On the evening of 1 December 2021, 14 respected, experienced and culturally venerated leaders of the Karrayyuu Oromo community of 100,000 in central Ethiopia were killed within minutes by Oromia Special Police and Federal forces operating on the orders of ruling party officials sitting a hundred kilometres away in Adama city.
The murdered men were located at Fantalle district, East Shewa Zone of the Oromia regional state in Ethiopia. They were killed execution-style at 7p.m. far from the village where they were abducted when Prosperity Party bosses gave the go-ahead signal via cell phone message to waiting members of the special forces. The murdered men had just finished conducting Waaqa Kadhaa, a sacred indigenous prayer ceremony held at a special site designated for that purpose. In the close-knit iconic livestock-rearing culture of the Karrayyuu people, this was an unthinkable atrocity.
We, a coalition of Oromo advocacy and human rights groups operating internationally consider that this horrifying series of events indicate the intentionality and destructiveness of Abiy Ahmed’s government against the Oromo and other southern and marginalized peoples who do not support his direction for the country. We urge the international community, in particular those concerned with justice, peace, stability and human rights, to take note of what has happened in Karrayyuu. Those who were deeply committed to spirituality and to democratic principles above all, were brutally massacred with lightning speed, an act that sends an ominous warning to the populace that no one is safe right now in Ethiopia.
Historic, political and economic contexts
The shocking massacre was carried out amid an ongoing brutal war between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and the Tigray Defence Forces in the north of the country, and with the Oromo Liberation Army in the south. The site of the killing is in the Karrayyuu camel-rearing, pastoral grazing and watering lands located close to coveted trade routes for lucrative commodities in a cash-strapped economy. This valued territory has become a target of territorial expansionism by Amhara militias emboldened by the failure of Abiy Ahmed’s government to protect vulnerable populations like the Karrayyuu.
In the days leading to the event, Karrayyuu Oromo community leaders had resisted allowing young people to leave their homeland to be conscripted into the ENDF in the north. Among Oromo communities throughout Ethiopia, the Karrayyuu are well known and esteemed for their consistent practice of the principles of the time-honoured Gadaa system of socio-political organization that encompassed all Oromo before their incorporation into Ethiopia at the turn of the 20th century.
These and other factors make the December tragedy resonate with the entire population and account for the sense of threat and foreboding among other vulnerable groups in the country.
The brutality against of the Karrayyuu Oromo, and their displacement, has historical precedent in Ethiopia. The Karrayyuu have been historically and repeatedly dispossessed of their pastoral land. They lost more than half of it when the government of Haile Selassie established a massive sugar cane plantation at Metahara and when the Awash National Park in the Awash valley was carved out of Karrayyuu territory 200 kilometres east of Finfinnee/Addis Ababa. Jobs at the sugar factory did not benefit the Karrayyuu but instead went to labour imported from other areas. Over the years, substantial contraband trade elsewhere in Ethiopia became extremely lucrative. The routes to the outlets for contraband goods in Djibouti and Somaliland – and therefore the flow of wealth and power – meet at Awash, just east of Fantalle, before running directly through Karrayyuu territory.
Karrayyuu land has been encroached upon by residents of the neighbouring Amhara Region for a number of reasons. They seek territorial expansion for farmland and control/influence over strategic trade routes, and have set their sights on the grazing lands of the Karrayyuu pastoralists. Since the regime of Abiy Ahmed came to power, Amhara Region militia have proceeded to encroach on adjacent Karrayyuu land, clearing vegetation and razing Oromo pastoral structures to the ground and moving signposts without any pushback from government forces who would be expected to enforce the law and protect established legal boundaries.
These aggressive moves by the militia are followed by the arrival of settlers who construct houses and begin farming. Before 2018, there were territorial disputes but “there was balance”, according to residents. Now a sign reading “Welcome to Amhara Region” has been erected 45 kilometres deep into Karrayyuu land, crossing the vital supply routes to Djibouti and Somaliland. The sign was dismantled eight times by Karrayyuu and nine times reconstructed by Amhara militia, until the Prosperity Party dispatched an armed pickup truck to support the Amhara in this struggle over the boundary marker by safeguarding the sign.
Local people interpret such actions as an indication that the Abiy Ahmed government is reviving the imperialistic and assimilationist policies of previous Ethiopian regimes. Actions such as these foment ethnic conflict and justify the use of violence in favour of one ethnic group over the rest of Ethiopia. Such policies invite greater instability in Ethiopia and in the region, as the wars in the north and the south attest. The Fantalle territory is currently a significant prize for Amhara expansionism at the expense of the Karrayyuu. The Abiy Ahmed regime is allowing and condoning this overt land grab.
The massacre and its aftermath
What is known about the Karrayyuu massacre is that Prosperity Party leaders sitting in Adama ordered the execution in cold blood of the Abbaa Gadaa and thirteen other individually selected Gadaa leaders in Fantalle district on the evening of 1 December.
Members of the Michile Gadaa, currently halfway through its eight-year term of office, were present in Motoma, the seat of the Gadaa, a sacred village within the loose collection of hamlets that comprise the area of Karra. They had met on the morning of 1 December 2021 for a prayer ceremony, Waaqa Kadhaa, and had returned to their huts when five vehicles arrived, several of which had mounted machine guns, carrying about 20 Ethiopian government “security forces” — described as a mixture of Oromia Special Forces, Federal soldiers and police.
Local people interpret such actions as an indication that the Abiy Ahmed government is reviving the imperialistic and assimilationist policies of previous Ethiopian regimes.
These “security forces” called out from their homes several dozen people who had attended the ceremony and read out the names of 40 individuals. All forty Gadaa leaders, including their overall leader, the Abbaa Gadaa, Kadiro Hawas Boru, and Gadaa Councillor, Jiloo Didoo, came forward and peacefully submitted after discussing among themselves about the consequences of complying.
Traditional weapons which were worn for the ceremony, and rifles owned by about 20 of the men were removed from their homes and piled before them. Once their weapons had been taken, they were subjected to verbal and, increasingly, to physical abuse.
When the men asked the government forces what they had done to deserve such treatment, the Abbaa Gadaa advised everyone to keep calm, saying there was nothing to fear because they had done no wrong. He informed the soldiers that Abiy Ahmed had visited the area twice and spoken with him personally. Kadiro showed the soldiers a gift he had been given by Abiy Ahmed to prove this claim. (It appeared to be a sort of key fob.)
The forty Gadaa leaders were taken to Anole, an isolated arid area about six kilometres from the village, where they were divided into two groups. Sixteen, including the Abbaa Gadaa, Kadiro Hawas Boru, and Jiloo Didoo remained in Anole where, according to two eyewitnesses who later escaped, they were forced to lie face down on the ground and beaten. The Abbaa Gadaa was separated from the group several times during the day and beaten within earshot of the others. There were many screams of pain but the witnesses were lying face down and unable to see what was happening most of the time.
Throughout the day, there were phone calls between the commander of the soldiers holding the detainees and Prosperity Party headquarters in Adama to discuss the fate of the detained. According to the two escaped leaders, members of the Oromia Special Forces spoke with government officials in Adama to receive instructions and orders to kill the Karrayyuu elders.
Finally, after dark, around 7p.m., the 16 men were lined up and their heads were covered before execution. When the firing started, one of the soldiers threw his gun down and shouted, “I cannot kill Oromo. I cannot kill Karrayyuu!” Hearing this, two of the 16 Gadaa leaders seized the opportunity to run off and escape. The fate of the reluctant soldier is not known. His body was has not been found, although the witnesses reported that he was sharply rebuked by his fellows as the witnesses escaped.
The Abbaa Gadaa advised everyone to keep calm, saying there was nothing to fear because they had done no wrong.
Villagers had heard prolonged shooting during the night and, tipped off by the eyewitnesses, located the killing field later in the morning of 2 December. A soldier guarding the corpses tried to prevent community leaders from taking the bodies but he was chased away. The 14 bullet-riddled remains of the Gadaa leaders were taken back to Karra for burial. Their bodies had already been attacked by wild animals when they were found.
The government’s initial response was to announce that the killings were carried out by “Shane” (Oromo Liberation Army, OLA), a claim that had no credence or evidentiary basis and has since been contradicted by senior officials of the Prosperity Party themselves who have claimed that the Oromia Regional Government is responsible.
Local informants believe that only a disagreement between members of the security forces on 1 December prevented all forty men from being executed in Anole.
The other 24 Gadaa leaders were driven 55 kilometres southwest to a military camp at Wolenchiti, where they were detained and tortured for six or seven days before being transferred to a secret location in Mojo, 28 kilometres on the other side of Adama, along the road to Finfinnee/Addis Ababa. The beatings and torture continued.
Local informants believe that only a disagreement between members of the security forces on 1 December prevented all forty men from being executed in Anole.
One of the detainees, Jiloo Boraya Hawas, who was in his fifties, died from his injuries on 8 December in Mojo. His body lay in the cell with the other detainees for 24 hours before being moved to a container next to the cell where it stayed until Karrayyuu elders tracked down the detainees and confronted their captors on 10 December. The body of Jiloo Boraya Hawas was taken back to Karra where he was buried on 11 December.
Other detainees received hospital treatment before being returned to detention. Six were released to return home on 31 December. The others remain in custody. The presence of these detainees in Mojo and the testimony of the two leaders who escaped the massacre and lived to share their eyewitness accounts, have prevented further claims that the killings were the work of OLA.
The implications for the Karrayyuu
The speed and ferocity of this attack on the sacred and revered Gadaa institution have shocked Oromo communities across the world. The Gadaa is more than a religious institution: it is the core of Oromo identity, the basis of law-making, morality and ethics, civil conduct, and the foundation of a democratic ethos shared by Oromo and other Cushitic peoples of Ethiopia.
Oromo democracy, which predates any western equivalent by several centuries, and includes more checks and balances, is grounded in the Gadaa. The Karrayyuu killings are of enormous significance to all Oromo – whether followers of Waaqefata (traditional monotheist Oromo religion), Christianity or Islam.
Although Prosperity Party officials have been known to spread false information in the past, it is worth noting that they have stepped forward to offer this information, which contradicts earlier government statements that falsely accused OLA “Shane” of the brutality. A leaked one-page letter containing reports of the Karrayyuu massacre written to the Oromia Police Commission and the Attorney from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission also confirms, “The order to commit the killing was given from above.”
The persecution of Karrayyuu Oromo had intensified prior to the massacre. Those found in urban areas, buying goods or seeking medical attention, were liable to face beatings and imprisonment. Local estimates are of 200 persons detained, including women and the elderly. They cannot be reached by relatives bringing food and are kept incommunicado. Since the atrocity on 1 December, movement has been further curtailed. Karrayyuu pastoralists are prevented from taking their animals to essential water and pasture. They are now forbidden to carry arms that have been essential to their livelihood, protecting their camels. Now they are arrested or shot if seen carrying rifles.
When the firing started, one of the soldiers threw his gun down and shouted, “I cannot kill Oromo. I cannot kill Karrayyuu!”
Within a few weeks of the massacre, the sacred Gadaa village at Motoma was razed to the ground by Amhara Region Militia. The Karrayyuu who resisted are accused of supporting OLA.
We call for a thorough investigation of the Karrayyuu massacre that will identify the perpetrators, and confirm who ordered and who performed the executions, so that the entire chain of command can be held accountable. Such a disclosure will reveal the nature of the regime in power and provide insight into the mechanisms by which impunity prevails in Oromia.
We call for the Karrayyuu community’s territories to be respected. Amhara militia should be instructed to evacuate the areas immediately. Federal military forces need to return to their barracks. Traditional and ceremonial arms should be returned so that the Karrayyuu may restore their lives and livelihoods. Confiscated camels should be returned to their owners. Funds should be provided for the rehabilitation of a community that has lost its leaders and the families of the executed men.
If the government officially admits the chain of events and holds the perpetrators accountable, this could open the door to reconciliation between the Karrayyuu and the government. Otherwise, the current climate of confrontation between the community and government soldiers sends an ominous message to all Oromo and other marginalized indigenous peoples and bodes ill for the entire region, setting the stage for another catastrophe.
For Oromia and the wider south
The Karrayyuu experience is what Oromo see as the fate of countless other vulnerable communities if protections are not put in place. Indeed, the events in Karrayyuu are a microcosm of what is happening in communities and villages everywhere in Oromia; the harassment and persecution directed at all groups considered, rightly or wrongly, to be adversaries of Abiy’s government. Unfortunately, reports have not been getting out about atrocities taking place in the centre and south of the country due to communication blackouts and travel restrictions.
The UN Human Rights Council has resolved to establish an independent commission of experts to investigate human rights abuses throughout Ethiopia, and not just the violations in the Tigray and Amhara Regions. This is most welcome. An independent verification of egregious abuses in Oromia and other regions of oppressed and marginalized peoples of Ethiopia, who constitute the vast majority of the population of the country, will likely strengthen calls for thoroughgoing changes to the political and power structure of Ethiopia.
An independent investigation will also demonstrate the intentional removal of Oromo, Gumuz, Agaw and Kemant people from Amhara, Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia Regions by Amhara Region militia.
If investigations go forward, it will become clear that a solution to Ethiopia’s structural problems will not be found in negotiations among northern belligerents alone but must include accountability issues and voices from the wider south and from marginalized peoples.
Democratic forces in Ethiopia and finding inclusive solutions
Investigations will also confirm that forces of democracy have been under attack for three years, since late 2018, starting with attempts to eliminate members of Qeerroo, the Oromo prodemocracy student movement. After four years of peaceful protests and at the cost of thousands of young lives, this group brought an end to EPRDF rule in 2018. The Oromo youth were intent on implementing the principles of democracy in Ethiopia. Their hard-won opening of the democratic space was, however, systematically sabotaged by Abiy Ahmed who had already identified the Qeerroo as his “biggest threat” upon arrival in office.
It should be noted that currently the Ethiopian regime accuses Western countries of “imperialism” and “neo-colonialism”, yet this same Ethiopian regime is spearheading systematic suppression and attacks on indigenous African ways of life and indigenous institutions and leaders within its own boundaries. Abiy Ahmed employs “pan-African” rhetoric claiming “Africa for Africans” on the international stage, while allying himself with notorious dictators and totalitarians around the world. His regime is empowered by this foreign assistance to crush indigenous Oromo people’s aspirations for local autonomy and democracy. Are the Oromo, who aspire to revive an indigenous form of democratic governance, less “African” than the ruler who aspires to destroy ancient ways of life in order to institute authoritarian rule?
Within a few weeks of the massacre, the sacred Gadaa village at Motoma was razed to the ground by Amhara Region militia.
We support any efforts to reach a ceasefire between Ethiopian government forces (including Amhara Region militia and embedded Eritrean troops) and Tigrayan forces. However, we recommend genuinely inclusive negotiations, inclusive of forces represented in Oromia and the southern and marginalized peoples as well, in order to seek a countrywide and lasting solution. The underlying stresses and fault lines in Ethiopian society will not be addressed if negotiations are either influenced or dictated by the government or limited to and controlled by the forces that created the current war.
The oppressed and marginalised peoples together constitute 70 to 75 per cent of the Ethiopian population. At over 40 million, for example, the Oromo alone are twice the population of the average African country. These now-silenced peoples must – with international support and mediation – be central to the conduct of any impartial, independently convened dialogue intended to navigate a way to stable forms of democracy and peace.
Bonnie Holcomb, Oromo Advocacy Alliance, Washington DC, email@example.com, +1 301 523 5565 Dr Trevor Trueman, Oromia Support Group, UK firstname.lastname@example.org +44 1684 573722
Coalition of Advocacy and Human Rights Groups – Signatories
Advocacy 4 Oromia
Institute Greenbelt, MD, USA
Oromia Support Group
Oromia Global Forum
Tacoma Park, MD, USA Oromo
Washington DC, USA
Oromo Human Rights Defenders
Minneapolis, MN, USA
Oromo Legacy Leadership and Advocacy Association
Falls Church, VA, USA
Oromo Professionals Group
Washington, DC, USA
Union of Oromo Communities in Canada
World Oromo Congress
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC
The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.
The East African Community (EAC), whose goal is to achieve economic and political federation, brings together three former British colonies – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania – and newer members Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and most recently the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Somalia first applied to join the EAC in 2012 but with fighting still ongoing on the outskirts of Mogadishu, joining the bloc was impossible at the time. Eleven years later, joining the bloc would consolidate the significant progress in governance and security and, therefore, Somalia should be admitted into the EAC without undue delay. This is for several reasons.
First, Somalia’s admission would be built on an existing foundation of goodwill that the current leadership of Somalia and EAC partner states have enjoyed in the recent past. It is on the basis of this friendship that EAC states continue to play host to Somali nationals who have been forced to leave their country due to the insecurity resulting from the prolonged conflict. In addition, not only does Somalia share a border with Kenya, but it also has strong historical, linguistic, economic and socio-cultural links with all the other EAC partner states in one way or another.
Dr Hassan Khannenje of the Horn Institute for Strategic Studies said: ”Somalia is a natural member of the EAC and should have been part of it long ago.”
A scrutiny of all the EAC member states will show that there is a thriving entrepreneurial Somali diaspora population in all their economies. If indeed the EAC is keen to realise its idea of the bloc being a people-centred community as opposed to being a club of elites, then a look at the spread of Somali diaspora investment in the region would be a start. With an immense entrepreneurial diaspora, Somalia’s admission will increase trading opportunities in the region.
Second, Somalia’s 3,000 km of coastline (the longest in Africa) will give the partner states access to the Indian Ocean corridor to the Gulf of Aden. The governments of the EAC partner states consider the Indian Ocean to be a key strategic and economic theatre for their regional economic interests. Therefore, a secure and stable Somali coastline is central to the region’s maritime trade opportunities.
Despite possessing such a vast maritime resource, the continued insecurity in Somalia has limited the benefits that could accrue from it. The problem of piracy is one example that shows that continued lawlessness along the Somali coast presents a huge risk for all the states that rely on it in the region.
The importance of the maritime domain and the Indian Ocean has seen Kenya and Somalia square it out at the International Court of Justice over a maritime border dispute.
Omar Mahmood of the International Crisis Group said that ”Somalia joining the EAC then might present an opportunity to discuss deeper cooperation frameworks within the bloc, including around the Kenya-Somalia maritime dispute. The environment was not as conducive to collaboration before, and perhaps it explains why the ICJ came in. Integrating into the EAC potentially offers an opportunity to de-escalate any remaining tensions and in turn, focus on developing mechanisms that can be beneficial for the region.”
Nasong’o Muliro, a foreign policy and security specialist in the region, said: “The East African states along the East African coast are looking for opportunities to play a greater role in the maritime security to the Gulf of Aden. Therefore, Somalia joining the EAC bloc will allow them to have a greater say.”
Third, Somalia’s membership of the Arab League means that there is a strong geopolitical interest from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. However, Somalia stands to gain more in the long-term by joining the EAC rather than being under the control of the Gulf states and, to a large extent, Turkey. This is because, historically, competing interests among the Gulf states have contributed to the further balkanisation of Somalia by some members supporting breakaway regions.
On the other hand, the EAC offers a safer option that will respect Somalia’s territorial integrity. Furthermore, EAC partner states have stood in solidarity with Somalia during the difficult times of the civil conflict, unlike the Gulf states. The majority of the troop-contributing countries for the African Union Mission to Somalia came from the EAC partner states of Uganda, Kenya and Burundi. Despite having a strategic interest in Somalia, none of the Gulf states contributed troops to the mission. Therefore, with the expected drawdown of the ATMIS force in Somalia, the burden could fall on the EAC to fill in the vacuum. Building on the experience of deploying in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it is highly likely that it could be called upon to do the same in Somalia when ATMIS exits by 2024.
The presence of the Al Shabaab group in Somalia is an albatross around its neck such that the country cannot be admitted into the EAC without factoring in the risks posed by the group.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the government of Somalia must move to consolidate these gains – especially in central Somalia – as it continues with its offensive in other regions. However, Somalia may not prevail over the Al Shabaab on its own; it may require a regional effort and perhaps this is the rationale some policymakers within the EAC have envisioned. If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.
Somalia’s admission comes with risks too. Kenya and Uganda have in the past experienced attacks perpetrated by Al Shabaab and, therefore, opening up their borders to Somalia is seen as a huge risk for these countries. The spillover effect of the group’s activities creates a lot of discomfort among EAC citizens, in particular those who believe that the region remains vulnerable to Al Shabaab attacks.
If the EAC can offer assurances to Somalia’s fledgling security situation, then a collective security strategy from the bloc might be of significance.
The EAC Treaty criteria under which a new member state may be admitted into the community include – but are not limited to – observance and practice of the principles of good governance, democracy and the rule of law. Critics believe that Somalia fulfils only one key requirement to be admitted to the bloc – sharing a border with an EAC partner state, namely, Kenya. On paper, it seems to be the least prepared when it comes to fulfilling the other requirements. The security situation remains fragile and the economy cannot support the annual payment obligations to the community.
According to the Fragility State Index, Somalia is ranked as one of the poorest among the 179 countries assessed. Among the key pending issues is the continued insecurity situation caused by decades of civil war and violent extremism. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch ranks Somalia low on human rights and justice – a breakdown of government institutions has rendered them ineffective in upholding the human rights of its citizens.
Somalia’s citizens have faced various forms of discrimination due to activities beyond their control back in their country. This has led to increasingly negative and suspicious attitudes towards Somalis and social media reactions to the possibility of Somalia joining the EAC have seen a spike in hostility towards citizens of Somalia. The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.
Dr Nicodemus Minde, an academic on peace and security, agrees that indeed citizens’ perceptions and attitudes will shape their behaviour towards Somalia’s integration. He argues that ”the admission of Somalia is a rushed process because it does not address the continued suspicion and negative perception among the EAC citizens towards the Somali people. Many citizens cite the admission of fragile states like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo as a gateway of instability to an already unstable region”.
Indeed, the biggest challenge facing the EAC has been how to involve the citizens in their activities and agenda. To address this challenge, Dr Minde says that ’’the EAC needs to conduct a lot of sensitisation around the importance of integration because to a large extent many EAC citizens have no clue on what regional integration is all about”. The idea of the EAC being a people-centred organisation as envisioned in the Treaty has not been actualised. The integration process remains very elitist as it is the heads of state that determine and set the agenda.
The country’s admission into the bloc could be met with hostility from the citizens of other partner states.
Dr Khannenje offers a counter-narrative, arguing that public perception is not a major point of divergence since “as the economies integrate deeper, some of these issues will become easy to solve”. There are also those who believe that the reality within the EAC is that every member state has issues with one or the other partner state and, therefore, Somalia will be in perfect company.
A report by the Economic Policy Research Centre outlines the various avenues through which both the EAC and Somalia can benefit from the integration process and observes that there is therefore a need to fast-track the process because the benefits far outweigh the risks.
EAC integration is built around the spirit of good neighbourliness. It is against this backdrop that President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has extended the goodwill to join the EAC and therefore, it should not be vilified and condemned, but rather embraced. As Onyango Obbo has observed, Somalia is not joining the EAC – Somalia is already part of the EAC and does not need any formal welcoming.
Many critics have argued that the EAC has not learnt from the previous rush to admit conflict-plagued South Sudan and the DRC. However, the reality is that Somalia will not be in conflict forever; at some point, there will be tranquillity and peace. Furthermore, a keen look at the history of the EAC member states shows that a number of them have experienced cycles of conflict in the past.
Somalia is, therefore, not unique. Internal contradictions and conflict are some of the key features that Somalia shares with most of the EAC member states. The process of integrating Somalia into the EAC should, therefore, be undertaken with long-term success in mind rather than in the light of the situation currently prevailing in the country.
The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Kenya is one of Israel’s closest allies in Africa. But the Ruto-led government isn’t alone in silencing pro-Palestinian speech.
Israel has been committing genocide against the people of Occupied Palestine for 75 years and this has intensified over the last 30 days with the merciless carpet bombing of Gaza, along with raids and state-sanctioned settler violence in the West Bank. In the last month of this intensified genocide, the Kenyan government has pledged its solidarity to Israel, even as the African Union released a statement in support of Palestinian liberation. While peaceful marches have been successfully held in Kisumu and Mombasa, in Nairobi, Palestine solidarity organizers were forced to cancel a peaceful march that was to be held at the US Embassy on October 22. Police threatened that if they saw groups of more than two people outside the Embassy, they would arrest them. The march was moved to a private compound, Cheche Bookshop, where police still illegally arrested three people, one for draping the Palestinian flag around his shoulders. Signs held by children were snatched by these same officers.
When Boniface Mwangi took to Twitter denouncing the arrest, the response by Kenyans spoke of the success of years of propaganda by Israel through Kenyan churches. To the Kenyan populous, Palestine and Palestinians are synonymous with terrorism and Israel’s occupation of Palestine is its right. However, this Islamophobia and xenophobia from Kenyans did not spring from the eternal waters of nowhere. They are part of the larger US/Israel sponsored and greedy politician-backed campaign to ensure Kenyans do not start connecting the dots on Israel’s occupation of Palestine with the extra-judicial killings by Kenyan police, the current occupation of indigenous people’s land by the British, the cost-of-living crisis and the IMF debts citizens are paying to fund politician’s lavish lifestyles.
Kenya’s repression of Palestine organizing reflects Kenya’s long-standing allyship with Israel. The Kenyan Government has been one of Israel’s A-star pupils of repression and is considered to be Israel’s “gateway” to Africa. Kenya has received military funding and training from Israel since the 60s, and our illegal military occupation of Somalia has been funded and fueled by Israel along with Britain and the US. Repression, like violence, is not one dimensional; repression does not just destabilize and scatter organizers, it aims to break the spirit and replace it instead with apathy, or worse, a deep-seated belief in the rightness of oppression. In Israel’s architecture of oppression through repression, the Apartheid state has created agents of repression across many facets of Kenyan life, enacting propaganda, violence, race, and religion as tools of repression of Palestine solidarity organizing.
When I meet with Naomi Barasa, the Chair of the Kenya Palestine Solidarity Movement, she begins by placing Kenya’s repression of Palestine solidarity organizing in the context of Kenya as a capitalist state. “Imperialism is surrounded and buffered by capitalistic interest,” she states, then lists on her fingers the economic connections Israel has created with Kenya in the name of “technical cooperation.” These are in agriculture, security, business, and health; the list is alarming. It reminds me of my first memory of Israel (after the nonsense of the promised land that is)—about how Israel was a leader in agricultural and irrigation technologies. A dessert that flowed with milk and honey.
Here we see how propaganda represses, even before the idea of descent is born: Kenyans born in the 1990s grew up with an image of a benign, prosperous, and generous Christian Israel that just so happened to be unfortunate enough to be surrounded by Muslim states. Israel’s PR machine has spent 60 years convincing Kenyan Christians of the legitimacy of the nation-state of Israel, drawing false equivalences between Christianity and Zionism. This Janus-faced ideology was expounded upon by Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Michel Lotem, when he said “Religiously, Kenyans are attached to Israel … Israel is the holy land and they feel close to Israel.” The cog dizzy of it all is that Kenyan Christians, fresh from colonialism, are now Africa’s foremost supporters of colonialism and Apartheid in Israel. Never mind the irony that in 1902, Kenya was the first territory the British floated as a potential site for the resettlement of Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Europe. This fact has retreated from public memory and public knowledge. Today, churches in Kenya facilitate pilgrimages to the holy land and wield Islamophobia as a weapon against any Christian who questions the inhumanity of Israel’s 75-year Occupation and ongoing genocide.
Another instrument of repression of pro-Palestine organizing in Kenya is the pressure put on Western government-funded event spaces to decline hosting pro-Palestine events. Zahid Rajan, a cultural practitioner and organizer, tells me of his experiences trying to find spaces to host events dedicated to educating Kenyans on the Palestinian liberation struggle. He recalls the first event he organized at Alliance Français, Nairobi in 2011. Alliance Français is one of Nairobi’s cultural hubs and regularly hosts art and cultural events at the space. When Zahid first approached Alliance to host a film festival for Palestinian films, they told him that they could not host this event as they already had (to this day) an Israeli film week. Eventually, they agreed to host the event with many restrictions on what could be discussed and showcased. Unsurprisingly they refused to host the event again. The Goethe Institute, another cultural hub in Kenya that offers its large hall for free for cultural events, has refused to host the Palestinian film festival or any other pro-Palestine event. Both Alliance and Goethe are funded by their parent countries, France and Germany respectively (which both have pro-Israel governments). There are other spaces and businesses that Zahid has reached out to host pro-Palestine education events that have, in the end, backtracked on their agreement to do so. Here, we see the evolution of state-sponsored repression to the private sphere—a public-private partnership on repression, if you will.
Kenya’s members of parliament took to heckling and mocking as a tool of repression when MP Farah Maalim wore an “Arafat” to Parliament on October 25. The Speaker asked him to take it off stating that it depicted “the colors of a particular country.” When Maalim stood to speak he asked: “Tell me which republic,” and an MP in the background could be heard shouting “Hamas” and heckling Maalim, such that he was unable to speak on the current genocide in Gaza. This event, seen in the context of Ambassador Michael Lotem’s charm offensive at the county and constituency level, is chilling. His most recent documented visit was to the MP of Kiharu, Ndindi Nyoro, on November 2. The Israeli propaganda machine has understood the importance of County Governors and MPs in consolidating power in Kenya.
Yet, in the face of this repression, we have seen what Naomi Barasa describes as “many pockets of ad hoc solidarity,” as well as organized solidarity with the Palestinian cause. We have seen Muslim communities gather for many years to march for Palestine, we have seen student movements such as the Nairobi University Student Caucus release statements for Palestine, and we have seen social justice centers such as Mathare Social Justice Centre host education and screening events on Palestinian liberation. Even as state repression of Palestine solidarity organizing has intensified in line with the deepening of state relations with Apartheid Israel, more Kenyans are beginning to connect the dots and see the reality that, as Mandela told us all those years ago, “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.”
Only Connect: Human Beings Must Connect to Survive
We must fight to remain human, to make connections across borders, race, religion, class, gender, and all the false divisions that exist in our world. We must show solidarity with one another, and believe we can construct another kind of world.
24 November 2021. We wake to the news that 27 migrants have drowned in the English Channel.
“Stop the boats!” cry the Tories. It’s the hill British Prime Minister Sunak has chosen to die on. But there is no political will to stop the wider crisis of global migration, driven by conflict, poverty, persecution, repressive regimes, famine, climate change, and the rest. Moreover, there is zero understanding that the West is behind many of the reasons why people flee their homes in the first place. Take Afghanistan, a useless Allied war that went nowhere. It left the Taliban more powerful than ever. Afghans who worked for the British army, betrayed when our forces pulled out. Now they make up the majority of cross-Channel migrants.
Not for them the welcome we gave Ukrainians. Wrong skin colour, maybe? Wrong religion? Surely not.
Some right-wingers rejoice at news of these deaths. “Drown ’em all!” they cry on social media. “Bomb the dinghies!” There are invariably photos of cute cats and dogs in their profiles. Have you noticed how much racists and fascists love pets? Lots of ex-servicemen among them, who fail to see the link between the failed wars they fought, and the migration crisis these spawned. The normalisation of a false reality is plain to see. Politicians and the media tell folk that black is white, often in meaningless three-word slogans, and the masses believe it. Migrants, especially those who arrive in small boats, are routinely labelled criminals, murderers, rapists, invaders, Muslims intent on imposing Islam on the UK, and “young men of fighting age”, which implies that they are a standing army.
If you bother to look beyond the stereotypes, the reality is very different.
One couple’s story
Riding those same waves, a year or so later, are two Iranian Kurds. A young couple. Let’s call them Majid and Sayran. They have sadly decided not to have children, in 12 years of marriage, because they believe Iran is no place to bring up children. Activists who oppose the regime, they were forced to flee after receiving direct threats. They ran an environmental NGO, and held Kurdish cultural events that are banned in Iran.
The husband, Majid, a writer, first fled to Iraq in 2021. He and his wife were parted for 18 months. She eventually joined him in a Kurdish area of Iraq. They were forced to flee again, when the Iranian regime bombed the homes and offices of political dissidents in Iraq, killing and wounding many of their friends. They decided their only hope was to head for Britain via Turkey, Italy and France. They paid people smugglers around USD30,000 in total. They eventually ended up in a hotel in my home town. Their story continues below.
Meanwhile, there I am sitting at home in the UK, getting more and more enraged about my government’s attitude and policies on immigration. I feel powerless. I think about refugees living in an asylum hotel in my town. I’m told many of them are Muslim, now trying to celebrate Ramadan. I picture them breaking their fasts on hotel food, which relies heavily on chips and other cheap junk. I meet some of them in the queue at the town’s so-called community fridge, where I used to volunteer. I chat a little to Majid, who can speak some English. I try to find out why they are there. The “fridge” gives out food donated by supermarkets to anyone in need. The food would otherwise be thrown away because it’s about to reach its sell-by date. The refugees go there, they tell me, to get fresh stuff because the hotel food is so awful. I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
Thinking, thinking. Then I berate myself. I should take action, however small. Get down to the supermarket, buy food for, say, six families. I can’t feed everyone, but let’s start somewhere. Food that people from the Middle East (the majority of the hotel residents) will like. Hummus, flatbreads, dates, olives, nuts, rice. Divide it into six bags. I don’t know how I will be received (I feel rather nervous), but let’s give it a go.
I can sense the growing resentment from locals in the queue, who want to put “Britain first”.
The hotel manager is cagey. (I am later banned. He and his female head of security are rude and hostile, but that’s still to come.) For now, he lets me in to distribute the food. Luckily, I spot Majid, just the person I’m looking for. I recognise him from the “fridge” queue. He can translate for the others, who quickly gather in the lobby. The food is snatched within minutes, people are delighted with it. (It turns out Majid and his wife are atheists. But they get some food too.)
I didn’t do this for the thanks. But I’m glad I made that first move. Taking it further, I invite them both round for a meal. I spend hours making Persian rice, it’s a big hit. My new friends fall on the spread like ravening wolves. One thing leads to another. We start to meet regularly. It helps that they have some English, which greatly improves as the weeks pass and they go to classes. They are thrilled by everyday things – walks in the country, pizza, a local fair, being taken to see the film Oppenheimer. (“We were amazed to see so many British people go to the movies!”) They tell me they are delighted simply to make contact, to see how ordinary people live, to be invited into my, and my friends’ homes. I tell them I have plenty to learn from them, too. We get a bit tearful. I say hi to Sayran’s mum on the phone in Iran. We also laugh a lot. Majid has a black sense of humour.
At first, I don’t ask about their experience of crossing the Channel. All I know is that the entire journey, from Iran to Britain, was deeply traumatic. Until now, months later, when I ask Majid to describe what happened.
Majid picks up the story of their journey in Turkey: “The most bitter memories of my life were witnessing my wife’s tiredness, fear and anxiety as we walked for nine hours to reach Istanbul. I saw my wife cry from exhaustion and fear many times, and I myself cried inside. In a foreign country without a passport, our only hope was luck, and our only way was to accept hardship because we had no way back. The most bitter thing in this or any refugee journey is that no one gives any help or support to his fellow traveller. The smallest issue turns into a big tension.”
To reach the sea, where they would take a boat to Italy, they walked through dense pine forests. “There were about 30 of us in this group and none of us knew each other. We passed through the forest with extreme anxiety and fear of being arrested by the ruthless Turkish police. We were all afraid that some babies who were tied tightly on their father’s shoulders would cry and the police would find us. But as soon as we stepped into the forest, all the children became silent due to their instinct and sense of danger. They didn’t make a single sound all the way. We were in the forest for about 12 hours, and reached the beach by 8 a.m. Here we were joined by several other groups of refugees; by now we were more than 100 people.”
The week-long journey to Italy in a 12-meter “pleasure” boat carrying 55 people was terrifying. “As the boat moved towards the deep parts of the sea, fear and anxiety took over everyone. The fear of the endless sea, and worse, the fear of being caught by Turkish patrols, weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. The boat moved at the highest speed at night, and this speed added to the intensity of the waves hitting the hull of the boat. Waves, waves, waves have always been a part of the pulse of travellers. As the big waves moved the boat up and down, the sound of screams and shouts would merge with the Arabic words of prayers of old, religious passengers. I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey. It was near sunset when several passengers shouted: ‘Land! Land!’”
On the way to France, they somehow lost their backpacks. All their possessions gone. Moving fast forward, they found themselves in yet another forest, this time close to the French coast.
“For the first time, I felt that the whole idea I had about Europe and especially the French was a lie. Nowhere in the underdeveloped and insecure countries of the Middle East would a couple be driven to the wrong address at night, in the cold, without proper clothing. But what can be done when you illegally enter a country whose language you do not know? It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning. The sound of the wind and the trees reminded us of horror scenes in the movies. It was hard to believe that we were so helpless in a European country on that dark, cold and rainy night.” He collected grass and tree leaves to make a “warm and soft nest. I felt like we were two migratory birds that had just arrived in this forest.” Eventually they found what they were looking for – a refugee camp. The next step was to try and cross the Channel.
“I can say that there is no scene in hell more horrific than this journey.”
“We reached the beach. The sky was overcast and it was almost sunset. A strange fear and deadly apprehension gripped all the poor refugees in that space between the sky, the earth and the sea.” A smugglers’ car brought a dinghy and dumped it on the beach before quickly driving away. It was no better than a rubber tube. The refugees filled it with air, and attached a small engine. “They stuck 55 people in that tube.” The dinghy went round in circles and ended up on another part of the French coast. Many people decided to disembark at this point, leaving 18 passengers.
“Women and children were wailing and crying. The children looked at the sea dumbfounded. Men argued with each other and sometimes arguments turned into fights. The boat was not balanced. I was writhing in pain from headaches, while my wife’s face was yellow and pale because of the torment.”
At last a ship approached, shining bright floodlights at the dinghy. It belonged to the British coast guard. “When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
My friends tell me about conditions at the hotel. Grim. Food that is often inedible, especially for vegetarians like them. They send me photos of soya chunks and chips. Residents are banned from cooking in their rooms, or even having a fridge. Majid and Sayran have sneaked in a rice steamer and something to fry eggs on. (They have to hide them when the cleaners come round.) Kids have no toys and nowhere to play except in the narrow corridors. Everyone is depressed and bored, waiting for months, sometimes years, to hear the result of their asylum claims.
Majid takes up the story: “Due to the lack of toys and entertainment, the boys gather around the security guards and help them in doing many small tasks. The image of refugee children going to school on cold and rainy mornings is the most painful image of refugees in this developed country. In schools, language problems make refugee children isolated and depressed in the first few years. What can be the situation of a pregnant woman, or a woman whose baby has just been born, with an unemployed husband, and poor nutrition, in a very small room in this hotel? Imagine yourself. Many elderly people here suffer from illnesses such as rheumatism, knee swelling, and high blood sugar. But many times when they ask for a change in the food situation or request to transfer somewhere else, they are ridiculed by the hotel staff. One day, a widow who had no food left for her and was given frozen food, went to the hotel management office with her daughter to protest. But one of the security guards took the food container from this woman’s hand and threw it on the office floor in front of her child. Now that little girl is afraid and hates all the security.”
“When they threw the life rope towards our plastic boat, we were relieved that we were saved from death.”
Yet racists rant about migrants living it up in five-star hotels costing the taxpayer £8 million a day. They don’t think or care about how we got here: the Tories let the asylum backlog soar, by failing to process asylum claims in a timely fashion. Some of us cynically wonder if this was deliberate. The number of people awaiting an initial decision is now 165,411. This compares to 27,048 asylum applications, including dependents, between January and September 2015, before the UK left the European Union.
I’ve done what I can. Lobbied the Home office to improve the food and conditions. I eventually got a reply, both from them and the catering contractor. Wrote to my MP, local councillors, inter-agency bodies that monitor conditions in hotels, migrant organisations, the press. We have had some success. There is a lot more to do.
I ask my friends if the threat of being deported to Rwanda (a key plank of the UK’s asylum policy) might have deterred them from coming. Or if anything would have stopped them. Majid replies: “Not at all! Because everywhere in this world is better than Iran for life. Especially for me, I have a deep problem with the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They threatened me with death over the phone.”
Making sense of the world
World news has become unbearable to read, watch or listen to. Once a news junkie, I increasingly find myself switching off. I’m equally appalled by the widespread apathy, even among friends who were once politically engaged. Then there is all the dog whistling our government does, in language that echoes that of the far right. Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other. “Cruella” Braverman was one of the worst offenders, but at least she is no longer Home Secretary. Her “dream” of deporting refugees to Rwanda (her words) has become a nightmare for Sunak. Both are of East African Asian heritage.
Ministers and MPs have shamelessly whipped up suspicion, hatred, and fear of the Other.
This may sound trite, but we must struggle to remain human, and make connections where we can – across borders, race, religion, class, gender, all the false divisions that exist in our world. We have to keep lobbying those in power, and going on protest marches. We must show solidarity with one another. We have to believe we can construct another kind of world, pole pole, from the bottom up. A kinder world would help, for starters. It can begin in very small ways.
Politics2 weeks ago
Coffee Act 2023: Government Grip Over Sector a Perilous Policy Decision
Politics1 week ago
Solidarity Means More Than Words
Politics6 days ago
Only Connect: Human Beings Must Connect to Survive
Op-Eds1 week ago
Changes in Suicide Reporting Welcome, but Slow
Videos2 weeks ago
Title Deals – Episode 5: Beyond the Deals
Politics3 days ago
The Repression of Palestine Solidarity in Kenya
Politics11 hours ago
Risks and Opportunities of Admitting Somalia Into the EAC