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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sudan’s turbulent interregnum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Military Council: A reluctant reformer          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old parties and the protest movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethiopia’s unstable transition

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnic unrest

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

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

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

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

Economic hardship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A youth revolt

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

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

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

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

Social media and the diaspora

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

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

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

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

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

Identity politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identity, protest and culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion and culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islam in transition in Sudan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics

My Sons Are Dead: A Mother’s Cry for Justice

As Kenya’s forgotten mothers get worn out by the load of a nation’s collective misdeeds in pursuit of political power, a day shall come when the Mama Victors will no longer be in a position to continue doing national duty as national trauma-bearers.

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My Sons Are Dead: A Mother’s Cry for Justice
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It was around 2 pm, 9th August, a day after the 2017 general election. Bernard, 25, and Victor, 22, alighted from different matatus in Nairobi’s Mathare neighbourhood. Bernard got off at stage number 10, while Victor, who was technically his younger brother, was dropped off hapo kwa vitanda (at the roadside kiosks)according to their mother’s account. Born to sisters, Bernard’s mother passed away when he was barely in his teens. He then moved in with his aunt, Mama Victor, who raised him alongside her three sons and daughter.

‘‘They grew up together,’’ Mama Victor told me when I met her in Mathare. ‘‘They were both my sons.’’

Bernard was back from Gikomba, where he worked as a tailor. Victor, a casual labourer, had come from his place of work in Westlands. They had voted in Mathare the previous morning, before reporting to work a little late than usual. On reporting to work on the 9th, they were both granted a day off, seeing that the country was on edge awaiting results of the hotly contested presidential election. Upon arriving in Mathare, the brothers found the roads blocked by protestors coming from as far as Dandora and Kayole, held back by a police cordon. That is why both Bernard and Victor disembarked from their matatus before arriving at their designated stage.

‘‘When they got off the matatus,’’ Mama Victor narrates, ‘‘they found huge crowds gathered in front of them.’’

After quickly reconnecting, Bernard and Victor looked around, recognizing familiar faces. Curious to know what the hullabaloo was all about, they walked over to their friends, asking what the matter was.

‘‘They liked asking each other Rada?Rada?’’ Mama Victor tells me, Sheng for, what’s the plan?

‘‘They didn’t even get too far into the crowd,’’ Mama Victor recollects being told by witnesses what happened.

‘‘Bernard was suddenly shot in the head, his brains blown out. Victor was shot in the stomach. I believe Victor was shot twice, though the medical report says he was shot once. His intestines spilled out. He had to hold them back using both his hands.’’

‘‘When Victor’s intestines fell out,’’ Mama Victor says and pauses, drifting away in thought…‘‘You know there are those things which if they happen to you, your body suffers a huge shock. I think when both Victor and the policemen saw his intestines hanging, they were all terrified. So Victor tried holding his intestines back, as the policemen rushed to where he was, as if they had just realized whatever damage they had done.’’

‘‘He succumbed before getting to the local hospital,’’ she says, ‘‘where the police were rushing him to.’’

Bernard, who Mama Victor says died instantly from the shot in the head, was left lying at the scene. There was nothing to salvage, with his skull shattered. A third young man, who Mama Victor says was called Paul Omena from Huruma area, and whose parents she hasn’t been able to locate to date, was also shot dead. A fourth, the luckier one of the lot, survived with a bullet wound.

Mathare had swallowed her sons alive

News reached Mama Victor at her Mathare Area 4A home that kuna vijana wameangushwa ( Some young men have been shot dead). What no one told her was that two of those vijanas were her sons. At about 3 pm, a sympathetic eyewitness knocked on her door and broke the news. Her two sons were dead.

‘‘I didn’t understand what they meant when they said my sons had been killed by the police,’’ Mama Victor remembers, ‘‘They had never had any run-ins with law enforcement. I even wondered why they had to kill them both. It didn’t make sense. Families in Mathare lost sons, but losing two sons at one go was strange.’’

By the time she got to the scene, Bernard’s body had been taken away. There was heavy police presence at the scene, Mama Victor recollects. Mathare was uninhabitable and inconsolable.

Permission to Mourn

Amid the chaos that followed the August 8 general election ( 2017) – protests by opposition supporters and police crackdowns in informal settlements like Mathare – Mama Victor had to find a way to hurriedly fundraise before transporting the bodies of Victor and Bernard to their rural home in Western Kenya for burial.

‘‘I was lucky because at least the police allowed us to mourn my sons,’’ she says. ‘‘Others are not so lucky.’’

One may wonder why anyone would need permission from the police to mourn their loved ones, usually shot dead by the police. But in Mathare’s stark reality, when young men are shot dead by the police, families have to negotiate with law enforcement for them to be allowed to either hold vigils, publicly fundraise or even erect a tent where mourners gather to condole with the family.

Amid the chaos that followed the August 8 general election ( 2017) – protests by opposition supporters and police crackdowns in informal settlements like Mathare – Mama Victor had to find a way to hurriedly fundraise before transporting the bodies of Victor and Bernard to their rural home in Western Kenya for burial.

‘‘Here in Mathare,’’ Mama Victor explains, ‘‘if your son is killed and the police label him a criminal, they won’t allow you to mourn him. You can’t have any gatherings. They won’t allow it to happen and if you insist on going ahead with one anyway, they will walk in and arrest you. Everyone here knows that much”.

Besides the ‘privilege’ of mourning Victor and Bernard, neighbours warned Mama Victor that she had to transport the bodies of her sons out of Nairobi before the Supreme Court ruled on the validity of the August 8 presidential election. By this time, the opposition coalition was in the final stages of arguing its petition against what it considered an irregular presidential vote. Kenya continued to be on tenterhooks.

‘‘There were fears in Mathare that whichever way the Supreme Court ruled,’’ Mama Victor remembers,‘‘a fresh wave of protests and police killings would break out, meaning no one would risk coming out to help me with either fundraising or funeral arrangements. I had to move fast. I was mourning and simultaneously thinking on my feet. You carry the pain of unfair deaths in your heart, but still keep your head functioning.’’

By this time, Victor and Bernard had already stayed in the morgue for close to a month, due to lack of money to transport their bodies home for burial. The meetings in Mathare could not raise a substantial amount of cash in good time, meaning they had to continue holding mini-fundraisings. In the end, Mama Victor made do with whatever little she had managed to raise, lest the Supreme Court ruling found her in Nairobi.

‘‘It was a quick burial,’’ Mama Victor narrates. ‘‘By the time we got to Western Kenya, we found the graves had already been dug and went right ahead with the internment. My sons had overstayed at the morgue.’’

By this time, Victor and Bernard had already stayed in the morgue for close to a month, due to lack of money to transport their bodies home for burial. The meetings in Mathare could not raise a substantial amount of cash in good time, meaning they had to continue holding mini-fundraisings. In the end, Mama Victor made do with whatever little she had managed to raise, lest the Supreme Court ruling found her in Nairobi.

The Pursuit of Justice

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind in Mathare that Victor and Bernard were killed by the police. Hundreds of protestors witnessed their shooting.The police themselves went as far as attempting to save Victor’s life, seeing that he hadn’t died instantly. In an ideal scenario, the case should have been an open and shut matter, with the National Police Service owning up to its officer’s excesses. Even more encouraging was the fact that there now existed the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian agency created by an Act of Parliament (2011), which is mandated with ensuring civilian oversight on police action.

However, to the surprise of Mathare residents who have been following the case, justice remains elusive.

‘‘There are people here in Mathare who have video recordings of the police either summarily executing or beating someone to death,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘If you asked people to bring those video clips today,they’ll come forward. But what we have learnt is that no matter what amount of evidence you have, there are no guarantees that justice will be done. I have waited since 2017 for something to be done to get justice for my sons. To date, nothing has been done by either IPOA or the numerous human rights organizations.’’

After the shooting of her sons, the Mathare Social Justice Center (MSJC), one of the pioneer grassroots documenters of extrajudicial killings, reached out to Mama Victor. In a sense, MSJC has become the last line of defense for Mathare residents, where beyond just securing and preserving evidence in the form of detailed statements, young men have literally sought refuge at the center while being pursued by killer cops. However, for a community-based organization, MSJC, like other social justice centers across Nairobi’s informal settlements, has huge limitations, starting with budgetary and capacity constraints. MSJC therefore acts as a conveyor belt for IPOA and more established human rights organizations, to whom they hand over statements and evidence, with the expectation of an escalation of matters; prosecution and compensation.

MSJC was therefore Mama Victor’s first port of call, from where she was assisted to lodge her case with IPOA and a number of human rights organizations, whose mandate includes seeking legal redress in cases such as hers. Mama Victor must have been mistaken to imagine that her case would be given first priority, because of the available evidence and the enormity of her loss. The death of her two sons. To date, IPOA is yet to present her case to court over a year and a half later.

‘‘A lot of times these women don’t even have bus fare,’’ Wangui Kimari of MSJC, tells me. ‘‘Yet we try to convince them to miss a day’s work for them to record statements with IPOA or attend follow up meetings. Sometimes we take their cases to human rights organizations with capacity to prosecute, but after going through the motions, they send us back to IPOA, citing one technicality or another. It gets extremely tiring and frustrating for these women. It starts to feel like justice is a mirage.’’

‘‘Being a witness in a case against the police can be difficult,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘You can be killed either before or after you testify. Yet if you go to IPOA, it doesn’t matter if you have video clips. They want witnesses, yet everyone is afraid. Why don’t they use other methods like examining bullets found in the bodies of victims and determining whose gun they originated from? People are totally afraid of testifying.’’

If you asked anyone in Mathare to testify in a courtroom against a policeman, they will most likely remind you of the case of Christopher Maina, where the lead witness was assassinated. Maina, a twenty-something year old who was picked up from Pirates base in Mathare just before the 2017 general election and shot dead by a plain clothes policeman. The summarily execution was witnessed by one of Maina’s friends. In the course of justice for Maina, the friend became a voluntary witness, going as far as recording a statement with IPOA. It was not long before Maina’s friend was murdered, a murder that Mathare residents attribute to a notorious killer cop.

‘‘If they can kill an IPOA witness,’’ a Mathare resident posed, ‘‘then who is safe to ever testify?’’

Organizations such as the International Justice Mission (IJM) have taken up some cases involving police shootings, which complaints were originally with IPOA. However, there is discontentment in the manner the cases are selected. Mathare residents wonder, why some cases are seemingly more equal than others.

‘‘We want the police prosecuted and our families compensated,’’ Mama Victor offers. ‘‘That’s all we want.’’

In the process of speaking to residents of Mathare, I learn that there are more families whose loved ones were shot during the 2017 general election. However, due to the amount of fear the police have instilled in Mathare, these aggrieved families have opted to suffer in silence than dare step up and speak up against police brutality. They won’t even record statements, suffering from a mind numbing mix of fear and trauma.

‘‘The other reason why some mothers and wives choose to live quietly with the pain is because they feel that even if they speak up, justice can never be done,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘They can see the trouble some of us have gone through, yet to date, nothing has happened. Not even a mere court case has been opened.’’

‘‘Some of those who are suffering the most are survivors of police shootings during the elections, from the campaign period,’’ a resident who sought anonymity tells me. ‘‘We have some who can’t even afford healthcare. They are rotting in their houses, straining their financially incapacitated families as they await death. Majority have become disabled. In fact there’s one who is still living with a bullet. Doctors said if they remove it, he would die. He is traumatized because he knows death is only a matter of time. Another one was shot on the shoulder. He was released from a moving police vehicle, and as he was running into his home when he got shot. We have all these cases in Mathare. But IPOA doesn’t want to come and setbase here.’’

Mothers and Widows

United in grief, Mama Victor joined a number of women and widows whose sons and husbands were either killed or injured by police bullets during the 2017 general election. They formed an association, the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors, borrowing a leaf from the hundreds of mothers and widows across Nairobi’s informal settlements, who have lost loved ones to extrajudicial killings over time.

‘‘Currently, my network has mothers and widows of 35 survivors, 12 victims and 12 orphans,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘The victims are the dead, survivors are those who were shot but didn’t die. Some are disabled.’’

Mama Victor, who is the group’s coordinator, tells me that after she met the mothers and widows inside the network she realized how dire things were for these women, not only for her who had lost two sons.

‘‘The youngest widow in my group is an 18 year old,’’ she says, ‘‘who lost her first husband to police bullets before she was 16. On turning 16, her second husband was shot during the 2017 general election. She’s now raising a three year old without a job or anyone to fend for her. Her own mother is bed ridden. Imagine that.’’

Aside from Mama Victor, the group, which has representation from various informal settlements in Nairobi including Dandora, Kayole, Mukuru, Kiambio, Kibera, among others, has a 27 year old who is raising two sons, a 12 and 7 year old, as the oldest member. The median age of group members is below 25, with majority of their children aged under 5. This terrifying reality is a function of a poverty stricken environment, where early marriage becomes a way out of destitution for most young girls.

On the passing of Victor and Bernard, Mama Victor was left with two young widows to cater for.

‘‘Both Bernard and Victor left a wife and a child’’ she says, ‘‘and so for the months following their killing, I had to support the young wives as much as I could. But in the end, I couldn’t manage to keep them afloat. Bernard’s wife, who was an orphan, remarried. She now has a two month old baby from her new marriage. Victor’s wife, who lost her mother, retreated to her village. They’re both just trying to move on with life.’’

From time to time, women in Mama Victor’s network have to make tough choices. One of the more common ones is the decision whether to work or pursue justice for their husbands and sons. But seeing that most women from Mathare work as domestic workers, it becomes difficult for their employers to allow them consecutive off days, especially when they need to interact with either human rights organizations or IPOA, in pursuit of their cases. Therefore a good number of the women end up either losing their jobs, or not earning enough to support their young families.

‘‘I had to quit my job because I had to seek justice for my sons,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘My employer couldn’t allow me to keep missing work. It became difficult chasing two birds at one go. I had to let go of one.’’

Even for those willing to work, Mama Victor tells me of kukaa kwa mawe (Sitting on stone blocks), where women go looking for work, but because the economy is doing badly, they end up sitting on the roadside the whole day, waiting for families to call them in for menial work. When the jobs aren’t forthcoming, it means families sleep hungry.

‘‘I visit them and feel their pain,’’ she says, ‘‘just to make them know we’re in this together. Someone should come to the rescue of these women, even if they’ll just take care of the kids. We’re already well organized.’’

‘‘I am sorry to say this,’’ Mama Victor opens up, ‘‘but the most heartbreaking thing I have had to live with has been knowing that some young widows have had to turn to prostitution. As a mother, nothing hurts me more than seeing young women resort to selling their bodies for survival. It tells you they have reached the end of the road and given up. They come to me hoping I can offer them something, anything. But when they get to my house, they realize that I am also literally living hand to mouth. We are really suffering.’’

‘‘My heart hurts deeply,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘It’s just that I can’t always display my heartbreak.’’

Being Mama Victor

After telling and retelling her story, either to human rights organizations documenting extrajudicial killings or to investigators at IPOA, Mama Victor has gotten to a point where all she can afford in terms of emotional giveaways is to strike a forlorn look. She tells me she has run out of tears, to a point where she now speaks about her sons’ deaths as if it were a distant occurrence from a faraway dream. She is a lonely spectator, burdened with nightmarish enduring memories.

Three weeks after burying her sons, Mama Victor was back in Mathare. She would have wanted to stay in the village longer, but things were a little complicated. Following Baba Victor’s death in 2010, she had run into problems with her husband’s family over her children’s inheritance, land. A helpless widow, she lacked financial or other muscle to push back against errant family members. She surrendered to her fate.

‘‘The entire village was on my side,’’ Mama Victor tells me, ‘‘but at the end of the day, there’s nothing they could do. The immediate family had the final say on the matter, and no one could overrule them. I lost out.’’

Mama Victor first came to Nairobi with the sole intention of pursuing her husband’s pension. He worked as a civil servant, but on investigating what had happened to Baba Victor’s retirement benefits, she was informed that the money had been disbursed to his bank account by the government, but that someone had mysteriously withdrawn the entire amount. There was no way she could be assisted, unless she pursued the matter with the police. Broke and dejected, Mama Victor retreated to a church in Eastleigh, where she was urged by a group of women congregants to start afresh, lest the weight of her tribulations overwhelmed and killed her.

‘‘I started doing domestic work for families in Eastleigh,’’ Mama Victor recalls, ‘‘earning 2,300 shillings per month. At the time, my children had moved in with my parents at their rural home in Busia.The money was so little. I felt stuck, unable to provide for my children in any meaningful way.’’

With the help of women from the church, who donated household items; a blanket here, a mattress there and a few sufurias, Mama Victor managed to start all over again. Her plan was to stabilize before bringing the children over, to join her in Nairobi. With a meagre salary and chattel from the women, she rented a place.

‘‘Rent was 1,300,’’ she says. ‘‘The deposit for the house was another 1,300. That means on the first month when I rented the place, I was left without a coin. In fact, I had to look for an extra 300 to clear the payment.’’

In her little house in Mathare, Mama Victor lived with her daughter and four sons, among them Victor and Bernard. They were joined by two sons born to Mama Victor’s brother in-law. It was a full house in the literal sense, but Mama Victor had no complaints. They were all happy together. With time, the boys started getting work, marrying and moving out. Other than her youngest son, who is now 12, Victor was the youngest of the lot, much as he seemed older than everyone else due to his impressive height.

‘‘He was handsome and tidy,’’ she says of Victor. ‘‘Everyone wanted to be like him, to imitate him. He loved cleanliness from the time he was a little boy. He always stood out. He was such a lovely boy.’’

Mama Victor runs out of adjectives describing her son. There is no doubt that Victor was his mother’s pride.

‘‘Bernard and Victor loved to fool around,’’ she says, ‘‘you can’t say they were violent. Bernard was talkative whenever he was with Victor, but wouldn’t talk much ordinarily. He used to stutter. They loved each other, but beyond that, they had so much love and respect for me. I wish you saw how they behaved around me. If they had passed here and seen me, they’d have come running, saying mathe, mathe, we hadn’t seen you. ’’

Listening to Mama Victor talk, there is no doubt that something truly precious was brutally taken away from her. She speaks fondly, especially of Victor, as if he left with some unfulfilled promises, possibly to work hard and lift his mother out of the precarious existence of his birth. Despite her stoicism, one cannot miss the moments of frailty in Mama Victor’s voice. No one can bring Victor and Bernard back to life but they should at least be consensus that their deaths were unfair and unjustified.

‘‘Vitu zilienda mrama,’’ she says, things went south.

‘‘Sijui nitafanyaaje.’’ I don’t know what to do now.

Tell Uhuru and Raila

On the day I am meeting Mama Victor, she has just come back from her last born son’s school, where the 12 year old is facing a disciplinary case. The teachers have refused to allow him back in class, demanding a considerable sum of money as compensation for whatever damage the boy caused at school. Mama Victor doesn’t have that kind of money, and therefore the headteacher turned her away, refusing to give her back her son’s school bag or allow him anywhere near the school.

With her is Terry, Victor’s three year old daughter, who keeps pulling at her dress, calling her shosho. After Victor’s wife retreated to live with her father in the village, Mama Victor was left with the responsibility of raising her grandchild, who was pretty unwell at the time of our meeting. Looking at Mama Victor nursing Terry – holding her in her lap, giving her water as if breastfeeding and offering her a sole ten shillings coin to buy candy at a nearby kiosk when the little one got restless, one is extremely moved by the plight of a woman, who has had to bury her sons and now single handedly raise their little children.

‘‘Sometimes I feel like I am going crazy,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘Look at a day like today. I am coming from my son’s school where the teachers are being unreasonable. Then I have to deal with Terry’s health complications, keep pursuing justice for her father and uncle and still find a way to earn a living. Feeding these children is the toughest task because they can’t understand that sometimes one lacks even a cent.’’

After our long chat, Mama Victor tells me she has a message for two individuals; former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta. According to her, Victor and Bernard, among tens of others – over 100 individuals according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), including a six-month infant and a 9 year old – all died because the two men were fighting for Kenya’s presidency. But after the dust settled, Uhuru and Raila made peace, and are now bosom buddies. Mama Victor’s question is, were Victor and Bernard, and the many others, mere collateral damage in a game of political chess? She wonders how the country can ever heal yet the bearers of the nation’s collective terminal pain and wounds have never spoken to it. Are they a sore reminder, to be erased and forgotten?

Sometimes I feel like I am going crazy,’’ Mama Victor tells me. ‘‘Look at a day like today. I am coming from my son’s school where the teachers are being unreasonable. Then I have to deal with Terry’s health complications, keep pursuing justice for her father and uncle and still find a way to earn a living. Feeding these children is the toughest task because they can’t understand that sometimes one lacks even a cent

‘‘I want them to come here,’’ Mama Victor says. ‘‘We want nothing from them. We want to see them with our eyes, for them to see us and know that we exist. They need to know curses come in different forms. Our pain alone is a curse to them. We want absolutely nothing from them. But they must come here and see us.’’

Are Mama Victor’s words a warning shot, a threat, a plea, or all of them rolled into one? Will the big men and their peace-architects listen, or will Mama Victor’s cries and those of others go unheeded? As Kenya’s Mama Victors get worn out by the load of a nation’s collective misdeeds in pursuit of political power, a day shall come when the Mama Victors will no longer be in a position to continue doing national duty as national trauma-bearers. That day, the chain holding Kenya together shall surely break.

 

Postscript: The network of mothers and widows of victims and survivors invited the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) to the Mathare Social Justice Center (MSJC) on 04 July, to ‘‘reflect on case management, witness protection, advocacy and psychosocial support.’’ IPOA didn’t show up. 

A criminal human rights reporting project by Africa Uncensored (AU) and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)

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Borders versus People – Part II: Congo – A Classic African Tragedy

The spat between the Rwandan and Ugandan leaders may have more to do with their interests in their neighbour Congo than with any ideological or political split, argues KALUNDI SERUMAGA in this second of a three-part series. How long will the DRC remain the hunting ground for foreign predatory forces? And what does this spat say about the future of Pan-Africanism and regional integration?

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The borders between Uganda, Congo and Rwanda were drawn in the early 1900s. This was not an African decision. A joint team made up of officials representing the German, Belgium and British empires surveyed the hills of the region and made a decision. It was not a simple matter. At one point, they were attacked by a party of rebels led in 1911 by the anti-colonial Nyabinghi warrior Muhumuza, who ambushed a joint Anglo-Belgian-Germany Boundary Commission. It was to be her last operation. She was injured, captured and imprisoned by the British in Buganda for the rest of her life. Forty of her fighters were killed.

But that is the story for Part III of this series.

For now, the story is this: Those white man’s borders still eat African lives. On 27th March this year, a Rwandan national named Elizabeth Mukagarukwiza collapsed and died on the Ugandan side of the closed border while running from Rwanda security officials trying to take her back to Rwanda. She was reportedly in search of medication related to her pregnancy.

On May 24th, two men, one Ugandan, one Rwandan, were shot dead after being intercepted on a goods run into Rwanda. Like many others, they were not carrying anything ordinarily illegal.

First, as usual, it will be the peasants. The rest of us, all things remaining constant, will be caught up with later.

Borders versus People - Part I: The Tribe Conundrum

Read Also: Borders versus People – Part I: The Tribe Conundrum

Both incidents were immediate victims of the increasingly absurd bouts of megaphone diplomacy between the two countries. At one point, in a bid to deny their border incursion, some Rwandan officials even found themselves claiming that the smugglers – one Ugandan and one Rwandan – had been shot dead inside Rwanda, despite their bodies being found on the Ugandan side.

Overall, the crisis has enabled us to more clearly discern two things previously held tight by the now unsettled inner circles.

First, the people of Rwanda, for all their country’s reported developmental progress, remain seriously poor. Many will continue living outside their country, or seek to do so, for economic reasons, rather than political ones.

Second, President Yoweri Museveni’s support to the 1993 Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel invasion of Rwanda, and the eventual overthrow of the regime in Rwanda was much more extensive and explicit than many thought at the time.

Third, that the enmity between these two hitherto sister regimes is rooted in their joint sojourn in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Having been repeatedly assured that Eastern Africa’s future lies only in ever-greater regional integration, the sight of the principal proponent of this view, and the principal product of its attempted implementation standing now at loggerheads, will be most confounding to those genuine Pan-Africanists in support of that great expression of their ideals – the East African Federation.

Let me put it this way: Who holds the legitimate voice of the various peoples of East Africa? That question is critical to the future of the idea of a regional integration.

Having been repeatedly assured that Eastern Africa’s future lies only in ever-greater regional integration, the sight of the principal proponent of this view, and the principal product of its attempted implementation standing now at loggerheads, will be most confounding to those genuine Pan-Africanists in support of that great expression of their ideals – the East African Federation.

First, who exactly is in conflict with whom, in this instance? Clearly, it would not be correct to call this a conflict between Uganda and Rwanda for the simple reason that despite grand claims to the contrary, neither government can prove they actually represent the will and aspirations of their citizens. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda came to power through armed might, relying on narrow ethnic-favouring armies, and have been energetically stage-managing presidential elections – not to mention constitutional controls on their tenures – ever since.

On the other hand, neither can we call this a conflict between two men. Clearly there are interests broader than the personal views of the two principals involved, not to mention the hundreds of minions that have been scurrying about in their name, arresting, deporting, vilifying, abducting, counter-deporting and spaying on each other.

This is a clash of regimes, and the corpus of the respective crony interests that have built up around them over the decades.

Ironically, it is also unavoidable, given that both leaders chaperone exactly the same competing global ambitions and interests in the Great Lakes region, which is exactly what led to the great falling out between their respective armies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Until then, it did not seem possible to imagine any kind of disagreement ever-emerging between them or their leaders, certainly not in the Pan-African mind.

Congo: Heart of dark foreign forces

But Congo is not the “heart of darkness” of Kurtz’s rendering. Congo is the beating heart of Africa, long excised from her body by a series of venal occupiers: first King Leopold of Belgium, then his state, then Marshal Mobutu as the nyapara for Western corporations there. Finally, our liberators moved in, and the real story of the Uganda-Rwanda border is actually the story of whether they ever actually left.

In that sense, Congo is the heart of light, in that it illuminates all the dark places of a person’s soul, and lays bare their true character, as Joseph Conrad’s Congo did with Kurtz. Ugandan and Rwandan armies entered the DRC as liberating heroes. Today, they are rightly seen as the villains who brought the place to final ruin.

But Congo is not the “heart of darkness” of Kurtz’s rendering. Congo is the beating heart of Africa, long excised from her body by a series of venal occupiers: first King Leopold of Belgium, then his state, then Marshal Mobutu as the nyapara for Western corporations there. Finally, our liberators moved in, and the real story of the Uganda-Rwanda border is actually the story of whether they ever actually left.

It is this centrality to the continent, bordering nine other countries that led Frantz Fanon to call Congo the “trigger” for the coming African revolution. The whole bounty of Africa’s riches seems to lie within her reach.

Along with its current membership of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Congo, if it so wished, could be a member state of the East African Community (EAC) and technically even of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Its size seems to match only its sheer known mineral wealth, upon which this historical procession of predators feast.

If there is one population on the entire continent least deserving of further depredations, robberies and violence, it is the people of the DRC.

Before even Leopold, so much of its population was fed into the ships of the transatlantic slave trade for centuries that there is even a location called “Congo Square” in what is now the American city of New Orleans, in which the building blocks of American jazz were shaped by enslaved Africans on their occasional days off.

There followed a slavery-in-place, as Belgium’s Leopold organised the extraction of rubber and cocoa through forced labour camps.

William Lever, the British industrialist, was so impressed by the economic efficiencies of the slave labour system that he went into partnership with Leopold for the steady supply of the palm oil he needed to massively expand his soap manufacturing business.

This classic African tragedy, however, did not stop the two great Pan-African armies from clashing there three times, and in the process, basically laying waste the eastern city of Kisangani. Some truly epic levels of energy were expended in the stealing of minerals, lumber and other valuables from the DRC. This progressed from the mere looting of mining company stores to the taking over or establishment of artisanal mines, and even the importation of slave labour made up of “idle” ghetto youth swept off the ghetto streets from as far away as Kampala.

The International Court of Justice’s 2005 ruling against Uganda, as well as a United Nations report on Rwanda, carries the outlines of the criminality, despite furious denials from the culprits. The 10-billion-dollar penalty against Uganda remains unpaid, but the wider crime is to have created the conditions that have led to the deaths of an estimated six million Congolese people.

It would be a mistake to see any of these crimes as events that happened a long time ago, and far away. Lever’s company lives on today as Unilever. Find a moment to go and check how many of the manufactured items on your kitchen and bathroom shelves are made by this company. Congo’s long misery put Unilever in a position to be able to put them there.

The International Court of Justice’s 2005 ruling against Uganda, as well as a United Nations report on Rwanda, carries the outlines of the criminality, despite furious denials from the culprits. The 10-billion-dollar penalty against Uganda remains unpaid, but the wider crime is to have created the conditions that have led to the deaths of an estimated six million Congolese people.

And by taking the role of Mobutu, these two friends’ occupying armies and proxy militias have enabled other Western corporations to hold Congo in that position ever since. The quarrel is about which of these twins will be the principal instrument in the facilitation of this plunder, with more than a little benefit to itself.

Either this Pan-African idea does not really exist, or these leaders have never believed in it.

This is simply the story. Now we need the story behind the story, which I will explore in Part III of this series.

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Politics

Borders versus People – Part I: The Tribe Conundrum

Post-colonial Africa’s historical ideological trajectory has been to insist that all the peoples found within any given set of colonial borders at independence could only be considered as “tribes”. In this first of a three-part series, KALUNDI SERUMAGA examines tribal or ethnic identity in the context of shifting political alliances and loyalties.

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Borders versus People - Part I: The Tribe Conundrum
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Africa’s borders are one of Pan-Africanism’s foundational obsessions. Are they ours, or Europe’s? Do we keep them, or erase them? Did we ever have our own?

Since just before the February decision by the Rwandan government to prevent access to its side of the border with Uganda, we have witnessed a shadowy quarrel between the presidencies of the two countries conducted in shorthand. The border closure was the first openly physical expression of this private argument. Since then, the language has become more robust, and the actions more direct, and even deadly.

With that act, Pan-Africanism came up against the realities of the European-designed political power upon which its member states rest. Perhaps, it will finally now look for an answer to its foundational riddle.

Some background may help here.

Yoweri Museveni, first as anti-Amin rebel activist, and later President of Uganda due to the bush exertions of his National Resistance Army (NRA), was seen –and saw himself – as the embodiment of the Pan-African ideal. Among his victorious soldiers were not insignificant numbers of refugees from Rwanda, some of whom had joined his crusade as far back as the days of General Idi Amin (1971-1979).

Museveni’s embrace, and even promotion to high office, of these excluded Africans was seen as real pan-Africanism in action. Paul Kagame was Uganda’s Deputy Director of Military Intelligence, and Major Fred Rwigyema (who died and was replaced by Kagame as the head of the Rwanda Patriotic Front [RPF]) was the Deputy Minister for Defence.

All this was celebrated, not least by the then luminaires of the attempted revival of the global Pan-Africanist movement led by the magnificently deluded Nigerian activist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, who went on to hold what was to be a major re-organisational 1994 conference in Kampala, which was gifted with a permanent secretariat afterwards.

Finally, the notion was cemented by the generous assistance Museveni’s NRA lent to the RPF invasion of Rwanda. In fact, the array of names of the Rwandan personalities (some now deceased) now quarreling among themselves contained a few alumni of Uganda’s Makerere University, as well as former employees of the Ugandan government. During broadcasts, if it were not for the bloodletting, it would be almost amusing watching them dispute in their Ugandan-accented English.

The genesis of the current stand-off

After the RPF victory in Kigali, one would have thought that the Pan-African flower had now bloomed. The RPF was viewed as part of the NRA but under a more focused leadership of the austere-looking disciplinarian Paul Kagame, with none of the shortcomings NRA have so venally displayed once in power.

The current stand-off is, therefore, a culminated development in a political history reaching back over four decades, which has come to define how a generation or two understand politics, war and regional diplomacy. The details of all the attendant schemes, betrayals and illegitimate victories, are theirs. The implications, however, belong to all of us. If these two peas-in-a-pod cannot get on, then who in the region will?

After the RPF victory in Kigali, one would have thought that the Pan-African flower had now bloomed. The RPF was viewed as part of the NRA but under a more focused leadership of the austere-looking disciplinarian Paul Kagame, with none of the shortcomings NRA have so venally displayed once in power.

But perhaps the problem is precisely that many were seeing something that was not really there?

For its part, Kigali eventually made it known that it believes Kampala had already been offering support to a nascent armed rebellion being assembled, it claims, in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and led by Kayumba Nyamaswa, a former RPF general. This was flatly denied by Uganda’s long-standing Minister of Foreign Affairs (and even longer-standing in-law to the president), Hon. Sam Kuteesa, who said: “Uganda cannot allow its territory to be used to threaten the security of a neighbouring country.”

Given the military role of the government in which Kuteesa serves in changing the governments of the DRC twice, South Sudan (through helping the secession), and of course Rwanda (by which means Paul Kagame became president in the first place), this must be the ultimate demonstration of diplomat-speak.

And given the fact the President Paul Kagame willingly accepted assistance offered by the Ugandan government (in which he was serving at the time) in that interference that led to the collapse of the regime of then Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, perhaps this alleged assistance to his erstwhile General Nyamwasa should not be a cause for surprise, let alone outrage. He will certainly know what may follow.

The rebellion against the regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote basically involved arming refugees and exiles, among others, to help wage a war of the government of the country that was hosting them. This was followed by the arming of refugees to invade a neighbouring country, and then arming refugees and ethnic minorities to march against two DRC governments in Kinshasa, where the armies of Uganda, and Kagame’s Rwanda were to work together in driving the armed movement that removed the regime of Marshal Mobutu from the DRC, and backstopped events around the death of Mobutu’s first replacement.

After a lifetime of breaking rules and flouting the procedures and principles of International relations, President Kagame can hardly suddenly expect them to be upheld in respect to his own regime. And especially not by his former accomplice in such conduct.

President Kagame has a long and complex relationship with the Uganda-Rwanda border. At a personal level, he has been responsible for its security and integrity not from one, but both sides, first, as a very senior Ugandan military intelligence officer, and now as President of Rwanda. He has also crossed it in illegal fashion, first as a child in a family seeking refuge, and lastly as a Ugandan-based armed rebel. And now he has shut it down.

Between the countries, the story becomes even more complex. In the last major constitutional revamp, Uganda included a group defined as “Banyarwanda” in the schedule of “tribes” or ethnic groups of the country. This came about for two main reasons: first, there are significant communities of Ugandan citizens in the far southwest of the country that are of the same ethnicities as those found throughout neighbouring Rwanda. This is a common African situation.

President Kagame has a long and complex relationship with the Uganda-Rwanda border. At a personal level, he has been responsible for its security and integrity not from one, but both sides, first, as a very senior Ugandan military intelligence officer, and now as President of Rwanda.

The other reason is that the NRA’s struggle for power did – as the case of President Paul Kagame shows – take on board very many Rwandan refugees (largely of Tutsi origin). These refugees’ initial attempts to obtain Ugandan citizenship after the 1979 fall of General Amin’s government were opposed by many indigenous Ugandan politicians. Despite that (or perhaps as a result of it), they had gone on to swell the ranks of the NRA as it battled the regime of the then President Milton Obote following the stolen 1980 elections. The NRA’s control of full state power on its own standing ushered in the change in their status.

Much as it has enabled Ugandans of Rwandan ethnicity from the Uganda side of the border to stop having to be named after the nearby mountains or to have other labels (sometimes epithets) foisted upon them by their neighbours, this situation only creates further complications for Pan-Africanism, which as yet remain unacknowledged conundrums, but that will be significant in the future.

To complicate matters further, Uganda also has many people of Burundian origin who migrated to the country in the decades following the establishment of the colonial state. How come they have not been recognised as a separate “ethnicity”? More closely, there has been the argument, in the case of the Rwandan “ethnicity”, that perhaps Uganda should have recognised Rwandan Hutus and Rwandan Tutsi as separate groups, as had historically been the case back in Rwanda.

A similar question has been raised about the Asians settled in the country for nearly a century who have made sporadic requests for “tribal” recognition. In their case, will it go back to the Hutu and Tutsi question: will they be labelled the “Asian tribe”, or will they get registered as the various ethnic or caste groups that they identify with in India or Pakistan?

Tribe or nation?

Post-colonial Africa’s historical ideological trajectory has been to insist that all the peoples found within any given set of colonial borders at independence could only be considered as “tribes”, the raw material out of which the new nation would be built. This an extremely deeply entrenched mindset among almost the entire African political class, irrespective of country, and whether in government or in the opposition.

But here’s the thing: In the case of the members of the relatively newly-established Rwandan tribe of Uganda, one only has to cross the border (once re-opened) to morph into a member of a nationality, without a change in ethnicity.

Between the countries, the story becomes even more complex. In the last major constitutional revamp, Uganda included a group defined as “Banyarwanda” in the schedule of “tribes” or ethnic groups of the country.

The question arises as to how a European-drawn border developed the magical power to transform the same African ethnicity into either a “tribe” or a “nation”, depending on which side of that border it stood.

Other “tribes” in Uganda, such as (famously, or perhaps infamously) the Baganda, remain trapped. Their pre-colonial status as a nation cannot be as easily re-actualised, as they have no such border they can cross. These designated “tribes” have a dubious status within the given polity. Their rights are ephemeral at best. Their continued existence is viewed with official suspicion, a sort of pre-colonial hangover that must be progressively extinguished, through political means if possible, but by naked force, if necessary. They present in public life often as an abused bargaining tool by members of the petit bourgeois class found among them, as they blackmail those holding state power. “Tribalism” is the destructive political habit that results, and is then used to further stigmatise native identity.

Perhaps Kampala’s problem – evidenced historically by the belittling and patronising attitude towards Kigali since the RPF took power there – is that it cannot shake the thinking that the Kigali regime is little more than a Ugandan “tribe” that happens to control another country. In short, an extension of the attitude it holds towards all the ethnicities within the ambit of its own borders.

All these realities and events strongly suggest that the border is the least of our worries; it is what lies beneath, and before. This is what we shall examine in Parts II and III of this series.

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