On a sunny Saturday afternoon, sometime in 1987, I was taking a stroll from Section 19 into Kitale town, then an agricultural, sleepy, settler town. I did not pay much attention to the beige VW Kombi that passed by me until after it had gone like 20 metres before it started reversing. I kept walking, and the Kombi reversed past me to stop near some school girls who were walking behind me. I had not noticed the girls either. They were in green uniforms and were from Kitale Girls, the school that was later to be renamed St Monica.
I stopped to watch as the passenger in the Kombi van rolled down the window and started talking to the girls. As he talked to them, his right hand reached to the glove compartment and removed a wad of neat Kenya currency notes, which he gave to one of the girls. No sooner had he given the money to the girls, who were by then giggling with excitement, the van zoomed past me, the passenger rolling up the window. I had heard that President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi was a man who was besotted with school girls, but until then, I had never taken it seriously.
I will always remember this act of spontaneous magnanimity – of a president going about his business in an unmarked nondescript van (the Kombi became associated with Moi’s tours across the country) and stopping to chat up some students and hand them some cash. I went away thinking, what a kind man, a president who stops to engage with students along a road. That scene stayed in mind for a very long time.
But as I was to learn later, Moi was a man with many faces, someone who could evince deep feelings of empathy as he simultaneously schemed to inflict deep pain on his adversaries – real or imagined. He transitioned effortlessly from one face to the other, leaving many people aghast and confused.
Three years after my close encounter with Moi, in 1990, I was a barman in Ukunda, which lies along Kenya’s south coast, five kilometres from the famous Diani beach. I had some special clients who worked at the Kwale Law Courts who patronised the club nearly every day. They were clerks, lawyers, magistrates and civil servants. I liked discussing politics with them. Many of them were from the Luo community.
But as I was to learn later, Moi was a man with many faces, someone who could evince deep feelings of empathy as he simultaneously schemed to inflict deep pain on his adversaries – real or imagined. He transitioned effortlessly from one face to the other, leaving many people aghast and confused.
On February 12, 1990, the daily newspapers reported that Dr Robert Ouko, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, had gone missing. That evening, when the patrons came for their drinks, the point of discussion was the missing minister. I remember telling them that there was no way a minister could go missing, I do not know where I had gotten that information, but I recall telling them a president must always know where his cabinet ministers are on a daily basis. A minister must report to the president wherever he is, more so a foreign affairs minister. I told them the minister was long dead.
“Young man,” shot back one of the Luo civil servants, “what are you talking about? You are too young to know these things.” We left it at that. The following day, the papers reported that the minister’s body had been found at Got Alila village in Koru in Kisumu by a herdsboy. That day, my Luo patrons did not work, so they came straight to the bar at about 10.00am, carrying their newspapers. They ordered for their drinks, but could not drink them. They were very distraught. Conversing in Dholuo, one of them, overcome by emotions, broke down and wept. It was my first time ever to see a man weep uncontrollably.
“Oh God”, mourned the man, “they have done it again. Kenyatta killed [Tom] Mboya and now Moi has killed Ouko. Why, why, why, nobody likes us…we’ll always be on our own.” One could feel the indescribable pain the man was undergoing. As writer James Baldwin would write, my dungeons shook. Mboya was the mercurial Minister of Economic Planning and Development when on July 5, 1969, he was shot by an assailant, Isaac Njenga, at around 1.00pm as he stepped out of Chhani’s Pharmacy on Government Road (today’s Moi Avenue).
In 1991, I was back in Kitale. My friend, an architect, asked me to accompany him to go and see his client. His client was a well-heeled politician, as connected as they come. He owned a merchandise shop on Kenyatta St. On the day we went to see him at the shop, he was in a foul mood.
“Hawa waKikuyu wanafikiri hao ndio akina nani? Sisi tulialika hawa hapa Rift Valley tukawapatia mashamba ya kulima…sasa wanasema wanataka multiparty politics. Juzi mimi nilikua na mzee na amekasirika sana…ametuambia lazima tuonyeshe hawa waKikuyu Rift Valley ni ya kina nani. Wewe ngoja tu, baada ya miezi sita utasikia maneno – tutachoma na kufukuza hao kabisa.” Who do these Kikuyus think they are? We gave them farms to till here in Rift Valley…now they are saying they want multiparty politics. You know the other day I was with President Moi and he was very angry…he has said we must show these Kikuyus who owns Rift Valley. Just wait, in six months time, you’ll hear for yourself – we’ll burn their properties and chase them out of Rift Valley.
The politician assumed that I was a Bukusu from Trans Nzoia.
As sure as night follows day, six months after, ethnic violence – sometimes referred to as ethnic cleansing – started sporadically all over the Rift Valley. Moi and his cohorts called them tribal clashes.
I had gone to school in Kitale, so I had made many friends across the ethnic divide. One of them was from a Kikuyu family that lived up in the Cherangani hills scheme, where his parents were crop and livestock farmers on a 10-acre piece of land. As “ethnic cleansing” sprouted all over Kitale and other places, my friend narrated to me how one night his family was attacked by Kalenjin warriors armed with bows and arrows. My friend said that that night, the family thought they would meet their maker. But when morning came, they emerged from their hiding places alive. But their livestock was gone – their cows were doused in petrol and burned alive. “We could smell the burning of raw meat…you can imagine the torture the poor animals underwent,” he told me.
Moi had instigated the ethnic cleansing of the Kikuyus in the greater Rift Valley province because he had been forced by the West to reintroduce multiparty politics. In 1989, the Berlin Wall had collapsed and two years later glasnost and perestroika has set in in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as nation-states broke away to claim independence. Kenya had been a darling of the US and UK – barely four years before, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher had praised Moi as an African statesman when he went calling at Downing St. The West had turned its back on Moi by tightening the purse and asking him to conform to the new political dispensation. The Cold War had come to end and the US was now the unchallenged superpower.
“Moi’s double-faced beguiling character is something many Kenyans did not know,” said journalist Ken Opala. “Moi was a master manipulator of emotions, he could charm you out of your socks.” Sometime in 1996, Opala had an encounter with Moi at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA)’s state pavilion. Opala, then reporting for the Daily Nation newspaper, had gone to cover the state visit of Jiang Zemin, the President of the Communist Republic of China.
As he, Kipkoech Tanui (today the group executive editor at the Standard Group but then a rookie reporter, also working for the Daily Nation) and Manoah Esipisu (now Kenya’s High Commissioner in the UK but then working for Reuters), stood metres away from the state pavilion, President Moi leisurely walked towards them, his left hand in his pocket. When he approached Opala, he asked him:
“Eehe na wewe ni nani?” What’s your name?
“Ken Opala wa Nation”
“Juzi mlikuwa na pullout, mbona hamukutaja Moi na kazi ile serikali inafanya?” Moi queried Opala.
It was just after May 1st that Zemin was visiting and President Moi remembered that the Daily Nation had carried a pullout on Labour Day and apparently he was not happy with it.
“Nyinyi ni watu wabaya sana, munaandika tu mambo yenu…si ya kutengeneza nchi…kama vile serikali yangu inafanya,” Moi lamented.
“Lakini siyo hivyo mzee,” It isn’t that way sir, Opala interjected.
“Lakini nini?” Moi turned on the hapless Opala.
“Wacha flattery.” Stop the flattery retorted a stern Moi, poking Opala on the chest with his index finger.
Taken aback by Moi’s brash harshness, Opala knew he had annoyed the president by defending his employer. But Moi suddenly changed tact and moved closer to him:
“Opala wewe ni mzuri, Kwendo Opango ndio mbaya.” Opala you’re the good one, Kwendo Opanga is the bad one, said a demure Moi, almost cooing into the journalist’s ear. (Kwendo Opanga used to write a hard-hitting Sunday Nation column, which Moi disliked.)
As the Zemin’s plane taxied closer to the apron, where Moi was waiting to receive his guest, his security inched closer to him, signalling him to move away from the journalist.
“Wewe wacha, mimi na ongea na mtu yangu,” You stop, can’t you see I’m talking to my friend, said Moi to the security men. Vice President George Saitoti, who died in a helicopter crash in June 2012 in Kibiko, off Ngong town, seemed uneasy as Moi insisted on talking to the journalist.
Sisi ni wazuri, hao ndio wabaya, twende, twende tukapokee mgeni. Huyu rais ni mzuri anatuletea pesa, wachana na watu ambao wanaadika mambo ya fitina tu.” We are the good people, let’s go and receive the president, he’s a good man, he’s bringing goodies for us. Leave those people whose only work is to pen malicious stories.
Much later, Opala, humbled by the fact that the most powerful man in the country had taken time to engage with him, marvelled at the simplicity of Moi. He believed that the president was a good man who was misunderstood by people who did not know him well. The journalist began doubting whether all those bad stories about Moi were true after all.
Several weeks later, Opala had another chance encounter with the president. Thinking that they were already friends, and that Moi would remember him (apparently, Moi’s memory was legendary), Opala was surprised when the president ignored him and behaved as if he had never met him. “I couldn’t believe Moi, who had talked to me like his son, sharing with me some juicy anecdotes, would behave so coldly towards me like that: I almost wondered what I had done this time,” said Opala. That little experience nearly traumatised the journalist.
Kabarak School: Moi’s backyard
A master of the game, Moi political life enacted such plays all the time in his political life. He conjured up schemes to keep his political friends and foes alike busy fighting each other as he continually plotted to antagonise them by creating mutual suspicions among them. “Sometimes we think that’s why he built Kabarak School,” said a top notch medical doctor, who is an alumni of the school Moi built.
Kabarak received its first Kenya Advanced Certificate of Education (KACE) “A” level students in 1979, four months after Moi ascended to the presidency. “That’s how powerful a Kenyan president is,” said my medic friend. The medic was in the second lot of the 1980/1981 “A” level lot. “I’d been called to Mangu High School to pursue Maths, Chemistry and Biology, but I got a letter from Kabarak and my father, looking at the fee structure, said the school had been built to save his meagre savings… the fees were rock bottom.”
Although the school was built with taxpayers’ money, Moi privatised it, as he would Sacho High School in Baringo County, which is 25km from Kabarak and which is in his ancestral village of Sacho and Sunshine School, which is in Nairobi West, Nairobi County. All three schools enjoy exceptional facilities and the teachers from the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) are all funded by the public. Yet it was Moi who decided who would attend them. Sunshine School was even built on grabbed land – the land on which Sunshine School sits once belonged to the Prisons Department.
Kabarak began by poaching all the best students from other schools around the country. To start off “A” level class, it poached Kenya Certificate of Education “O” level students who had been called to both Alliance High Schools (Boys and Girls), Highlands Girls, (today Moi Girls Eldoret), Kagumo High School, Kangaru High school, Kenya High, Lenana School, Limuru Girls, Loreto Girls, Nairobi School, Nyeri High, Thika High, Maseno School – basically the top schools in the country then, as now. Moi also did the same with teachers. He picked the best teachers from these schools, and populated Kabarak with them.
Although the school was built with taxpayers’ money, Moi privatised it, as he would Sacho High School and Sunshine School. All three schools enjoy exceptional facilities and the teachers from the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) are all funded by the public. Yet it was Moi who decided who would attend them.
Esther Koimett was among the first students of the “A” level class of 1979/1980. She is the daughter of Nicholas Biwott, one of Moi’s most powerful henchmen who later acquired the nickname “The Bull of Auckland”. Koimett is now the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Urban Development and Public Works.
Other better known Kenyans who passed through Kabarak include Mary Ijaya Mudavadi, sister to Musalia, Chepchumba Kandie, the daughter of Aaron Kandie, the former solicitor general, Sam Mwamburi Mwale, the former Permanent Secretary in Mwai Kibaki’s government, Orlando Lyomu, the Chief Executive Officer at the Standard Group, and Samson Chepkairor, aka Sam Shollei, also a former Standard Group CEO. (Chepkairor’s classmates of the 1980/1981 “A” level class cannot remember when he changed his name to Shollei.) Others were Robert Matano’s two daughters, Nick Salat’s two sisters and Margaret Nderi, the daughter of Ignatius Nderi, the powerful boss at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) during Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s rule.
Sometime in January 2005, I went to talk to Geoffrey Griffins, the Director of Starehe Boys Centre and School. Over and above everything else we talked about that afternoon, I remember him telling me about Moi, which he told me in strict confidence. When Moi become president, he approached Griffins and asked him to accept Kalenjin students. The director said that was not a problem, as long as they met the minimum qualifications. “This apparently did not please Moi because he expected me to say ‘yes, yes, Mr President’,” recalled Griffins.
Moi also wondered loudly why Mwai Kibaki remained the patron of Starehe Boys Centre, while Moi was now the president. “I told Moi, Kibaki remained the patron because the school’s management board, which included members of the British royalty, had settled on the former Minister of Finance and it was for them to decide who was to be the patron.” Soon after, Moi started Kabarak, where he became his own patron, and where one class each out of the four streams from Form I to Form IV was reserved solely for Kalenjin kids.
At Kabarak School, which was just a few metres from Moi’s house, he would invite Kanu political honchos and pit them against each other, right there in the school. “We witnessed many such incidents in which Moi would host two sets of warring Kanu factions and make them believe that each had his ear and exclusivity. One time, on a Saturday, he invited both Matu Wamae and Davidson Ngibuini Kuguru, the Mathira constituency (in Nyeri) titans, each not knowing that the other was also present,” said the ex-Kabarak medic. “Kabarak had many holding rooms where visitors to Moi’s house would be entertained. As Moi entertained Ngibuini in the house, Matu was kept busy at the school by Henry Cheboiwo, the first Baringo North MP and Moi’s confidant, Abraham Kiptanui, a former State House Comptroller and Aaron Kandie.”
Those who have been to Kabarak know that the home and school have two entrances on the Nakuru-Elgeyo Marakwet Road. Both entrances are guarded by the General Service Unit (GSU) Recce squad. Inside the school there is also a tarmacked road connecting the school to Moi’s house. As Ngibuini was being seen off by Moi’s handlers inside the house through the road leading directly from Moi’s house to the main road, Wamae was being ushered in through the link road between the school and the house.
Later both groups, Ngibuini’s and Wamae’s, would congregate at Stagshead Hotel (today known as Merica and owned by the Moi family) in Nakuru town. “Each confident that they had Moi’s ear and each having been given money to run the affairs of the Nyeri Kanu branch, they would begin their quarrels right there and Moi and his henchmen would be left in the house laughing their heads off,” opined the medical doctor. “We also witnessed Moi playing James Njiru against his perennial foe, Nahason Njunu from Kirinyaga.”
The semi-illiterate Njiru was the MP for Ndia, while Njunu was the MP for Gichugu. Njiru imagined himself to be very close to Moi, to the extent that when the president made him the Minister of National Guidance and Political Affairs, he knew he had the upper hand over Njunu. Njiru thought that he was so powerful that he could summon “errant” Kanu members and question them, which led the Anglican archbishop David Gitari, who hailed from Kirinyaga, to describe his ministry as the “Ministry of Misguidance and Political Thuggery”. The tall and slender Njiru and the short and stocky Njunu’s rivalry culminated in them once squaring it out in the precincts of Parliament in 1988.
Divide and rule: that is how Moi governed Kenya and that is how he managed to stay afloat for 24 years as he turned Kabarak into a theatre of the absurd. “One Friday morning, Moi came to the school (he was always hovering around it), when we were on parade and raising the flag. His Kombi van stood some distance away and Moi disembarked. He walked briskly past the principal, Mr Joseph Kimetto, straight to his office. When Kimetto saw that Moi did not stop to talk to him, he abandoned the parade and ran after Moi. He found Moi in his office. The next thing we saw was Mr Kimetto running fast towards his house,” narrated the doctor.
“Mr Githongo, you’re now the principal and you Mr Kajwang, you’re the deputy principal,” announced Moi. Githongo was an elderly teacher who had been poached from Kagumo High School in Nyeri and taught Biology, while Kajwang was from Maseno, and taught Chemistry. “Moi made the prompt appointments just like that,” recalled the doctor.
Divide and rule: that is how Moi governed Kenya and that is how he managed to stay afloat for 24 years as he turned Kabarak into a theatre of the absurd.
Kabarak was also a place that helped Moi avert loneliness, said the Kabarak alumni. “We’d see Moi in the dining hall, around the swimming area, in the playing field, walking past the classrooms, oftentimes stopping to listen to and watch momentarily as teachers went about their teaching. He was always at the school. He would order the school to pay school fees for respective classes. ‘This year Form I B, Form II D, Form III A and Form IV C will not pay school fees,’ it would be announced in the parade, courtesy of Moi, but of course this was taxpayers money.” He would do the same for Form V and Form VI.
The lonely kingmaker
Many years later, John Keen, his former Assistant Minister in the Office of the President, talked to me about Moi’s loneliness. In 2015, I was invited to his Karen home to attend a naming ceremony, an important occasion in the Maasai culture and tradition. One of his many grandsons was being named after him. I had gone to school with one of his sons and therefore I had known the senior Keen from the late 1980s. On that day, I spent the entire day talking to John Keen, until late into the night.
He narrated to me how some months before, Moi had sent an emissary to him: “Nimetumwa na Mzee Moi, anataka kukuona.” I’ve been sent by Moi, he would like to see you, said the envoy.
“I wondered what Moi would be summoning me for. I had not seen or talked to him for many years,” recounted Keen. Moi has asked that he go and see him at his home in Kabarnet Gardens, in the Kibera area. “When I reached there, I was ushered in to where he was. It was going to 2.00 pm and the hot sun was up, but guess what? I found Moi huddled next to the fireplace, warming himself next to the low-burning log fire.”
“I presumed he had an agenda for me, that there was something he wanted us to discuss…wapi, Moi couldn’t even recognise me, he didn’t even know that he had asked for me. He ordered that I be given some tea and then on and off, he would doze off. After three hours I left.”
After that visit, Keen concluded that Moi had been terribly lonely, especially after he left office in 2002. “He doesn’t have any grandchildren with him to keep him busy,” observed the one time Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP), an opposition outfit that was once led by his long time friend Mwai Kibaki in the 1990s. “But also, when you grow old, you need a young wife to keep your fire burning and keep you warm too,” said Keenly cheekly.
Folklore has it that Moi kept The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli’s little bible of political brutality, by his bedside. “Moi was brutal,” some of the people who suffered his wrath told me. Mirugi Kariuki, the Nakuru lawyer who later became the MP for Nakuru town in the Narc government of President Kibaki, told me that Moi was “a brutal incarnate”. He was detained alongside his longtime friend Koigi wa Wamwere during Moi’s regime. Moi ordered that he be tortured by the prison warders at Naivasha Maximum Prison because “I was recalcitrant and unrepentant”.
When Moi released him in 1991, “he found me to be even more unrepentant. He was furious with me because I refused to beg for mercy from him. He wanted me acknowledge the detention without trial and be grateful to him that he had released me – for that I was supposed to go and genuflect before him. My answer to him was: he hadn’t done me any favours.”
Moi suffered from acute paranoia, said Mirugi, who died in a plane crash in April 2006, “and an inferiority complex, especially from people who stood up to him. But over and above he covered his brutality with his supposed love for children.”
After that visit, Keen concluded that Moi had been terribly lonely, especially after he left office in 2002. “He doesn’t have any grandchildren with him to keep him busy,” observed the one time Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP)…
After the 1997 general elections, Moi started scheming about how to bring the neophyte Uhuru Kenyatta into the political fold. When Moi, in the presence of Peter Mboya (the late son of Tom Mboya who died in a motorcycle crash in 2004) told Uhuru Kenyatta “nataka ungie siasa,” (I want you to get into politics proper),“Uhuru almost jumped out of his skin,” said a Moi relative who was present at the scene. “Hapana, hapana mzee,” No, no, protested Uhuru.
In 1998, after Uhuru was thrashed by a nondescript greenhorn, one Moses Mwihia, Moi asked some Kanu hawks to persuade him to vacate the seat for Uhuru. Mwhia refused. “So they turned to Mark Too, who was a nominated MP. After haggling for several weeks, Too acquiesced,” a Moi relative said to me. “Immediately Too agreed, they went straight to Kabarnet Gardens at 10.30pm. Moi came out from the bedroom in his pyjamas.”
“Mumekubaliana?” Have you agreed? Moi asked.
“Ndio mzee.” Yes sir.
“Haya sign hiyo makaratasi mara moja, hakuna mambo ya kungojea kesho.” OK, then sign those papers at once, there’s no need to wait until tomorrow. And that is how Uhuru become a nominated MP. The rest is history as they say.
When in 2006 William Ruto announced for the first time that he would run for the presidency, Moi was livid: “Ambia hiyo kijana awaje mbio,” Tell the young man to be patient, Moi told a close Ruto confidant. “Yeye bado kijana mdogo sana, kwa nini anakimbia namna hiyo? Mimi niko na mpango yake ya huko mbele.” He still very young, why is he in a hurry? I’ve got some plans for him for the future.
The truth was that Moi could not believe that Ruto had the audacity to declare an interest in the presidency. That was supposed to be the preserve of his favourite child, Gideon Moi.
Moi’s contradictions went beyond raw politics. When in 1989, he famously, alongside Richard Leakey, the then head of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), lit the “ivory fire” at the Nairobi National Park, he sent a powerful message to the conservation world that Kenya was not going to tolerate the selling of contraband ivory. Ironically, he lit the mountain of 12 tonnes of ivory while holding his signature fimbo ya Nyayo rungu, his symbol of authority, which was made of pure ivory.
In December 2002, I went to vote at Uhuru Primary School in Uhuru estate. The person in front of me was humming, “yote yawezekana bila Moi” lyrics. All is possible without Moi.
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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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