On the evening of the day that saw twenty National Youth Service (NYS) officials arraigned in court to answer charges of institutional corruption, I went to see one of the lawyers who had been in court and who spoke to me on the condition that I would not disclose her identity. She was nonplussed about all the hullabaloo surrounding the NYS scandals and the subsequent parading of some senior government officials in the corridors of justice. “The courts have seen these kinds of court dramas before: nothing new and nothing out of the ordinary. It’s their season. They will come and go and the courts will go back to their usual routines. Take it from me, the courts are not in a mood to execute the Executive’s factional wars in the name of fighting state corruption,” she stated.
The advocate described the ensuing drama as a big, noisy circus. “I’m a trial lawyer,” she said. “If there will be any prosecutions, I will be glad for another day. What I’m saying is this: NYS 1 was juicier than this NYS 2 farce – were there any prosecutions? I hear it is the ‘Imperial’ legacy term. Please get me correctly: there will be no prosecutions, this is a circus show and NYS 3 is yet to come up.” (The lawyer was referring to the two multi-billion-shilling corruption scandals at the NYS, dubbed NYS Season 1 and NYS Season 2, within a short period of just three years.)
“Fish begins to rot from the head”
The fight against institutional corruption is not about fixing a certain cadre of people who don’t have the political connections and wherewithal and who will most likely be innocent victims or pawns in the political chess games of corrupt and powerful individuals, said the advocate. “It is immoral to harass and punish civil servants who are used as conduits of corruption by powerful state officials and politicians and when the crunch time comes, instead of the hammer falling at the right place, they are used as scapegoats. The NYS 1 corruption scandal involved powerful state officials who owned up to money getting lost. Some of them were even hauled in the courts of law – were there any convictions? Some of the NYS1 culprits are even more powerful today and presiding over bigger budgets. Let him [President Uhuru Kenyatta] fool no one that he is fighting corruption. Fish begins to rot from the head.” The lawyer acknowledged that the civil servants were also corrupt and the reason they were being hounded is because they had exposed their greed, hence were found culpable.
A Treasury official told me that the fish had been rotting for a long, long time. “What you’re seeing is the whirlwind before the calm. Everything about this razzmatazz sting operation stinks to high heaven. The biggest amount of money in the government is usually stolen just before the government closes its financial year and reads its budget. This year’s budget was read on June 14, so that means the 2018/2019 financial begins on July 1. It is not, in my view, a coincidence or for nothing that the government allegedly decided to release the dossier on NYS weeks before the national budget day. The coffers will be emptied before they are refilled again.”
The official said that in the two weeks before the budget is read, those who have the authority to incur expenses (AIEs), accountants and procurement personnel scheme to pilfer government money. Since the government is expected to close its books, all the monies that have been allocated for whatever use have to either be returned or expended. “This is the time when fictitious payments are paid out by accountants and AIE holders, who include directors, heads of department and permanent secretaries. The two weeks before the budget is read are always very busy as procurement officers invent ways of disbursing government money to dubious and hollow companies as they collude with the accountants and AIE holders to defraud the government,” said the Treasury official. “It is ridiculous for the President to talk about using polygraphs to gauge whether civil servants will be corrupt or not. Corruption is solely an ethical issue – it is not about whether you can master a truth test. If the government is interested to know, for example, who among the civil servants are corrupt, it should begin by conducting a lifestyle audit among AIE holders, accountants and procurement officers.
“The biggest amount of money in the government is usually stolen just before the government closes its financial year and reads its budget.”
The officer told me that the NYS report on the said scandals was ostensibly leaked by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) to media houses to create the impression that the media had simultaneously and suddenly stumbled on a massive corruption scandal. “These NYS scandals have always been there, they are not fresh scandals,” said the civil servant. “The impression one gets from government is that the corruption being exposed now could have happened just recently. Suffice it to say, they are a smokescreen of a much bigger scam that could be on its way. They are a farcical high drama of up-round-and-merry-go-round shows and Kenyans love street shows for their cathartic effects.”
“This is no longer corruption but outright theft”
But for Babra Singh, an elderly shopkeeper in Nairobi, the NYS scandals are like the street dramas he has witnessed in the city for many years – except that these scandals are not entertaining but truly tragic. “This is no longer corruption but outright theft,” said Babra in his tiny office on Kirinyaga Street. “I witnessed Jomo Kenyatta’s corruption, then Moi’s, which, sad to say, was assisted by some of our crooked Asian brothers. Then came Mwai Kibaki’s corruption with the Chinese, which was also massive. But Uhuru’s corruption has spiralled out of control; it is no longer corruption, it is purely mega theft, looting of unprecedented proportions, criminally driven by people who simply don’t care about the country.”
Babra was 18-years-old when he first set up his bicycle duka on the dusty Grogan Road in 1954, two years after President Uhuru Kenyatta’s father, Jomo, was detained by the British colonial government and a state of emergency was declared. Grogan (now known as Kirinyaga) Road was named after the rabidly racist Briton, Ewart Grogan, who later emigrated to apartheid South Africa in 1961 after he swore that he would never be ruled by a black leader (Kenyatta had been released from detention in 1959 and was poised to be Kenya’s first Prime Minister.)
“Since 2015, I’ve been laying off my workers one by one; what you see here is just skeletal staff. The cost of production exacerbated by unwieldy importation tax on spare parts, hefty bribes demanded by the customs officials and theft of spare parts by the very same customs officials had become unmanageable,” said Babra, who is a devout Sikh. “I’ve seen my workers – some of them have been with me for 40-plus years – become poorer and poorer by the day. I’m 82-years-old now. Much of my energy has been sapped out of me. I’m no longer as strong as I used to be and I’ve been keeping the company running, not because of me, but because of my workers.”
A. Gikandi, an aspiring politician from Kiambu County, told me that Kiambu residents, who happen to be the bastion of Uhuru’s ethnic support base, are poorer today than when Uhuru became president in 2013. Gikandi, who did not want his full name revealed said, “They’d very much like to explain their increasing levels of poverty by blaming other forces and not President Uhuru’s government, maybe because that makes them feel better, but the truth of the matter is they just can’t: his government has not helped them in any way. These spurious NYS scandals have not made them angry because they are fast becoming immune to anger. They are simply bamboozled that so much money, running into billions, can be stolen to enrich a few well-connected cabals while they can’t afford the daily necessities of life.”
A. Gikandi, an aspiring politician from Kiambu County, told me that Kiambu residents, who happen to be the bastion of Uhuru’s ethnic support base, are poorer today than when Uhuru became president in 2013.
The people are exasperated, he said. They are disengaged. Many of the “tenderpreneurs” mentioned in the scandals are millennials (he himself is one) “and, in fact, one of the people mentioned is a friend. To be honest, I was surprised when I saw his name mentioned. I called him up.” He added that his friend told him that connections to powerful state mandarins had got his name expunged from the final list of tenderpreneurs.
“It is absurd that you can pretend to prosecute a Principal Secretary and other senior civil servants and leave out the Cabinet Secretary,” said Gikandi. “Nothing happens in the ministries without full authorisation of the CS. Is it a miracle that the responsible CS is off the hook? She is properly wired.”
“Only a revolution will save this country”
Only a revolution will save this country, said the political aspirant. “The conditions are not ripe yet – but we’re headed there. After the national budget pronouncements, life will become even harder. We are headed for tougher times because austerity measures are here with us.” The crux of the matter, said Gikandi, is that it is the Kikuyu people who are suffering the most, but they cannot vocalise their disenchantment because they have been made to believe they have a collective duty not to be seen to be critising one of their own. “Don’t be surprised if the revolution begins with them,” he added.
A day after President Uhuru Kenyatta presided over the June 1st Madaraka celebrations this year in Meru town, 250km north of Nairobi, I went to see my friend Dennis Kimani, who is a second-hand clothes seller. “Did you listen to Uhuru yesterday?” he asked me. “I was so disappointed by Uhuru, talking about some gadgets to detect lying civil servants. I asked my wife whether what I was hearing was real. The people are crying, the people are suffering, the people are down, and all what Uhuru is talking about is importing lie detectors.”
Dennis told me he voted for Uhuru in the 2017 elections. “We Kikuyus are in a bind. When it comes to politics, we exhibit a herd mentality that has become so difficult to extricate ourselves from. On October 26 [the day of the repeat presidential elections], I had to be seen to have gone to vote – by my relatives and business friends – lest I’m branded bad names such as I’m a traitor, betrayer to the cause, NASA sympathiser, a Luo, or worst of all, have my Kikuyu identity questioned.”
For Jayne Rose Wairimu, a mother of three and a bookseller in Thika in Kiambu County, 40 km northeast of Nairobi, the decision not to participate in electoral politics was precisely because of “what we are now reading in the press on the orchestrated NYS scandals”. She said she did not vote in 2017 because elections had become pointless and futile. “The NYS saga is a racket by the two most powerful politicians in the country, President Uhuru and his deputy William Ruto. These monies that are being flung right, left and centre have been stolen on their behalf. You cannot convince me otherwise. It is so immoral to parade non-entities and hapless civil servants to hoodwink Kenyans that the state is now fighting corruption. NYS is Uhuru’s eating machine. Kibaki had his, the roads built by the Chinese. Moi’s was the Goldenberg scandal and such is life.”
Wairimu said that in this country you can engage in all manner of state corruption as long you have two cardinal things: tonnes of money and political influence. “Remember Kabura? She even confessed to carrying sacks of money. On whose behalf was she ferrying the money?”
Josephine Kabura was believed to be the hairdresser of the former influential and powerful Devolution Ministry Cabinet Secretary, Ann Waiguru. In her affidavit, Kabura named Waiguru as the focal point of the first Sh1.6 billion heist at NYS. The scam led the embattled Waiguru to resign in November 2016, but not before President Uhuru had defended her as a hardworking CS. Of particular interest was that in one year, the NYS budget had jumped from Sh13 billion to Sh25 billion. “Trust me, I smell a rat…There’s huge corruption coming… And then, as usual, the government will spin another yarn – ng’ano cia marimo (ogre tales). Uhuru is not fighting corruption, he’s engaging in a political circus,” said the bookseller.
“Remember Kabura? She even confessed to carrying sacks of money. On whose behalf was she ferrying the money?”
In Kikuyu town, Kiambu County, Amos Gatina, a businessman, told me that the NYS missing monies have just not gone missing now. “These are old corruption networks, some of which, I believe, were used to finance the second presidential election on October 26. All these funny people who are now being lined up for show were just conveyer belts. These NYS scandals are a melodrama created by Uhuru and his people to fool people that in his second term he’s going to be a no-nonsense President.” That the corruption scandals were being revealed this time told a much bigger story than just the government being interested in chasing corrupt state officials, he observed.
Gatina told me that the country was being run by political and financial mafia. “The Central Bank of Kenya governor, Patrick Njoroge, has a lot of explaining to do. How can all these financial shenanigans be going on around him, yet he is sitting pretty? Second-tier banks were used as conduits to transfer and withdraw humongous amounts of money, flagrantly breaking all the banking rules and you want to tell me we’ve not ceded the country to criminal gangs?”
“It is Ruto who is being fought”
A public policy analyst who worked with Uhuru Kenyatta in 2003 when the latter was the leader of the opposition, told me that the President is all talk and nothing more. “These fulminations about the NYS scandals by Uhuru are just that – fulminations. His railing against the pervasive corruption is nothing more than ensuring that [William] Ruto doesn’t succeed him. The scandals have been released to the public, not because the government has suddenly stumbled on runaway corruption, but because the Deputy President must be stopped from becoming President in 2022. It is Ruto who is being fought. Period.” The policy analyst said that he had advised Uhuru, who chaired the Parliamentary Accounts Committee on financial and economic matters, regarding his lead role in checking Kibaki’s government. “He never did anything. His was to fulminate and exhibit great annoyance, but it was all for public show.”
In January 2009, Uhuru Kenyatta was appointed by President Mwai Kibaki as one of two Deputy Prime Ministers and as Minister of Finance. In May of that year, he was involved in a Sh9.2 billion scam at the Treasury. “Do you remember how Uhuru explained away the scandal?” the policy analyst asked me: “He casually termed it as a computer glitch.” The issue of an extra Sh9.2billion being added to the Supplementary Budget had been raised by Imenti Central MP, Gitobu Imanyara. On May 11, Uhuru, accompanied by his Permanent Secretary, Joseph Kinyua, told the Parliamentary Budget Committee that, “yes, there may be a typing error, but that to me may not be a major cause of alarm.” (The committee exonerated Uhuru.)
A senior civil servant at the Ministry of Health told me he was unimpressed by Uhuru’s supposedly tough talk on the NYS scandals. “The president’s unconvincing assurances that money stolen from NYS will be recovered, and the subsequent threats that all those involved in the scandals should carry their own cross and will be punished, is just blowing hot air.” The bureaucrat said that one of the biggest scams to be unearthed during President Uhuru’s first term was in the health ministry. “We all know some of the people involved in forming dubious companies to swindle the ministry of hundreds of millions of shillings. A scandal doesn’t stop being a scandal because it was schemed by close relatives of the president and, therefore, conveniently swept under the carpet and ignored.”
Ten days after the President had hosted the Anti-Corruption, Governance and Accountability Summit – a public relations breakfast meeting ostensibly to carry out a corruption reality check and to have a “frank” discussion on how to curb runaway corruption – at State House in October 2016, his sister, Nyokabi Kenyatta Muthama, was named as one of the people who, in September 2013, barely five months into Uhuru’s first term, had already formed a company to supply goods to the ministry. Nyokabi, with their cousin Kathleen Kihanya, had registered Sundales International Company Limited on September 12, 2013. On October 29, 2016, The Star reported that the company, had been awarded five tenders worth Sh270 million by the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA).
The senior civil servant at the health ministry told me that the media’s exposé of the scandal, so soon after Uhuru’s breakfast meeting, was a calculated move by the Deputy President to embarrass the President. Why? Because, he said, the Ruto camp had interpreted the summit as a charade whose upshot was that state corruption was being perpetrated by the Deputy President and his henchmen. “No sooner had the debate on corruption at State House been over than his [Ruto’s] people were all over at the ministry looking for the ‘Nyokabi files’. What I am saying is the Ruto people leaked that scandal to the media within days as a way of fighting back the mantra that ‘It is William Ruto who’s corrupt and not the President’. These factional fights between the Uhuru and Ruto camps did not start now.”
The senior civil servant at the health ministry told me that the media’s exposé of the scandal, so soon after Uhuru’s breakfast meeting, was a calculated move by the Deputy President to embarrass the President.
Seemingly frustrated by the unceasing corruption in his government, President Kenyatta, while talking down to, among others, the then Attorney General, Prof. Githu Muigai, the Auditor General, Edward Ouko, and the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Paul Kihara (who succeeded Githu as the new Attorney General in 2018), moaned loudly: “Do you expect me to go set up a firing squad at Uhuru Park so that people can be happy?” Earlier on, the President, in a speech, had said that “corruption is just being used as a political circus.”
State House mandarins had invited two of the most vocal voices on state corruption, John Githongo and the economist David Ndii, to the breakfast meeting. The two declined the offer, which they interpreted as a ruse by State House officials to dupe Kenyans into believing that the President was serious about fighting corruption.
Indeed, a political stalwart of the former Party of National Unity (PNU), which ushered in Mwai Kibaki’s controversial second term and who is still very close to the former President, said, “There’s nothing new in these supposed corruption exposés. These are old corruption perpetrated by the state itself. Let’s cut to the chase: it is William Ruto who’s being fought here. This is about succession politics for 2022. He [Ruto] now needs to know who’s really in charge and what they are doing is cutting him to size.”
This former PNU official observed that Ruto showed his hand too early in wanting to succeed Uhuru. “He was abrasive, cocky and openly disrespectful to President Uhuru. You may be indeed intelligent and smarter than your boss, but in politics, you never undermine or seem to undermine the President. It is a cardinal rule anywhere in the world. Of all the things that Ruto learnt from [former president] Daniel arap Moi, he didn’t take home the most important lessons – humility and quietly biding your time.”
A bromance gone sour
In the days and weeks after assuming power in 2013, Uhuru and Ruto were inseparable, the “bromance” kept alive by sometimes dressing alike – matching white shirts and red ties, high-fives and always appearing in public with broad smiles and easy laughs. Then Uhuru would not have dared to describe his deputy as a reckless young man because it was a co-presidency. However, after a short five years, the bromance is fast fading. The pretence of co-presidency is gone and the exposure of corruption are signs of a factional fight over “brotherly love” gone sour.
“Uhuru couldn’t act between 2013 and 2017 because he needed a second term,” said a former Nairobi city councillor. “Now that he has crossed the bridge, he must wield the sword.” For the former councillor, “wielding the sword” means calling Ruto’s bluff. “Most of the corruption in the government is committed by Ruto and his henchmen, so he must be tamed. Between now and 2022, Ruto will not do anything else other than engage in presidential campaigns. Where do you think the money he is dishing out in harambee after harambee countrywide is coming from? The state resource taps must be shut tight to deny him any funds.”
The former councillor was, however, despondent about revelations about the looting: “Matikiire muno. Thirikari eno ya Uhuru ni iire muno.” (They’ve stolen too much, this Uhuru administration is stealing too much money.) “I pity our children and grandchildren. The country is sliding very fast into a bottomless pit and I don’t see a future at this rate.”
“Uhuru couldn’t act between 2013 and 2017 because he needed a second term,” said a former Nairobi city councillor. “Now that he has crossed the bridge, he must wield the sword.” For the former councillor, “wielding the sword” means calling Ruto’s bluff.
On May 30, 2018, while presiding over the issuance of title deeds in Embakasi East constituency in Nairobi County, President Uhuru Kenyatta, apparently unprovoked, described his deputy thus: “Hii kijana anaitwa Ruto unajua kila wikendi ana tanga tanga kila pahali. Atakuwa anapitia hizi machorochoro akiona kuna kitu inaenda kona kona mumwambie, si namna hiyo? Si namna hiyo? Tuhakikishe kazi ya wananchi imefanyika…tumekumbaliana? Ni wa ngapi wamesema tuwache siasa twende kazi? Twende kazi….” (This young man called Ruto is loitering everywhere every weekend. He has taken to roaming everywhere. He will be passing by and, if he sees things are not working as they ought to be, you report to him, is that okay? Is that okay? Let’s ensure the ordinary people’s work is done…are we agreed? How many of you concur that we stop politicking so that we work? Let’s get to work.)
The PNU official told me that the President’s use of the word “kutangatanga” (loitering) was a warning to Ruto. His remarks were intended to let his deputy know that “we are aware the slush funds you’re using every weekend to campaign are gotten from the state coffers”. Bottom line: the NYS corruption scandals have been unearthed supposedly to seal the loopholes. “So, take it from me, nobody’s going to jail, but Ruto must feel the full force of the state machinery and perhaps for the first time, must realise who’s in charge.”
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From Shifta to Terrorist: A Shifting Narrative Of Northern Kenya
A section of Kenyan citizens has been labelled dangerous to the main body of the country and denied a national identity and equal status with their fellow citizens.
As Kenya was celebrating her independence in 1963, the people of the Northern Frontier District were mourning the death of their dream of self-governance under British rule. In the spring of 1962, at the Lancaster House Conference, the region’s delegation had demanded self-determination for the NFD. The colonial government appointed an independent commission to look into the question and a referendum to determine the region’s future was subsequently held. The results of the plebiscite were however cancelled under suspicious circumstances even though they indicated that the overwhelming majority supported self-determination. The people felt cheated, and the north exploded in rebellion.
Northerners, especially those from the northeast, accuse the British colonial government of craftily handing over the region to Kenyatta. The colonialists had promised the separatists’ leaders that they would delay independence for the region to facilitate the orderly transition from colonial rule to self-rule.
The British played both sides after the Northern Frontier District delegation rejected the terms of independence and demanded a different path for the district. The colonial government decided to disregard the wishes of most of the inhabitants and handed over the region to the post-independence Kenyan government. Somalia protested the move, which further complicated the north’s struggle for independence.
What had been a people’s quest for self-rule became a political tussle between Kenya and Somalia. This issue has yet to be settled six decades later, and the north has become a victim of unending sabre-rattling. Kenya became independent on the 12th of December 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta as its Prime Minister. A State of Emergency was declared for the north-eastern region on the 27th of December 1963.
The Shifta war
The rebellion that followed the declaration of independence was, to the separatists, a struggle for self-determination. To the Kenyan government, the separatists were Shifta, the name used to reduce the separatists and the NFD population to bandits, outlaws, thieves, criminals, and murderers.
The Shifta label has stuck, although the events surrounding the coining of the term have been carefully erased from the history books. The Shifta narrative was meant to unite the rest of Kenya against the menace of the separatists. The media effectively adopted the new term as a standard reference to the rebels. Newspaper headlines reported shifta attacks almost daily throughout the period of the conflict.
The “war” was mainly skirmishing between the ill-equipped ragtag army of northern rebels and the Kenya military backed by British planes and tanks. It is the population in the north that bore the brunt of the fighting. The nomads had to sustain the fighters in their midst with their meagre resources while dodging the military operations and bombings.
The conflict began on the 22nd of November 1963 when NFD rebels burnt down a camp in Garissa. The rebellion took its toll on the inhabitants, forcing them to flee in droves to the neighbouring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia. Kenyan security forces considered everyone a rebel and the Shifta label was liberally applied without discrimination to men and boys from the region. Villagisation and shooting of camel herds were used extensively by the government to force the nomadic pastoralists to settle.
The secessionists expected to receive arms and ammunitions from Somalia, but Somalia’s loud noises were more bark than a bite. Nothing of material import came from Somalia in the four years of the war.
While fanning the conflict through declarations and radio broadcasts, Somalia was unwilling to train, arm and fight alongside the secessionists. The significant material support provided to the Kenya government by the British and the superior training of the military forces eventually turned the tide of the war in Kenya’s favour.
The end of the war began in 1966 with the exodus of the nomadic population. By 1967, the secessionists were out of arms and had no resources to rely on as the nomads crossed the border into Somalia in droves in what is known as John kacarar (escaping John). The secessionists surrendered in groups throughout 1967.
Realising that the rebels were at the end of their tether, Somalia accepted peace terms with Kenya mediated by Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. An agreement to end their differences and restore diplomatic relations was signed on the 14th of September 1967. The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north and on terms that were never declared public to the residents of the NFD. Four years of bombings, shootings and plunder had left the northeastern region — where the fighting was concentrated — destitute.
Once the war was over, reconstruction failed to begin. The schism remained in place. The military went on with operations aimed at clearing the region of “shifta elements”. The cost of the war was never enumerated. The hopelessness that descended on a defeated community required leadership, which never came.
A new narrative of bandits roaming in the unsafe wild north began to take shape. Collective punishment was the modus operandi during this period. Whenever armed criminals committed a crime, the nearest settlements were decimated by the soldiers.
In the late 1970s, an incident occurred along the Kenya-Ethiopia border where a military vehicle was burnt. The locals claimed the action was perpetrated by armed Ethiopian militia. In what came to be known as the Malka Mari Massacre, the Kenyan military detained over two hundred men and stoned them to death. None of the men was armed, and the military did not fire a shot.
In the period that followed, poaching became rampant as the stockpiles of small arms fell into the hands of poachers. Overnight, the “Somali Poacher” was born. The parks were now under threat from a new breed of armed men motivated by nothing more than money, and allegedly backed by influential people close to the government. Throughout the 1970s, the Somali poacher terrorised Kenyan elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs.
The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north.
In 1980, the security forces burned down Garissa after detaining and killing many of its inhabitants. This was an incident directly resulting from a disagreement between poachers and their contacts in government. A disgruntled poacher took matters into his own hands and killed several soldiers and other government officials.
The 1980s also saw the infamous Wagalla Massacre of 1984, where thousands were tortured and killed at an airstrip in Wajir, ostensibly during a military operation to curb banditry.
While Shifta and poachers were the competing narratives used by the government to explain its inability to bring the northern region under proper government control, the region suffered wanton neglect and underdevelopment.
The Somali-Ethiopia war ended in 1978, sparking the return of thousands who had fled the region during the war of secession as Somalia descended into clannism and corruption under military dictatorship. That same year, Vice-President Daniel Arap Moi gave a speech that sparked the alien debate when he threatened that the government would register all Somalis and deport anyone found to have allegiance to Somalia. It took 11 years for this policy to be implemented.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970. Traders from the north-east were deemed vagrants and deported from areas in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya back to their home region.
Citizenship documents were tightly controlled, and a system of verification was put in place to make it impossible for the region’s inhabitants to register as citizens. The police were given orders to stop and ask for IDs from anyone looking like a Cushite, a Somali or other related tribes who were distinctively identifiable.
The pink card
In 1989, the famous Kenya-Somali verification and registration took place. The system was designed to catch anyone who could not be linked to a sub-location and known clan.
People had to state their family tree up to their sub-clans, and a pink card with these details was issued to the successful ones. The system was designed to force out of Kenya those unaffiliated to any of the groups “indigenous” to the country.
It is estimated that at one point hundreds were crossing the border into neighbouring countries daily. People were detained, women with young children appeared in court accused of being in the country illegally. Suspected aliens were loaded on military lorries and dropped off in Liboi across the Kenya-Somali border. Many families, especially those elites with businesses, crossed into Uganda and left for Europe or America. The pink cards eventually became available for a fee, and it is believed registration officials took hefty bribes in the process. The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost when entire families were deported with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
As the “aliens” narrative waxed and waned, a new event triggered the updating of the terminology.
In 1991, the Somalia government of Siad Barre collapsed, spilling hundreds of thousands of refugees into the neighbouring countries. Kenya was grappling with its fear of Somalis and now had to face the eventuality of hosting desperate refugees, including the deposed president.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970.
The refugees were allowed in and settled in camps where they were fed and housed by the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. Throughout the 1990s, Somalia was controlled by warlords who divided the country into green zones, fought viciously among themselves and continued to spill out new refugees.
Apart from participating in efforts at reconciliation and in hosting refugees and facilitating their resettlement in Europe and America, Kenya stayed out of Somalia’s affairs. As the refugees were too many to be housed in the sprawling camps in Dadaab, Dagahaley and Kakuma, some ended up living in towns with the alien cards issued by the UNHCR as identification.
The idea of controlling the movement of refugees soon became fashionable. For the security forces it is difficult to differentiate between locals and refugees and soldiers engaged in random stop-and-searches and nighttime raids in the main towns to flush out illegal aliens.
The controls placed on refugees living in towns illegally sparked lucrative human trafficking where the police and traffickers facilitated the movement of people from the Somali border to the interior. IDs and passports became available for those who could pay but were impossible to acquire for genuine inhabitants of northern Kenya.
While Somalis and their Cushite cousins were getting used to the “alien” idea, a new term landed on Kenya’s shores: terrorism. International terrorists bombed the American embassy in Kenya in 1998. The perpetrators had names similar to those of the northerners and the refugees. The “terrorist” label did not stick for another decade and during this period Somali businesspeople invested heavily in the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi, creating a vibrant market where initially had been an unremarkable residential estate with a few wholesale and retail shops.
This economic boom coincided with the emergence of piracy on the Somali shores of the Indian Ocean. Suddenly the Kenyan media were reporting that piracy money was flooding the markets and making life costly for the residents. The Somali pirates were real, but this was part of international piracy having its operations on the lawless Somali coast. How the piracy money was siphoned into Kenya was never explained. The piracy issue occasionally crops up when overzealous reporters make disparaging references to piracy and the real estate boom in Kenya.
In 2011 Kenya sent troops into Somalia in an operation dubbed “Linda Nchi” after a tourist was kidnapped at the coast and probably taken across the border. There were other cross-border raids. However, significant Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya began in 2012 when Kenyan forces were integrated into the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As Kenya became embroiled in state-building in Somalia, with the creation of Jubaland floated as the reason for the invasion, Al-Shabaab started bringing its terrorism into Kenya.
In 2013, the Westgate Mall shootings led to the death of 67 people. More than 67 others also died in attacks in Mpeketoni in Lamu in 2014. The attacks on Garissa University attack were the worst, leading to 150 dead, many of them students. These brazen attacks were attributed to Al-Shabaab. Although the terror group had already internationalised and was recruiting with no regard to ethnicity, Kenyan Somalis became the target for blame, name-calling, and arrests.
In 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “You are all terrorists”. The terrorist narrative drives xenophobia, arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture. After the terror attacks in 2014 in Eastleigh and Mpeketoni, the security forces conducted an indiscriminate door-to-door operation targeting anyone who did not have an ID card to hand. This security operation was dubbed Usalama Watch. Those who did not have the document were taken to Kasarani Stadium and held there for two weeks. About 900 people were taken to the stadium, the majority being young people who could not acquire IDs due to discriminatory bureaucratic procedures , and a haphazard and corrupt system that barred genuine citizens from receiving the document.
The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost.
Over half a century of negative portrayals of people from the north means that the official government policy is skewed when it applies to them. The acquisition of a passport is generally a straightforward process. To ensure that aliens from the north do not acquire this critical document, the immigration department and security agencies have an illegal and discriminatory step in place for border communities — vetting. It is not enough that a northerner provides sufficient genuine documentation. The applicant must appear before a group of government officials, security officers and appointed individuals to prove their citizenship. To pass this step, one must know their location chief, the genealogy of ones’ clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
The emergence of one label does not lead to the dropping of the existing labels. Shifta, Poacher, Refugee, Pirate and Terrorist shape the thinking behind public actions. These negative portrayals have an impact on how national matters are debated and resolved.
A section of Kenyan citizens is considered as dangerous to the main body of the country. The secession war that ostensibly ended in 1967 is still being fought; the terms of the agreement that ended the war have never been the subject of a national conversation. Did the agreement include such important matters as citizenship, identity, development, and non-discrimination? The security agencies have not discarded their belligerent attitude towards the population and the civil service retains the policies of the 1960s towards the people of the north.
One must know their location chief, the genealogy of one’s clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
National identity is at stake as those who rejected becoming part of Kenya at independence cannot have equal status with everyone else. They are aliens, and “they all look like”. The most dangerous portrayal is the association with terrorism; poachers and pirates are small fish compared to terrorists. In the last few years, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings related to the war on terror have become commonplace. It is hard to fight for the rights of one who is labelled a terrorist and is disappeared or killed.
Public association with a terror suspect is a stigma that nobody is willing to be associated with. Crimes are committed under cover of fighting terrorism, and there is nothing the targeted community can do about it. That is the power of a label; it obscures the truth, gives authorities cover to commit genocidal crimes and permits the practice of xenophobia in public.
The End of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018 Abiy Ahmed elicited goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia but the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing him friends.
Ethiopia will go to the polls on June 22, buffeted by various crises domestically and abroad. But the upcoming election has many echoes of the May 15 2005 election, whose impact continues to shape Ethiopia’s domestic politics and politics in the Horn of Africa. Central to Ethiopia’s current domestic crisis and the border dispute with Sudan, is the Abiy-Amhara compact.
The 15 May 2005 elections were the third national elections to be held under the 1994 constitution following the ouster of the Marxist-Leninist Derg. In the 1995 and 2000 elections, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government harassed the opposition parties, forcing the influential ones to boycott the polls, with the result that the EPRDF won both elections with over 90 per cent of the seats.
Ahead of the 2005 election, the EPDRF signalled the significant participation of the opposition parties so that Western observers—whose support was critical for Meles—would declare the elections to have been free and fair. The incumbent party acceded to the pre-election demands of some opposition parties, allowing in international election observers and giving the opposition parties a chance to sell their manifestos on the national broadcaster. These conditions were absent in the previous elections. While these were not among the chief demands of the opposition parties prior to the polls, they indicated reasonable good faith on the part of the government compared to previous elections.
As a result, for the first time in Ethiopia’s history, a nationwide multiparty competition seemed possible; neither the ruling party nor the opposition had ever faced a competitive election before.
Internal turmoil within the EPRDF preceded the election. The Central Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s core support base—broke up into two rival factions in 2001. With his base in the Tigray heartland at risk, Meles took advantage of his central position within the broader EPRDF coalition and outmanoeuvred his rivals. He sacked several senior officials and successfully weathered the storm, but the fault line remained and emerged during the 2005 elections.
The pre-election period saw the unprecedented participation of the opposition parties and civil society organisations in the campaigns. Election Day went peacefully, and the early results in Addis Ababa and other major urban areas showed the opposition parties making significant electoral gains. According to unofficial preliminary results, the opposition had won 172 parliamentary seats—its most considerable showing yet in the 547-member assembly. On the night of the election, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a one-month ban on public demonstrations in the capital and brought the Addis Ababa security forces (which would have come under the opposition’s command had they been sworn in) under the control of the Prime Minister’s office.
Opposition parties boycotted their seats in parliament, alleging rigging by the incumbent. Their refusal to take up their seats in parliament handed Meles Zenawi and his party a third term in office. Meles interpreted his “mandate” as a licence to take the authoritarian path. Hundreds, if not thousands, of political opposition and human rights activists were arbitrarily detained, with some facing the spurious charge of treason. Ethiopian security forces killed almost 200 demonstrators in post-election protests in June and November 2005 and arrested tens of thousands of people.
With the domestic front “sorted”, Meles turned to regional matters. In December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to root out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had brought stability for the few months they were in charge. The Ethiopian forces captured Mogadishu in less than a week, and the UIC dissolved and surrendered political leadership to clan leaders.
Ethiopia’s ouster of the UIC tapped into a deep historical hostility between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab, the youth wing of the UIC, exploited with a mix of latent Somalia nationalism and anti-imperialism.
Ethiopia’s actions provided Al Shabaab with an opportunity to translate its rhetoric into action. Al Shabaab began targeting the nascent Somalia government, Ethiopian forces, the Transitional Federal Government security, political figures, and any Somalis collaborating with Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s and TFG’s heavy-handed counterinsurgency responses played into the hands of Al Shabaab.
Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, had met with then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Sixteen years later, Ethiopia goes into another election whose consequences could transcend Ethiopia.
The limits of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed elicited a groundswell of collective goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia. He embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
At home, Abiy released political prisoners, appointed the country’s first female as the ceremonial president and a cabinet half-filled by women. He nominated a once-jailed opposition leader as the new chairwoman of the electoral board. In the Horn of Africa region, Abiy had a rapprochement with Eritrea, a country with which Ethiopia had fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000. Abiy also attempted to mediate the Sudan political crisis.
The Nobel Committee awarded Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize “For his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, particularly for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”
Federalism vs centralisation
While the trigger for the Abiy-led military operation against the Regional Government of Tigray in the north of the country is the alleged attack of the federal army base by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the attack was only a symptom and not the actual cause.
The battle between Abiy and the TPLF and other groups is a battle between those who champion the multi-ethnic federalism constitution and those who prefer a centralised state. Abiy favours centralisation to federalism.
The Tigray region is not the first to bear the brunt of the military and federal security forces to achieve Abiy’s centralisation agenda. The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
Abiy embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
Throughout its long history of state formation, Ethiopia was for thousands of years ruled by emperors under a monarchy with a unitary system of government. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974 and from then on until 1991, the country came under a dictatorship with a unitary system of government.
The creation of the EPRDF in 1989—an ethnic coalition of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM; later Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO; later Oromo Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM)—had changed that.
Abiy’s shot across the bow was the dissolution of the EPDRF and the launching of the Prosperity Party (PP) on December 1 2019. The OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM voted overwhelmingly to join the party, while the TPLF rejected the idea as “illegal and reactionary”. The timing of the move was convenient, coming just a few months before the election that was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The EPDRF’s multi-ethnic federalism and the inclusion in the constitution of the right to secede for all “nations and nationalities and peoples” of the country were innovative breakthroughs in a country with 80 different ethnic groups. But the constitution was also a product of ideological foment and political necessity. The leaders who revolted against the Mengistu junta had emerged from the student movement that had adopted the “nationalities and the land question”, redefining Ethiopian statehood.
The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
While the multi-ethnic federalism has been imperfect, especially its implementation and the domination of the EPDRF by the TPLF, in a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
Abiy and Amhara expansionism
The Amharas are Abiy’s vociferous supporters at home. They, especially their elites, have an axe to grind with the TPLF for diluting their decades of uninterrupted state power and control. Amhara language and culture are the state’s language and culture, and the language and culture of the Orthodox Church which wields unfettered power. But with its political nous, its deep bureaucracy and know-how, the TPLF was always a challenging prospect for Abiy, a political novice with limited federal-level experience and hardly a political base. The connecting tissue of Abiy-Amhara unity is the lowest common denominator that is the fear and loathing of the TPLF. After dissolving the EPDR, a coalition in which the TPLF was a strong partner, the next step was to defeat the TPLF militarily. Even before the November military incursion into Tigray, Amhara militias were massed at the border with Tigray. If Abiy’s anti-TPLF move was intended to destroy them as a political force, for the Amharas this was an opportunity to regain some of the territories they had lost to Tigray in 1991.
Ethiopia also has a boundary dispute with Sudan. The dispute centres on the al-Fashaga region, Sudan’s fertile breadbasket located in Gedaref State, which borders Ethiopia’s Amhara region in the north-west. According to the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 the area belongs to Sudan and, unlike the regime of Omar al-Bashir, for the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok, settling this dispute is a priority. However, the Abiy-Amhara alliance has made resolving the dispute complicated.
Sudan is also a critical factor in resolving the Tigray crisis; the country is the only remaining supply route for the TPLF as Eritrea is closed to them and bringing in supplies and fuel through other routes is risky. Sudan could also determine how the GERD dam conflict will be resolved. Unlike Egypt, Sudan could benefit from cheap electricity if the dam is filled, but the country will not countenance losing al-Fashaga. Abiy faces difficult choices: cede al-Fashaga to Sudan and gain a partner in the dam negotiations while also denying the TPLF a supply route or keep al-Fashaga and lose Sudan in the GERD dam discussions, leaving the TPLF to use the Sudan border for supplies.
The Tigray conflict, which Abiy initially promised would be a straightforward law enforcement operation, has instead metastasised into a slow-grinding counterinsurgency operation. The continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing Abiy friends.
On May 23, the US State Department announced visa restrictions for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals—including Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the resolution of the crisis in Tigray.
In a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
America’s sanctions came on the heels of the European Union’s suspension of budgetary support worth €88 million (US$107 million) until humanitarian agencies are granted access to people in need of aid in the northern Tigray region.
On the 7th of June 2021, Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), who is also Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, together with Karen Bass (D-CA) and Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), respectively Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights, issued a joint statement after tabling a resolution condemning violence and human rights abuses in Ethiopia.
The sanctions come as Ethiopia awards its first telecom licence for US$850 million to a consortium that includes the UK’s Vodafone in what could herald the opening up of Ethiopia’s closed economy.
Before the EPDRF came into power, Ethiopia was a posterchild of famine and incessant conflict, especially under the Derg regime. Abiy and Amhara nationalism is bringing back the echoes of the Derg era and the upcoming June election is unlikely to resolve current crises; if anything, it will exacerbate them.
We Still Can’t Breathe: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo
Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could get back to normal.
Sometimes even the “biggest” victories can ring hollow. That especially seems to be the case several months into 2021, and 11 odd months after George Floyd had his life snuffed out in front of a red-brick grocery store in South Minneapolis, around the corner from the “Little East Africa” neighbourhood. That Derek Chauvin, the cop who laid his blatancy in the form of a knee across Floyd’s neck in a gutter finally faced some form of consequence in the form of a guilty verdict, may, in and of itself be of little consequence in the grandest of schemes.
Yes, right now it seems as though the verdict that has come down harshly on Chauvin is a rebuke of all things heinous, nothing less than a massive moral victory for racial progress, black America and global equality.
Indeed, rainbows shall now shine through and if you listen to many pundits within the American (and for that matter, Western) broadcast media, racism against Black America has been solved once and for all — à la the presidential election of Barack Obama way back in those heady days of 2008.
Chauvin will be sentenced on June 25th of this year. Much of Black America is already lowering their expectations away from the 40-year maximum prison sentence.
Life is full of disappointments.
In itself, the Chauvin verdict is not one of them; it is just another opportunity for a larger collective sadness, another opportunity for an eventual letdown, a reminder of the global system of injustice that is, frankly, far as hell from ever being permanently resolved.
I haven’t been in Minneapolis since the end of May 2020, the Saturday following the Floyd killing, when the very landscape and fabric of the “Twin Cities” of Minnesota and Saint Paul were irrevocably changed. Walking around that day, the sense of despair was palpable. All of Lake Street — all seven kilometers of it — seemed to have been hit by varying degrees of madness. Some buildings were completely burnt out, husks of their former selves; others had smashed windows or had “BLACK OWNED BUSINESS: DON’T BURN!” scrawled in graffiti across the boarded-up doors. Thousands of people trudged around with shovels, cleaning up debris ahead of the inevitable next night of chaos.
In the weeks that followed, the protests spread across the United States, and even took root on a global scale, spreading as far as Nairobi, London, Kampala, Rome and dozens of other cities. In Minneapolis, all the tension of a tense superpower seemingly dying of its own hubris during the chaotic early months of the COVID-19 pandemic descended on an idyllic neighbourhood. By the day I arrived, May 30th, the United States National Guard was being deployed to put down any form of violence with their own forms of violence. But the damage had been done and the rest of the country was experiencing its own varying levels of chaos. At least two people were killed in Minneapolis alone (and at least 19 across the rest of the US, though this number seems to be low). Dozens of people were injured in Minneapolis alone (although the exact numbers are hard to confirm; personally I talked to at least three people who had sustained non-lethal injuries during the protests, so the real number could be much higher).
Thousands were injured across the US, with hundreds more incidents of police brutality filmed and shared widely. In Minneapolis there was approximately KSh 53 billion worth of damage related to the unrest. Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis who allegedly had white supremacist ties retired at the beginning of 2021. The Minneapolis Police Department was defunded following the reckoning that fell upon the Twin Cities in those warm early summer weeks.
Among pundit across America, talk of alliance and “listening” rapidly became the norm. Many leading neo-liberals put out statements, Republicans and Democrats alike. Trump ordered the beating up of peaceful protesters in front the White House and goodhearted liberals were shocked and appalled. Everyone said it was a “sea change” in American race-relations.
Less than three months after the George Floyd protests kicked off there was a “monumental change” — Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in the city of Kenosha, in my home state of Wisconsin. The NBA boycotted games, more conversations were had and the world kept right on turning, same as it ever has.
When it comes down to issues of inequality, racism and oppression the status quo is always maintained, especially in America. Two steps forward and three steps back seems to be the pattern, one that is only reinforced by the pattern of police getting away with the murder of Black Americans — whether on tape or merely under “suspicious” circumstances in which “the officer felt their life was threatened and required a response of lethal force”.
Perhaps it is this constant pattern of impunity that has caused the most damage, a pattern that in the US can be traced to well before the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, California. The riots were sparked off by the acquittal of cops who had been caught on film beating and kicking King senseless on the shoulder of a freeway.
It’s the same as it ever was.
Over the years since, especially in this age of social media ubiquity, incidents police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
Horrifying, but not at all surprising. Everyone within the Black community in the US has long known the score. “Officers under threat” deaths, cases failing to be investigated, rumours of pistols being planted, delays in emergency responder times, ties to white supremacy, “warrior cops” getting more military equipment, stop-and-frisk policies, higher incarceration rates among Blacks, continual harassment, talking to children about keeping hands visible when dealing with police, media bias, fetishisation of police, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement — the list of systemic issues within US police forces could fill the remainder of this article.
In this age of social media ubiquity, incidents of police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
The American judicial system itself is inherently flawed. The narrative among much of the “upstanding” upper middle-class elements of society is that somehow race relations were, if not solved outright, repaired with a sustained “upward” trajectory somewhere around the funeral of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in 1968.
They paint a rosy picture of race-relations in the US in which all segregationist judges were replaced with forward thinking progressives, where all cops with KKK ties were unceremoniously fired, where the ghosts of “Jim Crow” laws (designed to suppress, segregate and subjugate post-slavery Black America) simply faded into the distant memories of a bygone era. The result was a sort of racial Cold War, where proxy wars were fought through the war on drugs, mass incarceration, neoliberalism and police impunity.
“At least segregation is illegal now”, says White America when pressed, as if cities, schools, hospitals and police actions were not still segregated sans overt painted signs.
Such sentiments bled into the politics of the US’s two major parties, Republicans spearheading the “War on Drugs” under the Reagan presidency of the 1980s and the Clinton administration cutting social programmes and accelerating mass incarceration during the 90s under the all-American ideal of “pulling oneself up by your bootstraps”. Such proponents of America’s neo-liberal ethos cared little whether there were any boots to begin with.
Slowly the technology caught up with the reality, and the anger felt across the marginalised communities in America had a focal point on which to pour out their frustrations. The images were there on film, little snippets sent into cyberspace by countless onlookers. The anger was in the bloody and lifeless body of Michael Brown lying for hours in a Missouri street. It was in Eric Garner pleading that he couldn’t breathe while being choked to death by cops in New York City. It was in Philando Castille being shot and killed in his car seconds after telling the officer who had pulled him over that he had a licensed gun in the car and reached for his wallet. (This shooting also happened in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.) It was in Breonna Taylor being shot dead on a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky only for the officers to be charged with “wanton endangerment” for firing bullets into a neighbouring apartment.
None of the officers in the above incidents were convicted. Some were never even brought into a courtroom.
On April 11th 2021, Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a cop during a traffic stop in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Details and footage of the incident are scant. The officer involved has been charged with second-degree manslaughter (a lesser charge than homicide in the US court system). Protests have sprung up around the US, youth wearing surgical masks — the hallmark of the smoldering COVID-19 pandemic — clashing with police and facing arrest, and “non-lethal weapons being deployed by officers to quell pockets of unrest”. This killing occurred at the epicentre of the “defund the police” movement — Minneapolis.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
The police are just the visible agents of the systemic suppression of Black people that stretches far beyond the shores of the US.
If COVID-19 has shown up anything, it is the brutality of police worldwide. Most times their actions go on with impunity. Cops in Kenya beat up people without mercy and enforce curfew by leaving motorists stranded on highways. In Uganda cops extort commuters under threat of jail. In Rwanda the stranglehold on the nation continues to tighten under threat of harsh penalties.
There is no equality when it comes to the Global South, particularly for much of Africa whose suffering at the hands of the police echoes the oppression faced by the Black community in the US.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
Through this lens of warranted cynicism, the “guilty” verdict handed down to Derek Chauvin by a jury in Minnesota is not a massive turning point. The very pundits stating that the verdict is such a monumental moment of change inherently prove that it is nothing remotely close to such a trend. There will be other failed indictments, other cops walking away, more cases of mysteriously “lost” body-cam footage. More will die, protests will spring up and be quelled with extreme prejudice.
Chauvin, the smirking killer that he is, did prove one thing and one thing only: where the “line” truly is, where the grey areas that the police hide behind blur over into black and white, from a “justified act of lethal self-defense from a frightened officer” into outright murder. His actions were so unquestionably heinous that they had to be dealt with. What Chauvin did derives directly from an ugly history; he lynched that man and at the time thought he would get away with it, hands in pockets, cocky half-smile on his face while his bodyweight cut off George Floyd’s air supply in that street gutter. Bystanders begged him to stop as the other officers watched in idle complicity. Paramedics were not allowed to give medical aid and Chauvin continued to apply pressure for minutes after Floyd had become non-responsive.
The systems, after all, stay much as they are in America. Profit margins must be maintained and “order” by way of the status quo must be upheld. The Twin Cities, of which Minneapolis is the more visible twin, would have simply exploded if the verdict had come back anything less than guilty. After a year of protests, COVID-19 lockdowns, electoral strangeness, Trumpian policies, political divisions, economic challenges and continued incidents of police violence, the tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
If that had happened the resulting violence would have dwarfed any incidents of unrest in America’s past. It is likely that weeks later clashes with police would be continuing on a nightly basis in dozens of cities across America. Minneapolis, where major corporates are headquartered, would have been engulfed in flames so huge the smoke would have been seen in the neighbouring state of Wisconsin.
The tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
Chauvin’s true legacy is that of an outlier, the ultimate talking-head example that “things are different now”, that something has truly been accomplished on a systemic level when it comes to police treatment of Black America.
In reality, Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could “get back to normal”.
For Black America in 2021 however, normal life is chockful of disappointments.
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