This was due to be the last in a series of four articles on the Kenyan general elections of 2017. The first three looked at the campaign, the state of play between the main alliances and the capabilities and activities of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission and made a series of predictions about the likely results of the 8 August poll at presidential, gubernatorial and parliamentary levels. This article looks at what happened next: the results, where those predictions were right and wrong, what we can deduce about the conduct of the electoral process in the light of the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the presidential poll on 1 September and what lessons there may be in the first presidential poll for the second.
The Presidential Results
In the Presidency, as predicted in all three articles, according to the Form 34Bs which record the 290 constituency results, Uhuru Kenyatta won a clear victory; winning 54% of the vote to 45% for his main challenger Raila Odinga. This was the result of an electoral process which initially pleased almost everyone. The procedures on polling day worked well, the electronic voter identification and tallying systems mostly functioned as intended (or at least as predicted), there was no military intervention, no mass failure of the electronic voter verification system and counting at the polling stations was mostly uneventful. The presidential results were (mostly) logical and consistent with previous elections and with the parallel elections taking place and there were no excesses of votes in the Presidency compared to the other polls. The overall process was given the support both of domestic and international observers (with qualifications as the results had not yet been declared at that point).
For now, this analysis is based on the opinion – which I hope to explain – that while there were material administrative issues sufficient in the minds of the Supreme Court to invalidate the election, the evidence strongly suggests that the presidential results announced by IEBC were not “cooked” or “computer generated”.
That is not the view of a large number of Kenyans who supported the NASA coalition however, nor of the Supreme Court, and we will look in more detail at their concerns later. For now, this analysis is based on the opinion – which I hope to explain – that while there were material administrative issues sufficient in the minds of the Supreme Court to invalidate the election, the evidence strongly suggests that the presidential results announced by IEBC were not “cooked” or “computer generated”. Many of the complaints raised relate to the IEBC’s partial migration to an electronic tallying system, which as predicted was a key source of confusion.
Overall, the IEBC results showed that Kenyatta and William Ruto had won a decisive victory, by a greater margin than most had predicted. They won 26 counties to Odinga’s 21. Uhuru won three counties I thought he would lose – Garissa, Narok and Nyamira – and lost one, Tana River.
I got closest in my article in June, which predicted a 55-45% victory, In fact, the closer to the election we got and the more information I acquired, the less accurate my predictions were. In fact, I had begun to doubt my own numbers and modified my eve-of-poll prediction from 53-47% (which the spreadsheet suggested) to 52% to 48%. I left however the predicted votes for each candidate the same, and there I was pretty close: the official constituency Form 34Bs show that Kenyatta beat Odinga by 8.2 million to 6.8 million votes, compared to which I had predicted 8 million to 7 million.
Regionally, Kenyatta and Odinga (and their respective Vice Presidential candidates William Ruto and Kalonzo Musyoka) won all their Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo and Kamba “heartlands” as expected, and by huge margins. The two internal “insurgencies” in Bomet (Isaac Ruto for NASA) and Machakos (Alfred Mutua for Jubilee) both had little impact on the presidential votes. I had expected Ruto to bring more voters to Odinga than he in fact did. Little will change here in a rerun. As predicted, Kenyatta won most of the north and North east, Odinga most of the Coast and Western. Nairobi (on the far left of the chart below) was narrowly pro-Odinga (51% to 48%), much closer that opinion polls had predicted, a source of some surprise. Ipsos for example had run a survey in Nairobi just pre-poll which predicted a 56% Odinga vote with a margin of error of +-2.7%. The Kisii and Nyamira result (on the far right) were also a surprise, as most commentators, myself included, had given the region to NASA as in 2013. Explanations given afterwards included the heavy investment Jubilee had made in the region, the defection of virtually all ODM MPs to Jubilee and the influence of Fred Matiang’i as cabinet secretary.
Note: Orange throughout is NASA or Odinga; Blue throughout is Jubilee or Kenyatta. I use blue rather than red, the “Jubilee colour”, because red and orange look similar in some display formats, and because blue is a more “conservative” colour in most political systems than red, which tends to be associated with socialism and communism, and Jubilee is definitely a more conservative alliance.
As expected, all the other candidates were irrelevant, except for Joseph Nyagah (small spread votes) and Mohammed Dida (in green above), who polled creditably in the north and north east. Rejected and otherwise inadmissible votes were reasonable, down on 2013 at 0.5% overall (based on the Form 34Bs).
When I summed them manually, the 34Bs added up to almost exactly the same results as IEBC had announced around 8pm on 11 August (which they had done with a couple of seats still missing, as they were entitled to do).
These Presidential results are taken directly myself from the 34Bs, when they were published in a repository by IEBC, which were the only formal and legal basis for announcing a result. When I summed them manually, the 34Bs added up to almost exactly the same results as IEBC had announced around 8pm on 11 August (which they had done with a couple of seats still missing, as they were entitled to do). There were three Form 34Bs missing from the Forms repository (a different result had been uploaded instead), so I used the 34C national summary for them. The results in the IEBC real time portal (initially fed by the KIEMS system and then corrected and topped up later manually with missing results) were similar, though not identical, with the main difference being the spoilt votes, where – as in 2013 – there appeared to be an glitch which led the number of rejected, disputed and objected votes to be far larger electronically than in fact it turned out to be (something the IEBC has never explained).
Comparing the now invalidated presidential results against those for 2013 (easy with the same constituencies and candidates) we can see clear trends. Kenyatta did better in most areas, picking up votes especially in the north and North East, the Coast, Western and Kisii/Nyamira. Odinga did better in Bomet, some northern Kalenjin seats, most of Western (where he took the majority of Mudavadi’s 2013 vote) and Meru.
Turnout was substantially down on 2013. This was as predicted: the 2013 election had been fought on a new register, which had been only incrementally and partially updated since then, leaving at least a million dead voters still registered, so turnouts were inevitably going to be lower. In addition, the electronic voter identification system, with id cards, photographs and fingerprints combined, and (uneditable) tallies of voters maintained electronically by the KIEMS systems, deterred or prevented some “top up voting“ (officials voting for missing voters at the end of the day) which occurred in 2013.
In summary, if the Presidential result was substantively rigged or the result otherwise affected by the issues found, it is near certain that all the other elections must have been rigged or affected in the same way, as they involved the same voters, method for voting, technology for voter identification and results transmission (KIEMS), the same real-time results display portal, the same voting and counting processes, the same election officials and almost the same end results.
The turnout pattern (in black below) matched very closely that of previous polls, highest in the Luo and Kikuyu homelands, lowest on the coast. Turnouts exceeded 85% in 35 mostly Kikuyu, Luo and Kalenjin constituencies, a sign of some forced voting, top ups or stuffing, but exceeded 90% nowhere, and nationwide were a very reasonable 78% (compared to the 76% that a long-term weighted average of the last five elections suggested). The change in turnout on 2013 (in green below) was mostly consistent, as would be expected if dead voters were the main reason. Turnouts rose slightly in a couple of Kilifi seats where they had been depressed by the Mombasa Republican Council violence in 2013, and in Tharaka in Tharaka-Nithi (unexplained so far).
In the 47 gubernatorial races, the results followed a similar pattern to those for the Presidency. Again, Jubilee won decisively, by a greater margin than predicted. Here too, I underestimated the scale of Jubilee’s victory (though I got the winner right in 40 of 47). I predicted that Jubilee and their KANU, MCC, FAP, PNU, DP, NARC-Kenya and independent allies would win 21-28 Governorships, but they ended up with 29. As expected, they won their homelands, and Mike Sonko won Nairobi. Jubilee also won four counties where I had them as marginals (Narok, Kwale, Lamu and Wajir) and four (Garissa, Kajiado, Bomet and Machakos) which I had given to NASA. Across the nation, only 21 of the 47 incumbent governors returned to office.
New Governors included three Kenyatta first-term cabinet secretaries, all dropped from their posts for various alleged misdeeds: Anne Waiguru in Kirinyaga, Joseph ole Lenku in Kajiado and Charity Ngilu in Kitui – plus retired Kibaki-era Secretary to the Cabinet Francis Kimemia. This reaffirmed the illusory nature of the distinction between senior non-partisan state officials and politicians. If they were not in active politics when they entered office, they certainly were by the time they left.
For many Kenyans, the local races for MP and MCA were just as important as those for the President and Governor. There too, the same pattern was seen – Jubilee successes across the board.
NASA did not petition the governorship elections collectively, though they made allegations that some results were “computer generated” and initially, nor did most losing gubernatorial candidates. There seemed a general assumption that the non-presidential polls were not systematically rigged until the Supreme Court’s judgement, which immediately opened the floodgates for petitions by defeated candidates, including losing gubernatorial candidates, in Embu, Siaya, Kirinyaga and Machakos, with more to come.
The Parliamentary Races
For many Kenyans, the local races for MP and MCA were just as important as those for the President and Governor. There too, the same pattern was seen – Jubilee successes across the board. In the National Assembly, for the 290 constituency MPs my prediction of a 54% pro-Jubilee to 46% pro-NASA win turned out again to be a slight underestimate of the size of Jubilee’s victory. In fact, Jubilee and allies won roughly 60% to just under 40% for NASA. Jubilee did well in Bungoma and Kakamega (where ex-New FORD Kenya members formed the core of their victors), Kisii and Maasailand, and even won a couple of seats in Kitui and Machakos. ODM swept Luo areas and most of the Coast and Wiper most of Ukambani, while Mudavadi’s ANC, FORD-Kenya and ODM competed for the non-Jubilee western seats. Nairobi split 9 seats to Jubilee to 8 to NASA. The majority of MPs were newcomers, with voters clearly demanding change at the local level, particularly in the Kikuyu and Luo homelands, where few incumbents were re-elected.
The pattern was similar amongst the elected county Women’s MPs (with 31 for Jubilee and its allies versus 16 NASA and one independent) and in the Senate, where Jubilee and allies won 27 elected seats to NASAs 20). Overall, Jubilee won (initially) the presidency, the National Assembly, the Senate and most of the Governorships, the most decisive victory since the NARC wave of 2002.
Contrasting Perspectives and NASA’s Concerns
In general, the elections appeared to have been smoothly run, the results consistent, the electronic portal reporting convincing and the IEBC appeared comfortable in delivering its mandate. Observers commended the process as “peaceful, fair, and transparent”. Believing it had lost its ability to validate and correct constituency errors after the Maina Kiai et al case, IEBC headquarters limited itself – for the presidential election victory announcement – to a process of extraction, verification and entry of the 290 constituency Form 34B returns, the summing of these results and the announcement of the winner. As there remains dispute on this, the key decision summary is reproduced here from the Kiai judgement (http://kenyalaw.org/caselaw/cases/view/133874/):
The results Chebukati announced from the 34Bs (acknowledged by all to be without a complete set of 40,000 matching polling station Form 34As) matched closely with the parallel returns coming from the polling stations via the electronic KIEMS system in real-time to Bomas. From close of poll on the 8th, the parallel result stream from KIEMS soon showed a lead for Kenyatta and that lead grew over the next 48 hours as more and more of the electronic kits reported in.
The independent Parallel Vote Tabulation conducted by the ELOG domestic observer network and announced on 12 August validated the results almost precisely (its sample-based prediction gave 54% for Kenyatta to 45% to Odinga with a 1.9% margin of error). This was crucial because it provided independent verification to observers and the media that their perception of a well-run election was matched by independent assessment. Of course, this could have been faked, but there is no evidence yet offered that it was.
A macro-level comparison of voters cast and results between elections in fact shows that Odinga did better presidentially than his candidates in general. A re-tallying of the 15.3 million gubernatorial votes by constituency gives 5.7 million votes to ODM, Wiper, CCM, ANC, FORD–Kenya and allied candidates, far less than Odinga’s 6.8 million (in red). Thus Odinga did better in the cancelled presidential elections than did his gubernatorial candidates. The same pattern is seen in Parliament – again, Jubilee candidates polled more than 2 million more than NASA, though results are incomplete become 18 seats still don’t have full results on the Portal (https://public.rts.iebc.or.ke).
Jubilee = Jubilee + KANU + FAP + MCC + EFP + DP + PNU + NARC-Kenya plus defectors from the above after losing primaries, where known
NASA = ODM + Wiper + CCM +ANC + FORD-K + CCU + NARC plus defectors from the above after losing primaries, where known
Jubilee’s victories in the annulled presidency matched well with its victories in parliament and the Governorships. Comparing the Presidential, Gubernatorial, Senate and Women’s Representative results against each other by winner, in only nine counties did voters switch tickets: Nairobi, Machakos, Lamu, Tana River, Kwale, Taita-Taveta, Turkana, Narok, Trans-Nzoia and Nyamira.
Of those, Odinga won every one except Nyamira. In summary, if the Presidential result was substantively rigged or the result otherwise affected by the issues found, it is near certain that all the other elections must have been rigged or affected in the same way, as they involved the same voters, method for voting, technology for voter identification and results transmission (KIEMS), the same real-time results display portal, the same voting and counting processes, the same election officials and almost the same end results.
Rather than conceding once the trend was clear, Odinga rejected the presidential results outright (though not the other results) and accused the IEBC of a “complete fraud”. NASA’s impassioned follow up allegations were more specific, claiming form substitution, un-gazetted polling stations and administrative chaos in the IEBC and castigating the IEBC for releasing the presidential results without all the Form 34As. The sometimes-contradictory and implausible hacking claims made by senior politicians including Odinga, James Orengo and Mudavadi on 9-10 August raised the political temperature sharply, as intended, but also distracted attention for a while from real issues which were emerging relating to the IEBCs handing of the Form 34As. Despite widespread scepticism and challenge from the international observers, who had all judged the polls so far (before results had been announced) to be free and fair, NASA’s leaders refused to accept the results, claiming they were “cooked” or “faked” and demanded – even before all form 34B were in – that IEBC declare Raila as President (at one point using a faked NASA parallel count document as supporting evidence).
Unexpectedly abandoned by the international observers, who they had previously seen as allies, they lashed out at them as well. A few NGOs including the Kenya Human Rights Commission backed up NASA’s allegations to varying degrees, which then raised further fears of state repression (and generated further bad press internationally) when the state briefly tried to shut them down immediately the result was announced.
However, Odinga and the other NASA principles came under intense domestic and international pressure to take the constitutional path, as their ambivalent, partial move to “the streets” to protest during Wednesday 9th – Sunday 13th August was escalating and several people (probably at least 28) had been killed, mostly by the security forces.
NASA followed up their allegations with a petition against the presidential election, filed just within the one-week deadline on 18 August. Until the 16th, they had told Kenyans that “filing a petition at the Supreme Court to challenge the results was out of the question” because of CORD’s difficult experience in 2013 in crafting a case in one week, and the high burden of proof then demanded. However, Odinga and the other NASA principles came under intense domestic and international pressure to take the constitutional path, as their ambivalent, partial move to “the streets” to protest during Wednesday 9th – Sunday 13th August was escalating and several people (probably at least 28) had been killed, mostly by the security forces. Fears of broader communal violence in Nairobi were growing, fuelled by a series of fake media photographs, pretending to be current and of Kenya, designed to incite hatred. The decision to petition offered a temporary release for that tension.
For just one week (extraordinarily brief because of the two-week end to end deadline for concluding presidential cases, which the judiciary had already asked unsuccessfully to be extended) the Supreme Court heard the NASA case and responses from the IEBCs lawyers and other interested parties, with the verdict announced 1 September. NASA’s case focussed on five main areas – the electronic vote transmission system and its potential hacking (with the extraordinary claim that the portal results were a mathematical calculation unrelated to the actual votes cast); the missing form 34As and whether some were invalid or had been faked or substituted and errors in the KIEMS data entry which sent some of the results to the tallying centres; whether the IEBC Chairman should have declared without all the form 34As in his possession; examples of tallying errors between form 34As and Bs and possible malpractice in particular constituencies; and the pre-poll electoral environment including campaigning by Cabinet Secretaries for the ruling alliance.
The two dissenting judges’ Ndung’u and Ojwang’s opinions on the case were brutal – that the petition was without merit, devoid of evidence and that any transmission irregularities did not and could not have affected the outcome of the actual election at the polling stations or the count at constituency tallying centres.
To some surprise, by a 4-2 majority verdict the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Maraga nullified Kenyatta’s re-election, because the poll was “not conducted in accordance with the Constitution”, and specifically the IEBC had “committed irregularities and illegalities inter alia, in the transmission of results”. The detailed grounds for that decision are not yet known, as the formally argued verdict will only be issued in 21 days (as it was “not humanly possible” in the words of the CJ to prepare the report in the time available). The court found no evidence of misconduct by Kenyatta (which had been one of Odinga’s petition grounds), though again we do not yet know their reasoning. It ordered another “fresh” presidential poll to be held in 60 days.
The two dissenting judges’ Ndung’u and Ojwang’s opinions on the case were brutal – that the petition was without merit, devoid of evidence and that any transmission irregularities did not and could not have affected the outcome of the actual election at the polling stations or the count at constituency tallying centres. Justice Ojwang argued that “there is not an iota of merit in invalidating the clear expression of the Kenyan people”. Kenyatta’s lawyers were furious, with one calling it “a political decision that is absolutely devoid of an iota of legal reasoning”, but the Supreme Court is Kenya’s final court and there is no further appeal.
Where were the Real Issues?
The single most vexed element of the whole election proved to be the electronic vote tallying and reporting, which had been introduced in the 2016 and 2017 Elections Act amendments. The unsolved murder of the IEBC expert responsible for KIEMS just before polling day (the reasons for which have still not been explained, though at least one person is still in custody) added fear and uncertainty to an already confusing situation. Most of this was unnecessary, as the election results used to calculate the Presidential winner should always and only have been those from the form 34Bs. The electronic results which came direct from the 40,833 polling stations to the portal were unofficial, incomplete (because they would and could never get 100% electronic results in a country so large and diverse economically as Kenya) and would inevitably differ (as they in fact did) from the 34Bs prepared at constituency level (mostly due to data entry errors into KIEMS by officials when transcribing manually from the completed forms). Repeated NASA allegations of hacking of the central IEBC server did not make great sense once it was clear that the central IEBC system was only being used for parallel presentation of polling station results from KIEMS. The actual presidential result came from the 290 constituency Form 34Bs. And the allegedly hacked portal had almost exactly the same result (8.2 m to 6.8 m) as that produced by adding the Form 34Bs.
The second significant concern was the delays in obtaining and then displaying the form 34As in IEBC headquarters. These were not (in the IEBC’s view) required for the central presidential announcement, but were still essential in order to determine whether the overall election was free and fair. No constituency RO should have announced their winners without all their form 34As, yet a week after they had finished, thousands were missing. The IEBC originally promised that “The results for the presidential election will be transmitted together with an image of the polling station tally sheet”. Then two days before polling, they announced what had already been widely suspected – that 11,000 polling stations did not have sufficient wireless network coverage – so the results from KIEMS would either come later or minus the scanned Form 34A copy. The whereabouts of these 11,000 forms became a huge problem. The IEBC was ambivalent and even misleading at times in its reporting. It seems they had not initially realised that the ‘one-time use’ model for KIEMS devices meant that for the polling stations where the system could not send the image but could send the results online, the scan of the form 34A would have to be provided much later by other means. These trickled in over the next 1-2 weeks, electronically or by hand. The IECB’s ambiguity over the 34As and the portal cost them dearly in perceptions of their competence and credibility.
Their failure to provide a display portal for the Form 34As and Bs was a mistake which was rectified, quickly for the Form 34As, and then grudgingly, a week after the vote, for the 34Bs. However, once done, it exposed gap between image and reality, when huge swathes of form 34As were found to be missing and some to be illegible. Those which were in the system matched well with the results in the online portal, but some were unsigned, unstamped or in a different format, and no-one knew what had happened to those which were missing. Some reports suggested the gaps were politically material (e.g. disproportionately from Odinga’s homelands).
It now appears that some media houses were ordered not to report on constituency contests, which might lead to suspicion that something deeper was amiss.
This linked to a more systemic concern – the back office operation of IEBC headquarters. While on the face of it, Wafula Chebukati, Ezra Chiloba and other commissioners maintained a relaxed face, and the portal and forms systems worked well, exactly where the portal results were coming from and why so few Form 34As were available has never been fully explained. It seems that administratively things were far from smooth in the back office. Basic security controls were lax, with IEBC staff frantically updating systems with whatever data they could get using various userids, some of their much vaunted document security features were invalid, key constituency documents were duplicated or unsigned and some officials were not even gazetted. There are still no published results apart from those on the portal for any of the other elections – no Form 35,36 ,37 and 38 for the parliamentary, gubernatorial, women representative or senatorial results have been published anywhere. The IEBC portal has results, but they are still incomplete nearly a month after the election, and differ from the (fragmentary) official results gazetted by IEBC on 18 August. In general, the results reporting and display process was unclear and IEBC did not always follow the procedures it had promised pre-election to ensure transparency and build confidence. The evidence from NASA’s petition showed numerous data and quality integrities, which while they were modest in individual impact and probably affected all candidates (and therefore would have limited material effect on the election result) certainly led many to question what was happening behind the scenes.
Another concern (less widely known) is the way in which the Kenyan media focused entirely on the electronic portal for their results, making no effort to report the actual constituency results. No independent tally was maintained and for the first time ever the press did not report any Constituency presidential, parliamentary or other results as announced. Initially I has thought that was simply practical laziness – since the portal was available and online – but it seemed inexplicable that the media were not reporting any of the announcements at all. It now appears that some media houses were ordered not to report on constituency contests, which might lead to suspicion that something deeper was amiss.
Still more concerns existed as to how individual presiding and returning officers behaved during their counting and tallying. Some Presiding Officers (for example in Mandera) were replaced the night before polling for unclear reasons. In some stations in pro-Jubilee homelands, NASA agents were not admitted and there was evidence in some stations of “top up” marking of unused ballots after polls closed. Many of the Form 34As had arithmetical issues or were not appropriately signed. It seems from NASA’s petition that some 34As may have been substituted with new (fake) documents or amended after counts finished (though KIEMS should prevent that, KEIMS didn’t work everywhere). In 13 per cent of polling stations, ELOG reported that Form 34A results were not displayed publicly as required by law. Some Form 34Bs show basic mathematical errors. There is also statistical evidence that (as in previous polls) presidential tallies were somehow inflated in the homelands (though there were few public protests at the time). For example, work in progress by Raiya Huru looking at the statistical distribution of Form 34A numbers suggests that in Murang’a, Nyeri, Nyandarua, Siaya, Kisumu and Homa Bay, the polling station results had been tampered with by someone (http://raiyahuru.com/Analysis.pdf). This matched well the NASA petition analyst’s view that something was amiss statistically with many of the results. The IEBC admitted that there were errors in the forms, but claimed they were not substantial enough to affect the outcome of the election.
The Presidential Election Part II
As the petition proceeded, life had begun to return to normal. The new MPs had been sworn in, governors had mostly completed their handovers, and for most Kenyans, the lengthy, expensive, diverting election was becoming a thing of the past. However, with the Court’s announcement we are now in uncharted waters, with the IEBC required to rerun the presidential poll within 60 days, for reasons which are not yet clear.
The IEBC should have been prepared for a runoff, so in theory all should be ready for a rerun. However, whether the IEBC can put together the temporary staff, the KIEMS devices, the logistics and the ballot papers in time for 17 October we do not yet know, especially as the IEBC itself is now under threat. So far Chebukati is staying put rather than resigning, but Chiloba has been side-lined entirely, as have several other officials (putting further stress on those who remain). But NASA is already objecting to the Supreme Court’s order that IEBC conduct a fresh poll in 60 days (because IEBC must be reconstituted), and IEBC has already decided not to conduct a full presidential poll anyway but only a second round runoff, based on the judgement in the 2013 petition [para 291] that “If the petitioner was only one of the candidates, and who had taken the second position in vote-tally to the President-elect, then the “fresh election” will, in law, be confined to the petitioner and the President-elect.”. And the precedent set in the Presidential petition would appear to allow every loser in the other five elections to annul every winner’s election on the same basis, if they can file a petition in time. So, more court cases loom while time runs out.
How effectively the two alliances will respond – without much time to raise money – to the need to do it all again no-one knows, but Jubilee are now grim, angry and spoiling for a rematch, which may well be dirtier than the first. My first guess would be that the result of the second election, if actually held, will be similar to that in the last, and in all the other “down ballot” elections, but until we know the real reasons why the Court annulled the vote, we do not know how much impact the irregularities they found may have had on the first presidential result. Victory in the courts may give the NASA camp fresh impetus and mitigate the pro-Jubilee bandwagon effect of incumbency, but Jubilee have a huge regional advantage (as they always did), more money and no intention of losing.
I had thought this would be my last piece, but perhaps we will need one more.
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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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