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Hard Labour: The Surrogacy Industry in Kenya – Part I

17 min read.

Commercial surrogacy agencies market Kenya as a safe, affordable and welcoming surrogacy destination to desperate and guileless foreign couples via dozens of websites. They mostly operate legally under Kenyan laws. Some operate quietly out of private houses in the Nairobi suburbs. In one case, the actual ownership trail disappears into the secretive and anonymous offshore world via the UK and the obscure Marshall Islands.

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Hard Labour: The Surrogacy Industry in Kenya
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Introduction

An investigation has raised serious concerns that vulnerable women and babies may have been exploited by commercial agencies which market Kenya to foreigners as a highly affordable destination for surrogacy.

Surrogate Monica was hired to deliver a baby for a commissioning parent who later changed their mind. Forced into a late term abortion, for which she says she was never fully compensated, she wakes up from a recurring nightmare that the dead baby is lying on her bed.

Monica is one of scores of poor Kenyan women who have turned to commercial surrogacy to lift their lives out of poverty.

Commercial surrogacy is when an individual or a couple who are unable to conceive their own children hire a woman and pay her to carry and deliver a child for them (see sidebar below).

The demand for their services in Kenya is driven mainly by foreigners — many of them either gay or lesbian couples — who are attracted to the country due to its affordability.

Commissioning parents can commission a child from a Kenyan surrogate at quarter of the cost in some Western countries.

But unlike other countries where the surrogacy laws are clear and dutifully followed, the industry in Kenya operates in a legal and regulatory void.

Kenyan legislators have for years failed to pass a law that would protect surrogate babies as well as the mothers commissioned to carry them.

Ironically, some surrogacy agencies advertise Kenya as an open and tolerant country, whereas the reality is that homosexuality is illegal.

The law also expressly forbids gay or unmarried couples from adopting children.

In September 2019, the government also banned the adoption of children by foreign nationals.

The allegations by surrogates include:

  • coercion, exploitation and intimidation of surrogates;
  • apparent human trafficking of surrogate mothers and children;
  • forced abortions; and
  • identity forgery and fraud.

This is allegedly happening in the shadows while lawmakers dither over passing a number of bills currently tabled before both the National Assembly and the Senate.

More than a third of Kenya’s population is classified as poor, according to a report by the National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) in 2020.

With a lack of clear regulations and laws in this area, Kenya provides a perfect environment for such businesses to flourish.

Commercial surrogacy agencies market Kenya as a safe, affordable and welcoming surrogacy destination to desperate and guileless foreign couples via dozens of websites.

They mostly operate legally under Kenyan laws.

Some operate quietly out of private houses in the Nairobi suburbs.

In one case, the actual ownership trail disappears into the secretive and anonymous offshore world via the UK and the obscure Marshall Islands.

Before moving to Kenya, one of the other main players shifted his business from country to country in Asia.

The agencies hire local fixers, some without medical backgrounds.

These fixers can obtain identity documents, court orders and free passage through immigration with remarkable ease.

Some international agencies are now warning their clients against using Kenya as a surrogacy destination. They despair about what they claim are fly-by-night operators who give the wider industry a bad name.

To crack open this secretive and fear-filled world, reporter Naipanoi Lepapa spent months posing as a commissioning parent and later as a candidate surrogate.

She then broke her cover to interview five surrogate mothers, who shared their stories — and that of a wider circle of surrogates — on condition of anonymity. Their reluctance to be identified stems in part from the social stigma that exists around surrogacy; but mainly, these women are vulnerable and scared.

This reporter faced threats of legal proceedings and an attempted arrest after confronting one of the agencies about the allegations against them.

This is also a story about how a national failure to confront the complexities of sexual reproduction has created these issues.

Only a comprehensive law can address the legal and ethical issues around commercial surrogacy. It would define the kind of surrogacy to be practiced in Kenya, set standards for all parties, and provide a regulatory framework.

Two bills — one before the National Assembly, one in the Senate — promise to accomplish all this, but they have stalled in the face of concerted opposition.

The bills would provide an overarching legal framework to govern safe access to a wide range of reproductive services for women such as family planning, pregnancy terminations, adolescent reproductive health and assisted reproduction — including surrogacy.

The Senate bill has stirred strong debate particularly on issues on abortion and teenage access to family planning methods. Its critics wants it voted down, saying it promotes underage sex and abortion. Others claim surrogacy is an unnatural process and would allow same-sex couples to have children.

Its supporters say it would make surrogacy legal for the first time in Kenya thereby protecting surrogate children, mothers and parents from exploitation.

If passed, it would make Kenya only the second country in Africa to legally recognise surrogacy, after South Africa.

How a lack of regulation puts Kenyan surrogates at risk

A reproductive practice where an individual or couple who are unable to conceive their own children contract a woman and pay her to carry and deliver a child for them.

There are two ways this can happen:

  1. In gestational surrogacy, the couple’s sperm and eggs or donor eggs are fertilised in the lab to make an embryo that is then implanted in the surrogate’s womb — a process known as in vitro fertilization (IVF).
  2. In partial or traditional surrogacy, the surrogate uses her own eggs and becomes pregnant through artificial insemination often using the commissioning father’s sperm.

The alternative to commercial surrogacy is altruistic surrogacy, in which a surrogate agrees to carry a child for free.

A couple that enters a commercial surrogacy arrangement with a surrogate who they pay to carry and deliver their child. A surrogacy agency typically acts as a go-between for the commissioning parent and the surrogate.

Kenya does not currently have any legal framework which either permits or bans surrogacy.

A patchwork of laws make it possible (but not straightforward) for married heterosexual couples to either adopt, or get custody of, a surrogate baby through the courts.

The law outright forbids adoption by sole applicants or unmarried couples, as well as by “homosexuals” and “sole foreign males” — although this appears to be a major target market for surrogacy agencies who offer Kenya as a surrogacy destination.

Custody is a quicker, simpler route through the courts, provided the surrogate gives her consent.

Some surrogacy agencies short-circuit the process entirely by arranging for the commissioning parents’ names to be entered straight into the surrogate baby’s birth records when they are born.

This method is thought to be illegal, as it not only risks children being trafficked but also denies the surrogates their legal rights as the birth mothers.

A number of mostly foreign-owned agencies market surrogacy services in Kenya, but there are no official estimates of how many IVF and surrogacy agencies exist in the country.

The Ministry of Health was unable to provide any data on the numbers of foreigners coming to Kenya for surrogacy, women working as surrogates, or children born out of these arrangements. Officially, the ministry says they don’t have data because there is no law in this area.

Globally, commercial surrogacy is big business with revenues expected to exceed $27.5 billion in the next five years, according to a market research report from 2019.

Kenya is a relatively new and niche surrogacy market, and is likely to be a tiny player. Its principal attraction as a commercial surrogacy destination appears to be because it is cheap and English-speaking.

A typical package costs commissioning parents Sh3-4 million ($30,000-$35,000) – which is around one-quarter of what it would cost in the USA, for example.

The cost of surrogacy in Kenya makes it competitive with countries in eastern Europe, like Georgia and the Ukraine.

Meet the surrogates

Monica (not her real name), a single mother of two, earned Sh6,000 ($55) per month as a house help before being fired. Months after losing that job, and getting desperate, Monica was scrolling through Facebook when she thought she had found a life-changing opportunity. A Kenyan surrogate in Russia posted a WhatsApp link seeking surrogates.

Commercial surrogacy industry overview

Monica jumped on the opportunity and joined the WhatsApp group, where she met Josephat Kioko Jahjah, a former taxi driver and tour guide turned surrogate recruiter for African Fertility Agency Limited.

Jahjah immediately sent her the transport fare to meet him at a hotel in downtown Nairobi the following day. Monica remembers it was the first day of the month and, coincidentally, the first day of her period. In the brief meeting, Jahjah, a tallish middle-aged man who at first acted charmingly told her said he would pay her Sh630,000 ($5,700) for the entire process, comprising a monthly stipend of Sh20,000 ($180) and Sh450,000 ($4,100) after delivery.

After the brief meeting, Jahjah instructed her to meet him at Fertility Point, a IVF clinic located in the Upper Hill suburb of Nairobi, a leafy area favoured by multinational companies and major banks, for medical tests the next day.

On the third day of the month, Monica met him at the fertility clinic where she was subjected to many tests, including for sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis, and hormonal balance.

The doctor in charge immediately put her under hormonal medication to help prepare her uterus for pregnancy.

Just two weeks later, with her verbal consent, but without her signing any contract, an embryo was implanted in her womb at the facility and afterwards she relocated to a private hostel in Buruburu, a middle-class residential area of Nairobi.

The hostel is one of several run by African Fertility Agency, where surrogates remained for the whole nine months.

“From this point on, Jahjah dictated every part of my life. What I ate, where I travelled, and when,” Monica said.

Six months later, Jahjah took Monica to Nyayo House, the government’s immigration centre in Nairobi, to get a passport. She would need to make a journey to a foreign country where the commissioning parent of the baby inside her lived.

Monica had never been out of Kenya before. Jahjah told her to pay Sh3,000 ($27) and three days later, Monica’s first passport arrived. A few days later, she boarded the flight.

Upon arrival, Monica was put up at a hotel where she lived for a further two months. The commissioning parent lived a five-hour drive away. Sometimes he visited to check up on her but mostly they communicated via WhatsApp.

In the eighth month of her pregnancy, Monica got a call from the parent, instructing her to pack her bags. He said he’d pick her up in a few hours’ time, and gave her the impression that he was taking her to live with his parents where she would be better cared for.

When he arrived, he tearfully informed her that his parents were not in support of the arrangement and that he had changed his mind and didn’t want the baby.

He was accompanied by a friend, and they drove to another hotel where Monica was checked in. Over the next few hours, a doctor injected her with a drug that gave her severe contractions.

As her pain grew, the parent and his friend moved her to a clinic. It turned out that the friend owned this single-bed facility, and that it was a backstreet abortion clinic.

They injected her with more drugs and she laboured painfully for 12 hours.

“When the baby didn’t come out, this guy called his friend who was also a doctor and they transferred me to another hospital where they did a Caesarian-section surgery on me. They told me that the baby had already died.”

“All this was done without my consent,” Monica recalls, her face etched with anger and bitterness.

Five days after the abortion, during which Monica was not allowed to use her phone, she boarded a flight back to Kenya. “It’s a miracle I made it back home,” she said.

African Fertility Agency was unaware about these developments, Monica said, until she landed back in Nairobi.

Upon her return, Monica received another blow: the agency refused to pay her, she claimed.

Monica fell into depression and had nightmares of the aborted baby sleeping on her bed.

After she threatened to report the matter to the police, the agency’s co-owner Gaurav Wankhede paid her Sh400,000 ($3,600).

She used a chunk of this, around Sh30,000 ($270) to pay for therapy and medication for depression.

A sample surrogate contract obtained from the African Fertility Agency focuses mostly on the needs of the client, and if anything goes wrong the surrogate appears to be on their own.

For example, there is no next of kin in the contract or a contact in case of an emergency. A surrogate who miscarries before week 24 of pregnancy is not compensated and one who wants to abort must seek consent from the parent.

Monica is among the many poor women from Kenya who have turned to surrogacy to lift their lives out of poverty but who find themselves being exploited.

In some cases where women may have felt pressured to give birth abroad, experts believe that what happens to surrogates is tantamount to human trafficking.

Sophie Otiende, a highly respected anti-human trafficking campaigner, commented that Monica’s experience was also of concern. She said: “She appears not to have been told what would happen to her, or that she would have to leave the country.”

Trafficking in persons is a serious crime, carrying a minimum sentence of 30 years or Sh30 million ($271,000) fine, or both. Repeat offenders face life imprisonment.

All the allegations in this article were put to African Fertility Agency in writing, as well as to both co-owners individually. Wankhede didn’t respond. Jahjah denied the allegations saying they were “false and untrue”.

Vulnerable women

More than a third of Kenya’s population lives below the poverty line, according to the Comprehensive Poverty Report published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) last year.

The KNBS’s poverty line is set at Sh3,252 ($30) monthly income per adult in rural areas and Sh5,995 ($55) in urban areas.

Experts say that poor, illiterate and ignorant women are particularly at risk of exploitation because they are not aware of their rights and cannot negotiate for reasonable compensation.

While researching this article, this reporter met half a dozen women who have risked their bodies to gain some economic stability.

Ordinarily, they would earn meagre incomes as house helps, as assistants in shops and hair salons, or as menial workers.

Single women seem to be preferred by recruiters because, as one surrogate put it, “Single women have no support systems. A husband will question things, and they don’t seem to want that.”

All of them spoke on condition of anonymity, for multiple reasons including fear of reprisals, losing out on further surrogacy opportunities, and social stigma from their families and communities.

Many identifying details have been removed to protect the identities of those who have shared their stories.

Anne Ireri, executive director of the Kenya chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), said that there was a risk of the exploitation and abuse of surrogates because of a lack of regulation.

“Our organisation has heard reports of abuse, but the surrogacy industry is clouded in mystery and very few women are willing to come forward,” she said.

She added that FIDA is available to help surrogates who feel that they may have been exploited.

Dr Jane Wathuta, director of the Institute for Family Studies and Ethics at Strathmore University, said that agencies should at a minimum give surrogates detailed information about what the entire surrogacy process entails, before they consent to participate.

She also said that surrogates should receive ongoing counseling for lengthy periods before and after the procedure.

But all of the surrogates we interviewed claim none of this was offered. “You are not allowed to question. If you do, you’ll be reminded that you need them more than they need you,” said one surrogate.

Threatened and silenced

Magdalene (not her real name) acted as a surrogate twice, under New Life Kenya, an agency founded by a Georgian woman and ultimately owned in an offshore tax haven.

Both times she signed contracts, Magdalene says, but she claimed that her recruiter kept hold of them.

“They rush you into signing the contract before you read it, and they never give you a copy to keep or read later,” she says.

The single mother of one was in desperate need of money when she first signed up with Millicent Auko Ogott, the company recruiter and Kenya country manager, whom she met on Facebook.

As with surrogate Monica, Magdalene was immediately sent for tests and then put on hormone medication to prepare her womb for pregnancy.

The first time, her commissioning parents were a foreign couple living and working in Kenya. When they met, the couple revealed they would soon be moving back to their home country and wanted Magdalene to go with them to have the embryo implanted there.

“When I said I didn’t want to go, they threatened me with legal action saying I had signed a contract and they had already paid Sh80,000 ($700) for my tests.

Surrogacy costs in numbers

Bobby Mkangi, a constitutional and human rights expert, said that Magdalene was given a wrong impression that her contract is the law, whereas her own legal rights superseded any contract.

Otiende, the human trafficking expert, observed that there seemed to be no way for her to opt out of the arrangement.

Two weeks later, on her way to the airport believing that she was headed to one country, Magdalene learned she was going to another.

She says she protested, but at this late stage there was nothing she could have done.

Magdalene lived overseas for the duration of her pregnancy. After she delivered, she flew back to Kenya where she said she was paid Sh400,000 ($3,668) — a welcome sum for a single mother, but still Sh200,000 ($1,834) short of the agreed Sh600,000 ($5,502) delivery fee.

“I was told the additional costs of sending me abroad were deducted from the final payment,” she said.

Magdalene added that New Life Kenya was meant to protect her but they didn’t, choosing to side with the parents at every turn. “When I called Millicent, she would dismiss me saying, ‘You complain a lot.’.”

“If a surrogate falls ill or even dies while pregnant, or during childbirth, nobody cares,” Magdalene said.

Although her second surrogacy was more straightforward — she delivered for Kenyan parents at a hospital in Nairobi, and was paid in full — she says she will never do it again: “Robbing a bank is easier than being a surrogate.”

All the allegations in this article were put to New Life Kenya in writing, as well as to Ogott in her personal capacity.

New Life responded: “We always respect our surrogate mothers’ interests and always treat them in line with protecting all kinds of human rights.”

Ogott said the specific allegations against her were “malicious” and threatened to sue this reporter in a personal capacity. Further detailed questions sent to her lawyer at her request went unanswered.

Main fertility clinics in Kenya

Surrogacy Costs

New Life Kenya shared the following cost breakdown with this reporter, who was posing as a potential client in mid-2019.

On signing:

  • $4,500 (Sh463,500 at the then- exchange rate) agency fee for sourcing surrogate mother;
  • $1,000 (Sh103,000) to prepare uterus for implantation;
  • $1,000 for surrogate hospital visits and tests before embryo transfer (IVF); and
  • $1500 (Sh154,500) for contract notarisation and surrogate background check.
  • $500 (Sh51,500) for surrogate pay after embryo transfer, and
  • $500 monthly pay for surrogate during the remainder of her pregnancy.

The IVF procedure was not included in the cost break-down, the agency said.

IVF can cost anything between $3,000-$5,000 (Sh310,000 and Sh515,000) in Kenya, according to experts.

In total, New Life Kenya said the surrogate’s compensation package would be $8,000 (Sh824,000) plus an extra $1,000 (Sh103,000) if she delivers twins.

“It is your responsibility [as an commissioning parent] to look after the pregnant surrogate mother during the pregnancy period and undertake all necessary expenses,” reads the email.

New Life no longer operates in Kenya.

Meet the agencies

The surrogacy agencies that managed Monica and Magdalene are both owned by foreign nationals with a long history in the surrogacy industry and both operating legally in Kenya.

Monica was recruited by African Fertility Agency Limited, an offshoot of an international surrogacy group called Become Parents which was founded in 2007 in Melbourne, Australia, by Gaurav Wankhede.

Wankhede, 46, is a jack-of-all-trades with a tendency towards grandiose self-promotion.

According to his LinkedIn profile, his remarkable career has zigzagged from being a restaurant manager in India to a procurement specialist for the Royal Australian Air Force “responsible for inventory optimisation for the entire $4.7 billion Australian defence supply chain”.

He then moved on to KPMG where he was a senior advisor in organisational change management, before becoming CEO of a fine dining establishment in Kolkata called OMG Hospitality.

In 2017, Wankhede co-founded an Indian professional wrestling franchise with a childhood friend.

Throughout these many career changes, the one constant on Wankhede’s CV has been his surrogacy agency Become Parents, which he calls “the world’s leading ethical surrogacy agency”.

After India banned surrogacy for foreign homosexual couples and single parents in 2013, Wankhede’s international business moved on — first to Thailand, where surrogacy was also soon banned, then to Nepal, Cambodia and, finally, Kenya.

Bill Houghton has known Wankhede for years, ever since Become Parents facilitated the birth of Houghton and his husband’s two children in 2012. For a while, they were business partners, first in India and then Thailand.

But then Houghton and Wankhede parted ways gradually. “Every time one country closed its borders to surrogacy, it seemed Become Parents opened its services in the next unregulated country. I think he would have done better to move instead to the next safer destination.”

Houghton said the unregulated Cambodian market in particular was dishonest and dangerous.

Commissioning parents operating in a legal vacuum were forced to navigate a maze of bureaucratic bribery in order to obtain the necessary documentation for their children. Some lawyers were found to be forging documents, and some agents were arrested, Houghton said.

There is no suggestion that Wankhede or his agency were involved in any illegal activities.

While Houghton says he remains grateful to Wankhede for helping him start a family, he parted ways in order to focus on his own agency, called Sensible Surrogacy.

Houghton worries that his old friend Wankhede may one day come unstuck operating in unregulated surrogacy markets, and points out that Kenya is similar in many ways to Cambodia.

Houghton has now taken to actively warning prospective parents that Kenya is an unsafe surrogacy destination.

“The lure of being able to have a baby ‘on the cheap’ is attracting desperate couples into what could be a dangerous situation.” Houghton said in a 2018 press release. “Many of our clients are LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans-gender] couples, and Kenya is notoriously homophobic.”

Houghton said that surrogacy agencies in the US charge $120,000 (Sh12 million). Or they can deal directly with a surrogate and spend less than $70,000 (Sh7 million). Either way, they avoid the risky, unregulated and homophobic Kenya market, he said.

Wankhede shot back in a video posted to his website last year, saying Houghton was not speaking from experience because he had never been to Kenya.

Wankhede extolled Kenya’s virtues as a great tourism destination that is welcoming to same-sex couples. “The fear that people have about same sex couple in Kenya is wrong. It’s absolutely a myth,” he said.

He claimed his agency’s “best practices in the industry” help attract local and foreign clients, adding that foreigners like him are able to build their businesses around Kenya’s many IVF clinics and plentiful supply of skilled medical practitioners.

In the video Wankhede then introduces Jahjah, the former taxi driver, as the agency’s manager and caretaker.

Jahjah claimed none of the same sex couples he worked with had issues. As long as foreigners do not show affection in public, he advised, nobody cared about their sexual orientation.

Wankhede and Jahjah own 50 percent each of African Fertility Agency, which was registered in April 2019 according to ownership records from the business registry. Jahjah is also the firm’s director.

Wankhede has been operating in Kenya for longer, however, since at least 2017 when Become Parents launched a website for a business called Surrogacy Agency Kenya.

Wankhede did not respond to detailed questions, including about his run-ins with Houghton. Jahjah dismissed all the allegations against him as “false”, including a question about the agency’s apparently misleading marketing pitch about Kenya being open and welcoming to gay commissioning parents.

In another video posted to Become Parents YouTube channel in 2017, Wankhede introduced Millicent Aoko Ogott as his operations manager in Kenya.

Ogott, a former teacher, was also managing at least one other surrogacy firm in Kenya at the time.

This was New Life Kenya, the agency where Ogott recruited surrogate Magdalene — the surrogate who felt unable to opt out of her contract and who ended up being sent to an unexpected country to give birth.

New Life Kenya is a branch of the New Life Global Network, founded by Dr Mariam Kukunashvili in Georgia in 2008.

Kukunashvili lives a jet-set lifestyle, with each glamorous destination documented on social media with herself at the centre of a seemingly inexhaustible series of fashion and modelling shoots.

New Life Global Network is actually a limited liability partnership (LLP) company, incorporated in the UK in 2010.

It is impossible to determine who ultimately owns the company, as its registered partners are not people, but a pair of companies based in the Marshall Islands, a secrecy jurisdiction and tax haven in the Pacific.

It is puzzling, though, that whereas New Life Global Network’s website and Facebook page says it has helped thousands of couples become parents through IVF and surrogacy, the UK-based parent company’s public disclosures bear little relation to this line of work.

Its principal business activity is described as “consultant for medical equipment and received commission”. Between 2017 and 2019, its corporate filings show an annual income of just a few thousand pounds in commission fees.

In 2015-2016, when the company’s principal business activity was listed as “medical consulting services”, its income comprised agent’s fees in the region of £120,000-£160,00 per year (Sh15-20 million at the then-exchange rate).

This amount is roughly equal to the cost of just a couple of commercial surrogacy packages offered in a Western country, like the US.

Although New Life was happy to answer questions about its Kenyan operations, it ignored all questions about its global ownership structure, principal business activity and income.

New Life said it had only ever referred four client couples to surrogates in Kenya, who delivered a total of six babies between 2016 and July 2019, after which they stopped offering surrogacy services in the country.

They said they closed because, “despite the fact that surrogacy is not banned in Kenya, we saw that the legal part of the procedures was not regulated quite well”.

Ogott distanced herself from New Life Kenya saying she does not run any entity by that name. She said all her business operations are lawful, and referred further questions to her lawyer who declined to receive them by email.

In a brief WhatsApp exchange, the lawyer said: “Pay due to consideration to the laws of defamation, criminal libel and malicious falsehoods.”

Asked to explain why the New Life Kenya website — which features Ogott as its country manager — was only taken down in late February after receiving our questions, the agency said it was an oversight by their technical team and should have been done earlier.

New Life said that, apart from the six surrogacy deliveries of which it was aware, it was “not responsible for any other actions taken by Ms. Ogott”.

From interviews with surrogates, this reporter believes that there could have been up to nine deliveries in total involving Ogott as agent — some of which may have been undertaken for other agencies including Wankhede’s Surrogacy Agency Kenya.

New Life confirmed that Ogott had been their agent in Kenya between 2016 and 2019 because “she had the [data] base of surrogate mothers” in the country.

Most surrogacy agencies rely on a number of IVF fertility clinics dotted around Kenya.

One of the most popular being Mediheal Diagnostic and Fertility Center which is owned by Kenyan politician Swarup Ranjan Mishra. Mishra, the Jubilee Party’s MP for Kesses constituency in Uasin Gishu county, is also a trained gynaecologist and obstetrician.

According to a 2019 brochure on the Mediheal website, they say they have a “surrogacy program” which “accept(s) embryos from overseas for transfer into surrogates”.

The brochure also notes that “monetary compensation may or may not be involved in [surrogacy] arrangements” and that the Centre’s “success rate is among the highest in the region for both IVF and surrogate procedures”.

Other IVF clinics include Fertility Point and Wings in Nairobi, and the Mombasa Assistive Reproductive Centre, attached to the Mombasa Hospital.

Hospitals where surrogates have given birth include the Aga Khan University Hospital and the Nairobi Hospital, Nairobi West Hospital as well as smaller facilities such as Mater Misericordiae and Balozi hospitals.

There is no allegation of wrongdoing by any of these IVF clinics and hospitals.

In the next installment, we reveal the potential impact of unregulated surrogacy on commissioning parents PLUS an encounter with a surrogacy agent.

Additional reporting and story editing by Lionel Faull & Margot Gibbs, of Finance Uncovered. This article was developed with the support of the Money Trail Project (www.money-trail.org).

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Naipanoi Lepapa is a freelance investigative and feature journalist based in Nairobi Kenya. She is interested in under-reported stories and writes about gender, human rights, health and environmental stories. She also writes about culture and technology.

Long Reads

Pan-Africanism in the Age of Globalization

This is the first of a two-part series that assesses the historical progress of the Pan-African movement and considers the global political economy, the relevance of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century and its potential to impact economic and political development within Africa and its diaspora.

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Pan-Africanism in the Age of Globalization
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In the last century many African states have experienced political decolonization and witnessed the spread of democracy. Considering developments in the current international economic order, many members of the African diaspora believe African descendants have prospered since Africa’s decolonization and the independence era. However, while some members of the African diaspora have experienced substantially less discrimination, the nature of the capitalist global economy hardly conceals the fact that it inherently devalues Africans and their descendants. Furthermore, internationally, members of the African diaspora suffer gross human rights violations daily due to the remnants of the colonial era, namely, slavery and racialism. Despite attempts by international organizations to address the issues created by the exploitation of Africans, their subjugation is widespread and not limited to the continent, as diaspora Africans experience discrimination in developed nations such as the United States, Britain, France, and many others.

This essay was developed to investigate the development of the Pan-African movement within Africa and offer suggestions for its application in the 21st century and beyond. The purpose of this study is to critically assess the history of the Pan-African movement, with respect to the global political economy, and analyse the potential of the movement to contribute to the political and economic development of Africa in the 21st century. Moreover, this study seeks to highlight some of the significant ways African-led development has been hindered by capitalism and offer suggestions for the Pan-African movement to experience revitalization beyond 2022, despite capitalist obstructions. This study examines the relationship between capitalism and the Pan-African movement, noting that the former created conditions necessary for the latter, as members of the African diaspora experience the negative aspects of the current international economic order such as dehumanization, degradation based on racialism and ethnicity, and poverty (economic underdevelopment).

The essay is a qualitative analysis and consists of two parts; the first assesses the historical progress of the Pan-African movement while the second considers the global political economy, the relevance of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century and its potential to impact economic and political development within Africa and its diaspora. The historical analysis of African development via capitalist models notes that the international system is fundamentally capitalist and limits any independent (African-led) development in Africa. This examination of world politics and economics is critical because it addresses externalities that ultimately affected Africa and the African diaspora, creating the conditions necessary for Pan-African attempts at development. This study examines Pan-Africanism in practice and historical attempts to create international African unity. The latter analysis attempts to investigate the relevance of the Pan-African movement in the 21st century and beyond, as the momentum of the movement has waned since Africa’s independence era. Finally, this essay attempts to analyse whether or not Pan-Africanism can catalyse development in Africa and the diaspora and offers an egalitarian and humanitarian application and treatment of Pan-Africanism (Black Equalism) to present a new perspective of how the movement can achieve its goals beyond 2022.

Pan-Africanism in practice: Historical attempts at international African unity 

The 1900s-1920s: Pan-Africanism’s early period

During the 20th century, as advocates of Pan-Africanism made efforts to institutionalize their ideas and create formal organizations to complement the work of Pan-Africanist intellectuals, the first meeting took place in London (1900), and was organized by Henry Sylvester Williams of Trinidad. The meeting was designed to bring together peoples of African descent to discuss Pan-Africanist ideas, and was attended by several prominent Blacks from Africa, Great Britain, the West Indies, and the United States, with W.E.B. DuBois being perhaps the most prominent member of the US delegation. The first formal convening to bear the title “Pan-African Congress” took place in 1919 in Paris and was called by DuBois. Two years later, a second Pan-African Congress convened over three sessions in London, Brussels, and Paris, and produced a declaration that criticized European colonial domination in Africa and the unequal state of relations between white and Black races, and called for a reasonable distribution of the world’s resources. The declaration also challenged the rest of the world to either create conditions of equality in the places where people of African descent lived or to recognize the “rise of a great African state founded in Peace and Goodwill.” In 1923, the third Pan-African Congress took place in London, England and Lisbon, Portugal and called for development in Africa to benefit Africans rather than being an instrument of European profit. The third congress also called for home rule and an improved government in British West Africa and the British West Indies, the abolition of white minority rule in Kenya, Rhodesia, and South Africa, and the illegalization of lynching and mob law in the United States. The fourth Pan-African Congress took place in New York City in 1927 and was the first convening held in North America, and its resolutions were similar to those of the third Pan-African Congress.

The 1930s-1950s: Pan-Africanism’s developmental period

Migration is a key theme in Africa and its Diaspora Since 1935, as J.E. Harris and S. Zeghidour provide context about the efforts of diaspora Africans to develop institutions and international mechanisms that could be used to assist Africans on the continent and diaspora Africans alike. The colonial powers did not empower Africans or facilitate the development of adequate education, healthcare, transportation, or public service systems and administration, and as a result, foreign higher education opportunities were desirable for African students. The authors uphold that “The number of African students going into Europe and the United States increased greatly between 1935 and 1960 and quite a substantial number of them never returned home.”

In their subsections The Africans in the Diaspora since 1935, The Fifth Pan-African Congress, Expanding Horizons of African Consciousness, and The Challenge, the authors provide accounts of the international efforts of diaspora Africans and continental Africans to collaborate nationally and transnationally, organize themselves, acquire political sovereignty, and determine their political, economic, and social destiny. In the United States, William Leo Hansberry, Ralph Bunche, and William Steen collaborated with Hosea Nyabongo, a Ugandan, and Malaku Bayen, an Ethiopian, and organized Blacks from Africa and the diaspora to form the Ethiopian Research Council (ERC) in 1934 to spread information about Ethiopia and garner support for African causes. Through the collaborative efforts of individuals such as C.L.R. James, the International African Friends of Ethiopia (IAFE) was established in England in 1936, as well as the International African Service Bureau (IASB) in 1937. Later, Britain saw the development of the Pan-African Publishing Company, through the efforts of Guyanese businessman George Thomas Nathaniel Griffith (T. Ras Makonnen), Dr Peter Milliard, Jomo Kenyatta, and George Padmore.

“The number of African students going into Europe and the United States increased greatly between 1935 and 1960 and quite a substantial number of them never returned home.”

In 1937, emissary and Howard University Medical School graduate, Malaku Bayen and his African-American wife Dorothy Hadley formed the Organization of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) in the United States and later established the publication The Voice of Ethiopia, described as a paper for the “vast universal Black Commonwealth and friends of Ethiopia everywhere”. The EWF was instrumental and influential as branches were established throughout the United States and the Caribbean, and news from its newsletters spread to Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Panama, Jamaica, Honduras, Venezuela, Nigeria, and other places. The year 1937 also saw the establishment of the International Committee on Africa – which later became the Council on African Affairs in 1941 – by Max Yergan, Paul Robeson, and William Alphaeus Hunton. The Council was created to “promote the political liberation of Africans and the advancement of their social and economic status through the dissemination of relevant and current information, facilitation of training for Africans in Europe and America, and arrangement of mutual exchange of visits and cooperation among African people”, and engaged in a variety of activities before ultimately dissolving in 1955 due to its perspective, which was increasingly radical and critical of American political and economic decisions with regard to African issues.

The Pan-African movement faded from the international scene until 1945 when the fifth Pan-African Congress was held in Manchester, England. Kuryla notes that Pan-Africanist leadership had largely transferred from African Americans to Africans by the mid-1940s, and Nkrumah, Kenyatta, and Padmore played the most prominent roles at the fifth congress, with the only African American present being DuBois. As mentioned, the fifth Pan-African Congress called for the political decolonization of African states from European imperialism. The themes of the congress featured a combination of the intellectualism of W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey’s pragmatism, and inspired attendants to focus on the struggle for liberation in Africa. This congress was also significant because it was the first to be spearheaded by British-based organizations and organizers, as historian Hakim Adi notes; the four previous convenings were largely organized under the auspices of Dubois and the US-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The fifth congress was also unique because it involved continental Africans as well as more descendants from the African diaspora such as Afro-Caribbeans.

Pan-Africanist leadership had largely transferred from African Americans to Africans by the mid-1940s.

Moreover, as noted by historian Saheed Adejumobi in The Pan-African Congresses, 1900–1945,  while previous congresses had been largely controlled by Black middle-class British and American intellectuals who emphasized the betterment of colonial conditions, the 1945 Manchester meeting was dominated by delegates from Africa and Africans working or studying in Britain, who also galvanized the support of workers, trade unionists, and the growing radical sector of the African student population.

The 1960s-1970s: Pan-Africanism’s active period

After the fifth Pan-African Congress of 1945, Pan-Africanism continued to develop and fragment into distinctive schools of thought with varying frameworks and methods for addressing the economic, political, and social conditions Africans experienced in Africa and throughout the diaspora. By the 1960s, influential leaders, intellectuals, writers and activists such as Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Alioune Diop, Dr Walter Rodney, Stokely Carmichael, John Henrik Clarke and others developed the consciousness of Black Americans and African descendants around the world, to the point where African and Black studies became mandatory and the Black studies movement developed. As academics, politicians, diplomats, activists, artists, and others approached the topic of African independence and economic and political equity for African descendants, the varying perspectives led to the creation of different cultural, political, and development organizations. Pan-Africanism continued to evolve and focus on aspects such as racial Pan-Africanism, or uniting African descendants based on racial classification and social hierarchy, and continental Pan-Africanism, which sought to unite around issues facing the continent of Africa and African descendants world-wide.

S.K.B. Asante and David Chanaiwa’s subsection Pan-Africanism and Regional Integration peruses historical attempts of African states to work towards economic, political, cultural, regional, and social development and alignment utilizing Pan-African ideals in diplomacy, state governance, and economic and political development. Due to the efforts of Kwame Nkrumah and other pivotal state and liberation movement leaders, African states saw a revival of thought leadership and social preference in collective political and economic activities which supported Africans amid their colonial experience, with liberation and sovereignty becoming political preferences. Colonial histories ultimately influenced African states and independence movements as former colonies aligned themselves into regional blocks which supported foreign affairs that were considered pro-East or pro-West. In turn, African leaders divided their nations based on geopolitical interests, and in 1961, Ghana, Guinea, Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Libya and the Algerian government-in-exile formed the Casablanca Group, while the remainder of the French colonies and Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone formed the Monrovia Group. The former supported Nkrumah’s proposal for a United States of Africa, and consisted of militant, socialist, and non-aligned leaders in Africa who supported centralized continental economic integration and cultural restoration, while the latter supported a flexible confederation of independent sovereign African states.

Edem Kodjo and David Chanaiwa also discuss the history of the Charter of African Unity in Pan-Africanism and Liberation. The Charter was signed on 25 May 1963, with the heads of states of the following nations present: Algeria, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville (the Republic of the Congo), Congo-Leopoldville (the Democratic Republic of Congo), Côte d’Ivoire, Dahomey (Benin), Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanganyika, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, the United Arab Republic, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), and Zanzibar. With the creation of the Organization of African Unity, Pan-Africanism began to manifest its ideals on the international stage in the political realm and eventually in geopolitics.

The authors also explore some of the early distinctions between Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism – the former being predicated on racial unification and liberation, while the latter focused on the religious unification and liberation of Islam and its supporters. The distinctions between Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism also manifested themselves in the form of Black Africans from Sub-Saharan Africa as opposed to fairer-skinned individuals who were descendants of African peoples from the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Anglophone African states developing tensions with Francophone African states due to colonial histories, wars of independence, and economic interests.

Overall, a central theme of Kodjo and Chanaiwa’s analysis of Pan-Africanism is that the ideology focuses on the liberation of Black people in general and Africans in particular. The primary bonds that united African nations and Pan-Africanists were the anti-colonial movement, the anti-racialism movement, and the non-alignment movement. Although there were many regional integration efforts toward Pan-African cooperation, this also created more division in response to colonialism as each African state had its own unique political and economic struggles based on its respective interests. The economic self-interest of African states usually resulted in or stemmed from Western intervention or involvement in African affairs.

The primary bonds that united African nations and Pan-Africanists were the anti-colonial movement, the anti-racialism movement, and the non-alignment movement.

Asante and Chanaiwa discuss Pan-Africanism, regionalism, and economic development, as well as the extra-regional efforts of international organizations and agencies with operations in Africa. The authors note that Africa is central to the world’s future politically, socially, and economically. However, considering regionalism, the interdependence of African states and need for internal sustenance, the current global political economy and economic arrangement is hierarchical and stands to deplete Africa more than benefit its states. Due to the existing structures and international systems of economics, and the political dependencies of African nations on their former colonizers, the authors note that African nations seeking Pan-African ideals should seek alignment with the interests of developing nations rather than with Western powers that seek to extract from Africa.

A third wave of migration developed in the 1960s, and the primary cause of African migration to Europe and America transformed yet again, although this time the focus was not on those who wanted to develop and gain skills and knowledge, but on the technocrats who already possessed highly specialized skills and qualifications. This phenomenon is considered a “brain drain”, as highly qualified professionals such as engineers, doctors, businessmen and women, scientists, artists, musicians, and lecturers migrated from Africa in alarming numbers and moved all around the world. The prospect of relocating was significant because it represented a new form of social status, which symbolized that an individual (as a representative of Africa) had “arrived” intellectually and politically. However, this did not change the social and political conditions of Africa, nor did it change the social conditions that diaspora Africans experienced abroad as “Blackness” was still equated with inferiority.

African nations also experienced what the authors consider “gender drain” as “semiliterate, qualified, and unqualified” African women sought fortune in the Americas and Europe via opportunities such as nursing, smuggling, or drug trafficking, and “semieducated, unskilled and untrained” African men sought fortune and affluence outside of Africa via manual labor, smuggling, or drug trafficking as well.

The prospect of relocating was significant because it represented a new form of social status, which symbolized that an individual had “arrived” intellectually and politically.

The sixth congress took place in 1974 in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, which served as a key location for bringing people together, as many of the organizers wanted to establish direct connections between African liberation movements and African Americans. The meeting was the first Pan-African Congress to take place in Africa, gave a stronger voice to liberation movements, and moved beyond the nationalist agenda of the Organization of African Unity in defining the principles of African liberation. In the late 1960s, Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere went to Harlem, New York and issued an invitation to African Americans to come to Tanzania to assist in building a socialist African state. As a result of these efforts, the number of African Americans in Tanzania increased and a number of members from the diaspora were instrumental in organizing the convening, including Sam Dove, a consultant to the Tanzanian government, and Bill Sutherland, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a founder of the American Committee on Africa (ACA), and a consultant to President Nkrumah. In the declaration of the Sixth Pan African Congress, the call was that henceforth “Pan Africanism was informed by the class struggle internationally”. According to Dr Sylvia Hill, professor of criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia, who served as one of the key organizers for “Six PAC”, despite the differences and disagreements among delegates from the US and the Caribbean, there were many positive developments. Hill mentions the significance of the sixth congress in raising the consciousness of African liberation movements within the diaspora, particularly in the case of Southern Africa as she highlights the Free South Africa Movement.

The 1980s-1990s: Pan-Africanism’s waning period

The seventh and final Pan-African Congress of the 20th century, was convened in Kampala, Uganda, in April 1994. The declaration of the 7th Pan-African Congress was that African peoples everywhere should resist recolonization, and the primary motivation behind the convening was to reverse the depoliticization and the demobilization of the African peoples post-20th century reorganization of the international system. Significant developments of the 7th Pan-African Congress included the historic recognition of the participants of the Pre-Congress Women’s Meeting who called for “Pan-Africanism to break out of its male-centered mold and to stop silencing women who were at the forefront of the Pan-African struggle on a daily basis, although previous Pan-African convenings were primarily organized by men”; the establishment of a permanent secretariat that would be hosted by an African state (the Ugandan government offered) and would be responsible for convening meetings of the designated regions of the Pan-African world in an effort to improve the effectiveness of the political work of the Pan-African movement and move beyond the individualism and periodic organizing of convenings that highlighted the ideas of eminent persons; regarding the special place of the youth in the reconstruction and renewal of the African peoples, the organization of special meetings within and outside the congress by youths from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda along with the youths from the Southern African delegation; and the recognition of the ideological differences among the male adherents of Pan-Africanism in North American territories which consisted of Afrocentric Pan-Africanists, grassroots organizers and activists, workers, urban youth and the homeless, and members of the Nation of Islam and other religion organizations.

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The EPRDF Coalition Had One Job: Loosen the Hold of the Empire-State 

The EPRDF coalition that ousted Colonel Mengistu’s Derg regime had one job: to loosen the suffocating bonds through which the empire-state had had been created. It failed.

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The EPRDF Coalition Had One Job: Loosen the Hold of the Empire-State 
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Hopes for peace in Ethiopia have been revived with the signing of a peace treaty—as the signatories have called it—between the Ethiopian government and the leaders of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), at the very start of November.

This is the first concrete step any participants or mediators have taken in bringing the truly epic levels of killing and destruction to an end since the TPLF insisted on its right to go ahead with organizing (and winning) elections in the Tigray region in open defiance of the decision of the federal government (from which the TPLF had recently withdrawn) to suspend all scheduled elections ostensibly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Arguments over who had the right to organize or ban elections soon brought out the underlying grievances over what were the respective rights and powers between the regional governments and the central government ever since the TPLF’s loss of power over the country as a whole, due to the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed systematically dismantling the putative federal arrangements put in place by the TPLF-dominated armed coalition when it came to power in 1991.

Open warfare followed soon after, and, on top of drawing in Ethiopia’s northern neighbour Eritrea, which borders the Tigray region, it created all the usual results: destroyed livelihoods, death, bodily injuries, human displacement and a lot of mutual propaganda.

That was 2020, and nothing, not even the burning of churches and monasteries long held up as symbols of civilizational pride by all of official Ethiopia, seemed able stop the carnage.  It is therefore of particular significance that this initiative has been implemented by African leadership under the auspices of the African Union.

Prior to that, even just bringing these two belligerents to the negotiating table had proven to be beyond everyone, including the United States which had recently made attempts.

Despite this, the leaders and guarantors may eventually have to face up to the perennial question of Ethiopian politics, namely that, if this agreement does not address the reason why wars keep breaking out in Ethiopia, will it actually be able to end them?

This question lies at the very heart of the problem. A fundamental outcome of the treaty is that it works to keep Ethiopia intact. This is written in the document. Yet, for many of its peoples, the two fundamental problems with Ethiopia are first, that it exists and second, how the country came to exist in the first place.

In general, the mainstream intellectual, political and diplomatic traditions of Africa still remain very wary of, and therefore uninformed and under-educated about, the perennial question of indigenous African ethnicity that has rumbled on beneath any conflict on the continent over the last five to seven decades. As a result, they offer remedies premised on the same negligence. What they do have in common with the Western European powers that birthed this crisis, is an overly reflexive hostility to indigenous identity which is seen as an existential threat to their dream of modern African state-building.

Modern Ethiopia is a perfect home for this mind-set to take root and get stuck, and the South African peace treaty is largely a loftily-worded example of that: a glorified ceasefire that seeks to mitigate the worst effects of that which it has not yet acknowledged as broken. Just as one would keep replacing an unevenly worn out front car tyre without addressing the underlying poor wheel alignment that is causing it.

This is masked in the venerable “never been colonized” mantra that frames much internal and external thinking about the place. But the fact is that modern Ethiopia (as opposed to ancient Abyssinia) is a product of imperial European political games in Africa and so suffers the same pathologies of that legacy as does the rest of Africa.

In this, both belligerent parties to the treaty are to blame, because deep down, they are both wedded to the deep-seated notion of an Ethiopian empire-state made in the image of Abyssinian cultures, found in what is now the northern areas of the vast country. Their historical point of conflict has simply been over which branch of Abyssinian culture—Tigrayan or Amhara—would control and define that state.

The fact is that modern Ethiopia is a product of imperial European political games in Africa.

The TPLF leadership is even more to blame because it had the opportunity to break this historical cycle when it was part of the armed Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that brought down the Mengistu regime in 1991 after decades of war. Instead, it turned on the other coalition partners and worked to consolidate the same empire-state at the behest of its Western imperialist new best friends, who remain ever concerned with both its resources, and the need to keep Islamic nationalism at bay through the Horn and up to the Gulf (as they did with founding emperor Menelik, Selassie his eventual successor, and failed with Mengistu, despite his initial friendliness towards them).

This TPLF gambit lasted nearly three whole decades, during which time the party elite worked to play the role previous Amhara elites had played in enriching, developing their own regions, and guaranteeing the global imperial grip on the Ethiopian economy.

This can be confirmed by an answer by Lt. Gen. Tsadkan Gebretensae, head of the Tigray military effort (who will go down in history as an absolute military genius in enabling Tigray to thwart what should have been a short and absolute rout by the much better placed Ethiopian state) in explaining some of the reasons for their battlefield success during an interview on July 6 2021:

“[W]hen this thing started it was very clear that the most senior, most highly experienced commanders are from Tigray, which has been the backbone of the Ethiopian armed forces for the last thirty years…”

This is my second time to make reference to it, and for two reasons.

First, there is this bald fact that the leaders of a region whose population makes up less than 10 per cent of the entire Ethiopian population organised to ethnically monopolize an institution as key as the armed forces for nearly three decades.

Second, that in the untroubled nature of his response, devoid of any sense of irony, the General saw absolutely nothing untoward about this level of exceptionalist self-regard. Despite his military genius, he seems not to have grasped the political reality that the very thing that he is appreciating about Tigray’s conduct in the war is the very thing that created support for the war against Tigray in the first place: a deep antipathy towards Tigray by the rest of the country due to a memory of the TPLF’s self-serving culture while in power.

It is this political culture, steeped in a very insular and almost complete lack of self-awareness, which drives the cyclical violence of Abyssinian-dominated Ethiopian politics.

Essentials of the treaty

The treaty rotates around principles already set out in Ethiopia’s constitution, and in the African Union and United Nations protocols and charters to which Ethiopia is already a signatory. Moreover, the TPLF was once the government of Ethiopia, so it would also be very familiar with them.

It is as if someone ripped open one of those wholesale sacks of mitumba and all the used clothes came tumbling out to be sorted, and re-sold for re-use. In this case, it is a bundle of used and tired Peace Studies phrases and platitudes that have come spilling out. It remains to be seen if anyone will be buying them this time.

Within that, there are some hard requirements. In essence, the TPLF is expected to disband the Tigray Defence Force, the only thing that stood (as I said, brilliantly, by any military measure) between the Tigrayan people and total annihilation.

There is a commitment to stopping the involvement of outside actors. This would essentially mean Eritrea, which stepped in on the side of the Ethiopian government, sending forces into Tigray’s north to devastating effect.

There is the requirement that the TPLF sever all ties to other armed groups it may have been working with. This basically means the reformed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) which is led by a faction that rejected earlier disarmament deals made between the original (and long-suffering) OLF, and the then incoming regime of current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during his honeymoon period.

This is curious, because it essentially means that neither the TPLF, nor the Abiy government see the Oromo war as a matter requiring consideration in its own right. What the TPLF in particular has done, is to elect to make its own peace with the government, and basically abandon another actor with whom it was in formal alliance.

The word “Oromo”, and much less the name “Oromo Liberation Front”, appears nowhere in the entire peace document. The native question in Ethiopia, as in the rest of the continent, is once again rendered invisible.

It is this political culture, steeped in a very insular and almost complete lack of self-awareness, which drives the cyclical violence of Abyssinian-dominated Ethiopian politics.

The Oromo people, who make up nearly 40 per cent of Ethiopia’s population and are therefore the single largest nationality, have had a permanently troubled relationship with Abyssinianism since it was expanded into their territories, thus creating “Ethiopia”, a century and a half ago. It forms the template for how all the other non-Abyssinian peoples of the new country were conquered.

Their armed resistance to it peaked with their being part of the 1991 post-Mengistu EPRDF coalition. As said, this did not last long as the TPLF used its dominance of the security apparatus to attend to Western bidding and see to it that the agreed full federation of the country was watered down to a few half-measures. This included the then seemingly clever ploy of cloning Oromo nationalism through the invention of alternative Oromo parties that were also placed into the coalition. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s journey to political power began there, as a more TPLF-compliant kind of Oromo. The subsequent terrorizing of the real Oromo nationalists drove them out of the coalition and into silence and exile in less than three years of the creation of the new government. This saga was to continue when Oromo nationalism resurrected itself 25 years later in the form of civil, youth-led protests against the TPLF regime, as Meles Zenawi lay dying from natural causes. Many atrocities were committed against them. But their persistence, and the joining in of other ethnic parties eventually saw the TPLF relinquish internal control of the coalition to new faces. This is how Abiy Ahmed eventually ascended to the premiership of the country.

But Oromo nationalism was still on its own journey. One of Prime Minister Ahmed’s acts during his honeymoon period was to organise the return of all the OLF fighting groups, and their families, that had had been exiled by the TPLF. But the old habits of the Ethiopian empire-state kicked in once again: some fighters suffered mass poisoning at assembly points; the OLF leadership’s agreement to disarm and become a civilian party ran into registration and other obstacles, and the new trust broke down.  This is where the new armed rebellion by a faction now also calling itself OLF—which, amidst these developments, rejected the disarmament deal—began.

The treaty makes some sort of recognition of the fact that the crisis originates in Ethiopian politics. But it is tone-deaf, and therefore half-hearted. It calls for the need for a discussion of the “political differences”, but does not seem to make these either central to the document or conditional upon it. And there seems to be no absolute deadline for when such “discussions” should either begin or end, and what a failure to do so would mean for the rest of the process.

What is more, the matter is reduced to the two actors at the table. But on the one hand, we have the TPLF, a political organisation, once in federal power but now claiming to be the elected leadership of the Tigray region (through elections disputed by the other party), and on the other, the actual government of all of Ethiopia. This seems to be some kind of imbalance, since the root of this particular dispute was a political disagreement inside the EPRDF that resulted in the TPLF pulling out, and the remainder accepting to radically alter the EPRDF’s structure under the direction of Abiy Ahmed, and fully abandon the pretence to federation and return the country to its tradition of highly centralised government.

The question, therefore, is if this is indeed a dispute between the TPLF and the Ethiopian state per se, or simply a dispute between two former factions of a now dead coalition, one of which (the Abiy faction of the old EPRDF), happens to also retain control the Ethiopian state apparatus. The wrong conceptualisation will lead to wrong prescriptions.

The native question in Ethiopia, as in the rest of the continent, is once again rendered invisible.

Because, on the flip side, the Treaty calls for a recognition of “formal” forces, and the acceptance that there can be only one recognized military and security apparatus for the whole of Ethiopia. This amounts to a constitutional amendment, given that what little was implemented of the EPRDF-era federal-lite constitution allowed the different national regions to establish and maintain regional armed forces.

On top of that, the Amhara national region also has an additional ethnic militia called “Fano” that presents itself as the defender of the Amhara people, and is not formally answerable to either the Amhara regional government or the Addis federal one. It just exists as a politico-military fact. What is more, Fano has been very deeply involved in physically “assisting” the central government in the war in Tigray, and is blamed for many of the atrocities there.

When the treaty calls for “disarmament”, disbandment and disassociation, it remains unclear if and how this will be enforceable on those forces that have helped the government wrestle the TPLF to the negotiating table. The same doubt, conceptually, hovers over Eritrea. And in all cases, not least because both militant Amhara nationalism, and Eritrean foreign policy came pre-loaded with a deep animosity towards the TPLF in particular, and by extension, the Tigrayan people as a whole.

Eritrea still smarts from the bitter two-year war it fought with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 over the border town of Badme. The TPLF was, of course, the de facto Ethiopian government at the time. The death toll was upwards of one hundred thousand, and this is a matter that has never been forgotten.

Amhara nationalism has an earlier grievance, what with Meles Zenawi being the first non-Amhara ruler of the empire they believe they founded, and which draws it entire official, cultural and linguistic narrative from their culture. What is more, they held grievances against the Meles regime redrawing homeland boundaries in favour of Tigray, and “resettling” ethnic Tigrayans in lands Meles believed had originally been grabbed by Amhara. This consists of much of western Tigray. This area has now been re-seized, and Amhara nationalists, be they in the formal regional government, or the informal militias, will not be easily persuaded to hand them back. And the best way for them to guarantee that this does not happen, is of course to remain armed.

It is therefore not unkind to wonder if this treaty solves anything, or if it simply reinforces only bad lessons, and brings the war-prone country back to where it once was: on the brink of another war.

Same mistakes

The only reason these talks—and the treaty they have produced—even exist in the first place is because it proved militarily impossible, despite the combined efforts of the formal Ethiopian government forces, the regional Amhara militias as well as the informal militias backed by the physical intervention of Eritrean armed forces to the north, and some hi-tech weaponry from some Gulf states, to completely rout the armed force the TPLF was able to muster in Tigray, despite some truly massive losses and setbacks.

But both sides have since discovered the reality that it is very difficult to maintain a large-scale and high intensity war when neither of side manufactures the weapons and weapons systems needed to do so (a reality similar to the one dawning only slowly on the armed forces of Ukraine).

Once again, the future of all the peoples of Ethiopia is reduced to an inter-Abyssinian duel. This is almost exactly what happened during the 1991 London peace talks.

The TPLF’s participation now in the South African peace talks is basically an echo of how the Meles-led TPLF went on to secure its own interests in that Peace Conference that anticipated the fall of the Mengistu regime, despite being part of a military alliance with both Oromo and Eritrea at the time. Once again, in a display of TPLF self-absorption that borders on the outright narcissism of their late leader Meles Zenawi, they made their own deal to their best ability, in pursuit of their own understanding of what was in their best interests.

As said, their military alliance with the new OLF this time round was not a factor; the TPLF did not make OLF inclusion a condition.

A key difference is that while then they presented from a position of strength, this time they have done so from a position of weakness. But the mind-set remains the same.

The TPLF seem to have lost all memory of how the original OLF was hounded out of the EPRDF back in 1991 due to its conduct. A real peace treaty in Ethiopia should perhaps more take on the form of a review of the political breakdown that began with TPLF one-sided domination of the post-Mengistu political landscape, which has brought us to this point.

Eritrea still smarts from the bitter two-year war it fought with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 over the border town of Badme.

If Tigray does not wish to have its internal affairs dominated by others (the very essence of the 1970s and 1980s national liberation struggles in Ethiopia and elsewhere), then it simply should have made more sincere efforts to neuter the highly centralized nature of the Ethiopian state during its thirty years in government, agreed to during the wars against Mengistu and Haile Selassie before him. Instead, it promoted ethnic nationalism for itself, and suppressed it among others. It used the resources of the whole state towards that promotion, instead of limiting its development to the resources generated from its region. The TPLF wants to have it both ways: when in power, they were the premiere custodians of the empire-state; in particular, they went on to crush and scatter the Oromo nationalist movement after they had agreed to disarm and reorganize in the 1990s.  But once out of power, they now wish to be Ethiopia’s arch-separatists.

The idea of real federation was a sensible middle ground but the TPLF messed that up in exchange for American patronage at the end of the Mengistu regime. In that time Abiy Ahmed was a junior partner in the same regime. Once in power, he also went on to do the same thing to the Oromo movement after 2018, in a series of provocations that have led to the flare-up of fighting in the south.

It is all these realities that have led to all the avoidance, denial and silences reflected in the texture and narrowness of the peace treaty.

The TPLF and the Ethiopian regime may hate each other to the extent the destruction caused by their war has demonstrated. But however intense that hatred is, it is nothing in comparison to the hatred they jointly have for the “pagan” peoples of the south.

Consequences

Perhaps the TPLF’s cunning is finally catching up with it. The EPRDF coalition that ousted Colonel Mengistu’s Derg regime had one job: to loosen the suffocating bonds through which the empire-state had had been created.

But instead of finally dismantling the toxic legacy of the Menelikan state, the TPLF (or more accurately, the Meles Zenawi faction thereof, that controlled the party in order to control the EPRDF coalition in order to control the government that controlled the state), acted as though it would be in power forever. Thus, the West used an inner clique of TPLF to subvert that entire struggle. Now the West has decided to finally fully abandon the TPLF and turn back to the other Abyssinian house to keep the project going.

It is also why the TPLF has no moral grounds to make complaints about the excesses the Abiy government has perpetrated against the Tigray region and its people since the start of the war; by inventing him as a counterweight to actual Oromo nationalists through viciously repressing the original OLF—and ultimately therefore thwarting actual federation—the TPLF is now the teacher being practiced on by his former student.

The peace deal could now give the state a freer hand to focus attention and resources on the south in an attempt to re-establish hegemony over the real asset.

For the native African as a whole, events since 1991 have therefore been an enormous waste of everyone’s time, going back to the optimistic days of the 1980s when, along with organizations like Nabudere’s Uganda National Liberation Front (A-D) and its army, the Azanian Peoples’ Organization (AZAPO), the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, and even Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF, there existed the seeds of wider African Maoist movements, of which the Horn formations were seen as the most successful examples.

Once again, the future of all the peoples of Ethiopia is reduced to an inter-Abyssinian duel.

Just as Mao Zedong developed a “socialism with Chinese characteristics” which began with his armed struggle against the plethora of Western (and later Japanese) empire corporations that had been plundering the China region for over a century, the hope was for a similar uprising in Africa, in which ethnic identity did not have to be cast aside for the sake of “progress”, but became its foundation.

This is why 1991 was so important, and what makes Meles Zenawi’s betrayal at the time so profound and so stupid: in life, there is the ordinary stupidity of straightforward mistakes, and then there is this kind of stupidity that is profound because it mistakes itself for extreme cleverness.

In the course of his long rule, Prime Minister Zenawi managed to make Eritrea an enemy country (despite the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s seed support to what eventually became the TPLF back in the day) through the Badme border war, consolidated the empire-state not least by upgrading its capacity for repression, and severely disrupted the Oromo struggle by oppressing and scattering its then representative organisation (the original OLF).

For the damage done in these past two years of fighting, with most of what Meles did for Tigray probably now laying in ruins, and a lot of what he found destroyed too, and with a scattered and traumatized people, they might as well have just left Mengistu in power.

We need to hear Tigrayan intellectuals give an honest and objective comprehensive review of the now evident disaster that was the empire-based regime of Meles Zenawi, which has simply now caught up with the people of Tigray, him having left other Ethiopians enveloped in it at the time of his 2012 passing.

But “We may be waiting a long time” for that to happen, says an Oromo activist.

What we see now is the end of that sweet Meles-American deal. This is a transition to a new custodian of the empire state, a cobbling together of an old Amhara elite (even some Mengistu-era officers have been wheeled out to offer advice and succour to the Abiy government) working with an expanded base of assimilated and assimilating elites from other parts of the country, especially Oromo petit bourgeois types of which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is emblematic, focused on becoming profitably absorbed into “Ethiopianism” with just a little of their own cultures to add some local flavour.

Many in the Tigray diaspora who were cheering on the fighting they were not directly part of are now very annoyed.  Tigray political culture is normally very self-contained, so it is an annoyance that must be very high indeed, because some of the debates are now spilling out into the public, and even in English.

What they need to understand is that this method of working is exactly how Meles and his cronies were able to sign up to become a tool of US foreign policy, without the rest of the anti-Mengistu coalition knowing, in the run-up to the 1991 London Ethiopia Peace Conference. Now they might be about to have done to them what the TPLF did to the OLF in particular back then.

We need to hear Tigrayan intellectuals give an honest and objective comprehensive review of the now evident disaster that was the empire-based regime of Meles Zenawi.

The TPLF cannot now credibly repudiate the assertion of “one authority” for all Ethiopia (the key clause of the Treaty), because that is what they leaned heavily on, despite the “federation” label of the constitution, when they were in power. If they really believed in the rights of regions within a federal framework, then they should have implemented and guaranteed them for all of Ethiopia’s nations, during their time in government.

This treaty is now part of a process which is a repeat of 1899, 1991, and 2018; it is about keeping the empire state intact, which means it is about keeping Oromo and the wider south under the heel of Abyssinian western-backed power. It means continuing to destroy political voices from the south, both for the regime and the West. It is about putting this dispute between the past and present managers of the empire-state to bed, so that the real business of the empire-state may continue. Despite the depletion of blood and treasure, it is about shutting down a massively distracting side-show.

Implications

Peace agreements historically have often just been ways of buying time, but this document is bad in itself anyway, in as far as it is premised on the affirmation of the empire state.

The problem lies perhaps in the way humanities are taught in Africa: no specificity, no native history. All Africans are tribes eternally in need of a country. This creates a certain type of thinking: there is nothing in the political record of all the key actors in the crisis, and the peace treaty they have agreed to, that suggests any personal commitment to, or capacity for open democratic politics, a regard for human rights, and fair play.  Even in this war alone, there has not been any agreement about humanitarian assistance that has been fully upheld by either side.

Given all of the above—combined with the risk that Amhara-ist triumphalism, which is insisting on framing this as nothing less than an absolute capitulation by TPLF—there is every chance that this treaty will fail. As another Ethiopian put it to me, “Abyssinians don’t believe in choosing peace or negotiation. The only thing that makes sense to them is destroy your enemy totally, or he does the same to you.”

Either the consequences of Meles’ games have completely caught up with them and they have run out of options, or they a planning something.

Nevertheless, with Tigray stilled (however temporarily), the greater attention of the empire-state can be devoted to attempting to crush the armed rebellion in Oromo and Sidama, the real breadbaskets of the country, and hopefully fully restore Pax Menelikana. The economic conditions in the west, with people reduced to begging in the streets, and the drought conditions in the east, have knocked the will to fight out of everybody.

The problem lies perhaps in the way humanities are taught in Africa: no specificity, no native history.

The TPLF have helped to utterly bastardize and discredit the essence and public perception of ethnic nationalism; this war will forever be held up as an example of its “folly”, and an object lesson in the justification for crushing it by any means necessary. This has allowed already sceptical people to now hold up the images from the war as the best evidence as to why “tribalism” is to be avoided at all costs.

What does it mean for the future of native politics? Simply put, it has set the arguments for native struggles back to the 1950s, and offers the arguments for the pseudo-African nationalism built on the former colonial states, a new lease of life.

For those Africans not seeing it, understand this: the AU and the West will now be able to more confidently brush aside objections to widespread slaughter and destruction in pursuit of keeping native politics in its box.

Another possible outcome may now be the end of the TPLF as a political force. Or some fundamental re-branding, at the very least. Certainly, they are headed for a day of reckoning with their own people. The road to this point has to be explained.

However, as long as the Ethiopian state continues to exist in its current form, and as again reiterated in this peace treaty, there is going to be conflict both inside the country, and with some of its neighbours.

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The Lion, the Gazelle and the Mountain: Migration Tales of the Cattle People

In Ateker lands, explanations about the root causes of migration are often elided, not talked about. Centuries since the young walked away from Karamoja, the migration of uninitiated young men is still a sore point.

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The Lion, the Gazelle and the Mountain: Migration Tales of the Cattle People
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The draining emotional stress of the last three years breaks up memory, bringing in hallucinatory waves the past as a refracted landscape. The depth of time grows deceptive so that the last weeks of March 2020 cave into a distant darkness, whereas events that happened before that, like the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals, seem more recent.

The pandemic broke up what I had thought would be a finalising of the then ten-year quest to understand the cultural and identity texture of the region’s migratory patterns. While I bemoaned the breakage, unbeknownst to me, the pandemic lockdown had, rather than interfere with the hard-earned and long-running project (self-funded), offered a very rare glimpse into the heart of the matter itself.

Dodging cattle rustlers’ bullets

I had since 2008 followed the migratory routes and fortunes of the Nilotic peoples of East Africa, and at the time of the lockdown, I had returned from the pastoralist societies straddling Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya and was lining up a place for myself on a convoy to Kangaten, the capital of the Ethiopian Woreda of Nyangatom in the Omo region, on the northern shores of Lake Turkana.

The outbreak of the South Sudan civil war and the constant and armed cattle-rustling had stymied the travel. The civil war was not going to end any time soon, and cattle rustling was as ingrained into the culture of these pastoralist lands as a pancreas is to a stomach. You had then to ascertain where the civil war was and to study the seasonal rise and fall in the rustling calendar (there is such a thing) to know when and where to jump in and out.

Doing all of which seemed to have been for naught as the world’s lights went out in March 2020. You stood frozen to the spot, unable to go over that hill, driven early indoors to watch your mind fall to bits.

And yet that moment of global catastrophe was telling me, in reverse facsimile, the very story of what I had seen as a halted project. A global pandemic lockdown and migrations of the people are metanarratives on such a vast scale that like all metanarratives, are so big that even when they seem unrelated, leave no in-between spaces as small time factors do; they feed on and reflect on each other.

If the “migration of the peoples” is movement on a monumental scale, then a global lockdown is its polar opposite, immobility of a staggering momentousness. It goes without saying that the months of 2020-2021 had turned the globe into a laboratory to show us why human beings, like sand dunes and water, must be constantly on the move.

Stood still, human society, like decaying refuse left in one place too long, stagnates and begins to fester. The rapid depletion of food stores, collapse of economies, environmental meltdown, and the sudden and harsh tyrannical power structures enforcing the lockdown, would have been the chief factors behind the 15th and 16th century disintegration of the society some experts say had settled in roughly the present day location of Kotido in northeastern Uganda.

Christ over Lodwar

As if emphasising the faith of Christians, the last and enduring insight had come from climbing a big hill in Lodwar town to go have a look at the imitation Christ the Redeemer installed to look over Lodwar town, the capital of Turkana in northern Kenya. Under the outstretched arms of Christ, the breadth of Turkana (not its considerable length) can be seen from the haze over Lake Turkana to the East, to the wall of mountains to the West that separate Kenya from Uganda.

The aridity of the Turkana landscape is one that smites the senses, as a colonial-era explorer, the murderous, psychotic Hungarian Count Sámuel Teleki de Szék summed it up:

“I can’t imagine a landscape more barren, dried out and grim. At 1.22 pm (of March 17 1888) the Bassonarok appeared, an enormous lake of blue water dotted with some islands. The northern shores cannot be seen. At its southern end it must be about 20 kilometers wide. As far as the eye can see are barren and volcanic shores.”

The “Bassonarok” is what the Samburu—who pointed it out to Teleki so he could go and “discover” it—called the lake. Teleki promptly names it after his benefactor, the Austro-Hungarian crown prince, Rudolf, who had funded the expedition, as speculation had been that this was a possible source of the River Nile.

This “dried out and grim” landscape is where the migrating Turkana chose to make their home. Little visible in the land justifies this choice, for if migration is a search for the more conducive land as the common view will have it, then on first sight this does not appear to be the place.

If the “migration of the peoples” is movement on a monumental scale, then a global lockdown is its polar opposite, immobility of a staggering momentousness.

As the Turkana themselves will tell you, their ancestors came from across that wall of mountains, from present day Uganda. In contrast to Turkana, the Karamoja region is relatively better watered and drained, with the mix of sufficient pasture and absence of tsetse fly that favours animal husbandry. The often described route of this migration itself confounds the choice.

Whatever it was that was driving the Turkana away was not climate. When I started out on the quest, my aim had been a more general travel through the pastoralist lands of the region. A gargantuan and not well-advised choice given that up to 70 per cent of the Greater Horn of Africa is said to be pastoralist. You have to be a multi-state institution, rather than a self-funding peripatetic writer to undertake such a project.

The first foray out into Turkana lands in 2012 quickly forced me to draw a smaller plan, which still covered southeastern South Sudan, northeastern Uganda, northwestern Kenya and southwestern Ethiopia, a landmass bigger than many countries.

It took all of a decade to do, with some balance left uncleared.

Down the valley

In July 2012, I set off from Kitale on a recceing trip to size up the task, dropping down the escarpment and onto the floor of the Kenyan North Rift. At Kalem Ngorok, I happened to ask what the name of the place meant.

“Hornless cattle”, I was told.

From my formative years in boarding school in Teso in Uganda, I knew that Ngorok meant cattle. I had probably had an inkling of Kalem, but the connection that among the Luo-speaking Lango alem referred to hornless cattle, struck me like thunder out of a clear sky.

As I made my way back to Kitale, the premise upon which I had based the project started to fray and in the months that followed, grew confused, and what Kalem Ngorok had implanted in my mind would not go away.

As the Turkana themselves will tell you, their ancestors came from across that wall of mountains, from present day Uganda.

The pivot away from the original framing meant working out another. The ensuing search sent me scrounging through theology, culinary culture, language, naming systems, clan formation—all areas that yielded valuable knowledge but still did not adequately add up. Without a framework, information is just a pile of meaningless data. But frameworks are not useful just because they exist. The trick was finding one that went to the heart of the matter.

I did not find one; it found me. In the rain-soaked April of 2018, I was determined to make it to South Sudan. My target was Kapoeta, capital of the South Sudan state of Namorunyang. The route that I chose was via Turkana, seeing as it would also be my first time visiting Lodwar, hence bringing the insights that come from contiguity into the mix.

I had by then learnt that the collective terminology by which the pastoralist group I narrowed my quest down to was “Ateker”. But this grouping is too big to look at all at once, so I settled for those who the Ugandan politician, David Pulkol controversially refers to as “core Ateker”—the Karamojong of Uganda, the Turkana of Kenya, the Toposa of South Sudan and the Nyangatom of Ethiopia who oscillate problematically within their collective circle.

In Lodwar, in the shadow of the great gathering of the Ateker peoples in the Tobong Loree festival that brought many Ateker from the region together, conversations yielded a word, “Asapan”. It was to be the turning point.

Bull worship

I liked it for that clipped, exact phonetics of which the Ateker language overflows. I did not pay much attention to it nor think it was more important than the other words and constructions I was meeting. What I liked about it at the time was its cultural texture, describing as it did the male rite of passage from an uninitiated youth to a full man allowed to slaughter bulls. Among the cattle keepers, the bull is held in special, god-like status. There is a becoming complexity to this, for while in economic terms the cow is of greater value, exchanging for 13 goats where the bull will collect only 7 good grade goats, the bull is special for spiritual and cultural purposes. For insight, a young man will have a bull calf pointed out as his. Henceforth, the two grow up as what can only be described as spiritual twins. They will share a name. When a young warrior returns successfully from a battle or raid, he is expected during the celebration to decorate his bull. He is mentioned in reference to his bull. Should his bull have a red coat, he will be given the pet name Apaloreng, and if black, Apalokwang, etc. Stories are told of men going into terminal shock upon the death or abduction of their bulls, and in Kapoeta, I was told that a man whose bull had been rustled, and who followed its track, began to walk into the fire in which the bull was being roasted.

To loosen the tongue of an Ateker man, start a conversation about bulls. To not be thought man enough to slaughter a bull has profound spiritual and political implications. And in what will have a bearing in the central theme of this essay, a man who cannot slaughter a bull has no political influence, cannot talk in an assembly and is the last to eat and drink.

This aspect of Asapan—the rite of passage allowing a man to slaughter a bull—fascinated me all the way to Kapoeta. And yet, the velocity of the provisional framing I had created was still bearing me forth, hence, I was interested in finding words which, like Kalemngorok, would explain to me just how connected to my Lango these peoples of the arid cattle fields were.

The lion, ostrich and mountain sets

In Kapoeta I asked what Toposa meant. They said to me, “We were heading west during our migration”.

“West?” I asked and before they could respond, I said, that is what “To” means, right?

They nodded in agreement. So I said, in that case, “The Toposa word for East is Kide?”

They were struck silent that a man from Lango in northern Uganda, so far from home, would know this. There were others that left me disoriented. Those who will remember the news from yesteryears will recognise the name Fr. George King’a. He was a South Sudanese priest and politician who played important roles in both the united Sudan and in peeling the South off it. There is more to him. But by the time I got to Kapoeta, I had gotten into the habit of asking the meaning behind everything. And so in Kapoeta, sitting next to his grave and talking to his nephew, then Kapoeta MP, Hon. Emmanuel Epone Lolimo, told me that his uncle, Fr. King’a had been so named because he was born at the border point of Kapoeta and Riwoto.

Where I was myself born, the line separating one allotment from the other, is called “wang king’a”.

That was as far as the words and names were concerned. Sitting there, just listening to the people, the texture of their voices and mannerisms, I could have been in any place in Lango. I had never met such close relatives of Lango before.

It was another word, this time in English, that pushed me further to understand the connection between asapan and why the Turkana most likely left Karamoja and chose to live in the desert instead. One evening, in Kapoeta, at Lorika’s Hotel where I stayed, I was in a small group with the governor, Louis Lobong and three of his state’s ministers discussing Toposa society when I started to understand the significance of asapan.

When a young warrior returns successfully from a battle or raid, he is expected during the celebration to decorate his bull.

One of the ministers, Lorika himself, drew an organogram of age sets and explained to me what he called “promotion”. These age sets proceed by order of birth, by which men born in a certain period belong in a socio-political cluster with influence. These age sets, like the generation sets, are mostly named after animals or mountains, so there is the mountain set—Ngimoru, ostrich set—Nguwana, gazelle set—Ngigetei, lion set—Ngingatunyo, etc.

(The age sets go by different names among the numerous Ateker groups, and one incredible man I met in Lodwar, Boniface Korobe, has traced the lineages back to the 1730s or thereabouts, when the effective split with Jie began for Turkana.)

I then asked about the generation age-set.

The response to this simple question removed the scales from my eyes.

They explained that ever since the Toposa left Jie (who live in present day Kotido), they had lost the generation set system. In their explanation, the ancestors of the Toposa had left without the transfer of power that a retiring generation proffers to their sons. No longer standing in the darkness, a lot about the Ateker began to make sense.  This “leaving”, as I was to understand it again and again, had not been made in good stead.

Becoming a full man at 70

Unravelling this would take me all of another year. How I undertook the project was to save enough money to last me a handful of weeks at a time. But before then, and when I returned to Moroto in Karamoja, the significance of asapan was no longer in doubt. I met an old man, John Napua who told me that he had received asapan at the age of 70, whereupon he felt like a full man. He was inducted into the Ngimoru generation set and wears the defining copper bracelet of his set. He did not have to tell me what that meant. A posse of young men, when I sat down with Napua in Naita Kwai, just outside Moroto town, circled him the same way that powerful politicians or bishops, are shadowed by aides.

There was a sad subtext to the story of Napua. During his childhood in the 1950s, his family had lost all their animals in one single raid. The further deaths of his sisters meant there would be no dowry to return animals to his family. They did not have boys in numbers and age enough to carry out compensatory, restocking raids. Napua and his family fell out of the structures of power. His father did not have the animals to fund his sons’ asapan when the time came. The one open option, albeit to an alternative, viable life, was to be sent to the colonial government schools. As a man who could read and write, and speak English, Napua found employment in the civil service. But it was not asapan and the distinction counted.

Lopiar, The Sweep

There was a further twist to this, and reconnects directly to the fate of the Ateker. The tragic 1980 famine that swept across much of Africa had a deleterious impact on the Ateker. In what is memorialised there as “Lopiar” —The Sweep, from the root verb Apiar, to sweep—it is estimated that the Ateker lands lost up to 21 per cent of their population. The sheer magnitude of this tragedy was in Uganda subsumed by the return of President Milton Obote to power, the elections of that year and the beginning of the Museveni rebellion.

What it meant was that the cholera outbreak and the death of cattle stock set Ateker societies back several generations. In Karamoja, there was no stock wealth to enable the expensive asapan ceremonies to be carried out. The impact was profound as Karamojong society was without effective government, albeit a traditional one. For the decades starting in 1980 till the 2010s, Karamoja nearly suffered the complete loss of generational age set linkages to ensure continuity of its political system.

A man who cannot slaughter a bull has no political influence, cannot talk in an assembly and is the last to eat and drink.

And yet that does not explain why Napua was initiated so late in life. That belongs to an age-old paradox and critique of gerontological systems generally, and may partly explain why so many branches of the Ateker family were forced to migrate and why some, like the Teso and Lango, were easy prey to absorption by other societies.

The age set system is simple to understand. Boys born within the range of say a five-year radius are considered members of the same age set. This means the rhythm of initiation is regular. But the generational set system is where the challenge lies. The generation set systems stump even scholars to unwind. The little I understood runs something like this: A generation refers to male issues of males of a similar generation, the entire progeny of an entire generation of fathers, by which the grandfathers are one generation, the fathers a second generation, sons a third and so on and so forth, each holding power in turns. That is about the simplest explanation. The complication lies in the peculiarity of pastoralist societies. Men can only marry when cattle are available, so Ateker men married comparatively late, often in their mid to late 20s and at times, in their early 30s. Then, they did not stop marrying, with the result that a first born son may be in his 50s when his own father sires a last born son, by which time he himself could well have sons in their late 20s. And those sons may well be fathers already. It is not uncommon that men will have uncles as young as their own grandsons. So the problems start.

As happened with Napua, the 50-year-old son belongs in the same generation as his 1-year-old step-brother. Assuming that the 50-year-old’s father had himself been the last born of his own father, the society is left with a generational range that can stretch up to 120 years. By this range, the 30-year old son is considered to be generationally junior to his 1-year old uncle. Political power is unlikely to come to the 30 year old. The oldest member of that generation could have died in the 1890s while in 2022, the youngest member is still alive. The 80-year old nephew would have died powerless in the 1980s.

It is a system that boggles the mind, or as Boniface Korobe, cultural researcher and official at the Turkana County Government office explained to me, it is a system that can only be explained to you; you may not necessarily understand it.

The result is political and psychological despair for men caught out in the middle generations. Picture Ateker men already in their 80s sitting waiting for their 10-year old uncles to age, assume political power and hand it over to them.

Migrating from political rigidities

In Ateker lands, explanations about the root causes of migration are often elided, not talked about directly because it is so personal and not without pain. Centuries since the young walked away from Karamoja, the migration of uninitiated young men is still a sore point. It is explained that it was these uninitiated young men—the Karachuna—who walked away with their old men’s grazing herds (lactating herds are kept closer to kraals to provide milk) and never returned. It is this sense of betrayal that the Karamojong still hold to this day, since the 1600s and 1700s, against the Lango, the Teso, the Turkana, the Toposa, the Nyangatom. What outsiders call cattle rustling boils down to calls for the migrants—seen as cow thieves, to bring those animals back, and the retaliation to regain them. But the order of who started it has since been lost in the back and forth grabbing of the herds.

Sitting there, just listening to the people, the texture of their voices and mannerisms, I could have been in any place in Lango.

As to why they left is a matter of analytical discourse and most explanations, including the one I am attempting here, are subject to strong challenges. But the gathering weight of pre-initiation men, who were coming of age, but were two to three generations waiting in line, and whose own elderly fathers were still taking young brides much to the chagrin of the very young men charged with maintaining them, would have rankled. To boot, it is this pre-initiation generation that are tasked with the equivalent of civil service duties, the generation set being political heads. With the imprimatur of asapan, and their hegemony in full force, the elders are that glittering circle of senatorial authority (senator deriving from the Latin word senilis, old—a senate literally meaning a council of elders), whose presence grants such magnificence at the Ateker Akiriket ceremonies. It is they that can slaughter bulls. They have first service rights. No crafted political decision is taken without their approval.

And yet, it is for the pre-initiation age set young men to carry these decisions out. Without formal power and uncertain about their place in the pecking order, the karachuna are often a troublesome lot; it is often they that you see in pictures or footage of Ateker men caught rustling livestock.

Away in the fields of 17th century Karamoja, and despairing at never gaining political power, why should they return to a life of tyrannical senators? It is a conjectural extrapolation. But it is one with very strong points to make. The glittering Akiriket ceremonies I described of Ateker hosts in full regalia of ostrich-plumed aworich headgear, with the authority of a generation in power, are sadly, meaningful mostly held in Karamoja.

When the young men migrated, the elders considered them lost—dead. In fact, it is believed that the word “Teso” may be translatable to “grave”, as the Karamojong considered their errant sons already dead to them. Such was the sense of betrayal felt back home. In a socio-political sense, the migrants were dead as the societies they founded were politically null and void. There was no one with respectable authority to call things to order. If they came upon a simpler political system such as the Lango when they encountered the Luo, kick-starting their politics meant adopting other people’s systems, in what amounted to a political reform. But at the price of losing language, gods, names and culture. To carry on without the generation with power at hand would be the equivalent of a ministry without a political head to approve decisions.

A further supporting factor to this argument of generation-system collapse is that those who left referred derisively to those they left behind as the elderly men in charge, hence the terminology, Karamojong—from the root noun emojong, the elderly. In Karamoja, the enlightened don’t want that name and prefer to be called Karatunga (the people).

In Turkana and Toposa, I was told that the generation system “ended so long ago” it is no longer possible to trace it. But even if it is traced back, the permission and blessing of the Jie, generally referred to as “our ancestors” by the Ateker diaspora, and who sit firmly in this knowledge in Kotido, would be needed for the generational age set to be reinstated, for as with church matters, only a consecrated bishop can consecrate a new bishop. Out of all proportions, the Turkana and Toposa still make entreaties for the Jie to do this.

The price for that, alas, is that the animals the young took be returned. Which is unacceptable.

Ateker in the post-independence state

Hence, in Turkana, as Boniface Korobe explained to me, there is asapan “lite”, no more than a marking of passage for boys and only marking the coming of age of age sets. There is little political force in it. It is the same in Toposa.

There is nothing untypical about this sad supply-end of migration. The European migration into “new worlds” was precipitated by dominative and frozen aristocratic systems, which after the collapse of the church in the Reformation, closed common lands and widened the wealth and power gaps between aristocrats and peasants. To boot, the collapse of what I am at times tempted to call the Ateker Empire corresponds to the period of general collapse of empires in Africa, whose roots trace back to antiquity. There is more to this story. As with new polities created by migrants fleeing ossified political systems, the Ateker in diaspora created what amounts to republics, to guard against age tyranny. Tragically, colonialists saw these societies as acephalous for not having the kinds of monarchies seen in the south. Tragic because the post-independence state carried on the cruel ignorance of colonialists in mistreating the Ateker.

The tragic 1980 famine that swept across much of Africa had a deleterious impact on the Ateker.

The price for this breakage has arisen in our own times to exact a terrible political price. In Karamoja, the 1989 famine stymied the rise to power of a new generation. This failure was marked by the lack of control of the 1990s and early 2000s when the karachuna, without powerful elders to command their obedience, and armed with the lately acquired AK47 (another story altogether), ran amok. The resulting raids and counter-raids destroyed Ateker society and were fought on the scale of civil wars. It was only in Karamoja, where the generation set system was salvaged from the ruins of the 1980 famine, that elders have managed to finally hold sway over the youth. The Museveni government takes credit for “pacifying” Karamoja, but it was the respected word of the elders—men like Napua—that convinced the youth to lay down their guns.

In comparison, there was no such voice in Turkana or Toposa to help Nairobi and Juba to disarm their pastoralists. Because these pose threats from Kenya and South Sudan, Karamoja began to re-arm.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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