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Tanzania: The Dialectics of Maguphilia and Maguphobia

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Hopefully, the Magufuli phenomenon would have taught progressive African intellectuals to distinguish between rhetorical anti-imperialism and systemic understanding of the global capitalist-imperialist system

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Tanzania: The Dialectics of Maguphilia and Maguphobia
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Grief and relief

On March 17, 2021, the fifth president of Tanzania John Joseph Pombe Magufuli, aged 61, died a few months after beginning his second term in office. It was a ‘dramatic’ exit for a person who had almost single-handedly (some would say heavy-handedly) ruled the country for the preceding five years. The reaction of the Tanzanian populace was as dramatic, if not extreme. Large sections of down-trodden (‘wanyonge’ in Swahili) people in urban and semi-urban areas were struck with disbelief and grief. Among them were motorbike taxi drivers (‘bodaboda’), street hawkers (‘machinga’), women food vendors (‘mama Ntilie’) and small entrepreneurs (‘wajasiriamali’). At the other end of the spectrum were sections of civil society elites, leaders and members of opposition parties, and a section of non-partisan intelligentsia who heaved a sigh of relief. Barring a few insensitive opposition political figures in exile, most in the middle-class group did not openly express or exhibit their relief, as African culture dictates, until after the 21-day mourning period had passed. In between the extremes were large sections of politicians and senior functionaries in the state and the ruling party who continued singing the praises of the leader while privately keeping track of the direction of the wind before casting their choice.

Increasingly the division between Maguphiles and Maguphobes is surfacing, particularly among parliamentarians. We may be witnessing a beginning of realignment of forces. Popular perception tends to be cynical, justifiably so, for none of the emerging factions resonates with their interests and daily lives. Street wisdom has it that with the change of wind, opportunist politicians are positioning themselves to be on the right side (‘wanajiweka sawa’ as the street Swahili goes) of the new president.

Between February 27, 2021 when he was last seen in public and March 17 when Magufuli’s passing on was officially announced, President Magufuli disappeared from the public eye. He was not seen at public functions nor did he attend church services on three consecutive Sundays. Magufuli was a practising Catholic and a devout church-goer. He never missed the Sunday Mass nor did he let go the opportunity to make political speeches from the pulpit. This practice distinguished President Magufuli from his predecessors to whom mixing politics with religion was anathema. They had been brought up on the secular doctrine preached and practised by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who never stopped reiterating that religion was a private matter and the Tanzanian state was secular. During the two weeks Magufuli was not seen in public, the country was awash with rumours, speculation and stories spun by spin doctors on Magufuli’s health, the nature of his disease, and whether or not he was alive. Internal detractors and a section of the foreign Western press superficially reported and gleefully reiterated that Covid-19 had finally caught up with President Magufuli who was reputed to be a Covid denier. The then Vice-President Mama Samia Suluhu Hassan gave heart complications as the cause of the president’s death. It was known that the president had a pacemaker. It is not necessary for the purposes of this essay to establish what the cause of death of President Magufuli was. I do not intend to cloud my analysis by that debate.

President Magufuli leaves behind a controversial legacy. It would be intellectually futile to strike a strict balance between Maguphilia and Maguphobia. That is a lazy way of understanding a political phenomenon. Drawing up a balance sheet of the good and the bad is an accountant’s job not that of an intellectual analyst. Rather it is important to understand that Magufuli was a political phenomenon, not an individual. Magufuli was a local variant of populist political leaders who have emerged recently in a number of countries of the South. Brazil and India are obvious examples. Conditions were ripe for the emergence of demagogic politicians, partly as a backlash to neo-liberalism which wreaked havoc with the social fabric of the countries in the periphery and partly because of the resulting polarisation, inequalities and impoverishment of the working people and middle classes. Disarmed, disillusioned and stripped of all hope, masses yearned for a messiah. Populists presented themselves as such deliverers. The masses in Tanzania found themselves in this state when Magufuli appeared.

Populist rhetoric varies from country to country but invariably it feeds on heightening racial, religious and gender differences and exploits popular prejudices. The Magufuli phenomenon was not a deus ex machina. To understand it we must locate it in the history and politics of the country and come up with a correct characterisation. I characterise the Magufuli phenomenon as messianic Bonapartism. Before we dwell further on this, let me say a couple of things about Bonapartism as a political phenomenon.

Bonapartism

When classes are weak or have been disarmed ideologically and organisationally over a generation, politics suffer from Bonapartist effects. Bonapartism can take different forms depending on the concrete situation. Quickly, we may identify the two most relevant to us – militarist and messianic. Tanzania has been saved of the former for reasons which will become clear in the course of this essay. In the late president we witnessed the latter.

Bonapartism is characterised by the unexpected rise of an individual who stands above classes and social struggles. Indeed he even appears to rise above the state. The famous phrase attributed to Louis XIV ‘l’etat, c’est moi’, ‘I’m the state’ sums it all. Bonapartism has arisen in historical situations where the struggling classes have either exhausted themselves and there is an apparent vacuum in the body politic or the rein of the previous ruler has been so laissez-faire that ‘law and order’ has broken down. The Bonaparte legitimises his crassly high-handed actions to return the country to order and to rein in fighting factions in which everyone is for themselves and the devil takes the hindmost. Liberal institutions of ‘bourgeois’ democracy such as parliament and judiciary are either set aside (a fascist option) or emaciated of their content (neo-fascist authoritarianism). They exist in name only, but go through the rituals of elections, law-making and ‘judicial decision’ making, which means little in practice.

When classes are weak or have been disarmed ideologically and organisationally over a generation, politics suffer from Bonapartist effects

Unlike much of the rest of Africa, Tanzania can justifiably boast of a relatively stable and peaceful polity as well as smooth succession from one administration to another. Julius Nyerere, the founding president, ruled for nearly quarter of a century followed by three presidents, each one of whom was in power for ten years, that is, two terms of five years, the term limit prescribed by the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania, 1977. President Magufuli had just entered his second term after the general election of October 2020 when he met his death.

The political antecedents

The driving force during Mwalimu Nyerere’s reign was the ideology of nation-building and development. Nation-building called for national unity. Nyerere was preoccupied by national unity and as a result he reigned in centrifugal forces. At the time of independence there were three identifiable centres of power: the army, trade unions and the state. The army mutiny of 1964 and the alleged attempt by some trade unionists to make common cause with the mutineers drew home the point that all was not well and Nyerere’s national project was tottering. The mutiny became the occasion to dismantle the colonial army, ban independent trade unions and abolish the multi-party system. Opposition parties then were miniscule without much support but they had the potential to derail the national project, as Nyerere saw it. Tanzania was the first country in this part of Africa to rebuild the army from scratch with soldiers recruited mainly from the ruling party’s youth wing.

In 1965 a new one-party constitution providing for a highly centralised executive presidency was passed. From then on, the polity was informed by the centralising tendency, power being concentrated in the state and the party. In 1968, an independent religious organisation of Muslims, the East African Muslim Welfare Society, was banned for fear that it could become an organisational home for disgruntled Muslim politicians. The 1967 Arusha Declaration enshrining the policies of socialism and self-reliance saw the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. That lay the basis for the rise of parastatals with their own spawning bureaucracy. Over a period of next ten years, relatively independent co-operatives were abolished and replaced by crop authorities. Independent student, youth, and women’s organisations were all brought under the wing of the party. Thus the proto-ruling class which could be described as a bureaucratic bourgeoisie or state bourgeoisie established its ideological and organisational hegemony. By the time Nyerere stepped down in 1985, Tanzania had one of the most formidable state-party machines and it was highly bureaucratised.

Four important features of the party-state during Nyerere’s time must be highlighted. One, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party did function. Its organs had foundations at grassroots level in villages and streets. The party operated through its various organs such as party branches, ten-cell organs and similar organs, at district, regional and national level. At the top was the Central Committee and the all-powerful National Executive Committee (NEC). These organs met regularly and transmitted their resolutions and proceedings to higher levels. Two, the army was integrated in the party structure. It constituted a region which sent delegates to the NEC and the Congress, just as other regions did. Three, the party had a clearly spelt out philosophy and ideology which became the basis for developing its programmes and manifestos. Consequently, there was an ideology and a structure around which members could rally and participate in decision-making. Fourthly, as a result of these factors, political factions with a clear ideology and politics could not easily crystallise in or outside the party. If factions did emerge, they were temporary and issue-oriented. It was difficult for them to have medium or long-term political ambitions. The only group which did function as a faction and began to flex its muscles in the last five years of Nyerere’s rule was from Zanzibar. The succession saga within the party following Nyerere’s announcement that he was stepping down was actually led by Zanzibaris to which a few mainlanders aligned. To Nyerere’s surprise, the Zanzibari CCM faction proved to be so formidable that it managed to overturn Nyerere’s preferred choice to succeed him.

Magufuli was a local variant of populist political leaders who have emerged recently in a number of countries of the South. Brazil and India are obvious examples. Conditions were ripe for the emergence of demagogic politicians, partly as a backlash to neo-liberalism which wreaked havoc with the social fabric of the countries in the periphery and partly because of the resulting polarisation, inequalities and impoverishment of the working people and middle classes

In sum, although state structures of checks and balances were compromised during Nyerere’s time, the party did act as a check on top leaders providing a platform for relatively free discussions and debates within the party. Throughout this period, the independence of the judiciary was respected even though the judiciary could not play a very active role because, one, the constitution did not have a bill of rights against which the performance and accountability of the state organs and officials could be measured and, two, the law tended to be very widely worded, giving the bureaucracy unfettered discretion. These powers were often abused but grievous abuses were relatively rare and, if and when discovered, legal action was taken against the perpetrators. While Nyerere’s regime could arguably be described as authoritarian it certainly could not be labelled fascist in any sense of the word. When some overzealous youth wingers once described Nyerere as a ‘fascist’, Nyerere is said to have quipped: ‘What would they say if they saw a real one!’

The next ten years under President Ali Hassan Mwinyi saw the first, albeit hesitant, steps on the road to neo-liberalisation. It was during Mwinyi’s term that the leadership code which prevented state and party leaders from using their political office to accumulate personal wealth was lifted. There were also signs of factional struggles within the party but interestingly it was once again the coherent Zanzibar faction which mainlander CCM leaders with presidential ambitions had to attach themselves. Nonetheless, it was on Zanzibar issues – Zanzibar’s membership of the Organisation of Islamic Conference on its own and Parliament adopting a resolution to form a Tanganyika Government thus changing the union structure from two to three governments – that matters came to a head. Nyerere was still around. He managed to salvage the boat. The boat rocked but did not sink.

The next president, Benjamin Mkapa, was the first to be elected in a multi-party election, scoring a majority vote of only 62 per cent, demonstrating that the electorate was getting exhausted with CCM’s scandals and over-bearing bureaucracy. Mkapa, who served as president from 1995 to 2005, can easily be described as the father of neo-liberalism in Tanzania. He privatised national assets, including the national state bank, and steam-rolled through Parliament the mining law, opening up that important sector to rapacious foreign investment. However, he took a leaf from Nyerere’s book by adhering to party protocols and ensuring that the party organs met regularly and that there was a semblance of debate in the top party organs. During his term the judiciary became more active as a bill of rights had been inserted in the constitution in 1984.

The political antecendents in Tanzania
By the end of Mkapa rule, Tanzania was a full-blown neo-liberal state. The hardest-hit victims of neo-liberalisation, as elsewhere, were the working people, in both urban and rural areas. As cost-sharing in education and health took hold and various subsidies were removed, the component of social wage from the livelihoods of working people disappeared, exposing them to the full rigour of the so-called free market. Even lower middle classes suffered. If Tanzania was spared of bread riots, it was because of the lingering ideological and organisational hegemony of the state-party over the working people.

Finding a successor to Mkapa proved to be contentious. Jakaya Kikwete and his friend Edward Lowassa, the party’s two leading cadres, had built a strong base in the party’s youth wing. They had waited in the wings to bid for the presidency at the opportune time. Through fair and foul means, aided by some manipulation of party rules by the then party chairman Mkapa, the Kikwete-Lowassa duo managed to keep out another strong contender, Salim Ahmed Salim. Kikwete got the party’s nomination, subsequently winning the presidency with a handsome majority. He lost no time in making his friend Lowassa his Prime Minister and one of their businessman friends – who was widely believed to play kingmaker behind the scenes – treasurer of the party. Eventually, the two friends fell out and Lowassa had to resign as Prime Minister. Be that as it may, the party had become fractionalised and mired in factional struggles. With no coherent ideology like the Arusha Declaration, the factions were not held together by any ideology or political programme but by sheer ambition to power and through power the ability to access the state largesse.

The ten years of Kikwete rule were one of the most laissez-faire periods in the country’s history. The neo-liberal chickens came home to roost. Scandals abounded, there was unchecked embezzlement of public funds, some politicians in collusion with businessmen went on an accumulation spree, corruption mounted. The party was side-lined. Kikwete did not have purchase on party meetings. The party and the government lost any semblance of coherence. The check-and-balance machinery broke down. Policymaking was erratic. Donors ruled the roost. To be sure, in this climate civil society elite and opposition parties enjoyed a measure of freedom which they had not experienced before but all that was at the expense of the masses who continued to sink deeper and deeper into poverty and hopelessness. The party lost credibility, so much so that when the time came for general elections it could not be sure of getting elected. Day by day, the opposition gained in popularity as it exposed the scandals and corruption of CCM politicians.

Unlike much of the rest of Africa, Tanzania can justifiably boast of a relatively stable and peaceful polity as well as smooth succession from one administration to another

Within the party, the person believed to be the strongest contender for presidency was Edward Lowassa. He had both political and financial clout but no purchase on political probity. He had cleverly put in place his people in vital party organs. Succession to Kikwete was ridden with factional struggles, so much so that when finally Lowassa lost out on nomination in the Central Committee, his faction in the Committee came out openly questioning the Central Committee’s decision.

As we have seen, the ruling party and its leaders had been so much maligned and marred by allegations of corruption that it had to nominate for the presidency a person who was not identifiable with the party and its heavyweights, a relatively clean person. That person was John Magufuli, until then a non-entity. In the elections, Magufuli got the lowest vote ever (58 per cent). Lowassa, having moved to the opposition, scored nearly 40 per cent. The opposition also won a significant number of seats in Parliament. As we shall see, Magufuli never forgave the opposition for their relative success.

The rise of a messianic Bonaparte

Thus were created almost textbook conditions for the rise of a Bonaparte, in this case, a messianic Bonaparte. By the time of the fifth president, the post-Nyerere presidents had abandoned the country’s cementing ideology, the Arusha Declaration. What was left of it was smashed to smithereens by the onslaught of neo-liberalism. The ideological vacuum thus created was filled with narrow nationalism and religious dogmas including religious salutations at political meetings and rallies in what was constitutionally a secular state.

The messianic variant of civilian Bonapartism best describes the Magufuli phenomenon. Messianic Bonapartism rules by fiat of the leader. It legitimises its rule not only by material measures in the interest of the down-trodden or oppressed (called wanyonge in Tanzania) but also by metaphysical appeals. The late President Magufuli used both in good measure. One of the most significant collateral damages of messianism is that accountability of the top leader disappears while their subordinates become, if at all, accountable to one person at the top. Politics are submerged in the personality of the president. Patriotism is defined and measured by one’s loyalty to the president. Any critique of the president is labelled unpatriotic or anti-national, the term widely used by Hindutva BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in India.

Messianic Bonapartism shares some characteristics of the absolute monarchies of Europe. Absolute monarchs derived their legitimacy and authority from God, not from the people. And so-called good absolute monarchs were those who bestowed their largesse on their subjects. President Magufuli did not flinch in giving cash gifts to well-performing functionaries or leading an on-the-spot collection of funds for a complaining widow or a mama Ntilie. Such publicity stunts no doubt endeared the president to the masses, notwithstanding the fact that the impact of these acts was fleeting.

On many levels Magufuli scored a first in the political history of the country. He was the first president of the country since independence 50 years ago who was not a party veteran or a cadre. Unlike his predecessors, he was not brought up in the party. He was nowhere close to the first or second-generation nationalists. In his ministerial portfolios under the third president, Mkapa, and later under the fourth president, Kikwete, he was better known for his close supervision of infrastructure projects than for his political acumen or ideological leanings. He got things done, which earned him the nickname ‘bulldozer’. He was more of a supervisor than a leader. As a president, he never travelled outside the country except to nearby African countries. He did not attend a single United Nations General Assembly or an African Union Summit. He had little appreciation of international geopolitics. Although described as a Pan-Africanist after his death, he showed little understanding of the history or politics of Pan-Africanism. He saw regional organisations like the East African Community (EAC) or Southern African Development Community (SADC) as vehicles to enhance Tanzania’s trade and economic benefits rather than as the political building blocks of Pan-Africanism. Although he rhetorically used the term ubeberu (imperialism), it is doubtful if he ever understood it as a system. He hardly ever talked about ubepari (capitalism) or for that matter ujamaa, socialism. His refrain and rhetoric was maendeleo (development), kutanguliza Mungu (putting God first) and uzalendo (patriotism). For him, ‘development’ was non-partisan; ‘development’ was above politics, above ideology and above all-isms.

The rise of the messianic Bonaparte
He was the first president who was able, in five years, to accomplish major undertakings which his predecessors had failed to do over decades. He moved the capital to Dodoma, a project that had been conceived and planned by Nyerere. He embarked on a gigantic hydroelectric project across Stigler’s Gorge. He initiated the building of the over-2000km-long Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza and further west. He built many miles of tarmac roads across the country. He would invariably quote a string of statistics from memory of the length of roads built, the number of dispensaries, hospitals, schools and factories constructed under him. Whether these figures represented the whole truth on the ground, no one could tell, and those who could kept quiet for fear of contradicting the all-powerful and unpredictable leader. As a matter of fact, during Magufuli’s time the Statistics Act of 2015 was amended to make it a crime punishable by a fine of ten million shillings or three years imprisonment or both ‘to disseminate or otherwise communicate to the public any statistical information which is intended to invalidate, distort or discredit official statistics’ (section 24B). A year later the amendment was repealed following pressure from local NGOs but not until the World Bank issued a statement showing its concern with the amendments and ending with a threat to withdraw its financial support to the strengthening of the national statistics system.

While Nyerere’s regime could arguably be described as authoritarian it certainly could not be labelled fascist in any sense of the word. When some overzealous youth wingers once described Nyerere as a ‘fascist’, Nyerere is said to have quipped: ‘What would they say if they saw a real one

While some of the mega-projects (like the SGR) undoubtedly made developmental sense, others were controversial given their possible medium and long-term ecological effects. The Stigler’s Gorge project and others (like buying eight airbuses and the Tanzanite bridge across the sea) could very well prove to be white elephants. While Magufuli lived, no one dared to challenge or contradict him. One consulting geologist from the University of Dar es Salaam who gave an adverse report on the feasibility of the Stigler’s Gorge project was roundly condemned by the president in public before his peers for being unpatriotic.

He was the first president who made meaningful and far-reaching decisions like abolishing primary and secondary school fees, ordering the building of classrooms and buying of desks, extending health insurance coverage at a cheap premium to almost one-third of the population, issuing street vendors and kiosk owners with identity cards at twenty thousand Tanzanian shillings which would legitimise their occupation and free them from constant harassment by city police and militia. A number of times he cancelled state celebrations like independence day and redirected the money thus saved to infrastructural and health projects. These and other populist moves, some impactful and others inflated out of proportion, endeared him to wanyonge and earned him the title ‘people’s president’, ‘man of the people’ and many other accolades generously bestowed on him by courtiers and praise singers.

Magufuli’s populist measures were not without contradictions. For instance, he barred pregnant school girls from education on the grounds of patriarchal morality which typically blames the victim. Use of misogynistic language was legendary with him. He unabashedly made remarks on the skin colour and figures of young female functionaries in his government. Yet hardly any local gender lobby could dare call him out. While he made primary and secondary education ‘free’, the loan instalment payments by university graduates was doubled, leaving little from their salaries for their upkeep.

He had little respect for the constitution or law. He did not even pay lip service to the rule of law and breached law and the constitution at will. He fired and humiliated senior civil servants in public meetings contrary to public service regulations and without proper investigation of their alleged misdeeds. While this to some extent restored discipline in the civil service, it was a discipline born of fear resulting in his ministers and civil servants shying away from making decisions.

During President Magufuli’s reign some of the most draconian pieces of legislation were passed, propelled by his compliant Attorney General. Public interest litigation (founded on article 26 of the country’s Constitution), under which a number of constitutional petitions were filed challenging some laws and Magufuli’s public appointments, was abolished. A few vocal lawyers conducting such cases were taken before the Advocates Committee for disciplinary action. One of them, who had appeared in a case in which the credentials of the Attorney General himself were questioned, was struck off the roll of advocates. At the time of writing her appeal is pending before the High Court.

The list of unbailable offences under the notorious Money Laundering Act was extended to cover even such offences as tax evasion and use of illegal fishing nets. The law was generously used by the prosecution to incarcerate critical journalists and commentators. A few such cases were sufficient to strike fear in the rest, including critical intellectuals and academics. Once famous as a site of critical debates and discussions, the University of Dar es Salaam became an intellectual desert with its faculty tight-lipped in the face of momentous happenings outside the campus. To be fair, Magufuli could not be solely blamed for this as the trend had already set in in the previous decade. One of the major collateral damages of neo-liberalisation of the university and marketisation of its scholars was the emaciation of the critical intellectual content of university life. But that is a subject on its own and is best left for another day.

Under Magufuli’s presidency, the executive branch of the government became predominant riding rough-shod over other branches. During his presidency, it would require a leap of imagination to believe that the country had separation of powers. Mundane state functions like swearing-in ceremonies became grand functions at the state house with live TV coverage. Invariably, the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Chief Justice, commanders of the army and the police would be present seated in the front row with all their regalia. During such functions, which were essentially executive functions, the Speaker and Chief Justice would be invited to speak assuring the president of their loyalty and re-iterating their admiration for him. His speech would come at the end. In a long-winded rambling monologue, he would harangue, humiliate and even reprimand his ministers and other public officials. The president would often give thinly veiled instructions to the head of the judiciary and the legislature. The speech would end with his oft-repeated refrain that he would not flinch from speaking the truth for those who tell the truth are the beloved of God.

Under President Magufuli’s watch the country for the first time witnessed disappearances and kidnappings whose perpetrators remain unknown to this day. The perpetrators, we are told, were ‘watu wasiojulikana’ (unknown people). During his reign a wealthy businessman was mysteriously kidnapped and as mysteriously reappeared after 10 days. To this day it is not known what the motive was, who did it and what was the deal between the perpetrators and the victim’s wealthy family that led to his release. The businessman incredibly claimed a year later that no ransom money had been paid (https://www.bbc.com/ news/world-africa-50235322). An outspoken, high-profile, if somewhat erratic, leader of the opposition party was shot at in broad daylight by the occupants of a trailing land cruiser. Sixteen bullets were pumped into his body. Thankfully he survived, after dozens of surgeries performed on him in a foreign country, but the agony and the traumatic experience that he and his family and his admirers went through was inhuman and immeasurable. To date the perpetrators have not been arrested or sent before a court of law, nor does anyone know if the police are continuing the investigation or if the file has been conveniently closed.

The driving force during Mwalimu Nyerere’s reign was the ideology of nation-building and development. Nation-building called for national unity. Nyerere was preoccupied with national unity and as a result, he reigned in centrifugal forces

Soon after coming to power on a slim majority, by Tanzanian standards, of 58 per cent President Magufuli lost no time in coming down heavily on opposition parties. Political rallies were banned, opposition leaders were harassed, and slapped with all kinds of charges which kept them in court or prisons most of the time. Civil society organisations and NGOs fared no better. Funded by foreign agencies, some of them dubious, and having no constituency or agenda of their own, NGOs were most vulnerable. Extreme controls were imposed on them. Some of them found their bank accounts closed while others were subjected to all kinds of demands from revenue authorities.

As might be expected, print and electronic media bore the brunt of repression. While public media joined the praise-singing choir, private media too fell in line to protect their businesses and profits. Fearing closure or being slapped with heavy fines by the regulatory agency (TCRA) for smallest of infractions (which were not unknown), the media avoided controversial stories and investigative reporting. A couple of critical newspapers and online TV channels were either banned or starved of advertisements. They went under.

Ironically while the mainstream media was undergoing censure, a mysterious media mini-tycoon emerged on the scene like a phoenix. He owned a couple of newspapers and TV Online (an Online TV channel). His newspapers defamed prominent people, even party stalwarts, without let or hindrance. He abused and poured verbal venom on Magufuli’s critics and perceived opponents and enemies. He had no respect for professionalism or ethics. No disciplinary action has ever been taken against him either by regulatory bodies or media watchdogs.

Arguably the measure which was most important in making Magufuli known on the continent was his bold taking on of the multinational gold company Barrick Gold. And he did it in his own spectacular fashion. He stopped containers full of mineral sand to be exported by Acacia, a subsidiary of Barrick, for smelting. He formed a local team of experts to investigate the mineral content of the sand. Simultaneously, the Tanzania Revenue Authority slapped on it a huge bill of unpaid taxes amounting to USD190 billion. As expected, the expert team found that the sand contained a variety of minerals costing billions of shillings. The long and short of the story is that Barrick Gold had to send its chief executives to Tanzania to negotiate with the government, bypassing the Acacia management. Eventually, the parties struck a deal under which Barrick would pay USD300 million in settlement of the tax dispute and give Tanzania a 16 per cent stake in a new company, Twiga Minerals, which would operate Barrick’s three mines. Meanwhile, the ban on export of mineral sand was lifted. Details and the small print of the agreement were never made public. It is not clear if the promises made have been fulfilled.

In the same vein, a progressive piece of legislation called Natural Wealth and Resources (Permanent Sovereignty) Act was passed in 2017. While the law recognises the sovereign ownership of the people of natural resources, they are legally vested in the president who holds the same in trust. Most of its provisions, including this one, are really hortatory in that they cannot be easily enforced in a court of law. Nonetheless, the law did send a strong message that at least in theory the Tanzanian government would not tolerate any exploitation of its natural resources which had no benefit to the people of Tanzania. One provision which forbade any international agreement from providing for dispute settlement by outside bodies could be considered a great advance since most of these agreements invariably provide for international arbitration of disputes. Research has to be done to establish if this provision has been observed in practice. My hunch is that it has not.

The president also boldly moved against grand corruption. A number of high-profile, and hitherto untouchable, business people perceived to be corrupt were charged with unbailable offences. A few bought back their freedom through plea-bargaining; some are still rotting in jail. The former Vice-President of Acacia Deo Mwanyika was charged with money laundering for alleged tax evasion soon after retirement from the company. Eventually, he bought his freedom by way of a plea-bargaining agreement coughing up millions of shillings. (indeed many others charged similarly had to agree to pay handsome sums of money to get back their freedom.) Ironically, he was nominated by Magufuli’s party to stand for Parliament in the 2020 elections which he duly won. A well-known businessman who had been charged under the money laundering law for allegedly avoiding taxes died in remand custody.

In the 2020 general election Magufuli won by a landslide, getting an unprecedented 84 per cent while the ruling party won all parliamentary seats except a couple. Opposition parties cried foul but theirs was a voice in the wilderness. For the first time since the general elections began in the country in 1965, no election petitions were filed. It was a telling comment on the 2020 General Elections under President Magufuli’s watch. It was also a veiled pointer to the loss of people’s trust in the impartiality of the judiciary.

Within two or so years of Magufuli’s rule the civil and political space virtually disappeared. Selected disappearances, court cases against perceived opponents and closure or fining of media – both print and electronic – instilled fear, uncertainty and hopelessness even in outspoken academic critics. Magufuli shrewdly dangled carrots in front of academics by appointing a significant number of professors and PhDs to his cabinet and top public service positions thus denuding the university of its most senior faculty. The remaining joined the queue hoping to be picked up in the next round of presidential appointments.

The country had never before experienced such an intense perception of repression. Critics were subdued. Some leading opposition politicians were ‘bought’ off with political positions. Overnight they crossed the aisle becoming flag-waving members of the ruling party. Meanwhile, the populist rhetoric coupled with promises of beneficial material improvement for the wanyonge – free education, health insurance, relative discipline in delivery of public services and well-publicised action against notorious businesspeople for corruption, tax evasion, drug business etc – garnered support of the masses behind the president. The president’s unrelenting industrialisation drive, albeit unplanned and incoherent, gave jobless youth the hope of employment. In the event, whatever new industrial plants were put up they made little dent on unemployment figures. In itself the idea of industrialisation had a lot to commend it but for it to make developmental sense it had to be coherent and consistent with a broad vision of building a nationally integrated economy in which industry and agriculture would be mutually reinforcing. The president had no such vision and it is doubtful if he sought any advice or accepted it if given.

The president also became the chairman of the party, in terms of the convention established by the first phase government. Nyerere believed, not without reason, that the Tanzanian polity was not ready for the separation of the state president and the party chairman. The party was brought up and bred on centralisation of power. Under Magufuli’s chairmanship, party organs like the Central Committee and NEC were slimmed down in terms of numbers and filled with loyalists. The old guard of the party was weeded out. Two former Secretary Generals of the party and the foreign minister in Kikwete’s government with presidential ambitions were hounded, defamed and relentlessly humiliated in the media owned by the new kid on the block (see above). No action was taken against the mini media tycoon. Instead, the victims of his defamation campaign were subjected to disciplinary measures. One was reprimanded, another was suspended and put under watch while the former foreign minister was expelled.

Messianic Bonapartism shares some characteristics of the absolute monarchies of Europe. Absolute monarchs derived their legitimacy and authority from God, not from the people. And so-called good absolute monarchs were those who bestowed their largesse on their subjects.

Eventually, all but the latter asked for forgiveness and were duly forgiven. A similar dose of medicine was administered on one of the very vocal cadres of CCM who had campaigned vigorously for Magufuli in the 2015 election. He was appointed minister for information in the Magufuli cabinet. He dared to cross swords with one of Magufuli’s favourite regional commissioners which earned him a revocation of his appointment as a minister. When he tried to hold a press conference to explain his side of the story at a city hotel, he was confronted by a plain-clothes pistol-wielding person who forced him back into his car. To this day no one has been held accountable for that roguish behaviour. Eventually he too asked for forgiveness and was duly forgiven.

The new chairman of the party appointed a young person from the University of Dar es Salaam with progressive credentials as Secretary-General of the party. Another young person with no political or ideological credentials to speak of except vituperous outpourings became the ideology and publicity secretary of the party. None of them had an independent base either in the party or outside. They became the public image of the party in the shadow of the chairman to whom they were eternally beholden.

The passing of the president

The framers of 1977 Constitution (as amended) wisely provided for the contingency of the death of an incumbent president. In case of such eventuality the vice-president would take over for the remaining the term of the deceased president. This provision was not well known even to constitutional lawyers and had certainly not featured in public discussions on the constitution. This was so partly because there had never been such an occurrence but mainly because this provision was new, having been introduced in one of a spate of constitutional amendments following the introduction of multi-party in 1992. In the Eighth Constitutional Amendment, the framers borrowed the system of a running-mate from the United States. Together with this, the framers took over almost lock, stock and barrel the American provision on succession in case of the death of an incumbent president (25th Amendment to the US Constitution). Article 37(5) of the 1977 Constitution stipulated that in case of, among other things, the death of the incumbent, the vice-president should be sworn in to be the president.

After the announcement of the death of the president it took almost 60 hours before the vice-president was sworn in.2 A few legal commentators opined that there was a lacuna (gap) in the constitution which did not provide the timeframe within which the vice-president had to be sworn in. One legal expert who has attained a kind of celebrity status for conducting public interest litigation even opined that it would be imprudent to swear in the succeeding president while the body of the late president had not yet been interred. One does not have to be a constitutional expert to read the constitution in context to conclude that the successor has to be sworn in immediately, that in fact there is no lacuna in the constitution. Under Tanzania’s Constitution the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces with powers to declare war and make peace, with powers to declare state of emergency etc. The presidency therefore cannot remain vacant for any length of time. The practice in the US, from where article 37(5) of the Tanzanian Constitution was lifted, has been to swear in the vice-president to become president immediately on the confirmation of the death of the incumbent president. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 in the city of Dallas, Lyndon B. Johnson, his vice-president, was sworn in within two hours onboard Air Force One while it was still parked on the runway. In the event, to the relief of many, the constitution prevailed. It is not clear which superior force intervened in favour of the constitution. So far, the transition has gone smoothly.

Glimpses into the future

It is too early to say the direction that the new regime will take under president Samia Suluhu Hassan. To be sure, it is likely to be a little more liberal politically and economically and a little less heavy on invoking rhetorical invectives against western governments. In changing the symbolic salutation from religious to secular, the president will probably adhere to the secular tradition of the country. She is likely to open up to the outside world. The extent of opening up will determine whether her government draws in the laissez-faire elements of the fourth phase government or remains within the parameters of national interest. All in all, the party and the government which she now heads is likely to continue on the path of neo-liberalism. Thus the stark choice in the immediate and medium-term future is not so much between nationalism and neo-liberalism but rather between rampant and regulated neo-liberalism.

Whether or not and how far the new president opens up the civil space will also determine how far the working people are able to organise themselves openly to defend their interests. There are disturbing signs that opportunist politicians, businessmen and IFIs (International Financial Institutions) are getting too close to the president. If they prevail, the neo-liberal path will consolidate itself. There is a fear among more conscious elements that some of the worst features of neo-liberalism – rampant pillage of natural resources, reaping of monopoly super-profits at the expense of the working people, land grabbing resulting in eviction of smallholders, further exacerbation of social inequalities and mass misery– may once again reappear with a vengeance. In which case, whatever goodwill the president may have generated will quickly evaporate.

One major lesson to draw from the Magufuli phenomenon is that our polities in the periphery remain fragile and masses disorganised. Therefore our polities are vulnerable and amenable to the rise of narrow nationalists and populists on the one hand, and rampant neo-liberals on the other. Under the circumstances, organisation-building remains foremost on the working peoples’ agenda. The politics of class struggle have to transit from spontaneity to organisation just as committed left intellectuals have to transit from being public to organic intellectuals.

Ultimately the working people have to depend on themselves rather than wait for a messiah to deliver them. Hopefully the Magufuli phenomenon would have taught progressive African intellectuals to distinguish between rhetorical anti-imperialism and systemic understanding of the global capitalist-imperialist system; between populist demagogues and popular democrats; between mass political line and mass evangelism; and between a protracted struggle of the working people for liberation and emancipation from below and short-cut measures to development and promises of deliverance from above.

This article was first published by CODESRIA in the Codesria Bulletin online, N°13, June 2021.

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Prof. Issa G. Shivji is an author and academic, one of Africa's leading experts on law and development and former Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Research Chair in Pan-African Studies of the University of Dar es Salaam.

Long Reads

The Politics and Economics of Knowledge Production: Crucial Aspects of the Struggle Against Western Imperialism

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.

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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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Long Reads

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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