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MATING RITUALS: Fault lines in the donor-NGO relationship

As Western donors make nice with the government and abandon Kenya’s vocal civil society organisations, can social media ride to the rescue of citizen activism? By RASNA WARAH

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MATING RITUALS: Fault lines in the donor-NGO relationship
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Prior to the 2013 general election in Kenya, presidential aspirant Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto employed a clever (and highly cynical) strategy that used to their “advantage” the fact that they were both indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity committed after the 2007 election. In a campaign that shocked much of the world – and left many dumbfounded – the duo presented themselves as “victims” of a flawed and racist international justice system and painted the election as “a referendum against the ICC”. Thanks to a well-oiled PR machinery (that included the likes of the controversial firm Cambridge Analytica), they were declared the winners of the election (albeit by a small margin that was contested by the opposition) because, not in spite, of the fact that they were indicted.

The UhuRuto election campaign also castigated non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – also known as civil society organisations (CSOs) – and the Western donors that funded them as “evil society”. Prior to the election, the United States Assistant Secretary of State, Johnny Carson, had warned of “consequences” if Kenyatta and Ruto vied for the presidency and the then British High Commissioner to Kenya, Christian Turner, had stated that if the two candidates’ Jubilee Alliance coalition party won the elections, his government would only maintain “essential contact” with its top officials. (This would all change after Uhuru Kenyatta became the president, but I will come to that later.)

Underlying the anti-West rhetoric was a sub-text that cast Western donors and the NGOs they funded as imperialists. Prominent NGOs that had questioned the legitimacy of ICC indictees running for the presidency were labelled as foreign stooges intent on disrupting the peace and on undermining the country’s sovereignty. (The attack on NGOs as imperialist lackeys seemed disingenuous and hypocritical, considering that Kenyatta’s family has vast business interests that are linked to Western capital and that he had even hired a British PR firm, BTP Advisers, to manage his 2013 presidential campaign and public relations. As professor Horace Campbell noted, the “pseudo anti-imperialism” of Kenyatta was so layered that it would have required a high level of sophistication to grasp the game-playing that was going on.)

Kenyan NGOs were among the first casualties of Jubilee’s unexpected election victory. Writing in African Arguments, Kenyan researcher Kennedy Opalo noted that “at some point in the election cycle they [NGOs] lost the support of a sizeable chunk of the middle class. The feeling of betrayal was hard to miss. The very people they had fought for had rejected their cause.”

This sense of betrayal was evident in Professor Makau Mutua’s weekly column in the Sunday Nation of 21 April 2013, in which he described the deep loss that he and his fellow civil society activists felt as “an existential moment”. Fearful that NGOs might not survive a Kenyatta government, Mutua, the chair and founder of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, stated that civil society activists felt “betrayed by a population they’ve always fought for”, adding that “engaging” and “dialoguing” with the new government would only serve to legitimise it, a notion he found hard to stomach.

Kenyan NGOs were among the first casualties of Jubilee’s unexpected election victory. Writing in African Arguments, Kenyan researcher Kennedy Opalo noted that “at some point in the election cycle they [NGOs] lost the support of a sizeable chunk of the middle class. The feeling of betrayal was hard to miss. The very people they had fought for had rejected their cause.”

Now, more than five years after it castigated Western donors and the ICC as racist imperialists and donor-funded Kenyan NGOs as the “evil society”, the Jubilee government, it seems, has not only mended fences with the West, but Western donors are falling over themselves to impress the government, perhaps in an attempt to secure lucrative infrastructure and other deals and to ensure their geopolitical interests in the region. After threatening all manner of “consequences”, including sanctions and “minimal contact” if the two candidates were elected, donor countries, notably Britain and the United States, have recanted their earlier positions. Given that Britain and the United States, in particular, have huge security and economic interests in the country and in the Horn of Africa, it is likely that their relationship with the Kenyan government is set to flourish. There is no more talk of Kenyatta’s and Ruto’s cases at the ICC (which were dropped due insufficient evidence, witness intimidation and state non-cooperation). Instead Western donors are working overtime to lend support to Jubilee’s development agenda – perhaps in an attempt to counter the increasing influence of China on the Kenyan government’s policies and programmes.

NGOs have thus been relegated to the back burner, making many civil society activists wonder whether all the talk by Western donors about good governance, accountability and human rights was mere rhetoric and not a desired or expected outcome of the donors’ engagement with them. And Western donors are back in the government’s saddle, much to the activists’ amazement and disbelief. They have not only gone on a charm offensive with the Jubilee government but they have also remained largely silent in the face of major corruption scandals that have characterised the Jubilee administration since it took power. NGOs that would have been more vocal about a mismanaged economy or human rights abuses are now struggling to get Western donors’ attention.

Meanwhile, high profile civil society activists who have been vocal critics of both Kenyatta and Ruto are slowly fading into the distance. Some NGOs have even been threatened with closure by the NGO Coordination Board, which has come up with spurious charges against them, an indicator that the space for civil society is likely to shrink further.

Mating ritual

But then why are we surprised by this turn of events? This “mating ritual”, as The Economist once described the relationship between Kenya and its Western donors, is hardly new. The government-donor relationship has undergone several incarnations, ranging from passive-aggressive non-cooperation to grudging accommodation to deliberate re-alignment. The mating ritual’s steps, to quote The Economist article published in August 1998, are as follows:

“One, Kenya wins its yearly pledges of foreign aid. Two, the government begins to misbehave, backtracking on economic reform and behaving in an authoritarian manner. Three, a new meeting of donor countries looms with exasperated foreign governments preparing their sharp rebukes. Four, Kenya pulls a placatory rabbit out of the hat. Five, the donors are mollified and the aid is pledged. The whole dance then starts again.”

In his book Liberal Democracy and the Emergence of a Constitutionally Failed State in Kenya, the Kenyan scholar Abdalla Bujra says that Western donors’ emphasis on “good governance” – and their funding of NGO activities that advance this agenda – is not so much premised on the idea that governments have to be democratic, accountable and participatory, but is “to ensure that foreign investors and large corporations conduct business quickly and efficiently in Kenya as well as to ensure that these investors and foreign companies get their maximum profit without having to share it with local elite through corruption”. (Could it be that one of the “rabbits” that Jubilee pulled out of its hat to placate the US government was the awarding of a large multi-billion-dollar contract to a US company to build a six-lane highway between Nairobi and Mombasa?)

In his book Liberal Democracy and the Emergence of a Constitutionally Failed State in Kenya, the Kenyan scholar Abdalla Bujra says that Western donors’ emphasis on “good governance”…is not so much premised on the idea that governments have to be democratic, accountable and participatory, but is “to ensure that foreign investors and large corporations conduct business quickly and efficiently in Kenya…”

Because some foreign aid is channelled to NGOs (ostensibly to exert the donor country’s “soft power”), NGOs in Kenya became inextricably linked to the “good governance” agenda advocated by Western donors and international financial institutions. Kenya’s “second liberation” from Moi’s autocratic rule was partly the result of donor-funded activities that allowed NGOs and their leaders to push forward their demands. As the Kenyan constitutional lawyer Wachira Maina has noted, “the extent to which local politics is often mediated by donors is remarkable”. Donors, Western donors, in particular, he says, “are the first organised group that the opposition in Kenya speaks to when it has an idea to sell”.

Donors thus, in effect, become “embedded” within Kenyan civil society, thereby indirectly exerting influence on the political landscape. Their support also ensured that NGOs promoted the kind of neoliberalism and democracy favoured by Western governments, which emphasises individual, rather than collective, rights, and repudiates notions of “popular power” based on the sovereignty of the people.   (It is important to note, however, that the bulk of bilateral donor aid to Kenya goes to the government; only a small proportion is channelled to NGOs, a fact that successive Kenyan governments have deliberately played down.)

In order to understand how the mating rituals between the Kenyan government and Western donors and between Western donors and NGOs work, it is important to look at how the government-donor-NGO relationship in Kenya evolved.

The evolution of the Kenyan NGO

The role of NGOs in Kenya has changed significantly since colonial times, when they were mainly philanthropic organisations focused on social welfare issues. While some aligned themselves with the anti-colonial struggle, and went on to form political parties and movements, by and large they remained apolitical. (In fact, many NGOs are required to remain non-partisan and apolitical to be eligible for donor funding.)

After independence in 1963, NGOs continued to do charity work, often working hand-in-hand with the government and the private sector in the spirit of harambee (self-help) popularised by the founding president Jomo Kenyatta. Rural communities, in particular, were encouraged to pool together their own resources to build schools, hospitals and other infrastructure – which in essence meant that the state abdicated its responsibility towards these communities and expected them to use their own money and labour to bring about “development”. The concept of “harambee” (which means to pull together) also got corrupted in later years as politicians fund-raised for and gave money to harambee projects in order to buy votes and influence constituencies.

However, in the early 1980s, when President Daniel arap Moi tightened his grip on the country after declaring the country a de jure one-party state, a number of underground organisations and advocacy groups emerged to oppose his leadership and to fight for the enlargement of the democratic space. This led to the growth of movements such as the proscribed Mwakenya and other pro-reform groups led by faith-based organisations and individual politicians.

The government’s antagonistic relationship with NGOs has its roots in this period when reformist politicians, intellectuals and activists began demanding greater freedoms and more democratic space. The Moi regime fought their demands by instituting draconian laws, arresting and torturing protesters and activists and disbanding or coopting social movements, such as farmers unions and women’s groups, including Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, the largest grassroots women’s group in the country. Some of these activists went on to form NGOs that later become leading voices in the human rights and democracy movement.

Ironically, the 1980s also coincided with a time when both the government and NGOs started to attract more donor funding, particularly after the Kenyan state began reducing investments in the social sector as required by the World Bank-International Monetary Fund-initiated structural adjustment programmes (SAPs). In an essay titled “The Depoliticisation of Poverty”, Firoze Manji says that the hardships precipitated by SAPs led to some serious re-thinking by official aid agencies and multilaterals on how to present their austerity programmes with “a human face”. Funds were set aside to “mitigate the social dimensions of adjustment”. In the late 1980s, therefore, official aid to Kenya began increasing, rising from $394 million in 1980 to $1.18 billion by 1990. Some of this funding went to the rapidly growing NGO sector, which was seen as more cost-effective, less bureaucratic and more efficient than the state.

SAPs thus enlarged the role and scope of NGOs. Privatisation and the reduced role of the state in service delivery led to a significant rise in the number of Kenyans who were “unserviced”. NGOs and faith-based organisations tried to fill the void left by the state – which did not necessarily lead to improved or expanded service delivery to the masses, but did give rise to many NGOs that focused on delivering basic services, such as health and education.

However, the austerity imposed by SAPs led to a rise in civil unrest and protests by leading opposition leaders, which triggered a backlash against the Moi regime in the early and mid- 1990s. The country’s economy was in shambles and hardships imposed by SAPs were fermenting increased dissatisfaction.

SAPs thus enlarged the role and scope of NGOs. Privatisation and the reduced role of the state in service delivery led to a significant rise in the number of Kenyans who were “unserviced”. NGOs and faith-based organisations tried to fill the void left by the state – which did not necessarily lead to improved or expanded service delivery to the masses, but did give rise to many NGOs that focused on delivering basic services, such as health and education.

By the late 1990s, Western donors’ relationship with the Moi government had also begun deteriorating. In order to pressurise Moi to institute political and economic reforms, donors began reducing the amount of aid given to the country. Figures for Kenya compiled by the World Bank show that official aid to Kenya increased dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but then began dropping in the mid-1990s. By 1999, official bilateral aid to Kenya had dropped to just $310 million, the lowest in two decades.

After Moi’s Kanu party was ousted in the 2002 election by a coalition led by Mwai Kibaki, some NGOs began focusing on issues that the Moi government had failed to tackle or had actually hindered, such as reparation for the victims of historical injustices and the creation of a progressive new constitution. On their part, Western donors, encouraged by the opening of the democratic space and the promise of political and economic reforms, began increasing funding to the Kibaki government and to NGOs; official development assistance (ODA) rose from $525 million in 2003 to $1.3 billion in 2007. This period also saw a rapid rise in the number of NGOs in Kenya, from just 125 in 1974 to more than 6,000 by 2008.

The post-Moi period also saw the co-option of prominent civil society activists and leading lights in the NGO sector into the Kibaki administration; many among them found themselves working for the new government either as elected members of parliament, senior civil servants or advisers. For once it seemed that civil society, NGOs, donors and the government were all on the same page.

However, the cosy relationship between NGOs and the government would change after the disputed 2007 election and its violent aftermath. NGOs dealing with civic education and advocacy found a new calling – that of promoting peace and reconciliation in a country that had become deeply polarised along ethnic lines. Corruption scandals in Kibaki’s first term had also re-energised NGOs that promoted good governance and transparency. The post-election period saw some NGOs and opposition groups intensifying their efforts to advocate for a new constitution (which Kibaki appeared reluctant to implement) that would address historical injustices and safeguard fundamental human rights. (After a lot of back-and-forth, a new constitution was eventually promulgated in 2010 through a nation-wide referendum.)

However, Kibaki’s stated “Look East” policy when it came to development finance, especially for infrastructure, threatened to topple the comfortable paternalistic relationship traditional Western donors enjoyed with the country’s leaders. The appeal of China was irresistible, not only because China did not impose stiff conditionalities on the loans it gave the country, but China’s engagement with Kenya, appeared (on the surface at least) to be mutually beneficial.

This “Look East” policy was further cemented by Uhuru Kenyatta, who barely three weeks after being inaugurated as president in April 2013, made an official visit to China to sign a $3.8 billion deal, most of it in the form of loans for infrastructure projects. (No one wondered how a deal of such magnitude and with so many implications for Kenya’s economy could have been made just days after Kenyatta assumed the presidency, given that bilateral deals of this nature often take months to negotiate.)

Kenya’s love affair with China has blossomed under Kenyatta, much to the detriment of the ordinary Kenyan citizen who is burdened with huge Chinese debts and excessive taxation to service these debts.

The Chinese Communist Party, it seems, has also infected the Jubilee government with an intolerance for dissenting voices. Several NGOs have been threatened with closure, and activists who criticise the government have been vilified on social media by an army of bloggers operating from State House.

The Kenyatta government, like its Chinese counterpart, is also clamping down on the media. In January this year, three TV stations were shut down for almost a week after they aired the “parallel” inauguration ceremony of opposition leader Raila Odinga as “the People’s President”. The Jubilee government is also financially starving media houses by depriving them of advertising: the government’s new MyGov portal that carries all government advertising has deprived many media houses of up to 30 per cent of their advertising revenue. Some newspaper editors have decided to toe the government’s line; there is a feeling that many editorial and management decisions are being made at State House. In March this year, eight columnists working for the Nation Media Group (including myself) resigned due to what we described as “state capture” of the media house.

Intellectual and financial dependency

Some of the problems that NGOs face in the current hostile environment are of their own making. Over-reliance on foreign (mostly Western) donors has created fault lines within the NGO sector which the Jubilee government has fully exploited. Data from the Kenya National Coordination Board shows that more than 90 per cent of Kenyan NGOs’ funding comes from international sources, with only 1 per cent derived from the government. This fact, argues Shadrack W. Nasong’o, raises questions regarding Kenyan NGOs’ independence:

“The reliance of CSOs on external sources of financial support forces them to strive to win the approval of Western donors, lenders, nations and international monitors, rather than the loyalty and support of domestic constituencies, turning them into programmatic appendages of international funding agencies. Given this reality, most of these organisations are unable to effectively counter accusations that they are in the service of foreign rather than local interests. The organisations’ external linkages directly impinge on their agendas and performance.”

Also, as mentioned earlier, NGOs only get the crumbs from the donors’ table: the largest proportion of bilateral donor aid to Kenya has always gone to the state – after all, that is the raison d’être of international development assistance. Given that donor priorities change with the changing priorities of their governments, over-reliance on foreign donor funding can leave NGOs cash-strapped when they least expect it.

Nasang’o further says that NGOs’ contribution to democratisation and popular participation may just be “incidental” rather than “fundamental” because they lack grassroots support; most NGOs are Nairobi-based and speak the “language of donors”, which may not necessarily reflect the needs and desires of social movements and grassroots organisations, such as cooperatives and farmers’ unions. Having no popular grassroots support, many of these NGOs die when their primary funding source vanishes or when donor priorities shift to other areas.

Some of the problems that NGOs face in the current hostile environment are of their own making. Over-reliance on foreign (mostly Western) donors has created fault lines within the NGO sector which the Jubilee government has fully exploited.

Moreover, because they are heavily dependent of Western donors, who come with their own biases and agendas, few of these NGOs are able to assert their independence on the kinds of projects they want to implement. By succumbing to the “language of the donors”, they lose their intellectual independence, as the constitutional lawyer Wachira Maina highlighted in an article published in 1998:

“The language of political reform in Africa is a language generated by donors. Terms like ‘empowerment’ and ‘aid-re-engineering’ are part of the lexicon of the aid business, this language figures prominently in the proposals of local NGOs and in their presentations at seminars. One wonders whether this language can be used among civil society groups in rural Kenya. Even more worrying are suspicions that this dependency on donor language is perhaps part of a larger intellectual dependency…In this regard, it is revealing that key actors in civil society in Kenya, such as cooperatives, farmers and informal groups, hardly ever figure in the reform debate in spite of their obvious power and influence. More remarkably, even when they demonstrate their power to extract concessions from the State in a manner that the more donor-friendly organisations are unable to accomplish, they remain outside the mainstream”

Further, the “professionalisation” of the NGO sector may have hindered the growth of grassroots “Arab Spring” movements made up of ordinary citizens. As Maina has noted, NGOs often reproduce the cleavages in their society; many of the disenfranchising power structures and corrupt practices of government are replicated in the NGO sector because many NGOs’ main aim is not to bring about a fundamental change in society but to ensure their own survival.

In addition, donors’ and NGOs’ focus on “development”, rather than on social justice, ends up “depoliticising” the root causes of poverty and underdevelopment , as Firoze Manji explains:

Far from helping to overturn the social relations that reproduced injustice and impoverishment, the main focus of development was to discover and implement solutions that would enable the victims to cope with, or find ‘sustainable’ solutions for living with impoverishment…Central to this paradigm was to cast ‘poverty’, rather than social justice, as the main problem facing ‘developing countries’. The victims of years of injustices, whose livelihoods had been destroyed by years of colonial rule, were now defined as ‘the problem’, and once so defined, provided the stage set for the entry of the development NGO to participate in the process of depoliticising poverty.”

Manji says that NGOs face a stark choice: either they reinforce the social relations that reproduce poverty, injustice and conflict or they play a positive role in overturning those relations by empowering (for lack of a better word) and giving a voice to those who remain unheard and by helping the poor and the marginalised to accurately diagnose the causes of their poverty and underdevelopment. The latter choice could give rise to a true people’s movement aimed at liberating entire societies from the clutches of retrogressive and authoritarian structures and unjust social and economic systems.

However, the reality is that any hope of a people’s movement has been severely diminished by the “handshake” between Kenyatta and the opposition leader Raila Odinga in March this year. This so-called rapprochement has taken the steam out of many NGOs and opposition groups. For those who spent the better part of the last five years fighting a government they feel is both illegitimate and unethical, the handshake was like a slap in the face. There is a feeling that the handshake was not about ending hostilities between the government and the opposition but about the sharing of state goodies between the president and opposition leader. What deal was struck between the two leaders remains a mystery.

Western donors, on the other hand, perceive the handshake as a mark of success – a shining example of how warring parties in Africa can achieve peace and reconciliation through dialogue. (Note: the “dialogue” that took place between Kenyatta and Odinga was private, was not made public and civil society was not invited to participate in the discussions.) Donors are back in the business of “development” – and government contracts for infrastructure and other projects (including arms deals) that benefit the donor country. Security and the “war on terror” are also likely to remain priority funding areas in the near and distant future.

However, the reality is that any hope of a people’s movement has been severely diminished by the “handshake” between Kenyatta and the opposition leader Raila Odinga in March this year. This so-called rapprochement has taken the steam out of many NGOs and opposition groups. For those who spent the better part of the last five years fighting a government they feel is both illegitimate and unethical, the handshake was like a slap in the face.

With donors no longer interested in actively promoting the good governance and human rights agenda, it is likely that many NGOs will struggle to remain relevant. It is also possible that the nature of the donor-NGO relationship will shift, focusing more on basic needs and service delivery, rather than human rights and governance issues, as it did in the 1990s. With a new set of austerity measures in place, including punitive new taxes (courtesy of the IMF) NGOs may once again be called upon to be the “human face” of hardship.

The idea of having “People’s Assemblies”, and more participatory forms of governance, as proposed by the opposition’s strategist David Ndii, has also died as a result of the handshake between Odinga and Kenyatta. Moreover, the concept that people should be allowed to make decisions about their own welfare – a key principle of devolution that led to the formation of 47 counties – has been tarnished by incompetent and corrupt county governments that are replicating the dysfunctions of the national government. The return of Moi-ism in a different – and perhaps more lethal – garb has set the country back by several decades. However, unlike in the Moi era, NGOs working on issues related to human rights, democracy and good governance are today not likely to find a friendly face at a Western embassy.

Enter social media

The good news is that citizen activism is growing. Tired of opposition politicians who are increasingly being viewed as self-centred and opportunistic and lacking in moral fibre and conviction, the 1.5 million Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) and 5 million Kenyan Facebook users may be the ones who bring about much-needed needed social change. Kenya’s mobile penetration is nearly 90 per cent, which means a large proportion of the population has access to the Internet via smartphones.

Many campaigns, such as the one to switch off Kenya Power, the country’s only electricity supplier, have been initiated using the social media platform, sometimes with positive results. Kenyan social media users have been credited with spearheading the campaign to release the Ugandan politician and musician Bobi Wine from detention. KOT have highlighted issues to do with corruption in government, exorbitant or illegal taxes, and incompetent county governments, among others. Such digital movements may still be urban-based and English-speaking, but they do point to a future where ordinary citizens are becoming more vocal and visible about what they want from their government – that is, if the government does not implement draconian laws to stop their voices from being heard (which it has tried to do through at least three laws, but which the courts have rejected on the grounds that they curtail freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution).

Other environmental and community-led groups, such as those opposed to the building of a coal-powered plant in Lamu, and fact-checking “digital warriors” who monitor or counter false government propaganda or hate speech, are also emerging. Such individuals and groups no longer feel the need to be mediated by NGOs, which is a good thing as it could eventually lead to a groundswell of grassroots social justice movements across the country. 

Note:

Civil society organisations are generally defined as formal or informal groups that operate in the realm between the individual and the state, and include non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based groups, neighbourhood associations, trade unions, charities and faith-based organisations. For the purposes of this article, I have used the term non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which are formal, registered entities that have a national public interest, developmental, social welfare or advocacy function, and which operate largely outside the state, and quite often, in opposition to it. I am not referring to networks, movements or associations that operate informally or outside the law, or which are deemed illegal by the state. Nor am I referring to community-based organisations (CBOs) whose activities are focused at the local community level. 

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Ms Warah, the author of War Crimes, a sweeping indictment of foreign meddling in Somalia, and A Triple Heritage, among several other books, is also a freelance journalist based in Malindi, Kenya.

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A safe choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservatives back in the saddle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greater vigilance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A frustrating first term

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond personalities: Structural economic challenges

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

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

Before and after the election

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

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

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

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

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

The challenges ahead are not insurmountable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sudan’s turbulent interregnum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Military Council: A reluctant reformer          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old parties and the protest movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethiopia’s unstable transition

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnic unrest

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

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

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

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

Economic hardship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A youth revolt

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

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

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

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

Social media and the diaspora

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

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

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

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

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

Identity politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identity, protest and culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion and culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islam in transition in Sudan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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