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MOTHER OF THE NATION: The spear has fallen

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In this third and final part of a three-part series, ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE revisits the funeral of Winnie Madikizela Mandela, the Mother of the South African Nation who defied both apartheid and patriarchy till her dying days. The eulogies paint a picture of woman with a fighting spirit who served as an enduring inspiration to her people.

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April 2018

‘‘She talked about forgiveness, and it’s one of those things that whenever she spoke about, she would have tears in her eyes but the tears wouldn’t roll down her face,’’ Zodwa Zwane, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s personal assistant, stated in her eulogy on April 11, 2018, during an ANC memorial service at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg. ‘And she would say Zodwa, I don’t have tears anymore. I have felt pain up to the highest threshold.’’

Seth Mazibuko, who was the youngest member of the Student Action Committee that led the Soweto students’ uprising starting in June 1976 – which resulted in the killing of hundreds of students by apartheid police (estimates range between 176 and 700 deaths, with over 1,000 injured) – said that Madikizela-Mandela was an eternal source of strength to his generation. He recalled that fateful 16th of June 1976 when school children were shot by apartheid police for participating in a protest against the introduction of Afrikaans as the official language of instruction in schools. Madikizela-Mandela – driving a maroon Volkswagen Beetle – and journalist Sophie Tema – driving a white Volkswagen Beetle – rushed to the scene and ferried the dead bodies of the massacred children away. Among those killed was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson who became the face of the uprising when the photo of 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying a fatally shot Pieterson was widely circulated across the world.

Mazibuko credits Madikizela-Mandela with admitting him into a proper psychiatric hospital after he was released from prison at the time when he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He says that decision alone – of getting him proper medical care – could only be taken by someone who truly cared for him. Madikizela-Mandela taught him how to cook, as well as reprimanded Mazibuko whenever he transgressed.

‘‘The saddest part of the news of her passing is that it has happened at a time when we needed the energy and gallant spirit of a mother of the nature and stature of Mama Winnie,’’ Mazibuko stated. ‘‘Some of us in the struggle are still hurting. We needed the motherly side of Mama Winnie that would urge us to keep going. We needed a voice as strong as that of Mama at this time when the ANC is talking of renewal and unity.’’

People like Mazibuko had not just lost a leader, but a mother-figure as well. When he was sent to prison at Robben Island aged 16, it was Madikizela-Mandela who went out of her way to look after his own mother. There were many more instances where Madikizela-Mandela went above and beyond the call of duty to assist. That being said, it wasn’t lost on Mazibuko that there were sustained onslaughts to isolate and discredit Madikizela-Mandela as she fought apartheid and even after the ANC assumed power in 1994.

‘‘There is no struggle that is clean,’’ Mazibuko said. ‘‘The struggle was conducted on the dirty streets of Soweto, and here was someone willing to fold her sleeves and get her hands dirty. When other people were in exile, it was Mama who kept us together. When freedom came, she never enjoyed it. She was pushed away. We owe her an apology before we say ashes to ashes.’’

Tokyo Sexwale, the former Premier for Gauteng province, the Minister for Human Settlements and an ANC liberation stalwart, was the only person who had lived in the same house with Madikizela-Mandela before being jailed at Robben Island in 1977, where he served 13 years after being convicted for terrorism and conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid government. Sexwale had taken shelter at Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto residence as a 17-year-old ANC activist, a home where he stayed in for three years before embarking on Ukhonto we Sizwe activities, which landed him in jail. On arriving at Robben Island, Sexwale said that the prison’s most famous detainee, Nelson Mandela, wanted to know every little detail about life in his Soweto home, asking about his wife and two children – how they dressed, how each of the kids performed at school, how they coped with his absence – information Sexwale readily volunteered.

‘‘There is no struggle that is clean,’’ Mazibuko said. ‘‘The struggle was conducted on the dirty streets of Soweto, and here was someone willing to fold her sleeves and get her hands dirty. When other people were in exile, it was Mama who kept us together. When freedom came, she never enjoyed it. She was pushed away. We owe her an apology before we say ashes to ashes.’’

‘‘I saw with my own eyes the torture, the humiliation by the police who came in to break things, to take clothes off the laundry line and throw them into the rubbish dump… and she would go and pick them up and wash them all over again with tears in her eyes,’’ Sexwale recalled. ‘‘I saw the tears of joy whenever it was time to visit Mandela at Robben Island and the tears of sadness whenever she returned from Robben Island. I saw the police slapping her. I saw them calling her bitch in her own house.’’

‘‘When they slapped her she fought back,’’ Sexwale continued. ‘‘They would hit her with fists and whenever I tried getting up to intervene they would kick me. And the children, Zenani and Zindzi, would be there from time to time whenever they were back from school in Swaziland. Then on the night they came to take her away for detention, she was kicking and screaming, telling the men that the things they were doing to her wouldn’t stop her people’s liberation.’’

‘‘No person should go through the life of Winnie. Let alone a woman, a mother,’’ Sexwale said of Madikizela-Mandela on April 2. ‘‘We have lost one of our best. Winnie was like a candle caught in the crosswinds. She was an indefatigable person, a fighter and a defiant resistor to the end. She even refused – when I spoke to her last week – to have a wheelchair. She would not succumb. She was defying gravity. The nation has lost a heroine… one of our best… a mother not only to her two daughters but a mother to the nation of our unwashed masses….’’

ANC Deputy Secretary General Jesse Duarte – who is the only woman serving as a member of the party’s ‘‘top six’’ officials – remembers Madikizela-Mandela as nothing but a nurturer, a mother to whoever needed one. No child who needed a place to stay was ever turned away from Madikizela-Mandela’s home, and whenever anyone was arrested, Madikizela-Mandela made sure their families were taken care of and lawyers were hired for them. When Duarte was released from prison in 1988, where she was detained without trial for close to a year, she first stopped to see Albertina Sisulu, the struggle stalwart and wife of Walter Sisulu, who had recruited her into the ANC back in 1979 when she was 26. Her next stop was the Soweto home of Madikizela-Mandela, who told her that now that she was back from prison it was time to recommit to the liberation struggle because the difficult work they had started was not yet complete.

‘‘Comrade Winnie Mandela is the Winnie Mandela of the people of Ivory Park, the Winnie Mandela of the people of Slovo Park,’’ Duarte eulogised Madikizela-Mandela on April 11. ‘‘She is the Winnie Mandela of the poor, the Winnie Mandela of the working classes of this country. She gave everything she had. She kept very little for herself and her family. She gave us her life, her commitment. She never betrayed our struggle. She did not betray the revolution….’’

Speaking at the United Nations headquarters in New York on April 4, former South African Vice President (to Thabo Mbeki), UN Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN-Women, Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, elaborated on how and when Madikizela-Mandela was christened Mother of the Nation, and why she was enormously deserving of the reputable title.

‘‘She believed she was a rock, and therefore she had to be there for people to lean on her,’’ Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka said. ‘‘She fought a system that was brutal, and the fact that she was defiant at every turn gave many of us the courage to fight back in our own small ways because we had this larger-than-life personality who was leading from the front. She was not the wife of an icon. She was an icon in her own right, standing next to another icon.’’

‘‘For decades when we couldn’t relate to the leaders,’’ Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka continued, referring to top ANC leaders who were either in jail, underground or exiled, ‘‘she was the go-to person who helped glue the different groupings in the country together. That is why she was called Mother of the Nation…She will be solely remembered as a gallant fighter against apartheid who fought for women, fought for her community and fought for the oppressed people. Period.’’

‘‘She believed she was a rock, and therefore she had to be there for people to lean on her,’’ Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka said. ‘‘She fought a system that was brutal, and the fact that she was defiant at every turn gave many of us the courage to fight back in our own small ways because we had this larger-than-life personality who was leading from the front. She was not the wife of an icon. She was an icon in her own right, standing next to another icon.’’

One group which understood what Madikizela-Mandela’s motherhood and nurturing side felt like was the then expelled leadership of the ANC Youth League, among them Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu, the duo which went on to become president and deputy president of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). On learning of their expulsion from the party for supposed ill discipline in their push for a radical economic transformation agenda, the expellees’ first stop was the Soweto home of Madikizela-Mandela, who embraced and comforted them. Much as the group went ahead to form a political party that became a sharp thorn in the ANC’s flesh, Madikizela-Mandela maintained a very public, uninhibited motherly attitude towards them.

During the 2017 doctorate graduation ceremony of MP and EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, Madikizela-Mandela, who was in attendance, congratulated ‘‘her boys’’ in her usual joking manner, telling them that ever since they went to parliament they had been doing exactly what she had asked them to go and do. Madikizela-Mandela spoke of how she had told the EFF to go and wake the ANC up, since the liberation movement was sleeping. ‘‘You have done a better job because no parliamentarian sleeps anymore,’’ a jovial Madikizela-Mandela said to enormous applause. ‘‘Everyday you insult us, you are doing exactly what I sent you to do in parliament.’’

In their condolence message to the Mandela and Madikizela families – typed in their characteristic red ink – the EFF castigated the ANC for denying South Africa its first woman president. This was in reference to the December 1997 ANC Mafikeng elective conference, where Madikizela-Mandela intended to offer herself for election as the party’s deputy president to Thabo Mbeki, a move which could have seen her rise to the country’s presidency post-Mbeki.

The bottleneck was that Madikizela-Mandela had not been nominated by ANC branches before the conference, as was procedure, meaning she needed a nomination from the floor of the conference backed by 25% of delegates. Madikizela-Mandela requested Mbeki, who was chairing the session – flanked by Jacob Zuma on his right and Nelson Mandela on his left – to briefly adjourn the conference so that she could speak to delegates and get her nomination on course, something Mbeki called canvassing. Mbeki declined to adjourn, leaving Madikizela-Mandela with no choice but to quash her ambition. Jacob Zuma was elected ANC deputy president unopposed, setting on course his future disastrous presidency.

Yet when Mbeki and his friend-turned-foe Jacob Zuma were threatening to tear the ANC apart during the party’s 2007 Polokwane elective conference – which they eventually did following Mbeki’s defeat and subsequent recall as president of South Africa – it was Madikizela-Mandela who summoned the moral courage before the conference and confronted the two men, asking them to shelve their ambition for the ANC presidency and instead settle for a compromise candidate, an initiative which bore no fruit, seeing that the livid duo was keen on going all the way. As she spoke to the two men, Madikizela-Mandela reported that they both used one phrase in reference to each other – ‘‘Mama, you don’t know that man.’’ It took a decade after Jacob Zuma’s 2007 election as ANC president in Polokwane for the party to regain a semblance of unity following the December 2017 Nasrec elective conference where Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC president, leading to the recall of a stubborn Jacob Zuma, who had hugely dented the party.

Asked how Madikizela-Mandela should to be remembered during an April 6 interview, Thabo Mbeki ardently pushed the argument that it was ill-advised to single out personalities and celebrate them as individuals, when in fact they had been part of a collective. Mbeki insisted that Madikizela-Mandela was part of the liberation effort, and that she should therefore be remembered in that context – as one in the midst of many. He seemed to be making the argument that even if individual members of the movement – like Nelson Mandela – had previously been celebrated as icons in their own right on the occasion of their passing, then it was time to change that culture. It appeared the former president feared that Madikizela-Mandela was about to be lionised. Unfortunately for Mbeki, there was never going to be moderation in the remembrance of the Mother of the Nation, a nation extending beyond South Africa’s borders.

Mbeki’s perception of Madikizela-Mandela as an attention-seeker is best illustrated by an incident during the 25th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto students uprising in 2001. Mbeki, at the time South Africa’s president, had already arrived at the anniversary celebrations when Madikizela-Mandela made her late entry. Amid cheers from the crowd, Madikizela-Mandela walked up to the high table where she went to hug Mbeki, who while declining the hug, knocked Madikizela-Mandela’s cap off her head, an act Mbeki says was accidental.

‘‘She did something wrong… she liked arriving at meetings late, deliberately… in order to get applause,’’ Mbeki said of the incident. ‘‘She comes in alone, and people’s attention is drawn away from the person speaking… she did that systemically. So when she came on stage and wanted to embrace me I told her you can’t do wrong things like that repetitively.’’  His remarks attracted the wrath of Madikizela-Mandela’s supporters, coming as they did just days after her passing.

The irony of the whole situation is that during the anti-apartheid struggle, when the ANC leadership was either exiled in Zambia or imprisoned, it was Mbeki and other ANC intellectuals who made a conscious decision to settle on Nelson Mandela as the face of the movement, a choice hugely influenced by the fact that Mandela’s wife had built her own larger-than-life profile as a revolutionary who was constantly targeted by the apartheid regime. For Mbeki and his comrades, pairing the profiles of Nelson Mandela and that of Madikizela-Mandela was an act of genius, Mandela having served 27 years in prison and Madikizela-Mandela having become the globally renowned liberation stalwart and persecuted wife of the long-serving prisoner. While it suited the ANC to exploit Madikizela-Mandela’s “Mother of the Nation” stature, she was also isolated and labelled as an ill-disciplined disruptor when it was convenient, especially when she posed a direct political threat to the powers-that-be within the organisation.

The irony of the whole situation is that during the anti-apartheid struggle, when the ANC leadership was either exiled in Zambia or imprisoned, it was Mbeki and other ANC intellectuals who made a conscious decision to settle on Nelson Mandela as the face of the movement, a choice hugely influenced by the fact that Mandela’s wife had built her own larger-than-life profile as a revolutionary who was constantly targeted by the apartheid regime.

Mbeki may or may not have an axe to grind with Madikizela-Mandela or her legacy – and he recently stated that he and Madikizela-Mandela had a cordial relationship despite the mishaps – but what remains clear is that theirs could be a manifestation of the divide between forces on the ground, as represented by Madikizela-Mandela and Chris Hani, and the top exiled ANC leadership, as represented by Mbeki – two groups who hugely contributed to the struggle but who seemed to look at the frontline from different prisms.

The ANC has always refuted the perception that its ranks are split into three: the Robben Islanders, constituting Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia trial comrades; the external exiles, consisting of the likes of Mbeki; and the in-xiles (internal exiles) consisting of the likes of Madikizela-Mandela. The jury is still out on these divisions.

Mbeki had wanted to join the Umkhonto we Sizwe fighting force after his undergraduate studies, but ANC president O.R. Tambo declined his request, insisting that Mbeki needed to return to Sussex University to pursue his Masters degree. Much as Mbeki would later undergo military training in Moscow, where he and Chris Hani marked their 28th birthdays together, he would remain an intellectual and ideologue within the ANC, never a gun-carrying fighting cadre. On the other hand Chris Hani and Madikizela-Mandela commanded ground forces. This in turn set the stage for the grouping of perceived militants like Hani and Madikizela-Mandela on one side, and supposed moderates like Mbeki on the other, which affected how they related with each other within the organisation.

****

‘‘I am not used to hearing such nice things being said about me,’’ Madikizela-Mandela said on the occasion of her 80th birthday in September 2017 as she entered the Johannesburg venue of the gala. ‘‘I am one of the lucky few to be told such heartwarming things when I am still alive.’’

Historically, the African liberation struggle – in all its forms and shapes – has been a highly patriarchal affair, both by design and by default that seeks to quarantine and limit women. The rise of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela from Nelson Mandela’s wife to a tour de force within the ANC and beyond should be viewed in the context of an African woman beating not only her cultural and societal inhibitions, but going ahead to challenge – head on – the oppressive white occupational state which even the men in her midst who had all the privileges patriarchy afforded them found hard to confront. Madikizela-Mandela first defied patriarchy, before proceeding to defy apartheid. According to South African feminist writer and journalist Gail Smith, in the final analysis, Madikizela-Mandela won the battle against apartheid but she lost the fight against patriarchy, which reared its ugly head even in her death.

Young women across the world have pushed back on Madikizela-Mandela’s demonisation and retold her story – warts and all. Standing outside Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home, Cape Town’s executive mayor Patricia de Lille was overcome by emotion as she spoke to a reporter after viewing Madikizela-Mandela’s body, which was brought back to the residence that April 13 evening, where it spent the night before burial the following day.

‘‘It’s really hit me now… because the whole week, two weeks, you know you still hope… and you know we prayed for her… she’s our mother…’’ de Lille said, unable to weave words together, teary eyed, her voice shaking with palpable grief. ‘‘You know she’s no more and her memory will live with us,’’ de Lille continued after regaining composure. ‘‘But we must continue to put up the fight for the poor, the landless, the homeless, because that’s what Mama lived and died for. When I saw her tonight for the last time I recommitted myself to that path of making sure that there are more people in our country who must taste the fruits of freedom and not just a few. That has always been the dream of Mama.’’

De Lille, who was reportedly in trouble with her party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), for choosing to attend a memorial service for Madikizela-Mandela organised by her party’s rival, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), next to the Brandfort house where Madikizela-Mandela was banished in 1977, had retorted that in African culture, when a mother died, it was mandatory for one to go and pay one’s respects. She referred to Madikizela-Mandela as her sister, mother and comrade. She didn’t need to ask anyone for permission to mourn, De Lille said.

‘‘The violence and the torture just made her more resolute,’’ de Lille continued. ‘‘Later she was saying there’s no more pain left and there’s no more fear left but at the same time she was a very soft person, with a heart of gold. We could come to her at anytime. If I just wanted to let off whenever I questioned myself whether it’s worth it to carry on with the struggle, I used to come here and spend hours with Mama and by the time I left I just knew I couldn’t give up. I had to continue. Now that she is no longer there we all have to commit ourselves to work even harder to make sure we look after the poor of this country… tonight I can feel that I have seen her for the last time, but she taught us to never give up… to press on… press on… press on… and that is what I will continue to do.’’

‘‘The violence and the torture just made her more resolute,’’ de Lille continued. ‘‘Later she was saying there’s no more pain left and there’s no more fear left but at the same time she was a very soft person, with a heart of gold.”

Barely an hour after Madikizela-Mandela’s body returned to Soweto, a high-level memorial event attended by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was held at the United Nations in New York. The words of Cuba’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Anayansi Rodriguez Camejo, possibly captured best the collective mood and sentiment of the evening:

‘‘The Apostle of our independence Jose Marti said, ‘Death is not true when the work of life has been fulfilled.’ Winnie was and is living history. She was Nelson’s voice on the streets of her country and around the world when he was imprisoned by the apartheid regime…Her spirit of resistance earned her admiration from honourable people but also the fear of her enemies who could never bring her to her knees. She has been rightly called the Mother of the South African Nation, but she was more than that. Her motherly embrace transcended the borders of her homeland because with the victory of the South African people over apartheid Africa was reborn… Winnie is the expression of the rebellious and fearless spirit of all African women.’’

Asked why it was imperative for her to be present to witness Madikizela-Mandela’s casket – draped in the ANC’s green, yellow and black flag – being carried off the hearse and up the hill leading to her home, a woman wearing a red doek said, ‘‘It was important for me to be here. Mama Winnie was the Mother of the Nation. She fought for us through thick and thin,’’ she said. ‘‘No woman can stand the pain that Winnie withstood. She was strong in jail. She never had time to stay with her family or her kids but she remained strong. I wish I could be like Winnie. I wish every woman can be as strong as her.’’

Asked what she felt at that emotional moment, a younger woman standing next to the woman in a red doek quoted Madikizela-Mandela. ‘‘You strike a woman you strike a rock,’’ she said, ‘‘She was the embodiment of the strength of the African woman.’’ A young man standing behind the two women – dressed in a yellow ANC T-shirt and a black marvin and carrying a black backpack, said, ‘‘I felt like crying because uMama Winnie fought for us… today I am literally still here because of people like her… go well uMama.’’

‘‘No woman can stand the pain that Winnie withstood. She was strong in jail. She never had time to stay with her family or her kids but she remained strong. I wish I could be like Winnie. I wish every woman can be as strong as her.’’

‘‘The sad news that has led us to this moment, this moment when you see the casket of uMama Winnie Madikizela Mandela draped in the ANC flag,’’ South Africa Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) Aldrin Sampear reported, standing on a partly deserted street corner outside Madikizela-Mandela’s home. ‘‘Inside this house is the body of uMama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The body that was bruised and battered. The body that said there’s no type of pain that I have never experienced. The body that spent 491 days in prison. The body that after seven days (of non-stop interrogation) was urinating blood. The body that was electrocuted. The body that made sure that body would overcome and fight for the freedom of South Africa.’’

At the poignant moment when Madikizela-Mandela’s body was being carried past her gate and into her Soweto home – with the gathered crowd ululating and shouting Amandla! once the casket entered the compound – a somber-looking American civil rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans association sang in unison the liberation dirge Hamba Kahle over and over again in line with the tradition of honouring struggle stalwarts. Hamba kahle mkhonto//Wemkhonto/Mkhonto we sizwe – safe journey spear, yes spear, spear of the nation. The spear of the nation had indeed fallen.

The ANC logo has a hand holding a spear. On the logo of the opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a hand-held spear sits across the map of Africa. When Nelson Mandela and his comrades Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo decided to launch an armed struggle against apartheid and formed a military wing of the ANC, they named it Umkhonto we Sizwe (Xhosa for spear of the nation).

It goes without saying that nothing symbolises the anti-apartheid struggle more than the spear. It increasingly appears that that spear is a woman, and that woman is Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the Mother of the Nation.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

Politics

From Shifta to Terrorist: A Shifting Narrative Of Northern Kenya

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

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

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

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

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

The Shifta war

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

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

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

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

Somalia’s support

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

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

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

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

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

Collective punishment 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pink card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human trafficking 

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

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

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

Al Shabaab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The End of Abiy-Mania

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-election 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The limits of Abiy-Mania

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

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

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

Federalism vs centralisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abiy and Amhara expansionism 

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

Sudan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is full of disappointments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the same as it ever was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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