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Pan-Ethiopianists vs Ethno-Nationalists: The Narrative Elite War in Ethiopia

17 min read.

It is not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis, and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals—are disincentivised.

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Pan-Ethiopianists vs Ethno-Nationalists: The Narrative Elite War in Ethiopia
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The current political conflict, now a civil war, in Ethiopia partly has its roots in disagreement among elites on how to narrativise Ethiopian history.

There is an enduring disunity among Ethiopian elites regarding the country’s history and future. Informed by its long, and contentious multi-ethnic history, and fueled by recent shifts in the political landscape in the country, a war of narratives has been reignited. The narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.” The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilise the country. Indeed, narratives surrounding ethnic identities and ethnic politics in Ethiopia is the one thing that demands the most attention. As it stands today, the way and environment in which the debate is occurring, and the actors involved in it indicates we may be approaching a threshold that cannot be uncrossed.

How the Ethiopian state evolved

Nation-building is a contested process of narrative construction. In his book, Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson reminds us that nations are “imagined political communities.” Common to all political communities is a set of beliefs in unifying narratives about community special characteristics. These narratives provide explanations to the participating individuals and their leaders about what makes their community unique, especially when compared to others. Nation-building in the Ethiopian context follows a similar pattern.

Faced with the burden of justifying maintenance of the Ethiopian state and their place at the top, Ethiopian rulers of the past relied on religious texts and edicts of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Written in the 14th century, the Kibre Negest, or “Glory of the Kings,” provided detailed accounts of the lineage of the Solomonic dynasty—the former ruling dynasty of the Ethiopian Empire—according to which Ethiopia’s rulers were descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It told the story of Ethiopia and Ethiopians as God’s people, a chosen people.

The narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.” The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilise the country

This narrative of Ethiopia as a chosen place endures to this day. It was in display when many Ethiopians woke up on October 24, 2020 and learned that US President Donald Trump had suggested “[Egypt] will end up blowing up the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)] dam.” Many Ethiopian citizens and politicians responded with the assertion that Ethiopia will prevail, not least of which because it has God on its side. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office released a statement that echoed the same sentiment.

Similarly, the 12th century text Fitiha Negest, or “Laws of the Kings,” served as the country’s oldest traditional legal code. The Fitiha Negest insisted that kings must receive obedience and reverence. It justified the Kings’ power using scripture, specifically the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 17:15:

Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.

Ethiopia’s rulers used these texts to justify the state’s existence and their own power. But more importantly, as much as Americans take the Declaration of Independence as their founding moment, the Kebre Negest provided a similar “origins” story, albeit a contested one, while Fitiha Negest served as a constitution of sorts by laying out a minimal set of rules that bound the Kings and their subjects. As such, the Kebre Negest and the Fitiha Negest could arguably be taken as the most important founding texts of the Ethiopian state.

The 1700s witnessed the emergence of a new political structure where disparate noblemen usurped power away from emperors of the Solomonic dynasty and began ruling over their own regions, a period known among Ethiopian historians as Zemene Mesafint, or Age of the Princes, named after the Book of Judges. In 1855, Emperor Tewodros II, born Kassa Hailu, rose to the throne after defeating regional noblemen. He recognised the need for a newer narrative that was closely aligned to his vision of Ethiopia as a modern, forward thinking nation. In line with that vision, his first step was to separate church and state, shift its narrative and establish the state on a more secular foundation. To do so, he needed better educated Ethiopians, and thus began an elite-led nation building process. His efforts however did not bear fruit due to fierce internal opposition driven largely by disgruntled clergy, who, fearful of losing their own privilege and power, were unappreciative of his radical ideas.

Nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia.

Subsequent rulers of Ethiopia mended the “glitch” and followed the path that almost was dismantled by Emperor Tewodros II, and, as a result, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remained inseparable from the Ethiopian state, and, with that, the state narrative. That, however, changed with Emperor Menelik II assuming the throne in 1889. Although historical Ethiopia dates back to millennia, Emperor Menelik is widely considered as an architect of the modern Ethiopian state. His epic defeat of Italian colonial power at the Battle of Adwa added another, if not stronger, element to the myth of God’s-chosen-people identity to Ethiopians and the Ethiopian state. As the Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde recounts in his book, Pioneers of Change, Menelik, eager to modernise Ethiopia, sent Ethiopians to Europe and the US for higher education. Unlike the church-educated elites that preceded them, these early Western-educated Ethiopians broke with tradition and became critics of the state. It may be argued as such that Emperor Menelik could be credited with spearheading the creation of a new intellectual-elite class and with bringing the same to the center of state politics. With that he laid the groundwork for the creation of a new elite class that would later challenge the very essence of Ethiopia as a nation state.

Walleligne and the birth of ethno-nationalism

When Emperor Haile Selassie rose to the throne in 1930, he was acutely aware of the shortage of educated Ethiopians to build Ethiopia’s nascent civil service and bureaucracy. In order to fill in this gap, like his predecessor, he sent many Ethiopians to Europe and the US for higher education that in the words of historian Jon Abbink produced “a generation of daring, innovative intellectual leaders and thinkers.” However, sadly many of these intellectuals were annihilated by the Italian colonial power in the late 1930s. This loss of its brightest left post-war Ethiopia with deep psychological scars and decades of stagnation, devoid of social and political change. With the founding of the University College of Addis Ababa in 1950, the future Haile Selassie University (now, Addis Ababa University), Emperor Haile Selassie’s dream of producing educated Ethiopians en masse finally came true.

The 1960’s was when the role of Ethiopian intellectuals in the country’s politics probably experienced its most consequential phase. Starting in the 1960’s, with the backdrop of broader social unrest, university students started to oppose Haile Selassie’s single-man authoritarian rule and the oppressive socio-economic and cultural structures within which the students said the imperial government and its predecessors functioned. They demanded rights and freedom. It was until a more radical wing of the movement, concurrent with the more mundane demand for reform, started to question the equating of the Ethiopian state with the nation. Compared to the reformist intellectuals of the previous generation, Ethiopia’s newly minted intellectuals displayed impatience and lacked foresight in their calls for radical social and political reformJon Abbink might not be far from the truth when he observed these intellectuals’ “wholesale adoption of unmediated Western ideologies and abandonment of Ethiopian values” had had “quite disastrous consequences.”

On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia,” an influential short essay written by Walleligne Mekonnen—who at the time was a second-year political science student at the university, and who was later was shot and killed along with fellow activists while attempting to hijack an Ethiopian Airlines flight—became a founding text of the radical wing of the student movement. In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.” However, this reality, according to him, was suppressed by the ruling class. Instead, a “fake Ethiopian nationalism” that is based on the linguistic and cultural superiority of the Amhara and, to a certain extent, the Amhara-Tigre, was imposed on the other peoples of Ethiopia, resulting in asymmetrical relations among the “nations” of Ethiopia. Therefore, according to Walleligne, the Ethiopian state came to be through the linguistic and cultural assimilation of the peoples of the wider South by the North—the Amhara and their junior-partner-in-assimilation, the Tigre. And, that this project of constructing Ethiopia was aided by the trinity of (the Amharic) language, (Amhara-Tigre) culture and religion (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). He was, of course, echoing arguments that Joseph Stalin, Rosa Luxemburg and others made about nations, nationalism, and self-determination. (Stalin, for example, lays out his thesis in Marxism and the National Question, as does Luxemburg in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.)

Walleligne thus called for the dismantling and replacement of this “fake [Ethiopian] nationalism” with a “genuine Nationalist Socialist State” that he argued could only be achieved “through violence [and,] through revolutionary armed struggle.” To be sure, Walleligne did not see “succession” as an end in and of itself; nonetheless, he propagated it as a means to building the future egalitarian Ethiopian state, with the caveat that such succession should be rooted in and guided by “progressivism” and “Socialist internationalism.” He closed his essay with what may be considered prophetic:

A regime [Haile Selassie’s government] like ours harassed from corners is bound to collapse in a relatively short period of time. But when the degree of consciousness of the various nationalities is at different levels, it is not only the right, but the duty, of the most conscious nationality to first liberate itself and then assist in the struggle for total liberation.

Haile Selassie’s government did collapse in 1974.

The constitutionalizing of ethno-nationalism

The movement that Walleligne imagined, spearheaded by the intelligentsia as it were, was hijacked by the Dergue—a collective of disgruntled low-ranking military officers in the imperial army—that not only succeeded in overthrowing Haile Selassie’s government, but also in ruling Ethiopia with an iron-fist for the next 17 years. But the political and armed struggle for “liberation” continued. It was in this atmosphere of radicalisation of the intellectual-elite class that discourses like “liberation” and the “oppressor-oppressed” took hold in the Ethiopian body politic and a plethora of liberation fronts mushroomed or revived: the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF, 1962)—that succeeded in seceding Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1991—the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF, 1966), and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF, 1975) to name but the most important ones. The Dergue’s 17 years in power was marred by the bloodiest times in Ethiopian modern history: the Red Terror, a border war with Somalia (1977-1978) and, more importantly, the protracted civil wars with TPLF, EPLF and OLF.

After 17 years of armed struggle, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) defeated the Dergue and controlled Ethiopian state power in 1991. The EPRDF was a coalition composed of the TPLF, The Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Southern Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Front (SEPDF). It should, however, be noted that it was only with victory in sight against the Dergue and a desire to expand its sphere of influence beyond Tigray, that the TPLF formed the EPRDF in 1988. Otherwise, the actual power holder within the coalition remained TPLF. Consequently, the EPRDF introduced the 1995 constitution. Adopted in the immediate context of the post-Cold War, in a way that reflects the politics of constitutionalism and especially the shrewdness and pragmatism of the man behind it, Meles Zenawi, the constitution was a compromise between TPLF’s deep-rooted Marxist-Leninist ideological moorings and the post-Cold War euphoric triumphalism of liberal constitutionalism and human rights. So much so that the constitution declares the inviolability and alienability of human rights and freedoms emanating from the nature of mankind. However, as his building a de facto one-party state would later reveal, this was a move that seems to have been motivated more by placating the West than a genuine desire on the part of Zenawi’s EPRDF to champion the causes of human rights and democratic values.

In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.

The constitution divided Ethiopia into nine ethnic states that—with the exception of what is called the Southern Nations and Nationalities Regional State—are based on the ethnic identities of residents of those states. Most importantly, the constitution grants the “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” within those states the unconditional “right to self-determination, including secession.” In other words, rather than with a people, sovereignty resides in a plurality of peoples of Ethiopia. It is these peoples that came together to form Ethiopia and they are the custodians of Ethiopia, from which they have the absolute right to secede if they so wish. That way, the constitution replaced the age-old notion of Ethiopia as a nation with an Ethiopia as a “nation of nations.” Walleligne predicted this almost a quarter of a century earlier: “What are the Ethiopian people composed of? I stress the word peoples because sociologically speaking at this stage Ethiopia is not really a nation.”

From then on ethnicity became a determinant factor and dominant political currency in Ethiopian politics, bringing with it, in the words of the late sociologist Donald Levine (who taught at the University of Chicago and became a key figure in Ethiopian Studies), an “epidemic of ethnic and regional hostilities.” In addition to changing the way the country organised itself politically, EPRDF also sought to reframe the very foundation of what it means to be an Ethiopian and how Ethiopia itself came to be. Not unexpectedly, EPRDF targeted schools and educational institutions in particular as spaces where new narratives of Ethiopian history could be inculcated, so much so that Ethiopian universities became flashpoints of ethnic conflicts among students. Walleligne’s abstract and—as he himself admitted in his writing—incomplete idea found a home in the curriculum.

With this entrenchment of a “new” history of Ethiopia and a generation educated in the new curriculum and the alienation of “pan-Ethiopianism” from the Ethiopian body politic, it seemed that the “old Ethiopia” had died and been buried. But, as the 2005 Ethiopian election showed, a pan-Ethiopian party called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) almost clinched power in major cities and rural areas if it had not been suppressed and finally expelled from Ethiopian political landscape. In fact, it was that election that gave the close to two decades-long ethnic politics championed by Meles Zenawi, a real challenge and, more importantly, sowed the earliest seeds of the revival of pan-Ethiopian politics.

Abiy Ahmed and the re-emergence of pan-Ethiopianism?

Zenawi—the ex-guerrilla fighter who, as a prime minister, was reported to have made authoritarianism respectable—died in a Belgian hospital in 2012. Although political pundits thought that in his absence Ethiopia would plunge into crisis immediately, his successors managed to stave off social unrest until protest rallies started to emerge in the Oromia region following the unveiling of the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan (a plan to expand the federal capital, mostly into Oromia) in April 2014. Months of sustained protests resulted in hundreds of deaths and even more people being imprisoned.

However, the draconian measures did little to slow the protests. The EPRDF government eventually backed off from its aggressive actions against protestors and shelved its ambitious master plan, but it was too late. The protest had picked up steam and expanded to several other regions, including the Amhara region. Protestors demanded rights, representation, and economic justice. Tellingly, these protests erupted less than a year after EPRDF claimed to have won 100% of the 2015 election and only months after US President Obama praised the government as being “democratically elected.”

The TPLF-led EPRDF government could not sustain its political power. In the backdrop of a fierce intra-party scuffle, in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo and member of the OPDO, ascended to power. With his promise of leading Ethiopia through transition to democracy, Abiy immediately began introducing a plethora of reforms, including releasing political prisoners, inviting home all opposition parties, and appointing some prominent public figures to key positions within his government. These and many other earlier reforms won him almost universal support from Ethiopians and the international community. In 2019 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace-deal with neighboring Eritrea, ending a two-decades long stalemate, following the 1998 border war between the two countries that claimed more than a hundred thousand lives.

Despite the indisputably positive changes he introduced and results achieved, Abiy’s Ethiopia also saw its most turbulent years in recent Ethiopian history, including internal displacements, violence that claimed the lives of hundreds—high-profile assassinations, including an attempted assassination on the premier himself, targeted ethnic killings, and ongoing violence perpetrated by a splinter military wing of the OLF in western Oromia region. Abiy’s decision to indefinitely postpone the August general election due to COVID-19 has further destabilized the country and put in tatters his promise of transitioning Ethiopia to democracy.

There also is the ongoing tension with the TPLF that governs the Tigray region—that recently held its own regional election in defiance of the central government’s ban on all elections due to the pandemic. As a result, the Ethiopian parliament voted to cut ties with Tigray region leaders, which has the potential to erupt into a full-blown war with the federal government. Further complicating Abiy’s agenda of stabilizing the East African nation is the tension with Egypt in relation to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD) and broader geopolitical issues.

It was amid this ongoing turmoil Abiy established the Prosperity Party at the end of 2019, which brought together three of the four ethnic-based parties that constituted the EPRDF coalition and other smaller parties, considered within party circles as “allies” to the EPRDF. Based on his vision of national unity among Ethiopians that he calls medemer, which literally means “coming together,” this re-branding of EPRDF was meant to stave off the ethnically divisive politics and address ethnically motivated conflicts that engulfed the country during EPRDF’s 27 years in power. This seemingly mundane action, however, did not sit well with everyone and it brought to the surface an issue dormant for the last 25 years in the Ethiopian formal political scene, namely: how to historicize Ethiopia. There is now an all-out war of narratives among Ethiopian elites on the history of Ethiopia.

This narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianism” and “Ethno-nationalism.” The ethno-nationalist camp takes Walleligne’s thesis as accurate representation of Ethiopia as a nation of nations. As we have noted, in mainstream Ethiopian history, Emperor Menelik is considered the architect of the modern Ethiopian state. He is especially credited with expanding the Ethiopian empire to the south from his northern stronghold of Shoa. To the outside world and to Ethiopians alike, his epic victory over the Italian colonial force in the Battle of Adwa is widely celebrated as a key moment in Black anticolonial consciousness. In stark contrast to this picture, in the ethno-nationalist discourse, Emperor Menelik figures as the archenemy. To the ethno-nationalists Menelik’s supposedly mundane “state-building” endeavors were marked by violence, forced assimilation and suppression of cultures of peoples of the South, especially the Oromo. Echoing Walleligne’s thesis, they insist that rather than a nation built on the consent of the “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopia, Ethiopia is imposed on the wider South through conquest, violence and assimilation by Ethiopian rulers of Amhara, and to a certain extent, Tigre extraction. In their view, rather than an inclusive multicultural state, Ethiopia is made in the image of the Amhara and the Tigre.

This narrative of Ethiopia as a chosen place endures to this day. It was in display when many Ethiopians woke up on October 24, 2020 and learned that US President Donald Trump had suggested “[Egypt] will end up blowing up the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)] dam.”

Quite to the contrary, those in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp embrace the historical Ethiopia and adhere to the idea of Ethiopia as a nation-state. While not ruling out the presence of violence, they reject the “empire thesis” of the ethno-nationalists and hold that Emperor Menelik was just engaging in state-building when he conquered and brought the wider South under his Imperial rulership. In the Pan-Ethiopianist narrative of Ethiopia, the supposed assimilationist and imperialist expansion of Emperor Menelik and his predecessors to the South is a normal historical process inherent to state building. There are also some within the Pan-Ethiopianist camp that insist that Emperor Menelik did not actually conquer and control “new” territories, but only “re-claimed” territories that hitherto were parts of the historical Ethiopia. There are still those in this camp that argue that it is in the nature of an empire to conquer peoples and rule over lands, and hence there is nothing anomalous about Emperor Menelik’s deeds.

Not surprisingly, many in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp saw, at least in the beginning, Abiy’s formation of the Prosperity Party as a move in the right direction with a potential to dismantle the current ethnic-federalism—that adherents of this camp hold is the root cause of the cycles of ethnic conflicts and other problems that the country faces—and eventually realise a unified Ethiopia, albeit federalist. Quite to the contrary, the move did not sit well with the ethno-nationalist camp, the TPLF in particular openly opposing this merger as “illegal” on the grounds that all constituent parties of the EPRDF should have consented to the dissolution of EPRDF and the merger. The Oromo activists see in this merger and Abiy’s other reform agenda a return to the old Ethiopia, in which they argue Oromos were culturally and linguistically alienated by the Amhara-Tigre elites that in the past had a monopoly on state power.

Social media and narratives of hate

The elites’ reach and impact has expanded as the means of information sharing and consumption has expanded. It is no more the traditional intellectual-elite class that engages in the production and dissemination of information that advances knowledge. Unlike the closely-knit intellectual class of earlier times, the debate now has a diverse body of actors: activists, political party operatives, and, as oxymoronic as it sounds, intellectual activists. The elites with the loudest voices use low-trust and high-reach communication mediums like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to peddle their own facts and pursue their own agenda. Social media as it exists today rewards absolute claims, purity, good and evil binaries, and unequivocal declarations of truth that leave little room for compassion, reasoning, careful interpretation, and nuance. Fueled by algorithms that favor combustible content, social media companies orchestrate human interaction that lead individuals to maintain extreme positions and be adversarial towards one another.

The emerging Ethiopian elites in both camps have harnessed social media in ways that have yielded extraordinary influence and power over political discourse that directly and indirectly affects the lives of everyday Ethiopians. They recognize their charisma is more significant to their audience than the contents of their speech or the quality of their argument. Name calling and ad hominem attacks are their currency and they invoke current and historical grievances, and narratives of superiority, to stoke fear and anger. Unfortunately, the narratives these elites broadcast are not without consequences. There is a correlation between recent violence in Ethiopia and the supposed adherents of these narratives.

Nothing makes the dangers of the deep division between the two camps as the murder of the renowned Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundesa in June 2020. This incident has clearly shown their tendency to see and interpret any and every incident or issue in ways that support their respective narratives. Unfortunately, as is quite common in the post-truth social media age we live in, it is as though elites in each camp use different truth-filters, no matter what facts on the ground dictate. So much so that, immediately after the news of Hachalu’s death surfaced, elites in each camp took to social media and, with no evidence at their disposal, started to speculate who might have shot and killed the singer and began pointing fingers at each other. In the ethno-nationalist camp, a conspiracy started to circulate that claimed the killing was orchestrated and carried out by “neftegna” and statements like “They killed our hero” reverberated around social media, followed by wide-spread Oromo protests in Ethiopia, Europe, and North America. On the other hand, in what appears to be due to Hachalu’s pro-Oromo nationalistic political views, in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp there was either a deafening silence, or some suggesting that the killing was a result of intra power-struggle among the Oromo elite politicians who just “sacrificed” Hachalu for their own politically calculated ends. Amidst the confusion and unsubstantiated claims floating around—with even some media outlets broadcasting hate-filled messages—violence  erupted in the Oromia region claiming the lives of more than 200 individuals, the displacement of thousands, and property damage. The killings were reported to be gruesome and targeted.

If anyone in either camp is insensitive enough to bring havoc to Ethiopia, or even worse, to sacrifice precious human lives in pursuit of political ends or to prove a particular narrative of Ethiopia, then the debate is not so much about liberation and freedom as it is about ideology or some other ends. As Edward Said chastises us:

the standards of truth about human misery and oppression [are] to be held despite the individual intellectual’s party affiliation, national background, and primeval loyalties. Nothing disfigures the intellectual’s public performances as much as trimming, careful silence, patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing apostasy.

We shouldn’t also lose sight of the fact that, while not denying that there are genuinely invested individuals and groups of actors in each camp, there are still many in this “war” owing to other factors that have little or nothing to do with a genuine concern for Ethiopia and everyday Ethiopians. The harsh truth is that this is not just a debate about history, identity, or self-governance, but more so about elites’ drive for resource monopolization, the prestige that comes with power, and other factors external to the debate.

Abiy’s government, like the EPRDF before it, is attempting to limit internet access, especially to social media, to quell recent unrest. The government’s desperate act to avoid future incidents like these are understandable. Expanded internet access to all, in theory, at least, is a positive development in the right hands. And it would be misguided to argue that the broadening of access to free speech that has been made possible through social media is wrong or detrimental. The detriment, actually, is with the unchecked nature of social media. As well, the absence of meaningful fact checking and understanding of local knowledge among social media companies make it possible for misinformation to spread easily.

Whither Ethiopia? The way forward

As we noted initially, nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia. This has become a singularly arduous task especially now that a generation of Ethiopians who have grown up under the EPRDF are increasingly alienated from actual inter-ethnic-lived experiences of Ethiopians of present and past generations. It is also naive to expect the debate to remain even-tempered. Emotions can run high as communities attempt to reconcile their ethnic identity and group status as they negotiate the meaning of their shared history with others. However, prerequisites to making meaningful progress are highly credible communication mediums, shared facts, and shared goals. At the moment, the opposite appears to be true.

There is a glaring absence of willingness on both sides to engage in reasoned debates, leaving no room to explore the authenticity and truthfulness of alternative narratives. It is not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis, and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals—are disincentivised.

Even if we disagree on where we started and how we got here, we could at least agree on where we are heading. Denialism, lack of empathy, and cancel-culture are the last traits we should carry into this debate, not only because people’s lives are at stake, but also the future of Ethiopia as a state. Good faith debate based on shared facts and shared goals are required if the historical Ethiopia is to survive another century.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

Editor’s note: Please note that the piece was first published on September 30. While the authors updated it over the past month, the conflict in Ethiopia has now accelerated to a civil war. We plan to provide more up-to-date coverage. Meanwhile, we recommend this statement by a group of scholars and researchers from the Horn of Africa.

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Shimelis Mulugeta Kene is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, McGill University. Solen Feyissa is an academic technologist at the School of Public Health, University of Minnesota.

Politics

South Sudan: Rebels Seek to Remove President Kiir From Power as Country Marks 10 Years of Self-Rule

Even as South Sudan marks 10 years since it attained its independence from Sudan, the fragile peace is at risk of collapsing.

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South Sudan: Rebels Seek to Remove President Kiir From Power as Country Marks 10 Years of Self-Rule
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In an interview with this writer in a Nairobi hotel on July 10, former SPLA chief of staff Gen Oyay Deng Ajak declared they are planning to oust President Salva Kiir this year.

Ajak, who is also a former minister of Investment and National Security, accuses President Salva Kiir of tribalism, destroying the ruling party SPLM, the SPLA army, the police and running down the country.

He also says that President Kiir does not want to leave power, and it is not possible for the youngest African country to go to 2023 General Election with him in power. Gen Ajak says he want to die on the seat.

Ajak is among the 11 political detainees accused of plotting a coup in December 2013 against President Kiir. The others were Deng Alor Kuol, Geir Chuang, Cirino Hiten, Kosti Manibe, John Luk, Gen Madut Biar Yel, Chol Tong Mayay. former SPLM secretary general Pagan Amum Ajak, former Defence minister Majak D’Agoot and former Ambassador to the US Ezekiel Lol Gatkouth.

They were released to Kenya in a deal between President Kiir and Uhuru Kenyatta under the auspices of Igad.

Only recently, before this interview, did President Kiir tell Citizen TV that he felt let down by Igad and particularly President Kenyatta.

“You know for Kenya, I am not happy because after the coup of 2013, President Uhuru took the lead that he was coming to take the leaders that I had apprehended during the coup. I told him, my brother, I cannot give you these people because they have to answer the charges on the role they played in the coup.”

“But President Uhuru put himself in front of me that he will not allow them to talk a single political sentence, that he would keep them safe in his house until I am convinced that they did not do anything. And so we released them to you [Kenya],” Kiir told Citizen TV in the interview aired on July 7.

The 11 detainees had become a sticking point at peace talks.

In his speech on the 10th Anniversary, Kiir vowed not to allow South Sudan to slide back to war. But he identified the National Salvation Front led by Gen Thomas Cirilo as a group that has refused to be part of the peace process and still contributes to instability in some parts of South Sudan.

General Ajak speaks about what happened in the 2013 alleged coup and the new plans to remove President Salva Kiir from power this year.

***

Eliud Kibii: What happened on that night before President Salva Kiir accused you of trying to overthrow the government?

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: A week earlier, we had a serious discussion with Salva, me, Taban Deng, who is now a vice president, Paul Malong, now a minister and a former minister of Finance at the palace in J1 about the problems we were facing as a movement and party.

We advised that given the situation, it was better to delay the meeting of the National Liberation Council and meet with Riek Machar – First Vice President – and discuss the internal problems because people were talking about the SPLM convention, which was going to take place in May 2014.

We met with him and told him to talk to Riek, meet with Mama Rebecca [Garang], talk to [SPLM secretary general Amum] Pagan, all these people who want to contest the election next year. And these are your friends, your brothers, your comrades, you have been together – here to discuss with them. And after you meet and discuss with them, you call for a meeting of the Political Bureau, which is the most senior, and the Political Bureau will decide what action to take and how people are going to work and move ahead together.

Salva agreed and we had a good evening, had dinner, drunk and had a good time to relax up to very late hours.

At midnight, we went to our houses confident that Salva would agree to the proposal and would not call the meeting. But two days later, he called the meeting, The National Liberation Council is a big body.

Most of them [members] are very young, thus emotional. Salva raised many issues about people who want to challenge his position.

Riek said he would not attend another meeting because he was personally attacked in the way some people made their comments. Mama Rebecca also refused to go for another meeting.

Pagan was told not to attend the meeting and instead to stay in his house. Look, he is the Secretary General of the party. There is no meeting of the party without the Secretary General.

I was not a member of the National Liberation Council. I was a member during the struggle but when the army was separated from the party, I was relieved.

Now on the day the shooting took place.  I was doing a distance learning programme and there was no WiFi in my house for one week. So, I went to a hotel near the airport.

Two of my colleagues came to my house on that Sunday at around 10:30am and when they could not get me, they called and I told them I’m in the hotel and I will be coming home.

But instead waiting, they came to the hotel.

The message was that lets go meet Salva Kiir. It is Malong who was talking.

“We want you personally to go and sit and discuss with Salva,” Malong said.

I refused and said if there is a meeting with Salva, it can’t be me alone. It has to be all of us.  Malong was very disappointed with me.

We had lunch with them up to 1:32pm and they left.

Then Taban Deng called and asked me where we were having lunch. I told him we had lunch with Cirilo and General Malong, who have since left so let’s go home. General Gier also called and we went to the house.

One of the officers from the barracks called Taban and this officer used a local dialect. The officer and Taban are Nuer. The officer told Taban, “These Dinka boys have come to disarm us”.

This was the beginning of the problem.

Taban put the phone on speaker and I talked to the officer.

I said, “What is the problem?”

He said they there are Dinka boys who have come to disarm us.

And so, I asked him, how many boys have come?

He said a one company. One company is 120 SPLA officers.

But then the Nuer boys who are at the presidential guard unit are more than 1,000. They are 1,500. They cannot be disarmed by one company. Please don’t create problem, I said.

This officer told me big man, the way these people are behaving, we will not accept it. We are going to fight now.

I told them, please don’t. Let me call the SPLA headquarters and this problem will be solved.

I tried to call the Chief of General Staff then, he is a Nuer, but he was in Australia, and he was coming back by that evening.

Taban said the way this thing is, it will not reach evening. There will be a serious fight.

So, he said instead of waiting for lunch, let him go and brief Riek Machar about what was happening.

I was left with Gier.

Pagan’s sister came from church and passed by the house, Majak was coming from Nairobi, he passed by, Thomas Duoth, who was the Director General of External Security Service also came. I told him thank God you are here; you are the right man to take this message now to the President.

I tried to talk to the Acting Chief of Staff, he was not picking up the phone and I called the then Defence Minister Majak, who was also not picking up

I called the director of military intelligence who was in Uganda, the phone was ringing but nobody was picking up.

I told Luoth there is a problem in the barracks and it is you people who can solve this problem.

Unfortunately, he, with the director of internal security, decided to keep quiet. Nobody went to the president who was closing the meeting I talked about of the National Liberation Council.

Since nobody called me, I thought everything was okay and so I went out for the normal logistics.

The shooting took place at 7:30 at the barracks and Taban called me immediately.

If I take you back to the part where I said the Neur said the Dinka boys were disarming them, it was not really a disarmament.

The Nuer boys had put their weapons in an armory and the Dinka boys had surrounded it. Not that they were carrying the arms with them.

Up to now, nobody knows who sent these boys.

So, when Riek boys came under intense pressure, he gave the order that they take their arms and to do that, they had to break in the store and that’s when the shooting happened around 7:30 in the evening.

I was away at the hotel, Lumulul Logistics, and when coming back at around 9pm I passed by Jimmy’s house, the Chief of General Staff and told him there is an ongoing shooting, which is getting very serious.  Let’s go to the barracks. He said no, there are officers controlling the situation and they’re not in dire need. These are the presidential guys fighting themselves. So, you go to your house and relax you just rest, he said.

There was a lot of movement of forces on the road and my house is not very far from that of Salva Kiir.

I told Jimmy, as you see I do not have bodyguards, give me some of your bodyguards for escort to my house. He agreed.

Some of Salva’s soldiers asked me why I was still moving at this time when there is a shooting and I am a General. I told them where I was coming from and that I was going to my house.

When I got to the house, I told the kids to sleep down stairs as there was shooting all over Juba.

I stayed in the sitting room until morning.

Salva’s bodyguards were deployed and that’s when they came and put me under arrest with the others in the morning.

We really don’t know, and this is something that has not been investigated, who gave the order for part of the presidential guard unit, mostly Nuer, for their arms to be taken.

Eliud Kibii: Why do you think you were fingered as one of the suspects? Could these meetings have been the reason? 

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: Possibly. Or maybe Salva did not expect me to be part of this Malong group that came to signal me to meet with Salva. But all of us are friends of Salva.  When I was relieved from SPLA, most of these soldiers who are mostly were Nuer from Bentiu they were the bodyguards of the former general Paulino Matip, who was a militia commander working with Bashir and we were fighting them. So even one time these same forces, they tried to attack me in my office when I was Chief of General Staff. And my argument was Salva was over this force that there is no way you can have a unit, which is mostly from one particular tribe and staying in one place.

As the Chief of General Staff, I wanted these forces to be disarmed, sent to the unit, and then mixed with the other forces so that they are part of the rest SPLA. It was Salva himself who refused this.

Salva was then thinking that he would use this force from Nuer to intimidate Riek, who is also Nuer, who was also having problems with Paulino Matip, who was also Nuer.

This force was not trained in SPLA, they were former militia and then the Dinka boys, who were also brought to Juba after I was released, were locally recruited and armed from the Office of the President, not through the Minister of Defense, not even the Chief of General Staff knew anything about them.

So, this special force, which was locally recruited and privately armed were brought to Juba by Salva himself.

When we go back to that day of the shooting, it is not SPLA soldiers and officers who fought in Juba. It is this private militia group. The militia of Omar Bashir, mostly Nuer from Bentiu, and the privately recruited militia from Dinka who fought. And this is the crisis of leadership, which has affected that country up to today. As we talk now, we the SPLA has fought and split up.

Up to today, you do not have a national army in South Sudan. SPLA has been destroyed by Salva Kiir.

Eliud Kibii: So how many of your comrades who were victimized during that alleged coup are outside the country right now?

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak:  Cirilo, myself, Pagan, Kosti, the former Minister of Finance. We are still out up to now. And there are so many others.

Eliud Kibii: Didn’t the last agreement have a provision for your safe return?

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: The last one? We call it Khartoum agreement and we don’t see this as an agreement because the deal that we discussed was signed in Addis.

Salva refused to sign in Addis Ababa but due to regional and international pressure, he agreed to sign the agreement in Juba. But he said to everybody in Juba that this agreement is neither the Quran nor the Holy Bible.

Precisely, after few months, he broke the agreement and shooting took place in J1, in Juba because Salva was not convinced of the agreement he signed. The fighting continued until 2018.

In 2018, when these talks took place, we were in Khartoum and recommended that we go back to the previous agreement. But Khartoum, the likes of Bashir, said no and the whole thing ended up being shuttling between Khartoum and Entebbe.

So, we as the South Sudanese did not sit down to discuss and agree on something in Khartoum. It was just Khartoum telling us accept this one, don’t accept this, you have to agree to this and that through a lot of intimidation to Riek Machar.

And of course, we said no, we are not going to sit and agree on something we did not discuss. We left Khartoum some of us came to Nairobi, Kampala others went to Addis.

Those of us in Nairobi went to a meeting at Mama Rebecca’s house after the signing of the Khartoum agreement. We signed a document delinking ourselves from Khartoum peace talks. We said they were not genuine peace and its implementation would be difficult.

We rejected the Khartoum agreement because there was a lot of mess. It was not practical and that’s why we remain outside.

But again, after the signing of that agreement, Salva sent for our colleagues and said he has a special request for us. He wanted us to go to Juba.

I was in Addis and Mama Rebecca called saying we had to send a team to meet Salva. I and Cirilo refused to go.

The team went to Juba and came back but here was practically nothing.

What was the special offer? Some ministerial positions? That’s not enough. There are real problems that need to be solved in that country.

Cirilo, Pagan and myself refused to go and went back to Addis.

We remain outside and believe the Khartoum agreement was not really an agreement. It is like Salva telling us come to Juba and keep quiet.

Eliud Kibii: The Economist says it is Unhappy Birthday to South Sudan. From where you stand, how do you think the problem in South Sudan should be resolved? 

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: The problem in South Sudan is the problem of leadership. You solve the problem of leadership; you solve all the problems in South Sudan.

But there is every reason for the people of South Sudan to celebrate the 10th year of the Independence Day because our people started fighting the colonial government in 1955.

In Anyanya 1, they didn’t gain much they agreed on regional autonomy. That agreement was not respected and the South Sudanese again started fighting in the 1980s. We achieved the Independence of South Sudan and the people voted on vote given to them after many years of fighting and sacrifice. They voted 97 [er cent for the Independence of South Sudan. We lost so many people and comrades to achieve this independence.

There are some issues we did not solve and which should have been part of the discussion between Juba and Khartoum. The issue if Abyei, Nuba Mountains and the border demarcation between the north and the south are still pending.

The fact that South Sudanese attained their independence is something we continue to celebrate.

One day, were sitting with an old man discussing the problem of South Sudan and he said, “Look, if God wants to punish you, He will give you a bad leader”.

Sometimes I want to believe in what the old man said. But still ask myself, what did we do as the people of South Sudan for God to give us a bad leader?

Because during our struggle, on so many years of this struggle, we had the best leader.

John Garang was an excellent and exceptional leader.

Garang was just a normal South Sudanese, or Sudanese and he did not consider himself as coming from this particular tribe or this particular community. He treated people equally.

So when John Garang died, we found ourselves in a serious problem.

Can we give the leadership to Salva?  We knew his weakness!

Or do we say no? And if we say no, Salva would create problems and Khartoum could use those differences amongst ourselves against us.

So, we said okay, knowing the weakness of Salva Kiir, we gave him the open support and unshakeable solidarity given his seniority.

The crisis in South Sudan can be solved in a day, if you have the right and strong leader.

But you cannot solve it with Salva Kiir because he destroyed the SPLM, the party we created in 1983.

And you know what Salva did? He organized tribal leaders called the Dinka Council of Elders, who now the one who are taking over the role of the party, the SPLM. They destroyed it.

You have the Dinka Council of Elders from their own communities, and they came to the capital Juba, and they are sitting in Juba running the party running the SPLM. Where in the world can you get such as thing?

I give an example of myself. I come from the community of the Shilluk, from the Kingdom of the Shilluk. The current king was a banker, university graduate. And when the community called him, he removed his suit and tie and put on the Shilluk traditional dress and went to the Shilluk land where he stays. He does not stay in Juba or Marakal.

If the Dinka want to have a Dinka king, we don’t have a problem with that. Let them go to the Dinka land. But there is no way that they can come take over the party and assume the role of advising Salva.

So Salva destroyed the party, created these tribal differences and now the Dinka are taking land from other communities. So, you are creating problems in the future even for the Dinka themselves.

It’s not a good thing to do. You cannot expect Salva will unite the people of South Sudan and we will not have a country called South Sudan under Salva Kiir. Not until he is gone.

He has destroyed the national army the SPLA, the national security, the national police and the national party, which was the biggest party in South Sudan, the SPLM.

Eliud Kibii: How entrenched is ethnicity in South Sudan? 

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: Salva Kiir entrenched it. During all these years of the struggle, the people of South Sudan were united.

By then, you could move from the Ethiopian border to the border of Central Africa Republic and every village you go to, the people would serve you.

When Garang was the leader, there were many commanders from various tribes and could go everywhere to fight. There was nothing called tribalism. But now, it is Salve Kiir who created this [tribalism] in a very serious way.

So now, the people of South Sudan are fighting e.g in the greater Upper Nile, tribes are fighting. Every tribe in South Sudan now has its private army and commanders in chief. So in general, it is Salva Kiir who created this.

Eliud Kibii: Do you think Riek Machar is a better leader than President Kiir? 

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak:  He has never been a leader and I don’t want to assume he would be better, unless the people of South Sudan elect him. But there are many people in South Sudan who can be leaders.

However, in comparison with Salva, I think Riek would be better but I don’t think he would be better than Garang because he demonstrated his leadership and up to today, people cry, even in the Sudan.

The people will in future decide if they want to work with Riek, but I don’t think anybody will vote for Salva again. But there are many people who can lead that country in a better way.

Eliud Kibii: What do you think about the upcoming election in 2023?

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: I don’t think there will be an election under Salva Kiir.

What created this problem in 2013 was because Salva was afraid of going for election. The agreement they signed talks of an election but I don’t think it will happen.

How do you conduct an election when you do not have national security? When you do not have national army?

Look, we are the only country in the world, if we can call ourselves so, where you have, take an example, Uhuru Park in Nairobi where you have Kenyans running away from President Uhuru Kenyatta and they are being protected by Somalis and Rwandese in the park and Uhuru is sitting at State House. Would Kenyans agree to do this?

This is what is happening in South Sudan. In Juba, you have 200,000 South Sudanese who are running away from Salva Kiir and are being protected by Rwandese, Ethiopian and Kenyan armies in Marakal, in Bentiu. These are our citizens being protected by regional troops in the capital city.

You have more than two million refugees in Uganda alone, half a million in Kenya, another half a million in Ethiopia and more than three million in Sudan. So, how can you talk about an election. How are you going to organize it? So, these refugees in Uganda, will they vote there for the President who chased them from Juba? This election talk is at best a joke. Nothing will take place. It will not work.

Eliud Kibii: If there are no foreseeable credible elections and you say there can’t be peace under Salva Kiir, so what is the way out?

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak:  There are two options. The first is concerns the region – and I know they have their own problems. But if South Sudan is a member of Igad, EAC and the African Union, the only solution is for the regional bloc and the international community to pressure Salva Kiir to step down. To resign. And he can stay peacefully anywhere in the region or we in South Sudan can forgive him and let him stay in Juba but let the current regime resign and form the government of technocrats that will restructure and lead the country for three to four years or whatever to a credible election. This cannot happen under Salva Kiir.

If that doesn’t work for Salva, the only other option if for us the South Sudanese to fight and chase him away from that chair. Otherwise, there will be no election and there will be no peace under Salva. And Salva wants to die on that chair.

So, there is always time for everything but time will come very soon for Salva to go. Either he goes by resigning as I said or we are going to fight him.

Eliud Kibii: You speak like there is already a plan?

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: Yes, it is there. Look, when we went for these peace talks in Rome I told them that if there are any mistakes that I have done in my life, it is to refuse to take up arms from 2014 when we were released from jail. I could have joined Riek or I could have formed a separate front to fight Salva. And there are so many of my colleagues who are calling. So, it is a mistake which I have done almost eight years now. We have been made refugees from the country we liberated, we have been chased from but we will not continue staying in Kenya, Ethiopia or Uganda. This year, we are going to put on our uniform and go back and fight Salva Kiir. And he must go. That country belongs to all of us not to a particular group or leader to destroy. So definitely, we are going to fight him.

Eliud Kibii: You are confirming there are plans underway?

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: Yes, we are working on it and this is what I am saying. We are talking to various SPLA officers from all communities and Salva is going to be shocked very soon. And there are no peace talks that will work with Salva Kiir again and so the only option left to us is to fight him. We are planning, we are organizing and we are ready.

Eliud Kibii: Could President Salva Kiir be reacting to such plans when he says Uhuru betrayed him when he released you, then detainees, to Kenya only for him to issue you with passports?

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak:  He is always blaming other people. If President Kenyatta were to help us, even with weapons, we would have marched to Juba a long time ago. But Kenyatta said he wants peace in South Sudan and wants a peaceful solution. What did Kenyatta do? Nothing.

Salva is unable to unite his own people and now wants to blame leaders in the region. The region has told us they can only help us by facilitating talks. No country has given us weapons to fight him.

So, if he is complaining about a passport, that’s an assistance he can blame the region for it. Of course, I need a Kenyan passport to go for treatment in South Africa. Is it a crime for Kenya to give me this? You don’t go and fight with a passport. So he has failed and just wants to blame other people.

Eliud Kibii: Do you feel there are people in his government who like you feel he needs to go?

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak: They are many but there are very few in government who are revolutionaries. But the government in Juba has been taken over by former Khartoum people, the National Congress Party. Those we were fighting. They are the ones who have taken over in Juba, traitor who have blood of the South Sudanese in their hands. We will get them soon. This year, the time of Salva is coming. And it has happened all over the world.

Eliud Kibii: What message would want to send to the people of South Sudan?

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak:  They should celebrate this Independence Day. From every family, we have lost a child during the struggle. They must always remember they fought and attained their independence. They should be proud of themselves.

And the tragedy we are going through is man-made and Salva will go. And when he goes this year, we will have a strong government of South Sudan.

My message is those who are being misled by Salva Kiir, don’t join them We are going to look for them. It happened in Rwanda, Liberia, Sudan and it is now going to happen in South Sudan. Those responsible for the atrocities will he held to account, we are going to arrest them, including Salva Kiir. Either he goes to court at The Hague or arrest him as the Sudanese have arrested Bashir and try him. I would not want to kill him, he must be arrested and taken to court. This is what I have to say.

Eliud Kibii: And how are the five vice-presidents working with all the divisions?

Gen Oyay Deng Ajak:  There is no government in South Sudan. It is gang of criminals and the five vice presidents, we as the South Sudanese did not discuss and agree on them. Riek was just pushed.

It was Bashir or Museveni who came up with the idea. They are not working; they are not even functioning. One of them asked the President to relive him of his duties. It is only Salva who is running government alone.

For instance, what is the function of Riek in Juba? His army, which he has been commanding for six, seven years is still out there. How can you be proud of yourself and you sit in the chair as vice president when you leave your own people who have been fighting for you all these years outside and you run to Juba to get money or positions. That is rubbish.

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Wolf in Shepherd’s Garb: Bishop Gakuyo and Stolen Middle Class Dreams

Unless more interventionist regulation is put in place, Kenya’s elites will continue to use Saccos as vehicles for predatory accumulation and Kenyans will continue to see their dreams deferred.

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Wolf in Shepherd’s Garb: Bishop Gakuyo and Stolen Middle Class Dreams
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1When Michael Kariuki* first heard about Ekeza Sacco in 2016, he was quietly excited. He was listening to Kameme FM, the popular Gikuyu language radio station, when host Njogu wa Njoroge began talking about a new savings opportunity live on air. What wa Njoroge described was intriguing. Ekeza’s promise was of a middle-class lifestyle embodied in homeownership, entrepreneurship and family success. Through such radio broadcasts, television adverts and even its own campaign bus, Ekeza exhorted Kenyans to join the Sacco in order to pursue their dreams and aspirations, to use loans for “putting up a residential house, buying a dream car, purchasing a plot/piece of land, start a business or any other venture.” Like other Savings and Credit Cooperatives in Kenya (Saccos for short), Njoroge explained how Ekeza was offering its members the opportunity to withdraw three times the amount of their savings in the form of a loan.

But there was an important twist to Ekeza’s offer, one that gave members a distinct advantage. Unlike other Saccos, Ekeza was offering loans without the need for guarantors – other Sacco members who personally put up their savings as a guarantee for another member’s loan. Instead, at Ekeza, the title deeds and logbooks of the properties and vehicles that members would eventually purchase with their loans would act as loan securities. In other words, Ekeza was offering easy access to capital that is hard to come by in contemporary Kenya where banks charge high interest rates and Saccos require social membership. For Kariuki, that a guarantor was not required made saving with Ekeza an attractive opportunity – the chance to obtain capital that would allow him to purchase a car and become a taxi driver without having to undertake the difficult task of finding other Sacco members to stand in as his guarantors. Along with thousands of other Kenyans, Kariuki soon joined the Sacco.

A construction worker who worked long, hard days in the heat of Mombasa, Kariuki went on to save KSh180,000 with Ekeza over the next two years, sending money to his Sacco savings account directly from his MPesa account on his mobile phone. It was the first time in his life that Kariuki had ever saved such a large amount of money. He told me of the sacrifices he and his family made so that he could put more of his earnings into his savings, that there were “some things” — basic necessities and even food — they had to forego in the hope that his savings, and the taxi business that he would start with the loan, would allow him to build them a better future.

But in December 2017, Kariuki started to realise something was wrong. He had gone to withdraw a loan of KSh25,000 from the Sacco’s office in Thika. After filling out the paperwork, he was asked by Ekeza staff to wait the normal 60 days that it would take for the loan to be cleared and arrive in his account. Kariuki went back to Mombasa and waited, but his loan never arrived.

In January 2018, he returned to the office to find out what had happened with his loan. Ekeza staff assured him that his loan was on its way and he was asked to wait again but this time Kariuki refused. Suspecting something was wrong with the Sacco itself, he asked to withdraw all his savings at a fee of KSh1000. Kariuki filled out the paperwork and was once again asked to wait for 60 working days for his savings to reach his bank account.

In March 2018, four days before he was due to receive his savings, Kariuki’s wife called him. She had seen on the news that Ekeza had been officially deregistered by the Kenyan government pending investigations into its accounts. With the SACCO’s accounts frozen, Kariuki could do nothing but wait; he returned to the Ekeza office three times in 2018 and 2019 asking about the status of his savings, to no avail. Like tens of thousands of other Ekeza members, he has been stuck in limbo ever since.

The Ekeza Sacco story

Michael Kariuki’s story is a fairly common one for members of Ekeza Sacco – that after carefully building their savings for around two years, they were finally on the brink of receiving a loan, only to find it constantly delayed before eventually discovering that the SACCO had been deregistered by the government. But even Kariuki’s story is just one aspect of the Ekeza debacle. Other Sacco members reported how Gakuyo “bought” land from them without ever paying them in full. Others had their land and vehicles seized even after repaying their loans in full. All told, members lost around KSh2.6 billion in savings.

In March 2018, Commissioner of Co-operatives Mary Mungai formally closed Ekeza pending an investigation and an audit of the Sacco’s accounts. Suddenly, the Sacco’s 53,000 members were plunged into confusion and concern about the fate of their savings. The Sacco’s chairman, David Ngari Kariuki, an evangelical church pastor known as Gakuyo, assured members that their savings were safe. However, an audit of Ekeza’s accounts revealed around KSh1.5 billion of irregular transfers to bank accounts of persons and businesses associated with the chairman.

The audit report revealed fraud on an enormous scale but little has been done to address the plight of the members who have lost their savings. Over the last two years, Ekeza has maintained that its liquidity was damaged by rumours rather than Gakuyo’s expropriation of funds. In the aftermath of the Commissioner’s audit, Ngari moved to sell several of his assets and has repeatedly assured members that their deposits will be refunded, announcing a new 5-tier schedule for doing so in January 2020. Audaciously, Ekeza offered its members plots of land in what were seen as sub-par locations, their monetary worth far below what members had invested. Whilst Ekeza insists that it has refunded thousands of its members, particularly those with savings worth less than KSh50,000, reports from Ekeza victims suggest that there are many more thousands who are yet to receive their money. On social media, victims’ groups continue to organise, but with waning hope that they will ever see their money returned.

The audit report revealed fraud on an enormous scale but little has been done to address the plight of the members who have lost their savings.

Over the past three years, I have been exploring the effect the fallout of Ekeza’s deregistration and the subsequent uncertainty faced by its members. The majority live in muted hope, actively choosing not to think about the money because of the stress the loss of their savings has caused them. Marriages have been ruined. Some Ekeza members have committed suicide after losing their savings. The overwhelming story is one of bitterness and anger towards Ngari. The words of the man I have anonymised in this article as Kariuki give some sense of that bitterness:

If I could be like a soldier holding a gun, I could be searching for that man just to kill him and leave everything. If I die, I die. Because that money, it was my first time to enter into a SACCO, save things. I have never saved an amount like that.

This article aims to recap the story of Ekeza Sacco – how it came to prominence, how its deregistration has shaped the lives of its members, and how its collapse reveals the illusory promises of the “working class” dream in contemporary Kenya, how aspirations of leading better material lives are undermined by political authority. The story of Ekeza Sacco is not merely one of fraud, but also one of frustration and anguish with a contemporary Kenya that works for the powerful few, depriving ordinary citizens of the material basis on which they might build their dreams.

The rise, the fall, and the resistance

Ekeza Sacco was established in 2013 and formally registered in 2014, but it rose to prominence in the run-up to Kenya’s 2017 elections. Throughout the first half of the year, the Sacco was regularly advertised on Gikuyu language radio stations like Kameme FM alongside its partner firm, Gakuyo Real Estate. During the same period, Ngari attempted to vie for governorship of Kiambu, but eventually joined Ferdinand Waititu’s “United 4 Kiambu” team, an alliance of Kiambu politicians (including current governor James Nyoro) through which Waititu contested and ultimately won the gubernatorial seat. Through his association with Waititu, Ngari appeared at rallies across the county throughout 2017. At the time, friends and acquaintances of mine in Kiambu were optimistic of the impact Ngari would have on the county through his association with the prospective new governor. “He will be the one bringing development, I am sure”, one Kiambu farmer told me.

At the same time, an Ekeza Sacco-branded mobile truck was travelling around Kiambu exhorting people to “Invest to nurture your dreams”. “His adverts were so convincing,” one member told me. Another told me how Ekeza’s near-ubiquitous presence made him believe in its legitimacy. “It was everywhere during the elections.” Whilst the new Sacco gained prominence and legitimacy through its relentless advertising campaign, for many of those who joined the Sacco in 2016 and 2017, it was Ngari’s status as a pastor that helped earn their trust. “Because he’s a bishop. He has a good reputation. So I thought my money was safe”, one member reflected. Others found out about the Sacco through family members. Ann Njeri, a 30-year-old woman from Githurai, found out about the Sacco through her mother-in-law, and soon encouraged her husband to invest in the Sacco to save for a plot of land. For Njeri, “It was a normal Sacco just like others but at least this particular one had been started by a bishop so it had more credibility.” She convinced her husband that they should invest in Ekeza in order to buy a plot of land in Nairobi’s outskirts on which to build a home. The couple went on to save KSh500,000 with the Sacco.

Ngari attempted to vie for governorship of Kiambu, but eventually joined Ferdinand Waititu’s “United 4 Kiambu” team, an alliance of Kiambu politicians.

For many of the people who joined, Ekeza offered easier access to capital than some of its competitors. As mentioned above, one of the main advantages of saving with Ekeza was that it did not require members to have guarantors for their loans. “They weren’t even asking for security in the case you were taking a loan to buy land from the sister company, Gakuyo,” one member explained. “They would just wait until you pay the full amount before giving you the title deed, and that was my strategy then.” Members contrasted the ease of entry into Ekeza with the difficulty of becoming a member of what are viewed as more successful and legitimate Saccos such as Mwalimu Sacco. Another member reflected how difficult he thought it would be to join Mwalimu Sacco compared to Ekeza. “I have to have some friends there.”

Ekeza Sacco promised ordinary Kenyans the chance to live their dream as members of Kenya’s fledgling middle-class. “Invest to nature [sic] your dreams”, read one of the Sacco’s slogans. Many Ekeza members were attracted by the prospect of acquiring land – either to build a home to live in, or to rent out in order to supplement their incomes. In this regard, Ekeza’s popularity ought to be viewed in the light of Kenya’s current “gold rush” on land — the idea that land in Kenya is “getting finished”, ever increasing in value because of its growing scarcity. It is precisely the same scarcity-speculation combination that fuels elite land grabs.

But it was partly through the purchase of Gakuyo Real Estate plots that members began to discover that their investments were flawed. Gakuyo Real Estate’s practice was to buy large plots of land and sub-divide them into individual plots for the construction of stone houses. But in some cases, members would arrive at their new, loan-purchased plots, only to find that the original owners still held the title deed. It was also revealed that Gakuyo Real Estate was in the practice of purchasing land via instalments and allowing members to access their land before completing the payment to the original owners. Some Ekeza members were denied ownership of plots that they had paid for because the Sacco had not paid for the plots in the first place.

Ekeza Sacco promised ordinary Kenyans the chance of living their dreams as members of Kenya’s fledgling middle-class.

For others, it was in far more mundane circumstances that they began to realise something was amiss. One member, Andrew Mwangi, arrived at the Ekeza office in Thika one afternoon in early 2018 to find a commotion at the front desk. Another member was complaining that they had filed for complete withdrawal of their savings and had waited months but received nothing. Mwangi was alarmed. “I immediately filled the withdrawal form.”

The deregistration of the Sacco by Mary Mungai in March 2018 opened a new phase in the Sacco’s lifespan – a political struggle for its control. Not prepared to wait, Ekeza members quickly organised themselves into victims’ groups. Under the leadership of Charles Mage, one group of Ekeza Sacco members stormed the Sacco’s office in Thika. Soon enough, the police took note and in March 2019, Ekeza victims were invited to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations on Kiambu Road to record statements.

For its part, Ekeza maintained that its collapse had been caused by “panic withdrawals’ – that the Sacco’s reputation had become a “political tool” in the 2017 elections, a target for opponents who had raised doubts amongst the membership, causing a raft of withdrawals and a liquidity crisis. The Sacco described the situation as a “mishap”. No mention was made of the immense suffering caused to members through the loss of their savings. The message to members was: “bear with us”. In 2018, Sacco members with smaller amounts of savings — KSh5,000 and below — were refunded, but it left around 53,000 members with substantial savings still waiting.

More significant shifts were to come. At an AGM in February 2019, overseen by the Commissioner Mary Mungai, Sacco members voted to remove Gakuyo and put a temporary board of five people in charge, including Charles Mage as acting Chairman. At the same time, the Commissioner reinstated the Sacco, with the intention that the new interim board would begin refunding members’ deposits.

This moment of optimism quickly passed as Ngari’s lawyers moved rapidly to challenge the new board’s appointment in the courts, citing the possibility of members’ savings being plundered by the new committee. The court issued an injunction, and its effect was to return power to Ngari, locking out members who thought they were on the cusp of regaining control of their savings through access to the Sacco’s bank accounts. At several meetings in 2019, Ekeza Sacco members debated their predicament; the interim committee now had no control over the Sacco’s accounts, the offices were closed and no form of redress was available. The atmosphere at these meetings was combative.

The Ekeza debacle is characteristic of a contemporary Kenya defined by an unequal capacity to secure a place in the future.

But by 2020, the resistance of Ekeza Sacco victims’ groups had begun to weaken. The death of Charles Mage in a road accident in March 2020, an event that went unreported in national media outlets, further weakened the leadership of members who want to see their savings returned. Whilst some members are preparing court cases against the Sacco in 2021, arrangements are increasingly being made in private rather than through collective action, with Ekeza victims wary of being spied upon by members of “Gakuyo’s team”. Meanwhile, Ngari has re-emerged as a figure close to James Nyoro, promising a bigger, better Ekeza, assuring members that refunds are on the way. Ekeza victims have found their plight politicised, used as a football in Kiambu’s politics. Ngari has blamed the failure of his Sacco on Ferdinand Waititu, the now disgraced former governor of Kiambu, claiming that Waititu used Ekeza funds in his campaign.

Lives in limbo 

The Ekeza debacle is characteristic of a contemporary Kenya defined by an “unequal capacity to secure a future”. It is emblematic of how those in political authority cannibalise the aspirational projects of ordinary Kenyans, “eating their sweat”. “We are ready to prosper here in Kenya, bwana Peter,” one Ekeza member told me at a victims’ group meeting on Thika Road. “It is our leaders who cut us. These people who lead us are not honest, they just deceive us.”

For Ekeza members, the immense difficulty in generating savings and capital for aspirational projects compounds the sense of loss. Most Ekeza members I spoke to described themselves as “hustlers”, working long hours for uncertain wages in the informal economy. Their struggle is evoked here by Andrew Mwangi:

You know I lost a lot of money. And you know, I was thinking about that thing each and every day. And I was thinking, maybe we will get our money back. Finally, I came to find out we are not being paid at all. So I told myself I will never think about it again. I agree, the money is lost. And up to now, I don’t engage in any way [with the Sacco]. I just left it like that. I’m sick and tired, I’m tired. I don’t think about that any more. Every time I talk about it, my heart bleeds. That was my money. That was my sweat. I worked so hard for it. My goal was to own a property. That was my dream. My dream was broken by this guy. . . . I even hate mentioning the name. So what I can say is that I do not even follow the money anymore.

Michael Kariuki’s words strike a similar tone:

My faith is still there. But I can’t put all my faith in there. I have to work, feed my family, do everything. I can’t put all my mind there, thinking about all that money I saved and it went. If it got lost, it got lost. So, I’ll never get it back. But, for the rest of the victims are just struggling if the money will come. If I stay thinking about the money, I’ll just get sick.

Whilst their words belie a remarkable capacity to move on, for most members the fallout from their loss has been blame within their families. Ann Njoki told me how her husband was understanding, but how other Ekeza members she knew had ended up divorced as a result of losing savings, facing the blame from their partners for the loss of family money.

Meanwhile Ngari continues to walk free, having faced no charges from the DCI, working now as advisor to James Nyoro in the Kiambu County government, a state of affairs that some Ekeza victims find not only frustrating but also insulting — indicative of a Kenya that works for the privileged few, rather than the common mwananchi.

Up to now, he’s in this government, of which even Kenyan government is not bothering about these people who saved their money in that account. It is not bothering with. The chairman now is just talking and talking nonsense of which the government is not bothering anything.

These frustrations extend beyond Ekeza itself to perceptions that Kenya has failed as a place in which one can live and better oneself. A 24-year-old friend of mine from Ruaka who lost KSh64,000, his entire savings, was despondent. “This is Kenya, man”, he told me. “Most likely the politicians have been given something to make sure nothing happens. If I had a choice of leaving this place, I would definitely do that.”

Warnings for the Sacco sector

“Limited liquidity is holding SACCOs back from becoming specialised housing finance providers — or mortgage SACCOs (SAMCOs) — like the saving and loans and building societies in industrialised markets,” remarks a recent academic paper on housing finance in emerging markets. “It is therefore critical for SACCOs to deepen deposit-taking activities.” Ekeza Sacco might be an outlier case — an instance where a particular “fraudster” has deprived members of their savings. As a recent report by FSD-Kenya reiterated, a single case of fraud need not lead to fears that the Sacco sector is fundamentally flawed.

But there are important lessons to learn from the Ekeza Sacco story. As the FSD report noted, the increased size of Saccos “comes at the cost of it becoming increasingly difficult for members to look after their own interests directly; to ensure that the management and boards of the SACCO are not taking undue risks or worse.” In order to increase that membership, Saccos like Ekeza begin to look ever more like Ponzi schemes, their business models based on the recruitment of new members and the sale of a dream, rather than community banking. This was a point not lost on the late Charles Mage.

“The SACCO is not meant to be managed by one person,” he remarked to me when we first discussed the Sacco in August 2019. “This guy [Gakuyo] was making all the decisions as if it’s his own company”. As Mage put it, Gakuyo was withdrawing funds from Ekeza “any time he wanted”, buying plots and buildings, building hotels. As he found out in the Commissioner’s audit, “there was a time the SACCO’s account went down to 0.”

Meanwhile Ngari continues to walk free, having faced no charges from the DCI, working now as advisor to James Nyoro in the Kiambu County government.

If Saccos can enter the market already in the hands of wealthy and politically connected individuals, and members can be recruited ad infinitum, the scene is set for Kenya’s elites to use them as vehicles for predatory accumulation. Stronger and more interventionist regulation is required to ensure internal transparency — that there are proper lines of communication between members and boards. If Saccos chase greater liquidity through ever-increasing membership, further regulation and oversight from members will be imperative. Recent research suggests that Ekeza evaded regulation through setting up in different counties.

But despite the early action of Sacco Commissioner Mary Mungai, the eventual lack of government action has already damaged the trust that regulators are up to the task. Many Ekeza members say that they have lost trust in the Sacco sector, vowing never to save with one again.

Fault lines and futures

More than a story of individual fraud, the Ekeza debacle reveals the fault lines in the false promises of contemporary Kenya. Whilst politicians and business leaders promise Kenyans wealth and prosperity, they are able to manipulate institutions to their liking, consuming the sweat of those who work while avoiding sanction. Ordinary Kenyans find themselves struggling for better lives without any such advantage. When one looks at the Ekeza case, fears and suspicions of theft seem justified, anti-elite sentiment vindicated. The cynicism and hopelessness, depression and suicide that have followed in the wake of the Ekeza collapse are hardly surprising. When one struggles in the informal economy, only for one’s savings to be “eaten” by a self-proclaimed pastor, when national and county governments practically ignore your plight, what can you do? It is little wonder that William Ruto’s “hustler” narrative is gaining traction when frustration is brewing over the way things work in “hii Kenya”. If the Ekeza collapse has provoked immense anguish, it has also fuelled Kenyans’ desire for a different Kenya — one where institutions work in the interests of the citizen, of the “hustlers”. Regardless of its as yet unknown trajectory, Ruto’s “hustler” narrative promises Kenyans that a new Kenya is at hand. Without understanding injustices like Ekeza, palpably and materially felt, we cannot appreciate the new calls for justice and an end to the “dynasties” that Ruto’s campaign now promulgates.

* All names have been anonymised to protect identities.

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The Politics of Violence in Marsabit County

A weak state, corruption, political entrepreneurship and improper creation of administrative units fuel deep conflict and hatred between the communities.

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The Politics of Violence in Marsabit County
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 “. . . one half of Kenya about which the other half knows nothing about and seems to even care less.” 1950s American writer Negley Farson describing the Northern Frontier Districts.

Ethnic rivalries are a global phenomenon that has spared neither the most established economies nor the developing nations. Kenya is no exception, most notably Northern Kenya which has been haunted by ethnic conflict since time immemorial. The conflicts in Marsabit, in particular, date back to the establishment of the postcolonial African state.  Prior to colonisation by the British, pastoralist communities in the region were grazing on the slopes of the Ethiopian highlands and in the Kenyan lowlands. The establishment of the Kenyan-Ethiopian border by the British colonialist disrupted traditional grazing patterns and resource sharing, and affected how communities relate to each other. The creation of artificial boundaries by the colonialist without the involvement of the local populations created hatred among the pastoralists, distorted grazing patterns and led to competition for natural resources.

The treatment of northern Kenya as a separate region within Kenya and the marginalization of its communities led to demands for secession at Kenya’s independence. When these were not met, the NFD exploded in rebellion in late 1963. Known as the Shifta War, the guerrilla insurgency lasted four years and resulted in massive loss of human life. The war of secession ended when Kenya and Somalia agreed to put their differences aside and signed an agreement in September 1967 that did not involve the insurgents. The agreement left some communities feeling betrayed by others, in particular the Somali whose relations with the Borana were left in tatters.

Conflicts and violence among the pastoralist communities living on the periphery of Kenya take different forms, including cattle rustling, clan and ethnic violence, and the displacement of people. The proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALWs), climate change, land and water scarcity, the collapse of inter-communal social contracts, and bad politics have exacerbated this already tenuous situation.

The vast arid and semi-arid upper eastern region of northern Kenya experiences intermittent communal conflict because it shares a porous border with the Republic of Ethiopia to the north and has routes into Somalia which feed the illegal gun market. According to a 2017 small arms survey, the number of illegal arms in civil possession in Kenya is estimated at 750,000; the country has the highest number of unregistered firearms compared to other East African countries. The illegal arms economy is driven by supply from Ethiopia, most notably through the rebel fighters within the country. It is also fed by the al–Shabaab militia group through the Somalia corridor to neighbouring Wajir County. The supply of illicit arms also flows from South Sudan through the Lake Turkana route where unpaid soldiers and rebel fighters are still at large. Easy access to arms and light weapons has increased the severity of armed conflict undermining peaceful co-existence.

The Ethiopian government has little or no control over its porous border with Kenya through which illegal arms are trafficked. This contributed to the Turbi massacre which was linked to conflicts over water points and grazing land between the Gabra and Borana communities.  Despite the formation of peace committees representing both sides, and numerous initiatives by different groups and peace declarations, the conflict has not subsided.

The question of land 

Land remains central to the conflict in Marsabit County, most notably in the Saku Constituency which borders Isiolo and Garissa counties. Unlike other parts of Marsabit County, Saku enjoys a moderate climate and has plenty of green pasture and ample boreholes (mainly within the grazing zones).

Saku shares similar geographic characteristics with the neighbouring Isiolo County, which has experienced conflict with Garissa County. Every pastoral community would like to have access to the green pastures and water points at Saku but the politicisation of access has worsened this conflict.

Skewed policy responses to conflicts over land by government authorities have worsened the situation. Dialogue to address land conflict and establish administrative units has degenerated into ethnic conflict due to failure to ensure proper public participation as enshrined in Constitution of Kenya 2010. There is an “implementation gap” between theory and practice when it comes to land policy that is often sacrificed at the altar of short-term political gain.  The failure by the government to include women, the youth, and the elders of the affected communities in discussions on how to close the implementation gap in order to minimize conflict and achieve durable peace has created an unsustainable environment in Marsabit County.

The state’s failure to determine land boundaries has also exacerbated the situation and the vague demarcation of community land boundaries and the politics of land expansion have further aggravated the problem and intensified ethnic conflict.

The Borana and Gabra

In explaining ethnic conflicts like the Moyale and Marsabit clashes, and the Turbi and Forolle massacres , the standard argument advanced by many interlocutors is that conflicts occur due to competition over pasture and water sources. This reasoning does not really explain the trade in arms and the “political entrepreneurs”. The whole conflict revolves around the battle for votes and wealth as well as the expansion of administrative boundaries. To gain more recognition and support from the electorate, politicians act both within and outside the law to maintain their status, for instance by establishing new administrations units, awarding tenders to those of their tribe and offering lucrative jobs to their families and those from their own tribe. This breeds hatred and conflict as other tribes are left out.

The arms economy is another aspect that is left unexplained. The gun trade is massive business in the vast north and it is mostly the community that does not take part in the conflicts that does the trading. The trade in small arms is carried out with the full knowledge of the security apparatus. Money for the purchase of guns is raised by the community through collections from households and from those in employment. Failure to pay the set amount for gun purchases attracts heavy sanctions and penalties. Once the money is raised, the supplier is provided with the specifications of the arms and ammunition to be delivered at a specific location. Members of the security administration sometimes sell bullets to the communities in conflict at exorbitant prices. All these demonstrates how a weak state, corruption, political entrepreneurship and improper creation of administrative units fuel deep conflict and hatred between the communities.

There is an “implementation gap” between theory and practice when it comes to land policy which is often sacrificed at the altar of short-term political gain.

Conflict in Marsabit is predominantly between the Borana and the Gabra communities. These two warring communities previously lived harmoniously together, sharing compounds and household necessities. They intermarried and agreed on mechanisms to manage shared pasture and water points during periods of drought and in the rainy season. However, the situation has changed over the past decades and people have fled their homes and settled elsewhere.

The Gabra displaced the Borana from Hurri Hills and they resettled in Elle Borr near Sololo town. In their turn, the Gabra were evicted from the Gadamoji region of Saku Constituency during the 2005 Turbi massacre and they resettled in Jirime location in central Marsabit. These incidents point to an increasing rift between the two ethnic groups, which primarily revolves around land politics.

Attempts by the political elite to bring zones with plenty of pasture within “their” tribal boundaries have inflamed the situation. The Shurr region had been in Saku Constituency when former Member of Parliament for Saku, Jarso Jillo Falana, took office. Shurr came under North Horr Constituency in suspicious circumstances during his term.

Similarly, Horronderr and Shegel are in Saku Constituency but there are plans to move them to North Horr Constituency, which will shrink grazing zones for the pastoralists living in the Saku region. This is being done without public participation. Furthermore, Gabra encroachment into regions like Horronderr, which are Borana grazing zones, has led to loss of lives and livestock.

Traditional methods of resolving land issues have failed because of the breakdown of the social compact between these ethnic groups and the deep political divide. The communities have left it to politicians to find solutions but corruption within the local government has led to partial implementation of land policies.

Assigning districts and regions inappropriately to one ethnic group to the detriment of others living in the same area is a major cause of alarm and concern. For instance, two new sub-counties – Turbi and Dukana – were created in North Horr Constituency and gazetted on 7 October 2020. The change brought additional benefits like recruitment into the military and other special services from the national government. With the gazettement of these two sub-counties, other ethnic communities with larger populations felt left out, the skewed land boundary changes and the selective allocation of benefits from the national coffers resulting in more profound division and hatred.

The creation of the two sub-counties has pitted the Borana against the Gabra because it was seen as politically driven process. The land and boundary disputes are made worse by the fact that there are no clear land boundaries between the Borana and Gabra communities who coexist in the same  settlements and share the same grazing lands. The boundary disputes are likely to escalate if the process of demarcation of boundaries by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) ahead of the 2022 general elections proceeds without proper public participation and sensitivity to the conflict.

The Dedha system

The communities of northern Kenya have established traditional methods of managing water resources and pasture. In the Borana community, a management council called the Dedha manages these resources.

The Dedha system breaks down pasture into grazing units (artha) which in turn are divided into several small grazing camps (fora). The existence of Dedha natural resource policies, some of which are incompatible, has resulted in complex rangeland management regimes and given rise to fragmented interventions and inadequate natural resource policies in relation to pastoralism. The majority of pastoral land resources are held by the national government under a controlled access system that regulates the management and utilization of resources.

The Dedha manager (jars dedha) controls access to the resource, with the control being intensified during periods of drought. The management of shallow wells falls under the owner of the well (aba ella) and the person who decides the watering rotation for each water point (aba erega).

Conflict in Marsabit is predominantly between the Borana and the Gabra communities.

Aba ella assigns first rights based on a clan’s membership and affiliation (sunsuma), and ownership. In case the well has extra capacity, the aba erga decides second rights, which are assigned to other clans whilst third rights are accorded to pastoralists from other ethnic groups.

In extreme cases, those moving with livestock (qunn) are granted temporary first rights to water use just like the sunsuma and the owner.

This well-crafted sustainable natural resource management system is challenged by the modern rules where people and livestock can move anywhere across the country. This throws the traditional mechanisms into disarray and makes resource management difficult.

What future for Marsabit?

Marsabit County has in the past experienced intense tribal conflict over the control of natural resources, land boundaries, and more recently, political power.

Devolved governance was meant to guarantee the equitable distribution of national resources. However, in Marsabit County it has ushered in a new era of power struggles, deep hatred and division among the ethnic communities. The divisions between the communities are so deeply entrenched that ethnicity is a common factor in how the county government undertakes development projects and programmes and offers jobs.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for handling the multifaceted land problems in Marsabit County. The top-down peace-making process spearheaded by the NGOs in collaboration with the state agencies has failed due to lack of well-defined community boundary policies from the state, politicisation of the security apparatus and war as political business.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in collaboration with the Kenya government and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have spent US$200 million on a five-year integrated peace programme to engage both sides in peace-building. However, to date, the spending of this colossal amount of money has not yielded any remarkable results. The current peace-building process needs to take into account the developing dynamics of conflict in Marsabit.

The county government needs a conflict-sensitive service delivery and development plan instead of playing the tribal card in developing infrastructure, providing job opportunities and services to its community, which is against the principles enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya 2010.

Although there is no all-encompassing approach to diminish the frequency and intensity of land-related conflict in Marsabit County, there are vital considerations that development practitioners, policymakers, national and local administration need to take into account concerning resource management and governance.

The first step is to establish the political will to solve land problems. Securing land and resource governance entails engaging political processes as well as consolidating land social movements. Political will is pivotal as it plays an essential role in how boundaries are mapped and administrative units are established.

The communities of northern Kenya have established traditional methods of managing water resources and pasture.

The second is mainstreaming conflict and conflict mitigation into the planning and implementation process across all sectors and stakeholders and subsequently establishing district peace committees. This structure should be constituted with the help of all local communities and should encourage the collection of vital data relating to conflict in order to forestall outbreaks of conflict.

The interests of the citizens should be prioritized and public participation in land and water resource governance and management should be strengthened, just like in the case of the Dedha system established by the Borana community. Failure to include the views and opinions of the locals, in creating new administrative units and boundaries, for instance, has led to bloodshed in many of the ASAL regions. Government policy responses should be also be void of political interest.

The illegal flows of guns and ammunition must be stemmed and the local populations disarmed. This will help to reduce hostilities among the existing communities. The state security machinery needs to be committed to this duty in order to regain the public’s confidence.

Finally, policy interventions to the build capacities of local customary institutions to undertake water and land governance and management should be the preferred option as, with the support of the state in terms of coordination and resources, these informal institutions are best suited to resolve local conflicts.

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