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Double Trauma in Minneapolis: An Eyewitness Account of the Protests That Shook America

15 min read.

ALEX ROBERTS walks through the smouldering debris of Minneapolis, and discovers that in a country where anything can be bought, hate can also be funded.

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Mayhem in Minneapolis: An Eyewitness Account of the Protests That Shook America
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The assessment that all the trouble started after George Floyd had his life squeezed out, cuffed and pleading, is inaccurate. In the Midwest region, the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) flew relatively below the radar of police brutality, especially compared with the notorious corruption of the Chicago Police Department, or the daily racial profiling put forth by the Milwaukee Police Department in Wisconsin.

In 2016, in neighbouring St. Paul, the murder of another unarmed black man, Philando Castile, who was shot five times by a policeman as he was reaching for his driving licence (even after announcing his intention to do so) pulled back the façade. The death of Castile was not forgotten, but it went unpunished and was left festering.

One such figure who has stood as an obstacle to progress towards a more equitable and just police department is Bob Kroll, the President of the Minneapolis Police Union. Kroll is an avid Donald Trump surrogate (even appearing on stage with the president at rallies), and has been accused of open bias in favour of police action by any means, and of having close ties to white supremacist groups. Kroll is a microcosm of the split within Minneapolis.

What is unclear now is how much of a hand the “Bob Krolls” of the city played in the last several days However, nearly every resident of the area believes the police helped stir up the situation.

The timeline of events went roughly as follows:

On the Monday Memorial Day holiday, George Floyd was murdered.

Tuesday saw primarily peaceful protests around the 3rd Precinct on Lake Street and at the site of the murder; but also on Tuesday there seemed to be some sort of instigation, although the exact “who threw down first” question is impossible to say, but in one instance a suspected officer was filmed breaking glass with a hammer at an auto shop while carrying an umbrella.

On Wednesday, the protests escalated as the officer had not been arrested yet and police actions began to intensify.

Thursday split into two protests: a more peaceful one outside the murder scene at Cup Foods (where George Floyd was killed); and a rowdier one at the 3rd Police Precinct. The latter one spiraled, although there are multiple reports of overzealous and violent police actions, as well as outside instigation. By late night Thursday, Lake Street for several blocks on either side of the precinct had devolved into chaos and fires had been lit, most notably destroying the police station itself, forcing police into a hasty retreat.

The situation continued on Friday as police initially stayed out of the area entirely, letting it burn and allowing residents to fend for themselves. They then went in with no mercy in the evening hours. (All or nothing for the MPD.)

With the police department dead set on “enforcing order” instead of calming the situation, the riot police were widely reported to be enacting a policy of violent action first, consequences be damned. Authority in America truly does despise any pushback.

Thursday split into two protests: a more peaceful one outside the murder scene at Cup Foods (where George Floyd was killed); and a rowdier one at the 3rd Police Precinct. The latter one spiraled, although there are multiple reports of overzealous and violent police actions, as well as outside instigation.

Instigators began to come out at night, both from inside the community and many from outside of it. There were multiple reports of white supremacists taking action and clashing in the area, as well as ANTIFA instigators, undercover cops, random out of state people, white kids in from the suburbs to kick up some shit and loot, Minneapolis citizens venting rage and Lake Street residents fighting the would-be instigators. All this, not to mention undercover cops stirring the pot and marked police cracking down on the crowd.

One man, a resident of the area, said of the previous night: “I was at the precinct last night. It was not what you want; people were walking up behind protesters and putting big ass fireworks at the feet of protesters. I watched Wells Fargo burn down. Now you see people who live here out here and cleaning? You know at night it’s a different thing. I think it is hired people. I don’t know who or from where but it is a coordinated effort. I’m hoping there’s just not much less to destroy down here.”

The fire-setters were of particular concern, as random Molotov cocktails were seemingly accompanied by more organised elements. The fires had ripped through seemingly dozens of businesses; large and small alike were not spared. Cars, burned down to white-hot ashy metal dotted parking lots in the surrounding area, particularly in the parking lots of bigger stores like the Target at the corner of Lake and 26th. Graffiti was everywhere, tagged in red and black. Slogans of “Fuck 12” (meaning police), “Death to Pigs”, “No Justice”, “Say His Name” were becoming ubiquitous across exposed brick and hastily thrown up plywood covering shop windows.

The area is the hub of the Twin Cities Somali community, a group of immigrants that has thrived in Minnesota over the last quarter century. Families from all over East Africa and beyond have made these leafy avenues one of the major centres of the diaspora, and now their shops were facing down a situation far outside of their control.

Some of the plywood had desperate pleas to be spared: “Don’t Burn: We Live Upstairs” and “No Fire: This is A BLACK OWNED BUSINESS.” Even stores that seemed to have managed to protect themselves were not spared on closer inspection; in several stores, water poured out from the cracks underneath the sheets of spray paint covered boarding. The low buzz of alarms was everywhere, some gurgling last chirps through the damage of flames, baseball bats and fire system flooding.

As a retired gardener named Madeline who lived off Lake Street said of the situation: “There is a criminal element looking to set fires. We just took a fire bomb out of a cooler outside the Precision Tune store. There’s no sense to this. The criminal elements are coming in on the coat-tails of the protesters and taking up the opportunity. They are very organised. Get your block club organised, coz it is up to us now.”

Now on Saturday, all of this served as an absolutely bizarre tableau. Empty hulking shells of businesses stood wobbly on pillars, surrounding ash and smoldering ruin within.

In front of one building, fluorescent yellow caution tape circled the structure, and a sign read, “Do NOT pass! Building WILL Collapse!”

Streaming past were brooms. Lone people at first, then twos and threes, and looking down Lake Street, a constant stream running up for miles, thousands of people, carrying brooms, shovels, dustpans, snow shovels – all making their way in to clean and salvage.

So many were willing to help their city, and so thorough a job they did that many commented that Lake Street was in fact cleaner than it had ever been. The result gave the impression of a Hollywood movie set – smouldering ruins of structures scattered around spotless asphalt.

In front of one building, fluorescent yellow caution tape circled the structure, and a sign read, “Do NOT pass! Building WILL Collapse!”

Outside an Ethiopian restaurant burned to a husk, with only the sign seeming to survive wholly intact, hundreds of people swept and shoveled up bricks and glass, some even tossing pieces of rubble into wheelbarrows. Inside, not even the floor had survived; it was now a smouldering plank looking down into the cellar of twisted beams intermingling with cracked and leaking water pipes.

Down the road, two doors down from the Kismayo Bakery, they continued, picking up glass by hand, scrubbing at graffiti with sponges, serving as fire brigades and throwing buckets of water onto embers.

In those initial hours of the afternoon, there was an eerie absence of voices; only the scrap of shovels and the swish of brooms broke the silence. The closest historical resemblance was that of Londoners removing rubble after Nazi bombing runs during the Blitz. As most were wearing masks, the eyes spoke of shell shock in the blocks around the Third Police precinct.

An older Somali man stood at the corner, looking at the ruins of a four-storey building about to collapse. He never stopped shaking his head, “This is not good, it is useless. This? You hurt people like this? No…no…no.” He didn’t say this to anyone in particular. Tears were welling up in his eyes. He turned and walked, defeated, up a side street.

Outside a half burned dentists’ office block on Chicago Avenue, a fire truck finally made an appearance, pouring down water that subsequently spilled out onto the street, washing chunks of charred debris around the feet of volunteers who stood in line waiting for the Afro Cafe workers to hand them packed samosas and veggie pilau.

It seemed like every half a block, people — the real representatives of Longfellow – offered up food, bottled water, and sunscreen. Some just asked the passersby if they needed to talk, whether they were holding up alright. The US media, somehow, managed to not highlight any of these organised efforts, though they stood in multitude in solidarity together – masked up and wearing T-shirts painted with “JUSTICE FOR GEORGE”. They took up the mantle of helping their neighboruhood, even as the police abandoned them, the overriding sentiment being “Let them burn each other down”. Instead, the people of Lake Street collected food, redistributed it, and did their damnedest to save every business on the block, even risking their necks to clean the inside of a giant burned-out Target superstore that surely never raised the minimum wage.

As often rings true, those most at risk do the most work. Perhaps this is why it was first- generation immigrants, many from the African diaspora, who spearheaded efforts to galvanise the community towards rebuilding, even as the fires smouldered around them, and the smell of chemical spray paint and the sickly sweet remains of tear gas intermingled with smoke from torched cars. In the midst of the fumes, they painted the word “Love” on the outside of a boarded-up grocery store.

On the nightly news, anchors feigned shock that convenience stores got robbed by three white teenagers in balaclavas, but there was no mention of the thousands who faced down the pandemic together for change and then took up brooms instead of bricks.

Two local teachers barked out this order to a waiting contingent of volunteers: “Get the chalk! Draw lines around this block so it is not hit!”

One of the women stopped to pause a second, murmuring to a random lady on the sidewalk, “Those people aren’t from Minneapolis, the ones burning? They’re not. All of us are here with this COVID? This is a double trauma. This is a great city. I can’t believe this would happen here. People live in some of the buildings being burned. Why would we do that to ourselves?”

A major question rings through: If anger is rightfully centred on the MPD, where were other first responders? If the city truly supported the cause for change, then where were the crews of medical workers handing out PPE?

This was failure at every level: an already stretched thin city abandoned, an already marginalised community threatened; the looming spectre of COVID hanging over it all.

Indeed, if it is possible to be simultaneously aggressive and passive, the emergency systems of Minneapolis managed to achieve both, threading the needle of uselessness. The city government isn’t entirely blameless either; while it may be convenient to blame only the Bob Kroll cop-fetishist types, the city’s “openly progressive” mayor, Jacob Frey, rightfully deserves criticism for his decision to let the protests continue unabated even as they became volatile into the nights of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. While instigators set up fire bombs, the police, dressed to kill, stayed on the sidelines, seeming only to break their holding pattern to beat, arrest and pepper spray the wrong (non-white) people, often pulling from the peaceful crowd to do so.

“Hands Up!” at the Fifth Precinct

Then there were the dressed-to-kill cops. They were huddled, half a dozen or so, behind trash cans and barricades on the roof of the 5th Precinct. Across the street, the Wells Fargo bank branch was in ruins; a car burned down to the rims lay next to a drive-through ATM machine.

Fences surrounded the station, and as the protesters moved closer, the officers silently put on bulky blue plastic riot helmets.

This initial reaction of gearing up to do battle seemed strange, particularly as how this same group of protesters, minutes before, was in the Uptown district of Lake Street, blocking off an entire intersection, taking a knee and chanting, “SAY HIS NAME! GEORGE FLOYD!” With signs they came in, perhaps six thousand of them, crowding in around the fences, chanting in unison.

Not a stone was thrown and the cops kept gearing up.

“What do we want? ALL FOUR!” the crowd chanted incessantly. It was led by a tiny teenage girl in a “HANDS UP! DON’T SHOOT!” shirt, yelling into a megaphone while steadying herself on top of a concrete barricade.

“All four” means arresting, trying and convicting all four cops that were present when George Floyd died. The sentiment is clear, there are no halfway measures to justice this time. All or nothing and f**k compromise. That road just leads back to this point.

The sentiment of the real South Minneapolis is that this killing truly was the last straw and now there is a need for systemic change or he died for nothing. They believe that George Floyd’s murder was premeditated because for nearly nine minutes, the pressure on his neck was unrelenting. He died cruelly, needlessly, helplessly, and three other cops let it happen; they were complicit in a daylight murder on Chicago Avenue. Not even a live cell phone camera recording and pleas of onlookers could change Floyd’s fate.

“These are the people that really live here,” one man said as he pushed an overloaded dumpster out of the road to help ease traffic. “This is actually us.”

Non-violence seemed the overall sentiment; anger definitely, but not a violent energy that wasn’t the centre of this movement. Even the non-violent were met with brutal police response, however, seemingly unprovoked in many instances.

Even some of the shop owners who had their shops burned still stood in solidarity, with the mantra of “possessions can be replaced but justice needs to be permanent”.

A man on a bicycle wearing a lime green Nigerian national squad football jersey elaborated on what he’d seen. He’d driven all the way from New York City and was quickly lumped in with the rowdier elements, as the police opened up on all of them: “I was there last night man, I was just there, not doing shit, not holding shit. I got shot in the leg with a rubber bullet, anything that could be burned was, from my eyes. My leg is swollen as shit man.”

The sentiment of the real South Minneapolis is that this killing truly was the last straw and now there is a need for systemic change or he died for nothing. They believe that George Floyd’s murder was premeditated because for nearly nine minutes, the pressure on his neck was unrelenting.

There has been a lot said about the outside elements, and the truth seems murky at best, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

At the corner of Wells Fargo, a fifty-something black woman, N-95 mask dangling around her neck, gathered a crowd around her, rebuking the destructive elements and calling on the crowd to do the same: “We gotta get some control in this, we really, really do. Don’t sit here and try to blame the cops, the only thing they’re to blame for is not standing their ground. They left us. Do the peaceful protests man But if you go out and tear up the stores? Don’t go into that! I told my sons that! They pulled guns on my sons and I told them not to be out here. Don’t tell me how to feel!”

Even more to the core than “outside elements” the common theme always circles back to how the police cracked down to such an extreme that people were forced into a corner, thinking that they were suddenly facing down a deadly circumstance with a riot gear-laden officer representing a department that just asphyxiated an unarmed, handcuffed black man in broad daylight and now were in their face swinging clubs and firing tear gas canisters with the intention of hurting people.

When forced into such circumstances, can it really be expected to never swing back?

Three men in their late twenties, Sam, Marvin and Anish (Marvin had moved to Minneapolis from Eldoret, Kenya, years ago), who all live north of the metro line in Minneapolis, attested to the conditions that primed the city’s protests.

“I don’t think they take the precautions they need to when it comes to black folks,” Marvin said, stone-faced.

Sam weighed in. “As black men we go out our way to say ‘hi’ to people, just to make them feel comfortable. Now Trump calling people thugs and shit, now saying ‘hi’ to you might not be valid anymore. F**k him man. That’s his first tweet, why not George Floyd? Why not the protests? We’ve been quiet for too long. This is exactly what happens when you don’t think about change. What do you want us to do, sit back and be quiet?”

There has been a lot said about the outside elements, and the truth seems murky at best, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

“Exactly!” Anish exclaimed, while holding a sign that read “Where’s Justice For George? No Justice For Us?” and shifting the sign onto the handles of his bike before continuing, “Everybody’s frustrated. Enough is enough It’s a cycle though. Same as Baltimore and St. Louis. Rodney King was when? We don’t have to do this, we don’t have to get to this point. This woulda been another closed case. People in Minnesota avoid these issues. Things get swept in this city man.”

A few blocks away, the echoes of “Say His NAME! GEORGE FLOYD” reverberated around store fronts. All up and down the block, countless hands worked furiously, scrubbing away, and screwing in more plywood barricades to stave off the inevitable.

In the adjacent alley, four tactical police units, shaved heads and wrap-around reflective sunglasses, buckled up their flak jackets.

A cocktail of volatility stirred

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts!” There, in small Twitter font, Trump quoted a white supremacist police chief from Miami back in the 60s, and the reaction on the ground was a sarcastic, “Tell us how you really feel”.

Much has been made of the fermenting of some uglier sentiments of American culture, old ghosts bubbling back up to prominence in the age of Trumpism. On Sunday, May 31st, the right-wing talking heads made little mention of the white supremacist who attempted to mirror the truck attack in the French city of Nice by plowing a petrol tanker into the peaceful protesters marching down interstate 35. He missed them, and in his panic that he hadn’t committed mass murder, slowed down, only to be swarmed by people jumping onto the hood and the sides, kicking out the windshield and dragging him out, ensuring he wasn’t beaten so badly that he couldn’t be handed over roughly to the police, who promptly tried to detain one of the would-be-terrorist’s captors.

When the “looting” starts, the shooting starts…clearly. For this administration, all black faces are looters and all those who demand justice for George Floyd are violent ANTIFA thugs. It matters not that they hold signs that read “I Can’t Breathe!”, and that they walk in solidarity with hands up and that there are young people, even children, in the crowds demanding change. This peaceful movement, for the Trump administration, is terrifying and they’re desperately grasping at straws to paint it only through negativity, and further drown out the growing voices who see the obvious realities of inequity.

The disconnect of political ideologies is clearer than ever within the age of COVID and Trumpism, but during the opening salvo of what seems to be a movement, it rings all the starker.

Now, across the US, the simmering has begun to boil over. Protests are breaking out in dozens of cities. Peaceful marchers are revealing that the callousness of the Minneapolis police is not a Minnesota problem, but an institutional system of brutality. It feels as though a moment has arrived, and that true change may, finally, at last, be possible.

The unfortunate part for Minneapolis is how heavily the movement got hijacked.

Sitting out in her lawn ten blocks from the 3rd Precinct, Amy Froiland Parada, a social worker focusing on health services for lower income families from a St. Paul high school, reflects on the last few days.

“People are stirring up all kinds of fear. On my block, (she points around at houses) those guys all fled. I didn’t feel scared until this morning, when I heard that the fire bombs could be organised. When I heard the helicopters, when I heard about the precinct burning down, I thought, you know what? We need a change here. And now…now we’re texting our neighbours and telling them to hide their propane tanks, keep hoses and buckets handy.”

Now, across the US, the simmering has begun to boil over. Protests are breaking out in dozens of cities. Peaceful marchers are revealing that the callousness of the Minneapolis police is not a Minnesota problem, but an institutional system of brutality. It feels as though a moment has arrived, and that true change may, finally, at last, be possible.

Parada has made inroads into the community here through her work and through neighbourhood meetings with members of local predominantly black churches. Now those very same neighbours are under threat. “Tonight, there are people taking shifts to guard the black church around the corner. There’s that fear, the fear it could be targeted. I just truly, truly don’t believe that it is people from this neighbourhood doing all of this.” Her primary concern is how organised the violence seems.

There is truly an element of the Lake Street protests that doesn’t make sense, namely, why Lake Street? Sure the 3rd Precinct is there, but that doesn’t answer the riddle of why the street has been the focal point of the conflict.

In a primed America, however, it might. As coronavirus has brought the world’s “most powerful nation” and “best economy” to its knees, ugly truths have been revealed. Cops are shooting journalists with rubber bullets at point blank range on live television. Young people of colour are so frustrated that they are willing to put up with brutalisation just to be heard – and brutalised they are.

All of this, during the greatest global pandemic in a century, and the desperate clinging to bullshit ideals of “normalcy” from the political class and the controlling interests of the economy. America was never for everyone; African Americans have known this all along. And now, as the financial stability of everyone has cratered through unreachable floor after unreachable floor, such sentiment is spreading. People are risking brutalisation on their heads from clubs while risking brutalisation of their lungs and lives from COVID-19.

There is truly a severe anger right now- the altruistic tendencies that marked the early weeks of the COVID pandemic have been replaced with people who have been left behind and told by their leader that “the White House has handled everything perfectly”.

The young people are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Black America is tired of seeing the movie on repeat, an endless loop.

As one man said of the issue in Minneapolis: “I ain’t burned shit yet, but I am. They put their knee on us too much, it isn’t like a typical way, it’s like a system way. A lot of people feeling the same way, it was bound to happen sooner or later.”

Now, with money running thin and the crises deepening, the marginalised are gaining a voice that’s becoming a deepening bellow. But for every action, there’s a reaction. Those who would quell those voices, the elements on the other side of the divide mobilised too.

All those elements hit Lake Street like a cyclone; the anger fermented in a desperate and politically divided America poured out into the fires set to Longfellow shops.

The melting pot of the upper Midwest became a cauldron in the days since George Floyd, and as things stand economically, who can say if it’ll ever return to prominence. All of those immigrant-owned businesses, generations of work, gone in a fire bomb.

As Parada describes the situation, “It is almost like someone is trying to come in and stir up a race war up here.”

It is that concern that encapsulates the darkest thoughts that creep in – that in a country where anything can be bought, hate can also be funded. Through this lens, is it truly an act of chance that all of these minority and immigrant-run shops and restaurants started being targeted early on?

In the winding streets of the wealthy lakeside homes south of Lake Street, no less than 20 police SUVs, lined up in a row: they were calming the situation down by guarding the rich miles away from the problem. It was then that the class segregation parallels between a city like Nairobi and Minneapolis become crystal clear: when the chips are down, keep the masses away from true wealth.

To that end, if South Minneapolis is truly ahead of its time, is it so hard to believe that there are elements within America that seek to drag it backwards?

Indeed, the George Floyd protests have been a litmus test for the progress of the neighbourhood. But if the last few days are any indication, residents of Lake Street will come out with brooms, and together they’ll sweep up America’s mess.

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Alex is a journalist and social media expert based in Nairobi, Kenya

Politics

Wakasighau: The Forgotten Victims of British Colonial Land Dispossession

The effects the British colonial policy of subjugation through dispossession and exile continue to reverberate among the Wakasighau.

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Wakasighau: The Forgotten Victims of British Colonial Land Dispossession
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Two years have gone by since I last saw Mzee Joshua Mwakesi Mwalilika. He hasn’t changed a bit. His birth certificate says he was born in 1923. This means that Mzee Mwalilika is just two years shy of a hundred. He says that the birth certificate is wrong, that he was actually born in 1921. Mzee Mwalilika is from Taita, of the Wakasighau, a people who were uprooted from their native Kasighau region and exiled by the British to Malindi where they languished for over twenty years.

It all started in August 1915, at a time when Kenya was under British colonial rule and neighbouring Tanzania, then Tanganyika, was under the Germans. World War I had begun and, being so close to the border with Tanganyika, Kasighau was bound to suffer the effects of the war. When the Germans attacked the British, the British took revenge on the local African populations.

“All the houses were torched in the entire Kasighau on August 11th 1915. From Kigongwe, Makwasinyi, Jora, Kiteghe, Bungule, and Rukanga,” recalls Mzee Mwalilika. It was the handiwork of the British; they were on a punitive expedition against the Wakasighau whom the British suspected of having betrayed them to the Germans. A few days prior, the Germans had  carried out a night raid on the British garrison at Kasighau, committing a massacre. This was eight years before Mzee Mwalilika was born.

One version of the events is that after the attack, the Germans wrote a letter to the British claiming that the locals had voluntarily betrayed them, which prompted the British to retaliate. At Rukanga Village in Kasighau, retired teacher Jonathan Mshiri, now aged 71, says that local accounts of the events tell of two individuals from the area who unknowingly directed some Germans who were on a spying mission to where the British had set up camp.

“Two people were harvesting honey in the bush and the soldiers came and interrogated them and said, ‘Can you show us where the wazungu are?’” says Mwalimu Mshiri. “They used the term wazungu not British, so Kinona and Mwashutu thought that these white people were just friends of fellow white people. They did not know that these were Germans.”  The Germans laid waste to the British garrison at Jora in Kasighau and 38 British soldiers, including their captain, were taken captive by the Germans. This enraged the British so much that they decided to exile the entire Kasighau community.

For the Kasighau people, the British chose Malindi. After torching all the houses in the five villages, they rounded up all the people and gathered them at a place that was central to all the villages. “The British chose these open grounds because it gave them a view of Tanganyika where the Germans had come from,” explains Ezra Mdamu, a descendant of the survivors. “They also hoped that some of the villagers would have a better chance of pointing out exactly where the Germans had headed to. The people were also subjected to torture to extract information from them.”

The Wakasighau were then forced to march to Maungu Township, some 35 kilometres by today’s roads. From Maungu to the border at Holili is 144 kilometres using today’s road network, if indeed the German attackers had come through Holili.

The captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals.

At Maungu, the captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals. “What the new hosts did was put poison in the water holes, and this led to many deaths amongst our people,” Mwalimu Mshiri explains.

Macharia Munene, professor of History and International Affairs at the United States International University, says that using exile as punishment summarizes the colonial policy of subjugation and dispossession of local peoples.

“Most of these people who were deported were individuals, people trying to challenge colonial authority,” he says, “but colonialists also deported groups of people, often to hostile, undesirable places.”

Return to Kasighau

The plight of the Kasighau in their new land did not go unnoticed, and various parties, including church organizations, brought pressure to bear on the colonialists to review their position. But it was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.

“All the land around Kasighau Hill was termed as hunting blocks where the British people could hunt. The block here was called ‘66A’, the Kasighau people were only confined to a 10km² block around the hill called ‘Trust Land’. The rest of the land was called ‘Crown Land,’” says Mwalimu Mshiri.

It was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.

After independence in 1963, Crown Land became State Land and some of the remaining land was handed over to ex-WWII British colonial soldiers. The people of Kasighau were not represented at the time and the remaining land was subdivided into ranches that today surround the 10km² settlement area. It is within some of these ranches that mineral deposits and precious stones are found, and there are frequent tussles between the youth, miners and investors.

According to a report titled The Taita Taveta County Integrated Development Plan 2013-2017, only 35 per cent of all landowners possess title deeds. The report says that land adjudication was ongoing to ensure that all landowners possess title deeds. The 2019 census puts the population of Taita Taveta at 340,671. Kasighau Ward alone is home to 13,000 people. The majority say they do not have title deeds.

No land, more problems

In February 2019, a group of young men from Kasighau descended on a disputed mine inside Kasighau Ranch. Around the mining area are mounds of earth and makeshift tents. People selling foodstuffs have followed in the wake of the miners. Those mining say they are simply going for what they believe belongs to them. They do not have the heavy equipment needed for serious mining operations such as earthmovers or elaborate underground mining shafts. They are artisanal miners who rely on simple tools such as hoes, spades and mattocks.

“When we young people saw that we did not have leaders serious on championing our rights, we decided to have our own revolution,” says Elijah Mademu, a youth leader. “We decided to redeem our lost lands, lands rich in mineral resources. There are about 500 young men and women eking out a living from these minerals.”

According to retired Kasighau Location chief Pascal Kizaka, the occupation of the mine can be attributed to population pressure and young people running out of options. “Every economic activity starts with land. Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it,” he says.

Prof. Macharia says land ownership remains a significant cause of conflict across much of Kenya where land issues remain unresolved. “The government, particularly the area MP and area governor, because they have power, they should raise the issue and say, these are our people, so process their [land] titles.”

However, Taita Taveta Lands County Executive Committee member Mwandawiro Mghanga disputes the assertion that the county or the leadership at the local level are fully able to resolve the issue of title deeds, arguing that land and natural resources adjudication have not been fully devolved.

“It is true in this matter there are injustices, but on title deed issues even the entire Taita Taveta County has the same problem. In Kasighau the plan is to let them get the title deeds alongside the rest of the county”, he says.

“Of course there are six ranches, agriculturally-driven ranches (ADR’s) and there’s Kasighau Ranch which is very large. . . . There should not be a drive motivated by the capitalist system to grab ranches. What needs to be done is that everyone who needs a title for land to settle should have access to it.”

“Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it.”

Land alone might not be the only thorny issue. Chief Kizaka laments that throughout his time living and working in the area, local Kasighau people have noticeably been lagging behind even in education matters. For instance, a 2013 report on inequalities compared Kasighau Ward to neighbouring Mbololo ward and found that only 8 per cent of Kasighau residents have a secondary education or above. A Kenya National Bureau of Statistics report titled Exploring Kenya’s Inequality: Pulling Apart or Pooling Together? shows Kasighau’s literacy rates to be four times less than Mbololo’s 32 per cent of the population who have gone beyond secondary school education.

“By independence time, we had only three primary schools, in Bungule, Rukanga and Mwakwasinyi. Illiteracy was very high. You can imagine, illiterate parents producing illiterate children,” bemoans Chief Kizaka. “There is no movement. The number of locals in school is very low. Compared to many parts of the country where locals are the majority, here we do not dominate.”

Today, Mwalimu Jonathan Mshiri says the thought of squeezing almost his entire descendants onto 15 acres of land troubles him daily. He knows too well that already the 13,000 Kasighau residents, whose numbers are increasing, are also facing the difficulty of having to make do with 10 square kilometres of land.

“We are the Kasighau people, we belong to this mountain and the surroundings, why are we not being given the priority?” he asks.

It is 6 p.m. and as the sun sets in the west, in the direction of Tanzania, it casts a golden glow on the Kasighau massif, but the dark despair of the Wakasighau remains.

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Politics

Big Pharma and the Problem of Vaccine Apartheid

In this report on the TWN-Africa and ROAPE webinar on vaccine imperialism held last month, Cassandra Azumah writes that the unfolding vaccine apartheid which has left Africa with the lowest vaccination rates in the world is another depressing example of the profit and greed of Big Pharma facilitated by imperialist power.

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Big Pharma and the Problem of Vaccine Apartheid
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The webinar on ‘Vaccine Imperialism: Scientific Knowledge, Capacity and Production in Africa’ which took place on 5 August 5, 2021, was organized by the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) in partnership with the Third World Network-Africa (TWN-Africa). It explored the connections and interplay of Africa’s weak public health systems, the profit and greed of Big Pharma enabled by the governments of the industrialized Global North, and the Covid-19 pandemic from a political economy perspective. This report summarizes the main discussions held during the conference, including an overview of each of the main points discussed. The webinar was the first in a three-part series of webinars scheduled by the two organizations under the theme Africa, Climate Change and the Pandemic: interrelated crises and radical alternatives.

The format of the event involved keynote presentations from three speakers, a five-minute activist update on the COVID-19 situation from two African countries, and an interactive discussion with participants. Chaired by Farai Chipato, a Trebek Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa and ROAPE editor, the session included presentations from Rob Wallace, an evolutionary epidemiologist and public health geography expert at the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps; Tetteh Hormeku, Head of Programmes at Third World Network-Africa (TWN-Africa) and Marlise Richter, a senior researcher at the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa.

The current state of the pandemic – Rob Wallace

Rob Wallace began the session by providing a global perspective on the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic. He presented data showing that though the total number of vaccinations are increasing, the percentage of people fully vaccinated is concentrated in the West. We are currently experiencing a third wave of the pandemic, which is being driven by the delta variant. Though the cases in Africa are relatively lower than in other parts of the world, it is still a marked increase from the first and second waves which were less severe. This is not the trajectory that was predicted for COVID-19 on the continent in the early days of the pandemic. Marius Gilbert et al had speculated that Africa would be vulnerable to the virus due to a lower public health capacity and underlying co-morbidities that might increase the spread and damage of the virus. However, the incidence of the virus has played out in a different way, Africa’s cases are not as high as that of other continents. The possible reasons that have been given for this are: demographics (a younger population), open housing (which allows greater ventilation), and an ongoing circulation of other types of coronaviruses which have induced a natural, partial immunity in the population.

Wallace also commented on herd immunity, stating that it is not a panacea for defeating the virus. He referenced a paper by Lewis Buss et al on COVID-19 herd immunity in the Brazilian Amazon which found that although 76% of the population had been infected with the virus by October 2020, they had not achieved herd immunity (which is usually estimated at 70-75%), and proliferation of the virus was ongoing. He pointed out that the key lesson from this study is that there is no magical threshold for herd immunity; it may be different for different populations or there may be no threshold at all.

Likewise, he contended that defeating COVID-19 has little to do with vaccination as a silver bullet, but much to do with governance and the wellbeing of the population being at the crux of any public health decisions a government would take. A multi-pronged approach should be taken to defeat the virus, one that includes vaccinations, wearing of masks, social distancing, and testing and tracing. He argued however, that in the neoliberal regimes of the industrialised North, dealing with COVID-19 is organized around profit.

This was not the case in the early days of the outbreak. Initially, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US were in favour of having open medicine and making sure any pharmaceutical products produced to fight the virus were free to all. To this end, WHO developed the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP). However, the lobbying of Big Pharma and the likes of Bill Gates worked to centre the COVID-19 response around the model of intellectual property rights. This has had a considerable impact on the evolution of the virus, allowing it enough room to evolve such that pharmaceutical companies can make profits by selling booster shots of the vaccine. According to Wallace, this speaks to the “sociopathic nature” of the neoliberal regimes in the Global North who are willing to put the profits of Big Pharma over the lives of people. He opined that we need to act in solidarity to create a system in which disparities between the Global South and Global North are removed.

Health justice and the pandemic in South Africa – Marlise Richter

Marlise Richter’s presentation shed light on the work of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the lessons that can be learnt from their struggles for access to medicines (in particular ARVs). She pointed out that the TRIPS agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights – TRIPS – is a legal agreement between member states of the World Trade Organisation) had a big impact on how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was addressed, resulting in a limited number of ARVs reaching the Global South.

The HIV epidemic was particularly acute in South Africa, the number of people living with the virus ballooned from 160,000 in 1992 to over 4.2 million people by 2000. At this time, ARV’s had been developed but were unaffordable in Africa, costing up to US$10,000 a year in 1998.

The TAC used multiple strategies such as skilled legal advocacy, high quality research, social mobilization, demonstrations, and public education to fight the pharmaceutical industry and their abuse of intellectual property rights protections. It joined the case brought by the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PMA) against the South African government for allowing parallel importation of drugs in order to bring down prices of medicines. Its intervention contributed to pressuring the PMA to withdraw its claims in 2001. In addition, it applied pressure at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000 by staging a march to highlight the danger of President Mbeki’s AIDS denialism and demanded access to ARVs in Africa.

From 1999 onwards, the TAC also campaigned for a national prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. This case was won at the high court and precipitated a national ARV roll-out plan in April 2004. Finally, in 2002, TAC and the AIDS Law Project filed a complaint with the Competition Commission against GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Boehringer Ingelheim arguing that they violated the competition law by abusing their dominance in the market and charging excessive prices for ARVs. This forced the companies to reach a settlement in 2003 leading to a drastic cut in ARV prices. By employing these tactics, the TAC and other activists were able to transform both the national and global conversation on drug pricing, eventually leading to South Africa having the largest HIV treatment program globally and pharmaceutical companies reducing the prices of ARVs.

Following the success of the campaigns to provide access to ARVs in Africa, activists in the Global South fought for the Doha Declaration. The Doha Declaration waived some of the provisions in TRIPS in order to prevent public health crises and promote access to medicines for all. However, Richter commented that not many of these flexibilities have been used. She posits that this is due to immense political pressure from the West. The US in particular has singled out governments that seek to use the TRIPS flexibilities and placed them on the US Special 301 Watch List.

Returning to the present, Richter presented data that showed that on 3 August, there have been just under 200 million confirmed cases and over 4.2 million deaths of COVID-19. 28.6% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine with 14.8% fully vaccinated. But to give a sense of the disparity in vaccine administration across the world, she indicated that 4.21 billion doses have been administered globally with 38.67 million administered daily, but in low-income countries only 1.1% of people have received at least one dose. Narrowing it down to Africa, only 1.58% of the population has been fully vaccinated. This variance in administered vaccines is also present across the continent. In July 2021, Morocco had 28.9% of its population fully vaccinated, Botswana and South Africa had 5.3% and 5% of their populations fully vaccinated, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo had 0%. These incongruities are also evident when we assess the number of vaccines promised against vaccines delivered, with South Africa receiving only 26% of the vaccines promised. Continuing at the current pace, it would take South Africa two years and three months just to vaccinate 67% of its population.

Richter quoted the WHO Director-General saying, “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.” Following from this, she believes that it makes ethical sense and public health sense for vaccines to be distributed equitably amongst the world’s population. In a bid to fight for vaccine equity, South Africa and India co-sponsored the TRIPS waiver in October 2020. If successful, this waiver will bring about flexibilities in the TRIPS agreement which would have an immense impact on the manufactured supplies of vaccines and other medical goods. For the waiver to be passed, a consensus amongst all member states of the WTO needs to be reached. While the waiver is supported by over 100 countries (predominantly in the Global South), it has been blocked most notably by the EU, Australia, Norway and Japan, countries which have enough vaccines to vaccinate their population many times over. Putting this into perspective, in January 2021 the EU had 3.5 vaccines per person and Canada had 9.6 vaccines per person, as compared to 0.2 vaccines per person in the African Union. By blocking this waiver, the industrialised North is further entrenching the extreme inequalities currently faced by the Global South.

Richter concluded her presentation by speaking on a recent development in South Africa, where Pfizer-BioNtech has recently signed a ‘fill and finish’ contract with the Biovac Institute. She claimed that while this is a first step in developing manufacturing capacity, it is not enough to achieve vaccine independence because it does not include the sharing of Pfizer-BioNtech’s technology or know-how. In addition, the ‘fill and finish’ approach does not address issues of security of supply, nor does it allow local manufacturers the freedom to make their own pricing decisions. She believes that if we start from the premise that health is a human right, as the TAC does, we will regard health equity and especially vaccine equity as essential in the struggle against the pandemic.

The political economy of the continuing fight against intellectual property rights negatively affecting public health goods in Africa – Tetteh Hormeku

Tetteh Hormeku’s presentation was centred around the challenges that African countries have confronted in the process of trying to develop their own pharmaceutical capacity. These challenges go beyond the struggles for the TRIPS waiver and include the impact of some of the choices governments have made. He focused on two interrelated points that frame the predicament of African countries in relation to the current vaccine situation:

1) The vaccine process is dominated by pharmaceutical Multinational Corporations (MNCs) based in the advanced industrial countries and supported by their governments. The controversy around the TRIPS waiver is a clear example of the extent to which advanced countries and their MNCs would like to hold on to their place in the international order.

2) On the non-existent domestic pharmaceutical capacity in African countries, Tetteh explained that he uses the phrase “domestic pharmaceutical capacity” because:

  • It does not include a subsidiary of an MNC signing a production agreement with a local African company.
  • The word ‘domestic’ combines both the local character of production and the fact that it is embedded within the nation, its challenges, people, drives and imperatives.
  • It does not refer to nations alone, but also to regional and continental initiatives.
  • It captures pharmaceutical capacity beyond the production of vaccines.

Tetteh provided the following case-study to show how these two points are interrelated. 24 February marked the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to Ghana, and there was an optimism that it would be the beginning of a steady supply of vaccines to the country – six months later, less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated. Around the time Ghana received this first shipment, it was in talks with the Cuban government for support on the transfer of technology to improve its pharmaceutical capacity.

This date in February also marked the anniversary of the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in 1966. Six months before the coup Nkrumah’s government had established a state pharmaceutical enterprise. After the coup, the military government tried to hand it over to Abbott Laboratories, an American pharmaceutical company, under such outrageous terms that the resulting backlash from the populace led to the abandonment of this plan.

The creation of a state-owned pharmaceutical enterprise in Ghana and in other African countries in the post-independence era was a reaction to colonial policies which deliberately curtailed the production of knowledge and science across the continent. The aim of developing a pharmaceutical industry domestically was to intervene on three levels:

  • Creating an industry with the technical know-how and the machinery to be able to participate in the production of pharmaceutical products.
  • Creating an industry which is linked to the process of developing and building knowledge and being at the frontiers of knowledge. This involved creating linkages with universities and scholars.
  • Making use of traditional sources of medical knowledge. The state pharmaceutical enterprise was in operation until the 1980s when due to the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) it was privatized and unable to compete in the free market.

Tetteh pointed out that two lessons can be taken from this anecdote:

  • The government strongly intervened to ensure pharmaceutical production was linked to public procurement and public policy. The market for the product was guaranteed (army, public hospitals etc.).
  • The government intervened to ensure that certain medical products could not be imported into the country. These interventions were crucial in creating the legal and scientific conditions within which the state-owned enterprise thrived until the SAP period.

A key success of the state pharmaceutical enterprise was that it was able to bargain with Big Pharma on its own terms. At the time, Big Pharma needed to negotiate with the state pharmaceutical enterprise to produce their products locally since they had no access to the Ghanaian market. Although Ghana’s intellectual property rights regime replicated and mimicked some of the standards in the Global North, it was an indication of the amount of space countries in the Global South had to develop their own legislation with respect to intellectual property for public health. However, this option is no longer available to these countries. According to Tetteh, TRIPS inaugurated the monopoly that Big Pharma has over technical know-how for medical products. It has also enabled bio-piracy which allows Big Pharma to appropriate African traditional knowledge and patent it for themselves. In the 1990s, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) tried to create an African model law to enable a fight against bio-piracy but was unsuccessful.

The creation of a state-owned pharmaceutical enterprise in Ghana and in other African countries in the post-independence era was a reaction to colonial policies, which deliberately curtailed the production of knowledge and science across the continent

Tetteh noted that the current situation highlights the importance of getting the TRIPS waiver, as it is a starting point for building domestic pharmaceutical capacity. The waiver goes beyond just patents and encompasses a host of other intellectual property rights such as copyrights, and industrial design. It covers all the important bases for making medicines in a modern context. Looking back to the Doha Declaration, very few countries were able to make real changes to their laws in order to make use of the flexibilities. This was due in part to the entrenchment of TRIPS in other agreements such as AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act) and the EPAs (Economic Partnership Agreements). However, importantly, there was no real commitment by African leaders to making these changes.

Tetteh argued that African leaders are not making the strategic choices that would eventually lead them to developing independent pharmaceutical industries. Suggesting that South-South cooperation is an avenue to address the current issues the continent faces, he argued that instead of using all their funds to buy vaccines, African countries could have allocated some funds to support phase three of Cuba’s vaccine trials. By doing this, they would have been able to negotiate for a consistent relationship in terms of knowledge exchange and the transfer of technology.

Updates on COVID-19 in Senegal and Kenya

Cheikh Tidiane Dieye provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in Senegal. The country recorded its first case of the virus in March 2020. Since then, the government has put in place measures such as curfews, travel restrictions and the banning of public gatherings to contain the spread of the disease. The Senegalese government did not enforce a lockdown because the country has a large informal sector which would have been negatively impacted by a lockdown.

Senegal is currently experiencing its third wave – driven by the delta variant. The total number of cases has increased significantly over the last year, moving from 9,805 cases and 195 deaths in July 2020 to 63,560 cases with 1,365 deaths as of July 2021. This increase in cases has taken a toll on the country as it does not have the healthcare infrastructure to deal with the virus caseload. The vaccination campaign was launched in February this year, with about 1.2 million doses received, 1.8% of the population fully vaccinated and 3% receiving their first dose.

He stated that Senegal is currently facing two issues:

  1. Lack of access to the vaccines. This is because the country does not have the means to purchase enough vaccines for its population and is currently relying on donations from COVAX. This has resulted in protracted waiting times for the vaccine. These waiting times can cause complications for vaccine administration, since there are people who have received the first dose but must wait for longer than the recommended time of eight weeks to receive their second dose.
  2. A significant part of the population is reluctant to receive vaccines and sensitization campaigns are proving ineffective.

He remarked on one key development in Senegal – the creation of a vaccine manufacturing plant funded by the World Bank, the US, and a few European countries. The plant is expected to produce 300 million doses a year, first of COVID-19 vaccines and then other types of vaccines against endemic diseases. This project will be implemented by the Institut Pasteur de Dakar which already produces yellow fever vaccines.

ROAPE’s Njuki Githethwa provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in Kenya. He mentioned that the delta variant has caused a surge in cases and deaths. There have been currently over 200,000 cases since the pandemic began with the total number of deaths at 4,000 at the end of July. He pointed out that this third wave is affecting the lower classes which were spared in the initial stages of the pandemic. Kenya has received 1.8 million doses of the vaccine, with about 1.7% of Kenyans vaccinated. He noted that if vaccinations continue at this pace, it will take over two years for Kenyans to be fully vaccinated.

A key success of the state pharmaceutical enterprise was that it was able to bargain with Big Pharma on its own terms. At the time, Big Pharma needed to negotiate with the state pharmaceutical enterprise to produce their products locally since they had no access to the Ghanaian market

According to Njuki, the disbursement of vaccines from the West is being portrayed as a symbol of charity, solidarity, and sympathy. This portrayal is underlain by the West positioning themselves as saints while vilifying other countries like India and China. He also mentioned that there is a class dynamic at play in Kenya regarding the distribution of vaccines. People in affluent areas have ease of access whereas the less privileged wait in long queues to get vaccinated. As a result, most of the population, including frontline workers, are yet to be vaccinated. Schools in the country reopened at the end of July, and only about 60% of teachers have been vaccinated. Njuki touched on the fact that there is an optimism that more vaccines are coming, however the government is not doing enough to sensitise the population. There is still a lot of misinformation and superstition surrounding the vaccines.

Moving beyond the state?

The discussion was further enriched by contributions from the participants. Gyekye Tanoh, for example, noted that in the past the presence of state pharmaceutical enterprises around the continent constituted an active and embodied interest. This influenced the way transnational pharmaceutical companies were able to negotiate, severely limiting their power. However, such a thing is not present today on the continent. In fact, a study from the McKinsey Institute pointed to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has the highest markups in Africa, meaning that while the continent is not the biggest market, it is the most profitable region in the world. Currently, the interests of Big Pharma dominate, he asked, how do we begin to shift this? Is it time to look beyond the state as a leading agent for change? What can progressives do in this situation?

Senegal is currently experiencing its third wave – driven by the delta variant. The total number of cases has increased significantly over the last year, moving from 9,805 cases and 195 deaths in July 2020 to 63,560 cases with 1,365 deaths as of July 2021

In response to Gyekye’s question, Tetteh argued that he does not believe that it is time to look beyond the government. In the case of the pharmaceutical industry, the market is created by production and government procurement of pharmaceutical products. Real change cannot be realised without the involvement of the government and well thought out policies. But there is still a role for progressives. Activists need to mobilise and organize around broad paradigmatic changes and clear concrete policy choices that can be implemented in the immediate, medium, and long term.

Wallace added that the objectives of activists in the Global North should be to support the efforts of those in the Global South. This is especially important because COVID-19 is not the only virus that can cause real damage. We need to make structural changes that ensure the Global South is not at the mercy of the Global North whose economic model has contributed to the current situation.

Farai Chipato ended the session by thanking the speakers and participants for their contributions to the fruitful and important discussion. Chipato urged participants to join ROAPE and TWN-Africa for their two upcoming webinars: ‘Popular public health in Africa: lessons from history and Cuba’ and ‘Alternative strategies and politics for the Global South: climate-change and industrialisation.’

This article was originally published in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) Journal. 

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Omissions of Inquiry: Kenya and the Limitations of Truth Commissions

Gabrielle Lynch provides a radical analysis of the mechanisms of transitional justice. Looking at the case of Kenya, Lynch argues that truth commissions which hope to achieve truth, justice and reconciliation also require ongoing political struggles, and substantive socio-economic and political change. While reconciliation and justice may be goals which truth commission can recommend, and sometimes contribute to, they cannot be expected to achieve them.

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In today’s world, it is almost expected that a truth commission will be introduced in the wake of conflict or a period of authoritarianism to try and consolidate a transition to democracy and peace. A truth commission generally understood – as per Priscilla Hayner – as a temporary state-sanctioned body that investigates a pattern of past abuse, engages ‘directly and broadly with the affected population, gathering information on their experiences’ and which aims to conclude with a public report.

The underlying idea is that societies need to confront and deal with unjust histories if they are to establish a qualitative break with that past. Proponents of modern truth commissions thus ‘look backwards’, not as interested historians, but as a way to ‘reach forwards.’ As Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained in his foreword to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report:

The other reason amnesia simply will not do is that the past refuses to lie down quietly. It has an uncanny habit of returning to haunt one … However painful the experience, the wounds of the past must not be allowed to fester. They must be opened. They must be cleansed. And balm must be poured on them, so they can heal. This is not to be obsessed with the past. It is to take care that the past is properly dealt with for the sake of the future.

Motivated by this desire to render the past ‘passed’ in the substantial sense of being ‘dead’ or ‘over and done with’, modern truth commissions dedicate most of their time to two activities: the holding of public hearings and production of a final report.

This is a relatively recent development. Early truth commissions did not hold public hearings and were largely fact-finding bodies. However, ever since the South African TRC of the 1990s, truth commissions have held hearings as a stage for various actors – victims, perpetrators, political parties, state institutions and so forth – to present their account of past wrongs. The underlying idea is that people will have a chance to speak and be heard, and thus regain their humanity; that a wider (and engaged) audience will bear witness to a new human rights-conscious regime; and the overview provided will feed into, and help legitimise, a final report. The latter in turn intended to record and acknowledge past wrongs and provide recommendations that can help to promote truth, justice and reconciliation.

However, while much hope is often placed, and much time and money expended, on truth commissions and their hearings and final reports, it is evident that these processes generally fall far short of ambitious goals and high expectations. But what explains this gap between aspiration and reality?

This is one of the questions that I address in a new book – Performances of Injustice: The politics of truth, justice and reconciliation in Kenya – which analyses several transitional justice mechanisms introduced following Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007/8 when over 1,000 people were killed and almost 700,000 were displaced.

This includes the establishment of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). Significantly, the Commission’s mandate recognised that, while the 2007/8 post-election violence was triggered by a disputed election, it was fuelled by more deep-rooted problems.  In turn, the Commission was tasked with investigating a wide array of injustices – from state repression and causes of political violence to perceptions of economic marginalisation and irregular land acquisition – between Kenya’s independence in 1963 and the end of the post-election violence in February 2008.

Established through an Act of Parliament in 2008, and operational from 2009 to 2013, the TJRC sought to meet its mandate, in large part, by collecting statements (with over 40,000 collected in total), holding public and women’s hearings in 35 locations across the country and adversely mentioned person (AMP) hearings in western and Nairobi, and publishing a substantial final report that runs to over 2,000 pages.

Despite such achievements, the Commission was soon mired in controversy with calls for the chairman – who was soon linked to three injustices that the Commission was meant to investigate – to resign, while the public hearings attracted little media attention, and the final report is yet to be discussed in parliament let alone implemented.

The Kenyan experience highlights a range of lessons and insights. This includes the fact – as recently outlined in a piece for The Conversation – that transitional justice mechanisms are not ‘tools’ that can be introduced in different contexts with the same effect. Instead, their success (or failure) rests on their design, approach and personnel – all of which are incredibly difficult to get right – but also on their evaluation and reception, and thus on their broader contexts, which commissions have little or no control over.

However, the lessons that can be drawn go beyond reception and context and extend to the inherent shortcomings of such an approach.

First, while victims appreciate a chance to speak and be heard, the majority clearly submitted statements or memoranda or provided testimony in the hope that they would be heard and that some action would be taken to redress the injustices described. As one woman explained after a women’s hearing in Nakuru, she was glad that she had spoken and how, having told her story, the Commission would ‘come in and help.’

To be fair, the TJRC’s founders were aware of the inadequacies of speaking, which is why they included ‘justice’ in the title and gave the Commission powers to recommend further investigations, prosecutions, lustration (or a ban from holding public office), reparations and institutional and constitutional reforms.

However, on the question of whether recommendations would be implemented, the Commission rather naively relied on the TJRC Act (2008), which stipulated that ‘recommendations shall be implemented.’ However, such legal provisions proved insufficient. Amidst general scepticism about the Commission’s work, parliament amended the TJRC Act in December 2013 to ensure that the report needed to be considered by the National Assembly – something that is yet to happen.

Moreover, to document and acknowledge the truth requires that one hears from both victims and perpetrators. However, the latter often have little motivation, and much to lose, from telling the truth. This was evident in Kenya where, during the AMP hearings I attended, where I heard little that was new and not a single admission of personal responsibility or guilt. Instead, testimonies were characterised by five discursive strands of responsibility denied: denial through a transfer of responsibility, denial through a questioning of sources, denial through amnesia, denial through a reinterpretation of events and an assertion of victimhood, and denial that events constituted a wrongdoing. However, while AMPs denied responsibility, none denied that injustices had occurred. As a result, while the hearings provided little clarity on how and why a series of reported events may have occurred, they simultaneously drew attention to, and recognised, past injustice. In this way, they provided a public enactment of impunity: Kenya’s history was replete with injustice, but AMPs were unwilling to shoulder any responsibility for it.

This ongoing culture of impunity points to another issue, which is that – for most victims – injustices clearly do not belong to the past but to the present and future. The loss of a person or income, for example, often constitutes a course that now seems beyond reach – from the hardship that accompanies the loss of a wage earner to the diminished opportunities that stem from a child’s extended absence from school. However, the past also persists in other ways, from the injustices that never ended, such as gross inequalities or corruption, to fears of repetition and experiences of new injustice.

Unfortunately, the idea that one can ‘look backwards to reach forwards’ downplays the complex ways in which the past actually persists, and possible futures infringe on the present. This is problematic since it can encourage a situation where small changes dampen demands for more substantive reform. At the same time, it can facilitate a politicised assertion of closure that excludes those who do not buy into the absence of the past, the newness of the present, or the desirability of imagined futures and provides a resource to those who seek to present such ‘difficult people’ as untrusting, unreasonable and unpatriotic.

This is not to say that truth commissions are useless and should never be considered. On the contrary, many view speaking as better than silence, while the commission’s report provides a historical overview of injustice in Kenya and a range of recommendations that activists and politicians are using to lobby for justice and reform.

However, when introduced, truth commissions should be more aware of the importance of persuasive performances and how their initial reception and longer-term impact is shaped by broader socio-economic, political and historic contexts. Truth commissions also need to adopt a more complex understanding of the ways in which the past persists, and possible futures infringe on the present and avoid easy assertions of closure.

Ultimately, such ambitious goals as truth, justice and reconciliation require not Freudian ‘talk therapy’, although catharsis and psycho-social support are often appreciated, but an ongoing political struggle, and substantive socio-economic and political change, which something like a truth commission can recommend, and sometimes contribute to, but cannot be expected to achieve.

This article was first published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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