Ethiopia: Return of the Revanchist TPLF9 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.
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.
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 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.
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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Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.
Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”
Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.
Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.
At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.
Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.
Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned. US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.
The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.
AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.
Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”
Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.
I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.
Sweet home Alabama!
An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.
Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.
He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.
We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.
What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.
Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked
King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.
In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.
Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.
Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.
Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.
“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.
The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.
According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.
A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.
The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”. “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.
These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.
The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.
The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.
The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.
The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”
With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:
And this bird, you cannot change
Lord help me, I can’t change….
Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.
Breaking the Chains of Indifference
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.
They say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
As someone from the diaspora, every time I visited Sudan, I noticed that many of the houses had small problems like broken door knobs, cracked mirrors or crooked toilet seats that never seemed to get fixed over the years. Around Khartoum, you saw bumps and manholes on sand-covered, uneven roads. You saw buildings standing for years like unfinished skeletons. They had tons of building material in front of them: homeless families asleep in their shade, lying there, motionless, like collateral damage. This has always been the norm. Still, it is a microcosm of a much broader reality. Inadequate healthcare, a crumbling educational system, and a lack of essential services also became the norm for the Sudanese people.
This would be different, of course, if the ruling party owned the facility you were in, with the paved roads leading up to their meticulously maintained mansions. This stark contrast fuelled resentment among the people, leading them to label the government and its associates as “them.” These houses were symbols of the vast divide between the ruling elite and the everyday citizens longing for change. As the stark divide between “them” and “us” deepened, people yearned to change everything at once, to rid themselves of the oppressive grip of “them.”
Over the years, I understood why a pervasive sense of indifference had taken hold. The people of Sudan grew indifferent towards a government that remained unchanged. It showed no willingness to address the needs of its citizens unless it directly benefited those in power. For three decades, drastic change eluded the Sudanese people. They woke up each day to a different price for the dollar and a different cost for survival. The weight of this enduring status quo bore down upon them, rendering them mere spectators of their own lives. However, as it always does, a moment of reckoning finally arrived—the revolution.
Returning home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, what stood out in contrast to the indifference was the hashtag #hanabnihu, which from Arabic translates to “we will build it.” #Hanabnihu echoed throughout Sudanese conversations taking place on and off the internet, symbolizing our determination to build our nation. To build our nation, we needed to commit to change beyond any single group’s fall, or any particular faction’s victory. Our spirits were high as everyone felt we had enough muscle memory to remember what happened in the region. We remembered how many of “them” came back to power. With the military still in power, the revolution was incomplete. Yet it still served as a rallying cry for the Sudanese people. It was a collective expression of their determination to no longer accept the unfinished state of their nation.
Many Sudanese people from the diaspora returned to Sudan. They helped the people of Suean create spaces of hope and resilience, everyone working tirelessly to build a new Sudan. They initiated remarkable projects and breathed life into the half-built houses they now prioritized to turn into homes. We had yearned for a time when broken door knobs and crooked toilet seats would be fixed, and for a time when the government would smooth out the bumps on the road. For four years following the revolution, people marched, protested, and fought for a Sudan they envisioned. They fought in opposition to the military, whose two factions thought that a massacre or even a coup might bring the people back to the state of indifference that they once lived in.
Remarkably, the protests became ingrained in the weekly schedule of the Sudanese people. It became part of their routine, a testament to their unwavering dedication and the persistence of their aspirations. But soon, the people found themselves normalized to these protests. This was partly due to the fact that it was organized by the only body fighting against the return of this indifference: the neighborhood’s resistance committees. These horizontally structured, self-organized member groups regularly convened to organize everything from planning the weekly protests and discussing economic policy to trash pickup, and the way corruption lowered the quality of the bread from the local bakery.
The international media celebrated the resistance committees for their innovation in resistance and commitment to nonviolence. But as we, the Sudanese, watched the news on our resistance fade, it was clear that the normalization of indifference extended beyond Sudan’s borders. The international community turned a blind eye to justice, equality, and progress in the celebrated principles of the peaceful 2019 revolution. In a desperate attempt to establish fake stability in Sudan, the international community continued their conversations with the military. Their international sponsors mentioned no retribution against the military for their actions.
During my recent visit to Sudan, the sense of anticipation was palpable. It was just two months before the outbreak of war between the army and the paramilitary group. The protests had intensified and the economy was faltering. The nation stood at the precipice as the activism continued and the tensions between “us” and “them” had begun to grow once again.
Now, as war engulfs the nation, many Sudanese find themselves torn. At the same time, they hope for the victory of the Sudanese Army. Despite the army’s flaws, Sudanese people hope the army will win against “them” while recognizing that this war remains primarily between different factions of “them.” We wake up every day with a little less hope. We watch them bomb Khartoum and the little infrastructure that existed turn to dust. We watch as the resistance committees continue to do the army’s job for them. They work fiercely to deliver medicine, evacuate people and collect the nameless bodies on the sides of the streets next to the burnt buildings that were almost starting to be completed.
Another battle takes place online. On Sudanese social media, people challenge the negative mood of the war. Sudanese architects and designers work from their rented flats in Cairo or Addis, posting juxtaposed images that place the grainy, rashly captured photos of the latest burnt-down building in Khartoum next to different rendered perspectives. These perspectives reimagine the same building in a rebuilt Sudan. They thus instantly force a glimpse of hope in what now looks like a far-fetched reality to most people.
Just as these young visionaries attempt to defy the odds, international intervention and support are pivotal to help Sudan escape the clutches of this devastating conflict. Let Sudan serve as a catalyst for the change that was meant to be. Diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and assistance in facilitating peaceful negotiations can all contribute.
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated. It represents more than just a cessation of violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people. The international community should dismantle the prevailing state of indifference worldwide. The fight against indifference extends far beyond the borders of Sudan. It is a fight that demands our attention and commitment on a global scale of solidarity. We must challenge the systems that perpetuate indifference and inequality in our own societies. We must stand up against injustice and apathy wherever we find it.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
Mukami Kimathi and the Scramble to Own Mau Mau Memory
The struggle for control of Mau Mau memory and memorialisation resurfaces with the burial of Mukami Kimathi.
May the scramble for memorialisation commence. The body of Dedan Kimathi’s widow was barely in the ground before the wannabe Mau Maus began using her to score cheap political points. The line between “rebel” and “loyalist” is blurred once again, as it was during and after the liberation struggle. Just as hotly contested is the struggle for control of Mau Mau memory and memorialisation. Who owns Kimathi? Who owns Mukami? The usual suspects, most of whom had nothing to do with Mau Mau, came running to stake their claim.
Kenyan politicians love a good death—captive audience, media spotlight, the chance to dress up, and a feast to follow. Predictably, they made a meal out of this one.
Attempts to control the narrative kicked off at the burial, and in tributes reported in the media. Raila Odinga and William Ruto went head to head, the president declaring: “Mama Mukami Kimathi courageously withstood the brutality of colonial oppression, proudly wore the scars of battle, and bore the terrible losses of war with admirable fortitude.” Whether she actually took part in physical combat, as this implies, is neither here nor there.
Fans of Raila took to Twitter to claim that he had taken better care of Mukami and her family than his political opponents had. “Baba used to look out for the late Field Marshall Mukami Kimathi. “Hao wengine ambao wanajiita [those others who call themselves] ‘sons of Mau Mau’ never met Mukami until she passed away.” Other tweeps spoke of a “showdown” between former Mungiki leader Maina Njenga and Vice President Rigathi Gachagua at the burial. “Who is the true son of Mau Mau between Maina Njenga and Riggy G?”. One young woman scathingly noted: “There is nothing Mau Mauish about Mukami Kimathi ‘s burial. That MC was the worst very sad. Watoto wa home guards have hijacked the burial.”
This story isn’t really about Mukami as a person or as an activist. It doesn’t need to be. It discusses what has been projected onto her, and will continue to be projected onto her and Kimathi, in the slippery process of memorialising Mau Mau (more properly, the Land and Freedom Army; its members never called it Mau Mau). It also draws some parallels between Mukami and Winnie Mandela.
As Julie MacArthur wrote in the introduction to her edited volume Dedan Kimathi on Trial, “Kimathi’s legacy was never a simple exemplar of patriotic martyrdom, and his place in the postcolonial imagination reflected the complicated legacy of the Mau Mau rebellion: at times suppressed or downplayed, at others lauded and filled with mythic importance, but always contested.” This landmark 2017 book ran five “critical essays” by scholars—alongside a transcript of Kimathi’s trial—from primary documents which MacArthur had discovered. It was an exciting find of archival papers everyone had “long thought lost, hidden or destroyed”. She described how, when Nelson Mandela visited Kenya for the first time, in July 1990, he was surprised to find that Eloise Mukami (as MacArthur calls her) had not been invited to the festivities, and “lamented” her absence. He also queried the absence of a proper grave for Kimathi, and said he would have liked to have paid his respects there, as one freedom fighter to another. The face of then President Moi, as he listened to this homage, was reportedly stony. At that time, Kimathi was not considered the right kind of hero. Mandela had publicly embarrassed him.
Winnie and Mukami
It is fitting that we refer to Mandela here, since there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between Winnie and Mukami. Both were iconic as the wives of famous freedom fighters, though Winnie differed from Mukami in being a huge political figure in her own right. Both led underground networks, of ANC activists in Winnie’s case, and (if reports are correct) of Mau Mau fighters and supporters in Mukami’s case. The two couples both spent more time apart than they did together, exchanging precious letters. “He talked with letters,” Mukami told interviewer Wambui Kamiru; they used a secret code. The Mandelas, too, relied on letters, albeit heavily censored ones. It can also be argued that Winnie suffered more on the outside, during her husband’s 27-year incarceration, than he did on the inside. She was constantly hounded, held under house arrest, vilified and spied upon. In May 1969 she was arrested and jailed for 491 days, 400 of them in solitary confinement. In his new biography Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage Jonny Steinberg writes that by the mid-1960s “the security police expended astonishing energy to render her life unlivable”. This included hounding those close to her; for example, her brother Msuthu was arrested and jailed for vagrancy. Then, when it became known that Winnie had taken other lovers, even before Nelson was imprisoned on Robben Island, she was vilified as a cheating wife. A man in the same circumstances would have escaped blame. If anything, it would have enhanced his reputation. (Kimathi reportedly had many lovers in the forest, while banning his fighters from cohabitation outside marriage.)
Both were iconic as the wives of famous freedom fighters, though Winnie differed from Mukami in being a huge political figure in her own right.
To my knowledge Mukami was never accused of being unfaithful (is that even possible for a widow?) but some of this also applies to her. She suffered for decades after Dedan was executed, living in poverty and struggling to bring up four children alone (some reports say ten). Wambui Kamiru (widow of the late Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore) refers to “the cost she paid for freedom” in her unpublished Master’s thesis “Memorialising the Kimathi Family”, based largely on informal interviews with Mukami at her home in South Kinangop. (My thanks to Wambui for sharing a copy of this long ago.) Mukami’s biographer, Wairimu Nderitu, has also described her struggles and incarceration, ultimately in Kamiti Prison.
However, accounts of Mukami’s time in the forest do not add up. While some writers including Nderitu claim that she spent years in the forest, led a platoon and was quarter-master of a fighters’ camp, other accounts contradict this. Writes Kamiru: “Although Mukami had initially followed Kimathi into the forest in 1952, when their eldest son Waciuri became a toddler, Kimathi asked her to leave the forest so that the child and the family to come would be raised outside of war.” Which is it? In the weeks and months to come, we can expect more “active forest fighter” tributes to Mukami. Her story is already becoming embellished.
Why Mau Mau memorialisation is still contested
It shouldn’t be necessary to repeat this, 60 years after independence. Mau Mau was not a unifying movement. It remains an open wound on Kenya’s body politic. Its sheer ambiguity makes it so, and no single figure was more ambiguous than Kimathi. Kenyan scholar Simon Gikandi, writing in the MacArthur collection of essays cited earlier, calls him “neither the demonic figure of colonial discourse, nor the heroic subject of radical nationalism, but what the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously called a ‘floating signifier’, a term intended ‘to represent an undetermined quantity of signification’, but is in ‘itself void of meaning and thus apt to receive any meaning’. Kimathi is a signifier with a value, but what this value represents is variable and open to multiple interpretations”. In other words, anyone can project onto him whatever they wish. He represents whatever they want him to. Now people will do the same, to a much lesser extent, with Mukami.
Another problem is this. Millions of Kenyans have forebears who were what I call neither-nors – neither Mau Mau nor so-called loyalists. Many may have moved up and down a spectrum that had Mau Mau and loyalists at each extreme, ducking and diving when necessary. Naturally, many of their descendants don’t want to be reminded of this; it’s all too painful. Historian Daniel Branch has described the complex blurring of allegiances in Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya. He notes, for example: “In late 1952 and through much of 1953, Home Guards repeatedly assisted Mau Mau units”. As in any civil conflict (and yes this became one, despite what the naysayers claim), some people play a double game in order to survive. They may also, as Branch describes, join a particular side not for ideological reasons but in order to settle private scores. As he put it, “The violence of the conflict became privatised as individuals assumed the labels of Mau Mau or loyalist to pursue rivals who had declared for the other group.”
Millions of Kenyans have forebears who were what I call neither-nors – neither Mau Mau nor so-called loyalists.
Why do I refer to naysayers? Because the struggle within a struggle (including that between Kimathi and his own fighters, some of whom turned against him) is dismissed by some as yet another colonial invention. All this messy complexity is now brushed aside, in an effort to present a seamless metanarrative of freedom struggle—not least by the state.
Moreover, the entire population of “peasants” did not rise up and join Mau Mau, despite Ngugi’s best attempts to claim that they did. (Calling them peasants is a tad derogatory, isn’t it? Pastoralists, for one, are not peasants, but they too revolted against the colonial state at various times. And Kimathi had been a teacher, not a peasant.) If some readers are harrumphing as they read this, and want to accuse me of heresy, that proves my point: Mau Mau is still utterly divisive, but critique is healthy and necessary, in this or any other discussion of the past. The critical essays in MacArthur’s volume, written by eminent Kenyan and British scholars with a Foreword by Ngugi and Micere Githae Mugo, attest to that. Many other Kenyan scholars have previously written critically about Mau Mau, notably E.S. Atieno Odhiambo, Bethwell Ogot and others in Mau Mau and Nationhood. Ogot has argued that the narrow focus on Mau Mau as the sole actors in the independence struggle obscures the role that others (such as trade unionists, intellectuals) played in achieving the goal of uhuru. He wrote of how “the heroes and heroines are identified with the forest fighters in the 1950s, and the rest of our freedom fighters are supposed to suffer a second death like Fanon”. The anticolonial movement, he argues, was much larger than that. Most scholars would agree: the uncomfortable fact is that Mau Mau failed militarily, and may even have delayed independence.
Let’s take the contradictions and anomalies that swirl around Jomo Kenyatta. He is hailed as the founding “father of the nation”, while Mau Mau is simultaneously seen as the foundation story. Yet there is no evidence that Jomo was ever in Mau Mau. How can these two opposites be reconciled? Though he swung between denouncing Mau Mau and occasionally embracing it, Jomo declared it to be “a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again” (speech at Githunguri, September 1962, just after he was released from detention). Scholar Marshall Clough has said of this: “Kenyatta’s use of criminal analogies and disease metaphors directly recalled the British discourse on Mau Mau, and suggested not only a political repudiation of the movement but a certain degree of personal distaste.” (I quote from his chapter in Mau Mau and Nationhood.) As I have previously written in the MacArthur volume, “On coming to power, Jomo Kenyatta ushered in a period of orchestrated amnesia about Mau Mau, which served his political purposes.” Those purposes included the urgent need to unify a divided post-conflict nation. They included the need to obscure his own role (or lack of it) in the freedom struggle, at least that part of it involving actual physical combat. He also wanted to fend off what he saw as veterans’ unrealistic demands for compensation, free land and jobs, and possibly to avoid the expense of erecting memorials to liberation heroes. That only started once Mwai Kibaki came to power and embarked on a mausoleum-building spree.
Let me quote from the horse’s mouth. My late informant Paul Thuku Njembui was a war veteran with the best of credentials—he claimed to have sheltered Kimathi in his home for a while. He spent seven years in British detention camps, where he learned some English. In conversation with me (we spent many hours talking at his home in Karima Forest near Nyeri; funnily enough Wambui Kamiru was briefly my research assistant), he was adamant that Jomo was never in Mau Mau. “Kenyatta was not a Mau Mau,” he told me. “Who could have become the first president of Kenya? Is it Kenyatta or Kimathi? Kimathi continued fighting for freedom up to the end of his life, but Kenyatta surrendered, he betrayed his people … Mau Mau fought for land and freedom, but it is the children of the loyalists who got the land. The truth only comes from us [veterans], other sources may not have been accurate.”
“On coming to power, Jomo Kenyatta ushered in a period of orchestrated amnesia about Mau Mau, which served his political purposes.”
It is a refrain often heard from veterans, both living and dead. It belies the Jomo-led official mantra “We all fought for freedom”; that is, all communities, not just Gikuyu and the few members of other ethnic groups who joined Mau Mau. Thuku also believed that Kenyatta told the British to execute Kimathi: “He was there to say [to the British]: ‘Kill Kimathi! Let him die!’ Because he knew that he would [otherwise] have no chance of being president.”
That was obviously a myth, but it served a purpose in Thuku’s mind: it made sense of the past. His past. Myth forms an important part of what scholars call regimes of memory, which simultaneously feature “forgetting”, myth, occlusion, absences, contradictions, and often a surfeit of memory. Memory can be both individual and collective. It is vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, as French historian Pierre Nora famously wrote, particularly where the construction and reconstruction of nationhood and national history are concerned. His description of memory as “susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived” applies to Mau Mau memory, as Clough has previously pointed out. Equally, it also applies to its memorialisation, which has taken on a life of its own.
This is where it gets doubly tricky: when the government of the day uses select narratives to construct the official “story of the nation”. Nowhere is the struggle to produce a coherent story of Kenya, most particularly the story of Mau Mau, more apparent than in the permanent history exhibition at Nairobi National Museum, which opened in 2010. (See my chapter on “The Production and Transmission of National History” in Annie E. Coombes, Lotte Hughes and Karega-Munene, Managing Heritage, Making Peace. History, Identity and Memory in Contemporary Kenya.) In the “Armed Struggle” room, Kenyatta’s role in the fight for independence is fudged. When I last visited some years ago, I asked a guide what connection, if any, there was between Kenyatta and Mau Mau, since this was not at all clear from the display. “He led Mau Mau but he pretended that he did not” came the reply. Oddly, his photograph was not included in a display showing three of the Kapenguria Six, who were jailed with Kenyatta. The caption read: “The militant leaders of the Mau Mau movement” rather than members of the militant wing of the Kenya African Union (KAU). Other questionable features of the exhibition included displays presenting “collaborators” and “resisters” as binary opposites, and a video showing interviews with Mau Mau veterans, who all happened to be Gikuyu—thereby contradicting the line that Mau Mau was multi-ethnic. These displays may have changed since I was there.
And so we have returned, with the burial of Mukami, to the idea that “We all fought for freedom”. This is not said in so many words, but it is implied, and is being relayed once again as a unifying message from a new president to a divided nation.
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