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Constitutionalism for Convenience: How Kenyan Presidents Have Subverted the Supreme Law

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CONSTITUTIONALISM FOR CONVENIENCE: How Kenyan Presidents Have Subverted The Supreme Law
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During a transition into a new presidential tenure such as Kenya is going through at this point in 2017, it is expected that people – certainly government and governance scholars – will review the outgoing tenure so as to highlight the needs of the incoming tenure. If such reviews become a habit, then the next logical step is to review the comparative performances of presidents and/or presidencies over the years, with a view to assessing aspirants for suitability.

The mutations to the independence gave much power to the Executive relative to the Legislature and Judiciary: all public servants were employed “during the pleasure of the President”, which bred extensive impunity in the upper echelons of the Executive. That the reformist 2010 Constitution, designed to put paid to such potential Executive excess, has failed to do so reflects, inter alia, the depths to which the roots of impunity had sunk during the initial 47 years of independence.[1] That impunity is alive and well in and around the presidency, is elaborately manifest even in the persisting illegalities and irregularities surrounding the transition to a new presidential tenure. This is an indicator of the nature of disposition to constitutionalism.

The global literature illustrates varied approaches to evaluating presidents and/or presidencies, such as through the analyses of speech content, performance of the economy, and opinion poll ratings, amongst others. These listed approaches are more amenable to the evaluation of developed country contexts where such data is habitually gathered; but this is not the case for developing country contexts, such as Kenya. For the latter countries, presidential speeches are based on opportunistic political expediency rather than on the individual’s beliefs; economies are disproportionately driven by exogenous rather than endogenous factors; and opinion polls are excessively subjective. However, a useful yardstick with which to compare president or presidencies is fidelity to the constitution of the day, which is supposed to be the social contract with the citizens of the country. Given the respective contexts within which Kenya’s independence and 2010 constitutions were made, it is reasonable to expect greater fidelity to the latter which arguably carries greater legitimacy.

However, a useful yardstick with which to compare president or presidencies is fidelity to the constitution of the day, which is supposed to be the social contract with the citizens of the country.

The making of Kenya’s independence constitution was chaperoned by the British, with delegates from the colony abiding by the tradition of attending talks at Lancaster House in London. Despite the British government’s declared ‘wind of change’ sweeping in independence for its colonies, its kith in Kenya, the White settlers, briefly contemplated a ‘unilateral declaration of independence’, which would have perpetuated the relative voiceless-ness of the majority African population.[2] But the Africans at the constitutional talks did not also speak with one voice: the self-serving settlers had successfully heightened the fears of the Africans from the smaller ethnic groups under the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) party, of domination by those from the two largest groups, the Kikuyu and Luo, who were grouped in the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. Thus, broadly speaking, the independence constitution was the product of compromise among four delegations, rather than one between a united African front and the colonizer, Britain. In contrast, the making of the 2010 Constitution was a ‘people-driven’ comprehensive review process commenced in 1999, with a large number of delegates, 629 in total, attending the National Constitutional Conference at the Bomas of Kenya venue.

A dominant feature of Kenya’s 27 constitutional changes between 1963 and 2008 was the centralization of power in the Executive, specifically on the President. Founding Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta – hereafter Kenyatta I – begun the cannibalization of the independence constitution as early as 1964, when he declared himself the President of the Republic of Kenya. The other 1964 changes also watered down the independence of regional governments, which were consequently killed in the next year. The 1966 changes ushered in dictatorship, amalgamating the Senate and National Assembly,[3] derogating rights and freedoms while also introducing detention without trial. Furthermore, 1966 saw the constitutional stifling of the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) opposition party launched in 1965 and gave the President power to hire and fire all in the public service, while 1968 saw the abolition of independent candidates and provided for the President to be elected through a General Election, as opposed to election by the National Assembly, which made him politically independent of the latter. By 1969, the President had acquired the right to appoint the Electoral Commission of Kenya; but the need to rationalize these multiple amendments led to ‘rebasing’ the constitution on that year. Among the last of Kenyatta’s 15-odd amendments would be one to allow him to pardon ex-Kapenguria detainee, Paul Ngei, and allow him to return to politics after he was convicted of an electoral offence.

Thus, broadly speaking, the independence constitution was the product of compromise among four delegations, rather than one between a united African front and the colonizer, Britain.

Among the more outstanding constitutional amendments of successor president Daniel Moi (1978-2002), was the infamous Article 2A of 1982, transforming the country into a de jure – by law – single party state that made KANU the Baba na Mama of all Kenyans. Another outstanding amendment was the 1991 repeal of the same Article 2A, which returned the country to multipartyism.[4] In between, 1986 witnessed the mischievous removal of security of tenure for the Attorney General and the Auditor and Controller General (CAG), and the increase of parliamentary constituencies to 188. Torture was allowed in 1987, while security of tenure for constitutional offices was removed in 1988. Security of tenure returned in 1990 amidst pressure for the opening up of democratic space for Kenyans; and in 1991 constituencies increased to 210.

While these constitutional gymnastics suggested regimes that were keen to be on the right side of the ‘mother law’, there was extensive repression in other realms, such as the 1980s onslaught against real or imagined Mwakenya and Pambana activists. The treatment of suspects, with several prosecutors and magistrates acting as the system’s hatchet men, was in violation of the well-known and internationally accepted rights of people in such circumstances. And of course, there were several assassinations, among the better known ones being Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya, J.M.Kariuki and Robert Ouko. The era saw many unexplained accidents, disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Additionally, individuals were ‘dealt with’ through various other means, such as a vocal Assistant Minister being imprisoned for violating foreign exchange regulations by inadvertently keeping some loose change after foreign trips.

The independence development blueprint, Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 on African Socialism, had provided that scarce investment resources would be focused on “areas of greatest absorptive capacity”, with surpluses being redistributed to the lower absorption parts of the country.[5] Growth occurred in fits and starts,[6] but there was little redistribution to the low absorption regions and communities previously overlooked by colonialism.[7] Instead, there was expropriation through harambee fund-raising for social sector investments even as the government extensively biased budget resource allocations. Thus, for example, public health care resources went disproportionately to the parts of the country that had a harambee capacity to build health facilities, rather than to those parts that had comparatively greater disease burdens, such as the malaria endemic regions. The net effect of such inequitable resource allocation have been the inequalities in health status, such as are reflected in the child mortality rates of Figure 1.[8]

Figure 1: Under-5 Mortality Rates by background characteristics, 2014

Under-5 Mortality Rates by background characteristics, 2014

Source: KDHS, 2014

The illustration above of disregard for comparative development needs was given further impetus by both regimes’ resort to parochialism – and indeed, nepotism – in key public appointments. Notwithstanding public employment being “during the pleasure of the President”, it is difficult to imagine that any tenant of State House believed that the national interest was best served through excessively parochial public appointments. Table 1 shows that belonging to the president’s ethnic group was significant for the distribution of cabinet positions, with ethnic shares fluctuating markedly depending on the president’s ethnicity. And beyond merely having a cabinet position, ethnicity also determined which lucrative dockets went to whom. Such exalted positions enabled the illegal but unpunished diversion of Parliament-sanctioned development resources away from areas perceived hostile to the government to ‘politically-correct’ areas. The context also enabled self-aggrandisement with impunity since such individuals’ closeness to the president protected against prosecution.[9] In any case, the annual CAG reports that would highlight such criminal misconduct would be several years behind schedule, complicating remedial action.[10]

Table 2: Ethnic shares of Kenyan cabinet positions and population (%)

Ethnic group Kenyatta (Kikuyu) Moi (Kalenjin) Kibaki (Kikuyu) Share of population
1966 1978 1979 2001 2003 2005 2011 2009
Kikuyu 28.6 28.6 30 4 16 18.1 19.5 17
Luhya 9.5 4.8 11 14 16 21.2 17.1 14
Luo 14.3 14.3 11 7 16 3.1 12.2 12
Kalenjin 4.8 4.8 11 17 7 6.1 9.8 13
Total 21 21 26 28 25 33 42

 

The ad hoc reviews of the constitution led to internal contradictions; but weak fidelity to the letter of the document also opened up further opportunities for impunity. For example, the dividing line between KANU and the Executive increasingly became blurred over policy-making and implementation; and the context increasingly dictated the agendas of the Judiciary and Parliament. As reflected in the 1988 queue voting – mlolongo – exercise, democratic electioneering lost meaning: in instances, the shortest queue of supporters would be declared victorious. These contradictions led to extensive demands for a comprehensive review of the constitution in the run-up to the 1997 general elections. The brutal response of the government was most vividly captured in the police invasion of the inner sanctum of the All Saints Cathedral into which they lobbed tear gas against demonstrators. The stand-off was eventually resolved through the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) process, which was able to extract modest reforms from the government, such as the inclusion of opposition in nominating members of the electoral commission hitherto appointed exclusively by the President.[11] While Moi retained power at the election, the seed of change had been sown;[12] sustained internal and external pressure for a comprehensive constitutional review led to the Bomas of Kenya conference launched in 2003.[13]

While these constitutional gymnastics suggested regimes that were keen to be on the right side of the ‘mother law’, there was extensive repression in other realms, such as the 1980s onslaught against real or imagined Mwakenya and Pambana activists.

The shenanigans around the constitution review process are well documented: suffice it to say that it took 10 years of back and forth, and critically, over 1,300-odd deaths and half-a-million internal displacements during the 2007/08 post-election violence, to focus the government on the delivery of a new constitution.

IPPG had not convinced Moi of the need for comprehensive change; so he had set about co-opting perceived ethnic chiefs into KANU to diffuse the growing clamour for an end to Nyayoism. In a perverse way, that Moi strategy probably made a major contribution to liberating Kenya from his clutches, even if his empire would later strike back. Moi’s strategy culminated in the Kasarani Stadium conference at which he declared a comparative political nonentity, Uhuru Kenyatta, to be his heir.[14] That action sparked a revolt that passed through various political outfits to coalesce in the exceedingly ethnically broad-based and popular National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC) party. This was the party that brought Kibaki to the presidency in 2003, with a promise of a new constitution in 100 days.

Yet if the promised NARC revolution had got rid of Moi and his preferred heir, Kenyans would soon realise that Moi-ism – the disregard for constitutional, policy and legal frameworks – had merely acquired a new face; and there were hints of a reinvention of the autocracy of Kenyatta I. Of the ‘new constitution within a 100 days’, a leading Kibaki ally would declare that there had been nothing wrong with the existing constitution, and that changes to it had only been desired as a means of getting rid of Moi. The growing indiscretions of the Kibaki faction in NARC meant that the party soon imploded,[15] even as that faction set about manipulating the Bomas Draft Constitution to perpetuate the status quo. These divisions set the stage for the 2005 national referendum defeat of Kibaki’s preferred version of the proposed constitution, which in turn set Kenya on the road to the disputed 2007 presidential elections, and the violence the followed in its wake.[16]

As reflected in the 1988 queue voting – mlolongo – exercise, democratic electioneering lost meaning: in instances, the shortest queue of supporters would be declared victorious.

Notwithstanding the unprecedented horror surrounding it, the 2007-08 post-election violence had a silver lining: its resolution by the Kofi Anna-led African Union’s Panel of Eminent Personalities led to, amongst other things, the institution of Agenda Item 4 of 2008 – the basis of long term governance reforms in the country.[17] A newly independent African country’s primary ambition must surely be the transformation of the state (constitution), boundaries and peoples into a nation-state. One might try to explain Kenyatta I’s failures in this respect on his old age and his being overwhelmed by the very idea of ‘independence’ (self-rule); and Moi’s failure on his narrow world view that limited exposure to ideas, such as nation-hood. But neither explanation could hold for the much younger, more educated, and indeed cosmopolitan Kibaki’s failure to realise the dreams of the NARC revolution. And Kibaki’s failure to grasp the remedial opportunity provided by Agenda 4 underscored his lack of fortitude and his ethnic insularity. A president offered great opportunities proved entirely ineffectual.

So ineffectual was Kibaki that he largely seemed to have slept through the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments of Kenyans adjudged to have had the greatest responsibility for the 2007/08 post-election violence.[18] But Kibaki did have reason to let sleeping dogs lie, even as Moreno Ocampo muddled his way through the early ICC processes: the National Intelligence Service’s (NIS) evidence to the Waki Commission was that Kibaki’s National Security Council (NSC) had been regularly briefed on people arming themselves for violence after the elections. If NSI’s evidence was true – and nobody denied it – then the NSC chair should have been first on the plane to ICC: he knew of impending violence, and failed to contain the threat despite having both the constitutional obligation and the means with which to do so.

Yet if the promised NARC revolution had got rid of Moi and his preferred heir, Kenyans would soon realise that Moi-ism – the disregard for constitutional, policy and legal frameworks – had merely acquired a new face; and there were hints of a reinvention of the autocracy of Kenyatta I.

Among the distinguishing acts of the Kibaki presidency was his rampant creation of unconstitutional administrative districts. In 1997, Kibaki’s Democratic Party had won a High Court action against President Moi for creating some 30-odd “unconstitutional districts”, which the judge did not dissolve because it was the eve of a general election premised on those very districts. Yet during his presidency, right up to the 2010 promulgation of the new constitution, Kibaki created over 200 new, similarly unconstitutional districts,[19] which the new Constitution duly abolished by transforming the constitutional 47 into counties.

Among Agenda 4’s objectives was the time-bound promulgation of a new constitution, which Kibaki hardly campaigned for ahead of the national referendum on it. That the Constitution (2010) is transformative is indisputable: while Chapter 1 of the 2008 version of the independence constitution says nothing about the people of Kenya before launching into the greatness of the President, Article 1 of Constitution (2010) conditions the presidency on the will of the people in declaring as follows:

“(1) All sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya and shall be exercised only in accordance with this Constitution5)

(2) The people may exercise their sovereign power either directly or through their democratically elected representatives.”

Having declared as such, the Constitution (2010) further takes power away from the President in three important respects: (i) it underscores the separation of powers between the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature (Article 1(3)); (ii) instead of all public servants being employed “during the pleasure of the President”, key public offices are filled through people-driven processes as well as protected against external interference (Articles 160, 228, 229, and Chapter 13, etc); and (iii) it creates the national and county levels of government which “are distinct and inter-dependent and shall conduct their mutual relations on the basis of consultation and cooperation (Articles 6 and 189).”

Kibaki’s failure to grasp the remedial opportunity provided by Agenda 4 underscored his lack of fortitude and his ethnic insularity. A president offered great opportunities proved entirely ineffectual.

A further driver of impunity and parochialism under the independence constitution had been the central control of government resources began by Kenyatta I’s 1964 constitutional amendments that took service delivery and revenue generation functions away from the regions. However, the Constitution (2010) proved true to the principles of effective fiscal decentralization: its Fourth Schedule divided functions between the National and County Governments; and Chapter 12 on Public Finance ensures that money (resources) follows the Fourth Schedule’s division of labour.

As noted above, the Kibaki regime was not overly pleased with the governance changes occasioned by the new constitution,[20] especially devolution which would take “at least 15 percent of national revenue” out of Treasury’s control (Articles 203 (2), 207 (1) and 209).[21] This displeasure was most graphically illustrated in the stand-off over the draft Public Finance Management Bill, between devolution’s then mother ministry, Local Government, and the Finance ministry. While Treasury insisted on retaining control of monies devolved by Parliament to county governments, the Local Government prevailed with its position aligned to the recommendations of the Task Force on Devolved Government[22] and the spirit of the Constitution, that Treasury must not touch such monies. Additionally, and critically for effective transition to devolution, the Kibaki government delayed the establishment and adequate resourcing of the Transition Authority, the statutory midwife of the process. This meant that devolution was launched in April 2013, before the Authority could complete many of the preparatory measures envisaged by the Task Force on devolution, and reflected in the Authority’s founding statute.[23]

These goings-on confirm Kenyatta’s place among his predecessors’ ‘constitutionalism for convenience’: if it hampers, ditch it!

Kibaki’s 2013 succession was a somewhat messy affair. His regime had a perception that a Kikuyu could not – or at least should not ­– succeed him; and so it searched for an ‘acceptable’ non-Kikuyu to oppose Raila Odinga and subsequently manage the ICC burden favourably, with Finance minister Kenyatta, arguably the strongest Kikuyu presidential candidate, indicted there for the 2007/08 post-election violence. Meanwhile, Kalonzo Musyoka’s 2008 backing of Kibaki had enabled the latter to form a government despite a numerically stronger opposition; and Musyoka had reason to expect the favour to be returned. Elsewhere, Kenyatta considered a candidacy for fellow Deputy Prime Minister and former Vice President, Musalia Mudavadi, who had the additional advantage of family ties to former president Moi. In the event, Kenyatta abandoned Mudavadi, declaring “the devil” to have caused him to even think of that option, broke loose of Kibaki handlers, and joined forces with fellow ICC suspect, William Ruto, to milk their tribulations for political gain. These developments pushed Musyoka into an alliance with Odinga.

However, a summary of Kenyatta’s attitude to constitutionalism is best illustrated by his conduct during the 2017 presidential elections. Even as he laments constitutional obstacles to fighting corruption, Kenyatta consistently used state resources to curry favour among individual politicians and voters.

These goings-on confirm Kenyatta’s place among his predecessors’ ‘constitutionalism for convenience’: if it hampers, ditch it! For example, while the full implementation of the Constitution (2010) is viewed as a plausible instrument against corruption, Kenyatta has wished for the independence constitution’s imperial presidency.[24] Secondly, Kenyatta is among the Kiambu-ians who came to terms with ‘the snake crossing the River Chania’ into Nyeri,[25] but cannot countenance the snake leaving the ‘House of Mumbi’, an underlying issue in the post-2007 election agenda.[26] Additionally, after losing the 2002 presidential election, Kenyatta had become the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, and eventual chair of the KANU party; but he would lead the party into Kibaki’s Party of National Unity coalition in the run up to the 2007 election, and eventually abandon it for his own presidential run with an eye on ensuring a House of Mumbi victory in the 2013 elections. The Supreme Court upheld Kenyatta’s victory in that election; but the court’s decision was derided by numerous legal scholars.[27]

While Kibaki seemed ambivalent during the 2010 debates on the Proposed Constitution, Kenyatta publicly supported it. However, as Finance Minister, his attitude towards the document was evident in his disregard of it over the management of devolved funds. Additional events further illustrate Kenyatta’s less than complete support for the constitution he swore to defend, such as his predilection is well known for grandiose, resource-consuming projects that have pushed the national debt burden beyond the East African Community sustainability levels. Such infrastructure priorities have paid scant attention to Chapter 4 of the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to food, clothing and shelter.

Yet, it is Kenyatta II’s failure to fully implement the transformative Constitution (2010) that stands him out as a great enemy of constitutionalism.

However, a summary of Kenyatta’s attitude to constitutionalism is best illustrated by his conduct during the 2017 presidential elections. Even as he laments constitutional obstacles to fighting corruption, Kenyatta consistently used state resources to curry favour among individual politicians and voters. Public servants and other resources were deployed to the regions to curry favour for his Jubilee party. The regime has also been notorious for its persistent arm-twisting of constitutional commissions and independent offices, most notably the Auditor General and the Controller of Budget. Disdain for the independence of such institutions was most vividly illustrated in Kenyatta’s recurrent outbursts against the Supreme Court which had nullified the August 8 elections for being fraught with “illegalities and irregularities”. Yet two of the judges Kenyatta dismissed as wakora – crooks – had upheld his 2013 election despite big questions and all would uphold his victory in the October 26 repeat election. In spite of their recruitment on constitutionally determined merit, Kenyatta would ask the same judges rhetorically: “Who even elected you?”, and would promise to ‘revisit’ and ‘fix the court ‘problem’.[28] Since then, the law has been changed to complicate the nullification of a presidential election.

Conclusions

This note has presented a broad-brush review of the relationships between Kenya’s four presidents to date and their regimes, and the constitution. The broad finding is that all the presidents have not been sticklers for the either the letter or spirit of the constitution, applying it when convenient, and amending it or even violating it when the need has arisen. Kenyatta I’s apologists might point to the context of his tenure – an autocrat in euphoria over the new independence status; and Moi’s apologists will emphasize his restricted world view. It is however, difficult to go beyond ethnic insularity find explanations for Kibaki’s failure to embed constitutionalism more deeply in governance and his misadventure which led to many lost and wasted lives and livelihoods, is an indictment he will never escape. Kenyatta II is an extension of the Kibaki heritage in many respects, having been an alleged hatchet man in the horrors of 2007/08. Yet, it is Kenyatta II’s failure to fully implement the transformative Constitution (2010) that stands him out as a great enemy of constitutionalism. Based on these experiences, the outlook for Kenyan constitutionalism looks bleak.

 

References

 

Bigsten, Arne (1977), Regional Inequality in Kenya. Nairobi, Kenya: Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi

Kanyinga K, Okello D. Tension and Reversals in Democratic Transitions: The Kenya 2007 General Elections. Nairobi: Society for International Development and Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi; 2010.

Kenya National Bureau of Statistics et al. (2014), The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014. Nairobi, KNBS. Available at https://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/fr308/fr308.pdf  

Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (2008), On the Brink of the Precipice: A Human Rights Account of Kenya’s Post‐2007 Election Violence. Nairobi: KNCHR. Available at https://kenyastockholm.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/pev-report-as-adopted-by-the-commission-for-release-on-7-august-20081.pdf

Kipkorir, Benjamin (2016), Descent from Cherang’any Hills: Memoirs of a Reluctant Academic. Moran (E.A.) Publishers Ltd.

Kivuva, Joshua M. (2011), Restructuring the Kenyan State. Constitution Working Paper Series No.1. Nairobi: Society for International Development.

Ministry of Local Government (2012), Interim Report of the Task Force on Devolved Government: A report on the implementation of Devolved Government in Kenya. Nairobi: Local Government.

Murunga, Godwin and Sharack Nasong’o (Eds.) (2013), Kenya: the struggle for democracy. London: Zed Books

Mutua, Makau (2008), Kenya’s Quest for Democracy: Taming Leviathan (Challenge and Change in African Politics). Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

URAIA Trust and IRI (2012), The Citizen Handbook: Empowering citizens through civic education. Nairobi: URAIA/IRI. At http://www.juakatiba.com/public/publication/eccbc87e4b5ce2fe28308fd9f2a7baf3.pdf

 

 

[1] That impunity persists despite the structural opportunities to fight it is also a reflection of the hopelessness of a majority of the Kenyan people, as illustrated in the rest of this note.

[2] This was precisely what the European settlers in Rhodesia did in 1965, leading to minority rule opposed by guerilla warfare in that country until formal independence was negotiated in 1980.

[3] While the constitution had provided for a multi-party state in a bi-cameral parliamentary system, the opposition KADU party was ‘encouraged’ to dissolve itself by “crossing the floor”, transforming Kenya into a de facto single party state, even if in law t remained a multi-party state

[4] After the 1969 banning of ex-Vice president Oginga Odinga’s KPU party, and the detention without trial of all its leadership, the country became a de facto single party dictatorship.

[5] The ‘higher absorption’ parts of the country were the former White Highlands of central Kenya and the spine of the Rift Valley, settled by European settler farmers, in which the colonial government had used ‘native’ tax revenues, such as is reported by Kipkorir (2016), to build development-facilitating infrastructure, such as roads, electricity and telecommunications.

[6] For example, allowing African small scale farmers to grow cash crops at independence boosted national economic growth into the late 1960s, but the oil crises of 1974 and 1979 dampened performance.

[7] See Bigsten (1977).

[8] Kenya National Bureau of Statistics et al. (2014).

[9] A local government minister, for example, used Nairobi City Council equipment to grade a road to his Kajiado home in preparation for his son’s wedding.

[10] Into the early 1990s, these annual reports were 7 years behind schedule, meaning the responsible officer had likely transferred, retired, or indeed, died.

[11] See Murunga and Nasongo (2013).

[12] Even Mwai Kibaki who a decade earlier had declared that removing Moi and KANU from was like trying to cut down a mugumo tree using a razor blade, ventured to contest the presidency.

[13] See URAIA/IRI (2012: 15-18).

[14] This choice overlooked Raila Odinga and former minister Katana Ngala, and former vice presidents George Saitoti, Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi.

[15] The Kibaki faction for instance rubbished a Memorandum of Understanding that provided for equal shares of the cabinet with the Odinga faction of the party.

[16] The 2007 presidential election circumstances are documented in the Kriegler Report, available at https://kenyastockholm.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/the_kriegler_report.pdf. The post-election violence is explored in the Waki Report, available at http://kenyalaw.org/Downloads/Reports/Commission_of_Inquiry_into_Post_Election_Violence.pdf. For an academic approach to the issues, see Kanyinga and Okello (2011).

[17] The Agendas were as follows: 1–Immediate action to stop the violence and restore fundamental rights and liberties; 2–Immediate measures to address the humanitarian crisis, and promote healing and reconciliation; 3–How to overcome the political crisis; and 4–Addressing long-term issues, including undertaking constitutional, legal and institutional reforms; land reform; tackling poverty and inequality as well as combating regional development imbalances; tackling unemployment, particularly among the youth; consolidating national cohesion and unity; and addressing transparency, accountability and impunity. For details, go to https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Background-Note.pdf

[18] An interesting analysis is available in Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights (2008).

[19] The manner of their creation was so ad hoc, leading to deeply contested boundaries and headquarters.

[20] Key individuals in his regime had campaigned against the Proposed Constitution, and only changed positions when it became evident the ‘Yes’ camp would carry the August 2010 national referendum.

[21] The Constitution ring-fences at least 15% of national revenue for county governments. In reality, however, the share has been nearly 40% of the revenue.

[22] See Ministry of Local Government (2012).

[23] Transition Authority (2016) is an elaborate end term report. Sun, August 20th 2017.At

[24] See Njeri Rugene and Patrick Langat, President Kenyatta defends tenure, seeks second term. Daily Nation, Tuesday March 21, 2017.

[25] Kenyatta I’s Kiambu people provided the ‘home guards’ who fought against the Mau Mau largely from the Kikuyu lands across the River Chania. The Kiambu position was therefore that the presidency (and its motorcade [snake]) should never cross into the other lands.

[26] See for example, Paragraph 545 in Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (2008).

[27] For example, see Nzau Musau, Why Decision 2013 was ridiculed, torn apart by scholars. Standard Digital, Sun, 20th August 2017. At https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001251923/why-decision-2013-was-ridiculed-torn-apart-by-scholars

[28] Aljazeera, Uhuru Kenyatta to court: “We shall reisit this”. 2nd September 2017. At http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/uhuru-kenyatta-court-revisit-170902130212736.html

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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.

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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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