On June 26, 2019, in a landmark verdict, the National Environment Tribunal (NET) halted the construction of Kenya’s first proposed coal-fired electricity-generating plant in Lamu, ruling that the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) had failed to do an adequate environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) of the plant. Specifically, the public’s views had not been included in the ESIA study, and the ESIA itself had failed to incorporate several important environmental impacts of the proposed plant.
This judgement is a massive victory for environmental campaigns in Kenya, where too often, large political interests tend to prevail. Members of deCOALonize, the umbrella coalition group against the coal industry in Kenya that filed an appeal at NET in 2016, have had to deal with the propagation of “fake news”, intimidation, the convenient shuffling of Kenyan bureaucratic systems, and much more, which makes their win truly noteworthy. What makes this verdict even more incredible is that other environmental campaigns challenging the adequacy of the ESIA on similar, large Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, such as Save Nairobi National Park (NNP), for example, which have been branded by the government as crucial for development, have not achieved similar success.
Many researchers have questioned the need for a coal plant in the first place in Kenya when the country currently faces a power surplus. Further they argue that at the moment Kenya actually is generating a surfeit of electricity. In fact, many thermal plants in Thika and along the Athi river are currently idle. Although proponents of coal argue that more energy generation capacity is needed to meet projected demand in the future, international experts, such as Daniel Kammen from Berkeley, have shown that coal is not the cheapest technology to meet future energy needs. Very recently, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis also produced an independent study questioning the economics of building a coal plant in Kenya.
Therefore the real question with these large infrastructure projects, is not development at what cost, but at what cost to whom?
The proposed Lamu coal plant is a Sh200 billion project that serves powerful private commercial interests (such as Centum Investments and Gulf Energy Kenya, which joined forces as Amu Power, the developer of the project) who have well-known connections to the very top of the executive branch of Kenya. These connections are reflected in the favourable terms and conditions of the power purchase agreement (PPA) between the Government of Kenya and the developers. The PPA essentially commits the government to buying electricity from the plant for the next 25 years at a favourable price (regardless of whether the electricity is used or needed). Coal is expected to arrive from South Africa to power the Lamu coal plant.
The Government of Kenya has repeatedly stressed that the Lamu plant will provide jobs for the community. However, like with the other large Chinese-financed infrastructure projects, most of the labour comes from China. The fact that most of the fishing community near the Lamu coal plant do not have a secondary education means that most of them are not qualified to be able to work at the plant, although their livelihoods will be most affected by the pollution from the plant.
The proposed Lamu coal plant is a Sh200 billion project that serves powerful private commercial interests who have well-known connections to the very top of the executive branch of Kenya.
Therefore, it is unlikely that the community would have benefited from the construction of this plant.
Furthermore, most of the community around the plant already have electricity from solar PV, and therefore there is no need of electricity from the plant. Importantly, and as stated several times in the NET judgement, the community was not involved in the decision to build the coal plant in Lamu and deCOALonize members were not invited to meetings held by Amu Power; the meetings were held in locations difficult to reach by most of the community. Therefore, their interests were not represented in the siting and planning of the plant.
Interestingly, we were told by a deCOALonize organiser that a few years previously, a coal plant was slated to be sited in Kilifi. However, the county government there is powerful, and the plan was ultimately dropped. The decision to locate a coal plant in Lamu, one of Kenya’s most marginalised counties with much less political power, does not appear, in light of this, to be accidental. The community in Lamu is well aware of this and spoke about how few roads in the North-West region of Kenya are tarmacked and low literacy rates prevail. A lot of large extractive projects have been initiated in the region. In addition to the Lamu Port and Lamu-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) and the Lamu coal plant, natural gas exploration has been underway on Pate island. (It has only recently been abandoned.)
Given all of the many obstacles the campaign has had to face, how has deCOALonize managed to be so successful?
This is the central question of this article. It is important to document victories in Kenya. Too often, we only hear stories of failure and corruption. We need to challenge these hegemonic narratives by detailing how Kenyans have been winning critical battles for change.
Now, although deCOALonize won its case in court, campaigners have cautioned that the battle against the Lamu coal plant is not over. Amu Power can conduct a new ESIA and apply for a new licence, which means a new fight will ensue. The lead lawyer for deCOALonize, Lempaa Suyianka, only a few days ago was arrested on an arguably flimsy charge, and although he was released, his phone was impounded by the police. This event does not bode well for the campaign, and members of the public must continue to be vigilant to ensure that deCOALonize members do not suffer the wrath of powerful interests embroiled in this case.
In addition, the Lamu coal plant is only one of the many mega infrastructure projects in Lamu. LAPSSET, and the building of the Lamu-Garissa-Isiolo road are still underway, and have caused a lot of damage to the region, with many farmers displaced by access roads without being granted compensation, as well as acres of mangroves in the area being cleared. The public must continue to fight for the people of Lamu to ensure that compensation is disbursed to the people affected.
Still, the deCOALonize’s recent court win has set a new precedent for environmental cases in Kenya and warrants further examination. In order to do this, we first list the strategies deCOALonize activists used, as well as the challenges the campaign faced.
deCOALonize runs a transparent campaign and uploads videos of court proceedings, documents and press reports on its website.
Kenyan scholar Nanjala Nyabola’s much-acclaimed book, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, charts how social media tools such as Twitter are creating spaces for Kenyans to protest and create new narratives. deCOALonize has leveraged these tools successfully to raise awareness at the local, national and international levels.
Some activists believed that the awareness about the coal projects they had generated at the international level through sustained posts on social media, participation in climate summits and street demonstrations would lead to divestment by external organisations, which would lead to the Lamu coal plant project stalling. The Industrial and Commercial Bank (ICBC) of China has agreed to finance 75 per cent of the Lamu coal plant to the tune of $2 billion, but the Government of Kenya needed to find a backer for the remaining 25 per cent needed. deCOALonize’s campaign has been successful in influencing the African Development Bank and the Standard Bank of South African, both of which have pulled out of financing the project. However, General Electric (GE) is still considering investment in the project
In addition, deCOALonize has presented evidence to UNESCO about the impact the coal plant would have on Lamu, which is a World Heritage Site. UNESCO has also recently come out strongly against the construction of the coal plant.
Partners of the campaign also believed that awareness at the national level was important. Activists said they did this to prevent the government from shifting the construction of the coal plant to another county. They particularly focused on holding a variety of public forums, photography exhibitions, protests, and other events in Nairobi, the political centre. They were successful in getting some progressive politicians, such as Boniface Mwangi, to make stopping coal part of their political campaigns.
Furthermore, at public events organisers connected the plans for building the Lamu coal plant with the broader theme of energy justice. Ordinary Kenyans are affected by the economics of the energy sector. Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) holds a monopoly on electricity transmission through the national grid. It’s cartel-like practices of inflating electricity bills at random and giving poor services have resulted in campaigns such as #SwitchOffKPLC in 2018 that have unleashed a massive backlash against the company. Cries for energy justice have made energy a topic that people are paying close attention to, and therefore, there was hope that this would catalyse a national backlash against the Lamu coal project.
One of the major tactics the government deployed in its war against deCOALonize was misinformation to the community. High-level leaders promised the community jobs and compensation, glossing over the deleterious impacts of coal. For example, Deputy President Ruto assured the community of Lamu that the coal plant would not have any impact on their health, despite evidence to the contrary.
The Kenyan government even went as far as branding Save Lamu, a member of the deCOALonize coalition, as a terrorist organisation. Save Lamu received several grants from international agencies to continue its work in fighting for the rights of the residents in Lamu affected by the building of the Lamu port and coal plant. The government claimed that the money was sent to Save Lamu to conduct terrorist activities, and ransacked their offices. The government accused Save Lamu of being involved in the 2014 massacre carried out by Al Shabaab in Mpeketoni and Pormoka in Lamu County to discredit them. It is a testament to the deep ties Save Lamu has with the community. It is still a trusted and valued organisation in the area. Save Lamu’s partnership with organisations able to provide legal representation was also crucial for it to contest these charges.
Amu Power also repeatedly stressed that it would be using the best coal technology available to reduce the environmental impacts of the coal plant. It tried to build connections with the local community by installing a water tank near the farms, among other small projects, which we witnessed first-hand when we went to Lamu.
The Kenyan government even went as far as branding Save Lamu, a member of the deCOALonize coalition, as a terrorist organisation.
However, official documents collected by deCOALonize activists have indicated that Amu Power — the special purpose vehicle formed by the developers to own and operate the Lamu coal plant – was given the right to import equipment that did not meet quality standards and a waiver on the need to pay taxes on construction. This has made many activists wonder whether, despite Amu Power protestations about taking measures to reduce adverse environmental impacts, in reality equipment from old coal power plants in China was being exported to and dumped in Kenya. Indeed, when we spoke to an activist at the actual proposed site of the coal plant, we were told that although Amu Power said they were going to use cooling technology, such as “once through cooling systems”, which they tried to sell to the community as cutting edge, when in fact this was not the case. The activist told us that he knew the details about these technologies through his conversations with communities affected by coal plants in Gujarat, India.
Despite the sustained misinformation, deCOALonize has been extremely successful in making information available to the respective local communities. They did so through holding public meetings in local languages, regularly updating their website and making resources and short summaries publicly available. Members of the coalition have recorded the court proceedings, and held events that were made accessible via Facebook live, so that the community knew what was happening.
Providing a pipeline of information from the community to the courtroom: Engaging the community proactively
Importantly, local organisations, such as Save Lamu and the Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education (CCHRCE), have been able to channel community concerns into the courtroom and to react quickly.
For example, we learnt when were in Lamu that when the community reported that an access road was being built through their farms to connect the proposed coal plant site with that of the port without an ESIA being carried out, the representative of deCOALonize on the ground was able to feed this information to the legal team, who went to NET to get a stop order for the road. This pipeline of information proved to be extremely important as the local branch of NEMA in Mokowe town in Lamu County (where the coal plant has been slated to be built) was often kept in the dark about such constructions. Instead, for mysterious reasons, officials not based in Lamu were often responsible for making decisions that would affect Lamu. deCOALonize’s information intervention was crucial in bringing government regulators on the same page.
Save Lamu has also been able to engage the community to map natural resources in Lamu to better understand the impacts of proposed projects on different groups of people, such as the Bajun, the Sanye, the Aweer and Swahili communities, so that they can speak with one voice. CCHRCE has mapped perceptions of the community whose land is part of the mining area. They have also mapped the community resources, such as schools and hospitals, currently on the land to document the costs of razing this area.
Such engagement has been extremely useful in both communities learning about the impacts of coal as they had no experience with this fuel previously. Women in Kitui experimented with using coal to heat their sufurias and noted that it caused their sufurias to melt. Both Save Lamu and CCHRCE took community members and members of their respective County Assemblies (MCAs) to other countries, such as South Africa, so they could see for themselves the impact of coal on the site. They have created a documentary on these visits to archive this knowledge. All of this has led to a true grassroots movement against coal.
Importantly, we learned that these exchanges have allowed for the transnational sharing of resources and knowledge. For example, South African activists helped facilitate some connections between climate experts and activists from Lamu in order to bolster their case in court.
deCOALonize members have come strongly out for renewable energy as an alternative to coal.
Lobbying the government at multiple levels
President Uhuru Kenyatta gave speeches about his ambitions to move Kenya 100 per cent to renewable energy by 2020. There was hope that this would lead to the halting of plans to build the coal plant as Kenya couldn’t possibly become 100 per cent reliant on renewable energy if it still depended on coal. This hope was bolstered by the National Electrification Strategy released in 2018, which explicitly supported decentralised renewable energy technologies.
However, despite President Kenyatta’s pronouncements about renewable energy in Kenya, Kenya’s Power Generation and Transmission Master Plan 2015-2035 states that coal will have a place in Kenya’s future. Moreover, the Kenyan energy regulator had approved the coal-fired Lamu plant.
The contradictions made by various levels of government fueled uncertainty and anxiety in the campaign. Nevertheless, deCOALonize engaged with different government officials to try and gain their support against the coal industry in Kenya. For example, their conversations with the former Minister of Environment, Judy Wakhungu, led to her opposing the proposed coal plant publicly.
The campaign also engaged with the county government because they recognised the power that the county government had in approving the allocation of land for the coal plant, as well as to putting pressure on the national government to abandon such projects.
In order to educate county government officials about the potential effects of coal mining, deCOALonize facilitated county government officials going to visit communities that lived near coal plants so that they would understand the true impacts of such projects. They tried to get the officials to understand the effect such a construction could have on tourism, an important source of income in Lamu. Importantly, Samia Omar, the Trade, Tourism, Culture and Natural Resources Executive, publicly resigned after voicing her opposition to the Lamu plant.
However, despite President Kenyatta’s pronouncements about renewable energy in Kenya, Kenya’s Power Generation and Transmission Master Plan 2015-2035 states that coal will have a place in Kenya’s future.
When we were in Lamu, we heard from multiple independent sources that many tourists demanded their money back when they were promised pristine clear waters to snorkel in, but instead found the water in long-time snorkeling spots muddied because of all the construction in Lamu.
The engagement with the county government, plus Natural Justice and Save Lamu’s transparency and efforts to bring all government bodies on the same page, have resulted in county government officials walking out of meetings with the National Land Commission and LAPSSET when they found out that acres of land were claimed without them being notified. Thus deCOALonize’s strategy has been productive
CCHRCE has been doing great work, teaching the community how to avail of the various constitutional means at their disposal to petition the government and be heard. CCHRCE plays an important role in Kitui, imparting civic education.
Fighting for due procedure to be followed in court
This set a precedent for external costs to be considered for any large project. deCOALonize’s recent victory on June 26, 2019 has set an important precedent for the carrying out of environmental and social impact assessments for projects in East Africa.
The fight in court was not easy. The judiciary and the bureaucracy faced extensive political interference. In Kenya, the executive branch of the state has the most control over shaping patronage networks through its power of disbursing bureaucratic appointments and resources. Kenya has a long history of corruption scandals. Joe Khamisi’s explosive book, Looters and Grabbers: 54 Years of Plunder by the Elite, 1963-2017, details in painstaking detail the systematic pillaging of the country by people right at the top.
The advent of devolution has restructured the institutional landscape. However, efforts to “get the institutions right” have been foiled by flaws in the current legal processes, corruption, low institutional capacity, as well as the lack of cooperation of formal administrative mechanisms. Other researchers have found that devolution, instead of putting a stop to corruption, might only have led to a new mindset of “its everyone’s turn to eat”.
Activists we spoke to told us that NET is a politicised organization with its own agenda. Court files have mysteriously been misplaced. Court dates and places were changed at the last moment, making it very difficult for the organisers. This happened multiple times when the court members coming from Mombasa said at the last minute that they were indisposed. For example, on May 9, 2019, NET, without warning, postponed the much-awaited judgement. Petitioners from Lamu had spent time and money to travel to Nairobi to hear the judgement and had to wait a month to receive the judgement. The most costly incident happened when Save Lamu paid for the flights for international consultants to fly to Nairobi to testify against the plant, and the hearing was postponed at the very last moment.
In addition, since 2017, Parliament has proposed an amendment to the Environment, Management and Coordination Act (EMCA), such that even if an appeal is filed against a project in court, such a legal proceeding will not automatically halt the project, as was the case earlier. A separate appeal would need to be filed to prevent the project from proceeding. Activist Omtatah filed an objection. It is yet to see whether these amendments will go through. This meant that if Amu Power was able to raise the remaining 25 per cent of the project financing, the construction of the coal plant could go ahead. This highlights the importance of the other tactics that deCOALonize has deployed in its fight against the Lamu coal plant.
There have been other complex ways in which the legal process has been thwarted. Because elites in the county, especially those from Nairobi, were aware of the impending coal project before the local residents, they bought land from the residents at throw-away prices, knowing full well that once the project started they would receive compensation for their newly bought land. We heard a similar story about land in Kitui. On visiting some of the newly bought plots in Lamu, we saw that some of the owners had erected make-shift structures that they termed as “hotels” and “restaurants” in order to increase the amount of compensation they would receive.
This created a tension in the community, as many of the new landowners wanted the project to go through to obtain compensation. On speaking to residents of Mokowe county, we were told that in many cases there were many irregularities in the documenting of the area of affected farms by the National Land Commission to allocate appropriate compensation (as the community did not have formal land tenure), resulting in land being allocated to elites/outsiders not from the area.
There have been other complex ways in which the legal process has been thwarted. Because elites in the county, especially those from Nairobi, were aware of the impending coal project before the local residents, they bought land from the residents at throw-away prices, knowing full well that once the project started they would receive compensation for their newly bought land.
The process of allocating compensation for land in Kenya is a complicated one, and more monitoring of current processes and institutions is required. Lamu, in particular, has been subject to many land grabs in the past.
This is Kenya
In an article published in The Elephant, Keguro Macharia dissects the phrase, “This is Kenya”. He describes it as a site of “violation and exhaustion” – a tool used by the rich to perform the “gatekeeping” function of naturalising a system that marginalises the poor and a tool used by the poor to express frustration at an opaque system that repeatedly denies them anything but the most meagre of existences. In other words, “This is Kenya” draws a granite boundary between what can be fought, and possibly changed, and that which cannot. This granite box contains new more equitable realisations of Kenya from bursting through.
As we spoke to deCOALonize activists to learn about the different strategies they were using to fight coal, despite their success, we inevitably got the response: “This is Kenya”. Their use of the phrase indicated that they perceived the limits of the space in which they could mount their opposition. The interior of the bounds of “This is Kenya”, or the space in which they operated, corresponded to ensuring that mechanisms of due procedure as specified by the Constitution and the laws were followed by bureaucrats and the courts. The space outside of this, separated by “This is Kenya”, comprised one that was moulded and shaped by powerful political interests over which the activists had no control. And yet, this distinction was in many ways artificial.
We unsurprisingly learnt that the boundaries implied by “This is Kenya” belies the fact that outside politics seeps into this interior politicised bureaucracy and legal system. What is the point of documenting how a politicised bureaucracy and an imperfect legal system are actually experienced and navigated? Does this mean documenting the same tired corruption scandals?
Well, for one, in this case deCOALonize actually won this critical battle in court! We hope that by detailing how this heroic campaign managed to win, we can prevent ourselves from being boxed in by “This is Kenya”, and instead see deCOALonize’s victory in court as “This too is Kenya!”
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From Shifta to Terrorist: A Shifting Narrative Of Northern Kenya
A section of Kenyan citizens has been labelled dangerous to the main body of the country and denied a national identity and equal status with their fellow citizens.
As Kenya was celebrating her independence in 1963, the people of the Northern Frontier District were mourning the death of their dream of self-governance under British rule. In the spring of 1962, at the Lancaster House Conference, the region’s delegation had demanded self-determination for the NFD. The colonial government appointed an independent commission to look into the question and a referendum to determine the region’s future was subsequently held. The results of the plebiscite were however cancelled under suspicious circumstances even though they indicated that the overwhelming majority supported self-determination. The people felt cheated, and the north exploded in rebellion.
Northerners, especially those from the northeast, accuse the British colonial government of craftily handing over the region to Kenyatta. The colonialists had promised the separatists’ leaders that they would delay independence for the region to facilitate the orderly transition from colonial rule to self-rule.
The British played both sides after the Northern Frontier District delegation rejected the terms of independence and demanded a different path for the district. The colonial government decided to disregard the wishes of most of the inhabitants and handed over the region to the post-independence Kenyan government. Somalia protested the move, which further complicated the north’s struggle for independence.
What had been a people’s quest for self-rule became a political tussle between Kenya and Somalia. This issue has yet to be settled six decades later, and the north has become a victim of unending sabre-rattling. Kenya became independent on the 12th of December 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta as its Prime Minister. A State of Emergency was declared for the north-eastern region on the 27th of December 1963.
The Shifta war
The rebellion that followed the declaration of independence was, to the separatists, a struggle for self-determination. To the Kenyan government, the separatists were Shifta, the name used to reduce the separatists and the NFD population to bandits, outlaws, thieves, criminals, and murderers.
The Shifta label has stuck, although the events surrounding the coining of the term have been carefully erased from the history books. The Shifta narrative was meant to unite the rest of Kenya against the menace of the separatists. The media effectively adopted the new term as a standard reference to the rebels. Newspaper headlines reported shifta attacks almost daily throughout the period of the conflict.
The “war” was mainly skirmishing between the ill-equipped ragtag army of northern rebels and the Kenya military backed by British planes and tanks. It is the population in the north that bore the brunt of the fighting. The nomads had to sustain the fighters in their midst with their meagre resources while dodging the military operations and bombings.
The conflict began on the 22nd of November 1963 when NFD rebels burnt down a camp in Garissa. The rebellion took its toll on the inhabitants, forcing them to flee in droves to the neighbouring countries of Somalia and Ethiopia. Kenyan security forces considered everyone a rebel and the Shifta label was liberally applied without discrimination to men and boys from the region. Villagisation and shooting of camel herds were used extensively by the government to force the nomadic pastoralists to settle.
The secessionists expected to receive arms and ammunitions from Somalia, but Somalia’s loud noises were more bark than a bite. Nothing of material import came from Somalia in the four years of the war.
While fanning the conflict through declarations and radio broadcasts, Somalia was unwilling to train, arm and fight alongside the secessionists. The significant material support provided to the Kenya government by the British and the superior training of the military forces eventually turned the tide of the war in Kenya’s favour.
The end of the war began in 1966 with the exodus of the nomadic population. By 1967, the secessionists were out of arms and had no resources to rely on as the nomads crossed the border into Somalia in droves in what is known as John kacarar (escaping John). The secessionists surrendered in groups throughout 1967.
Realising that the rebels were at the end of their tether, Somalia accepted peace terms with Kenya mediated by Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. An agreement to end their differences and restore diplomatic relations was signed on the 14th of September 1967. The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north and on terms that were never declared public to the residents of the NFD. Four years of bombings, shootings and plunder had left the northeastern region — where the fighting was concentrated — destitute.
Once the war was over, reconstruction failed to begin. The schism remained in place. The military went on with operations aimed at clearing the region of “shifta elements”. The cost of the war was never enumerated. The hopelessness that descended on a defeated community required leadership, which never came.
A new narrative of bandits roaming in the unsafe wild north began to take shape. Collective punishment was the modus operandi during this period. Whenever armed criminals committed a crime, the nearest settlements were decimated by the soldiers.
In the late 1970s, an incident occurred along the Kenya-Ethiopia border where a military vehicle was burnt. The locals claimed the action was perpetrated by armed Ethiopian militia. In what came to be known as the Malka Mari Massacre, the Kenyan military detained over two hundred men and stoned them to death. None of the men was armed, and the military did not fire a shot.
In the period that followed, poaching became rampant as the stockpiles of small arms fell into the hands of poachers. Overnight, the “Somali Poacher” was born. The parks were now under threat from a new breed of armed men motivated by nothing more than money, and allegedly backed by influential people close to the government. Throughout the 1970s, the Somali poacher terrorised Kenyan elephants, rhinos, and cheetahs.
The secessionist war effectively ended without any agreement with the secessionists themselves, without demobilisation, without any concession to the suffering population of the north.
In 1980, the security forces burned down Garissa after detaining and killing many of its inhabitants. This was an incident directly resulting from a disagreement between poachers and their contacts in government. A disgruntled poacher took matters into his own hands and killed several soldiers and other government officials.
The 1980s also saw the infamous Wagalla Massacre of 1984, where thousands were tortured and killed at an airstrip in Wajir, ostensibly during a military operation to curb banditry.
While Shifta and poachers were the competing narratives used by the government to explain its inability to bring the northern region under proper government control, the region suffered wanton neglect and underdevelopment.
The Somali-Ethiopia war ended in 1978, sparking the return of thousands who had fled the region during the war of secession as Somalia descended into clannism and corruption under military dictatorship. That same year, Vice-President Daniel Arap Moi gave a speech that sparked the alien debate when he threatened that the government would register all Somalis and deport anyone found to have allegiance to Somalia. It took 11 years for this policy to be implemented.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970. Traders from the north-east were deemed vagrants and deported from areas in the Rift Valley and Central Kenya back to their home region.
Citizenship documents were tightly controlled, and a system of verification was put in place to make it impossible for the region’s inhabitants to register as citizens. The police were given orders to stop and ask for IDs from anyone looking like a Cushite, a Somali or other related tribes who were distinctively identifiable.
The pink card
In 1989, the famous Kenya-Somali verification and registration took place. The system was designed to catch anyone who could not be linked to a sub-location and known clan.
People had to state their family tree up to their sub-clans, and a pink card with these details was issued to the successful ones. The system was designed to force out of Kenya those unaffiliated to any of the groups “indigenous” to the country.
It is estimated that at one point hundreds were crossing the border into neighbouring countries daily. People were detained, women with young children appeared in court accused of being in the country illegally. Suspected aliens were loaded on military lorries and dropped off in Liboi across the Kenya-Somali border. Many families, especially those elites with businesses, crossed into Uganda and left for Europe or America. The pink cards eventually became available for a fee, and it is believed registration officials took hefty bribes in the process. The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost when entire families were deported with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
As the “aliens” narrative waxed and waned, a new event triggered the updating of the terminology.
In 1991, the Somalia government of Siad Barre collapsed, spilling hundreds of thousands of refugees into the neighbouring countries. Kenya was grappling with its fear of Somalis and now had to face the eventuality of hosting desperate refugees, including the deposed president.
But the alienation of Somalis had begun earlier as it is recorded that police had raided Eastleigh and arrested Somali foreigners as early as 1970.
The refugees were allowed in and settled in camps where they were fed and housed by the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. Throughout the 1990s, Somalia was controlled by warlords who divided the country into green zones, fought viciously among themselves and continued to spill out new refugees.
Apart from participating in efforts at reconciliation and in hosting refugees and facilitating their resettlement in Europe and America, Kenya stayed out of Somalia’s affairs. As the refugees were too many to be housed in the sprawling camps in Dadaab, Dagahaley and Kakuma, some ended up living in towns with the alien cards issued by the UNHCR as identification.
The idea of controlling the movement of refugees soon became fashionable. For the security forces it is difficult to differentiate between locals and refugees and soldiers engaged in random stop-and-searches and nighttime raids in the main towns to flush out illegal aliens.
The controls placed on refugees living in towns illegally sparked lucrative human trafficking where the police and traffickers facilitated the movement of people from the Somali border to the interior. IDs and passports became available for those who could pay but were impossible to acquire for genuine inhabitants of northern Kenya.
While Somalis and their Cushite cousins were getting used to the “alien” idea, a new term landed on Kenya’s shores: terrorism. International terrorists bombed the American embassy in Kenya in 1998. The perpetrators had names similar to those of the northerners and the refugees. The “terrorist” label did not stick for another decade and during this period Somali businesspeople invested heavily in the Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi, creating a vibrant market where initially had been an unremarkable residential estate with a few wholesale and retail shops.
This economic boom coincided with the emergence of piracy on the Somali shores of the Indian Ocean. Suddenly the Kenyan media were reporting that piracy money was flooding the markets and making life costly for the residents. The Somali pirates were real, but this was part of international piracy having its operations on the lawless Somali coast. How the piracy money was siphoned into Kenya was never explained. The piracy issue occasionally crops up when overzealous reporters make disparaging references to piracy and the real estate boom in Kenya.
In 2011 Kenya sent troops into Somalia in an operation dubbed “Linda Nchi” after a tourist was kidnapped at the coast and probably taken across the border. There were other cross-border raids. However, significant Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya began in 2012 when Kenyan forces were integrated into the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As Kenya became embroiled in state-building in Somalia, with the creation of Jubaland floated as the reason for the invasion, Al-Shabaab started bringing its terrorism into Kenya.
In 2013, the Westgate Mall shootings led to the death of 67 people. More than 67 others also died in attacks in Mpeketoni in Lamu in 2014. The attacks on Garissa University attack were the worst, leading to 150 dead, many of them students. These brazen attacks were attributed to Al-Shabaab. Although the terror group had already internationalised and was recruiting with no regard to ethnicity, Kenyan Somalis became the target for blame, name-calling, and arrests.
In 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “You are all terrorists”. The terrorist narrative drives xenophobia, arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture. After the terror attacks in 2014 in Eastleigh and Mpeketoni, the security forces conducted an indiscriminate door-to-door operation targeting anyone who did not have an ID card to hand. This security operation was dubbed Usalama Watch. Those who did not have the document were taken to Kasarani Stadium and held there for two weeks. About 900 people were taken to the stadium, the majority being young people who could not acquire IDs due to discriminatory bureaucratic procedures , and a haphazard and corrupt system that barred genuine citizens from receiving the document.
The verification and registration were suspended after two harrowing years during which homes were raided, their inhabitants detained, and property was lost.
Over half a century of negative portrayals of people from the north means that the official government policy is skewed when it applies to them. The acquisition of a passport is generally a straightforward process. To ensure that aliens from the north do not acquire this critical document, the immigration department and security agencies have an illegal and discriminatory step in place for border communities — vetting. It is not enough that a northerner provides sufficient genuine documentation. The applicant must appear before a group of government officials, security officers and appointed individuals to prove their citizenship. To pass this step, one must know their location chief, the genealogy of ones’ clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
The emergence of one label does not lead to the dropping of the existing labels. Shifta, Poacher, Refugee, Pirate and Terrorist shape the thinking behind public actions. These negative portrayals have an impact on how national matters are debated and resolved.
A section of Kenyan citizens is considered as dangerous to the main body of the country. The secession war that ostensibly ended in 1967 is still being fought; the terms of the agreement that ended the war have never been the subject of a national conversation. Did the agreement include such important matters as citizenship, identity, development, and non-discrimination? The security agencies have not discarded their belligerent attitude towards the population and the civil service retains the policies of the 1960s towards the people of the north.
One must know their location chief, the genealogy of one’s clan and other trivialities that are ordinarily unnecessary in life.
National identity is at stake as those who rejected becoming part of Kenya at independence cannot have equal status with everyone else. They are aliens, and “they all look like”. The most dangerous portrayal is the association with terrorism; poachers and pirates are small fish compared to terrorists. In the last few years, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings related to the war on terror have become commonplace. It is hard to fight for the rights of one who is labelled a terrorist and is disappeared or killed.
Public association with a terror suspect is a stigma that nobody is willing to be associated with. Crimes are committed under cover of fighting terrorism, and there is nothing the targeted community can do about it. That is the power of a label; it obscures the truth, gives authorities cover to commit genocidal crimes and permits the practice of xenophobia in public.
The End of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018 Abiy Ahmed elicited goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia but the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing him friends.
Ethiopia will go to the polls on June 22, buffeted by various crises domestically and abroad. But the upcoming election has many echoes of the May 15 2005 election, whose impact continues to shape Ethiopia’s domestic politics and politics in the Horn of Africa. Central to Ethiopia’s current domestic crisis and the border dispute with Sudan, is the Abiy-Amhara compact.
The 15 May 2005 elections were the third national elections to be held under the 1994 constitution following the ouster of the Marxist-Leninist Derg. In the 1995 and 2000 elections, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government harassed the opposition parties, forcing the influential ones to boycott the polls, with the result that the EPRDF won both elections with over 90 per cent of the seats.
Ahead of the 2005 election, the EPDRF signalled the significant participation of the opposition parties so that Western observers—whose support was critical for Meles—would declare the elections to have been free and fair. The incumbent party acceded to the pre-election demands of some opposition parties, allowing in international election observers and giving the opposition parties a chance to sell their manifestos on the national broadcaster. These conditions were absent in the previous elections. While these were not among the chief demands of the opposition parties prior to the polls, they indicated reasonable good faith on the part of the government compared to previous elections.
As a result, for the first time in Ethiopia’s history, a nationwide multiparty competition seemed possible; neither the ruling party nor the opposition had ever faced a competitive election before.
Internal turmoil within the EPRDF preceded the election. The Central Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s core support base—broke up into two rival factions in 2001. With his base in the Tigray heartland at risk, Meles took advantage of his central position within the broader EPRDF coalition and outmanoeuvred his rivals. He sacked several senior officials and successfully weathered the storm, but the fault line remained and emerged during the 2005 elections.
The pre-election period saw the unprecedented participation of the opposition parties and civil society organisations in the campaigns. Election Day went peacefully, and the early results in Addis Ababa and other major urban areas showed the opposition parties making significant electoral gains. According to unofficial preliminary results, the opposition had won 172 parliamentary seats—its most considerable showing yet in the 547-member assembly. On the night of the election, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a one-month ban on public demonstrations in the capital and brought the Addis Ababa security forces (which would have come under the opposition’s command had they been sworn in) under the control of the Prime Minister’s office.
Opposition parties boycotted their seats in parliament, alleging rigging by the incumbent. Their refusal to take up their seats in parliament handed Meles Zenawi and his party a third term in office. Meles interpreted his “mandate” as a licence to take the authoritarian path. Hundreds, if not thousands, of political opposition and human rights activists were arbitrarily detained, with some facing the spurious charge of treason. Ethiopian security forces killed almost 200 demonstrators in post-election protests in June and November 2005 and arrested tens of thousands of people.
With the domestic front “sorted”, Meles turned to regional matters. In December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to root out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had brought stability for the few months they were in charge. The Ethiopian forces captured Mogadishu in less than a week, and the UIC dissolved and surrendered political leadership to clan leaders.
Ethiopia’s ouster of the UIC tapped into a deep historical hostility between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab, the youth wing of the UIC, exploited with a mix of latent Somalia nationalism and anti-imperialism.
Ethiopia’s actions provided Al Shabaab with an opportunity to translate its rhetoric into action. Al Shabaab began targeting the nascent Somalia government, Ethiopian forces, the Transitional Federal Government security, political figures, and any Somalis collaborating with Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s and TFG’s heavy-handed counterinsurgency responses played into the hands of Al Shabaab.
Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, had met with then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Sixteen years later, Ethiopia goes into another election whose consequences could transcend Ethiopia.
The limits of Abiy-Mania
When he ascended to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed elicited a groundswell of collective goodwill inside and outside Ethiopia. He embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
At home, Abiy released political prisoners, appointed the country’s first female as the ceremonial president and a cabinet half-filled by women. He nominated a once-jailed opposition leader as the new chairwoman of the electoral board. In the Horn of Africa region, Abiy had a rapprochement with Eritrea, a country with which Ethiopia had fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000. Abiy also attempted to mediate the Sudan political crisis.
The Nobel Committee awarded Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize “For his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, particularly for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”
Federalism vs centralisation
While the trigger for the Abiy-led military operation against the Regional Government of Tigray in the north of the country is the alleged attack of the federal army base by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the attack was only a symptom and not the actual cause.
The battle between Abiy and the TPLF and other groups is a battle between those who champion the multi-ethnic federalism constitution and those who prefer a centralised state. Abiy favours centralisation to federalism.
The Tigray region is not the first to bear the brunt of the military and federal security forces to achieve Abiy’s centralisation agenda. The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
Abiy embarked at breakneck speed on reforms that just a few years earlier would have sounded far-fetched.
Throughout its long history of state formation, Ethiopia was for thousands of years ruled by emperors under a monarchy with a unitary system of government. The last emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974 and from then on until 1991, the country came under a dictatorship with a unitary system of government.
The creation of the EPRDF in 1989—an ethnic coalition of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM; later Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO; later Oromo Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM)—had changed that.
Abiy’s shot across the bow was the dissolution of the EPDRF and the launching of the Prosperity Party (PP) on December 1 2019. The OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM voted overwhelmingly to join the party, while the TPLF rejected the idea as “illegal and reactionary”. The timing of the move was convenient, coming just a few months before the election that was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The EPDRF’s multi-ethnic federalism and the inclusion in the constitution of the right to secede for all “nations and nationalities and peoples” of the country were innovative breakthroughs in a country with 80 different ethnic groups. But the constitution was also a product of ideological foment and political necessity. The leaders who revolted against the Mengistu junta had emerged from the student movement that had adopted the “nationalities and the land question”, redefining Ethiopian statehood.
The Oromia and Sidama regions have also been at the receiving end of the violence of the federal security authorities.
While the multi-ethnic federalism has been imperfect, especially its implementation and the domination of the EPDRF by the TPLF, in a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
Abiy and Amhara expansionism
The Amharas are Abiy’s vociferous supporters at home. They, especially their elites, have an axe to grind with the TPLF for diluting their decades of uninterrupted state power and control. Amhara language and culture are the state’s language and culture, and the language and culture of the Orthodox Church which wields unfettered power. But with its political nous, its deep bureaucracy and know-how, the TPLF was always a challenging prospect for Abiy, a political novice with limited federal-level experience and hardly a political base. The connecting tissue of Abiy-Amhara unity is the lowest common denominator that is the fear and loathing of the TPLF. After dissolving the EPDR, a coalition in which the TPLF was a strong partner, the next step was to defeat the TPLF militarily. Even before the November military incursion into Tigray, Amhara militias were massed at the border with Tigray. If Abiy’s anti-TPLF move was intended to destroy them as a political force, for the Amharas this was an opportunity to regain some of the territories they had lost to Tigray in 1991.
Ethiopia also has a boundary dispute with Sudan. The dispute centres on the al-Fashaga region, Sudan’s fertile breadbasket located in Gedaref State, which borders Ethiopia’s Amhara region in the north-west. According to the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902 the area belongs to Sudan and, unlike the regime of Omar al-Bashir, for the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok, settling this dispute is a priority. However, the Abiy-Amhara alliance has made resolving the dispute complicated.
Sudan is also a critical factor in resolving the Tigray crisis; the country is the only remaining supply route for the TPLF as Eritrea is closed to them and bringing in supplies and fuel through other routes is risky. Sudan could also determine how the GERD dam conflict will be resolved. Unlike Egypt, Sudan could benefit from cheap electricity if the dam is filled, but the country will not countenance losing al-Fashaga. Abiy faces difficult choices: cede al-Fashaga to Sudan and gain a partner in the dam negotiations while also denying the TPLF a supply route or keep al-Fashaga and lose Sudan in the GERD dam discussions, leaving the TPLF to use the Sudan border for supplies.
The Tigray conflict, which Abiy initially promised would be a straightforward law enforcement operation, has instead metastasised into a slow-grinding counterinsurgency operation. The continuing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is losing Abiy friends.
On May 23, the US State Department announced visa restrictions for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals—including Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the resolution of the crisis in Tigray.
In a multi-ethnic country with historical and contemporary grievances against the state, federalism has acted as a safety valve against ethnic tension.
America’s sanctions came on the heels of the European Union’s suspension of budgetary support worth €88 million (US$107 million) until humanitarian agencies are granted access to people in need of aid in the northern Tigray region.
On the 7th of June 2021, Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), who is also Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, together with Karen Bass (D-CA) and Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), respectively Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights, issued a joint statement after tabling a resolution condemning violence and human rights abuses in Ethiopia.
The sanctions come as Ethiopia awards its first telecom licence for US$850 million to a consortium that includes the UK’s Vodafone in what could herald the opening up of Ethiopia’s closed economy.
Before the EPDRF came into power, Ethiopia was a posterchild of famine and incessant conflict, especially under the Derg regime. Abiy and Amhara nationalism is bringing back the echoes of the Derg era and the upcoming June election is unlikely to resolve current crises; if anything, it will exacerbate them.
We Still Can’t Breathe: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo
Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could get back to normal.
Sometimes even the “biggest” victories can ring hollow. That especially seems to be the case several months into 2021, and 11 odd months after George Floyd had his life snuffed out in front of a red-brick grocery store in South Minneapolis, around the corner from the “Little East Africa” neighbourhood. That Derek Chauvin, the cop who laid his blatancy in the form of a knee across Floyd’s neck in a gutter finally faced some form of consequence in the form of a guilty verdict, may, in and of itself be of little consequence in the grandest of schemes.
Yes, right now it seems as though the verdict that has come down harshly on Chauvin is a rebuke of all things heinous, nothing less than a massive moral victory for racial progress, black America and global equality.
Indeed, rainbows shall now shine through and if you listen to many pundits within the American (and for that matter, Western) broadcast media, racism against Black America has been solved once and for all — à la the presidential election of Barack Obama way back in those heady days of 2008.
Chauvin will be sentenced on June 25th of this year. Much of Black America is already lowering their expectations away from the 40-year maximum prison sentence.
Life is full of disappointments.
In itself, the Chauvin verdict is not one of them; it is just another opportunity for a larger collective sadness, another opportunity for an eventual letdown, a reminder of the global system of injustice that is, frankly, far as hell from ever being permanently resolved.
I haven’t been in Minneapolis since the end of May 2020, the Saturday following the Floyd killing, when the very landscape and fabric of the “Twin Cities” of Minnesota and Saint Paul were irrevocably changed. Walking around that day, the sense of despair was palpable. All of Lake Street — all seven kilometers of it — seemed to have been hit by varying degrees of madness. Some buildings were completely burnt out, husks of their former selves; others had smashed windows or had “BLACK OWNED BUSINESS: DON’T BURN!” scrawled in graffiti across the boarded-up doors. Thousands of people trudged around with shovels, cleaning up debris ahead of the inevitable next night of chaos.
In the weeks that followed, the protests spread across the United States, and even took root on a global scale, spreading as far as Nairobi, London, Kampala, Rome and dozens of other cities. In Minneapolis, all the tension of a tense superpower seemingly dying of its own hubris during the chaotic early months of the COVID-19 pandemic descended on an idyllic neighbourhood. By the day I arrived, May 30th, the United States National Guard was being deployed to put down any form of violence with their own forms of violence. But the damage had been done and the rest of the country was experiencing its own varying levels of chaos. At least two people were killed in Minneapolis alone (and at least 19 across the rest of the US, though this number seems to be low). Dozens of people were injured in Minneapolis alone (although the exact numbers are hard to confirm; personally I talked to at least three people who had sustained non-lethal injuries during the protests, so the real number could be much higher).
Thousands were injured across the US, with hundreds more incidents of police brutality filmed and shared widely. In Minneapolis there was approximately KSh 53 billion worth of damage related to the unrest. Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis who allegedly had white supremacist ties retired at the beginning of 2021. The Minneapolis Police Department was defunded following the reckoning that fell upon the Twin Cities in those warm early summer weeks.
Among pundit across America, talk of alliance and “listening” rapidly became the norm. Many leading neo-liberals put out statements, Republicans and Democrats alike. Trump ordered the beating up of peaceful protesters in front the White House and goodhearted liberals were shocked and appalled. Everyone said it was a “sea change” in American race-relations.
Less than three months after the George Floyd protests kicked off there was a “monumental change” — Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in the city of Kenosha, in my home state of Wisconsin. The NBA boycotted games, more conversations were had and the world kept right on turning, same as it ever has.
When it comes down to issues of inequality, racism and oppression the status quo is always maintained, especially in America. Two steps forward and three steps back seems to be the pattern, one that is only reinforced by the pattern of police getting away with the murder of Black Americans — whether on tape or merely under “suspicious” circumstances in which “the officer felt their life was threatened and required a response of lethal force”.
Perhaps it is this constant pattern of impunity that has caused the most damage, a pattern that in the US can be traced to well before the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, California. The riots were sparked off by the acquittal of cops who had been caught on film beating and kicking King senseless on the shoulder of a freeway.
It’s the same as it ever was.
Over the years since, especially in this age of social media ubiquity, incidents police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
Horrifying, but not at all surprising. Everyone within the Black community in the US has long known the score. “Officers under threat” deaths, cases failing to be investigated, rumours of pistols being planted, delays in emergency responder times, ties to white supremacy, “warrior cops” getting more military equipment, stop-and-frisk policies, higher incarceration rates among Blacks, continual harassment, talking to children about keeping hands visible when dealing with police, media bias, fetishisation of police, the “Blue Lives Matter” movement — the list of systemic issues within US police forces could fill the remainder of this article.
In this age of social media ubiquity, incidents of police violence against Black men, women and children have been caught on camera with horrifying regularity.
The American judicial system itself is inherently flawed. The narrative among much of the “upstanding” upper middle-class elements of society is that somehow race relations were, if not solved outright, repaired with a sustained “upward” trajectory somewhere around the funeral of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in 1968.
They paint a rosy picture of race-relations in the US in which all segregationist judges were replaced with forward thinking progressives, where all cops with KKK ties were unceremoniously fired, where the ghosts of “Jim Crow” laws (designed to suppress, segregate and subjugate post-slavery Black America) simply faded into the distant memories of a bygone era. The result was a sort of racial Cold War, where proxy wars were fought through the war on drugs, mass incarceration, neoliberalism and police impunity.
“At least segregation is illegal now”, says White America when pressed, as if cities, schools, hospitals and police actions were not still segregated sans overt painted signs.
Such sentiments bled into the politics of the US’s two major parties, Republicans spearheading the “War on Drugs” under the Reagan presidency of the 1980s and the Clinton administration cutting social programmes and accelerating mass incarceration during the 90s under the all-American ideal of “pulling oneself up by your bootstraps”. Such proponents of America’s neo-liberal ethos cared little whether there were any boots to begin with.
Slowly the technology caught up with the reality, and the anger felt across the marginalised communities in America had a focal point on which to pour out their frustrations. The images were there on film, little snippets sent into cyberspace by countless onlookers. The anger was in the bloody and lifeless body of Michael Brown lying for hours in a Missouri street. It was in Eric Garner pleading that he couldn’t breathe while being choked to death by cops in New York City. It was in Philando Castille being shot and killed in his car seconds after telling the officer who had pulled him over that he had a licensed gun in the car and reached for his wallet. (This shooting also happened in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.) It was in Breonna Taylor being shot dead on a no-knock warrant in Louisville, Kentucky only for the officers to be charged with “wanton endangerment” for firing bullets into a neighbouring apartment.
None of the officers in the above incidents were convicted. Some were never even brought into a courtroom.
On April 11th 2021, Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a cop during a traffic stop in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Details and footage of the incident are scant. The officer involved has been charged with second-degree manslaughter (a lesser charge than homicide in the US court system). Protests have sprung up around the US, youth wearing surgical masks — the hallmark of the smoldering COVID-19 pandemic — clashing with police and facing arrest, and “non-lethal weapons being deployed by officers to quell pockets of unrest”. This killing occurred at the epicentre of the “defund the police” movement — Minneapolis.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
The police are just the visible agents of the systemic suppression of Black people that stretches far beyond the shores of the US.
If COVID-19 has shown up anything, it is the brutality of police worldwide. Most times their actions go on with impunity. Cops in Kenya beat up people without mercy and enforce curfew by leaving motorists stranded on highways. In Uganda cops extort commuters under threat of jail. In Rwanda the stranglehold on the nation continues to tighten under threat of harsh penalties.
There is no equality when it comes to the Global South, particularly for much of Africa whose suffering at the hands of the police echoes the oppression faced by the Black community in the US.
The cycle continues same as ever, two steps forward and three steps back in Black America’s quest for equitable treatment.
Through this lens of warranted cynicism, the “guilty” verdict handed down to Derek Chauvin by a jury in Minnesota is not a massive turning point. The very pundits stating that the verdict is such a monumental moment of change inherently prove that it is nothing remotely close to such a trend. There will be other failed indictments, other cops walking away, more cases of mysteriously “lost” body-cam footage. More will die, protests will spring up and be quelled with extreme prejudice.
Chauvin, the smirking killer that he is, did prove one thing and one thing only: where the “line” truly is, where the grey areas that the police hide behind blur over into black and white, from a “justified act of lethal self-defense from a frightened officer” into outright murder. His actions were so unquestionably heinous that they had to be dealt with. What Chauvin did derives directly from an ugly history; he lynched that man and at the time thought he would get away with it, hands in pockets, cocky half-smile on his face while his bodyweight cut off George Floyd’s air supply in that street gutter. Bystanders begged him to stop as the other officers watched in idle complicity. Paramedics were not allowed to give medical aid and Chauvin continued to apply pressure for minutes after Floyd had become non-responsive.
The systems, after all, stay much as they are in America. Profit margins must be maintained and “order” by way of the status quo must be upheld. The Twin Cities, of which Minneapolis is the more visible twin, would have simply exploded if the verdict had come back anything less than guilty. After a year of protests, COVID-19 lockdowns, electoral strangeness, Trumpian policies, political divisions, economic challenges and continued incidents of police violence, the tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
If that had happened the resulting violence would have dwarfed any incidents of unrest in America’s past. It is likely that weeks later clashes with police would be continuing on a nightly basis in dozens of cities across America. Minneapolis, where major corporates are headquartered, would have been engulfed in flames so huge the smoke would have been seen in the neighbouring state of Wisconsin.
The tinderbox that was Minneapolis could not have handled Chauvin walking free out of the courthouse to appear on Fox News to “thank God”.
Chauvin’s true legacy is that of an outlier, the ultimate talking-head example that “things are different now”, that something has truly been accomplished on a systemic level when it comes to police treatment of Black America.
In reality, Chauvin is simply a cop who committed an action so ugly that he had to be made an example of so that America could “get back to normal”.
For Black America in 2021 however, normal life is chockful of disappointments.
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