Connect with us

Politics

State Capture: The Institutionalisation of Impunity in Kenya

18 min read.

The 2010 Constitution promised a brave new Kenya with clean, robust, and efficient institutions. But this promise never materialised. WACHIRA MAINA shows how state institutions, including electoral and judicial bodies, have been deliberately weakened by a system designed to protect the corrupt.

Published

on

State Capture: The Institutionalisation of Impunity in Kenya
Download PDFPrint Article

As Dominic Burbidge argues in The Shadow of Kenyan Democracy, the point of the aggressive avarice of Kenya’s corrupt leaders is to maintain power and privilege. This depends not just on the effective control of the Presidency and the Treasury but also on a repurposing of the machinery of government into a “temporary zone for personalised appropriation”.

The object of this repurposing’ is to gut state resources for electioneering and thus maintain power. In this dispensation, politics is a zero-sum game of “competitive aggression” in which “the principal victim” is “the state itself” and politics is “a pursuit requiring ever faster forms of enrichment”. For state capture to succeed, four things must happen.

One, oversight institutions must be eviscerated and hollowed out. This means that the offices of Controller of Budget, the Auditor General, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and parliamentary committees must be totally compromised and wholly ineffectual in their oversight.

Two, law enforcement and rule of law institutions (the police, the judiciary, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and the prosecution agencies) must be weakened or captured and redirected as “weapons” with which to fight political opponents.

Three, the ordinary channels of political change and accountability through periodic elections must be blocked, either by compromising the electoral management body (EMB) or through violent intimidation of political opponents.

Finally, the space for countervailing institutions to function, especially civil society and the media, must be shrunk until these pose no threat to capture. Alternatively, these institutions are also compromised and redirected to the state capture agenda.

Capture technique 1: A compromised electoral management body

In the early 1990s, the primary method for controlling the electoral process was through use of public order laws, such as banning public meetings, arresting and detaining regime opponents, and control of the EMB through the President’s power to appoint commissioners. Once appointed, the commissioners were nominally independent, but were almost immediately compromised by being allowed to draw illegal payments and allowances.

A 1996 analysis of the Controller and Auditor General’s Report for 1993/1994 by the Institute of Economic Affairs showed that the chairman and commissioners of the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) had been paid Sh38,443,800 (equivalent to Sh375 million today) in sitting allowances, subsistence allowances and accommodation. They were paid whether they were on duty or not, even on public holidays. They had also been allowed to use privately registered cars that had no work tickets.

Following the interparty parliamentary group reforms of 1997, opposition parties could nominate commissioners, which expanded the composition of the ECK. In theory, this should have made the ECK more independent, but there were two problems. First, the opposition, like the ruling party, appointed reliable political operatives in the expectation that they would protect its interests in the commission. Second, once the commissioners were in place, they realised they were independent of their appointing parties and that they had unlimited opportunities to “sell” their discretion and judgment to the ruling party. The result is that since 1997, the diversion of funds and fraudulent spending at the electoral management body has ballooned, not subsided.

As an AfriCOG study shows, between 1991 and 2007, the ECK received Sh15.8 billion to run elections. Of this amount, Sh1.9 billion was paid out to commissioners in irregular payments and allowances, unaccountable vehicle hire, unsupported and wasteful expenditure, and imprests that were not accounted for.

Yet huge as these amounts are, they are nothing compared to the wastefulness of the Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC) and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). If before 2007 corruption in the ECK entailed trimming and larding expenditure heads within the budget, the period since has been characterised by open and rapacious greed that is proportionately matched by a sharp deterioration in the quality of elections.

As an AfriCOG study shows, between 1991 and 2007, the ECK received Sh15.8 billion to run elections. Of this amount, Sh1.9 billion was paid out to commissioners in irregular payments and allowances, unaccountable vehicle hire, unsupported and wasteful expenditure, and imprests that were not accounted for.

That claim is quickly demonstrated. Following the post-election violence in 2007/2008, the Independent Review Commission (IREC), better known as the Kriegler Commission, recommended wide-ranging reforms to address what it described as institutionalised impunity. Yet, within months of Kriegler’s recommendations, the successor to the ECK, the IIEC, had reverted to type, becoming embroiled in corruption on a scale that the ECK had not touched. From that moment on, the EMB would not rely on illicit payments from the government; commission staff would rig the commission’s procurement processes to enrich themselves, knowing well that they would not be prosecuted or called to account if in the process they helped the ruling party.

In this first procurement scam, senior officials of the EMB were paid handsome kickbacks by Smith and Ouzman, a security printer based in the United Kingdom whom they had contracted for the purchase of electoral materials. In a subsequent UK criminal trial for corruption, it emerged that the officials of the company had paid up to £349,057 in bribes (over Sh45 million today, referred to as “chicken” by IIEC officials and commissioners) to secure the contract for the printing of materials for the by-elections following the 2007 election and the 2010 referendum. In return for these payments, IIEC provided Ouzman with information on rival bids to enable the company to inflate printing costs. Many IIEC officials, including the chair, Issack Hassan, were lavishly entertained by Ouzman during visits to the UK.

But “chickengate” was nothing compared to the wanton procurement corruption perpetrated by the new electoral commission, the IEBC, in 2013. Every item bought for that election was corruptly procured. The principal procurement for the electronic voter identification devices (EVID) was so tainted that the Public Procurement Administrative Review Board (PPARB) would have cancelled the contract were the election not so close.

The Board was giving its decision in Avante International Technology Inc. and 2 others v. The IEBC. The case had come before the Board on the main ground that the IEBC had ignored professional advice and awarded a tender worth $16,651,139.13 (Sh1,397,724,925.51) to Face Technologies, a South African company. To do this, the IEBC had unlawfully revised an unresponsive bid by Face Technologies to make it legal. In the words of the PPARB, the IEBC had been inexplicably “magnanimous in interpreting its tender documents” in favour of Face Technologies. The IEBC had not only acted with impunity, it had from the very first been “bent on awarding the [EVID] tender to Face Technologies”. In the Board’s view, the IEBC was “waving the card of public interest as its defence in the various breaches of the procurement law”.

But “chickengate” was nothing compared to the wanton procurement corruption perpetrated by the new electoral commission, the IEBC, in 2013. Every item bought for that election was corruptly procured.

The Board said that under different circumstances, it “would have [had] no hesitation [annulling] this tender”. However, it would not do so here because that would “certainly jeopardise the holding of the forthcoming general elections”.

The IEBC’s conduct was so egregious, that the Board recommended that the “Director General of the Public Procurement Oversight Authority carry out investigations pursuant to powers conferred by section 102 of the ACECA and take appropriate action”. A special audit on the procurement of electronic voting devices for the 2013 general election by the IEBC ordered by Parliament would later prove that what the PPARB had found in the pre-election litigation was just the tip of a monstrous iceberg. It turned out that all electronics purchased for the 2013 election had been procured irregularly.

The audit found that biometric voter registration kits had also been bought irregularly. Though the Treasury had appropriated money for this procurement, the IEBC had inexplicably borrowed commercially to buy the kits. This unusual method, which echoed some of the elements of the Anglo Leasing scandal, meant that the taxpayer would pay fees and interests that ought not to have been paid. More illegalities were committed in procuring the results transmission system. The system was never inspected on delivery, leaving its functionality doubtful on election day.

On receiving the audit report, the Public Accounts Committee was so outraged it recommended an anti-corruption audit and criminal investigation of all IEBC commissioners, the committees, and of the CEO James Oswago who, in addition, they said should not only be barred from holding public office but also surcharged for paying out Sh258 million to Face Technologies without a contract.

None of these recommendations were implemented, although Oswago was replaced in 2015 by Ezra Chiloba. Most scandalous, however, were the “hefty” undisclosed amounts that the IEBC commissioners were paid at the end of 2016 for “agreeing” to retire early to pave way for reforms ahead of the 2017 election. This sweetheart deal, put together by a bipartisan committee of Parliament, signalled that impunity would be rewarded rather than punished. Though the sums were not made public, the commissioners had argued that they were entitled to all their forward pay if they were going to leave before the end of their terms.

That deal set the tone for the behaviour of the IEBC in 2017. Their attitude is already foreshadowed by their response to the recommendation of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) that the electoral management body bar 106 candidates for governor, MPs, and members of county assemblies from contesting the August 8 elections as they were unfit to hold office. None of the 106 were barred and 60 per cent of them were eventually elected.

No external audit has been done on the 2017 procurement, but an August 2018 IEBC internal audit of the 2017 general election provides damning evidence of how corrupt the electoral processes were. The internal audit reviewed 31 contracts worth Sh6.2 billion that the commission had signed. The auditors feared that taxpayers had not received value for money in ten contracts worth Sh4.6 billion.

As with previous corrupt dealings at the IEBC, the culprits were CEO Ezra Chiloba (suspended in 2018), the directorates of finance, ICT, supply chain management and legal and public affairs. The proposal to carry out the audit had generated serious internal conflict, forcing the commission to send its CEO, Mr Chiloba, on compulsory leave to allow for “a comprehensive audit of all major procurements relating to the 2017 general and fresh presidential elections”. Shortly thereafter, three commissioners – Consolata Maina, Paul Kurgat and Margaret Mwachanya – announced that they had no confidence in Mr Chebukati, the chair, and were resigning from the IEBC. They would later rescind their resignations.

As with the Smith Ouzman and Face Technologies cases, the IEBC seemed hell-bent on contracting particular firms. For example, the audit showed that the IEBC had awarded Safran Identity & Security a Sh2.5 billion contract to supply election technology for the repeat presidential election of 26 October 2017 on a Sh423.6 million performance guarantee that had expired two months earlier. At issue was not just the additional Sh2.5 billion contract that Safran Morpho received for the October 26 re-run, but also a further contract to reconfigure the 40,883 Kenya Integrated Elections Management System kits it had supplied for the August election.

Not surprisingly, Safran made hay while the irregularities sun shone. The IEBC paid Sh2.5 billion for the Safran system, two-thirds of what it had spent on the six elections involved in the August general election. Safran charged the IEBC Sh443.8 million for election day support, nearly double the Sh242.5 million it had paid for the same support in the general election. The internal audit concluded that a sum of Sh384.6 million that IEBC paid Safran for “programme and project management” was unnecessary and therefore wasteful.

As with the Smith Ouzman and Face Technologies cases, the IEBC seemed hell-bent on contracting particular firms. For example, the audit showed that the IEBC had awarded Safran Identity & Security a Sh2.5 billion contract to supply election technology for the repeat presidential election of 26 October 2017 on a Sh423.6 million performance guarantee that had expired two months earlier.

As in the 2013 election, many aspects of technology acquisition were corrupt and highly irregular. Airtel was contracted to supply 1,553 units of Thuraya IP SIMs loaded with data bundles for the results transmission system in the areas without 3G and 4G networks – 11,115 polling stations in all. The company could only supply 1,000 by election day. The additional 553 units were supplied after the election.

Oracle Technology Systems (Kenya) Ltd provided database and security solutions at a cost of Sh273.6 million without a signed contract. Scanad Kenya Ltd got the contract for the IEBC’s “strategic communication and integrated media campaign consultancy services”, even though its price was more than twice the Sh350 million budget earmarked by the IEBC. Africa Neurotech was contracted to install IEBC data centre equipment at a cost of Sh249.3 million, an amount almost double the IEBC budget of Sh130 million. The data centre equipment was not ready on election day.

Further details about the extent of impunity within the IEBC come from the lawsuits filed against it concerning the procurement of electoral equipment and materials just before the elections. In early 2017, the IEBC single-sourced Safran Morpho to provide election equipment, the same controversial French company with which the IEBC had negotiated a tripartite agreement to buy biometric voter registration (BVR) kits for the 2013 election. As in 2013, the IEBC argued that its single-sourcing decision was necessitated by the limited time left to comply with the election timetable, a problem that they said had been compounded by interminable litigation. Safran Morpho has a chequered history and due diligence might have ruled them out. In the USA, its subsidiary has been accused of misrepresenting the firm’s track record. In 2013, Safran was fined $630,000 by a French court after being found guilty of bribing public officials in Nigeria to win a Sh17 billion identity cards tender.

Given these experiences, the inevitable question then is: why are electoral management bodies in Kenya allowed to be this unaccountable? Who benefits from a criminalised EMB? The answer lies in the ability of the EMBs to give “state capture” formal legitimacy: so long as the country goes through the formalities of an election that international observers can say “broadly reflects” the will of the people (whatever that means), electoral management bodies can be rapacious in cannibalising their budgets and the governments they help put in power can be trusted to look the other way.

Capture technique 2: Undermining law enforcement

Effective law enforcement institutions, especially an effective and honest police service, a functional, independent and accountable judiciary, and a professionalised office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), are central to fighting corruption effectively. None of these institutions are wholly accountable or fully functional. The police remain unreconstructed and, if the evidence revealed by the police vetting exercise is anything to go by, also unrepentant.

The office of the DPP has been haphazard in prosecuting; it appears to be picking cases for prosecution for reasons that appear patently political, fumbling cases involving the “big fish” and generally being assiduous on those that involve “small fry”. The judiciary seemed on the mend after 2010 when the new constitution came into force but since then things have gone awry: judicial vetting failed to fully root out corruption, bribery has crept back and though some of the excesses of the past have not returned, a clean judiciary is still a long way off. On the whole, the government’s attitude to law enforcement is consistent with the logic of state capture: control and compromise the police and the DPP and weaken the harder-to-control judiciary.

The police: A vertically-organised criminal syndicate

It serves state capture if politicians are wilfully blind to police corruption. In Kenya, police “palm greasing” at traffic stops is so routine that drivers arrive with the bribe already folded, ready to be slapped onto the palm, or slipped into the pocket of the traffic cop. Presidents are often excused from the predations of the police but their responsibility and that of their government was explained many years ago by William of Pagula: “For, one who permits anything to take place that he is able to impede, even though he has not done it himself, has virtually done the act if he allows it.”

The stability of state capture rests on uniting the interests and fates of low-level operatives with those of their bosses. In the case of the police, recruitment into the police service is a grant of a preloaded cash machine. This, in part, is what the recent police vetting revealed. The vetting proved that what Sarah Chayes observed of Afghanistan is true of Kenya, namely that the conventional wisdom that corruption involves doling patronage downwards to juniors is wrong-headed. Instead, it is subordinate officials who pay off the top in return for “unfettered permission to extract resources for personal gain, and second, protection from repercussions”. The critical point is that this whole system depends on “faithful discharge, by senior officials, of their duty to protect their subordinates” and this implicit contract holds, “much as it does within the mafia, no matter how inconsequential the subordinate might be”.

The mechanics of police corruption can be seen in the police vetting exercise undertaken by the National Police Service Commission (NPSC). As one newspaper account sarcastically noted, top cops often seemed hard pressed to cite a major crime bust but the state of their bank accounts showed them to be men of great business acumen, a fact that would alone “put Kiganjo Police Training College at par with the region’s top business schools in producing entrepreneurs of note”.

The stability of state capture rests on uniting the interests and fates of low-level operatives with those of their bosses. In the case of the police, recruitment into the police service is a grant of a preloaded cash machine.

Officers’ bank records show deposits of hundreds of thousands of shillings monthly, mostly from “businesses” that they and their spouses own or from “convenient” sales of assets that they previously owned. Many were Jacks of all trades, running businesses that run the gamut from chicken farming, residential and commercial rentals and fish farming.

That no major shakeup of the police has followed from this much-publicised vetting shows that this high profile “stagecraft” was cynical “busywork” (both Chayes’ words) to manage the expectations of a disillusioned public. So, in the end, a hapless public finds itself caught between an abusive police service and a predatory government of which it is an accomplice. The police vetting process eventually petered out and left in its wake as much confusion as the interest it had piqued. Many of these entrepreneurial officers are still in the police force, still pursuing their sprawling business interests. Who benefits from a compromised and corrupt police force?

Anti-corruption commissions a waste of public money

Since President Uhuru Kenyatta announced his new anti-corruption drive, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) has become busy. However, neither the EACC nor its forerunners have demonstrated the will to fight corruption. Since its establishment under the 2010 Constitution, the EACC has never exercised the authority that Kenyans would like to see it exercise. Some of the problems of its ineffectiveness have to do with its own sloppiness: poor investigations, underhand investigatory methods and a penchant for the dramatic gesture. That has also been compounded by lack of political support and internecine conflict between the commission and the office of the DPP.

The combination of its own weaknesses and lack of political support means that the EACC is rarely taken seriously. As already noted, its 2017 recommendation that the IEBC bar 106 candidates was ignored. The EACC blames the IEBC for this debacle; in truth, both commissions have been ineffectual and are often implicated in corruption themselves.

The modus operandi of the EACC, which has damaged its credibility and undermined its ability to lead the fight against corruption, is to launch an investigation in the glare of publicity and make sweeping claims that it is generally unable to later substantiate. The question is why successive anti-corruption commissions have been allowed to continue operating in this manner. The answer is another question: who benefits from this?

The judiciary: Partly reformed and easy to sway for state capture purposes

As the ill-fated indictment and prosecution of Kamlesh Pattni in the 1990s Goldenberg scandal showed, the judiciary was a central pillar of the repressive and corrupt dispensation replaced by the 2010 Constitution. By the year 2000 the judiciary was universally condemned as both corrupt and incompetent. The few honest judges faced myriad problems: lack of research support; poor record keeping occasioned by insufficient stenographers and electronic recording devices; a huge and ever-growing backlog of cases; biased and politicised allotment of benefits to judicial officers, especially cars and houses; and highly politicised appointments and promotions awarded by the President, nominally with the advice of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), but in practice, at his own discretion.

The combination of its own weaknesses and lack of political support means that the EACC is rarely taken seriously. As already noted, its 2017 recommendation that the IEBC bar 106 candidates was ignored. The EACC blames the IEBC for this debacle; in truth, both commissions have been ineffectual and are often implicated in corruption themselves.

Shortly after the election of President Mwaii Kibaki in 2003, the then Minister for Justice, Kiraitu Murungi, launched what he termed “radical surgery” – a high profile process of identifying and purging corrupt judges and magistrates from the judiciary. It soon proved neither radical nor surgical. The reforms were based on an investigation carried out by a former law partner of the justice minister. Thus, congenitally politicised, radical forgery failed to mollify critics who saw it as a Kibaki plot to remove President Daniel arap Moi’s judicial cronies to make room for friends of the new government, rather than a root and branch reform of Kenya’s decrepit judiciary. This criticism was overdone. However, the minister’s best intentions had no base in statute and without this radical surgery merely mortgaged judicial reforms to the factionalism that was then tearing apart the ruling coalition.

Eventually, over 80 magistrates and 23 judges were removed for corruption-related reasons, but by 2006 not a single judge had been found guilty by any of the many tribunals established to investigate them. In one particularly notorious case involving Justice Philip Waki, who would later lead the investigation into the 2007/2008 post-election violence, the tribunal was scathing about the methods that Justice Aaron Ringera had used: unsafe reliance on clearly unreliable witnesses; failure to talk to the affected judge and overlooking innocent explanations related to the claims made. More importantly, radical surgery left many judges in place who would be later be dismissed as unfit to hold office.

The result of this unsatisfactory purge was that there was still much left to do when the 2010 Constitution came into force. The constitution adopted a two-pronged approach to dealing with corruption and judicial failure. The first was institutional design and the second was vetting of incumbent judges and magistrates.

The institutional reforms reorganised the powers, functions and composition of the judiciary, strengthened the JSC and created a Supreme Court. Vetting was based on Article 23 of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and the Vetting of Judges and Magistrates Act. The aim of vetting was to clean up the judiciary, partly to create a more accountable judiciary by removing the bad apples and partly to provide a transitional justice mechanism that would eliminate institutionalised impunity.

Once it got going the vetting proved (as the police vetting was to subsequently prove) both ineffectual and inadequate; ineffectual, because the vetting mechanism was congenitally defective in that some aspects of vetting were challenged in court and heard by judges who were themselves yet to be vetted. It is not surprising then, that the effect of this litigation was to constrict the wide mandate and discretion initially given to the Vetting Board. In addition, the timetable for vetting was hopelessly optimistic and had to be extended several times through amendments to the law. The resulting legislative delays slowly punctured the Vetting Board.

In theory, the vetting helped to clean out the courts, but it is hard to know what to make of statistics. It seems as though there were, in effect, two vetting processes: vetting as understood by the Vetting Board and vetting as interpreted by the courts. One out of every three first instance decisions made by the Board was reversed on review in both the High Court and the Court of Appeal. Among the magistrates, about 45 per cent of the Vetting Board’s first instance decisions of unsuitability were reversed.

The Vetting Board would eventually run into more serious problems: the “scope of vetting” was dramatically reduced by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said that the Board could only vet judges and magistrates for conduct that occurred between the date of appointment and 27 August 2010, the day the 2010 Constitution was promulgated. This had far-reaching consequences. All the decisions of the Vetting Board that found judges and magistrates unsuitable on account of acts committed before they were appointed, or for acts committed after 27 August 2010, were effectively nullified.

The Board was now obliged to send all cases related to the post-August 2010 period to the JSC. In the end, judicial vetting never met its twin objectives of cleaning up the judiciary and fully restoring public confidence in the courts. That it failed to clean the judiciary explains the persistence of judicial corruption and resistance to reforms – periodically explained as “cartels fighting back”. That vetting failed to restore public confidence explains why the judiciary gets lukewarm public support when it is dismissed by politicians as “activist” or “captured by NGO or opposition interests”.

Why did vetting fail to achieve its purposes? To begin with, the vetting law was too restrictive. In retrospect, the law could have been more robust than it was. One of its main weaknesses was that it gave no immunity to people who had ever given or been asked for a bribe by a judicial officer. Without immunity from prosecution, witnesses had effectively been denied the means with which to prove corruption. That left the Board with the unenviable task of inferring bribery from unexplained deposits in the judges’ and magistrates’ bank accounts, very much like in the police vetting exercise.

Secondly, the Supreme Court’s formalistic reading of the Vetting Act (i.e. limiting the relevant period of acts committed between appointment and the constitution’s effective date) undermined the broad purpose of the statute, which was to remove undesirable individuals from the judiciary. That decision created more problems than it solved. One, it allowed judicial officers known to be unfit to continue in office, which itself was a serious blow to public confidence. Two, it introduced unnecessary unevenness – some might even say discrimination – into the vetting process for those who had already been vetted. Three, it saddled the JSC with what in effect were vetting decisions, thereby mixing transitional justice issues, which is what the vetting was about, with the core mandate of the JSC, which is more prospective.

Thirdly, it was wrong in principle that many aspects of the vetting process were litigated before judges who had not themselves been vetted, that is, before judges with a personal stake in limiting how deep and wide the vetting went. This eroded public confidence in the integrity of the vetting exercise although the reason for vetting in the first place was the need to restore public confidence in the courts.

Why did vetting fail to achieve its purposes? To begin with, the vetting law was too restrictive…One of its main weaknesses was that it gave no immunity to people who had ever given or been asked for a bribe by a judicial officer. Without immunity from prosecution, witnesses had effectively been denied the means with which to prove corruption.

Fourthly, the Vetting Board compounded its own problems. It decided that in deference to the seniority of judges of the Court of Appeal it would sit en banc, that is, as a full bench rather than in small panels of three, when it came to scrutiny of the judges of that court. The result was bizarre: the Board would sit in one capacity to vet a particular judge and if that judge was dissatisfied with that decision, he would then seek a review, which would be heard by the same full panel of the Vetting Board. Some lawyers saw no problem with this, arguing that the Board’s review power was no different from the power of an apex court to review its own decisions. Yet again, the question was whether the public would appreciate what seems on the face of it to be a rather otiose legal argument and whether this did anything for the public’s confidence in the vetting exercise.

The result of these partial measures is that the judiciary retains many of its bad old ways, which are now being used to undermine “the good guys”. The government now blames corruption in the judiciary as the greatest barrier to anti-corruption reforms, discounting the shoddy, compromised investigations often carried out by the police, and the ineffectual and often politically targeted prosecutions by the State Law Office. As with the other aspects of law enforcement, the question is: who benefits when the courts are perceived as compromised or untrustworthy?

Kenya’s anti-corruption efforts: Motion without movement

Given this analysis, it is clear that the latest anti-corruption efforts can be summarised as the “tried, tested and known-to-be ineffective” approaches of the past. This means that although it is good to have an energetic public prosecutor in office and that the EACC has bestirred itself, this won’t be enough. The lynchpin of the government’s approach to fighting corruption is, like the Goldenberg scandal, high profile arrests followed by quick indictments.

Some people are impressed that some big names have already been scalped: former Sports Cabinet Secretary, Hassan Wario, former Principal Secretaries Lillian Omollo, Richard Ekai and Richard Lesiyampe, present and former Kenya Power bosses Ken Tarus and Ben Chumo, Kenya Railways boss, Atanas Maina, chairman of the National Land Commission, Mohammed Swazuri and senior managers at the National Cereals and Produce Board. These arrests have generated much excitement but this excitement is premature. Kenya’s prosecution-driven anti-corruption strategy has always been rather benign; it is “capture-mark-release”, a bit like the ecological methods of estimating the population in an ecosystem. It is never meant to harm the corrupt.

This is Part 2 of an abridged version of State Capture: Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption, a report published by the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) in May 2019.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Wachira Maina is a constitutional lawyer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Politics

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.

Published

on

https://www.theelephant.info/videos/2021/06/14/abiy-june-21st-elections-and-the-future-of-ethiopia/
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Somalia’s support

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.

Collective punishment 

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.

Human trafficking 

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.

Al Shabaab

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.

Continue Reading

Politics

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.

Published

on

The End of Abiy-Mania
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Post-election 

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.

Sudan

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.

Continue Reading

Politics

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.

Published

on

We Still Can’t Breath: Chauvin’s Conviction Maintains the Status Quo
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading

Trending