In the past few decades, Islam has been on the spot in connection with violence due to the surge in armed groups that justify their actions using the religion. Examples abound: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS) have claimed to want to unite all Muslims under one caliphate, liberate them from a Christian-Jewish conspiracy, and free Muslim countries from foreign influence. Similarly, Al Shabaab has an ambition to regain Somalia’s lost territories and establish a Muslim state that is free from foreign influence.
Such claims and the fear that these alarmist statements ignite have not only won these violent groups new recruits but have also led to the tightening of counterterrorism efforts. President Donald Trump, for example, calls Islamist groups and their violent actions “radical Islamic terrorists/terrorism”. However, after the New Zealand mosque massacre last year that left 49 people dead, he referred to the atrocity as “an act of hate”. Notable is his failure to differentiate between “Islamic” and “Islamist” and how quick he is to draw the link between Islam, Al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS). The latter have been labeled terrorist groups even though there has been a spike in white nationalist violence/terrorism in parts of the United States.
Closer to home, Al Shabaab and its rhetoric has often received widespread publicity as an “Islamic’ terror group” – a label that immediately makes a connection between Islam and violence. There have been recent calls by the Government of Kenya for the United Nations Security Council to officially classify Al Shabaab as terrorist group. Yet the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), despite claiming that its actions are inspired by Christianity, has not been labeled a “Christian terrorist group”.
“Secular” versus “Islamic” terrorism
The question is whether claims by Islamist groups such as Al Shabaab should be taken at face value. Al Shabaab has received widespread publicity in comparison to other “secular” armed groups largely because, together with other Islamist groups, it is seen as “religious”, “indiscriminate”, “brutish”, and “inflexible to negotiation” because it hates secular institutions, especially the Federal Government of Somalia (and its allies) and does not recognise “infidels”. If one uses Al Shabaab’s logic, a threat to Al Shabaab equals a threat to God.
However, one must recognise that for many years Somalis have not only experienced violence by Al Shabaab, but have also been victims of violence perpetrated by “secular” warlords. For example, in the period culminating in the fall of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991 and during the civil war in Somalia, such violence was propagated by, among other actors, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). ARPCT was an alliance of “secular” politicians comprising a band of warlords mainly from the Hawiye clan and their financiers. There are many other examples of violence by so called “secular” actors beyond Somalia that could be classified as state-perpetrated terrorism, including US drone attacks on Somalia that continue to this day.
Ironically, during that period, it was the rise of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that brought peace to Somalia for the first time since onset of the civil war. Back then, the ICU comprised, among other factions, so-called moderates and radical Islamists. Sheikh Sharif, who later, in 2009, would became president, led the moderates and adopted a liberal approach to politics that was opposed by the more radical faction. This radical faction would go on to form the Al Shabaab of today after sabotaging the unity and progress of the ICU and making more political demands. Al Shabaab gained more strength after the ICU was ousted from Mogadishu in 2006 by US-backed Ethiopian forces.
However, one must recognise that for many years Somalis have not only experienced violence by Al Shabaab, but have also been victims of violence perpetrated by “secular” warlords.
Al-Shabaab violence is often portrayed as a religious act of purification. Yet Al Shabaab’s attacks are non-discriminatory – Muslims and non-Muslims are targets, as are locals and foreigners. In Somalia, the targets have been government buildings, hotels, restaurants and schools where the majority of the casualties have been Somali Muslims. The most prominent recent example is the attack on a hotel in Kismaayo that killed the Somali-Canadian journalist Hodan Nalayeh and the attack in Mogadishu that killed the Mayor of Mogadishu, Abdulrahman Omar Osman, after a bomb was detonated inside the headquarters of Benadir district. Al Shabaab has made it clear that it targets the Government of Somalia and that those working to support it are a target, regardless of whether they are Muslim or not.
This is not to imply that religious institutions and individuals have not been targets of Al Shabaab. On the contrary, when this happens, it is more because the target was easy and the aim was to heighten the impact of the violence, thereby raising the profile of the group. It also often does so for political and economic motives as opposed to “religious” ones. For example, the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi was claimed as a retribution against Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in 2011. The attack in Mpeketoni was targeted at Kikuyu Christians, while the one at Garissa University, which killed 148 students, targeted the mostly Christian student population.
Al Shabaab has made it clear that it targets the Government of Somalia and that those working to support it are a target, regardless of whether they are Muslim or not.
Therefore, when al-Shabaab uses Islam to justify its actions, it does so to win the support of Muslims in countries like Kenya, which are rich grounds for radicalisation. Thus the notion of purity that comes with the “Islam” label is tapped into by the group to present it as incorruptible, similar to the Salafi or Ummah brands that are used to unify Muslims.
Al Shabaab emerged from the social and political dynamics of war-torn Somalia and so it is fueled more by Somali nationalism than by the aim of creating an Islamic state. The use of a pious rhetoric to promise change by returning to the pure foundations of Islam serves a social function that Al Shabaab uses to promote its political agenda.
As argued by Gunning and Jackson, religion is complex and difficult to define and so it is problematic to generalise it. Religion should be seen as a part and parcel of society – a “site of practice attached to power and knowledge embedded within a community of believers”. The rigid dichotomy of “religious” versus “secular” is rooted in European history and politics where religion was seen as irrational in comparison to rational science and therefore confined to the private sphere.
Al Shabaab emerged from the social and political dynamics of war-torn Somalia and so it is fueled more by Somali nationalism than by the aim of creating an Islamic state.
Labeling Islamist groups as “religious” is therefore informed by the Christian West, whose image of the Middle East is that of the “other” – the “fanatic Muslims” – an image that is reinforced by the increased use of religious symbols by Islamist groups. This explains the double standard of why the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) of Northern Spain that is shaped by Catholicism is seen as secular yet al-Qaeda, despite displaying diverse secular qualities and ambitions, such as overthrowing regimes, ending occupation, freeing Palestine, and targeting both secular and religious sites, is seen as “a network of Islamic extremists and Salafi jihadists”.
Labelling Islamist groups like Al Shabaab as “religious” risks implying that it is a legitimate representative of Somalis and East African Muslims; yet Islamic practices are shaped by context and are diverse. Muslims in East Africa alone are indeed quite diverse and the fact that some Muslim leaders have come out to condemn the actions of the group serves as proof of this diversity. Al-Shabaab members and their leaders should therefore be seen as only a fraction of Muslims of East Africa, acting not as representatives of Muslims but as a unique group with its own agenda. Regardless of their claims, so-called “religious terrorists” do not necessarily act as they preach; rather their actions are often shaped by political calculations.
The rigid distinction between “the tolerant secularist” versus the “barbaric religious fundamentalist” in today’s discourse on the global War on Terror has had the impact of promoting further conflict and denies Muslims their history, which is distinct from that of the West. This distinction is used to justify the extreme measures taken against so-called Islamic terrorist groups and helps to divert attention from controversial “secular” state violence.
‘I Will Crush You’: The November 18 Kampala Massacre
On 18 November, the insecurities of the past welled up in a bloody bout of peacetime carnage in Kampala – a massacre ignited by fear of a musician who has stolen the nation’s heart.
“If I can’t have you
I’ll go out of my mind”
Just how serious the moment was comes to you afterwards. Caught in the centre of the riot, the adrenaline high, the gauntlet of fire, smoke, tear gas and gunfire raging around you, you are shielded from the knowledge that this could be the day they kill you.
Afterwards, when you have escaped the bullet and the gas, and have made it home, and the adrenaline has worn out, the pain begins. What if I was among those that died?
It is the evening of trauma, the time for unanswerable questions. You look at the images coming in and think, a week ago, I stood by this mall searching for twine. I was at the same spot the retired lecturer, 71-year old John Kittobe, was cut down. How about the 15-year-old Amos Segawa, bleeding to death, killed on Kafumbe Mukasa Road where there are things I always need to buy?
There is more. The videos keep coming in. Where the yellow, sporty hatchback with the president’s poster drove into a crowd (Charlottesville-style) you too had wedged your way out between a Mercedes Benz trailer and an Isuzu Bighorn. At each Christmas, you regularly drive past the town the church laity Richard Mutyaba was killed in. And the sunny-faced Onesmus Kansiime was shot in a place I went past just a month earlier.
Is there a formula to empirically plot these events? How did the angels of death that roamed this bit of earth in mid-November bearing AK-47s look at a figure and decide that that body, that young man, that woman will die today?
Then comes the impossible matrix: what can I do to not be killed? Should I not raise a defiant voice, not write this article? But then none of those killed were rabble-rousers.
Talk, you die; keep quiet, you die
So why was it them and not me? Why did the shooting happen this week instead of last week when I was right there?
Then, survivor’s guilt: I should have been there holding the hand of that boy whose legs were crushed to smithereens. What right do I have to remain alive when they are all gone?
Perhaps this comes closest to answering these wearied questions: a sheer coincidence of missed appointments and of a malfunctioning carburetor that kept you parked by the roadside, you realise, was all that stopped you standing at the spot where the bullet went through Mr Kittobe.
Those that were killed led quiet, unprotesting lives. Talk, you die; keep quiet, you die. How about the rest of us noise makers, who write articles like this, the makers of music, the poets and activists who are frequently warned, “There is a plan for you”. Every day, you walk past your designated killer and even say good morning to him. “Your time will come. Be careful.”
You realise there is a bullet out there with your name on it. They just haven’t fired it yet.
The hand of fate had me and a writer friend drive a few kilometers north of the city centre. Hard rain in the morning had kept me an hour behind my intended time of arrival. There were a couple of things I needed – and still need – in the downtown area that bore the brunt of the violence. But the rain had ruined my day so I cut the city centre out of my planned schedule.
Meeting done, and as the two of us were approaching the overpass at Bwaise at precisely 3 p.m, it was reported that Mr. Kittobe had been shot dead.
Every day, you walk past your designated killer and even say good morning to him. “Your time will come. Be careful.”
The pillars of black smoke rising everywhere did not yet register. A group of young men were running across the road hurriedly. But they do that in Kalerwe, no? A couple of police officers in heavy riot gear were waving their arms in command. That too has been standard in the last 20 years.
But past the gentle curving section that takes you from the Kalerwe-Mpererwe junction, the pile of burning tyres is ominous. Before we get there, there comes the smell of tear gas and a single shot. Burning tyres, tear gas and gunshots – the macabre trinity.
We remember the news of the arrest of Bobi Wine and understand it fully.
The overpass raises the ground underneath us but we will never make it past it. We slow down. A young man shouts in urgent Luganda. We press on. At the top of the bridge, we see his point. Down beyond the overpass, the hundreds of unmoving vehicles are jammed. To our left, clogged up on Sir Apollo Kagwa Road, even more vehicles. To our right there is the actual event, the crackle of gunshots interspersed with shouts of heightened emotions. The only clear route out of this is behind us and it is filling up fast. We need to act.
Gunshots, and that eerie clarity when you know they are shooting to kill.
Now that we are fully aware, we start to notice, in every movement, an affirmation that the Museveni regime had not given up.
Something is building up, like an approaching storm. We must get out. We make the U-turn.
We never made it across the bridge. Below, a maelstrom. The uncrossed bridge, the bridge of burning tyres and missing phones.
Cassava, potato and banana gardens
The old Bwaise road is blocked by a massive, burning barricade. We swerve right in time to avoid the gridlock. I wrack my brain to remember the muddy, potholed backyards of Makerere Kavule, where I grew up in the 1990s. Lord, let it not be too far ahead. Just ahead, the biggest burning barricade we will see all day, in Makerere Kavule. The Lord is kind. We find the easy-to-miss byway.
“Enkuubo enfu”. The road is bad, a young man warns us.
“I know this place,” I reassure the poet and press on.
Lesson learned: keep away from big, smooth roads. Cling to byways and earth ruts. You clamour up the back of Makerere hill on number one and number two, there with the ugly cassava and lianna side, with the burrs and forget-me-nots, the side of its hill that Makerere does not put on its admission prospectus. We intended to slingshot across the city westwards. But the Kikoni-Kasubi districts, from the ridge overlooking Makerere West, was a disturbed beehive of burning barricades and military and zero vehicular traffic.
An afternoon of U-turns. Rapidly back up, head directly south and at the Sir Apollo Kagwa Road (in Kampala you can’t escape Sir Apollo Kagwa, a relentless, tyrannical memory of the seminal betrayer of Uganda) and Makerere Hill junction, a sharp turn west. Cars rapidly going uphill on third gear, as quickly as they can before the inescapable Nakulabye junction is shut. And just in time to catch youths tearing the pavements, a troop of riot gear- and gun-wielding soldiers steadily pacing in their direction. The clash is inevitable. But the distraction buys us a few seconds. We shield behind a blanket of raging tyre fire and smoke, and leap onto Namirembe district.
From Sir Apollo Kagwa Road to Namirembe Cathedral, we have been in the open air of modern roads too long. Time again to dive out of sight on back roads.
In the backwaters of the Nateete-Mackway suburb, the air seems the most riotous – the giant barricades, youths clutching shirts, running, soldiers and police alert and trigger- happy. A quick left, and at the early Martyrs Church, searching an option route out west. It is more cassava, banana and potato fields and villagers watching curiously this unscheduled invasion of town cars in their shambas. But there are barricades even this deep. The difference is that there are no soldiers or police, so it’s a civilised pleading with the motorists – don’t cheat us poor people; don’t take our land.
The realisation comes that when the big moment of history approaches, there is no out of sight to fall into.
It is at the top of the ridge, just before Busega, when we feel out of the danger zone, that I realise how much trouble we had escaped.
After nearly an hour hunting through the sidelines of banana, yam and cassava fields for a way out of the city, a black Toyota Harrier stood thrumming ahead of us, not moving.
“Get out,” he yells.
‘Mr Bobi Wine I arrest you because you do this so many times’
In the days that follow, when all the headlines have been scanned and radio analyses have been listened to, and the unwatchable videos have been watched and re-watched, we all know what we have always known: We Ugandans are being punished for falling in love with Bobi Wine rather than with the other one who considers himself the more attractive suitor. Has this not been the story for four decades now? That Mr. Yoweri Museveni, having failed to win at the ballot box, has lashed out in violence?
It is said that the most deadly thing that Milton Obote ever wielded was a microphone. And in 1980, it is said, his listeners never stood a chance when faced with his killer tongue.
Kizza Besigye is like that. He stands up and moves a hand. Not a word said but already there are tears streaming down faces. He speaks and something moves in the crowd, an almost metaphysical, transcendental transformation.
It is different at Mr. Museveni’s rallies. At your kindest, you might call him a policy wonk, a man who likes to string off measures, deliverables, reasons and figures. He does not speak to the heart. Without the military reining the crowds in, as happened on the day Daniel arap Moi stepped down in Nairobi, he will move his listeners to jeer and boo him. He does not have the words that will make people feel warm inside. He has a pathological fear of elections. Thoroughly wooden, his best pick-up line is, “I will crush you.”
It is said that the most deadly thing that Milton Obote ever wielded was a microphone. And in 1980, it is said, his listeners never stood a chance when faced with his killer tongue.
At Besigye’s rallies, they jostle, push forward, slip and fall for the privilege of handing him some money, or a chicken. He makes them believe in something. But Museveni had him tear-gassed, beaten and blinded – to disfigure the face they found irresistible.
In Shakespeare’s play, Othello, the hatred-blinded Iago, unaccepting of the fact that someone he considers dark, ugly, without substance, and full of pompous emptiness can be attractive to someone else, says venomously:
He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly
But take Obote and Besigye and add them up. The combination is Bobi Wine, a man young enough to be Mr. Museveni’s grandson. Still the fear returns. The reaction of Mr. Museveni remains the same as it was when he faced off against Obote and Besigye. The deeply fear that they will speak and win.
On 18 November 2020, the insecurities of the past welled up in a bloody bout of peacetime carnage that Kampala will not wish to remember. (Just in case we forget, at the end of 2016, scores were massacred in the West town of Kasese, the likely site of the coming pogrom should Uganda break down.)
I have never taken the time to stream Bobi Wine’s music. After November 18 and 19, I wanted to find out just what it is that endears a country to him and so hurts the other man.
As good a track to begin with is Kiwaani. Upbeat and sad, delightful and morose, it was Bobi Wine’s breakout hit in 2009-2010. You start to see that Bobi Wine, unbeknownst to us who did not pay closer attention at the beginning, but who was already sealing the love deal. Whilst Museveni basked in his 2006 triumph and prepared for another “Rap” in 2009-10, Bobi Wine was already placing the winning hand.
It remains perhaps his quintessential song, an address that spoke to Ugandans in ways we had not been spoken to since Philly Bongole Lutaaya and Okot P’Bitek before him (an inheritor then of poet laureate burdens). Dulcet, rising, in pathos, long-suffering, there was a song telling us what we were feeling. Back then, lines in it were quoted repeatedly to explain why things were unbearable. Kampala, it declared, was the place of failure.
A deceptively laid-back track, Kiwaani opens in classic Kadongo Kamu (one-man guitar) melody, seemingly to hark back to a bygone age. This is followed by rapid, brief strings. Then comes the rescuing poetry.
A melody taken off a slum kid’s chant of sowaani (the plate at feeding time), repurposed to say Kampala wears sheds, Bobi Wine put it to good effect. And there he is, in his element, seductive, laying it on thick, simplifying and pre-digesting inaccessible lyrics, a distillation of critical discourse – postcoloniality, duality, deconstruction, neoliberal philanthropy. It is all there. There is just enough straight Luganda to make you get it. For the rest, you just have to speak ghetto to get it.
His coming of age mood was dense, chewy, accessible, personable. He might have played nothing more beyond Kiwaani and stayed forever as the defining describer of Kampala. After you listened to that track, you could not take your eyes away from the dreadlocked lark.
A decade later, the melody is still haunting.
Then there was the author of Mr. Money, at one time the undisputed anthem of Kampala. And you asked again, how did I not know how to put it into words what I see daily in this city? As if knowing what would become of him in later years, the young, twenty-something Bobi Wine had sung these lines:
Those who pursue me find me far ahead
Rich and poor, let this music touch you
Before he was a political prisoner, he was a prisoner of conscience, and he quotes his tormentors:
‘Mr Bobi Wine I arrest you because you do this so many times
I arrest you and take you to SPC and charge you with idle and disorderly”
Mr. Money is in many ways, the song that really tells it as it is. He is in his element. But it is still safe territory. He is belting out the Kadongo Kamu man’s craft, telling stories, not the mash and splash postmodernity of Kiwaani.
But the essential Bobi Wine is there, as he always had been, and would be in later years – rousing, exhilarating, musical, leading from the front.
I say man made money, money made man mad
He could have stopped at Mr. Money and been great.
He could even have stopped at Carolyn, and still been great. One of those required evergreen melodies no songster must go out without, Carolyn is a happy song, a party staple, like What A Wonderful World, or Here Comes the Sun, or the tenderest, caressing ballard of Tabu Ley’s Mireille Mwana, He is not only happy, he is doing happiness. There is Bobi Wine, happy, letting it rip; he is enjoying it, letting the melody run, run, run. A love song. A recollection of high school sweetheart nostalgia. A celebration.
But is he not channeling the late Kafeero with his slim, scanty-bearded, straw hat-wearing mien? What is he doing with the adungu, harp and rattle troupe? 1997 was a wonderful year.
She used to call me Master Bio because I used to handle money-o.
This man made beautiful songs. They love him for it. Before he stood for them, he serenaded them.
The earlier joie de vivre expressed in Carolyn is resurrected in perhaps the most ambitious of Bobi Wine’s songs, Kyarenga, the eponymous song of the album for which the notorious crackdown of the 2018 launch cemented what would be the position of government going forward. Kyarenga is set as a love song. The strapping youth who has the village belle’s heart is challenged by variegated powerful and moneyed suitors. But he has the belle’s heart. The belle has eyes only for him.
This man made beautiful songs. They love him for it. Before he stood for them, he serenaded them.
The song, and the video (by this point Ugandan music videographers had come into their own), is a thinly disguised allegory of the moment, of the songster who has a nation’s heartbeat but is attacked and harassed by the powerful who think their position and money entitles them to love. Why force the nation to love you when who they want is me?
But does that explain this unhinged violent fear of voters choosing someone who steals their hearts?
The heavier, Mtukuzi-sampling opening, but Kiswahili-lyrics Paradiso pays homage to a different Uganda, Uganda, the East African country. A track with a kick, perhaps the lowest depth of Bobi Wine pathos. It speaks to the generation disinherited by neoliberalism, scattered in the face of the earth to look for fortunes, and returning, in the words of T.S. Eliot, to find alien people clutching strange gods.
The politically overt Bobi Wine comes out clear in 2015/2016. He releases Situka and declares,
When leaders become misleaders
And mentors become tormentors
When freedom of expression becomes target of suppression
Opposition becomes our position
If he was speaking to Mr. Museveni, he was also speaking to Mr. Obote, Idi Amin and the grandest of all Ugandan tyrants, Sir. Apollo Kagwa. And this is a point lost in the heat of the moment. The fight that has raised Bobi Wine was a century in the making. Mr. Museveni need not feel it is directed at him. When he is gone, that war will still rage on. The things we need Bobi Wine for are not the things we require Mr. Museveni for.
He is the Ugandan musician who broke through his art into the public consciousness. But also, in this era, he is music breaking beyond the point Bob Marley left it. We can hardly think of a musician, anywhere, in recent times, who has caused such a stir in an uncertain, frightened world.
Business as Usual: The Kasese Massacre and Power Politics in Uganda
The patterns of state violence in Uganda are sadly repetitive as the ruling party obstructs burgeoning criticism to President Yoweri Museveni’s decades-long grip on power.
Baluku Bismark was 14 years old when he sat for his school exams in early November 2016 with the goal of becoming a health worker in Kasese, western Uganda. A few weeks later, Baluku was among those killed by the Ugandan army during an attack on the region’s cultural institution, known as the Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu (OBR).
By the end of a two-day assault on 26 and 27 November 2016 the military had killed 155 people using live ammunition and intentional fires; images of raging infernos and piles of bodies circulated on social media. Community members had killed at least 14 policemen. It was eight months after that year’s presidential and primary elections.
Baluku is one of many Ugandan citizens whose fate was sealed by state agents in the name of “restoring order”. In each instance, those agents “take orders from above” and are shielded from any accountability. Dig deeper and it is about power and votes.
Uganda is scheduled to hold elections on 14 January 2021. Ten opposition candidates, including former musician and member of parliament, Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, are challenging President Museveni who has controlled nearly every aspect of government in Uganda since 1986.
As expected, the presidential campaign, which officially began on 9 November 2020, has been marred by partisan law enforcement. Already, but unsurprisingly, state violence is defining the campaigns. Like previous presidential rival Dr Kizza Besigye, prominent opposition candidates Kyagulanyi and Patrick Amuriat have faced harassment, beatings, and various criminal charges. On 18 November police arrested Kyagulanyi during a rally in Eastern Uganda; Amuriat was arrested in Gulu. The arrests sparked spontaneous demonstrations in several towns, with the youth demanding their release. News reports indicate that security forces shot at least 45 people and hundreds more were injured.
For people in Kasese, these events are occurring as they prepare to vote in the first election since the horrific bloodshed that took place exactly four years ago this week. Unpacking the power politics behind the Kasese massacres is critical to understanding Uganda’s elections and the President’s stranglehold on power. It also tells a dismal story of total impunity no matter the scale of the killing.
Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu and cultural institutions in Uganda
The Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu is the cultural institution, or kingdom, of people that traditionally live in the western Rwenzori Mountains along Uganda’s border with Congo. The institution itself is headquartered in Kasese district.
Political recognition of cultural institutions in Uganda is part of the complex path that led to President Museveni’s ascension to power in 1986. For example, as a way of soliciting the support of the predominantly Baganda people of the central region, Museveni agreed to restore the region’s Buganda Kingdom which had been abolished in 1966 under the first post-colonial government.
But President Museveni, a master of political compromise, understood the delicate balance required. Buganda’s cultural leader was permitted to formally exist but he wasn’t allowed any actual political power. Over the years, as a form of bargaining for allegiance, Museveni has slowly accepted the restoration of other cultural institutions, such as the Bunyoro-Kitara in the west, and the Busoga and Tooro Kingdoms in the east and southwest, respectively. In a country as ethnically and linguistically diverse as post-colonial Uganda, these cultural institutions and their leaders can command significant loyalty and community support.
Such devotion was on full display in September 2009 when Museveni, seeking to curtail the influence of the Buganda Kingdom, sought to limit the freedom of movement of the kingdom’s leadership. Loyalists quickly took to the streets in protest. By the end of two days, security forces had killed at least 45 people to quell the uprising and the Luganda-speaking radios had been taken off the air.
Shortly thereafter, and despite criticism from those who deemed it unconstitutional, Uganda passed a law barring cultural leaders from participating in partisan politics or providing a platform for any politician. However, most cultural institutions have often remained influential, if constrained, despite efforts to rein in their influence using this law or attempts to co-opt them into the ruling party.
In 2006, Uganda held the first multiparty elections since Museveni first came to power through a military takeover. Already in power for 20 years, Museveni suffered what some felt was a humiliating political defeat in Kasese, with the opposition presidential candidate Dr Besigye garnering 56 per cent of the total votes to Museveni’s 45 per cent.
Some pundits interpreted the result as a rebuke to Museveni for ignoring the grievances of the Rwenzururu cultural institution in its plea for official recognition. In an attempt at political expediency, Museveni finally acquiesced in October 2009 – a few weeks after the violent suppression of the Buganda kingdom supporters. The Omusinga, or King in the Bakonzo language, was coronated and the Rwenzururu cultural institution was restored just in time for the campaign for the February 2011 elections. Museveni won the area vote and secured two seats for his party in parliament. But the recognition wasn’t without its critics, and clashes between pro- and anti-Obusinga forces escalated. Intercommunal fighting led to the displacement of both the ethnic Bakonzo and the Bamba, another ethnic group in the region. The government stepped in but was increasingly perceived to be siding with those opposed to the King.
Five years later, the opposition Forum for Democratic Change fared well in the Rwenzori region. All parliamentary and local posts in Kasese went to the opposition. National Resistance Movement (NRM) strongmen, such as Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga, lost their parliamentary posts.
The relationship between the President and the King had been rocky for a few years prior to the election but the election results clearly indicated that the ruling party was losing traction in the region. Ruling party mobilisers started working harder to co-opt the king’s support base, sowing the seeds of instability.
Kasese in November 2016
Four years later, the full story of the horrific killings that took place in Kasese in November 2016 remains shrouded in secrecy. The government has never published the names of those killed or allowed independent investigations into why its army massacred almost 150 of its own citizens over two days. Spokespeople have only indicated that those who died were “terrorists” who sought to “take over Uganda”. Despite arresting and imprisoning over 180 people, the government has never presented any evidence in court and never proceeded to trial. The people arrested in November 2016 languish in prison to this day
Sporadic conflicts between communities, at times involving security forces, flared up after the 2016 elections. In one incident, the Police Flying Squad shot and killed a suspected Omusinga loyalist in a market as he bought food. A government soldier was later killed by machete, allegedly for spying on the King near the palace compound.
Rumours began to spread in Kasese at this time that the government would be handing over a demobilisation fee to the Omusinga’s “royal guards” – volunteers who are loyal to the Kingdom and work on its behalf. In a very low-income part of the country, such enticements inflated the ranks of the royal guards as people waited for handouts to support their families.
Eventually, word spread that the payout was imminent. But as people gathered in the palace compound on November 25, the military arrived and Kasese was brought to a standstill. Under the command of General Peter Elwelu, Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers, encircled the palace and told the people inside that they could not leave. Tensions escalated and, eventually, soldiers shot and killed eight royal guards at the kingdom’s office in town. The rumour that the kingdom was under attack spread into the outlying sub-counties. Community members attacked some police posts and 14 police officers and 32 civilians were killed in the conflicts. The next day, the UPDF made its biggest move, allegedly ordering royal guards to disband or face attack.
At 1 p.m. the UDPF launched an assault on the palace, shooting live ammunition and setting thatched roofing alight. The king was removed by force and transferred to Kampala. Photos of piles of bodies, some with their arms tied behind their backs, circulated on social media. Some of the dead were buried in a mass grave near a military barrack. Some people were never found. At least 15 children last seen inside the palace are missing to this day; 180 people were charged with murder, terrorism and treason. Those who managed to escape went into hiding and to this day, the palace remains closed.
Two months after the attack General Elwelu told a local newspaper that the “place had lost its legitimacy. It was no longer a palace. It became a legitimate military target because it had become a command post for all that was happening in Rwenzori.”
There is no doubt that the events of November 2016 ended any pretense that the right to freedom of expression existed in the region. Many believe that Museveni would most likely have tolerated the Rwenzururu king had he not shown open support for the opposition. No one could seriously believe the government’s line that the king posed any meaningful security threat to the country or that he would be able to orchestrate any secession. But, clearly, cultural leaders needed to be shown that they could not behave like the Rwenzururu king. What if other kingdoms followed suit?
Since 2016, the Omusinga’s movements have been largely restricted to his house in Kampala. He was barred from travelling to the Rwenzoris, even after seeking the court’s permission to attend the June 2019 burial of his mother. Security officials say that since the attack on the palace in 2016, the region is now peaceful. The region nurses its wounds and struggles to care for an estimated 300 widows and 600 orphans left behind by the massacre.
Despite some condemnatory statements from foreign embassies and civil society, the government has not been pressured to show any real evidence of why that scale of bloodshed was lawful or proportionate. In a classic case of co-option, President Museveni appointed the king’s brother as a minister in his government.
What happened in November 2016 in Kasese can only be viewed as a stark reminder to all cultural leaders – and frankly to any critic of the regime – that they should stay away from candid engagement in politics or consider supporting Uganda’s political opposition.
Those arrested were left to rot in jail, far from their families. But as the 2021 elections approach, perhaps they are suddenly again useful to the electoral landscape?
Uganda’s upcoming elections
As Bobi Wine ignites imaginations about new approaches to governance in Uganda, the government’s paranoia is at an all-time high and one can only imagine that there is significant work being done to ensure that the Rwenzori votes go to the ruling party. Word is already trickling out that the government is going to release those who have spent four years in prison without trial. But they will never be exonerated. It is likely that they are under significant pressure to admit some wrongdoing, to grovel and seek forgiveness from Museveni despite no clear evidence of their crimes having been presented. When Museveni releases the detainees just in time for the anniversary (and the voting,) he will demand blind loyalty. Even though his soldiers killed their families.
The patterns of state violence in Uganda are sadly repetitive; the ruling party obstructs burgeoning criticism to Museveni’s long stay in power. Organised dissent – Uganda’s cultural institutions, opposition members, civic groups, or just an outspoken citizen – is met with co-option, pressure and intimidation. A bank account is frozen, a cultural leader is coronated, a brown envelop of cash arrives. But at times, these efforts fail to silence the critics. Defiant voices rise up.
In that flashpoint, the state unleashes overwhelming violence against its own citizens and people like Baluku and many others die under the bullets of the state security agents. No previous military or police training supported by Uganda’s Western “partners in democracy” like the United States or United Kingdom prevents the blatant drive for political expediency.
In each incident – the Kayunga demonstration in 2009, the Walk to Work protests of 2011, the Kasese killings of 2016, the Free Bobi Wine demonstrations in November 2020, and countless other similar events – citizens, often innocent bystanders, or youth demonstrating against state actions are killed or arrested. Each time, the pro-government pundits quickly go on the attack, demonising those killed as terrorists or hooligans and then calling for peace.
Behind the scenes, those in jail will continue to suffer without being brought to trial, and with no credible evidence of their wrongdoing being produced. But no member of the security forces will face any questions to justify the bloodshed. International donors to Uganda’s ample security sector will momentarily issue condemnations and then return to the humdrum of diplomatic life in Kampala’s leafy suburbs. The graves of the dead, of people like Baluku from Kasese, are quickly forgotten.
If the government’s explanation of the reasons behind these horrific episodes is ever to be believed, it will need to hold both sides to account and be willing to allow for criticism, dissent and, most importantly, electoral loss. Military commanders, including generals like Elwelu, who allowed the killings of unarmed civilians, who allowed the bullets to fly, will need to be brought to open court, to answer tough questions from lawyers who don’t fear reprisals. As long as men like General Elwelu are promoted for killing civilians, as he was, the unabashed reliance on state violence as a political weapon in Uganda will continue. And horrific images of bloodied bodies – like those of November 2020 and November 2016 – will increase.
Pan-Ethiopianists vs Ethno-Nationalists: The Narrative Elite War in Ethiopia
It is not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis, and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals—are disincentivised.
The current political conflict, now a civil war, in Ethiopia partly has its roots in disagreement among elites on how to narrativise Ethiopian history.
There is an enduring disunity among Ethiopian elites regarding the country’s history and future. Informed by its long, and contentious multi-ethnic history, and fueled by recent shifts in the political landscape in the country, a war of narratives has been reignited. The narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.” The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilise the country. Indeed, narratives surrounding ethnic identities and ethnic politics in Ethiopia is the one thing that demands the most attention. As it stands today, the way and environment in which the debate is occurring, and the actors involved in it indicates we may be approaching a threshold that cannot be uncrossed.
How the Ethiopian state evolved
Nation-building is a contested process of narrative construction. In his book, Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson reminds us that nations are “imagined political communities.” Common to all political communities is a set of beliefs in unifying narratives about community special characteristics. These narratives provide explanations to the participating individuals and their leaders about what makes their community unique, especially when compared to others. Nation-building in the Ethiopian context follows a similar pattern.
Faced with the burden of justifying maintenance of the Ethiopian state and their place at the top, Ethiopian rulers of the past relied on religious texts and edicts of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Written in the 14th century, the Kibre Negest, or “Glory of the Kings,” provided detailed accounts of the lineage of the Solomonic dynasty—the former ruling dynasty of the Ethiopian Empire—according to which Ethiopia’s rulers were descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It told the story of Ethiopia and Ethiopians as God’s people, a chosen people.
The narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.” The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilise the country
This narrative of Ethiopia as a chosen place endures to this day. It was in display when many Ethiopians woke up on October 24, 2020 and learned that US President Donald Trump had suggested “[Egypt] will end up blowing up the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)] dam.” Many Ethiopian citizens and politicians responded with the assertion that Ethiopia will prevail, not least of which because it has God on its side. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office released a statement that echoed the same sentiment.
Similarly, the 12th century text Fitiha Negest, or “Laws of the Kings,” served as the country’s oldest traditional legal code. The Fitiha Negest insisted that kings must receive obedience and reverence. It justified the Kings’ power using scripture, specifically the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 17:15:
Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.
Ethiopia’s rulers used these texts to justify the state’s existence and their own power. But more importantly, as much as Americans take the Declaration of Independence as their founding moment, the Kebre Negest provided a similar “origins” story, albeit a contested one, while Fitiha Negest served as a constitution of sorts by laying out a minimal set of rules that bound the Kings and their subjects. As such, the Kebre Negest and the Fitiha Negest could arguably be taken as the most important founding texts of the Ethiopian state.
The 1700s witnessed the emergence of a new political structure where disparate noblemen usurped power away from emperors of the Solomonic dynasty and began ruling over their own regions, a period known among Ethiopian historians as Zemene Mesafint, or Age of the Princes, named after the Book of Judges. In 1855, Emperor Tewodros II, born Kassa Hailu, rose to the throne after defeating regional noblemen. He recognised the need for a newer narrative that was closely aligned to his vision of Ethiopia as a modern, forward thinking nation. In line with that vision, his first step was to separate church and state, shift its narrative and establish the state on a more secular foundation. To do so, he needed better educated Ethiopians, and thus began an elite-led nation building process. His efforts however did not bear fruit due to fierce internal opposition driven largely by disgruntled clergy, who, fearful of losing their own privilege and power, were unappreciative of his radical ideas.
Nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia.
Subsequent rulers of Ethiopia mended the “glitch” and followed the path that almost was dismantled by Emperor Tewodros II, and, as a result, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remained inseparable from the Ethiopian state, and, with that, the state narrative. That, however, changed with Emperor Menelik II assuming the throne in 1889. Although historical Ethiopia dates back to millennia, Emperor Menelik is widely considered as an architect of the modern Ethiopian state. His epic defeat of Italian colonial power at the Battle of Adwa added another, if not stronger, element to the myth of God’s-chosen-people identity to Ethiopians and the Ethiopian state. As the Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde recounts in his book, Pioneers of Change, Menelik, eager to modernise Ethiopia, sent Ethiopians to Europe and the US for higher education. Unlike the church-educated elites that preceded them, these early Western-educated Ethiopians broke with tradition and became critics of the state. It may be argued as such that Emperor Menelik could be credited with spearheading the creation of a new intellectual-elite class and with bringing the same to the center of state politics. With that he laid the groundwork for the creation of a new elite class that would later challenge the very essence of Ethiopia as a nation state.
Walleligne and the birth of ethno-nationalism
When Emperor Haile Selassie rose to the throne in 1930, he was acutely aware of the shortage of educated Ethiopians to build Ethiopia’s nascent civil service and bureaucracy. In order to fill in this gap, like his predecessor, he sent many Ethiopians to Europe and the US for higher education that in the words of historian Jon Abbink produced “a generation of daring, innovative intellectual leaders and thinkers.” However, sadly many of these intellectuals were annihilated by the Italian colonial power in the late 1930s. This loss of its brightest left post-war Ethiopia with deep psychological scars and decades of stagnation, devoid of social and political change. With the founding of the University College of Addis Ababa in 1950, the future Haile Selassie University (now, Addis Ababa University), Emperor Haile Selassie’s dream of producing educated Ethiopians en masse finally came true.
The 1960’s was when the role of Ethiopian intellectuals in the country’s politics probably experienced its most consequential phase. Starting in the 1960’s, with the backdrop of broader social unrest, university students started to oppose Haile Selassie’s single-man authoritarian rule and the oppressive socio-economic and cultural structures within which the students said the imperial government and its predecessors functioned. They demanded rights and freedom. It was until a more radical wing of the movement, concurrent with the more mundane demand for reform, started to question the equating of the Ethiopian state with the nation. Compared to the reformist intellectuals of the previous generation, Ethiopia’s newly minted intellectuals displayed impatience and lacked foresight in their calls for radical social and political reform. Jon Abbink might not be far from the truth when he observed these intellectuals’ “wholesale adoption of unmediated Western ideologies and abandonment of Ethiopian values” had had “quite disastrous consequences.”
“On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia,” an influential short essay written by Walleligne Mekonnen—who at the time was a second-year political science student at the university, and who was later was shot and killed along with fellow activists while attempting to hijack an Ethiopian Airlines flight—became a founding text of the radical wing of the student movement. In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.” However, this reality, according to him, was suppressed by the ruling class. Instead, a “fake Ethiopian nationalism” that is based on the linguistic and cultural superiority of the Amhara and, to a certain extent, the Amhara-Tigre, was imposed on the other peoples of Ethiopia, resulting in asymmetrical relations among the “nations” of Ethiopia. Therefore, according to Walleligne, the Ethiopian state came to be through the linguistic and cultural assimilation of the peoples of the wider South by the North—the Amhara and their junior-partner-in-assimilation, the Tigre. And, that this project of constructing Ethiopia was aided by the trinity of (the Amharic) language, (Amhara-Tigre) culture and religion (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). He was, of course, echoing arguments that Joseph Stalin, Rosa Luxemburg and others made about nations, nationalism, and self-determination. (Stalin, for example, lays out his thesis in Marxism and the National Question, as does Luxemburg in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.)
Walleligne thus called for the dismantling and replacement of this “fake [Ethiopian] nationalism” with a “genuine Nationalist Socialist State” that he argued could only be achieved “through violence [and,] through revolutionary armed struggle.” To be sure, Walleligne did not see “succession” as an end in and of itself; nonetheless, he propagated it as a means to building the future egalitarian Ethiopian state, with the caveat that such succession should be rooted in and guided by “progressivism” and “Socialist internationalism.” He closed his essay with what may be considered prophetic:
A regime [Haile Selassie’s government] like ours harassed from corners is bound to collapse in a relatively short period of time. But when the degree of consciousness of the various nationalities is at different levels, it is not only the right, but the duty, of the most conscious nationality to first liberate itself and then assist in the struggle for total liberation.
Haile Selassie’s government did collapse in 1974.
The constitutionalizing of ethno-nationalism
The movement that Walleligne imagined, spearheaded by the intelligentsia as it were, was hijacked by the Dergue—a collective of disgruntled low-ranking military officers in the imperial army—that not only succeeded in overthrowing Haile Selassie’s government, but also in ruling Ethiopia with an iron-fist for the next 17 years. But the political and armed struggle for “liberation” continued. It was in this atmosphere of radicalisation of the intellectual-elite class that discourses like “liberation” and the “oppressor-oppressed” took hold in the Ethiopian body politic and a plethora of liberation fronts mushroomed or revived: the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF, 1962)—that succeeded in seceding Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1991—the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF, 1966), and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF, 1975) to name but the most important ones. The Dergue’s 17 years in power was marred by the bloodiest times in Ethiopian modern history: the Red Terror, a border war with Somalia (1977-1978) and, more importantly, the protracted civil wars with TPLF, EPLF and OLF.
After 17 years of armed struggle, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) defeated the Dergue and controlled Ethiopian state power in 1991. The EPRDF was a coalition composed of the TPLF, The Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Southern Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Front (SEPDF). It should, however, be noted that it was only with victory in sight against the Dergue and a desire to expand its sphere of influence beyond Tigray, that the TPLF formed the EPRDF in 1988. Otherwise, the actual power holder within the coalition remained TPLF. Consequently, the EPRDF introduced the 1995 constitution. Adopted in the immediate context of the post-Cold War, in a way that reflects the politics of constitutionalism and especially the shrewdness and pragmatism of the man behind it, Meles Zenawi, the constitution was a compromise between TPLF’s deep-rooted Marxist-Leninist ideological moorings and the post-Cold War euphoric triumphalism of liberal constitutionalism and human rights. So much so that the constitution declares the inviolability and alienability of human rights and freedoms emanating from the nature of mankind. However, as his building a de facto one-party state would later reveal, this was a move that seems to have been motivated more by placating the West than a genuine desire on the part of Zenawi’s EPRDF to champion the causes of human rights and democratic values.
In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.
The constitution divided Ethiopia into nine ethnic states that—with the exception of what is called the Southern Nations and Nationalities Regional State—are based on the ethnic identities of residents of those states. Most importantly, the constitution grants the “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” within those states the unconditional “right to self-determination, including secession.” In other words, rather than with a people, sovereignty resides in a plurality of peoples of Ethiopia. It is these peoples that came together to form Ethiopia and they are the custodians of Ethiopia, from which they have the absolute right to secede if they so wish. That way, the constitution replaced the age-old notion of Ethiopia as a nation with an Ethiopia as a “nation of nations.” Walleligne predicted this almost a quarter of a century earlier: “What are the Ethiopian people composed of? I stress the word peoples because sociologically speaking at this stage Ethiopia is not really a nation.”
From then on ethnicity became a determinant factor and dominant political currency in Ethiopian politics, bringing with it, in the words of the late sociologist Donald Levine (who taught at the University of Chicago and became a key figure in Ethiopian Studies), an “epidemic of ethnic and regional hostilities.” In addition to changing the way the country organised itself politically, EPRDF also sought to reframe the very foundation of what it means to be an Ethiopian and how Ethiopia itself came to be. Not unexpectedly, EPRDF targeted schools and educational institutions in particular as spaces where new narratives of Ethiopian history could be inculcated, so much so that Ethiopian universities became flashpoints of ethnic conflicts among students. Walleligne’s abstract and—as he himself admitted in his writing—incomplete idea found a home in the curriculum.
With this entrenchment of a “new” history of Ethiopia and a generation educated in the new curriculum and the alienation of “pan-Ethiopianism” from the Ethiopian body politic, it seemed that the “old Ethiopia” had died and been buried. But, as the 2005 Ethiopian election showed, a pan-Ethiopian party called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) almost clinched power in major cities and rural areas if it had not been suppressed and finally expelled from Ethiopian political landscape. In fact, it was that election that gave the close to two decades-long ethnic politics championed by Meles Zenawi, a real challenge and, more importantly, sowed the earliest seeds of the revival of pan-Ethiopian politics.
Abiy Ahmed and the re-emergence of pan-Ethiopianism?
Zenawi—the ex-guerrilla fighter who, as a prime minister, was reported to have made authoritarianism respectable—died in a Belgian hospital in 2012. Although political pundits thought that in his absence Ethiopia would plunge into crisis immediately, his successors managed to stave off social unrest until protest rallies started to emerge in the Oromia region following the unveiling of the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan (a plan to expand the federal capital, mostly into Oromia) in April 2014. Months of sustained protests resulted in hundreds of deaths and even more people being imprisoned.
However, the draconian measures did little to slow the protests. The EPRDF government eventually backed off from its aggressive actions against protestors and shelved its ambitious master plan, but it was too late. The protest had picked up steam and expanded to several other regions, including the Amhara region. Protestors demanded rights, representation, and economic justice. Tellingly, these protests erupted less than a year after EPRDF claimed to have won 100% of the 2015 election and only months after US President Obama praised the government as being “democratically elected.”
The TPLF-led EPRDF government could not sustain its political power. In the backdrop of a fierce intra-party scuffle, in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo and member of the OPDO, ascended to power. With his promise of leading Ethiopia through transition to democracy, Abiy immediately began introducing a plethora of reforms, including releasing political prisoners, inviting home all opposition parties, and appointing some prominent public figures to key positions within his government. These and many other earlier reforms won him almost universal support from Ethiopians and the international community. In 2019 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace-deal with neighboring Eritrea, ending a two-decades long stalemate, following the 1998 border war between the two countries that claimed more than a hundred thousand lives.
Despite the indisputably positive changes he introduced and results achieved, Abiy’s Ethiopia also saw its most turbulent years in recent Ethiopian history, including internal displacements, violence that claimed the lives of hundreds—high-profile assassinations, including an attempted assassination on the premier himself, targeted ethnic killings, and ongoing violence perpetrated by a splinter military wing of the OLF in western Oromia region. Abiy’s decision to indefinitely postpone the August general election due to COVID-19 has further destabilized the country and put in tatters his promise of transitioning Ethiopia to democracy.
There also is the ongoing tension with the TPLF that governs the Tigray region—that recently held its own regional election in defiance of the central government’s ban on all elections due to the pandemic. As a result, the Ethiopian parliament voted to cut ties with Tigray region leaders, which has the potential to erupt into a full-blown war with the federal government. Further complicating Abiy’s agenda of stabilizing the East African nation is the tension with Egypt in relation to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD) and broader geopolitical issues.
It was amid this ongoing turmoil Abiy established the Prosperity Party at the end of 2019, which brought together three of the four ethnic-based parties that constituted the EPRDF coalition and other smaller parties, considered within party circles as “allies” to the EPRDF. Based on his vision of national unity among Ethiopians that he calls medemer, which literally means “coming together,” this re-branding of EPRDF was meant to stave off the ethnically divisive politics and address ethnically motivated conflicts that engulfed the country during EPRDF’s 27 years in power. This seemingly mundane action, however, did not sit well with everyone and it brought to the surface an issue dormant for the last 25 years in the Ethiopian formal political scene, namely: how to historicize Ethiopia. There is now an all-out war of narratives among Ethiopian elites on the history of Ethiopia.
This narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianism” and “Ethno-nationalism.” The ethno-nationalist camp takes Walleligne’s thesis as accurate representation of Ethiopia as a nation of nations. As we have noted, in mainstream Ethiopian history, Emperor Menelik is considered the architect of the modern Ethiopian state. He is especially credited with expanding the Ethiopian empire to the south from his northern stronghold of Shoa. To the outside world and to Ethiopians alike, his epic victory over the Italian colonial force in the Battle of Adwa is widely celebrated as a key moment in Black anticolonial consciousness. In stark contrast to this picture, in the ethno-nationalist discourse, Emperor Menelik figures as the archenemy. To the ethno-nationalists Menelik’s supposedly mundane “state-building” endeavors were marked by violence, forced assimilation and suppression of cultures of peoples of the South, especially the Oromo. Echoing Walleligne’s thesis, they insist that rather than a nation built on the consent of the “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopia, Ethiopia is imposed on the wider South through conquest, violence and assimilation by Ethiopian rulers of Amhara, and to a certain extent, Tigre extraction. In their view, rather than an inclusive multicultural state, Ethiopia is made in the image of the Amhara and the Tigre.
This narrative of Ethiopia as a chosen place endures to this day. It was in display when many Ethiopians woke up on October 24, 2020 and learned that US President Donald Trump had suggested “[Egypt] will end up blowing up the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)] dam.”
Quite to the contrary, those in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp embrace the historical Ethiopia and adhere to the idea of Ethiopia as a nation-state. While not ruling out the presence of violence, they reject the “empire thesis” of the ethno-nationalists and hold that Emperor Menelik was just engaging in state-building when he conquered and brought the wider South under his Imperial rulership. In the Pan-Ethiopianist narrative of Ethiopia, the supposed assimilationist and imperialist expansion of Emperor Menelik and his predecessors to the South is a normal historical process inherent to state building. There are also some within the Pan-Ethiopianist camp that insist that Emperor Menelik did not actually conquer and control “new” territories, but only “re-claimed” territories that hitherto were parts of the historical Ethiopia. There are still those in this camp that argue that it is in the nature of an empire to conquer peoples and rule over lands, and hence there is nothing anomalous about Emperor Menelik’s deeds.
Not surprisingly, many in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp saw, at least in the beginning, Abiy’s formation of the Prosperity Party as a move in the right direction with a potential to dismantle the current ethnic-federalism—that adherents of this camp hold is the root cause of the cycles of ethnic conflicts and other problems that the country faces—and eventually realise a unified Ethiopia, albeit federalist. Quite to the contrary, the move did not sit well with the ethno-nationalist camp, the TPLF in particular openly opposing this merger as “illegal” on the grounds that all constituent parties of the EPRDF should have consented to the dissolution of EPRDF and the merger. The Oromo activists see in this merger and Abiy’s other reform agenda a return to the old Ethiopia, in which they argue Oromos were culturally and linguistically alienated by the Amhara-Tigre elites that in the past had a monopoly on state power.
Social media and narratives of hate
The elites’ reach and impact has expanded as the means of information sharing and consumption has expanded. It is no more the traditional intellectual-elite class that engages in the production and dissemination of information that advances knowledge. Unlike the closely-knit intellectual class of earlier times, the debate now has a diverse body of actors: activists, political party operatives, and, as oxymoronic as it sounds, intellectual activists. The elites with the loudest voices use low-trust and high-reach communication mediums like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to peddle their own facts and pursue their own agenda. Social media as it exists today rewards absolute claims, purity, good and evil binaries, and unequivocal declarations of truth that leave little room for compassion, reasoning, careful interpretation, and nuance. Fueled by algorithms that favor combustible content, social media companies orchestrate human interaction that lead individuals to maintain extreme positions and be adversarial towards one another.
The emerging Ethiopian elites in both camps have harnessed social media in ways that have yielded extraordinary influence and power over political discourse that directly and indirectly affects the lives of everyday Ethiopians. They recognize their charisma is more significant to their audience than the contents of their speech or the quality of their argument. Name calling and ad hominem attacks are their currency and they invoke current and historical grievances, and narratives of superiority, to stoke fear and anger. Unfortunately, the narratives these elites broadcast are not without consequences. There is a correlation between recent violence in Ethiopia and the supposed adherents of these narratives.
Nothing makes the dangers of the deep division between the two camps as the murder of the renowned Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundesa in June 2020. This incident has clearly shown their tendency to see and interpret any and every incident or issue in ways that support their respective narratives. Unfortunately, as is quite common in the post-truth social media age we live in, it is as though elites in each camp use different truth-filters, no matter what facts on the ground dictate. So much so that, immediately after the news of Hachalu’s death surfaced, elites in each camp took to social media and, with no evidence at their disposal, started to speculate who might have shot and killed the singer and began pointing fingers at each other. In the ethno-nationalist camp, a conspiracy started to circulate that claimed the killing was orchestrated and carried out by “neftegna” and statements like “They killed our hero” reverberated around social media, followed by wide-spread Oromo protests in Ethiopia, Europe, and North America. On the other hand, in what appears to be due to Hachalu’s pro-Oromo nationalistic political views, in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp there was either a deafening silence, or some suggesting that the killing was a result of intra power-struggle among the Oromo elite politicians who just “sacrificed” Hachalu for their own politically calculated ends. Amidst the confusion and unsubstantiated claims floating around—with even some media outlets broadcasting hate-filled messages—violence erupted in the Oromia region claiming the lives of more than 200 individuals, the displacement of thousands, and property damage. The killings were reported to be gruesome and targeted.
If anyone in either camp is insensitive enough to bring havoc to Ethiopia, or even worse, to sacrifice precious human lives in pursuit of political ends or to prove a particular narrative of Ethiopia, then the debate is not so much about liberation and freedom as it is about ideology or some other ends. As Edward Said chastises us:
the standards of truth about human misery and oppression [are] to be held despite the individual intellectual’s party affiliation, national background, and primeval loyalties. Nothing disfigures the intellectual’s public performances as much as trimming, careful silence, patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing apostasy.
We shouldn’t also lose sight of the fact that, while not denying that there are genuinely invested individuals and groups of actors in each camp, there are still many in this “war” owing to other factors that have little or nothing to do with a genuine concern for Ethiopia and everyday Ethiopians. The harsh truth is that this is not just a debate about history, identity, or self-governance, but more so about elites’ drive for resource monopolization, the prestige that comes with power, and other factors external to the debate.
Abiy’s government, like the EPRDF before it, is attempting to limit internet access, especially to social media, to quell recent unrest. The government’s desperate act to avoid future incidents like these are understandable. Expanded internet access to all, in theory, at least, is a positive development in the right hands. And it would be misguided to argue that the broadening of access to free speech that has been made possible through social media is wrong or detrimental. The detriment, actually, is with the unchecked nature of social media. As well, the absence of meaningful fact checking and understanding of local knowledge among social media companies make it possible for misinformation to spread easily.
Whither Ethiopia? The way forward
As we noted initially, nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia. This has become a singularly arduous task especially now that a generation of Ethiopians who have grown up under the EPRDF are increasingly alienated from actual inter-ethnic-lived experiences of Ethiopians of present and past generations. It is also naive to expect the debate to remain even-tempered. Emotions can run high as communities attempt to reconcile their ethnic identity and group status as they negotiate the meaning of their shared history with others. However, prerequisites to making meaningful progress are highly credible communication mediums, shared facts, and shared goals. At the moment, the opposite appears to be true.
There is a glaring absence of willingness on both sides to engage in reasoned debates, leaving no room to explore the authenticity and truthfulness of alternative narratives. It is not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis, and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals—are disincentivised.
Even if we disagree on where we started and how we got here, we could at least agree on where we are heading. Denialism, lack of empathy, and cancel-culture are the last traits we should carry into this debate, not only because people’s lives are at stake, but also the future of Ethiopia as a state. Good faith debate based on shared facts and shared goals are required if the historical Ethiopia is to survive another century.
Editor’s note: Please note that the piece was first published on September 30. While the authors updated it over the past month, the conflict in Ethiopia has now accelerated to a civil war. We plan to provide more up-to-date coverage. Meanwhile, we recommend this statement by a group of scholars and researchers from the Horn of Africa.
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