The tension was evident, untouchable, but abundant. Everyone spoke with unmistakable anger. It was approaching 11.00 p.m. and for hours we listened to community members who took turns to narrate to us the harrowing experiences the Borana community had gone through at the hands of well-trained rangers and raiders from the Samburu community. This had gone on since 2006 when the Biliqo-Bulesa Conservancy was formed.
“We were forced to collect the information at night after word went round that the Northern Rangelands Trust had earlier mobilised its supporters to unleash chaos during a meeting called the following day to discuss its operations in the Conservancy,” said Al-Amin Kimathi, a renowned human rights activist. . After taking dinner out in the open, the team gathered in a makeshift shelter eager to listen to members of the community. And they had prepared well. Some had come with written notes and used torches to read through them.
“The organisation employed the carrot-and-stick tactic used across Africa for centuries by Europeans to colonise, control, exploit and dominate people on the continent. NRT started off by contacting and sweet-talking influential personalities within the community who it later deployed to convince fellow community members of the benefits they stood to gain from the conservancy,” said Najar Nyakio Munyinyi, a consultant on indigenous land rights.
“Ile ndovu tuliyoambiwa tutakua tukiikamua sasa imekua ya kutumaliza” (We were told that we will be benefiting from wildlife conservation, but instead we have been losing our lives), said Sheikh Dabbaso Ali Dogo, the former chairman of the Conservancy Board. Dogo added that before the conservancy was formed, top officials of NRT, including its founder, Ian Craig, had made a raft of promises to the community.
“The organisation employed the carrot-and-stick tactic used across Africa for centuries by Europeans to colonise, control, exploit and dominate people on the continent. NRT started off by contacting and sweet-talking influential personalities within the community who it later deployed to convince fellow community members of the benefits they stood to gain from the conservancy,” said Najar Nyakio Munyinyi, a consultant on indigenous land rights.
Among those selected was Jaarso Golicha Gaade, a former councilor with the defunct Isiolo County Council and now an employee of NRT. With other elders, Gaade was hosted by Craig at Lewa Conservancy in Laikipia in 2006. Craig then asked the initial group of elders to identify fellow elders who could join them in coaxing the rest of the community members to accept the idea of the Conservancy.
After being promised goodies, the latter then organised seminars during which the formation of the Conservancy was discussed. “NRT promised the communities a complete halt to the long-running insecurity and cattle-rustling incidents as well as lasting peace between it and the neighbouring Samburu, Turkana and Rendille communities,” said Retired Major Jillo Dima, an elder in the community. Jillo added that to make this happen, NRT promised to finance the construction of an institution for morans in the area. He says that the organisation also made other promises related to employment of young men as rangers and said that they would not only be protecting wildlife but also members of the community. It would also invest Sh50 million on a project identified by members of the first Conservancy Board, and income from tourism activities in the Conservancy.
“With the promises in mind, the community needed no more coaxing; it soon agreed to commit hundreds of thousands of its pasturelands for conservation purposes. The 364,000-hectare Conservancy was formed in 2006 following the ‘signing’ of an agreement between the community and the NRT.” He expressed disappointment that the agreement has remained secret for over the 13 years the Conservancy has been in existence, adding that it was odd that all the people, including former board members, “have neither seen the agreement nor were they aware of its provisions”.
(Our attempt to interview relevant officials of NRT did not bear fruits. They did not get back to us even after sending questions to them.)
Members of the community reported that apart from giving the Conservancy a vehicle, constructing two classrooms, a mud-walled nursery school and teachers’ houses and employing a number of rangers, the NRT has reneged on most other promises. To make matters worse, NRT went out of its way to worsen the plight of the community and unilaterally makes all the decisions. For instance, we learned that the organisation engineered the sacking and replacement of members of the first board after they demanded to know what came of the promises made to the community. Those interviewed added that finances meant for the Conservancy were banked in an NRT account and that the Conservancy has only held two annual general meetings since it was formed. Further, they said that past and current Conservancy board members have no powers and do not even know what income was earned by the Conservancy.
It is not a wonder that the community later resolved, in a meeting called by elected leaders and the Borana Council of Elders, to kick NRT out of Isiolo County; a resolution that is yet to be fully implemented.
‘Kenya ‘B’ and the Community Land Act
As part of Isiolo County, the land in Biliqo-Bulesa is just a small proportion of the more than 60 per cent of the country where land adjudication has hardly started. So anyone with the financial muscle and the ability to command the backing of top political kingpins in the country can lay claim to vast tracts of land there and thereby disinherit communities, some of whom have inhabited the region since the 10th century.
It is important to appreciate that the goings-on at the mammoth-sized conservancy is part of what happens in the section of the country now called, in Kenyan parlance, “Kenya B”. This is a vast region in the country whose residents have suffered neglect and open discrimination since the geographical entity now called Kenya was configured by the British colonisers. It is a region that seems to have remained in the peripheries of the subconscious of many a policy maker and politician who’ve run this country since independence. As Dr Nene Mburu says in the book Bandits on the Border: The Last Frontier in the Search for Somali Unity, this is “one half of Kenya which the other half knows nothing about and seems to care for even less.”
As part of Isiolo County, the land in Biliqo-Bulesa is just a small proportion of the more than 60 per cent of the country where land adjudication has hardly started. So anyone with the financial muscle and the ability to command the backing of top political kingpins in the country can lay claim to vast tracts of land there and thereby disinherit communities, some of whom have inhabited the region since the 10th century. The land conundrum there is now compounded by the decision to put up mega-schemes, such as LAPPSET and other Vision 2030 projects that continue to take up vast tracts of the community land.
However, the seemingly desolate and apparent economically underdeveloped region covers more than half of Kenya’s total land area and has vast wealth buried in the soil. The presence of mineral wealth is confirmed by a map of oil blocks in Kenya that criss-cross Isiolo and other arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) counties.
On paper, the land in Isiolo and elsewhere in the north is protected by the Community Land Act. This Act gives pastoral communities the right to govern their land with full recognition of their ancestral heritage and unique governance and livelihoods systems. It recognises, protects and provides for the registration of community land rights; the administration and management of such lands; and titling and conversion of community land. It also provides for the management of the environment and natural resources on community land and the resolution of disputes and accommodates the customs and practices of pastoral communities relating to land.
However, although this piece of legislation became part of Kenyan law in 2016, the process of developing regulations for its implementation have been frustrated by powerful people in government for their own ends. At the same time, little or no effort has been made to raise the awareness of members of the pastoral communities on the provisions of the Act. Further, the National Land Commission and the relevant county governments are yet to initiate a process that would lead to registration of community land and implementation of this law. This has given organisations, such as the NRT, adequate room to manipulate communities for their own benefit.
It is no wonder that NRT had gone ahead to unilaterally identify sites for the construction of tourism facilities that are located in areas that are key for the survival of the livestock-based economy in Biliqo-Bulesa and the entire Charri Rangeland. These include the Baballa Camp that is set to be put up along an animal movement route close to the Ewaso Nyiro River, the Maddo Gurba Huqqa, which is close to a community shallow well, and Sabarwawa, an area where the water table is quite shallow. Others are in Nyachiis, which was previously used by the community for traditional naming ceremonies, and Kuro-Bisaan Owwo, a hot spring whose water has medicinal properties for both humans and livestock – a place where the NRT had planned to set up a spa for tourists. “We have resisted the takeover of these sites by NRT,” said Jillo.
There are those who believe that the failure to start the land adjudication process in Isiolo and the counties of Marsabit, Moyale, Garissa, Wajir and Mandera, and the marginalisation and deprivation in the erstwhile Northern Frontier District (NFD) have been deliberate schemes by all the governments that have run Kenya since the colonial period. Their main aim, it is said, is to keep the lands open for all manner of activities that have largely been injurious to the environment as well as to the local residents and their economic lifelines. For instance, the colonial government arbitrarily partitioned – and thereby greatly disrupted – the rhythm of life and especially the traditional pastoral way of life in the north. This went hand in hand with the establishment of what Dr Nene Mburu calls “impracticable administrative arrangements”.
The colonial government did little other than setting up military installations there, taxing the pastoralists as well as quarantining animal movements that curtailed the traditional trade in livestock. It also enacted discriminatory laws, such as the District Ordinance of 1902, declared Isiolo a closed district in 1926, and restricted the movement of residents under The Special Districts Ordinance of 1934. “This legislation regulated non-resident travel into the districts,” writes Dr Mburu who concludes that the net effect of the discriminatory policies was to create an “iron curtain” that isolated the north from the rest of Kenya.
Sadly, successive post-independence governments have not shown, in policy and actions, that they were opposed to the colonial policy. If anything, the first post-independence government of Jomo Kenyatta continued the colonial policy of discrimination and neglect. Kenyatta waged war against a determined Somali nationalism. This was after failing to reach an agreement over whether NDF was to be part of Kenya or Somalia during the three Lancaster House Conferences on 1961, 1962 and 1963. Between 1963 and 1968, Kenya deployed its military to fight off Shifta guerillas out to enforce the secession of the NFD from the new republic.
Isiolo’s hidden wealth
Isiolo is dominated by members of the Borana community who have continued to lose their land over the years. According to Dr Mburu, the community was historically used as a convenient human barricade, or buffer, by Ethiopia and Britain against the expansionist tendencies of other communities. For instance, he says that different Ethiopian kings used the Borana country to check the influence of European penetration into Abyssinia’s interior and to contain Somali expansion northwards from the NFD and western Somalia into Ethiopia. And just like the Kenya government has failed to do since the colonial period, Ethiopia merely used the Borana community but was not interested in governing its homeland effectively.This gave the Somali an opportunity to consolidate their westwards expansion into the NFD. Dr Mburu says that by 1880, the Somali had forcefully driven the Borana into Moyale and southwards out of the El-Wak wells, forcing them further westwards into Marsabit, Isiolo and parts of Wajir.
Although the attractiveness of Isiolo and other parts of the north appears to have being missed by policy makers, it is not lost on the NRT and the vested interests it represents. True, the region has a harsh environment with hot and dry habitats dominated by low-lying terrain, acacia trees, shrubs and isolated dwarf bush grasslands. The county has conditions that are quite uncomfortable, especially for people inhabiting the highlands areas of Kenya, where it is much cooler. Whenever they fall, the rains there are low; there’s hardly a place that gets more than 500 mm of rain. And besides the Tana and Ewaso Nyiro to the south as well as River Dauwa to the north, Isiolo and other counties in the entire region have few other permanent water sources.
However, the seemingly desolate and apparent economically underdeveloped region covers more than half of Kenya’s total land area and has vast wealth buried in the soil. The presence of mineral wealth is confirmed by a map of oil blocks in Kenya that criss-cross Isiolo and other arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) counties. Indeed, the presence of mineral wealth in Isiolo and other areas of Kenya was confirmed by the Russian ambassador in 2003, who revealed publicly that by the 1940s, Russians had known the minerals Kenya has. What the ambassador did not reveal then was that the British had contracted Russian geologists to explore and map out mineral occurrence in Kenya.
The NRT-mineral connection becomes vivid if one was to overlay the map of the 35 conservancies under the organisation and the minerals-occurrence map of Kenya. Whether this is by coincidence or not is hard to ascertain. However, it is important to note that the NRT conservancies happen to be in the same areas suspected to have the greatest proportion of mineral wealth in Kenya.
Around the time the Russian ambassador made the claim, many keen Kenyans were surprised when mineral deposits started “popping out” all over the country. For instance, it was around the same time that the prolonged controversy over the titanium deposits in Kwale started. Further, word started spreading that Isiolo has significant deposits of iron ore, gemstones and other mineralsm, as well as vast amounts of water in the Merti aquifer. This was decades after Kenyan school children started being taught about the lack of minerals in the sub-soils of the country in geography lessons! What became interesting too was that the greatest number of companies that have since received prospecting or mining permits for oil, titanium and other minerals are either British or belong to the British in the Australian and Canadian diasporas.
The mineral-conservation nexus
It is easy to miss the connection between conservation and mineral occurrence in the country. It is also easy to miss the nexus between the ongoing quest to secure vast tracts of land, ostensibly for conservation purposes, and the confirmed mineral wealth in Isiolo and other counties in the north. But keen observers have noted an interesting financial camaraderie between the NRT and certain mining concerns. For instance, according to reports, Tullow Oil gave NRT a whopping $11.5 million (Sh1.15 billion) to NRT in 2013 to start six conservancies in Turkana, a county that has little or no wildlife. “It is not a wonder that many people have expressed suspicions that by donating so generously to NRT, Tullow Oil wanted the organisation to help it secure lands that are rich in oil deposits,” said Ms Munyinyi. However, as media reports showed, the operations of NRT in Turkana were curtailed to a great extent after the Joseph Nanok-led county government kicked the organisation out of the county in 2014.
The NRT-mineral connection becomes vivid if one was to overlay the map of the 35 conservancies under the organisation and the minerals-occurrence map of Kenya. Whether this is by coincidence or not is hard to ascertain.
However, it is important to note that the NRT conservancies happen to be in the same areas suspected to have the greatest proportion of mineral wealth in Kenya. Indeed, this writer found it curious during the tour to Biliqo-Bulesa Conservancy in February that the Chinese were already mining mica and other minerals in Nyachis and Sabarwawa areas, which are located in an inaccessible part of Biliqo-Bulesa Conservancy. This writer has since learned that the Chinese have stopped their operations there following the raging controversy over NRT operations in the Conservancy. However, what this writer was unable to establish was the connection between the NRT and Chinese miners and how the latter were allowed to mine in a Conservancy started for the sole aim of wildlife conservation.
What is unmistakable though is that Isiolo, a resource-rich county, is already experiencing the initial symptoms of a “resource curse” that is so prevalent across Africa and which is more pronounced in places that are rich in minerals. Usually, the curse unfolds whenever governments unwittingly or deliberately fail to pacify areas referred to as the “backwaters of development”. To cover the void, the communities decide, or are encouraged, to arm themselves to protect their lives and livelihoods from neighbouring communities with whom they share water, pastures and other resources. Soon, bilateral and multilateral agencies, as well as NGOs, find these places attractive for their activities, which are largely passed on as being beneficial to the neglected communities. The agencies are given a near-free hand to operate there since their activities and their effects on the relevant communities are rarely audited by the national governments or independent auditors.
As far as the north of Kenya is concerned, there have been claims that outsiders are involved in supplying arms to the warring communities. For instance, the Small Arms Survey of 2012 says that the British Army Training Unit in Kenya (Batuk) is one of the outfits that have been supplying arms to pastoralists in the north. This has raised the firepower wielded illegally by members of different communities in the north and has led to the transformation of the traditional cattle-rustling activities into intermittent clashes which, if unchecked, can spiral into dangerous, full blown conflicts that might go on for decades.
Because many of the people who run African governments are beholden to vested interests in rich industrial countries, they do very little or nothing to fully integrate the neglected areas into mainstream society. This gives the vested interests ample opportunities to keep the conflicts alive; they result in the same divide-and-rule tactics perfected by Europeans who have kept much of Africa on a leash. In Isiolo for instance, the NRT has encouraged the expansionist tendencies by members of the Garri community, who are said to have migrated from Moyale in Ethiopia following the change of government in Addis Ababa that occurred a few year ago. Encouraged by NRT, the Garri now constitute seven out of the eleven board members of Gotu-Nakurpat Conservancy that neighbours Biliqo-Bulesa.
At the same time, there is evidence that NRT has been facilitating inter-community and intra-community tension and conflict in the conservancies in Isiolo. We learned that for years, the Borana community, whose most members are opposed to ongoing NRT operations in Isiolo, had almost lost their ability to fight for human and land rights. According to a local elder, Mzee Mohamed Adan, this was after the organisation influenced the withdrawal of guns held by homeguards who earlier defended the Borana. He added that since the Conservancy was formed, the community has experienced nine raids conducted by Samburu morans, during which over 70 people were killed and thousands of livestock stolen. From interviews with past officials of the conservancy board and other community members, it emerged that 59 of the people were killed by Samburu morans who were assisted by the specially-trained NRT rangers who travelled there in NRT-branded vehicles. The rest of the victims died after young men from the Borana community engaged in counter-attacks. The raids, we learned, were well coordinated. The NRT had taken sides and appeared keen to “punish” the Borana for opposing its operations in Isiolo.
Campaign to involve communities
NRT’s operation across Kenya was informed by the campaign for the involvement of communities, and especially those inhabiting wildlife dispersal areas, in the national conservation programme. This began in early 2000s and particularly after the IUCN’s World Parks Congress held in Durban, South Africa in 2003. The campaign was inspired by the need to preserve ecosystems and wildlife habitats that happen to be on lands owned and held by local communities. The effort was entrenched in law following the review and enactment of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act in 2013. Championing the model have been conservationists who claim that 70 per cent of Kenya’s wildlife is found outside national parks and reserves and that the survival of protected areas largely depends on the preservation of vast habitats and lands used by wildlife away from parks.
NRT was founded by Ian Craig in 2004. Craig is a holder of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), awarded in 2016 by Queen Elizabeth II for “services to conservation and security to communities in Kenya”. Craig’s family owns the 62,000-acre Lewa Conservancy in Laikipia, which is said to have been given to his great-grandmother by the British government in 1918 for serving during the First World War. Craig, who was raised in Kenya, is the father of Jessica Craig, the young woman who was once believed to be romantically involved with Prince William.
Since its formation, the NRT has been receiving billions of shillings in grants from a number of European countries and the United States as well as international NGOs, such as the Nature Conservancy (TNC), private trusts and rich people in the West. As a result, the NRT has managed to set up 35 conservancies across northern and coastal regions that now cover a whopping 44,000 square kilometers or over 10 million hectares (i.e. about 8 per cent of the total land surface in Kenya). These conservancies are mainly in remote places where the Kenyan government has little or no footprint. The NRT has been trying to fill the void by altering and adding to its initial conservation mandate a number of activities, including security, prevention of cattle rustling, running a credit scheme, meeting the needs of the communities and livestock marketing.
It is out of this hue and cry that this writer accompanied the team that carried out the fact-finding mission in Biliqo-Buulessa Community Conservancy. Included in the team were representatives of the Isiolo-based Waso Professional Forum, the Borana Council of Elders, the Sisi kwa Sisi organisation formed by students from the School of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure at Kenyatta University, journalists as well as representatives from the Errant Native Movement.
True state of affairs
Kimathi, who is also a member of the Errant Native Movement, says that it was important to establish whether the allegations made against NRT were true. He told this writer that his team bore in mind the fact that livestock production remains the most important livelihood activity for the community and that any tourism activity or other economic undertaking can only supplement, but not replace, livestock husbandry. He added that the joint team experienced firsthand how NRT had been violating the rights of the community.
“We visited the Biliqo-Conservancy between January 26 and 29, 2019. Prior to the tour, we were informed that NRT had, on ten different occasions, used its influence within the security and administration establishments in Isiolo County, and especially in the Merti Sub-county, to frustrate the desire by the community to hold a meeting to deliberate on whether or not to continue with the conservancy. Indeed, we found out that conducting the fact-finding mission was risky,” says Kimathi.
According to community members interviewed by this writer, the NRT had earlier sent its officials who would travel in the organisation’s vehicles “inciting and buying off” some communities in order to unleash chaos during the planned community meeting. To avoid what would have otherwise become an ugly encounter, Kimathi’s team decided to hold long discussions with members of the community on the evening of January 26th at Biliqo Market, during which different people there narrated how the conservancy was started and the harrowing experiences they have experienced at the hands of NRT rangers and Samburu raiders. They also claimed that the NRT has introduced lions into the conservancy, which have been killing livestock and attacking and injuring some of the residents.
“On the morning of January 27th, we visited and interviewed some of the family members of the victims killed during the Samburu raids and counter-raids by the Borana,” said Ms Munyinyi. The consultant on indigenous land rights added that many of the interviews were held in their homes at the Buulessa Market. “As this was going on, we saw rowdy young people being ferried to the venue of the meeting by Land Cruisers belonging to the NRT and the Biliqo-Buulessa Conservancy who shouted threats to members of the team, saying they would kick them out of the area. Later, the rowdy youth succeeded in disrupting the meeting.”
On their part, the police from the Merti Police station, who were present, appeared more interested in finding out whether the conveners of the meeting had a permit. They were unwilling to stop the rowdy youth from disrupting the meeting even after finding out that the conveners had indeed taken the necessary steps, as is required by the law. Eventually, the police stopped the meeting and ordered everyone to disperse, which greatly pleased the rowdy youth.
It was apparent that the Acting Deputy County Commissioner (DCC), James Miring’u, and the Assistant County Commissioner (ACC), Njeru Ngochi, were of not much help either. The DCC and the ACC were evidently not in control. When interviewed by this writer, they expressed ignorance of the connection between insecurity and NRT operations in the Conservancy. However, it was not clear how the sub-county administration would have failed to notice (or investigate) the alleged killing of tens of people and the invasion of Borana people’s land by the raiders.
Traditional conflict resolution mechanisms
According to Dr. Abdullahi Shongolo, a consultant with the Germany-based Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology, the Borana, Samburu, Somali, Rendille and other pastoralist communities in the north avoided conflicts by sending elders to seek and negotiate for permission to graze in each other’s lands, especially during droughts.
The intermittent conflict in the Conservancy is not new; inter-community conflicts in the north have a long history. The conflicts usually start off as “normal” cattle raids or as competition over water and pasture. But they have worsened with the proliferation of small arms in the region. In the past, local communities had established effective traditional mechanisms to either avoid the conflicts or to resolve them whenever they occurred.
According to Dr. Abdullahi Shongolo, a consultant with the Germany-based Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology, the Borana, Samburu, Somali, Rendille and other pastoralist communities in the north avoided conflicts by sending elders to seek and negotiate for permission to graze in each other’s lands, especially during droughts. Usually, the elders from the affected community would visit their counterparts in communities that were not as affected by the droughts with a message of goodwill and to seek grazing permission on behalf of their community members. In most cases, such a request was granted once the elders in the relevant community assessed the available pastures and deliberated on where to allow the affected people to graze their animals. But, according to Dr Shongolo, this system was done away with following the appointment of chiefs and elected leaders who can now make unilateral decisions on this matter without consulting the community, especially after money has changed hands.
This has been complicated further by the entry of NRT, which has altered the power and traditional governance structures of the communities in the north and replaced traditional natural resource management systems, such as the Dedha system practiced by the Borana, with “modern” systems. Instead of working through institutions such as the Dedha Council, NRT has appointed conservancy managers, security scouts and members of the conservancy boards who have effectively taken over the decision-making roles that were the preserve of the elders. These NRT-appointed managers and boards now wield largely unchecked and ultimate power in the conservancies. NRT has also imposed its influence on the management of resources by reducing the grazing area of the Borana community in the Biliqo-Conservancy.
“After we came back from Biliqo-Bulesa, it was clear that NRT has capitalised on the lack of awareness of the land rights of the inhabitants of the Conservancy to violate their rights,” said Ms Munyinyi. She added that it is also clear that security issues in the Conservancy, as well as in other parts of in the north, are made worse by the fact that the Kenyan government has largely ceded its responsibility of providing security to the residents. “There is evidently a thin line between the roles of conservancy security teams formed by the NRT vis-à-vis state security personnel because the former are well-trained and equipped with sophisticated weapons and have been handling roles that are legally the preserve of the police, the KWS [Kenya Wildlife Service] and the county administration.”
In most other countries, no NGO, such as the NRT, would be allowed to conduct security operations that lead to violence and are coercive in nature. In this regard, the Government of Kenya has failed the community of Biliqo-Buulessa and needs to take its responsibilities seriously.
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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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