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MATING RITUALS: Fault lines in the donor-NGO relationship

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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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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

Politics

From Shifta to Terrorist: A Shifting Narrative Of Northern Kenya

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

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

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

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

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

The Shifta war

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

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

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

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

Somalia’s support

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

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

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

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

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

Collective punishment 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pink card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human trafficking 

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

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

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

Al Shabaab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The End of Abiy-Mania

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-election 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The limits of Abiy-Mania

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

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

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

Federalism vs centralisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abiy and Amhara expansionism 

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

Sudan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is full of disappointments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the same as it ever was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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