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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

It’s Our Turn to Eat: Cousin of Kenya’s President Has Stake in Sportpesa Betting Firm

The Kenyatta family business, managed by one the president’s brothers, has sprawling interests across the Kenyan economy, and as Faull and Wafula reveal, the presidency has increased their stake in the economy.

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It’s Our Turn to Eat: Cousin of Kenya’s President Has Stake in Sportpesa Betting Firm
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A cousin of President Uhuru Kenyatta has quietly accumulated a financial stake in SportPesa’s controversial gambling empire, Finance Uncovered can reveal.

The finding — discovered in details buried in corporate filings in Kenya, the UK and the Isle of Man — came as the president signed a law to axe a 20% excise duty on bets staked, a levy that contributed to SportPesa’s withdrawal from its lucrative Kenyan market last year.

The proposal to drop the duty was included as an amendment to the Finance Bill, which had been passed by the National Assembly last week. The final hurdle to it becoming law was the president’s assent on Tuesday night.

A cousin of President Uhuru Kenyatta has quietly accumulated a financial stake in SportPesa’s controversial gambling empire, Finance Uncovered can reveal.

The president’s crucial decision is being analysed closely now it has been established that Peter Kihanya Muiruri, his second cousin, has over the past 14 months acquired stakes in three companies which are part of  SportPesa’s international gambling empire.

SportPesa is the shirt sponsor of English Premier League side, Everton FC. After the government introduced taxes on bets placed by punters, and aggressively pursued gambling firms for its payment, it prompted a number of leading gambling firms to close their businesses in Kenya.

The president’s crucial decision is being analysed closely now it has been established that Peter Kihanya Muiruri, his second cousin, has over the past 14 months acquired stakes in three companies which are part of SportPesa’s international gambling empire.

The taxes were brought in to both stem rampant gambling addiction in Kenya and also raise revenue from what has rapidly become a highly lucrative business.

Now it has been axed, it could see SportPesa, whose biggest shareholder and founder is Bulgarian national Guerassim Nikolov, re-enter the Kenya sport betting market and revive the wider gambling industry.

A SportPesa revival in Kenya would also benefit a member of Kenyatta’s own family.

A presidential spokesperson did not return calls or respond to a detailed text message asking whether Kenyatta knew about his cousin’s shareholding before he signed the bill into law.

A SportPesa revival in Kenya would also benefit a member of Kenyatta’s own family

The Kenyatta family business, managed by one the president’s brothers, has sprawling interests across the Kenyan economy, and individual family members also invest widely.

Shareholdings

Finance Uncovered, working with the Daily Nation in Kenya, accessed documents filed by SportPesa companies in Kenya, the UK and the Isle of Man.

The documents show Peter Kihanya Muiruri is a shareholder in three companies linked to SportPesa:

  • The first is a 1% stake in Pevans East Africa, the company which owns SportPesa in Kenya. Muiruri appeared on the shareholder register for the first time in May 2019, shortly before a government clampdown on the betting industry began. Muiruri is now also a director of Pevans. Pevans has previously disclosed that it amassed Sh20 billion in revenues and generated gross profits of Sh9 billion (£70m) in Kenya in 2018.
  • The second stake is a 0.5% shareholding in SportPesa Global Holdings Limited (UK) – a  company that owns SportPesa’s non-Kenyan betting companies in Tanzania, South Africa, Italy and Russia. It also owns a highly profitable UK business SPS Sportsoft Ltd, which provides IT services to SportPesa sister companies, including Pevans in Kenya. Muiruri acquired the stake last November. SportPesa Global Holdings made a profit after tax of almost £12m in 2018, according to its financial statements.
  • The third is a 3% stake in SportPesa Holdings Limited (Isle of Man). This is an offshore company which receives SportPesa’s revenues from bets staked in the UK. Companies based in the Isle of Man, a small British Crown dependency and tax haven in the Irish Sea, do not have to publicly disclose their accounts so no financial information is available. Muiruri acquired the stake last December.

The value of Muiruri’s shares in the three companies is unclear, because up-to-date financial information for these companies is not available. It is also unknown at this stage how much, if anything, Muiruri paid for the shares.

SportPesa did not respond to the Daily Nation’s emailed questions.

The company was asked whether it had  lobbied the President either directly or indirectly for the reinstatement of its betting licence or any tax reductions.

The firm was also asked to disclose how much the president’s cousin paid for his shares in each of the three companies, and when he became a director in Pevans.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing either by Muiruri or SportPesa.

Family connection

Muiruri himself is a low-key businessman. Little is publicly known about him. Muiruri’s mother is Uhuru Kenyatta’s first cousin, while his grandfather was the younger half brother of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president.

In November 2016, President Kenyatta attended the funeral service of Muiruri’s father, the late Mzee Josphat Muiruri Kihanya, at the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi and gave a short address. The presidency also issued a formal press statement paying tribute to the former civil servant, although it made no mention of the family connection.

SportPesa lost its betting license last July. The company announced it was withdrawing from  Kenya last September in response to what it called “the hostile taxation and operating environment in the country”. Their withdrawal led to 400 job losses and the sudden cancellation of its local sports sponsorships.

In February this year SportPesa also withdrew from its international sponsorship commitments, including a reported £9.6 million a year shirt sponsorship with Everton.

The 20% duty was only introduced last November, according to the Kenya Revenue Authority.

Tax about-turn

Reversing any betting tax was not on the cards two months ago, when the Departmental Committee on Finance and National Planning chaired by Joseph Limo published the Finance Bill for public comment on 8 May. At that stage, the bill contained no plans to tinker with any betting taxes.

Committee meeting minutes show that an obscure stakeholder group — identified only by a non-existent URL as shade.co.ke — wrote to the committee on 15 May proposing the scrapping of the 20% excise duty on bets placed. “It has made many betting firms cash strapped hence cutting down on their sponsorships to local sports clubs,” they said.

The committee agreed, noting that “the high level of taxation had led to punters placing bets on foreign platforms that are not subject to tax and thereby denying the Government revenue”.

In its justification for approving the amendment, the committee explained to the National Assembly that it would “reverse the negative effects of this tax on the industry which has led to closure of betting companies in Kenya, yet international players continue to operate”.

The committee turned down other proposals by the unidentified stakeholder group to amend other tax laws affecting betting, which included a reduction in withholding tax on players’ winnings from 20% to 10% and exempting the betting industry from digital services tax.

A gambling nation

As the committee was still considering the excise tax proposals in May, Finance Uncovered working with the Daily Nation published leaked betting revenue declaration figures from the industry for May 2019.

The data showed that punters had wagered more than Shs30bn (£234m) in just one month. SportPesa alone accounted for two-thirds of these betting revenues, according to the data which all betting firms submitted to the Betting Control and Licencing Board (BCLB).

Such huge revenues for a single month showed what is at stake for the gambling companies in Kenya.

The controversial 20% excise duty would have been levied directly on these revenues, and could — on the basis of the leaked revenue data — have been worth up to Shs72bn (£562m) in annual taxes for the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA).

SportPesa alone accounted for two-thirds of these betting revenues, according to the data which all betting firms submitted to the Betting Control and Licencing Board

However, this was when the industry was at its peak, and before the government began its tax and regulatory clampdown last July, including suspending  the betting licences of gambling firms including SportPesa and its next biggest rival Betin.

Two other associates of the president already hold a significant chunk of equity in SportPesa both locally and internationally.

They are Paul Wanderi Ndung’u, a key fundraiser for Kenyatta’s Jubilee political party during the 2017 election (17%); and Asenath Wachera Maina (21%), whose late husband Dick Wathika is a former Nairobi mayor whom Kenyatta has described as a long-time friend.

In addition to these links, SportPesa’s Nairobi headquarters share the same office complex that also houses the Kenyatta family-owned investment holding company.

This article was first published by Finance uncovered. An investigative journalism training and reporting project.

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The Battle Within: Uhuru’s War Against His Deputy

After joining forces with William Ruto to win the 2013 and 2017 elections, President Uhuru Kenyatta now seems determined to ensure that his deputy does not ascend to the presidency in 2022. The breakdown of their alliance has all the hallmarks of betrayal, brinkmanship, deception, fraud and subterfuge.

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The Battle Within: Uhuru’s War Against His Deputy
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“Lord, protect me from my friends; I can take care of my enemies.”

The above quote by Voltaire is one that Deputy President William Ruto could well be spending lots of time brooding over, especially in these times of coronavirus. Since official recognition of the pandemic’s arrival in Kenya over just three months ago, Ruto’s political battles – not with his enemies, but with people he had counted as friends – have intensified. The battles that are being fought in the Jubilee Party, the party of President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, are internal and among erstwhile friends.

Coming barely 30 months after the forceful UhuRuto duo won a controversial fresh presidential election on October 26, 2017, the two political brothers looked set to finish their second term the way they started the first: as a formidable team of like-minded captains, with the lead captain passing the baton to his comrade once his term expires. But that today is a dream: the waters have been poisoned and the former buddies are no longer swimming in the same direction, leave alone swimming in the same waters. The breakdown of the alliance has all the hallmarks of betrayal, brinkmanship, deception, fraud and subterfuge.

Jubilee Party mandarins did not see the break-up coming; if they did, they all pretended they were not aware of the imploding scenario. The ruling party is now a house of two diametrically opposed camps led by their respective protagonists: President Uhuru Kenyatta, who coalesces around the Kieleweke (it shall soon be evident) camp and William Ruto, who is spearheading the Tanga Tanga (roaming) team.

“We can no longer pretend that the current war being waged against William Ruto is not from within and therefore not from friends, or people he had presumed were his political friends,” said a Ruto confidante I spoke to. “To think otherwise now would, like the proverbial ostrich, be burying our heads in the sand. It is better to be fought by your enemies, who you have fought several times before and therefore you already know to deal with them, rather than be fought by friends, who have turned the tables against you, all the while posing as your compatriots.”

“Uhuru is employing political terrorism against his number two and to be honest, it is something we had not anticipated,” said Ruto’s friend of many years. “Yes, it has taken us by surprise, the intensity and all, but we must stay and fight back, even as we devise a strategy to stem the political bloodbath. It is all about the politics of succession in 2022 and there is no hiding the fact that Ruto obviously wants the seat. If you have been a deputy president for seven years, what else would you want as a politician in that position? It is also true that once Uhuru and Ruto were sworn in for the second and final term, we started popularising our candidate immediately – it was the natural thing to do – hitting the ground running. This was misconstrued to be a campaign, but even if it were, we weren’t doing anything outside of the constitution.”

Ruto’s loyal friend said that the popularisation strategy had a context: “Prior to the presidential election in December 2002, we all were in Kanu – Uhuru, Ruto and me. We would go to [President] Moi and tell him, ‘Mzee tell us who will be our candidate so that we can start preparing the grounds early.’ And he countered by saying: ‘Nyinyi vijana wacheni mbio, siku ikifika nitawambia. Mimi nimekuwa kwa siasa miaka mingi…nataka mwendelee kuwa wafuasi kamili wa Kanu.’ (You young men, why are you in a hurry? When the day comes, I’ll let you know. I’ve been in politics for many years, I know what I’m doing. For now I want you to be steadfast in your support for Kanu.) By the time he was proposing Uhuru as the party’s candidate, it was already too late and there wasn’t enough time to campaign for our candidate.”

The Ruto ally, who also counts President Uhuru as a first-name-basis friend, believes Uhuru lost the election in 2002 to Mwai Kibaki and the opposition, because Moi took too long to name the party’s flagbearer. “We could have won that election but for Moi’s delaying tactics, which backfired and we lived to regret that bad decision. Eighteen years later, with lessons learned, we’re not about to repeat the same mistake. You cannot win a presidential election if you start campaigning six months to the election date. That is what Uhuru is doing with our candidate and in Jubilee, and we won’t let him do that.”

The coronavirus appeared just in time to help President Uhuru fight his political battles, reasoned the DP’s bosom buddy. “He is now using the pandemic to wage war against his deputy. The semi-lockdown and the curfew are strictly not about COVID-19, but about clamping down on Ruto’s forces in the party and in government.” The pandemic, he observed, has acted like godsend: It has given Uhuru space to mount a sustained onslaught on Ruto, but it has also helped the DP to ward off (at least for the time being), the “nobody-can-stop-the-reggae” force, which was also threatening to overwhelm him.

“Uhuru is maximising on the COVID-19 pandemic as much as possible because he knows his antagonist, the DP, cannot organise and mobilise for his counter-attack, which he is good at. The people have been locked down, they are restricted, they cannot move, they are scared and are caught up with survival. President Uhuru can therefore wreak havoc in Ruto’s camp with as little distraction as possible,” he added.

The coronavirus appeared just in time to help President Uhuru fight his political battles, reasoned the DP’s bosom buddy. “He is now using the pandemic to wage war against his deputy. The semi-lockdown and the curfew are strictly not about COVID-19, but about clamping down on Ruto’s forces in the party and in government.”

Uhuru is not alone; since the onset of COVID-19, some world leaders have been using the pandemic as an excuse to amass more presidential powers, extend their presidential terms indefinitely, resort to dictatorial tendencies, and quash opponents.

But unlike the last election, the president does not have the unflinching support of his own people. “Uhuru’s biggest problem is that the Kikuyus have turned their back on him,” said a friend of Uhuru who also counts Ruto as his friend. “He thought he owned them and he could do whatever he wanted with them. He also thought they would always go back to him and do his bidding. Now, they seem dead set in ignoring him completely and the fact of the matter is, as a political leader, you can do little if you cannot galvanise the support of your people. You cannot claim legitimacy, you can only impose yourself on them and that is always counter-productive.”

Because of this, said the Jubilee Party mandarin, President Uhuru’s current headache is how to de-Rutoise central Kenya and the larger Mt Kenya region. “He’s been trying to tell the Kikuyus that Ruto has been disloyal to him, that he wants to grab their power, that he’s not fit to ascend to the presidential seat because he’s corrupt and power hungry. But they have refused to listen to him. With each passing day, he’s getting furious with the Kikuyus’ recalcitrant stand against him. Now, he has turned to appointing Kikuyus in prominent positions, including the recent reshuffles in Parliament to appease his Kikuyu base.”

The duo’s friend told me that President Uhuru’s allegations about his deputy’s insubordination was a red herring. “What disloyalty is Uhuru is talking about? When he was busy drinking, we held fort by taking care of government business, even as we covered his social vices. Now he has the temerity to talk about disloyalty. We’re not afraid of him. The Jubilee Party/Kanu coalition agreement is illegal as per our Jubilee Party constitution and it was cobbled up to stop Ruto from vying for the presidency”.

All the president’s men

To fight Ruto, President Uhuru Kenyatta formed an advisory team that meets at State House. Part of the team comprises David Murathe, Kinuthia Mbugua, Mutahi Ngunyi and Nancy Gitau.

Murathe has for the longest time been President Uhuru’s sidekick. His father, William Gatuhi Murathe, was one of the wealthiest Kikuyus, courtesy of Uhuru’s father and the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, During Jomo’s time, the senior Murathe was the sole distributor of wines and spirits countrywide.

When David Murathe was routed out as the MP for Gatanga constituency by Peter Kenneth in 2002, his fortunes dwindled and he was even declared bankrupt at one stage. From that time, he has not left Uhuru’s side. The Tanga Tanga team describes Murathe as “Uhuru’s attack dog”. They believe that when Uhuru wants to communicate an important message, he uses Murathe. And they’ve learned to decipher his messages. Murathe is the man who has been put in charge of the advisory team’s budget.

On 6 January 2019, Murathe suddenly resigned from his post as the Jubilee Party’s vice chairman, citing conflict of interest. He said he wanted to fight Ruto and stop him from being the Jubilee Party’s sole candidate for the 2022 presidential election. On 2 March 2020, Murathe recollected his thoughts on his supposed resignation and claimed he had not really resigned because his resignation had not been accepted by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is the chairman of the party.

Kinuthia Mbugua is the State House Comptroller; he keeps President Uhuru’s diary. He served as Nakuru County governor for one term. Eagerly looking to serve for a second term, he nonetheless lost the Jubilee Party nomination to Lee Kinyanjui. He was furious, and even looked to run as an independent, but was persuaded by Uhuru to join the presidential campaign team, with a promise of a bountiful reward once the campaign was over.

The Tanga Tanga team describes Murathe as “Uhuru’s attack dog”. They believe that when Uhuru wants to communicate an important message, he uses Murathe. And they’ve learned to decipher his messages.

Mbugua, a career civil servant, hails from Nyandarua. When he was the commandant of the Administration Police (AP), he employed many youth from Nyandarua and the adjoining areas. He equipped the force with personnel and machinery and soon there were murmurs from the regular police service, which felt that the AP was being favoured and was becoming extra powerful. After the 2007/2008 post-election violence, President Mwai Kibaki and his cohorts did not trust the regular police. Mbugua’s not-so-loudly spoken brief was to reorganise a force that had always played second fiddle to the boys in blue.

Mbugua to date believes William Ruto rigged him out of a nomination when he was left to man the Jubilee Party headquarters at Pangani during the chaotic and hectic nominations. He carries the grudge like an ace up his sleeve.

Mutahi Ngunyi is a private citizen who has immersed himself in state (house) politics and has distinguished himself as a maverick, a person who can swing like a pendulum and still remain standing, without falling. In the lead-up to the 2017 election, he made Raila Odinga, the opposition coalition leader of the National Super Alliance (NASA), his punching bag, terming him a “punctured politician”, an epithet that his detractors used to describe Raila’s father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in the 1970s.

After Uhuru and Ruto romped back to State House, Mutahi quickly (perhaps too quickly) identified with Ruto’s camp and decreed that Ruto will be the next president come 2022. A crafty mythmaker, he even came up with the Hustler vs Dynasty narrative to define the rivalry between Ruto and the sons of prominent Kenyan leaders, including Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga and Gideon Moi. He wildly claimed in a May 2019 tweet that the only person who could liberate Kikuyus was Ruto. (Mutahi has since deleted all his tweets that were singing Ruto’s praises.) Then, beginning this year, Mutahi flipped, disavowed his hustler narrative and claimed that Uhuru Kenyatta was ordained to rule Kenya.

“Mutahi Ngunyi is a gun for hire,” said a Ruto aide. “For nearly two years he worked for us. He’s a mercenary, he’s a fugitive of justice.” When I contacted Mutahi and asked him if what was being said about him was true, he responded: “Tell them it is true, whatever that means. Tell them they can also hire me!”

The aide claimed that Mutahi was presented with the National Youth Service (NYS) file by the National Intelligence Service and was asked to cooperate…or else.

The NYS file he was referring to contains details of a huge scam that was perpetrated between 2014 and 2016 when Anne Waiguru Kamotho, the current governor of Kirinyaga County, was the powerful Devolution and Planning Cabinet Secretary. Mutahi was one of her advisers on the youth programme that was being implemented by NYS. The scam involved the misappropriation of billions of shillings of taxpayers’ money in which Mutahi was heavily implicated. At one time, he even purported to clear his name by claiming to have returned Sh12 million to the government coffers. Appearing before the Parliamentary Accounts Committee on September 20, 2016, Mutahi said he had rewired the money back to the Central Bank of Kenya. He said that the money had been “wrongly” credited to his company, The Consulting House. He further stated that he believed the money had come from an organisation that he had consulted for, not the Devolution Ministry.

Mutahi is now operating from State House and The Chancery building on Valley Road in Nairobi. The Chancery is owned by the Kenyatta family. Part of his brief is to spin favourable Kieleweke group narratives while conjuring up propaganda and disinformation on his former employer, William Ruto.

Nancy Gitau has been the resident State House adviser from the time of Mwai Kibaki. Before becoming a state aficionado, she worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). While at USAID in the 1990s, she was involved in the democracy and governance sector, which was being heavily funded by the United States and other donors. The last big project that she oversaw was a partnership between Kenya’s Parliament and the State University of New York (SUNY, Albany)’s Centre for International Development (CID), which Sam Mwale and Fred Matiangí managed. Both Mwale and Matiangí would later become civil servant bureaucrats, serving as Permanent Secretary and Cabinet Secretary, respectively.

Mutahi is now operating from State House and The Chancery building on Valley Road. The Chancery is owned by the Kenyatta family. Part of his brief is to spin favourable Kieleweke group narratives while conjuring up propaganda and disinformation on his former employer, William Ruto.

Gitau was very well-known within the civil society and the NGO sector and interacted with many of them. “Gitau was one of the architects of a report implicating Ruto in the post-election violence and so there is no love lost between her and Ruto,” said Ruto’s aide. The deputy president is still upset about Gitau singling him out. During the days when Ruto and Uhuru were facing charges related to the post-election violence of 2007/2008 at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, one of Ruto’s team members said to me: “Ruto never forgives and never forgets a wrong done to him.”

Expunging Ruto’s men

The Gitau-led advisory team ostensibly meets every Sunday morning at State House and during weekdays at La Mada Hotel located in the New Muthaiga residential area in Nairobi. La Mada is the hotel that Ruto claimed in 2019 where a plot to assassinate him was being hatched by people known to President Uhuru.

One of the team’s main jobs is the expunging of Ruto’s men in the Senate, with Kithure Kindiki, the Senator of Tharaka Nithi County, being the latest casualty. Until 22 May 2020, Kindiki was the Senate’s Deputy Speaker. The first two casualties were Kipchumba Murkomen and Susan Kihika, the former Majority Leader and Chief Whip, respectively. Murkomen’s job was given to Samuel Poghisio, a politician from West Pokot, while Kihika’s went to Irungu Kangáta, the Senator of Murangá County.

“The two were removed because the president and his men didn’t have the majority in the Jubilee Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC),” said a “renegade” senator, who accused President Uhuru of “using strong-arm tactics to coerce senators to vote according to his whims”.

During the days when Ruto and Uhuru were facing charges related to the post-election violence of 2007/2008 at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, one of Ruto’s team members said to me: “Ruto never forgives and never forgets a wrong done to him.”

The senator said that the Speaker of the Senate, Ken Lusaka, was allegedly approached and reminded of the “small matter” of the wheelbarrows when he was the Governor of Bungoma County.

When Lusaka was the governor of Bungoma County between 2013 and 2017, the county bought 10 wheelbarrows worth Sh1.09 million (approximately $10,000 or $1,000 per wheelbarrow) – the most expensive wheelbarrows ever sold in Kenya, where an ordinary wheelbarrow goes for around Sh5,000 ($50). When he was asked by the Parliamentary Accounts Committee what was so special about the wheelbarrows, he claimed that they were made from “stainless, non-carcinogenic material”. Some of the county officials were jailed for the scam.

Everybody knows it was illegal for the speaker to acquiesce to President Uhuru’s demand that the Senate Parliament Group meet at State House, said the senator. “The reason why nominated senators are being intimidated and threatened is simply because Uhuru doesn’t have enough senators on his side to fight his deputy.”

Senators were allegedly paid Sh2 million to vote to remove Murkomen and Kihika. “On the day the senators were summoned to State House, President Uhuru didn’t have enough senators to push his motion,” said the senator. “The Jubilee Party had only 11 senators, Kanu, three and one independently-elected senator, Charles Kibiru. If you count Raphael Tuju and President Uhuru they made 17 votes. Tuju is the secretary general of Jubilee Party. So, they were way short of the required majority of 20 votes.” The senator claimed that the president had to send helicopters to pick senators from their far-flung regions.

“Uhuru can send choppers to senators who are supposed to be in lockdown and in quarantine, but he will not send planes to rescue and send food to flood victims. That’s how much he cares for the unity of this nation,” complained the senator.

It is just a matter of time before these elite squabbles are replicated on the ground. On 20 May 2020, two charged groups in Kikuyu town faced each other: one group supported President Uhuru Kenyatta and the other supported Deputy President Ruto along with the area MP Kimani Ichung’wa. So far Kimani has been an unswerving supporter of Ruto. They yelled and shouted at each other and exchanged invectives. It was a prelude to Ruto’s visit to the constituency on that day.

“Uhuru can send choppers to senators who are supposed to be in lockdown and in quarantine, but he will not send planes to rescue and send food to flood victims. That’s how much he cares for the unity of this nation,” complained the senator.

It is hard to tell whether the two groups had been paid by their masters to grandstand. But that is neither here nor there. The Jubilee Party honchos have indicated that Ruto’s presence in the Mt Kenya region cannot just be wished away – hence the Kieleweke group’s project to defang Ruto.

I asked a Ruto confidante why his boss had gone quiet. Was the heat becoming unbearable? “This is not the time to speak. We actually advised him not to open his mouth. There’s a time that he will speak, but not now.”

The confidante also reminded me of another saying: The man who speaks little makes mistakes, but what about the man who talks a lot? He makes big mistakes.

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Politics

A Monumental Disgrace: Is the Sun Finally Setting on British Imperial and Slaver Statues?

When BLM demonstrators tore the bronze statue of the seventeenth century slave ship owner Edward Colston from its plinth in Bristol, they triggered a discussion on whether statues and monuments of those who helped Britain extend her colonial tentacles around the world should also be removed. Hopefully, this discussion will also lead Kenyans to review their monument landscape.

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A Monumental Disgrace: Is the Sun Finally Setting on British Imperial and Slaver Statues?
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Britain is in a froth, and sharply divided, over the desecration or removal of statues of historical figures linked to slavery and empire.

What began as Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, following the appalling murder of George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis, swiftly morphed into attacks on statues and monuments in London, Bristol, Edinburgh and other towns and cities in the UK that implicitly venerate slavers and imperialists. Some were removed from their plinths, one was thrown into a river, others were vandalised, and a Union Jack flag on the Cenotaph, the national war memorial in central London, was set on fire. In Oxford, where there have long been calls to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the wall of a college, the student-led Rhodes Must Fall movement (which originated in South Africa) was given new impetus, and large street protests were held. Some statues have been removed by local authorities “for their own protection”, such as that of eighteenth century slave-owner Robert Milligan, which stood in London’s Docklands.

Images of these events blazed across the media day after day have both incensed and delighted in equal measure. The British public learned more about its dark past in 48 hours (and rising) than in decades of being taught empire-light history in school classrooms. I was one of them. All we learned of empire was the victors’ story, and Britain’s “proud” role in the abolitionist movement. No wonder all this statue-smashing has come as a shock to the system – in every sense of the word. (Similar outrage over monuments linked to racial oppression and slavery has swept the US and other nations in the wake of BLM, but it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the wider phenomenon.)

The right-wing media, the Tory government and other far-right commentators have predictably dubbed the attackers “mobs”, “thugs” and “vandals”, with Home Secretary Priti Patel (the daughter of Ugandan-Asian immigrants to Britain who could well have been denied entry under her hard-line regime) vowing to find and swiftly punish those responsible. (That may prove tricky since many were wearing protective masks against COVID-19.) In Tory hands, playing to the Brexit gallery, it fast became a “law and order” story. The courts were granted powers to fast-track prosecutions of demonstrators within 24 hours of an incident, “amid mounting concerns that Britain is facing a summer of disorder” (The Times, 12 June).

We are good at summers of disorder. Every dull English summer seems to require a new moral panic. In the middle of COVID lockdown, this uproar has almost come as light relief, not least to the mainstream print media, which is struggling to survive. The right-wing tabloid Daily Mail devoted its front-page lead and 7 inside pages to the story on 10 June, and the issue was still taking up the entire two-page spread of readers’ letters two days later (including an edited letter from me, calling in part for changes to the school history curriculum). At a time of COVID crisis, this was extraordinary. Every national newspaper has covered it too, with the downmarket Daily Star poking fun by giving away cut-out paper “statues” of famous people for readers to shout at if they so wished. (It’s a “free” country.)

The broadcast media has also covered the story extensively. A question about statues and apologies for imperial wrongdoing was the first to be asked on the BBC’s weekly televised Question Time on 11 June. Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernadine Evaristo, a woman of colour, gave a robust argument for the defence, calling in part for dark history to be recontextualised, challenged and interrogated. “I absolutely relished the toppling of the [Colston] statue in Bristol. He was a really toxic symbol,” she said. (More on Colston below.)

For the prosecution, we have Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit campaign, leading the charge. “Where are the police?” cried this arch Brexiter on Twitter. “Where are you Boris? Do we have a leader?” And, next to a photograph of a graffiti-daubed statue of war-time premier Winston Churchill: “Boris Johnson is supposed to be a Churchill fan, but he says and does nothing. He is not half the man.”

A question about statues and apologies for imperial wrongdoing was the first to be asked on the BBC’s weekly televised Question Time on 11 June. Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernadine Evaristo, a woman of colour, gave a robust argument for the defence, calling in part for dark history to be recontextualised, challenged and interrogated.

In the Telegraph (9 June), Farage accused “our craven leaders” of “failing to stand up to a Marxist mob which wants to tear down our history”. Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded a few days later, fuming that his hero had been dubbed a “racist”. (Boris wrote a much-derided 2014 biography of Winston Churchill, on whom he clearly models himself.) This was pretty rich coming from a man who, in his former career as a journalist, described Africans as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, compared niqab-wearing Muslim women to “letterboxes”, and said of colonialism in Africa: “The problem is not that we were in charge, but that we’re not in charge any more.”

I will say more about far-right white youth rage in a moment, but it takes its cue from Boris, Fa-RAGE (as I prefer to call him), and links to Brexit-related frustrations. Brexit is meant to have happened on 31 January this year, but curiously, those who voted for it seem angrier than ever.

How it all began: Slaver Edward Colston

When BLM demonstrators tore the bronze statue of the seventeenth century slave ship owner Edward Colston from its plinth in Bristol on 7 June, dragged it to the harbour and threw it in, police wisely decided not to intervene. This, and police refusal to intervene in similar incidents elsewhere, is what Farage (plus fellow Brexiters and Tories) are so incensed about.

Colston, a rich merchant and MP, was venerated as a benefactor and philanthropist, with schools, a concert hall and streets named after him. (Some have been renamed.) Bristol residents had been calling for the statue’s removal for years, and had presented an 11,000-signature petition to the council. But nothing had come of asking nicely, hence some decided it was high time to sling Colston’s hook themselves. His reburial in a watery “grave” was itself laden with symbolism, since it was from this harbour that Colston’s slave ships sailed. They carried more than 100,000 West Africans to the New World between 1672 and 1689. More than 20,000 slaves died en route and were thrown overboard – something the slavers welcomed because they could claim insurance.

The Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset police, Andy Bennett, defended his force’s actions that day, telling the BBC he understood that Colston was “a historical figure that’s caused the black community quite a lot of angst over the last couple of years”. He said he understood their anger, and the symbolism of the statue. He went on: “You might wonder why we didn’t intervene and why we just allowed people to put it in the docks – we made a very tactical decision, to stop people from doing the act may have caused further disorder and we decided the safest thing to do, in terms of our policing tactics, was to allow it to take place.” (A furious Priti Patel reportedly gave him a dressing-down.)

Marvin Rees, Bristol’s Labour mayor and the first directly-elected black mayor in Europe, was widely praised (and condemned by the usual suspects) for his considered comments in the media. He termed the toppling of the statue “a piece of historical poetry”, and has called for a “city-wide conversation” on the future of the statue (which has now been hauled out of the harbour). It may be placed in a museum, along with demonstrators’ placards taken from the scene of the “crime”. He added: “I’d like to make sure that conversation is informed by good history.” Hence he is putting together a team, including local historians, to make a study of statues, memorials, street names and the like, so that future decisions are based on “good history, good understanding”.

Marvin Rees, Bristol’s Labour mayor and the first directly-elected black mayor in Europe, was widely praised (and condemned by the usual suspects) for his considered comments in the media. He termed the toppling of the statue “a piece of historical poetry”

Other targeted statues of imperial, fascist or slaver figures are listed on a new website called Topple the Racists (www.toppletheracists.org). They include Lord Nelson (as in Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square), Robert Clive (of British India infamy), Scotland’s Robert Dundas (son of a man who deliberately delayed the abolition of slavery), Jan Smuts, the architect of apartheid, and Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouts movement. The latter also has links to Kenya: he is buried in a Nyeri churchyard, near a cottage in the grounds of the Outspan Hotel where he spent his final years. Baden-Powell is accused of atrocities against Zulus during his military career in South Africa, and for his flirtation with fascism. In his 1939 diary, he wrote: “Lay up all day. Read Mein Kampf. A wonderful book.” Former scouts travelled to Poole in Dorset to protect a statue of their idol, which has been placed under 24-hour protection. They cut ridiculous figures: middle-aged men in shorts, brown shirts and woggles (a device used to fasten scouts’ neckerchiefs), vowing to follow the scouting motto: “Be prepared!” Kenyan scouts have also pledged allegiance to their founder.

Far-right youth

Those ripping statues from their plinths, or “vandalising” them if removal is physically impossible, are white, black, and all shades in-between. But the racism in critics’ hysterical responses is palpable. Far-right white supremacist youths have waded in, joined by older beer-bellied men, with supporters of Tommy Robinson (a notorious far-right Islamophobic activist) and groups like Britain First vowing to “defend” and “protect” monuments from “commies” and the “unwashed”. Self-styled “Tommy Teams” rushed to scrub the graffiti off monuments, including Churchill and the Cenotaph, and stayed to “protect” them since the police were not doing so at that stage.

In some provincial towns, they also collaborated with angry older men, many with military backgrounds, to “protect” monuments, including war memorials. Posting videos of their exploits on Twitter, they spoke of protecting British heritage, and defending historical icons. Bragging of their manhood, they asked (as Farage had done) where the “real men” were.

As I write this, far-right groups from across the country had travelled to London to “protect” the monuments from BLM, which had planned more demonstrations in the city. Police boarded up major monuments to keep both BLM protesters and their opponents away; these included statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Boris Johnson called the boarding up of Churchill “absurd” and “stupid”, conveniently forgetting that he had done the same with certain monuments when he was mayor of London.

Priti Patel publicly denounced the current London mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan (a hate figure to far-right Islamophobes, Tories and Brexiters), who had ordered the protective measures. The government also hates the fact that Khan has set up a commission to review all monuments in the capital, while more than a hundred Labour councils across England have pledged to review monuments on public land. In a bizarre twist, the far-right protestors gave Heil Hitler salutes before Churchill, a man revered for fighting fascism. Having denounced supposed BLM violence, it was they who ended up getting drunk and fighting the police. The word “Eng-er-land” (their chant) is trending now. Angerland?

Why has this issue fired up far-right, mainly white, youth groups? Rootlessness, a lack of identity, unemployment or low-paid insecure work, lack of educational attainment, poor prospects, the crisis in masculinity and other factors combine to create youth disaffection not unlike that which produced the Mods and Rockers, two rival youth groups that rioted in seaside towns in southern England in 1964, though in some ways, today’s youth alienation is worse. (One could write a whole thesis on this alone, and no doubt scholars already are.)

Throw into the mix the economic crisis which will hit the poorest, including Brexit-voting, communities, hardest. The UK is said to be heading for its worst economic depression in 300 years following COVID, and is likely to fall off a cliff once Brexit is fully implemented. The anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-“woke” rhetoric of right-wing politicians and media commentators who call on “true patriots” to show their allegiance to Britain and British “values”, the failure of Brexit to deliver yet (if indeed it ever does), and the frustration of weeks of COVID lockdown: all this and more stokes the anger of particular groups. In their insecurity, Tommy’s boys – and some girls – have long clung to perceived icons of national identity. (Their Twitter profiles feature images of Churchill in particular, bulldogs and St George flags, though in fact St George wasn’t English and never set foot here).

Why has this issue fired up far-right, mainly white, youth groups? Rootlessness, a lack of identity, unemployment or low-paid insecure work, lack of educational attainment, poor prospects, the crisis in masculinity and other factors combine to create youth disaffection…

But let’s not get too carried away with the perceived threat to society, which is how the Tories want to frame all this. Sociologist Stanley Cohen, in his classic 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, identified how certain figures, groups or events periodically spark moral outrage, and are scapegoated as “evil” threats to civilised society. Cohen noted the Mods’ and Rockers’ overwhelming sense of boredom. Street clashes or the prospect of them were as thrilling then as they are now – “just simply being present in a crowd was an event…” Having studied white street gangs in the 1970s, I know that putting the boot in (and crime in general) is very exciting when you are working class, young and bored. If you can film the bovver on your phone as it happens, take selfies and tweet to the world, that’s all the more satisfying.

Turning briefly to Kenya

The imprint of empire’s boot is still visible on the monument landscape of Kenya, though there have been some notable changes down the years. The Nairobi city centre statue of Lord Delamere was removed at independence to the Delameres’ Soysambu estate, but the Vasco da Gama pillar is still a major tourist attraction at Malindi. Street names have changed: for example, Victoria Street became Tom Mboya Street. Many South Asian street names have been Africanised.

The statue of Queen Victoria that previously stood in Jeevanjee Gardens, a public park Nairobi, was beheaded by unknown vandals in 2015. I am told by A.M. Jeevanjee’s great-granddaughter, the historian, activist and writer Zarina Patel, that the county government later removed the rest of the monument, which now lies in a storeroom. “Who did it, and why remains a mystery,” she says. “Was it politically motivated? That would be understandable because Queen Victoria represented an unjust colonial power.”

However, she has concerns that one of the conditions her forefather made when handing over the gardens to the then colonial government was that the statue should never be moved. In so doing, he hoped to protect the gardens from future land grabs. In 1991, Zarina campaigned successfully against an attempted grab of the park by “the highest powers-that-be in the land”, adding, “of course they have never been identified”.

Zarina Patel welcomes the arrival of statues commemorating Dedan Kimathi and Tom Mboya, and the Mau Mau Memorial in Uhuru Park, which she hopes will set a trend. She also believes that the Nyayo monuments in Uhuru Gardens, erected by former president Daniel arap Moi, will be moved at some point.

What is her take on colonial-era monuments, and those glorifying post-independence leaders? “The statues celebrating colonists and dictators are part of Kenyan history – rather than destroying them I think they should be kept in some suburban parks or museums with explanatory texts to give them proper historical context; so that our future generations can be reminded of the battles we have fought for freedom, justice and democracy.”

A review is surely long overdue of place-names with colonial connections. Lake Victoria is the obvious one. Smaller fry include Uplands and Thomson’s Falls, though Scottish geologist/explorer Joseph Thomson did not (as far as I know) enslave anyone. Lugard’s Falls in Tsavo West is more clear-cut, since Lord Lugard was a colonial administrator.

And what do we do about tourism centred on colonial nostalgia, starting with Karen Blixen? Why is Karen the suburb still on the map of Nairobi? Why is the Norfolk Hotel (among others) still proudly branding itself as a white settler hang-out, and every safari lodge and camp in the Mara selling a Blixenesque sundowner fantasy? This type of tourism generates huge sums, but at what cost? It reinforces the notion that Kenya is one big Happy Valley playground, a safari-suited hyper-real theme park (see Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation) where racy white mischief can still be had, at a price. I’ve even seen Japanese tourists in pith helmets at Elsamere, Lake Naivasha, who had no idea how uncool they looked. If I find all this embarrassing, how do Kenyans feel?

A review is surely long overdue of place-names with colonial connections. Lake Victoria is the obvious one. Smaller fry include Uplands and Thomson’s Falls, though Scottish geologist/explorer Joseph Thomson did not (as far as I know) enslave anyone. Lugard’s Falls in Tsavo West is more clear-cut, since Lord Lugard was a colonial administrator.

Maybe it’s time for a national conversation – led by citizens, not government – on what Kenyans would like to see changed or removed. If the conversation is anything like the one convulsing Britain right now, be prepared for a huge row. A very healthy one.

I concur with those who see this as an unmissable opportunity to re-educate global citizens about the past. The destruction or removal of monuments from sight is not the answer; they should be moved to a dedicated museum, with educational materials (textual and audio-visual) providing deeper context. Use them for debate, alongside alternative narratives. Fill the monument landscape (if you must) with new figures who more accurately reflect your diverse societies and the best of your ideals. Then bin the current school history curriculum, and replace it with something fit for purpose in the post-post-colonial twenty-first century.

Postscript

Latest news from Bristol: a statue of the Jamaican poet, playwright and actor, Alfred Fagon, was doused with a “bleach-like substance” on the night of 12 June. It was erected in 1987, in the largely black and mixed-race area of St Pauls, on the first anniversary of his death. Fagon was the first black person to have had a statue erected in his honour in the city. One of his first plays, No Soldiers in St Pauls, explored the social tensions between the police and the black community in 1970s Bristol.

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