Universal health coverage is by many measures considered to be the Holy Grail of delivering quality healthcare. In fact, achieving universal health coverage by 2030 – ensuring that all people have access to the health services they need without the risk of financial hardship – was included as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015. Writing a year later, Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General at the World Health Organization (WHO), described it as “the linchpin of the health-related SDGs; the one target that, if achieved, will help deliver all the others by providing both population- and person-centred high-quality services that are free at the point of delivery and designed to meet the realities of different people’s lives.” WHO estimates that about 150 million people around the world suffer financial catastrophe annually from out-of-pocket expenditure on health services, while 100 million people are pushed below the poverty line.
According to the 2013 Kenya Household Health Expenditure and Utilisation Survey, medical expenses account for more than 40 per cent of non-food bills in over half the counties in the country.
In Kenya, though access to quality healthcare is a constitutional right, the scarcity of quality public and private health facilities, as well as the high cost of care even when it is available, means that universal health coverage remains little more than words on paper for much of the population. President Uhuru Kenyatta has made achieving universal health coverage by 2022 a major part of his second term agenda and indicated in his inauguration speech that this would be achieved by expanding coverage under the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF). The president said that half a century after it was established in 1966, the Fund has only attracted 6.8 million beneficiaries. The World Bank estimates that only a fifth of Kenyans have any sort of medical cover, which means that as many as 35 million Kenyans are vulnerable to the financial devastation occasioned by a medical emergency.
Related stories: Behind the Makueni Healthcare Revolution
When illness eventually strikes, it takes a huge financial toll. According to the 2013 Kenya Household Health Expenditure and Utilisation Survey, medical expenses account for more than 40 per cent of non-food bills in over half the counties in the country. In fact, direct payments by citizens accounted for a third of the country’s total health expenditure in the same year, according to Dr. Izaaq Odongo, the head of the Department of Curative and Rehabilitative Health Services at the Ministry of Health, with the balance being made up by government (36 per cent), donors (20 perc ent) and employers (10 per cent). As a result, many Kenyans are forced to resort to selling off property, relying on networks of relatives and friends, or even making desperate appeals on social media to raise the necessary funds. Hence the large, and seemingly never-ending appeals all Kenyans make when clearing medical bills. Despite this, according World Bank Country Director, Diarietou Gaye, the number of those thrust into poverty by medical expenses is close to one million.
Kenya’s network of public healthcare facilities has traditionally been hierarchically organised into 6 levels, with the lowest unit being community health workers embedded within communities. At level 2, dispensaries and clinics provide the link between community-based healthcare and the formal health system. Together with level 3 facilities – health centres, maternity clinics and nursing homes – these make up the primary healthcare units. Levels 4-6 are sub-county, county and national referral hospitals. It is at the lower levels that the majority of people interact with the healthcare system and it especially at the primary healthcare facilities that national government interventions with regard to cost have been most consequential.
Since independence, Kenya has blown hot and cold on the abolition of user fees and decentralisation, both of which, given the economic circumstances of most Kenyans as well as the devolution introduced by the 2010 constitution, are prerequisites for universal health coverage. In 1965, according to the paper “Reforming health systems: The role of NGOs in decentralization – lessons from Kenya and Ethiopia by Richard G. Wamai of the Harvard School of Public Health, “a free access policy abolished the KSh5 co-payment operative in the colonial healthcare system… [and] proposed expanding coverage through centralizing the delivery responsibilities from the counties and municipalities to the Ministry of Health”. Eighteen years later, the provision of health services was again decentralised as part of the District Focus for Rural Development programme and in December 1989, user fees were reintroduced in an effort to inject money into crumbling health facilities. The “cost-sharing” programme was part of a comprehensive health financing strategy that also included social insurance, efficiency measures and private sector development. The fees would, the argument went, generate additional revenue, incentivise use of low-cost primary healthcare services rather than the more expensive referral facilities and improve targeting of resources by reducing unnecessary demand.
Still, implementation problems led to the suspension of the policy less than a year later though it was gradually reintroduced in 1991. A 1996 study found that despite revenue increases and facilities being allowed to budget for three-quarters of the money they remitted to the districts, this did not necessarily result in improved quality of care because the funds were used to offset a fall in government funding for basic care. As evidence mounted that despite a waiver policy to protect the poor and children under five, user fees were proving to be a significant barrier to access, the government – in what came to be known as the 10/20 policy – again reversed course and in 2004 eliminated all fees in dispensaries and health centres, save for a minimum registration fee of KSh10 and KSh20, respectively. By 2007, it had instituted a maternity waiver allowing for free deliveries in public health facilities and introduced the Health Sector Service Fund (HSSF) to compensate these facilities for lost revenue.
Since October 2014, Makueni has been offering its one million residents free healthcare across all its public facilities, including county and sub-county hospitals.
However, as a study published in 2015 showed, this was largely ignored by health facilities for whom user fees represented almost all the cash income they used to cover basic operating costs. As a result, most patients ended up being charged for more than the specified amount while very few received waivers. In 2013, the government abolished all user fees in public dispensaries and health centres and allocated KSh 700 million to the HSSF.
The picture was further complicated by the fact that health is one of the services devolved by the 2010 constitution. This means that while the national government is still responsible for policy and managing two Level 5 referral facilities, namely, the Kenyatta National Hospital and the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, the bulk of public healthcare in Kenya is delivered in facilities run by county governments. A history of skewed investment that marginalised some counties, as well as the lack of policy coordination between the various counties and between the counties and the national government, have left a rather confused picture of access to healthcare across the country.
There have, however, been some wins. For the first time since independence, residents of historically marginalised counties, such as Lamu and Mandera, now have access to Caesarean section procedures within their county. There have been problems too: from the controversy arising from the national government forcing counties to lease equipment they neither wanted nor had the resources to use, to ambulance purchases that seemed more about burnishing a governors’ image than delivering care to constituents, to the First Lady’s much trumpeted Beyond Zero initiative that today is in shambles, with many of the facilities either abandoned or turning patients away.
The Makueni model
Nonetheless, an ambitious experiment in the provision of universal health coverage is underway in Makueni, a county that borders Kajiado, Machakos, Kitui and Taita-Taveta counties. Since October 2014, Makueni has been offering its one million residents free healthcare across all its public facilities, including county and sub-county hospitals. It is a model well worth examining if President Kenyatta is serious about expanding access to medical care across the country.
“When we took over in 2013, we realised that 40 per cent of the people of Makueni would sell land and exhaust family income to pay medical bills for relatives,” says Makueni’s Governor, Prof. Kivutha Kibwana. Given that medical services in dispensaries and health centres were already free and paid for by the national government, the county government figured that if it doubled the 100 million that its Level 4 sub-county hospitals were collecting in user fees, it could offer free, across the board healthcare to its residents.
Thus MakueniCare, as the county government has labelled it, was conceived. It piggybacks on the national government’s free primary healthcare policy and the national coverage provided by NHIF to plug the gap in between with the aim of providing seamless cover across all public health services.
Thus, for an annual subscription of KSh500 per household, which covers parents and all their children under the age of 18 years (or up to 24 years in case of students), Makueni residents can access free primary healthcare at dispensaries and health centres courtesy of the national government, free treatment, including inpatient care and ambulatory services, at the 13 level 4 hospitals within the county paid for by the county government, and, if they’re subscribed to NHIF, free care at referral facilities outside the county. The Level 4 hospitals provide free care and bill the county government, which also supplies them as well as the primary healthcare facilities with drugs, equipment and medical staff.
However, universal health coverage is more than eliminating out-of-pocket expenditure; it is also about ensuring access to healthcare. According to Dr. Cyrus Matheka, the head of the county’s Health Promotion Services, MakueniCare took two years to plan and was preceded and piloted by a programme offering free care to those over the age of 65 without a requirement for registration. Within that time, the county government invested in expanding facilities, from dispensaries and health centres to sub-county hospitals, and has continued to do so. In under five years, it has more than doubled the number of health facilities built by the colonial and national governments over the last 50 years. Apart from an additional 113 dispensaries and health centers, the county now boasts 13 Level 4 hospitals and has employed 160 doctors, compared to just 38 doctors and 3 hospitals in 2013. At KSh2.3 billion, health is the county’s single largest budget item.
All this means that the county can offer a wide array of free services to residents, from hospital admission, surgical procedures, X-ray imaging, laboratory testing, to dental and counselling services. Even in death, patients benefit from 10 days of free mortuary services. However, the cover does not apply to specialised care and equipment that are not available at the hospitals, including dialysis for patients suffering from kidney failure, intensive care units, implants, as well as auxiliary devices, such as wheelchairs.
Insurance schemes are essentially funds where people pay into a pool when they are healthy – in this case through both taxes and direct contributions – which they can draw on when sick. The Makueni recruitment model reversed this, thus courting adverse selection, or the tendency of people to get insurance only when they are seriously sick, which can consume huge resources.
Dr. Andrew Mutava Mulwa, the County Minister of Health, estimates that MakueniCare covers at least 93 per cent of the county’s healthcare needs. He says it is built on a platform of ensuring adequate provision of primary care by increasing facilities, improving services and ensuring that medicines are available. “Someone who is sorted at the dispensary will not find their way to the hospital,” he says, adding that only 35 per cent of patients in Makueni need to seek care in the secondary institutions covered by MakueniCare or in tertiary referral facilities outside the county.
However, the programme has had its share of challenges. The first, rather surprisingly, was low uptake. In March last year, when The Elephant visited Makueni, less than 10,000 households had signed up for the programme out of a potential 200,000. The scheme had a mere 30,000 beneficiaries. Part of the reason for this was the decisions taken to make the coverage voluntary, to register subscribers at county hospitals when they sought care and to make the cover active immediately upon registration and payment. Initially there did not seem to be much of a public campaign to get residents to register: there were no posters announcing the programme in all the hospitals The Elephant visited and, despite officials claiming to advertise on vernacular radio, most residents we spoke to had not heard about MakueniCare.
Julia Musau of Kaselia village, who we met at the Tawa Sub-County Hospital, is a typical case. She had been unaware of the scheme until a month prior to our visit. She found out about it after she took a patient to the Makueni General Hospital in Wote, and had difficulty settling the bill. It was another woman whose child had been admitted there who told her about MakueniCare. That was when she enrolled her family immediately.
However, even those who know about it opt to wait till they or their dependents get ill to register since there is no penalty as the cover is activated immediately and registration is done at the hospitals, anyway. This made registration vulnerable to industrial action by medical personnel. For example, during the nationwide strikes, first by doctors and then nurses, fewer people went to the hospitals as there was little expectation of receiving care. In any case, According to Dr. Matheka, less than 5 per cent of the county’s population seeks medical care at any one time, and many of these are over the age of 65, a group that already enjoys free care. This means registration will inevitably be slow unless there is a serious epidemic.
The Makueni model also faces other challenges. Insurance schemes are essentially funds where people pay into a pool when they are healthy – in this case through both taxes and direct contributions – which they can draw on when sick. The Makueni recruitment model reversed this, thus courting adverse selection, or the tendency of people to get insurance only when they are seriously sick, which can consume huge resources. This brings into question the sustainability of the programme. However, in more recent times, according to Wambua Kawive, a former Makueni County Minister, the county government has ramped up its recruitment efforts and has now launched a mass registration exercise targeting 100,000 registrations by the end of the year.
Another challenge the system needed to cope with was an initial influx of patients into hospitals once the policy was implemented. Tawa Sub-County Hospital Administrator, Justus Kilonzo, told The Elephant that the workload at the hospital had increased, which necessitated the recruitment of more staff. Further, there has been an influx of people from neighbouring counties who sought to take advantage of the system. Geoffrey Kirui, the Health Administrative Officer at Makindu Hospital next to the busy Nairobi-Mombasa highway, spoke about having to filter out patients from other counties, especially Taita Taveta, Kajiado and Kitui. Still, trying to determine someone’s place of residence using identification cards, birth certificates and a ward administrator’s or chief’s letter is an inexact science and one gets the sense that this too was not well thought through.
MakueniCare also faces a hazard where, having paid the subscription, patients will head to the hospital for even minor complaints that can be addressed at lower levels, adding stresses to the system. They may also engage in risky behaviour knowing that there is the safety net of free care. Such behaviour may be inadvertently complemented by a shift in focus from preventative to curative care by hospitals seeking to generate more revenue and county officials seeking to make political hay from the scheme.
The latter is particularly important. It is crucial to note that MakueniCare is undergirded by an administrative structure that was created to deliver a different type of healthcare where users contributed directly. Suddenly eliminating such fees can have unintended deleterious effects on both the facilities and their ability to deliver quality services. One study on the effect of the removal of user fees found that although the revenue generated was generally low, it served to ensure that facilities met the costs of services and salaries for support staff not directly funded through the government’s budget.
There is also a legitimate fear that the political priority placed on MakueniCare may be diverting resources from primary and preventative care at the health centre and dispensary levels.
In Makueni, a doctor-turned-administrator who did not want to be named told The Elephant that MakueniCare had created a mismatch of skills, with doctors having to do administrative tasks rather than attend to patients. When MakueniCare was first proposed, the doctor told us, there was much resistance from hospitals, which were concerned about the lack of a clear system as well as lack of necessary training and preparation. “Why the rush to launch in October 2016?” asked the doctor, concluding that the timing had largely been influenced by the interests of county politicians vying in the August general election.
MakueniCare essentially transfers control over funds and decision-making away from hospitals to bureaucrats at county headquarters in Wote town. Hospitals not only have to worry about delays in receiving reimbursements for resources spent in providing care – which can happen if, for example, the national government delays disbursements to the county governments – but also about losing their largely autonomous decision-making power on the equipment they need to procure and the staff they need to recruit. Similarly, where and when new facilities are built may reflect more the political priorities of those running the county government rather than the genuine health needs of the populace. Lastly, as with all government-driven procurement decisions, the spectre of corruption is never far away.
There is also a legitimate fear that the political priority placed on MakueniCare may be diverting resources from primary and preventative care at the health centre and dispensary levels. Ilatu dispensary, which was built by the Kenya Pipeline Company and opened in March 2014, may be a case in point. In September 2015, the facility was handed over to the county government that provided staff and equipment. Adjacent to a settlement scheme, it is the busiest facility in Kibwezi West and offers outpatient, maternal and child health, family planning as well as HIV testing and counselling services. The staff of two nurses and one laboratory technologist attend to between 70 and 100 patients every day. The county government is upgrading it to a health centre and building a 40-bed inpatient facility.
Jacinta Mbula is the nurse in-charge. She says staffing and resources are big challenges. When The Elephant visited the facility, her fellow nurse was on maternity leave and she was running the facility on her own. She said that there is only enough accommodation for one nurse to stay at the facility and take care of overnight maternity cases, and that nurse still has to report to work the next day. Although they receive adequate supplies of essential medicines from the county government, they do sometimes run out of non-essential drugs.
Further, she only gets KSh60,000 – “peanuts” – every quarter from the county government to pay casual labourers and purchase essential supplies. She currently employs one casual worker and one watchman but says she actually needs – but cannot afford – two casuals and a groundsman to manage the 10-acre facility. And because it was not built by the national government, the dispensary is not entitled to access the HSSF, despite its workload, though other less busy facilities do. Ilatu does, however receive, as all facilities do, reimbursement from the national government for maternal deliveries –KSh2,500 each.
Dr. Matheka says the average distance to a health facility has been nearly halved, from 9km to 5km in the last 4 years. However, having more facilities will not necessarily improve health outcomes for the people of Makueni if the quality of care they provide begins to decline as a result of underinvestment.
So as the county keeps building more dispensaries and health centres, questions must be asked about whether underfunded facilities can truly serve as the bedrock for universal health coverage even though access has been improved. Dr. Matheka says the average distance to a health facility has been nearly halved, from 9km to 5km in the last 4 years. However, having more facilities will not necessarily improve health outcomes for the people of Makueni if the quality of care they provide begins to decline as a result of underinvestment. Further, especially as the county expands the number of Level 4 hospitals, one must wonder whether this is being done at the expense of funding primary healthcare.
Makueni officials say some of the potential pitfalls are ameliorated by enhancing public participation. Governor Kibwana says local committees of citizens participate in co-supervision of projects and must, along with technical people and administrators, give approval. This, Kawive asserts, removes politics from the equation and makes bureaucrats and hospital administrators directly accountable to citizens. While it is definitely a good idea to involve local communities, true accountability must be accompanied by real access to information as well as consequences for those who are implicated in wrongdoing.
Though MakueniCare faces its share of challenges, everyone The Elephant spoke with in Makueni who was aware of the programme was full of praise for its ambition, including those who were critical of its implementation. The fact is, as Kenya ponders the way to achieve universal health coverage, the country would do well to pay attention to the lessons from Makueni. The expansion of NHIF cover by itself will not suffice; the national government must work with county governments to outline a plan that creates a seamless spectrum of cover at every level of care and provides the necessary resources at the appropriate time.
Further, there should be horizontal cooperation among counties in providing healthcare and any plan must strive for equity but without punishing the counties that have taken serious strides. Criteria for eligibility for county programmes should be clearly spelt out and counties should be encouraged to collaborate in designing their schemes within the framework of the national plan.
Thirdly, the system should primarily invest in and direct resources towards building the capacities of the public health sector, not in creating opportunities to generate private profits. It should embrace a rights-based approach that seeks to deal with health as a human right rather than an industry. That shifts the focus away from the needs of “investors” to those of citizens. As Ann Wanyoike notes, “an expanded role for the private sector became a health sector reform theme of the 1990s” but this resulted in “a dichotomous health structure that was characterised by the rich opting for high-cost private healthcare providers, with a majority of the populace who had no such means relying on the publicly run health institutions”. This means that those who can contribute the most to a national universal health coverage scheme have little incentive to do so, especially if such contributions are voluntary. More on that later.
In addition, it does no good to simply superimpose universal health coverage on a system designed for hospitals to generate revenue. The latter must be fundamentally retooled to suit the former and this will take both time and resources.
Fourth, the plan must prioritise prevention and care at the lower levels. In 2013, according to the Kenya Service Availability and Readiness Assessment Mapping report, less than 6 out of 10 health facilities in the country have the capacity to provide the Kenya Essential Package for Health (KEPH) – a standardised comprehensive package of health services – and less than half have the basic amenities to provide healthcare services. And while two-thirds have half the basic equipment required, 59 per cent do not have essential medicines. Only 2 per cent of facilities are providing all KEPH services required to eliminate communicable diseases. Providing universal healthcare on such a foundation would be building on sand.
Universal healthcare requires a substantial increase in the resources both levels of government commit to health. The point is not that both levels of government should spend more on health at the expense of other social services; rather they should increase spending on the full range of human rights and social determinants of health. For example, Kenya’s Health Policy identifies reducing the burden of violence and injuries as one of the top objectives and notes that this will require addressing causes. Given that road crashes account for between 45 and 60 per cent of all admissions to surgical wards, comprehensively addressing the problems on our roads would free up considerable resources in the health sector.
According to Djesika Amendah, an associate research scientist at the African Population and Health Research Centre, Kenya spends most of its health budget on salaries, allowances, drug supplies and other recurrent costs; only 7 per cent of the budget goes towards capital expenditure to improve the quality of healthcare by building new facilities or purchasing equipment to care for more people in the future.
How the money that is allocated to the health sector and how it is spent should also change. According to Djesika Amendah, an associate research scientist at the African Population and Health Research Centre, Kenya spends most of its health budget on salaries, allowances, drug supplies and other recurrent costs; only 7 per cent of the budget goes towards capital expenditure to improve the quality of healthcare by building new facilities or purchasing equipment to care for more people in the future.
In addition, the country spends nearly four times as much on curative care as it does on disease prevention and “we devote a higher share of our health shillings (20 per cent) on governance, health system and financing administration; in other words, paying people in the ministries of health who actually do not see any patients rather than spending money on preventing diseases or promoting health.” Further, although most Kenyans live in rural areas, government health expenditure has in the past tended to favour urban areas. Given the country’s limited resources, more prudence will need to be exercised if universal access to care is to be guaranteed to all.
Along the same lines, there should be an emphasis on getting Kenyans to pay into the system when they are healthy and not to wait till they get sick to get the cover. This also means making it easier for people to register and pay. For example, one can currently download a registration from the NHIF website but one then has to deliver it physically to their offices. There appears to be no way to pay via mobile money or credit/debit card. With nearly all Kenyans able to access the internet though their mobile phones, allowing online registrations and payments would be an easy way to bring in more registrations.
Further, whether the scheme should be voluntary or compulsory is a matter for serious debate. While Makueni’s system is completely voluntary, the NHIF is compulsory only for those in formal employment. Yet the WHO’s 2010 World Health Report titled “The Path to Universal Coverage” says that “there is strong evidence that raising funds through compulsory prepayment provides the most efficient and equitable path towards universal coverage. In the countries that have come closest to achieving universal health coverage, prepayment is the norm, organised though general taxation and/or compulsory contributions to health insurance.”
Makueni teaches us that universal health coverage is doable and that we do not need to have the resources of an industrialised country to achieve it.
There is also the question of whether, like in Makueni, everyone pays the same amount regardless of income, and whether wealthier people are asked to pay a little bit more in order to lighten the load on the poor. As the WHO notes, “financial risk protection is determined by how funds are raised and whether and how they are pooled to spread risks across population groups” and “rais[ing] funds equitably … usually implies a degree of progressivity (where the rich contribute a higher proportion of their income than the poor)”. The NHIF, rather strangely, only has a graduated scale for contributions from those in formal employment; others who join pay a flat monthly fee regardless of income. This is curious for a country where, according to the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa, only a quarter of workers are in the formal sector.
Fifth, accountability must permeate the entire system. Implementation of the scheme should not become, as we have seen with the free primary education reintroduced in 2003 and the Standard Gauge Railway, hostage to political priorities. Kenyans must accept that if it is to be done well, it will not be done overnight. Public participation at every stage should be encouraged and resources, especially human resources, should be utilised in the most appropriate and effective manner. Effective public participation as well as transparency will be indispensable if the country is to avoid universal health coverage becoming another avenue for looting by the state.
While universal health coverage focuses on reducing the financial burdens of patients, more will be required if access to the healthcare system is to be expanded. As the World Health Report notes, “eliminating direct payments will not necessarily guarantee financial access to health services, while eliminating direct payments only in government facilities may do little to improve access or reduce financial catastrophe in some countries. Transport and accommodation costs also prevent poor people using services, as do non-financial barriers, such as restrictions on women travelling alone, the stigma attached to some medical conditions and language barriers.”
Finally, Makueni teaches us that universal health coverage is doable and that we do not need to have the resources of an industrialised country to achieve it. All that is needed is a belief that Kenya should be run for the benefit of all Kenyans and that Kenyans are just as capable as any other people of imagining and creating better worlds and better futures. This may be the greatest lesson we can learn from Makueni County.
Kenya’s Supreme Court: Old Wine in New Bottles?
In this second part of a three-part series, we examine the intrigues within the Judiciary that led to David Maraga becoming Chief Justice and its subsequent effects to the Judiciary and the Nation.
As the six Supreme Court judges were adjudicating Kenya’s first presidential election petition in March 2013, Justice Kalpana Hasmukhrai Rawal was waiting for a new president to take office and the newly elected National Assembly to convene so that her nomination as Deputy Chief Justice could move forward. The Judicial Service Commission (JSC) had settled on her appointment after interviewing a shortlist of applicants in February 2013. The Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board had earlier found her to be suitable to continue serving as a Court of Appeal judge. Justice Rawal eventually joined the Supreme Court on 3 June 2013.
Two years later, Justice Rawal became the second Deputy Chief Justice (after Nancy Baraza, who resigned after she was heavily criticised for abusing her authority by threatening a security guard after the guard demanded to search her at a mall) to be embroiled in controversy. In 2015, Rawal challenged a notice that she retire at the age of 70. Around the same time, the then Chief Justice, Dr Willy Mutunga, would announce that he wanted to retire early so that the next Chief Justice would be appointed well ahead of the next election.
In May 2014, Justice Philip Kiptoo Tunoi and High Court judge David Onyancha challenged the JSC’s decision to retire them at the age of 70. They argued that they were entitled to serve until they reached the age of 74 because they had been first appointed judges as under the old constitution.
What seemed like a simple question about the retirement age of judges led to an unprecedented breakdown in the collegiate working atmosphere among the Supreme Court judges that had been maintained during the proceedings of the presidential election petition. During the two years it took the judiciary to address the question of whether judges should retire at 70, as decreed by the new constitution, or at 74, as was the case under the old constitution, three Supreme Court judges openly challenged the authority of the JSC in handling the age issue. When the matter reached the Supreme Court, the intrigues that emerged brought the country’s highest court to its lowest point in its short history.
In May 2014, Justice Philip Kiptoo Tunoi and High Court judge David Onyancha challenged the JSC’s decision to retire them at the age of 70. They argued that they were entitled to serve until they reached the age of 74 because they had been first appointed as judges under the old constitution. Justice Onyancha suddenly abandoned his cause and resigned quietly.
Justice Rawal filed a similar petition in September 2015 when the JSC issued her a notice of retirement. The following month, Dr Mutunga announced that he would retire before reaching the age of 70.
A letter sent to the JSC by Justices Jackton Boma Ojwang, Mohamed Khadar Ibrahim and Njoki Ndung’u on 24 September 2015 threatened a solidarity strike by the three if the commission continued to insist that judges retire at 70. The letter triggered a petition by the chief executive officer of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), Mr Apollo Mboya, seeking the removal of the three judges from office for insubordination. A JSC committee investigated the allegations against the three judges and elected to reprimand them – but Justice Ndung’u contested the decision in court where it is pending determination.
On 11 December 2015, the High Court unanimously decided that Justices Rawal and Tunoi should retire at 70 – a judgment affirmed by a seven-judge bench of the Court of Appeal on 28 May 2016.
On the same day, Justice Rawal sent an application to the Supreme Court seeking suspension of the decision. She also asked the court to set a date for hearing her appeal. Justice Ndung’u, sitting alone, received the application and granted her requests. She set the hearing date for 24 June 2016, eight days after Dr Mutunga’s planned retirement as Chief Justice.
Dr Mutunga, who was meant to be abroad but had not travelled due to illness, called the file and brought the hearing date set by Justice Ndung’u forward since she had certified the matter as urgent.
On 14 June 2016, three judges recused themselves from hearing the appeal to avoid perceptions of bias. Dr Mutunga and Dr Smokin Wanjala said they did so because they were members of the JSC when the commission determined the retirement age for judges was 70. Justice Ibrahim apologised for his conduct in threatening a strike earlier and voted with the two. Prof Ojwang and Justice Ndung’u took the opposite view, arguing in their dissenting opinions that the different positions the judges had taken on the matter did not mean they would be biased when hearing the appeals. In the event, the Court of Appeal’s judgment on the matter became the final decision on the issue of the retirement age. Rawal and Tunoi retired. Dr Mutunga, too, retired as Chief Justice two days later, thus opening up three vacancies in the top court, but the rift in the Supreme Court would persist until the 2017 presidential election petition.
A last-ditch effort was proposed to save the two judges. It entailed waiting until Dr Mutunga had left office to have President Uhuru Kenyatta name Justice Ojwang as Chief Justice in an acting capacity, according to Platform publisher Gitobu Imanyara. With Justice Ojwang at the helm of the Supreme Court, albeit temporarily, it was expected that Justices Rawal and Tunoi would apply for a review of the recusal decision. A full bench was subsequently expected to hear the case, reverse the Court of Appeal judgment, and allow judges appointed before the adoption of the new constitution to serve until the age of 74.
Competing interests had already begun to play out in the race to replace the Chief Justice and the departing Supreme Court justices. The departures would significantly change the composition of the court, and with it, its posture and prudence.
It was Kenyatta (reportedly fearing the embarrassment of having another of his decisions struck down by the court) who declined to go along with the plan to appoint an acting Chief Justice. When the matter formally came up at the JSC, introduced by acting chair Prof Margaret Kobia, there was uproar. It is against this background that the JSC began its search for a new Chief Justice and two Supreme Court judges.
Competing interests had already begun to play out in the race to replace the Chief Justice and the departing Supreme Court justices. The departures would significantly change the composition of the court, and with it, its posture and prudence. It was no longer in doubt that the pitched battles around the departure of the two judges had demolished any pretence at collegiality in the Supreme Court, with judges openly differing with each other.
A safe choice
David Maraga would emerge as the dark horse in the Chief Justice’s succession race ahead of law professor Makau Mutua and Supreme Court judge Smokin Wanjala. With a combined 13 years as High Court and Court of Appeal judge, Maraga’s public posture was that of a deeply religious and conscientious man – an elder of the Seventh Day Adventists Church who would not work on the Sabbath before sunset. During his vetting as a previously serving judge, he offered to swear on the Bible that he had never taken a bribe. He also famously said during his interview that he would never work on the Sabbath even if an election petition were in progress.
Justice Maraga had served as an inaugural member of the Judicial Working Committee on Elections Preparations (JWCEP) before taking over as chairman. He is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on electoral law, not just because he has written on the subject, but more so because his decisions have never been overturned on appeal. He beat a field of nine finalists to be nominated Chief Justice as a compromise between institutional insiders who wanted stability and the executive, which wanted a pliable person.
In contrast to his predecessor, Justice Maraga appeared to be a safe choice for the establishment. He was as a conservative, unlike Dr Mutunga. He had not been involved in politics and was a judicial insider. The new Chief Justice would also have the 2013 precedent of the Supreme Court to rely on. So safe was he considered to be that Uhuru Kenyatta, while giving a campaign stump speech, deigned to mention Justice Maraga’s appointment as one of the political favours extended to the Kisii community, drawing the Chief Justice’s rebuke.
Just like Dr Mutunga before him, Justice Maraga had no hand in selecting the six judges he was going to lead as President of the Supreme Court. Three were already in place (appointed in 2011) therefore outranking him in experience in the court, and the two new ones were appointed at the same time as he was.
The filing of the August 2017 petition guaranteed Justice Maraga the one case he was certain would be his legacy as a jurist. Regardless of how he was going to rule, the opportunity and chance to do it was a moment that conferred great personal prestige.
Chosen as Deputy Chief Justice was Philomena Mbete Mwilu. She had 32 years of experience in law, serving as a member of the Electricity Regulatory Board and the Energy Tribunal before her appointment as a judge of the High Court and the Court of Appeal. She had also spent considerable time as a legal officer at Jubilee Insurance Company.
Justice Mwilu was notably one of the three High Court judges who had declined to declare the composition of the 2011 Supreme Court unconstitutional for not meeting the requirement that no one gender should constitute more than one-third of any electoral or appointive body.
The third was the slightly graying Isaac Lenaola, whose solid 13 years experience in the High Court, and as Deputy President of the East African Court of Justice enabled him to leapfrog his seniors in the Court of Appeal to the apex court as its youngest member. At the High Court, the judge had distinguished himself as a hardworking head of the Constitutional and Human Rights Division, renowned for its landmark decisions.
Lenaola had also served on the 28-member Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, which collected public views and produced a draft in September 2002, which formed the basis for the new constitution adopted in August 2010. He had been instrumental in negotiating the adoption of vetting of judges and magistrates as a lustration measure to usher in the new constitutional changes in 2010, and had served as the High Court’s first representative to the JSC until 2014. Before joining the bench, he had worked in civil society promoting minority rights.
Conservatives back in the saddle
While Kenyatta’s team was working to change the court’s composition, his rival, Raila Odinga, had forced a negotiation of the electoral law in Parliament. Through legislation and subsequent litigation, the landscape in which elections would be held was significantly altered. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) was disbanded and reconstituted and the electoral law was amended and set out in greater detail. Litigation also settled questions around the audit of the voters’ roll, the printing and procurement of election materials, and the transmission of results.
A case filed by human rights advocate Maina Kiai produced decisions at the High Court and the Court of Appeal that made the polling station central in determining election results. Lawyer Ahmednasir Abdullahi, who would later sign up as one of Kenyatta’s advocates during the hearing of the 2017 petitions, remarked that election-related litigation had been conducted on “an industrial scale”. He had boisterously defended the chairman of the IEBC during the 2013 petition, when he pejoratively referred to the Supreme Court as a young court that was “still crawling”.
“It is good, especially for a young court – which is crawling – it is good for it to show judicial restraint. You will find opportunities later in life where you can express yourself more,” he said, to the roar of laughter in the courtroom.
Ahmednasir’s words carried great weight at the time, considering that he was not only a senior counsel and former chairman of the Law Society of Kenya, but he had also been chairman of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority (the precursor to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission) and had played a starring role in forcing a Court of Appeal judge to resign over corruption allegations by providing closed-circuit television evidence of the judge receiving a bribe in a city hotel parking lot. His anti-corruption credentials saw the LSK elect him as their representative to the new JSC that would interview and nominate judges in 2011, including the Chief Justice and the Deputy Chief Justice. His abrasive questioning of applicants won him admirers and foes in equal measure, but it also implanted in the public psyche the possibility that he had an unhealthy stranglehold on the inaugural Supreme Court.
However, the spell he had over the judges during the 2013 election petitions was definitely broken in 2017. Although he had lost the election to continue representing the LSK on the JSC, he was still treated with great deference. When he rose to speak as Kenyatta’s lawyer in the August 2017 petition, his full crop of hair was greying in the middle, and he did not seem to have the same leeway he had enjoyed four years earlier.
After the 2013 Supreme Court disappointment, three-time presidential contender Odinga had publicly declared in the run-up to the 2017 election that he would not petition the courts if his fourth run did not succeed.
Justice Maraga found a Supreme Court that did not wig and only robed in green gowns. However, as the seven justices made their appearance in August 2017 in red robes, white bibs and wigs, it was clear that the conservatives were back in the saddle.
When, however, the opposition decided to head to court after Uhuru Kenyatta was declared winner of the presidential election, it found a prepared bench. On Saturday, 26 August, when the sun had gone down and the Sabbath observed by Seventh Day Adventists had formally ended, the court convened its pre-trial conference to accommodate the Chief Justice’s religious practice.
Justice Maraga found a Supreme Court that did not wig and only robed in green gowns. However, as the seven justices made their appearance in August 2017 in red robes, white bibs and wigs, it was clear that the conservatives were back in the saddle. Where Justice Mutunga – the cool earing-wearing CJ – presided over the court with an iPad and enjoyed meeting young people, his successor was reticent and retiring. Maraga was an old school judge who placed great premium on rules and traditions. Or was he?
The Supreme Court had to decide the petition before the expiry of the constitutionally prescribed 14-day deadline, which fell on another Sabbath – the following Saturday. Before the hearing began, the Supreme Court gave the petitioners access to the IEBC servers to verify the results transmitted from the polling stations to the national tallying centre. It also granted the application for a court-supervised scrutiny of the forms used to collate the presidential votes.
The petitioners assembled a veritable team of veteran lawyers, among them Senators James Orengo, Okong’o Omogeni, former Attorney General Amos Wako, Member of Parliament Otiende Amollo, law professors Mutakha Kangu and Ben Sihanya, veteran litigator Pheroze Nowrojee and 28 others.
In 2013, the court had been totally unprepared for the management of electoral disputes, which undermined its ability to interrogate the IEBC’s ICT and voter register failures. Its naivety also exposed it to deception by its own administrative staff.
Kenyatta’s team was led by Fred Ngatia, Ahmednasir Abdullahi, and PLO Lumumba. The IEBC relied on senior counsel Paul Muite, Lucy Kambuni, Paul Nyamodi and Tom Macharia. A good number of the judges – Justices Ojwang, Wanjala, Ibrahim and Ndung’u – had done their pupilage at Waruhiu, Muite and Company Advocates, Paul Muite’s firm.
Just as had been the case during the 2013 petition, the proceedings were broadcast on live television.
Meanwhile, the Judiciary Working Committee on Election Preparations had become a permanent fixture and in 2015 had been renamed the Judiciary Committee on Elections (JCE) and a chief executive had been appointed for it along with research staff. Its mandate was to build on the experience judges had gained in arbitrating the electoral disputes of 2013 and preparing the institution for the next election. The framework for handling electoral disputes was now in place.
In 2013, the court had been totally unprepared for the management of electoral disputes, which undermined its ability to interrogate the IEBC’s ICT and voter register failures. Its naivety also exposed it to deception by its own administrative staff. Perhaps it was the new Chief Justice’s four years at the helm of the JCE that encouraged him towards greater vigilance. The court had even organised a retreat in Mombasa to undergo training in the ICT systems used by the IEBC to enable it to make better decisions.
Additionally, although Odinga was not optimistic about a favourable court decision, his legal team was much better prepared in 2017 than it had been in 2013. He had approached the court, offering it an opportunity to “redeem itself” from its 2013 decision, but was also ready to delegitimise it. Unlike in 2013, his lawyers were conscientious, diligent and fully involved in the scrutiny and document review. The IEBC, on the other hand, was cavalier and would prove to have been poorly prepared compared to the case in 2013.
After the Vote: What to Watch and Hope for in Buhari’s Second Term
Buhari has an opportunity in his next four years to lead the country as a nationalist, as the leader of a Nigeria for all Nigerians. Such national appeal is necessary in order to assuage credible fears about the marginalisation of any region or any ethnic, religious or linguistic group; if he fails to allay these fears, the fault lines of identity will only deepen.
On May 29, 76-year-old Muhammadu Buhari will be inaugurated for a second, four-year term as president of Nigeria. Despite a modest first-term record, economic stagnation and ongoing insecurity throughout wide swathes of the country, and continuing uncertainty over his health, Buhari defeated his principal rival Atiku Abubaker of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and a field of 71 others to win a substantial 55.6 per cent of the vote, a margin of nearly 4 million votes over Abubaker. Although Buhari’s victory is being disputed in court by Abubaker and others, it seems unlikely that any irregularities will be deemed severe enough for the judiciary to overturn the outcome of the vote.
Buhari’s health notwithstanding – the president just returned from a ‘private visit’ to the United Kingdom, where he previously received lengthy medical treatment in 2017 – some commentators argued before the February vote that the president’s re-election was in doubt. Many thought the election would be more competitive than it turned out to be. The low participation of Nigerians – particularly in the southern states – argues otherwise. Although Nigeria’s voter rolls hit a record 84 million registrants (albeit more than 11 million voter cards went uncollected), at least by the measure of voter participation, Nigeria can no longer claim to be Africa’s largest democracy.
Buhari, a retired general and former military head of state in the 1980s, was an immensely popular figure, with the credibility to confront the country’s security challenges, notably the Boko Haram insurgency that had by then proliferated throughout northern Nigeria. Jonathan’s defeat, in part, was a result of his perceived failure to marshal the security agencies to effectively respond to this threat.
Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has yet to publish the number of votes cast in the gubernatorial and state legislative elections, but turnout for these polls may well have been lower than for the presidential elections. Though Ethiopia, with around 100 million people, is still dwarfed by Nigeria’s population, and some Ethiopian vote counts might have been artificially inflated by the regime of the day, leaving lingering questions about irregularities in those polls, the point of comparison remains: Nigeria’s vote demonstrated widespread political apathy in the continent’s most populous country. While there was much relief that the elections passed without significant outbreaks of violence, twenty years after the restoration of multiparty democracy, it seems that Nigerians have contracted a democratic malaise.
Why is this? What challenges lie ahead in Buhari’s second term? And what can be done?
A frustrating first term
Buhari came to power at a moment of optimism in Nigeria. In 2015, defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan handed over power without conditions, despite some in his camp urging him not to concede. A smooth transition was far from inevitable. Sixteen years of PDP rule had been broken by a new opposition alliance, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which promised to sweep corruption out of Nigeria, and bring real change to the country.
Buhari, a retired general and former military head of state in the 1980s, was an immensely popular figure, with the credibility to confront the country’s security challenges, notably the Boko Haram insurgency that had by then proliferated throughout northern Nigeria. Jonathan’s defeat, in part, was a result of his perceived failure to marshal the security agencies to effectively respond to this threat. Buhari offered a mantra of change anchored on the philosophy of security.
However, the Buhari government, while upbeat about its ability to improve the security environment, underestimated the reality of the security challenges, and concentrated on tactics, rather than strategy. Recent years have seen a series of poorly executed attempts to close the barn door after the proverbial horse – or perhaps, to be more transportationally accurate, the pilfered Land Cruiser of the militant – has long since bolted. Ultimately, Boko Haram might now be degraded, but it is certainly not eradicated. And even as government forces achieved some successes, military losses were heavy, and army morale was always in doubt.
Even though Boko Haram has receded in its lethality, other security problems have mounted over Buhari’s term in office, notably the so-called farmer versus pastoralist conflicts, which occur throughout the northern and middle belt states of Nigeria. While these clashes are largely described in similar terms – as a reckoning between two fundamentally different forms of primary economic production – there are, in reality, different modalities of conflict within the rubric, which, when conflated, are oversimplified. Some disputes are genuinely environmentally-motivated, as pastoralists and farmers effectively compete for the same scarce resources. Some are motivated by retribution for past inter-communal wrongs, real or perceived.
But many others are not “clashes” as this word might first connote: there is rarely a battle between two well-defined armed forces. Instead, organised militarised groups have acted to displace others from their lands, who are usually unarmed. Perceptions abound that this is either politically orchestrated and/or politically instrumentalised, although evidence is hard to come by.
Irrespective of their motivations, some argue that such violence has continued because of ineffective responses by the state and a reluctance to deal with their root causes. Overall, Buhari’s administration is widely felt to have lost the ability to contain, mitigate, or prevent such violence. Coupled with organised banditry, a rapid rise in the sophistication of kidnapping gangs (who, despite the headlines, more frequently target Nigerians than foreigners for ransom) and continued insecurity in the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta, insecurity for many Nigerian citizens is a daily, and sadly-accepted, fact of life.
In some respects, expectations of Buhari’s assumption of power were little different from those that have characterised each of Nigeria’s political transitions since the return of democratic rule in 1999. A repeated promise to review the nature of the country’s federalism – which in such a vast and varied country raises implications far beyond the brand of constitutionalism of the state – returns to questions about what the state is for, and the distribution, and redistribution, of economic resources and political power.
To be fair to Buhari, many of the challenges Nigeria faces are not new, nor of his making. In less than five years, Nigeria’s currency has devalued from about 200 naira to the U.S. dollar to 360, with the predictable inflationary effect, even as the personal economy of many Nigerians stagnated. In addition, Nigeria is still overly reliant on earnings from petroleum, despite the vast majority of the labour force not being employed by the oil sector.
After Buhari’s first term, the situation remains much the same: the central determinants of the nature and character of governance and inter-group relations are still unchanged, with those for whom the federation does not work – and the millions of Nigerians for whom the state does next to nothing – still waiting for more. Beyond the comical scandals and the embarrassments that have so far characterised Buhari’s time in office, these more profound frustrations and limitations remain.
Beyond personalities: Structural economic challenges
To be fair to Buhari, many of the challenges Nigeria faces are not new, nor of his making. In less than five years, Nigeria’s currency has devalued from about 200 naira to the U.S. dollar to 360, with the predictable inflationary effect, even as the personal economy of many Nigerians stagnated. In addition, Nigeria is still overly reliant on earnings from petroleum, despite the vast majority of the labour force not being employed by the oil sector. For those at the bottom of the income pyramid, the opportunity of social mobility is all too distant. While technically Nigeria exited economic recession in 2017, even as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) observed that it was “the recent rise in oil prices [that] is supporting the recovery.” Regardless of the IMF’s prognostication, or the recent reassurances of the Central Bank in response to the prediction of some at the Nigeria Governors’ Forum that another recession was looming, popular sentiment remains pessimistic.
Can Nigeria provide economic opportunity for its people beyond the sticky black gold? A surging population both demands and requires that attention. While insecurity – whether caused by Boko Haram, inter-communal conflicts, banditry, farmer-pastoralist conflicts, violence in the Delta, the secessionist movement of the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) in the south east, or simmering grievances caused by the prolonged, detention of Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, the leader of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) – is a real and contemporary issue, Nigeria, more so than any other African country, is brimming with young people who want jobs, education, and a chance to better their lives. More than a million young Nigerians join the labour force every year. Conventional politics and politicians have yet to offer an answer for many of these Nigerians, who may well be condemned to a near-permanent class of unemployment or underemployment.
Before and after the election
Survey data from Afrobarometer, which polled Nigerians before the 2019 elections, showed that only 35 per cent of Nigerians trust the INEC “somewhat” or “a lot.” It’s hard to know whether INEC’s 2019 performance has dramatically affected these numbers, but the general aura of competence and professionalism that the current iteration of INEC hoped to enjoy was first damaged by INEC’s poor communication with the public leading up to the vote. Moreover, the middle of the night postponement – almost literally, as well as figurately, at the last minute – of the presidential and national assembly elections, originally due to be held on 16 February, conjured a thick cloud of doubt over INEC, from which the current commissioners’ reputations may not recover.
Though INEC was able to conduct the elections on the rescheduled dates a week later, its claims of competence and preparedness were inevitably undermined, and its image severely tainted. The goodwill extended to INEC, conditional and partial though it may have been, the legacy it received from its credible administration of the 2015 polls, largely dissipated. Had the election results been closer, and had the commission’s role been more scrutinised, the situation could have been very bad indeed. If there was a silver lining to the cloud of delay, it was that in the aftermath of the postponement of the presidential election, INEC offered a concrete communication strategy, and a much-needed daily public briefing on its activities and plans. But such a basic public relations effort could easily have been instituted at a much earlier stage.
And, as feared, security actors, and particularly in the southern state of Rivers, the military militarised the electoral process. Despite INEC’s assurances that the police would be the lead agency on electoral security, this was not the case. In states where election-related violence occurred, including Kano, Rivers and Lagos, a lack of neutrality and professionalism on the part of some security personnel that were deployed to provide security during the elections was a contributing factor. The army has since established a committee to probe allegations of misconduct; Nigerians await the findings of these investigations and the extent to which the army high command will discipline those found responsible.
One of the biggest challenges facing the Buhari government is exclusion – he must ensure social cohesion and must manage diversity by prioritising a religious and ethno-regional balance in public appointments, accompanied by a fair and equitable distribution of the country’s resources
Yet, as with Buhari, Nigeria’s electoral woes transcend any single election commissioner or army officer. The prophecy of institutional poor performance is all too often self-fulfilling. The existing widespread Nigerian scepticism of government and state institutions is only exacerbated by every failure, while the pattern of ethno-regional and religious alliances that underpin the national electoral process seems to provide an enduring and recurring basis for political instability and state capture.
The challenges ahead are not insurmountable
In the past, the opportunities for addressing some of Nigeria’s core challenges have been mostly wasted. The protracted debate about the management of the country’s national diversity remains protracted and unresolved. One of the biggest challenges facing the Buhari government is exclusion – he must ensure social cohesion and must manage diversity by prioritising a religious and ethno-regional balance in public appointments, accompanied by a fair and equitable distribution of the country’s resources. It is vital that the number of votes Buhari garnered from a particular region or perceived to gain from particular groups is not the basis for the administration of the nation.
Buhari has an opportunity in his next four years to lead the country as a nationalist, as the leader of a Nigeria for all Nigerians. Such a national appeal is necessary in order to assuage credible fears about the marginalisation of any region or any ethnic, religious or linguistic group; if he fails to allay these fears, the fault lines of identity will only deepen.
Further, a fundamental overhaul of the country’s security architecture is desperately needed. While there is no single reform that will address the myriad forms of insecurity, the government’s approach to the country’s security challenge needs a fresh and a deep reform of the military command’s hierarchy to allow for fresh ideas and strategies to emerge.
Finally, beyond assenting to a bill to introduce a minimum wage, the government needs to devise creative approaches to genuinely address national economic development and diversification. Nigeria’s boat cannot only be floated by the world’s oil price. The patience of many young Nigerians is not infinite: at some point, in the not too distant future, the logic of the state may no longer be sustainable.
A Spring in the Horn: Unpacking the Mass Protests and Transitions in Sudan and Ethiopia
The Horn is at strategic crossroads. There is immense hope but also great fear. How Ethiopia and Sudan manage their fraught transitions and the prospects for success and reversal remain unknown. What is not in doubt is that a botched transition in both nations will crush the dreams of millions and their quest for liberty and a better quality of life. It will also embolden autocratic regimes and vindicate their ideology of stability.
Two mass protest movements have, in quick succession, forced regime changes in Sudan and Ethiopia, two of the Horn of Africa’s quintessential “hard” states. A deep-seated disillusion with the security and developmental states drives the new “revolutionary” mood. What is less clear is where all the ferment and the popular demand for a new dispensation will lead.
In Sudan, the ouster of Omar al-Bashir has been followed by a partial retreat of the security state. In Ethiopia, the election of a reformist Prime Minister and a year of sweeping reforms have extensively eroded the power of the security deep state.
Yet, neither Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s extensive cull nor the Sudanese military council’s modest targeted purge constitute a fundamental dismantling of the structures of the security state. More importantly, the transitions underway in the two countries, were, in the initial phases, at least, top-down attempts by the security state to engineer a soft landing with minimal disruptions.
Prime Minister Abiy’s singular act of genius lay in the way he deftly subverted a strategy of piecemeal reform assigned to him by the ruling party and began almost single-handedly to unravel old Ethiopia at breakneck speed.
The retreat of the authoritarian order in both Ethiopia and Sudan opens up huge possibilities: a generational opportunity for meaningful and positive change but also great risks.
In Ethiopia, a year of “deep” reforms under the youthful reformist Prime Minister has put the transition on a rocky but relatively steady positive trajectory. Overall prospects for good governance, civil liberties and human rights continue to improve.
In Sudan, the situation is less hopeful and remains, so far, uncertain. The hopes and expectations raised by the resignation of Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in power now grates against the reality of a potentially messy and protracted transition following a controversial intervention by the army. The Transition Military Council (TMC), made up of al-Bashir’s allies, is struggling against mounting popular discontent to manage an interregnum.
The Horn is at strategic crossroads. There is immense hope but also great fear. How Ethiopia and Sudan manage their fraught transitions and the prospects for success and reversal remain unknown. What is not in doubt is that a botched transition in both nations will crush the dreams of millions and their quest for liberty and a better quality of life. It will also embolden autocratic regimes and vindicate their ideology of stability.
The unprecedented upheaval and ferment in the two Horn of Africa states provide an extraordinary window into the complex, diverse, and obscure changes and currents shaking up society and traditional politics. These contextual dynamics must not be overlooked in the analyses of Ethiopia and Sudan.
Sudan’s turbulent interregnum
Sudan and Ethiopia offer two fraught transition “models”: atypical, unstable and potentially reversible. While dissimilar in some key aspects, both are attempts at a top-down fix, reliant on continued goodwill and support of the military/security services and dominant parties. More importantly, the two transitions are not outcomes of political and constitutional settlements, and are likely to remain contested and unsettled for some time.
Sudan’s transition is in its infancy and is dogged by a host of challenges. Of the two countries, it is the one with the greatest potential for a short-term crisis, but, if successful, one that opens enormous possibilities for improved governance and stability.
Formal, direct talks between Sudan’s protest movement and the military began on 27 April but quickly hit a snag barely two days later. The key sticking points: the length of the transition (the military wants two years while the protest movement favours four years on the basis that more time is needed to undo the damage of 30 years of misrule); composition of the proposed Sovereign Transition Council (STC); and who should lead it.
On 30 April, the TMC issued a series of controversial and unilateral decisions that escalated the stalemate into a crisis. The council said the STC would be headed by the military and that 7 out 10 posts would be allocated to the military (contrary to the Sudanese Professional Association [SPA]’s demand for a 15-member council, the bulk of whose members should be civilian). It further called on the SPA to dismantle barricades at the Army Command in Khartoum and to get protesters off the streets.
The generals had been angling for a longer pre-transition period from the start. This was largely based on the assumption that they stood to gain more from the tactical point of view; the SPA had more to lose. But there are other pressing calculations. First, more time allows the TMC to sort out internal divisions. Second, it gives it the leg room to craft and fine-tune its negotiation strategy. Third, it provides the TMC with the opportunity to drag out the process and wear down the pro-democracy movement – the so-called “attrition option” that has served the military well in the past.
At the heart of Sudan’s chaotic and bitter transition contest – indeed, the crisis of legitimacy/credibility – is the self-appointed TMC. It is made up of senior generals, all beneficiaries of the army purges in the last one decade by al-Bashir that elevated loyalists to key posts.
The decision by the African Union to extend the TMC’s life by three months, is, therefore, a major victory for the military. It now has up to the end of July 2019 to set up an authority to oversee the transition and to agree to a roadmap with the opposition. A viable transition roadmap in Sudan depends on consensus between the five distinct actors/constituencies: street protesters; the leadership of the protest movement; traditional parties; the TMC; and regional actors. This will not be easy; it is almost certain that divergent aims, interests and calculations could prove a major impediment.
The Military Council: A reluctant reformer
At the heart of Sudan’s chaotic and bitter transition contest – indeed, the crisis of legitimacy/credibility – is the self-appointed TMC. It is made up of senior generals, all beneficiaries of the army purges in the last one decade by al-Bashir that elevated loyalists to key posts. They eased al-Bashir out and made a number of significant concessions. However, they controversially, stonewalled when it came to the speedy transfer of power to a civilian administration. Significantly, they have so far resisted popular calls for the dismantling of the so-called Dawlah-al-Amiqah or deep state – widely perceived as a covert power centre whose members include senior generals, securocrats and politicians who exercise extra-constitutional influence on the state.
What the TMC’s true aims are and what its interests and links with the deep state and foreign powers are, are all a matter for debate and conjecture. Far less speculative and hazardous, perhaps, is what it isn’t.
The council is essentially a product of a deep crisis within the state – a hastily created crisis-response tool to reassert military influence and manage a fluid political situation. It pulled back from imposing a state of emergency and allowed the protests to continue. It quickly shed unpopular senior ex-regime figures (such as the intelligence chief, Salah Gosh). It released some (but not all) political prisoners and reached out to protest leaders. These were all positive and encouraging steps that demonstrate that the TMC has significant agency, is pragmatic and is amenable to a political settlement.
Yet, the clumsy nature of the coup, the confusion in the first 48 hours, as well as the incoherent pronouncements and policy flip flops since then point to deep internal frictions. Tactically, this could be an advantage for the coalition leading the protests, potentially giving them greater room to nudge the TMC towards reform and to influence the agenda. It could also pose serious challenges in the coming weeks and months, especially if, as some fear, the council becomes opportunistic and capricious and its cohesions become more frayed.
But there must be no mistake about the TMC’s politics. Its primary goal is to maintain national “stability”. It views retention of military power, influence and privilege as necessary to achieve that “noble” goal. There is no evidence that it shares the democratic aspirations of the majority of the Sudanese people. It is instinctively suspicious of civilians and resistant to the idea of civilian oversight, and, even much less, civilian rule.
Sudan’s military for three decades waged not just war but also engaged in multiple peace processes and political negotiations at the local and national levels, involving armed and non-armed civilian opponents. Under al-Bashir, talks were conducted in the same manner as war was waged. Invariably, three distinct tactics, with roots in war strategy, were deployed to outflank and eviscerate the civilian opposition: accommodation, co-option and containment.
The official discourse and rhetoric surrounding the series of “national dialogues” in train for nearly two decades offers a fascinating glimpse into the appropriation of martial metaphors – a progressive “militarisation” of politics. Domestic politics was officially referred to as “jabhat al-daakhiliyah (internal front); political parties were reminded of the value of national cohesion and called upon to help “unify the ranks” (tawhid al-saf); dissidents were “cat’s paw” (mikhlab qit) of foreign enemies.
Sudan’s protest movement will be negotiating with a military that has set ways of dealing with civilian adversaries. Expectations that the military is willing to make a strategic and irreversible retreat from politics seems over-optimistic. The TMC’s 30th April pronouncements and the subsequent hardening of language certainly sowed doubts about the prospect of that happening any time soon. The unilateral and escalatory nature of the council’s statement goes against the letter and spirit of the negotiations. It may be a hint of an intense internal power struggle. It could also signal an attempt by hardline factions to assert greater control – a hypothesis lent some credence by the fact it was the TMC’s second-in-command, General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo aka Hemedti, who was personally involved.
Hemedti, the commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF – Quwaat al-Da’m al-Sari’), has in recent weeks emerged as the real power within the TMC, playing court to visiting dignitaries and diplomats. His swift maneuvers to consolidate power within the military and security services are anything but coincidental. He was, for example, “elevated” to a “member” of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). (An official SUNA news agency dispatch said that he was now “uzw” – a “member” of NISS – a vague term that is both odd and inexplicable.)
The RSF itself is affiliated to the NISS since it was established in 2013 from the rump of the Janjaweed militia. The original force of roughly 7,000 was drawn mainly from Hemedti’s own Rizaygat tribe in Darfur (an important factor in itself that partly explains its strong internal cohesion and loyalty to Hemedti). It has a complicated dual command chain, answerable to both the NISS Director-General and the regular Army General Command. Al-Bashir increasingly relied on the RSF and the Popular Police Forces in recent years to quell social unrest and low-level armed insurrections. The bulk of the RSF is now fighting in Yemen alongside Emirati troops, a decision based on RSF’s perceived counterinsurgency competence and adaptability to the Yemeni battlefield conditions.
Hemedti is young, ambitious and has powerful Gulf friends who are keen to see him play an influential role in the transition. He has a fearsome reputation, and is deemed both an able battle field commander and a skillful political operator. His rise to prominence since al-Bashir’s ouster and high visibility within the TMC suggest a resurgence of hardline elements keen not to cede too much ground to the protest movement.
Old parties and the protest movement
Sudan’s bewildering array of political parties, which are weak and deeply fragmented, were caught off-guard by the protests. However, they seem keen to be included in the transition talks. The TMC initially seemed to prefer a broad-based dialogue, in part because that could have neutralised the weight of the protest movement. It has since walked back and proposed a format that significantly shortened the list of participants, not least because of the risks of an unwieldy and fractious dialogue process that is impossible to conclude within the short timeframe it now has (three months).
Two distinct but complementary historical trends converged in the Horn protests: a massive demographic shift that progressively moved the youth to the centre of politics; and a technological revolution that provided them with the tools to effectively resist and organise. The sheer demographic weight and the volatility and restless energy unleashed by these changes cannot be ignored.
Sudan’s protest movement and its leadership hold the initiative in the contest to shape the transition. The call for freedom, justice and peace (emblazoned on every placard) gelled a fragmented nation and triggered the Horn’s most powerful and unprecedented mass protest movements. The expectations are high and the road to achieving them daunting.
The risk of fragmentation within the protest movement is also high. It is now made up of two distinct groups: Quwaa I’laan al-Huriyyat wal Tagyiir (Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces-DFCF) and the Sudanese Professionals Association-SPA (Tajamm’u al-Mihniyiin al-Sudaniyin). They are now broadly aligned in their demands. However, TMC’s co-option strategies and the attrition of protracted negotiation are highly likely to sow division.
Ethiopia’s transition is the outcome of two severe crises that shook the regime to the core: over four years of relentless mass protests in Oromiya and Amhara regional states; and a sharp economic downturn. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) played a central role in the transition that engineered Abiy Ahmed’s rise.
The SPA and the DFCF have so far done a remarkable job in leading a cohesive, disciplined and non-violent mass protest movement. They must not sell themselves short in the delicate negotiations now underway. They must safeguard their cohesion, eschew personal ambition, remain vigilant against the familiar co-option “traps”, stay resilient and focused in the face of setbacks, and be hard-nosed at every phase of the negotiations.
Ethiopia’s unstable transition
Ethiopia’s transition is the outcome of two severe crises that shook the regime to the core: over four years of relentless mass protests in Oromiya and Amhara regional states; and a sharp economic downturn. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – the coalition of four ethno-regional parties that has dominated politics since the early 1990s – played a central role in the transition that engineered Abiy Ahmed’s rise.
It started off well in the early years, combining a reformist zeal with an accommodative approach to politics. Its fortunes for over two decades was tied to that of the charismatic and talented Meles Zenawi. It owes its structural and organisational resilience, and more importantly, its internal consensus-style ethos, to him. The aftermath of the controversial elections in 2005 and the massive crackdowns on protests ushered in a long period of repression, deflected the party from its democratic goals, and progressively strengthened the hegemony of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). But even in its weakened state, the EPRDF proved its dependability as an instrument of crisis management at critical junctures. It engineered a smooth transition of power after the death of Meles in 2012 and leaned on Hailemariam Desalegn to resign as Prime Minister in February 2018.
Abiy capitalised on the party’s internal institutional strength and exploited the antipathy to the TPLF to build the tactical alliances necessary to seal his victory at the EPRDF Congress in February 2018 Ironically, Abiy’s radical reforms, in particular, the planned swift transition to a conventional multiparty system, makes the future of the governing coalition perilous and uncertain. While the PM has orchestrated changes within the EPRDF and consolidated his grip over his own Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), many suspect the era of the dominant vanguard party may be coming to a close. Significantly, the Ethiopian Prime Minister has relied on a close-knit circle of politicians and inexperienced advisers to drive his fast-paced reforms, with minimal or no input from the EPRDF and other key institutions.
The benefits of a personalised elite-driven reform seem obvious. Abiy, arguably, needed the latitude and flexibility it provides to push through a raft of “deep reforms” and swiftly dismantle key pillars of TPLF’s power in the military, security services and economy.
The potential drawbacks of a highly personalised leadership style and an elite-driven reform process lacking sufficient institutional buy-in and support must be obvious. It is inherently risky and alienates the very agencies indispensable to implementation and long-term sustainability. Understood thus, the risks to reform in Ethiopia seem not so much bureaucratic inertia as bureaucratic recalcitrance. Rumblings of unease within the state and in the parastatals over key aspects of the reforms, from privatisation to the future of the ethnic-federalism system, reinforce these fears. The Prime Minister, rhetorically at least, is increasingly aware of this potential problem; he has stepped up meetings with key departments and pledged to deepen institutional engagement. However, his critics claim that the impromptu townhall-style meetings are cosmetic, and do not constitute structured policy dialogue.
Identity politics may act as a catalyst for change, but its huge capacity to complicate transitions that foment new unrest must not be ignored. Ethiopia is an egregious example. Aggressive and adversarial strains of ethno-nationalisms, resurgent in recent years, pose grave conflict risks. Many ethnic conflicts are traditionally driven by contested borders and resource competition. Ethno-regionalism/nationalism aggravate these conflicts and make them intractable. Prime Minister Abiy’s stabilisation and consolidation efforts have had minimal impact in de-escalating the problem. Balancing multiple and contending ethnic interests proved far trickier than anticipated. His policy of accommodation to remedy historical injustices and allocate more government posts to marginalised communities and disadvantaged segments of the population won wider praise but either failed to mollify more militant and younger ethno-nationalist activists clamouring for deeper affirmative action, or reinforced resentment among other ethnicities.
This is particularly the case in Oromiya, where factions loyal to the Oromo Liberation Front that view the Prime Minister as a “traitor” to the Oromo cause, continue to stoke violence and undermine social cohesion. Several attempts to mediate an end to the ructions in Oromiya and reconcile the rival factions so far have produced shaky truces that failed to hold.
In Ethiopia, the economic crisis was largely induced by the frenetic pace of growth, skewed development, expensive infrastructure mega-projects and dependence on foreign (Chinese) loans. Abiy in early 2018 inherited a state that was virtually bankrupt, its foreign exchange reserve depleted and saddled with mounting and unsustainable debt-servicing obligations.
Meanwhile, the Abiy’s anti-corruption drive and political consolidation strategy, perceived targeted at curbing the influence exerted by the minority Tigrayan ethnic community on the country’s political and economic life, fomented serious backlash. The widely held perception that the premier’s new friendship with the Eritrean President, Isayas Afewerki, is partly motivated by a common desire to isolate the TPLF, served to further inflame sentiments in Tigray. The region is now effectively a mini-state, its relations with Addis Ababa deeply fraught and antagonistic. On-off dialogue between Addis and Mekele and a series of high-level meetings in 2018 failed to smooth relations or diminish the potentially dangerous siege mentality developing in Tigray. The region is where the country’s elite military units are garrisoned and where sophisticated heavy military hardware, including air combat assets, are kept (a legacy of the border conflict with Eritrea). An armed conflict – highly improbable but impossible to rule out – would be catastrophic.
Economic hardships remain core drivers of social unrest in Sudan and Ethiopia. Conditions for the vast majority of their populations progressively worsened in the last five years. Sudan’s loss of oil revenues and subsequent deadlock over oil trans-shipment fees with South Sudan triggered the country’s severest economic crisis in decades. High inflation, currency turbulence and a series of austerity measures that saw subsidies lifted on bread and other commodities hit the lower classes hard and fomented the mass protests that quickly engulfed the whole country.
In Ethiopia, the economic crisis was largely induced by the frenetic pace of growth, skewed development, expensive infrastructure mega-projects and dependence on foreign (Chinese) loans. Abiy in early 2018 inherited a state that was virtually bankrupt, its foreign exchange reserve depleted and saddled with mounting and unsustainable debt-servicing obligations. An emergency deposit of 1 billion dollars into the treasury by the UAE helped to stabilise the volatile fiscal situation.
The short- to medium-term prospects look bleak, even though China’s decision to write off some of the debt in late April and signals of support from multilateral financial institutions and donors promise some relief.
In Sudan, the UAE similarly stepped in to shore up the currency by depositing money in the treasury. Donors have equally signaled readiness to help.
The gravity of the economic crisis in the two states and the improbability of a quick and dramatic improvement portend huge risks for the transition. Yet, the kind of tangible and irreversible progress in their delicate transitions necessary to unlock donor support and foreign investment hardly exists now and is bound to take years, by which time conditions would have deteriorated further.
In Ethiopia, the continued proliferation of ethnic unrest and violence in economically productive regions has triggered massive displacement – estimated at 3 million. The government’s inability to get on top of the situation is hugely destabilizsing in itself, but also certain to prove a major impediment to new foreign investment.
An emergency financial aid package for Sudan and long-term economic relief and stimulus package for Ethiopia seem the best options for the international community to shore up the transitions.
A youth revolt
The uprisings in Ethiopia and Sudan constitute the Horn’s first uniquely large-scale youth revolt; the first political coming-of-age of two youth generations embittered by economic hardship and the inequities of the “hard state”.
Ethiopia, with over 70% of the population (out of a total of 110 million) under the age 30, and Sudan with 60% of the population (42.5 million) under the age of 25, are examples of states where the demographic shift has been at its starkest, reflecting both the promise and destabilising potential of the so-called youth bulge.
Two distinct but complementary historical trends converged in the Horn protests: a massive demographic shift that progressively moved the youth to the centre of politics; and a technological revolution that provided them with the tools to effectively resist and organise. The sheer demographic weight and the volatility and restless energy unleashed by these changes cannot be ignored. The long-term viability and sustainability of the transitions hinge on how the disruptive impact of the youth bulge is managed.
The recurrent themes of the protests are familiar; they revolve around a set of socio-economic grievances that cut across the age-divide: jobs and better wages, economic growth, opportunities and autonomy, better services. Sudan’s unemployment rate is estimated to be around 21.4% or over 2 million of the productive labour force of 21 million. In Ethiopia youth unemployment stands at 19.5%
Social media and the diaspora
The protest movements in Ethiopia and Sudan are beneficiaries of the digital revolution, effectively harnessing the power of the smartphone and social media (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp) to challenge the regimes in power. These tools allowed them to organise, to break the state’s monopoly over information, and to generate their own multimedia content.
In the contest for narrative space, the state was severely disadvantaged. Its power of monopoly over communication (and access to sophisticated cyber-spying software) was offset by the technical savvy and ingenuity of the protesters. Frequent communication shutdowns that targeted SMS and Internet access proved ineffective. Protesters used VPNs and encrypted messaging apps and relied on diaspora supporters to bypass state censorship. Diaspora support in both instances was crucial and went beyond amplifying social media messages. Activists in North America and Europe mobilised funds, organised pickets and petitions, highlighted rights abuses, and raised the profile of these protests at the international stage.
The Oromo diaspora in the US, a close-knit community with its own influential media outlets, played a particularly pivotal role – a role recognised by Prime Minister Abiy himself when he made a “thanksgiving” tour of the US in 2018. A number of high-profile exiled figures have since been given high-level posts in the Ethiopian government.
Diaspora influence and power have not been without controversy, especially in Ethiopia. There have been claims that hardline activists disseminated fake news and inflammatory messages to stoke ethnic hostility and division. In Sudan, there is speculation (probably fueled by the military) that the diaspora is inciting intransigence and radicalising the protest movement.
The transition in Ethiopia has brought to the fore the simmering tensions between political classes inside the country and those abroad. Growing intra-Oromo divisions partly reflect both the type of rivalries, political divergence and clash of ambitions that could complicate the transition. A fracturing of the protest movement’s core support base remains a potential risk in a delicate transition such as Ethiopia’s but also the one in Sudan. The Sudanese reform movement has, so far, stayed remarkably cohesive. That unity is almost certain to come under great strain, especially in the highly likely scenario of protracted and intensely contested transition. The Transition Military Council favours a fragmented and weak opposition. All the signs indicate that this is an outcome it is actively working to achieve.
Sudan and Ethiopia are similar in a variety of ways. They are the Horn’s most diverse states with a combined total of 99 major ethnic groups and over 200 languages and dialects. They still remain geographically vast and unwieldy, even after secessionist wars and peace settlements led to a partition that diminished their original size. Both share a long history of multiple armed conflicts and vast, ill-governed and severely underdeveloped peripheries – conditions that incubated volatile forms of identity politics, insurrections and social unrest.
Both countries also experimented with decentralisation models designed to foster self-rule and greater autonomy. However, neither Ethiopia’s radical ethnic federal system nor Sudan’s conventional one achieved the desired aims. Instead, they replicated the ills of the central state, bred their own inequities, inflamed ethno-regional nationalisms and reinforced core-periphery tensions.
Ethnic identity politics was a potent factor in the Ethiopian mass protests; it provided the glue and energy. What is fascinating is not just the complex ways in which group grievances intersect, feed off/bleed into wider discontent, but the subtle, somewhat counter-intuitive ways in which even hitherto antagonistic ethnicities, regions and religious groups managed to cooperate and transcend their differences.
Ethiopia’s mass protests never evolved into a single nationwide movement like Sudan’s. They were almost exclusively confined to Oromiya and Amhara regional states, which are dominated by two ethnic groups divided by a long history of mutual antipathy. Yet, activists in the two regions drew energy and succour from each other’s protests; they cross-fertilized and learnt effective protest tactics from one another. (For example, Amhara region’s ghost-town tactics that paralysed cities were replicated in Oromiya.) Gradually, a new sense of mutual empathy and solidarity developed between Oromo and Amhara protesters. The seminal moment was when protesters in the two regions chanted “Down Down Woyane” – proof that the two distinct ethnic discontents had coalesced into a single national demand.
In Sudan, the protest leadership quickly tapped into and harnessed the vast array of diverse grievances to weave a set of key national objectives. With a comparably freer civic space, well-organised trade union movement and professional associations with a proud tradition of political activism, Sudan’s mass revolt took on a national character much more quickly than Ethiopia’s.
What tipped the scales was not critical mass (though that was important) but the emergence of a proto-narrative that encapsulated shared national goals.
In Sudan, the protest leadership quickly tapped into and harnessed the vast array of diverse grievances to weave a set of key national objectives. With a comparably freer civic space, well-organised trade union movement and professional associations with a proud tradition of political activism, Sudan’s mass revolt took on a national character much more quickly than Ethiopia’s. The rallies in Khartoum reflected the diversity of the nation’s social fabric and remained characterised throughout by a convivial, ecumenical spirit, as remarkable as it is rare.
Identity, protest and culture
Sudan achieved in protest what eluded it for decades: a genuine moment of unity in diversity. The protest rallies in Khartoum were a microcosm of the nation, bringing together diverse ethnic and civil society groups drawn from all regions, social strata and professions. Darfuris, Kordofanis and Nubians, women and other distinct social groups, aggrieved workers and traders – all disenfranchised and rendered powerless and invisible by state policies – were catapulted onto the national stage. They all made common cause and rallied around a single political message.
But the mass uprisings in Sudan and Ethiopia were not just animated by political and economic grievances; activists in Sudan actually took slight at media characterisation of their protests as “bread riots”. They were also impelled by cultural discontent – a sense of humiliation and anger at the state’s perceived cultural homogenisation, discrimination and misogyny.
In Ethiopia, the Oromo unrest was fueled, in part, by long simmering grievances over the status of the Oromo language and state interferences in religious affairs, while in Sudan, state-driven Islamisation and Arabisation remained major sources of social frictions.
The act of protest was in itself psychologically and culturally transformative, providing an opportunity to assert cultural pride and reclaim self-confidence and autonomy. The Oromo pride movement in Ethiopia and the rise of women in Sudan exemplify the cultural forces shaping the politics of protests and transitions.
Prime Minister Abiy’s open embrace and appropriation of Oromo culture and his gender parity campaign are just two examples of the symbolic and practical policy impacts. Hopes are high that Sudan’s new breed of assertive female activists will capitalise on the national mood for change and harness their collective picketing power to influence the transition’s agenda.
No less important, the rallies served asa vehicle for collective catharsis and radical empathy; a space to affirm values of mutual interdependence, solidarity, and peaceful co-existence.
The slogan “kuluna Darfur” (we are all Darfur) at the rallies in Khartoum, hopefully, was not just a feel-good empathetic response, but marks a fundamental positive shift in the way communities relate to one another.
Religion and culture
Religion – as a powerful galvaniser and conduit for protest and a repository of moral and ethical values necessary for a just society – has a long history in the Horn. The protests in Sudan and Ethiopia provide contrasting lessons in the resilience of religion and its potency to inspire and channel protest. But far more interesting is how the debate over the relevance of religion in governance continues to evolve.
The Oromo mass insurrection in Ethiopia gestated for many years; it fed off diverse, small and localised communal grievances before it snowballed into a national crisis. The big triggers – high youth unemployment, state-driven land grabs, punitive taxation, repression and violent crackdowns – are well known. Less noted and examined are the obscure and overlapping cultural and religious roots of the discontent brewing for close to a decade.
The political rebellion owed much of its resilience and success to the cultural revivalist movement gaining in momentum and influence in recent years. It drew energy, inspiration and self-confidence from the potent message of ethnic pride preached by Oromo elders like Abba Gadda.
Oromo traditional Waqqeffana religion, practised by a small fraction of the community (roughly less than 5%), played an important complementary role as a central pillar of cultural expression. Regarded as the indigenous faith of the Oromo nation, its rituals and spiritual teachings progressively galvanised millions. The Irrecha annual festival of harvests, with roots in the Waqqeffana religion, drew tens of thousands, and became a visible symbol of political and cultural consciousness and a focal point for the protests.
A series of Muslim unrests in Oromiya in 2012 quickly spread to other regions and continued to simmer for over 18 months. Much of the unrest was initially triggered by alleged state interference in Muslim affairs, but quickly aggravated by mass arrests of clerics and community leaders and the suspension of Muslim publications (such as Ye’Muslimoch Guday). The Muslim protests – viewed across Oromiya as evidence of the state’s wider malign intent against the Oromo – thus triggered the first spark that lit the fire of large-scale rebellion in 2014.
The Oromo nation’s ability to harness its cultural heritage and multiple faith traditions and to foster internal mutual respect and tolerance is unique. So too is the tradition of syncretism that indigenised Islam and Christianity and reduced the heat and social frictions generally associated with puritanism and proselytism. This cultural adaptability and inherent resistance to exclusivist manifestations of faith may partly explain why Salafism found Oromiya a less ambient and sympathetic territory to put down roots in.
The bid to project this benign and positive face of Oromo culture on the national stage was thwarted by fragmentation and factionalism, as well as by the political clout exerted by militant factions widely perceived wedded to an exclusivist ethnic agenda.
Prime Minister Abiy, a practising Pentecostal with Muslim heritage, represents this hybrid, pluralistic and healthy attitude to religion. While his fervent faith and the occasional unnerving messianic tenor to his speeches raised some concerns, the Prime Minister so far has acted with great sensitivity on matters to do with faith. He released detained Muslim leaders and appointed a record number to key state posts and reached out to the Orthodox Church.
Abiy’s medemer philosophy – based on values of love, compassion and solidarity in the New Testament – does not signal intent to “Christianise” or change the strong secular character of the Ethiopian state. The primary motive is to create a unifying principle around which the nation can rally.
A striking feature of Sudan’s protest movement is the near-total absence of Islamist slogans and the emergence of more assertive youthful female activists keen to raise their visibility, to subvert the strict dress code and to claw back their “huquq al-mar’a al-maqsub” (usurped fundamental rights of women).
However, the rise of evangelical churches and their aggressive proselytisation remain a source of anxiety within the influential Orthodox Church. But the greatest threat to religious harmony stems from ethnic conflict. Inter-communal violence in troubled pockets of the country in the last one year exacerbated religious tensions and triggered attacks on mosques and churches.
Islam in transition in Sudan
The controversial intervention in Sudan’s transition in recent weeks by Gulf actors (principally UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), ostensibly aimed at preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from staging a comeback, is both ill-advised and dangerous. First, there isn’t the kind of cohesive, highly-organised Islamist opposition able to single-handedly gain dominance. Second, the TMC cannot be a guarantor of long-term stability nor can it serve as an effective bulwark against Islamism. Third, and assuming they cared to look deeper at the uprising and the social-political trends, they would have realised the depth of disillusionment with Islamist politics and generally with all traditional politics and parties. Finally, the Saudi/Emirati axis’s meddling alienates huge segments of society and is counter-productive to their twin strategic goals: maintaining Sudanese troops in Yemen and isolating the Muslim Brotherhood.
A striking feature of Sudan’s protest movement is the near-total absence of Islamist slogans and the emergence of more assertive youthful female activists keen to raise their visibility, to subvert the strict dress code and to claw back their “huquq al-mar’a al-maqsub” (usurped fundamental rights of women). The language and tone of discourse is deliberately non-confessional. These two complementary dynamics lend a mildly secular character to the uprising. For the first time in three decades, Islam is no longer a contentious subject for Sudan’s youth. But we ought to be careful in not drawing hasty conclusions. More importantly, we must avoid using the binary secular-religious mindset as a prism to analyse events in Sudan.
That the battle over Sudan’s future is being waged over traditional secular issues – liberty, justice and “bread-and-butter” issues – is emblematic, not so much of a society that is becoming secular, but one deeply disillusioned with the brand of Islam advocated by Hassan al-Turabi and enforced by al-Bashir for three decades. Sudan’s youth are rejecting the politicised Islam that underpinned al-Bashir’s quasi-Islamic state and the stifling social conservatism fostered by its intrusive policies.
Put differently, what we are seeing in Sudan is the early sign of a society that is self-correcting – seeking both to restore “health” to Islam and return it to its traditional orbit/sphere.
It is not yet clear who the secularists are in Sudan’s transition. No group has so far articulated what one might call a clear secular agenda. It is conceivable that some in the protest movement, such as traditional left-leaning parties (that played a big role in the protests) and even elements in the TMC opposed to Islamism, may make common cause and lock out Islamists from the transition. Whether all these diverse anti-Islamist “stakeholders” can agree on a common strategy to address the issue of Islam and the state is hard to tell. An aggressive “enclavement” strategy that criminalises Islamism and locks out Islamists is certain to prove hugely destabilising. It risks driving Islamists underground and is bound to incubate the same toxic type of militancy and violence familiar in many parts of the Muslim world.
Sudan’s best hope to achieve a viable and sustainable transition lies in a policy of accommodation that is genuinely inclusive. Islamist parties are predominantly moderate, and including them in the tent has the potential to lock them into the broader reform process, to temper their politics and to progressively isolate the more militant groups.
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