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Hard Labour: The Surrogacy Industry in Kenya – Part II

19 min read.

Commissioning parents who venture into the legal minefield of surrogacy in Kenya also risk losing their money, children, or both – either to the state who might intervene by taking the child away, or to surrogates who later backtrack and decide they want to keep the child. Allegations of human trafficking are also a real concern.

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Hard Labour: The Surrogacy Industry in Kenya
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Navigating the law

There is currently no legal framework in Kenya which provides for the uniqueness of gestational surrogacy, leaving its participants to work around the existing laws and, in some cases, to bend them to the limit. This journalist even recorded one agent who seemed to suggest that hospital staff could be bribed to falsify birth certificates.

“Because there is no legal framework for surrogacy that would transfer the child to the commissioning parent, the closest framework that exists to permanently transfer parental rights is adoption via the courts,” said Bobby Mkangi, a constitutional lawyer and expert in child rights and protection who served on the task force that drafted the Adoption Regulations.

But the adoption route is closed, by law, to many who might want to commission a surrogate baby in Kenya.

The Children Act says adoption is only permitted under “special circumstances” to sole applicants seeking to adopt children of the alternate sex (i.e. a single male cannot adopt a girl, and a single female cannot adopt a boy); and to sole foreign females.

The law does not allow adoption, even under “special circumstances”, to sole applicants or couples who are unmarried, to “homosexuals” and to “sole foreign males”.

The government went one step further in 2019 when it banned all international adoptions.

Despite these restrictions, agencies such as Gaurav Wankhede’s advertise Kenya to gay clients. “Unfortunately, gay surrogacy is not legal in every country. Which leads to many broken hearts in the LGBT community. Surrogacy Agency Kenya is right here to make your dreams come true and resolve all the obstacles related to gay surrogacy,” its website says.

New Life Global also recommended Kenya as a destination for “Single Intended Fathers or Same Sex Couples” on its website, although when contacted they said they had closed their Kenya branch down in 2019. Their Kenya website remained active until a few days after receiving our questions, which they explained as an oversight by their IT team.

“Despite the fact that surrogacy is not banned in Kenya, we saw that the legal part of the procedures was not regulated quite well,” New Life explained.

These agencies and their local handlers have been relying on narrow loopholes and other legal grey areas created in part by the lack of any legal recognition of surrogacy.

Surrogates are particularly exposed because the law recognises their rights as mothers, but not as surrogates. Lacking clear legal status themselves, they are seldom provided with independent legal guidance.

Commissioning parents who venture into the legal minefield of surrogacy in Kenya also risk losing their money, children, or both — either to the state which might intervene by taking the child away, or to surrogates who later backtrack and decide they want to keep the child. Allegations of human trafficking are also a real concern.

Enricah Dulo, a specialist family law advocate and a legal expert in gestational surrogacy practice in Kenya, explained that the formal adoption process set out in the Children Act is complex and will take “a minimum of three months”.

“The system is designed to protect the interests of the child at all times and to prevent human trafficking,” she said.

“Adoption involves a period of trial parenting that is supervised by officers from the Department of Children Services or an approved adoption society. The final adoption order is confirmed by a judge of the Family Division of the High Court, taking all factors into consideration.”

Heterosexual married couples do not have the same legal challenges as gay couples or single parents because the adoption route is open to them in Kenyan law.

One of the pathways some commissioning parents follow is to avoid adoption altogether, Dulo said, and to apply for legal custody and parental orders of the child instead.

Legal custody also sidesteps the government’s 2019 ban on international adoptions, it seems.

Dulo said she has been helping commissioning parents seek legal and parental orders for children born to them out of gestational surrogacy agreements by filing cases, not at the High Court, but the Children Court.

Dulo maintains that certain sections of the Kenya Constitution (Art. 53 (2)) and the Children Act (Sect. 4(2)) provide a degree of leeway because they state that the best interests of the child are of paramount importance when considering any matter.

Although less time-consuming and less complex than adoption cases, there are still some important checks that a Children Court magistrate will insist on. These include DNA test results to confirm a genetic link between baby and commissioning parents, as well as consent from the surrogate mother relinquishing all her rights over the newborn.

Once an order has been issued by the Children Court, Dulo approaches the Department of Civil Registration to issue a birth certificate in the name(s) of the commissioning parents.

But some agencies appear to have found a short-cut around even this shorter route. This reporter interviewed two surrogates who claimed, independently of one another, that their surrogacy agencies had arranged 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.

Main fertility clinics in Kenya

Kenya’s Births and Deaths Registration Act makes no special provision for the genetic variables of surrogacy. “By legal definition the person who gives birth is the legal mother whose name should be entered into the notification,” said Professor Marion Mutugi, a geneticist and Vice Chancellor of Amref International University.

Surrogate Minnie (details changed to protect her) was contracted by surrogate recruiter and one-time New Life Kenya manager Millicent Aoko Ogott to deliver a baby for a Kenyan couple whom she never met.

After the embryo transfer, Ogott put her in a rental house on the outskirts of Nairobi for the entire nine months of her pregnancy.

She attended all her antenatal clinics at the hospital where she would later give birth.

Minnie said she was checked into the hospital under the name of the commissioning mother.

She said she was not allowed to see the child after it was born, and claimed that the commissioning parents’ names were entered in the birth notification at the hospital.

The birth notification is later used to generate a birth certificate by the Registrar of Birth under the Department of Civil Registration.

Minnie was paid Sh685,000 by the agency.

Minnie also told the story of her friend who carried a child — this time for a foreign couple through an unnamed surrogacy agency. She, too, gave birth at the same hospital, never saw the child and the parents’ names were entered in the birth notification. (Asked to put this reporter in touch with her friend directly, Minnie said her friend did not wish to be contacted).

Another surrogate, Judy (not her real name) told this reporter about a fellow surrogate she knows who gave birth at another hospital in Nairobi and who also claimed that the commissioning couple (both foreigners) were entered in the birth notification at the hospital – again through an unnamed surrogacy agency.

We contacted both hospitals named to us by the surrogates. One did not respond to our queries, while the other, through a lawyer, confirmed that “our practice in the processing of birth notifications has always been that the gestational carrier of a baby is the birth mother of the baby and the carriers’ name is the only one that is allowed to appear in the Birth Notification”.

The lawyer adopted a hostile tone to any suggestion that the hospital’s staff might be complicit in bypassing the law.

Instead of offering to look into the allegation, the lawyer dismissed it as “frivolous and vexatious”.

Ogott denied all allegations and referred us to her lawyer who did not respond except to warn about the laws of defamation, criminal libel and malicious falsehood.

These denials notwithstanding, the impression that surrogate agencies do conspire with hospital staff in order to short-circuit birth registration laws was furthered when this reporter posed as a Kenyan commissioning parent called Angela, and approached the African Fertility Agency.

Agency co-owner Jahjah had the following taped phone conversation with the undercover reporter:

Jahjah: Ule mtoto wako atazaliwa (Your baby that will be born)

Angela/Naipanoi: ehh? (Yes?)

Jahajah: Huwa tunachoranga na Hospitali alafu birth certificate inatoka na complete majina yenu, yako na mzee (We make arrangements with the hospital so the birth certificate has you and your husband’s name)

Naipanoi: Ohh majina yetu? So you talk with the hospital natoa kitu kidogo? (Oh, our names? You talk with the hospital and we give a small token?)

[…]

Jahjah: Na si unajua Kenya saa zingine unaeza fanya mambo mawili kidogo usaidiwe. (You know in Kenya, you need to do one or two things and you are assisted)

Naipanoi: Yes Kenya iko hivyo (Yes, Kenya is like that)

Jahjah : Alafu at the same time, hatutaki kurisk kazi ya watu huko hospitali. (At the same time we don’t want to place people’s careers at risk at the hospital)

[…]

Naipanoi: Yeah true. Pia unajuanga kusaidiana ni muhimu….. ‘cause unajua venye Kenya iko (Yeah that is true. It’s good to help out. That’s how things work in Kenya.)

Jahjah: Hio ni yangu na wewe, hakuna mtu mwingine anaweza (That is between you and me, no one else can deliver what I have offered)

[…]

Naipanoi: Ehh, ohhh..utatengeneza and I won’t have to undergo all that, the adoption, the nini..(So you’ll fix that and I won’t have to undergo all that, the adoption, and all that)

Jahjah : Hata hakuna mambo na adoption. Bila hata kutengeneza hio (birth certificate) hakuna adoption… (Adoption is not even necessary. Even without sorting that (birth certificate) you won’t go through adoption.)

Jahjah denied all allegations against him — including a specific question about the phone call with “Angela”.

Wankhede — Jahjah’s business partner in African Fertility Agency, and the person who had first put “Angela” in touch with him — did not respond to any questions.

Ironically, Dulo recalled that Jahjah and Wankhede had both attended her regular training workshop on “Gestational Surrogacy and Transfer of Parental Rights in Kenya”, in which she teaches participants how the legal framework applies.

She commented: “Whereas it is true that there is still no legal framework regulating gestational surrogacy and the transfer of parental rights in Kenya; this does not in any way mean that it is impossible to have the commissioning parents listed in the birth certificates, unless parties engage in deception and other unscrupulous activities.”

“Agencies, clinics and commissioning parents should engage an advocate and have the transfer of parental rights and orders directing the Registrar of Births to list the commissioning parents in the birth certificates done through the court process.”

Journey towards a legalized surrogacy

This reporter is also aware of a case involving a surrogate and a single gay commissioning parent.

The case is sensitive and complex. The surrogate asked not to be named or identified in any way.

But in essence: after the surrogate had been implanted with an embryo (the commissioning parent’s sperm, and a donor’s egg) and carried the baby to full term, she and the parent pretended to have conceived the child sexually, and not through gestational surrogacy.

She then waived her rights to the child, and gave the commissioning parent custody.

The surrogate said the entire process was very stressful for her: “What I did was not child’s play,” she confided. “There were times when during the process I honestly feared I might end up in prison,” she said.

Parents’ plight 

Like many businesses promoting surrogacy in Kenya, foreign-owned agencies like Become Parents and New Life Global Network (see previous story) appear to target foreign gay couples and lure them with attractive packages of around Sh3.5 million ($32,000).

This is a fraction of what it would cost in western countries like the United States, where packages cost around $120,000 (Sh13.1 million).

The bargain prices available in Kenya are at the expense of desperate surrogates, who are paid far less than their counterparts in the West.

While the businesses advertise Kenya as a safe, friendly and affordable country, parents are often unclear whether this option is legal or not. In reality, parents are at risk of losing their money, children, or both, to surrogates and to the state.

And while surrogacy can be an incredibly fulfilling experience for parents, some agencies have been accused of taking advantage of their naivety and desperation.

In March this year, a surrogacy agency owner called Winnie Warigia Maina appeared in court in a case that received front-page media attention. Maina had reportedly been charged with defrauding Dion William Van Aardt, a Dutch national living in Kenya.

Van Aaardt testified that he had paid Maina Sh2.9 million ($26,200) to arrange for IVF and a surrogate, but was discouraged by Maina from ever meeting the surrogate in person. Months later, Maina allegedly told Van Aaardt that the surrogate and baby had “died”, and requested funeral expenses, only for Van Aaardt to discover that his sperm lay untouched at the IVF clinic, and had never been used.

Warigia reportedly denied the charges and was released on bail. The case continues.

‘Ripped off’

Monica, the surrogate who was forced to have a late-term abortion (see previous story), also claimed that her commissioning parent was overcharged and made to pay expenses that the agency co-owned by Wankhede and Jahjah never incurred.

The parent travelled to Kenya for two weeks as part of the surrogacy package offered by the agency.

During this time, the agency erected a barrier between Monica and the parent, Monica claimed, thereby ensuring there was no communication between them.

“I finally met the parent at the airport, when we flew out to his home country together where I was to give birth,” Monica said.

This was the point at which they both discovered the actual fees being charged by the agency, Monica alleged: “While we sat together on the flight, the parent discovered from me that a lot of what he had paid for seemed excessive. For example, I was just staying at the surrogate hostel but they said that I was costing over Sh100,000 a month for rental, food, upkeep and a personal maid.”

“They also claimed I had made several more visits to the hospital than I actually did,” Monica claimed.

Monica also claimed that six months into her pregnancy, Jahjah had offered her Sh100,000 extra to give birth in the commissioning parent’s country. She agreed.

But on the flight the parent revealed he had actually paid Sh300,000 to the agency, after being told that her family had demanded this additional sum to fly out with him.

Monica also learned, through her commissioning parent, that the surrogacy contract between the agency and the parent, which she was never given sight of, stated she would be paid Sh1.5 million. In fact, Monica claims she had been offered Sh630,000.

Monica’s allegations could not be independently verified, because she does not have direct access to the financial details in question.

However, she is not the only African Fertility Agency surrogate who claims to have discovered that her pay didn’t match the contract signed by the parent.

A pregnant surrogate on a Sh640,000 pay package threatened to run away after discovering the contract between parent and agency billed her services at Sh1.5 million, according to an insider sympathetic to the surrogate who claimed to have direct knowledge of these financial arrangements.

These allegations were put to both Wankhede and Jahjah.

Kioko denied any wrongdoing. Wankhede never responded.

Stranded

For gay Australian commissioning parents Ryan and James (thought to be their real first names), their experience in Kenya was hellish. The couple were stranded in the country after Wankhede’s Become Parents agency allegedly provided them with “not one, but two fake birth certificates” that their embassy rejected.

Their baby was born in 2018. They claim the surrogate provided fake details that were entered in the birth notification. The notification details helped generate the birth certificate.

After providing the certificates to the embassy for the baby’s passport and citizenship application, the embassy claimed they were fake and refused to assist.

“It soon hit the couple that their situation was dire. They were stranded with a 5-month-old across the globe in a third world country with no timeframe for when they could get out,” according to a blogpost about their experience that was posted by someone called Jet Lake in 2019.

According to the blog, they confronted Wankhede, who reportedly replied: “My agency had tasked obtaining the BC [birth certificate] through a local contact person, and I cannot reach him at present”.

It seems the illegal practice of bypassing Kenya’s birth registration requirements in order to smooth the path for foreign surrogates (see previous section) may have come back to haunt Become Parents and their unsuspecting clients.

Wankhede would later claim that “the certificate just wasn’t processed correctly by Kenyan Authorities and a new certificate was being generated”. But this, too, was reportedly rejected as a fake by the Australian High Commission.

The increasingly panicked couple then visited the Department of Civil Registration seeking help themselves, but found none. Going to court was riskier, their lawyer told them. They had a high chance of losing the child to the state because of their “illegal” marital status.

The blog doesn’t reveal how the plight of Ryan and James was resolved, but it continues to live online and paints Kenya as a “commercial surrogacy nightmare”.

According to Wankhede’s former business partner Bill Houghton, an Irish single parent, using an unnamed surrogacy agency, came unstuck when his baby’s DNA did not match his. The Irish Consulate in Nairobi initially declined to issue the baby with citizenship or a passport. After being stranded in the country for weeks, the embassy finally relented. He was required to adopt the baby in Ireland.

In this case, constitutional and human rights expert Bobby Mkangi smells a rat: “Unless he was appointed to act as a guardian through a guardianship order then everything else is illegal. It’s against the law in Kenya for single parents to adopt, and I can’t see how he would have been allowed to leave the country unless he paid off the immigration control officers at JKIA.”

Mkangi is also concerned that such situations could haunt the child’s life forever. “Any irregularities in the child’s legal status at this stage could mean they miss out on certain rights as citizens of their adopted countries,” he pointed out.

Wankhede did not respond to detailed questions, including about the incidents involving Ryan and James as well as the Irish single parent.

Arrested and left empty-handed

In a worst-case scenario, commissioning parents face arrest and losing their child.

In 2018, police arrested alleged surrogate mother Josephine Muthoni Kariuki (a genetic mother whose eggs had contributed to the embryo) together with commissioning parent Neo Kian Fu, a Chinese national, as well as a Mombasa doctor who had assisted the duo.

They were charged in a Mombasa court with engaging in “acts that promote child trafficking”, according to a charge sheet seen by this reporter.

The surrogacy agreement reportedly unravelled after Kariuki changed her mind about handing the baby over to the commissioning parent.

Police appear to have concluded that the agreement whereby the parent would adopt the baby before departing the country was illegal, and charged the trio. The baby was placed in a children’s home.

The accused denied the charges, and the case was eventually dropped due to a lack of evidence.

It is understood that the child now lives with the surrogate.

This reporter later found the surrogate in one of the surrogate WhatsApp groups she had joined. She claimed: “I was never a surrogate. If I was, why did the court grant me the custody of my son?”

Reviewing all these horror stories told by commissioning parents, Mkangi said: “This is why surrogacy agencies look for countries with weak legal enforcement regimes and weak child protection frameworks to exploit and manipulate. As a result, poor surrogates and desperate parents are put in situations that force them to break the law.”

Reproductive healthcare services

Almost a decade and a half after the first surrogate baby was born in Kenya, the country still doesn’t have a legislative framework to regulate gestational surrogacy and assisted reproduction.

Over the years, however, there have been many efforts by female lawmakers to address this — all of them have so far been frustrated.

Suba North Member of Parliament Millie Odhiambo-Mabona has been at the forefront of the campaign. In 2014, she sponsored the In-Vitro Fertilization Bill, revived it in 2016 and then reintroduced it in 2018.

Former nominated Senator Judith Sijeny also tabled a bill in the upper chamber in 2014, but it was never passed. Latterly, Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika has also joined the effort by sponsoring the same bill that was initially introduced by Sijeny. However, these bills were never passed into law.

The current situation is not only stalled but it is also controversial and complex.

Two bills tabled in 2019 are waiting to be passed into law, each of them, among other things, laying out the conditions and procedures for surrogacy practice in Kenya.

One is before the Senate, while the other is in the National Assembly.

The Senate legislation, sponsored by Kihika, is called the Reproductive Healthcare Bill. It provides an overarching legal framework to govern safe access to a wide range of reproductive health services for women. This includes family planning, pregnancy terminations, adolescent reproductive health and assisted reproduction — including surrogacy.

But it has stirred strong opposition from the powerful religious lobby, who claim it promotes abortion and teenage access to family planning methods. As a result, the bill has become bogged down in the Senate, and is currently being overhauled entirely.

Kihika did not respond to requests for comment.

In the National Assembly, the experienced Odhiambo had cleverly sponsored two bills — a Reproductive Healthcare Bill and an Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) Bill. “It was a purely tactical move,” she explained to this reporter. “The Reproductive Healthcare one is very contentious while the ART Bill — which tackles surrogacy — is less so. I had to separate the issues so that in case the former doesn’t pass, the latter would be.”

But it has not been plain sailing, either. Although the ART Bill was passed by the National Assembly, it was shot down in the Senate.

It has now undergone some amendments back in the National Assembly’s health committee, and underwent a second reading in the National Assembly earlier this month.

There are many similarities between the Odhiambo and Kihika bills. Whereas Odhiambo’s bill touches on surrogacy in brief, Kihika’s is much more detailed. Odhiambo is on record in the National Assembly saying that she would not object to the bills being harmonised.

Perhaps the most significant proposal is that both would abolish commercial surrogacy.

Commissioning parents would only be permitted to pay a surrogate’s direct medical expenses, loss of earnings suffered during the pregnancy period and insurance cover in case of disability or death, according to Kihika’s proposals.

Commissioning parents would enter into a signed gestational surrogacy contract with a surrogate. Each party would also be represented by a separate legal counsel, with the commissioning parents paying the surrogate’s legal fees.

Surrogates are divided over the possible demise of commercial surrogacy. On the one hand, Monica is elated: “Paid surrogacy encourages exploitation. If I could be a surrogate again, it would never be for money. I would only do it for free, for a couple unable to conceive a baby naturally.”

But surrogate Judy, on the other hand, is going through a difficult time financially and is considering being a surrogate again. “I closed my business. All the money’s gone. If they ban commercial surrogacy, how will I survive?” she asked.

The proposed change could spell the end of the more controversial agencies, although there is likely to still be a need for those which can provide a more limited administrative service.

As Kihika’s bill stands, the commissioning couple would need to prove their inability to have children naturally in order to be allowed to enter into a surrogacy arrangement.

The other significant change proposed in both bills is that the commissioning parents are recognised as the legal parents, with their names being entered in both the birth notification and birth certificate (a reversal of the current situation).

In addition, a child born as a result of gestational surrogacy would also take the citizenship of the commissioning parents and not that of the surrogate mother (another reversal).

With the passage of this law, a surrogate mother relinquishes all parental and custodial rights over the child as soon as she gives birth.

While these changes would smooth the path for commissioning parents, including foreigners, some experts have raised concerns.

Professor Marion Mutugi, a geneticist and Vice Chancellor of Amref International University, has proposed multiple amendments to the ART Bill which she said needed to be much clearer on who can contract a surrogate: “Is it a single woman, married, unmarried live-in partners, same-sex, who?”

Enricah Dulo, a specialist family law advocate and legal expert in gestational surrogacy practice in Kenya, said the legal parentage should not be transferred from a surrogate to commissioning parent based on the strength of a surrogacy agreement alone as there is also a need to protect children from incidences of human trafficking.

As a further safeguard, Dulo would also like the law to provide for a mandatory DNA test after birth, in order to ensure that either the sperm or egg or both were from the commissioning parent(s). This is also to confirm to the surrogate that she bears no genetic link to the child(ren) she carried to term.

“Kenya is known as a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking,” Dulo warned, adding that “parental rights should still be transferred through a court order” after DNA has confirmed a genetic link to the commissioning parents.

“Any surrogacy bill that passes must recognise the rights and welfare of the child as being of paramount importance,” Dulo said.

Postscript: My encounter with JahJah

At the beginning of this investigation, in mid-2019, I posed as a commissioning parent as a way to crack open the secretive world of commercial surrogacy in Kenya.

It was Gaurav Wankhede who first fell for my story. Posing as Angela, a married woman, I told him my “husband” and I desperately wanted a child.

After some toing and froing over email, he put me in touch with his “local manager”, Josephat Kioko Jahjah, who would arrange for me to visit an IVF clinic for tests and would also pair us with a surrogate.

I pumped Jahjah for as much information as I could, which was how he came to tell me about ways to bypass Kenya’s birth registration law.

As I was reluctant to expose myself to any medical tests, as commissioning parent “Angela” I slowly melted away.

But Jahjah came to know I was really a journalist in 2020.  Some surrogates to whom I had identified myself as a reporter had forwarded my messages to him. He later sent me sms’s warning me to stop looking into his surrogacy business, as I was “not Police”.

At one point, he added my number to a surrogate WhatsApp group and then recorded a voice note warning surrogates to stop sharing information with me.

These bullying tactics made some of my surrogate contacts go cold; a few who had previously agreed to give interviews later changed their minds.

I could sympathise with them: some surrogates had already described the control Jahjah and other surrogate recruiters had wielded over them. Some told me how Jahjah had boasted of his financial muscle and good connections with the police.

Much later, when my research was done, I summarised all the allegations I had gathered against Jahjah and Wankhede and sent them via email to their advocate in mid-February 2021, asking for their comment in advance of publication.

Given that I had started this investigation by going undercover, and that I am a freelance journalist, I agreed with my editor and co-publishers, The Elephant and Africa Uncensored, to send the questions on a formal letterhead as a way of underlining my credentials.

Jahjah responded via the advocate the following day, dismissing the allegations as “false and untrue”, but offering to meet “any day and time … to support my claim”.

I was surprised at this offer, and immediately wary of it.

A few days after I responded to Jahjah, requesting a formal on-camera interview with him on a specific date, a surrogate texted me out of the blue to inquire if it was true Jahjah had reported me to the police for investigating and destroying his surrogacy business.

Although I was keen to interview Jahjah in person, I now decided to play things very safe. I would not confirm the exact venue of the interview until the last minute, and I went with two colleagues from Africa Uncensored.

On the morning of the interview I called his number, and an excited-sounding Jahjah picked up. He thanked me for confirming the venue, and said he was looking forward to the interview.

We had chosen the Distrikt Lounge, a restaurant in Ongata Rongai that would be quiet at that time of day. My colleagues had pre-booked a private room at the venue adjoining a pleasant lounge area where the manager had said we were welcome to film an interview.

Jahjah arrived 15 minutes late, curiously underdressed for the cameras. He was wearing a wrinkled loose-fitting sleeveless red T-shirt, baggy blue sweatpants, and casual black shoes. No mask.

He looked confident, arrogant even. Carrying two phones and a charger in one hand, he started distributing his business cards with the other. We each reciprocated with our press cards in turn, but it was mine that Jahjah was most interested in. He asked me to take off my mask, and his eyes moved back and forth between me and my card for some time.

Jahjah declined to sit where our cameraman, Sam Munia, requested and instead positioned himself by the doorway saying he was waiting for his advocate, whom he said was on the way.

It was at this point that Munia noticed three men sitting around a table in the outdoor lounge area taking photos of us on their phones. Pretending he needed a glass of water, Munia stepped outside and spotted another couple of men around the corner.

They called him over and identified themselves as officers from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI). One of them said they “wanted Naipanoi”.

Munia played for time, giving them his ID and press card details. Our producer, Peris Gachahi then stepped out to do the same.

Left alone with Jahjah, he took out his phone and started photographing me. “Why are you taking my photos?” I asked, and requested that he stop. “I just have to,” he replied, and carried on.

The officers were now losing their patience. Gachahi summoned me to their table, where they inspected my official Kenya Media Council press card and took down my details. They then claimed I was a fake journalist who had malicious intentions towards Jahjah. According to them, a sign of this was because my original letter inviting Jahjah to comment on allegations was formatted incorrectly.

Relief washed over me as my experienced colleagues handled the situation with calm confidence. Yes, they had permission to film there, and the restaurant manager was summoned to confirm it.

The policemen then questioned them about their boss. As soon as my colleagues mentioned John-Allan Namu, co-founder of Africa Uncensored and a respected investigative journalist whose track record has made him a household name in Kenya, the officers backed off.

They said they would wait for the advocate, who arrived a short while later. The officers welcomed her familiarly, one offering her a seat and saying, “Karibu wakili” (‘Welcome, attorney’). She fist-bumped them and sat down, while her eyes seemed to flash concentrated anger and hatred in my direction.

The officer in charge informed her I was a genuine journalist, and showed her my press card. She complained we were forcing this interview on her and Jahjah, but my colleagues and I disputed this. Getting up from their seats, the officers politely informed all of us that “our work is done, we don’t want to interfere,” and took their leave.

Jahjah and his advocate both looked crestfallen, defeated. Things had clearly not gone as they had planned. They conferred with each other briefly, then the advocate informed us that her clients — Jahjah and the absent Wankhede — would not be commenting. “If you want answers, get a court order,” she said. Then they left.

The three of us later drove to the nearby police station, where the DCI officers had told us they were based, to report Jahjah for harassing me by taking photos without my consent.

The officers told us that Jahjah had been there the previous day, to report his suspicions that I was a fake journalist. The officers proposed summoning him to the police station the following week to apologise to us directly. We declined.

Reflecting back on this crazy encounter with Jahjah, his advocate and the cops, I wondered how their ambush might have played out had I arrived at the venue alone.

Then my thoughts turned to the surrogates whose lives and livelihoods are tied to the African Fertility Agency. Is this how they are coerced and intimidated? And what apology will they ever be offered?

 

Story editing and additional reporting by Lionel Faull, 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.

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The Politics and Economics of Knowledge Production: Crucial Aspects of the Struggle Against Western Imperialism
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What is knowledge? Is knowledge as objective as mountains, valleys, oceans, lakes and rivers, or is what constitutes knowledge determined by culture? We usually presume that knowledge has to do with understanding the world as it is rather than as we might imagine it to be. Many of us assume that the more academic certificates one has, the more knowledge one possesses. Yet scholars now point out that knowledge can only be properly understood if we consider insights from a variety of disciplines, including history, sociology, psychology, economics, politics and philosophy, among others. In ancient Athens, “politics” was understood as the management of the affairs of the city-state (polis). However, in line with the thought of Niccolò Machiavelli, many now understand politics as the activities of acquiring and retaining coercive power, and it is in this latter sense that I speak here of the politics of knowledge production. “Economics” comes from the Greek words oikos (“household”) and nomos (“law”, “management” or “principle”), literally “the law, management or principle of the household”, but has come to refer to the management of a society’s resources.

Knowledge production directed by politics and economics

As I pointed out in “Concrete Data and Abstract Notions in the Philosophical Study of Indigenous African Thought”, knowledge production is an integral part of social processes, and therefore necessarily laden with social, moral, political, and, most importantly, economic considerations. As the late Nigerian social scientist Claude Ake observed in Social Science as Imperialism, science in any society is apt to be geared to the interests and impregnated with the values of the ruling class that ultimately controls the conditions under which it is produced and consumed by financing research, setting national priorities, controlling the education system and the mass media, and in other ways. Thus, the choices of subject matter and methodology are heavily influenced by priorities identified in specific economic, social and political contexts: this set of dynamic interactions with economics as its foundation is what the late Egyptian economist, Samir Amin, following Karl Marx, referred to as “political economy”.

Besides, the transmission of knowledge reflects a society’s economic structures. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire memorably highlights the distinction between “banking education”, in which the learner is a docile and passive recipient of knowledge from the teacher, and which therefore reflects the capitalist power hierarchy, and “problem-solving education” entailing a dialogical approach in which both “teacher-students” and “student-teachers” teach and learn. Tragically but not surprisingly, six decades after formal independence, most schools and universities in Africa continue to deploy banking education in line with the capitalist power relations characteristic of the societies in which they function.

To illustrate the point that the production and transmission of knowledge are greatly influenced by politics, Leonhard Praeg, in A Report on Ubuntu, presents a hypothetical conversation between a South African philosophy professor of European descent and a young African postgraduate law student who is considering registering for a second master’s degree in philosophy. At one point, she challenges the professor’s presentation of philosophy as an objective and universal enterprise by highlighting the fact that the choice of who to include in any philosophical discourse is itself a political one:

Well, it seems obvious to me . . . that the most fundamental starting point for any philosophical conversation should be questioning the mechanisms that decide who is included and who is excluded from that conversation and whose traditions of thought will or will not be invoked in that conversation. Perhaps the most fundamental questions, the questions that every conversation should start with are political, questions such as: How is the difference between the included and excluded legitimized and what kind of institutional arrangements exist to safeguard and perpetuate certain kinds of knowledge at the exclusion of others?

Colonial devastation of indigenous systems of knowledge

In The Invention of Africa, the Congolese philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe explains that colonialism and colonization basically mean “organization”, “arrangement”. The two words derive from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate or to design.” He goes on to point out that the Western colonisers organized and transformed non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs:

[I]t is possible to use three main keys to account for the modulations and methods representative of colonial organization: the procedures of acquiring, distributing, and exploiting lands in colonies; the policies of domesticating natives; and the manner of managing ancient organizations and implementing new modes of production. Thus, three complementary hypotheses and actions emerge: the domination of physical space, the reformation of natives’ minds, and the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective. These complementary projects constitute what might be called the colonizing structure, which completely embraces the physical, human, and spiritual aspects of the colonizing experience.

Indeed, the Western imperialists only left their colonies in Africa and elsewhere after putting in place numerous structures to ensure their ongoing, albeit covert, control of the economies of the said territories. For example, in the late 1930s France created the CFA Franc Zone, comprising 14 West and Central African countries as well as the Comoros, bound by a monetary cooperation policy ostensibly to ensure the financial stability of its members, all of who used one or other of the two versions of the CFA Franc as their currency. Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”. Similarly, in the 1950s, the Swynnerton Plan in Kenya sought to mitigate the unpopularity of the British colonial regime by creating an African land-owning petty middle class that would be driven by an imperative to protect its property, and thereby view itself as having shared interests with the European settlers after the country’s independence.

Furthermore, the Western imperialists “left” only after ensuring that their former colonies adopted liberal democratic constitutions based on individualist capitalist values rather than on the communalistic outlooks of the peoples of Africa. They also ensured that the colonial territories embraced Western legal systems. For example, on 12th August 1897, the British invaders declared what they called The Reception Date, referring to the decree that the English statutes of general application passed before 12th August 1897 are law in Kenya, unless a Kenyan statute, or a latter English statute made applicable in Kenya, has repealed any such statute. In short, the British invaders declared the legal systems of the peoples of present day Kenya null and void, or, at best, relegated them to the status of “customary law” presumed to be inferior to the British legal system. This situation still holds to date, as evident in the way in which advocates and judges in Kenya frequently refer to English law, but very rarely to the jurisprudence of Kenya’s various peoples. No wonder “customary law” remains a highly marginalised area of study in most universities in Africa decades after independence.

Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”.

Similarly, the colonisers demeaned the diverse intellectual inventions and innovations of the peoples of Africa in areas such as medicine, environmental conservation, culinary arts, and creative works (such as songs, poems, fables and legends) among others. For example, they used the paradoxical and pejorative term “witch-doctor” to refer to indigenous healers, thereby deliberately conflating the restorative roles of healers with the destructive acts of wizards and witches. Indeed, due to that outrageous deliberate colonial conflation, most Kiswahili speakers in Kenya now do not appreciate the distinction between mganga (“healer”) and mchawi (“witch/wizard”), thereby failing to appreciate that even a medical doctor trained in a Western-type medical school is a mganga, and only refers to him or her as daktari from the English word “doctor”. No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19, or that any innovations they might develop to manage the scourge must be validated in Geneva, Washington DC or elsewhere outside the continent or under the direction of institutions based outside the continent.

No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19.

A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom. The colonial establishments therefore systematically downgraded indigenous languages, referring to them as “vernaculars”—a term used to denote languages spoken by “uncivilised” communities and contrasted with “literary” or “cultured” languages. Thus, the typical child in Africa undergoes instruction at school using English, French, Portuguese or German, thereby losing his or her cultural grounding through the lack of proficiency in his or her mother tongue; and it is much worse than that, for he or she begins to disparage indigenous languages. Many of us have heard the claim by our compatriots that the languages of the peoples of Africa are incapable of mediating scholarly discourses. This claim is oblivious to, or deliberately ignores, the fact that the Western languages with which many associate academic discourses have acquired their proficiency in scholarship only because of borrowing heavily from a variety of languages, and nothing, except a colonised mentality, prevents speakers of the indigenous languages of Africa from enriching them in similar fashion.

Unshackling contemporary scholarship in Africa from Western hegemony

In The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe is particularly unhappy that, long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage:

The fact of the matter is that, until now, Western interpreters as well as African analysts have been using categories and conceptual systems which depend on a Western epistemological order. Even in the most explicitly “Afrocentric” descriptions, models of analysis explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, refer to the same order.

This sorry situation, Mudimbe tells us, is partly due to the fact that “[S]ince most African leaders and thinkers have received a Western education, their thought is at the crossroads of Western epistemological filiation and African ethnocentrism.” He also points out that the structures of the colonial establishment remained firmly in place after formal political independence:

In the early 1960s, the African scholar succeeded the anthropologist, the “native” theologian replaced the missionary, and the politician took the place of the colonial commissioner. All of them find reasons for their vocations in the dialectic of the Same and the other.

Mudimbe further observes that colonialism creates an imaginary African past in a bid to fabricate “the other”, perhaps best exemplified by tourist art. He notes that in this subjugating environment, any solid evidence of science or philosophy in Africa is dismissed by the colonisers, as illustrated by the case of Dogon astronomy which holds that the planets rotate around their axes and revolve around the Sun, but which Western authors such as Carl Sagan explain away as knowledge obtained from a Western visitor to the Dogon. Mudimbe is emphatic that anthropology was specifically designed as a tool of Western imperialist domination with which to paint the peoples of Africa as frozen in a stage of “development” long transcended by Western societies.

A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom.

According to Samir Amin, current academic programmes in the social sciences in African Universities have been prescribed by the World Bank and allied authorities in order to destroy any capacity to develop critical thought. Unable to understand concrete existing systems that govern the contemporary world, the brainwashed cadres are reduced to the status of “executives” implementing programmes decided elsewhere, unable to contribute to changing that world rejected by their own people. Similarly, Claude Ake observes, “The West is able to dominate the Third World not simply because of its military and economic power, but also because it has foisted its idea of development on the Third World through the institutions and activities of knowledge production.”

The humanities (such as literature, music and philosophy) are not doing any better, as the Western canons continue to enjoy an exalted status in the various disciplines under this category: many philosophers from Africa still take great pride in their knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, and so on, while thinking very little of philosophical works by scholars from their own continent, and much less of the intellectual creations of their compatriots with no Western-type formal education. In like manner, many literary critics from Africa enjoy a sense of great accomplishment from their mastery of European literary classics while tacitly believing that nothing of similar grandeur is to be found among their own peoples. Besides, many scholars in Africa take great pride in having their works published in Western Europe and North America by what they happily refer to as “international journals” and “international publishers”, while considering publications from university presses in places such as Kigali, Dar es Salaam or Harare as of inferior status, thereby continuing to lend credence to the almost hegemonic Western system of knowledge production decades after formal independence.

Yet another important aspect of the hierarchical process of knowledge production has to do with the way in which events are reported. Many think that reports in media such as books, print and electronic news outlets are objective sources of knowledge. However, scholars of critical discourse analysis have repeatedly illustrated that such reports promote the interests of the economically dominant classes. Thus in a capitalist context, the bulk of mass media promotes the interests of the owners of capital. For example, where the police violently stop a workers’ demonstration, the media are likely to report “Four Demonstrators Shot” rather than “Police Shoot Four Demonstrators”, thereby suppressing the fact of who shot them. Similarly, school textbooks covertly and overtly promote capitalist values and advance the view that any challenge to such values is a threat to “stability”.

Long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage.

In Fourth Industrial Revolution: Innovation or New Phase of Imperialism?, I pointed out that humanity is currently confronted by a world dominated by artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and blockchain, resulting in a fusion of technologies that is integrating the physical, digital and biological spheres. Think of how all manner of people can determine where you are if you forget your mobile phone “Location”  function on, or listen to your conversations and view your actions if you unwittingly allow an app to access your microphone and camera. Already phone manufacturers are including contact tracing apps in their devices, and many phones now have the option of a fingerprint instead of a series of numbers for passwords. Through the enormous power of artificial intelligence (“AI”), all these data are quickly analysed to produce detailed profiles of phone users—where they go, what they like listening to and watching, what they buy, among others. In short, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (“4IR”), privacy is now an illusion. Yet the bulk of these new technologies are owned by large corporations domiciled in the West and East, reducing the peoples of Africa to mere consumers subject to the whims of the owners of the technologies. All this raises the real possibility of a global dictatorship headed by the owners of these technologies reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, and it boils down to who controls knowledge production.

In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker argues that there is a distinctively epistemic type of injustice, in which someone is wronged specifically in his or her capacity as a knower. This is precisely what Western imperialism has subjected the peoples of Africa to. Similarly, in the preface to his celebrated work, Epistemologies of the south: Justice against Epistemicide, Boaventura de Sousa Santos indicates that he seeks to defend three important postulates:

First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammars and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.

Nevertheless, there are several encouraging initiatives to address the epistemic injustice in Africa. The valiant struggle of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has consistently pointed out that using African languages in creative writing is an act of decolonising the mind, Kwasi Wiredu, who advocates for the same approach in African philosophy, and the six African philosophers who wrote book chapters in their mother tongues for the edited volume Listening to ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy, are all efforts at challenging the hegemonic Western system of knowledge production. Besides, the research and teaching projects in African languages, African oral and written histories, African oral and written literatures, African music, African art, African philosophy, among others are evidence that a sizeable number of academics in Africa have perceived the problem, and are determined to contribute to the turning of the tide.

Yet several intellectuals who have raised their voices against global capitalism and the attendant hegemonic Western system of knowledge production have borne the brunt of state violence: Samir Amin was forced into exile from his native Egypt in 1960 for his Marxist but anti-Stalinist views; Paulo Freire’s success in teaching Brazilian peasants how to read landed him in prison and a subsequent long and painful exile; Walter Rodney’s exposition of the damage inflicted on Africa by European mercantilism that evolved into capitalism in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa resulted in his imprisonment in his native land of Guyana, and his death as a result of a car bomb blast in Georgetown, Guyana, remains a mystery, as does the plane crush that cut short Claude Ake’s life during the autocratic reign of Sani Abacha in Nigeria; Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Sani Abacha regime in Nigeria, and Wole Soyinka escaped Abacha’s murderous hand by a whisker; Ngugi wa Thiong’o spent time as a detainee without trial in a Kenyan maximum security prison for organising a peasants’ theatre group to perform his anti-capitalist plays, and later went into decades of exile, and the list is much longer than this. Nevertheless, the intellectuals of the exploited and oppressed peoples of Africa must continue to innovate in a bid to contribute towards the true liberation of their continent.

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Genocide: The Weapon Used to Keep Ethiopia Intact

First-hand testimonies coming out of Tigray since November 2020 point to a genocide but for Ethiopia to recognise it as such would mean accepting that the unitary Ethiopian polity as envisioned by the Empire of old and its ideological descendants can only come to be through genocide.

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Genocide: The Weapon Used to Keep Ethiopia Intact
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Genocide is a heavy word. It not only tells us that crimes have been committed but it is a word specifically designated to describe crimes that are committed because one party has declared that another group of people are less human, and as a result, not only should they not be allowed to continue living, but their capacity for inter-generational existence should be entirely exterminated. Where there is genocide, there is the worst expression of humanity, a hatred that makes perpetrators of genocidal violence believe that they are doing themselves, their communities, and the world at large a service by actively working to kill off the people they have designated as less than human because of their skin colour, their way of life, their ethnicity or other identity.

It was in the wake of a genocide that the United Nations and the other international instruments of political and social accountability that we know today were born. It was not the first genocide that had ever occurred on earth, but a chapter of violence in human history, the Holocaust, that involved a systemic, calculated, and long-term effort to exterminate people from the earth because they were labelled as un-human. 

Designers of genocidal campaigns often see themselves, as being, by some intrinsic quality, more worthy and more capable of operating within human faculties such as thinking, feeling, deciding, processing, planning, and dreaming. Although some have argued that the legal definition of genocide refers solely to the physical destruction of all, or part of a group, in the Ethiopian context the term has been used to include the act of destroying a community’s cultural, economic, social, and political power in order to subjugate it to another. This is the sense in which I will use the term in this article.

The word genocide has proliferated in popular Ethiopian political discourse since November 2020, namely because of the war in Tigray, where events in the region have been termed a genocide mostly by the Tegaru diaspora. This essay will attempt to unpack the complicated ways that acts or perceptions of genocide have been utilized by the Ethiopian state and its ideological allies to support its goal: the creation of a unitary state. I will explore Ethiopia’s history of genocide and the present institutionalization of this history; the events that occurred in Oromia in the wake of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa’s assassination; and the collective and institutional denial of the genocide in Tigray.

Ethiopia’s history of genocide

Contrary to the narrative that Ethiopia is the only country on the African continent that was never colonized, Ethiopia itself is a colonial state built on a colonial legacy that involved, like other imperial states, genocide. The process of forming the Ethiopian state involved a power-hungry monarch backed by several European powers expanding into the southern, eastern, and western independent territories and imposing a cultural, social, political, economic, and even spiritual hegemonic order over a vastly diverse people. This required an attempted eradication of already established ways of life—in other words a genocidal pursuit. Where there was resistance, people were simply wiped out. One example of this is the Calanqo massacre of 1887. On 6 January of that year, Menelik II’s army invaded eastern Oromia and indiscriminately killed thousands of Oromo and non-Oromo people. Another example is to be found in the events that took place in Aanolee in 1887.

In the case of the Ethiopian empire, there operates an ideology that purports that Ethiopianism, an Amhara-centred cultural, spiritual, and political worldview, is the superior existence and you can, as a non-Amhara, experience semblances of belonging and power in this paradigm if you do not oppose it with a counter-existence. The goal of the Empire was and still is the control of land and exploitation of resources, and despite the presence of a belief that those that are of a given identity are inherently entitled to manage the economy and rule, the Empire can integrate those willing to assimilate.

The idea of Ethiopia was resisted since its inception. For example, in his book Conquest and Resistance in the Ethiopian Empire, 1880 -1974: The Case of the Arsi Oromo Mohammed Abbas Ganamo describes various military resistances that emerged in response to Menelik II’s efforts to consolidate the lands of southern Oromia into the Ethiopian state. This kind of resistance will continue until there are fundamental changes in the way the state relates to the people, or until the state no longer exists. This is not lost on the architects and beneficiaries of Ethiopianism, and although seemingly unable to forfeit their unitary and ultra-capitalist ambitions, the institutionalization of inclusion and progress is an effective tool used in Ethiopia today to facilitate a real and ongoing genocide.

The most obvious example was the hyper-focus on Abiy Ahmed’s Oromo ethnic identity when he was appointed leader of the transitional government. His appointment was touted as a win for the Qeerroo movement and an antidote to the oppression of the Oromo mass at large. His existence as an Oromo became (and still is) a pacifier used when anyone dares to point out that extrajudicial killings, detention, and other war crimes are taking place with the intention of eradicating Oromos who resist assimilation, refuse silence, and embody a counter-existence.

Another example is the institutionalization of the Oromo thanksgiving festival, Irreechaa. A celebration rooted in the Waaqeefata religion, Irreechaa is celebrated by Oromos of all walks of life, representing the heart of Tokkummaa (unity) amongst the Oromo nation. Being such a strong display of culture, identity, and national unity, Irreechaa has been targeted with violence by previous Ethiopian governments, including, for example, the Irreechaa massacre of 2016. However, in 2021, Irreechaa was turned into an exclusive event that took place in Oromia’s capital Finfinnee. People bought expensive tickets and a special ceremony was held by some small body of water (the Irreechaa ritual requires the wetting of leaves in water). As this took place, the Oromo mass who were trying to participate in the day’s events outside of the bubble created by the state were arrested, beaten, and altogether obstructed from commemorating the event. For Ethiopia to continue as one polity without reckoning with its need to fundamentally change its posture towards the people who live within its borders, genocide will remain an existential need of the state.

The institutionalization of inclusion and progress is an effective tool used in Ethiopia today to facilitate a real and ongoing genocide.

In the early hours after the assassination of singer, songwriter, and civil rights activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa on 29 June 2020, a myriad of events began to unfold in a number of Oromo towns, including Shashamane and Dheera. What happened in the final hours of 29 June and into the morning of 30 June would form the bedrock of a narrative that associates all expressions of Oromummaa (Oromo nationalism) with hatred and violence towards the minority Amhara ethnic group. Eyewitness accounts suggest that the rampage that consumed the town of Dheera was not merely visceral rage ignited by the killing of a hero, but a coordinated and curated campaign involving largely, people who were not from the town itself.

According to an investigation conducted in the days following the incident, eyewitnesses recount that young people involved in the violence were not locals and had access to information that could only have come from local government officials. Who exactly was behind the attacks and what the intended consequences of the attacks were can only be speculated at, but there have been obvious and enduring impacts on the towns in question and on the position of the Oromo and Oromummaa within the state’s larger narrative.

Shashamane was a booming economic centre with investments flowing directly from the international market into the heart of the city, rivalling the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, which is an urban site that has been manufactured to serve a small economic elite. The destruction of Shashamane, a space that exists outside of Ethiopianist cultural and religious hegemony, severely impacted the town’s representation in the international community and successfully diverted investment. As for the social and political impacts, Oromummaa was henceforth marked as a precursor for genocidal violence, as the violence in Dheera and other places was labelled a massacre of a Christian-Amhara minority by a fanatically nationalist, even religious-nationalist, Oromo majority (Oromo being a majority Muslim nation).

Eyewitness accounts suggest that the rampage that consumed the town of Dheera was not merely visceral rage ignited by the killing of a hero.

Although these assertions completely ignore the fact that the violence also targeted Oromos themselves and the fact that Oromo and Amhara communities have been living together peacefully in these towns for decades, this assertion has manipulated the truth that there is dormant social and political unease between these communities that is rooted in unresolved historical trauma and if triggered, violence could erupt.

The creation of perceived genocide sounds like a conspiracy theory, and many were painted as conspiracy theorists whenever analysis suggesting that something strange was going on was offered. But the truth is that there is a pattern. Where Oromo nationalistic ambitions are represented, whether by armed struggle, peaceful resistance, or the act of counter-existence, evidence to suggest that the ambition of the Oromo is to exterminate Amhara people from Oromia emerges in the form of actual dead Amhara civilians. Although impossible to refute an eyewitness statement recounting Oromo people killing non-Oromo people because of their identity without sounding like a callous brute, the truth is that there have never been independent investigations into these killings, and where the accusations have fallen on the Oromo Liberation Army, the group has itself called for such investigations time and time again.

It is also true that this kind of genocidal violence taking place is not a far-fetched idea. The state is aware that what has created a fabric of relative peace and cooperation between Oromo and Amhara people in Oromia is a willingness, at a grassroots level, to live day-to-day life beyond historic trauma. This, though, does not mean that the trauma has been addressed or that it has no present-day impacts on the dynamics of equality and marginalization in the context of the wider Ethiopian state. Instead of taking steps to heal this trauma, the state is using the perception of genocide to create a vacuum that only its unitary, supposedly ethnically transcendent political ideology, can fill.

Conversely, it is difficult to hear the first-hand testimonies that have come out of Tigray and not refer to what has gone on in the region since November 2020 as a genocide. And yet the Ethiopian state and its supporters have pushed to frame the conflict as void of any actors that are targeting Tegaru people because of their identity. If it were to admit that such a thing has occurred, then the very logic that the Prosperity Party’s unitary politics rests on, the logic suggesting that Ethiopia does not care for ethnic identity, would come undone.

What has created a fabric of relative peace and cooperation between Oromo and Amhara people in Oromia is a willingness, at a grassroots level, to live day-to-day life beyond historic trauma.

In the conclusion of the first essay in this series, I noted that the obsession Ethiopia has with a falsified self-image, where it simply cannot do or be wrong, has made denial feel like the only way that it can survive. The other option would be to give up on the dream of a hegemonic nation, but that would require reckoning with deep-seated shame and guilt over what has been done thus far in pursuit of this dream. The collective denies that there is a genocide going on in Tigray because doing the opposite would mean accepting that the unitary Ethiopian polity as envisioned by the Empire of old and its ideological descendants can only come to be through genocide, an act that Ethiopian exceptionalism suggests that the Ethiopian human being is just not capable of.

Not only does the desire to avoid confronting generations of shame and guilt make the Ethiopianist collective unable to call out crimes for what they are, but it also plays a huge role in the cyclical nature of genocidal violence all across the country. I believe that state violence in Ethiopia is viciously perpetual because it is fighting to keep shame at bay. When we cannot release ourselves from the shame of any given past, we do more of the thing that we are ashamed of, with grandeur and excess, in order to normalize these acts to the parts within us that are reeling in shame and to tell the world that “there is no shame here”. What the empire has done to the Oromo over decades, what it is doing to the Tegaru today and the manner in which it is using the lives of innocent Amhara people as the political game is simply genocide weaponized to build economic and political power.

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No More Camp: Confident Despite Contradictions

The “no more” narrative is an opportunistic way to hide the fact that Ethiopia is falling apart, and its leaders are spearheading that process.

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No More Camp: Confident Despite Contradictions
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A bizarre political rhetoric that has emerged in the civil and political spaces in Ethiopia and its diaspora since 2020 asserts that the break-up of the Ethiopian state is in the interests of the West, and more specifically the United States.

While the US and other Western powers and institutions have the means of orchestrating such an outcome while exerting their influence over the fate of less powerful nations, I argue here that, in this political moment, such an outcome cannot be in the interests of the US-centred global order as it relates to Ethiopia as such a move would negate all the efforts to build, via successive Ethiopian regimes, a reliable military and political proxy in the Horn of Africa region.

The narrative suggesting that the US is invested in dismembering Ethiopia into several smaller states has been backed by the Ethiopian government and heavily propagated both in Ethiopia and among sections of its diaspora. Based on conversations I have had with people engaged in other liberation struggles inspired by radical and far-left politics, I have come to realise that this narrative has been gaining traction.

During a conversation with a pro-Palestinian liberation group in Nairobi, they stated that they were not sure where to stand on Ethiopia because, according to them, the US was actively trying to affect the nation’s unity. The question that immediately came to mind was: “How can this narrative be true?” I argue here that a sequence of facts and realities, when arranged in a specific order and looked at from a particular angle, supports the emergence of a narrative that is convincing enough to create such a scenario. This narrative does not reflect the complexity of the socio-political crisis Ethiopia is facing, and nor does it provide any radical solution.

One of the most visible manifestations of this rhetoric is the #NoMore campaign. According to an article published on borkena on 21 November 2021, “The #NoMore campaign was created by a coalition of Ethiopian and Eritrean activists led by former Al Jazeera & CBS journalist Hermela Aregawi. Its central objective is to oppose an alleged Western media disinformation campaign, Western economic warfare, diplomatic propaganda, and active military interventions in Africa in general, and possible ones in the Horn of Africa.”

I do not intend to analyse that campaign here but will touch on it by simply referring to the narrative in this introduction as the “no more” camp narrative. The last bit of context that I wish to add is that I often reference the Ethiopian government of 1991-2018 as being TPLF-led (Tigray People’s Liberation Front). With regard to Ethiopia’s diplomatic, geopolitical and broad security operations at the time, I believe that this was mainly a TPLF project, but when it came to the human rights abuses that took place across Oromia, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) were co-conspirators and were actively involved in the state violence that characterized Oromia from 1991-2018.

After the fall of the DERG regime—an initially popular communist revolution that turned into a deadly dictatorship—the US made its way into the centre of the negotiations between the TPLF, Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) that took place in London in 1991. In these negotiations, I believe that several options existed regarding political arrangements: the formation of two or more confederate states, the formation of a unitary state, or—what became the adopted path—the formation of a multinational federation. The creation of independent states had been the explicit agenda of the OLF when it was formed some 30 years prior. However, it was the EPLF that achieved this goal during the negotiations.

Historical, cultural, linguistic, and political factors, as well as different nations having different experiences with the Ethiopian state and the process of its formation, were priorities that stakeholders at that table needed to address. A multinational federation, organized along ethnic lines, where governing powers were given to the regimes of these ethnic nation-states while the centre remained lean, peripheral, but present, sounded ideal on paper. But one essential component that would determine this structure’s success was missing in the case of Ethiopia as it embarked on its new chapter, and that was a political elite that was earnestly willing to see such devolution of power.

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that was formed in the wake of the 1991 negotiations was dominated by the TPLF, and the following 27 years of governance would, in theory, be a multi-national federation, but in practice, an authoritarian, centralized state with regional proxies that enforced a draconian order punishing anyone that embodied nationalisms deviant from Ethiopianism. While the Tegaru people had been victims of the political and cultural centralism of Ethiopianism of previous regimes, the TPLF nonetheless, enforced it as a tool of control, rather than as a tool to facilitate the healthy integration and growth of this new state arrangement formed along the lines of these autonomies. In 1991, the TPLF was the second most powerful military power after the EPLF, and although it claims that altruistic motives drive its engagement in the Global South, in 1991 the US was interested in either further consolidating or expanding its position at the top of the geopolitical ladder—as it still is today.

The US wears well the guise of concern for human rights, this being part of the way in which it asserts its ideological superiority. It is not that US expressions of concern and actions to protect human rights are in and of themselves negative. The “no more” narrative argues that these humanitarian efforts and cries for human rights are often hypocritical because the US is itself an active participant in human rights abuses at home and abroad, and that either its expressions of care or its wilful ignorance of such abuses are always motivated by underlying geopolitical interests. While its backing of the TPLF-led regime in 1991 can be understood from the perspective of realism, sustaining this support for two decades despite consistent evidence of human rights abuses taking place across the country is exactly the kind of hypocrisy that gives the “no more” campaign legs to stand on.

There is a world in which Abiy Ahmed, the current prime minister of Ethiopia, juxtaposed against leaders of the EPRDF, looks very much like the anti-imperialist leader that the non-Western world needs. Abiy Ahmed makes an ideological stance when he remains opposed to human rights-related calls to action from the US, allowing them to fall on deaf ears because it can be reasoned that the US is just exhibiting its habit of lording over the internal affairs of other nations while having blood on its hands.

The US wears well the guise of concern for human rights, this being part of the way in which it asserts its ideological superiority.

Moreover, the US backed multinational federalism in 1991, a political arrangement that Abiy’s regime moved to do away with early on in the transitional period, claiming that it is an invention of ethnic nationalists committed to fostering disunity. This can lead one to another assertion that the “no more” camp makes: that the US’s previous ties with the TPLF are a factor in its current proactiveness within the crisis.

The US-Ethiopia relationship of 1991-2017 is a microcosm of the wider culture of political presence that the US has across the African continent and the rest of the Global South/Eastern world, and if we are talking about significantly less powerful nations (militarily/economically), it also reflects the way the US engages other Western nations. The US has pursued its post-Cold War agenda of consolidating global military and economic dominance by making sure that any regional power that grows, does so under its wing and/or whilst indebted to it.

Along with amassing military and economic power, expecting ideological assimilation is also part of the way the US retains its position as leader over the geopolitical order. To challenge this without sufficient military or economic strength can result in isolating, crippling, or even deadly effects such as in Cuba, Iran and Libya. While taking hit after hit from the US, Abiy has repeatedly asserted that he is resisting the tradition of political manipulation that the US is known for and to protect the right of a developing country to forge its political pathways without interference. He has refused to be swayed by sanctions, a punitive measure that, even if flustering the political and economic elite, usually has far greater impact on the working class of any targeted country. Abiy reinforces what much of Africa sees as Ethiopia’s legacy as a united anti-colonial force, a narrative that itself is full of fallacy. Even if the current Ethiopian context is different (as I will argue below), what lends him credence is that the US approach to Ethiopia has mirrored what it has done in many other parts of the world where, in pursuit of its interests, the US has facilitated the collapse of entire societies in the name of human rights and democracy.

Another narrative that the “no more” camp leans on to create its anti-imperialist façade is the current Ethiopian government’s relationship with Eritrea, while ignoring that Eritrea’s invasion of Tigray and Oromia is an imperial adventure of the Eritrean regime. The Ethio-Eritrean so-called peace deal is hailed as Abiy’s most successful political manoeuvre. The deal falsely propagates the narrative that Abiy’s leadership is the re-emergence of a revolutionary and anti-imperialist vision in Ethiopia because it is at odds with the EPRDF’s hostile military and political relationship with Eritrea. Being on better terms with the west, the EPRDF was widely recognized as the contriver of this hostility, whilst Eritrea was viewed as the victim of it. Although arguing that both regimes have been sanctioned by a geopolitical order that is structurally racist and fascist (which is true), this narrative ignores the fact that Eritrea is a de facto military concentration camp and that its regime is involved in conflicts across the Horn of Africa. Interestingly, among some leftist communities, Eritrea is still perceived as a beacon of revolution because it achieved independence while others opted for a political arrangement endorsed by the US. Abiy uses this narrative to assert his position as a liberationist politician and argues that in targeting his administration, the West is out to the destroy forces of revolution and self-determination in East Africa. It is important to note that the struggle for independence waged by the Eritrean people was truly valiant and revolutionary in nature, although this is not reflected in the country’s leadership today.

Abiy reinforces what much of Africa sees as Ethiopia’s legacy as a united anti-colonial force, a narrative that itself is full of fallacy.

To summarise the picture painted thus far, since the war in Tigray broke out, US calls for action have more or less been aligned with the TPLF’s rhetoric (even though TPLF leaders have also been subjected to US sanctions). A deafening silence on the part of the US regarding the TPLF’s 27-year regime that was toppled in 2018 by popular protests was the norm. The TPLF-dominated governing coalition had completely supported the US’s regional interventions and the relationship that the EPRDF/TPLF had with Eritrea also creates specific storylines. 

These historical facts were and are still used by Abiy’s regime as part of the narrative to justify the current war. According to Abiy’s regime and its supporters, Tegaru aggression is part of an effort to dismantle Ethiopia by advocating for federalism, a system that the US backed in 1991, and that is in opposition to the unitary political vision that Abiy is championing that his supporters believe is the answer to complex questions of identity and nationalism in Ethiopia, and which the TPLF and the OLA/OLF are an enemy of. All of the above, arranged in this or similar sequence, strongly makes the case that the US is indeed interested in Ethiopia’s break up, or, at the very least, is backing the parties that have the intention to tear Ethiopia apart.

So, where and how does this narrative fall short?

US efforts since the beginning of the war in Tigray (because they weren’t interested when the war was waged solely and specifically in Oromia) have been geared towards keeping Ethiopia together as one polity. The reason is that this makes it easier to facilitate its interests in the region, and that, on the contrary, it is the consequences of the federal government and its adversaries warring in the north and south that could lead to Ethiopia’s break up. To be clear, I am not arguing for or against Ethiopia’s break-up here. I believe that, for the multitude of communities in Ethiopia to move forward, it is a decision that must be made by the people and that there is no reason to stubbornly insist on Ethiopia continuing as one polity if the people decide otherwise.

When the federal government launched its assault on Tigray in collaboration with Amhara Special Forces and the Eritrean Defence Forces in November 2020, their narrative was that the TPLF had attacked a government military base and a law and order operation would be launched targeting only the leaders of what they called the “criminal clique”. The TPLF, on the other hand, asserts that they were attacked first. Whatever the truth is, what ensued was an ethnically targeted killing spree by government forces, Eritrean troops, and Amhara militia and regional forces that has seen thousands of Tegaru women raped, thousands of people made refugees and thousands dead. Ninety per cent of Tigray’s population requires food aid while ongoing conflict in areas where land is contested between the Amhara and Tigray regions is exacerbating the crisis and the abuses listed above.

It is important to note that the struggle for independence waged by the Eritrean people was truly valiant and revolutionary in nature.

Moreover, just months into the transitional government process, which was supposed to guide the country towards elections after the fall of the EPRDF government in 2018, Abiy’s regime began its campaign against the OLA, a force that has radically increased in number and activity since the assassination of prominent Oromo singer and activist Haacaaluu Hundeesaa in June 2020. During this campaign, government forces have similarly targeted civilians across Oromia. This war intensified after the announcement of the federal and regional governments’ operation against the OLA in April 2022, with the war witnessing scores of civilian massacres across Oromia and an increase in extrajudicial killings by regional and federal forces.

Prior to the military activity that led to the declaration of war in Tigray by the federal government, the decision by the TPLF to proceed with regional elections—despite national elections having been postponed against the backdrop of a discourse suggesting that they would lack fairness and integrity—agitated an increasingly centralizing state. Even if the TPLF were not invested in nurturing genuine multinational federalism when in power, once they lost power following a four-year-long grassroots protest movement dubbed the “Oromo Protests”, that political arrangement became necessary if they were to retain autonomous power. Thus, Tigray’s regional elections could have had the potential to mature the political centre’s (that is, the power centred in Addis Ababa) relationship to relatively autonomous regions. However, instead, the central government opted to take measures to stamp out this “deviance”. In similar fashion, the mere existence of the OLA, and the simple fact of being an Oromo who represents a strong cultural or political will, reflects the same nationalism that the Abiy regime is unwilling to tolerate, and that we see embodied in the act of holding regional elections in Tigray.

The double-edged sword here is that they are at war because there is—and has been since the inception of Ethiopia as a state—institutional misunderstanding of control as unity, and thus a belief that the existence of divergent national, cultural, and linguistic identities will cause disunity. But it is the very war to stamp out this difference that is edging the Ethiopian state closer to collapse.

Interestingly, the US’s diplomatic silence and inaction when the federal government’s offensive was confined to Oromia, an expedition that was first declared during Abiy’s tenure in early 2020, with Ethiopian National Defence Force leaders stating that they would “send the army to crush remaining rebels within 15 days”, supports assertions made by the “no more camp”, while also nullifying the narrative entirely. Human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, massacres, disappearances, arbitrary detention, rape, and sexual violence as a weapon of war have been the norm in Oromia since Abiy took power but this has not been of interest to the US government because, until mid-late 2021, the OLA was not perceived as a military power strong enough to cause any long-term or meaningful destabilization to the state.

Still, even if this pattern of behaviour in the US’s approach supports the assertion that the US only cares about human rights when its interests intersect with blasting the human rights abusers, the OLA’s operations gaining visibility has not warranted a strong or streamlined response to the crisis in Oromia. In my opinion, this is because there is an assumption in Washington that the OLA (representing the largest region and population in Ethiopia) are less inclined to accept political arrangements outside of secession, compared to the TPLF elite—another assumption that rests on the experiences of 1991 and thereafter (although the Tegaru and TPLF contexts differ greatly today given the magnitude of the Tigray genocide). If the US wants to back cessation, it will. Focussing on the government or the military’s human rights abuses is a perfect way for the US administration to back secessionist movements, and when said secession is in the interests of the US for one reason or another, it will deploy all the mechanisms available to it to make it clear that human rights violations are occurring and it must step in like it did in Sudan and South Sudan. The US is not known for its humility when it can use the human rights narrative to pursue its interests; if it wanted Ethiopia to fragment, clear and open support of the OLA would be a textbook move. However, the carefulness and moderation that characterise its approach, when the human rights conditions are some of the worst in the world, strongly suggest that its objective is not Ethiopia’s break-up.

The double-edged sword here is that they are at war because there is—and has been since the inception of Ethiopia as a state—institutional misunderstanding of control as unity.

Imperialism is an issue, and in fact, Ethiopia has a localized manifestation of imperialism that it has yet to address. The anti-imperialist narrative as it relates to the current Ethiopian crisis is a scapegoat for the actual issues that are leading to an inevitable break-up. The war crimes committed daily by an array of actors against anybody that represents an identity that the Ethiopian state considers a threat to its self-image as a cultural, linguistic and religious monolith are paving the way towards the country’s disintegration. I believe that the US backed the formation of a multinational federation in 1991 because it understood that differences needed space to thrive if one polity was to be feasible, and it wanted and needed one large and strong polity in the region with which to collaborate militarily, politically and economically.

Understanding this desire for expansion and consolidation is central to understanding US engagement in 1991 and its subsequent silence as the EPRDF abused power over 27 years. The same reasoning is now informing the US’s current stand regarding the Ethiopian crisis. It does not want to deal with having to reinstate itself as the key neo-power in the region if the country were to break up into many new states—the variables outside of its control would be too many to reckon with—so it is doing what it can to mitigate the crisis. It refuses to admit that there is popular demand for independence within Oromia and Tigray.

One thing the US is doing that could propel the country towards violent disintegration, is watching out for its interests while ignoring the fact that Ethiopia needs to engage in a national dialogue that could result in holding multiple referendums that lead the country either into a chapter of healing as one polity or to peaceful disintegration. Either way, the people must choose, and this kind of consensual nation-building is not something the US backs unless it makes sense for its own interests.

The anti-imperialist narrative as it relates to the current Ethiopian crisis is a scapegoat for the actual issues that are leading to an inevitable break-up.

The Abiy regime and the “no more” camp have taken part of the truth and successfully centred it as the whole truth. If they (the Abiy regime and its supporters) believed that Africans have the agency and means to solve their problems internally, an idea I believe in, then why not do that by reckoning with the fact that the Ethiopian state itself requires a decolonial process that addresses century-long questions of power and identity? Instead, the “no more” camp generally applies the political violence of neo-colonialism to itself by diverting attention from the fact that the conflicts inside Ethiopia that we see today are a result of a colonial legacy.

This article should not be mistaken for an argument in support of US government intervention in Ethiopia, despite such an intervention endorsing approaches like multinational federalism, an arrangement I believe had the potential to offer Ethiopia some healing. Nor is it an argument in support of the US because I have suggested that the US could back secession, a position I have vehemently argued in favour of in the past. Neo-colonialism is real and the US is a leader in using it to expand its political and economic interests as well as its military might. The very fact that the US is a player in the fate of Ethiopia, in whatever direction, should be resisted.

And nor is this article an endorsement for the “no more” camp as radical resistance to war or unfair geopolitics. I believe that the “no more” narrative is an opportunistic way to hide the fact that Ethiopia is falling apart, and its leaders are spearheading that process.

This article is part of a series called Deception, Denial, Dialogue: Fall of an Empire

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