Pan-Ethiopianists vs Ethno-Nationalists: The Narrative Elite War in Ethiopia17 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.
The current political conflict, now a civil war, in Ethiopia partly has its roots in disagreement among elites on how to narrativise Ethiopian history.
There is an enduring disunity among Ethiopian elites regarding the country’s history and future. Informed by its long, and contentious multi-ethnic history, and fueled by recent shifts in the political landscape in the country, a war of narratives has been reignited. The narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.” The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilise the country. Indeed, narratives surrounding ethnic identities and ethnic politics in Ethiopia is the one thing that demands the most attention. As it stands today, the way and environment in which the debate is occurring, and the actors involved in it indicates we may be approaching a threshold that cannot be uncrossed.
How the Ethiopian state evolved
Nation-building is a contested process of narrative construction. In his book, Imagined Communities, political scientist Benedict Anderson reminds us that nations are “imagined political communities.” Common to all political communities is a set of beliefs in unifying narratives about community special characteristics. These narratives provide explanations to the participating individuals and their leaders about what makes their community unique, especially when compared to others. Nation-building in the Ethiopian context follows a similar pattern.
Faced with the burden of justifying maintenance of the Ethiopian state and their place at the top, Ethiopian rulers of the past relied on religious texts and edicts of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Written in the 14th century, the Kibre Negest, or “Glory of the Kings,” provided detailed accounts of the lineage of the Solomonic dynasty—the former ruling dynasty of the Ethiopian Empire—according to which Ethiopia’s rulers were descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It told the story of Ethiopia and Ethiopians as God’s people, a chosen people.
The narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists.” The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilise the country
This narrative of Ethiopia as a chosen place endures to this day. It was in display when many Ethiopians woke up on October 24, 2020 and learned that US President Donald Trump had suggested “[Egypt] will end up blowing up the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)] dam.” Many Ethiopian citizens and politicians responded with the assertion that Ethiopia will prevail, not least of which because it has God on its side. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office released a statement that echoed the same sentiment.
Similarly, the 12th century text Fitiha Negest, or “Laws of the Kings,” served as the country’s oldest traditional legal code. The Fitiha Negest insisted that kings must receive obedience and reverence. It justified the Kings’ power using scripture, specifically the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 17:15:
Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.
Ethiopia’s rulers used these texts to justify the state’s existence and their own power. But more importantly, as much as Americans take the Declaration of Independence as their founding moment, the Kebre Negest provided a similar “origins” story, albeit a contested one, while Fitiha Negest served as a constitution of sorts by laying out a minimal set of rules that bound the Kings and their subjects. As such, the Kebre Negest and the Fitiha Negest could arguably be taken as the most important founding texts of the Ethiopian state.
The 1700s witnessed the emergence of a new political structure where disparate noblemen usurped power away from emperors of the Solomonic dynasty and began ruling over their own regions, a period known among Ethiopian historians as Zemene Mesafint, or Age of the Princes, named after the Book of Judges. In 1855, Emperor Tewodros II, born Kassa Hailu, rose to the throne after defeating regional noblemen. He recognised the need for a newer narrative that was closely aligned to his vision of Ethiopia as a modern, forward thinking nation. In line with that vision, his first step was to separate church and state, shift its narrative and establish the state on a more secular foundation. To do so, he needed better educated Ethiopians, and thus began an elite-led nation building process. His efforts however did not bear fruit due to fierce internal opposition driven largely by disgruntled clergy, who, fearful of losing their own privilege and power, were unappreciative of his radical ideas.
Nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia.
Subsequent rulers of Ethiopia mended the “glitch” and followed the path that almost was dismantled by Emperor Tewodros II, and, as a result, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remained inseparable from the Ethiopian state, and, with that, the state narrative. That, however, changed with Emperor Menelik II assuming the throne in 1889. Although historical Ethiopia dates back to millennia, Emperor Menelik is widely considered as an architect of the modern Ethiopian state. His epic defeat of Italian colonial power at the Battle of Adwa added another, if not stronger, element to the myth of God’s-chosen-people identity to Ethiopians and the Ethiopian state. As the Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde recounts in his book, Pioneers of Change, Menelik, eager to modernise Ethiopia, sent Ethiopians to Europe and the US for higher education. Unlike the church-educated elites that preceded them, these early Western-educated Ethiopians broke with tradition and became critics of the state. It may be argued as such that Emperor Menelik could be credited with spearheading the creation of a new intellectual-elite class and with bringing the same to the center of state politics. With that he laid the groundwork for the creation of a new elite class that would later challenge the very essence of Ethiopia as a nation state.
Walleligne and the birth of ethno-nationalism
When Emperor Haile Selassie rose to the throne in 1930, he was acutely aware of the shortage of educated Ethiopians to build Ethiopia’s nascent civil service and bureaucracy. In order to fill in this gap, like his predecessor, he sent many Ethiopians to Europe and the US for higher education that in the words of historian Jon Abbink produced “a generation of daring, innovative intellectual leaders and thinkers.” However, sadly many of these intellectuals were annihilated by the Italian colonial power in the late 1930s. This loss of its brightest left post-war Ethiopia with deep psychological scars and decades of stagnation, devoid of social and political change. With the founding of the University College of Addis Ababa in 1950, the future Haile Selassie University (now, Addis Ababa University), Emperor Haile Selassie’s dream of producing educated Ethiopians en masse finally came true.
The 1960’s was when the role of Ethiopian intellectuals in the country’s politics probably experienced its most consequential phase. Starting in the 1960’s, with the backdrop of broader social unrest, university students started to oppose Haile Selassie’s single-man authoritarian rule and the oppressive socio-economic and cultural structures within which the students said the imperial government and its predecessors functioned. They demanded rights and freedom. It was until a more radical wing of the movement, concurrent with the more mundane demand for reform, started to question the equating of the Ethiopian state with the nation. Compared to the reformist intellectuals of the previous generation, Ethiopia’s newly minted intellectuals displayed impatience and lacked foresight in their calls for radical social and political reform. Jon Abbink might not be far from the truth when he observed these intellectuals’ “wholesale adoption of unmediated Western ideologies and abandonment of Ethiopian values” had had “quite disastrous consequences.”
“On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia,” an influential short essay written by Walleligne Mekonnen—who at the time was a second-year political science student at the university, and who was later was shot and killed along with fellow activists while attempting to hijack an Ethiopian Airlines flight—became a founding text of the radical wing of the student movement. In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.” However, this reality, according to him, was suppressed by the ruling class. Instead, a “fake Ethiopian nationalism” that is based on the linguistic and cultural superiority of the Amhara and, to a certain extent, the Amhara-Tigre, was imposed on the other peoples of Ethiopia, resulting in asymmetrical relations among the “nations” of Ethiopia. Therefore, according to Walleligne, the Ethiopian state came to be through the linguistic and cultural assimilation of the peoples of the wider South by the North—the Amhara and their junior-partner-in-assimilation, the Tigre. And, that this project of constructing Ethiopia was aided by the trinity of (the Amharic) language, (Amhara-Tigre) culture and religion (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). He was, of course, echoing arguments that Joseph Stalin, Rosa Luxemburg and others made about nations, nationalism, and self-determination. (Stalin, for example, lays out his thesis in Marxism and the National Question, as does Luxemburg in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.)
Walleligne thus called for the dismantling and replacement of this “fake [Ethiopian] nationalism” with a “genuine Nationalist Socialist State” that he argued could only be achieved “through violence [and,] through revolutionary armed struggle.” To be sure, Walleligne did not see “succession” as an end in and of itself; nonetheless, he propagated it as a means to building the future egalitarian Ethiopian state, with the caveat that such succession should be rooted in and guided by “progressivism” and “Socialist internationalism.” He closed his essay with what may be considered prophetic:
A regime [Haile Selassie’s government] like ours harassed from corners is bound to collapse in a relatively short period of time. But when the degree of consciousness of the various nationalities is at different levels, it is not only the right, but the duty, of the most conscious nationality to first liberate itself and then assist in the struggle for total liberation.
Haile Selassie’s government did collapse in 1974.
The constitutionalizing of ethno-nationalism
The movement that Walleligne imagined, spearheaded by the intelligentsia as it were, was hijacked by the Dergue—a collective of disgruntled low-ranking military officers in the imperial army—that not only succeeded in overthrowing Haile Selassie’s government, but also in ruling Ethiopia with an iron-fist for the next 17 years. But the political and armed struggle for “liberation” continued. It was in this atmosphere of radicalisation of the intellectual-elite class that discourses like “liberation” and the “oppressor-oppressed” took hold in the Ethiopian body politic and a plethora of liberation fronts mushroomed or revived: the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF, 1962)—that succeeded in seceding Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1991—the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF, 1966), and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF, 1975) to name but the most important ones. The Dergue’s 17 years in power was marred by the bloodiest times in Ethiopian modern history: the Red Terror, a border war with Somalia (1977-1978) and, more importantly, the protracted civil wars with TPLF, EPLF and OLF.
After 17 years of armed struggle, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) defeated the Dergue and controlled Ethiopian state power in 1991. The EPRDF was a coalition composed of the TPLF, The Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Southern Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Front (SEPDF). It should, however, be noted that it was only with victory in sight against the Dergue and a desire to expand its sphere of influence beyond Tigray, that the TPLF formed the EPRDF in 1988. Otherwise, the actual power holder within the coalition remained TPLF. Consequently, the EPRDF introduced the 1995 constitution. Adopted in the immediate context of the post-Cold War, in a way that reflects the politics of constitutionalism and especially the shrewdness and pragmatism of the man behind it, Meles Zenawi, the constitution was a compromise between TPLF’s deep-rooted Marxist-Leninist ideological moorings and the post-Cold War euphoric triumphalism of liberal constitutionalism and human rights. So much so that the constitution declares the inviolability and alienability of human rights and freedoms emanating from the nature of mankind. However, as his building a de facto one-party state would later reveal, this was a move that seems to have been motivated more by placating the West than a genuine desire on the part of Zenawi’s EPRDF to champion the causes of human rights and democratic values.
In his essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather “made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity.
The constitution divided Ethiopia into nine ethnic states that—with the exception of what is called the Southern Nations and Nationalities Regional State—are based on the ethnic identities of residents of those states. Most importantly, the constitution grants the “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” within those states the unconditional “right to self-determination, including secession.” In other words, rather than with a people, sovereignty resides in a plurality of peoples of Ethiopia. It is these peoples that came together to form Ethiopia and they are the custodians of Ethiopia, from which they have the absolute right to secede if they so wish. That way, the constitution replaced the age-old notion of Ethiopia as a nation with an Ethiopia as a “nation of nations.” Walleligne predicted this almost a quarter of a century earlier: “What are the Ethiopian people composed of? I stress the word peoples because sociologically speaking at this stage Ethiopia is not really a nation.”
From then on ethnicity became a determinant factor and dominant political currency in Ethiopian politics, bringing with it, in the words of the late sociologist Donald Levine (who taught at the University of Chicago and became a key figure in Ethiopian Studies), an “epidemic of ethnic and regional hostilities.” In addition to changing the way the country organised itself politically, EPRDF also sought to reframe the very foundation of what it means to be an Ethiopian and how Ethiopia itself came to be. Not unexpectedly, EPRDF targeted schools and educational institutions in particular as spaces where new narratives of Ethiopian history could be inculcated, so much so that Ethiopian universities became flashpoints of ethnic conflicts among students. Walleligne’s abstract and—as he himself admitted in his writing—incomplete idea found a home in the curriculum.
With this entrenchment of a “new” history of Ethiopia and a generation educated in the new curriculum and the alienation of “pan-Ethiopianism” from the Ethiopian body politic, it seemed that the “old Ethiopia” had died and been buried. But, as the 2005 Ethiopian election showed, a pan-Ethiopian party called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) almost clinched power in major cities and rural areas if it had not been suppressed and finally expelled from Ethiopian political landscape. In fact, it was that election that gave the close to two decades-long ethnic politics championed by Meles Zenawi, a real challenge and, more importantly, sowed the earliest seeds of the revival of pan-Ethiopian politics.
Abiy Ahmed and the re-emergence of pan-Ethiopianism?
Zenawi—the ex-guerrilla fighter who, as a prime minister, was reported to have made authoritarianism respectable—died in a Belgian hospital in 2012. Although political pundits thought that in his absence Ethiopia would plunge into crisis immediately, his successors managed to stave off social unrest until protest rallies started to emerge in the Oromia region following the unveiling of the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan (a plan to expand the federal capital, mostly into Oromia) in April 2014. Months of sustained protests resulted in hundreds of deaths and even more people being imprisoned.
However, the draconian measures did little to slow the protests. The EPRDF government eventually backed off from its aggressive actions against protestors and shelved its ambitious master plan, but it was too late. The protest had picked up steam and expanded to several other regions, including the Amhara region. Protestors demanded rights, representation, and economic justice. Tellingly, these protests erupted less than a year after EPRDF claimed to have won 100% of the 2015 election and only months after US President Obama praised the government as being “democratically elected.”
The TPLF-led EPRDF government could not sustain its political power. In the backdrop of a fierce intra-party scuffle, in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo and member of the OPDO, ascended to power. With his promise of leading Ethiopia through transition to democracy, Abiy immediately began introducing a plethora of reforms, including releasing political prisoners, inviting home all opposition parties, and appointing some prominent public figures to key positions within his government. These and many other earlier reforms won him almost universal support from Ethiopians and the international community. In 2019 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace-deal with neighboring Eritrea, ending a two-decades long stalemate, following the 1998 border war between the two countries that claimed more than a hundred thousand lives.
Despite the indisputably positive changes he introduced and results achieved, Abiy’s Ethiopia also saw its most turbulent years in recent Ethiopian history, including internal displacements, violence that claimed the lives of hundreds—high-profile assassinations, including an attempted assassination on the premier himself, targeted ethnic killings, and ongoing violence perpetrated by a splinter military wing of the OLF in western Oromia region. Abiy’s decision to indefinitely postpone the August general election due to COVID-19 has further destabilized the country and put in tatters his promise of transitioning Ethiopia to democracy.
There also is the ongoing tension with the TPLF that governs the Tigray region—that recently held its own regional election in defiance of the central government’s ban on all elections due to the pandemic. As a result, the Ethiopian parliament voted to cut ties with Tigray region leaders, which has the potential to erupt into a full-blown war with the federal government. Further complicating Abiy’s agenda of stabilizing the East African nation is the tension with Egypt in relation to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD) and broader geopolitical issues.
It was amid this ongoing turmoil Abiy established the Prosperity Party at the end of 2019, which brought together three of the four ethnic-based parties that constituted the EPRDF coalition and other smaller parties, considered within party circles as “allies” to the EPRDF. Based on his vision of national unity among Ethiopians that he calls medemer, which literally means “coming together,” this re-branding of EPRDF was meant to stave off the ethnically divisive politics and address ethnically motivated conflicts that engulfed the country during EPRDF’s 27 years in power. This seemingly mundane action, however, did not sit well with everyone and it brought to the surface an issue dormant for the last 25 years in the Ethiopian formal political scene, namely: how to historicize Ethiopia. There is now an all-out war of narratives among Ethiopian elites on the history of Ethiopia.
This narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianism” and “Ethno-nationalism.” The ethno-nationalist camp takes Walleligne’s thesis as accurate representation of Ethiopia as a nation of nations. As we have noted, in mainstream Ethiopian history, Emperor Menelik is considered the architect of the modern Ethiopian state. He is especially credited with expanding the Ethiopian empire to the south from his northern stronghold of Shoa. To the outside world and to Ethiopians alike, his epic victory over the Italian colonial force in the Battle of Adwa is widely celebrated as a key moment in Black anticolonial consciousness. In stark contrast to this picture, in the ethno-nationalist discourse, Emperor Menelik figures as the archenemy. To the ethno-nationalists Menelik’s supposedly mundane “state-building” endeavors were marked by violence, forced assimilation and suppression of cultures of peoples of the South, especially the Oromo. Echoing Walleligne’s thesis, they insist that rather than a nation built on the consent of the “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopia, Ethiopia is imposed on the wider South through conquest, violence and assimilation by Ethiopian rulers of Amhara, and to a certain extent, Tigre extraction. In their view, rather than an inclusive multicultural state, Ethiopia is made in the image of the Amhara and the Tigre.
This narrative of Ethiopia as a chosen place endures to this day. It was in display when many Ethiopians woke up on October 24, 2020 and learned that US President Donald Trump had suggested “[Egypt] will end up blowing up the [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)] dam.”
Quite to the contrary, those in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp embrace the historical Ethiopia and adhere to the idea of Ethiopia as a nation-state. While not ruling out the presence of violence, they reject the “empire thesis” of the ethno-nationalists and hold that Emperor Menelik was just engaging in state-building when he conquered and brought the wider South under his Imperial rulership. In the Pan-Ethiopianist narrative of Ethiopia, the supposed assimilationist and imperialist expansion of Emperor Menelik and his predecessors to the South is a normal historical process inherent to state building. There are also some within the Pan-Ethiopianist camp that insist that Emperor Menelik did not actually conquer and control “new” territories, but only “re-claimed” territories that hitherto were parts of the historical Ethiopia. There are still those in this camp that argue that it is in the nature of an empire to conquer peoples and rule over lands, and hence there is nothing anomalous about Emperor Menelik’s deeds.
Not surprisingly, many in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp saw, at least in the beginning, Abiy’s formation of the Prosperity Party as a move in the right direction with a potential to dismantle the current ethnic-federalism—that adherents of this camp hold is the root cause of the cycles of ethnic conflicts and other problems that the country faces—and eventually realise a unified Ethiopia, albeit federalist. Quite to the contrary, the move did not sit well with the ethno-nationalist camp, the TPLF in particular openly opposing this merger as “illegal” on the grounds that all constituent parties of the EPRDF should have consented to the dissolution of EPRDF and the merger. The Oromo activists see in this merger and Abiy’s other reform agenda a return to the old Ethiopia, in which they argue Oromos were culturally and linguistically alienated by the Amhara-Tigre elites that in the past had a monopoly on state power.
Social media and narratives of hate
The elites’ reach and impact has expanded as the means of information sharing and consumption has expanded. It is no more the traditional intellectual-elite class that engages in the production and dissemination of information that advances knowledge. Unlike the closely-knit intellectual class of earlier times, the debate now has a diverse body of actors: activists, political party operatives, and, as oxymoronic as it sounds, intellectual activists. The elites with the loudest voices use low-trust and high-reach communication mediums like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to peddle their own facts and pursue their own agenda. Social media as it exists today rewards absolute claims, purity, good and evil binaries, and unequivocal declarations of truth that leave little room for compassion, reasoning, careful interpretation, and nuance. Fueled by algorithms that favor combustible content, social media companies orchestrate human interaction that lead individuals to maintain extreme positions and be adversarial towards one another.
The emerging Ethiopian elites in both camps have harnessed social media in ways that have yielded extraordinary influence and power over political discourse that directly and indirectly affects the lives of everyday Ethiopians. They recognize their charisma is more significant to their audience than the contents of their speech or the quality of their argument. Name calling and ad hominem attacks are their currency and they invoke current and historical grievances, and narratives of superiority, to stoke fear and anger. Unfortunately, the narratives these elites broadcast are not without consequences. There is a correlation between recent violence in Ethiopia and the supposed adherents of these narratives.
Nothing makes the dangers of the deep division between the two camps as the murder of the renowned Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundesa in June 2020. This incident has clearly shown their tendency to see and interpret any and every incident or issue in ways that support their respective narratives. Unfortunately, as is quite common in the post-truth social media age we live in, it is as though elites in each camp use different truth-filters, no matter what facts on the ground dictate. So much so that, immediately after the news of Hachalu’s death surfaced, elites in each camp took to social media and, with no evidence at their disposal, started to speculate who might have shot and killed the singer and began pointing fingers at each other. In the ethno-nationalist camp, a conspiracy started to circulate that claimed the killing was orchestrated and carried out by “neftegna” and statements like “They killed our hero” reverberated around social media, followed by wide-spread Oromo protests in Ethiopia, Europe, and North America. On the other hand, in what appears to be due to Hachalu’s pro-Oromo nationalistic political views, in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp there was either a deafening silence, or some suggesting that the killing was a result of intra power-struggle among the Oromo elite politicians who just “sacrificed” Hachalu for their own politically calculated ends. Amidst the confusion and unsubstantiated claims floating around—with even some media outlets broadcasting hate-filled messages—violence erupted in the Oromia region claiming the lives of more than 200 individuals, the displacement of thousands, and property damage. The killings were reported to be gruesome and targeted.
If anyone in either camp is insensitive enough to bring havoc to Ethiopia, or even worse, to sacrifice precious human lives in pursuit of political ends or to prove a particular narrative of Ethiopia, then the debate is not so much about liberation and freedom as it is about ideology or some other ends. As Edward Said chastises us:
the standards of truth about human misery and oppression [are] to be held despite the individual intellectual’s party affiliation, national background, and primeval loyalties. Nothing disfigures the intellectual’s public performances as much as trimming, careful silence, patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing apostasy.
We shouldn’t also lose sight of the fact that, while not denying that there are genuinely invested individuals and groups of actors in each camp, there are still many in this “war” owing to other factors that have little or nothing to do with a genuine concern for Ethiopia and everyday Ethiopians. The harsh truth is that this is not just a debate about history, identity, or self-governance, but more so about elites’ drive for resource monopolization, the prestige that comes with power, and other factors external to the debate.
Abiy’s government, like the EPRDF before it, is attempting to limit internet access, especially to social media, to quell recent unrest. The government’s desperate act to avoid future incidents like these are understandable. Expanded internet access to all, in theory, at least, is a positive development in the right hands. And it would be misguided to argue that the broadening of access to free speech that has been made possible through social media is wrong or detrimental. The detriment, actually, is with the unchecked nature of social media. As well, the absence of meaningful fact checking and understanding of local knowledge among social media companies make it possible for misinformation to spread easily.
Whither Ethiopia? The way forward
As we noted initially, nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia. This has become a singularly arduous task especially now that a generation of Ethiopians who have grown up under the EPRDF are increasingly alienated from actual inter-ethnic-lived experiences of Ethiopians of present and past generations. It is also naive to expect the debate to remain even-tempered. Emotions can run high as communities attempt to reconcile their ethnic identity and group status as they negotiate the meaning of their shared history with others. However, prerequisites to making meaningful progress are highly credible communication mediums, shared facts, and shared goals. At the moment, the opposite appears to be true.
There is a glaring absence of willingness on both sides to engage in reasoned debates, leaving no room to explore the authenticity and truthfulness of alternative narratives. It is not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis, and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals—are disincentivised.
Even if we disagree on where we started and how we got here, we could at least agree on where we are heading. Denialism, lack of empathy, and cancel-culture are the last traits we should carry into this debate, not only because people’s lives are at stake, but also the future of Ethiopia as a state. Good faith debate based on shared facts and shared goals are required if the historical Ethiopia is to survive another century.
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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Nigeria: A Messiah Will Not Fix Country’s Problems
In Nigeria’s recent election cycle, many citizens looked to Peter Obi for change. But the country needs people-led social transformation, not saviors.
On February 25, Nigerians once again took to the polls with a determination that their votes could change the fate of a country in deep despair. For the seventh time since a civilian dispensation began in 1999, Nigerians hoped that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) would conduct a free, fair, and credible election. This hope was reinvigorated by the emergence of technology that would ensure, purportedly, a transparent process. Yet, once again, voters had their dreams crushed with an election marred by violence, ballot box snatching, forged results and, of course, voter intimidation and buying. In the days that followed, despite mounting evidence of irregularities and international outcry, INEC declared Bola Ahmed Tinubu, of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the winner of the presidential poll. The continuation of a gerontocratic oligarchy was solidified.
Although media attention focused on a young class of voters and the uniqueness of this historical moment, a deeper analysis is necessary. If nothing else, this election provided an opportunity to examine the shifting landscape of Nigeria’s elite electoral politics, and the increasingly complex voting patterns of citizens, while understanding these voters are increasingly a minority—less than 30 percent of the registered voters (about one-tenth of the population) cast their vote.
The dizzying rise of Peter Obi as a “third force” candidate over the last nine months was largely due to a movement of emergent and middle-class youth, the so-called “Obidients,” who used technology to galvanize a youthful base to push forward their candidate. That the Obidient movement was formed, ironically, off the back of the EndSARS movement, is in many ways a direct contradiction. The generation that was “leaderless” now suddenly had a leader. The rate at which young people chose this candidate still gives me whiplash. But there was no shaking their convictions. Obi was their candidate, and no one could shake their belief that a new Nigeria would be formed under his presidency, despite the evidence that he was directly endorsed by the same ruling class that has led to the country’s demise.
Obi is not a revolutionary, a social welfarist, nor even pro labor, but he became the savior many youth were looking for to “rescue” Nigeria. Ironically, the millions of youth that fought the EndSARS battle, and named themselves the leaderless soro soke (“speak up” in Yoruba) generation, did not seek elective office themselves. Rather, many put their eggs in Obi’s basket in supporting an older, veteran politician whose clean cut and soft demeanor led to his near deification. Other EndSARS activists, including Omoyele Sowore, were mocked for running in the election and were seen as not experienced enough for the job. In the end Sowore performed abysmally at the polls, despite his demonstrated commitment to Nigerian youth and human rights record and involvement in the EndSARS protests (Sowore’s African Action Congress polled only 14,608 votes, faring worse than in the 2019 election).
This absolute faith in Obi was demonstrated when his followers patiently waited for five days after the election to hear from him. Instead of sending them into the streets, he advised them to wait for him to challenge the electoral irregularities in the courts. Why did a leaderless generation need a hero?
The contradictions in the EndSARS ideology and the Obidient campaign will be tested in the years ahead. After the Lekki massacre on October 20, 2020 brought the massive street protests of the EndSARS movement to an abrupt halt, many of the sites of protests shut down completely and groups that were loosely organized dismantled into relative silence for almost two years. In fact, there was little indication that EndSARS would evolve into a mass political movement until Peter Obi emerged on the scene in May 2022. The first- and second anniversaries of the Lekki massacre were marked by smaller protests in Lagos and a few other cities, which paled in comparison to the numbers at the 2020 protests. Still, efforts to free many of the prisoners arrested during EndSARS are proving difficult, with some protesters and victims still in jail today. There was no direction, no cohesiveness, and no willingness to move forward at that point. But in May 2022, seemingly out of nowhere, things began to shift. A candidate emerged that many EndSARS protesters seemed to think would be the savior.
Understanding the youth divide
While often lumped into a sum, the category of “youth” is not a single class of people. When Obi was said to carry the youth vote he actually only carried the vote of a particular category of young people, an emergent middle and professional class, who were also some of the most vocal in the EndSARS movement. However, if we are to use the discredited election geography as a proxy for representation, it is clear that this demographic is both well defined and narrow. Major urban areas like Lagos and Abuja pulled towards Obi, as did a few Eastern states. The North Central states including Plateau and Benue asserted their own identity by aligning with Obi, perhaps in a rejection of the Northern Muslim tickets of the Peoples Democratic Party (with whom Atiku Abubaker ran) and the APC.
The 2023 election also forces us to re-examine the dynamics of class, ethnic and religious divides and the deepening malaise of the poor and their disengagement with politics. What is clear from this election, like many before, is that Nigeria has yet to come of age as a democracy; indeed, the conditions for democracy simply do not exist. It is also quite evident that the Nigerian elite are adept at changing the political game to suit the mood of the Nigerian people. Electoral malpractices have shifted over time in response to the increasing pressure of civil society for accountable elections. Strong civil society advocacy from organizations focused on accountability and transparency in government have pushed against electoral practices. While these practices continue, there are significant shifts from previous elections where vote buying was brazen. However, it begs the historical questions: has Nigeria ever had a truly free and fair election, and is the process with which democracy is regenerated through the ballot the path for emancipatory politics? These questions become more relevant as the numbers of voters continue to dwindle, with the 2023 election having the lowest turnout in Nigeria’s electoral history, despite the social media propaganda around the youth vote and the turning tide of discontent that was predicted to shape the election.
Lessons from history
The fact that young people were surprised by the events on February 25 may be indicative of youthful exuberance or a startling lack of knowledge of history. The idea that a ruling class, who had brought the EndSARS struggle to a bloody end, would somehow deliver a free and fair election, needs more critical scrutiny. For those that remember the history of the June 12, 1993 elections—annulled after the popular rise of MKO Abiola—the election is no surprise. But for young people deprived of history education, which has been removed from Nigeria’s curriculum for the past 30 years, the knowledge may be limited. When a young person says they have never seen an election like this, they also cannot be faulted, as many young voters were voting for the first time. Given that many youth seem to underestimate the long history of elections and electoral fraud, the question of intergenerational knowledge and of a public history that seems to be absent from electoral discourse cannot be ignored. It is also hard to fault young voters, in a land where there is no hope, and whatever hope is sought after can be found in the marketplace.
Many of the young organizers were adept at reading their constituencies and mobilizing their bases, but some of the elephants in the room were ignored. One of these elephants, of course, was the deep geographic and ethno-religious and class divisions between the North and the South. This is evident in the voting patterns in the North West and North East where Obi’s campaign did not make a dent. Though Obi ran with a vice president from the North, the majority of votes in Northern zones were divided between PDP, APC and New Nigeria People’s Party while two of the North Central states, Plateau and Nasarawa, went to Obi’s Labor party. Kano, the largest voting population in the country went to Rabiu Kwankwaso’s NNPP, an outlier who was ignored to the peril of opposition parties (Kwankwaso was the former governor of Kano).
Obi’s campaign also focused on the emergent middle class youth, as well as appealing to religious sentiments through churches on a Christian ticket and ethnic sentiments appealing to his Ibo base in the South East, where he swept states with more than 90 percent of the vote. The North is largely made up of the rural poor with poverty rates as high as 87 percent and literacy rates among young women in Zamfara state as low as 16 percent. Tracking Obi’s victories, most of the states where he won had lower poverty rates and higher literacy rates; states like Delta and Lagos have the lowest poverty counts in the country. While Obi used poverty statistics to bolster his campaign, his proposed austerity measures and cuts in government spending do not align with the massive government investments that would be needed to lift Nigerians out of poverty. While the jury is still out on the reasons for low voter turnout, deepening poverty and the limited access to cash invariably impacted poor voters.
Historically, Nigeria’s presidency has swung between the North and the South, between Muslims and Christians, and this delicate balance was disrupted on all sides. In 2013, an alliance between the Southern Action Congress (AC), the Northern All Nigeria’s People’s Party (ANPP), and Congressive People’s Alliance (CPC) to produce the Action People’s Congress (APC) was able to remove the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) who had dominated the political scene. Another important historical note is that of the legacy of Biafra that lives on, as an Igbo man has never taken the helm of the Presidency since the Civil War. While Obi ran on the promise of a united youth vote, the lingering ethnic and religious sentiments demonstrate the need for his campaign to have created a stronger alliance with the North and the rural and urban poor.
The failure of the youth vote is also a failure of the left
The other factor that we must examine is the failure of the left to articulate and bring into public critique the neoliberal model that all the candidates fully endorsed. Many young Nigerians believe if Nigeria works, it will work for everyone, and that “good governance” is the answer to the myriad problems the country faces. The politics of disorder and the intentionality of chaos are often overlooked in favor of the “corrupt leader” indictment. The left was divided between the Labor Party, whose presidential flag bearer ran on a neoliberal rather than pro worker or socialist platform, and the African Action Congress, who ran on a socialist manifesto, but failed to capture the imaginations of young people or win them over to socialist politics and ideology. In seeking to disrupt the two party power block, young Nigerians took less notice of the lack of difference between the three front running parties, and chose to select the lesser of three evils, based on credentials and the idea that Obi was “the best man for the job.” In fact, the Nigerian youth on the campaign trail emphasized experience in government as a criteria for a good candidate, over and above fresh ideas.
The left also failed to garner the EndSARS movement and channel it into a political force. The emergent youth middle class, not the workers and the working poor, continued to carry the message of liberal rather than revolutionary politics. Unfortunately, just as the gunning down of Nigerian protesters caught young people off guard in October 2020, so too the massive rigging of this election. However, there is no cohesive movement to fight the fraud of this election. The partisan protests and separate court cases by the Labor Party and PDP, demonstrate that the disgruntled candidates are fighting for themselves, rather than as a single voice to call out electoral fraud and the rerun of the election. The fact that there is acceptance of the National Assembly election outcomes and not the presidential election, points to the seeking of selective justice, which may eventually result in the complete disenfranchisement of the Nigerian people.
At this time we must seek answers to our current dilemma within history, the history that we so often want to jettison for the euphoria or overwhelming devastation of the moment. The question for the youth will now be, which way forward? Will we continue to rely on the old guard, the gerontocratic oligarchy that has terrorized Nigerians under the guise of different political parties for the past 24 years? Or will we drop all expectations and pursue the revolution that is sorely needed? Will young people once again rise to be a revolutionary vanguard that works with millions of working poor to form a truly pro-people, pro-poor party that has ordinary Nigerians as actual participants in a virbrant democracy from the local to the federal levels, not just during election time but every day? Will the middle class Nigerian youth be willing to commit class suicide to fight alongside the poor to smash the existing oligarchy and gerontocracy and snatch our collective destiny back?
It is a time for truth telling, for examining our own shortcomings. As young people, as the left, and as civil society, we have relied too long on the oppressors for our own liberation.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
Africa in the New World Disorder
The war in Ukraine indicates a new world disorder, where great powers fight for primacy and Africa continues to be exploited.
There are some of us in Africa who believe that we should not invest any serious thinking in the war in Ukraine as it is one of the “European tribal wars.” The logic of that belief is that in Africa we have too many of our own problems to invest energy and effort in European problems. The trouble of being African in the present world order, however, is that all problems and wars end up African in effect if not in form. In the sense in which one who knows it feels it, every war in the world is an African war because Africans have, for the longest time, felt and known wars that are not of their creation. The African condition itself can be understood as a daily experience of war.
Over centuries Africa has been structured and positioned to be on the receiving end of all world problems. As such, Africa is not only the storied cradle of mankind, but also the cemetery of the human condition where every human and world problem comes to kill and to die as well. The worst of the human condition and human experiences tend to find final expression in Africa. It is for that reason that Julius Nyerere once opined that the Devil’s Headquarters must be in Africa because everything that might go wrong actually goes wrong in the continent.As the world tiptoes precariously from the COVID-19 pandemic, at the same time it seems to be tottering irreversibly towards a nuclear World War III. The countries of the world that have the power and the privilege to stop the war pretend to be unable to do so. Even some powerful and privileged Western thinkers are beating the drums of war. For instance, Slavoj Zizek, considered “the most dangerous philosopher in the West,” wrote for The Guardian in June 2022 to say: “pacifism is the wrong response to the war in Ukraine,” and “the least we owe Ukraine is full support, and to do that we need a stronger NATO.” Western philosophers, not just soldiers and their generals, are demanding stronger armies and bigger weapons to wage bigger wars. In Ukraine, the conflict is proving too important to be left to the soldiers, the generals and the politicians. In that assertion Zizek speaks from the Euro-American political and military ego, whose fantasy is a humiliating total defeat of Russia in Ukraine. Zizek, the “dangerous philosopher” takes his place as a spokesperson for war and large-scale violence, agitating from a comfortable university office far away from the horrors of Bakhmut.
United States President, Joe Biden, spoke from the same egopolitics of war before the Business Roundtable CEO Quarterly Meeting on March 21 last year: “And now is a time when things are shifting… there’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it. And we’ve got to unite the rest of the free world in doing it.” Clearly, an “end of history” fantasy of another unipolar world led by the US and its NATO allies has possessed Western powers that are prepared to pump money, weapons and de-uniformed soldiers into Ukraine to support the besieged country to the “last Ukrainian.” During a surprise visit to Kyiv on the eve of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden hawkishly said the US will support Ukraine in fighting “as long as it takes,” dismissing diplomatic alternatives. Suggestions for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine that have come from influential figures, such as Henry Kissinger on the right and Noam Chomsky on the left, have been dismissed with the sleight of the left hand, and this is as Ukraine is literally being bombed to dust. African countries that have for years been theaters of colonial invasions, proxy wars, sponsored military coups, and regime changes can only see themselves in Ukraine. What Ukraine is going through is a typical African experience taking place in Europe and the first victims are Europeans this time.
Being Africans in Africa, at the least, should equip us with the eyes to see the war in Ukraine for what it is, a war driven by a Euro-American will to power, a spirited desire for world dominion against the Russian fear of NATO encirclement and containment, and nostalgia about a great Soviet empire. It is a war of desires and fears from which the belligerents will not back off. The envisaged “new world order” can only be another “world disorder” for an Africa that has for so long been in the periphery of economic, political, and military world affairs.
Destined for war: The Thucydides trap
Well before the war, the Singaporean diplomat and scholar Kishore Mahbubani described how the “world has turned a corner” and why “the West has lost it” in trying to maintain its economic and political dominion by any means necessary and some means unnecessary. Power is shifting under the feet of a young and fragile Euro-American empire that will not lose power peacefully, hence the spirited desire to force another unipolar world without China and Russia as powers. Taiwan and Ukraine are the chosen sites where the Euro-American establishment is prepared to militarily confront its threatening rivals. That “from AD 1 to 1820, the two largest economies were always those of China and India” and that “only in that period did Europe take off followed by America” is little understood. That the Euro-American empire has not been the first and it will not be the last empire is little understood by the champions of the “new world order” that Francis Fukuyama, in 1989, mistakenly declared as “the end of history and the last man;” a world ruled by the West, led by the US and its European allies had arrived and was here to stay in Fukuyama’s enchanting prophecy. Ensuing history, 9/11 amongst other catastrophic events, and the present war in Ukraine, were to prove Fukuyama’s dream a horrific nightmare. Mahbubani predicts that the short-lived rise and power of the Euro-American Empire has “come to a natural end, and that is happening now.” It seems to be happening expensively if the costs in human life, to the climate and in big dollars are to be counted.
In the struggle of major world powers for dominion of the globe Ukraine is reduced to a burnt offering. While, on the one hand, we have a terrified Euro-American empire fearing a humiliating return to oblivion and powerlessness, on the other hand we have the reality of an angry China and Russia, carrying the burden of many decades of geopolitical humiliation. Such corners of the world as Africa become the proverbial grass that suffers when elephants fight. The scramble to reduce Africa to a sphere of influence for this and that power is a spectacle to behold and the very definition of the new world disorder; a damaged and asymmetrical shape of the world where the weaker other is dispensable and disposable.
In its form and content, this new world disorder is ghastly to ponder, not only for Africa, but also for the rest of the world. Graham Allison pondered it in 2015 and came up with the alarming observation that “war between the US and China is more likely than recognised at the moment” because the two powerful countries have fallen into the Thucydides Trap. The ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, described the trap when he narrated how avoiding war becomes next to impossible when a ruling power is confronted by a rival rising power that threatens its dominion. Thucydides witnessed how the growing power and prosperity of Athens threatened Sparta in ancient Greece, driving the two powers to war. The political and historical climate between China and the US captures the charged political temperatures that punctuated the relations between an entitled and proud Sparta confronted with the growth and anger of a frightening Athens. The proverbial chips were down.
For the US and China to escape the Thucydides Trap that is luring both superpowers to war, “tremendous effort” is required of both parties and their allies. The effort is mainly in mustering the emotional stamina to see and to know that the world is going to be a shared place where there must never be one center of power; that political, economic and military diversity is natural, and the world must be a decolonial pentecostal place where those of different identities, and competing interests can share power and space, is the beginning of the political wisdom that can guarantee peace. President Xi Jinping of China seems to have read Allison’s warning about the Thucydides Trap that envelops China and the US because on a visit to Seattle he was recorded saying: “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might make such traps for themselves.” The world is sinking deeper into new disorder and violence because rival powers cannot resist the Thucydides Trap and keep repeating “strategic miscalculations” based on their will to power and desire for global dominion.
The problem with China (the Athens of our present case) that troubles the US as the Sparta of the moment is that, as Allison observes, “China wants to be China and accepted as such—not as an honorary member of the West.” The problem with world powers, past and present, seems to be that they cannot live with difference. In fact, political, economic and cultural differences are quickly turned from competition to conflict, from opposition to total enmity. How to translate antagonism to agonism, and to move from being enemies to being respectful adversaries that can exist among each other in a conflictual but shared world is a small lesson that seems to elude big powers, whose egopolitics drives their geopolitics into a kind of militarized lunacy. One would be forgiven, for instance, to think that playground toys are being spoken of when presidents of powerful countries talk about monstrous weapons to be deployed in Ukraine. Observing from Africa one can hazard the view that big powers might be small and slow learners, after all. The death-drive of the superpowers is perpetuated by the desire to force other countries, including other powers, to be “more like us” when they are formidably determined to be themselves. To break out of the Thucydides Trap and avoid war, for instance, the US has to generate and sustain enough emotional stamina to live with the strong truth that China is a 5,000-year-old civilization with close to 1.5 billion people and in its recent rise is only returning to glory and not coming from the blue sky. And that the world has to be shared with China and other powers, and countries. China, and allies, would also not have learnt well from many years of decline if they dreamt and worked for a world under their sole dominion.
Any fantasy of one world ruled from one mighty center of power is exactly that, a fantasy that might be pursued at the dear cost of a World War. Away from that fantasy, the future world will be politically pentecostal, not a paradise but a perpetually in the making and incomplete world where human, national, cultural, political and religious differences will be normal. From Africa that future world is thinkable and world powers should be investing thought and action in that and not in new monstrous weapons and military might.
Africa in the new world disorder
The symptoms are spectacular and everywhere to be seen. It can be the Namibian President, Hage Geingob, on live television having to shout at a German politician, Norbet Lammert, for complaining about the growing Chinese population in Namibia. Geingob asks why Germans land in Namibia on a “red carpet” and do “what they want” but it becomes a huge problem for the West when the Chinese are seen in Namibia. That Namibia should not be reduced into a theater of contestation between the West and China because it is a sovereign country was Geingob’s plea to the German politician. It can be President Emmanuel Macron of France, in May 2021, asking President Paul Kagame of Rwanda for forgiveness for France’s role in the genocide of 1994—the bottom line being that African conflicts and genocides bear European footprints and fingerprints. Africa is reduced to the West’s crime scene, from slavery to colonialism and from colonialism to present coloniality.
Coloniality is brought to life with, for instance, the US Republican lawmakers launching a bill “opposing the Republic of South Africa’s hosting of military exercises with the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and calling on the Biden administration to conduct a thorough review of the US-South Africa relationship.” Africa as an object that does not have the agency to act for itself but is acted upon in the new world disorder, is real. It is Africa as a child in the world system that must be protected from other relationships and that must be told who to relate with and who not to relate with. It is also Africa as an owned thing that must be protected from rival owners. Behind the myth of African independence and liberation is the reality of Africa as a “sphere of influence,” about which world powers are still scrambling for control and ownership, including Russia and China. When in January 2018, Donald Trump referred to African countries as “all these shithole countries,” he meant that Africa still metaphorized the toilet of the world order, where disposable waste and dispensable people were to be found. Looking at the world disorder from Africa is a troubling view from the toilet of world affairs.
Looking at the world disorder from Africa with African eyes and sensibility makes it obvious that it is Africa that should be against war and for a decolonial, multipolar world order where differences are legitimated, not criminalized; where economic competition, political opposition, and rivalry are democratized from antagonism to agonism; and where political opponents are adversaries that are not necessarily blood enemies that must work on eliminating each other to the “last man.” Such a world order may be liberating in that both fears and desires of nations may play out in a political climate where might is not necessarily right. From long experiences of being the dominated and exploited other of the world, Africa should expectedly be the first to demand such a world.
World powers need to be persuaded or to pressure themselves to understand what Mahbubani prescribes as a future world order that is against war, and liberating in that it is minimalist, multilateral, and Machiavellian. Minimalist, in that major countries should minimize thinking and act like other countries are minors that should be changed into their own image. Multilateral in the sense that world institutions, such as the United Nations, must be pentecostal sites where differences, fears and desires of all countries are moderated and democratized. Machiavellian in that world powers, no matter how mighty they believe they are, must adapt to the change to the order of things and live with the truth that they will not enjoy world dominion alone, in perpetuity. The world must be a shared place that naturalizes and normalizes political, economic, cultural, and human diversity.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
Understanding the Crisis in Northern Kenya
The violence plaguing the North Rift region in Kenya is complex, as it is caused by a multiplicity of factors
On the 14th of February 2023, Kenya held a national prayer day in accordance with our government’s habit of holding ‘prayers’ when certain stressors reach an unbearable level on a national scale. Currently, there are many factors triggering national stressors, and one of them is a complex security issue loosely termed “banditry”, for which our government has no viable solution. So, we pray, declaring war on our people, instead of reflecting on and addressing the root causes of the crisis.
Over the years, these theatrics, which reflect the inadequacy of the government’s policies in dealing with our challenges, have occurred in different forms including ‘prayer breakfasts’, ‘national prayers’, ‘crusades’, and other forms of supplication. And while these functions are met with a wide spectrum of reactions ranging from approval to derision, depending on people’s spiritual or political leanings, it is crucial for us as citizens to realize that as much as these may be expressions of faith at our leaders’ personal level, at the political level they are basically ‘time-outs’ or pressure release valves. Where one has a strategy, time-outs create room for the implementation of plan ‘B’ or ‘C’. However, in the absence of a strategy, time-outs are called in the vain hope that the adversary or adversity at hand will somehow lose momentum.
There is more to the “banditry” phenomenon than meets the eye
There have been violent conflicts of many kinds in northern Kenya for many decades, some driven by terrorism, ethnic animosity, resource conflict, cattle rustling and other factors. Since 2017, however, many Kenyans have had greater awareness of the fact that the violence in northern Kenya isn’t just mere disorder; people have come to terms that there are definite geographical, economic and social patterns to, and causes of, the violence. The ongoing sporadic skirmishes of violence and cattle rustling in the North Rift area are exacerbating the difficulties that the communities there are already facing as a result of a debilitating drought. Most tragically, the violence in the region has led to the death of 16 security personnel and over 100 civilians in 6 months, a period largely overlapping with the first 5 months of H.E. President William Ruto’s time as the president. Sadly, over the years, Kenya had become largely inured to this slow-burning war due to its long duration and the boorish mentality that made the majority of us see certain parts of the country and pastoralists as somewhat ‘backward’ or ‘lesser’ beings. The most harmful effect of this attitude has been the inability or unwillingness of Kenyans to understand the root of this problem.
Things came to a head on the 11th of February 2023 when a group of security personnel on patrol were ambushed on the Lodwar-Kitale highway resulting in the death of 3 officers and the loss of guns, ammunition and patrol vehicles. This daylight highway attack was a huge affront to the authorities, resulting in instant opprobrium from citizens all over the country who wonder why our much-vaunted security agencies still couldn’t subdue these “bandits” after all these years.
Such attacks were turning into exasperating feelings of déjà vu because we see the same places, roughly the same seasonal conditions, the same kind of weapons, and even the same meaningless terminology and knee-jerk government reactions time and again. In every other part of Kenya, when laws are broken, they are investigated and addressed all along the chain from perpetrators, enablers, participants and beneficiaries. Most of the time, cases are brought to logical conclusions, but not in this case. Why?
Insights into the depth of this particular problem came from a very knowledgeable (if unexpected) source. The Governor of Trans-Nzoia County, Mr George Natembeya, came out at the National Prayer Day with a hard-hitting statement, asking the President not to let people around him “shield” him from the realities on the ground concerning the “banditry” in the North Rift areas. He went on to detail the woes of the security personnel working in the area, claiming that they were being sent into a veritable war zone without adequate allowances, equipment and even food supplies. I was personally taken aback because the previous operation took place when Mr Natembeya was the Rift Valley Regional Coordinator (RC), a position he held until last year when he resigned to run for a political office. Ironically, the office of RC is a very senior position in the executive arm of the Kenya Government that placed Mr Natembeya in direct charge of deploying the security personnel who suffered the same deplorable working conditions he was now lamenting about. In a show of cognitive dissonance that is so typical of Kenyans, the Governor was widely praised for his ‘straight talk’ and honesty in ‘speaking truth to power’. Obviously buoyed by this newfound adulation, he went on to hold a press conference where he robustly advocated military involvement in the operation against bandits, firmly stating that the civilian security apparatus (where he spent the majority of his career before moving into politics) is inadequate to protect Kenyans. This advocacy was worrisome because the use of the loose term ‘banditry’ betrays a lack of knowledge of the identity or objectives of the adversaries.
The first major cause for alarm was the haughty ‘pre-devolution’ tone with which Mr Natembeya pronounced himself on the deployment of the military. He proceeded to even give recommendations on the orders that need to be issued, stating that they should be instructed to “decimate” the bandits. This is a startlingly cavalier term when used by a senior public servant in reference to citizens who haven’t been positively identified in any way. It is a term that could be useful in the primitive theatre of war, where opponents are positively identified by uniforms, positions or other means, but sustainable solutions to the security problems in the North Rift region invariably require more sophisticated approaches that would ensure that innocent citizens are protected and not “decimated” alongside. It would have been much easier for us ‘spectators’ to dismiss these statements as hot air emitted by someone who failed in his earlier responsibilities, but we lost that option when the government moved with speed to implement these external ‘instructions’.
The main cause of a complex issue
The violence plaguing the North Rift region in Kenya is complex, as it is caused by a multiplicity of factors. If it was simple, it would have been solved a long time ago through any of the heavy-handed responses deployed by successive governments against it. My work as a conservationist has given me unique insights into one aspect of it which seems to have been ignored by many.
Northern Kenya has a roughly 5-year drought cycle, and 2017 was a drought year. As a consequence, pastoralists moved south into Laikipia county in search of pasture. They invaded private ranches and provoked an inevitable state response, which resulted in the death of many ranchers, pastoralists, security personnel, and hundreds of livestock.
I headed a team of consultants tasked by an indigenous rights NGO to study Marsabit, Isiolo, Laikipia, and Samburu counties in a research project aimed at uncovering the dynamics and drivers of the southward transhumance and the resultant conflicts. We collected data from hundreds of respondents, including ranchers, pastoralists, government personnel and NGO practitioners. Three things stood out in our findings. The first was the sheer distances covered by the pastoralists with their animals, and the second was the fact that almost all the (government-designated) livestock movement routes have been blocked by private landowners. The most compelling finding, however, was that a vast majority of the pastoralists were from homelands that were now ‘wildlife conservancies’ controlled by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT),( -a conservation NGO. The pastoralists had lost access to their dry-season grazing areas.
After completing our fieldwork and analysis, we planned and held a validation workshop in Nanyuki on the 14th of June 2017. The findings of our report presented at the workshop resonated well with the community members who attended the workshop, some of whom provided us with further insights into the crisis. Our views on NRT were also ‘validated’ by a dramatic moment when my presentation was interrupted by their Laikipia county director, Mr Richard Kasoo, who literally screamed at me to stop vilifying NRT and had to be ejected from the room by the elders present. The top NRT management later called a more cordial meeting at a Nanyuki hotel, asking me as the team leader to expunge certain items from the report, which they felt portrayed them in a ‘negative light’. Much to their chagrin, I declined to do so, out of respect for my team and our respondents. This entire experience was a cameo of what ails us in this arena. Man-made stressors are routinely met with deafening silence and frantic inactivity until we invariably take ‘ruthless’ steps to ‘decimate’ the people we should have engaged before the fighting broke out. As such, those of us who observed the violent resource conflict in 2017 know that it wasn’t brought to an end by any human intervention. The drought ended, the rains came, and people who were fighting simply went back home.
These findings and my views have since been shared with several senior state officials and several non-state actors as well (including the protagonists), but have been invariably met with deafening silence and frantic inactivity. This is not to suggest that this is the only set of causes because the bloodletting certainly predates wildlife conservancies, which only started around 2004. Ethnic animosities that exist in this and other parts of Kenya are realities that we must factor in. The displacement and loss of access to resources also eliminated a lot of the geographical space that typically limited contact and conflict between some communities, resulting in more frequent flare-ups. However, the negative impact of conservation practices on the communities’ ways of life is definitely one of the easier drivers to deal with, so it is difficult to imagine that anyone is dealing with the more intractable and socio-politically fractious ones.
Most notably, the alacrity with which government authorities have embraced the advice of a former RC with a less-than-stellar record to handle a crisis is a worrying indication of not having a plan. One doesn’t need to be an expert to know that militaries aren’t trained to investigate, arrest or prosecute, so we could be courting numerous extrajudicial killings. The Interior Minister speaking in January, added his voice to the frightening miasma, saying that the Government will be ‘ruthless and brutal’ in this operation. We don’t seem to have had a plan for what we are doing now, so it cannot be easy to envision any plan for managing the inevitable fallout of such violence either. We are at war with ourselves in pitch darkness, struggling to finish ‘the other’ before dawn because the light of day might reveal who we really are.
This article was first published by The Pan African Review.
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