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Ethiopia: Return of the Revanchist TPLF

9 min read.

The civil war in Ethiopia is a fight over control and access to the country’s national cake that was previously enjoyed solely by the TPLF regime, and which they are now determined to recapture at all costs.

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Ethiopia: Return of the Revanchist TPLF
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In many parts of the world where ethnic balance has not been achieved, politics turn violent. Ethiopia is a classic example where a lack of ethnic balance leads to ethnic violence. The Ethiopian federal system was born out of internal power struggles between the government and ethnic forces that tried to gain control of territorial boundaries. Ethiopia’s political and cultural construction of ethnicity has been different from that of other African countries. Moreover, no Western power was ever able to penetrate and colonise Ethiopia so it has retained its independence. The country has however, experienced numerous incidences of political unrest over the last century, from the dissolution of the empire state to the establishment of a federalist system of governance.

A year into the crisis in Ethiopia pitting the federal troops against the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), with periods of escalation in the relentless war in the Tigray region, ethnic conflicts, humanitarian tragedies, and centrifugal dynamics have considerably intensified, eviscerating one of the largest economies in the Horn of Africa. In as much as Ethiopia’s’ economic crisis had been deepening even before the start of the conflict, the current conflict has enflamed the situation.

This has prompted scholars, academics, pundits from the Horn, and outsiders to share their views on the current crisis in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is one of the largest multi-ethnic states on the continent, and the complex nature of the relationships between the different ethnic groups under different regimes makes the country even more complicated to analyse.

From the first Aksumite Empire, through Menelik 1 to the current federal government of Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has metamorphosed from an almost failed state to a “development state”. The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) regime has been different from previous regimes such as the Derg or the imperial period both of which greatly strengthened development programmes through the exploitation of politically marginalized regions, unlike the TPLF that tried to “rectify” this through the federal system. From silencing the voice of dissent to restricting freedom of speech and expression, the TPLF system of governance was noted for its iron-fisted rule that was similar to that of its predecessors until its takeover by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018.

Unlike the imperial regime that was in place from 1941 to 1974, and Derg regime which collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front-led government was a multiparty entity that saw the introduction of universal suffrage. The TPLF/EPRDF-led government introduced 32 articles in the constitution regarding the protection and upholding of human rights. In contrast to the laws under the imperial period and Derg regime, the current constitution provides for the domestication of the provisions of international treaties into the country’s laws.

Woyane

Over the last several decades, Tigrayans have participated in two popular uprisings. The first was the Woyane Rebellion of 1943 when Tigrayans resisted their forceful integration into Haile Selassie’s centralized government. Woyane is the consecrated term used by Tigrayans to epitomize the resistance of the Tigray people to oppression by the Amhara-Shoan elite.

The Tigrayan rebellion was sparked by their systematic political and economic ostracism after the death of Tigray’s Emperor Yohannes IV in 1889. The government responded to this first insurrection with punitive force, bombing Mekelle, Hintalo and Corbetta with air support from the United Kingdom Royal Air Force. To deter future revolts, Selassie’s government took land belonging to the Tigray people and gave it to gentry loyal to the emperor. The government also imposed heavy taxation on the people of Tigray and transferred Tigrayan hereditary regional powers to loyal Amhara-Shoan administrators.

The Derg 

The Amhara ruling elite purposefully and systematically enacted policies to sideline the Tigray people, forcing them to migrate to Eritrea and to the capital, Addis Ababa, in search of better economic conditions. One such retributory measure was the famine suffered in Tigray in 1972-1974 while the country had enough food supplies to feed its population; the government deliberately failed to provide food relief aid to the Tigrayans.  This did not deter Tigrayan revolution ideologies, but fuelled the antagonism, leading to the Bale armed uprising of 1963-1968 and the Gojjam armed mutiny of 1967. Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted from power by a military junta, commonly known as the Derg, on 12 September 1974, and the military took control of the government.

Tigrayans hoped that the new government would look into their plight but such expectations were dashed as the Derg declared Ethiopia a monolithic society where calls for ethnonationalism and demands for self-governance and self-determination were against Ethiopian interests and the “constitution”.

To deter future revolts, Selassie’s government took land belonging to the Tigray people and gave it to gentry loyal to the emperor.

This stance prompted a group of Tigrayan ethnic-nationalists to seek to secure their right to autonomy within and outside Ethiopian polity by dethroning the Derg military junta through armed resistance and the Second Woyane Rebellion of 1974-1991 started to take shape. It is this second insurgence that prepared the ground for the formation of the Tigray force that would decide their destiny and future. On 14 September 1974, seven university students formed the Tigray National Organization (TNO), a group comprising teachers, civil servants, and students that laid the foundation for the formation of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which led to its materialization on 18 February 1975.

After close to 17 years in power, the Derg was overthrown on 28 May 1991 by the TPLF in alliance with other ethnic rebel fronts. The conflict led to the killing of 250,000 civilians and the displacement of one million people to neighbouring countries. Together with other ethnic coalitions in Ethiopia, the TPLF formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which set about abolishing the economic marginalization of minority groups by establishing a federal system of governance.

The conflict led to the killing of 250,000 civilians and the displacement of one million people to neighbouring countries.

Much has been said and written about the excesses and abuses of power by the TPLF ruling class. Although the EPRDF party was successful in setting the country’s economic growth in the right direction, it failed to entrench the principles of democratic governance by suppressing the freedom of the press and human freedom, quashing nonconformist views, and opposition groups. Some have argued that the EPRDF maintained state tyranny under the federal system, and the culture of economic marginalization and political suppression.

Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front  

Despite the fact that the EPRDF comprised different ethnic factions, the TPLF was at the centre of the control of the party and policy responses. After deposing the Derg military junta, the TPLF disbanded the old Ethiopian military and ensured that top generals and senior military personnel in the new forces were drawn from the TPLF’s ranks, the majority being Tigrayans. This military supremacy and political power gave the TPLF the economic dominance it required to exercise complete control over Ethiopia’s economy and critical natural resources like land and aid flows.

Before the rise of Abiy Ahmed to power, the TPLF-led government took loans from external private creditors and, principally, from China, which in 2018 accounted for 60 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The United States, one of Ethiopia’s closest allies and its largest single donor, pumped US$2.2 billion through the latest Productivity Safety Net Program (PSNP) in 2021.

The TPLF-dominated government party arm-twisted the EPRDF party operations with their intention of self-determination. The intention was to use military force to misappropriate public resources, enlarge Tigray’s borders, and disaffiliate from greater Ethiopia. The TPLF’s response was to use military force based on the ousted Derg’s militarization of all facets of society, from economic, to social to political. This was made clear in the TPLF manifesto of 1976, that called for the creation of The Republic of Greater Tigray and presented an elaborate framework for the liberation of the Tigray region from Ethiopian rule, starting with the re-demarcation of the borders with “historical Amhara lands”, the annexation of coastal land within Eritrea and the formation of an autonomous state.

One significant development for the people of Tigray under the TPLF/EPDRF rule was the establishment of the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT), which directed a considerable amount of Ethiopia’s national budget and international aid to the region. As a result, the region experienced radical changes in infrastructure development and economic growth, while development in the other regions stagnated.

What is often ignored in political and scholarly discourse and in most of the articles and analytical texts on Ethiopia is that the majority of the Tigrayans, although associated with the TPLF regime, live under the same economic conditions as Ethiopians of different ethnic origins. The key beneficiaries of the regime are the Tigrayan political elites, the business class, and well-connected non-Tigrayan personalities. The TPLF-led government has created deep antipathy within the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups. These two groups combined account for over half the Ethiopian population of 119 million that has been threatening the TPLF government.

Currently, Prime Minister Abiy, whom Tigrayans consider to be unelected and view as centralizing power through a hegemonic political agenda, is fighting the country’s oldest revanchist regime. The TPLF intends to oust the current prime minister through guerrilla warfare and to recapture economic and political influence. The Ethiopian conflict has escalated over the last year, with reports of civilian casualties, loss of life and property, and massive displacement. The escalation of the conflict is bound to have a ripple effect and political and economic repercussions in the Horn region.

As they did during the First and Second Woyane Revolutions, Tigrayans across the globe from America to Europe have been calling for secession through social media and non-state platforms, terming the Ethiopian political marriage as cruel and demanding an end to the acts of “genocide” and other atrocities committed against the Tigrayan people. However, the fundamental underlying causes of the conflict are often misconstrued.

Abiy vis-a-vis the TPLF 

External observers and pundits view the crisis in Ethiopia as differences between Tigray regional leaders and the Prime Minister Abiy regarding the parliament’s unconstitutional postponement of the national and regional elections due to the current COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the globe. On the other hand, some scholars view the crisis as having been sparked by the ideological differences between the prime minister and the TPLF political elites. These arguments do not, however, explain why such minor differences have resulted in military hostilities.

The TPLF intends to oust the current prime minister through guerrilla warfare and to recapture economic and political influence.

Contrary to the views expressed by external observers, the conflict is the ultimate battle for control of the economy, natural resources, and billion-dollar aid from international financiers and donors. All these resources were at the disposal of the TPLF political elites, which they controlled for nearly three decades before Abiy took power in 2018. The call for self-determination is just the face of the war; it’s not about who gets to rule the Tigray region. Rather, it is a fight over who should occupy the commanding heights of the country’s economy. It is a fight over control and access to the country’s national cake that was previously enjoyed solely by the TPLF regime, and which they are now determined to recapture at all costs; control of the economy has to get back into the hands of the TPLF insurgents, even if it is by means of the gun. However, this is easier said than done.

Anti-Abiy coalition

The Tigray Democratic Front (TDF), a faction of TPLF, is fighting alongside the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an offshoot of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and eight other opposition groups united under the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces with the sole objective of removing Abiy.

All these formations have two sides. Firstly, if the alliance could advance and enter Addis Ababa, the capital city, there is the likelihood of bloody in-fighting within the alliance, particularly between the Tigray-affiliated and Oromo-allied groups. The current factions are politically motivated but based on historical narratives and historical resentment against the 27-year-long darkness of the TPLF; repressive rule is unquestionably likely to be met with resistance. Furthermore, the OLA does not necessarily represent the interests of the larger Oromia region, and this may lead the Oromo people to take up arms against “one of their own” movements.

The largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo, considers the heart of the capital, commonly known to them as Finfinne, as their ancestral land. This is supported by the OLA spokesperson Oda Tarbii, who has said that once the operation enters Addis Ababa, the OLA will be spearheading it, as it is within their dominion. Since the capital city is the hub of business, technology, industrial and infrastructure development, the Oromo-affiliated factions might fight TDF insurgents to protect their land and “people”. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the party of the Oromo ruling elite, was subservient to, and a puppet of, the TPLF rule for 27 years, hence they failed to secure the rights of the greater Oromo and Oromia region. The party was serving the interests of the TPLF/EPRDF-led government under the guise of opposition and standing up for the welfare and interests of Oromia.

The largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo, considers the heart of the capital, commonly known to them as Finfinne, as their ancestral land.

Additionally, the capital has been the focus of resistance to the TPLF’s 30-year rule since the EPRDF party masterminded the suppression of Oromo opposition groups and active citizens. Close to 200 people were killed, 800 wounded and 30,000 arrested in a disputed election in 2005. Strong anti-Tigrayan sentiment seems to reverberate in many parts of the capital and its adjacent cities.

The second side of the argument is that Amhara might erupt in outright insurrection with the alliances fighting the federal government. When the federal government waged war with the TPLF rebels, Amhara youths took up arms and fought alongside the area’s federal forces.  Amhara, which borders Tigray to the South, has experienced a decade-long dispute over land taken from Tigray during 100-year Amhara rule that has become exacerbated in the current war with the TPLF. Consequently, given the support of youths and armed groups within Amhara, and years of brutal leadership under the TPLF government, a bloody insurgency is inevitable if entry into the capital occurs.

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Wario Malicha is a public policy expert.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Politics

Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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