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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Competing Narratives and the Crisis in Ethiopia
Since November last year, Ethiopia has been fighting a devastating civil war with the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front. Hibist Kassa argues that the scale of misinformation on the war, lack of context and attempts to impose false narratives is deeply troubling and pervasive. Kassa calls for a nuanced and historically grounded approach to properly analyse the course of events.
Since 4 November last year Ethiopia has been caught in a devastating civil war with the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) which has been marked by escalating genocidal attacks on ethnic minorities in Ethiopia. The scale of misinformation and disinformation on the war, brazen lack of context, shameless and downright dangerous attempts to not only impose false narratives, but also impose a narrow human rights agenda skewed to ignore abuses by Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and its allies is deeply troubling and pervasive.
At the moment, a dangerously simplistic and false narrative labelling the federal government as having an agenda for centralisation, as opposed to the TPLF which is pushing for federalism, is being spread in mainstream media outlets and through scholarly networks. This is drawing on a further over-simplification of the history of empire building and contestation, and the nature of cultural and language identities and their relationship to class stratification.
This year marked the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Adwa in 1896, a historic defeat of a European imperialist power by Africans, with the unification of divided peoples. Lords, serfs and slaves, women and men, mobilised an army of about 100,000 to defeat Italian troops in a matter of hours. The aftermath of the victory also laid the basis for further empire consolidation and forging of the modern state, a contested historical process that has been foregrounded in the current conflict. A nuanced and historically grounded approach is needed to analyse the ways the centre-periphery tensions shaped autonomy in Tigray, recognise the wide spectrum of debates within the TPLF and how elites have deployed this in the current conflict (I examine this in some detail in the Agrarian South Bulletin here).
While the need to get the analysis right on the crisis is important to inform interventions, we also need to understand the nature of the accumulation strategies of elites, the contradictions in these strategies and where this leaves the working class and the advancement of a progressive alternative from below.
What are the competing narratives?
At the moment, mediation is being proposed as was recently advocated in a statement by African intellectuals, that eerily followed the line of the United States and TPLF on the crisis. A robust response by the Global Ethiopian Scholars Initiative and Jon Abbink have highlighted the problematic nature of the statement, and the need for an understanding of what is really at stake in the volatile Horn of Africa region, where a realignment of geopolitical relations between Eritrea-Ethiopia-Somalia, with South Sudanese solidarity, is potentially decentring US domination in the region, and sealing the decline of TPLF. Understanding the tricky and complicated context of the changes underway, demands also for careful attention to what is left out of the dominant narrative of the crisis.
For instance, it was shocking to hear pro-TPLF commentator, Martin Plaut, and now visiting researcher at Kings College Department of War Studies, declared boldly on 5 February this year, that even though a massacre in Mai-Kadra in Western Tigray was terrible, ‘I don’t care who carried them out’ (see 30:00-31:21). This was a genocide of about 1000 men, the elderly and children who were identified as ethnic Amhara by TPLF youth groups. As the men were being slaughtered, women overheard them say they would come for them next. Zelalem Tessema, Co-Chair Ethiopian Association in the UK, who was on the same panel as Plaut said that this was the ‘Srebrenica massacre’ of Ethiopia. Accountability which was so important for Plaut when examining Amhara militias, Ethiopian federal troops and Eritrea’s involvement, was suspended in the case where TPLF militia and its youth members, who later escaped to join refugees on the Sudanese border. The TPLF has continued to commit atrocities in its vicious expansion into Afar and Amhara regions displacing up to 4 million people.
Meanwhile, a coherent campaign sympathetic to TPLF by the US, EU and UN, including the IMF and World Bank, have focused on aspects of the Tigray crisis pressuring the Ethiopian Federal government to revert to mediations with the TPLF. Even when a unilateral ceasefire was declared by the government, the TPLF has continued to encroach upon other provinces in Amhara and Afar provinces, temporarily occupying Lalibela, and slaughtering civilians, destroying historic Churches in Gondar, there was still no universal condemnation of the TPLF except for the instance where the USAID Director in Ethiopia cited widespread TPLF looting of aid goods.
There has also been complete disinterest in the killings of ethnic minorities elsewhere which have been linked to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), openly allied to TPLF. In principle, violations by any state and non-state actor in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia should be investigated, victims provided care and culprits held to account. But the geopolitical power struggle that is ongoing has no interest in this kind of accountability agenda. Instead, human rights violations, whether they be genocide, widespread rape, recruitment of children as combatants and violations against Eritrean refugees, have been ignored when TPLF forces have been identified culprits. Talk of accountability and human rights is just a game in a bigger geopolitical battlefield.
Getting the facts right is key!
To make sense of what is an intensely complex crisis, it is important to focus on the following key facts:
- On 4 November, after the Federal Government of Ethiopia had transferred US$281 million to the Tigray provincial government, a ‘lightning strike’ so described by TPLFs’ spokesperson, was unleashed on federal troops who were undertaking joint operations with the Tigray provincial forces. Unarmed soldiers and generals were slaughtered in their pyjamas and their bodies left to rot, while other troops were taken as prisoners. Soldiers with specialised training were later summarily executed, ran over with trucks, and women soldiers were raped. When the news of this shocking attack trickled in, it horrified the general public and ended all attempts to mediate tensions between the Federal government and the TPLF.
- Prior to the above attack, tensions had been building between the Federal government based in Addis Ababa and the TPLF. The loss of TPLFs almost three-decade dominance of power in the federal government had aggrieved the committee members. To recall, TPLF itself was a political party, with its own hierarchies and membership drawing from various constituencies within Tigray province.
- Normalisation of relations with Eritrea was an extremely significant change introduced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. This significant change in foreign policy of Ethiopia was made possible under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition with new leadership under Abiy Ahmed as a member of Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). It was a decisive break from TPLF foreign policy which had treated the Eritrean government as a lethal enemy. The latter which has acted as a bulwark against the expansion of the United States’ AFRICOM in the Horn of Africa, and retained some semblance of sovereignty over its national policy space. These former allies who waged war against the Derg (the military regime that ruled Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1974 to 1987), soon turned into foes over the TPLFs ethnonationalist agenda entrenched in the Ethiopian federalist system, redrawing provinces and the entire governance system on the basis of ethnicity. Each province formed standing armies of their own and entrenched the right to secede in the constitution.
- Tigray province is in the northern most part of Ethiopia and shares a border with Eritrea, over which war was waged from 1998-2000, when Abiy was then on the frontline as a solider. A peace treaty was only signed in 2018 once the OPDO under Abiy was in power after a wave of popular protests against TPLF. According to Iqbal Jhazbay (former South Africa ambassador to Eritrea) since the Peace Treaty was signed, this provided Eritrea, ‘a previously isolated regime which has stubbornly resisted being turned into a pawn by foreign powers’ a bridge with which to expand its foreign policy influence in the volatile Horn of Africa. Asmara has resisted a regime change agenda, a challenge now facing Ethiopia, under the new Progress Party (PP) under Abiy, which has now had to resist pressure from foreign powers to dictate its relations with Eritrea.
- The successful completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been resisted not only by Egypt and Sudan, but also with backing from the US and Israel. Although GERD was conceptualised and initiated by former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, its successful implementation did not have full backing of his heirs in the TPLF. The Metal and Engineering Corporation, a mega-parastatal, which was charged with manufacturing parts of GERD, manufactured them below expected standards. This delayed the project and has been suspected as an act of subversion instead of incompetence on the part of the parastatal. The combination of Egypt and Sudan, and the realignment of interests with internal actors, like the TPLF (and now OLF), has created another deadly alliance that threatens stability in the Horn of Africa.
- Ethiopia is on the brink of national self-sufficiency in wheat production within two years. The Abiy government has also been setting up bread factories to ensure affordability for the urban poor and working people (especially in a time when food prices continue to skyrocket). In addition to the GERD and its potential to provide renewable energy resource to the Horn of Africa and beyond, these developments should be seen as efforts to strengthen productive capacity in the region and hopefully also address energy poverty that falls on the back of women. It is also a case that the infrastructure investments and Industrial Parks especially in the garments industry, have had keen interest from global brands, but also significantly drawn upon domestic resource mobilisation. All these are signs that concrete gains are being made in the country.
- Nonetheless, in spite of the Ethiopian governments commitment to liberalisation, this has not enamoured the regime to donors and the Bretton Wood Institutions. Sanctions have been imposed on government officials to travel to the US. Conditionalities for loans are being attached to ensure mediation with TPLF. The interest of the IMF, primarily influenced by the US, in this conflict is noteworthy.
- Bretton Woods Institutions, especially the IMF, have been attaching conditionalities to assistance obliging the government to make concessions to the TPLF. This hard-line towards the PP government is puzzling given that it has declared the country open for business, liberalising one of Africa’s last heavily regulated economies and allowing competition with State-Owed Enterprises, electricity and the telecommunications. The Abiy government has also been a very consistent partner in the War on Terror, especially as it relates to operations against Al-Shabab in Somalia.
- This indicates that there are higher stakes in Ethiopia’s forging of alliances with Eritrea and Somalia and the broader goal to stabilise the Horn of Africa in a manner that has not centred Washington and its ‘War on Terror’. Lawrence Freeman, on a panel on Ethiopia Television, “Addis Dialogue”, argues that a global political oligarchic faction that maintains neo-colonial control of African countries in particular, sees any actor operating outside US control as threatening their dominance and needing to be dealt with as a threat. Deacon Yoseph Tafari, Chairman of the Ethiopian American Civic Council, concurs and emphasises that the US had initially misread the Abiy government in the beginning of its tenure, and had to confront the reality of its more autonomous approach to foreign policy and its persistence with state led developmental initiatives such as the GERD. It is this aspect that has informed a regime change agenda.
- The TPLF which was the dominant force in the previous coalition government had been able to control the security and governance arms of the state and considerable investments in SOEs. It is an open secret that the TPLF had amassed offshore accounts of US$30 billion. At its height, foreign aid reached US$3.5 billion a year. Two to three billion dollars were lost annually through under and over invoicing of imports. Parastatals had become effective vehicles for accumulation of wealth by the top tier of the regime, with varied forms of patrimonial relations with less powerful actors within the party machinery. Proximity to power had its benefits, but none compared with the accumulation of wealth and deepening inequality that was apparent over the last three decades.
Q & A between Munyaradzi Gwisai and Hibist Kassa which reflects on the state of the working class in Ethiopia today.
MG: The emergent Ethiopian working class was a key player in the 1974 revolution that eventually ousted Emperor Haile Selassie. The wave of strikes helped inspire the popular protests of students, peasants and the junior soldiers. The later eventually wrested power led by the [Marixst Leninist] Derg, provoking a nearly two-decade period of Civil War and instability.
What happened to the Ethiopian working class in this period, in the struggles that ensued… Was class militancy and organisation crushed by repression and war?
HK: As the parastatal, Metal and Engineering Corporation (MetEC) case highlights, trade unions have struggled, and continued to struggle to organise in Ethiopia. IndustriALL Federation has been making important interventions especially in industrial parks. Important analytical work has been done on the super exploitation of women workers has drawn attention to how the accumulation strategy of the state that relies on cheap wage labour and the creation of an enabling environment for foreign direct investment, demands the repression of organised labour.
In response to high turnover of the workforce and a wave of wildcat strikes, there have been some moderate reforms to create a means for workers to raise concerns through the Labour Department inspectors and the provision of district offices. In spite of this, trade unions still need to be able to organise workers on the shopfloor. Resistance to this persist.
Moreover, the tension between the focus on large scale foreign direct investments as a means of enabling industrialisation places this strategy in tension with the dynamic and diversified economic activities by smallholder producers in agriculture, cottage industries and the retail sector. Ethiopia has a history of cooperative associations traced to the Derg regime, but these were demobilised by the TPLF dominated EPRDF regime.
MG: Ethiopia is amongst the top five performing economies in Africa in the last decade with annual growth rates of over 10%. A new, younger and expanded working class must therefore have emerged. If the working class retreated in this period leaving the petite bourgeoisie in charge, was there not a significant growth and re-emergence of the working class in the period after 1995? Quantitatively and qualitatively especially after 2000?
What is the degree of organisation, class consciousness, and militancy of this new expanded class? How does it compare to the leading role played by other working classes in the region recently, in Sudan, Egypt, Kenya for example and does it provide a counter to the petite bourgeoisie and their ethnicity – region based politics and mobilization?
HK: A new, younger and expanded working class has emerged, and its face is that of women migrants. The new subjects arising out of the industrialisation process is that of women workers, who are being superexploited as part of the country’s development strategy. Rural-urban migration, and now with covid-19, urban-rural migration, has become significant.
I think if we are to consider the primarily informal character of the labouring classes or working people (as Issa Shivji says) we needs to use different approaches to analyse the forms of resistance to capital and the state, and the ways in which people are building autonomy from below through their livelihoods and even survival strategies. This expanded approach to resistance and understanding of class helps us better draw the connections between the urban poor and dispossessed masses, and rural communities who in carrying the burden of social reproduction even as a gendered cheap wage labour strategy is imposed from above become a basis for drawing organic linkages with ‘wage workers’ in the formal sector. I think this is an opportunity to think in an interlinked manner and develop a more holistic understanding of what organising interventions can be made by trade unions working in alliance with women’s groups, farmers associations, artisanal miners and casual workers.
Elite wealth accumulation and the gendered working class
It is crucial to also reflect on the nature of corruption facilitated via illicit financial flows and how this has fed into the wealth accumulation strategies of elites in the TPLF dominated ethnic coalition government prior to its removal in 2018. A prime example of this is the mega parastatal, Metal and Engineering Corporation (MetEC).
With about seventy SOEs, seven military hardware manufacturing entities, about 12,500 employees, MetEC is a significant force in the Ethiopian economy. Under the TPLF, it successfully disbanded trade union organising on the shopfloor. In 2014, labour unions confronted the then CEO Knife Dangew and they were dismissed for being focused on rights bargaining and of being wedded to the legacy of the previous ‘Marxist Leninist’ military dictatorship. Instead, the trade union federation was expected to focus on the objective of attaining middle income status. In 2018, a parliamentary review revealed extensive graft, with overpricing of domestic and international procurement of up to US$2 billion, in some cases 400% higher than market prices. He was arrested in November 2018, and charged over the procurement of two shipping vessels, two hotels and a plastics factory.
The description below by Tim Hall of an industrial park, in Hawassa, now in the newly established Sidama province, gives us a glimpse of the pre-Covid situation:
Over 17,000 young women from predominately rural areas and a variety of ethnicities have, from 2017, migrated to work at the Hawassa Industrial Park (HIP), employing around 120,000 mainly women workers at potential full capacity. They face long shifts, low salaries given living costs between 800 to 2000 BIRR a month (US$27–68) and new challenges in an unfamiliar urban context, which are exacerbated by their status and dislocation from familial networks.
The brief description Hall offers above is that of women who form self-help groups on the basis of ethnicity and religion.
While there is a case for understanding ethnicity (or kinship as Archie Mafeje argues) in terms of how it can be an organising element in the labour process, the rigid and impervious colonial conceptions of ethnicity institutionalised by the TPLF cannot be underestimated. As relevant as this is to understand the reproduction of inequalities, in the Ethiopia case, it is also important to weigh how these have been entrenched as an organising principle of society.
The ability to render some groups as vulnerable as in the case of the non-Sidamo women migrant workers in Hawaasa or the migrant farmworkers massacred in Mai-Kadra also needs to be treated with caution. TPLF as a dominant force in the EPRDF coalition had almost three decades with an effective machinery to entrench this in the everyday forms of social, political and economic spheres of society, from ethnic development banks to redrawing provincial borders as in Raya to subsume areas where Amhara ethnic minorities can be disenfranchised.
Beyond this, there is also a dangerous oversimplification of vast periods of history and the association of repressed classes with specific language and cultural groups has fed a dangerous and divisive propaganda. This labels certain language groups as exploiters and oppressors and others victims of dispossession and oppression without a grounded understanding of complex and fluid categories, alongside complex economic and historical processes. These claims have also justified horrific violence by the OLF against the Amharic speaking people such as the disembowelment of pregnant women, the slicing off of the breasts of women and rape.
Progressive scholars, the working class and Ethiopia
Progressive scholars have to build bridges to engage with the intelligentsia in Ethiopia who have persevered through military dictatorship under the Derg in the 1970s and 1980s, and through 27 years of TPLF-dominated rule. Ethiopian scholars have been speaking out, as in this speech in 1994 by Mammo Muhcie in London that is an eerily precise analysis of TPLF as it is today.
In the midst of this conflict, Ethiopian scholars have been repeatedly trying to get their voices heard by the Ethiopian government and the international community. The statement widely shared by African intellectuals (including on roape.net) that presumed Ethiopian scholars cannot speak for themselves therefore came across as deeply condescending. If there is genuine interest in supporting Ethiopian scholars to get their perspectives and analysis on the crisis, and build bridges for meaningful interventions, the first step has to be through a serious and deliberate process of engagement.
There is also a need to pay attention to the accumulation strategies of elites and the manner they fit (or do not fit) within imperialism. Within this, an expanded understanding of a gendered working class is needed, recognising the strategically important role of women’s labour as a source of cheap wage labour. In addition, it is still important to not lose sight of how a liberal government like the PP, in pursuing its own ambitions to assert sovereignty over foreign policy and natural resources, has fallen from grace and is facing the age-old colonial/imperialist strategy of ‘divide and rule’ tactics both at the national level and regional levels through the TPLF, OLF and external actors such as Sudan and Egypt.
This also gives us insight into the accumulation strategy of the EPRDF, which still operates under a constitution and governance system setup by the TPLF dominated government. This draws out a broader lesson to the challenges arising out of an ambitious developmentalist elite in Africa. Although, the TPLF has been subjected to accountability processes after their removal from control of the federal government, there is still a broader lesson here for development in Africa, and this demands further interrogation.
Some on the left have admired the capacity of the ruling class in Ethiopia to pursue developmentalist ambitions with industrial parks as a strategy, for instance. But the limits of this strategy also need to be highlighted, as this also has relied on cheap wage labour and migrant women workers who have been rigidly constrained from organising in trade unions. Wildcat strikes and high turnover of labour has meant this is not a stable accumulation strategy, even on their own terms. It begs a broader question, what is the nature of a viable developmental strategy?
In addition, the pressures arising out of a gendered understanding of working class dynamics lays a basis to consider what developmental alternatives can be fought for. Such an alternative also demands a rupture from the existing imperialist architecture of power to assert control over resources which destabilises the global financial and geopolitical arrangements that the emerging Eritrea-Ethiopia-Somalia relations pose. Failure to recognise this is akin to enabling the catastrophic outcome of interventions in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the reason why there has been a robust and vociferous rejection of any possible intervention by the likes of Global Ethiopian Scholars Initiative and Jon Abbink.
Progressives have a responsibility to centre an understanding of imperialism and the national question, as Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros pull together in Reclaiming the Nation, to navigate this terrain and build bridges with the radical intelligentsia and popular formations in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa who want to construct a transformative agenda themselves. A first step has to be rejecting the ethnonationalist, genocidal agenda of TPLF, OLF and their allies.
This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).
Wakasighau: The Forgotten Victims of British Colonial Land Dispossession
The effects of the British colonial policy of subjugation through dispossession and exile continue to reverberate among the Wakasighau.
Two years have gone by since we last saw Mzee Joshua Mwakesi Mwalilika. He hasn’t changed a bit. His birth certificate says he was born in 1923. This means that Mzee Mwalilika is just two years shy of a hundred. He says that the birth certificate is wrong, that he was actually born in 1921. Mzee Mwalilika is from Taita, of the Wakasighau, a people who were uprooted from their native Kasighau region and exiled by the British to Malindi where they languished for over twenty years.
It all started in August 1915, at a time when Kenya was under British colonial rule and neighbouring Tanzania, then Tanganyika, was under the Germans. World War I had begun and, being so close to the border with Tanganyika, Kasighau was bound to suffer the effects of the war. When the Germans attacked the British, the British took revenge on the local African populations.
“All the houses were torched in the entire Kasighau on August 11th 1915. From Kigongwe, Makwasinyi, Jora, Kiteghe, Bungule, and Rukanga,” recalls Mzee Mwalilika. It was the handiwork of the British; they were on a punitive expedition against the Wakasighau whom the British suspected of having betrayed them to the Germans. A few days prior, the Germans had carried out a night raid on the British garrison at Kasighau, committing a massacre. This was eight years before Mzee Mwalilika was born.
One version of the events is that after the attack, the Germans wrote a letter to the British claiming that the locals had voluntarily betrayed them, which prompted the British to retaliate. At Rukanga Village in Kasighau, retired teacher Jonathan Mshiri, now aged 71, says that local accounts of the events tell of two individuals from the area who unknowingly directed some Germans who were on a spying mission to where the British had set up camp.
“Two people were harvesting honey in the bush and the soldiers came and interrogated them and said, ‘Can you show us where the wazungu are?’” says Mwalimu Mshiri. “They used the term wazungu not British, so Kinona and Mwashutu thought that these white people were just friends of fellow white people. They did not know that these were Germans.” The Germans laid waste to the British garrison at Jora in Kasighau and 38 British soldiers, including their captain, were taken captive by the Germans. This enraged the British so much that they decided to exile the entire Kasighau community.
For the Kasighau people, the British chose Malindi. After torching all the houses in the five villages, they rounded up all the people and gathered them at a place that was central to all the villages. “The British chose these open grounds because it gave them a view of Tanganyika where the Germans had come from,” explains Ezra Mdamu, a descendant of the survivors. “They also hoped that some of the villagers would have a better chance of pointing out exactly where the Germans had headed to. The people were also subjected to torture to extract information from them.”
The Wakasighau were then forced to march to Maungu Township, some 35 kilometres by today’s roads. From Maungu to the border at Holili is 144 kilometres using today’s road network, if indeed the German attackers had come through Holili.
The captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals.
At Maungu, the captives were herded into train wagons and taken to Malindi where the British had prepared the ground by forewarning the Giriama that the Wakasighau were cannibals. “What the new hosts did was put poison in the water holes, and this led to many deaths amongst our people,” Mwalimu Mshiri explains.
Macharia Munene, professor of History and International Affairs at the United States International University, says that using exile as punishment summarizes the colonial policy of subjugation and dispossession of local peoples.
“Most of these people who were deported were individuals, people trying to challenge colonial authority,” he says, “but colonialists also deported groups of people, often to hostile, undesirable places.”
Return to Kasighau
The plight of the Kasighau in their new land did not go unnoticed, and various parties, including church organizations, brought pressure to bear on the colonialists to review their position. But it was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.
“All the land around Kasighau Hill was termed as hunting blocks where the British people could hunt. The block here was called ‘66A’, the Kasighau people were only confined to a 10km² block around the hill called ‘Trust Land’. The rest of the land was called ‘Crown Land,’” says Mwalimu Mshiri.
It was not until 1936 that the Kasighau people were allowed to return home, only to find most of their land gone.
After independence in 1963, Crown Land became State Land and some of the remaining land was handed over to ex-WWII British colonial soldiers. The people of Kasighau were not represented at the time and the remaining land was subdivided into ranches that today surround the 10km² settlement area. It is within some of these ranches that mineral deposits and precious stones are found, and there are frequent tussles between the youth, miners and investors.
According to a report titled The Taita Taveta County Integrated Development Plan 2013-2017, only 35 per cent of all landowners possess title deeds. The report says that land adjudication was ongoing to ensure that all landowners possess title deeds. The 2019 census puts the population of Taita Taveta at 340,671. Kasighau Ward alone is home to 13,000 people. The majority say they do not have title deeds.
No land, more problems
In February 2019, a group of young men from Kasighau descended on a disputed mine inside Kasighau Ranch. Around the mining area are mounds of earth and makeshift tents. People selling foodstuffs have followed in the wake of the miners. Those mining say they are simply going for what they believe belongs to them. They do not have the heavy equipment needed for serious mining operations such as earthmovers or elaborate underground mining shafts. They are artisanal miners who rely on simple tools such as hoes, spades and mattocks.
“When we young people saw that we did not have leaders serious on championing our rights, we decided to have our own revolution,” says Elijah Mademu, a youth leader. “We decided to redeem our lost lands, lands rich in mineral resources. There are about 500 young men and women eking out a living from these minerals.”
According to retired Kasighau Location chief Pascal Kizaka, the occupation of the mine can be attributed to population pressure and young people running out of options. “Every economic activity starts with land. Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it,” he says.
Prof. Macharia says land ownership remains a significant cause of conflict across much of Kenya where land issues remain unresolved. “The government, particularly the area MP and area governor, because they have power, they should raise the issue and say, these are our people, so process their [land] titles.”
However, Taita Taveta Lands County Executive Committee member Mwandawiro Mghanga disputes the assertion that the county or the leadership at the local level are fully able to resolve the issue of title deeds, arguing that land and natural resources adjudication have not been fully devolved.
“It is true in this matter there are injustices, but on title deed issues even the entire Taita Taveta County has the same problem. In Kasighau the plan is to let them get the title deeds alongside the rest of the county”, he says.
“Of course there are six ranches, agriculturally-driven ranches (ADR’s) and there’s Kasighau Ranch which is very large. . . . There should not be a drive motivated by the capitalist system to grab ranches. What needs to be done is that everyone who needs a title for land to settle should have access to it.”
“Without land, you are like that person who is given water but cannot drink it.”
Land alone might not be the only thorny issue. Chief Kizaka laments that throughout his time living and working in the area, local Kasighau people have noticeably been lagging behind even in education matters. For instance, a 2013 report on inequalities compared Kasighau Ward to neighbouring Mbololo ward and found that only 8 per cent of Kasighau residents have a secondary education or above. A Kenya National Bureau of Statistics report titled Exploring Kenya’s Inequality: Pulling Apart or Pooling Together? shows Kasighau’s literacy rates to be four times less than Mbololo’s 32 per cent of the population who have gone beyond secondary school education.
“By independence time, we had only three primary schools, in Bungule, Rukanga and Mwakwasinyi. Illiteracy was very high. You can imagine, illiterate parents producing illiterate children,” bemoans Chief Kizaka. “There is no movement. The number of locals in school is very low. Compared to many parts of the country where locals are the majority, here we do not dominate.”
Today, Mwalimu Jonathan Mshiri says the thought of squeezing almost his entire descendants onto 15 acres of land troubles him daily. He knows too well that already the 13,000 Kasighau residents, whose numbers are increasing, are also facing the difficulty of having to make do with 10 square kilometres of land.
“We are the Kasighau people, we belong to this mountain and the surroundings, why are we not being given the priority?” he asks.
It is 6 p.m. and as the sun sets in the west, in the direction of Tanzania, it casts a golden glow on the Kasighau massif, but the dark despair of the Wakasighau remains.
Big Pharma and the Problem of Vaccine Apartheid
In this report on the TWN-Africa and ROAPE webinar on vaccine imperialism held last month, Cassandra Azumah writes that the unfolding vaccine apartheid which has left Africa with the lowest vaccination rates in the world is another depressing example of the profit and greed of Big Pharma facilitated by imperialist power.
The webinar on ‘Vaccine Imperialism: Scientific Knowledge, Capacity and Production in Africa’ which took place on 5 August 5, 2021, was organized by the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) in partnership with the Third World Network-Africa (TWN-Africa). It explored the connections and interplay of Africa’s weak public health systems, the profit and greed of Big Pharma enabled by the governments of the industrialized Global North, and the Covid-19 pandemic from a political economy perspective. This report summarizes the main discussions held during the conference, including an overview of each of the main points discussed. The webinar was the first in a three-part series of webinars scheduled by the two organizations under the theme Africa, Climate Change and the Pandemic: interrelated crises and radical alternatives.
The format of the event involved keynote presentations from three speakers, a five-minute activist update on the COVID-19 situation from two African countries, and an interactive discussion with participants. Chaired by Farai Chipato, a Trebek Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa and ROAPE editor, the session included presentations from Rob Wallace, an evolutionary epidemiologist and public health geography expert at the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps; Tetteh Hormeku, Head of Programmes at Third World Network-Africa (TWN-Africa) and Marlise Richter, a senior researcher at the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa.
The current state of the pandemic – Rob Wallace
Rob Wallace began the session by providing a global perspective on the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic. He presented data showing that though the total number of vaccinations are increasing, the percentage of people fully vaccinated is concentrated in the West. We are currently experiencing a third wave of the pandemic, which is being driven by the delta variant. Though the cases in Africa are relatively lower than in other parts of the world, it is still a marked increase from the first and second waves which were less severe. This is not the trajectory that was predicted for COVID-19 on the continent in the early days of the pandemic. Marius Gilbert et al had speculated that Africa would be vulnerable to the virus due to a lower public health capacity and underlying co-morbidities that might increase the spread and damage of the virus. However, the incidence of the virus has played out in a different way, Africa’s cases are not as high as that of other continents. The possible reasons that have been given for this are: demographics (a younger population), open housing (which allows greater ventilation), and an ongoing circulation of other types of coronaviruses which have induced a natural, partial immunity in the population.
Wallace also commented on herd immunity, stating that it is not a panacea for defeating the virus. He referenced a paper by Lewis Buss et al on COVID-19 herd immunity in the Brazilian Amazon which found that although 76% of the population had been infected with the virus by October 2020, they had not achieved herd immunity (which is usually estimated at 70-75%), and proliferation of the virus was ongoing. He pointed out that the key lesson from this study is that there is no magical threshold for herd immunity; it may be different for different populations or there may be no threshold at all.
Likewise, he contended that defeating COVID-19 has little to do with vaccination as a silver bullet, but much to do with governance and the wellbeing of the population being at the crux of any public health decisions a government would take. A multi-pronged approach should be taken to defeat the virus, one that includes vaccinations, wearing of masks, social distancing, and testing and tracing. He argued however, that in the neoliberal regimes of the industrialised North, dealing with COVID-19 is organized around profit.
This was not the case in the early days of the outbreak. Initially, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US were in favour of having open medicine and making sure any pharmaceutical products produced to fight the virus were free to all. To this end, WHO developed the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP). However, the lobbying of Big Pharma and the likes of Bill Gates worked to centre the COVID-19 response around the model of intellectual property rights. This has had a considerable impact on the evolution of the virus, allowing it enough room to evolve such that pharmaceutical companies can make profits by selling booster shots of the vaccine. According to Wallace, this speaks to the “sociopathic nature” of the neoliberal regimes in the Global North who are willing to put the profits of Big Pharma over the lives of people. He opined that we need to act in solidarity to create a system in which disparities between the Global South and Global North are removed.
Health justice and the pandemic in South Africa – Marlise Richter
Marlise Richter’s presentation shed light on the work of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the lessons that can be learnt from their struggles for access to medicines (in particular ARVs). She pointed out that the TRIPS agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights – TRIPS – is a legal agreement between member states of the World Trade Organisation) had a big impact on how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was addressed, resulting in a limited number of ARVs reaching the Global South.
The HIV epidemic was particularly acute in South Africa, the number of people living with the virus ballooned from 160,000 in 1992 to over 4.2 million people by 2000. At this time, ARV’s had been developed but were unaffordable in Africa, costing up to US$10,000 a year in 1998.
The TAC used multiple strategies such as skilled legal advocacy, high quality research, social mobilization, demonstrations, and public education to fight the pharmaceutical industry and their abuse of intellectual property rights protections. It joined the case brought by the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PMA) against the South African government for allowing parallel importation of drugs in order to bring down prices of medicines. Its intervention contributed to pressuring the PMA to withdraw its claims in 2001. In addition, it applied pressure at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000 by staging a march to highlight the danger of President Mbeki’s AIDS denialism and demanded access to ARVs in Africa.
From 1999 onwards, the TAC also campaigned for a national prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. This case was won at the high court and precipitated a national ARV roll-out plan in April 2004. Finally, in 2002, TAC and the AIDS Law Project filed a complaint with the Competition Commission against GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Boehringer Ingelheim arguing that they violated the competition law by abusing their dominance in the market and charging excessive prices for ARVs. This forced the companies to reach a settlement in 2003 leading to a drastic cut in ARV prices. By employing these tactics, the TAC and other activists were able to transform both the national and global conversation on drug pricing, eventually leading to South Africa having the largest HIV treatment program globally and pharmaceutical companies reducing the prices of ARVs.
Following the success of the campaigns to provide access to ARVs in Africa, activists in the Global South fought for the Doha Declaration. The Doha Declaration waived some of the provisions in TRIPS in order to prevent public health crises and promote access to medicines for all. However, Richter commented that not many of these flexibilities have been used. She posits that this is due to immense political pressure from the West. The US in particular has singled out governments that seek to use the TRIPS flexibilities and placed them on the US Special 301 Watch List.
Returning to the present, Richter presented data that showed that on 3 August, there have been just under 200 million confirmed cases and over 4.2 million deaths of COVID-19. 28.6% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine with 14.8% fully vaccinated. But to give a sense of the disparity in vaccine administration across the world, she indicated that 4.21 billion doses have been administered globally with 38.67 million administered daily, but in low-income countries only 1.1% of people have received at least one dose. Narrowing it down to Africa, only 1.58% of the population has been fully vaccinated. This variance in administered vaccines is also present across the continent. In July 2021, Morocco had 28.9% of its population fully vaccinated, Botswana and South Africa had 5.3% and 5% of their populations fully vaccinated, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo had 0%. These incongruities are also evident when we assess the number of vaccines promised against vaccines delivered, with South Africa receiving only 26% of the vaccines promised. Continuing at the current pace, it would take South Africa two years and three months just to vaccinate 67% of its population.
Richter quoted the WHO Director-General saying, “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.” Following from this, she believes that it makes ethical sense and public health sense for vaccines to be distributed equitably amongst the world’s population. In a bid to fight for vaccine equity, South Africa and India co-sponsored the TRIPS waiver in October 2020. If successful, this waiver will bring about flexibilities in the TRIPS agreement which would have an immense impact on the manufactured supplies of vaccines and other medical goods. For the waiver to be passed, a consensus amongst all member states of the WTO needs to be reached. While the waiver is supported by over 100 countries (predominantly in the Global South), it has been blocked most notably by the EU, Australia, Norway and Japan, countries which have enough vaccines to vaccinate their population many times over. Putting this into perspective, in January 2021 the EU had 3.5 vaccines per person and Canada had 9.6 vaccines per person, as compared to 0.2 vaccines per person in the African Union. By blocking this waiver, the industrialised North is further entrenching the extreme inequalities currently faced by the Global South.
Richter concluded her presentation by speaking on a recent development in South Africa, where Pfizer-BioNtech has recently signed a ‘fill and finish’ contract with the Biovac Institute. She claimed that while this is a first step in developing manufacturing capacity, it is not enough to achieve vaccine independence because it does not include the sharing of Pfizer-BioNtech’s technology or know-how. In addition, the ‘fill and finish’ approach does not address issues of security of supply, nor does it allow local manufacturers the freedom to make their own pricing decisions. She believes that if we start from the premise that health is a human right, as the TAC does, we will regard health equity and especially vaccine equity as essential in the struggle against the pandemic.
The political economy of the continuing fight against intellectual property rights negatively affecting public health goods in Africa – Tetteh Hormeku
Tetteh Hormeku’s presentation was centred around the challenges that African countries have confronted in the process of trying to develop their own pharmaceutical capacity. These challenges go beyond the struggles for the TRIPS waiver and include the impact of some of the choices governments have made. He focused on two interrelated points that frame the predicament of African countries in relation to the current vaccine situation:
1) The vaccine process is dominated by pharmaceutical Multinational Corporations (MNCs) based in the advanced industrial countries and supported by their governments. The controversy around the TRIPS waiver is a clear example of the extent to which advanced countries and their MNCs would like to hold on to their place in the international order.
2) On the non-existent domestic pharmaceutical capacity in African countries, Tetteh explained that he uses the phrase “domestic pharmaceutical capacity” because:
- It does not include a subsidiary of an MNC signing a production agreement with a local African company.
- The word ‘domestic’ combines both the local character of production and the fact that it is embedded within the nation, its challenges, people, drives and imperatives.
- It does not refer to nations alone, but also to regional and continental initiatives.
- It captures pharmaceutical capacity beyond the production of vaccines.
Tetteh provided the following case-study to show how these two points are interrelated. 24 February marked the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to Ghana, and there was an optimism that it would be the beginning of a steady supply of vaccines to the country – six months later, less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated. Around the time Ghana received this first shipment, it was in talks with the Cuban government for support on the transfer of technology to improve its pharmaceutical capacity.
This date in February also marked the anniversary of the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in 1966. Six months before the coup Nkrumah’s government had established a state pharmaceutical enterprise. After the coup, the military government tried to hand it over to Abbott Laboratories, an American pharmaceutical company, under such outrageous terms that the resulting backlash from the populace led to the abandonment of this plan.
The creation of a state-owned pharmaceutical enterprise in Ghana and in other African countries in the post-independence era was a reaction to colonial policies which deliberately curtailed the production of knowledge and science across the continent. The aim of developing a pharmaceutical industry domestically was to intervene on three levels:
- Creating an industry with the technical know-how and the machinery to be able to participate in the production of pharmaceutical products.
- Creating an industry which is linked to the process of developing and building knowledge and being at the frontiers of knowledge. This involved creating linkages with universities and scholars.
- Making use of traditional sources of medical knowledge. The state pharmaceutical enterprise was in operation until the 1980s when due to the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) it was privatized and unable to compete in the free market.
Tetteh pointed out that two lessons can be taken from this anecdote:
- The government strongly intervened to ensure pharmaceutical production was linked to public procurement and public policy. The market for the product was guaranteed (army, public hospitals etc.).
- The government intervened to ensure that certain medical products could not be imported into the country. These interventions were crucial in creating the legal and scientific conditions within which the state-owned enterprise thrived until the SAP period.
A key success of the state pharmaceutical enterprise was that it was able to bargain with Big Pharma on its own terms. At the time, Big Pharma needed to negotiate with the state pharmaceutical enterprise to produce their products locally since they had no access to the Ghanaian market. Although Ghana’s intellectual property rights regime replicated and mimicked some of the standards in the Global North, it was an indication of the amount of space countries in the Global South had to develop their own legislation with respect to intellectual property for public health. However, this option is no longer available to these countries. According to Tetteh, TRIPS inaugurated the monopoly that Big Pharma has over technical know-how for medical products. It has also enabled bio-piracy which allows Big Pharma to appropriate African traditional knowledge and patent it for themselves. In the 1990s, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) tried to create an African model law to enable a fight against bio-piracy but was unsuccessful.
The creation of a state-owned pharmaceutical enterprise in Ghana and in other African countries in the post-independence era was a reaction to colonial policies, which deliberately curtailed the production of knowledge and science across the continent
Tetteh noted that the current situation highlights the importance of getting the TRIPS waiver, as it is a starting point for building domestic pharmaceutical capacity. The waiver goes beyond just patents and encompasses a host of other intellectual property rights such as copyrights, and industrial design. It covers all the important bases for making medicines in a modern context. Looking back to the Doha Declaration, very few countries were able to make real changes to their laws in order to make use of the flexibilities. This was due in part to the entrenchment of TRIPS in other agreements such as AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act) and the EPAs (Economic Partnership Agreements). However, importantly, there was no real commitment by African leaders to making these changes.
Tetteh argued that African leaders are not making the strategic choices that would eventually lead them to developing independent pharmaceutical industries. Suggesting that South-South cooperation is an avenue to address the current issues the continent faces, he argued that instead of using all their funds to buy vaccines, African countries could have allocated some funds to support phase three of Cuba’s vaccine trials. By doing this, they would have been able to negotiate for a consistent relationship in terms of knowledge exchange and the transfer of technology.
Updates on COVID-19 in Senegal and Kenya
Cheikh Tidiane Dieye provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in Senegal. The country recorded its first case of the virus in March 2020. Since then, the government has put in place measures such as curfews, travel restrictions and the banning of public gatherings to contain the spread of the disease. The Senegalese government did not enforce a lockdown because the country has a large informal sector which would have been negatively impacted by a lockdown.
Senegal is currently experiencing its third wave – driven by the delta variant. The total number of cases has increased significantly over the last year, moving from 9,805 cases and 195 deaths in July 2020 to 63,560 cases with 1,365 deaths as of July 2021. This increase in cases has taken a toll on the country as it does not have the healthcare infrastructure to deal with the virus caseload. The vaccination campaign was launched in February this year, with about 1.2 million doses received, 1.8% of the population fully vaccinated and 3% receiving their first dose.
He stated that Senegal is currently facing two issues:
- Lack of access to the vaccines. This is because the country does not have the means to purchase enough vaccines for its population and is currently relying on donations from COVAX. This has resulted in protracted waiting times for the vaccine. These waiting times can cause complications for vaccine administration, since there are people who have received the first dose but must wait for longer than the recommended time of eight weeks to receive their second dose.
- A significant part of the population is reluctant to receive vaccines and sensitization campaigns are proving ineffective.
He remarked on one key development in Senegal – the creation of a vaccine manufacturing plant funded by the World Bank, the US, and a few European countries. The plant is expected to produce 300 million doses a year, first of COVID-19 vaccines and then other types of vaccines against endemic diseases. This project will be implemented by the Institut Pasteur de Dakar which already produces yellow fever vaccines.
ROAPE’s Njuki Githethwa provided an update on the COVID-19 situation in Kenya. He mentioned that the delta variant has caused a surge in cases and deaths. There have been currently over 200,000 cases since the pandemic began with the total number of deaths at 4,000 at the end of July. He pointed out that this third wave is affecting the lower classes which were spared in the initial stages of the pandemic. Kenya has received 1.8 million doses of the vaccine, with about 1.7% of Kenyans vaccinated. He noted that if vaccinations continue at this pace, it will take over two years for Kenyans to be fully vaccinated.
A key success of the state pharmaceutical enterprise was that it was able to bargain with Big Pharma on its own terms. At the time, Big Pharma needed to negotiate with the state pharmaceutical enterprise to produce their products locally since they had no access to the Ghanaian market
According to Njuki, the disbursement of vaccines from the West is being portrayed as a symbol of charity, solidarity, and sympathy. This portrayal is underlain by the West positioning themselves as saints while vilifying other countries like India and China. He also mentioned that there is a class dynamic at play in Kenya regarding the distribution of vaccines. People in affluent areas have ease of access whereas the less privileged wait in long queues to get vaccinated. As a result, most of the population, including frontline workers, are yet to be vaccinated. Schools in the country reopened at the end of July, and only about 60% of teachers have been vaccinated. Njuki touched on the fact that there is an optimism that more vaccines are coming, however the government is not doing enough to sensitise the population. There is still a lot of misinformation and superstition surrounding the vaccines.
Moving beyond the state?
The discussion was further enriched by contributions from the participants. Gyekye Tanoh, for example, noted that in the past the presence of state pharmaceutical enterprises around the continent constituted an active and embodied interest. This influenced the way transnational pharmaceutical companies were able to negotiate, severely limiting their power. However, such a thing is not present today on the continent. In fact, a study from the McKinsey Institute pointed to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has the highest markups in Africa, meaning that while the continent is not the biggest market, it is the most profitable region in the world. Currently, the interests of Big Pharma dominate, he asked, how do we begin to shift this? Is it time to look beyond the state as a leading agent for change? What can progressives do in this situation?
Senegal is currently experiencing its third wave – driven by the delta variant. The total number of cases has increased significantly over the last year, moving from 9,805 cases and 195 deaths in July 2020 to 63,560 cases with 1,365 deaths as of July 2021
In response to Gyekye’s question, Tetteh argued that he does not believe that it is time to look beyond the government. In the case of the pharmaceutical industry, the market is created by production and government procurement of pharmaceutical products. Real change cannot be realised without the involvement of the government and well thought out policies. But there is still a role for progressives. Activists need to mobilise and organize around broad paradigmatic changes and clear concrete policy choices that can be implemented in the immediate, medium, and long term.
Wallace added that the objectives of activists in the Global North should be to support the efforts of those in the Global South. This is especially important because COVID-19 is not the only virus that can cause real damage. We need to make structural changes that ensure the Global South is not at the mercy of the Global North whose economic model has contributed to the current situation.
Farai Chipato ended the session by thanking the speakers and participants for their contributions to the fruitful and important discussion. Chipato urged participants to join ROAPE and TWN-Africa for their two upcoming webinars: ‘Popular public health in Africa: lessons from history and Cuba’ and ‘Alternative strategies and politics for the Global South: climate-change and industrialisation.’
This article was originally published in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) Journal.
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