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MOVING BOUNDARIES: Building bridges in a Kardashian world

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MOVING BOUNDARIES: Building bridges in a Kardashian world
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We live in a world where our certainties, including lines in the sand, the imagination of our boundaries, are crumbling. We are in a season where one of the most significant struggles is that of giving a name to the realities of our now. You know the landscape through which our metaphorical boundaries intend to creep: the rise and re-entrenchment of global tribalism—euphemised as alt-right (isn’t that the new non-word being bandied about?), nationalism, Brexit, regionalism, partisanship, supremacy, tribalism, and its evil sister, the extensive, thorough, strategic demonisation of “the other”. Naturally, history repeatedly tells us how this will end – a human frenzy that accelerates into an unstoppable, diabolic rage that will result in some horrendous mass bloodletting that will lead survivors to another round of shame, guilt, regret, outrage and the promise (again) of “oh no, never again”.

Here is a world where an unrepentant sound-bitey demagogue has taken the seat of authority in the world’s most powerful nation, his pointing finger just a breath away from an Armageddon nuclear holocaust button. He got there through a democratic process, a free and fair election fairy tale. In this we can read how the boundaries of “civilisational” paradigms now reveal themselves. This, friends, is supposed to be the apex of democracy, the great adventure our nations are walking towards.

Watching The Donald gloat and heckle his way across the United States to the roaring approval of enraptured masses beggars one’s previous notions about America. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Adolf Hitler would have been impressed. For an African person from Africa, the scenes unfolding are uncomfortably familiar. As much as I enjoy (yes, I admit, it is petty) the discomfort of a few American acquaintances struggling to embrace the consequences of choosing that orange-hued leader of their free world, I am forced to contend with a Trump-led earth. (Mind you, there are also Teresa May and Marie le Pen on the sidelines.)

What the American election process points to is the reality of our limits. It indicates how dogmatic insincerity couched under political correctness and glossy branding will collapse under the pressure of the actual choices of the human heart. The fact that a tribal supremacist wins precisely because he is a tribal supremacist implies that there are far more hidden worlds within the imagined, idealised America, and indeed within our world and within the African continent. The questions that traverse the heart find answers one way or another, whether we want to hear the truth or not, even if, in the USA’s case, the truthful answer is Mr. Donald Trump.

Watching The Donald gloat and heckle his way across the United States to the roaring approval of enraptured masses beggars one’s previous notions about America. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Adolf Hitler would have been impressed.

Let us gesture to some of the questions that may be lurking within these present boundaries of the human heart. None of these questions are ever likely to be answered because to do so would demand that the myths and brands by which we insist on defining our worlds would have to be dismantled. Few are ready to do this. Here are some of those questions:

Would there have been an immigration surge and an ISIS if the United States had not moved boundaries, defied international protocol, manufactured lies to invade and destroy Iraq and Afghanistan and then continued blithely with the annihilation of Libya? Why is there such a massive build-up of war tools right now in so many corners of the world, including Eastern Europe? Is the world preparing for a gigantic-scale war? Why is Russia being turned into a global pariah using the same format that was created to justify the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria (which failed)? To what purpose? Who benefits the most from the wars in the world? Since all weapons carry serial numbers and if the United Nations is truly desirous of ending wars, why has the UN not been able to sanction the sources of these borderless weapons? Is it because the countries that manufacture these weapons are the UN’s main funders?

Instead of confronting such questions, what we as a human race prefer to do is to bury these questions with our hysterical laughter at the antics of the gruesome Kardashians, who have been turned into a signal icon for human regeneration, aspiration and forgetfulness. We prefer Pollyanna-ish and Orwellian newspeak, with Tinker Bell descriptions, such as “collateral damage”, to disguise and deny the reality of our fears, discontent, terror and confusion. Meanwhile, the earth is reeling. If it is not from angry persons plotting doomsday scenarios, then it is a climate woundedness that sees a never-before-experienced scenario of the melting of the North and South Poles. The seas are rising.

As a response to such existential global uncertainty, the UN, in its wisdom, appointed Wonder Woman – the pneumatic-bosomed illusory white female caricature with a wasp’s waist who wears the American flag as underwear – as the honorary Goodwill Ambassador for something called the Empowerment of Women and Girls. It was a solemn ceremony. When this happened, the world should have realised that our world was truly and royally…buggered (if I may use this most satisfyingly descriptive Anglo-Saxon expression).

Instead of confronting such questions, what we as a human race prefer to do is to bury these questions with our hysterical laughter at the antics of the gruesome Kardashians, who have been turned into a signal icon for human regeneration, aspiration and forgetfulness.

We are living in the eye of the storm of that popularised curse/blessing wrongly attributed to China: May you live in interesting times. The closest Cantonese expression refers to a clown in and of current time. Clowns. Rather apt. Still, the forces of nature, space, time and whatever else seem to have unleashed a whirlwind that is driving the world as flotsam and jetsam. We feel it, we see it, we read the signs, but do not dare to construct a lexicon for this.

In a season of such terrifying flux, borders are a moot point. Frontiers will have to be re-imagined and probably called something else. The human person will also have to reconsider who or what it is. Pope Francis has dared to call this time as that of a piecemeal World War III. We freak out. Yet the possibility that an apocalypse has erupted beneath our living room couches while we keep up with the Kardashians is real.

Boundaries are already in movement; the future is in a state of uncertainty. You have already witnessed (the edited versions of) millions of humans escaping historical homes out of existential distress; they walk deserts, they cross boundaries, crash through frontiers, tear down electric wire fences and sail across wild seas in rubber dinghies seeking safety, hope and a home. The last mass movement of this kind – human journeys into harbours that throw up gates against them – was during World War II. But they keep moving. To what? Where? Transcending boundaries? You have seen the pictures of some of our Africans who have sought to leave for the imagined nirvana of elsewhere now turning the Mediterranean Sea into a cemetery. Meanwhile the African Union, among other African institutions, sustain their impeccable record for profound silences about matters that truly matter to their citizens.

There are other boundary movements that slip off the radar. I am not sure why this is the case, considering that these are bigger than any other migrations taking place in the world right now. I refer to the massive Chinese influx into Africa—official figures are one million, unofficial figures double that – persons now spread throughout the African continent. Mandarin is now a factor of African social and linguistic realities. The blend of cultures and the fruits of such a union through Sino-African children is more apparent now. I ask you then, is the next African decade a Chinese one? If you want to explore African boundaries, look to China. (I am being facetious.)

Great resource finds on our continent, coupled with an awareness of a lack of these resources in other parts of the world, have also increased the populations of persons of Caucasian descent living in Africa. The numbers are always disputed and minimised (the International Organisation for Migration has no figures for current European migration into Africa) because this sort of human movement does not subscribe to a favoured mythology. The figures for these are also in excess of a million, with Angola and Mozambique (in the time of the European economic crisis) receiving together over 700,000 young European economic migrants who settled there to start new lives. Migrant crisis, anyone?

Back to this season of wordlessness.

We feel, see, and hide from what we are most uneasy about. We prefer to draw a line across what does not conform to our delusion or brand of the world. We are silent before the unceasing bloodletting. We skip past the news of the slaughters in Uganda, Congo, Central African Republic, Myanmar, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and entire communities living within the Amazon. We ignore the water wars in the US and the soul-destruction in detention camps worldwide, including that generated by Australia’s own Faustian pact with Nauru, and more significantly, in the Auschwitz-like American concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay – that grotesque giant stain on the human conscience that many of us who proclaim, study and articulate human rights choose to ignore.

How is this even possible?

What is the reality of lines drawn out in a world where the best resources available are dedicated to renewing, reinventing and valorising tools of human violence and destruction to which we have acceded power, and now, with reference to drone warfare, handed over a moral impetus to? A boundary-less machine can be directed to choose whether a human being anywhere in the world lives or dies. Is this the pinnacle of civilisation?

We feel, see, and hide from what we are most uneasy about. We prefer to draw a line across what does not conform to our delusion or brand of the world. We are silent before the unceasing bloodletting.

For a long time, the greatest threat to civilisation was imagined as an invasion from a powerful galactic force: aliens. Yet all this time the alien was us – a strange race that both cannibalises and worships itself. The only ones capable of and willing to and particularly invested in destroying the earth in a cataclysm is us…. And we are willing to do so for the most spurious of reasons: to prove the primacy of our pitiful ideologies so that we can be emperors of a swamp.

Exceptional? Ha!

The world’s latest atavistic impulse is one that is imbued by a virulent Islamophobia. It is unbelievable and unconscionable that the same world that not too long ago learned that an abhorrent depiction and dehumanisation of a peoples could lead to the slaughter of the human soul, the bestial behaviour of human beings and the destruction of the core of human decency can now regurgitate that evil to visit it anew upon others.

If 45 per cent of our African population is linked to Islamic mores, how can we allow this repugnant paradigm to take root unquestioned by our individual and collective sensibilities? Africans, with your endless silences as still as yoghurt, do you even comprehend what this means for your cultures and identities? What happens to being and belonging when by virtue of your facing Mecca in prayer you become defined as a “terrorist-in-waiting” by a culture and paradigm that prefers and perpetuates a most idiotic and ignorant lens to explain away an actual human and existential crisis, the primary purpose of which is the sustenance of a lucrative war and suffering ecosystem?

You and I have experienced the progressive and strategic framing of this horrible lie until it has acquired the semblance of truth—a post-truth that becomes a post-reality reality. And in this matter, not once have I heard an African reframing an African reactiveness. Not once. Africans, your boundaries of existence are receding and you are blind, deaf, dumb and stupid to it. Your governments have even designated your own soldiers to blow up a portion of your own population and to hold them in suspicion because they proclaim “Allahu Akbar”.

The consequences of such extremes of human foolishness manifest in weird new cultural practices. Allow me to be regale you with the tale of a rather senior World Bank official who upon arriving in Johannesburg – her first visit to Africa – showed up surrounded by six, giant, heavily- armed and helmeted security guards who looked like pumped-up black beetles on steroids. The guards had been hired to protect her from the violence of her vivid imagination. I would have done anything to enter into her senses as her plane door opened to a view of the South African city. She proceeded to painstakingly sustain her delusions even as she trip-tropped, trip-tropped all over Sandton Mall like billy goat gruff, needing to justify the expenses of a psychosis created by a cultural commitment to wallow in profound benightedness. What is the language for these new modes of human strangeness?

This, our amputation from both reality and humanity, are the consequences of an investment in an unsustainable idea of the world and its humanity. It is a gross alienation from what should bond, bind and build. You speak of boundaries and bridges, tell me, what types of structures have you called forth to overcome a refusal to experience, even in difference, the humanity of another? What kind of boundaries are you proposing to transcend the now embedded human fear of other humans? We are pleased to invest in propaganda infrastructure to peddle disinformation. We define phrases like “collateral damage” to sanitise and conceal the reality of millions of wilful, innocent murders and the destruction of hospitals and homes for which there are no Nuremberg trials.

Donald Trump appointed the head of the Pentagon a man, who if the principles of Nuremberg were to be applied, should be hanging at the end of noose, until dead. But this man is to oversee the largest war arsenal in the history of humanity under the leadership of an erratic being. Behold your world.

This, our amputation from both reality and humanity, are the consequences of an investment in an unsustainable idea of the world and its humanity. It is a gross alienation from what should bond, bind and build.

With this in mind, what does it mean for you and me to be a human being now? Even with enhanced consciousness of the cosmos and the universe, why are some more still more human than others? Nothing speaks so much to this than the visa application process to which most Africans are subjected. Name of grandmother? Bank account details? Are these people insane?

Even with new revelations shared with us by those seekers, in say, the world of quantum physics or cosmology, why is the prevalent operating mythology still epitomised by the vacuous Kardashians? Why do we prefer that? Even with what we have heard about the awesome wonders of human possibility, why is the inclination that of a willingness to be hypnotised into forgetting reality, to persist in the visiting of such gross wounds on an already suffering world today?

It is no secret that “human rights” are enforced by one set of people and directed at select others. Interpretations vary, of course. They do not stand a chance when confronted by the phrase “extraordinary renditions”. In October 2016, a woman-crushing, human-beheading, Yemen- invading Saudi Arabia was voted into the UN Human Rights Council to replace the newly designated pariah of the Occident, Russia. All I will say about that is that it is only a matter of time before the collective human soul gets weary of its own hypocrisy and calls a time out. Wither your boundaries now? To you who live in these extraordinarily conflictual times, what language have you created to match its demands? What does “boundary” actually mean for a time such as this?

Language is a road map and a blueprint, a provider of impetus, a prophetic vessel. Yet we seem to be either too paralysed or far too implicated to be able to generate an intimately truthful lexicon that might transfigure this present, or at least allow us all to cross out of our present limits. Without language how do we intend to enter the depths of our present reality in order to even understand it?

The Kardashians are a colourful and hypnotic screen that shield us from reality. They are not alone. The latest poster child for our condition is poor Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. In October 2016, he declared that “Africa (the country) could do with some British values” so that the country Africa might join the league of humanity as structured by the vacuum of his imagination. I emphasise this, for in the delusional man’s version of the story of English incursions into other lives and cultures, there are no shadow, no demons, no hollows, no genocides, really no messy bits. His eternal soundtrack is Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstances No 1 in D minor.

He no doubt keeps up with the Kardashians.

Against this backdrop, now let me touch on aspects of my literary life. I am a citizen of an imagined space called Kenya, whose frontiers were created by an English cartographer when Kenya, the colony, was a British project. What changed in 1963, the day those who became “Kenyans” call independence day? I stated in a different forum how my experiences of the nation only assert to me that the infrastructure and edifices of the colonial state established after the genocidal invasion designed in 1884-5 in Berlin (purists get irritated when I persist in referring to this as the First World War) are still intact. The colour of the skins of the taskmasters may have changed but everything else progresses as it has for over a hundred and fifty years. For example, there is no day that trains stop taking Congo’s mineral resources towards the sea to the waiting ships of many foreign nations; not once have these trains stopped moving, even in the throes of serious bloodletting. Remarkable, isn’t it?

The people who receive the money are in former colonial capitals, while we waste time and energy asserting… what? Independence? From what?

I live in an Africa experiencing a second-wave invasion – a massive resource grab enabled by our amoral leaders who are mortgaging bounteous landscapes and signing up to massive unpayable loans with strangers. It is likely that within fifty years the great underclass on the continent will be, again, Africans themselves, newly bankrupted vassals of a new set of foreign masters deliberately invited in under our bemused gaze. It is said that history repeats itself especially when lessons first offered remain unacknowledged, unlearned and unresolved. The problem is not with the stranger. It is with us.

Anyway, given this, what moves storytellers of Africa? I don’t know about the others, but I shall tell you something of my own compulsion to search dimly lit places of the world and my continent; to live and then walk through the valleys of peoples’ shadows in order to try to make sense of the time in which I find myself; our framing, our place, our future in the face of so much.

I live in an Africa experiencing a second-wave invasion – a massive resource grab enabled by our amoral leaders who are mortgaging bounteous landscapes and signing up to massive unpayable loans with strangers. It is likely that within fifty years the great underclass on the continent will be, again, Africans themselves, newly bankrupted vassals of a new set of foreign masters deliberately invited in under our bemused gaze.

I love the gift of being human and sharing life. I love humanity. I love ideas that challenge, invite, inspire and grow life. I also wonder about, worry and want to fix life’s fragile and broken places, because something of this time inhabits me and sheds pieces of its ghosts upon my own story. I have a very Catholic urge to name demons, and stare at faces of the enemies without and within before seeking, as part of a collective, to exorcise these. I love the earth. It is a privilege to be here. I love the continent of my heritage. I love my country. The bigger arc of my literary life is a love story that craves a “happily ever after”.

So I roam the disciplines, a bit like a pickpocket. I eavesdrop into the thinking from everywhere; silos bore me. I work with words like a mechanic tinkering with leaky places in a marvellous machine. I am a bit of a pathologist, diagnosing a corpse for its cause of death, imagining that I might prevent a similar fate for myself and for what I love. I have wondered why post-colonial Africa became stunned and inarticulate about its world and stopped writing itself into the world with pens of fire. I try to witness those silences. I want the silences to give up ghosts and names so that I can write them as stories and offer them to light, and then with them find the treasure of peace.

My works also interrogate the notion of the nation. I do not believe it exists. In this post-truth world does that even matter, given the reality of the march of super companies and the fetishisation of money? More seriously, I also often wonder if a nation like Kenya and its people suffer a grievous moral injury in their core and memory. Do societies experience collective post- traumatic stress that is not yet framed in a socio-political lexicon? Some of the frameworks of Holocaust studies profoundly resonate with me as they explain much of Africans’ secret angst, all the things of shame, guilt and grief that remain unspoken.

I have wondered why post-colonial Africa became stunned and inarticulate about its world and stopped writing itself into the world with pens of fire.

My book Dust set me on that path when, after Kenya’s descent into hell in 2007-8, I needed to kick open painted-over tombs where we had nurtured our demons. It led me to wonder if ancestral trauma caused by a violence inflicted on the humanity of another lives out its irresolution by haunting succeeding generations. For most African nations, a horrible war was consolidated in 1885 in Berlin, and imposed itself upon them. It has never really stopped, despite the theatre of changing flags.

How do you move when all your energies are expended in circling, hiding and avoiding a grievous and existence-questioning wound? Do we imagine that the resonance of horror embedded in memory simply fades away? What do you imagine was and is the state of the soul of a man of old Africa experiencing the crushing deceptions and the betrayal of his hospitality by strangers? Who watches his known world disappear and experiences the total powerlessness and betrayal-by-silence of once favoured deities? I see no archiving about this by our people. This absence, I imagine, damages all parties. We have held no memorials for the destroyed. We use our boundaries to shield us from the past and its unrequited ghosts – people who are our brothers, mothers, fathers, ancestors, accusers. There is no “long ago” in the consequences of human deeds.

As a world and as a continent we have never grieved our excesses or our losses of self, families, community, worldview, gods, goods, stories, time, spaces, lands, archetypes and imagination in word, deed and thought. I posit that these live out their lack of resolution to the present. Is it from these too that we seek to escape through our boundaries? What does the now mean to a continent that was massively defeated in an undeclared brutal and genocidal war; a place where defeated men and women could do nothing when their wives, husbands, parents, lovers, sons, and daughters were seized, raped, sodomised, brutalised, mutilated and hunted in their presence?

Linked to this was the economics woven into intricate trade networks. Global monsoon networks reached into the continent’s own heart before reaching into China and Azerbaijan where an African diaspora has long existed. There was the trans-Saharan trade, the southern circuit that moved gold, ivory, gemstones to the coast. The space that is Africa has largely been made up of a people and culture in and of movement as a path to wealth, adventure, humanity and encounter.

What is the impact and implications of such losses of economic wherewithal that offered so many African cultures an access to the world on their own terms? These cultures were violently taken over way by assorted European trading companies that are the parents of the conglomerates we are familiar with today, who own, manage and control the resources of a continent that keep the world afloat. We do not talk often about this; if the conversations occur, I have not been a party to them. The responsibility for this lack of questioning rests squarely at our assorted African doors.

I wonder why in most cases, after fifty years of supposed independence, it is easier and cheaper for me travel to Paris and live there for two months than it is for me to travel to Ouagadougou from Nairobi. Why? We are a people who seem to have not only lost agency over our resources, but have also lost the endless scope of their actual and imagined existence in the basic of ways. For example, most Africans today have no idea that coffee is not all about Starbucks or Colombia and that the coffee culture – its identification and its use and consumption as a beverage, medicine and ritual substance – was originally, intrinsically and creatively African (Ethiopian, to be precise). Again, when I define the African milieu as encompassing all our seas and discuss African maritime imaginaries, many gawk at me as if I am speaking to them in hieroglyphics.

What bothers me the most as an artist is our wilful African unknowing, our wilful constraints – boundaries – to imagining, thinking, hearing and seeing. Are we then to move from ignorance to ignorance, a floating people disconnected from our own humus and unable to speak of it, not only to the world, but more painfully, to ourselves? A people whose story is limited, constrained framed and only retold by others, a story so small that ours becomes an existential battle of making our lives miniscule enough to enter into the categories created in order to not again suffer a brutal fate worse than death. Hovering above our psychic heads is the real fear of a return to the diabolic violence that can be unleashed at the whims of one culture that for the most part—apart from the Germans – has declined to examine its conscience and review its consciousness of life and humanity in the face of its impulse to atrocities and the denial of these.

I do worry about a post-independence Africa that lost its voice so much so that it is inarticulate before the realities of Libya, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, Colombia Ukraine, Brexit or Trump. Only bystanders, or victims of fate, have nothing to say about their destiny. Only the long-dead have a right to such silence. How do we proceed to traverse into the present and future through the unknown territories of our being where there are neither bridge builders nor bridges?

What bothers me the most as an artist is our wilful African unknowing, our wilful constraints – boundaries – to imagining, thinking, hearing and seeing. Are we then to move from ignorance to ignorance, a floating people disconnected from our own humus and unable to speak of it, not only to the world, but more painfully, to ourselves?

There is a phrase we popularised in Kenya during election 2013: “Accept and Move On.” Moving on. It was assumed that the diabolic violence of the post-election violence of 2007-2008 could be commanded into silence. But the violence and its ghosts keep interfering with our present and feeding from it; we have known no psychological peace. We are caught in a death-roll of a putrefying form of corruption; we are consuming ourselves and are subject to a disgusting inner corrosion that emanates from a refusal to give a name to our horrors. You who speak of movement and boundaries, do you ever imagine that one of the keys to the future is buried in our many darknesses that require courage and humility to excavate in order to extract roots embedded in the past? Given that movement points to two directions, do we dare step into deep truth-telling in order to repopulate the present with what will set the future free?

Now, on a more optimistic note. The African continent plays host to the youngest of the world’s populations. It is called the youth bulge, or the demographic dividend. This lot looks at the world through other eyes. They host each other in their rooms. They travel fearlessly. They set up online literary platforms like Jalada.com—look it up – that think beyond boundaries and have, for example, translated a story by Ngugi wa Thiong’o into over a hundred languages, including Urdu. They code. They regenerate vocabularies. They milk sacred cows. They live, for the most part, an expansive imagination that has no lexicon attached to it yet.

The influx of new souls and cultures into a continent that thrives on variety is a great portent in more ways than it is challenging. Unlike the popularised consensus – not necessarily articulated by Africans themselves – I can also read the influx of the Chinese people into Africa through hopeful lenses. Cultural renewal through the intermingling and exchange of people has always been a force of transformation in the world. These combined forces – the youth and migrants – present an atypical movement impetus on the continent that perhaps promises a transformative idea of place that just may be able to bear the weight of this agitated world and guide it, maybe, into a more wholesome future.

This essay is adapted from a keynote address by the author at the 39th AFSSAP conference in Perth, Australia, on the theme “Africa: Moving the Boundaries” in December 2016.

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Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a Kenyan writer and the author of the much-acclaimed novel Dust.

Politics

Kenya’s Supreme Court: Old Wine in New Bottles?

In this second part of a three-part series, we examine the intrigues within the Judiciary that led to David Maraga becoming Chief Justice and its subsequent effects to the Judiciary and the Nation.

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Kenya’s Supreme Court: Old Wine in New Bottles?
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As the six Supreme Court judges were adjudicating Kenya’s first presidential election petition in March 2013, Justice Kalpana Hasmukhrai Rawal was waiting for a new president to take office and the newly elected National Assembly to convene so that her nomination as Deputy Chief Justice could move forward. The Judicial Service Commission (JSC) had settled on her appointment after interviewing a shortlist of applicants in February 2013. The Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board had earlier found her to be suitable to continue serving as a Court of Appeal judge. Justice Rawal eventually joined the Supreme Court on 3 June 2013.

Two years later, Justice Rawal became the second Deputy Chief Justice (after Nancy Baraza, who resigned after she was heavily criticised for abusing her authority by threatening a security guard after the guard demanded to search her at a mall) to be embroiled in controversy. In 2015, Rawal challenged a notice that she retire at the age of 70. Around the same time, the then Chief Justice, Dr Willy Mutunga, would announce that he wanted to retire early so that the next Chief Justice would be appointed well ahead of the next election.

In May 2014, Justice Philip Kiptoo Tunoi and High Court judge David Onyancha challenged the JSC’s decision to retire them at the age of 70. They argued that they were entitled to serve until they reached the age of 74 because they had been first appointed judges as under the old constitution.

What seemed like a simple question about the retirement age of judges led to an unprecedented breakdown in the collegiate working atmosphere among the Supreme Court judges that had been maintained during the proceedings of the presidential election petition. During the two years it took the judiciary to address the question of whether judges should retire at 70, as decreed by the new constitution, or at 74, as was the case under the old constitution, three Supreme Court judges openly challenged the authority of the JSC in handling the age issue. When the matter reached the Supreme Court, the intrigues that emerged brought the country’s highest court to its lowest point in its short history.

In May 2014, Justice Philip Kiptoo Tunoi and High Court judge David Onyancha challenged the JSC’s decision to retire them at the age of 70. They argued that they were entitled to serve until they reached the age of 74 because they had been first appointed as judges under the old constitution. Justice Onyancha suddenly abandoned his cause and resigned quietly.

Justice Rawal filed a similar petition in September 2015 when the JSC issued her a notice of retirement. The following month, Dr Mutunga announced that he would retire before reaching the age of 70.

A letter sent to the JSC by Justices Jackton Boma Ojwang, Mohamed Khadar Ibrahim and Njoki Ndung’u on 24 September 2015 threatened a solidarity strike by the three if the commission continued to insist that judges retire at 70. The letter triggered a petition by the chief executive officer of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), Mr Apollo Mboya, seeking the removal of the three judges from office for insubordination. A JSC committee investigated the allegations against the three judges and elected to reprimand them – but Justice Ndung’u contested the decision in court where it is pending determination.

On 11 December 2015, the High Court unanimously decided that Justices Rawal and Tunoi should retire at 70 – a judgment affirmed by a seven-judge bench of the Court of Appeal on 28 May 2016.

On the same day, Justice Rawal sent an application to the Supreme Court seeking suspension of the decision. She also asked the court to set a date for hearing her appeal. Justice Ndung’u, sitting alone, received the application and granted her requests. She set the hearing date for 24 June 2016, eight days after Dr Mutunga’s planned retirement as Chief Justice.

Dr Mutunga, who was meant to be abroad but had not travelled due to illness, called the file and brought the hearing date set by Justice Ndung’u forward since she had certified the matter as urgent.

On 14 June 2016, three judges recused themselves from hearing the appeal to avoid perceptions of bias. Dr Mutunga and Dr Smokin Wanjala said they did so because they were members of the JSC when the commission determined the retirement age for judges was 70. Justice Ibrahim apologised for his conduct in threatening a strike earlier and voted with the two. Prof Ojwang and Justice Ndung’u took the opposite view, arguing in their dissenting opinions that the different positions the judges had taken on the matter did not mean they would be biased when hearing the appeals. In the event, the Court of Appeal’s judgment on the matter became the final decision on the issue of the retirement age. Rawal and Tunoi retired. Dr Mutunga, too, retired as Chief Justice two days later, thus opening up three vacancies in the top court, but the rift in the Supreme Court would persist until the 2017 presidential election petition.

A last-ditch effort was proposed to save the two judges. It entailed waiting until Dr Mutunga had left office to have President Uhuru Kenyatta name Justice Ojwang as Chief Justice in an acting capacity, according to Platform publisher Gitobu Imanyara. With Justice Ojwang at the helm of the Supreme Court, albeit temporarily, it was expected that Justices Rawal and Tunoi would apply for a review of the recusal decision. A full bench was subsequently expected to hear the case, reverse the Court of Appeal judgment, and allow judges appointed before the adoption of the new constitution to serve until the age of 74.

Competing interests had already begun to play out in the race to replace the Chief Justice and the departing Supreme Court justices. The departures would significantly change the composition of the court, and with it, its posture and prudence.

It was Kenyatta (reportedly fearing the embarrassment of having another of his decisions struck down by the court) who declined to go along with the plan to appoint an acting Chief Justice. When the matter formally came up at the JSC, introduced by acting chair Prof Margaret Kobia, there was uproar. It is against this background that the JSC began its search for a new Chief Justice and two Supreme Court judges.

Competing interests had already begun to play out in the race to replace the Chief Justice and the departing Supreme Court justices. The departures would significantly change the composition of the court, and with it, its posture and prudence. It was no longer in doubt that the pitched battles around the departure of the two judges had demolished any pretence at collegiality in the Supreme Court, with judges openly differing with each other.

A safe choice

David Maraga would emerge as the dark horse in the Chief Justice’s succession race ahead of law professor Makau Mutua and Supreme Court judge Smokin Wanjala. With a combined 13 years as High Court and Court of Appeal judge, Maraga’s public posture was that of a deeply religious and conscientious man – an elder of the Seventh Day Adventists Church who would not work on the Sabbath before sunset. During his vetting as a previously serving judge, he offered to swear on the Bible that he had never taken a bribe.  He also famously said during his interview that he would never work on the Sabbath even if an election petition were in progress.

Justice Maraga had served as an inaugural member of the Judicial Working Committee on Elections Preparations (JWCEP) before taking over as chairman. He is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on electoral law, not just because he has written on the subject, but more so because his decisions have never been overturned on appeal. He beat a field of nine finalists to be nominated Chief Justice as a compromise between institutional insiders who wanted stability and the executive, which wanted a pliable person.

In contrast to his predecessor, Justice Maraga appeared to be a safe choice for the establishment. He was as a conservative, unlike Dr Mutunga. He had not been involved in politics and was a judicial insider. The new Chief Justice would also have the 2013 precedent of the Supreme Court to rely on. So safe was he considered to be that Uhuru Kenyatta, while giving a campaign stump speech, deigned to mention Justice Maraga’s appointment as one of the political favours extended to the Kisii community, drawing the Chief Justice’s rebuke.

Just like Dr Mutunga before him, Justice Maraga had no hand in selecting the six judges he was going to lead as President of the Supreme Court. Three were already in place (appointed in 2011) therefore outranking him in experience in the court, and the two new ones were appointed at the same time as he was.

The filing of the August 2017 petition guaranteed Justice Maraga the one case he was certain would be his legacy as a jurist. Regardless of how he was going to rule, the opportunity and chance to do it was a moment that conferred great personal prestige.

60 Days of Independence: Kenya’s Judiciary Through Three Presidential Election Petitions

Read also: 60 Days of Independence: Kenya’s Judiciary Through Three Presidential Election Petitions

Chosen as Deputy Chief Justice was Philomena Mbete Mwilu. She had 32 years of experience in law, serving as a member of the Electricity Regulatory Board and the Energy Tribunal before her appointment as a judge of the High Court and the Court of Appeal. She had also spent considerable time as a legal officer at Jubilee Insurance Company.

Justice Mwilu was notably one of the three High Court judges who had declined to declare the composition of the 2011 Supreme Court unconstitutional for not meeting the requirement that no one gender should constitute more than one-third of any electoral or appointive body.

The third was the slightly graying Isaac Lenaola, whose solid 13 years experience in the High Court, and as Deputy President of the East African Court of Justice enabled him to leapfrog his seniors in the Court of Appeal to the apex court as its youngest member. At the High Court, the judge had distinguished himself as a hardworking head of the Constitutional and Human Rights Division, renowned for its landmark decisions.

Lenaola had also served on the 28-member Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, which collected public views and produced a draft in September 2002, which formed the basis for the new constitution adopted in August 2010. He had been instrumental in negotiating the adoption of vetting of judges and magistrates as a lustration measure to usher in the new constitutional changes in 2010, and had served as the High Court’s first representative to the JSC until 2014. Before joining the bench, he had worked in civil society promoting minority rights.

Conservatives back in the saddle

While Kenyatta’s team was working to change the court’s composition, his rival, Raila Odinga, had forced a negotiation of the electoral law in Parliament. Through legislation and subsequent litigation, the landscape in which elections would be held was significantly altered. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) was disbanded and reconstituted and the electoral law was amended and set out in greater detail. Litigation also settled questions around the audit of the voters’ roll, the printing and procurement of election materials, and the transmission of results.

A case filed by human rights advocate Maina Kiai produced decisions at the High Court and the Court of Appeal that made the polling station central in determining election results. Lawyer Ahmednasir Abdullahi, who would later sign up as one of Kenyatta’s advocates during the hearing of the 2017 petitions, remarked that election-related litigation had been conducted on “an industrial scale”. He had boisterously defended the chairman of the IEBC during the 2013 petition, when he pejoratively referred to the Supreme Court as a young court that was “still crawling”.

“It is good, especially for a young court – which is crawling – it is good for it to show judicial restraint. You will find opportunities later in life where you can express yourself more,” he said, to the roar of laughter in the courtroom.

Ahmednasir’s words carried great weight at the time, considering that he was not only a senior counsel and former chairman of the Law Society of Kenya, but he had also been chairman of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority (the precursor to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission) and had played a starring role in forcing a Court of Appeal judge to resign over corruption allegations by providing closed-circuit television evidence of the judge receiving a bribe in a city hotel parking lot. His anti-corruption credentials saw the LSK elect him as their representative to the new JSC that would interview and nominate judges in 2011, including the Chief Justice and the Deputy Chief Justice. His abrasive questioning of applicants won him admirers and foes in equal measure, but it also implanted in the public psyche the possibility that he had an unhealthy stranglehold on the inaugural Supreme Court.

However, the spell he had over the judges during the 2013 election petitions was definitely broken in 2017. Although he had lost the election to continue representing the LSK on the JSC, he was still treated with great deference. When he rose to speak as Kenyatta’s lawyer in the August 2017 petition, his full crop of hair was greying in the middle, and he did not seem to have the same leeway he had enjoyed four years earlier.

After the 2013 Supreme Court disappointment, three-time presidential contender Odinga had publicly declared in the run-up to the 2017 election that he would not petition the courts if his fourth run did not succeed.

Justice Maraga found a Supreme Court that did not wig and only robed in green gowns. However, as the seven justices made their appearance in August 2017 in red robes, white bibs and wigs, it was clear that the conservatives were back in the saddle.

When, however, the opposition decided to head to court after Uhuru Kenyatta was declared winner of the presidential election, it found a prepared bench. On Saturday, 26 August, when the sun had gone down and the Sabbath observed by Seventh Day Adventists had formally ended, the court convened its pre-trial conference to accommodate the Chief Justice’s religious practice.

Justice Maraga found a Supreme Court that did not wig and only robed in green gowns. However, as the seven justices made their appearance in August 2017 in red robes, white bibs and wigs, it was clear that the conservatives were back in the saddle. Where Justice Mutunga – the cool earing-wearing CJ – presided over the court with an iPad and enjoyed meeting young people, his successor was reticent and retiring. Maraga was an old school judge who placed great premium on rules and traditions. Or was he?

Greater vigilance

The Supreme Court had to decide the petition before the expiry of the constitutionally prescribed 14-day deadline, which fell on another Sabbath – the following Saturday. Before the hearing began, the Supreme Court gave the petitioners access to the IEBC servers to verify the results transmitted from the polling stations to the national tallying centre. It also granted the application for a court-supervised scrutiny of the forms used to collate the presidential votes.

The petitioners assembled a veritable team of veteran lawyers, among them Senators James Orengo, Okong’o Omogeni, former Attorney General Amos Wako, Member of Parliament Otiende Amollo, law professors Mutakha Kangu and Ben Sihanya, veteran litigator Pheroze Nowrojee and 28 others.

In 2013, the court had been totally unprepared for the management of electoral disputes, which undermined its ability to interrogate the IEBC’s ICT and voter register failures. Its naivety also exposed it to deception by its own administrative staff.

Kenyatta’s team was led by Fred Ngatia, Ahmednasir Abdullahi, and PLO Lumumba. The IEBC relied on senior counsel Paul Muite, Lucy Kambuni, Paul Nyamodi and Tom Macharia. A good number of the judges – Justices Ojwang, Wanjala, Ibrahim and Ndung’u – had done their pupilage at Waruhiu, Muite and Company Advocates, Paul Muite’s firm.

Just as had been the case during the 2013 petition, the proceedings were broadcast on live television.

Meanwhile, the Judiciary Working Committee on Election Preparations had become a permanent fixture and in 2015 had been renamed the Judiciary Committee on Elections (JCE) and a chief executive had been appointed for it along with research staff. Its mandate was to build on the experience judges had gained in arbitrating the electoral disputes of 2013 and preparing the institution for the next election. The framework for handling electoral disputes was now in place.

In 2013, the court had been totally unprepared for the management of electoral disputes, which undermined its ability to interrogate the IEBC’s ICT and voter register failures. Its naivety also exposed it to deception by its own administrative staff. Perhaps it was the new Chief Justice’s four years at the helm of the JCE that encouraged him towards greater vigilance. The court had even organised a retreat in Mombasa to undergo training in the ICT systems used by the IEBC to enable it to make better decisions.

Additionally, although Odinga was not optimistic about a favourable court decision, his legal team was much better prepared in 2017 than it had been in 2013. He had approached the court, offering it an opportunity to “redeem itself” from its 2013 decision, but was also ready to delegitimise it. Unlike in 2013, his lawyers were conscientious, diligent and fully involved in the scrutiny and document review. The IEBC, on the other hand, was cavalier and would prove to have been poorly prepared compared to the case in 2013.

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After the Vote: What to Watch and Hope for in Buhari’s Second Term

Buhari has an opportunity in his next four years to lead the country as a nationalist, as the leader of a Nigeria for all Nigerians. Such national appeal is necessary in order to assuage credible fears about the marginalisation of any region or any ethnic, religious or linguistic group; if he fails to allay these fears, the fault lines of identity will only deepen.

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After the Vote: What to Watch and Hope for in Buhari’s Second Term
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On May 29, 76-year-old Muhammadu Buhari will be inaugurated for a second, four-year term as president of Nigeria.  Despite a modest first-term record, economic stagnation and ongoing insecurity throughout wide swathes of the country, and continuing uncertainty over his health, Buhari defeated his principal rival Atiku Abubaker of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and a field of 71 others to win a substantial 55.6 per cent of the vote, a margin of nearly 4 million votes over Abubaker.  Although Buhari’s victory is being disputed in court by Abubaker and others, it seems unlikely that any irregularities will be deemed severe enough for the judiciary to overturn the outcome of the vote.

Buhari’s health notwithstanding – the president just returned from a ‘private visit’ to the United Kingdom, where he previously received lengthy medical treatment in 2017 – some commentators argued before the February vote that the president’s re-election was in doubt.  Many thought the election would be more competitive than it turned out to be.  The low participation of Nigerians – particularly in the southern states – argues otherwise.  Although Nigeria’s voter rolls hit a record 84 million registrants (albeit more than 11 million voter cards went uncollected), at least by the measure of voter participation, Nigeria can no longer claim to be Africa’s largest democracy.

Buhari, a retired general and former military head of state in the 1980s, was an immensely popular figure, with the credibility to confront the country’s security challenges, notably the Boko Haram insurgency that had by then proliferated throughout northern Nigeria. Jonathan’s defeat, in part, was a result of his perceived failure to marshal the security agencies to effectively respond to this threat.

Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has yet to publish the number of votes cast in the gubernatorial and state legislative elections, but turnout for these polls may well have been lower than for the presidential elections. Though Ethiopia, with around 100 million people, is still dwarfed by Nigeria’s population, and some Ethiopian vote counts might have been artificially inflated by the regime of the day, leaving lingering questions about irregularities in those polls, the point of comparison remains: Nigeria’s vote demonstrated widespread political apathy in the continent’s most populous country. While there was much relief that the elections passed without significant outbreaks of violence, twenty years after the restoration of multiparty democracy, it seems that Nigerians have contracted a democratic malaise.

Why is this? What challenges lie ahead in Buhari’s second term? And what can be done?

A frustrating first term

Buhari came to power at a moment of optimism in Nigeria. In 2015, defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan handed over power without conditions, despite some in his camp urging him not to concede. A smooth transition was far from inevitable. Sixteen years of PDP rule had been broken by a new opposition alliance, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which promised to sweep corruption out of Nigeria, and bring real change to the country.

Buhari, a retired general and former military head of state in the 1980s, was an immensely popular figure, with the credibility to confront the country’s security challenges, notably the Boko Haram insurgency that had by then proliferated throughout northern Nigeria. Jonathan’s defeat, in part, was a result of his perceived failure to marshal the security agencies to effectively respond to this threat. Buhari offered a mantra of change anchored on the philosophy of security.

However, the Buhari government, while upbeat about its ability to improve the security environment, underestimated the reality of the security challenges, and concentrated on tactics, rather than strategy. Recent years have seen a series of poorly executed attempts to close the barn door after the proverbial horse – or perhaps, to be more transportationally accurate, the pilfered Land Cruiser of the militant – has long since bolted. Ultimately, Boko Haram might now be degraded, but it is certainly not eradicated. And even as government forces achieved some successes, military losses were heavy, and army morale was always in doubt.

Even though Boko Haram has receded in its lethality, other security problems have mounted over Buhari’s term in office, notably the so-called farmer versus pastoralist conflicts, which occur throughout the northern and middle belt states of Nigeria. While these clashes are largely described in similar terms – as a reckoning between two fundamentally different forms of primary economic production – there are, in reality, different modalities of conflict within the rubric, which, when conflated, are oversimplified. Some disputes are genuinely environmentally-motivated, as pastoralists and farmers effectively compete for the same scarce resources. Some are motivated by retribution for past inter-communal wrongs, real or perceived.

But many others are not “clashes” as this word might first connote: there is rarely a battle between two well-defined armed forces. Instead, organised militarised groups have acted to displace others from their lands, who are usually unarmed. Perceptions abound that this is either politically orchestrated and/or politically instrumentalised, although evidence is hard to come by.

Irrespective of their motivations, some argue that such violence has continued because of ineffective responses by the state and a reluctance to deal with their root causes. Overall, Buhari’s administration is widely felt to have lost the ability to contain, mitigate, or prevent such violence. Coupled with organised banditry, a rapid rise in the sophistication of kidnapping gangs (who, despite the headlines, more frequently target Nigerians than foreigners for ransom) and continued insecurity in the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta, insecurity for many Nigerian citizens is a daily, and sadly-accepted, fact of life.

In some respects, expectations of Buhari’s assumption of power were little different from those that have characterised each of Nigeria’s political transitions since the return of democratic rule in 1999. A repeated promise to review the nature of the country’s federalism – which in such a vast and varied country raises implications far beyond the brand of constitutionalism of the state – returns to questions about what the state is for, and the distribution, and redistribution, of economic resources and political power.

To be fair to Buhari, many of the challenges Nigeria faces are not new, nor of his making. In less than five years, Nigeria’s currency has devalued from about 200 naira to the U.S. dollar to 360, with the predictable inflationary effect, even as the personal economy of many Nigerians stagnated. In addition, Nigeria is still overly reliant on earnings from petroleum, despite the vast majority of the labour force not being employed by the oil sector.

After Buhari’s first term, the situation remains much the same: the central determinants of the nature and character of governance and inter-group relations are still unchanged, with those for whom the federation does not work – and the millions of Nigerians for whom the state does next to nothing – still waiting for more. Beyond the comical scandals and the embarrassments that have so far characterised Buhari’s time in office, these more profound frustrations and limitations remain.

Beyond personalities: Structural economic challenges

To be fair to Buhari, many of the challenges Nigeria faces are not new, nor of his making. In less than five years, Nigeria’s currency has devalued from about 200 naira to the U.S. dollar to 360, with the predictable inflationary effect, even as the personal economy of many Nigerians stagnated. In addition, Nigeria is still overly reliant on earnings from petroleum, despite the vast majority of the labour force not being employed by the oil sector. For those at the bottom of the income pyramid, the opportunity of social mobility is all too distant. While technically Nigeria exited economic recession in 2017, even as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) observed that it was “the recent rise in oil prices [that] is supporting the recovery.” Regardless of the IMF’s prognostication, or the recent reassurances of the Central Bank in response to the prediction of some at the Nigeria Governors’ Forum that another recession was looming, popular sentiment remains pessimistic.

Can Nigeria provide economic opportunity for its people beyond the sticky black gold? A surging population both demands and requires that attention. While insecurity – whether caused by Boko Haram, inter-communal conflicts, banditry, farmer-pastoralist conflicts, violence in the Delta, the secessionist movement of the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) in the south east, or simmering grievances caused by the prolonged, detention of Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, the leader of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) – is a real and contemporary issue, Nigeria, more so than any other African country, is brimming with young people who want jobs, education, and a chance to better their lives. More than a million young Nigerians join the labour force every year. Conventional politics and politicians have yet to offer an answer for many of these Nigerians, who may well be condemned to a near-permanent class of unemployment or underemployment.

Before and after the election

Survey data from Afrobarometer, which polled Nigerians before the 2019 elections, showed that only 35 per cent of Nigerians trust the INEC “somewhat” or “a lot.” It’s hard to know whether INEC’s 2019 performance has dramatically affected these numbers, but the general aura of competence and professionalism that the current iteration of INEC hoped to enjoy was first damaged by INEC’s poor communication with the public leading up to the vote. Moreover, the middle of the night postponement – almost literally, as well as figurately, at the last minute – of the presidential and national assembly elections, originally due to be held on 16 February, conjured a thick cloud of doubt over INEC, from which the current commissioners’ reputations may not recover.

Though INEC was able to conduct the elections on the rescheduled dates a week later, its claims of competence and preparedness were inevitably undermined, and its image severely tainted. The goodwill extended to INEC, conditional and partial though it may have been, the legacy it received from its credible administration of the 2015 polls, largely dissipated. Had the election results been closer, and had the commission’s role been more scrutinised, the situation could have been very bad indeed. If there was a silver lining to the cloud of delay, it was that in the aftermath of the postponement of the presidential election, INEC offered a concrete communication strategy, and a much-needed daily public briefing on its activities and plans. But such a basic public relations effort could easily have been instituted at a much earlier stage.

And, as feared, security actors, and particularly in the southern state of Rivers, the military militarised the electoral process. Despite INEC’s assurances that the police would be the lead agency on electoral security, this was not the case. In states where election-related violence occurred, including Kano, Rivers and Lagos, a lack of neutrality and professionalism on the part of some security personnel that were deployed to provide security during the elections was a contributing factor. The army has since established a committee to probe allegations of misconduct; Nigerians await the findings of these investigations and the extent to which the army high command will discipline those found responsible.

One of the biggest challenges facing the Buhari government is exclusion – he must ensure social cohesion and must manage diversity by prioritising a religious and ethno-regional balance in public appointments, accompanied by a fair and equitable distribution of the country’s resources

Yet, as with Buhari, Nigeria’s electoral woes transcend any single election commissioner or army officer. The prophecy of institutional poor performance is all too often self-fulfilling. The existing widespread Nigerian scepticism of government and state institutions is only exacerbated by every failure, while the pattern of ethno-regional and religious alliances that underpin the national electoral process seems to provide an enduring and recurring basis for political instability and state capture.

The challenges ahead are not insurmountable

In the past, the opportunities for addressing some of Nigeria’s core challenges have been mostly wasted. The protracted debate about the management of the country’s national diversity remains protracted and unresolved. One of the biggest challenges facing the Buhari government is exclusion – he must ensure social cohesion and must manage diversity by prioritising a religious and ethno-regional balance in public appointments, accompanied by a fair and equitable distribution of the country’s resources. It is vital that the number of votes Buhari garnered from a particular region or perceived to gain from particular groups is not the basis for the administration of the nation.

Buhari has an opportunity in his next four years to lead the country as a nationalist, as the leader of a Nigeria for all Nigerians. Such a national appeal is necessary in order to assuage credible fears about the marginalisation of any region or any ethnic, religious or linguistic group; if he fails to allay these fears, the fault lines of identity will only deepen.

Further, a fundamental overhaul of the country’s security architecture is desperately needed. While there is no single reform that will address the myriad forms of insecurity, the government’s approach to the country’s security challenge needs a fresh and a deep reform of the military command’s hierarchy to allow for fresh ideas and strategies to emerge.

Finally, beyond assenting to a bill to introduce a minimum wage, the government needs to devise creative approaches to genuinely address national economic development and diversification. Nigeria’s boat cannot only be floated by the world’s oil price. The patience of many young Nigerians is not infinite: at some point, in the not too distant future, the logic of the state may no longer be sustainable.

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A Spring in the Horn: Unpacking the Mass Protests and Transitions in Sudan and Ethiopia

The Horn is at strategic crossroads. There is immense hope but also great fear. How Ethiopia and Sudan manage their fraught transitions and the prospects for success and reversal remain unknown. What is not in doubt is that a botched transition in both nations will crush the dreams of millions and their quest for liberty and a better quality of life. It will also embolden autocratic regimes and vindicate their ideology of stability.

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A Spring in the Horn: Unpacking the Mass Protests and Transitions in Sudan and Ethiopia
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Two mass protest movements have, in quick succession, forced regime changes in Sudan and Ethiopia, two of the Horn of Africa’s quintessential “hard” states. A deep-seated disillusion with the security and developmental states drives the new “revolutionary” mood. What is less clear is where all the ferment and the popular demand for a new dispensation will lead.

In Sudan, the ouster of Omar al-Bashir has been followed by a partial retreat of the security state. In Ethiopia, the election of a reformist Prime Minister and a year of sweeping reforms have extensively eroded the power of the security deep state.

Yet, neither Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s extensive cull nor the Sudanese military council’s modest targeted purge constitute a fundamental dismantling of the structures of the security state. More importantly, the transitions underway in the two countries, were, in the initial phases, at least, top-down attempts by the security state to engineer a soft landing with minimal disruptions.

Prime Minister Abiy’s singular act of genius lay in the way he deftly subverted a strategy of piecemeal reform assigned to him by the ruling party and began almost single-handedly to unravel old Ethiopia at breakneck speed.

The retreat of the authoritarian order in both Ethiopia and Sudan opens up huge possibilities: a generational opportunity for meaningful and positive change but also great risks.

In Ethiopia, a year of “deep” reforms under the youthful reformist Prime Minister has put the transition on a rocky but relatively steady positive trajectory. Overall prospects for good governance, civil liberties and human rights continue to improve.

In Sudan, the situation is less hopeful and remains, so far, uncertain. The hopes and expectations raised by the resignation of Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in power now grates against the reality of a potentially messy and protracted transition following a controversial intervention by the army. The Transition Military Council (TMC), made up of al-Bashir’s allies, is struggling against mounting popular discontent to manage an interregnum.

The Horn is at strategic crossroads. There is immense hope but also great fear. How Ethiopia and Sudan manage their fraught transitions and the prospects for success and reversal remain unknown. What is not in doubt is that a botched transition in both nations will crush the dreams of millions and their quest for liberty and a better quality of life. It will also embolden autocratic regimes and vindicate their ideology of stability.

The unprecedented upheaval and ferment in the two Horn of Africa states provide an extraordinary window into the complex, diverse, and obscure changes and currents shaking up society and traditional politics. These contextual dynamics must not be overlooked in the analyses of Ethiopia and Sudan.

Sudan’s turbulent interregnum

Sudan and Ethiopia offer two fraught transition “models”: atypical, unstable and potentially reversible. While dissimilar in some key aspects, both are attempts at a top-down fix, reliant on continued goodwill and support of the military/security services and dominant parties. More importantly, the two transitions are not outcomes of political and constitutional settlements, and are likely to remain contested and unsettled for some time.

Sudan’s transition is in its infancy and is dogged by a host of challenges. Of the two countries, it is the one with the greatest potential for a short-term crisis, but, if successful, one that opens enormous possibilities for improved governance and stability.

Formal, direct talks between Sudan’s protest movement and the military began on 27 April but quickly hit a snag barely two days later. The key sticking points: the length of the transition (the military wants two years while the protest movement favours four years on the basis that more time is needed to undo the damage of 30 years of misrule); composition of the proposed Sovereign Transition Council (STC); and who should lead it.

On 30 April, the TMC issued a series of controversial and unilateral decisions that escalated the stalemate into a crisis. The council said the STC would be headed by the military and that 7 out 10 posts would be allocated to the military (contrary to the Sudanese Professional Association [SPA]’s demand for a 15-member council, the bulk of whose members should be civilian). It further called on the SPA to dismantle barricades at the Army Command in Khartoum and to get protesters off the streets.

The generals had been angling for a longer pre-transition period from the start. This was largely based on the assumption that they stood to gain more from the tactical point of view; the SPA had more to lose. But there are other pressing calculations. First, more time allows the TMC to sort out internal divisions. Second, it gives it the leg room to craft and fine-tune its negotiation strategy. Third, it provides the TMC with the opportunity to drag out the process and wear down the pro-democracy movement – the so-called “attrition option” that has served the military well in the past.

At the heart of Sudan’s chaotic and bitter transition contest – indeed, the crisis of legitimacy/credibility – is the self-appointed TMC. It is made up of senior generals, all beneficiaries of the army purges in the last one decade by al-Bashir that elevated loyalists to key posts.

The decision by the African Union to extend the TMC’s life by three months, is, therefore, a major victory for the military. It now has up to the end of July 2019 to set up an authority to oversee the transition and to agree to a roadmap with the opposition. A viable transition roadmap in Sudan depends on consensus between the five distinct actors/constituencies: street protesters; the leadership of the protest movement; traditional parties; the TMC; and regional actors. This will not be easy; it is almost certain that divergent aims, interests and calculations could prove a major impediment.

The Military Council: A reluctant reformer          

At the heart of Sudan’s chaotic and bitter transition contest – indeed, the crisis of legitimacy/credibility – is the self-appointed TMC. It is made up of senior generals, all beneficiaries of the army purges in the last one decade by al-Bashir that elevated loyalists to key posts. They eased al-Bashir out and made a number of significant concessions. However, they controversially, stonewalled when it came to the speedy transfer of power to a civilian administration. Significantly, they have so far resisted popular calls for the dismantling of the so-called Dawlah-al-Amiqah or deep state – widely perceived as a covert power centre whose members include senior generals, securocrats and politicians who exercise extra-constitutional influence on the state.

What the TMC’s true aims are and what its interests and links with the deep state and foreign powers are, are all a matter for debate and conjecture. Far less speculative and hazardous, perhaps, is what it isn’t.

The council is essentially a product of a deep crisis within the state – a hastily created crisis-response tool to reassert military influence and manage a fluid political situation. It pulled back from imposing a state of emergency and allowed the protests to continue. It quickly shed unpopular senior ex-regime figures (such as the intelligence chief, Salah Gosh). It released some (but not all) political prisoners and reached out to protest leaders. These were all positive and encouraging steps that demonstrate that the TMC has significant agency, is pragmatic and is amenable to a political settlement.

Yet, the clumsy nature of the coup, the confusion in the first 48 hours, as well as the incoherent pronouncements and policy flip flops since then point to deep internal frictions. Tactically, this could be an advantage for the coalition leading the protests, potentially giving them greater room to nudge the TMC towards reform and to influence the agenda. It could also pose serious challenges in the coming weeks and months, especially if, as some fear, the council becomes opportunistic and capricious and its cohesions become more frayed.

But there must be no mistake about the TMC’s politics. Its primary goal is to maintain national “stability”. It views retention of military power, influence and privilege as necessary to achieve that “noble” goal. There is no evidence that it shares the democratic aspirations of the majority of the Sudanese people. It is instinctively suspicious of civilians and resistant to the idea of civilian oversight, and, even much less, civilian rule.

Sudan’s military for three decades waged not just war but also engaged in multiple peace processes and political negotiations at the local and national levels, involving armed and non-armed civilian opponents. Under al-Bashir, talks were conducted in the same manner as war was waged. Invariably, three distinct tactics, with roots in war strategy, were deployed to outflank and eviscerate the civilian opposition: accommodation, co-option and containment.

The official discourse and rhetoric surrounding the series of “national dialogues” in train for nearly two decades offers a fascinating glimpse into the appropriation of martial metaphors – a progressive “militarisation” of politics. Domestic politics was officially referred to as “jabhat al-daakhiliyah (internal front); political parties were reminded of the value of national cohesion and called upon to help “unify the ranks” (tawhid al-saf); dissidents were “cat’s paw” (mikhlab qit) of foreign enemies.

Sudan’s protest movement will be negotiating with a military that has set ways of dealing with civilian adversaries. Expectations that the military is willing to make a strategic and irreversible retreat from politics seems over-optimistic. The TMC’s 30th April pronouncements and the subsequent hardening of language certainly sowed doubts about the prospect of that happening any time soon. The unilateral and escalatory nature of the council’s statement goes against the letter and spirit of the negotiations. It may be a hint of an intense internal power struggle. It could also signal an attempt by hardline factions to assert greater control – a hypothesis lent some credence by the fact it was the TMC’s second-in-command, General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo aka Hemedti, who was personally involved.

Hemedti, the commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF – Quwaat al-Da’m al-Sari’), has in recent weeks emerged as the real power within the TMC, playing court to visiting dignitaries and diplomats. His swift maneuvers to consolidate power within the military and security services are anything but coincidental. He was, for example, “elevated” to a “member” of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). (An official SUNA news agency dispatch said that he was now “uzw” – a “member” of NISS – a vague term that is both odd and inexplicable.)

The RSF itself is affiliated to the NISS since it was established in 2013 from the rump of the Janjaweed militia. The original force of roughly 7,000 was drawn mainly from Hemedti’s own Rizaygat tribe in Darfur (an important factor in itself that partly explains its strong internal cohesion and loyalty to Hemedti). It has a complicated dual command chain, answerable to both the NISS Director-General and the regular Army General Command. Al-Bashir increasingly relied on the RSF and the Popular Police Forces in recent years to quell social unrest and low-level armed insurrections. The bulk of the RSF is now fighting in Yemen alongside Emirati troops, a decision based on RSF’s perceived counterinsurgency competence and adaptability to the Yemeni battlefield conditions.

Hemedti is young, ambitious and has powerful Gulf friends who are keen to see him play an influential role in the transition. He has a fearsome reputation, and is deemed both an able battle field commander and a skillful political operator. His rise to prominence since al-Bashir’s ouster and high visibility within the TMC suggest a resurgence of hardline elements keen not to cede too much ground to the protest movement.

Old parties and the protest movement

Sudan’s bewildering array of political parties, which are weak and deeply fragmented, were caught off-guard by the protests. However, they seem keen to be included in the transition talks. The TMC initially seemed to prefer a broad-based dialogue, in part because that could have neutralised the weight of the protest movement. It has since walked back and proposed a format that significantly shortened the list of participants, not least because of the risks of an unwieldy and fractious dialogue process that is impossible to conclude within the short timeframe it now has (three months).

Two distinct but complementary historical trends converged in the Horn protests: a massive demographic shift that progressively moved the youth to the centre of politics; and a technological revolution that provided them with the tools to effectively resist and organise. The sheer demographic weight and the volatility and restless energy unleashed by these changes cannot be ignored.

Sudan’s protest movement and its leadership hold the initiative in the contest to shape the transition. The call for freedom, justice and peace (emblazoned on every placard) gelled a fragmented nation and triggered the Horn’s most powerful and unprecedented mass protest movements. The expectations are high and the road to achieving them daunting.

The risk of fragmentation within the protest movement is also high. It is now made up of two distinct groups: Quwaa I’laan al-Huriyyat wal Tagyiir (Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces-DFCF) and the Sudanese Professionals Association-SPA (Tajamm’u al-Mihniyiin al-Sudaniyin). They are now broadly aligned in their demands. However, TMC’s co-option strategies and the attrition of protracted negotiation are highly likely to sow division.

Ethiopia’s transition is the outcome of two severe crises that shook the regime to the core: over four years of relentless mass protests in Oromiya and Amhara regional states; and a sharp economic downturn. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) played a central role in the transition that engineered Abiy Ahmed’s rise.

The SPA and the DFCF have so far done a remarkable job in leading a cohesive, disciplined and non-violent mass protest movement. They must not sell themselves short in the delicate negotiations now underway. They must safeguard their cohesion, eschew personal ambition, remain vigilant against the familiar co-option “traps”, stay resilient and focused in the face of setbacks, and be hard-nosed at every phase of the negotiations.

Ethiopia’s unstable transition

Ethiopia’s transition is the outcome of two severe crises that shook the regime to the core: over four years of relentless mass protests in Oromiya and Amhara regional states; and a sharp economic downturn. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – the coalition of four ethno-regional parties that has dominated politics since the early 1990s – played a central role in the transition that engineered Abiy Ahmed’s rise.

It started off well in the early years, combining a reformist zeal with an accommodative approach to politics. Its fortunes for over two decades was tied to that of the charismatic and talented Meles Zenawi. It owes its structural and organisational resilience, and more importantly, its internal consensus-style ethos, to him. The aftermath of the controversial elections in 2005 and the massive crackdowns on protests ushered in a long period of repression, deflected the party from its democratic goals, and progressively strengthened the hegemony of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). But even in its weakened state, the EPRDF proved its dependability as an instrument of crisis management at critical junctures. It engineered a smooth transition of power after the death of Meles in 2012 and leaned on Hailemariam Desalegn to resign as Prime Minister in February 2018.

Abiy capitalised on the party’s internal institutional strength and exploited the antipathy to the TPLF to build the tactical alliances necessary to seal his victory at the EPRDF Congress in February 2018 Ironically, Abiy’s radical reforms, in particular, the planned swift transition to a conventional multiparty system, makes the future of the governing coalition perilous and uncertain. While the PM has orchestrated changes within the EPRDF and consolidated his grip over his own Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), many suspect the era of the dominant vanguard party may be coming to a close. Significantly, the Ethiopian Prime Minister has relied on a close-knit circle of politicians and inexperienced advisers to drive his fast-paced reforms, with minimal or no input from the EPRDF and other key institutions.

The benefits of a personalised elite-driven reform seem obvious. Abiy, arguably, needed the latitude and flexibility it provides to push through a raft of “deep reforms” and swiftly dismantle key pillars of TPLF’s power in the military, security services and economy.

The potential drawbacks of a highly personalised leadership style and an elite-driven reform process lacking sufficient institutional buy-in and support must be obvious. It is inherently risky and alienates the very agencies indispensable to implementation and long-term sustainability. Understood thus, the risks to reform in Ethiopia seem not so much bureaucratic inertia as bureaucratic recalcitrance. Rumblings of unease within the state and in the parastatals over key aspects of the reforms, from privatisation to the future of the ethnic-federalism system, reinforce these fears. The Prime Minister, rhetorically at least, is increasingly aware of this potential problem; he has stepped up meetings with key departments and pledged to deepen institutional engagement. However, his critics claim that the impromptu townhall-style meetings are cosmetic, and do not constitute structured policy dialogue.

Ethnic unrest

Identity politics may act as a catalyst for change, but its huge capacity to complicate transitions that foment new unrest must not be ignored. Ethiopia is an egregious example. Aggressive and adversarial strains of ethno-nationalisms, resurgent in recent years, pose grave conflict risks. Many ethnic conflicts are traditionally driven by contested borders and resource competition. Ethno-regionalism/nationalism aggravate these conflicts and make them intractable. Prime Minister Abiy’s stabilisation and consolidation efforts have had minimal impact in de-escalating the problem. Balancing multiple and contending ethnic interests proved far trickier than anticipated. His policy of accommodation to remedy historical injustices and allocate more government posts to marginalised communities and disadvantaged segments of the population won wider praise but either failed to mollify more militant and younger ethno-nationalist activists clamouring for deeper affirmative action, or reinforced resentment among other ethnicities.

This is particularly the case in Oromiya, where factions loyal to the Oromo Liberation Front that view the Prime Minister as a “traitor” to the Oromo cause, continue to stoke violence and undermine social cohesion. Several attempts to mediate an end to the ructions in Oromiya and reconcile the rival factions so far have produced shaky truces that failed to hold.

In Ethiopia, the economic crisis was largely induced by the frenetic pace of growth, skewed development, expensive infrastructure mega-projects and dependence on foreign (Chinese) loans. Abiy in early 2018 inherited a state that was virtually bankrupt, its foreign exchange reserve depleted and saddled with mounting and unsustainable debt-servicing obligations.

Meanwhile, the Abiy’s anti-corruption drive and political consolidation strategy, perceived targeted at curbing the influence exerted by the minority Tigrayan ethnic community on the country’s political and economic life, fomented serious backlash. The widely held perception that the premier’s new friendship with the Eritrean President, Isayas Afewerki, is partly motivated by a common desire to isolate the TPLF, served to further inflame sentiments in Tigray. The region is now effectively a mini-state, its relations with Addis Ababa deeply fraught and antagonistic. On-off dialogue between Addis and Mekele and a series of high-level meetings in 2018 failed to smooth relations or diminish the potentially dangerous siege mentality developing in Tigray. The region is where the country’s elite military units are garrisoned and where sophisticated heavy military hardware, including air combat assets, are kept (a legacy of the border conflict with Eritrea). An armed conflict – highly improbable but impossible to rule out – would be catastrophic.

Economic hardship

Economic hardships remain core drivers of social unrest in Sudan and Ethiopia. Conditions for the vast majority of their populations progressively worsened in the last five years. Sudan’s loss of oil revenues and subsequent deadlock over oil trans-shipment fees with South Sudan triggered the country’s severest economic crisis in decades. High inflation, currency turbulence and a series of austerity measures that saw subsidies lifted on bread and other commodities hit the lower classes hard and fomented the mass protests that quickly engulfed the whole country.

In Ethiopia, the economic crisis was largely induced by the frenetic pace of growth, skewed development, expensive infrastructure mega-projects and dependence on foreign (Chinese) loans. Abiy in early 2018 inherited a state that was virtually bankrupt, its foreign exchange reserve depleted and saddled with mounting and unsustainable debt-servicing obligations. An emergency deposit of 1 billion dollars into the treasury by the UAE helped to stabilise the volatile fiscal situation.

The short- to medium-term prospects look bleak, even though China’s decision to write off some of the debt in late April and signals of support from multilateral financial institutions and donors promise some relief.

In Sudan, the UAE similarly stepped in to shore up the currency by depositing money in the treasury. Donors have equally signaled readiness to help.

The gravity of the economic crisis in the two states and the improbability of a quick and dramatic improvement portend huge risks for the transition. Yet, the kind of tangible and irreversible progress in their delicate transitions necessary to unlock donor support and foreign investment hardly exists now and is bound to take years, by which time conditions would have deteriorated further.

In Ethiopia, the continued proliferation of ethnic unrest and violence in economically productive regions has triggered massive displacement – estimated at 3 million. The government’s inability to get on top of the situation is hugely destabilizsing in itself, but also certain to prove a major impediment to new foreign investment.

An emergency financial aid package for Sudan and long-term economic relief and stimulus package for Ethiopia seem the best options for the international community to shore up the transitions.

A youth revolt

The uprisings in Ethiopia and Sudan constitute the Horn’s first uniquely large-scale youth revolt; the first political coming-of-age of two youth generations embittered by economic hardship and the inequities of the “hard state”.

Ethiopia, with over 70% of the population (out of a total of 110 million) under the age 30, and Sudan with 60% of the population (42.5 million) under the age of 25, are examples of states where the demographic shift has been at its starkest, reflecting both the promise and destabilising potential of the so-called youth bulge.

Two distinct but complementary historical trends converged in the Horn protests: a massive demographic shift that progressively moved the youth to the centre of politics; and a technological revolution that provided them with the tools to effectively resist and organise. The sheer demographic weight and the volatility and restless energy unleashed by these changes cannot be ignored. The long-term viability and sustainability of the transitions hinge on how the disruptive impact of the youth bulge is managed.

The recurrent themes of the protests are familiar; they revolve around a set of socio-economic grievances that cut across the age-divide: jobs and better wages, economic growth, opportunities and autonomy, better services. Sudan’s unemployment rate is estimated to be around 21.4% or over 2 million of the productive labour force of 21 million. In Ethiopia youth unemployment stands at 19.5%

Social media and the diaspora

The protest movements in Ethiopia and Sudan are beneficiaries of the digital revolution, effectively harnessing the power of the smartphone and social media (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp) to challenge the regimes in power. These tools allowed them to organise, to break the state’s monopoly over information, and to generate their own multimedia content.

In the contest for narrative space, the state was severely disadvantaged. Its power of monopoly over communication (and access to sophisticated cyber-spying software) was offset by the technical savvy and ingenuity of the protesters. Frequent communication shutdowns that targeted SMS and Internet access proved ineffective. Protesters used VPNs and encrypted messaging apps and relied on diaspora supporters to bypass state censorship. Diaspora support in both instances was crucial and went beyond amplifying social media messages. Activists in North America and Europe mobilised funds, organised pickets and petitions, highlighted rights abuses, and raised the profile of these protests at the international stage.

The Oromo diaspora in the US, a close-knit community with its own influential media outlets, played a particularly pivotal role – a role recognised by Prime Minister Abiy himself when he made a “thanksgiving” tour of the US in 2018. A number of high-profile exiled figures have since been given high-level posts in the Ethiopian government.

Diaspora influence and power have not been without controversy, especially in Ethiopia. There have been claims that hardline activists disseminated fake news and inflammatory messages to stoke ethnic hostility and division. In Sudan, there is speculation (probably fueled by the military) that the diaspora is inciting intransigence and radicalising the protest movement.

The transition in Ethiopia has brought to the fore the simmering tensions between political classes inside the country and those abroad. Growing intra-Oromo divisions partly reflect both the type of rivalries, political divergence and clash of ambitions that could complicate the transition. A fracturing of the protest movement’s core support base remains a potential risk in a delicate transition such as Ethiopia’s but also the one in Sudan. The Sudanese reform movement has, so far, stayed remarkably cohesive. That unity is almost certain to come under great strain, especially in the highly likely scenario of protracted and intensely contested transition. The Transition Military Council favours a fragmented and weak opposition. All the signs indicate that this is an outcome it is actively working to achieve.

Identity politics

Sudan and Ethiopia are similar in a variety of ways. They are the Horn’s most diverse states with a combined total of 99 major ethnic groups and over 200 languages and dialects. They still remain geographically vast and unwieldy, even after secessionist wars and peace settlements led to a partition that diminished their original size. Both share a long history of multiple armed conflicts and vast, ill-governed and severely underdeveloped peripheries – conditions that incubated volatile forms of identity politics, insurrections and social unrest.

Both countries also experimented with decentralisation models designed to foster self-rule and greater autonomy. However, neither Ethiopia’s radical ethnic federal system nor Sudan’s conventional one achieved the desired aims. Instead, they replicated the ills of the central state, bred their own inequities, inflamed ethno-regional nationalisms and reinforced core-periphery tensions.

Ethnic identity politics was a potent factor in the Ethiopian mass protests; it provided the glue and energy. What is fascinating is not just the complex ways in which group grievances intersect, feed off/bleed into wider discontent, but the subtle, somewhat counter-intuitive ways in which even hitherto antagonistic ethnicities, regions and religious groups managed to cooperate and transcend their differences.

Ethiopia’s mass protests never evolved into a single nationwide movement like Sudan’s. They were almost exclusively confined to Oromiya and Amhara regional states, which are dominated by two ethnic groups divided by a long history of mutual antipathy. Yet, activists in the two regions drew energy and succour from each other’s protests; they cross-fertilized and learnt effective protest tactics from one another. (For example, Amhara region’s ghost-town tactics that paralysed cities were replicated in Oromiya.) Gradually, a new sense of mutual empathy and solidarity developed between Oromo and Amhara protesters. The seminal moment was when protesters in the two regions chanted “Down Down Woyane” – proof that the two distinct ethnic discontents had coalesced into a single national demand.

In Sudan, the protest leadership quickly tapped into and harnessed the vast array of diverse grievances to weave a set of key national objectives. With a comparably freer civic space, well-organised trade union movement and professional associations with a proud tradition of political activism, Sudan’s mass revolt took on a national character much more quickly than Ethiopia’s.

What tipped the scales was not critical mass (though that was important) but the emergence of a proto-narrative that encapsulated shared national goals.

In Sudan, the protest leadership quickly tapped into and harnessed the vast array of diverse grievances to weave a set of key national objectives. With a comparably freer civic space, well-organised trade union movement and professional associations with a proud tradition of political activism, Sudan’s mass revolt took on a national character much more quickly than Ethiopia’s. The rallies in Khartoum reflected the diversity of the nation’s social fabric and remained characterised throughout by a convivial, ecumenical spirit, as remarkable as it is rare.

Identity, protest and culture

Sudan achieved in protest what eluded it for decades: a genuine moment of unity in diversity. The protest rallies in Khartoum were a microcosm of the nation, bringing together diverse ethnic and civil society groups drawn from all regions, social strata and professions. Darfuris, Kordofanis and Nubians, women and other distinct social groups, aggrieved workers and traders – all disenfranchised and rendered powerless and invisible by state policies – were catapulted onto the national stage. They all made common cause and rallied around a single political message.

But the mass uprisings in Sudan and Ethiopia were not just animated by political and economic grievances; activists in Sudan actually took slight at media characterisation of their protests as “bread riots”. They were also impelled by cultural discontent – a sense of humiliation and anger at the state’s perceived cultural homogenisation, discrimination and misogyny.

In Ethiopia, the Oromo unrest was fueled, in part, by long simmering grievances over the status of the Oromo language and state interferences in religious affairs, while in Sudan, state-driven Islamisation and Arabisation remained major sources of social frictions.

The act of protest was in itself psychologically and culturally transformative, providing an opportunity to assert cultural pride and reclaim self-confidence and autonomy. The Oromo pride movement in Ethiopia and the rise of women in Sudan exemplify the cultural forces shaping the politics of protests and transitions.

Prime Minister Abiy’s open embrace and appropriation of Oromo culture and his gender parity campaign are just two examples of the symbolic and practical policy impacts. Hopes are high that Sudan’s new breed of assertive female activists will capitalise on the national mood for change and harness their collective picketing power to influence the transition’s agenda.

No less important, the rallies served asa vehicle for collective catharsis and radical empathy; a space to affirm values of mutual interdependence, solidarity, and peaceful co-existence.

The slogan “kuluna Darfur” (we are all Darfur) at the rallies in Khartoum, hopefully, was not just a feel-good empathetic response, but marks a fundamental positive shift in the way communities relate to one another.

Religion and culture

Religion – as a powerful galvaniser and conduit for protest and a repository of moral and ethical values necessary for a just society – has a long history in the Horn. The protests in Sudan and Ethiopia provide contrasting lessons in the resilience of religion and its potency to inspire and channel protest. But far more interesting is how the debate over the relevance of religion in governance continues to evolve.

The Oromo mass insurrection in Ethiopia gestated for many years; it fed off diverse, small and localised communal grievances before it snowballed into a national crisis. The big triggers – high youth unemployment, state-driven land grabs, punitive taxation, repression and violent crackdowns – are well known. Less noted and examined are the obscure and overlapping cultural and religious roots of the discontent brewing for close to a decade.

The political rebellion owed much of its resilience and success to the cultural revivalist movement gaining in momentum and influence in recent years. It drew energy, inspiration and self-confidence from the potent message of ethnic pride preached by Oromo elders like Abba Gadda.

Oromo traditional Waqqeffana religion, practised by a small fraction of the community (roughly less than 5%), played an important complementary role as a central pillar of cultural expression. Regarded as the indigenous faith of the Oromo nation, its rituals and spiritual teachings progressively galvanised millions. The Irrecha annual festival of harvests, with roots in the Waqqeffana religion, drew tens of thousands, and became a visible symbol of political and cultural consciousness and a focal point for the protests.

A series of Muslim unrests in Oromiya in 2012 quickly spread to other regions and continued to simmer for over 18 months. Much of the unrest was initially triggered by alleged state interference in Muslim affairs, but quickly aggravated by mass arrests of clerics and community leaders and the suspension of Muslim publications (such as Ye’Muslimoch Guday). The Muslim protests – viewed across Oromiya as evidence of the state’s wider malign intent against the Oromo – thus triggered the first spark that lit the fire of large-scale rebellion in 2014.

The Oromo nation’s ability to harness its cultural heritage and multiple faith traditions and to foster internal mutual respect and tolerance is unique. So too is the tradition of syncretism that indigenised Islam and Christianity and reduced the heat and social frictions generally associated with puritanism and proselytism. This cultural adaptability and inherent resistance to exclusivist manifestations of faith may partly explain why Salafism found Oromiya a less ambient and sympathetic territory to put down roots in.

The bid to project this benign and positive face of Oromo culture on the national stage was thwarted by fragmentation and factionalism, as well as by the political clout exerted by militant factions widely perceived wedded to an exclusivist ethnic agenda.

Prime Minister Abiy, a practising Pentecostal with Muslim heritage, represents this hybrid, pluralistic and healthy attitude to religion. While his fervent faith and the occasional unnerving messianic tenor to his speeches raised some concerns, the Prime Minister so far has acted with great sensitivity on matters to do with faith. He released detained Muslim leaders and appointed a record number to key state posts and reached out to the Orthodox Church.

Abiy’s medemer philosophy – based on values of love, compassion and solidarity in the New Testament – does not signal intent to “Christianise” or change the strong secular character of the Ethiopian state. The primary motive is to create a unifying principle around which the nation can rally.

A striking feature of Sudan’s protest movement is the near-total absence of Islamist slogans and the emergence of more assertive youthful female activists keen to raise their visibility, to subvert the strict dress code and to claw back their “huquq al-mar’a al-maqsub” (usurped fundamental rights of women).

However, the rise of evangelical churches and their aggressive proselytisation remain a source of anxiety within the influential Orthodox Church. But the greatest threat to religious harmony stems from ethnic conflict. Inter-communal violence in troubled pockets of the country in the last one year exacerbated religious tensions and triggered attacks on mosques and churches.

Islam in transition in Sudan

The controversial intervention in Sudan’s transition in recent weeks by Gulf actors (principally UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), ostensibly aimed at preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from staging a comeback, is both ill-advised and dangerous. First, there isn’t the kind of cohesive, highly-organised Islamist opposition able to single-handedly gain dominance. Second, the TMC cannot be a guarantor of long-term stability nor can it serve as an effective bulwark against Islamism. Third, and assuming they cared to look deeper at the uprising and the social-political trends, they would have realised the depth of disillusionment with Islamist politics and generally with all traditional politics and parties. Finally, the Saudi/Emirati axis’s meddling alienates huge segments of society and is counter-productive to their twin strategic goals: maintaining Sudanese troops in Yemen and isolating the Muslim Brotherhood.

A striking feature of Sudan’s protest movement is the near-total absence of Islamist slogans and the emergence of more assertive youthful female activists keen to raise their visibility, to subvert the strict dress code and to claw back their “huquq al-mar’a al-maqsub” (usurped fundamental rights of women). The language and tone of discourse is deliberately non-confessional. These two complementary dynamics lend a mildly secular character to the uprising. For the first time in three decades, Islam is no longer a contentious subject for Sudan’s youth. But we ought to be careful in not drawing hasty conclusions. More importantly, we must avoid using the binary secular-religious mindset as a prism to analyse events in Sudan.

That the battle over Sudan’s future is being waged over traditional secular issues – liberty, justice and “bread-and-butter” issues – is emblematic, not so much of a society that is becoming secular, but one deeply disillusioned with the brand of Islam advocated by Hassan al-Turabi and enforced by al-Bashir for three decades. Sudan’s youth are rejecting the politicised Islam that underpinned al-Bashir’s quasi-Islamic state and the stifling social conservatism fostered by its intrusive policies.

Put differently, what we are seeing in Sudan is the early sign of a society that is self-correcting – seeking both to restore “health” to Islam and return it to its traditional orbit/sphere.

It is not yet clear who the secularists are in Sudan’s transition. No group has so far articulated what one might call a clear secular agenda. It is conceivable that some in the protest movement, such as traditional left-leaning parties (that played a big role in the protests) and even elements in the TMC opposed to Islamism, may make common cause and lock out Islamists from the transition. Whether all these diverse anti-Islamist “stakeholders” can agree on a common strategy to address the issue of Islam and the state is hard to tell. An aggressive “enclavement” strategy that criminalises Islamism and locks out Islamists is certain to prove hugely destabilising. It risks driving Islamists underground and is bound to incubate the same toxic type of militancy and violence familiar in many parts of the Muslim world.

Sudan’s best hope to achieve a viable and sustainable transition lies in a policy of accommodation that is genuinely inclusive. Islamist parties are predominantly moderate, and including them in the tent has the potential to lock them into the broader reform process, to temper their politics and to progressively isolate the more militant groups.

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