1 October 2018 was a market Monday just like any other that has come and gone at the Githurai fruits and vegetables market, one of the busiest markets in Nairobi that is located 10 km from the central business district. Githurai Market is busy because its catchment area spreads all the way to Thika town and its environs. Although the older and more famous Wakulima Market, aka Marigiti, located in Nairobi’s CBD, could be busier, its market reach is not as widespread and does not go as deep into the hinterland as Githurai Market does. But, just like Marigiti, Githurai’s produce is transported from as far as Mbeya in southern Tanzania and Soroti in eastern Uganda.
This year has been one of the toughest years that the market women at Githurai Market have faced in recent times. Six out of every ten traders at Githurai Market are women. The market is largely run by resilient and seasoned female fruit-and-vegetable sellers, all of whom are Kikuyus and who in the true sense of the word, are entrepreneurs, whose grasp of the trade encapsulates the dictum: What they did not teach you at Harvard (or Yale) School of Business.
It was not the first time I was going to Githurai Market; this year alone, I have made enough trips there to get to grips with what makes the market tick, engaging with the women traders, sharing lots of cups of tea and chapatis, as well as listening to their stories about the funnier side of the market’s shenanigans.
That the market women had great faith that the economy would improve and eventually stabilise had become a point of sore contention between them and me. I often asked them what miracle they expected President Uhuru Kenyatta to perform to wish away their economic woes.
All of this year, the market women have kept telling me how bad business has been. But strong-willed and tough-spirited as they are, they have held on to their undying optimism and belief that matters will eventually even out; in the long run, the economy will be fine and everything will flow smoothly. Their optimism is not pegged on any economic principle or the variables of fresh produce market dynamics, but on the presumption of a shared political-cum-tribal commonality through imagined ties with the ruling Kikuyu elite (referred to as Uthamaki). Hence, their presumed political correctness and unquestioned and unparalleled loyalty; in their minds, their Kikuyu tribe ought to serve as an economic shield, especially in tough economic times. “Uhuru ndangerika tuone uru. Kai twamucaguraga wake?” (Uhuru cannot let us suffer. That is not the reason we elected him.) The women’s unshaken faith in President Uhuru Kenyatta, in the face of very obvious economic turbulence, is truly puzzling, but also admirable.
That the market women had great faith that the economy would improve and eventually stabilise had become a point of sore contention between them and me. I often asked them what miracle they expected President Uhuru Kenyatta to perform to wish away their economic woes. The country had mounting debts that ran into trillions of shillings, runaway theft that had crippled the state coffers in his first term and a Standard Gauge Railway project that had turned into a white elephant was gobbling Sh750 million in losses every month. Their chorus answer was always: “We should not keep saying the economy is bad. God is on our side and He will protect us.” It was a curt answer to a painful situation that threatened to fester indefinitely and which they were not prepared to talk about openly and publicly.
Sometime in July, when I told them that the government would impose Value Added Tax (VAT) on fuel come September, they outright rebuked me: “Aaah Uhuru ndangetikira.” (Nah, Uhuru will not consent to such an arrangement.) The VAT came and Kenyans immediately started experiencing the impact of the harsh tax. Matatu Saccos hiked fares overnight and kerosene prices shot up.
Meanwhile, the Githurai Market women’s optimism and faith in the person of President Uhuru was getting blurred and confusing. On this Monday, their spirits were beginning to break. It was 10.30am and the market was dull, inactive and quiet. The hustle and bustle had disappeared. The brisk business that used to be a permanent feature at the market throughout the week had whittled away. Something was just not working right, the unswerving belief in President Kenyatta’s “political abracadabra” and perpetual trust in the eternal Almighty notwithstanding.
To kill time as they waited for customers, the market women spontaneously formed a quasi-baraza and delved into the politics of the day. “Nitwarie caruruku,” said one woman, meaning “Let us brutally and honestly talk with one another other”. “Ithue nio ahari aa rua, no one riu uria turaria thina” (We are the people who do the lowest of the menial jobs, but look how now we are suffering). The Kikuyu idiom she used describes men who scrub and treat animal skins for a living. It is considered the lowliest job that any man could do.
“We supported Uhuru to the hilt but look at what he is doing to us now,” said one of the women. The trader said that President Uhuru had annoyed them so much that they did not want to have anything to do with him. It is obvious that it took a lot of courage to be publicly emotional about President Uhuru, a sacrosanct subject among Uthamaki loyalists, but the fact of the matter is that the market women are hurting financially and the prevailing political climate is anything but reassuring.
“Ni gaitu ga gweciarira” (It is our very own son) had been the rallying call for the market women to come out in large numbers and vote for President Uhuru in the August 8 and repeat October 26 elections. In this ethnic logic, their son had let them down terribly and now they had their back against the wall: First, the VAT on fuel had increased the transport expenditure of many of the traders who bring in fresh produce from within and across the county’s boundaries by more than Sh5,000 per trip, per truck. Second, the economic hardship was slowly resuscitating the proscribed Mungiki gang.
The nefarious activities of the Mungiki was another taboo topic: in public, they defended the youth, arguing that as their sons, they offered protection to them at the market, ensuring it was not invaded by intruders. During the repeat presidential election on October 26, many of the so-called Nairobi Business Community (a pseudonym for Mungiki) ferried to the CBD were from Githurai. “If we didn’t have these youth, who would have protected the Kikuyu businesses in the city centre?” the women challenged me. But in private, the women dreaded “their sons”. The Mungiki blackmailed and extorted money from them. In the words of one market woman, “They reap where they do not sow.”
Githurai Market is completely under the control of Mungiki godfathers who live in the sprawling Githurai neighbourhoods, especially those bordering the railway. All the trucks that offload fresh produce pay protection fees to their agents. The police and the community are aware of these activities, but at Githurai Market and its environs, nobody mentions the M word; when the youth come to collect money, no banter is exchanged. The communication rules are very clearly spelt out – have the loot ready for the young man to pick up and no delays or asking unsolicited questions. “Now,” said one trader to me in low tones, “the godfathers are demanding cash from not only the trucks, but they have sent word that the traders should now start paying ‘Mungiki Tax’”. The traders know what will befall them if they refuse to pay up. “Mungiki don’t blackmail Luos, they don’t chop Luo heads, it’s our sons that they will start killing.”
Githurai Market is completely under the control of Mungiki godfathers who live in the sprawling Githurai neighbourhoods, especially those bordering the railway. All the trucks that offload fresh produce pay protection fees to their agents. The police and the community are aware of these activities, but at Githurai Market and its environs, nobody mentions the M word
At the Githurai roundabout, Mungiki youth had erected a banner that read: Githurai Chapter of Nairobi Business Community supports Uhuru Kenyatta. A month ago, their vibandas (sheds) mounted on the Thika superhighway’s shoulders were demolished by a combined force of regular police, Administration Police (AP) and city askaris. “Why is Uhuru so careless and merciless?” asked a woman trader in total confusion. “Why is he demolishing businesses run by these youths? Does he know what he is doing? The trader said President Uhuru in just one swoop had unleashed Mungiki youth on them. “Turihetukagira ku riu?” (Where will we be passing now?)
The market women, in their ingenuity, had come up with a super idea: summon all these youth and give them fresh produce, mostly fruits, on credit to sell on the roadsides. Whatever they could not sell, they could return. It was a win-win solution for the youth and the women traders. Now even that idea had been undone by President Uhuru: The Mungiki youth who had been conscripted by the Jubilee Party to ostensibly “protect” Kikuyu businesses in the city centre were about to turn on their own, as they always do when faced with economic hardship.
The women now questioned the utilitarian value of President Uhuru’s presidency to them, specifically as members of the House of Mumbi. “Uthamaki wa Uhuru ututeithetie na ke?” (How has President Uhuru’s presidency helped us?) “Tungethura kihii riua ritigethua?” (If we elect an uncircumcised man (to be the president), will the sun not set?) The reference to circumcision was directed at Raila Odinga, President Uhuru’s chief rival during the election.
Still, after releasing all their frustrations and anger against their muthamaki (king/ruler), the traders were agreed in unison that “Mwathani nii ngutukinyaniria” (The Lord will protect us). Then they broke into the chorus of a famous Kikuyu song: Onei! Ni Wendo Utarii Atia – Look! What Great Love without Measure.
Hutia ria keri Ngai wakwa
Ndige kuona marundurundu
Niigetha nyone wega Baba
Bururi uria ndi riragitira.
Touch me twice My Lord
That I stop seeing darkness
So that I can see clearly my Father
The promised country I desire.
That weekend, I had attended a graduation party in one of Nairobi’s leafy suburbs, and although it was an opportunity to make merry while the sun shone, the prevailing religious undertones of the gathering could not be missed: three evangelical pastors – two men and a woman – had been invited to offer up an abundance of prayers for the Bachelor of Arts graduate.
When each of the pastors stood to administer The Word, it quickly became obvious that the prayer-warriors’ messages were not exactly geared towards the celebration of a degree in a time of austerity and tough economic times; they were meant to reassure the people assembled there – all Kikuyus – that although it was clearly evident that there was an air of political confusion and economic uncertainty a year into President Uhuru Kenyatta’s second and final term, this was not a time to despair or lose hope, but rather a time to recommit and rededicate oneself to God.
“We’re going through the hardest economic times in recent times and many of the businesses are doing terribly badly, some are even collapsing,” said the first pastor who was invited to speak by the master of ceremony. “But we cannot give up because we know the good God is watching over us.” The pastor said it was at times like this that the people ought to rediscover their relationship with God.
When each of the pastors stood to administer The Word, it quickly became obvious that the prayer-warriors’ messages…were meant to reassure the people assembled there – all Kikuyus – that although it was clearly evident that there was an air of political confusion and economic uncertainty a year into President Uhuru Kenyatta’s second and final term, this was not a time to despair or lose hope, but rather a time to recommit and rededicate oneself to God.
“The Lord Almighty must have a good reason for allowing us to undergo these trials and tribulations,” reaffirmed the pastor to a crowd that looked like it was hanging to his every word. “We’re a special people, anointed by God, to be an example to other communities, of our fearfulness to Him,” said the preacher man, pausing momentarily and peering into the peoples’ eyes to let the message sink in. “We are fearfully made, unlike the gentiles, who, we know, have been always setting traps for us. But all their tricks will come to naught.”
Speaking like he was now in a holy sanctuary, the pastor promised the gathering that the blood of the lamb was with them and Jesus Christ had thrown a protection ring around them. “We know, Lord Jesus Christ, you’re going to fight our battles on our behalf, even as you shame our mortal enemies.” Reminding the crowd that it should always be aware that it is surrounded by adversaries, he proclaimed that they were a chosen people and, therefore. they had nothing to fear.
“Always take comfort that the Lord’s people have never been admired or liked. Has anybody ever liked the Jews?” wondered the pastor, his deliberate comparison of the Kikuyus to the Jews slipped in for effect. “We’re going to triumph – but it’s incumbent upon us to be steadfast, because our Lord Jesus Christ is seated at the throne. I know many are beginning to question the reason why we now seem to suffer so, but this is not the time to question the Lord.” As he went to take his seat, he asked the people to sing with him the following chorus:
Nii ni gwenda Ngai umenyage ningenaga muno niwe
Tondu niujikaga wega na ukanyenda hingo ciothe
Irio ciothe iria ndiaga, mai maria nyuaga
Ona nguo cia kwihumba ciothe nowee uheaga
Muoyo naguo niwe waheire, niwe ugiragia ngue
Ungetheingia hinya waku, ndingiikara gathaa kamwe.
Lord, I want you to know that I’m much pleased by you
Because you take good care of me and love me so always
All the food I eat, the water that quenches my thirst
Even the clothes that I wear, it is you who has always provided
You gave me life and you protect me from dying
If you ever removed your almighty power, I wouldn’t last even for a second.
The second pastor, unlike the first, was more circumspect. “We’ve fundamental problems in Mt Kenya region,” boomed the pastor-cum-university don. “And if we don’t solve these issues decisively and promptly, it’s not going to augur well for the community. The Kikuyu people have a problem with money: “Kwina gathina haha Central…nitukwenda twicirie uhoro wa handu hau…na ndigutenderia muno.” (We’ve have a problem here in Central [Kenya]…and it’s incumbent on us to ponder over that issue…and I will not rub it in.)
The pastor observed that the Kikuyus had abnegated everything else for money. They only think of making more and more money, said the pastor. “It’s a problem the community must come to terms with, as it also tackles the other socio-cultural norms that the community has negated. As it is, things are not good now and the businessmen seated here know what I’m talking about: the economy is going south, state theft in the government has become the order of the day and you know what, a lot of that theft has been perpetrated by our very own people.
“Today our children are graduating from universities, every year in big numbers, but we don’t have anywhere to take them. Employment opportunities are shrinking by the day and doing business in this country has become extremely difficult, much worse than it was several years ago. But we cannot give up, because we must never allow the devil to triumph. Yet, we as the Kikuyu people, should, as a matter of urgency, ponder very seriously over these legitimate and pertinent issues that are afflicting the community – now and in the years to come – which we are afraid of talking about them openly and publicly.”
As he sat down he invited the crowd to sing along with him, the hymnal lyrical chorus that to many Kikuyus comes naturally to their lips, just like the Lord’s Prayer.
Ngukinyukia oo kahora
Njerekeire ya matuini
Ngahuruke na mwathani
Niwega Ngai muhonokia
Nake Jesu ni mugate,
Roho waku munyotokia
Nii ndikahuta, kana nyote
Step by step
I know I’ll reach
To rest with my Lord
Thank you God, my saviour
And Lord Jesus is my bread,
You holiness is a blessing
I’ll never go hungry or thirsty.
“In times of socio-economic and political distress, Kikuyus rediscover their prayerfulness and religiosity to numb their political confusion and mitigate their hard economic times with endless beseeching prayers. Every igogona (socio-cultural ceremony) is an opportunity to unearth and sing select religious songs to presumably comfort them,” an Anglican Church of Kenya elder from Waithaka parish recently pointed out to me.
As the graduation bash was coming to end, a businessman who has operated in downtown Nairobi for 28 years, and who I have known for 20 of those years, pulled me aside to moan about the economic meltdown that was taking place on Gaberone Road, Kirinyaga Road, Kombo Munyiri Road, Munyu Road, Nyamakima area, Ngariama Road and River Road, the strongholds of Kikuyu business.
“Businesses are shutting down in real time as we watch. What the heck is going on? Why is Uhuru doing this to us?” This was a lamentation from an Uthamaki fundamentalist who barely a year before had dismissed my economic projections as the musings of a person who did not have a proper grasp of national politics and the economic underpinnings of a country like Kenya that was supposedly led by a businessman.
“For the very first time, in all my years as a businessman, I’m seeing tenants unable to pay shop rents,” he said. “Ona igitunyuo mwana, ni ikagirio mungu,” he proclaimed to me. The literal translation of this Kikuyu saying is that if you snatch a baby from an ape, the least you can do is throw a pumpkin at it to assuage its loss. Figuratively, the businessman was telling me that while they were not expecting saintly treatment from President Uhuru, the least he should have done is shielded them from the faltering economy so that their businesses would not collapse, and they would not be run out of town.
“Businesses are shutting down in real time as we watch. What the heck is going on? Why is Uhuru doing this to us?” This was a lamentation from an Uthamaki fundamentalist who barely a year before had dismissed my economic projections as the musings of a person who did not have a proper grasp of national politics and the economic underpinnings of a country like Kenya that was supposedly led by a businessman.
Businesses worst hit by the sudden tax collection regime are the hundreds of electronics shops at Nyamakima area south-east of River Road, said my business friend. Completely colonised by Kikuyu businessmen and women, it is famous for its trade in cereals pioneered by brazen Kikuyu women, who in a single day are known to collect hundreds of thousands of shillings. In the last twenty years or so, there has been an explosion of miniature electronics outlets lining the alleyways of Nyamakima, which have made scores of young men, especially from Murang’a County, rich.
“I know electronic shops that have been run out of town, unable to pay monthly rent and unable to import any more goods. In fact, many of my friends’ goods have been stuck at the Mombasa port because of being slapped with a sudden humungous tax,” said the businessman. “To complicate matters for the electronics businessmen, many of them have been accused of importing counterfeit goods from China. Has the government just discovered they have been importing contraband? Because of this, their goods have been impounded, and many have lost hundreds of millions of shillings.”
None of the businessmen can afford to import enough goods from China single-handedly, so they usually come together as a group and buy goods that can fill a 40-foot container. “So, it is very possible that some businessmen import substandard goods, but the government has never given them a catalogue of specifications of the types of electronics that they should bring into the country.” The businessman said four of his friends had shut their shops. “Today walk down River Road and Kirinyaga Road and Munyu Road, you will see prime business premises empty, their tenants having vacated them.”
After the nullification of the August 8, 2017 presidential election, businesspeople from downtown Nairobi came out in the open to show their undying support for Uhuru Kenyatta. They hung banners across the roads that read: Munyu Road Business Community Supports President Uhuru Kenyatta and Nyamakima Business Community Supports Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta. Others read: Ni Kumira Kumira, Wembe in ule ule.
“Just 12 months down the line, businessmen are gnashing their teeth,” said the entrepreneur. “The banners have since been pulled down and now they have printed new banners such as, Traders & Importers Association – Stop Killing Our Businesses.”
A scene in Muigai wa Njoroge’s video of his popular song, Mbari ya Kimeendero (The Oppressors’ Clan), shows some people carrying a banner reading: Matunda ya Tano Tena ni #Gutee…Stop Harassing Our Businessess (The Fruits of Five More [a rallying call for support for Uhuru Kenyatta’ second term] was a waste [of time]).” The popular singer reminds his listeners (and the President) that “the Nyamakima businessmen community celebrated your Tano Tena (five more [years]) victory by slaughtering many goats…now their goods have been razed down and declared fake…The person who bewitched us (Kikuyus) must have been paid real well,” concludes the lyricist.
As the preacher woman at the graduation ceremony concluded her prayers, she called on the people to join her in the chorus:
Thutha wa magirio ma thii enu
Jesu niakajoya anyinukie
Jesu wakwa hiuha mbara enu ni nene
After all the trials and tribulations of this world
Jesus (Christ) will take me home
My Lord Jesus, please come quickly,
the battle before me is big.
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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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