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Museveni: Trapped in His Own Shrinking Web of Patronage?

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In Yoweri Museveni’s fourth decade in power, the Ugandan state has shrunk into one man and a dog, himself and his police chief.

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Museveni: Trapped in His Own Shrinking Web of Patronage?
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Not since January 25, 1986 had I felt the slow-burning, debilitating fever that I did on May 20 this year, a fever you would know if you are Iraqi, Syrian, or Ugandan over 20, or South Sudanese of any age or era:

Although akin to malarial lethargy, it is not a proper fever, its toll on your body and mind operating at a remove from the latter. It will neither ground nor kill you, but as with malaria, you are sapped of energy, you have no appetite, the joie de vivre by which you claim membership to life has flown away. You want to withdraw into a dark corner and curl up.

I am labouring to describe in unfamiliar, personal terms, the physiological experience of being caught up in a violent military coup. To live through such a moment, is to experience war compressed into hours, days or weeks. There is a prolonged bath in adrenaline that is physically and mentally draining. There is the upending of routine and rule that kills your spirit.

So on May 20 this year, when I left the house and went to town, and this fever suddenly broke out in me, I instinctively understood that Uganda had turned a corner from which return may not be possible. And yet the trigger could not have been more trivial: My telephone line had been cut.

I had expected that to happen. In fact, I had wilfully participated in the loss of my line. An announcement had been made in early April saying that all phone users must re-register their lines or be cut off in seven days. I refused to comply. On the sixth day, the Prime Minister’s Office said the deadline had been extended by a month. I stayed home. The month came to an end and promptly, the lines were cut.

The people at the mall trying to get their phones reconnected were largely upper crust, in government, in cushy private sector, NGO, UN, jobs – expatriates, well-to-do locals, denizens of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, well-fed and secure in their status. But now their faces reflected fear mixed with confusion

When I got to town, I was more staggered than I could have expected. There at the mall, standing in ragged lines with the sun beating down on them, was a mass of people, local and international, who could no longer make or receive calls. It was the look on their faces that reminded me of 1979, 1985 and 1986, the coup years. It was the look of people in the midst of a calamity beyond prevention.

Betrayal of the docile consumer

I had refused to comply with the directive. But those in the lines had complied; was it just inefficiency or had they been guilty of forwarding memes the state disliked? It mattered not what had happened. There at the mall, with its high-end branded products, something heartbreaking was happening:

The people there were largely upper crust, in government, in cushy private sector, NGO, UN jobs – expatriates, well-to-do locals, denizens of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, well-fed and secure in their status. But now their faces reflected fear mixed with confusion. This was their thing, this government and the economic ideology it espoused. Many had got their jobs by following regime diktats, not making noise, not being seen with noise-makers.

The economic encyclical they knew by heart had said that capitalist excess was good. Investors and consumers were protected by the regime. Yet now, the telephone, which had brought vast investments into the country, with its millions of dollars in taxes, had been switched off.

The regime had for over 20 years touted its openness. It had enthusiastically done what the IMF and World Bank had asked it to do, back in the early 1990s when it carried out what was then clothed in the euphemism of “structural adjustment policy” but today goes in the explicit nudity of “austerity”. It had punished its people with gut-wrenching impoverishment so it could please the Western powers and avoid regime change. Over the decades, barriers to “free trade” had come down. Uganda, the IMF told all who cared to listen, was business-friendly.

So to wake up that Saturday morning to the reality of a ham-fisted regulation, one that could strangle any multinational co-operation, was astounding. The faces in that mall asked all these questions but in the abstract: What had we done wrong? Had we not consumed (and done so conspicuously) like all well-brought up boys and girls are taught to? Had we not behaved like responsible adults by heeding Gordon Gecko’s dictum that greed is good? Had we not volunteered our energy and time on earth as a good, mostly Christian country and devoted our energy to making the rich richer? Why this punishment now?

In lieu of competitive politics, Museveni’s first decade in power had operated under a ‘broad-based’ system, a serious attempt at an ideology, a kind of reconciliation by which the soviets set up at parish level (going by the name of Resistance Councils) could also include, rather than execute, kulaks

To such exemplary behaviour were due such little rewards as walking into the most expensive restaurants, not so much to eat, as to snap pictures of the dinner for Instagram. Going out the door each day was a Facebook challenge. Now even that was no longer possible. I saw in their faces horror at the prospect of returning to the anonymity of the 1990s, to operating VCRs and having to twirl cassette tapes on a Bic pen to rewind them.

We always knew the military would turn around and bite us

The Museveni government had acted out of character. What had been concealed and contained for 31 years of his time in power had at last erupted, very publicly. We had lived with a military government for a full generation. One day, we always knew, it would turn around and bite us. If you had watched the Museveni regime for the past three decades, you would have noticed that at the close of each decade, his rule shifted gear in consequential ways. We were at the start of the fourth decade, which meant a new tempo had been embarked upon.

The first 10 years had been unchallenged rule by the complete set of ideologues he had brought with him from the bush war. They were the gushing, forward-rushing youthful stage during which the government could do no wrong and genuinely tried its best not to. That was the forward-rushing youthful stage. In lieu of competitive politics, the decade had operated under a “broad-based” system, a serious attempt at an ideology, a kind of reconciliation by which the soviets set up at parish level (going by the name of Resistance Councils) could also include, rather than execute, kulaks. The “good leadership”, “political will” by which Museveni has been described, were products of this period. Victory had brought goodwill and he was eager to show it.

The period ended with the passing of the 1995 constitution, the biggest goodwill of all. And then it started. Looking back, it would seem that Museveni’s longer lasting troubles began with that document. Ugandans had given the regime the benefit of the doubt in the first decade. Now they wanted something in return. The 1990s ended with the now famous “missive” Dr Kizza Besigye wrote in 1999 declaring Museveni a dictator. Besigye’s courage took Museveni aback, as did the massive crowds Besigye attracted when he first ran for president in 2001, dwarfing the numbers Museveni attracted, for the first time giving the president an undiluted assessment of what Ugandans thought of him.

The departure of Besigye from the war veterans’ camp opened the door for the haemorrhage of Museveni’s bush war colleagues, a bleeding he and the Movement were never to recover from; what was worse, the end of the second decade marked very emphatic victories against him from a Uganda Museveni thought he had vanquished.

Through a series of legal battles, lawyers of the Uganda People’s Congress and the Democratic Party, doyens of the anti-colonial years that had been banned from operating, revealed the contradiction between Museveni’s claim to have returned constitutional rule to Uganda, and his refusal to obey the same constitution. In an attempt to pre-empt the return of political parties, the government had organised the infamous Referendum of 2000, whose cloying rationale fooled few. The banned opposition parties, unwilling to lend political legitimacy to Museveni, refused to participate, whereupon the government propped up straw parties to act the part of the Yes side while it hogged the No role. In a poorly attended exercise, 90.7% of those that bothered to vote, estimated at 30 % of registered voters chose a “No Party” Movement system against the 9.3% who chose a “Multiparty” system.

To show how much it believed in multiparty democracy, the government needed a stronger Yes than the 90% garnered by its No side the last time. It allowed a Yes percentage figure of 92.44 %. Some 4 million democracy-shy Ugandans now resoundingly allowed multiparty politics to operate

The result served as legal cover for one-party rule (described now as “no party rule”). But in 2004 a seven-judge panel of the Supreme Court declared it null and void. As if to save face, to show that it had known what it was doing, the government organised a second referendum on the same question, in 2005. This time, it was a little tricky. The government decided it wanted parties back, which meant that it was now sentimentally on the same side as the parties it had banned. It therefore invited the parties, which by law did not exist, to take the government’s side in declaring that it, the government, had been wrong. The parties refused to agree whereupon the government stood alone in acting the Yes side. But for the suffrage to be legal, there had to be a No side. For two decades, the government had said No. Now the government was saying Yes and therefore no one was saying No. Once again, props had to be found and money found to fund their No.

To show how much it believed in multiparty democracy, the government needed a stronger Yes than the 90% garnered by its No side the last time around. It allowed a Yes percentage figure of 92.44%. Some 4 million democracy-shy Ugandans now resoundingly allowed multiparty politics to operate.

Nobody loves the jackboot

Having kept them under the military jackboot for 20 years, Museveni now castigated the parties for refusing to support their own return to life. They were “not contributing to Uganda’s development,” he said.

That was the spirit in which Museveni ruled for 20 years, that play-acting at magnanimity, the third-rate theatre by which he blarneyed his way through, year after year. He was after all a “good” leader and that called for “good” behaviour. It is easy to forget, but in the first two decades, Museveni cut a figure somewhere between a likeable clown and a deadly fighter.

The judicial humiliations of 2004-2005 were not isolated events. The end of his second decade in power presented Museveni with new realities neither he nor Ugandans could have anticipated. This period of irrevocable change started in 2003 and did not end until 2006-2007. Museveni’s perennial bogeymen, the figures he could invoke to frighten Ugandans into obedience, Idi Amin and Milton Obote, died (2003 and 2005), deaths that left him exposed. Suddenly, he was left alone. The shadows of the past gone, he would now be judged by his actions alone.

And then the war in northern Uganda jolted to an abrupt end. What had provided political ballast, the spectre of Nilotic rule that had made the Bantu southerners so uneasy, faded rapidly. To further complicate life for Museveni, the end of the northern war left him without a diversion to distract restless, politicised military officers, nor cover for the classified budgets to defence that had hitherto provided a useful slush fund.

But not as yet. An election was still looming in 2006 and Besigye had learnt nothing from the beatings and imprisonment he had suffered. Yet if the returned political parties were triumphant, the electorate did not share this triumph. The 92.44% voters who wanted them back did not show up for them. The crowded field of presidential candidates, which included Milton Obote’s widow, Miria Obote, played supporting roles to the protagonists.

Museveni, realising that the constitution he had nursed to life would not be on his side, began to make the moves that would lead to the funereal pall of May 20, 2017. He appointed one General Kale Kayihura as Inspector General of Police. The disastrous militarisation of the police had begun. Kayihura had made his name as commander of the Revenue Protection Unit, which went after smugglers and tax dodgers with methods that threw the operation into disrepute. He was not a nice man.

Kayihura, Uganda’s longest serving IGP

Footage courtesy of New Vision TV

Not forgetting what it had done to him, Museveni also moved against the judiciary through appointments and outright humiliation. In a striking display of what would characterise the next decade in power, the so-called Black Mamba squad invaded the High Court and rearrested 22 suspects granted bail by the judges. They were allegedly part of the People’s Redemption Army, allegedly linked to Besigye.

Newer global forces, particularly ‘terrorism,’ provided fresh nomenclature. Now Uganda was an ally in the ‘war on terror.’ Renewed support from Washington boosted the regime and may well have bought it a decade extra in power. Sending troops to Somalia served to divert the military and inject income-replacing lost revenue from Congo and northern Uganda

The drift away from constitutionalism had begun. It is still unbelievable, the degree of violence that the army and the police deployed in this, Museveni’s third decade in power, from the brutal actions on the streets during the 2011 elections, to the disarmament of Karamoja pastoralists. Whoever was in charge, was not of the calibre of Besigye, whose stewardship of battalions in the first decade of Museveni’s rule had won so much respect in most parts of Uganda. These were a raw, untempered lot. As the decades piled up, principled men and women refused to work with Museveni, leaving the dregs to exercise power.

The cost of doing politics in Uganda goes up

And then, 16 months before the 2011 elections, something exceedingly alarming happened. In September 2009, the King of Buganda, Kabaka Ronald Mutebi, set off to visit a district his kingdom claimed as part of its territory. Kayunga, home to the Baruli community, had been a vassal state in pre-colonial Buganda, so the visit provided ironies all around, not least for Buganda, which was demanding the return of its properties from the Uganda state, the same kind of demand the Baruli were making of the Buganda Kingdom. The government blocked the visit, upon which Buganda erupted. The extremely ethnicised nature of the riots that followed were a frightening demonstration of what people felt, that Museveni and his ethnic group were “oppressors” hell bent on a massive land grab. It brought out fears of the kind that lie just under the surface of African politics.

The cost of doing politics in Uganda had gone up. In the run up to the 2006 elections, plainclothes operatives had fired live bullets and killed a man, just yards from where the Kabaka stood next to Besigye. It had been the single most chilling episode of that campaign period, one which left the Buganda, long mass supporters of Museveni who had in the previous two elections voted overwhelmingly for him, in no doubt of what they were facing. The 2009 riots were a delayed reaction. The country became a less happy place, if it had been happy in the first place.

But newer global forces, particularly “terrorism,” provided fresh nomenclature. Now Uganda was “an ally” in the “war on terror.” Renewed support from Washington boosted the regime and may well have bought it a decade extra in power. Sending troops to Somalia served to divert the military and replace lost revenue from Congo and northern Uganda. The modus operandi of Museveni has been that there must always be a war; as rulers throughout the ages know, war enriches soldiers and is also a neat way to get rid of problematic officers.

The opposition had gained traction by now. The public had seen a side to the regime it would not forget. Only voter intimidation and rigging ensured the ruling party stayed in power in 2006. In 2011, in a bizarre move, Museveni courted northern Ugandan voters. The ballots returned significant gains for the Movement. It was a shocking event, for Museveni had always ignored the northern vote. But now, he had also lost southern support. The cost of buying the northern vote, as well as the amount of fear-mongering needed to secure it, was too high. It was not tried again in 2016, when the opposition returned to its previous sweep of the region.

Newer global forces, particularly ‘terrorism,’ provided fresh nomenclature. Now Uganda was an ally in the ‘war on terror.’ Renewed support from Washington boosted the regime and may well have bought it a decade extra in power. Sending troops to Somalia served to divert the military and inject income-replacing lost revenue from Congo and northern Uganda

However, it must be noted that faith in elections ended in 2001; whatever little remained burned out in 2006. What the government may have missed was that by participating in the 2011 elections, the opposition was in effect, simply looking for a casus belli – daring the government to show its hand – by which to justify its next move. The state duly obliged. The world and the judges agreed that the elections had been a sham. The demonstrations that followed (this was Arab Spring season) in the well-reported “Walk to Work” protests in which political leaders “siding” with the poor ditched their cars and walked to parliament, initiated a novel approach to Ugandan politics. It also neutralised the use of armed force. It was a battle of image for which Museveni the guerrilla-fighter could not have been more ill-prepared.

Neoliberalism begins to unravel

It was also in this decade that the economic policies adopted in the early days of the regime had so endeared Museveni to Western powers, began to unravel. The failure of neoliberal economics to deliver promised “trickle down” benefits had done its damage in the Third World countries forced to swallow it. But following the 2008 banking crisis, the failures of that ideology had crept up from its Third World laboratories into the heartlands of extreme capitalism. While it had never really had a chance to work in a country like Uganda, the crisis meant that the lifeline of foreign aid that had tube-fed the Museveni government suddenly ran dry. Incapable of providing the patronage he had once dispensed, and with poverty underlining the degree of income inequality, things had come to a head by the time the third decade in power was coming to a close.

Enter Amama Mbabazi. He had been Museveni’s co-tribune, a Movement pillar and prime minister from 2011 to 2014. It had always been rumoured that he had been the organiser, the man who made things work. He first publicly expressed his presidential ambitions back in 2000 when he accused Besigye of jumping the succession queue. Had there been a pact between him and Museveni that he would be president after him? And how patient was he going to be? In 2015, when it became plain that Mbabazi had presidential ambitions, the Movement machinery whirred into action to do what it had rarely, if ever, done. It turned against its own.

The crisis meant that the lifeline of foreign aid that had tube-fed the Museveni government suddenly ran dry. Incapable of providing the patronage he had once dispensed, and with poverty underlining the degree of income inequality, things had come to a head by the time his third decade in power was coming to a close

The subsequent ejection, failed presidential candidacy and fall of Mbabazi quickly faded out of sight and he was not to become a subject of public discussion afterwards. The essential rebellion had been Besigye’s 1999 missive. There was to be no repeat. Attention remained focused on the latter, whose arrests and trials continued apace.

That was on the surface. Underneath, the ouster of the cringe-worthily naive Mbabazi, as it is now turning out, was to provide the essential plot and character for Museveni’s entry into the fourth decade in power. It is the thread that led to the fear I read that afternoon of May 20:

The ouster of Mbabazi was accompanied by a purge of the government and of the Movement system of alleged Mbabazi supporters. The high-level paranoia that underneath his own system, rebellion was growing, denied Museveni trust in a system as complex as a government needs in order to function. And yet it had been that trust the knowledge technocrats had that the president was both reasonable and supportive, that had delivered the key achievements of his early days in office, like the economic recovery and the fight against HIV/Aids. These achievements had in various forms not survived beyond the first decade but the original impetus had created a momentum of goodwill, for the image of “good leadership,” once earned, is hard to lose, if only because society is desperate for it. At any rate, Museveni had always profited by the inexhaustible store of goodwill extended to him.

It was inexhaustible until it ran out. By 2014, when Museveni made the ill-advised and very public move to sign the so-called anti-gay Bill, there had been a considerable body of international opinion that he was not exactly a democrat. By inserting himself needlessly into the Western cultural wars, Museveni had blundered in a costly fashion. He may have calculated that it would improve his electoral chances back home, but his opponents were never going to support gay rights to start with. The advantage was cancelled out. His detractors in the West had their opportunity. They pounced.

Aid money was cut left, right and centre. They needed the money for their own people. What had been billed as economic recovery was revealed to have all along been baloney. Uganda under Museveni had never improved its productivity in real terms. It was an aid-money autarky all the time.

By the time the 2016 elections came and went, it was undeniable that the country was in serious trouble. Police and other civil servants, not least teachers, nurses and doctors, went months without pay. Medicine was unavailable in hospitals. At the same time, the internal witch hunt in government, and the air of fear and suspicion following the ouster of Amama Mbabazi was causing a cave-in from the other end: There was no money to pay public workers; at the same time, people in high office became afraid to work, in case they were seen to be ambitious.

Fear and intimidation take over

Museveni’s innate instinct, the use of force and intimidation, seems to have taken over. The perennial troubles of Kasese, the Rwenzururu Kingdom, which predated colonial Uganda, and which had been handled diplomatically since the Obote I government in the 1960s, now met military force. More than 100 people were gunned down. It was not as if such a small kingdom could have caused national damage (its cause remains obscure outside the Rwenzori region), but it reflects what one analyst told me is the mentality of those whom the president now puts trust in – use maximum force.

Every ministry, from Health, Education, to Energy, is feeling the chill wind of administrative paralysis, but not all of them have as yet displayed incompetence in the manner in which famine in eastern Uganda has shown up the Ministry of Agriculture. But it is coming

Without respect and trust in the seasoned technocrats who shepherd political masters through the jungles of laws and acts and regulations that are effectively the “system,” a number of odd things have been happening in Uganda. Foremost among them is the failure to manage a looming food crisis in eastern Uganda. The coming environmental crisis, the first of which is the developing collapse of fish stocks, could have been avoided had the civil service been allowed to do its work. Every ministry, from Health, Education, to Energy, is feeling the chill wind of administrative paralysis, but not all of them have as yet displayed incompetence in the manner in which famine in eastern Uganda has shown up the Ministry of Agriculture. But it is coming. The spectacular bungling of telephone registration brought these issues to the fore.

A boyish, almost flagrant informality

An order was given that telephone users “verify” their numbers. However, Ugandan citizens were told they could not use driving permits, passports, work IDs, local council IDs, only National IDs. It was a telling admission that the Ministry of Internal Affairs was inept, that its identity documents were a sham. A properly functioning government would have been advised against such a move for the demands of one arm of government must be reconciled across all government arms to ensure systemic uniformity. It is the reason there is a prime minister and a Secretary to the Cabinet. This one was a weird call, until it was revealed that the call came from the IGP’s office.

At his first press conference back in 2005, which I attended as journalist at The EastAfrican, I watched Gen. Kayihura’s demeanour. I observed his short attention span, his easily distracted manner, twiddling with his phone in the middle of taking press questions and his affinity for a boyish, almost vagrant informality. It was a frightening projection of things to come.

In 2017, you could see Gen Kayihura’s hand in that telephone debacle. A chess piece moved at the end of the second decade in power, had showed its own hand at the beginning of the fourth decade in power.

What it said, and what precipitated that fever that we felt on May 20, was the fact that the administrative state in Uganda, had been overthrown by the security forces. There had been a coup. The Office of the Prime Minister, which supervised the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which supervised the Police, was forced to humiliatingly “follow” the orders of a policeman; parliament recognised its own impotence by attacking the line minister who formally made the announcement, knowing well that the minister had simply been following the orders of the IGP, whom they dared not touch. Prime minister, parliament and line minister were all to be further humiliated when the NRM parliamentary caucus overruled all of them. Four days after shutting down phone lines, they switched them on back again, and said we would have three more months to comply with the registration order.

It has become clear now that, going into his fourth decade in power, Museveni has effectively shut down the Uganda state and is intent on ruling through a secret and sometimes not so secret cabal of gunslingers, chief among them his IGP

There is the misled belief that an Orwellian-sized national biometric database will give the state means to track everyone and prevent an Arab Spring-style social media uprising. Sources say the government’s investments in electronic surveillance have been extensive. When it first asked citizens to acquire National IDs in 2013, very few people bothered to register. Then someone had a brain wave – threaten to take away their phones, that will bring them running. And so for all of April and May, the entire country was thrown into turmoil. We wait to see what happens in August when the three-month extension runs out.

It has become clear that there are now two centres of power in Uganda, President Museveni and IGP Kayihura. Everyone else, from the vice president to district officers, has gone quiet. In a sign of how disastrous this leadership model is, the “old” model was forced to intervene after President Museveni jumped protocol and directly accused fictitious Chinese diplomats of ivory trafficking. The incensed Chinese put their foot down and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which had not been consulted when the letter of accusation was sent out by the president’s office, apologised publicly to China. What it demonstrated was the manner in which Museveni now micro-manages Uganda.

It has become clear now that, going into his fourth decade in power, Museveni has effectively shut down the Uganda state and is intent on ruling through a secret and sometimes not so secret cabal of gunslingers, chief among them his IGP Gen Kale Kayihura. But even in there, things are not going swimmingly, which may explain the ultra-violent execution of Gen Kayihura’s deputy, Felix Kaweesi, on March 17 this year. It was the killing that provided the justification for shutting down telephone lines. There is a deadly power struggle even within the securocratic redoubt into which Museveni’s fourth decade is retreating. The new front of cyber security and fear of the power of social media has meant that a new front of enemies has opened up; it is no longer just past leaders, Nilotics or opposition who are “against development”; it’s also now a teenager with WhatsApp who must be closely monitored.

There is a general realisation that time is running out. Those in positions of power and opportunity are taking as much cash out of the public and through their offices as they can while they still have the chance. Principled and seasoned individuals are opting out, leaving a bevy of the callow and ethnically loyal to take positions of authority. The centre retreats into self-serving fiction.

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A.K. Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and journalist.

Politics

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.

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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.

Somalia’s support

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.

Collective punishment 

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.

Human trafficking 

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.

Al Shabaab

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.

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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.

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The End of Abiy-Mania
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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.

Post-election 

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.

Sudan

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.

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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.

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We Still Can’t Breath: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo
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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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