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THE CALL OF THE CLAN: Challenges facing Somalia’s fledgling democracy

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THE CALL OF THE CLAN: Challenges facing Somalia’s fledgling democracy
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Somaliland’s 2017 elections, which were generally hailed as successful, have prompted some to wonder whether the democracy model used in this self-declared independent state could be exported to Somalia. With its hybrid system of tri-party democracy and traditional clan-based governance, Somaliland could, in fact, be held up as an example that could work in societies that are deeply divided along clan lines. While clan, tribe, ethnicity, race or religion should ideally not form the basis of a democratic state, given the protracted conflict in Somalia, there are some elements of the Somaliland model that might just work in Somalia.

Somaliland has adopted a unique hybrid system of governance, which incorporates elements of traditional customary law (known as xeer), Sharia law and modern secular institutions, including a parliament, a judiciary, an army and a police force. The Guurti, the upper house of Somaliland’s legislature, comprises traditional clan elders, religious leaders and ordinary citizens from various professions who are selected by their respective clans. The Guurti wields enormous decision-making powers and is considered one of the stabilising factors in Somaliland’s inclusive governance model.

Michael Walls, the author of A Somali Nation-State: History, Culture and Somaliland’s Political Transition, has described Somaliland’s governance model as “the first indigenous modern African form of government” that fuses traditional forms of organisation with those of representative democracy. According to Walls, Somaliland “represents a strong counter-argument to the preoccupation with state failure and corrective external intervention, while also holding out the hope that an accommodation is possible between the discursive politics of tradition and a representative system more suited to the Westphalian state.”

However, Somaliland’s governance model is far from perfect: the consensual clan-based politics has hindered issue-based politics, eroded individual rights and led to the perception that some clans, such as the dominant Isaaq clan, are favoured over others. Tensions across its eastern border with Puntland also threaten the future stability of this former protectorate that opted to became part of Somalia following independence from the British in 1960 and then declared independence from Somalia in 1991.

In addition, because it is still not recognised internationally as a sovereign state, Somaliland is denied many of the opportunities that come with statehood. It cannot, for instance, enter into bilateral agreements with other countries, get multinational companies to invest there or obtain loans from international banks. (Some argue that this lack of official recognition may actually be a blessing as Somaliland is spared the arm-twisting and conditionalities of donors and international financial institutions, plus the exploitation of its resources by predatory foreigners, a phenomenon that has plagued so many African countries.)

Nonetheless there has been some debate about whether Somaliland’s hybrid governance model, which incorporates both customary and Western-style democracy, can be exported to its southern neighbour. What type of governance system is most suitable for Somalia, which is not just divided along clan/regional lines, but where political/militant Islam and lack of functioning secular institutions threaten nation-building?

The perils of federalism

Federalism, that is, regional autonomy within a single political system, has been proposed by the international community as the most suitable system for Somalia as it caters for deep clan divisions by allocating the major clans semi-autonomous regional territories. The 4.5 formula for federal states proposed by the new constitution, which is based on the four largest clan groups (Darod, Hawiye, Dir and Rahanweyne), and (0.5) minorities does acknowledge the reality of a clan-based society, but as Somalia’s recent history has shown, clan can be, and has been, manipulated for personal gain by politicians. (The 4.5 formula is itself contentious as some Somalis claim that the Isaaqs, who are dominant in Somaliland in the northwest of the country, are part of the Dir family of clans, while Isaaqs claim that they are a separate clan.)

As dominant clans seek to gain power in a federated Somalia, there is a danger that the new federal states will mimic the dysfunction that has prevailed at the centre, which will lead to more competition for territories among rival clans and, therefore, to more conflict. “As new lines are drawn on the map, new opportunities for clan, business and political networks to capture State resources have emerged,” stated the 2015 UN Monitoring Group Report on Somalia.

Besides, the various federal states that have emerged in Somalia under the new constitution are beginning to look like clan enclaves that are disconnected from the centre, and which actually work to undermine the national government in Mogadishu. Fears that entrenched clan interests will dominate the future political landscape in Somalia have generated heated debates about whether a unitary system is more suited to a country that is so divided along clan lines and where minority groups have been denied a say in national politics for decades.

As dominant clans seek to gain power in a federated Somalia, there is a danger that the new federal states will mimic the dysfunction that has prevailed at the centre, which will lead to more competition for territories among rival clans and, therefore, to more conflict.

The bitter reality, however, is that the majority of Somalia’s people have not experienced the benefits of a functional central or decentralised government for nearly thirty years; the concept of a state that provides services and protects the citizens is unknown to the majority of the country’s youthful population, especially those in remote areas who are governed by customary law or the Sharia. In fact, it has been argued that with its strict codes and control over populations through systems of “tax collection” or “protection fees” combined with service delivery, Al Shabaab is the only form of “governance” the majority of Somalis have known since Somalia collapsed and descended into civil war in 1991.

This means that even when Amisom forces liberate regions from the clutches of Al Shabaab, they essentially leave behind a power vacuum which neither the Federal Government of Somalia nor the emerging regional administrations can successfully fill. This has made these regions more prone to clan-based conflicts, which area are already apparent in Jubaland, where some members of the marginalised Bantu/Wagosha minority group have taken up arms in response to what they perceive to be a form of “ethnic cleansing” by both Al Shabaab and the new Ogaden-dominated administration of Ahmed Madobe.

Moreover, as the Qatar-based Somali scholar Afyare Elmi argues, in a country that suffers from a “trust deficit”, and which has experienced dictatorship, people do not want to risk having the kind of highly centralised government that was prevalent during Siad Barre’s regime. He proposes a “decentralised unitary system”, rather than what he calls the “clan-federalism” proposed and supported by the international community. In this system, sovereignty and constitutional powers would remain within the central government, while administrative, political and fiscal powers would devolve to different entities and regions. This would lead to a “de-concentration of authority” that is more responsive to local needs. (However, to accommodate this governance model, the constitution would need to be changed.)

In 1999, the Somalia expert Matt Bryden predicted that the “building block approach” – first proposed in 1998 by the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – whereby the country would be divided into six “local administrative structures”, would eventually “resemble a patchwork of semi-autonomous territories defined in whole or in part by clan affiliation”: the Isaaq clan would dominate Somaliland in the northwest; the Majerteen in Puntland would dominate the northeast; the Jubaland and Gedo regions bordering Kenya would have a mixture of clans (though there are now fears that the Ogaden, who are politically influential along the Kenya-Somalia border, would eventually control the region); a Hawiye-dominated polity would dominate central Somalia; the Digil-Mirifle would centre around Bay and Bakool; and Mogadishu would remain a cosmopolitan administrative centre.

The bigger question, which no one has yet been willing to honestly confront is: Why should clan determine how Somalia is federated? How can Somalia emerge as a strong and united nation if clan forms the basis of state- and institution-building? How can Somalis convincingly argue that neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya are supporting clan-based regional entities within Somalia when Somalis themselves implicitly support the creation of these entities based on clan domination? How can democracy advance in a country held back by parochial clan or individual interests?

There has been some debate about whether Somaliland’s hybrid governance model, which incorporates both customary and Western-style democracy, can be exported to its southern neighbour.

Some analysts argue that the proposed federalism will eventually lead to the balkanization of Somalia as clan-based fiefdoms start competing for more resources and territories. Other critics, such as the Somali scholar Abdi Samatar, have argued that federalism will lead to “institutionalised discrimination” against minority clans and groups, which would undermine national unity, citizenship and meritocracy.

There is also a concern that the larger (armed) clans could manipulate the system, entrench corruption and pursue their elites’ agendas at the expense of the Somali people. One of the biggest dangers of an exclusionary political system is that rent-seeking and the grabbing of the spoils of war that have dominated Somali politics for decades may be replicated at the federal state level.

A game of musical chairs

Much of the UN-supported transitional governance period was devoted to drafting a new constitution that would set the parameters for statehood and citizenship. However, Somalia’s UN-supported constitution-making process faced resistance, even before it was adopted in 2012, mainly because it was viewed by many as inconsistent, incoherent and difficult to implement.

Some say the constitution tries to unsuccessfully merge Sharia laws with democratic principles. For instance, the constitution precludes the prospect of religious freedom and tolerance in Article 2, which categorically states that “Islam is the religion of the state”, that “no religion other than Islam can be propagated in the country” and that “no law can be enacted that is not compliant with the general principles and objectives of Shari’ah”. (Somalia’s Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Abdurahman Hosh Jibril, told me that the insertion of this article in an otherwise secular constitution was a strategy to “buy in” the support of Islamic religious institutions, which had to be accommodated if the constitution-building process was to be a success.)

Moreover, while the constitution recognises the president as the symbol of ultimate government authority, his relationship with his prime minister, who selects the cabinet, is not clearly defined. In-fighting in all of Somalia’s transitional and post-transitional governments has led to the resignation or removal of several prime ministers and ministers, which has undermined governance. The general high turnover of ministers and public officials, both within the transitional and post-transitional governments, has led to other problems; with so many different prime ministers and ministers rotating, it is difficult to carry out long-term economic development plans or to ensure accountability. This has allowed opportunities for corruption.

Corruption within the government is partly due to the fact that the brief tenures of most presidents, prime ministers, ministers and senior government officials encourage them to make money through corrupt means in the shortest period of time. They enter public service with a “here today, gone tomorrow” attitude, which makes long-term planning difficult, and severely diminishes the government’s ability to be transparent about its finances, including donor funding. Critics have also noted that political leadership in Somalia is like a game of musical chairs; ministers who are sacked are often re-appointed in another ministry shortly afterwards, which makes the gravy train of corruption harder to track or derail.

In addition, unlike Somaliland, Somalia has been unable to hold a one-person-one vote election both during its transitional phase (2004-2012) and in its post-transitional period since 2012, mainly because the country is not yet equipped to carry out such an election, given the countless challenges facing the country, including lack of a voter registration system and insecurity.

Critics have also noted that political leadership in Somalia is like a game of musical chairs; ministers who are sacked are often re-appointed in another ministry shortly afterwards, which makes the gravy train of corruption harder to track or derail.

Elections in Somalia are also usually marred by vote buying, intimidation and violence. Prior to the 2017 election, for example, a Somali official claimed that the more than 14,000 so-called “Electoral College” delegates who were voting for members of parliament were voting for the highest bidder; votes were apparently being bought for between $5000 and $30,000 each. The election of Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo last year raised hopes that he would succeed in eradicating both clannishness and corruption within government, but these hopes are increasingly being dashed by in-fighting and myriad other challenges.

The Italian connection

Some say that Somalia will take years before it has a functioning government because the country has little experience in representative democracy and because recent attempts to revive a democratic culture are coming a little too late. Many blame Italy, Somalia’s colonizer, for failing to leave a legacy of functioning governance structures and institutions in its Somali colony.

Very little is known about the Italian colonial period in Africa because the Italian government restricted access to colonial records for most of the post-Second World War period, which led to a widely circulated myth that Italian colonisation of Eritrea in 1890, of Somalia in 1908 and of Libya in 1912 was much more gentle and inclusive than the colonisation of Africa by Britain, France, Belgium or Portugal.

Some historians believe that Italy’s fascist doctrines of colonial racism, its emphasis on prestige (rather than on institution-building) in both the liberal and Fascist eras, and the country’s lack of experience in colonial administration, led the Italians to adopt anti-assimilationist policies in their colonies that forestalled the formation of an educated labour force that could take over the reins of power once the colonialists left.

Italy’s intentions in Somalia were to create a settlers’ colony, which were in sharp contrast to Britain’s intentions in Somaliland, which were to protect the vital sea trade routes in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and not to settle as such. Thus in the south, “Italians pursued a policy of social engineering, including an education system and missionary work intended to prepare the territory for Italian settlement”, rather than a policy of “civilising” and training the colonised people who could be relied on to provide skilled labour to the colonial project. Although many of Italy’s Somali subjects learnt to speak Italian, formal teaching of Italian, and indeed all schooling, was very limited, unlike in neighbouring Kenya, also a settlers’ colony, where the colonial project was accompanied by – and indeed, propped up by – the many missionary and other schools that were set up to educate not just the white settlers’ children, but also the “natives”, who were expected to become future colonial administrators.

Some historians believe that Italy’s fascist doctrines of colonial racism, its emphasis on prestige (rather than on institution-building) in both the liberal and Fascist eras, and the country’s lack of experience in colonial administration led the Italians to adopt anti-assimilationist policies in their colonies that forestalled the formation of an educated labour force that could take over the reins of power once the colonialists left.

Under Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943, Somalia was governed by a fascist colonial government that failed to install democratic structures and institutions that would carry the country forward to independence. Italy’s rule over Somalia was also disrupted after World War Two when Somalia became a UN-administered trusteeship. After Italy lost the Second World War, the Italian colonisers were replaced by a British military administration. In 1950, Britain transferred authority over what was known as the Trust Territory of Somalia back to Italy. However, because Italy’s colonies in Africa were seized by other European powers after the Second World War, they did not undergo a successful “decolonisation” process that would entail a smooth transfer of power to local elites and to the establishment of institutions that would govern the newly independent states.

The Siad Barre era and its aftermath

From 1950 till independence in 1960, there were attempts to “Somali-ise” governance. The first municipal elections were held in 1954, where 20 parties competed for 318 seats in 35 councils; 281 of these seats were held by Somalis, 23 by Arabs, 10 by Italians, 3 by Pakistanis and 1 by an Indian.

However, one decade of democratic governance was not enough to prevent Somalia from descending into political turmoil.   Somalia’s relatively peaceful and democratic first ten years after independence were abruptly disrupted by the assassination of President Abdirashid Sharmake in 1969, just two years after he had taken over from the first post-independence president, Adan Abdulle Osman (also known as Adan Adde).

Barely a week later, Siad Barre gained control over Somalia through a bloodless military coup. Barre suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament, banned political parties and nationalised the economy. Parliament was replaced by the Supreme Revolutionary Council, the ultimate decision-making authority in the country.

Although Barre’s “Scientific Socialism” experiment is credited with many progressive reforms, such as the promotion of women’s rights and the introduction of the Latin script for the Somali language, he failed to bring about democracy in Somalia, and is also blamed for pitting clans against each other through favouritism, political patronage and the persecution of certain clans.

In 1977, when Barre ordered his army to invade Ethiopia in a bid to claim the ethnic Somali-dominated Ogaden region in Ethiopia, Soviet-backed Cuban troops marched in to support the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Maryam. The Soviet Union, which had been supporting Barre militarily until then, quickly switched sides, which proved to be a major blow for Barre’s government. (Soviet withdrawal of support to Somalia gave an opportunity to the Unites States to play a more influential role in Somali affairs.)

After losing the Ogaden war, Barre became more hard line and paranoid, and began arresting, torturing and killing his opponents, including the Isaaq in Somaliland who responded to his repressive tactics by declaring independence from Somalia. By the time he was ousted in 1991, the country was fragmented, and no one, not even the Americans, could prevent the mayhem and destruction that followed. This set the stage for Barre’s ouster in 1991 by the United Somali Congress (USC) led by Mohammed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi, who, depending on who you ask, are seen as either heroes who liberated Somalia from the clutches of a dictator, or brutal warlords who unleashed violence and lawlessness in the country.

Although Barre’s “Scientific Socialism” experiment is credited with many progressive reforms, such as the promotion of women’s rights and the introduction of the Latin script for the Somali language, he failed to bring about democracy in Somalia, and is also blamed for pitting clans against each other through favouritism, political patronage and the persecution of certain clans.

When a power struggle between Aideed and Mahdi ensued, UN peacekeepers were brought in to stabilise the situation, but they too withdrew after American soldiers were killed in the infamous “Blackhawk Down” incident in October 1993. Lawlessness and anarchy reigned supreme as Somalia returned to what Somali-Canadian commentator Mohamud Uluso calls a “precolonial fragmentation”, where clan warfare and predatory competition over scarce resources (particularly foreign aid) became the norm and where people sought safety in kinship and clan affinity.

After more than a decade of anarchy and increasing religious extremism, a transitional government backed by the United Nations was instituted in 2004. But, as we have seen, even it could not deliver the much-needed peace and stability as it proved to be weak and ineffectual. The ouster of the Islamic Courts Union (a conglomeration of Muslim clerics and businesspeople who were keen to restore security in Somalia and who sought to replace the Transitional Federal Government) by US-backed Ethiopian forces in 2006 made the situation worse; its recalcitrant offspring, the terrorist group Al Shabaab, gained control of most of southern and central Somalia, making governance difficult, if not impossible.

Some argue that state-building efforts in Somalia have been hampered by a “pastoral ethos” characterised by competition, inter-clan rivalry, disdain for authority (except for traditional elders or religious leaders) and a deep mistrust and suspicion of outsiders. In his seminal book A Pastoral Democracy, first published in 1961, I.M. Lewis claimed that Somali society lacked “judicial, administrative, and political procedures which lie at the western conception of government.” While acknowledging the importance of kinship and clan loyalty in the political organisation of traditional Somali society, Lewis was pessimistic about whether these could deliver Western-style democracy to Somalia. In Somalia’s lineage politics, he argued, “the assumption that might is right has overwhelming authority and personal rights…even if they are not obtained by force, can only be defended against usurpation by force of arms”. Are the current clan-based leaders with their own armed militias a manifestation of this thinking, where political power, once obtained, must be secured through the threat of violence?

While acknowledging the importance of kinship and clan loyalty in the political organisation of traditional Somali society, Lewis was pessimistic about whether these could deliver Western-style democracy.

Critics of this “Somali exceptionalism” thesis argue that Lewis and other Western anthropologists fail to recognise that other pastoralist societies have successfully adopted modernisation and democratic forms of government and that by blaming pastoralism for Somalia’s woes is to assume that Somali society is stagnant and incapable of reinventing itself.

Donors and foreign interests

One of the challenges facing Somalia, which the international community is reluctant to admit, is that any government that is put in place in Mogadishu under the current circumstances will remain a puppet government with no real authority and little capacity to carry out governance functions or to provide services. Manipulation of Somali politics by foreign countries, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and some Arab countries, has hindered the development of a national vision on the way forward and generated suspicion and resentment.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and increasingly Turkey, have been financially supporting various factions and politicians in Somalia for their own political and economic interests. (The recent rift between Qatar and its neighours Saudi Arabia and UAE also spilled over to Somalia, where President Farmajo was expected to take sides.) It has also been claimed that some of these countries have exported religious fundamentalism to Somalia to appease radical factions within their own territories.

Some donors, particularly Turkey, have done a commendable job in rebuilding Somalia’s broken infrastructure and institutions. However, overall, donor support to Somalia has had a mixed record – much of the donated funds have found their way into individual pockets or gone towards supporting the donor countries’ Somalia operations in Nairobi, not in reconstructing Somalia. While security is currently being provided by Amisom forces, this support is also likely to dwindle in the near future.

There is also the issue of vested commercial interests of donor countries, such as Britain, that are keen to exploit Somalia’s largely untapped oil reserves and the United States, whose “war on terror” has Somalia at its epicentre; these interests often play out in the politics of the country. In 1999, Matt Bryden wrote that attempts by foreigners to fix Somalia have ranged from the “mediocre” to the “disastrous”. Some of these attempts, he said, have been sinister, some benign, others simply incompetent, but all have been ultimately unsuccessful.

Donor-dependency is unlikely to diminish as domestic revenue collection remains a challenge. Since the UN-backed transitional government was installed in 2004, no transitional or post-transitional Somali government has had a credible revenue collecting authority or well-functioning ministries. Most Somalis rely on charities (many of which are based in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates) or local entrepreneurs for services such as water provision, healthcare and education. Somalia does not even have a national curriculum for its schools; donor countries supporting schools introduce their own curricula, which had led to the bizarre situation where Somali children are sitting for exams set in Doha, Ankara or Riyadh, not at Somalia’s Ministry of Education.

Oil discoveries have made these foreign interventions more complicated in recent years. There is widespread suspicion that oil looms large in Britain’s dealings with the Somali government, and that the former may be willing to overlook corruption and bad governance in the latter in order to preserve its economic interests. Somaliland and the semi-autonomous Puntland, have already been granting licences to oil companies. Competition over an oil block that stretches across Somaliland and Puntland has increased tensions in these regions. In the absence of agreed-upon legal frameworks, the oil factor is likely to be a source of conflict in Somalia’s oil-producing regions in the near future.

While it is becoming increasingly apparent that foreign interests are to blame for much of the mayhem in Somalia, laying the bulk of the blame on foreigners is unfair and insincere. If the Somali government had used foreign aid and its vast natural resources to rebuild the country and taken it to the next level, Somalia might have emerged from the ashes.

Many people within and outside Somalia also prefer to maintain the status quo because they profit from protracted conflict, informality and the absence of regulations. A strong and well-governed state with in-built checks and balances would threaten their business and personal interests.

What’s worse, none of Somalia’s notorious warlords and corrupt politicians have been made to account for the atrocities and plunder that they carried out. No national or international institution has charged them with any crime. The International Criminal Court, which has vigorously pursued suspects in other African countries, is mute about the crimes against humanity that have been occurring in Somalia for the last three decades. Its silence lends credence to the assertion that the ICC is only interested in selective justice.

Ultimately, the Somali people themselves have to fight for the government they desire. Having experienced only nine years of peaceful democracy from 1960-1969, maybe it is too much to ask Somalia to be fully fledged functioning nation when it barely has the institutions or the resources to run a government, and where clan rivalries and fiefdoms have entrenched a culture of “winner takes all”.

Many people within and outside Somalia also prefer to maintain the status quo because they profit from protracted conflict, informality and the absence of regulations. A strong and well-governed state with in-built checks and balances would threaten their business and personal interests.

Islam could have been a unifying factor in Somalia, but it is unlikely that an entity like the Islamic Courts Union will be allowed to take root again, especially because it would be associated with Al Shabaab (which is generally loathed by the majority of the country’s citizens who blame the group for carrying out attacks that have resulted in the death of hundreds of innocent Somalis in Mogadishu and other places) and also because the United States and its allies will not allow it.

Is the current Western- and internationally-supported political dispensation that is emerging from nearly five decades of dictatorship and anarchy a “fake democracy”? Can Somalia be salvaged through more home-grown solutions, like the ones in Somaliland, which has managed to deliver relative peace and stability to its citizens for almost 30 years? These are the million-dollar questions no one has been able to answer adequately.

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By

Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

Politics

From Shifta to Terrorist: A Shifting Narrative Of Northern Kenya

A section of Kenyan citizens has been labelled dangerous to the main body of the country and denied a national identity and equal status with their fellow citizens.

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As Kenya was celebrating her independence in 1963, the people of the Northern Frontier District were mourning the death of their dream of self-governance under British rule. In the spring of 1962, at the Lancaster House Conference, the region’s delegation had demanded self-determination for the NFD. The colonial government appointed an independent commission to look into the question and a referendum to determine the region’s future was subsequently held. The results of the plebiscite were however cancelled under suspicious circumstances even though they indicated that the overwhelming majority supported self-determination. The people felt cheated, and the north exploded in rebellion.

Northerners, especially those from the northeast, accuse the British colonial government of craftily handing over the region to Kenyatta. The colonialists had promised the separatists’ leaders that they would delay independence for the region to facilitate the orderly transition from colonial rule to self-rule.

The British played both sides after the Northern Frontier District delegation rejected the terms of independence and demanded a different path for the district. The colonial government decided to disregard the wishes of most of the inhabitants and handed over the region to the post-independence Kenyan government. Somalia protested the move, which further complicated the north’s struggle for independence.

What had been a people’s quest for self-rule became a political tussle between Kenya and Somalia.  This issue has yet to be settled six decades later, and the north has become a victim of unending sabre-rattling. Kenya became independent on the 12th of December 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta as its Prime Minister. A State of Emergency was declared for the north-eastern region on the 27th of December 1963.

The Shifta war

The rebellion that followed the declaration of independence was, to the separatists, a struggle for self-determination. To the Kenyan government, the separatists were Shifta, the name used to reduce the separatists and the NFD population to bandits, outlaws, thieves, criminals, and murderers.

The Shifta label has stuck, although the events surrounding the coining of the term have been carefully erased from the history books. The Shifta narrative was meant to unite the rest of Kenya against the menace of the separatists. The media effectively adopted the new term as a standard reference to the rebels. Newspaper headlines reported shifta attacks almost daily throughout the period of the conflict.

The “war” was mainly skirmishing between the ill-equipped ragtag army of northern rebels and the Kenya military backed by British planes and tanks. It is the population in the north that bore the brunt of the fighting. The nomads had to sustain the fighters in their midst with their meagre resources while dodging the military operations and bombings.

The conflict began on the 22nd of November 1963 when NFD rebels burnt down a camp in Garissa. The rebellion took its toll on the inhabitants, forcing them to flee in droves to the neighbouring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia. Kenyan security forces considered everyone a rebel and the Shifta label was liberally applied without discrimination to men and boys from the region. Villagisation and shooting of camel herds were used extensively by the government to force the nomadic pastoralists to settle.

Somalia’s support

The secessionists expected to receive arms and ammunitions from Somalia, but Somalia’s loud noises were more bark than a bite. Nothing of material import came from Somalia in the four years of the war.

While fanning the conflict through declarations and radio broadcasts, Somalia was unwilling to train, arm and fight alongside the secessionists. The significant material support provided to the Kenya government by the British and the superior training of the military forces eventually turned the tide of the war in Kenya’s favour.

The end of the war began in 1966 with the exodus of the nomadic population. By 1967, the secessionists were out of arms and had no resources to rely on as the nomads crossed the border into Somalia in droves in what is known as John kacarar (escaping John). The secessionists surrendered in groups throughout 1967.

Realising that the rebels were at the end of their tether, Somalia accepted peace terms with Kenya mediated by Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. An agreement to end their differences and restore diplomatic relations was signed on the 14th of September 1967. The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north and on terms that were never declared public to the residents of the NFD. Four years of bombings, shootings and plunder had left the northeastern region — where the fighting was concentrated — destitute.

Once the war was over, reconstruction failed to begin. The schism remained in place. The military went on with operations aimed at clearing the region of “shifta elements”. The cost of the war was never enumerated. The hopelessness that descended on a defeated community required leadership, which never came.

Collective punishment 

A new narrative of bandits roaming in the unsafe wild north began to take shape. Collective punishment was the modus operandi during this period. Whenever armed criminals committed a crime, the nearest settlements were decimated by the soldiers.

In the late 1970s, an incident occurred along the Kenya-Ethiopia border where a military vehicle was burnt. The locals claimed the action was perpetrated by armed Ethiopian militia. In what came to be known as the Malka Mari Massacre, the Kenyan military detained over two hundred men and stoned them to death. None of the men was armed, and the military did not fire a shot.

In the period that followed, poaching became rampant as the stockpiles of small arms fell into the hands of poachers. Overnight, the “Somali Poacher” was born. The parks were now under threat from a new breed of armed men motivated by nothing more than money, and allegedly backed by influential people close to the government. Throughout the 1970s, the Somali poacher terrorised Kenyan elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs.

The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north.

In 1980, the security forces burned down Garissa after detaining and killing many of its inhabitants. This was an incident directly resulting from a disagreement between poachers and their contacts in government. A disgruntled poacher took matters into his own hands and killed several soldiers and other government officials.

The 1980s also saw the infamous Wagalla Massacre of 1984, where thousands were tortured and killed at an airstrip in Wajir, ostensibly during a military operation to curb banditry.

While Shifta and poachers were the competing narratives used by the government to explain its inability to bring the northern region under proper government control, the region suffered wanton neglect and underdevelopment.

The Somali-Ethiopia war ended in 1978, sparking the return of thousands who had fled the region during the war of secession as Somalia descended into clannism and corruption under military dictatorship. That same year, Vice-President Daniel Arap Moi gave a speech that sparked the alien debate when he threatened that the government would register all Somalis and deport anyone found to have allegiance to Somalia. It took 11 years for this policy to be implemented.

But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970. Traders from the north-east were deemed vagrants and deported from areas in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya back to their home region.

Citizenship documents were tightly controlled, and a system of verification was put in place to make it impossible for the region’s inhabitants to register as citizens. The police were given orders to stop and ask for IDs from anyone looking like a Cushite, a Somali or other related tribes who were distinctively identifiable.

The pink card

In 1989, the famous Kenya-Somali verification and registration took place. The system was designed to catch anyone who could not be linked to a sub-location and known clan.

People had to state their family tree up to their sub-clans, and a pink card with these details was issued to the successful ones. The system was designed to force out of Kenya those unaffiliated to any of the groups “indigenous” to the country.

It is estimated that at one point hundreds were crossing the border into neighbouring countries daily. People were detained, women with young children appeared in court accused of being in the country illegally. Suspected aliens were loaded on military lorries and dropped off in Liboi across the Kenya-Somali border. Many families, especially those elites with businesses, crossed into Uganda and left for Europe or America. The pink cards eventually became available for a fee, and it is believed registration officials took hefty bribes in the process. The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost when entire families were deported with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

As the “aliens” narrative waxed and waned, a new event triggered the updating of the terminology.

In 1991, the Somalia government of Siad Barre collapsed, spilling hundreds of thousands of refugees into the neighbouring countries. Kenya was grappling with its fear of Somalis and now had to face the eventuality of hosting desperate refugees, including the deposed president.

But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970.

The refugees were allowed in and settled in camps where they were fed and housed by the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. Throughout the 1990s, Somalia was controlled by warlords who divided the country into green zones, fought viciously among themselves and continued to spill out new refugees.

Apart from participating in efforts at reconciliation and in hosting refugees and facilitating their resettlement in Europe and America, Kenya stayed out of Somalia’s affairs. As the refugees were too many to be housed in the sprawling camps in Dadaab, Dagahaley and Kakuma, some ended up living in towns with the alien cards issued by the UNHCR as identification.

The idea of controlling the movement of refugees soon became fashionable. For the security forces it is difficult to differentiate between locals and refugees and soldiers engaged in random stop-and-searches and nighttime raids in the main towns to flush out illegal aliens.

Human trafficking 

The controls placed on refugees living in towns illegally sparked lucrative human trafficking where the police and traffickers facilitated the movement of people from the Somali border to the interior. IDs and passports became available for those who could pay but were impossible to acquire for genuine inhabitants of northern Kenya.

While Somalis and their Cushite cousins were getting used to the “alien” idea, a new term landed on Kenya’s shores: terrorism. International terrorists bombed the American embassy in Kenya in 1998. The perpetrators had names similar to those of the northerners and the refugees. The “terrorist” label did not stick for another decade and during this period Somali businesspeople invested heavily in the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi, creating a vibrant market where initially had been an unremarkable residential estate with a few wholesale and retail shops.

This economic boom coincided with the emergence of piracy on the Somali shores of the Indian Ocean. Suddenly the Kenyan media were reporting that piracy money was flooding the markets and making life costly for the residents. The Somali pirates were real, but this was part of international piracy having its operations on the lawless Somali coast. How the piracy money was siphoned into Kenya was never explained. The piracy issue occasionally crops up when overzealous reporters make disparaging references to piracy and the real estate boom in Kenya.

Al Shabaab

In 2011 Kenya sent troops into Somalia in an operation dubbed “Linda Nchi” after a tourist was kidnapped at the coast and probably taken across the border. There were other cross-border raids. However, significant Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya began in 2012 when Kenyan forces were integrated into the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As Kenya became embroiled in state-building in Somalia, with the creation of Jubaland floated as the reason for the invasion, Al-Shabaab started bringing its terrorism into Kenya.

In 2013, the Westgate Mall shootings led to the death of 67 people. More than 67 others also died in attacks in Mpeketoni in Lamu in 2014. The attacks on Garissa University attack were the worst, leading to 150 dead, many of them students. These brazen attacks were attributed to Al-Shabaab. Although the terror group had already internationalised and was recruiting with no regard to ethnicity, Kenyan Somalis became the target for blame, name-calling, and arrests.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “You are all terrorists”. The terrorist narrative drives xenophobia, arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture. After the terror attacks in 2014 in Eastleigh and Mpeketoni, the security forces conducted an indiscriminate door-to-door operation targeting anyone who did not have an ID card to hand. This security operation was dubbed Usalama Watch. Those who did not have the document were taken to Kasarani Stadium and held there for two weeks. About 900 people were taken to the stadium, the majority being young people who could not acquire IDs due to discriminatory bureaucratic procedures , and a haphazard and corrupt system that barred genuine citizens from receiving the document.

The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost.

Over half a century of negative portrayals of people from the north means that the official government policy is skewed when it applies to them. The acquisition of a passport is generally a straightforward process. To ensure that aliens from the north do not acquire this critical document, the immigration department and security agencies have an illegal and discriminatory step in place for border communities — vetting. It is not enough that a northerner provides sufficient genuine documentation. The applicant must appear before a group of government officials, security officers and appointed individuals to prove their citizenship. To pass this step, one must know their location chief, the genealogy of ones’ clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.

The emergence of one label does not lead to the dropping of the existing labels. Shifta, Poacher, Refugee, Pirate and Terrorist shape the thinking behind public actions. These negative portrayals have an impact on how national matters are debated and resolved.

A section of Kenyan citizens is considered as dangerous to the main body of the country. The secession war that ostensibly ended in 1967 is still being fought; the terms of the agreement that ended the war have never been the subject of a national conversation. Did the agreement include such important matters as citizenship, identity, development, and non-discrimination? The security agencies have not discarded their belligerent attitude towards the population and the civil service retains the policies of the 1960s towards the people of the north.

One must know their location chief, the genealogy of one’s clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.

National identity is at stake as those who rejected becoming part of Kenya at independence cannot have equal status with everyone else. They are aliens, and “they all look like”. The most dangerous portrayal is the association with terrorism; poachers and pirates are small fish compared to terrorists. In the last few years, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings related to the war on terror have become commonplace. It is hard to fight for the rights of one who is labelled a terrorist and is disappeared or killed.

Public association with a terror suspect is a stigma that nobody is willing to be associated with. Crimes are committed under cover of fighting terrorism, and there is nothing the targeted community can do about it. That is the power of a label; it obscures the truth, gives authorities cover to commit genocidal crimes and permits the practice of xenophobia in public.

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The End of Abiy-Mania

When he ascended to power in April 2018 Abiy Ahmed elicited goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia but the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing him friends.

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The End of Abiy-Mania
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Ethiopia will go to the polls on June 22, buffeted by various crises domestically and abroad. But the upcoming election has many echoes of the May 15 2005 election, whose impact continues to shape Ethiopia’s domestic politics and politics in the Horn of Africa. Central to Ethiopia’s current domestic crisis and the border dispute with Sudan, is the Abiy-Amhara compact.

The 15 May 2005 elections were the third national elections to be held under the 1994 constitution following the ouster of the Marxist-Leninist Derg. In the 1995 and 2000 elections, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government harassed the opposition parties, forcing the influential ones to boycott the polls, with the result that the EPRDF won both elections with over 90 per cent of the seats.

Ahead of the 2005 election, the EPDRF signalled the significant participation of the opposition parties so that Western observers—whose support was critical for Meles—would declare the elections to have been free and fair. The incumbent party acceded to the pre-election demands of some opposition parties, allowing in international election observers and giving the opposition parties a chance to sell their manifestos on the national broadcaster. These conditions were absent in the previous elections. While these were not among the chief demands of the opposition parties prior to the polls, they indicated reasonable good faith on the part of the government compared to previous elections.

As a result, for the first time in Ethiopia’s history, a nationwide multiparty competition seemed possible; neither the ruling party nor the opposition had ever faced a competitive election before.

Internal turmoil within the EPRDF preceded the election. The Central Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s core support base—broke up into two rival factions in 2001. With his base in the Tigray heartland at risk, Meles took advantage of his central position within the broader EPRDF coalition and outmanoeuvred his rivals. He sacked several senior officials and successfully weathered the storm, but the fault line remained and emerged during the 2005 elections.

Post-election 

The pre-election period saw the unprecedented participation of the opposition parties and civil society organisations in the campaigns. Election Day went peacefully, and the early results in Addis Ababa and other major urban areas showed the opposition parties making significant electoral gains. According to unofficial preliminary results, the opposition had won 172 parliamentary seats—its most considerable showing yet in the 547-member assembly. On the night of the election, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a one-month ban on public demonstrations in the capital and brought the Addis Ababa security forces (which would have come under the opposition’s command had they been sworn in) under the control of the Prime Minister’s office.

Opposition parties boycotted their seats in parliament, alleging rigging by the incumbent. Their refusal to take up their seats in parliament handed Meles Zenawi and his party a third term in office. Meles interpreted his “mandate” as a licence to take the authoritarian path. Hundreds, if not thousands, of political opposition and human rights activists were arbitrarily detained, with some facing the spurious charge of treason. Ethiopian security forces killed almost 200 demonstrators in post-election protests in June and November 2005 and arrested tens of thousands of people.

With the domestic front “sorted”, Meles turned to regional matters. In December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to root out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had brought stability for the few months they were in charge. The Ethiopian forces captured Mogadishu in less than a week, and the UIC dissolved and surrendered political leadership to clan leaders.

Ethiopia’s ouster of the UIC tapped into a deep historical hostility between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab, the youth wing of the UIC, exploited with a mix of latent Somalia nationalism and anti-imperialism.

Ethiopia’s actions provided Al Shabaab with an opportunity to translate its rhetoric into action. Al Shabaab began targeting the nascent Somalia government, Ethiopian forces, the Transitional Federal Government security, political figures, and any Somalis collaborating with Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s and TFG’s heavy-handed counterinsurgency responses played into the hands of Al Shabaab.

Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, had met with then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Sixteen years later, Ethiopia goes into another election whose consequences could transcend Ethiopia.

The limits of Abiy-Mania

When he ascended to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed elicited a groundswell of collective goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia. He embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.

At home, Abiy released political prisoners, appointed the country’s first female as the ceremonial president and a cabinet half-filled by women. He nominated a once-jailed opposition leader as the new chairwoman of the electoral board. In the Horn of Africa region, Abiy had a rapprochement with Eritrea, a country with which Ethiopia had fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000. Abiy also attempted to mediate the Sudan political crisis.

The Nobel Committee awarded Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize “For his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, particularly for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”

Federalism vs centralisation

While the trigger for the Abiy-led military operation against the Regional Government of Tigray in the north of the country is the alleged attack of the federal army base by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the attack was only a symptom and not the actual cause.

The battle between Abiy and the TPLF and other groups is a battle between those who champion the multi-ethnic federalism constitution and those who prefer a centralised state. Abiy favours centralisation to federalism.

The Tigray region is not the first to bear the brunt of the military and federal security forces to achieve Abiy’s centralisation agenda. The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.

Abiy embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.

Throughout its long history of state formation, Ethiopia was for thousands of years ruled by emperors under a monarchy with a unitary system of government. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974 and from then on until 1991, the country came under a dictatorship with a unitary system of government.

The creation of the EPRDF in 1989—an ethnic coalition of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM; later Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO; later Oromo Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM)—had changed that.

Abiy’s shot across the bow was the dissolution of the EPDRF and the launching of the Prosperity Party (PP) on December 1 2019. The OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM voted overwhelmingly to join the party, while the TPLF rejected the idea as “illegal and reactionary”. The timing of the move was convenient, coming just a few months before the election that was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The EPDRF’s multi-ethnic federalism and the inclusion in the constitution of the right to secede for all “nations and nationalities and peoples” of the country were innovative breakthroughs in a country with 80 different ethnic groups. But the constitution was also a product of ideological foment and political necessity. The leaders who revolted against the Mengistu junta had emerged from the student movement that had adopted the “nationalities and the land question”, redefining Ethiopian statehood.

The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.

While the multi-ethnic federalism has been imperfect, especially its implementation and the domination of the EPDRF by the TPLF, in a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.

Abiy and Amhara expansionism 

The Amharas are Abiy’s vociferous supporters at home. They, especially their elites, have an axe to grind with the TPLF for diluting their decades of uninterrupted state power and control. Amhara language and culture are the state’s language and culture, and the language and culture of the Orthodox Church which wields unfettered power. But with its political nous, its deep bureaucracy and know-how, the TPLF was always a challenging prospect for Abiy, a political novice with limited federal-level experience and hardly a political base. The connecting tissue of Abiy-Amhara unity is the lowest common denominator that is the fear and loathing of the TPLF. After dissolving the EPDR, a coalition in which the TPLF was a strong partner, the next step was to defeat the TPLF militarily. Even before the November military incursion into Tigray, Amhara militias were massed at the border with Tigray. If Abiy’s anti-TPLF move was intended to destroy them as a political force, for the Amharas this was an opportunity to regain some of the territories they had lost to Tigray in 1991.

Sudan

Ethiopia also has a boundary dispute with Sudan. The dispute centres on the al-Fashaga region, Sudan’s fertile breadbasket located in Gedaref State, which borders Ethiopia’s Amhara region in the north-west. According to the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 the area belongs to Sudan and, unlike the regime of Omar al-Bashir, for the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok, settling this dispute is a priority. However, the Abiy-Amhara alliance has made resolving the dispute complicated.

Sudan is also a critical factor in resolving the Tigray crisis; the country is the only remaining supply route for the TPLF as Eritrea is closed to them and bringing in supplies and fuel through other routes is risky. Sudan could also determine how the GERD dam conflict will be resolved. Unlike Egypt, Sudan could benefit from cheap electricity if the dam is filled, but the country will not countenance losing al-Fashaga. Abiy faces difficult choices: cede al-Fashaga to Sudan and gain a partner in the dam negotiations while also denying the TPLF a supply route or keep al-Fashaga and lose Sudan in the GERD dam discussions, leaving the TPLF to use the Sudan border for supplies.

The Tigray conflict, which Abiy initially promised would be a straightforward law enforcement operation, has instead metastasised into a slow-grinding counterinsurgency operation. The continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing Abiy friends.

On May 23, the US State Department announced visa restrictions for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals—including Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the resolution of the crisis in Tigray.

In a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.

America’s sanctions came on the heels of the European Union’s suspension of budgetary support worth €88 million (US$107 million) until humanitarian agencies are granted access to people in need of aid in the northern Tigray region.

On the 7th of June 2021, Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), who is also Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, together with Karen Bass (D-CA) and Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), respectively Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights, issued a joint statement after tabling a resolution condemning violence and human rights abuses in Ethiopia.

The sanctions come as Ethiopia awards its first telecom licence for US$850 million to a consortium that includes the UK’s Vodafone in what could herald the opening up of Ethiopia’s closed economy.

Before the EPDRF came into power, Ethiopia was a posterchild of famine and incessant conflict, especially under the Derg regime. Abiy and Amhara nationalism is bringing back the echoes of the Derg era and the upcoming June election is unlikely to resolve current crises; if anything, it will exacerbate them.

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We Still Can’t Breathe: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo

Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could get back to normal.

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We Still Can’t Breath: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo
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Sometimes even the “biggest” victories can ring hollow. That especially seems to be the case several months into 2021, and 11 odd months after George Floyd had his life snuffed out in front of a red-brick grocery store in South Minneapolis, around the corner from the “Little East Africa” neighbourhood. That Derek Chauvin, the cop who laid his blatancy in the form of a knee across Floyd’s neck in a gutter finally faced some form of consequence in the form of a guilty verdict, may, in and of itself be of little consequence in the grandest of schemes.

Yes, right now it seems as though the verdict that has come down harshly on Chauvin is a rebuke of all things heinous, nothing less than a massive moral victory for racial progress, black America and global equality.

Indeed, rainbows shall now shine through and if you listen to many pundits within the American (and for that matter, Western) broadcast media, racism against Black America has been solved once and for all —  à la the presidential election of Barack Obama way back in those heady days of 2008.

Chauvin will be sentenced on June 25th of this year. Much of Black America is already lowering their expectations away from the 40-year maximum prison sentence.

Life is full of disappointments.

In itself, the Chauvin verdict is not one of them; it is just another opportunity for a larger collective sadness, another opportunity for an eventual letdown, a reminder of the global system of injustice that is, frankly, far as hell from ever being permanently resolved.

I haven’t been in Minneapolis since the end of May 2020, the Saturday following the Floyd killing, when the very landscape and fabric of the “Twin Cities” of Minnesota and Saint Paul were irrevocably changed. Walking around that day, the sense of despair was palpable. All of Lake Street — all seven kilometers of it — seemed to have been hit by varying degrees of madness. Some buildings were completely burnt out, husks of their former selves; others had smashed windows or had “BLACK OWNED BUSINESS: DON’T BURN!” scrawled in graffiti across the boarded-up doors. Thousands of people trudged around with shovels, cleaning up debris ahead of the inevitable next night of chaos.

In the weeks that followed, the protests spread across the United States, and even took root on a global scale, spreading as far as Nairobi, London, Kampala, Rome and dozens of other cities. In Minneapolis, all the tension of a tense superpower seemingly dying of its own hubris during the chaotic early months of the COVID-19 pandemic descended on an idyllic neighbourhood. By the day I arrived, May 30th, the United States National Guard was being deployed to put down any form of violence with their own forms of violence. But the damage had been done and the rest of the country was experiencing its own varying levels of chaos. At least two people were killed in Minneapolis alone (and at least 19 across the rest of the US, though this number seems to be low). Dozens of people were injured in Minneapolis alone (although the exact numbers are hard to confirm; personally I talked to at least three people who had sustained non-lethal injuries during the protests, so the real number could be much higher).

Thousands were injured across the US, with hundreds more incidents of police brutality filmed and shared widely. In Minneapolis there was approximately KSh 53 billion worth of damage related to the unrest. Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis who allegedly had white supremacist ties retired at the beginning of 2021. The Minneapolis Police Department was defunded following the reckoning that fell upon the Twin Cities in those warm early summer weeks.

Among pundit across America, talk of alliance and “listening” rapidly became the norm. Many leading neo-liberals put out statements, Republicans and Democrats alike. Trump ordered the beating up of peaceful protesters in front the White House and goodhearted liberals were shocked and appalled. Everyone said it was a “sea change” in American race-relations.

Less than three months after the George Floyd protests kicked off there was a “monumental change” — Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in the city of Kenosha, in my home state of Wisconsin. The NBA boycotted games, more conversations were had and the world kept right on turning, same as it ever has.

When it comes down to issues of inequality, racism and oppression the status quo is always maintained, especially in America. Two steps forward and three steps back seems to be the pattern, one that is only reinforced by the pattern of police getting away with the murder of Black Americans — whether on tape or merely under “suspicious” circumstances in which “the officer felt their life was threatened and required a response of lethal force”.

Perhaps it is this constant pattern of impunity that has caused the most damage, a pattern that in the US can be traced to well before the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, California. The riots were sparked off by the acquittal of cops who had been caught on film beating and kicking King senseless on the shoulder of a freeway.

It’s the same as it ever was.

Over the years since, especially in this age of social media ubiquity, incidents police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.

Horrifying, but not at all surprising. Everyone within the Black community in the US has long known the score. “Officers under threat” deaths, cases failing to be investigated, rumours of pistols being planted, delays in emergency responder times, ties to white supremacy, “warrior cops” getting more military equipment, stop-and-frisk policies, higher incarceration rates among Blacks, continual harassment, talking to children about keeping hands visible when dealing with police, media bias, fetishisation of police, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement — the list of systemic issues within US police forces could fill the remainder of this article.

In this age of social media ubiquity, incidents of police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.

The American judicial system itself is inherently flawed. The narrative among much of the “upstanding” upper middle-class elements of society is that somehow race relations were, if not solved outright, repaired with a sustained “upward” trajectory somewhere around the funeral of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in 1968.

They paint a rosy picture of race-relations in the US in which all segregationist judges were replaced with forward thinking progressives, where all cops with KKK ties were unceremoniously fired, where the ghosts of “Jim Crow” laws (designed to suppress, segregate and subjugate post-slavery Black America) simply faded into the distant memories of a bygone era. The result was a sort of racial Cold War, where proxy wars were fought through the war on drugs, mass incarceration, neoliberalism and police impunity.

“At least segregation is illegal now”, says White America when pressed, as if cities, schools, hospitals and police actions were not still segregated sans overt painted signs.

Such sentiments bled into the politics of the US’s two major parties, Republicans spearheading the “War on Drugs” under the Reagan presidency of the 1980s and the Clinton administration cutting social programmes and accelerating mass incarceration during the 90s under the all-American ideal of “pulling oneself up by your bootstraps”. Such proponents of America’s neo-liberal ethos cared little whether there were any boots to begin with.

Slowly the technology caught up with the reality, and the anger felt across the marginalised communities in America had a focal point on which to pour out their frustrations. The images were there on film, little snippets sent into cyberspace by countless onlookers. The anger was in the bloody and lifeless body of Michael Brown lying for hours in a Missouri street. It was in Eric Garner pleading that he couldn’t breathe while being choked to death by cops in New York City. It was in Philando Castille being shot and killed in his car seconds after telling the officer who had pulled him over that he had a licensed gun in the car and reached for his wallet. (This shooting also happened in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.) It was in Breonna Taylor being shot dead on a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky only for the officers to be charged with “wanton endangerment” for firing bullets into a neighbouring apartment.

None of the officers in the above incidents were convicted. Some were never even brought into a courtroom.

On April 11th 2021, Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a cop during a traffic stop in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Details and footage of the incident are scant. The officer involved has been charged with second-degree manslaughter (a lesser charge than homicide in the US court system). Protests have sprung up around the US, youth wearing surgical masks — the hallmark of the smoldering COVID-19 pandemic — clashing with police and facing arrest, and “non-lethal weapons being deployed by officers to quell pockets of unrest”. This killing occurred at the epicentre of the “defund the police” movement — Minneapolis.

The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.

The police are just the visible agents of the systemic suppression of Black people that stretches far beyond the shores of the US.

If COVID-19 has shown up anything, it is the brutality of police worldwide. Most times their actions go on with impunity. Cops in Kenya beat up people without mercy and enforce curfew by leaving motorists stranded on highways. In Uganda cops extort commuters under threat of jail. In Rwanda the stranglehold on the nation continues to tighten under threat of harsh penalties.

There is no equality when it comes to the Global South, particularly for much of Africa whose suffering at the hands of the police echoes the oppression faced by the Black community in the US.

The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.

Through this lens of warranted cynicism, the “guilty” verdict handed down to Derek Chauvin by a jury in Minnesota is not a massive turning point. The very pundits stating that the verdict is such a monumental moment of change inherently prove that it is nothing remotely close to such a trend. There will be other failed indictments, other cops walking away, more cases of mysteriously “lost” body-cam footage. More will die, protests will spring up and be quelled with extreme prejudice.

Chauvin, the smirking killer that he is, did prove one thing and one thing only: where the “line” truly is, where the grey areas that the police hide behind blur over into black and white, from a “justified act of lethal self-defense from a frightened officer” into outright murder. His actions were so unquestionably heinous that they had to be dealt with. What Chauvin did derives directly from an ugly history; he lynched that man and at the time thought he would get away with it, hands in pockets, cocky half-smile on his face while his bodyweight cut off George Floyd’s air supply in that street gutter. Bystanders begged him to stop as the other officers watched in idle complicity. Paramedics were not allowed to give medical aid and Chauvin continued to apply pressure for minutes after Floyd had become non-responsive.

The systems, after all, stay much as they are in America. Profit margins must be maintained and “order” by way of the status quo must be upheld. The Twin Cities, of which Minneapolis is the more visible twin, would have simply exploded if the verdict had come back anything less than guilty. After a year of protests, COVID-19 lockdowns, electoral strangeness, Trumpian policies, political divisions, economic challenges and continued incidents of police violence, the tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.

If that had happened the resulting violence would have dwarfed any incidents of unrest in America’s past. It is likely that weeks later clashes with police would be continuing on a nightly basis in dozens of cities across America. Minneapolis, where major corporates are headquartered, would have been engulfed in flames so huge the smoke would have been seen in the neighbouring state of Wisconsin.

The tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.

Chauvin’s true legacy is that of an outlier, the ultimate talking-head example that “things are different now”, that something has truly been accomplished on a systemic level when it comes to police treatment of Black America.

In reality, Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could “get back to normal”.

For Black America in 2021 however, normal life is chockful of disappointments.

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