There is a new book out on Rwanda that, for various reasons, has made quite some “waves”: Michela Wrong’s Do not disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad (published end of March 2021). It is about a controversial topic: the politics of the government of Rwanda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and President Paul Kagame. The book blurb reads:
Do Not Disturb is a dramatic recasting of the modern history of Africa’s Great Lakes region, an area blighted by the greatest genocide of the twentieth century. This bold retelling, vividly sourced by direct testimony from key participants, tears up the traditional script. The new version examines afresh questions which dog the recent past: Why do so many ex-rebels scoff at official explanations of who fired the missile that killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi? Why didn’t the mass killings end when the rebels took control? Why did those same rebels, victory secured, turn so ruthlessly on one another? Michela Wrong uses the story of Patrick Karegeya, once Rwanda’s head of external intelligence and a quicksilver operator of supple charm, to paint the portrait of a modern African dictatorship created in the chilling likeness of Paul Kagame, the president who sanctioned his former friend’s murder.
Wrong also published a Guardian opinion piece a few days ago that begins as follows:
There are moments when the international community’s perception of a leader shifts into a new configuration, often for reasons that can’t be entirely logically explained. Myanmar’s Aung San Sui Kyi reached that tipping point during the Rohingya crisis, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has been undergoing the same transition since war broke out in Tigray, and the same process is taking place with the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. Today, he is welcoming the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to Kigali, his spotlessly tidy hillside capital. . .
The piece closes with:
In February, Rwandan officials attending the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva seemed taken aback by the bluntness of the human rights concerns aired by US and UK delegates. Kagame was not included among the five African presidents invited to Biden’s climate summit in April, and Rwanda was bypassed on Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s virtual visit to Africa. A lot of this recalibration can be explained by the sheer passage of time. Kagame has now been at the helm for 27 years, and such longevity carries its own message. As one development official told me: “Anyone who is in power that long, well, you have to regard them as a dictator, don’t you?”
Like her book on corruption in Kenya, Our Turn to Eat, published back in 2009, Wrong’s new book has been received with enthusiasm in the UK and US. Various high-end webinar and podcast book launches have already been held in, among other places, the UK, the US and South Africa, with, for example, the Royal African Society/SOAS, the Foreign Press Association USA, the South African Institute of International Affairs, or Public Affairs Books (see also for other launch talks here, here, here, here, here, here and here; further reviews and launches are publicised at fast speed). The book was much praised by various launch hosts and speakers. On one event page one can read: “Near the end of this episode, host of the Departures podcast Robert Amsterdam tells his guest, ‘This is perhaps the best book I’ve ever read on Africa, and I’ve read a lot of books.’ Such is the esteem we hold for Michela Wrong.”
And one can find headlines like this Reuters one in the ongoing launch phase of the book.
So, there is great interest in the book. The cover carries praises by John Le Carré who assesses the book to be “A withering assault on the murderous Rwandan regime of Paul Kagame – very driven, very impassionate”, and, according to the longer review available online, “a melancholy love song to the last dreams of the African Great Lakes”. Archbishop Desmond Tutu evaluates the text to be an “extremely important and profoundly disturbing book”. More appraisals are listed here with the Rwandan government being described as a “murderous” and “profoundly criminal regime”, and Kagame as a “ruthless dictator”.
Further, Edward Clay, who was the UK’s Ambassador to Rwanda from 1994 to 1996, the British High Commissioner in Uganda from 1993 to 1997 and in Kenya from 2001 to 2005, writes in the last paragraph of his review: “Wrong concludes with reminders of why her book’s title is apt. The heroic days of the RPF have yielded to duplicity, treachery, betrayal and assassination. Why did those who later fell out with the regime serve so long as its defenders, apologists and executives; and why is the obscure Kagame of 1990 still standing tall thirty years on?” Finally, at a book launch hosted by Ian Williams, President of the Foreign Press Association USA, he asks Wrong towards the end of their talk: “Is there hope, is Kagame going to appear before the International tribunal?” Clay’s book review was published on DemocracyinAfrica.org and assessed to be a “great read” by scholar Nic Cheeseman, the website’s founder. Cheeseman also expressed in a tweet: “Can’t wait to hear Michela Wrong talk about her new hard hitting book on Rwanda”. (bold in original). Do not Disturb was the website’s “Book of the Month” earlier this year.
Great read! Edward Clay, former UK High Commissioner to Uganda and Kenya, reviews Michela Wrong's new book on Rwanda, Do Not Disturb. The latest in the excellent #BookClub series over at @AfricaDemocracy. Check it out now. @michelawrong #DoNotDisturb https://t.co/xyxutTklMJ
— Prof Nic Cheeseman (@Fromagehomme) March 23, 2021
Can't wait to hear Michela Wrong talk about her new hard hitting book on Rwanda – Do Not Disturb – on the next Resistance Bureau show on Tuesday 9 March. Join us to hear its key messages. @michelawrong @public_affairs #Rwanda #Kagame
— Prof Nic Cheeseman (@Fromagehomme) March 4, 2021
The book has received criticisms too and they include charges of naivety, one-sidedness, partisanship, propaganda, demonisation/character assassination of Kagame, revisionism, and racism (see e.g. here, here, here and here). In the first part of his three-part review, Ugandan analyst and journalist Andrew Mwenda writes that Wrong’s book continues with a line of analysis that pathologises African political actors. The matter here is state violence (particularly extra-territorial killings). Mwenda argues that this political phenomenon needs to be analysed as a matter of foreign policy choices (and, generally, political repertoire) not as a psychological/cultural phenomenon. Mwenda further argues that these practices are analysed, interpreted and judged differently by many Western scholars, depending on whether the protagonists are Western or African leaders:
Many countries have always acted extra-territorially depending on their judgement of the nature of the threats they faced. During the cold war, the Americans, French, British, and Russians intervened in other countries using coups, civil wars, and targeted assassinations. The Americans attempted to assassinate Castro 76 times yet he never sought to attack the USA, just to be independent of it. After 9/11, the America government adopted a policy of preemptive war to any threat anywhere. The American state has carried out coups, assassinations or sponsored civil wars and terrorist activities in Iraq, Syria, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Grenada, Vietnam, Libya, etc. Would Wrong accuse any U.S. president of being a violent psychopath?
This is the problem I have with many Western scholars, journalists and diplomats. When something is done by their countries, they focus on the national policy that informs the decision, not the personality of the leader who made it. They can criticise the policy but rarely do they attribute it to some mental or psychological pathology of the leader. When the same thing is done by an African leader, they ignore the circumstances that informed such a decision and accuse the individual leader of madness or psychopathy. I hate to use the word racism. But if this is not racism, what is it? Wrong . . . presents such policy [Rwanda’s extraterritorial operations] as the product of . . . Kagame’s psychopathy.
Mwenda here opens up the question of comparison about political violence in general and state violence (and state crimes) in particular: how does the Rwandan case of (especially extraterritorial) state violence compare globally — and particularly vis-à-vis Western states such as the US — on a continuum of “degrees” of state violence abroad?
The racism charge in the debate emerges, amongst others, due to the opening chapter of Wrong’s book, which she has reproduced on the Lit Hub website. It has been commented on, in particular by Mwenda (see also e.g. here) and reads as follows:
Rwandans kept telling me that deceiving others, being economical with the truth, was something their community reveled in, positively prided itself upon. Especially when dealing with Western outsiders. A proof of superiority, not shame, when successfully achieved. So much so, that the practice had worked itself into the language. . . . One of Rwanda’s prime ministers, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, shocked the head of a UN peacekeeping force by telling him: “Rwandans are liars and it is a part of their culture. From childhood they are taught to not tell the truth, especially if it can hurt them.”. . . A successor told me the same thing over coffee in a Brussels hotel lobby many years later: “In Rwanda, lying is an art form. When you, as a white journalist, leave a meeting, they will be congratulating themselves: ‘We took her for a ride.’ Lying is the rule, rather than the exception.” It was an accusation tossed into conversations with Tutsis and Hutus, Rwandans and Ugandans, diplomats and military men, lawyers, and journalists. “You spoke to so-and-so? Oh, he’s the most terrible liar.”
Wrong details some of her views regarding political violence/culture in the case she takes into focus in a talk here (e.g. min 8:57 onwards, and especially min 17:52 onwards), and also offers a comparative commentary regarding Rwanda vs the West/US here (min 4:33 onwards). Wrong reacts to the criticism concerning the points about “lying . . . as part of Rwandan culture” and “culture of deceit” in a book launch event in June hosted by Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor, Channel 4 News (see min 16:19 onwards).
We are shocked to see that the Royal African Society are providing a platform to Michela Wrong. Ms Wrong has a history of using racist and offensive language when discussing the African continent and its people. Wrong’s most recent work, Do Not Disturb, is saturated with offensive stereotypes and underpinned by her argument that in Rwanda, everyone is a liar. In her introduction, she writes about Rwandans: “Deceiving others was something their community revelled in” and “In Rwanda, lying is an art form”. These are long-established tropes which were used in the past to demonise Tutsis. One of the architects of the genocide, Theoneste Bagosora, in his 30-page booklet inciting hatred towards the Tutsi said: “The Tutsis are the masters of deceit” and “Inveterate liars”. Wrong also quotes Ewart Grogan. Grogan, who Wrong refers to as an ‘Adventurer’, was in fact a colonialist who worked for Cecil Rhodes and was convicted for beating Africans in the street. She makes no mention of this, or the fact that Grogan said that in fact all Africans are “fundamentally inferior”, choosing instead to select his quote: “Of all the liars in Africa, I believe the people of Ruanda are by far the most thorough” to support her contention that Rwandans could not be trusted. The neo-colonial undertones to her work are barely concealed.
This is not the first time that Wrong has used outdated, offensive, and unnecessarily graphic language when discussing the continent. In one of Wrong’s previous works, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, she said: “Africa, a continent that has never disappointed in its capacity to disappoint: Hutu mothers killing their children by Tutsi fathers in Rwanda; the self-styled Emperor Bokassa ordering his cook to serve up his victims’ bodies in Central African Republic; Liberia’s rebels gleefully videotaping the torture of a former president”. In the same book, Wrong stated that: “There were more recent signs that La Sape was being infected by the ‘slob’ look embraced by America’s blacks, all outsized jeans, baggy dungarees and shorts that drop to calf level”. At other points, she paints a picture of Rwandans as a people conditioned to kill from birth. When describing a typical Rwandan “peasant”, she suggests that “If instructed to kill you, he may well pick up a machete, because the value of obedience has been impressed on him since birth and, above all, no one wants to stand out from the crowd”. Her contempt for Rwandans, who in her mind are all one and the same, is plain to see.
We are shocked that in 2021, and in the era where racism and discrimination in all its forms is being challenged around the world, these views are published and promoted without challenge. . . . We call on the Royal African Society to immediately review their decision to provide Ms Wrong a platform and commit to challenging her racist and offensive views about Rwandans and Africans more widely.
The written reply of the Society’s Director, Nicholas Westcott, to the petitioners includes these lines (emailed to us by Westcott with permission to publish):
We are very conscious of the sensitivity of many issues in Rwanda’s history, and especially the question of the genocide. I have read Ms Wrong’s book (and indeed her previous books), and I feel your selective quotations distort her message and misrepresent her views. There is certainly criticism of the current government, but not in a form that can justifiably be described as racist. The meeting we are holding to discuss her book is open to the public, so those who disagree with Ms Wrong’s views are welcome to participate and express their own opinion, raise questions or explain their disagreements. . . .
We do not provide a review of the book. Rather we wish to problematise two headlines of the book reviews in the UK press — in the Times and the Spectator. In the review title there is reference to Kagame as a “monster”. The titles read: “Do Not Disturb by Michela Wrong review — the making of a monster” and “The making of a monster: Paul Kagame’s bloodstained past”. The pieces are written by high-profile writers Ian Birrell and Nicholas Shakespeare. Birrell also uses the “monster” characterisation in a tweet about the piece and, in the review, employs the “savagery” term in this passage: “She exposes a more complex and tawdry story, showing the savagery that lies below the smooth surface of a regime hailed by many Western admirers.” and writes that “this gruesome regime . . . lies blatantly on everything . . . .”
Birrell’s text reads:
Yet this interwoven story of two fascinating men is much more than a smart device to tell the tale of another African rebel leader who festered in power, even if it is a riveting account of raw power turned rancid. Wrong, the author of fine books on Eritrea, Kenya and the Congo, challenges the tatty conventional narrative on the 1994 genocide, with its simplistic notion of triumphant Tutsi good guys led by the heroic national saviour returning from exile. She exposes a more complex and tawdry story, showing the savagery that lies below the smooth surface of a regime hailed by many Western admirers.
The pages are laced with irony since Karegeya was a key player in creating the deceptive façade of a democratic Rwanda, before he fled and rebranded himself as an opposition leader. “When they say these dictators and monsters are created by those around them, I think it’s true,” confesses another key figure in exile. “We had a hand in the making of a monster.”
— Ian Birrell (@ianbirrell) March 20, 2021
The book offers searing indictment of naive western politicians and gullible aid groups that appease this gruesome regime in desperation to find a poster child for their policies of spraying cash around the planet, ignoring how it lies blatantly on everything from human rights to poverty data. Wrong also points to the racism that lurks behind the idea Africans need a strongman to keep them in order.
We do not know whether the authors or editors of the book reviews came up with the “monster” titles. In any case we find the “monster” headline disturbing (though not surprising given the racism in part of the UK press) and worth analytical attention. We look in particular at sections of the press and non-academic writing but arguably, the issue is wider and deeper. We have for various reasons become interested by the reception of the book in the press — and in academic and policy circles generally — in the past week, one of the reasons being that this reception is deeply political at various levels. They are “events” (and thus insightful “data”) in the unfolding politics of Do not Disturb. What is discussed and judged (and reframed) there is arguably not just Rwanda, Kagame and the RPF. The book and the fast-mounting debate relate to wider political issues and discourses: representations of Africa; media; Western imperialism, foreign policy and aid; the West’s self-image; North-South relations; Africa rising; African statehood/sovereignty; political violence; knowledge production; the relationship between scholarship/academia/media/experts and foreign policy, for example in the UK and US, and the silences, taboos and no-goes in part of Western scholarship, media commentary and reporting, particularly about state/political violence (or in Wrong’s terms “political murder”) of Western imperialist countries (i.e. the Western empire). Wrong’s writing speaks to some of these foreign policy/international relations issues and the reviews and headlines pick it up (“the world” ignores/wakes up, etc.). Our theme of interest is thus also how Western media, academia and expert circles do politics and the respective authors’ relationship with the foreign policies of their governments (in this case vis-à-vis African countries and governments). We realise that this is a theme that has a long history, but we think it deserves renewed attention as the geopolitical and inter-imperialist conflicts once again intensify, and as the media landscape changes in a very particular way.
Notably, Kagame is not the first post-independence leader from the continent to be characterised as a monster by the Western media in prominently displayed headlines and/or article-summary lines. Instead, he is the latest in a longer list of “monsters” that goes far back in history. We found monster-calling with regard to leaders ranging from Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Charles Taylor (see also here re. Chucky Taylor), and Robert Gabriel Mugabe, with many in-between. Mugabe: Monster or Hero? one France24 headline reads. Robert Mugabe: Hero and Monster, titles a Canadian outlet. And the UK’s Telegraph used the monster characterisation for years in some of the Mugabe headlines. Just a few months ago, The Times referred to Amin as a monster in the summary line of a review of the new book by Mark Leopold: Idi Amin: The Story of Africa’s Icon of Evil (for a review see here). Joseph Kony has received monster headlines too, e.g. in The Sun, and in an in-text passage in an Observer report about the documentary film Kony 2012. See also a book titled Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason K. Stearns. Amin, Gaddafi and Mobutu (and Jean-Bédel Bokassa) also made it onto the list of “monsters” in a book titled Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators, by Jay Nordlinger.
It is against this background that we want to make very few basic points about “the West” and its apparent African Monsters syndrome. We want to start by posing some questions (while leaving them largely open for debate): why have some Western press outlets, throughout the decades, referred to some leaders in Africa (but also in other regions such as Latin America) as monsters? Why do these outlets — and their respective writers and editors — mobilise the “monster” characterisation when they write about other countries’ leaders that a part of “the West” (i.e. sections of political actors, commentators, etc.) views, for whatever reasons, in a critical light? And what might be the commonality between those leaders from around the globe who make it into the infamous box of “monsters”? What are the mechanisms that produce the monster category in politics? Why have some African political leaders that are eventually labelled “monsters” often been labelled “heroes” first (Kagame and Mugabe for example)? What has changed in the politics of these cases that informs the change in narrative, image and label? The discourse we bring into focus is generated in countries with intense geopolitical interests in African countries and so matters of narrative politics and control come in. It is a ubiquitous US, UK and Western European formation that we have in mind when we refer to “the West’.
In any case we find the “monster” headline disturbing (though not surprising given the racism in part of the UK press).
Before we start: yes, there are also headlines that refer to former US president Trump as a monster (e.g. here or here, and he was called monster by an official; see also here re. George W. Bush; and here or here for Barack Obama, or for Jair Bolsonaro, here and here). And the characterisation is not used just by “right-wing” outlets. But, arguably, overall these are somewhat different cases, in different contexts. One may debate in future what the commonality and connection is in these global “monster” cases, across these regions. What explains the choices of the editors and writers? The immediate question at hand, however, might rather be: do the Times/Spectator editors who run the Kagame-monster-headlines refer to some Western leaders as monsters too, or do they only use the characterisations in texts about non-Western leaders? Our focus of analysis is the West and its African “monsters-in-government”, i.e. the reporting, analysing and headlining about leaders from the continent (and by extension in the Third World/Global South; Fidel Castro and Nicolas Maduro, for example, have also had their share of “monster” headlines).
The “hero or . . .” binary also features here (and the question is why we repeatedly find these binaries in such headlines).
That said, let’s examine one relatively recent case of the West’s African Monsters syndrome: Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Gabriel Mugabe, now deceased. For years, Mugabe — who was at one time happy to implement the policies of the IMF and World Bank — was transformed into the despised tyrant of the continent, a “monster” determined to unleash “mob savagery” against law abiding (white) Zimbabweans (The Daily Telegraph, 10 August 2001).
In the early 2000s, TV programmes and newspaper articles were full of the “catastrophe” for white Zimbabwe, and Mugabe was labelled the killer-in-chief – a man who once knew his place, he was quickly transformed over a period of a couple of years from 1999 to 2001 into the very embodiment of the continent’s monsters.
For the next twenty years and until he died on 6 September 2019, coverage in the media and popular history books were unanimous about Mugabe’s role in Zimbabwe’s plunge. The devastation to white farmers in the country, with hysterical war veterans or “mobs” rampaging mindlessly through the capital, Harare, had a single cause: Mugabe’s megalomania and an insatiable craving for power. Many “serious” studies were dragged into the metanarrative. Dinner with Mugabe by Heidi Holland, published in 2009, told the story of a “freedom fighter” who became a “tyrant”. Even reviews of the balanced account of Zimbabwe’s crisis by Richard Bourne, Catastrophe, which came out in 2011, were replete with praise for charting Mugabe’s lunacy. At the time, the BBC’s James Robbins explained how the book “expertly lays bare Mugabe’s terrifying abuse of power — his path from liberator to destroyer — as well as charting the failures by Britain and the world to challenge him effectively.”
Across the US and UK, some commentators, academics and politicians referred to Mugabe as a madman “on the loose”, and spoke of a crisis “driven by one man’s ruthless campaign”. In the West’s wild imaginings, Zimbabwe became a symbol of the need to reorder Africa. When Mugabe was metamorphosing into a monster of continental proportions in the early part of the century, the then UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw (of the Labour party), insisted that it was “our” responsibility not to “let a great continent go down”.
By the end of the first decade of this century, Amazon was listing seven biographies of Mugabe written in the previous few years. Each, in a different way, promised to get to the “man behind the monster”. Today on Amazon’s site, the list of Mugabe “monster biographies” is literally endless — an industry has grown up around this popular imaginary that defies even our wildest exaggerations.
Why does it matter? The core of our argument is not knee-jerk support for political figures on the continent demonised by the monster characterisation. Instead, we see the terms used in headlines of reviews of Wrong’s book, and others, as a default racism — apparently still so deeply embedded in the minds of the respective writers/editors that they are unable to see how they simply slot into popular and racists assumptions about Africa and its people. The language, tools and analyses of these commentators are unreformed and colonial in origin. The monster characterisation dehumanises African leaders, and arguably their families, communities and societies too.
There is another dimension to it which we can only sketch out in brief here, but hope it can be further debated by others in future. It links to pieces that were published a short while ago by Jimi Adesina, Andrew Fischer and Nimi Hoffmann, and by Yusuf Serunkuma. These pieces and the issues they raise made a symposium on the issue seem pertinent and an email was drafted and sent to a colleague along the following lines:
Given the Adesina et al. & Serunkuma pieces, African studies might have at hand an emerging debate regarding the link between Western scholarship/scholars and Western politics/foreign policy agendas (in the context of empire/imperialism/imperialist rivalries); a debate about the political character/identity of African studies – historical and current dynamics. See as an example also the declaration of some Western scholars of postelection 2021 Uganda as a test case for US/UK/Biden, and the calls there for these governments to harden their stand vis-à-vis the Ugandan government. What are the theoretical stances, intellectual projects, purposes and politics behind such calls? For US empire to act/govern “better”? What do such interventions – that are arguably part of a large sample (that includes respective social media postings) tell us about the political character of this section of African studies? How do they sit in a longer historical line of African studies and geopolitics, empire/imperialism & western interests, power, hegemony, ideology and intervention? How do scholars reflect on their role in Western policy/empire (or see it as “no role”?)? Does such a debate make sense? Would it be of use?
The issue here is one that Serunkuma’s latest pieces clearly help to bring into focus: to what extent (and when, why, how, etc.) do the analyses that come out of part of the expert/commentator/academic/media community reflect the foreign policy positions of their governments (i.e. are thus in a particular way political).
How does this relationship between scholars/journalists and government/policy shape the analyses (i.e. matters of focus, argument, evidence, etc.) and modes of knowledge production?
How does that relationship shape scholarly and media controversies, such as the ones around Rwanda? And in what way does existing scholarship (and power relations etc.) inhibit a more extensive, critical debate about Western foreign policy (and discourses and narratives), vis-a-vis governments and leaders on the continent?
And does, as Serunkuma reminds us, a debate proper about “monsters” in the West not emerge because that debate does not get facilitated and supported (also via book launches and reviews), but rather is sidelined, by mainstream media and scholarship? In short, what are the taboos of Western mainstream scholarship and media and might there be a link to how the “monster” debate has unfolded, in the past and now? We cannot go deeper into this issue now, but note that some of these issues about sections of Western scholarship, scholars and analysts get also discussed, for example, in a recent intervention by Moses Khisa, in some twitter posts earlier this year by Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, Yusuf Serunkuma, Godwin Murunga and Jimi Adesina, and in the Editorial philosophy statement of the Pan African Review, amongst others.
Further then with the racism argument: Racist ideas are not new. For years analysts have lamented the “coup, war, famine syndrome” — that the continent only surfaces into Western news coverage, or into popular books, when it faces one of these catastrophes. As a result, no coherent image of Africa or its people can be narrated outside these categories/tropes – the continent simply does not exist without its wars, famines and monsters. These are not simply justifications for foreign interventions in the continent, but long held racist ideas about Africa’s barbarity.
The book and the fast-mounting debate relate to wider political issues and discourses.
Early European intrusion into the continent was justified, set-up and carried out to rid Africa of its pre-existing barbarity – its natural tendency to chaos and disorder. The cases are too extensive to cover in this piece, so we will limit ourselves to two examples. Algeria was invaded by France in 1830, and engaged in a war of pacification as Algerians fought the invaders for decades. Officially, the country was conquered in 1848 but in reality, there were hardly any years without fighting between 1830 and 1871.
The invasion was conducted – officially – in the name of civilisation and against native barbarity. The outcome was truly monstrous. After almost a century of French occupation, schooling in a largely literate pre-French society had been decimated by 1950, with UNESCO reporting 90 per cent illiteracy among the “natives”. A population of 6 million in 1830 had collapsed to less than 3.5 million in 1852 as millions were forced off the land, and fertile agricultural regions were taken over to cultivate grapes for the export of wine to mainland France. Algerians were labelled “primitive” and unable to appreciate French civilisation, their behaviour pathologised as brutal and monstrous (Frantz Fanon wrote about how this impacted mental health – a process, he described in his medical lexicon, of recerebralising Algerians, literally reshaping their brains and thinking). When Algerians fought back in the 1950s, demanding independence, this was once more regarded as an expression of their primitive nature, and their innately violent character.
The extent of the devastation following the first decades of French occupation led even the pro-imperialist French politician and historian Alexis de Tocqueville to note that colonisation had made Muslim society more barbaric. In other words, the society was already barbaric, and the French had only deepened its savagery.
The language, tools and analyses of these commentators are unreformed and colonial in origin.
The story of European civilisation conquering African barbarism and its associated monsters was common across the decades of colonial occupation and adventure on the continent. Sometimes the language did not always stick to the barbaric script. Take the Congo. Over a period of twenty years, Henry Morton Stanley – the 19th century imperialist adventurer par excellence – helped to establish what became the murderous Belgian empire in the Congo. As Stanley rampaged through the Congo in the 1870s and 1880s, he saw great opportunity for profit and imagined riches everywhere he turned, but the enemy this time was sloth. “In every cordial-faced aborigine whom I meet I see a promise of assistance to me in the redemption of himself from the state of unproductiveness in which he at present lives”. By 1884, Stanley boasted to King Leopold’s court that he had 500 treaties with chiefs and Congolese headmen. The Berlin Conference that was held at the end of that year and into early 1885 divided up Africa among European nations and officially recognised Leopold as the head of the International African Association of the Congo, soon renamed the Congo Free State.
The stated aim of the new Belgian colony – loudly proclaimed by newspapers and embedded writers – was to abolish slavery (a war was going to be fought against Arab slave traders) and to bring civilisation. In the name of this war against barbarism, a regime of utter brutality commenced. The combination of famine, forced labour and systematic violence wiped out millions; according to the historian Adam Hochschild, the population fell from over 20 million in 1891 to 8.5 million in 1911.
Why is this history important? It is our contention that the language of colonialism has remained a determined and fixed feature of mainstream accounts of Africa. Racist imagery of Africa, its barbaric people – who live under a thin veneer of civilisation – remains unchanged, and essentially monstrous. The result of this constant narrative, and its linguistic tools, is to pulverise Africa, to keep its people and politics in a tight hold, and, of course, to justify intervention, provide racist analyses and condescension. For the dominant European narrative, Africans need to be categorised and controlled – this is how it’s done.
To conclude, the debate about these wider and case-specific matters is ongoing, for example in the critical accounts of Wrong’s book and the endorsing reviews. And its continuation is vital. In the meantime, perhaps, the UK press could consider a self-imposed ban on having monster characterisations in its reporting and headlining.
An Indian outlet changed the original title of a conversation piece by Roger Southall about Mugabe from a monster-free headline into a with-monster headline.
And the headline on the website in India.
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Pan-Africanism in the Age of Globalization
This is the first of a two-part series that assesses the historical progress of the Pan-African movement and considers the global political economy, the relevance of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century and its potential to impact economic and political development within Africa and its diaspora.
In the last century many African states have experienced political decolonization and witnessed the spread of democracy. Considering developments in the current international economic order, many members of the African diaspora believe African descendants have prospered since Africa’s decolonization and the independence era. However, while some members of the African diaspora have experienced substantially less discrimination, the nature of the capitalist global economy hardly conceals the fact that it inherently devalues Africans and their descendants. Furthermore, internationally, members of the African diaspora suffer gross human rights violations daily due to the remnants of the colonial era, namely, slavery and racialism. Despite attempts by international organizations to address the issues created by the exploitation of Africans, their subjugation is widespread and not limited to the continent, as diaspora Africans experience discrimination in developed nations such as the United States, Britain, France, and many others.
This essay was developed to investigate the development of the Pan-African movement within Africa and offer suggestions for its application in the 21st century and beyond. The purpose of this study is to critically assess the history of the Pan-African movement, with respect to the global political economy, and analyse the potential of the movement to contribute to the political and economic development of Africa in the 21st century. Moreover, this study seeks to highlight some of the significant ways African-led development has been hindered by capitalism and offer suggestions for the Pan-African movement to experience revitalization beyond 2022, despite capitalist obstructions. This study examines the relationship between capitalism and the Pan-African movement, noting that the former created conditions necessary for the latter, as members of the African diaspora experience the negative aspects of the current international economic order such as dehumanization, degradation based on racialism and ethnicity, and poverty (economic underdevelopment).
The essay is a qualitative analysis and consists of two parts; the first assesses the historical progress of the Pan-African movement while the second considers the global political economy, the relevance of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century and its potential to impact economic and political development within Africa and its diaspora. The historical analysis of African development via capitalist models notes that the international system is fundamentally capitalist and limits any independent (African-led) development in Africa. This examination of world politics and economics is critical because it addresses externalities that ultimately affected Africa and the African diaspora, creating the conditions necessary for Pan-African attempts at development. This study examines Pan-Africanism in practice and historical attempts to create international African unity. The latter analysis attempts to investigate the relevance of the Pan-African movement in the 21st century and beyond, as the momentum of the movement has waned since Africa’s independence era. Finally, this essay attempts to analyse whether or not Pan-Africanism can catalyse development in Africa and the diaspora and offers an egalitarian and humanitarian application and treatment of Pan-Africanism (Black Equalism) to present a new perspective of how the movement can achieve its goals beyond 2022.
Pan-Africanism in practice: Historical attempts at international African unity
The 1900s-1920s: Pan-Africanism’s early period
During the 20th century, as advocates of Pan-Africanism made efforts to institutionalize their ideas and create formal organizations to complement the work of Pan-Africanist intellectuals, the first meeting took place in London (1900), and was organized by Henry Sylvester Williams of Trinidad. The meeting was designed to bring together peoples of African descent to discuss Pan-Africanist ideas, and was attended by several prominent Blacks from Africa, Great Britain, the West Indies, and the United States, with W.E.B. DuBois being perhaps the most prominent member of the US delegation. The first formal convening to bear the title “Pan-African Congress” took place in 1919 in Paris and was called by DuBois. Two years later, a second Pan-African Congress convened over three sessions in London, Brussels, and Paris, and produced a declaration that criticized European colonial domination in Africa and the unequal state of relations between white and Black races, and called for a reasonable distribution of the world’s resources. The declaration also challenged the rest of the world to either create conditions of equality in the places where people of African descent lived or to recognize the “rise of a great African state founded in Peace and Goodwill.” In 1923, the third Pan-African Congress took place in London, England and Lisbon, Portugal and called for development in Africa to benefit Africans rather than being an instrument of European profit. The third congress also called for home rule and an improved government in British West Africa and the British West Indies, the abolition of white minority rule in Kenya, Rhodesia, and South Africa, and the illegalization of lynching and mob law in the United States. The fourth Pan-African Congress took place in New York City in 1927 and was the first convening held in North America, and its resolutions were similar to those of the third Pan-African Congress.
The 1930s-1950s: Pan-Africanism’s developmental period
Migration is a key theme in Africa and its Diaspora Since 1935, as J.E. Harris and S. Zeghidour provide context about the efforts of diaspora Africans to develop institutions and international mechanisms that could be used to assist Africans on the continent and diaspora Africans alike. The colonial powers did not empower Africans or facilitate the development of adequate education, healthcare, transportation, or public service systems and administration, and as a result, foreign higher education opportunities were desirable for African students. The authors uphold that “The number of African students going into Europe and the United States increased greatly between 1935 and 1960 and quite a substantial number of them never returned home.”
In their subsections The Africans in the Diaspora since 1935, The Fifth Pan-African Congress, Expanding Horizons of African Consciousness, and The Challenge, the authors provide accounts of the international efforts of diaspora Africans and continental Africans to collaborate nationally and transnationally, organize themselves, acquire political sovereignty, and determine their political, economic, and social destiny. In the United States, William Leo Hansberry, Ralph Bunche, and William Steen collaborated with Hosea Nyabongo, a Ugandan, and Malaku Bayen, an Ethiopian, and organized Blacks from Africa and the diaspora to form the Ethiopian Research Council (ERC) in 1934 to spread information about Ethiopia and garner support for African causes. Through the collaborative efforts of individuals such as C.L.R. James, the International African Friends of Ethiopia (IAFE) was established in England in 1936, as well as the International African Service Bureau (IASB) in 1937. Later, Britain saw the development of the Pan-African Publishing Company, through the efforts of Guyanese businessman George Thomas Nathaniel Griffith (T. Ras Makonnen), Dr Peter Milliard, Jomo Kenyatta, and George Padmore.
“The number of African students going into Europe and the United States increased greatly between 1935 and 1960 and quite a substantial number of them never returned home.”
In 1937, emissary and Howard University Medical School graduate, Malaku Bayen and his African-American wife Dorothy Hadley formed the Organization of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) in the United States and later established the publication The Voice of Ethiopia, described as a paper for the “vast universal Black Commonwealth and friends of Ethiopia everywhere”. The EWF was instrumental and influential as branches were established throughout the United States and the Caribbean, and news from its newsletters spread to Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Panama, Jamaica, Honduras, Venezuela, Nigeria, and other places. The year 1937 also saw the establishment of the International Committee on Africa – which later became the Council on African Affairs in 1941 – by Max Yergan, Paul Robeson, and William Alphaeus Hunton. The Council was created to “promote the political liberation of Africans and the advancement of their social and economic status through the dissemination of relevant and current information, facilitation of training for Africans in Europe and America, and arrangement of mutual exchange of visits and cooperation among African people”, and engaged in a variety of activities before ultimately dissolving in 1955 due to its perspective, which was increasingly radical and critical of American political and economic decisions with regard to African issues.
The Pan-African movement faded from the international scene until 1945 when the fifth Pan-African Congress was held in Manchester, England. Kuryla notes that Pan-Africanist leadership had largely transferred from African Americans to Africans by the mid-1940s, and Nkrumah, Kenyatta, and Padmore played the most prominent roles at the fifth congress, with the only African American present being DuBois. As mentioned, the fifth Pan-African Congress called for the political decolonization of African states from European imperialism. The themes of the congress featured a combination of the intellectualism of W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey’s pragmatism, and inspired attendants to focus on the struggle for liberation in Africa. This congress was also significant because it was the first to be spearheaded by British-based organizations and organizers, as historian Hakim Adi notes; the four previous convenings were largely organized under the auspices of Dubois and the US-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The fifth congress was also unique because it involved continental Africans as well as more descendants from the African diaspora such as Afro-Caribbeans.
Pan-Africanist leadership had largely transferred from African Americans to Africans by the mid-1940s.
Moreover, as noted by historian Saheed Adejumobi in The Pan-African Congresses, 1900–1945, while previous congresses had been largely controlled by Black middle-class British and American intellectuals who emphasized the betterment of colonial conditions, the 1945 Manchester meeting was dominated by delegates from Africa and Africans working or studying in Britain, who also galvanized the support of workers, trade unionists, and the growing radical sector of the African student population.
The 1960s-1970s: Pan-Africanism’s active period
After the fifth Pan-African Congress of 1945, Pan-Africanism continued to develop and fragment into distinctive schools of thought with varying frameworks and methods for addressing the economic, political, and social conditions Africans experienced in Africa and throughout the diaspora. By the 1960s, influential leaders, intellectuals, writers and activists such as Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Alioune Diop, Dr Walter Rodney, Stokely Carmichael, John Henrik Clarke and others developed the consciousness of Black Americans and African descendants around the world, to the point where African and Black studies became mandatory and the Black studies movement developed. As academics, politicians, diplomats, activists, artists, and others approached the topic of African independence and economic and political equity for African descendants, the varying perspectives led to the creation of different cultural, political, and development organizations. Pan-Africanism continued to evolve and focus on aspects such as racial Pan-Africanism, or uniting African descendants based on racial classification and social hierarchy, and continental Pan-Africanism, which sought to unite around issues facing the continent of Africa and African descendants world-wide.
S.K.B. Asante and David Chanaiwa’s subsection Pan-Africanism and Regional Integration peruses historical attempts of African states to work towards economic, political, cultural, regional, and social development and alignment utilizing Pan-African ideals in diplomacy, state governance, and economic and political development. Due to the efforts of Kwame Nkrumah and other pivotal state and liberation movement leaders, African states saw a revival of thought leadership and social preference in collective political and economic activities which supported Africans amid their colonial experience, with liberation and sovereignty becoming political preferences. Colonial histories ultimately influenced African states and independence movements as former colonies aligned themselves into regional blocks which supported foreign affairs that were considered pro-East or pro-West. In turn, African leaders divided their nations based on geopolitical interests, and in 1961, Ghana, Guinea, Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Libya and the Algerian government-in-exile formed the Casablanca Group, while the remainder of the French colonies and Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone formed the Monrovia Group. The former supported Nkrumah’s proposal for a United States of Africa, and consisted of militant, socialist, and non-aligned leaders in Africa who supported centralized continental economic integration and cultural restoration, while the latter supported a flexible confederation of independent sovereign African states.
Edem Kodjo and David Chanaiwa also discuss the history of the Charter of African Unity in Pan-Africanism and Liberation. The Charter was signed on 25 May 1963, with the heads of states of the following nations present: Algeria, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville (the Republic of the Congo), Congo-Leopoldville (the Democratic Republic of Congo), Côte d’Ivoire, Dahomey (Benin), Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanganyika, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, the United Arab Republic, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), and Zanzibar. With the creation of the Organization of African Unity, Pan-Africanism began to manifest its ideals on the international stage in the political realm and eventually in geopolitics.
The authors also explore some of the early distinctions between Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism – the former being predicated on racial unification and liberation, while the latter focused on the religious unification and liberation of Islam and its supporters. The distinctions between Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism also manifested themselves in the form of Black Africans from Sub-Saharan Africa as opposed to fairer-skinned individuals who were descendants of African peoples from the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Anglophone African states developing tensions with Francophone African states due to colonial histories, wars of independence, and economic interests.
Overall, a central theme of Kodjo and Chanaiwa’s analysis of Pan-Africanism is that the ideology focuses on the liberation of Black people in general and Africans in particular. The primary bonds that united African nations and Pan-Africanists were the anti-colonial movement, the anti-racialism movement, and the non-alignment movement. Although there were many regional integration efforts toward Pan-African cooperation, this also created more division in response to colonialism as each African state had its own unique political and economic struggles based on its respective interests. The economic self-interest of African states usually resulted in or stemmed from Western intervention or involvement in African affairs.
The primary bonds that united African nations and Pan-Africanists were the anti-colonial movement, the anti-racialism movement, and the non-alignment movement.
Asante and Chanaiwa discuss Pan-Africanism, regionalism, and economic development, as well as the extra-regional efforts of international organizations and agencies with operations in Africa. The authors note that Africa is central to the world’s future politically, socially, and economically. However, considering regionalism, the interdependence of African states and need for internal sustenance, the current global political economy and economic arrangement is hierarchical and stands to deplete Africa more than benefit its states. Due to the existing structures and international systems of economics, and the political dependencies of African nations on their former colonizers, the authors note that African nations seeking Pan-African ideals should seek alignment with the interests of developing nations rather than with Western powers that seek to extract from Africa.
A third wave of migration developed in the 1960s, and the primary cause of African migration to Europe and America transformed yet again, although this time the focus was not on those who wanted to develop and gain skills and knowledge, but on the technocrats who already possessed highly specialized skills and qualifications. This phenomenon is considered a “brain drain”, as highly qualified professionals such as engineers, doctors, businessmen and women, scientists, artists, musicians, and lecturers migrated from Africa in alarming numbers and moved all around the world. The prospect of relocating was significant because it represented a new form of social status, which symbolized that an individual (as a representative of Africa) had “arrived” intellectually and politically. However, this did not change the social and political conditions of Africa, nor did it change the social conditions that diaspora Africans experienced abroad as “Blackness” was still equated with inferiority.
African nations also experienced what the authors consider “gender drain” as “semiliterate, qualified, and unqualified” African women sought fortune in the Americas and Europe via opportunities such as nursing, smuggling, or drug trafficking, and “semieducated, unskilled and untrained” African men sought fortune and affluence outside of Africa via manual labor, smuggling, or drug trafficking as well.
The prospect of relocating was significant because it represented a new form of social status, which symbolized that an individual had “arrived” intellectually and politically.
The sixth congress took place in 1974 in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, which served as a key location for bringing people together, as many of the organizers wanted to establish direct connections between African liberation movements and African Americans. The meeting was the first Pan-African Congress to take place in Africa, gave a stronger voice to liberation movements, and moved beyond the nationalist agenda of the Organization of African Unity in defining the principles of African liberation. In the late 1960s, Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere went to Harlem, New York and issued an invitation to African Americans to come to Tanzania to assist in building a socialist African state. As a result of these efforts, the number of African Americans in Tanzania increased and a number of members from the diaspora were instrumental in organizing the convening, including Sam Dove, a consultant to the Tanzanian government, and Bill Sutherland, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a founder of the American Committee on Africa (ACA), and a consultant to President Nkrumah. In the declaration of the Sixth Pan African Congress, the call was that henceforth “Pan Africanism was informed by the class struggle internationally”. According to Dr Sylvia Hill, professor of criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia, who served as one of the key organizers for “Six PAC”, despite the differences and disagreements among delegates from the US and the Caribbean, there were many positive developments. Hill mentions the significance of the sixth congress in raising the consciousness of African liberation movements within the diaspora, particularly in the case of Southern Africa as she highlights the Free South Africa Movement.
The 1980s-1990s: Pan-Africanism’s waning period
The seventh and final Pan-African Congress of the 20th century, was convened in Kampala, Uganda, in April 1994. The declaration of the 7th Pan-African Congress was that African peoples everywhere should resist recolonization, and the primary motivation behind the convening was to reverse the depoliticization and the demobilization of the African peoples post-20th century reorganization of the international system. Significant developments of the 7th Pan-African Congress included the historic recognition of the participants of the Pre-Congress Women’s Meeting who called for “Pan-Africanism to break out of its male-centered mold and to stop silencing women who were at the forefront of the Pan-African struggle on a daily basis, although previous Pan-African convenings were primarily organized by men”; the establishment of a permanent secretariat that would be hosted by an African state (the Ugandan government offered) and would be responsible for convening meetings of the designated regions of the Pan-African world in an effort to improve the effectiveness of the political work of the Pan-African movement and move beyond the individualism and periodic organizing of convenings that highlighted the ideas of eminent persons; regarding the special place of the youth in the reconstruction and renewal of the African peoples, the organization of special meetings within and outside the congress by youths from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda along with the youths from the Southern African delegation; and the recognition of the ideological differences among the male adherents of Pan-Africanism in North American territories which consisted of Afrocentric Pan-Africanists, grassroots organizers and activists, workers, urban youth and the homeless, and members of the Nation of Islam and other religion organizations.
The EPRDF Coalition Had One Job: Loosen the Hold of the Empire-State
The EPRDF coalition that ousted Colonel Mengistu’s Derg regime had one job: to loosen the suffocating bonds through which the empire-state had had been created. It failed.
Hopes for peace in Ethiopia have been revived with the signing of a peace treaty—as the signatories have called it—between the Ethiopian government and the leaders of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), at the very start of November.
This is the first concrete step any participants or mediators have taken in bringing the truly epic levels of killing and destruction to an end since the TPLF insisted on its right to go ahead with organizing (and winning) elections in the Tigray region in open defiance of the decision of the federal government (from which the TPLF had recently withdrawn) to suspend all scheduled elections ostensibly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Arguments over who had the right to organize or ban elections soon brought out the underlying grievances over what were the respective rights and powers between the regional governments and the central government ever since the TPLF’s loss of power over the country as a whole, due to the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed systematically dismantling the putative federal arrangements put in place by the TPLF-dominated armed coalition when it came to power in 1991.
Open warfare followed soon after, and, on top of drawing in Ethiopia’s northern neighbour Eritrea, which borders the Tigray region, it created all the usual results: destroyed livelihoods, death, bodily injuries, human displacement and a lot of mutual propaganda.
That was 2020, and nothing, not even the burning of churches and monasteries long held up as symbols of civilizational pride by all of official Ethiopia, seemed able stop the carnage. It is therefore of particular significance that this initiative has been implemented by African leadership under the auspices of the African Union.
Prior to that, even just bringing these two belligerents to the negotiating table had proven to be beyond everyone, including the United States which had recently made attempts.
Despite this, the leaders and guarantors may eventually have to face up to the perennial question of Ethiopian politics, namely that, if this agreement does not address the reason why wars keep breaking out in Ethiopia, will it actually be able to end them?
This question lies at the very heart of the problem. A fundamental outcome of the treaty is that it works to keep Ethiopia intact. This is written in the document. Yet, for many of its peoples, the two fundamental problems with Ethiopia are first, that it exists and second, how the country came to exist in the first place.
In general, the mainstream intellectual, political and diplomatic traditions of Africa still remain very wary of, and therefore uninformed and under-educated about, the perennial question of indigenous African ethnicity that has rumbled on beneath any conflict on the continent over the last five to seven decades. As a result, they offer remedies premised on the same negligence. What they do have in common with the Western European powers that birthed this crisis, is an overly reflexive hostility to indigenous identity which is seen as an existential threat to their dream of modern African state-building.
Modern Ethiopia is a perfect home for this mind-set to take root and get stuck, and the South African peace treaty is largely a loftily-worded example of that: a glorified ceasefire that seeks to mitigate the worst effects of that which it has not yet acknowledged as broken. Just as one would keep replacing an unevenly worn out front car tyre without addressing the underlying poor wheel alignment that is causing it.
This is masked in the venerable “never been colonized” mantra that frames much internal and external thinking about the place. But the fact is that modern Ethiopia (as opposed to ancient Abyssinia) is a product of imperial European political games in Africa and so suffers the same pathologies of that legacy as does the rest of Africa.
In this, both belligerent parties to the treaty are to blame, because deep down, they are both wedded to the deep-seated notion of an Ethiopian empire-state made in the image of Abyssinian cultures, found in what is now the northern areas of the vast country. Their historical point of conflict has simply been over which branch of Abyssinian culture—Tigrayan or Amhara—would control and define that state.
The fact is that modern Ethiopia is a product of imperial European political games in Africa.
The TPLF leadership is even more to blame because it had the opportunity to break this historical cycle when it was part of the armed Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that brought down the Mengistu regime in 1991 after decades of war. Instead, it turned on the other coalition partners and worked to consolidate the same empire-state at the behest of its Western imperialist new best friends, who remain ever concerned with both its resources, and the need to keep Islamic nationalism at bay through the Horn and up to the Gulf (as they did with founding emperor Menelik, Selassie his eventual successor, and failed with Mengistu, despite his initial friendliness towards them).
This TPLF gambit lasted nearly three whole decades, during which time the party elite worked to play the role previous Amhara elites had played in enriching, developing their own regions, and guaranteeing the global imperial grip on the Ethiopian economy.
This can be confirmed by an answer by Lt. Gen. Tsadkan Gebretensae, head of the Tigray military effort (who will go down in history as an absolute military genius in enabling Tigray to thwart what should have been a short and absolute rout by the much better placed Ethiopian state) in explaining some of the reasons for their battlefield success during an interview on July 6 2021:
“[W]hen this thing started it was very clear that the most senior, most highly experienced commanders are from Tigray, which has been the backbone of the Ethiopian armed forces for the last thirty years…”
This is my second time to make reference to it, and for two reasons.
First, there is this bald fact that the leaders of a region whose population makes up less than 10 per cent of the entire Ethiopian population organised to ethnically monopolize an institution as key as the armed forces for nearly three decades.
Second, that in the untroubled nature of his response, devoid of any sense of irony, the General saw absolutely nothing untoward about this level of exceptionalist self-regard. Despite his military genius, he seems not to have grasped the political reality that the very thing that he is appreciating about Tigray’s conduct in the war is the very thing that created support for the war against Tigray in the first place: a deep antipathy towards Tigray by the rest of the country due to a memory of the TPLF’s self-serving culture while in power.
It is this political culture, steeped in a very insular and almost complete lack of self-awareness, which drives the cyclical violence of Abyssinian-dominated Ethiopian politics.
Essentials of the treaty
The treaty rotates around principles already set out in Ethiopia’s constitution, and in the African Union and United Nations protocols and charters to which Ethiopia is already a signatory. Moreover, the TPLF was once the government of Ethiopia, so it would also be very familiar with them.
It is as if someone ripped open one of those wholesale sacks of mitumba and all the used clothes came tumbling out to be sorted, and re-sold for re-use. In this case, it is a bundle of used and tired Peace Studies phrases and platitudes that have come spilling out. It remains to be seen if anyone will be buying them this time.
Within that, there are some hard requirements. In essence, the TPLF is expected to disband the Tigray Defence Force, the only thing that stood (as I said, brilliantly, by any military measure) between the Tigrayan people and total annihilation.
There is a commitment to stopping the involvement of outside actors. This would essentially mean Eritrea, which stepped in on the side of the Ethiopian government, sending forces into Tigray’s north to devastating effect.
There is the requirement that the TPLF sever all ties to other armed groups it may have been working with. This basically means the reformed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) which is led by a faction that rejected earlier disarmament deals made between the original (and long-suffering) OLF, and the then incoming regime of current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during his honeymoon period.
This is curious, because it essentially means that neither the TPLF, nor the Abiy government see the Oromo war as a matter requiring consideration in its own right. What the TPLF in particular has done, is to elect to make its own peace with the government, and basically abandon another actor with whom it was in formal alliance.
The word “Oromo”, and much less the name “Oromo Liberation Front”, appears nowhere in the entire peace document. The native question in Ethiopia, as in the rest of the continent, is once again rendered invisible.
It is this political culture, steeped in a very insular and almost complete lack of self-awareness, which drives the cyclical violence of Abyssinian-dominated Ethiopian politics.
The Oromo people, who make up nearly 40 per cent of Ethiopia’s population and are therefore the single largest nationality, have had a permanently troubled relationship with Abyssinianism since it was expanded into their territories, thus creating “Ethiopia”, a century and a half ago. It forms the template for how all the other non-Abyssinian peoples of the new country were conquered.
Their armed resistance to it peaked with their being part of the 1991 post-Mengistu EPRDF coalition. As said, this did not last long as the TPLF used its dominance of the security apparatus to attend to Western bidding and see to it that the agreed full federation of the country was watered down to a few half-measures. This included the then seemingly clever ploy of cloning Oromo nationalism through the invention of alternative Oromo parties that were also placed into the coalition. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s journey to political power began there, as a more TPLF-compliant kind of Oromo. The subsequent terrorizing of the real Oromo nationalists drove them out of the coalition and into silence and exile in less than three years of the creation of the new government. This saga was to continue when Oromo nationalism resurrected itself 25 years later in the form of civil, youth-led protests against the TPLF regime, as Meles Zenawi lay dying from natural causes. Many atrocities were committed against them. But their persistence, and the joining in of other ethnic parties eventually saw the TPLF relinquish internal control of the coalition to new faces. This is how Abiy Ahmed eventually ascended to the premiership of the country.
But Oromo nationalism was still on its own journey. One of Prime Minister Ahmed’s acts during his honeymoon period was to organise the return of all the OLF fighting groups, and their families, that had had been exiled by the TPLF. But the old habits of the Ethiopian empire-state kicked in once again: some fighters suffered mass poisoning at assembly points; the OLF leadership’s agreement to disarm and become a civilian party ran into registration and other obstacles, and the new trust broke down. This is where the new armed rebellion by a faction now also calling itself OLF—which, amidst these developments, rejected the disarmament deal—began.
The treaty makes some sort of recognition of the fact that the crisis originates in Ethiopian politics. But it is tone-deaf, and therefore half-hearted. It calls for the need for a discussion of the “political differences”, but does not seem to make these either central to the document or conditional upon it. And there seems to be no absolute deadline for when such “discussions” should either begin or end, and what a failure to do so would mean for the rest of the process.
What is more, the matter is reduced to the two actors at the table. But on the one hand, we have the TPLF, a political organisation, once in federal power but now claiming to be the elected leadership of the Tigray region (through elections disputed by the other party), and on the other, the actual government of all of Ethiopia. This seems to be some kind of imbalance, since the root of this particular dispute was a political disagreement inside the EPRDF that resulted in the TPLF pulling out, and the remainder accepting to radically alter the EPRDF’s structure under the direction of Abiy Ahmed, and fully abandon the pretence to federation and return the country to its tradition of highly centralised government.
The question, therefore, is if this is indeed a dispute between the TPLF and the Ethiopian state per se, or simply a dispute between two former factions of a now dead coalition, one of which (the Abiy faction of the old EPRDF), happens to also retain control the Ethiopian state apparatus. The wrong conceptualisation will lead to wrong prescriptions.
The native question in Ethiopia, as in the rest of the continent, is once again rendered invisible.
Because, on the flip side, the Treaty calls for a recognition of “formal” forces, and the acceptance that there can be only one recognized military and security apparatus for the whole of Ethiopia. This amounts to a constitutional amendment, given that what little was implemented of the EPRDF-era federal-lite constitution allowed the different national regions to establish and maintain regional armed forces.
On top of that, the Amhara national region also has an additional ethnic militia called “Fano” that presents itself as the defender of the Amhara people, and is not formally answerable to either the Amhara regional government or the Addis federal one. It just exists as a politico-military fact. What is more, Fano has been very deeply involved in physically “assisting” the central government in the war in Tigray, and is blamed for many of the atrocities there.
When the treaty calls for “disarmament”, disbandment and disassociation, it remains unclear if and how this will be enforceable on those forces that have helped the government wrestle the TPLF to the negotiating table. The same doubt, conceptually, hovers over Eritrea. And in all cases, not least because both militant Amhara nationalism, and Eritrean foreign policy came pre-loaded with a deep animosity towards the TPLF in particular, and by extension, the Tigrayan people as a whole.
Eritrea still smarts from the bitter two-year war it fought with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 over the border town of Badme. The TPLF was, of course, the de facto Ethiopian government at the time. The death toll was upwards of one hundred thousand, and this is a matter that has never been forgotten.
Amhara nationalism has an earlier grievance, what with Meles Zenawi being the first non-Amhara ruler of the empire they believe they founded, and which draws it entire official, cultural and linguistic narrative from their culture. What is more, they held grievances against the Meles regime redrawing homeland boundaries in favour of Tigray, and “resettling” ethnic Tigrayans in lands Meles believed had originally been grabbed by Amhara. This consists of much of western Tigray. This area has now been re-seized, and Amhara nationalists, be they in the formal regional government, or the informal militias, will not be easily persuaded to hand them back. And the best way for them to guarantee that this does not happen, is of course to remain armed.
It is therefore not unkind to wonder if this treaty solves anything, or if it simply reinforces only bad lessons, and brings the war-prone country back to where it once was: on the brink of another war.
The only reason these talks—and the treaty they have produced—even exist in the first place is because it proved militarily impossible, despite the combined efforts of the formal Ethiopian government forces, the regional Amhara militias as well as the informal militias backed by the physical intervention of Eritrean armed forces to the north, and some hi-tech weaponry from some Gulf states, to completely rout the armed force the TPLF was able to muster in Tigray, despite some truly massive losses and setbacks.
But both sides have since discovered the reality that it is very difficult to maintain a large-scale and high intensity war when neither of side manufactures the weapons and weapons systems needed to do so (a reality similar to the one dawning only slowly on the armed forces of Ukraine).
Once again, the future of all the peoples of Ethiopia is reduced to an inter-Abyssinian duel. This is almost exactly what happened during the 1991 London peace talks.
The TPLF’s participation now in the South African peace talks is basically an echo of how the Meles-led TPLF went on to secure its own interests in that Peace Conference that anticipated the fall of the Mengistu regime, despite being part of a military alliance with both Oromo and Eritrea at the time. Once again, in a display of TPLF self-absorption that borders on the outright narcissism of their late leader Meles Zenawi, they made their own deal to their best ability, in pursuit of their own understanding of what was in their best interests.
As said, their military alliance with the new OLF this time round was not a factor; the TPLF did not make OLF inclusion a condition.
A key difference is that while then they presented from a position of strength, this time they have done so from a position of weakness. But the mind-set remains the same.
The TPLF seem to have lost all memory of how the original OLF was hounded out of the EPRDF back in 1991 due to its conduct. A real peace treaty in Ethiopia should perhaps more take on the form of a review of the political breakdown that began with TPLF one-sided domination of the post-Mengistu political landscape, which has brought us to this point.
Eritrea still smarts from the bitter two-year war it fought with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 over the border town of Badme.
If Tigray does not wish to have its internal affairs dominated by others (the very essence of the 1970s and 1980s national liberation struggles in Ethiopia and elsewhere), then it simply should have made more sincere efforts to neuter the highly centralized nature of the Ethiopian state during its thirty years in government, agreed to during the wars against Mengistu and Haile Selassie before him. Instead, it promoted ethnic nationalism for itself, and suppressed it among others. It used the resources of the whole state towards that promotion, instead of limiting its development to the resources generated from its region. The TPLF wants to have it both ways: when in power, they were the premiere custodians of the empire-state; in particular, they went on to crush and scatter the Oromo nationalist movement after they had agreed to disarm and reorganize in the 1990s. But once out of power, they now wish to be Ethiopia’s arch-separatists.
The idea of real federation was a sensible middle ground but the TPLF messed that up in exchange for American patronage at the end of the Mengistu regime. In that time Abiy Ahmed was a junior partner in the same regime. Once in power, he also went on to do the same thing to the Oromo movement after 2018, in a series of provocations that have led to the flare-up of fighting in the south.
It is all these realities that have led to all the avoidance, denial and silences reflected in the texture and narrowness of the peace treaty.
The TPLF and the Ethiopian regime may hate each other to the extent the destruction caused by their war has demonstrated. But however intense that hatred is, it is nothing in comparison to the hatred they jointly have for the “pagan” peoples of the south.
Perhaps the TPLF’s cunning is finally catching up with it. The EPRDF coalition that ousted Colonel Mengistu’s Derg regime had one job: to loosen the suffocating bonds through which the empire-state had had been created.
But instead of finally dismantling the toxic legacy of the Menelikan state, the TPLF (or more accurately, the Meles Zenawi faction thereof, that controlled the party in order to control the EPRDF coalition in order to control the government that controlled the state), acted as though it would be in power forever. Thus, the West used an inner clique of TPLF to subvert that entire struggle. Now the West has decided to finally fully abandon the TPLF and turn back to the other Abyssinian house to keep the project going.
It is also why the TPLF has no moral grounds to make complaints about the excesses the Abiy government has perpetrated against the Tigray region and its people since the start of the war; by inventing him as a counterweight to actual Oromo nationalists through viciously repressing the original OLF—and ultimately therefore thwarting actual federation—the TPLF is now the teacher being practiced on by his former student.
The peace deal could now give the state a freer hand to focus attention and resources on the south in an attempt to re-establish hegemony over the real asset.
For the native African as a whole, events since 1991 have therefore been an enormous waste of everyone’s time, going back to the optimistic days of the 1980s when, along with organizations like Nabudere’s Uganda National Liberation Front (A-D) and its army, the Azanian Peoples’ Organization (AZAPO), the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, and even Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF, there existed the seeds of wider African Maoist movements, of which the Horn formations were seen as the most successful examples.
Once again, the future of all the peoples of Ethiopia is reduced to an inter-Abyssinian duel.
Just as Mao Zedong developed a “socialism with Chinese characteristics” which began with his armed struggle against the plethora of Western (and later Japanese) empire corporations that had been plundering the China region for over a century, the hope was for a similar uprising in Africa, in which ethnic identity did not have to be cast aside for the sake of “progress”, but became its foundation.
This is why 1991 was so important, and what makes Meles Zenawi’s betrayal at the time so profound and so stupid: in life, there is the ordinary stupidity of straightforward mistakes, and then there is this kind of stupidity that is profound because it mistakes itself for extreme cleverness.
In the course of his long rule, Prime Minister Zenawi managed to make Eritrea an enemy country (despite the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s seed support to what eventually became the TPLF back in the day) through the Badme border war, consolidated the empire-state not least by upgrading its capacity for repression, and severely disrupted the Oromo struggle by oppressing and scattering its then representative organisation (the original OLF).
For the damage done in these past two years of fighting, with most of what Meles did for Tigray probably now laying in ruins, and a lot of what he found destroyed too, and with a scattered and traumatized people, they might as well have just left Mengistu in power.
We need to hear Tigrayan intellectuals give an honest and objective comprehensive review of the now evident disaster that was the empire-based regime of Meles Zenawi, which has simply now caught up with the people of Tigray, him having left other Ethiopians enveloped in it at the time of his 2012 passing.
But “We may be waiting a long time” for that to happen, says an Oromo activist.
What we see now is the end of that sweet Meles-American deal. This is a transition to a new custodian of the empire state, a cobbling together of an old Amhara elite (even some Mengistu-era officers have been wheeled out to offer advice and succour to the Abiy government) working with an expanded base of assimilated and assimilating elites from other parts of the country, especially Oromo petit bourgeois types of which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is emblematic, focused on becoming profitably absorbed into “Ethiopianism” with just a little of their own cultures to add some local flavour.
Many in the Tigray diaspora who were cheering on the fighting they were not directly part of are now very annoyed. Tigray political culture is normally very self-contained, so it is an annoyance that must be very high indeed, because some of the debates are now spilling out into the public, and even in English.
What they need to understand is that this method of working is exactly how Meles and his cronies were able to sign up to become a tool of US foreign policy, without the rest of the anti-Mengistu coalition knowing, in the run-up to the 1991 London Ethiopia Peace Conference. Now they might be about to have done to them what the TPLF did to the OLF in particular back then.
We need to hear Tigrayan intellectuals give an honest and objective comprehensive review of the now evident disaster that was the empire-based regime of Meles Zenawi.
The TPLF cannot now credibly repudiate the assertion of “one authority” for all Ethiopia (the key clause of the Treaty), because that is what they leaned heavily on, despite the “federation” label of the constitution, when they were in power. If they really believed in the rights of regions within a federal framework, then they should have implemented and guaranteed them for all of Ethiopia’s nations, during their time in government.
This treaty is now part of a process which is a repeat of 1899, 1991, and 2018; it is about keeping the empire state intact, which means it is about keeping Oromo and the wider south under the heel of Abyssinian western-backed power. It means continuing to destroy political voices from the south, both for the regime and the West. It is about putting this dispute between the past and present managers of the empire-state to bed, so that the real business of the empire-state may continue. Despite the depletion of blood and treasure, it is about shutting down a massively distracting side-show.
Peace agreements historically have often just been ways of buying time, but this document is bad in itself anyway, in as far as it is premised on the affirmation of the empire state.
The problem lies perhaps in the way humanities are taught in Africa: no specificity, no native history. All Africans are tribes eternally in need of a country. This creates a certain type of thinking: there is nothing in the political record of all the key actors in the crisis, and the peace treaty they have agreed to, that suggests any personal commitment to, or capacity for open democratic politics, a regard for human rights, and fair play. Even in this war alone, there has not been any agreement about humanitarian assistance that has been fully upheld by either side.
Given all of the above—combined with the risk that Amhara-ist triumphalism, which is insisting on framing this as nothing less than an absolute capitulation by TPLF—there is every chance that this treaty will fail. As another Ethiopian put it to me, “Abyssinians don’t believe in choosing peace or negotiation. The only thing that makes sense to them is destroy your enemy totally, or he does the same to you.”
Either the consequences of Meles’ games have completely caught up with them and they have run out of options, or they a planning something.
Nevertheless, with Tigray stilled (however temporarily), the greater attention of the empire-state can be devoted to attempting to crush the armed rebellion in Oromo and Sidama, the real breadbaskets of the country, and hopefully fully restore Pax Menelikana. The economic conditions in the west, with people reduced to begging in the streets, and the drought conditions in the east, have knocked the will to fight out of everybody.
The problem lies perhaps in the way humanities are taught in Africa: no specificity, no native history.
The TPLF have helped to utterly bastardize and discredit the essence and public perception of ethnic nationalism; this war will forever be held up as an example of its “folly”, and an object lesson in the justification for crushing it by any means necessary. This has allowed already sceptical people to now hold up the images from the war as the best evidence as to why “tribalism” is to be avoided at all costs.
What does it mean for the future of native politics? Simply put, it has set the arguments for native struggles back to the 1950s, and offers the arguments for the pseudo-African nationalism built on the former colonial states, a new lease of life.
For those Africans not seeing it, understand this: the AU and the West will now be able to more confidently brush aside objections to widespread slaughter and destruction in pursuit of keeping native politics in its box.
Another possible outcome may now be the end of the TPLF as a political force. Or some fundamental re-branding, at the very least. Certainly, they are headed for a day of reckoning with their own people. The road to this point has to be explained.
However, as long as the Ethiopian state continues to exist in its current form, and as again reiterated in this peace treaty, there is going to be conflict both inside the country, and with some of its neighbours.
The Lion, the Gazelle and the Mountain: Migration Tales of the Cattle People
In Ateker lands, explanations about the root causes of migration are often elided, not talked about. Centuries since the young walked away from Karamoja, the migration of uninitiated young men is still a sore point.
The draining emotional stress of the last three years breaks up memory, bringing in hallucinatory waves the past as a refracted landscape. The depth of time grows deceptive so that the last weeks of March 2020 cave into a distant darkness, whereas events that happened before that, like the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals, seem more recent.
The pandemic broke up what I had thought would be a finalising of the then ten-year quest to understand the cultural and identity texture of the region’s migratory patterns. While I bemoaned the breakage, unbeknownst to me, the pandemic lockdown had, rather than interfere with the hard-earned and long-running project (self-funded), offered a very rare glimpse into the heart of the matter itself.
Dodging cattle rustlers’ bullets
I had since 2008 followed the migratory routes and fortunes of the Nilotic peoples of East Africa, and at the time of the lockdown, I had returned from the pastoralist societies straddling Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya and was lining up a place for myself on a convoy to Kangaten, the capital of the Ethiopian Woreda of Nyangatom in the Omo region, on the northern shores of Lake Turkana.
The outbreak of the South Sudan civil war and the constant and armed cattle-rustling had stymied the travel. The civil war was not going to end any time soon, and cattle rustling was as ingrained into the culture of these pastoralist lands as a pancreas is to a stomach. You had then to ascertain where the civil war was and to study the seasonal rise and fall in the rustling calendar (there is such a thing) to know when and where to jump in and out.
Doing all of which seemed to have been for naught as the world’s lights went out in March 2020. You stood frozen to the spot, unable to go over that hill, driven early indoors to watch your mind fall to bits.
And yet that moment of global catastrophe was telling me, in reverse facsimile, the very story of what I had seen as a halted project. A global pandemic lockdown and migrations of the people are metanarratives on such a vast scale that like all metanarratives, are so big that even when they seem unrelated, leave no in-between spaces as small time factors do; they feed on and reflect on each other.
If the “migration of the peoples” is movement on a monumental scale, then a global lockdown is its polar opposite, immobility of a staggering momentousness. It goes without saying that the months of 2020-2021 had turned the globe into a laboratory to show us why human beings, like sand dunes and water, must be constantly on the move.
Stood still, human society, like decaying refuse left in one place too long, stagnates and begins to fester. The rapid depletion of food stores, collapse of economies, environmental meltdown, and the sudden and harsh tyrannical power structures enforcing the lockdown, would have been the chief factors behind the 15th and 16th century disintegration of the society some experts say had settled in roughly the present day location of Kotido in northeastern Uganda.
Christ over Lodwar
As if emphasising the faith of Christians, the last and enduring insight had come from climbing a big hill in Lodwar town to go have a look at the imitation Christ the Redeemer installed to look over Lodwar town, the capital of Turkana in northern Kenya. Under the outstretched arms of Christ, the breadth of Turkana (not its considerable length) can be seen from the haze over Lake Turkana to the East, to the wall of mountains to the West that separate Kenya from Uganda.
The aridity of the Turkana landscape is one that smites the senses, as a colonial-era explorer, the murderous, psychotic Hungarian Count Sámuel Teleki de Szék summed it up:
“I can’t imagine a landscape more barren, dried out and grim. At 1.22 pm (of March 17 1888) the Bassonarok appeared, an enormous lake of blue water dotted with some islands. The northern shores cannot be seen. At its southern end it must be about 20 kilometers wide. As far as the eye can see are barren and volcanic shores.”
The “Bassonarok” is what the Samburu—who pointed it out to Teleki so he could go and “discover” it—called the lake. Teleki promptly names it after his benefactor, the Austro-Hungarian crown prince, Rudolf, who had funded the expedition, as speculation had been that this was a possible source of the River Nile.
This “dried out and grim” landscape is where the migrating Turkana chose to make their home. Little visible in the land justifies this choice, for if migration is a search for the more conducive land as the common view will have it, then on first sight this does not appear to be the place.
If the “migration of the peoples” is movement on a monumental scale, then a global lockdown is its polar opposite, immobility of a staggering momentousness.
As the Turkana themselves will tell you, their ancestors came from across that wall of mountains, from present day Uganda. In contrast to Turkana, the Karamoja region is relatively better watered and drained, with the mix of sufficient pasture and absence of tsetse fly that favours animal husbandry. The often described route of this migration itself confounds the choice.
Whatever it was that was driving the Turkana away was not climate. When I started out on the quest, my aim had been a more general travel through the pastoralist lands of the region. A gargantuan and not well-advised choice given that up to 70 per cent of the Greater Horn of Africa is said to be pastoralist. You have to be a multi-state institution, rather than a self-funding peripatetic writer to undertake such a project.
The first foray out into Turkana lands in 2012 quickly forced me to draw a smaller plan, which still covered southeastern South Sudan, northeastern Uganda, northwestern Kenya and southwestern Ethiopia, a landmass bigger than many countries.
It took all of a decade to do, with some balance left uncleared.
Down the valley
In July 2012, I set off from Kitale on a recceing trip to size up the task, dropping down the escarpment and onto the floor of the Kenyan North Rift. At Kalem Ngorok, I happened to ask what the name of the place meant.
“Hornless cattle”, I was told.
From my formative years in boarding school in Teso in Uganda, I knew that Ngorok meant cattle. I had probably had an inkling of Kalem, but the connection that among the Luo-speaking Lango alem referred to hornless cattle, struck me like thunder out of a clear sky.
As I made my way back to Kitale, the premise upon which I had based the project started to fray and in the months that followed, grew confused, and what Kalem Ngorok had implanted in my mind would not go away.
As the Turkana themselves will tell you, their ancestors came from across that wall of mountains, from present day Uganda.
The pivot away from the original framing meant working out another. The ensuing search sent me scrounging through theology, culinary culture, language, naming systems, clan formation—all areas that yielded valuable knowledge but still did not adequately add up. Without a framework, information is just a pile of meaningless data. But frameworks are not useful just because they exist. The trick was finding one that went to the heart of the matter.
I did not find one; it found me. In the rain-soaked April of 2018, I was determined to make it to South Sudan. My target was Kapoeta, capital of the South Sudan state of Namorunyang. The route that I chose was via Turkana, seeing as it would also be my first time visiting Lodwar, hence bringing the insights that come from contiguity into the mix.
I had by then learnt that the collective terminology by which the pastoralist group I narrowed my quest down to was “Ateker”. But this grouping is too big to look at all at once, so I settled for those who the Ugandan politician, David Pulkol controversially refers to as “core Ateker”—the Karamojong of Uganda, the Turkana of Kenya, the Toposa of South Sudan and the Nyangatom of Ethiopia who oscillate problematically within their collective circle.
In Lodwar, in the shadow of the great gathering of the Ateker peoples in the Tobong Loree festival that brought many Ateker from the region together, conversations yielded a word, “Asapan”. It was to be the turning point.
I liked it for that clipped, exact phonetics of which the Ateker language overflows. I did not pay much attention to it nor think it was more important than the other words and constructions I was meeting. What I liked about it at the time was its cultural texture, describing as it did the male rite of passage from an uninitiated youth to a full man allowed to slaughter bulls. Among the cattle keepers, the bull is held in special, god-like status. There is a becoming complexity to this, for while in economic terms the cow is of greater value, exchanging for 13 goats where the bull will collect only 7 good grade goats, the bull is special for spiritual and cultural purposes. For insight, a young man will have a bull calf pointed out as his. Henceforth, the two grow up as what can only be described as spiritual twins. They will share a name. When a young warrior returns successfully from a battle or raid, he is expected during the celebration to decorate his bull. He is mentioned in reference to his bull. Should his bull have a red coat, he will be given the pet name Apaloreng, and if black, Apalokwang, etc. Stories are told of men going into terminal shock upon the death or abduction of their bulls, and in Kapoeta, I was told that a man whose bull had been rustled, and who followed its track, began to walk into the fire in which the bull was being roasted.
To loosen the tongue of an Ateker man, start a conversation about bulls. To not be thought man enough to slaughter a bull has profound spiritual and political implications. And in what will have a bearing in the central theme of this essay, a man who cannot slaughter a bull has no political influence, cannot talk in an assembly and is the last to eat and drink.
This aspect of Asapan—the rite of passage allowing a man to slaughter a bull—fascinated me all the way to Kapoeta. And yet, the velocity of the provisional framing I had created was still bearing me forth, hence, I was interested in finding words which, like Kalemngorok, would explain to me just how connected to my Lango these peoples of the arid cattle fields were.
The lion, ostrich and mountain sets
In Kapoeta I asked what Toposa meant. They said to me, “We were heading west during our migration”.
“West?” I asked and before they could respond, I said, that is what “To” means, right?
They nodded in agreement. So I said, in that case, “The Toposa word for East is Kide?”
They were struck silent that a man from Lango in northern Uganda, so far from home, would know this. There were others that left me disoriented. Those who will remember the news from yesteryears will recognise the name Fr. George King’a. He was a South Sudanese priest and politician who played important roles in both the united Sudan and in peeling the South off it. There is more to him. But by the time I got to Kapoeta, I had gotten into the habit of asking the meaning behind everything. And so in Kapoeta, sitting next to his grave and talking to his nephew, then Kapoeta MP, Hon. Emmanuel Epone Lolimo, told me that his uncle, Fr. King’a had been so named because he was born at the border point of Kapoeta and Riwoto.
Where I was myself born, the line separating one allotment from the other, is called “wang king’a”.
That was as far as the words and names were concerned. Sitting there, just listening to the people, the texture of their voices and mannerisms, I could have been in any place in Lango. I had never met such close relatives of Lango before.
It was another word, this time in English, that pushed me further to understand the connection between asapan and why the Turkana most likely left Karamoja and chose to live in the desert instead. One evening, in Kapoeta, at Lorika’s Hotel where I stayed, I was in a small group with the governor, Louis Lobong and three of his state’s ministers discussing Toposa society when I started to understand the significance of asapan.
When a young warrior returns successfully from a battle or raid, he is expected during the celebration to decorate his bull.
One of the ministers, Lorika himself, drew an organogram of age sets and explained to me what he called “promotion”. These age sets proceed by order of birth, by which men born in a certain period belong in a socio-political cluster with influence. These age sets, like the generation sets, are mostly named after animals or mountains, so there is the mountain set—Ngimoru, ostrich set—Nguwana, gazelle set—Ngigetei, lion set—Ngingatunyo, etc.
(The age sets go by different names among the numerous Ateker groups, and one incredible man I met in Lodwar, Boniface Korobe, has traced the lineages back to the 1730s or thereabouts, when the effective split with Jie began for Turkana.)
I then asked about the generation age-set.
The response to this simple question removed the scales from my eyes.
They explained that ever since the Toposa left Jie (who live in present day Kotido), they had lost the generation set system. In their explanation, the ancestors of the Toposa had left without the transfer of power that a retiring generation proffers to their sons. No longer standing in the darkness, a lot about the Ateker began to make sense. This “leaving”, as I was to understand it again and again, had not been made in good stead.
Becoming a full man at 70
Unravelling this would take me all of another year. How I undertook the project was to save enough money to last me a handful of weeks at a time. But before then, and when I returned to Moroto in Karamoja, the significance of asapan was no longer in doubt. I met an old man, John Napua who told me that he had received asapan at the age of 70, whereupon he felt like a full man. He was inducted into the Ngimoru generation set and wears the defining copper bracelet of his set. He did not have to tell me what that meant. A posse of young men, when I sat down with Napua in Naita Kwai, just outside Moroto town, circled him the same way that powerful politicians or bishops, are shadowed by aides.
There was a sad subtext to the story of Napua. During his childhood in the 1950s, his family had lost all their animals in one single raid. The further deaths of his sisters meant there would be no dowry to return animals to his family. They did not have boys in numbers and age enough to carry out compensatory, restocking raids. Napua and his family fell out of the structures of power. His father did not have the animals to fund his sons’ asapan when the time came. The one open option, albeit to an alternative, viable life, was to be sent to the colonial government schools. As a man who could read and write, and speak English, Napua found employment in the civil service. But it was not asapan and the distinction counted.
Lopiar, The Sweep
There was a further twist to this, and reconnects directly to the fate of the Ateker. The tragic 1980 famine that swept across much of Africa had a deleterious impact on the Ateker. In what is memorialised there as “Lopiar” —The Sweep, from the root verb Apiar, to sweep—it is estimated that the Ateker lands lost up to 21 per cent of their population. The sheer magnitude of this tragedy was in Uganda subsumed by the return of President Milton Obote to power, the elections of that year and the beginning of the Museveni rebellion.
What it meant was that the cholera outbreak and the death of cattle stock set Ateker societies back several generations. In Karamoja, there was no stock wealth to enable the expensive asapan ceremonies to be carried out. The impact was profound as Karamojong society was without effective government, albeit a traditional one. For the decades starting in 1980 till the 2010s, Karamoja nearly suffered the complete loss of generational age set linkages to ensure continuity of its political system.
A man who cannot slaughter a bull has no political influence, cannot talk in an assembly and is the last to eat and drink.
And yet that does not explain why Napua was initiated so late in life. That belongs to an age-old paradox and critique of gerontological systems generally, and may partly explain why so many branches of the Ateker family were forced to migrate and why some, like the Teso and Lango, were easy prey to absorption by other societies.
The age set system is simple to understand. Boys born within the range of say a five-year radius are considered members of the same age set. This means the rhythm of initiation is regular. But the generational set system is where the challenge lies. The generation set systems stump even scholars to unwind. The little I understood runs something like this: A generation refers to male issues of males of a similar generation, the entire progeny of an entire generation of fathers, by which the grandfathers are one generation, the fathers a second generation, sons a third and so on and so forth, each holding power in turns. That is about the simplest explanation. The complication lies in the peculiarity of pastoralist societies. Men can only marry when cattle are available, so Ateker men married comparatively late, often in their mid to late 20s and at times, in their early 30s. Then, they did not stop marrying, with the result that a first born son may be in his 50s when his own father sires a last born son, by which time he himself could well have sons in their late 20s. And those sons may well be fathers already. It is not uncommon that men will have uncles as young as their own grandsons. So the problems start.
As happened with Napua, the 50-year-old son belongs in the same generation as his 1-year-old step-brother. Assuming that the 50-year-old’s father had himself been the last born of his own father, the society is left with a generational range that can stretch up to 120 years. By this range, the 30-year old son is considered to be generationally junior to his 1-year old uncle. Political power is unlikely to come to the 30 year old. The oldest member of that generation could have died in the 1890s while in 2022, the youngest member is still alive. The 80-year old nephew would have died powerless in the 1980s.
It is a system that boggles the mind, or as Boniface Korobe, cultural researcher and official at the Turkana County Government office explained to me, it is a system that can only be explained to you; you may not necessarily understand it.
The result is political and psychological despair for men caught out in the middle generations. Picture Ateker men already in their 80s sitting waiting for their 10-year old uncles to age, assume political power and hand it over to them.
Migrating from political rigidities
In Ateker lands, explanations about the root causes of migration are often elided, not talked about directly because it is so personal and not without pain. Centuries since the young walked away from Karamoja, the migration of uninitiated young men is still a sore point. It is explained that it was these uninitiated young men—the Karachuna—who walked away with their old men’s grazing herds (lactating herds are kept closer to kraals to provide milk) and never returned. It is this sense of betrayal that the Karamojong still hold to this day, since the 1600s and 1700s, against the Lango, the Teso, the Turkana, the Toposa, the Nyangatom. What outsiders call cattle rustling boils down to calls for the migrants—seen as cow thieves, to bring those animals back, and the retaliation to regain them. But the order of who started it has since been lost in the back and forth grabbing of the herds.
Sitting there, just listening to the people, the texture of their voices and mannerisms, I could have been in any place in Lango.
As to why they left is a matter of analytical discourse and most explanations, including the one I am attempting here, are subject to strong challenges. But the gathering weight of pre-initiation men, who were coming of age, but were two to three generations waiting in line, and whose own elderly fathers were still taking young brides much to the chagrin of the very young men charged with maintaining them, would have rankled. To boot, it is this pre-initiation generation that are tasked with the equivalent of civil service duties, the generation set being political heads. With the imprimatur of asapan, and their hegemony in full force, the elders are that glittering circle of senatorial authority (senator deriving from the Latin word senilis, old—a senate literally meaning a council of elders), whose presence grants such magnificence at the Ateker Akiriket ceremonies. It is they that can slaughter bulls. They have first service rights. No crafted political decision is taken without their approval.
And yet, it is for the pre-initiation age set young men to carry these decisions out. Without formal power and uncertain about their place in the pecking order, the karachuna are often a troublesome lot; it is often they that you see in pictures or footage of Ateker men caught rustling livestock.
Away in the fields of 17th century Karamoja, and despairing at never gaining political power, why should they return to a life of tyrannical senators? It is a conjectural extrapolation. But it is one with very strong points to make. The glittering Akiriket ceremonies I described of Ateker hosts in full regalia of ostrich-plumed aworich headgear, with the authority of a generation in power, are sadly, meaningful mostly held in Karamoja.
When the young men migrated, the elders considered them lost—dead. In fact, it is believed that the word “Teso” may be translatable to “grave”, as the Karamojong considered their errant sons already dead to them. Such was the sense of betrayal felt back home. In a socio-political sense, the migrants were dead as the societies they founded were politically null and void. There was no one with respectable authority to call things to order. If they came upon a simpler political system such as the Lango when they encountered the Luo, kick-starting their politics meant adopting other people’s systems, in what amounted to a political reform. But at the price of losing language, gods, names and culture. To carry on without the generation with power at hand would be the equivalent of a ministry without a political head to approve decisions.
A further supporting factor to this argument of generation-system collapse is that those who left referred derisively to those they left behind as the elderly men in charge, hence the terminology, Karamojong—from the root noun emojong, the elderly. In Karamoja, the enlightened don’t want that name and prefer to be called Karatunga (the people).
In Turkana and Toposa, I was told that the generation system “ended so long ago” it is no longer possible to trace it. But even if it is traced back, the permission and blessing of the Jie, generally referred to as “our ancestors” by the Ateker diaspora, and who sit firmly in this knowledge in Kotido, would be needed for the generational age set to be reinstated, for as with church matters, only a consecrated bishop can consecrate a new bishop. Out of all proportions, the Turkana and Toposa still make entreaties for the Jie to do this.
The price for that, alas, is that the animals the young took be returned. Which is unacceptable.
Ateker in the post-independence state
Hence, in Turkana, as Boniface Korobe explained to me, there is asapan “lite”, no more than a marking of passage for boys and only marking the coming of age of age sets. There is little political force in it. It is the same in Toposa.
There is nothing untypical about this sad supply-end of migration. The European migration into “new worlds” was precipitated by dominative and frozen aristocratic systems, which after the collapse of the church in the Reformation, closed common lands and widened the wealth and power gaps between aristocrats and peasants. To boot, the collapse of what I am at times tempted to call the Ateker Empire corresponds to the period of general collapse of empires in Africa, whose roots trace back to antiquity. There is more to this story. As with new polities created by migrants fleeing ossified political systems, the Ateker in diaspora created what amounts to republics, to guard against age tyranny. Tragically, colonialists saw these societies as acephalous for not having the kinds of monarchies seen in the south. Tragic because the post-independence state carried on the cruel ignorance of colonialists in mistreating the Ateker.
The tragic 1980 famine that swept across much of Africa had a deleterious impact on the Ateker.
The price for this breakage has arisen in our own times to exact a terrible political price. In Karamoja, the 1989 famine stymied the rise to power of a new generation. This failure was marked by the lack of control of the 1990s and early 2000s when the karachuna, without powerful elders to command their obedience, and armed with the lately acquired AK47 (another story altogether), ran amok. The resulting raids and counter-raids destroyed Ateker society and were fought on the scale of civil wars. It was only in Karamoja, where the generation set system was salvaged from the ruins of the 1980 famine, that elders have managed to finally hold sway over the youth. The Museveni government takes credit for “pacifying” Karamoja, but it was the respected word of the elders—men like Napua—that convinced the youth to lay down their guns.
In comparison, there was no such voice in Turkana or Toposa to help Nairobi and Juba to disarm their pastoralists. Because these pose threats from Kenya and South Sudan, Karamoja began to re-arm.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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