As the United Nations General Assembly convenes for its 74th session in New York this month, issues such as climate change, sustainable development, the refugee crisis, and catastrophes confronting an increasingly fractured world will no doubt take centre stage. World leaders will present their countries’ achievements and challenges, lobby groups and NGOs will advocate for more funding for this or that cause, and dictators will try and whitewash their failures and human rights abuses while their wives go on shopping sprees in Manhattan. New York’s 42nd Street, where the UN’s headquarters is located, will be abuzz with foreign dignitaries and diplomats, all jostling for a space to be heard.
Amid all the cacophony of voices, the ones that will be drowned will be those of former UN employees who suffered at the hands of the UN’s management when they tried to report wrongdoing within the UN, or those many thousands of victims of UN actions that have yet to have their day in court or to be compensated.
A poor scorecard
The UN’s scorecard since its founding 75 years ago has been a mixed bag. Despite considerable achievements in the areas of human development and humanitarian assistance, the UN has failed to prevent wars and protect human rights in several countries. It has failed to avert genocides and mass human rights violations in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, and Myanmar, among many other countries, even though its stated goal when it was founded after the Second World War was “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”..
In addition, the UN Security Council – ostensibly the peacekeeping body of the UN – has not been able to avert or reduce the current conflicts in Syria and Yemen, partly because the five permanent members of the Council (United States of America, Britain, France, Russia and China) have directly or indirectly fuelled, funded, participated in or supported these conflicts, and have not suffered sanctions as a result due to their veto-holding powers in the Council. On the contrary, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen have resulted in a refugee and humanitarian crisis that has not been witnessed since the Second World War, and have further given rise to draconian anti-refugee policies in Europe and elsewhere, thereby negating the very essence of international cooperation upon which the UN was established.
The UN’s scorecard since its founding 75 years ago has been a mixed bag. Despite considerable achievements in the areas of human development and humanitarian assistance, it has failed to prevent wars and protect human rights in several countries.
What’s worse, UN employees, including senior managers, have in recent years been mired in corruption scandals and other acts of wrongdoing that have made security more precarious and tarnished the legitimacy and reputation of this intergovernmental organisation.
Furthermore, UN employees implicated in wrongdoing get away scot-free because the UN Charter accords them immunity from prosecution in national courts. What’s worse, those who report wrongdoing usually suffer retaliation, despite a UN whistleblower protection policy that was adopted by the UN in 2005, and a revised one that was enacted in January 2017.
UN whistleblowers are thus forced to rely on the UN’s internal oversight mechanisms and tribunals to settle disputes, which presents a serious conflict of interest as the UN is both the judge and the defendant in every case. As UN employees cannot approach national courts with their cases, UN whistleblowers and those who have suffered as a result of UN employees’ actions, have no means of obtaining justice, except through the UN’s internal oversight systems, which are heavily flawed and biased. (For more on this, read my book
Moreover, acts of corruption or misuse or diversion of funds within the UN are extremely hard to monitor as there is no independent external auditing mechanism in place that regularly monitors and reviews how the billions of dollars that the UN’s various programmes and agencies receive are managed or used; nor are there any effective means to bring the culprits to book. (This level of lack of oversight is not even prevalent in some of the most authoritarian governments in the world.) This means that funds intended for UN programmes and projects can easily end up in the wrong hands, thereby depriving the world’s most vulnerable people of much-needed assistance.
The new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has promised to improve transparency and whistleblower protection at the UN. He has also said that he is committed to seriously tackling sexual harassment within the organisation, which apparently has reached crisis levels. An internal UN survey, conducted by Deloitte, whose results were released in January this year, found that a third of UN staff members surveyed had been sexually harassed.
The UN Staff Union further noted that sexual harassment was only one among many abuses of authority that take place at the UN. Results from its own survey which was conducted in November 2018 before the Deloitte survey, showed that sexual harassment makes up only about 16 per cent of all forms of harassment; 44 per cent of those surveyed said that they had experienced abuse of authority and 20 per cent felt that they had experienced retaliation after reporting misconduct. The survey also found that a large number of complaints were never investigated; when they were, the complainants were not informed of the outcome of the investigations.
“The results confirm that this has a debilitating effect on staff morale and work performance, and that there are continued barriers to reporting, including fear of retaliation and a perception that the perpetrators, for the most part, enjoy impunity,” admitted Guterres in a letter to UN staff after the survey’s results were revealed.
What hope is there that the UN Secretary-General will succeed in reforming the UN when all his predecessors have failed in this endeavour, and given the UN’s own record in not protecting those who report criminal or unethical practices? How can the UN claim to be a champion of human rights when its own employees have violated these rights in countries where they are stationed, and have not been reprimanded or punished as a result?
Let me give you a few recent examples that illustrate how difficult it is to obtain any kind of accountability or justice in the UN system.
Case 1: No justice for cholera victims in Haiti
In 2010, UN peacekeepers from Nepal were implicated in spreading cholera in Haiti, which killed more than 8,500 people. Despite investigations that showed that the strain of cholera in Haiti matched the one prevalent in Nepal at the time, the UN failed to take responsibility for the deaths. Ironically, Haiti had not experienced a cholera outbreak for decades until the Nepalese peacekeepers arrived.
The class-action suit filed against the UN by the affected victims and their families was dismissed by a court in the United States in August 2016 on the grounds that the UN and its employees enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Although the then UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, finally expressed regret about the role of UN peacekeepers in spreading cholera in Haiti, and promised to increase funding to address the cholera epidemic, his apology came too late, and none of the victims have so far received any compensation for their loss or suffering.
Case 2: Shooting the messenger
When Anders Kompass, the director of field operations at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, reported to the French authorities that French peacekeepers operating under the authorisation of the UN Security Council in the strife-torn Central African Republic were sexually exploiting boys as young as eight years old, the UN’s senior managers responded by asking Kompass to resign. When he refused to do so, they suspended him for “unauthorized disclosure of confidential information”, and, in a typical case of “shooting the messenger”, they directed their internal investigations towards him rather than towards the peacekeepers who had allegedly abused the children.
Thanks to intense public pressure following media reports about the scandal, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ordered an independent inquiry into the child abuse allegations. The inquiry’s report concluded that the UN’s failure to respond to the child abuse allegations amounted to “gross institutional failure”. The report also exonerated Kompass of all charges. However, because his experience with the UN had been so traumatic, Kompass resigned from the UN shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, the French troops accused of sexually abusing the boys were sent home to face charges. However, in January 2017, the Paris prosecutor’s office ended the investigations into the case, citing “insufficient elements” to press charges.
Case 3: The Iraq Oil-for-Food scandal
In 1991, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iraq after the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The negative humanitarian impact of these sanctions was to be alleviated by the UN’s 64-billion-dollar Oil-for-Food Programme, which did not allow Iraq to sell its oil commercially, but allowed it to sell oil to purchase food and medical supplies for the Iraqi people under the UN’s watch.
However, what on paper appeared to be a well-coordinated, transparent deal, was in reality one of the biggest scams the world has ever witnessed. Reports by UN whistleblowers and investigations carried out by the Volcker Commission in 2004/2005 showed that Saddam used the programme as a money laundering scheme and that more than 2,000 companies and individuals from 66 countries had paid bribes or received kickbacks. Billions of dollars were lost as a result. Interestingly, several UN staff members had tried to alert the UN Secretariat in New York about the theft, but their warnings were not heeded; in fact, the contract of one of these staff members was not renewed after he sent a complaint to the UN Secretariat.
In the end, the Iraqi dictator was not tried and executed for the crimes he committed under the UN’s Oil-for-Programme, but for other atrocities he had inflicted on the Iraqi people. And the Volcker Commission’s report remained just a list of names of people implicated in the scandal, the majority of whom never faced a judge or a jury.
The immunity from prosecution clause
The main reason why UN officials get away with crimes such as fraud, sexual exploitation or corruption is that Article 105 (Chapter XVI: Miscellaneous Provisions) of the UN Charter accords them immunity from prosecution, not just in the country where they are posted, but also in their own countries. Article 105, paragraph 2 of the UN Charter states that “representatives of the Members of the United Nations and officials of the Organization shall…enjoy such privileges and immunities as are necessary for the independent exercise of their functions in connection with the Organization”.
In essence this means that UN officials and representatives are “above the law” in every country. They do not even face the “court of public opinion”; public exposure of UN scandals has rarely led to the voluntary resignation or dismissal of those implicated.
The original intention of inserting the immunity clause in the UN Charter was to prevent governments from unnecessarily detaining or arresting UN officials while they carried out their official duties, especially in war zones and countries with authoritarian regimes. However, as the cases above have shown, this privilege is often abused.
The main reason why UN officials get away with crimes such as fraud, sexual exploitation or corruption is that Article 105 of the UN Charter accords them immunity from prosecution, not just in the country where they are posted, but also in their own countries.
If UN officials are implicated in a criminal activity, they cannot be arrested or tried in the country where the crime took place, nor can they be repatriated to their own countries to face trial there – unless their immunity is waived by the UN Secretary-General, which rarely happens.
UN Staff Regulation 1.1 (f) states: “The privileges and immunities enjoyed by the United Nations by virtue of Article 105 of the [UN] Charter are conferred in the interests of the Organization…In any case where an issue arises regarding the application of these privileges and immunities, the staff member shall immediately report the matter to the Secretary-General, who alone may decide whether such privileges and immunities exist and whether they shall be waived in accordance with the relevant instruments.”
When the Secretary-General decides not to lift the immunity of the implicated UN staff member (which is almost always the case), there is no real avenue of appeal against the Secretary-General’s decision for an adversely affected party. This has allowed all manner of crimes to take place under the blue UN flag.
This kind of diplomatic immunity (i.e. impunity) is not even accorded to diplomats and ambassadors, who, according to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, may escape prosecution in the countries where they are posted, but can face prosecution in their home countries if they are implicated in criminal or illegal activities.Paragraph 4 of Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) states: “The immunity of a diplomatic agent from the jurisdiction of the receiving State does not exempt him from the jurisdiction of the sending State.”
Little, if any, protection for whistleblowers
UN whistleblowers are routinely retaliated against because they are seen as an “existential threat” to the UN’s moral authority and legitimacy. Former UN employees have reported a flawed internal justice and grievance system that is stacked against the victims. Yet whistleblowers are the only “accountability mechanism” that the UN has.
In 2005, in the wake of the Oil-for-Food scandal in Iraq, the UN established a whistleblower protection policy and an Ethics Office in response to the many whistleblower cases that staff felt were not being handled appropriately. One of the Ethics Office’s core mandates is to receive complaints of retaliation from UN whistleblowers. However, most of these complaints never get investigated. In fact, an analysis of cases received by the UN Ethics Office between 2006 and 2014 conducted by the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a Washington-based watchdog organisation, revealed that the Ethics Office substantiated retaliation in less than 4 percent of the cases it received, which means that the vast majority of UN whistleblowers receive little or no relief or support from this office.
UN whistleblowers are routinely retaliated against because they are seen as an “existential threat” to the UN’s moral authority and legitimacy. Former UN employees have reported a flawed internal justice and grievance system that is stacked against the victims. Yet whistleblowers are the only “accountability mechanism” that the UN has.
The UN’s 2005 whistleblower protection policy was revised and adopted in January 2017. However, it offers even less protection to whistleblowers than the 2005 policy as it places the onus of establishing misconduct on the whistleblower, and even threatens to “discipline” the whistleblower if his or her allegations or complaints are found to be false.
Paragraph 2.3 of the revised policy states: “Making a report or providing information that is intentionally false or misleading constitutes misconduct and may result in disciplinary or other appropriate action.” This means that if a staff member suspects wrongdoing in his or her office or department, and makes a complaint so that further investigations can be carried out, and then it is determined that no wrongdoing took place (which usually happens as the UN is adept at covering up wrongdoing), that staff member could face disciplinary action, the threat of which would most likely silence or deter most would-be whistleblowers.
The revised policy is an improvement on the old policy in that it does allow UN whistleblowers to approach an external entity or individual if they believe that the internal justice system has failed them or is unlikely to protect them. However, it severely limits the kinds of information they can divulge and the types of entities and individuals that they can approach. Section 4 (a) (ii) of the revised policy states that an individual can only report misconduct to an external entity or individual if the report does not cause “substantive damage to the Organization’s operations”. So, for instance, if a whistleblower reports to a donor that the donor’s funds are being misused or stolen, the UN could argue that by reporting this to the donor, the whistleblower jeopardised the UN’s operations as the donor might stop funding its projects. What’s more, the UN could “discipline” the whistleblower for spreading “rumours”.
In essence, these conditions constitute a gagging order on whistleblowers – a significant step backwards from the 2005 policy, which provided qualified protection to UN whistleblowers who spoke to outsiders or the media. The revised policy appears to give whistleblowers greater leeway in reporting wrongdoing, but takes away this freedom through stringent conditions, thereby reinforcing the UN’s culture of impunity.
No external oversight on how financial resources are managed or used
The UN’s Office for Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), whose mission is to “promote effective programme management by identifying, reporting on and proposing remedies for problems of waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement within the Organization”, has had little success in ensuring that those UN staff members implicated in fraud, corruption, abuse of office or other criminal or unethical activities are punished or made to account for their actions. (Yet in many UN Member States, theft of public money is treated as a serious crime where the perpetrators are handed stiff penalties, including the death sentence.) In some cases, senior managers have been known to exert pressure on OIOS to look the other way in cases incriminating them.
One of the reasons why UN employees get away with theft, fraud and other criminal activities is because there is no external monitoring of UN projects and activities and there are no accessible and transparent accounting and auditing systems available for scrutiny to the public or even to donor countries. Thus it is relatively easy for UN staff members to get away with financial mismanagement and misdemeanours; an unscrupulous finance or procurement officer, a project manager or someone in charge of budgets can easily divert, mismanage or misreport UN funds, including donor (taxpayers’) funds, and be opaque about how those funds have been allocated or used.
Moreover, if senior managers are implicated in theft or fraud, they can use their authority to subvert or manipulate the evidence, for example, by threatening whistleblowers with the sack, or coercing junior staff members not to cooperate with an internal investigation.
Despite being among the biggest donors to the UN, the European Union (EU) has abdicated its role of monitoring funds that it gives to the UN. The European Commission (EC), the EU’s administrative arm, has little oversight authority over how the UN spends its money. The EC’s 2003 permits UN organisations to “manage EC contributions in accordance with their own regulations and rules”. In addition, EC’s reporting guidelines for the UN state that “tailor-made reports are not required for specific EU-UN Contribution Agreements” and that “where they meet the EU’s needs, the Commission will rely on the reports produced by the United Nations for other donors”.
One of the reasons why UN employees get away with theft, fraud and other criminal activities is because there is no external monitoring of UN projects and activities and there are no accessible and transparent accounting and auditing systems available for scrutiny to the public or even to donor countries.
FAFA thus essentially allows the UN to monitor itself. This means that UN agencies monitor, evaluate and audit their own EU-funded programmes and projects, often without recourse to an external auditor or evaluator.
This lack of transparency is perpetuated by the UN’s lack of democratic accountability. As the lawyer Matthew Parish, a former UN peacekeeper, stated on his blog, this happens because “there are no disaffected voters to de-select the UN’s senior management on the grounds that they are wasting money”.
So what can be done to make the UN more accountable? Following are four recommendations to make the UN more efficient, transparent and accountable to its Member States and to the citizens of the world who fund it.
If implemented, these recommendations will go a long way in making the UN more efficient and effective in carrying out its mandate. They will also make the UN less prone to waste, fraud, corruption and mismanagement, which have tarnished this intergovernmental organisation’s reputation and negatively impacted the people and countries that depend on the UN for protection.
RECOMMENDATION 1: Define the application of paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 105 of the UN Charter in order to limit the immunity accorded to UN officials and representatives, including UN peacekeepers.
Article 105 in Chapter XVI of the UN Charter (under Miscellaneous Provisions) states:
- The Organization shall enjoy in the territory of each of its Members such privileges and immunities as are necessary for the fulfilment of its purposes.
- Representatives of the Members of the United Nations and officials of the Organization shall similarly enjoy such privileges and immunities as are necessary for the independent exercise of their functions in connection with the Organization.
- The General Assembly may make recommendations with a view to determining the details of the application of paragraphs 1 and 2 of this Article or may propose conventions to the Members of the United Nations for this purpose.
While paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 105 accord privileges and immunity to the UN and its officials and representatives, paragraph 3 offers a window of opportunity to limit this provision, as it allows the UN General Assembly to make recommendations with a view to determining the details of their application. If sufficient pressure is put on the UN, through the General Assembly, Member States and lobby or pressure groups, among other groups interested in UN reform, the “details” of the application of paragraphs 1 and 2 could restrict or redefine the immunity and privileges of UN officials and representatives so that they are in line with the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that states that “the immunity of a diplomatic agent from the jurisdiction of the receiving State does not exempt him from the jurisdiction of the sending State”.
The details of the application of paragraphs 1 and 2 could state that UN staff members implicated in wrongdoing or criminal activities should only be tried in their home countries and that they should only be referred to a national court or justice system if the external arbitration tribunal (described below) fails to settle their cases or if the tribunal makes a specific recommendation that they be referred to a national court, especially in cases where the suspects are accused of serious crimes. These measures could serve as important deterrents to those who intend to carry out criminal or unethical activities while working for the UN.
RECOMMENDATION 2: Replace the UN Ethics Office with an independent external arbitration tribunal to settle cases involving UN whistleblowers.
The UN Ethics Office has failed in its mandate to protect UN whistleblowers. In fact, the majority of UN whistleblowers receive little or no relief or support from the UN Ethics Office. It is, therefore, recommended that the UN Ethics Office be replaced by an independent external arbitration tribunal that is not funded by the UN and which is not beholden to any one donor or government. This would eliminate issues of conflict of interest that prevent so many UN whistleblower cases from being heard.
The main purpose of this independent external tribunal would be to hear cases involving UN whistleblowers. Such an external arbitration mechanism would also allow those who are not employed by the UN and external entities or individuals who have been adversely affected by the UN’s or its personnel’s actions to obtain justice outside the UN system.
This is in line with the UK House of Commons report last year that made a recommendation to establish “an independent aid ombudsman to provide the right to appeal, an avenue through which those who have suffered [at the hands of aid organisations] can seek justice by other means”. This recommendation, if also applied to the UN, would provide UN employees another channel through which to seek justice.
This independent external tribunal should ideally be funded by private foundations and individuals, philanthropists, non-governmental organisations working towards improving governance, and any other entity or individual interested in improving accountability and transparency at the UN. UN Member States would not be exempt from funding such a tribunal, but their contributions would be voluntary and subject to conditions. Rules would be put in place to ensure that donors do not influence the outcome of any case brought before the tribunal.
RECOMMENDATION 3: Revise the EC’s Financial and Administrative Framework Agreement that allows UN organisations to manage EU contributions without any external oversight.
The European Union (EU) is among the biggest donors to the UN’s various programmes and projects, and so has a vested interest in ensuring that European taxpayers’ money is utilised well and efficiently. However, the European Commission’s 2003 Financial and Administrative Framework Agreement (FAFA) permits UN organisations to “manage EC contributions in accordance with their own regulations and rules”. In addition, the EC’s reporting guidelines for the UN state that “tailor-made reports are not required for specific EU-UN Contribution Agreements” and that “where they meet the EU’s needs, the Commission will rely on the reports produced by the United Nations for other donors”.
FAFA should be revised so that EU funds donated to UN agencies are subject to regular audits and oversight by external organisations/entities or by the EC’s own auditors. Through the EU’s example, other big donors to the UN might be encouraged to institute similar external auditing and monitoring mechanisms, thereby ensuring that funds given to the UN are not stolen or mismanaged and are used more efficiently.
RECOMMENDATION 4: Withdraw funding from UN agencies that do not protect whistleblowers or which do not take cases of wrongdoing, including sexual harassment, seriously.
In January 2015, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill – the first of its kind – which forces the US State Department to withdraw 15 percent of US funding from any UN agency that fails to adhere to best practices for whistleblowers. According to the law, the 15 percent US contribution to the UN or any of its agencies will not be obligated until the State Department reports that they are implementing best practices for whistleblower protection, including: protection against retaliation for internal and lawful public disclosures; legal burdens of proof; statutes of limitation for reporting retaliation; access to independent adjudicative bodies, including external arbitration; and results that eliminate the effects of proven retaliation.
However, I believe that this bill does not go far enough in that it does not threaten to withdraw all US funding from an agency that does not adhere to best practices for whistleblowers, nor does it guarantee that UN agencies can be trusted to accurately report to the State Department that they are protecting whistleblowers.
Other countries are considering taking even more drastic actions against aid organisations that allow sexual harassment and other wrongdoing to continue. For example, the United Kingdom has threatened to withdraw UK funding from aid and humanitarian organisations that do not take sexual harassment or abuse seriously. If this policy could be applied to the UN, then it might encourage UN agencies to be more diligent about how they treat sexual harassment and sexual abuse cases.
Given the stifling bureaucracy at the UN, and its propensity to cover up scandals that make the organisation look bad, the most effective strategy to curb wrongdoing at the UN could be for donors to withdraw funding from any agency where criminal or unethical practices have been reported and have not been dealt with adequately. There is no bigger incentive in the UN to reform itself than the threat of dwindling resources due to donor disgust.
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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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