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Curfews, Lockdowns and Disintegrating National Food Supply Chains

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The disruption of national food supply chains due to COVID-19 lockdowns and curfews has negatively impacted market traders, but it has also spawned localised – and more resilient – supply chains that are filling the gap in the food system.

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Curfews, Lockdowns and Disintegrating National Food Supply Chains
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Our stomachs will make themselves heard and may well take the road to the right, the road of reaction, and of peaceful coexistence…you are going to build in order to prove that you’re capable of transforming your existence and transforming the concrete conditions in which you live.” – Thomas Sankara, assassinated leader of Burkina Faso

 On July 6, 2020, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced phased reopening of the country as the government moved to relax COVID-19 restrictions. That day found me seated in a fishmonger’s stall in Gikomba market, located about five kilometres east of Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD) and popularly known for the sale of second-hand (mitumba) clothes. The customer seated next to me must have received a text message on her mobile phone because she began howling at the fishmonger to tune in to the radio, which was playing Benga music at the time. It was a few minutes after 2 p.m.

“I order and direct that the cessation of movement into and out of the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, Mombasa County and Mandera County, that is currently in force, shall lapse at 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday, 7th July, 2020,” pronounced the president on Radio Jambo.

The response to this news was cathartic. The female customer, on hearing the words “cessation of movement shall lapse” ululated, and burst out in praise of her God – “Nyasaye” – so loudly it startled the fishmonger. The excited customer jumped on her feet and started dancing around the fish stalls, muttering words in Dholuo. Nyasacha, koro anyalo weyo thugrwok ma na Nairobi, adog dala pacho. Pok a neno chwora, chakre oketwa e lockdown. Nyasacha, iwinjo ywak na. Nyasacha ber.” Oh God, I can now leave the hardship of Nairobi and go back to my homeland. I have not seen my husband since the lockdown measures were enforced. Oh God, you have heard my prayers. Oh God, you are good to me.

“She, like most of us are very happy that the cessation measures have been lifted. Life was becoming very hard and unbearable,” said Rose Akinyi, the fifty-seven year old fishmonger, also known as “Cucu Manyanga” to her customers because of her savvy in relating to urban youth culture. “Since the lockdown, business has been bad. Most of my customers have stopped buying fish because they have either lost their sources of income while others have been too afraid of catching the coronavirus that they have not come to make their usual purchases,” explained Akinyi.

Gikomba market is also Nairobi’s wholesale fish market.  Hotels, restaurants, and businesses flock there to purchase fresh and smoked fish from Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana. But with the government regulations to close down eateries, fish stocks have been rotting, lamented Akinyi. She has had to reduce the supply of her fish stocks in response to the low demand in the market.

“With the re-opening of the city, I plan to travel to my home county of Kisumu and go farm. At least this way I can supplement my income because I don’t see things going back to normal anytime soon,” she explained.

Two days later, I found my way to Wakulima market, popular known as Marikiti. The stench of spoilt produce greets you as you approach the vicinity of the market, Nairobi’s most important fresh produce market. News of the president’s announcement had reached the market and the rush of activity and trade had returned.

Gikomba market is also Nairobi’s wholesale fish market.  Hotels, restaurants, and businesses flock there to purchase fresh and smoked fish from Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana. But with the government regulations to close down eateries, fish stocks have been rotting, lamented Akinyi.

“Since the lockdown, business has been dire to say the least,” complained one Robert Kharinge aka Mkuna, a greengrocer and pastor in a church based in Madiwa, Eastleigh. Robert, who sells bananas that he gets from Meru County, noted that “business has never been this bad in all my twenty years as a greengrocer. Now, I’ve been forced to supplement my income as a porter to make ends meet. Before COVID-19, I would sell at least 150 hands of bananas in a day. Today, I can barely sell five hands,” he explains.

Robert, who is also a clergyman, leans on his faith and is hopeful that things will get back to normal since the cessation of movement has been lifted. He also hopes that the county government of Nairobi will finally expand the Marikiti market to cater for the growing pressure of a city whose population is creeping towards five million.

A short distance from Robert’s stall and outside the market walls stands Morgan Muthoni, a young exuberant woman in her early twenties selling oranges on the pavement. Unable to find space in the market, she and a number of traders have opted to position themselves along Haile Selassie Avenue, where they sell produce out of handcarts.

“When President Uhuru announced the cessation of movement in April, our businesses were gravely affected,” Muthoni says as attends to customers. “I get my oranges from Tanzania and with the lockdown regulations, therefore, produce hasn’t been delivered in good time despite what the government has been saying. Before COVID-19, I would get oranges every two days but now I have to wait between four and five days for fresh produce. My customers aren’t happy because they like fresh oranges and I’m now forced to sell them produce with longer shelf life.”

COVID-19 vs the Demand and Supply of Food
With the prior government lockdowns in Nairobi and Mombasa’s Old Town, which have large populations and are key markets for various food products, the government had to ensure that people in those areas were not cut off from essential goods and services. It was also the mandate of the government to shield farmers and manufacturers of the goods from incurring heavy losses because of the restrictions. Despite good attempts by the authorities to introduce measures that allowed the flow of goods to populated areas affected by the lockdown, there were several reports of police harassment.

“Truck drivers are complaining that they are been harassed by the police for bribes at the police stops, which is gravely affecting our businesses. The police, with their usual thuggery, are using this season of corona to mistreat and extort truck drivers to pay bribes in order to give them way at police checks even if they have adhered to the stipulated regulations,” complained Muthoni.

The movement of goods is further complicated by the disjointed health protocols. “We also hear that because Magufuli’s Tanzania has a different policy towards COVID-19, trucks drivers are taking longer at the border because they need to be tested for coronavirus before they are allowed to pass. But we don’t know how true these reports are. For now, we believe that things will get better since the cessation has been lifted. If God is for us, who can be against us?” Muthoni concludes.

Divine intervention is a recurring plea in these distressed economic times, but unlike Muthoni and Robert, who remain hopeful, this is not the case for Esther Waithera, a farmer and miller based in Mwandus, Kiambu, about 15 kilometres from Nairobi. Kiambu, with its fertile rich soils, adequate rainfall, cool climate, and plenty of food produce, is a busy and bustling administrative centre in the heart of Kikuyuland.

After the president’s announcement of the quasi-lockdown and curfew, Waithera has been spending her afternoons selling fresh produce from her car that is parked opposite Kiambu mall on the weekends and in Thindigwa, a splashy middle-class residential area off the busy Kiambu Road, on weekdays.

“Before COVID-19, I used to supply fresh farm produce to hotels and restaurants across the city. But now I have been forced to sell my produce from my car boot because if I don’t, my produce will rot in the farm. My husband runs the family mill and even that has been doing badly since the coronavirus came to plague us. We have had to decrease our milling capacity and the cost of maize flour to adjust to new market prices as demand reduces.”

After the president’s announcement of the quasi-lockdown and curfew, Waithera has been spending her afternoons selling fresh produce from her car that is parked opposite Kiambu mall on the weekends and in Thindigwa, a splashy middle-class residential area off the busy Kiambu Road, on weekdays.

Maize is Kenya’s staple food and Kenyans rely on maize and maize products for subsistence but, “Kenyans are going hungry and many households are skipping meals to cope with these harsh times,” explains Waithera.

Waithera, who is a mother of three children, doesn’t seem hopeful about the future. “This government that we voted for thrice has let us down. They have squandered the lockdown and have caused economic harm without containing COVID-19. Now we are staring at an economic meltdown, a food crisis and a bleak future for our children.”

A devout Christian of the evangelical persuasion, Waithera deeply believes that “God is punishing the country and its leaders for its transgressions because they have turned away from God and taken to idol worship and the love for mammon”. And like the biblical plagues, “the recent flooding, the infestation of desert locusts and the corona pandemic are all signs from God that he has unleashed his wrath on his people unless we repent our wrongdoings and turn back to God”, laments a bitter Waithera.

For Joyce Nduku, a small-scale farmer and teacher based in Ruiru, this new reality has provided her with opportunities for growth. She acknowledged that her sales have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying, “I now have more customers because there are not enough vegetables available in the market from upcountry”.

Localised and more resilient food systems

At a time when regular food supply chains have not been assured, some food markets have closed, mama mbogas (women vegetable vendors) are out of business, and the cessation of movement is deterring travel, Nduku attributes her increased food production to meet the growing demand to a business model that lays emphasis on a localised food system and short food supply chains.

Approaching food production through a localised food system, she says, “gives me local access to farm inputs”.

She adds, “I get my manure from livestock keepers within my locale and my seeds from local agrovets. I have direct access to my consumers, removing middlemen who expose my produce to unsafe and unhygienic handling and high logistical and transport costs. Hence I’m able to increase the access to safe and affordable food.”

Agriculture, forestry and fishing’s contribution to GDP in 2019 was 34.1 per cent, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ Economic Survey 2020. Another 27 percent of GDP is contributed indirectly through linkages with other sectors of Kenya’s economy. The sector, the survey revealed, employs more than 56 percent of the total labour force employed in agriculture in 2019. It also provides a livelihood (employment, income and food security needs) to more than 80 percent of the Kenyan population and contributes to improving nutrition through the production of safe, diverse and nutrient dense foods, notes a World Bank report.

Yet, in a matter of weeks, Nduku tells me, “COVID-19 has laid bare the underlying risks, inequities, and fragilities in our food and agricultural systems, and pushed them close to breaking point.”

These systems, the people underpinning them, and the public goods they deliver have been under-protected and under-valued for decades. Farmers have been exposed to corporate interests that give them little return for their yield; politicians have passed neoliberal food policies and legislation at the peril of citizens; indigenous farming knowledge has been buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit; and families have been one meal away from hunger due to untenable food prices, toxic and unhealthy farm produce and volatile food ecosystems.

Nduku firmly believes that the pandemic has, however, “offered a glimpse to new, robust and more resilient food systems, as some local authorities have implemented measures to safeguard the provision and production of food and local communities and organisations have come together to plug gaps in the food systems.”

Food justice

Many young Kenyans have also emerged to offer leadership with more intimate knowledge of their contexts and responded to societal needs in more direct and appropriate ways. If anything, Nduku tells me, “we must learn from this crisis and ensure that the measures taken to curb the food crisis in these corona times are the starting point for a food system transformation”.

The sector, the survey revealed, employs more than 56 per cent of the total labour force employed in agriculture in 2019. It also provides a livelihood (employment, income and food security needs) to more than 80 per cent of the Kenyan population…

To achieve the kind of systematic transformation Kenya needs, we must “borrow a leaf from Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara”, Nduku adds. Sankara emphasised national food sovereignty and food justice, advocated against over-dependence on foreign food aid, and implemented ecological programmes that fostered long-term agro-ecological balance, power-dispersing, communal food cultivation, and the regeneration of the environment, which remain powerful foundations for food justice today.

Indeed, we must also not rely on discrete technological advances or conservative and incremental policy change. We must radically develop a new system that can adapt and evolve to new innovations, build resilient local food systems, strengthen our local food supply chains, reconnect people with food production, provide fair wages and secure conditions to food and farm workers, and ensure more equitable and nutritious food access for all Kenyans.

Importantly, Nduku emphasises, “We must start thinking about the transformation of our food systems from the point of view of the poorest and those who suffer the greatest injustice within the current framework of our food systems.” This will provide a much more just, resilient and holistic approach to food systems transformation.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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The author is an analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Politics

The Politics of Self-Harm: Devolution and the Northern ‘Frontier’

For five decades after Kenya’s independence, northern Kenya’s political elite blamed the region’s underdevelopment on the central government’s failure to allocate adequate resources. Yet eight years after devolution, the level of development does not match the resources that have been allocated to the region.

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The Politics of Self-Harm: Devolution and the Northern ‘Frontier’
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COVID-19 has provided a useful lens through which to examine the capacity of counties to cope or break under the stress of this uniquely severe health crisis. While devolution is still nascent and while it must be recognised that no institution could possibly be prepared for a pandemic of this scale, yet even at this early stage a clear pattern is emerging; northern counties are poorly prepared for large-scale epidemics because of large-scale corruption and mismanagement.

When the novel coronavirus hit Kenya, it prompted a national stocktaking. It emerged that in northern Kenya there is only one county with a functionally equipped Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Eight years after devolution; this is an inexcusable dereliction of duty.

For almost 50 years of Kenya’s independence, the stock-in-trade of northern Kenya’s political elite was to blame the region’s underdevelopment on the central government’s failure to allocate adequate resources to the region. Everything could be packed into a convenient single narrative: we are marginalised by the central government. As a result, the political elite hardly took responsibility for their failure.

If marginalisation was caused by the national government’s failure to allocate adequate resources, significant amounts of money have been allocated to the counties under devolution, money which, had it been optimally used, could have transformed the fortunes of these counties.

Devolution as an antidote

Sirkal Saidia, government to the rescue, was the modus operandi of the leadership in northern Kenya, a call mostly made when an official from the national government visited. It was pervasive during President Daniel Moi’s era; at public rallies, a leader’s eloquent narration of the problems facing the area was celebrated and in fact recognised as the hallmark of a good leader.

This turned visits by former president Moi or other powerful political leaders into a spectacle as local leaders attempted to outdo each other in presenting the laundry list of problems afflicting the region. The list would always include a road here, a school there, and a hospital in between, that required fixing through the goodwill of the visiting national government official.

But central to devolution was bringing resources and power to the counties and hence closer to the people. This was heralded as the antidote to the decades of marginalisation. Yet eight years after devolution, the level of development does not match the resources allocated. There are of course areas where things have improved but overall, devolution has merely spawned a phalanx of local extractive “tender mafia networks” that have captured these marginalised counties and continue to subvert the benefits of devolution.

For the average citizen, the only thing that has changed is that their marginalisation now has a local flavour. The money meant for them has created overnight millionaires who are putting up all manner of grotesquely designed vanity projects like multiple-bedroom houses without electricity, marrying second/third wives, and purchasing vehicles worth many times the salaries of county officials. Some are so brazen that they flaunt their newly acquired wealth, a case of eating with their mouths open. 

There are deep parallels between how the Kenyan state was imposed from the top as a control tool, and how the county governments, with a few shrewd “businessmen”, determine what gets done or not. Devolution is moored not to the constitutional provisions or even the needs of the citizens but to these men. Devolution was reimagining governance away from the centralised, colonial, top-down extractive state—which gave way to the centralised post-colonial state— and towards a more bottom-up, people-friendly, accountable model.

But in northern Kenya, that vision has been perverted. The elite are engaged in industrial-scale corruption that makes the corruption of the pre-devolution days look like child’s play. Before devolution, the gripe was that those engaged in corruption were civil servants from southern Kenya who were not locals, for instance, junior civil servants deployed to Marsabit who owned top of the range vehicles which they would park in Isiolo, mwisho wa lami, from where they would be driven to Marsabit by a government driver, (probably a local) in a government vehicle, returning to their cars in Isiolo to drive home at the end of the day.

This was always rationalised as the behaviour of outsiders who cannot be deterred by social shame. But with devolution, and because of the weakness of the county governments, especially the governors, corruption has become deeply entrenched and the prime beneficiaries are the local political elite. In one case, a former governor had the government’s Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) installed in his bedroom rather than at the county office. This has eroded the trust and legitimacy of county government institutions.

In northern Kenya, as elsewhere, corruption has become the central activity with all its elaborate bureaucracy, processes and structures, and deception is used to make it look like a government process. The present pandemic, combined with a cholera outbreak in one corner, floods in another corner and locusts in yet another, has revealed how ill-prepared the counties are and by the same token also revealed the cost of corruption, leaving the Marsabit, Turkana and Mandera governors with no place to hide.

Northern Kenya counties feature prominently in the list of most corrupt counties produced by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption agency. Four counties in the region consistently among the top 10 most corrupt counties in Kenya when these three forms of corruption are considered: top ten counties by proportion of those who paid bribes, top ten counties by average number of times a bribe was demanded, top 10 counties by average number of times a bribe was paid.

Top 10 counties: Amount paid in bribe

Top 10 counties: Bribe is demanded

Top 10 counties: Times bribe is demanded

Top 10 counties: Times bribe is paid

Top 10 counties: Times bribe is paid

Top 10 counties: Times bribe is paid

COVID-19 and the health system in northern Kenya

Reports of a COVID-19 case in Mandera sent a wave of panic across the northern region. This was partly because of the general anxiety around the lack of health facilities, which makes the region a sitting duck because the health infrastructure to deal with even controllable disease outbreaks is non-existent and the resources allocated are missing.

How, despite all these limitations, the people of northern Kenya endure is a story of luck and resilience. As a mode of production, pastoralism has not relied so much on the state’s service provision. Pastoralists have bent the market to their will and survive by sheer grit by developing complex social structures of livestock redistribution systems to cushion themselves.

A certain level of baked-in fatalism in the nomadic lifestyle, some of it often buttressed by an uncritical understanding or a downright misinterpretation of Islam—death is not to be feared—has also emerged. Immediately coronavirus was announced in Kenya, some of the more memorable television interviews were of elderly Cushitic men saying that death was inevitable and so there was no need for alarm. The uncertainties produced by the nomadic environment have made pastoral communities prone to shocks and epidemics which they have recorded in elaborate oral narratives. For example, the Gabra people have recorded all livestock and human diseases in the names of the years the epidemics occurred. Whenever epidemics erupt, past effects and coping mechanisms are revisited.

The ailing health sector

The healthcare infrastructure in most of northern Kenya survived on the benevolence of Christian missionaries’ networks of hospitals, dispensaries, and medical clinics spread across the region. Following devolution, Marsabit county government initially recognised the complementary role of the mission hospital, but as the years went by the county government sought to supplant the missionary investment by building their own hospitals in close proximity. The death of mission hospitals and the emergence of more but poorly equipped, ill-staffed, and poorly managed health facilities have contributed to the conundrum currently facing the north.

The number of dispensaries is a different matter; most of them are not operational. A key medical staffing officer recently acknowledged that Marsabit County alone needs at least 1,000 more staff to operationalise many of its newly built health facilities.

Data shows that northern Kenya has the lowest percentage distribution of health professionals with the number of doctors, nurses, and clinical officers being 2%, 2%, and 5% respectively.

Based on 2009 figures a 2013 survey shows the high vacancy rates in healthcare.

Based on 2009 figures a 2013 survey shows the high vacancy rates in healthcare.

Public health, corruption, and unsound investment

Most of the disease outbreaks in northern Kenya fall within the public health domain rather than clinical or veterinary medicine. Public health in Kenya has suffered since it was collapsed into a department under the Ministry of Health

There have been occasional outbreaks of viral diseases and epidemics in Marsabit county. Ebola, MERS, Rift Valley Fever and Zika virus have also been reported as being present in camels and bats in the vast county. However, the county lacks even the most basic public health infrastructure and in Isiolo, even old quarantine facilities like the Tuberculosis Village have been taken over by the county government. COVID-19 should have found a better health infrastructure. Marsabit takes its blood to Eldoret for testing. Even the limited available health infrastructure is saddled with corruption, poorly prioritised investments, and a lack of a sound turnaround plan which has further compounded the problem.

One year ago, a court ruling froze the account of an Isiolo businessman who had received Sh80 million by defrauding taxpayers allegedly through the construction of two oxygen plants in 2017 “yet no such facility existed in the county”. The deal signed between the Isiolo county government and a private company called Living Goods thus became a serious point of contention. Petitions to the senate committee and several inquiries and amendments later, Living Goods was given the go-ahead to run the community health services in Isiolo County.

In Marsabit, the County Assembly canceled the procurement of two lifts that were to be installed in a hospital that is yet to be built. Eight years after devolution, Kiirua Mission Hospital still runs a special unit for patients from Marsabit County; the number of referrals to the hospital is alarming. The county government has also launched ambitious health-related programmes like the 10,000 households National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) cover, building of health centres and one Level Four Hospital, and the 10 ambulances bought in 2015 at Sh172 million. The NHIF scheme has been largely a PR campaign and the health sector is still ailing.

Isiolo and Garissa Counties each have a Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC) but according to Marsabit’s leadership, the two institutions cannot serve Marsabit’s long-term vision of meeting its personnel needs, and so a Sh200 million medical training college is being built in Marsabit County. This project will only be viably operationalised in three to four years but given the lackluster leadership could take much longer.

Services in fits and starts

The health sector is an “essential service”, as evidenced by COVID-19, yet the manner in which devolved units in northern Kenya conceive “development” so far seems to preclude this continuous service provision resulting in a fits-and-starts healthcare service. The construction of big hospitals is a good beginning, but it is also a magnet for corruption. The bigger headache for the health sector in northern Kenya is how to strengthen service provision through the timely purchase of medical supplies, proper management of ambulance services, and proper record keeping. 

The lack of basic health services is a recurring problem in almost all the counties of northern Kenya. In Mandera the county assembly health committee recently decried the lack of very basic health supplies. For a period of 9 months last year, Marsabit County lacked essential medical supplies like painkillers and antibiotics because of a Sh22 million debt to the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). Marsabit joins other countries like Nairobi, Murang’a and Narok, which breached a KEMSA debt repayment agreement.

Despite the chief purpose of devolution being to bring resources closer to the people, vestiges of marginalisation remain; distance from the centre is still a factor hindering the availability of basic health supplies. Stringent government procurement procedures are another obstacle to timely provision of supplies, as well as lack of qualified staff in the region to maintain an inventory of medical needs.

Additionally, despite the development of health service infrastructure, private interest is visible across northern Kenya with private clinics, maternity, and private hospitals run by health personnel most of whom are employed in public hospitals. This blurring of lines between the public sector and the private sector has turned patients into customers or clients, just like at the national level. Moreover, in northern Kenya medical doctors eventually run for elective office; Dr Mohammed Kuti, the governor of Isiolo County is a trained surgeon, and is a member of COVID-19 Control Committee, while his deputy Dr Abdi Ibrahim Issa is a medic. In neighbouring Marsabit, medical doctors ran for office as Members of Parliament.

The challenges facing the northern region are myriad but the issues raised here should not be understood as constituting a case against devolution but rather an argument for better devolution.

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Politics

The Fracturing of the Oromo and the Return of the Law and Order State in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s delicate transition is under severe strain. A ferocious burst of communal violence in July, sparked by the murder of a popular Oromo singer, and which claimed more than 200 lives, underscores the grave conflict risks this populous Horn of Africa nation faces.

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The unrest in Oromia is complex. Long-festering grievances, discontent with Prime Minister Abiy’s policies and a deepening fracturing of the Oromo, have combined to create a volatile situation. The escalating divisions, factionalism and contest for supremacy in Oromia packs enough destabilising power to upend PM Abiy’s transition.

Urgent steps must be taken to mend the intra-Oromo rift, improve inter-ethnic relations, and put regional and national politics on a less combustible course.

A mystery killing

The killing of the singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June triggered a bout of violence and protest, the worst since Abiy came to power in April 2018. A week of communal clashes in Addis Ababa, the capital, and in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest and most populous federal state, left close to 300 people dead. Protests engulfed much of Oromia and spread quickly to several cities with large Ethiopian diaspora communities in North America and Europe.

Businesses owned by non-Oromos were looted and shops torched. The government imposed a curfew, shut down the internet, rounded up dozens of opposition leaders and stepped up the brutal security crackdown in Oromia.

The deaths, mayhem and destruction were not inevitable; in hindsight, it is not too difficult to see how a measured, sensitive and less heavy-handed state response could have produced a different outcome.

By failing to institute an open and credible commission of inquiry into the death of Hachalu, coming out with inconsistent statements barely hours after the killings, and arresting opposition leaders, the government simply reinforced mistrust and inflamed sentiments.

The Ethiopian government has since lifted the internet ban and eased restrictions on movement. A semblance of normality is returning to many parts of Oromia. But tensions still remain high and ethnic relations are increasingly toxic.

Much of the current tense and ominous stand-off can be attributed to the series of missteps and knee-jerk responses by the federal authorities. But these factors, in of themselves, cannot explain the speed at which the situation deteriorated. Even without Hachalu’s death and the violent aftermath, a showdown seemed inevitable. To understand why, an analysis of the wider context is necessary.

From accommodation to coercive containment

The crisis in Oromia is emblematic of the inherent tensions, contradictions, and disjuncture between two forms of politics – the “vernacularised” and the national.

Oromia offers a fascinating case study on how Abiy’s posture and calculations changed over time; how the evolution from a policy of accommodation to one of coercive co-optation and containment is feeding the current unrest.

Prime Minister Abiy inherited a dysfunctional state that had run out of road and was desperate for a new direction. Years of rolling mass protests in Oromia and Amhara states had brought the nation to a political impasse.

Oromia offers a fascinating case study on how Abiy’s posture and calculations changed over time; how the evolution from a policy of accommodation to one of coercive co-optation and containment is feeding the current unrest.

The EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), once a strong and progressive party, had run out of steam and ideas; deeply riven by factionalism and power struggles. These divisions mirrored wider cleavages in society and the resurgence of competing ethno-nationalisms.

The economy was on the ropes, done in by a combination of frenetic growth, expensive infrastructure modernisation and unsustainable debt. The treasury barely had enough foreign reserves to cover a month’s worth of exports.

The challenges before the new PM were both complex and difficult. Over and above the onerous task of consolidating power, stabilising the economy, reforming politics and putting the transition on a solid footing, Abiy had to grapple with the weight of public expectations.

Abiy’s administration in the first few months in office was characterised by a conspicuously Oromo theme. The premier ditched the suit for the flowing white cotton Oromo outfit. He treated visiting dignitaries to lavish banquets at which Oromo chefs laid out the finest of traditional cuisines. He gave away horses to special state guests.

This overt display of Oromo pride was deliberate and went down well in Oromia. Beyond winning the hearts and minds of his people, the strategy had the potential to help him build a solid ethnic, regional support base, which is crucial in an ethnicised political system.

But to establish credibility and earn the trust of his Oromo ethnic group, the PM needed to do more. He released political prisoners, among them prominent Oromo leaders. He appointed a record number of Oromos to key posts in the cabinet, the army and the security services. He unbanned the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), reached out to exiled activists and facilitated their return home.

Consolidating Oromo support proved more complicated for the PM. Despite his popularity, he had to contend with a diverse array of factions and personalities with local and national political ambitions, and, in some instances, with a large following and influence.

Roots of Oromo nationalism and discontent

The Oromo are the single largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and make up roughly two-fifths (about 40 million) of Ethiopia’s total population of more than 100 million. They inhabit a vast geographical territory and are dispersed across much of south, central and western Ethiopia, as well as across the border in Kenya. Sub-families of the Oromo, such as the Boran, Gabra, Burji, Orma, live in the counties of Marsabit, Isiolo and Tana River.

However, this sheer demographic size did not translate into political and economic power. The Oromos’ history has been one of marginalisation and exploitation.

The large-scale uprisings in Ethiopia since 2012, largely driven by the Oromo, and which eventually thrust PM Abiy into power, made the Oromo a potent political force that cannot be ignored.

The Oromo are not monolithic. They are the most internally-diverse of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, with sub-groups differentiated by significant linguistic, religious and cultural variations.

These factors in turn inflect political dynamics and ways in which communities respond to political pressures

Dispersal over vast territories, diversity and heterogeneity makes Oromo society uniquely pluralistic and the least insular of all the ethnicities found in Ethiopia. These traits have been a major source of strength but also weakness.

The large-scale uprisings in Ethiopia since 2012, largely driven by the Oromo, and which eventually thrust PM Abiy into power, made the Oromo a potent political force that cannot be ignored.

Religious pluralism, historically manifested in the peaceful cohabitation between different faith systems (Islam, Christianity and the ancestral faith, Waqqeffana), makes Oromo society the least prone to religious bigotry and militancy. It also explains why hard line strains of Salafi Islam have found Oromia unconducive to put down roots. This culture of tolerance is now under strain from evangelical proselytism and encroachment.

Divisive political co-optation tactics by state and rival political factions feed off these rich diversities within Oromo society and drive much of the tensions and fragmentations we are seeing today in Oromia.

No subject polarises Ethiopia today more than Oromo ethno-nationalism. The bloody violence and protests in the wake of Hachalu’s killing have made the debate even more heated, emotive and divisive.

To understand the drivers of Oromo discontent and nationalism, to untangle the underlying trends and dynamics, and to plot the potential future trajectory, it is critical for policy makers to widen their analytical lens and develop deeper contextual insights into its specificity.

Complexity

Oromo nationalism, not unlike other nationalisms, is complex and dynamic. It is fed by multiple streams, taps into a reservoir of potent, accumulated grievances and draws energy and sustenance from a rich repository of cultural memory and aspiration. The latter point is important, not least, because there is a misperception it is primarily/wholly driven by politics.

In fact, the political manifestation of Oromo nationalism is fairly recent and comes off the back of decades of struggle for cultural freedoms. Key demands of the Oromo cultural revivalist movement included the right to accord Afaan Oromo the same official privileges as Amharic and the freedom to openly observe traditional rituals (such as Irreecha).

Pride in Oromo identity and the need to affirm it inspired generations of young people. Hachalu was, therefore, the spokesman of this new generation – a proud, unapologetic and self-confident Oromo. His popular song Jirra struck a chord because its lyrics encapsulated those aspirations in one simple and powerful line: We are here!

It is worth bearing in mind that all ethno-nationalisms are forms of myth-making, constructed around romanticised notions of the past and links with a self-defined ancestral homeland, and impelled by powerful emotions.

Narrative

The current debate about Oromo nationalism comes against the backdrop of an increasingly febrile and polarised political climate. The language of discourse, reflecting these tensions, is emotionally charged and adversarial; much of the discussions, invariably, are as simplistic as they are decontextualised. More disconcerting is the fact that public opinion is increasingly being shaped by misperception – a narrative of mutual “othering” and demonisation.

Current anti-Oromo sentiments are varied and cover a wide spectrum. The most dominant is a generalised fear of Oromo hegemony, sometimes laced with the perception that Oromos are prone to violence. This is especially the case among smaller ethnic groups that have borne the brunt of targeted violence.

The debate about the Oromo has assumed a reductionist dimension and is dominated by essentialism – a tendency to ascribe a category of problematic and negative “essences” to the ethnic group and its politics.

This strain of Oromophobia is now largely driven by an amorphous group of old elites, loosely described as neftegna. The term is controversial and contested. The animating force of the neftegna ideology is a set of exaggerated “patriotic” ideas that revolve around the imperative to preserve Ethiopia as a single, strong, centralised state. The Christian character of the Ethiopian state, though less accentuated, forms an essential part of the narrative repertoire.

Current anti-Oromo sentiments are varied and cover a wide spectrum. The most dominant is a generalised fear of Oromo hegemony, sometimes laced with the perception that Oromos are prone to violence.

Oromo discontent in recent months has been inflamed by perception PM Abiy has bought into aspects of the neftegna narrative. Even if not true, the PM’s rhetorical appropriation of Ethiopiawinet (Ethiopianness) and the strident airplay it is getting on state media is polarising. It is a divisive term; a throwback to the imperial age when it was instrumentalised to subjugate and control Oromos.

There is nothing exotic about Oromo nationalism and protest. The sense of alienation, disillusionment and grievances activists articulate have their roots in real material conditions. The primary engine feeds on long-festering socio-economic and political factors – massive unemployment, wealth and income disparities, elite-driven land grabs, corruption and youth aspiration.

Ethno-nationalism and violence

There is no doubt that violent ethno-nationalism constitutes Ethiopia’s gravest threat in the short to medium term.

The last two years saw a resurgence of volatile strains of ethnic identity politics in Ethiopia that ratcheted up inter-communal tensions and stoked violence.

The most serious of these conflicts were in Oromia-Somali Regional State (SRS) borders, Oromia-Afar regional state borders, the Guji Oromo-Gedeo community border areas, the Amhara-Gumuz regional state borders, the Oromo-Benishangul Gumuz regional state borders, and the Oromo special zones in Amhara region. Hundreds were killed and the violence triggered waves of fresh displacements, one of the worst in the country’s history, bringing the number of IDPs to over 3 million in early 2019.

The upsurge in violence is not surprising. While much of it could be attributed to the disruptive power of Abiy’s speedy dismantling and opening up of the old state, subsequent state response played a significant role in compounding the crisis.

State-driven violence is a major contributor to localised violence in Oromia. Aggressive and hostile policing, mass arrest of activists, and indiscriminate and disproportionate use of lethal force to quell protests have all combined to create a combustible environment of siege that stokes counter-violence.

Oromo fracture

Oromia is today more deeply divided and unstable than it has ever been in decades. The region is now both an incubator (generating destabilising currents outward) and a barometre (to gauge the undercurrents of unresolved tensions in PM Abiy’s transition).

That the worst fracturing of the Oromo is occurring in a state led by an Oromo prime minister is ironic, and, arguably, an indictment. But before delving into the causes, two general pointers are worth noting.

First, Oromo politics was, and is, never monolithic. The region’s politics have always had a distinctly localised flavour, influenced mostly by a whole host of “structural” factors: strong sub-group loyalties and identities, geography, and an inter-generational divide.

Second, a convergence of two powerful political homogenising trends – one driven by national imperatives, the other by a “vernacularised” politics of resistance – aggravates the situation.

The multiple splits in Oromia partly reflect old regional cleavages. The traditional regional rivalry (Gaanduumma) between Bale and Arsi Oromos (the latter predominantly Muslims) now appears more pronounced. The Bale-Arsi rivalry constitutes a potentially dangerous fissure, in large part because it is assuming religious dimensions and is likely to stoke sectarian tensions.

There is also an emerging three-way split, partly animated by traditional regional identity politics but also stoked by intra-elite contestation: the Wollaga (where Lemma Megersa is from); Shewa (the seat of the Oromia regional state), and Jimma (home region of PM Abiy).

Abiy-Jawar rivalry

The power struggle between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo activist and founder of Oromia Media Network, has in the last one year moved to the centre of Oromia’s unsettled politics. The intensifying battle for supremacy between the two men is the single most potent wedge factor currently feeding intra-Oromo fragmentation.

PM Abiy and Jawar were not always adversaries. Jawar’s media outlets and influential social media presence were instrumental in fomenting and directing the popular protests that eventually catapulted Abiy to power. The two men fell out quickly after Jawar returned from exile in the United States, began building his own political base and turned into the premier’s most vocal critic.

Abiy and Jawar share a common interest. They have national leadership ambitions and a desire to consolidate Oromo support ahead of the next elections. A solid ethnic constituency is a great advantage in an ethnicised political system, but even more crucial in competitive politics if it translates into votes.

Abiy and Jawar’s leadership styles are not too dissimilar. Both men are populists, relish playing to the gallery, have a penchant for exaggerated rhetoric, and rely more on the sheer force of charisma to win supporters.

Jawar seems to enjoy significant advantage over Abiy in the contest for Oromo hearts and minds. His popularity has soared since he teamed up with Bekele Gerba, a widely respected Oromo politician, to lead the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). Unlike the PM, he is on the ground and not distracted by juggling competing priorities. He is more adept at grassroots politics and his “vernacularised” brand of politics has huge traction with a broad cross-section of Oromos disenchanted with state policies. This is especially true of the youth movement, Qeerroo.

Abiy and Jawar’s leadership styles are not too dissimilar. Both men are populists, relish playing to the gallery, have a penchant for exaggerated rhetoric, and rely more on the sheer force of charisma to win supporters.

More important, Jawar’s initiatives to repair Oromo divisions and to intervene in easing localised tensions and conflicts endeared him to many Oromos. This contrasted with Abiy’s top-down approach and co-optation strategies that catalysed divisions. The PM’s use of mass arrests and draconian security crackdowns to undermine Jawar’s support base have, so far, not only been unsuccessful, but have also generated widespread resentment.

Their differences have progressively widened in recent months, but whether they have solidified into an organic ideological and policy split is debatable.

Federalism

The ethnic federalism model in Ethiopia still remains hugely popular. Bigger ethnicities see it as a system that protects their interests and privileges; the smaller ones see it as the only viable route out of marginalisation.

Much of the disenchantment with the system in recent years is driven by perceptions that it had become hollowed out, conferred no meaningful autonomy, bred its own inequities and stoked inter-ethnic tensions and violence. Yet, the preference, it would seem, of many, is reform, not dismantlement.

PM Abiy’s ambivalent and initial mild aversion to ethnic federalism seems to have hardened – rhetorically, at least – in the last one year. The PM is instinctively a centralist and the recent lurch into the traditional default narrative of his predecessors did not come as surprise. There was always an implicit anti-federalism tenor to his rhetoric and a bias for a centralised state.

But what alienates Oromos more than the PM’s views on federalism is the strident patriotic messaging that now accompanies it – on the imperative for a united and strong law and order state. This type of discourse tends to be associated, rightly or wrongly, with the “assimilationist nationalism” of the past.

The prime minister’s dissenting views on the issue of ethnic federalism seem not to have evolved much since 2018. In practice, his approach has shifted, somewhat. Whether due to electoral calculations, realism and political opportunism (understandable in an election year), he does appear more accommodating than many had expected.

The creation of Sidama Regional State, Ethiopia’s 10th ethnic federal state, in late 2019 may lend credence to this tentative “softening”, even though it is worth pointing out that the process to establish the state has been in train for many years.

Abiy’s anxiety about Jawar stems, partly, from awareness of his vulnerability on the ethnic federalism question. By being strong on federalism and making it a central plank of his national campaign, Jawar was in effect signaling intent to leverage his competitive advantage to the maximum.

Arrest

Jawar is loved and loathed in equal measure. Despite his huge popularity in Oromia, he has struggled to develop an appealing national profile and support base. His critics continue to exploit some of his past incendiary rhetoric and links with the Qeerroo to paint him as a narrow ethno-nationalist bigot wedded to violence.

His potential to grow into a national leader and his electoral prospects ought not to be discounted. He was beginning to develop links with opposition groups beyond Oromia. Crucially, his strong focus on federalism attracted national attention and galvanised important ethnic constituencies.

The arrest of Jawar on 30 June, and his trial, which is likely to last months (and possibly years if he is convicted), gives the Ethiopian prime minister the space and time, potentially, to reconfigure Oromo politics. This is a prospect almost certain to be complicated, if not likely to fail.

First, Jawar’s popularity has not waned; if anything, it has increased. Second, the massive security clampdown and campaign of mass arrests of opposition activists and leaders has dented the PM and tilted Oromia into a less sympathetic political terrain.

OLF splits

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), its ambitions, and, increasingly, radical brand of politics, adds another volatile and complicated layer to the fractured politics and insecurity in Oromia. The ex-insurgency’s combatants and commanders returned home in September 2018 under a general amnesty and negotiations facilitated by Eritrea. A botched integration process served as the initial spark that ignited open dissent against the regional and national government. This quickly morphed into a low-grade conflict, pitting regional troops supported by federal troops against armed factions of the OLF in late 2018.

The OLF’s swift transition from an ally of the Abiy government to an adversary can be attributed to several factors. The amnesty deal negotiated in Asmara was vague and done in haste. Important issues were either overlooked or not properly addressed. As a result, trust broke down quickly. Disputes over the troop integration process and the latitude of political freedoms allowed to its the leadership soon became problematic wedge issues.

A series of failed talks, peace pacts and mediation led by deeply-riven traditional Abba Gadda councils between November 2018 and April 2019 tipped the stalemate into a full-blown crisis and put the ex-insurgency on a fatal collision course with the federal government.

The decision by the OLF leader, Daud Ibsa, to join other opposition politicians and the youth movement, Qeerroo, and coalesce around a common Pan-Oromo platform under the umbrella of the Oromo Federalist Congress (led by Jawar Mohamed and Bekele Gerba) was deemed especially threatening to both regional and national governments.

In response, Addis deployed heavy fire power to subdue the OLF dissidents. This made a bad situation worse, fomented the further breakup of the OLF into small competing splinter factions, made engagement and peaceful settlement difficult and compounded the overall security situation.

Regional spillover

There is a regional dimension to the crisis in Oromia. A protracted and serious conflict in Oromia could spill over into much of northern Kenya because Oromia’s politics and conflict dynamics are closely intertwined with those of northern Kenya. The immediate risk is massive displacement and a new humanitarian crisis in the Kenyan districts of Moyale, Marsabit and Isiolo.

It is also likely that conflict fragmentation in Oromia could lead gradually to proliferation of armed criminal syndicates. There are already many armed smuggling syndicates operating on the border between Ethiopia and Kenya.

There is a regional dimension to the crisis in Oromia. A protracted and serious conflict in Oromia could spill over into much of northern Kenya because Oromia’s politics and conflict dynamics are closely intertwined with those of northern Kenya.

Kenya worries in particular about the possibility of Oromia’s serious rifts sowing divisions within sub-groups of its own large Boran population.

Recommendations

The crisis in Oromia is complex, serious, and multi-layered, and its causes and drivers are varied. Left to fester, it certainly will become intractable, result in large-scale violence and undo PM Abiy’s wobbly transition.

The federal government, the Oromia regional administration, traditional authorities, political parties and civil society need to take concerted urgent action to defuse the crisis.

Below are some of the key areas where sensible and pragmatic policy interventions and change could make a big difference and mitigate risks:

  1. Put ethno-nationalisms on a benign course
    Oromo nationalism is inflamed and risks becoming virulent. It feeds off Oromia’s mass disillusionment, acute grievances and multiple fracturing. But the single biggest aggravating factor risking to radicalise it and put it on a violent course is state response (a self-fulfilling prophecy). To mellow Oromo nationalism, the following steps are worth considering:
  • A Pan-Oromo conference to de-escalate tensions, repair social cohesion, rebuild trust and address the roots of fragmentation;
  • A follow-up inclusive national conference with representatives from all ethnicities to improve relations, foster dialogue, and end mutually hostile narratives, demonisation.
  1. Invest more in conflict resolution and peacebuilding
    Ethiopia’s disappointing record in resolving and managing localised conflicts in Oromia highlights a number of crucial lessons. First, the state-driven, top-down conflict-resolution model is ineffective, and often conflict-inducing. It bureaucratises peacebuilding, diminishes local buy-in, sows social divisions, and imposes unsustainable settlements.Second, traditional councils of elders, when given sufficient autonomy and not co-opted by the state, are the most effective agencies with credibility to mediate and resolve conflicts. To improve outcomes, the federal government ought to:
  • Reduce its role, allow influential grassroots groups to take lead in local peacebuilding initiatives, allocate resources to sustain them;
  • Promote greater inclusivity in peace councils by encouraging credible elders, faith leaders to join;
  • Establish a national conflict advisory to monitor local unrest, improve knowledge on conflict drivers and provide early warning to regional and national governments.
  1. End state violence and repression
    Prime Minister Abiy has turned the crisis in Oromia into a law and order problem. His pursuit of lethal force to suppress Oromo dissent, the draconian curbs on media freedom and free expression, internet shutdowns, and mass arrests have put the region and the whole country on a perilous course. Unless there is a fundamental shift in Abiy’s current posture and renewed efforts to promote pluralism, inclusivity, civil liberties, and dialogue in Oromia, the situation will worsen. In concrete terms the government must:
  • Free all political prisoners arrested recently;
  • Pull out troops from Oromia and end all military operations;
  • Stop aggressive and hostile policing, and invest more in training police on de-escalation techniques.
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Politics

Cyberbullying: The Digital Pandemic

Global emerging trends suggest that cyberbullying is now recognised as a serious threat not just to the physical health of people, but also to their emotional well-being. Social network spheres in Kenya and around the world have become the new frontiers for not just gender-based and sexual violence, but also for the expression of toxic, patriarchal and violent masculinities.

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Cyberbullying: The Digital Pandemic
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Throughout the world, cyberbullying (the use of the internet and/or mobile technology to harass, intimidate or cause harm to another person) and online harassment have emerged as a new pandemic with devastating consequences for a wide spectrum of people, including children and adults, the powerful and the powerless, celebrities and media personalities.

The ever-growing and fast expanding reach of the internet, coupled with the rapid spread of information and communication technology (ICT), as well as the wide diffusion of social media globally, have presented new opportunities and challenges to online users. In fact, technology as we know it today is fraught with the good, the bad and the ugly. This technological revolution could rightly be described as a “double edged” sword, where the user is continuously balancing between risks and opportunities.

On the one hand, this technological revolution has shrunk our world into a global village where people can easily connect, share, and engage in conversations about issues that concern them. It can be used to support and fundraise for important global and national causes, create and inspire social movements like the blacklivesmattermovement, Metoomovement, Bringbackourgirls for the public and global good, and mobilise the world for humanitarian action, such as coming together to help the Haiti earthquake victims.

On the other hand, it has exposed the invisible evil world of cyberbulling and online harassment that have wrecked lives, caused deep pain and hurt to millions of online users, destroyed relationships, and affected people’s integrity, health, well-being and career development. It is increasingly becoming apparent that cyberspaces have become violent and ungovernable civic spheres.

Technological advancements have led to the emergence of new forms of violence, such as online trolling, sexual harassment and gender-based technologically-driven violence against both men and women, although women and young girls are particularly on the receiving end because they are more vulnerable. Cyberspaces are today characterised by online anonymity. Technologically-mediated violence nowadays is performed using electronic devices, such as mobile phones, tablets and computers.

While gender-driven sexual violence is viewed as the norm by many people, this traditional form of violence has recently gained a new space and currency and is now part of the online violent experience. Traditionally, bullying had been a preserve of school compounds and sports arenas, but it has now moved to media spaces where online anonymity allows bullies to hound their prey with their predator tactics unperturbed. Bullying is a form of abuse that is based on an imbalance of power. In fact, it can be defined as the systemic abuse of power.

Bullying is often defined as an aggressive, intentional act or behaviour that is carried out by a group or an individual repeatedly over time and space, against a victim who cannot defend himself or herself.

Cyberbullying, on the other hand, is a form of bullying that has recently become more apparent as the use of electronic gadgets continues to expand. Here, it is defined as the intentional use of the internet and social media platforms to degrade, demean, belittle and embarrass another person. It employs electronic forms of contact and can take many forms that include, but are not limited to, unwanted trolls, sharing of unwelcome content, sexual harassment or threats of sexual violence, such as threats of rape, cyberstalking, body shaming, sending or publishing or sharing of nude pictures, death threats, hate speech, and professional sabotage with the aim of stripping someone of their sexual or personal integrity.

Bullying is a form of abuse that is based on an imbalance of power. In fact, it can be defined as the systemic abuse of power.

Global emerging trends suggest that cyberbullying is now recognised as a serious threat not just to the physical health of people, but also to their emotional well-being. Yet, despite much awareness about this serious challenge, it seems that the problem will continue to grow if no concerted effort is taken by the relevant authorities.

Cyberbullying in Kenya

In the past one and half decade or so, Kenya has undergone a significant ICT revolution. Kenya has been ranked as the second leading innovation hub in sub-Saharan Africa, after South Africa, according to the 2019 Global Innovation Index. Similarly, internet penetration in Kenya currently stands at 90 per cent, according to the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA). Broadband internet take-up, as of September 2017, rose by more than 14 per cent. Consequently, the number of internet users has increased from 45.5 million to 51 million users, with the popularity of mobile internet being the biggest factor behind this meteoric rise and expansion.

Thanks to increased internet connectivity across the country, more Kenyans than ever before are using social media platforms to share, communicate, interact and generate important conversations on topical issues in the Kenyan public sphere. According to a survey conducted by the Google Consumer Barometer, about 90 per cent of Kenyans go online to visit social networks platforms, which include Facebook, Instagram, Linked-in, Snap Chat and Twitter, among others. In addition, 80 per cent of Kenyans use the internet to check emails and access instant message services.

The ever-growing and expanding appropriation of the internet and other communication technologies in Kenya and across the African continent has, unfortunately, led to the proliferation of cyberbullying. While cyberbullying is on the rise globally, in countries with weak policies like Kenya, it is becoming a nightmare for many people.

In April 2020, the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ranked Kenyans as “the worst bullies on Twitter”. In the UNODC survey, Kenyans were described as having the capacity to “come together and attack their common enemies, as well as deconstructing both real and perceived enemies”. The survey stated that Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) will attack anybody – the famous and the-not-so-famous “with little regard for truth, fact or any benefit of doubt that can be given”.

The survey further observed that “various brands like CNN and New York Times now have to think twice before they tweet about Kenya”, and noted that “today no country dares start an online feud with Kenyans unless they have a well-functioning mental healthcare system”. Countries that have suffered the wrath of the #KOT army include China, Nigeria and South Africa.

Like all other forms of violence that are prevalent in Kenya, including gender-based, sexual and political violence, cyberbullying is not only rife, but continues to thrive in Kenya’s ungovernable online space, even as it keeps evolving.

The survey further observed that “various brands like CNN and New York Times now have to think twice before they tweet about Kenya”, and noted that “today no country dares start an online feud with Kenyans unless they have a well-functioning mental healthcare system”.

Academics, business leaders, the clergy, female leaders, judicial officers, media personalities, politicians, performing artists and senior government officials, among others, have all been cyberbullied by faceless predators who hide behind their anonymous identities.

#KOT cyberbullies are notorious for having harassed a wide spectrum of Kenyans. Some of the more well-known Kenyans who have been victims of cyberbullying include Chief Justice David Maraga, who has been trolled and bullied online. Chief Justice Maraga recently shared his frustration about trolls and bloggers who torment public figures by portraying them negatively with a view to destroying not just their integrity, but also their careers. #KOT also ran President Uhuru Kenyatta out of town, forcing him to close his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

While oftentimes such trolls and memes on public personalities tend to be hilarious, even entertaining, much of the bullying take the form of personalised attacks, which are humiliating and vicious. Hence, cyberbullying crosses the line between freedom of expression and human rights and ethics.

Why are people so mean?

Current research suggests that the youth, especially young women, are most vulnerable to cyberbullying, with 6 to 10 per cent of women and men in developing countries aged between 18 to 24 years who regularly use the internet indicating that they had suffered online abuse at one time or another.

Why are cyberspaces becoming such violent, unsafe and ungovernable arenas? Why are people being so mean to each other? How can we understand and explain cyberbullying?

Firstly, bullying and violence are a normalised part of our public and private culture. As bullies used to be found in schools, they now seem to have relocated to cybernetics, where the anonymity of this space has enabled these “keyboard warriors” to wreck peoples’ lives. The motivating factors of cyberbullying could be anger, boredom, frustrations, jealousy, revenge, or the fact that some bullies derive pleasure from hurting other people.

With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns that have trapped many people in their homes, cyberbullying seems to have spiralled. Therapists and psychologists are pointing to the increased mental health issues relating to anger, anxiety and stress that are being experienced by a wide spectrum of people cocooned in their houses. Already the UN, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Kenya Police have sounded the alarm about increased levels of domestic and sexual violence.

Cyberviolence against women and girls could be considered a pandemic that now affects one in three women who are said to have experienced some form of cyberbullying and online harassment, according to recent studies. A study commissioned by the African Development Bank suggests that up to 70 per cent of women have endured cyberviolence and that women are 27 times more likely than men to be harassed online.

Studies further suggest that while more males are exposed to cyberbullying related to physical aggression, more females are victims of cyberbullying that includes non-consensual sharing of intimate images, unsolicited sending of sexual and pornographic images and other forms of cyberbullying that entails sexualised behaviour.

Of the several women that I interviewed between the ages of 20 and 35, more than half of them said they had been, in one way or another, victims of cyberbullying and online harassment. They said people, both unknown to them as well those they knew (mostly ex-partners) posted their pictures online without their consent. Others intimated that men solicited for sexual favours online and when they were refused, they verbally and sexually abused or threated their victims online.

A study commissioned by the African Development Bank suggests that up to 70 per cent of women have endured cyberviolence and that women are 27 times more likely than men to be harassed online.

The young men I interviewed also spoke about being cyberbullied sexually and verbally by their jilted female lovers, who either threatened or actually published their intimate photos for revenge. One told me that he actually paid his ex-girlfriend money to take down what she had published, but this only helped to open up a new avenue for extortion and threats of further postings every time she needed money, forcing him to finally report her to the police.

Sexualised cyberbullying

Why are women’s bodies sexualized and demeaned not just by Kenyan society but globally? More importantly, why is this oftentimes not just tolerated, but also increasingly normalised?

There are several explanations for this: Violence against women is gendered as it is rooted in stereotypes about gender roles, sexuality and sexual norms for women. For example, the non-consensual sharing of intimate images or the threat to share such images is meant to humiliate and intimidate women. This occurs in the context of the patriarchal sexual double standard, which unfairly judges women – but not men – for enjoying their sexuality. It is often a coercive method used for controlling behaviour in on-going relationships that is breaking down or has ended.

Secondly, the underlying cause of violence inflicted through cyber-meditated violence lies in the hierarchical nature of how gender is socially structured. More importantly, it is disdain for women with voice, power and agency. At the same time, men’s disdain for feminism, which most of them do not critically understand, has pitted them against women. In short, violence and bullying are generally strongly linked with gender dynamics and sexuality and their construction and on-going contestations in the public sphere. The normalisation of male violence against women and girls, as well as the restrictive expectations about women and girls, are some of the key drivers of sexualized cyberbullying and online harassment of women.

There are clear gendered differences in the harassment itself. Men are largely attacked for their opinions but women are attacked for their gender, sexuality and appearance. The recent cases of Brenda Cherotich and Brian Orinda, who were alleged to have survived COVID-19 and became the face of survival in a pandemic that has scared the hell out of many people, were both heavily trolled on Twitter. Brenda’s case immediately assumed sexual overtones with sexual and nude pictures of Brenda circulated online. When TV personality Yvonne Okwara Matole spoke against this sexual violence against Brenda, she too was personally and sexually attacked. She was body shamed, trolled and bullied for speaking up against the rampant sexual violence against women and girls in Kenyan society.

Why is the cyberbullying and online harassment of women and girls sexualized? Well, it is simply a question of power relations and who holds the power at the time. It is not only men who are responsible for gendered harassment and it is not always directed at women; it is about one group experiencing loss of status and power to another group. Kenyan women are emerging and contesting not just political power, but economic, social and cultural power as well.

Bullying someone in a sexual manner is a typical and highly effective master oppression technique. Threats of sexual violence have always been about power, as well as a sign of a change of status between men and women. Today, many women are increasingly gaining a voice and agency, and are participating in public debates and conversations on various issues, such as governance, human rights and leadership. This certainly has given them visibility in the public sphere, including in media spaces, to the chagrin of misogynists.

These prejudices hinder women’s participation in public discourses and processes as many cower, self-censor, and in some instances, totally withdraw from public, civic and social media spaces. To properly combat cyberbullying, the government needs to recognise that technology-based violence is the new arena that is preventing women from achieving their full potential.

The experience of bullying is intensified in cyberspace because the perpetrator can hide behind a screen name and can act unhindered without fear of reprisal. In addition, the arena for the bullying is not just a playground, but part of a huge cyberspace spanning countries, cultures and even times.

A sharp rise in technology-related violence against women and its normalisation have made the internet a gendered space. Social network spheres, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snap Chat, are the new frontiers for not just gender-based and sexual violence, but also for the expression of toxic, patriarchal and violent masculinities. These social network spaces have become a nightmare for many people, especially women and girls.

A baseline report by the Kenya ICT Action Network on the challenges faced by Kenyan women on the internet lists non-consent, distribution of intimate images, sexual harassment, stalking, hate, offensive comments and body shaming as some of the most prominent violations of women’s rights and well-being. Female journalists between the ages of 25 and 35 are twice as exposed to cyberbullying and threats than their male counterparts.

Bullying someone in a sexual manner is a typical and highly effective master oppression technique. Threats of sexual violence have always been about power, as well as a sign of a change of status between men and women.

A 2016 study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) indicated that online societies judge women politicians more harshly than they do male politicians. The study suggested that on social media, women politicians were at the receiving end of sexual comments, with their appearance and marital status often being the subject of discussions on gauging their fitness for public office.

Cyberbullying puts a premium on emotional health, personal and workplace time and resources. The impacts of cyberbullying on women are psychological, social, physical, emotional, and economic. Anxiety and self-esteem affect young women in particular. For one, many younger women internalise this by self-objectifying themselves as either beautiful or ugly, or as an object to be looked or evaluated on the basis of their appearance. This has many consequences for the mental and emotional well-being of young women and girls who more often than not grapple with issues of self-esteem and confidence in a heavily patriarchal society that does not value women very much.

Enlarging women’s online engagement

Digital technologies offer people innovative ways to get involved in politics and governance issues. From receiving instant news notifications on political developments to engaging in online debates and discourses and expressing personal opinions on a wide array of issues, social media can enhance the political and civic engagement of women in a way that traditional media cannot.

Social media platforms allows women to speak up. They are the only forum where women have control and space. Other spaces for civic engagement may not always be welcoming of women’s voices. Thus digital spaces can be both empowering and dangerous for women. They can be spaces for mobilisation, for the formation of voice and agency, but they can also be spaces fraught with abuse and violence.

Cyberbullying, therefore, restricts the civic opportunities offered by digitisation. It restricts women from having a voice and agency online. Young people, especially young women, are hence discouraged and put off from taking part in political discussions and online debates and conversations.

In contrast, young men are more politically active online, posting their comments liberally, and reading and sharing articles on social networks, thus contributing to robust conversations on social and political happenings and discourses. Social media allows women and men to voice their opinion on a wide array of socio-economic political and cultural issues. With thousands of online resources posted every minute, social media could be a potential educatiional platform, especially when used responsibly.

However, cyberbullying or abuse has to be prevented so that women can fully participate in conversations about governance and human rights, among other topics affecting them. Participation of women, especially young women whose voices are less heard, could be important, not just for their visibility, but also for civic engagement. Women will only navigate their voice and agency if civic spaces like social media are made safe for them.

There is no gainsaying that social media has become an important tool for social and professional advancement, more so for women. Many women have built their businesses online and in the process have learned how to connect with others. Many find clients to buy and sell their products online. Others find platforms to incubate ideas, leading to hundreds if not millions of social enterprises that not only spur economic growth but directly empower young men and women economically. They have also learned how to improve their entrepreneurship skills online. No doubt then, social media has emerged as a great space to do business. This is important for women’s economic empowerment and visibility.

But the internet needs to be a safe place to enable young people to express their opinions and build their careers and social enterprises. Given that it is nearly impossible to govern gender- and sexual-based cyberviolence, such as cyberbullying and online harassment, without stepping on peoples’ civic liberties, including freedom of expression, it is important to rethink safe civic spaces for everyone, especially women and girls.

Cyberbullying and online harassment must not be normalised but must be fought to create a safe place for respectful, civil, ethical and lawful online conversations. However, this can only happen if online spaces could engender conversations that rethink the toxic masculine, patriarchal, and hypersexualized social and gendered norms about women and girls that currently prevail in Kenyan society.

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