The Inspector General (IG) Joseph Boinnet’s recent pronouncement that the police had formed a special squad to deal with the Jubilee government’s critics confirmed what many believe to be a plot by the government to clamp down on opposition politics and what it considers to be individual “dissidents” and provocateurs.
The police’s daring move of snatching opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) MPs and supporters on highways and from their homes at the beginning of this year was preceded by the sensational episode when the secret police stalked and ambushed David Ndii late last year. The kidnapping of Ndii, NASA’s economic and strategic advisor, in a hotel lobby in the south coast of Kenya and his “midnight safari” from Mombasa to Nairobi and then straight to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) at Mazingira House off Kiambu Road – the successor to Nyati House’s operations – is a strategy that the government hopes to continue using to harass the opposition as it seeks to legitimise its contested rule.
Ndii’s abduction and his 500km journey in the dead of the night on December 4, 2017, was a precursor to lawyer Miguna Miguna’s dawn kidnapping from his house in the suburbs of Nairobi and his eventual deportation to Canada.
Nyati House is an oblong-shaped, deathly grey, macabre building that has always been the site of eerie and mysterious police activities. It was a torture chamber reserved for Kenyans who differed with President Daniel arap Moi’s despotic rule. Nyayo House, a sister to Nyati House, also in central Nairobi, was the other torture dungeon. The five-floor, two-part symmetrical building, which is currently undergoing renovations, has always been unkempt and ghostly, with exit doors permanently shut with metal grills.
Ndii’s abduction and his 500km journey in the dead of the night on December 4, 2017, was a precursor to lawyer Miguna Miguna’s dawn kidnapping from his house in the suburbs of Nairobi and his eventual deportation to Canada. The suspension of passports of targeted NASA advisors and supporters that the Jubilee government categorises as consultants and politicians, is yet another tactic the Jubilee government is using to possibly scuttle and disorient a recalcitrant opposition.
The kidnapping and transporting of state opponents by the secret police in the dead of the night is a method that was perfected by the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe and apartheid South Africa.
The night journey
It is some minutes past 7.00pm on December 4, 2017, a breezy, cool Sunday. David Ndii is walking towards the lobby of Leopard Beach Hotel in Diani on Kenya’s south coast. Suddenly, he is accosted by two nondescript fellows who enquire from him whether he is David Ndii. It is evident from their inquiry that they are not sure of his identity. All the same, Ndii answers in the affirmative. They ask him to accompany them. His first instinct is to ask them, “Who has sent you?” To which the police officers answer, “DCI director Ndegwa Muhoro.”
The police officers plead with him to be cooperative and to just allow them to lead him to the unmarked waiting vehicles (in their minds, they are probably praying that he should not cause a scene that will interfere with their mission). Ndii hesitates momentarily – he was walking to the hotel reception with his daughter to pick his feature phone popularly known as mulika mwizi (literally translated as thief catcher) in the Kiswahili language. He turns towards the hotel room where his wife is. The officers follow him, but on second thoughts, he decides he should not let the police near his family and into his room. So he tells his daughter to tell her mum that there are some police officers who want to take him away.
Ndii has been at the south coast for three days. He came down from Nairobi to attend his wife’s nephew’s wedding. After the wedding on December 3, 2017, he decides to stay on with his family – after all, it was the holiday season and they could do with some beach holidaying. In hindsight, Ndii’s muses, “I should just have proceeded to the reception area. That way maybe I’d have made it difficult for the police to take me away.” He was charging his mulika mwizi because his smart phone had fallen into the swimming pool. When it rains…it pours. This was the smart phone that had all his contacts so he could not immediately call his friends to tell them what was happening to him.
Sandwiched between two police officers in the back seat of one of the vehicles, Ndii is calm, but his mind is racing with all manner of thoughts about what they are planning to do with him.
The police take him to two new Subaru Outbacks, and together they drive to Diani Police Station, which is a short drive away. While the two policemen are accosting him, five others are lurking under the cover of darkness at the hotel’s parking bay.
The Subaru Outback, just like its predecessor, the Peugeot 504 station wagon, is today the preferred get-away car of secret police covert operations. It is hardy, fast, powerful and a 4-wheel drive. The Peugeot 504 station wagons used in the 1980s and 1990s were all white in colour. Because the secret police used to be recruited from different police stations and regions, white was the identification code that allowed covert police to easily recognise each other. Other than white Peugeot 504 station wagons, the other covert vehicles the secret police used was white Land Rovers.
In Nairobi’s central business district, according to one police source, one out of every four Subaru Outbacks prowling the streets is a police car. They come in different shades, but the secret police prefer metallic grey and silver colours. At the Central Police Station on Harry Thuku Road, next to the University of Nairobi, you will find some parked there. It is here that the police keep on flipping their registration number plates depending on the nature and state of their undercover missions.
At Diani Police Station, the two police officers who had abducted Ndii from the hotel communicate with some “higher authorities” on what is to be their next move. After mobile phone consultations, they get back into the vehicles and head to Mombasa island. On their way to the Likoni Ferry, they pull aside several times to get instructions. They are constantly on their phones, talking to “higher authorities” who do not seem to have made up their minds what they want the police officers, who are seven in number, to do with Ndii.
Agitated and cursing, the police drive back to Diani Police Station and park outside. After they had driven away to Likoni, a crowd had gathered at the station demanding to know where the police had taken Ndii. The crowd was composed of the Leopard Beach Hotel’s subordinate staff. It occurs to Ndii that while at the hotel, the housekeepers, waiters, stewards and other workers had taken note of his stay at the hotel and had come to the station to support him. His wife was also at the station with opposition leader Raila Odinga’s daughter, Winnie. They demand to see Ndii.
Kandie unleashes a smartphone and proceeds to read from Tuko.co.ke, an online news website. Listening to Kandie read fake news purportedly about him and his “illegal activities” against the state, Ndii – who is visibly amused and aghast that he was tracked all the way to the coast on account of fake stories about him – tells Kandie, “There are four ways in which I communicate and engage with the public. I write a newspaper column, I conduct public speaking, I run a Twitter handle and I engage in TV interviews.”
The Officer Commanding the Police Station (OCS) threatens Mwende, Ndii’s wife, Winnie and the crowd, telling them they are “trespassing a police station”. This ridiculous statement shows that he did not expect a crowd to mill around his station so quickly and openly showing solidarity with a now well-known public figure. This whole rigmarole – of to-ing and fro-ing – takes two hours. Then they set off for Nairobi at about 10.00pm. The same ritual – of the vehicles pulling aside to receive conflicting instructions – commences yet again.
Sandwiched between two police officers in the back seat of one of the vehicles, Ndii is calm, but his mind is racing with all manner of thoughts about what they are planning to do with him. One of the thoughts that crosses his mind is: Could they possibly be planning to execute him, just like they had executed radical sheikhs from Mombasa who had been summarily assassinated a while back? He asks to be allowed to take a toilet break. They refuse.
One of the officers is carrying an AK47, which he places under the seat. This time they drive all the way to the ferry’s gangplank. At this time of the night there are few ferries, so they have to wait for one to make its return trip from the other end of the crossing. When they cross the ferry, they head to a Total petrol station in the city centre, where they refuel and check tyre pressure. It dawns on the police officers that they are set for a long journey – which apparently they had not planned or prepared for – because they loudly complain and grumble about it. “Shouldn’t they have forewarned us,” they seem to say.
They had barely passed through the Makupa Causeway when the police inside the vehicle carrying Ndii were already wondering loudly when they would arrive in Nairobi. They estimate that they will arrive in Nairobi around 7 the next morning They abruptly stop somewhere in the bush and tell Ndii that he can now relieve himself. It is pitch dark. They all come out, but Ndii finds this idea of stopping in the middle of nowhere in the dark night spooky and not amusing at all. When they had stopped to refuel at the petrol station he had asked to be allowed to go the toilet and but they had not let him.
Left seated inside the vehicle as the officers oversee the servicing of the vehicles, an eerie thought crosses Ndii’s mind: If only they could allow me to go to the toilet, I could find a way to melt into the street. The city streets of Mombasa are lively at night and there a lots of people milling about. The policeman who was in charge of the AK47 that he had placed under the seat pulls it from there and hands it over to the other policeman guarding Ndii. Instinctively, he asks Ndii: “Do you have a firearm?” “No, I have never owned a gun,” Ndii tells him.
After refuelling, they drive like crazy. Ndii wonders if they are on a suicide mission. “Is this their plan to kill me?” he thinks to himself. “Let me belt up”, he says to one of his captors as they overtake and overlap the multiple 24-wheel trucks plying the busy highway. They are driving like obsessed mad men. They stop at Mariakani to buy snacks for themselves. They ask him whether he wants anything. He declines. It seems that these policemen were plucked from their homes, not having eaten supper, and not fully briefed on the nature of the mission they were supposed to undertake. They were unaware and unprepared for a long journey in the middle of the night.
For the first time since they went for him at the hotel, they engage him in a conversation. “Are you worried?” one of the policemen asks him. “We have no intention of harming you,” he hopes to reassure Ndii. What could they be up to with all this banter? “I don’t know who sent you,” Ndii answers him. The conversation does not go far. They drive dangerously the whole night. When they reach Mombasa Road in Nairobi, they take the northern corridor, which passes the North Airport Road and the Embakasi garrison and that crosses Kangundo Road through Ruai onto Ruiru railway line and then links with the Thika superhighway to connect with the Eastern bypass that starts at the Kiambu-Ruiru Road.
After they had dealt with their agenda of the day, Ruto turned to complaining about Ndii, lamenting how Ndii was feeding NASA luminaries with the political theory of “grabbing power”. His grouse was a regurgitation of the standard Jubilee Party cabal’s conventional thinking on Raila Odinga: “Raila is a ‘good man’, but has been captured by hardliners” – chief among them, one David Ndii.
Caught in the traffic snarl-up, the policemen buy a newspaper from the roving vendors. It is The Standard. On the front page, there is a mugshot of Ndii. They tune into the radio and the news is all about Ndii’s abduction. The police now turn to examine Ndii properly. They obviously did not know who he is. “Who is Ayub Ndii”, one of the policemen asks him. Ayub is actually Ndii’s uncle. In proper Kikuyu parlance, Ayub would be referred to in the English language as “younger father”.
Avoiding the superhighway, the police drive through the back roads behind the sprawling Mathare North slum. They are headed to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations DCI. When they reach there, Ndii is taken straight up the stairs to an office. The first thing he asks is, “Why am I here?” to a junior officer. “Can I have a phone?” The junior officer shrugs off his request – he is possibly as clueless as Ndii about why he has been brought here. “I am here to keep you company,” says the policeman nonchalantly. Another junior cop shows up and joins Ndii in the sparsely furnished office. He offers Ndii tea. Ndii refuses the offer. The two policemen are obviously Akamba because they converse in the Kamba language while keeping Ndii company, pending further instructions. Ndii is kept at the DCI for several hours.
Then the real police honcho shows up. He is the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), somebody called arap Kandie. The office that Ndii is being kept in is the Serious Crime Office (SCO). Kandie pompously announces that he is the head of SCO. “Am I under arrest?” Ndii immediately asks him. Kandie mumbles some unintelligible answer. He appears not to know why Ndii has been referred to his office. “We need to interrogate your crime,” he tells Ndii. “The last time I was under this kind of situation, it was 30 years ago, I hope we are not going back there?” Ndii tells Kandie.
In 1987, Ndii was a third year economics student at the University of Nairobi’s main campus. It was a time when there was a crackdown on university students. President Daniel arap Moi had unleashed his secret police to hound the students, who he deemed were in cahoots with political dissidents opposed to his dictatorial regime.
Ndii spent two weeks at the Nyayo House bunkers, where he was tortured and thoroughly interrogated. That was the same year that Miguna Miguna was arrested by the same secret police, and later forced into exile, first to Tanzania, where he stayed for three months, then further south to Swaziland, and eventually to Toronto, Canada, after a six-month sojourn in the southern African state.
SSP Kandie grouses over the fact that people like Ndii are “trouble shooters” and their only agenda is to cause “chaos and disaffection” among “peace loving Kenyans.” Why is he constantly attacking the government, he wonders aloud – loud enough to solicit a rebuttal from Ndii. He asks Ndii about the Larry Madowo NTV talk show in which he had participated several days ago. “I will not discuss political theory with you,” Ndii replies to Kandie.
Kandie unleashes a smart phone and proceeds to read from Tuko.co.ke, an online news website. Listening to Kandie read fake news purportedly about him and his “illegal activities” against the state, Ndii – who is visibly amused and aghast that he was tracked all the way to the coast on account of fake stories about him – tells Kandie, “There are four ways in which I communicate and engage with the public. I write a newspaper column, I conduct public speaking, I run a Twitter handle and I engage in TV interviews.”
At that point, Kandie asks his four junior officers – two had tagged along him to join the other two – to leave. Among the officers is a Mr. Cheruiyot and a Kamba deputy SSP. Kandie then produces a statement and asks Ndii to sign it, stating that it is for his own “protective custody”. Ndii declines to sign it. Instead, he writes his own statement, now detailing the four ways he engages with the public and how he goes about making his political pronouncements.
As he engages with Kandie over whether to sign the statement, several of Ndii’s friends and political activists are now gathered at the DCI precincts, demanding for his release. Among them are lawyers James Orengo and Edwin Sifuna. Having not eaten for more than 18 hours, Ndii asks his lawyers to bring him coffee from Java Café. At 2.30pm the police say the charge sheet is ready. So, accompanied by Orengo and Sifuna, and not by the police, Ndii is driven to the Milimani High Court.
Cheruiyot is the designated case officer and so accompanies Ndii to court. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Keriako Tobiko – who has since been appointed the Cabinet Secretary for Environment – is not ready to charge Ndii until the police present his office with what he is being charged with. The lawyers are frantic; if they do not move with haste, the police may find an excuse to lock Ndii in for the night because it is already past 4.00pm and there is no charge preferred against him. They then all head to Pangani Police Station to get a police bond. The case officer asks Ndii how much he wants to pay for his bond. The lawyers give an arbitrary figure of Ksh10,000 and Cheruiyot says KSh10,000 it is. Ndii is escorted by a convoy of ten vehicles and just before 5.00pm he gets his bond. The bond says that he should report to DCI on December 11, 2017.
The derisive characterisation of Raila as a “good man” by Jubilee Party carpetbaggers is a well-oiled narrative, deliberately and systematically propagated by the architects of the theory that forming a coalition government is one way of assuaging Raila’s electoral losses, fully knowing that these losses were politically engineered through electoral malpractices.
Ndii reports to the DCI on December 11 and rewrites his statement. The police in their characteristic prevarication and procrastination claim that they are still not done with their investigations, therefore the DPP cannot commence any prosecution against Ndii. He is again asked to report to DCI on December 28, 2017. No word on his presumed “illegal state activities”, or any clue as to when the police investigations will be complete. He again reports to DCI soon after new year’s day in January. “No instructions still from the DPP”. Days later, the DPP is moved from his job. “This thing has become a circus,” Ndii concludes, and from then henceforth, he will wait to hear from the new DPP on his case.
“A good man”
Ndii realises that the plan to fix him was well-orchestrated, but poorly executed. From the officers who abducted him, to the interrogating officers, it appeared to be a combined Kalenjin-Kikuyu affair, apart from the Kamba rookie officers who were asked to keep him company. The ethnicisation of the harassment of key opposition figures has now been taken to the apolitical police force: the police officers who are now sent to pick up and intimidate opposition figures are carefully selected to convey a deliberate ethnic supremacy of brutal and naked force as a counter-measure to an equally and deliberate ethnicisation of the opposition politics by the government.
A couple of weeks before Ndii was trailed all the way to the south coast and picked from the supposedly safe confines of a five-star beach hotel, a Jubilee Party politician allegedly had a meeting with Deputy President William Samoei Ruto. After they had dealt with their agenda of the day, Ruto turned to complaining about Ndii, lamenting how Ndii was feeding NASA luminaries with the political theory of “grabbing power”. His grouse was a regurgitation of the standard Jubilee Party cabal’s conventional thinking on Raila Odinga: “Raila is a ‘good man’, but has been captured by hardliners” – chief among them, one David Ndii.
The derisive characterisation of Raila as a “good man” by Jubilee Party carpetbaggers is a well-oiled narrative, deliberately and systematically propagated by the architects of the theory that forming a coalition government is one way of assuaging Raila’s electoral losses, fully knowing that these losses were politically engineered through electoral malpractices.
Contrary to what the Jubilee Party elites would like Kenyans to believe, the talk of forming another coalition government has always been the ruling party’s idea. This idea is today being pushed publicly by one Peter Karanja, the Secretary General of the National Christian Council of Kenya (NCCK), the umbrella body that groups together Protestant churches. Karanja’s argument, which is the base logic of Jubilee Party hawks, is that if the post of Prime Minister is created by amending the constitution or otherwise, Raila will calm down, and this will in effect also calm down his supporters and all shall live happily ever after.
The Jubilee Party fraternity’s characterisation of Raila as a “good man” masks their real intentions. After the successful signing of the Peace Accord, which was reached after the post-elective violence (PEV) of December 2007/8 on February 28, 2008, I sat down with an influential Central Kenya politician in an exclusive Nairobi golf club to review the new political arrangement. “Let me tell you, we (Kikuyu political cabal) found the perfect formula for dealing with these Luos. Invite them to join the government by creating for them a pompous office, provide some chase cars and security detail (which you can always withdraw and return at will), as you keep a tight leash on them. Give them some budget to entertain themselves. In the process, they will soon be caught up in the corruption dragnet. This will disarm them, so every time they raise their voice on state scandals, you quietly remind them of the ‘living in a glass house’ aphorism.”
The Jubilee Party barons also cynically refer to Raila as a “good man” because they believe he is “tamable”. When in 2008 he agreed to form a coalition government with Mwai Kibaki, the Kikuyu political elite sighed with great relief, but later boasted among themselves of how they were the masters of political chicanery. “We outsmarted our chief political nemesis. I suspect we are going to rule this country for a very long, long time,” said the bragging politician.
In this era of social media and smartphones, the police can no longer handle “government dissidents” the way they did twenty years ago. Add to this a progressive constitution and you have a government that is groping in the dark and resorting to knee-jerk reactions
So, early on when Ndii was identified as a “hardliner” by the Jubilee Party mandarins, they sought to isolate Raila from him, or if you may, Ndii from Raila – a scheme that does not seem to be working. Alongside, Ndii, they also sought to profile lawyer Norman Magaya, another NASA advisor and presumed “hardliner”. Convinced that the much-taunted swearing-in of Raila Odinga was going to take place on December 12, 2017, on Jamhuri (Independence) Day, the Jubilee Party elites began toying with the idea of scuttling the move by taming Ndii days before the event took place. That is why, when the police bonded him on December 5, 2017, they asked him to report to DCI on December 11, the eve of the swearing-in ceremony, in the belief that they would be disorganising and handicapping the arrangement.
The crux of the matter is that for the first time the government is having to play catch-up with an increasingly cheeky and unpredictable opposition. The speed and turn of political events have ensured that the government cannot second-guess what the opposition is really up to. Yes, the Jubilee Party “won” the election on October 26, 2017, but four months later, the government, even after having announced the cabinet, does not seem to have found its gravitas. Its best laid plans seem not to have taken root and those plans seem to be getting continuously disrupted.
In this era of social media and smartphones, the police can no longer handle “government dissidents” the way they did twenty years ago. Add to this a progressive constitution and you have a government that is groping in the dark and resorting to knee-jerk reactions, not really knowing what to do. It is patently clear, the “arrest” of Ndii and the deportation of Miguna Miguna were not well-thought out moves. The first priority of totalitarian regimes all over the world is complete control of the flow of information – when they realise this is a futile exercise, they resort to intimidation and underhand tactics.
Fred Matiang’i, the Cabinet Secretary for Internal Security, sounded ridiculous when he sought to explain to a section of the media that the government had not ordered a media shutdown, and why some TV stations had been closed. He said that the government had exposed a scheme by the opposition to cause a bloodbath in the guise of swearing-in Raila Odinga, “The People’s President”, at Uhuru Park. The well-attended ceremony – better attended than President Uhuru’s swearing at Moi International Sports Centre on November 28, 2017 – comprised a great multitude of people from all walks of life. Hence, the switching off of the NTV and KTN TV stations’ signals for ten days and Citizen TV for even longer, was an attempt at foreclosure by the government, a move that was reminiscent of the dark days of President Moi’s tyrannical rule.
Ndii’s “midnight safari” is, therefore, a metaphor for a dark state and a regime that is desperately looking for legitimacy.
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From Shifta to Terrorist: A Shifting Narrative Of Northern Kenya
A section of Kenyan citizens has been labelled dangerous to the main body of the country and denied a national identity and equal status with their fellow citizens.
As Kenya was celebrating her independence in 1963, the people of the Northern Frontier District were mourning the death of their dream of self-governance under British rule. In the spring of 1962, at the Lancaster House Conference, the region’s delegation had demanded self-determination for the NFD. The colonial government appointed an independent commission to look into the question and a referendum to determine the region’s future was subsequently held. The results of the plebiscite were however cancelled under suspicious circumstances even though they indicated that the overwhelming majority supported self-determination. The people felt cheated, and the north exploded in rebellion.
Northerners, especially those from the northeast, accuse the British colonial government of craftily handing over the region to Kenyatta. The colonialists had promised the separatists’ leaders that they would delay independence for the region to facilitate the orderly transition from colonial rule to self-rule.
The British played both sides after the Northern Frontier District delegation rejected the terms of independence and demanded a different path for the district. The colonial government decided to disregard the wishes of most of the inhabitants and handed over the region to the post-independence Kenyan government. Somalia protested the move, which further complicated the north’s struggle for independence.
What had been a people’s quest for self-rule became a political tussle between Kenya and Somalia. This issue has yet to be settled six decades later, and the north has become a victim of unending sabre-rattling. Kenya became independent on the 12th of December 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta as its Prime Minister. A State of Emergency was declared for the north-eastern region on the 27th of December 1963.
The Shifta war
The rebellion that followed the declaration of independence was, to the separatists, a struggle for self-determination. To the Kenyan government, the separatists were Shifta, the name used to reduce the separatists and the NFD population to bandits, outlaws, thieves, criminals, and murderers.
The Shifta label has stuck, although the events surrounding the coining of the term have been carefully erased from the history books. The Shifta narrative was meant to unite the rest of Kenya against the menace of the separatists. The media effectively adopted the new term as a standard reference to the rebels. Newspaper headlines reported shifta attacks almost daily throughout the period of the conflict.
The “war” was mainly skirmishing between the ill-equipped ragtag army of northern rebels and the Kenya military backed by British planes and tanks. It is the population in the north that bore the brunt of the fighting. The nomads had to sustain the fighters in their midst with their meagre resources while dodging the military operations and bombings.
The conflict began on the 22nd of November 1963 when NFD rebels burnt down a camp in Garissa. The rebellion took its toll on the inhabitants, forcing them to flee in droves to the neighbouring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia. Kenyan security forces considered everyone a rebel and the Shifta label was liberally applied without discrimination to men and boys from the region. Villagisation and shooting of camel herds were used extensively by the government to force the nomadic pastoralists to settle.
The secessionists expected to receive arms and ammunitions from Somalia, but Somalia’s loud noises were more bark than a bite. Nothing of material import came from Somalia in the four years of the war.
While fanning the conflict through declarations and radio broadcasts, Somalia was unwilling to train, arm and fight alongside the secessionists. The significant material support provided to the Kenya government by the British and the superior training of the military forces eventually turned the tide of the war in Kenya’s favour.
The end of the war began in 1966 with the exodus of the nomadic population. By 1967, the secessionists were out of arms and had no resources to rely on as the nomads crossed the border into Somalia in droves in what is known as John kacarar (escaping John). The secessionists surrendered in groups throughout 1967.
Realising that the rebels were at the end of their tether, Somalia accepted peace terms with Kenya mediated by Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. An agreement to end their differences and restore diplomatic relations was signed on the 14th of September 1967. The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north and on terms that were never declared public to the residents of the NFD. Four years of bombings, shootings and plunder had left the northeastern region — where the fighting was concentrated — destitute.
Once the war was over, reconstruction failed to begin. The schism remained in place. The military went on with operations aimed at clearing the region of “shifta elements”. The cost of the war was never enumerated. The hopelessness that descended on a defeated community required leadership, which never came.
A new narrative of bandits roaming in the unsafe wild north began to take shape. Collective punishment was the modus operandi during this period. Whenever armed criminals committed a crime, the nearest settlements were decimated by the soldiers.
In the late 1970s, an incident occurred along the Kenya-Ethiopia border where a military vehicle was burnt. The locals claimed the action was perpetrated by armed Ethiopian militia. In what came to be known as the Malka Mari Massacre, the Kenyan military detained over two hundred men and stoned them to death. None of the men was armed, and the military did not fire a shot.
In the period that followed, poaching became rampant as the stockpiles of small arms fell into the hands of poachers. Overnight, the “Somali Poacher” was born. The parks were now under threat from a new breed of armed men motivated by nothing more than money, and allegedly backed by influential people close to the government. Throughout the 1970s, the Somali poacher terrorised Kenyan elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs.
The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north.
In 1980, the security forces burned down Garissa after detaining and killing many of its inhabitants. This was an incident directly resulting from a disagreement between poachers and their contacts in government. A disgruntled poacher took matters into his own hands and killed several soldiers and other government officials.
The 1980s also saw the infamous Wagalla Massacre of 1984, where thousands were tortured and killed at an airstrip in Wajir, ostensibly during a military operation to curb banditry.
While Shifta and poachers were the competing narratives used by the government to explain its inability to bring the northern region under proper government control, the region suffered wanton neglect and underdevelopment.
The Somali-Ethiopia war ended in 1978, sparking the return of thousands who had fled the region during the war of secession as Somalia descended into clannism and corruption under military dictatorship. That same year, Vice-President Daniel Arap Moi gave a speech that sparked the alien debate when he threatened that the government would register all Somalis and deport anyone found to have allegiance to Somalia. It took 11 years for this policy to be implemented.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970. Traders from the north-east were deemed vagrants and deported from areas in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya back to their home region.
Citizenship documents were tightly controlled, and a system of verification was put in place to make it impossible for the region’s inhabitants to register as citizens. The police were given orders to stop and ask for IDs from anyone looking like a Cushite, a Somali or other related tribes who were distinctively identifiable.
The pink card
In 1989, the famous Kenya-Somali verification and registration took place. The system was designed to catch anyone who could not be linked to a sub-location and known clan.
People had to state their family tree up to their sub-clans, and a pink card with these details was issued to the successful ones. The system was designed to force out of Kenya those unaffiliated to any of the groups “indigenous” to the country.
It is estimated that at one point hundreds were crossing the border into neighbouring countries daily. People were detained, women with young children appeared in court accused of being in the country illegally. Suspected aliens were loaded on military lorries and dropped off in Liboi across the Kenya-Somali border. Many families, especially those elites with businesses, crossed into Uganda and left for Europe or America. The pink cards eventually became available for a fee, and it is believed registration officials took hefty bribes in the process. The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost when entire families were deported with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
As the “aliens” narrative waxed and waned, a new event triggered the updating of the terminology.
In 1991, the Somalia government of Siad Barre collapsed, spilling hundreds of thousands of refugees into the neighbouring countries. Kenya was grappling with its fear of Somalis and now had to face the eventuality of hosting desperate refugees, including the deposed president.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970.
The refugees were allowed in and settled in camps where they were fed and housed by the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. Throughout the 1990s, Somalia was controlled by warlords who divided the country into green zones, fought viciously among themselves and continued to spill out new refugees.
Apart from participating in efforts at reconciliation and in hosting refugees and facilitating their resettlement in Europe and America, Kenya stayed out of Somalia’s affairs. As the refugees were too many to be housed in the sprawling camps in Dadaab, Dagahaley and Kakuma, some ended up living in towns with the alien cards issued by the UNHCR as identification.
The idea of controlling the movement of refugees soon became fashionable. For the security forces it is difficult to differentiate between locals and refugees and soldiers engaged in random stop-and-searches and nighttime raids in the main towns to flush out illegal aliens.
The controls placed on refugees living in towns illegally sparked lucrative human trafficking where the police and traffickers facilitated the movement of people from the Somali border to the interior. IDs and passports became available for those who could pay but were impossible to acquire for genuine inhabitants of northern Kenya.
While Somalis and their Cushite cousins were getting used to the “alien” idea, a new term landed on Kenya’s shores: terrorism. International terrorists bombed the American embassy in Kenya in 1998. The perpetrators had names similar to those of the northerners and the refugees. The “terrorist” label did not stick for another decade and during this period Somali businesspeople invested heavily in the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi, creating a vibrant market where initially had been an unremarkable residential estate with a few wholesale and retail shops.
This economic boom coincided with the emergence of piracy on the Somali shores of the Indian Ocean. Suddenly the Kenyan media were reporting that piracy money was flooding the markets and making life costly for the residents. The Somali pirates were real, but this was part of international piracy having its operations on the lawless Somali coast. How the piracy money was siphoned into Kenya was never explained. The piracy issue occasionally crops up when overzealous reporters make disparaging references to piracy and the real estate boom in Kenya.
In 2011 Kenya sent troops into Somalia in an operation dubbed “Linda Nchi” after a tourist was kidnapped at the coast and probably taken across the border. There were other cross-border raids. However, significant Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya began in 2012 when Kenyan forces were integrated into the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As Kenya became embroiled in state-building in Somalia, with the creation of Jubaland floated as the reason for the invasion, Al-Shabaab started bringing its terrorism into Kenya.
In 2013, the Westgate Mall shootings led to the death of 67 people. More than 67 others also died in attacks in Mpeketoni in Lamu in 2014. The attacks on Garissa University attack were the worst, leading to 150 dead, many of them students. These brazen attacks were attributed to Al-Shabaab. Although the terror group had already internationalised and was recruiting with no regard to ethnicity, Kenyan Somalis became the target for blame, name-calling, and arrests.
In 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “You are all terrorists”. The terrorist narrative drives xenophobia, arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture. After the terror attacks in 2014 in Eastleigh and Mpeketoni, the security forces conducted an indiscriminate door-to-door operation targeting anyone who did not have an ID card to hand. This security operation was dubbed Usalama Watch. Those who did not have the document were taken to Kasarani Stadium and held there for two weeks. About 900 people were taken to the stadium, the majority being young people who could not acquire IDs due to discriminatory bureaucratic procedures , and a haphazard and corrupt system that barred genuine citizens from receiving the document.
The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost.
Over half a century of negative portrayals of people from the north means that the official government policy is skewed when it applies to them. The acquisition of a passport is generally a straightforward process. To ensure that aliens from the north do not acquire this critical document, the immigration department and security agencies have an illegal and discriminatory step in place for border communities — vetting. It is not enough that a northerner provides sufficient genuine documentation. The applicant must appear before a group of government officials, security officers and appointed individuals to prove their citizenship. To pass this step, one must know their location chief, the genealogy of ones’ clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
The emergence of one label does not lead to the dropping of the existing labels. Shifta, Poacher, Refugee, Pirate and Terrorist shape the thinking behind public actions. These negative portrayals have an impact on how national matters are debated and resolved.
A section of Kenyan citizens is considered as dangerous to the main body of the country. The secession war that ostensibly ended in 1967 is still being fought; the terms of the agreement that ended the war have never been the subject of a national conversation. Did the agreement include such important matters as citizenship, identity, development, and non-discrimination? The security agencies have not discarded their belligerent attitude towards the population and the civil service retains the policies of the 1960s towards the people of the north.
One must know their location chief, the genealogy of one’s clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
National identity is at stake as those who rejected becoming part of Kenya at independence cannot have equal status with everyone else. They are aliens, and “they all look like”. The most dangerous portrayal is the association with terrorism; poachers and pirates are small fish compared to terrorists. In the last few years, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings related to the war on terror have become commonplace. It is hard to fight for the rights of one who is labelled a terrorist and is disappeared or killed.
Public association with a terror suspect is a stigma that nobody is willing to be associated with. Crimes are committed under cover of fighting terrorism, and there is nothing the targeted community can do about it. That is the power of a label; it obscures the truth, gives authorities cover to commit genocidal crimes and permits the practice of xenophobia in public.
The End of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018 Abiy Ahmed elicited goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia but the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing him friends.
Ethiopia will go to the polls on June 22, buffeted by various crises domestically and abroad. But the upcoming election has many echoes of the May 15 2005 election, whose impact continues to shape Ethiopia’s domestic politics and politics in the Horn of Africa. Central to Ethiopia’s current domestic crisis and the border dispute with Sudan, is the Abiy-Amhara compact.
The 15 May 2005 elections were the third national elections to be held under the 1994 constitution following the ouster of the Marxist-Leninist Derg. In the 1995 and 2000 elections, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government harassed the opposition parties, forcing the influential ones to boycott the polls, with the result that the EPRDF won both elections with over 90 per cent of the seats.
Ahead of the 2005 election, the EPDRF signalled the significant participation of the opposition parties so that Western observers—whose support was critical for Meles—would declare the elections to have been free and fair. The incumbent party acceded to the pre-election demands of some opposition parties, allowing in international election observers and giving the opposition parties a chance to sell their manifestos on the national broadcaster. These conditions were absent in the previous elections. While these were not among the chief demands of the opposition parties prior to the polls, they indicated reasonable good faith on the part of the government compared to previous elections.
As a result, for the first time in Ethiopia’s history, a nationwide multiparty competition seemed possible; neither the ruling party nor the opposition had ever faced a competitive election before.
Internal turmoil within the EPRDF preceded the election. The Central Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s core support base—broke up into two rival factions in 2001. With his base in the Tigray heartland at risk, Meles took advantage of his central position within the broader EPRDF coalition and outmanoeuvred his rivals. He sacked several senior officials and successfully weathered the storm, but the fault line remained and emerged during the 2005 elections.
The pre-election period saw the unprecedented participation of the opposition parties and civil society organisations in the campaigns. Election Day went peacefully, and the early results in Addis Ababa and other major urban areas showed the opposition parties making significant electoral gains. According to unofficial preliminary results, the opposition had won 172 parliamentary seats—its most considerable showing yet in the 547-member assembly. On the night of the election, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a one-month ban on public demonstrations in the capital and brought the Addis Ababa security forces (which would have come under the opposition’s command had they been sworn in) under the control of the Prime Minister’s office.
Opposition parties boycotted their seats in parliament, alleging rigging by the incumbent. Their refusal to take up their seats in parliament handed Meles Zenawi and his party a third term in office. Meles interpreted his “mandate” as a licence to take the authoritarian path. Hundreds, if not thousands, of political opposition and human rights activists were arbitrarily detained, with some facing the spurious charge of treason. Ethiopian security forces killed almost 200 demonstrators in post-election protests in June and November 2005 and arrested tens of thousands of people.
With the domestic front “sorted”, Meles turned to regional matters. In December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to root out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had brought stability for the few months they were in charge. The Ethiopian forces captured Mogadishu in less than a week, and the UIC dissolved and surrendered political leadership to clan leaders.
Ethiopia’s ouster of the UIC tapped into a deep historical hostility between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab, the youth wing of the UIC, exploited with a mix of latent Somalia nationalism and anti-imperialism.
Ethiopia’s actions provided Al Shabaab with an opportunity to translate its rhetoric into action. Al Shabaab began targeting the nascent Somalia government, Ethiopian forces, the Transitional Federal Government security, political figures, and any Somalis collaborating with Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s and TFG’s heavy-handed counterinsurgency responses played into the hands of Al Shabaab.
Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, had met with then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Sixteen years later, Ethiopia goes into another election whose consequences could transcend Ethiopia.
The limits of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed elicited a groundswell of collective goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia. He embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
At home, Abiy released political prisoners, appointed the country’s first female as the ceremonial president and a cabinet half-filled by women. He nominated a once-jailed opposition leader as the new chairwoman of the electoral board. In the Horn of Africa region, Abiy had a rapprochement with Eritrea, a country with which Ethiopia had fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000. Abiy also attempted to mediate the Sudan political crisis.
The Nobel Committee awarded Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize “For his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, particularly for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”
Federalism vs centralisation
While the trigger for the Abiy-led military operation against the Regional Government of Tigray in the north of the country is the alleged attack of the federal army base by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the attack was only a symptom and not the actual cause.
The battle between Abiy and the TPLF and other groups is a battle between those who champion the multi-ethnic federalism constitution and those who prefer a centralised state. Abiy favours centralisation to federalism.
The Tigray region is not the first to bear the brunt of the military and federal security forces to achieve Abiy’s centralisation agenda. The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
Abiy embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
Throughout its long history of state formation, Ethiopia was for thousands of years ruled by emperors under a monarchy with a unitary system of government. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974 and from then on until 1991, the country came under a dictatorship with a unitary system of government.
The creation of the EPRDF in 1989—an ethnic coalition of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM; later Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO; later Oromo Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM)—had changed that.
Abiy’s shot across the bow was the dissolution of the EPDRF and the launching of the Prosperity Party (PP) on December 1 2019. The OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM voted overwhelmingly to join the party, while the TPLF rejected the idea as “illegal and reactionary”. The timing of the move was convenient, coming just a few months before the election that was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The EPDRF’s multi-ethnic federalism and the inclusion in the constitution of the right to secede for all “nations and nationalities and peoples” of the country were innovative breakthroughs in a country with 80 different ethnic groups. But the constitution was also a product of ideological foment and political necessity. The leaders who revolted against the Mengistu junta had emerged from the student movement that had adopted the “nationalities and the land question”, redefining Ethiopian statehood.
The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
While the multi-ethnic federalism has been imperfect, especially its implementation and the domination of the EPDRF by the TPLF, in a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
Abiy and Amhara expansionism
The Amharas are Abiy’s vociferous supporters at home. They, especially their elites, have an axe to grind with the TPLF for diluting their decades of uninterrupted state power and control. Amhara language and culture are the state’s language and culture, and the language and culture of the Orthodox Church which wields unfettered power. But with its political nous, its deep bureaucracy and know-how, the TPLF was always a challenging prospect for Abiy, a political novice with limited federal-level experience and hardly a political base. The connecting tissue of Abiy-Amhara unity is the lowest common denominator that is the fear and loathing of the TPLF. After dissolving the EPDR, a coalition in which the TPLF was a strong partner, the next step was to defeat the TPLF militarily. Even before the November military incursion into Tigray, Amhara militias were massed at the border with Tigray. If Abiy’s anti-TPLF move was intended to destroy them as a political force, for the Amharas this was an opportunity to regain some of the territories they had lost to Tigray in 1991.
Ethiopia also has a boundary dispute with Sudan. The dispute centres on the al-Fashaga region, Sudan’s fertile breadbasket located in Gedaref State, which borders Ethiopia’s Amhara region in the north-west. According to the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 the area belongs to Sudan and, unlike the regime of Omar al-Bashir, for the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok, settling this dispute is a priority. However, the Abiy-Amhara alliance has made resolving the dispute complicated.
Sudan is also a critical factor in resolving the Tigray crisis; the country is the only remaining supply route for the TPLF as Eritrea is closed to them and bringing in supplies and fuel through other routes is risky. Sudan could also determine how the GERD dam conflict will be resolved. Unlike Egypt, Sudan could benefit from cheap electricity if the dam is filled, but the country will not countenance losing al-Fashaga. Abiy faces difficult choices: cede al-Fashaga to Sudan and gain a partner in the dam negotiations while also denying the TPLF a supply route or keep al-Fashaga and lose Sudan in the GERD dam discussions, leaving the TPLF to use the Sudan border for supplies.
The Tigray conflict, which Abiy initially promised would be a straightforward law enforcement operation, has instead metastasised into a slow-grinding counterinsurgency operation. The continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing Abiy friends.
On May 23, the US State Department announced visa restrictions for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals—including Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the resolution of the crisis in Tigray.
In a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
America’s sanctions came on the heels of the European Union’s suspension of budgetary support worth €88 million (US$107 million) until humanitarian agencies are granted access to people in need of aid in the northern Tigray region.
On the 7th of June 2021, Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), who is also Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, together with Karen Bass (D-CA) and Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), respectively Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights, issued a joint statement after tabling a resolution condemning violence and human rights abuses in Ethiopia.
The sanctions come as Ethiopia awards its first telecom licence for US$850 million to a consortium that includes the UK’s Vodafone in what could herald the opening up of Ethiopia’s closed economy.
Before the EPDRF came into power, Ethiopia was a posterchild of famine and incessant conflict, especially under the Derg regime. Abiy and Amhara nationalism is bringing back the echoes of the Derg era and the upcoming June election is unlikely to resolve current crises; if anything, it will exacerbate them.
We Still Can’t Breathe: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo
Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could get back to normal.
Sometimes even the “biggest” victories can ring hollow. That especially seems to be the case several months into 2021, and 11 odd months after George Floyd had his life snuffed out in front of a red-brick grocery store in South Minneapolis, around the corner from the “Little East Africa” neighbourhood. That Derek Chauvin, the cop who laid his blatancy in the form of a knee across Floyd’s neck in a gutter finally faced some form of consequence in the form of a guilty verdict, may, in and of itself be of little consequence in the grandest of schemes.
Yes, right now it seems as though the verdict that has come down harshly on Chauvin is a rebuke of all things heinous, nothing less than a massive moral victory for racial progress, black America and global equality.
Indeed, rainbows shall now shine through and if you listen to many pundits within the American (and for that matter, Western) broadcast media, racism against Black America has been solved once and for all — à la the presidential election of Barack Obama way back in those heady days of 2008.
Chauvin will be sentenced on June 25th of this year. Much of Black America is already lowering their expectations away from the 40-year maximum prison sentence.
Life is full of disappointments.
In itself, the Chauvin verdict is not one of them; it is just another opportunity for a larger collective sadness, another opportunity for an eventual letdown, a reminder of the global system of injustice that is, frankly, far as hell from ever being permanently resolved.
I haven’t been in Minneapolis since the end of May 2020, the Saturday following the Floyd killing, when the very landscape and fabric of the “Twin Cities” of Minnesota and Saint Paul were irrevocably changed. Walking around that day, the sense of despair was palpable. All of Lake Street — all seven kilometers of it — seemed to have been hit by varying degrees of madness. Some buildings were completely burnt out, husks of their former selves; others had smashed windows or had “BLACK OWNED BUSINESS: DON’T BURN!” scrawled in graffiti across the boarded-up doors. Thousands of people trudged around with shovels, cleaning up debris ahead of the inevitable next night of chaos.
In the weeks that followed, the protests spread across the United States, and even took root on a global scale, spreading as far as Nairobi, London, Kampala, Rome and dozens of other cities. In Minneapolis, all the tension of a tense superpower seemingly dying of its own hubris during the chaotic early months of the COVID-19 pandemic descended on an idyllic neighbourhood. By the day I arrived, May 30th, the United States National Guard was being deployed to put down any form of violence with their own forms of violence. But the damage had been done and the rest of the country was experiencing its own varying levels of chaos. At least two people were killed in Minneapolis alone (and at least 19 across the rest of the US, though this number seems to be low). Dozens of people were injured in Minneapolis alone (although the exact numbers are hard to confirm; personally I talked to at least three people who had sustained non-lethal injuries during the protests, so the real number could be much higher).
Thousands were injured across the US, with hundreds more incidents of police brutality filmed and shared widely. In Minneapolis there was approximately KSh 53 billion worth of damage related to the unrest. Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis who allegedly had white supremacist ties retired at the beginning of 2021. The Minneapolis Police Department was defunded following the reckoning that fell upon the Twin Cities in those warm early summer weeks.
Among pundit across America, talk of alliance and “listening” rapidly became the norm. Many leading neo-liberals put out statements, Republicans and Democrats alike. Trump ordered the beating up of peaceful protesters in front the White House and goodhearted liberals were shocked and appalled. Everyone said it was a “sea change” in American race-relations.
Less than three months after the George Floyd protests kicked off there was a “monumental change” — Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in the city of Kenosha, in my home state of Wisconsin. The NBA boycotted games, more conversations were had and the world kept right on turning, same as it ever has.
When it comes down to issues of inequality, racism and oppression the status quo is always maintained, especially in America. Two steps forward and three steps back seems to be the pattern, one that is only reinforced by the pattern of police getting away with the murder of Black Americans — whether on tape or merely under “suspicious” circumstances in which “the officer felt their life was threatened and required a response of lethal force”.
Perhaps it is this constant pattern of impunity that has caused the most damage, a pattern that in the US can be traced to well before the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, California. The riots were sparked off by the acquittal of cops who had been caught on film beating and kicking King senseless on the shoulder of a freeway.
It’s the same as it ever was.
Over the years since, especially in this age of social media ubiquity, incidents police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
Horrifying, but not at all surprising. Everyone within the Black community in the US has long known the score. “Officers under threat” deaths, cases failing to be investigated, rumours of pistols being planted, delays in emergency responder times, ties to white supremacy, “warrior cops” getting more military equipment, stop-and-frisk policies, higher incarceration rates among Blacks, continual harassment, talking to children about keeping hands visible when dealing with police, media bias, fetishisation of police, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement — the list of systemic issues within US police forces could fill the remainder of this article.
In this age of social media ubiquity, incidents of police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
The American judicial system itself is inherently flawed. The narrative among much of the “upstanding” upper middle-class elements of society is that somehow race relations were, if not solved outright, repaired with a sustained “upward” trajectory somewhere around the funeral of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in 1968.
They paint a rosy picture of race-relations in the US in which all segregationist judges were replaced with forward thinking progressives, where all cops with KKK ties were unceremoniously fired, where the ghosts of “Jim Crow” laws (designed to suppress, segregate and subjugate post-slavery Black America) simply faded into the distant memories of a bygone era. The result was a sort of racial Cold War, where proxy wars were fought through the war on drugs, mass incarceration, neoliberalism and police impunity.
“At least segregation is illegal now”, says White America when pressed, as if cities, schools, hospitals and police actions were not still segregated sans overt painted signs.
Such sentiments bled into the politics of the US’s two major parties, Republicans spearheading the “War on Drugs” under the Reagan presidency of the 1980s and the Clinton administration cutting social programmes and accelerating mass incarceration during the 90s under the all-American ideal of “pulling oneself up by your bootstraps”. Such proponents of America’s neo-liberal ethos cared little whether there were any boots to begin with.
Slowly the technology caught up with the reality, and the anger felt across the marginalised communities in America had a focal point on which to pour out their frustrations. The images were there on film, little snippets sent into cyberspace by countless onlookers. The anger was in the bloody and lifeless body of Michael Brown lying for hours in a Missouri street. It was in Eric Garner pleading that he couldn’t breathe while being choked to death by cops in New York City. It was in Philando Castille being shot and killed in his car seconds after telling the officer who had pulled him over that he had a licensed gun in the car and reached for his wallet. (This shooting also happened in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.) It was in Breonna Taylor being shot dead on a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky only for the officers to be charged with “wanton endangerment” for firing bullets into a neighbouring apartment.
None of the officers in the above incidents were convicted. Some were never even brought into a courtroom.
On April 11th 2021, Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a cop during a traffic stop in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Details and footage of the incident are scant. The officer involved has been charged with second-degree manslaughter (a lesser charge than homicide in the US court system). Protests have sprung up around the US, youth wearing surgical masks — the hallmark of the smoldering COVID-19 pandemic — clashing with police and facing arrest, and “non-lethal weapons being deployed by officers to quell pockets of unrest”. This killing occurred at the epicentre of the “defund the police” movement — Minneapolis.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
The police are just the visible agents of the systemic suppression of Black people that stretches far beyond the shores of the US.
If COVID-19 has shown up anything, it is the brutality of police worldwide. Most times their actions go on with impunity. Cops in Kenya beat up people without mercy and enforce curfew by leaving motorists stranded on highways. In Uganda cops extort commuters under threat of jail. In Rwanda the stranglehold on the nation continues to tighten under threat of harsh penalties.
There is no equality when it comes to the Global South, particularly for much of Africa whose suffering at the hands of the police echoes the oppression faced by the Black community in the US.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
Through this lens of warranted cynicism, the “guilty” verdict handed down to Derek Chauvin by a jury in Minnesota is not a massive turning point. The very pundits stating that the verdict is such a monumental moment of change inherently prove that it is nothing remotely close to such a trend. There will be other failed indictments, other cops walking away, more cases of mysteriously “lost” body-cam footage. More will die, protests will spring up and be quelled with extreme prejudice.
Chauvin, the smirking killer that he is, did prove one thing and one thing only: where the “line” truly is, where the grey areas that the police hide behind blur over into black and white, from a “justified act of lethal self-defense from a frightened officer” into outright murder. His actions were so unquestionably heinous that they had to be dealt with. What Chauvin did derives directly from an ugly history; he lynched that man and at the time thought he would get away with it, hands in pockets, cocky half-smile on his face while his bodyweight cut off George Floyd’s air supply in that street gutter. Bystanders begged him to stop as the other officers watched in idle complicity. Paramedics were not allowed to give medical aid and Chauvin continued to apply pressure for minutes after Floyd had become non-responsive.
The systems, after all, stay much as they are in America. Profit margins must be maintained and “order” by way of the status quo must be upheld. The Twin Cities, of which Minneapolis is the more visible twin, would have simply exploded if the verdict had come back anything less than guilty. After a year of protests, COVID-19 lockdowns, electoral strangeness, Trumpian policies, political divisions, economic challenges and continued incidents of police violence, the tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
If that had happened the resulting violence would have dwarfed any incidents of unrest in America’s past. It is likely that weeks later clashes with police would be continuing on a nightly basis in dozens of cities across America. Minneapolis, where major corporates are headquartered, would have been engulfed in flames so huge the smoke would have been seen in the neighbouring state of Wisconsin.
The tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
Chauvin’s true legacy is that of an outlier, the ultimate talking-head example that “things are different now”, that something has truly been accomplished on a systemic level when it comes to police treatment of Black America.
In reality, Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could “get back to normal”.
For Black America in 2021 however, normal life is chockful of disappointments.
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