The Sudanese people have a cultural trait peculiar and typical of them – a cultural practice that downplays the negative in favour of the positive, that treats individualism and egoism as less important than the general welfare of society and that readily sacrifices for another or the country. Western individualism scarcely appeals to the Sudanese sentimentality and sensibilities, whether they are southerners (jinubieen), westerners (garaba), or northerners (shamalieen).
In the words of Prof. John Lonsdale, the Sudanese, in their different social formations, used to live as negotiating ethnicities until colonial rule turned them into competing tribes. More than two hundred years of common history – notwithstanding the bad memories – are difficult to erase or turn away from; socially, they will always run into each other. However, the long history of bitter and violent struggles against foreign occupation, injustice, political repression and totalitarian regimes, unfortunately, failed to sublimate the Sudan into a nation-state although the people yearned for territorial unity. It is not by chance that the protesters in Khartoum hold the secession and independence of South Sudan as one of the criminal charges against the deposed dictator, Omer Hassan Ahmed el Bashir.
The political protests in the Sudan, which began last December in the working class city of Atbara, and the perennial power struggle that triggered political instability in South Sudan, speak to the failure of the Sudanese political elite to manage the post-independence socio-economic and political engineering of the state. Myopia, religious-cultural narrow-mindedness and intolerance, which engendered political exclusion, social discrimination and economic marginalisation or neglect, culminated in the partition of the Sudan, the wars in Dar Fur, Nuba Mountains, and the Blue Nile and civil unrest in eastern Sudan. The crystallisation in the centre of a tiny minority at the helm of the country’s political and economic power at the expense of the vast majority of the Sudanese in rural areas is the source of Sudan’s predicament.
The mass action (processions, demonstrations and picketing) in Atbara, Khartoum and the major cities of the Sudan point to a salient political reality that characterised its regional distinct socio-economic and cultural development. The mass movements in the cities and towns in northern Sudan contrast exponentially with the military action undertaken in rural parts of the Sudan (southern Sudan, Dar Fur, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and eastern Sudan), reflecting the differential socio-economic and political evolution of the Sudanese state since the Turco-Egyptian era [1824-1885].
This reality points to the fact that a degree of social and economic development results in transformation of means and relations of production, and engenders a heightened social awareness and political consciousness. In this respect, it makes it easy for the people to establish a tradition of political organisation combined with action in support of socio-economic and political rights. This process occurred in northern and central Sudan in the form of the construction of the railway line from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum (1898), the Gezira scheme (1925) and the evolution of manufacturing light industries in Khartoum North, leading to the emergence of a conscious and politically organised working class that employs processions, demonstrations, strikes, picketing and civil disobedience in support of their demands for social, economic and political rights.
This is the third time in the Sudan that mass action in the form of a popular uprising (intifadha) ousted a military-based totalitarian regime. The first popular uprising was in 1964 (Ibrahim Abboud) and the second was Gaafar Numeri (1985).
On the other hand, however, rural Sudan (southern Sudan, Dar Fur, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and Eastern Sudan) is characterised by poverty and ignorance due to dominant traditional modes and relations of production, natural forces and superstition. As a result, social awareness and political consciousness is inordinately low; there is an obvious lack of tradition and culture of organised political action. Thus, to support the demands for social, economic and political rights, the people in rural Sudan use violence as their chief means of mobilisation for changing the political system.
This is the third time in the Sudan that mass action in the form of a popular uprising (intifadha) ousted a military-based totalitarian regime. The first popular uprising was in 1964 (Ibrahim Abboud) and the second was Gaafar Numeri (1985). The common denominator is these popular uprisings was the dominance of workers and farmers’ trade unions, professional associations, the student’s movement led by the Khartoum University Students Union (KUSU) and the political parties playing in the background. Without the workers’ strikes, picketing and sit-ins, civil disobedience wouldn’t be effective. Another feature of the two uprisings of 1964 and 1985 in the cities was that there were parallel military actions by Anya-nya (1955-1972) and the SPLM/SPLA (1983-2005), which contributed to weakening the incumbent regime. The National Islamic Front (NIF) seized state power in a military coup on 30 June 1989 and installed the Ingaz (salvation) system. It exploited the apparent weak performance of the Sudan Armed Forces in the SPLM/A spearheaded war of national liberation in southern Sudan.
Consequences of the paradigm shifts by the SPLM leadership
In a previous essay, I argued that the colonial education system, which essentially was Christian, anti-Arab and anti-Islam, coupled with the policy of annexing the southern provinces to British East Africa, instilled into the southern Sudanese political elite fear and hatred of the northern Sudanese. Thus, at independence, in a country dominated by highly educated northern Sudanese, this fear and hatred turned into a deep-seated inferiority complex in the southern Sudanese political leaders’, notwithstanding the conspicuous power and wealth asymmetry between the two groups.
As a result, the southern Sudanese pursued a policy line that separated them from the northern Sudanese in a common struggle. For instance, in the run-up to independence (1947), there was a strong voice among the southern Sudanese politicians that the southern provinces would remain under British rule while northern Sudan gained its independence. The nationalist trend triumphed in the end and Sudan became independent as one country. This attitude among the southern Sudanese elite – of shunning unified political action with northern Sudan in favour of a separate and parallel struggle against the same oppressive political dispensation – has been the Achilles’ heel in the Sudanese body politic. But even within southern Sudan, this attitude was echoed in the “kokora” (redivision), which culminated in Nimeri dismantling the southern region and the abolition of self-rule that the southern Sudanese had won in the Addis Ababa Agreement, rather than in unified political action together with northern Sudanese opposed to Numeri.
The ideological and political shifts…pushed the SPLM/A into negotiating liberal peace and a comprehensive peace agreement (CPA). It also rescued the Ingaz regime from collapse, extending its life and enabling it to wage war and commit war crimes in Dar Fur in 2003.
The paradigm shifts in the early 1990s, which the SPLM leadership struck following the collapse of the world socialist order, smacks of this attitude of separatism. The SPLM’s ideological shift from revolution to neoliberalism coincided with the political shift from “united secular New Sudan” involving all the oppressed, political excluded and marginalised Sudanese to the right of the people of southern Sudan to self-determination. Had the southern Sudanese- dominated SPLM/SPLA honestly pursued a revolutionary agenda for destroying and restructuring the Sudan in order to meet the aspirations of its people for freedom, justice, fraternity, Omer el Bashir would have fallen in 1997 when he suffered serious military setbacks at the hands of the SPLA in war theatres in southern Sudan, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, and at the hands of the New Sudan Brigade in eastern Sudan.
The ideological and political shifts (which made the war of national liberation a southern Sudanese movement, an obvious betrayal of the Nuba, Funj and Beja African groups in northern Sudan who joined the war on the basis of having been marginalised, oppressed and discriminated against), pushed the SPLM/A into negotiating liberal peace and a comprehensive peace agreement (CPA). It also rescued the Ingaz regime from collapse, extending its life and enabling it to wage war and commit war crimes in Dar Fur in 2003.
In fact, the secession of South Sudan left virtually intact the Ingaz system. It strengthened the Ingaz grip on power in the Sudan, enabling it to eschew the issue of democratic transformation on which the CPA was predicated. Once South Sudan was gone, the regime had no political military force to restrain its imposition of the strict Islamic code on the people of the Sudan. It immediately unleashed war on the SPLM/A-North in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. The regime exploited the South Sudan-Sudan border war (2012) in terms of resultant acute economic difficulties in the Sudan, and the eruption of the civil war in the Republic of South Sudan (2013) to strengthen itself vis á vis the armed and political opposition in the Sudan.
Genesis of Sudanese popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes
According to Dr. Hassan Abdalla el Turabi, the Islamic scholar and chief ideologue and architect of the Ingaz system, “the Sudanese masses struggle to bring down military dictatorships while the traditional political parties create conditions for military coups”. To a large extent, this statement carries the truth of the dynamics of the Sudanese body politic since 1958.
Prior to contact with European colonialism, the Sudanese people lived as negotiating peaceful ethnic chieftaincies and kingdoms. However. this situation changed when a repressive and corrupt Turco-Egyptian administration (Turkiya) imposed itself.
The popular uprisings are rooted in the nature of the Sudanese people’s sophist Islam, which is dominant in northern Sudan, with its proximity to Egypt and Europe. As a faith, culture and state in one, Islam, unlike Christianity, has the capacity to arouse in people passions against rulers who are corrupt and unjust. This explains how Mohammed Ahmed el Mahdi succeeded to lead a revolt against the Turkiya (1824-1885) to establish an authentic indigenous Sudanese state (1885-1898). It is this progressive dimension of the Islamic faith that provides energy to enable the Sudanese to quickly mobilise into revolutionary political actions, like the Mahdist’s revolution (1881) and the White Flag Revolution (1924) to mention a few.
The re-conquest of the Sudan and the establishment of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899) opened the Sudan, particularly northern Sudan, to modernity and to the emergence of a modern working class movement under the leadership of the Sudan Railways Workers Trade Union. This had enormous impact on the evolution of people’s social awareness and political consciousness; the already advanced nationalist movement in Egypt augmented and accelerated Sudanese nationalism, which began under the aegis of the “unity of the Nile basin”.
The Sudanese people, mainly the intelligentsia, benefited from the education opportunities in Egypt, and indeed, most nationalist leaders obtained knowledge and influence of modern ideas from contact with Egypt, which had invested interest in restoring the Sudan to the Egyptian crown. Thus, and because of the terms of the Condominium Treaty, the Sudanese Army evolved as part of the Egyptian Army in the Sudan commanded by British officers but with a tradition of fidelity to the homeland rather than the colonial authorities. This worked to the advantage of the Sudanese nationalist movement, leading eventually to the White Flag revolution (1924), which played out in critical political situations, when as a national institution it was forced to choose between the people and the repressive regime in power.
These and many other factors that cannot be enlisted here shed light on the genesis of Sudanese popular uprisings. It must be mentioned that the pattern of these uprisings was by no means uniform, although it could be said with confidence that the military coups have invariably followed a similar pattern, usually as a result of the failure of political parties to manage power and the democratic process. The northern Sudanese people are highly politicised and organised, which makes it easy for them to craft political action even at the residential neighbourhood level. This explains the ease with which they quickly establish networks of resistance or solidarity.
The second democratic and multiparty political dispensation (1964-1969) was not really democratic. Like the first, it suffered serious political hiccups as the traditional-theocratic political parties (Umma and DUP) and Islamic Charter Front (ICF) jostled for the promulgation of an Islamic Constitution to replace the Transition Constitution (1956) amended in 1964.
The dynamics and intricacy of Sudanese party politics pushed the then Prime Minister Ibrahim Khalil (Umma Party) to hand over power to Gen. Ibrahim Abboud on 17 November 1958 (ostensibly to take it back after six months after the political temperature had cooled down). The masses had to oust Abboud in October 1964, six years later. The October revolution, which the Sudanese people all over the world revere as a paradigm of its own, precipitated civil disobedience throughout the Sudan that paralysed the military government, forcing it to hand over power to a civilian government in eight days (October 21-28).
The second democratic and multiparty political dispensation (1964-1969) was not really democratic. Like the first, it suffered serious political hiccups as the traditional-theocratic political parties (Umma and DUP) and Islamic Charter Front (ICF) jostled for the promulgation of an Islamic Constitution to replace the Transition Constitution (1956) amended in 1964. The political right outlawed the Communist Party of the Sudan (CPS) and unseated its members in the Constituent Assembly to the chagrin and disappointment of the political left, which in reality led the October revolution now stolen by the right-wing politicians. This development paved the way for the military coup, which the leftist Free Officers Movement in the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by Gaafar Mohammed Numeri, pulled on 25 May 1969.
The leftist stint at state power was short-lived, primarily because of the ideological split within the CPS eventually working to the advantage of the ICF, which exploited the ideological void in the May regime left by the communist and revolutionary democrats. Following the Port Sudan agreement (1977) between Numeri and the National Front (right-wing political parties of Umma, DUP and ICF), Dr. Hassan el Turabi decided to join in order to eventually take over the May regime under the guise of political Islam.
Numeri’s abrogation of the Addis Ababa Agreement (1 June 1983), which established the Southern Region, and his imposition of Islamic Sharia laws (September 1983) created the conditions for his overthrow in a popular uprising on 6 April 1985. The dismantling of the Southern Region triggered war in Southern Sudan under the SPLM/A. At that time, the Sudan had gone into deep social and economic crises due to the structural adjustment programme (SAP) imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Sudanese pound plummeted from 0.35 to 1 against the US dollar and further down until the dollar exchanged for three Sudanese pounds. The government could not provide social services. Drought and famine had struck in Dar Fur and Kordofan, causing massive population migration to Khartoum. All these factors and war in southern Sudan culminated in the March-April 1985 popular uprising and the fall of the May regime.
The popular uprising did not uproot the regime as was anticipated. The regime’s prominent ideologues and influential elements remained at large. The ICF leadership, now rebranded National Islamic Front (NIF), remained influential in the army and in the bureaucracy. The forces of the intifadha, ensnared by the army’s top brass decision to side with the demonstrators after weeks of bloodshed, gave in too quickly and left the May regime intact even though it had been removed from power. No wonder that NIF ranked the third largest political force in the Constituent Assembly elected in 1986, although its leader Dr. Hassan Abdalla el Turabi, was trounced in a Khartoum constituency.
The third democratic and multiparty-political dispensation departed from the trajectory after October 1964, but again the Umma Party, now led by Sadiq el Shadegg Abdurrahman Mohammed Ahmed el Mahdi, never internalised the lessons learnt after the October 1964 uprising. His prevarications and hesitation to implement the SPLM/A-DUP agreement of December 1988, notwithstanding the defeats his army suffered in war theatres, paved the ground for the NIF to usurp power in a military coup on 30 June 1989.
No human situation lasts indefinitely; political repression and all kinds of injustices end at some critical intersections and crossroads. The Ingaz lasted thirty years because of divided opposition to it; the southern Sudanese, who have been instrumental in the survival or demise of regimes and governments in the Sudan, unfortunately diverted from the Sudanese nationalist movement into secessionism…
The NIF, now rebranded Ingaz, is a modern political force in terms of its ideology and sophisticated political, security and intelligence organisation. It set to transform the Sudan in accordance with the Sharia and the Suna. It constructed a system of political repression, corruption, economic self-aggrandisement and set out to destroy or take over the tools of political resistance: workers’ and farmers’ trade unions, professional associations, and women’s, youth’s and students’ movements. It carried out Jihad in southern Sudan, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. During its tenure, tens of thousands of young men and women perished. Through political repression, a network of political patronage and ruthless security/intelligence service,s the NIF managed to establish an Islamic totalitarian regime in the Sudan for thirty years despite the split within its ranks (1999) that witnessed Dr. Turabi’s incarceration and the eventual formation of his Popular Congress Party (PCP) parallel to and competing with the National Congress Party (NCP).
The April 2019 uprising: Will it spell Ingaz’s total demise?
No human situation lasts indefinitely; political repression and all kinds of injustices end at some critical intersections and crossroads. The Ingaz lasted thirty years because of divided opposition to it; the southern Sudanese, who have been instrumental in the survival or demise of regimes and governments in the Sudan, unfortunately diverted from the Sudanese nationalist movement into secessionism, thus forfeiting their pivotal point of being the non-Arab and non-Muslim members of the Sudanese nationalist movement, which could have easily led to the construction of a Sudanese state based on the principle of “unity in diversity” – hallmarks of any democratic dispensation.
There have been attempted uprisings but to no avail since the Arab spring of 2011 that swept the regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. This time, the architects and leaders of “change and peace”, the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), acted prudently so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past that permitted the “stealing” of the revolution. On 25 December 2018, which is not a public holiday in the Sudan after the secession of South Sudan, a group of twenty-one professionals (university professors, lawyers, doctors, engineers vets and others) released a public statement titled, “Such that the people’s revolution is not stolen: people’s revolutionary consciousness is the only guarantee for our people”, in which they outlined five important points they categorised as the five principles of the fourth people’s revolution.
These principles inter alia are: to overthrow the regime to stop the deteriorating socioeconomic and political situation in the country; never to allow change of the system from within, otherwise it is going to be Ingaz 2; although the pivotal role of the organised forces is welcomed in the overthrow and dismantling of the Ingaz system, changing the regime through a military coup should never the allowed; never to accept a Military Council on the basis of what transpired following the March-April uprising (1985), which eventually became May regime 2; the demand should be“a revolutionary council comprising the forces of change and whose mandate shall be national sovereignty.
The SPA and the Sudanese masses believe, and are convinced, that the revolution was not just to remove Omer el Bashir or the Ingaz regime for that matter, but to transform the Sudan’s falsified reality and restore its national dignity. There are even calls for the Sudan to quit the Arab League and return to its African roots, which has received support from the masses.
The SPA is following the principles to the letter, as reflected in the decision to camp the protestors into the precincts of the Armed Forces headquarters in Khartoum since 6 April, which marked the thirty-fourth anniversary of Numeri’s overthrow. This is a complete departure from the pattern of previous uprisings, which handed over power to the traditional political parties through fake or bogus elections. The traditional and theocratic political parties and the Islamic Charter Front had been using Islam, a faith to which the majority of Sudanese subscribe, as a political tool to dampen people’s consciousness, making it easy to ensnare them into voting them to power. If the demand now by the members of the SPA to liberate Sudanese politics from religion is met in the new dispensation, it will go a long way in transforming Sudanese reality. (Religion is a double-edged sword.)
The SPA and the Sudanese masses believe, and are convinced, that the revolution was not just to remove Omer el Bashir or the Ingaz regime for that matter, but to transform the Sudan’s falsified reality and restore its national dignity. There are even calls for the Sudan to quit the Arab League and return to its African roots, which has received support from the masses. The reaction to the events in the Sudan have been varied, from support for the military Junta coming from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt to outright rejection of the Junta by the African Union (AU). The AU, in its resolution 5 (c) to “freeze Sudan’s participation in its functions if the Military Council does not surrender power to a civilian authority in two weeks from the date of the resolution”, inadvertently supports the SPA.
My reading of the situation is that although the Junta continues to implement the demands of the protesters camped in its headquarters to arrest, incarcerate and confiscate the looted property of the Ingaz figures, nevertheless, they will procrastinate in handing power to the civilian Supreme Council of the State and a civilian cabinet until they are assured of their immunity from prosecution. . It must be viewed that their intervention was to prevent a sharp split in the army and to keep the Ingaz intact. Most of the members of the Military Council were senior officers in the army and security forces whom Bashir appointed recently, ostensibly to protect his back. The Chair of the Military Council, Gen. Burhan, hails from Bashir’s ethnicity, and may be counting on a possible split along ethnic and regional contours to occur within the ranks of the SPA and the protesters to drive a wedge and weaken the protest.
So far, the SPA and the Sudanese people are united in their demand that an Ingaz 2 shall never be allowed, which explains their demand to dismiss from the information and communication industry all those bureaucrats, journalists and news anchors linked to Ingaz 1. The deposed President Omer el Bashir and his two brothers, Ali Osman Mohammed Tah and Dr. Awad el Jaz, and many other Ingaz figures have been incarcerated in Kober Maximum Prison – a positive development and indication that SPA means business.
While time may be running out for the Junta on account of non-recognition and other diplomatic etiquettes, the SPA and the protesters camped in the army headquarters may continue to bask in the support of the Sudanese masses until they succeed to form the Supreme Council of the State – with or without a representative of the Junta – and a Constitutional and Legislative Assembly representing the forces of change, which in turn will elect a Prime Minister, a Deputy Prime Minister and seventeen civilian ministers of impeccable character. It remains a tall order to transform Sudan’s reality after thirty years of Ingaz
The impact of Sudan’s uprisings on South Sudan and the region
Although until recently (2011), South Sudan was an integral part of the Sudan, nevertheless, as I have mentioned above, its people had not completely integrated into the social and political fabric of northern Sudan. The Southern Sudanese invariably (except for small groups of leftist activists) pursued a separatist agenda, and therefore, don’t count themselves part and parcel of the Sudanese nationalist struggle even though they may have participated in the struggle as individuals or as groups. They have, therefore, forfeited their share of the victory. Not only that but they also don’t benefit in terms of acquiring political skills, such as tactics and strategies, in their struggles. This explains why political struggles in southern Sudan then, and now South Sudan, have invariably been violent ethnic conflicts and wars.
Before speaking about the impact of the Sudanese uprisings, it is important to analyse the context of the Horn and the Great Lakes Region in terms of political contacts and flow of ideas, without which it will be practically impossible to gauge the impact of social and political developments in any of the countries on the others in the region.
It is a fact that nationalist movements in the region were fragmented and isolated from each other although there was the overarching Pan-African movement whose objectives were continental liberation. It is obvious the national movements were stronger than the Pan-African movement, whose ideological messages did not permeate traditional, conservative and liberal African political thought. The relations in the region were and remain competitive and conflictual, revolving around inviolability of arbitrary colonial borders. Thus political formations in the region had much on their plates other than solidarity across common borders.
This may explain why important socio-political developments occur without concern, solidarity, or drawing important lessons to be employed locally. Sudanese uprisings did not have much impact on the political party organisation and action in East Africa nor did developments in Aast African countries impact political struggles in the Sudan. For example, the union of Tanzania and Zanzibar did not impact or influence the southern Sudanese desire to pursue secession. The second liberation struggles in Kenya in the 1990s never borrowed a leaf from the Sudanese struggle against Numeri’s totalitarian regime. For instance, it was not enough to remove section 2A from the constitution to relax the struggle against Moi’s totalitarianism
Now times have changed and it is becoming clear that peoples’ struggles and mass movements against dictatorship, personalised rule, and acute economic pauperisation of the masses emanating from the crisis of capitalism in the region at least share some characteristics and must therefore learn from each other in terms of setting strategies and tactics and solidarity with each other. The mass movements in Kenya and Uganda must learn to organise and build solidarity networks and shield them from the repressive security organs of the state, It is important to view a crisis in one sector as part of a crisis in the whole system. The political tool (civil disobedience) in the hands of Sudanese protesters was effective only because all subscribed to the principle of solidarity and all sections of society participated in it at the same time. Mass action in a sector must involve the professionals, the technicians, the workers – otherwise it will not succeed.
Organize Don’t Agonise!!
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From Shifta to Terrorist: A Shifting Narrative Of Northern Kenya
A section of Kenyan citizens has been labelled dangerous to the main body of the country and denied a national identity and equal status with their fellow citizens.
As Kenya was celebrating her independence in 1963, the people of the Northern Frontier District were mourning the death of their dream of self-governance under British rule. In the spring of 1962, at the Lancaster House Conference, the region’s delegation had demanded self-determination for the NFD. The colonial government appointed an independent commission to look into the question and a referendum to determine the region’s future was subsequently held. The results of the plebiscite were however cancelled under suspicious circumstances even though they indicated that the overwhelming majority supported self-determination. The people felt cheated, and the north exploded in rebellion.
Northerners, especially those from the northeast, accuse the British colonial government of craftily handing over the region to Kenyatta. The colonialists had promised the separatists’ leaders that they would delay independence for the region to facilitate the orderly transition from colonial rule to self-rule.
The British played both sides after the Northern Frontier District delegation rejected the terms of independence and demanded a different path for the district. The colonial government decided to disregard the wishes of most of the inhabitants and handed over the region to the post-independence Kenyan government. Somalia protested the move, which further complicated the north’s struggle for independence.
What had been a people’s quest for self-rule became a political tussle between Kenya and Somalia. This issue has yet to be settled six decades later, and the north has become a victim of unending sabre-rattling. Kenya became independent on the 12th of December 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta as its Prime Minister. A State of Emergency was declared for the north-eastern region on the 27th of December 1963.
The Shifta war
The rebellion that followed the declaration of independence was, to the separatists, a struggle for self-determination. To the Kenyan government, the separatists were Shifta, the name used to reduce the separatists and the NFD population to bandits, outlaws, thieves, criminals, and murderers.
The Shifta label has stuck, although the events surrounding the coining of the term have been carefully erased from the history books. The Shifta narrative was meant to unite the rest of Kenya against the menace of the separatists. The media effectively adopted the new term as a standard reference to the rebels. Newspaper headlines reported shifta attacks almost daily throughout the period of the conflict.
The “war” was mainly skirmishing between the ill-equipped ragtag army of northern rebels and the Kenya military backed by British planes and tanks. It is the population in the north that bore the brunt of the fighting. The nomads had to sustain the fighters in their midst with their meagre resources while dodging the military operations and bombings.
The conflict began on the 22nd of November 1963 when NFD rebels burnt down a camp in Garissa. The rebellion took its toll on the inhabitants, forcing them to flee in droves to the neighbouring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia. Kenyan security forces considered everyone a rebel and the Shifta label was liberally applied without discrimination to men and boys from the region. Villagisation and shooting of camel herds were used extensively by the government to force the nomadic pastoralists to settle.
The secessionists expected to receive arms and ammunitions from Somalia, but Somalia’s loud noises were more bark than a bite. Nothing of material import came from Somalia in the four years of the war.
While fanning the conflict through declarations and radio broadcasts, Somalia was unwilling to train, arm and fight alongside the secessionists. The significant material support provided to the Kenya government by the British and the superior training of the military forces eventually turned the tide of the war in Kenya’s favour.
The end of the war began in 1966 with the exodus of the nomadic population. By 1967, the secessionists were out of arms and had no resources to rely on as the nomads crossed the border into Somalia in droves in what is known as John kacarar (escaping John). The secessionists surrendered in groups throughout 1967.
Realising that the rebels were at the end of their tether, Somalia accepted peace terms with Kenya mediated by Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. An agreement to end their differences and restore diplomatic relations was signed on the 14th of September 1967. The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north and on terms that were never declared public to the residents of the NFD. Four years of bombings, shootings and plunder had left the northeastern region — where the fighting was concentrated — destitute.
Once the war was over, reconstruction failed to begin. The schism remained in place. The military went on with operations aimed at clearing the region of “shifta elements”. The cost of the war was never enumerated. The hopelessness that descended on a defeated community required leadership, which never came.
A new narrative of bandits roaming in the unsafe wild north began to take shape. Collective punishment was the modus operandi during this period. Whenever armed criminals committed a crime, the nearest settlements were decimated by the soldiers.
In the late 1970s, an incident occurred along the Kenya-Ethiopia border where a military vehicle was burnt. The locals claimed the action was perpetrated by armed Ethiopian militia. In what came to be known as the Malka Mari Massacre, the Kenyan military detained over two hundred men and stoned them to death. None of the men was armed, and the military did not fire a shot.
In the period that followed, poaching became rampant as the stockpiles of small arms fell into the hands of poachers. Overnight, the “Somali Poacher” was born. The parks were now under threat from a new breed of armed men motivated by nothing more than money, and allegedly backed by influential people close to the government. Throughout the 1970s, the Somali poacher terrorised Kenyan elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs.
The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north.
In 1980, the security forces burned down Garissa after detaining and killing many of its inhabitants. This was an incident directly resulting from a disagreement between poachers and their contacts in government. A disgruntled poacher took matters into his own hands and killed several soldiers and other government officials.
The 1980s also saw the infamous Wagalla Massacre of 1984, where thousands were tortured and killed at an airstrip in Wajir, ostensibly during a military operation to curb banditry.
While Shifta and poachers were the competing narratives used by the government to explain its inability to bring the northern region under proper government control, the region suffered wanton neglect and underdevelopment.
The Somali-Ethiopia war ended in 1978, sparking the return of thousands who had fled the region during the war of secession as Somalia descended into clannism and corruption under military dictatorship. That same year, Vice-President Daniel Arap Moi gave a speech that sparked the alien debate when he threatened that the government would register all Somalis and deport anyone found to have allegiance to Somalia. It took 11 years for this policy to be implemented.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970. Traders from the north-east were deemed vagrants and deported from areas in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya back to their home region.
Citizenship documents were tightly controlled, and a system of verification was put in place to make it impossible for the region’s inhabitants to register as citizens. The police were given orders to stop and ask for IDs from anyone looking like a Cushite, a Somali or other related tribes who were distinctively identifiable.
The pink card
In 1989, the famous Kenya-Somali verification and registration took place. The system was designed to catch anyone who could not be linked to a sub-location and known clan.
People had to state their family tree up to their sub-clans, and a pink card with these details was issued to the successful ones. The system was designed to force out of Kenya those unaffiliated to any of the groups “indigenous” to the country.
It is estimated that at one point hundreds were crossing the border into neighbouring countries daily. People were detained, women with young children appeared in court accused of being in the country illegally. Suspected aliens were loaded on military lorries and dropped off in Liboi across the Kenya-Somali border. Many families, especially those elites with businesses, crossed into Uganda and left for Europe or America. The pink cards eventually became available for a fee, and it is believed registration officials took hefty bribes in the process. The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost when entire families were deported with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
As the “aliens” narrative waxed and waned, a new event triggered the updating of the terminology.
In 1991, the Somalia government of Siad Barre collapsed, spilling hundreds of thousands of refugees into the neighbouring countries. Kenya was grappling with its fear of Somalis and now had to face the eventuality of hosting desperate refugees, including the deposed president.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970.
The refugees were allowed in and settled in camps where they were fed and housed by the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. Throughout the 1990s, Somalia was controlled by warlords who divided the country into green zones, fought viciously among themselves and continued to spill out new refugees.
Apart from participating in efforts at reconciliation and in hosting refugees and facilitating their resettlement in Europe and America, Kenya stayed out of Somalia’s affairs. As the refugees were too many to be housed in the sprawling camps in Dadaab, Dagahaley and Kakuma, some ended up living in towns with the alien cards issued by the UNHCR as identification.
The idea of controlling the movement of refugees soon became fashionable. For the security forces it is difficult to differentiate between locals and refugees and soldiers engaged in random stop-and-searches and nighttime raids in the main towns to flush out illegal aliens.
The controls placed on refugees living in towns illegally sparked lucrative human trafficking where the police and traffickers facilitated the movement of people from the Somali border to the interior. IDs and passports became available for those who could pay but were impossible to acquire for genuine inhabitants of northern Kenya.
While Somalis and their Cushite cousins were getting used to the “alien” idea, a new term landed on Kenya’s shores: terrorism. International terrorists bombed the American embassy in Kenya in 1998. The perpetrators had names similar to those of the northerners and the refugees. The “terrorist” label did not stick for another decade and during this period Somali businesspeople invested heavily in the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi, creating a vibrant market where initially had been an unremarkable residential estate with a few wholesale and retail shops.
This economic boom coincided with the emergence of piracy on the Somali shores of the Indian Ocean. Suddenly the Kenyan media were reporting that piracy money was flooding the markets and making life costly for the residents. The Somali pirates were real, but this was part of international piracy having its operations on the lawless Somali coast. How the piracy money was siphoned into Kenya was never explained. The piracy issue occasionally crops up when overzealous reporters make disparaging references to piracy and the real estate boom in Kenya.
In 2011 Kenya sent troops into Somalia in an operation dubbed “Linda Nchi” after a tourist was kidnapped at the coast and probably taken across the border. There were other cross-border raids. However, significant Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya began in 2012 when Kenyan forces were integrated into the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As Kenya became embroiled in state-building in Somalia, with the creation of Jubaland floated as the reason for the invasion, Al-Shabaab started bringing its terrorism into Kenya.
In 2013, the Westgate Mall shootings led to the death of 67 people. More than 67 others also died in attacks in Mpeketoni in Lamu in 2014. The attacks on Garissa University attack were the worst, leading to 150 dead, many of them students. These brazen attacks were attributed to Al-Shabaab. Although the terror group had already internationalised and was recruiting with no regard to ethnicity, Kenyan Somalis became the target for blame, name-calling, and arrests.
In 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “You are all terrorists”. The terrorist narrative drives xenophobia, arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture. After the terror attacks in 2014 in Eastleigh and Mpeketoni, the security forces conducted an indiscriminate door-to-door operation targeting anyone who did not have an ID card to hand. This security operation was dubbed Usalama Watch. Those who did not have the document were taken to Kasarani Stadium and held there for two weeks. About 900 people were taken to the stadium, the majority being young people who could not acquire IDs due to discriminatory bureaucratic procedures , and a haphazard and corrupt system that barred genuine citizens from receiving the document.
The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost.
Over half a century of negative portrayals of people from the north means that the official government policy is skewed when it applies to them. The acquisition of a passport is generally a straightforward process. To ensure that aliens from the north do not acquire this critical document, the immigration department and security agencies have an illegal and discriminatory step in place for border communities — vetting. It is not enough that a northerner provides sufficient genuine documentation. The applicant must appear before a group of government officials, security officers and appointed individuals to prove their citizenship. To pass this step, one must know their location chief, the genealogy of ones’ clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
The emergence of one label does not lead to the dropping of the existing labels. Shifta, Poacher, Refugee, Pirate and Terrorist shape the thinking behind public actions. These negative portrayals have an impact on how national matters are debated and resolved.
A section of Kenyan citizens is considered as dangerous to the main body of the country. The secession war that ostensibly ended in 1967 is still being fought; the terms of the agreement that ended the war have never been the subject of a national conversation. Did the agreement include such important matters as citizenship, identity, development, and non-discrimination? The security agencies have not discarded their belligerent attitude towards the population and the civil service retains the policies of the 1960s towards the people of the north.
One must know their location chief, the genealogy of one’s clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
National identity is at stake as those who rejected becoming part of Kenya at independence cannot have equal status with everyone else. They are aliens, and “they all look like”. The most dangerous portrayal is the association with terrorism; poachers and pirates are small fish compared to terrorists. In the last few years, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings related to the war on terror have become commonplace. It is hard to fight for the rights of one who is labelled a terrorist and is disappeared or killed.
Public association with a terror suspect is a stigma that nobody is willing to be associated with. Crimes are committed under cover of fighting terrorism, and there is nothing the targeted community can do about it. That is the power of a label; it obscures the truth, gives authorities cover to commit genocidal crimes and permits the practice of xenophobia in public.
The End of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018 Abiy Ahmed elicited goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia but the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing him friends.
Ethiopia will go to the polls on June 22, buffeted by various crises domestically and abroad. But the upcoming election has many echoes of the May 15 2005 election, whose impact continues to shape Ethiopia’s domestic politics and politics in the Horn of Africa. Central to Ethiopia’s current domestic crisis and the border dispute with Sudan, is the Abiy-Amhara compact.
The 15 May 2005 elections were the third national elections to be held under the 1994 constitution following the ouster of the Marxist-Leninist Derg. In the 1995 and 2000 elections, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government harassed the opposition parties, forcing the influential ones to boycott the polls, with the result that the EPRDF won both elections with over 90 per cent of the seats.
Ahead of the 2005 election, the EPDRF signalled the significant participation of the opposition parties so that Western observers—whose support was critical for Meles—would declare the elections to have been free and fair. The incumbent party acceded to the pre-election demands of some opposition parties, allowing in international election observers and giving the opposition parties a chance to sell their manifestos on the national broadcaster. These conditions were absent in the previous elections. While these were not among the chief demands of the opposition parties prior to the polls, they indicated reasonable good faith on the part of the government compared to previous elections.
As a result, for the first time in Ethiopia’s history, a nationwide multiparty competition seemed possible; neither the ruling party nor the opposition had ever faced a competitive election before.
Internal turmoil within the EPRDF preceded the election. The Central Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s core support base—broke up into two rival factions in 2001. With his base in the Tigray heartland at risk, Meles took advantage of his central position within the broader EPRDF coalition and outmanoeuvred his rivals. He sacked several senior officials and successfully weathered the storm, but the fault line remained and emerged during the 2005 elections.
The pre-election period saw the unprecedented participation of the opposition parties and civil society organisations in the campaigns. Election Day went peacefully, and the early results in Addis Ababa and other major urban areas showed the opposition parties making significant electoral gains. According to unofficial preliminary results, the opposition had won 172 parliamentary seats—its most considerable showing yet in the 547-member assembly. On the night of the election, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a one-month ban on public demonstrations in the capital and brought the Addis Ababa security forces (which would have come under the opposition’s command had they been sworn in) under the control of the Prime Minister’s office.
Opposition parties boycotted their seats in parliament, alleging rigging by the incumbent. Their refusal to take up their seats in parliament handed Meles Zenawi and his party a third term in office. Meles interpreted his “mandate” as a licence to take the authoritarian path. Hundreds, if not thousands, of political opposition and human rights activists were arbitrarily detained, with some facing the spurious charge of treason. Ethiopian security forces killed almost 200 demonstrators in post-election protests in June and November 2005 and arrested tens of thousands of people.
With the domestic front “sorted”, Meles turned to regional matters. In December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to root out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had brought stability for the few months they were in charge. The Ethiopian forces captured Mogadishu in less than a week, and the UIC dissolved and surrendered political leadership to clan leaders.
Ethiopia’s ouster of the UIC tapped into a deep historical hostility between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab, the youth wing of the UIC, exploited with a mix of latent Somalia nationalism and anti-imperialism.
Ethiopia’s actions provided Al Shabaab with an opportunity to translate its rhetoric into action. Al Shabaab began targeting the nascent Somalia government, Ethiopian forces, the Transitional Federal Government security, political figures, and any Somalis collaborating with Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s and TFG’s heavy-handed counterinsurgency responses played into the hands of Al Shabaab.
Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, had met with then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Sixteen years later, Ethiopia goes into another election whose consequences could transcend Ethiopia.
The limits of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed elicited a groundswell of collective goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia. He embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
At home, Abiy released political prisoners, appointed the country’s first female as the ceremonial president and a cabinet half-filled by women. He nominated a once-jailed opposition leader as the new chairwoman of the electoral board. In the Horn of Africa region, Abiy had a rapprochement with Eritrea, a country with which Ethiopia had fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000. Abiy also attempted to mediate the Sudan political crisis.
The Nobel Committee awarded Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize “For his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, particularly for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”
Federalism vs centralisation
While the trigger for the Abiy-led military operation against the Regional Government of Tigray in the north of the country is the alleged attack of the federal army base by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the attack was only a symptom and not the actual cause.
The battle between Abiy and the TPLF and other groups is a battle between those who champion the multi-ethnic federalism constitution and those who prefer a centralised state. Abiy favours centralisation to federalism.
The Tigray region is not the first to bear the brunt of the military and federal security forces to achieve Abiy’s centralisation agenda. The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
Abiy embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
Throughout its long history of state formation, Ethiopia was for thousands of years ruled by emperors under a monarchy with a unitary system of government. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974 and from then on until 1991, the country came under a dictatorship with a unitary system of government.
The creation of the EPRDF in 1989—an ethnic coalition of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM; later Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO; later Oromo Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM)—had changed that.
Abiy’s shot across the bow was the dissolution of the EPDRF and the launching of the Prosperity Party (PP) on December 1 2019. The OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM voted overwhelmingly to join the party, while the TPLF rejected the idea as “illegal and reactionary”. The timing of the move was convenient, coming just a few months before the election that was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The EPDRF’s multi-ethnic federalism and the inclusion in the constitution of the right to secede for all “nations and nationalities and peoples” of the country were innovative breakthroughs in a country with 80 different ethnic groups. But the constitution was also a product of ideological foment and political necessity. The leaders who revolted against the Mengistu junta had emerged from the student movement that had adopted the “nationalities and the land question”, redefining Ethiopian statehood.
The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
While the multi-ethnic federalism has been imperfect, especially its implementation and the domination of the EPDRF by the TPLF, in a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
Abiy and Amhara expansionism
The Amharas are Abiy’s vociferous supporters at home. They, especially their elites, have an axe to grind with the TPLF for diluting their decades of uninterrupted state power and control. Amhara language and culture are the state’s language and culture, and the language and culture of the Orthodox Church which wields unfettered power. But with its political nous, its deep bureaucracy and know-how, the TPLF was always a challenging prospect for Abiy, a political novice with limited federal-level experience and hardly a political base. The connecting tissue of Abiy-Amhara unity is the lowest common denominator that is the fear and loathing of the TPLF. After dissolving the EPDR, a coalition in which the TPLF was a strong partner, the next step was to defeat the TPLF militarily. Even before the November military incursion into Tigray, Amhara militias were massed at the border with Tigray. If Abiy’s anti-TPLF move was intended to destroy them as a political force, for the Amharas this was an opportunity to regain some of the territories they had lost to Tigray in 1991.
Ethiopia also has a boundary dispute with Sudan. The dispute centres on the al-Fashaga region, Sudan’s fertile breadbasket located in Gedaref State, which borders Ethiopia’s Amhara region in the north-west. According to the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 the area belongs to Sudan and, unlike the regime of Omar al-Bashir, for the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok, settling this dispute is a priority. However, the Abiy-Amhara alliance has made resolving the dispute complicated.
Sudan is also a critical factor in resolving the Tigray crisis; the country is the only remaining supply route for the TPLF as Eritrea is closed to them and bringing in supplies and fuel through other routes is risky. Sudan could also determine how the GERD dam conflict will be resolved. Unlike Egypt, Sudan could benefit from cheap electricity if the dam is filled, but the country will not countenance losing al-Fashaga. Abiy faces difficult choices: cede al-Fashaga to Sudan and gain a partner in the dam negotiations while also denying the TPLF a supply route or keep al-Fashaga and lose Sudan in the GERD dam discussions, leaving the TPLF to use the Sudan border for supplies.
The Tigray conflict, which Abiy initially promised would be a straightforward law enforcement operation, has instead metastasised into a slow-grinding counterinsurgency operation. The continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing Abiy friends.
On May 23, the US State Department announced visa restrictions for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals—including Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the resolution of the crisis in Tigray.
In a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
America’s sanctions came on the heels of the European Union’s suspension of budgetary support worth €88 million (US$107 million) until humanitarian agencies are granted access to people in need of aid in the northern Tigray region.
On the 7th of June 2021, Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), who is also Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, together with Karen Bass (D-CA) and Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), respectively Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights, issued a joint statement after tabling a resolution condemning violence and human rights abuses in Ethiopia.
The sanctions come as Ethiopia awards its first telecom licence for US$850 million to a consortium that includes the UK’s Vodafone in what could herald the opening up of Ethiopia’s closed economy.
Before the EPDRF came into power, Ethiopia was a posterchild of famine and incessant conflict, especially under the Derg regime. Abiy and Amhara nationalism is bringing back the echoes of the Derg era and the upcoming June election is unlikely to resolve current crises; if anything, it will exacerbate them.
We Still Can’t Breathe: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo
Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could get back to normal.
Sometimes even the “biggest” victories can ring hollow. That especially seems to be the case several months into 2021, and 11 odd months after George Floyd had his life snuffed out in front of a red-brick grocery store in South Minneapolis, around the corner from the “Little East Africa” neighbourhood. That Derek Chauvin, the cop who laid his blatancy in the form of a knee across Floyd’s neck in a gutter finally faced some form of consequence in the form of a guilty verdict, may, in and of itself be of little consequence in the grandest of schemes.
Yes, right now it seems as though the verdict that has come down harshly on Chauvin is a rebuke of all things heinous, nothing less than a massive moral victory for racial progress, black America and global equality.
Indeed, rainbows shall now shine through and if you listen to many pundits within the American (and for that matter, Western) broadcast media, racism against Black America has been solved once and for all — à la the presidential election of Barack Obama way back in those heady days of 2008.
Chauvin will be sentenced on June 25th of this year. Much of Black America is already lowering their expectations away from the 40-year maximum prison sentence.
Life is full of disappointments.
In itself, the Chauvin verdict is not one of them; it is just another opportunity for a larger collective sadness, another opportunity for an eventual letdown, a reminder of the global system of injustice that is, frankly, far as hell from ever being permanently resolved.
I haven’t been in Minneapolis since the end of May 2020, the Saturday following the Floyd killing, when the very landscape and fabric of the “Twin Cities” of Minnesota and Saint Paul were irrevocably changed. Walking around that day, the sense of despair was palpable. All of Lake Street — all seven kilometers of it — seemed to have been hit by varying degrees of madness. Some buildings were completely burnt out, husks of their former selves; others had smashed windows or had “BLACK OWNED BUSINESS: DON’T BURN!” scrawled in graffiti across the boarded-up doors. Thousands of people trudged around with shovels, cleaning up debris ahead of the inevitable next night of chaos.
In the weeks that followed, the protests spread across the United States, and even took root on a global scale, spreading as far as Nairobi, London, Kampala, Rome and dozens of other cities. In Minneapolis, all the tension of a tense superpower seemingly dying of its own hubris during the chaotic early months of the COVID-19 pandemic descended on an idyllic neighbourhood. By the day I arrived, May 30th, the United States National Guard was being deployed to put down any form of violence with their own forms of violence. But the damage had been done and the rest of the country was experiencing its own varying levels of chaos. At least two people were killed in Minneapolis alone (and at least 19 across the rest of the US, though this number seems to be low). Dozens of people were injured in Minneapolis alone (although the exact numbers are hard to confirm; personally I talked to at least three people who had sustained non-lethal injuries during the protests, so the real number could be much higher).
Thousands were injured across the US, with hundreds more incidents of police brutality filmed and shared widely. In Minneapolis there was approximately KSh 53 billion worth of damage related to the unrest. Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis who allegedly had white supremacist ties retired at the beginning of 2021. The Minneapolis Police Department was defunded following the reckoning that fell upon the Twin Cities in those warm early summer weeks.
Among pundit across America, talk of alliance and “listening” rapidly became the norm. Many leading neo-liberals put out statements, Republicans and Democrats alike. Trump ordered the beating up of peaceful protesters in front the White House and goodhearted liberals were shocked and appalled. Everyone said it was a “sea change” in American race-relations.
Less than three months after the George Floyd protests kicked off there was a “monumental change” — Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in the city of Kenosha, in my home state of Wisconsin. The NBA boycotted games, more conversations were had and the world kept right on turning, same as it ever has.
When it comes down to issues of inequality, racism and oppression the status quo is always maintained, especially in America. Two steps forward and three steps back seems to be the pattern, one that is only reinforced by the pattern of police getting away with the murder of Black Americans — whether on tape or merely under “suspicious” circumstances in which “the officer felt their life was threatened and required a response of lethal force”.
Perhaps it is this constant pattern of impunity that has caused the most damage, a pattern that in the US can be traced to well before the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, California. The riots were sparked off by the acquittal of cops who had been caught on film beating and kicking King senseless on the shoulder of a freeway.
It’s the same as it ever was.
Over the years since, especially in this age of social media ubiquity, incidents police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
Horrifying, but not at all surprising. Everyone within the Black community in the US has long known the score. “Officers under threat” deaths, cases failing to be investigated, rumours of pistols being planted, delays in emergency responder times, ties to white supremacy, “warrior cops” getting more military equipment, stop-and-frisk policies, higher incarceration rates among Blacks, continual harassment, talking to children about keeping hands visible when dealing with police, media bias, fetishisation of police, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement — the list of systemic issues within US police forces could fill the remainder of this article.
In this age of social media ubiquity, incidents of police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
The American judicial system itself is inherently flawed. The narrative among much of the “upstanding” upper middle-class elements of society is that somehow race relations were, if not solved outright, repaired with a sustained “upward” trajectory somewhere around the funeral of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in 1968.
They paint a rosy picture of race-relations in the US in which all segregationist judges were replaced with forward thinking progressives, where all cops with KKK ties were unceremoniously fired, where the ghosts of “Jim Crow” laws (designed to suppress, segregate and subjugate post-slavery Black America) simply faded into the distant memories of a bygone era. The result was a sort of racial Cold War, where proxy wars were fought through the war on drugs, mass incarceration, neoliberalism and police impunity.
“At least segregation is illegal now”, says White America when pressed, as if cities, schools, hospitals and police actions were not still segregated sans overt painted signs.
Such sentiments bled into the politics of the US’s two major parties, Republicans spearheading the “War on Drugs” under the Reagan presidency of the 1980s and the Clinton administration cutting social programmes and accelerating mass incarceration during the 90s under the all-American ideal of “pulling oneself up by your bootstraps”. Such proponents of America’s neo-liberal ethos cared little whether there were any boots to begin with.
Slowly the technology caught up with the reality, and the anger felt across the marginalised communities in America had a focal point on which to pour out their frustrations. The images were there on film, little snippets sent into cyberspace by countless onlookers. The anger was in the bloody and lifeless body of Michael Brown lying for hours in a Missouri street. It was in Eric Garner pleading that he couldn’t breathe while being choked to death by cops in New York City. It was in Philando Castille being shot and killed in his car seconds after telling the officer who had pulled him over that he had a licensed gun in the car and reached for his wallet. (This shooting also happened in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.) It was in Breonna Taylor being shot dead on a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky only for the officers to be charged with “wanton endangerment” for firing bullets into a neighbouring apartment.
None of the officers in the above incidents were convicted. Some were never even brought into a courtroom.
On April 11th 2021, Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a cop during a traffic stop in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Details and footage of the incident are scant. The officer involved has been charged with second-degree manslaughter (a lesser charge than homicide in the US court system). Protests have sprung up around the US, youth wearing surgical masks — the hallmark of the smoldering COVID-19 pandemic — clashing with police and facing arrest, and “non-lethal weapons being deployed by officers to quell pockets of unrest”. This killing occurred at the epicentre of the “defund the police” movement — Minneapolis.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
The police are just the visible agents of the systemic suppression of Black people that stretches far beyond the shores of the US.
If COVID-19 has shown up anything, it is the brutality of police worldwide. Most times their actions go on with impunity. Cops in Kenya beat up people without mercy and enforce curfew by leaving motorists stranded on highways. In Uganda cops extort commuters under threat of jail. In Rwanda the stranglehold on the nation continues to tighten under threat of harsh penalties.
There is no equality when it comes to the Global South, particularly for much of Africa whose suffering at the hands of the police echoes the oppression faced by the Black community in the US.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
Through this lens of warranted cynicism, the “guilty” verdict handed down to Derek Chauvin by a jury in Minnesota is not a massive turning point. The very pundits stating that the verdict is such a monumental moment of change inherently prove that it is nothing remotely close to such a trend. There will be other failed indictments, other cops walking away, more cases of mysteriously “lost” body-cam footage. More will die, protests will spring up and be quelled with extreme prejudice.
Chauvin, the smirking killer that he is, did prove one thing and one thing only: where the “line” truly is, where the grey areas that the police hide behind blur over into black and white, from a “justified act of lethal self-defense from a frightened officer” into outright murder. His actions were so unquestionably heinous that they had to be dealt with. What Chauvin did derives directly from an ugly history; he lynched that man and at the time thought he would get away with it, hands in pockets, cocky half-smile on his face while his bodyweight cut off George Floyd’s air supply in that street gutter. Bystanders begged him to stop as the other officers watched in idle complicity. Paramedics were not allowed to give medical aid and Chauvin continued to apply pressure for minutes after Floyd had become non-responsive.
The systems, after all, stay much as they are in America. Profit margins must be maintained and “order” by way of the status quo must be upheld. The Twin Cities, of which Minneapolis is the more visible twin, would have simply exploded if the verdict had come back anything less than guilty. After a year of protests, COVID-19 lockdowns, electoral strangeness, Trumpian policies, political divisions, economic challenges and continued incidents of police violence, the tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
If that had happened the resulting violence would have dwarfed any incidents of unrest in America’s past. It is likely that weeks later clashes with police would be continuing on a nightly basis in dozens of cities across America. Minneapolis, where major corporates are headquartered, would have been engulfed in flames so huge the smoke would have been seen in the neighbouring state of Wisconsin.
The tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
Chauvin’s true legacy is that of an outlier, the ultimate talking-head example that “things are different now”, that something has truly been accomplished on a systemic level when it comes to police treatment of Black America.
In reality, Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could “get back to normal”.
For Black America in 2021 however, normal life is chockful of disappointments.
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