment was handed down, a lawyer for the petitioners remarked, “Today marks the official death of one of the chapters in the constitution. That is Chapter Six.”
The IEBC has experienced significant changes since the 2013 election. Senior members of the Commission were implicated in a corruption scandal, and a series of opposition protests against the IEBC eventually resulted in the dismissal of all the commissioners. New commissioners assumed office in late December 2016.
The changes seem to have made some difference. A recent poll shows that 72 percent of respondents feel that the IEBC is prepared to conduct a free and fair election. On the other hand, Kenyans are also extremely cautious in their outlooks. In fact, in four of Kenya’s former provinces, more than 20 percent of the population is not sure that the Commission will be able to administer a credible election.
While the high level of public confidence is encouraging, the new IEBC stands at an important crossroads. In order to maintain public faith, the Commission will have to work to show Kenyans that it is serious about avoiding the mistakes that marred the last process and that it is willing to fight to maintain its independence. The signs so far are mixed. The Commission’s decision to cancel the tender process for election technology and engage in a direct award of the contract to the same firm that was partially responsible for the previous set of botched technology raises questions about how well the IEBC has learned from past mistakes. This is compounded by a more recent announcement that the IEBC may proceed with a direct award to a ballot-printing firm. Moreover, recent analysis of the last mass voter registration exercise has revealed serious administrative and technical irregularities. On the other hand, the Commission’s stated commitment to enforcing gender parity in party lists and to enforcing leadership and integrity standards in the vetting of candidates is admirable.
The IEBC is making certain attempts to keep the public updated. It does hold press conferences, and it regularly updates its website with relevant press releases. This information is useful, but the Commission must go further with regard to transparency if it wishes to maintain public confidence. There are several outstanding questions at this stage of the electoral process, the most urgent of which are related to procurement, voter registration, the ongoing audit of the voters’ register, the use of technology, and counting of results. If the IEBC begins to address some of these concerns, it could go a long way in preserving public faith, especially as it is likely that problems will continue to arise as election day gets closer. No election is perfect, but the IEBC’s honest evaluations of its strengths and weaknesses related to current concerns are critical.
In 2013, much of the public’s dissatisfaction with the IEBC was rooted in problems with the voters’ register. The register was shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, with the total number of registered voters in Kenya shifting throughout the electoral cycle. The first sign of the problems to come appeared in February 2013, when it became clear that the final, gazetted register differed significantly from the provisional register released in December 2012. Overall, the register had grown by 12,500 voters.
Without proper enforcement of Chapter Six provisions, voters’ choices are always restricted. Over time, such an environment can lead to increasingly low levels of public confidence. In the long run, this endangers democratic resilience.
While a decrease in the number of registered voters was expected (because the verification and cleaning process would expunge dead voters, multiple registrations, etc), it was unclear how the register grew in size between December 2012 and February 2013. Moreover, there were significant regional changes in the numbers between December and February. These are detailed in the table below.
Table 2: Internal Changes to the Register of Voters
|Region||Changes between December 2012 and February 2013|
Source: AfriCOG/KPTJ. 2013. “Voter Registration for the 2013 General Elections in Kenya.”
These changes became more worrying when the IEBC could not commit to one total number of registered voters. In fact, there were at least six different totals announced during various parts of the electoral cycle.
Table 3: Shifting Totals of Registered Voters in Kenya
|Provisional Register (December 2012)||14,340,036|
|Principle Register (February 2013)||14,352,545|
|Special Register (March 2, 2013)||36,236|
|Election Results Total (March 9, 2013)||14,352,533|
|Green Book Total||14,388,793|
|Post-Election Register (July 2013)||14,388,781|
Source: AfriCOG/KPTJ. 2013. “Voter Registration for the 2013 General Elections in Kenya.”
This shifting total, in addition to the IEBC’s assertion that what was known as the “green book” (A green book is an unregulated, manually-recorded list of registered voters. It had been severely criticized by experts.) was being used for purposes of registration, severely compromised public confidence in the integrity of the register. Indeed, the lack of a single, verifiable register breeds suspicion about political influence at worst and basic incompetence of the electoral management body at best.
Doubts around the register have not faded. In fact, the IEBC’s two mass voter registration exercises in the current cycle were rife with problems. These included widespread problems obtaining IDs, problems with dysfunctional and nonfunctional biometric voter registration (BVR) kits, unexplained use of the green book, disorganized registration centres and poorly trained IEBC staff, registration bribery, coercive registration practices and massive amounts of transfers. At the end of these processes, the IEBC announced that the total number of registered voters had grown to 19,749,310, representing a 37 percent increase since 2013.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, 44 percent of Kenyans reported that they were confident in the IEBC. In Nyanza, only 8 percent of respondents felt this way. By 2015, the figures had not changed dramatically, with 43 percent of Kenyans reporting confidence in the IEBC. Among opposition supporters, 71 percent reported that they did not have confidence in the Commission.
The elections law also allows the IEBC to engage a professional firm to conduct an audit of the voters’ register. The stated purposes of such an audit are to verify the accuracy of the register, recommend mechanisms to enhance its accuracy and to update it. While an audit may go a long way in promoting public confidence in the register, the process has thus far been controversial. In addition to allegations that there were irregularities related to the decision to hire KPMG, there is mistrust because of the firm’s lack of expertise in conducting such audits. Indeed, KPMG’s proposed methodology does not reflect internationally accepted best practice for the audits of voters’ registers, and there has thus far been a lack of transparency with regard to KPMG’s progress and therefore its eventual findings.
In addition to these technical problems with registration, the legitimacy of the entire process was cast in doubt when it emerged that the IEBC had cancelled a public tender process for the acquisition of an integrated elections management system in order to give a direct award to a company known as Morpho, the same company that provided the problematic BVR kits in 2013.
The doubts that have arisen as a result of the above issues have been compounded by the IEBC’s refusal to make the register publicly accessible. In fact, the IEBC did not even provide the updated register to political parties during their primaries. The lack of the register made it impossible for parties to confirm that voters were in fact registered, and this contributed to the chaos that characterized the primary processes. The IEBC has also refused to give the data to civil society on the grounds that it cannot release it until after the audit is complete. Without access to the pre- and post-audit data, however, it is impossible for the public to conduct its own analyses and understand the changes.
A related issue is that of the integrated election management system (IEMS) itself. According to the IEBC, the system is meant to be wholly integrated, such that voter registration, voter identification and results transmission are linked. Since the IEMS technology did not arrive until well after the conclusion of registration, however, it is unclear how all the components will be linked, if at all.
ELECTION DAY, COUNTING AND TALLYING
Confidence is also, of course, based on the credibility of results announcements. In 2013, the IEBC used an electronic results transmission system, which was designed to allow polling station officers to transmit results to regional tallying centres and to IEBC headquarters in Nairobi via a secure, digital connection. This system was meant to protect the credibility of the count and prevent the kind of manipulation that had been seen in past elections, which often occurred during the time when tally sheets were being physically transported from polling stations around the country to Nairobi. Unfortunately, however, the system was a spectacular failure. Midway through the counting process, Kenyans watched the stream of live results freeze on television screens. Journalists based at the Bomas of Kenya, which was the national elections centre, referred to it as the Bomas screen saver.
When the electronic system failed, the IEBC again relied on the paper forms, which had to be ferried from all over the country to Nairobi. As expected, the paper forms were highly problematic. Issues with the polling station-level tallying forms (Forms 34) included:
- Many Form 34s showed that there were more votes cast than registered voters. In Turbo constituency, Polling Station 69, Stream 2, there were 784 votes cast but only 755 registered voters. In Polling Station 71, Stream 2, there were 741 votes cast but only 716 registered voters. In Kacheliba, Polling Station 112, there were 215 votes cast but only 214 registered voters.
- In some Form 34s, only some presidential candidates were listed. For example, in Baringo South, Polling Station 91, Stream 1, it was only the names of Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga and Paul Muite that appeared. Some candidates were also missing from Form 34 in Baringo South, Polling Station 68, Stream 1.
- Many of the figures on the form did not add up. For instance, one of the most glaring discrepancies occurred in Kacheliba constituency, Polling Station 102. Here, the votes cast are recorded as 0, while there are 170 rejected votes and 170 valid votes. In Baringo South, Polling Station 117, Stream 1, there were 133 valid votes and 0 rejected votes, which should total 133 votes cast. The figure for votes cast, however, was 134. In Cherangany, Polling Station 2, Stream 5, the number of valid votes is 332 and the number of rejected votes is 4, which adds up to 336 total votes cast. The number of votes cast, however, was 340. In Turkana North, Polling Station 12, the number of votes cast (340) did not equal the number of valid votes (340) plus the number of rejected votes (5).
- There were several instances of changes having been made to various figures on the form, with no authorizing signature next to the change. Such alterations affected individual candidates’ results, the total number of votes cast, the number of rejected votes, the number of valid votes and the number of registered voters. This change had the potential to affect other numbers on the form. For instance, a change to the number of rejected votes would necessarily change the number of total votes cast.
- In some forms, there was no figure indicating the number of registered voters. There was no official Form 34 for Polling Station 19 in Turkana Central. Instead, the results were reported on an ordinary piece of paper, which did not include the number of registered voters.
- Many Form 34s were missing. There was no Form 34 for Polling Station 84 or for Polling Station 99 in Turkana North. Polling Station 99 did not appear on the list of polling stations published on the IEBC website on February 24, 2013, but it did appear in the paper gazette. Forms 34 for Polling Stations 92 and 113 in Turkana Central were missing.
- Some forms did not include results for certain candidates. In Turkana Central, Polling Station 55, there were no results listed for Muite and Kenneth. In Turkana Central, Polling Station 65, there were no results listed for Kiyiapi, Karua, Dida, Muite and Mudavadi.
- There were non-identical duplicates of certain forms. In Turkana Central, Polling Station 89, there are 4 nearly identical copies of Form 34. It is unclear whether the numbers on these forms were counted multiple times. In Kacheliba, Polling Station 2, there were two forms with different entries. There were also multiple copies of perfectly identical forms, and it was unclear whether or not these figures were counted more than once.
- There were many forms in which it was extremely difficult to determine the exact value of the written figure, either because of the handwriting or because the original figure had been written over with another number. There were an overwhelming number of such cases, and the choice of which number to report was subjective.
The most worrying issues called the very accuracy of the count into question.
The failure of the electronic system was not a complete surprise. In the month before the 2013 election, tests of the electronic systems revealed significant problems. In fact, Sarah Elderkin detailed how a test of the system “had gone horribly wrong.” After one hour, only one of five mock polling stations could successfully transmit results. In this election cycle, the IEBC again plans to use an electronic system. The IEMS, mentioned above, includes results transmission. It is unclear, however, if and when the IEBC will publicly test the kits and publicly explain its plans for the kits’ dysfunction or failure. In fact, one of the most pressing unanswered questions in this cycle is related to proposed back up systems. New amendments to the electoral law allow for the use of complementary registration, identification and results transmission mechanisms, to be used in the event that the technology fails. To date, however, the election regulations only provide vague provisions about using the printed out register for voter identification in cases where voters cannot be found in the biometric list. The regulations do not clarify what, if any, complementary systems will be used in case the electronic results transmission system fails.
The lack of a clear definition of these complementary mechanisms is highly problematic, especially given Kenya’s political history and context. During mass voter registration, the IEBC used the green book in conjunction with the BVR kits. Does this mean that the green book was the complementary mechanism with regard to voter registration? Will the green book be used in addition to the printed out register to identify voters on election day?
Midway through the counting process, Kenyans watched the stream of live results freeze on television screens. Journalists based at the Bomas of Kenya, which was the national elections centre, referred to it as the Bomas screen saver.
There is one significant difference with regard to the law in the current election cycle. The High Court recently ruled that constituency level results for all elections are final and can only be appealed through a court process. The decision nullified Section 83(4) of the General Elections Regulations, which empowers the IEBC to “confirm” results before announcing them as final. The IEBC filed an appeal to the decision, with IEBC Chair Wafula Chebukati stating that constituency level officers could “make mistakes.” The IEBC’s decision to appeal has sparked some controversy, with the opposition threatening that there will be no election if the IEBC does not abandon its appeal and alleging that it means the Commission wants the power to unfairly change results. Civil society has also expressed its reservations about the appeal, suggesting that it erodes public confidence in the IEBC’s commitment to upholding the law.
Given the extreme controversy and suspicion surrounding the announcement of results in 2013 and in other past elections, the IEBC should acknowledge that there is significant public concern around the potential use of manual systems. To promote public faith, the IEBC should explain its rationale regarding the appeal. If constituency level results are erroneous, as Chebukati fears, a court process to address such problems would allow the public to see and understand the issues at hand. It would promote transparency. Surely, this option is better than a closed process in which the IEBC changes constituency results at the national tallying centre.
As it currently stands, it is unclear whether the IEBC and other stakeholders have learned from past elections. If public confidence is a priority, these stakeholders must immediately respond – at minimum – to the above public concerns in an honest and open way, remembering that it is voters who hold the power at this stage of the game, and it is voters who will ultimately decide the credibility of the election. The legitimacy of the upcoming election now hangs in the balance, but there is still time to save it…if only we are willing to learn from the past.
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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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