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

21 min read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sudan’s turbulent interregnum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Military Council: A reluctant reformer          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old parties and the protest movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethiopia’s unstable transition

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnic unrest

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

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

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

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

Economic hardship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A youth revolt

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

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

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

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

Social media and the diaspora

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

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

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

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

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

Identity politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identity, protest and culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion and culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islam in transition in Sudan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rashid Abdi is an analyst and researcher who specialises in the Horn of Africa.

Politics

The Winter of Our Discontent: What Next After Biden Victory?

The incoming Biden administration will find monumental setbacks that are almost insurmountable in the age of COVID-19. Everyday, whether the stock market or unemployment figures reflect it or not, the economic reality for tens of thousands of Americans grows harsher.

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The Winter of Our Discontent: What Next After Biden Victory?
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It has been more than two weeks since former Vice President Joe Biden was able to scrap and claw his way to a damaged and awkwardly narrow victory over Donald J. Trump. Despite the margins becoming clearer, the win is still ringing out hollow and empty as Trump muddies the US presidential election with claims of electoral fraud.

Biden has repeatedly come out and called for calm and reconciliation – principles of the Democratic Party that almost seem laughably archaic when viewed through the lens of Trumpism. In the bare-knuckle brawl that is modern American politics, the Democratic Party seems to have shown up wearing woolen mittens, not wanting to draw any blood from its opponent.

And what an opponent the Republican Party has proved to be! Despite everything, it managed to seemingly hold the Senate (pending crucial run-off elections in Georgia in January of 2021) and actually decreased the Democratic lead in the US House of Representatives. The big prize – the White House –  was won (due to our strangely outdated system) by a factor of 200,000 votes in four key states (Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada). It was entirely within the realm of possibility that Trump would have won the electoral college and massively lost the popular vote yet again – a black mark against the strategy of the Democratic Party.

So the lingering question in the air remains: what now? For something so “certain”, a great many things seem to be up for debate. Many political insiders are wringing their hands on network TV channels over whether Trump will leave the White House at all, but this may be overblown. Unless there’s an outright electoral college coup when the electors meet to vote in mid-December of this year, Trump doesn’t’ really have much of a choice.  It looks as though he’ll have to retreat into a gilded cage of media-driven anger and of riling up supporters, never truly conceding that he lost, the bitterness clanging back and forth in his head beneath a sweaty mop of hair plugs and spray tan.

If the coronavirus response can be nothing else than a sort of a political bellwether, then this outcome is objectively the best. The response has been nothing short of a day-by-day horror show, the bar being drenched in petrol, set alight and then thrown rudely from a cliff.

Whether Trump goes willingly or not is not a concern, as it isn’t really his choice; what is of concern is what he will do with his powers in his remaining 60 days in office. The next couple of months could well be the deciding factor in the future of global power dynamics, all playing out on the whims of a petulant moron who can’t accept his own shortcomings and instead will sit on his tiny thumbs.

As has been said before, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was destroyed in a much shorter timeline. The incoming Biden administration will find monumental setbacks that are almost insurmountable in the age of COVID-19. Everyday, whether the stock market or unemployment figures reflect it or not, the economic reality for tens of thousands of Americans grows harsher. Moratoriums and stop gaps are expiring or have long since run their stimulus bill-guided course. All too many could be kicked out of their houses in short order. Businesses that relied on economic assistance during this bizarre period have already begun to close permanently. It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of all non-chain restaurants may never reopen their doors.

The coming harsh winter 

It seems far-fetched to many that any kind of brutal humanitarian crisis could ever play out in a country that is so excellent in marketing itself as the greatest nation on earth. However, many of those who believe that Americans cannot possibly experience suffering haven’t experienced the brutality of an American winter. It is hard to describe just how rough this four-month period can be for people during normal times. The temperature can fall to minus 10 degrees Celsius and remain there for two months. There can be 30 centimetres of snow in a single a night. Brutal ice storms entrench cars and encase entire buildings. All that happens during periods of normality, but this is far from normal and now global warming has made the weather patterns all the more strange and beyond accurate forecasting.

Without the benefit of foresight, the unfortunate equivalent of this coming winter seems to be that of 1932-1933. During this period, the Great Depression was in full swing, and an American President who had denied the extent of the economic damage had just been resoundingly defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover sat on his hands until the change of power, which led to untold deaths and poverty across the country.

Whether Trump goes willingly or not is not a concern, as it isn’t really his choice; what is of concern is what he will do with his powers in his remaining 60 days in office. The next couple of months could well be the deciding factor in the future of global power dynamics…

Trump just lost the election by the widest by an incumbent since that same election of 1932. Did he lose it by a frightfully small margin? Absolutely, but if any tea leaves can be read, had the election taken place in March 2021 instead of November 2020, he may have been electorally obliterated beyond recognition.

There is an essence of tragedy in America during this time – to have had all the power to do everything and all the misguided cheap instincts to do absolutely nothing. Both parties to date have sat back and have seemingly done nothing but bitch and snipe at one another since May of this year. Meanwhile, an entire generation has been doomed to a sort Sisyphus-style financial purgatory. As has happened in innumerable societies before it, within America, a reckoning could already be well on its way – much to the utter surprise of baby-boomer generational elites who have been calling for normalcy while padding up their retirement portfolios.

There has long been a cliff coming – an entire swathe of the younger generation with nothing to show for themselves financially, clinging on to dead-end jobs merely for the insurance as they eke out an existence while only being outwardly successful via posts on Instagram. The last several months have been a sort of rapids for them to negotiate, bouncing around corporations downsizing, fighting their way through unemployment websites that crash with regularity, racking up credit card debt to eat, then protesting for their future on weekends.

It is only so far that people can be pushed to survive. This is all without mentioning the spark to this tinder – the coronavirus pandemic itself, one that it burning out of control to an almost unfathomable degree, a continuous upwards tsunami that has never crested, and now looks to crash forth in perpetuity for the foreseeable future as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches. By mid-December, the absolute true extent of the crash will become apparent (as COVID-19 cases often take around two weeks to truly surface).

There has long been a cliff coming – an entire swathe of the younger generation with nothing to show for themselves financially, clinging on to dead-end jobs merely for the insurance as they eke out an existence while only being outwardly successful via posts on Instagram.

The medical system is already running well beyond the point of exhaustion that they ever thought to be possible. Many people, including the current administration, currently just isn’t listening. With a state of political deadlock seemingly certain, the safe bet would be to throw your money on nothing at all happening, and for such horrors to simply continue as they have. Despite the recent developments of two vaccines being rolled out, the question remains how they will be administered and distributed.

Meanwhile, Trump and his ilk have not acknowledged the incoming Biden administration, let alone started the transition process. In the last two weeks, every possible media talking head on the cable news left is screaming and hollering about norms and then turning around and being polite to complicit officials. The real human tragedies do not get mentioned: the bank accounts wiped out, the families shattered, the debts accrued, the suicides committed. It is a tired, bullshit charade that is now reaching the tentacles deeper into the lives of American homes by a rate of nearly 200,000 new COVID cases everyday.

As of November 17th, 2020, the total number of COVID cases in the US stood at over 11 million. The lines on the graph are essentially vertical and all people are burnt out on this weirdness. What the breaking point will be I cannot predict, but there certainly is no leadership or directive to correct it. Could the pandemic kill a million Americans by next April? That may be a stretch, but at the moment all things seem possible. Could more than a million people die as a direct or indirect result of the botched COVID-19 response and bungled economic assistance?

Take, for example, the incomplete patchwork facing Americans staring down the barrel of eviction notices; some will get respite, many, if not most, will not. Where will they go? Into crowded homes of distant family members or shelters with a multitude of strangers? Will they turn to robbing grocery stores? Will they languish and freeze in cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Pittsburgh? Could there be an ugly wave of suicides, private deaths of lives that no one bothered to check in on?  Such notions of widespread systemic destitution and desperation used to be dismissed as socialistic musings; now they read as frightful premonitions. All of America’s dark underbellies have now been exposed, and the wolves are having a feast.

At least twenty million or more ugly little tales will play out this winter. These will not be necessarily deaths from COVID, but of families cast out into mourning and entire trajectories of lives forever altered. There is no rescuing many, and they’ll remain down in the cracks of society.

Such notions of widespread systemic destitution and desperation used to be dismissed as socialistic musings; now they read as frightful premonitions. All of America’s dark underbellies have now been exposed, and the wolves are having a feast.

In random states that are flown over and exploited for votes (places like my home state of Wisconsin), such situations are already in a full-blown tailspin. Despite Wisconsin only having a population of around five million, it has numbered in the top 10 states for new COVID cases for several consecutive weeks. This was already occurring when Trump held a large campaign rally on October 30th in the city of Green Bay just ahead of election day. It is that action of callously adding fuel to the fire that has raised eyebrows the highest. It is one thing to largely ignore a crisis, as the current government has done, it is another altogether to actively help the situation to deteriorate in states without large-scale public health capabilities. Make no mistake, this period will be referred to in textbooks as the “The Dark American Winter”. The only question is just how bleak it will become before the spring.

While many in the West are looking at the current state of the US teetering and gasping with shock and horror, most in East Africa simply shrug, knowing they are one bad leader away from reaching the same precipice. Maybe next time the US will listen. But holding one’s breath is not recommended.

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Politics

Why BBI Will Not Promote Peace or Prevent Violence

The BBI report is not a document for building durable peace in Kenya because it ignores the causes and consequences of past political violence. Instead, the report invents “ethnic antagonism and competition” and “divisive elections” as challenges, and hastily jumps to the expansion of the Executive as the solution.

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Why BBI Will Not Promote Peace or Prevent Violence
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President Uhuru Kenyatta has touted the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report as the panacea for peace that will end political and/or election-related violence in Kenya. Mr. Kenyatta has not given Kenyans his definition or understanding of peace, but his lines of argument affirm his minimalist understanding of peace or what peace studies (PS) call negative peace. Students of peace studies caricature this concept of peace as akin to peace between the proverbial happy slave and the slave master.

Overall, Mr. Kenyatta’s arguments on peace and political violence in Kenya are based on flawed premises, among them a very naïve essentialist view of ethnicity, and a tunnel vision of Kenya’s social divides. But that is a topic for another day. Rather, this commentary aims to assess whether BBI is a panacea for peace and whether it can prevent political and/or election-related violence in the future. I will comment on the BBI process and analyse who perpetrated the past political violence and why, and then evaluate BBI’s response to that political violence. The article will end with a comment on an observed and horrifying pattern of current events that negates BBI’s proclaimed intentions.

Exclusive process

A core dictum in peace studies, which originates from Mahatma Gandhi’s moral philosophy, is the unity of processes and ends. The dictum posits that the process that is used to engender social change should be consistent with the goal. This means that if the end goal is inclusion, then the process for attaining this goal should be inclusive because an exclusive process cannot attain inclusion.

The BBI process fails this test because it started as an exclusive and opaque process driven by two men, President Kenyatta and Mr. Raila Odinga. For example, out of the 14 members and 2 co-chairpersons who comprised the BBI task force, 9 were political affiliates of either Kenyatta or Odinga. Therefore, one can infer that the process was heavily skewed towards the interests of the two men and all the public hearings were just a ploy to rubber-stamp a predetermined outcome. We can discern this predetermined outcome from the BBI report’s proposals on past political violence.

Sections on political violence

While the BBI report’s proponents tout it as the solution to past political and election-related violence, neither the 2020 edition nor the 2019 draft mentions or analyses the causes of that violence. However, there are three sections that relate to the issue: i) The section on Ethnic Antagonism and Competition (pages 4-5); ii) the section on Divisive Elections (pages 9-12); and iii) the section on Kenya National Guide on Combating Impunity (pages 43-45) in Annex A. However, the latter section deals with disobedience of the law and court orders by senior civil servants and rich Kenyans; it does not address the nexus between impunity and political violence. Therefore, I will assess the other two sections.

The report refers to ethnic antagonism and competition as a “major threat to Kenya’s success”. It then proffers two solutions: inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum, and criminalisation of hate speech and of use of violence before and after elections.

Further, the report mentions divisive elections, but the section is baffling because it provides a very simplistic, almost sophomoric, comment on past elections in just two paragraphs on pages 9 and 10. It then blames “foreign models” adopted from “the democratic West” for engendering what it terms “Us versus Them” election competition, with “Us” and “Them” being based on ethnicity. It adds that “lack of inclusivity” is the “leading contributor to divisive and conflict-causing elections”, and claims that Kenyans associate “the winner-takes-all system with divisive elections”.

The report refers to ethnic antagonism and competition as a “major threat to Kenya’s success”. It then proffers two solutions: inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum, and criminalisation of hate speech and of use of violence before and after elections.

From these cursory assertions, the section recommends the expansion of the Executive branch to comprise a president, a deputy president, a prime minister, and two deputy prime ministers as the solution. Supposedly, an expanded executive will be “more inclusive” and will not “generate the same bitterness and tensions as we see when the fight is for the position of the President”. The surprising aspect is its reference to “the power-sharing model of the 2008 Coalition Government” as the standard.

The other paragraphs of the section on pages 10 and 12 do not deal with political violence. Rather, they deal with parliamentary representation and the introduction of Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (MMP).

Reading these two sections is really perplexing. Who perpetrated the past political violence in 1992/93, 1997/98, and 2007/2008, and why? Did peasants die in the Rift Valley in 1992/93 and 1997/98 because the country had no prime minister? Did the rural subaltern wake up one day and attack each other because they were ethnically different? Did the rural and urban subalterns die in 2007/2008 because of the winner-take-all system?

Analytical approach

This article applies a peace studies framework to understanding how the form of violence that occurred in Kenya in the 1990s and 2007/2008 is organised. The framework postulates that the social construction of political violence is a discursive process that is based on five pillars. First, violence organisers discursively construct boundaries of exclusion using pre-existing markers such as ethnic, racial, cultural, linguistic, or religious identities. Second, they rally the common identity within the exclusion boundary around imminent “threats” or “dangers”. That is, they articulate threats and victimhood narratives within the constructed boundaries. Third, they target those outside the constructed boundary as the “threats” and the “enemy-other”, and they demonise and dehumanise them. Fourth, they discursively renegotiate norms of violence. And fifth, they suppress counter-hegemonic and anti-violence voices.

This social construction of violence requires moments of social uncertainty, especially political and economic crises.  Using this framework, the pattern of violence in the 1990s was pretty straightforward.

Moments of uncertainty 

Over the years during the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes, Kenya became a full-blown autocracy where the party, government, and civil service essentially fused into a single hierarchical structure of power under the personal control of the president. The system was opaque and centralised around the personality of the president. As a result, political practice revolved around personalities and one-on-one closed-door dealings, instead of a predictable public stand on policy issues and coherent ideological positions. The system was a spiral pyramid of patron-client relations, with the president at the apex as the chief patron. Below the president were his clients at the provincial and district levels, who functioned as patrons in the regions.

The institutions of patronage were financed by grand corruption, and buttressed by top-down political tribalism in which regional clients claimed to speak for “unified” ethnic groups. The overall system functioned like a retail market in which political leaders dispensed money, opportunities, and “development” in exchange for blind loyalty. Some scholars have referred to this style of controlling a country as retail politics.

The system was reinforced by political intimidation and instruments of repression, including detention laws and political assassinations. Therefore, those who articulated and pursued alternative forms of organisation, especially social class mobilisation, were either intimidated, imprisoned on trumped-up charges, detained without trial, or assassinated.

When the struggle for multiparty democracy intensified in 1990/91, the Moi regime turned to these oppressive methods. Thus, the police violently repressed public protests in Nairobi and its environs, killing at least 50 young men. Some democracy proponents were detained, others run away into exile, and publications supporting pluralism were banned.

The institutions of patronage were financed by grand corruption, and buttressed by top-down political tribalism in which regional clients claimed to speak for “unified” ethnic groups. The overall system functioned like a retail market in which political leaders dispensed money, opportunities, and “development” in exchange for blind loyalty.

However, the demand for democracy coincided with two factors. First, worsening economic performance and, thus, a decline in revenue and resources for buying loyalty. Second, a greater international concern over human rights violations, which limited the use of formal repression. The resultant political and economic crises created a moment of social uncertainty that shook the Moi regime. In turn, the regime changed its strategies for the looting of the state and enforcing informal forms of repression.

Organised political violence

The central plank of informal repression was unleashing “ethnic” militias and gangs on the innocent civilian population. At first, a group of senior government ministers and KANU politicians would hold a series of public rallies in certain geographical locations, especially in the Rift Valley. The dominant message in these rallies would be hate narratives centred on nativist thinking and autochthonous notions of identity. The narratives would disparage national citizenship and its accompanying rights and instead divide the population into two groups: natives (indigenous or locals) and guests (settlers, immigrants or outsiders). Framing the latter as threats, they would demonise and dehumanise the “guests” as the “enemy-others”. Then they would threaten violence against them. To suppress anti-violence voices, they would label natives who rejected such violence as “ethnic traitors”.

Subsequently, armed militias would attack the innocent civilian population. In some instances, the militias would be dressed in “traditional clothes” and would be carrying “traditional weapons” to disguise the killings as ethnic. Thereafter, government officials, the police, and the pliant media would portray the killings as spontaneous “ethnic clashes” or “land clashes”.

To reinforce the “ethnic clashes” narrative, President Moi would appear in public in a foul mood and accompanied by the same politicians who had organised the violence. He would lecture Kenyans about peace, portray the country as an island of peace in a region of anarchy, claim credit for that peace, and then blame the opposition and the victims. A few days later, an opposition politician or activist would be arrested. This was the pattern in the 1992/93 and the 1997/98 violence.

Therefore, Uhuru Kenyatta and his BBI brigade are dead wrong. The 1990s violence was not ethnic or “tribal”; it was not about ethnicity or cultural or linguistic differences. Rather, it was politically organised and the villains were senior politicians and bureaucrats in the Moi regime. Incidentally, the chairman of the BBI process, Mr. Mohamed Yusuf Haji, was the Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner at the time, while another BBI member, Mr. Amos Wako, was the Attorney-General. Further, the impunity enjoyed by the implicated politicians partly contributed to the violence of 2007/08.

Actually, studies on the 2007/08 violence have noted that President Mwai Kibaki’s biggest failure was his inability to dismantle the structures of informal violence, and their supporting discursive practices, which emerged in the 1990s. Instead, these structures of extra-state violence diffused during the NARC era such that by 2007, politicians were patronising and funding urban gangs that had emerged as a result of autonomous processes of urbanisation, unemployment, and the vacuum of control in urban areas. A key consequence of this impunity was the erosion of confidence and trust in state institutions, especially security and electoral institutions. It is this mistrust that predisposed politicians and their supporters to view elections as a do-or-die zero-sum game.

To reinforce the “ethnic clashes” narrative, President Moi would appear in public in a foul mood and accompanied by the same politicians who had organised the violence. He would lecture Kenyans about peace, portray the country as an island of peace in a region of anarchy, claim credit for that peace, and then blame the opposition and the victims.

In other words, the 2007 election turned disastrous due to the convergence of several factors. Among these was President Kibaki’s failure to address impunity and the discursive practices of the 1990s. Another factor was the intensification of ethnic mobilisation and the generation of new hate narratives by all political formations.

Studies show that vernacular FM radio stations were some of the main propagators of the hate campaigns. For example, a Rift Valley-based vernacular FM station aired materials of a xenophobic nature against the Kikuyu, while FM stations from Central Kenya promoted a siege mentality and disparaged members of the Luo and Kalenjin communities. Studies have also documented some Central Kenya FM radio stations framing one presidential candidate as a murderer and a latter-day Idi Amin Dada.

In essence, therefore, the so-called “tribal violence” and “tribal divisions” are not a reflection of conflicts between distinct and well-organised cultural communities. Rather, they are outcomes of deliberately organised political violence. Indeed, there are reliable reports that have recommendations on these issues, including the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) report, the Waki report, and the Kriegler report. Similarly, the 2010 Constitution established several independent institutions to address these issues. It’s quite revealing that Mr. Kenyatta chose the BBI instead of implementing these reports or strengthening the existing independent institutions, including the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC).

Not a peace document

Even though its proponents have hailed the BBI report as being the pathway to peace, it is evident that there is no linkage between the report’s recommendations and the quest for peace and an end to political violence in Kenya. The section on divisive elections proposes an expanded executive and cites the power-sharing model of the 2008 Coalition Government as the reference point. Yet that model was extremely shaky and the prime minister was always complaining.

However, this proposal is horrifying for more fundamental reasons. First, it does not address state-orchestrated violence and impunity that have been the bane of Kenya’s politics since 1990.

Second, nothing in the proposals nor the entire BBI report would stop the losing candidates from perpetrating violence.

Third, the report assumes good faith on the part of the appointing authority and presumes that the president, deputy president, prime minister, and deputy prime ministers will come from different ethnic groups. But good faith cannot be legislated, as President Kenyatta has demonstrated through his multiple actions and omissions that have violated the 2010 Constitution, and his contemptuous disregard of the current Deputy President, William Ruto, since 2018.

Fourth, the proposed expansion of the Executive is perilous as it will validate and reify ethnic boundaries because ethnicity is the assumed basis for allocating the added executive positions. A key lesson from the 2008-2013 era is that the key players in the coalition government became the chief proponents of ethnic mobilisation, hate speech, and impunity in both the 2013 and 2017 elections.

Fifth, the proposal to appoint ANY of the MPs from the majority party or coalition of parties to be prime minister and any other persons as deputy prime ministers is a recipe for factional fighting because it undermines the authority of political parties to choose their own representatives.

Sixth, the proposed structure will perpetuate the current patron-client system and codify the president’s ability to entrench patrimonial and clientilist rule. Indeed, it echoes the late Mobutu Sese Seko’s strategy in Zaire of co-opting would-be opponents, letting them feed at the state trough, rotating them in and out of office, and encouraging them to become wealthy through corruption to neutralise them. But as the collapse of Mobutu’s Zaire shows, such a strategy does not foster durable peace.

The section on ethnic antagonism and competition proposes the inclusion of national unity, character, and cohesion in the school curriculum. But it is baffling how this will stop impunity, top-down political tribalism, or stop the clients of a president from perpetrating violence when it suits them.

Also, the section recommends criminalisation of hate speech and of the use of violence before and after elections. This is equally bizarre because both hate speech and the use of violence during elections are already criminal under current laws. However, hate speech and threats of violence remain rampant in the country primarily due to impunity and selective application of the law.  Indeed, there is a horrifying pattern of political practice that outrightly negates BBI’s proclaimed intentions.

Current observations

Keen observation of current events shows that President Uhuru Kenyatta is using the 1990s playbook. His handshake rapprochement with Raila Odinga split his Jubilee Party into two wings. Since then, his Jubilee wing has been consistently articulating threats and narratives of victimhood. They are always demonising and dehumanising the targeted “enemy-other”. They are subtly and discursively renegotiating the norms of violence, and they are blatant in their attempts to suppress alternative voices.

Kenyatta’s Jubilee wing, its Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) handshake partners and its social media bloggers are the most militant hatemongers in Kenya today. Further, politicians and state bureaucrats close to the president have been identified as the planners and financiers of incidents of political violence that have been witnessed in different locations this year. One can infer that the failure of the police and the NCIC to hold any of them to account is a dead giveaway.

Meanwhile, the president is always lecturing Kenyans about peace, praising the handshake as a precursor to peace, and accusing others of threatening peace. Four examples centred on Kenyatta and the interior ministry will illustrate these observations.

Example 1 

On 29 October 2020, The Standard and The Star quoted Kenyatta’s self-styled adviser and Jubilee Vice Chairman, David Murathe, criticising the Deputy President, William Ruto. Referring to Ruto as an “outsider” in the Mt Kenya region, he accused the deputy president of radicalising the youth in the region using the rich-poor narrative and compared the narrative to the re-invention of the outlawed Mungiki sect. Murathe’s argumentation strategy was not just articulating threats and victimhood and demonising Ruto and those who support him; he was subtly raising and justifying the spectre of state violence against the deputy president’s supporters the way previous administrations dealt with Mungiki adherents.

Example 2

On 21 October 2020, the Daily Nation quoted Uhuru Kenyatta rebuking the Abagusii people for not protecting their “son”, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i,  from insults by “outsiders”. His argumentation strategy was in reality articulating four things. First, he was constructing a boundary of exclusion around ethnic identity by classifying the population into “locals” and “outsiders”. Second, he was articulating a victimhood narrative that was portraying Matiang’I, and to an extent the “locals”, as victims of those he was demonising as “outsiders”. Third, he was privileging ethnic identity and diminishing national identity. And fourth, he was renegotiating the norms of violence so that the “locals” would use “defence of their son” as their justification if violence erupted.

Example 3 

On 13 October 2020, the media quoted Fred Matiang’i speaking in Nyamira, which he called his “home”. In his speech, he admonished “outsiders”.  While his remarks were directed at Deputy President William Ruto, he, in essence, sought to emphasise the Kisii ethnic identity over Kenyan national identity, erect a boundary of exclusion around the ethnic identity, and portray “locals” who supported those he was calling “outsiders” as ethnic traitors.

Example 4

On 4 October 2020, a group of hired youth attempted to violently disrupt a church function graced by the deputy president at Kenol in Murang’a. Instead of arresting the youth, the police violently dispersed the locals and fired tear gas canisters at innocent civilians in the church. The few violent youths whom the local people arrested confessed in front of cameras that they had been hired by well-known Kieleweke politicians from Murang’a. Further, the organisers of the event publicly claimed that some bureaucrats from the Office of the President financed the perpetrators.

Kenyatta’s Jubilee wing, its Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) handshake partners and its social media bloggers are the most militant hatemongers in Kenya today. Further, politicians and state bureaucrats close to the president have been identified as the planners and financiers of incidents of political violence that have been witnessed in different locations this year.

While the media framed the violence as a “clash between two rival groups” to create the impression of spontaneity, the police initially blamed two MPs who are not favoured by the regime. A few days later, the National Security Advisory Council (NSAC), comprising the same bureaucrats who had been mentioned as the financiers of the violence, lectured Kenyans about the government’s commitment to peace and security. The NSAC then blamed the deputy president’s political wing and revived the discarded Public Order Act to curtail his activities.

Subsequently, the police blamed politicians from “both sides”, but they never explained why no one was arrested or why the NCIC had not acted. Incidentally, a careful reading of Article 7 (1) (a) of the Rome Statute shows that the violence in Murang’a had all the elements of what would qualify as a crime against humanity.

Conclusion

The BBI report is not a document for ending political and/or election-related violence or building durable peace in Kenya. The relevant sections ignore the causes and consequences of past political violence. Instead, the report invents “ethnic antagonism and competition” and “divisive elections” as challenges and hastily jumps to the expansion of the Executive as the solution. Therefore, the only inference that one can draw is that the purpose of the BBI process is to recommend the expansion of the Executive.

Moreover, there is a pattern that shows that the president and his acolytes have borrowed from the 1990s playbook on politically-instigated violence. But they would do well to remember that the widespread use of informal violence, massacres, new wars, and genocides in the 1990s led to the development of international norms, standards, and instruments to deal with these challenges. These norms and standards include those codified in the Rome Statute, whose institutional representation is the International Criminal Court (ICC).  Therefore, under the command responsibility principle, the president, senior officials in the interior ministry and state security forces can be held to account for crimes under international law that could result from their court jesters’ hate-mongering and informal violence mobilisation.

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Making Sense of #FakeNews and #CovidBillionaires

Given the allegations of COVID-related graft in Kenya, it is not surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in their government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic and that some believe that the government is paying for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for COVID funds.

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Making Sense of #fakenews and #covidbillionaires
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As parts of the world begin to deal with a second wave of COVID-19 infections, it has become apparent that it is not just the virus that is not going away, but related outbreaks of “fake news” and allegations of fraudulent activity have also persisted.

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” lamented Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), back in February. He suggested that the parallel outbreak of misinformation “spreads faster and more easily than this virus”.  Since then, all manner of dubious stories about coronavirus have been circulating around the world, along with fake cures, fake testing kits, imitation drugs and rising reports of COVID-related fraudulent actions, from scams and price inflations to bogus companies and accusations of fraud along transnational chains of medical suppliers and subcontractors.

Fakes, forgeries and fraud are certainly not new phenomena, and nor are they limited to the current pandemic. Fake news exists in a wider ecosystem of disinformation (deliberately intended to deceive), misinformation (false information that is mistakenly circulated), clickbait and propaganda. Though so old that it predates the printing press, fake news has been of rising concern in the era of social media and since Donald Trump popularised the term by using it as a criticism of any reporting he didn’t like.

As the 2020 pandemic escalated, powerful organisations, such as WHO and Interpol reported an increase in fake news and fake medical products. Though the corruption monitoring organisation Transparency International has noted the increased likelihood of fraud in the wake of the huge influx of COVID-19 donor funds, this is arguably a continuity and extension of the last three decades of rising economic trickery and fraud during the neoliberal period.

Along with other researchers, our work has shown how, rather than reducing economic malfeasance and increasing efficiency, the years of economic deregulation, privatisation and marketisation that underlie neoliberalism have actually seen an increase in instances of fraud and fakery, rather than the reverse. Observers have also noted that the prevalence of fake news has increased alongside rising socio-economic inequality generated by neoliberalism, and the forms of political populism that it has sparked. Notably, this “age of fraud” has seen an accompanying emphasis on transparency, accountability and proliferating anti-fraud measures that, far from helping, may have further contributed to the fraud pandemic.

Nevertheless, coronavirus allows us to consider these long-standing concerns in new ways. In particular, as we sift through the growing pile of allegations and counter-allegations about COVID fakes, fraudsters and liars, we are interested in how COVID-related fake news might help to shed light on what anthropologist Daniel Jordan Smith has called “cultures of corruption”. That is, how debates about corruption, fraud and fakes can have different meanings and effects in different socio-political contexts around the globe and what the root causes might be. Whilst recognising COVID-related fraud as a global phenomenon, including in the countries we come from and live in (Germany and the UK), here we examine cases from Kenya, where one of us has recently conducted research on “fake buildings” and other “fake debates”. We start with two stories that went viral on Kenyan social media earlier this year.

Brenda and Benson 

In April, Brenda Cherotich was trending on Twitter. She was considered to be COVID-19 Patient One in Kenya, having flown back from the United States via London. After three weeks of isolation and recuperation, she was medically deemed to have recovered.

Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”. Despite vigorous official denials, numerous stories circulated that Brenda appeared in the media as a government PR exercise, that she was an actress and not a real COVID patient, that she’d been paid by the government to share her fake case to enable Kenya to access newly available donor funds for fighting the coronavirus.

In June, a new Twitter storm broke around Benson Musungu, the National Youth Coordinator for the opposition party ODM. He tweeted from hospital to say that he had been receiving treatment for COVID-19, and had been admitted to the ICU. Musungu was widely lampooned, and his illness dismissed as fake news. He was rumoured to have received a large pay-out (some said from the opposition, some said from the government) to “go public” about his case in order to persuade Kenyans of the dangers of COVID-19, allegations which he strenuously denied.

Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”.

How to make sense of these two cases? Firstly, they suggest that some Kenyans remain sceptical about the genuineness and gravity of the novel coronavirus, to the extent that the government would pay people to convince the public of its reality. That COVID-19 is a “fake” disease is one of the recurring themes of the fake news “infodemic” that has proliferated alongside the global fight against the virus.

During discussions with Nairobi residents in recent months, it has emerged that there remain at least some Kenyans who are convinced that COVID is either a fake disease or hugely inflated as an issue by the government (or related authorities), a situation also reported by the BBC. And indeed it does seem that, as yet, coronavirus in Kenya has not reached the severity that many predicted back in March. This makes it a little easier to understand why some people could believe that Brenda and Benson were fake patients or government stooges. If Brenda and Benson were really paid to promote a government message about coronavirus, then they would not be the only ones: it emerged in August that the UK government, for example, was paying reality TV stars and social media influencers to endorse its public health campaigns. But beyond this, what are the circumstances that would make these stories believable enough to gain traction with a sizeable section of the Kenyan public?

One reason fake news goes viral is when it seems to offer people an explanation, particularly in times of uncertainty or anxiety. The most effective stories are not completely fictitious but are grounded in the possible: they perhaps spin off from a widely accepted narrative or recent mainstream news story. In other words, they make sense to these readers in a given context. In Kenya, as elsewhere, that context is a considerable lack of public trust in the motives and actions of state institutions.

One recurring theme of the Twitter storm around Brenda and Benson was that many commenters made a link between the phenomena of fake news and alleged government dishonesty and corruption. The stories accuse the government of not only peddling fake news, but also of mishandling official funds. And yet, the denials in turn also dismissed the stories as fake news, rebuffed by the individuals involved as well as government officials.

As each side accuses the other, do we just declare an impasse? Or is there something to glean here about the particular character of popular critique in Kenya, and the interpretations of financial management and public politics that allow such narratives to take root? We suggest that by looking at the claims of COVID-related fakery, fraud and corruption and the context from which they emerge, we can go beyond the utilitarian guidelines of international anti-fraud institutions and anti-fake news initiatives, whose statements tend to revert to simplistic binaries of truth/lies, genuine/fake, accountable/corrupt. Exhortations from agencies like the United Nations to “take care before you share’” do little to get to the root of why certain (mis)information goes viral and how it is embedded in particular moral and political-economic landscapes. Instead, we suggest, we should look to how such stories seek to challenge moral and political authority, revealing deeper anxieties about absence of trust, the conduct of the powerful, personal gain and what forms of misconduct a global pandemic might facilitate.

The economy of a pandemic

Since April, Kenya has been the recipient of huge sums in loans and grants from various international agencies to address the socio-economic as well as health impacts of COVID-19. This included $739 million credit from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), $50 million from the World Bank, a total of $162 million from the European Union (EU), as well as further disbursements from WHO. As this money flooded in, there had been growing allegations from the media and civil society organisations about procurement mismanagement, unqualified companies winning tenders, and inflated costs of COVID-related goods and services.

Meanwhile, some Kenyans have claimed they are not seeing the benefits of these funds and that there is little to be seen on the ground. In late August, Nairobi’s Uhuru Park was the location of two demonstrations. The first marked the start of a Kenyan doctors’ strike over lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), non-payment of salaries and substandard working conditions in public hospitals that unions said were putting doctors at risk of contracting COVID-19. (There has been a flow of substandard PPE and fake equipment in Kenya, some of which carry dubious safety marks or have been through mismanaged quality control procedures.)

The second protest was mobilised online around the hashtag #arrestcovid19thieves to protest what the organisers claimed was massive corruption and misappropriation of coronavirus funds in Kenya. “We are tired of an endless stream of news detailing how much money is being lost in the emergency response efforts. This money could be used in a better way to fight the pandemic,” said organiser Wanjeri Nderu.

The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration. By September, there were state investigations ongoing into the “KEMSA scandal”, with updates about the allegations and investigations into COVID-corruption becoming almost daily news.

Kenya is not unique in this. The UN has acknowledged that we are likely to see an increase in fraud and mismanagement in 2020, particularly because donors and governments have “relaxed safeguards by trading compliance, oversight and accountability for speed of response and achievement of rapid impact, thus leading to the creation of significant opportunities for corruption to thrive”. This seems to have occurred in the UK, where the Good Law Project has initiated proceedings alleging breaches to procurement law, which the government defends as emergency response.

Globally, WHO and Interpol have also reported a growing volume of fake treatments: uncertainty about the new virus and how it spreads, as well as lack of access to healthcare, has made people susceptible to supposed “cures” for coronavirus. False remedies that have been circulating in Kenya range from the relatively benign, such as boiling onions with lemon, to the more risky, including a range of herbal treatments, to the downright lethal.

The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration.

The rumour that drinking bleach protects against infection has gathered strength worldwide. In Uganda, an American pastor distributed a “miracle drink” containing industrial bleach to 50,000 Ugandans, while in the US, Donald Trump has disturbingly suggested injecting disinfectant as a COVID-19 treatment.

Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish what is genuine and what is counterfeit. As the world went into lockdown, the vast global supply chain feeding the pharmaceutical industry began to unravel. With registered companies operating at reduced capacity, supplies of raw ingredients for all kinds of medicines diminished and prices rocketed. This led to a spike in drugs where key ingredients were substituted with unapproved or illegal others, or which made false claims. For example, a drug circulating in the Democratic Republic of Congo was allegedly manufactured in Belgium by “Brown and Burk Pharmaceutical limited”. However, Brown and Burk, who are registered in the UK, said they had “nothing to do with this medicine. We don’t manufacture this drug, it’s fake”

Taking this into account, even if the particular cases of Brenda and Benson may not be accurate, the way the stories connect fake news to corruption does ring true with at least some in the Kenyan context, where a swirl of stories and rumours about fakes, counterfeits, corruption and fraud circulate and overlap. Given the emerging scandals and allegations of graft, it is perhaps less surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in official management of the pandemic. Nor does it seem so strange that some could believe that the Kenyan government might pay for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for funds.

Addressing the symptoms, not the causes 

So what next? Recognising that fake news, fraud and corruption can have serious, even deadly, effects (WHO has likened corruption around procurement of PPE to “murder”) what has been the response? Firstly, we suggest, many of the measures proposed by international agencies address only the symptoms rather than the root causes of the phenomena. Secondly, unlike the stories of Brenda and Benson, they tend to treat fake news and fraud as very separate issues, masking the ways they might be rooted in similar public concerns.

In response to the fake news infodemic, WHO has advocated the need for fact-checking and “mythbusting”. Enlisting internet giants, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as the news agency AFP, their project analyses search results and filters out content that they regard as unfounded medical opinion or fake news. Similarly, BBC Africa and German state media have launched fact-checking and misinformation services about COVID-19. Such initiatives have in turn been scrutinised by other parties who are sceptical about the mix of power, interests or politics that could be at play, and instead offer alternative analyses.

Rather than addressing this scepticism, powerful institutions continue to claim their impartiality: A spokesperson from UNESCO stated that their approach to fake news was to increase the supply of “truthful information”.  “We are underlining that governments, in order to counter rumours, should be more transparent, and proactively disclose more data, in line with Right to Information laws and policies. Access to information from official sources is very important for credibility in this crisis.”

In a similar vein, Kenyan journalist Waihiga Mwaura, who has been writing a series of “Letters from Kenya” for BBC Africa, has observed in relation to fake news in Kenya that “more emphasis needs to be placed on answering the questions of people, and encouraging collaboration with the government in order to save lives. Once people understand the basic facts they will become the best amplifiers of the core messages within their communities”.

What these responses have in common is the emphasis on facts and information, supposing that fake news only works because the public doesn’t have enough access to data. They also seem to assume that the public is unaware of political “spin”, information management or even the interest of international agencies in covertly influencing online opinion. The measures also assume that government involvement will lead to better health communication and that the public will circulate officially approved material.

All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare? Is the citizen likely to believe the authorities’ statements on what is true or not true in relation to the coronavirus?

On the global trade in counterfeit medicines, Interpol’s Operation Pangea, in collaboration with a mix of state agencies around the world, is developing a public information campaign on the dangers of buying pharmaceuticals from unregulated online sources. The OECD has issued a policy brief stating, “Governments need to ensure the legitimate and safe provenance of pharmaceutical products, both online and in pharmacies, so that citizens can trust the medicines they use.” Similarly, a BBC News investigation into the pharmaceutical industry during the pandemic reported that “the circulation of fake and dangerous medicines would only increase unless governments around the world present a united front”.

All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare?

But once again, things are more complicated than such powerhouse institutions suggest. Crucially, these public declarations again presume that there is a trustworthy state system in place for monitoring the quality of goods and products. And yet state agencies in various countries are themselves linked to allegations about unknown provenance and unenforced quality standards, including in the UK where medical supplies contracts have been issued to dormant companies that seem not to exist, as well as the German government’s implication in the VW emissions scandal, and their alleged failure to ensure standards were enforced.

In Kenya, the official Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) is embroiled in accusations that it is involved in fraudulent quality control testing of PPE, with claims that shadowy “cartels” are pulling the strings to gain favourable reports for their substandard products. Such claims are not new: a 2018 investigation by the Nation newspaper (since taken offline) found that KEBS had been running a counterfeiting scam of its own, faking the certification mark that authorises items for sale and making it impossible to tell which products were genuine and which were not.

On fraud and financial misconduct, the UN and Transparency International have each circulated recommendations for anti-fraud measures (AFM) for donors. These emphasise the need for clear communication strategies, transparency initiatives and preventive safeguards in procurement, including the use of technology for greater accountability and more comprehensive auditing and reporting mechanisms.

Transparency International advocates open contracting as one model for increasing accountability in procurement. Their “Open Contracting for Health” model has been deployed in five countries, including Kenya, and according to the project leads, in the context of COVID-19 they are now seeing “the results of efforts to increase the transparency of emergency procurement and combat corruption. Transparency International chapters, including Kenya…are tracking financial commitments to the COVID-19 response to ensure that promises are kept, and money is actually used to tackle the pandemic”.

Kenya is here held up as a best-practice example of emergency health procurement, which to some members of the public might be surprising given the current local news. It is also interesting to note the overlap in vocabulary between measures proposed to address fake news and AFMs. The emphasis is again on clear communication, sharing transparent and accurate data, and use of technology. This language of transparency, accountability, auditing and efficiency has become familiar with the liberalisation of economies around the world, and particularly in relation to neoliberal lending and financing. Yet research suggests these approaches may be of limited value in addressing the deep-rooted challenges of fraud and corruption, and that AFMs themselves are regularly claimed to be vectors of fraud. Likewise, anthropologists have noted how, in the same era that “transparency” has become a watchword for good governance, the inner workings of authority can nevertheless remain opaque. In such circumstances, popular suspicions of power, such as conspiracy theories or fake news, can become ways of making sense of things.

Rather than reducing economic malpractice, research suggests that economic liberalisation has actually seen consistently high levels and sometimes increasing instances of fraud across various regions and sectors. The rise in AFMs in Africa and elsewhere gives the impression of industrious efforts to combat such fraudulent activities, and indeed many genuine efforts exist. But underneath, various fraud-active state and business actors continue to find ways to circumvent AFMs and thus often the problems persist.

In light of this, AFMs and their calls for greater transparency and accountability can seem more like a sticking plaster, “masking the problem rather that addressing the root causes” of fraud. This is partly because the technocratic approach favoured by AFM agencies does not take into account the fraud-conducive moral economy of neoliberal capitalism and the particular socio-historical and political terrain from which fraudulent activities (and AFMs) take shape.

In Kenya, researchers have rightly noted that graft has long history, in part going back to colonial land expropriations and other forms of dispossession that meant the very idea of the Kenyan state was birthed from a colonial system that abused the public it was meant to serve. The vested interests of public office continued during the regime of President Moi and beyond. In a process Joe Kobuthi has described as the “bureaucratisation of corruption”, leaders adopted a tough anti-graft stance in public, establishing numerous anti-corruption committees, policies and taskforces, but economic deceptions persisted.

Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa, which since the 1990s has seen the implementation of new regimes of privatisation, audits and accountability across the continent, has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources. He argues that while on the surface, reliance on symbols of democracy, authenticity or transparency – such as election results, quality certification marks, procurement contracts, or audit trails – has increased, in fact trust in their efficacy has been hollowed out. We are left with a situation where a surface veneer of compliance has become increasingly detached from meaningful action, leaving a space for all kinds of fraudulent and counterfeiting activities to take shape. At a practical level, this can lead to “state capture”, or the repurposing of state institutions for private gain, which some researchers suggest can entrench corruption as indictments and prosecutions become weaponised.

Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa…has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources.

For many citizens, understanding this landscape is complicated, as different actors can seem to be working beneath the surface, but always out of sight. In this context, debates over whether an issue is “fake news” or not can, for some, be part of wider anxieties about what is “really” going on. As further research has explored, in Kenya debates about fakes are more nuanced than just detecting whether something is counterfeit or genuine. After all, consumers often choose “fake” goods for cost or convenience, even if they are known to be less durable or of poorer quality. Instead, “fake” can become a term of critique and commentary, associating certain activities, products and politics with immoral action or suspect forms of wealth accumulation. In an article titled “Kenya, land of fake goods, fake leaders, fake smiles”, Dennis Otieno noted that in Kenya, “you must be very cautious, lest you pay a fake owner”. In such circumstances, everything is entangled in processes of doubling: opaque and potentially counterfeit, but nevertheless reliant on symbols of formality. Here, fake debates can be understood as some citizens’ attempts to understand more deep-seated deceptions at play in the moral and political system they live within.

In this way, anxieties about the “faked” cases of Brenda and Benson reveal public concerns not just about veracity, but more broadly about the agendas and operations of the powerful, self-enrichment and what is going on beneath the surface. In a country where state officials repeatedly cannot account for the disappearance of significant sums, and where corruption is believed by many to be endemic across all levels, it becomes more understandable why some Kenyans might start to look for #covidbillionaires behind all kinds of news stories, reasoning that coronavirus is simply another façade for concealing financial malpractice.

To decry a story as fake news is not to dismiss it as unreal, but to try to identify its doubleness; that its surface claims might be enabling other kinds of actions to occur underneath. Whether or not we believe them, by bringing fake news and corruption into one frame, the stories of Brenda and Benson indicate how the moral and political climate of fraud and fakery are deeply entangled.

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