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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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Othieno Nyanjom is a lecturer, researcher and an international development consultant based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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Business as Usual: The Kasese Massacre and Power Politics in Uganda

The patterns of state violence in Uganda are sadly repetitive as the ruling party obstructs burgeoning criticism to President Yoweri Museveni’s decades-long grip on power.

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Business as Usual: The Kasese Massacre and Power Politics in Uganda
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Baluku Bismark was 14 years old when he sat for his school exams in early November 2016 with the goal of becoming a health worker in Kasese, western Uganda. A few weeks later, Baluku was among those killed by the Ugandan army during an attack on the region’s cultural institution, known as the Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu (OBR).

By the end of a two-day assault on 26 and 27 November 2016 the military had killed 155 people using live ammunition and intentional fires; images of raging infernos and piles of bodies circulated on social media. Community members had killed at least 14 policemen. It was eight months after that year’s presidential and primary elections.

Baluku is one of many Ugandan citizens whose fate was sealed by state agents in the name of “restoring order”. In each instance, those agents “take orders from above” and are shielded from any accountability. Dig deeper and it is about power and votes.

Uganda is scheduled to hold elections on 14 January 2021. Ten opposition candidates, including former musician and member of parliament, Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, are challenging President Museveni who has controlled nearly every aspect of government in Uganda since 1986.

As expected, the presidential campaign, which officially began on 9 November 2020, has been marred by partisan law enforcement. Already, but unsurprisingly, state violence is defining the campaigns. Like previous presidential rival Dr Kizza Besigye, prominent opposition candidates Kyagulanyi and Patrick Amuriat have faced harassment, beatings, and various criminal charges. On 18 November police arrested Kyagulanyi during a rally in Eastern Uganda; Amuriat was arrested in Gulu. The arrests sparked spontaneous demonstrations in several towns, with the youth demanding their release. News reports indicate that security forces shot at least 45 people and hundreds more were injured.

For people in Kasese, these events are occurring as they prepare to vote in the first election since the horrific bloodshed that took place exactly four years ago this week. Unpacking the power politics behind the Kasese massacres is critical to understanding Uganda’s elections and the President’s stranglehold on power. It also tells a dismal story of total impunity no matter the scale of the killing.

Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu and cultural institutions in Uganda

The Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu is the cultural institution, or kingdom, of people that traditionally live in the western Rwenzori Mountains along Uganda’s border with Congo. The institution itself is headquartered in Kasese district.

Political recognition of cultural institutions in Uganda is part of the complex path that led to President Museveni’s ascension to power in 1986. For example, as a way of soliciting the support of the predominantly Baganda people of the central region, Museveni agreed to restore the region’s Buganda Kingdom which had been abolished in 1966 under the first post-colonial government.

But President Museveni, a master of political compromise, understood the delicate balance required. Buganda’s cultural leader was permitted to formally exist but he wasn’t allowed any actual political power. Over the years, as a form of bargaining for allegiance, Museveni has slowly accepted the restoration of other cultural institutions, such as the Bunyoro-Kitara in the west, and the Busoga and Tooro Kingdoms in the east and southwest, respectively. In a country as ethnically and linguistically diverse as post-colonial Uganda, these cultural institutions and their leaders can command significant loyalty and community support.

Such devotion was on full display in September 2009 when Museveni, seeking to curtail the influence of the Buganda Kingdom, sought to limit the freedom of movement of the kingdom’s leadership. Loyalists quickly took to the streets in protest. By the end of two days, security forces had killed at least 45 people to quell the uprising and the Luganda-speaking radios had been taken off the air.

Shortly thereafter, and despite criticism from those who deemed it unconstitutional, Uganda passed a law barring cultural leaders from participating in partisan politics or providing a platform for any politician. However, most cultural institutions have often remained influential, if constrained, despite efforts to rein in their influence using this law or attempts to co-opt them into the ruling party.

In 2006, Uganda held the first multiparty elections since Museveni first came to power through a military takeover. Already in power for 20 years, Museveni suffered what some felt was a humiliating political defeat in Kasese, with the opposition presidential candidate Dr Besigye garnering 56 per cent of the total votes to Museveni’s 45 per cent.

Some pundits interpreted the result as a rebuke to Museveni for ignoring the grievances of the Rwenzururu cultural institution in its plea for official recognition. In an attempt at political expediency, Museveni finally acquiesced in October 2009 – a few weeks after the violent suppression of the Buganda kingdom supporters. The Omusinga, or King in the Bakonzo language, was coronated and the Rwenzururu cultural institution was restored just in time for the campaign for the February 2011 elections. Museveni won the area vote and secured two seats for his party in parliament. But the recognition wasn’t without its critics, and clashes between pro- and anti-Obusinga forces escalated. Intercommunal fighting led to the displacement of both the ethnic Bakonzo and the Bamba, another ethnic group in the region. The government stepped in but was increasingly perceived to be siding with those opposed to the King.

Five years later, the opposition Forum for Democratic Change fared well in the Rwenzori region. All parliamentary and local posts in Kasese went to the opposition. National Resistance Movement (NRM) strongmen, such as Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga, lost their parliamentary posts.

The relationship between the President and the King had been rocky for a few years prior to the election but the election results clearly indicated that the ruling party was losing traction in the region. Ruling party mobilisers started working harder to co-opt the king’s support base, sowing the seeds of instability.

Kasese in November 2016

Four years later, the full story of the horrific killings that took place in Kasese in November 2016 remains shrouded in secrecy. The government has never published the names of those killed or allowed independent investigations into why its army massacred almost 150 of its own citizens over two days. Spokespeople have only indicated that those who died were “terrorists” who sought to “take over Uganda”. Despite arresting and imprisoning over 180 people, the government has never presented any evidence in court and never proceeded to trial. The people arrested in November 2016 languish in prison to this day

Sporadic conflicts between communities, at times involving security forces, flared up after the 2016 elections. In one incident, the Police Flying Squad shot and killed a suspected Omusinga loyalist in a market as he bought food. A government soldier was later killed by machete, allegedly for spying on the King near the palace compound.

Rumours began to spread in Kasese at this time that the government would be handing over a demobilisation fee to the Omusinga’s “royal guards” – volunteers who are loyal to the Kingdom and work on its behalf. In a very low-income part of the country, such enticements inflated the ranks of the royal guards as people waited for handouts to support their families.

Eventually, word spread that the payout was imminent. But as people gathered in the palace compound on November 25, the military arrived and Kasese was brought to a standstill. Under the command of General Peter Elwelu, Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers, encircled the palace and told the people inside that they could not leave. Tensions escalated and, eventually, soldiers shot and killed eight royal guards at the kingdom’s office in town. The rumour that the kingdom was under attack spread into the outlying sub-counties. Community members attacked some police posts and 14 police officers and 32 civilians were killed in the conflicts. The next day, the UPDF made its biggest move, allegedly ordering royal guards to disband or face attack.

At 1 p.m. the UDPF launched an assault on the palace, shooting live ammunition and setting thatched roofing alight. The king was removed by force and transferred to Kampala. Photos of piles of bodies, some with their arms tied behind their backs, circulated on social media. Some of the dead were buried in a mass grave near a military barrack. Some people were never found. At least 15 children last seen inside the palace are missing to this day; 180 people were charged with murder, terrorism and treason. Those who managed to escape went into hiding and to this day, the palace remains closed.

Two months after the attack General Elwelu told a local newspaper that the “place had lost its legitimacy. It was no longer a palace. It became a legitimate military target because it had become a command post for all that was happening in Rwenzori.”

There is no doubt that the events of November 2016 ended any pretense that the right to freedom of expression existed in the region. Many believe that Museveni would most likely have tolerated the Rwenzururu king had he not shown open support for the opposition. No one could seriously believe the government’s line that the king posed any meaningful security threat to the country or that he would be able to orchestrate any secession. But, clearly, cultural leaders needed to be shown that they could not behave like the Rwenzururu king. What if other kingdoms followed suit?

Since 2016, the Omusinga’s movements have been largely restricted to his house in Kampala. He was barred from travelling to the Rwenzoris, even after seeking the court’s permission to attend the June 2019 burial of his mother. Security officials say that since the attack on the palace in 2016, the region is now peaceful. The region nurses its wounds and struggles to care for an estimated 300 widows and 600 orphans left behind by the massacre.

Despite some condemnatory statements from foreign embassies and civil society, the government has not been pressured to show any real evidence of why that scale of bloodshed was lawful or proportionate. In a classic case of co-option, President Museveni appointed the king’s brother as a minister in his government.

What happened in November 2016 in Kasese can only be viewed as a stark reminder to all cultural leaders – and frankly to any critic of the regime – that they should stay away from candid engagement in politics or consider supporting Uganda’s political opposition.

Those arrested were left to rot in jail, far from their families. But as the 2021 elections approach, perhaps they are suddenly again useful to the electoral landscape?

Uganda’s upcoming elections 

As Bobi Wine ignites imaginations about new approaches to governance in Uganda, the government’s paranoia is at an all-time high and one can only imagine that there is significant work being done to ensure that the Rwenzori votes go to the ruling party. Word is already trickling out that the government is going to release those who have spent four years in prison without trial. But they will never be exonerated. It is likely that they are under significant pressure to admit some wrongdoing, to grovel and seek forgiveness from Museveni despite no clear evidence of their crimes having been presented. When Museveni releases the detainees just in time for the anniversary (and the voting,) he will demand blind loyalty. Even though his soldiers killed their families.

The patterns of state violence in Uganda are sadly repetitive; the ruling party obstructs burgeoning criticism to Museveni’s long stay in power. Organised dissent – Uganda’s cultural institutions, opposition members, civic groups, or just an outspoken citizen – is met with co-option, pressure and intimidation. A bank account is frozen, a cultural leader is coronated, a brown envelop of cash arrives. But at times, these efforts fail to silence the critics. Defiant voices rise up.

In that flashpoint, the state unleashes overwhelming violence against its own citizens and people like Baluku and many others die under the bullets of the state security agents. No previous military or police training supported by Uganda’s Western “partners in democracy” like the United States or United Kingdom prevents the blatant drive for political expediency.

In each incident – the Kayunga demonstration in 2009, the Walk to Work protests of 2011, the Kasese killings of 2016, the Free Bobi Wine demonstrations in November 2020, and countless other similar events – citizens, often innocent bystanders, or youth demonstrating against state actions are killed or arrested. Each time, the pro-government pundits quickly go on the attack, demonising those killed as terrorists or hooligans and then calling for peace.

Behind the scenes, those in jail will continue to suffer without being brought to trial, and with no credible evidence of their wrongdoing being produced. But no member of the security forces will face any questions to justify the bloodshed. International donors to Uganda’s ample security sector will momentarily issue condemnations and then return to the humdrum of diplomatic life in Kampala’s leafy suburbs. The graves of the dead, of people like Baluku from Kasese, are quickly forgotten.

If the government’s explanation of the reasons behind these horrific episodes is ever to be believed, it will need to hold both sides to account and be willing to allow for criticism, dissent and, most importantly, electoral loss. Military commanders, including generals like Elwelu, who allowed the killings of unarmed civilians, who allowed the bullets to fly, will need to be brought to open court, to answer tough questions from lawyers who don’t fear reprisals. As long as men like General Elwelu are promoted for killing civilians, as he was, the unabashed reliance on state violence as a political weapon in Uganda will continue. And horrific images of bloodied bodies – like those of November 2020 and November 2016 – will increase.

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Pan-Ethiopianists vs Ethno-Nationalists: The Narrative Elite War in Ethiopia

It is not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis, and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals—are disincentivised.

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Pan-Ethiopianists vs Ethno-Nationalists: The Narrative Elite War in Ethiopia
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The current political conflict, now a civil war, in Ethiopia partly has its roots in disagreement among elites on how to narrativise Ethiopian history.

There is an enduring disunity among Ethiopian elites regarding the country’s history and future. Informed by its long, and contentious multi-ethnic history, and fueled by recent shifts in the political landscape in the country, a war of narratives has been reignited. The narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.” The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilise the country. Indeed, narratives surrounding ethnic identities and ethnic politics in Ethiopia is the one thing that demands the most attention. As it stands today, the way and environment in which the debate is occurring, and the actors involved in it indicates we may be approaching a threshold that cannot be uncrossed.

How the Ethiopian state evolved

Nation-building is a contested process of narrative construction. In his book, Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson reminds us that nations are “imagined political communities.” Common to all political communities is a set of beliefs in unifying narratives about community special characteristics. These narratives provide explanations to the participating individuals and their leaders about what makes their community unique, especially when compared to others. Nation-building in the Ethiopian context follows a similar pattern.

Faced with the burden of justifying maintenance of the Ethiopian state and their place at the top, Ethiopian rulers of the past relied on religious texts and edicts of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Written in the 14th century, the Kibre Negest, or “Glory of the Kings,” provided detailed accounts of the lineage of the Solomonic dynasty—the former ruling dynasty of the Ethiopian Empire—according to which Ethiopia’s rulers were descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It told the story of Ethiopia and Ethiopians as God’s people, a chosen people.

The narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.” The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilise the country

This narrative of Ethiopia as a chosen place endures to this day. It was in display when many Ethiopians woke up on October 24, 2020 and learned that US President Donald Trump had suggested “[Egypt] will end up blowing up the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)] dam.” Many Ethiopian citizens and politicians responded with the assertion that Ethiopia will prevail, not least of which because it has God on its side. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office released a statement that echoed the same sentiment.

Similarly, the 12th century text Fitiha Negest, or “Laws of the Kings,” served as the country’s oldest traditional legal code. The Fitiha Negest insisted that kings must receive obedience and reverence. It justified the Kings’ power using scripture, specifically the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 17:15:

Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.

Ethiopia’s rulers used these texts to justify the state’s existence and their own power. But more importantly, as much as Americans take the Declaration of Independence as their founding moment, the Kebre Negest provided a similar “origins” story, albeit a contested one, while Fitiha Negest served as a constitution of sorts by laying out a minimal set of rules that bound the Kings and their subjects. As such, the Kebre Negest and the Fitiha Negest could arguably be taken as the most important founding texts of the Ethiopian state.

The 1700s witnessed the emergence of a new political structure where disparate noblemen usurped power away from emperors of the Solomonic dynasty and began ruling over their own regions, a period known among Ethiopian historians as Zemene Mesafint, or Age of the Princes, named after the Book of Judges. In 1855, Emperor Tewodros II, born Kassa Hailu, rose to the throne after defeating regional noblemen. He recognised the need for a newer narrative that was closely aligned to his vision of Ethiopia as a modern, forward thinking nation. In line with that vision, his first step was to separate church and state, shift its narrative and establish the state on a more secular foundation. To do so, he needed better educated Ethiopians, and thus began an elite-led nation building process. His efforts however did not bear fruit due to fierce internal opposition driven largely by disgruntled clergy, who, fearful of losing their own privilege and power, were unappreciative of his radical ideas.

Nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia.

Subsequent rulers of Ethiopia mended the “glitch” and followed the path that almost was dismantled by Emperor Tewodros II, and, as a result, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remained inseparable from the Ethiopian state, and, with that, the state narrative. That, however, changed with Emperor Menelik II assuming the throne in 1889. Although historical Ethiopia dates back to millennia, Emperor Menelik is widely considered as an architect of the modern Ethiopian state. His epic defeat of Italian colonial power at the Battle of Adwa added another, if not stronger, element to the myth of God’s-chosen-people identity to Ethiopians and the Ethiopian state. As the Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde recounts in his book, Pioneers of Change, Menelik, eager to modernise Ethiopia, sent Ethiopians to Europe and the US for higher education. Unlike the church-educated elites that preceded them, these early Western-educated Ethiopians broke with tradition and became critics of the state. It may be argued as such that Emperor Menelik could be credited with spearheading the creation of a new intellectual-elite class and with bringing the same to the center of state politics. With that he laid the groundwork for the creation of a new elite class that would later challenge the very essence of Ethiopia as a nation state.

Walleligne and the birth of ethno-nationalism

When Emperor Haile Selassie rose to the throne in 1930, he was acutely aware of the shortage of educated Ethiopians to build Ethiopia’s nascent civil service and bureaucracy. In order to fill in this gap, like his predecessor, he sent many Ethiopians to Europe and the US for higher education that in the words of historian Jon Abbink produced “a generation of daring, innovative intellectual leaders and thinkers.” However, sadly many of these intellectuals were annihilated by the Italian colonial power in the late 1930s. This loss of its brightest left post-war Ethiopia with deep psychological scars and decades of stagnation, devoid of social and political change. With the founding of the University College of Addis Ababa in 1950, the future Haile Selassie University (now, Addis Ababa University), Emperor Haile Selassie’s dream of producing educated Ethiopians en masse finally came true.

The 1960’s was when the role of Ethiopian intellectuals in the country’s politics probably experienced its most consequential phase. Starting in the 1960’s, with the backdrop of broader social unrest, university students started to oppose Haile Selassie’s single-man authoritarian rule and the oppressive socio-economic and cultural structures within which the students said the imperial government and its predecessors functioned. They demanded rights and freedom. It was until a more radical wing of the movement, concurrent with the more mundane demand for reform, started to question the equating of the Ethiopian state with the nation. Compared to the reformist intellectuals of the previous generation, Ethiopia’s newly minted intellectuals displayed impatience and lacked foresight in their calls for radical social and political reformJon Abbink might not be far from the truth when he observed these intellectuals’ “wholesale adoption of unmediated Western ideologies and abandonment of Ethiopian values” had had “quite disastrous consequences.”

On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia,” an influential short essay written by Walleligne Mekonnen—who at the time was a second-year political science student at the university, and who was later was shot and killed along with fellow activists while attempting to hijack an Ethiopian Airlines flight—became a founding text of the radical wing of the student movement. In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.” However, this reality, according to him, was suppressed by the ruling class. Instead, a “fake Ethiopian nationalism” that is based on the linguistic and cultural superiority of the Amhara and, to a certain extent, the Amhara-Tigre, was imposed on the other peoples of Ethiopia, resulting in asymmetrical relations among the “nations” of Ethiopia. Therefore, according to Walleligne, the Ethiopian state came to be through the linguistic and cultural assimilation of the peoples of the wider South by the North—the Amhara and their junior-partner-in-assimilation, the Tigre. And, that this project of constructing Ethiopia was aided by the trinity of (the Amharic) language, (Amhara-Tigre) culture and religion (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). He was, of course, echoing arguments that Joseph Stalin, Rosa Luxemburg and others made about nations, nationalism, and self-determination. (Stalin, for example, lays out his thesis in Marxism and the National Question, as does Luxemburg in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.)

Walleligne thus called for the dismantling and replacement of this “fake [Ethiopian] nationalism” with a “genuine Nationalist Socialist State” that he argued could only be achieved “through violence [and,] through revolutionary armed struggle.” To be sure, Walleligne did not see “succession” as an end in and of itself; nonetheless, he propagated it as a means to building the future egalitarian Ethiopian state, with the caveat that such succession should be rooted in and guided by “progressivism” and “Socialist internationalism.” He closed his essay with what may be considered prophetic:

A regime [Haile Selassie’s government] like ours harassed from corners is bound to collapse in a relatively short period of time. But when the degree of consciousness of the various nationalities is at different levels, it is not only the right, but the duty, of the most conscious nationality to first liberate itself and then assist in the struggle for total liberation.

Haile Selassie’s government did collapse in 1974.

The constitutionalizing of ethno-nationalism

The movement that Walleligne imagined, spearheaded by the intelligentsia as it were, was hijacked by the Dergue—a collective of disgruntled low-ranking military officers in the imperial army—that not only succeeded in overthrowing Haile Selassie’s government, but also in ruling Ethiopia with an iron-fist for the next 17 years. But the political and armed struggle for “liberation” continued. It was in this atmosphere of radicalisation of the intellectual-elite class that discourses like “liberation” and the “oppressor-oppressed” took hold in the Ethiopian body politic and a plethora of liberation fronts mushroomed or revived: the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF, 1962)—that succeeded in seceding Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1991—the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF, 1966), and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF, 1975) to name but the most important ones. The Dergue’s 17 years in power was marred by the bloodiest times in Ethiopian modern history: the Red Terror, a border war with Somalia (1977-1978) and, more importantly, the protracted civil wars with TPLF, EPLF and OLF.

After 17 years of armed struggle, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) defeated the Dergue and controlled Ethiopian state power in 1991. The EPRDF was a coalition composed of the TPLF, The Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Southern Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Front (SEPDF). It should, however, be noted that it was only with victory in sight against the Dergue and a desire to expand its sphere of influence beyond Tigray, that the TPLF formed the EPRDF in 1988. Otherwise, the actual power holder within the coalition remained TPLF. Consequently, the EPRDF introduced the 1995 constitution. Adopted in the immediate context of the post-Cold War, in a way that reflects the politics of constitutionalism and especially the shrewdness and pragmatism of the man behind it, Meles Zenawi, the constitution was a compromise between TPLF’s deep-rooted Marxist-Leninist ideological moorings and the post-Cold War euphoric triumphalism of liberal constitutionalism and human rights. So much so that the constitution declares the inviolability and alienability of human rights and freedoms emanating from the nature of mankind. However, as his building a de facto one-party state would later reveal, this was a move that seems to have been motivated more by placating the West than a genuine desire on the part of Zenawi’s EPRDF to champion the causes of human rights and democratic values.

In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.

The constitution divided Ethiopia into nine ethnic states that—with the exception of what is called the Southern Nations and Nationalities Regional State—are based on the ethnic identities of residents of those states. Most importantly, the constitution grants the “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” within those states the unconditional “right to self-determination, including secession.” In other words, rather than with a people, sovereignty resides in a plurality of peoples of Ethiopia. It is these peoples that came together to form Ethiopia and they are the custodians of Ethiopia, from which they have the absolute right to secede if they so wish. That way, the constitution replaced the age-old notion of Ethiopia as a nation with an Ethiopia as a “nation of nations.” Walleligne predicted this almost a quarter of a century earlier: “What are the Ethiopian people composed of? I stress the word peoples because sociologically speaking at this stage Ethiopia is not really a nation.”

From then on ethnicity became a determinant factor and dominant political currency in Ethiopian politics, bringing with it, in the words of the late sociologist Donald Levine (who taught at the University of Chicago and became a key figure in Ethiopian Studies), an “epidemic of ethnic and regional hostilities.” In addition to changing the way the country organised itself politically, EPRDF also sought to reframe the very foundation of what it means to be an Ethiopian and how Ethiopia itself came to be. Not unexpectedly, EPRDF targeted schools and educational institutions in particular as spaces where new narratives of Ethiopian history could be inculcated, so much so that Ethiopian universities became flashpoints of ethnic conflicts among students. Walleligne’s abstract and—as he himself admitted in his writing—incomplete idea found a home in the curriculum.

With this entrenchment of a “new” history of Ethiopia and a generation educated in the new curriculum and the alienation of “pan-Ethiopianism” from the Ethiopian body politic, it seemed that the “old Ethiopia” had died and been buried. But, as the 2005 Ethiopian election showed, a pan-Ethiopian party called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) almost clinched power in major cities and rural areas if it had not been suppressed and finally expelled from Ethiopian political landscape. In fact, it was that election that gave the close to two decades-long ethnic politics championed by Meles Zenawi, a real challenge and, more importantly, sowed the earliest seeds of the revival of pan-Ethiopian politics.

Abiy Ahmed and the re-emergence of pan-Ethiopianism?

Zenawi—the ex-guerrilla fighter who, as a prime minister, was reported to have made authoritarianism respectable—died in a Belgian hospital in 2012. Although political pundits thought that in his absence Ethiopia would plunge into crisis immediately, his successors managed to stave off social unrest until protest rallies started to emerge in the Oromia region following the unveiling of the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan (a plan to expand the federal capital, mostly into Oromia) in April 2014. Months of sustained protests resulted in hundreds of deaths and even more people being imprisoned.

However, the draconian measures did little to slow the protests. The EPRDF government eventually backed off from its aggressive actions against protestors and shelved its ambitious master plan, but it was too late. The protest had picked up steam and expanded to several other regions, including the Amhara region. Protestors demanded rights, representation, and economic justice. Tellingly, these protests erupted less than a year after EPRDF claimed to have won 100% of the 2015 election and only months after US President Obama praised the government as being “democratically elected.”

The TPLF-led EPRDF government could not sustain its political power. In the backdrop of a fierce intra-party scuffle, in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo and member of the OPDO, ascended to power. With his promise of leading Ethiopia through transition to democracy, Abiy immediately began introducing a plethora of reforms, including releasing political prisoners, inviting home all opposition parties, and appointing some prominent public figures to key positions within his government. These and many other earlier reforms won him almost universal support from Ethiopians and the international community. In 2019 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace-deal with neighboring Eritrea, ending a two-decades long stalemate, following the 1998 border war between the two countries that claimed more than a hundred thousand lives.

Despite the indisputably positive changes he introduced and results achieved, Abiy’s Ethiopia also saw its most turbulent years in recent Ethiopian history, including internal displacements, violence that claimed the lives of hundreds—high-profile assassinations, including an attempted assassination on the premier himself, targeted ethnic killings, and ongoing violence perpetrated by a splinter military wing of the OLF in western Oromia region. Abiy’s decision to indefinitely postpone the August general election due to COVID-19 has further destabilized the country and put in tatters his promise of transitioning Ethiopia to democracy.

There also is the ongoing tension with the TPLF that governs the Tigray region—that recently held its own regional election in defiance of the central government’s ban on all elections due to the pandemic. As a result, the Ethiopian parliament voted to cut ties with Tigray region leaders, which has the potential to erupt into a full-blown war with the federal government. Further complicating Abiy’s agenda of stabilizing the East African nation is the tension with Egypt in relation to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD) and broader geopolitical issues.

It was amid this ongoing turmoil Abiy established the Prosperity Party at the end of 2019, which brought together three of the four ethnic-based parties that constituted the EPRDF coalition and other smaller parties, considered within party circles as “allies” to the EPRDF. Based on his vision of national unity among Ethiopians that he calls medemer, which literally means “coming together,” this re-branding of EPRDF was meant to stave off the ethnically divisive politics and address ethnically motivated conflicts that engulfed the country during EPRDF’s 27 years in power. This seemingly mundane action, however, did not sit well with everyone and it brought to the surface an issue dormant for the last 25 years in the Ethiopian formal political scene, namely: how to historicize Ethiopia. There is now an all-out war of narratives among Ethiopian elites on the history of Ethiopia.

This narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianism” and “Ethno-nationalism.” The ethno-nationalist camp takes Walleligne’s thesis as accurate representation of Ethiopia as a nation of nations. As we have noted, in mainstream Ethiopian history, Emperor Menelik is considered the architect of the modern Ethiopian state. He is especially credited with expanding the Ethiopian empire to the south from his northern stronghold of Shoa. To the outside world and to Ethiopians alike, his epic victory over the Italian colonial force in the Battle of Adwa is widely celebrated as a key moment in Black anticolonial consciousness. In stark contrast to this picture, in the ethno-nationalist discourse, Emperor Menelik figures as the archenemy. To the ethno-nationalists Menelik’s supposedly mundane “state-building” endeavors were marked by violence, forced assimilation and suppression of cultures of peoples of the South, especially the Oromo. Echoing Walleligne’s thesis, they insist that rather than a nation built on the consent of the “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopia, Ethiopia is imposed on the wider South through conquest, violence and assimilation by Ethiopian rulers of Amhara, and to a certain extent, Tigre extraction. In their view, rather than an inclusive multicultural state, Ethiopia is made in the image of the Amhara and the Tigre.

This narrative of Ethiopia as a chosen place endures to this day. It was in display when many Ethiopians woke up on October 24, 2020 and learned that US President Donald Trump had suggested “[Egypt] will end up blowing up the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)] dam.”

Quite to the contrary, those in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp embrace the historical Ethiopia and adhere to the idea of Ethiopia as a nation-state. While not ruling out the presence of violence, they reject the “empire thesis” of the ethno-nationalists and hold that Emperor Menelik was just engaging in state-building when he conquered and brought the wider South under his Imperial rulership. In the Pan-Ethiopianist narrative of Ethiopia, the supposed assimilationist and imperialist expansion of Emperor Menelik and his predecessors to the South is a normal historical process inherent to state building. There are also some within the Pan-Ethiopianist camp that insist that Emperor Menelik did not actually conquer and control “new” territories, but only “re-claimed” territories that hitherto were parts of the historical Ethiopia. There are still those in this camp that argue that it is in the nature of an empire to conquer peoples and rule over lands, and hence there is nothing anomalous about Emperor Menelik’s deeds.

Not surprisingly, many in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp saw, at least in the beginning, Abiy’s formation of the Prosperity Party as a move in the right direction with a potential to dismantle the current ethnic-federalism—that adherents of this camp hold is the root cause of the cycles of ethnic conflicts and other problems that the country faces—and eventually realise a unified Ethiopia, albeit federalist. Quite to the contrary, the move did not sit well with the ethno-nationalist camp, the TPLF in particular openly opposing this merger as “illegal” on the grounds that all constituent parties of the EPRDF should have consented to the dissolution of EPRDF and the merger. The Oromo activists see in this merger and Abiy’s other reform agenda a return to the old Ethiopia, in which they argue Oromos were culturally and linguistically alienated by the Amhara-Tigre elites that in the past had a monopoly on state power.

Social media and narratives of hate

The elites’ reach and impact has expanded as the means of information sharing and consumption has expanded. It is no more the traditional intellectual-elite class that engages in the production and dissemination of information that advances knowledge. Unlike the closely-knit intellectual class of earlier times, the debate now has a diverse body of actors: activists, political party operatives, and, as oxymoronic as it sounds, intellectual activists. The elites with the loudest voices use low-trust and high-reach communication mediums like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to peddle their own facts and pursue their own agenda. Social media as it exists today rewards absolute claims, purity, good and evil binaries, and unequivocal declarations of truth that leave little room for compassion, reasoning, careful interpretation, and nuance. Fueled by algorithms that favor combustible content, social media companies orchestrate human interaction that lead individuals to maintain extreme positions and be adversarial towards one another.

The emerging Ethiopian elites in both camps have harnessed social media in ways that have yielded extraordinary influence and power over political discourse that directly and indirectly affects the lives of everyday Ethiopians. They recognize their charisma is more significant to their audience than the contents of their speech or the quality of their argument. Name calling and ad hominem attacks are their currency and they invoke current and historical grievances, and narratives of superiority, to stoke fear and anger. Unfortunately, the narratives these elites broadcast are not without consequences. There is a correlation between recent violence in Ethiopia and the supposed adherents of these narratives.

Nothing makes the dangers of the deep division between the two camps as the murder of the renowned Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundesa in June 2020. This incident has clearly shown their tendency to see and interpret any and every incident or issue in ways that support their respective narratives. Unfortunately, as is quite common in the post-truth social media age we live in, it is as though elites in each camp use different truth-filters, no matter what facts on the ground dictate. So much so that, immediately after the news of Hachalu’s death surfaced, elites in each camp took to social media and, with no evidence at their disposal, started to speculate who might have shot and killed the singer and began pointing fingers at each other. In the ethno-nationalist camp, a conspiracy started to circulate that claimed the killing was orchestrated and carried out by “neftegna” and statements like “They killed our hero” reverberated around social media, followed by wide-spread Oromo protests in Ethiopia, Europe, and North America. On the other hand, in what appears to be due to Hachalu’s pro-Oromo nationalistic political views, in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp there was either a deafening silence, or some suggesting that the killing was a result of intra power-struggle among the Oromo elite politicians who just “sacrificed” Hachalu for their own politically calculated ends. Amidst the confusion and unsubstantiated claims floating around—with even some media outlets broadcasting hate-filled messages—violence  erupted in the Oromia region claiming the lives of more than 200 individuals, the displacement of thousands, and property damage. The killings were reported to be gruesome and targeted.

If anyone in either camp is insensitive enough to bring havoc to Ethiopia, or even worse, to sacrifice precious human lives in pursuit of political ends or to prove a particular narrative of Ethiopia, then the debate is not so much about liberation and freedom as it is about ideology or some other ends. As Edward Said chastises us:

the standards of truth about human misery and oppression [are] to be held despite the individual intellectual’s party affiliation, national background, and primeval loyalties. Nothing disfigures the intellectual’s public performances as much as trimming, careful silence, patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing apostasy.

We shouldn’t also lose sight of the fact that, while not denying that there are genuinely invested individuals and groups of actors in each camp, there are still many in this “war” owing to other factors that have little or nothing to do with a genuine concern for Ethiopia and everyday Ethiopians. The harsh truth is that this is not just a debate about history, identity, or self-governance, but more so about elites’ drive for resource monopolization, the prestige that comes with power, and other factors external to the debate.

Abiy’s government, like the EPRDF before it, is attempting to limit internet access, especially to social media, to quell recent unrest. The government’s desperate act to avoid future incidents like these are understandable. Expanded internet access to all, in theory, at least, is a positive development in the right hands. And it would be misguided to argue that the broadening of access to free speech that has been made possible through social media is wrong or detrimental. The detriment, actually, is with the unchecked nature of social media. As well, the absence of meaningful fact checking and understanding of local knowledge among social media companies make it possible for misinformation to spread easily.

Whither Ethiopia? The way forward

As we noted initially, nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia. This has become a singularly arduous task especially now that a generation of Ethiopians who have grown up under the EPRDF are increasingly alienated from actual inter-ethnic-lived experiences of Ethiopians of present and past generations. It is also naive to expect the debate to remain even-tempered. Emotions can run high as communities attempt to reconcile their ethnic identity and group status as they negotiate the meaning of their shared history with others. However, prerequisites to making meaningful progress are highly credible communication mediums, shared facts, and shared goals. At the moment, the opposite appears to be true.

There is a glaring absence of willingness on both sides to engage in reasoned debates, leaving no room to explore the authenticity and truthfulness of alternative narratives. It is not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis, and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals—are disincentivised.

Even if we disagree on where we started and how we got here, we could at least agree on where we are heading. Denialism, lack of empathy, and cancel-culture are the last traits we should carry into this debate, not only because people’s lives are at stake, but also the future of Ethiopia as a state. Good faith debate based on shared facts and shared goals are required if the historical Ethiopia is to survive another century.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

Editor’s note: Please note that the piece was first published on September 30. While the authors updated it over the past month, the conflict in Ethiopia has now accelerated to a civil war. We plan to provide more up-to-date coverage. Meanwhile, we recommend this statement by a group of scholars and researchers from the Horn of Africa.

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Politics

The Winter of Our Discontent: What Next After Biden Victory?

The incoming Biden administration will find monumental setbacks that are almost insurmountable in the age of COVID-19. Everyday, whether the stock market or unemployment figures reflect it or not, the economic reality for tens of thousands of Americans grows harsher.

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The Winter of Our Discontent: What Next After Biden Victory?
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It has been more than two weeks since former Vice President Joe Biden was able to scrap and claw his way to a damaged and awkwardly narrow victory over Donald J. Trump. Despite the margins becoming clearer, the win is still ringing out hollow and empty as Trump muddies the US presidential election with claims of electoral fraud.

Biden has repeatedly come out and called for calm and reconciliation – principles of the Democratic Party that almost seem laughably archaic when viewed through the lens of Trumpism. In the bare-knuckle brawl that is modern American politics, the Democratic Party seems to have shown up wearing woolen mittens, not wanting to draw any blood from its opponent.

And what an opponent the Republican Party has proved to be! Despite everything, it managed to seemingly hold the Senate (pending crucial run-off elections in Georgia in January of 2021) and actually decreased the Democratic lead in the US House of Representatives. The big prize – the White House –  was won (due to our strangely outdated system) by a factor of 200,000 votes in four key states (Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada). It was entirely within the realm of possibility that Trump would have won the electoral college and massively lost the popular vote yet again – a black mark against the strategy of the Democratic Party.

So the lingering question in the air remains: what now? For something so “certain”, a great many things seem to be up for debate. Many political insiders are wringing their hands on network TV channels over whether Trump will leave the White House at all, but this may be overblown. Unless there’s an outright electoral college coup when the electors meet to vote in mid-December of this year, Trump doesn’t’ really have much of a choice.  It looks as though he’ll have to retreat into a gilded cage of media-driven anger and of riling up supporters, never truly conceding that he lost, the bitterness clanging back and forth in his head beneath a sweaty mop of hair plugs and spray tan.

If the coronavirus response can be nothing else than a sort of a political bellwether, then this outcome is objectively the best. The response has been nothing short of a day-by-day horror show, the bar being drenched in petrol, set alight and then thrown rudely from a cliff.

Whether Trump goes willingly or not is not a concern, as it isn’t really his choice; what is of concern is what he will do with his powers in his remaining 60 days in office. The next couple of months could well be the deciding factor in the future of global power dynamics, all playing out on the whims of a petulant moron who can’t accept his own shortcomings and instead will sit on his tiny thumbs.

As has been said before, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was destroyed in a much shorter timeline. The incoming Biden administration will find monumental setbacks that are almost insurmountable in the age of COVID-19. Everyday, whether the stock market or unemployment figures reflect it or not, the economic reality for tens of thousands of Americans grows harsher. Moratoriums and stop gaps are expiring or have long since run their stimulus bill-guided course. All too many could be kicked out of their houses in short order. Businesses that relied on economic assistance during this bizarre period have already begun to close permanently. It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of all non-chain restaurants may never reopen their doors.

The coming harsh winter 

It seems far-fetched to many that any kind of brutal humanitarian crisis could ever play out in a country that is so excellent in marketing itself as the greatest nation on earth. However, many of those who believe that Americans cannot possibly experience suffering haven’t experienced the brutality of an American winter. It is hard to describe just how rough this four-month period can be for people during normal times. The temperature can fall to minus 10 degrees Celsius and remain there for two months. There can be 30 centimetres of snow in a single a night. Brutal ice storms entrench cars and encase entire buildings. All that happens during periods of normality, but this is far from normal and now global warming has made the weather patterns all the more strange and beyond accurate forecasting.

Without the benefit of foresight, the unfortunate equivalent of this coming winter seems to be that of 1932-1933. During this period, the Great Depression was in full swing, and an American President who had denied the extent of the economic damage had just been resoundingly defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover sat on his hands until the change of power, which led to untold deaths and poverty across the country.

Whether Trump goes willingly or not is not a concern, as it isn’t really his choice; what is of concern is what he will do with his powers in his remaining 60 days in office. The next couple of months could well be the deciding factor in the future of global power dynamics…

Trump just lost the election by the widest by an incumbent since that same election of 1932. Did he lose it by a frightfully small margin? Absolutely, but if any tea leaves can be read, had the election taken place in March 2021 instead of November 2020, he may have been electorally obliterated beyond recognition.

There is an essence of tragedy in America during this time – to have had all the power to do everything and all the misguided cheap instincts to do absolutely nothing. Both parties to date have sat back and have seemingly done nothing but bitch and snipe at one another since May of this year. Meanwhile, an entire generation has been doomed to a sort Sisyphus-style financial purgatory. As has happened in innumerable societies before it, within America, a reckoning could already be well on its way – much to the utter surprise of baby-boomer generational elites who have been calling for normalcy while padding up their retirement portfolios.

There has long been a cliff coming – an entire swathe of the younger generation with nothing to show for themselves financially, clinging on to dead-end jobs merely for the insurance as they eke out an existence while only being outwardly successful via posts on Instagram. The last several months have been a sort of rapids for them to negotiate, bouncing around corporations downsizing, fighting their way through unemployment websites that crash with regularity, racking up credit card debt to eat, then protesting for their future on weekends.

It is only so far that people can be pushed to survive. This is all without mentioning the spark to this tinder – the coronavirus pandemic itself, one that it burning out of control to an almost unfathomable degree, a continuous upwards tsunami that has never crested, and now looks to crash forth in perpetuity for the foreseeable future as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches. By mid-December, the absolute true extent of the crash will become apparent (as COVID-19 cases often take around two weeks to truly surface).

There has long been a cliff coming – an entire swathe of the younger generation with nothing to show for themselves financially, clinging on to dead-end jobs merely for the insurance as they eke out an existence while only being outwardly successful via posts on Instagram.

The medical system is already running well beyond the point of exhaustion that they ever thought to be possible. Many people, including the current administration, currently just isn’t listening. With a state of political deadlock seemingly certain, the safe bet would be to throw your money on nothing at all happening, and for such horrors to simply continue as they have. Despite the recent developments of two vaccines being rolled out, the question remains how they will be administered and distributed.

Meanwhile, Trump and his ilk have not acknowledged the incoming Biden administration, let alone started the transition process. In the last two weeks, every possible media talking head on the cable news left is screaming and hollering about norms and then turning around and being polite to complicit officials. The real human tragedies do not get mentioned: the bank accounts wiped out, the families shattered, the debts accrued, the suicides committed. It is a tired, bullshit charade that is now reaching the tentacles deeper into the lives of American homes by a rate of nearly 200,000 new COVID cases everyday.

As of November 17th, 2020, the total number of COVID cases in the US stood at over 11 million. The lines on the graph are essentially vertical and all people are burnt out on this weirdness. What the breaking point will be I cannot predict, but there certainly is no leadership or directive to correct it. Could the pandemic kill a million Americans by next April? That may be a stretch, but at the moment all things seem possible. Could more than a million people die as a direct or indirect result of the botched COVID-19 response and bungled economic assistance?

Take, for example, the incomplete patchwork facing Americans staring down the barrel of eviction notices; some will get respite, many, if not most, will not. Where will they go? Into crowded homes of distant family members or shelters with a multitude of strangers? Will they turn to robbing grocery stores? Will they languish and freeze in cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Pittsburgh? Could there be an ugly wave of suicides, private deaths of lives that no one bothered to check in on?  Such notions of widespread systemic destitution and desperation used to be dismissed as socialistic musings; now they read as frightful premonitions. All of America’s dark underbellies have now been exposed, and the wolves are having a feast.

At least twenty million or more ugly little tales will play out this winter. These will not be necessarily deaths from COVID, but of families cast out into mourning and entire trajectories of lives forever altered. There is no rescuing many, and they’ll remain down in the cracks of society.

Such notions of widespread systemic destitution and desperation used to be dismissed as socialistic musings; now they read as frightful premonitions. All of America’s dark underbellies have now been exposed, and the wolves are having a feast.

In random states that are flown over and exploited for votes (places like my home state of Wisconsin), such situations are already in a full-blown tailspin. Despite Wisconsin only having a population of around five million, it has numbered in the top 10 states for new COVID cases for several consecutive weeks. This was already occurring when Trump held a large campaign rally on October 30th in the city of Green Bay just ahead of election day. It is that action of callously adding fuel to the fire that has raised eyebrows the highest. It is one thing to largely ignore a crisis, as the current government has done, it is another altogether to actively help the situation to deteriorate in states without large-scale public health capabilities. Make no mistake, this period will be referred to in textbooks as the “The Dark American Winter”. The only question is just how bleak it will become before the spring.

While many in the West are looking at the current state of the US teetering and gasping with shock and horror, most in East Africa simply shrug, knowing they are one bad leader away from reaching the same precipice. Maybe next time the US will listen. But holding one’s breath is not recommended.

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