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The President Who Burned Kenya’s Heritage, Humiliated Little Girls and Elderly Women

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We should make the 25th of February Kenya’s National Day of Shame, the day in 1992 when Kenyan mothers were forced to undress in front of armed young men of the age of their detained sons.

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The President Who Burned Kenya’s Heritage, Humiliated Little Girls and Elderly Women
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I will remember Moi as the president who burned material culture, and humiliated little girls and elderly women. He carried the dreaded club considered a weapon among many cultural groups, and had a red rose bud of Love, Peace and Unity, pinned to his lapel. That’s the image of him I have. He who did not age in the photograph that was everywhere — in schools, bars, government offices, shops, you name it. The fatherly look in those light brown eyes — patronizing, caring, saintly.

But the image of his sculpted hand wielding his favourite weapon over Mt. Kenya showed otherwise. I looked at his sculpted hand bursting out of Mt. Kenya like a volcano as I drove by Uhuru Park and tried to think about the meaning behind it. The mountain is a sacred shrine to many. Elders still face Mt. Kenya for blessings as the freedom fighters did at dawn. Mt. Kenya is Kenya’s national symbol that has appeared on stamps, bank notes and wall paintings in rural eateries. Armed resistance against the colonial power was centred around the mountain and was protected by it for many years. What was the reason behind the design that obviously showed one man’s power over a mountain that is the country’s highest point and a symbol of Kenya? Was it a show of conquest over the uthamaki? I could not find an explanation in any text or from any person. We ought to look again at the statues of tyrants in this year of toppling monuments and take a moment to reflect on what and for whom they are there.

I hold other images. My first encounter with President Moi humiliating the pastoralists was in late 1970s. I was in the field in the vicinity of Kapedo (Turkana County) among the Turkana when his motorcade appeared on the hot desert road like a dust storm. There was a lot of excitement to see the spectacle and welcome the new president who was from one of Kenya’s smaller tribes. Moi was one of them unlike the previous president, an avaricious agriculturalist, whose kinsfolk were encroaching on their land and mineral resources albeit in cahoots with the local politicians. But the local politicians were brothers and sons and that did not matter. Only the agriculturists were the madoadoa demon settlers.

President Moi held a huge baraza at Kapedo where the steaming hot waters of the river fall over a rock. Truly a sight to behold. After some welcoming speeches, it was time for the much-awaited presidential address. I was aghast to see what followed. The president called a shy teenage Turkana girl to the stage where he was seated in his usual austere manner, clutching his club. The people must have at once understood that the club was a weapon. The president elicited fear rather than peace, love and unity in the audience. In most Kenyan cultural groups, a club is a symbol of violence to knock an enemy on the skull. The symbol of authority and respect is a flywhisk or a peace staff that is also often used as a walking stick by community elders. There was an obvious contradiction between the new president’s words and the symbol that he lifted over his head as if to strike.

We ought to look again at the statues of tyrants in this year of toppling statues and take a moment to reflect on what and for whom they are there.

The teenage girl was wearing traditional Turkana dress and ethnic beads that proudly spoke of her identity and of who she was. She was dressed exquisitely for she was meeting the president. Then, the president called another girl. She was wearing a neat school uniform; you would think she came from an English public school. She was also Turkana. Pointing to the girl in the beautiful calfskin clothes with his club, the president put on a noticeable frown on his fatherly face that was gleaming in the strong Kapedo sunshine. The Father of the Nation, Baba wa Taifa as we called him, said he did not want to see “this” meaning the Turkana dress. His following words were spiked with references to backwardness and the civilization that his presidency was bringing to them.  He said it was time for the Turkana to join the maendeleo path like other Kenyans.

From 1963 onwards, the word maendeleo had evolved to mean not just development in Kenya but also becoming “civilized”; it connoted becoming westernized and perhaps Christianized as well. Then he pointed to the other girl who was in a neat school uniform, a white shirt and blue skirt. The president’s face brightened into a smile; this is what he wanted to see. That was the path to maendeleo, leaving primitiveness behind. These may not have been his exact words but that’s what they meant. I write from the images, emotions and memories from over forty years ago that have lived on in my mind.

My heart sank. I wondered what the teenage girl must have felt being humiliated in public by the president of her country. What her parents must have felt. What the Turkana elders, the custodians of their culture, must have thought. What the community was thinking as they listened to the president in utter silence. The Turkana people, like everyone else, take pride in their dress and their culture. Now they were being insulted on their own territory by the new president of Kenya. Their culture is what has sustained them in the harsh semi-desert scrubland and given them a sense of identity and community.

I had been working on Turkana material culture, especially on their animal skin clothing which interested me because of the unique cut and the stitched lines that patterned their long skirts which were suited to the semi-desert scrubland. How they quilted different colours of cowhide to create amazing patterned clothes. It is an ingeniously designed garment weighted with flattened hoofs so that it does not flare out in the desert wind or get ripped at the bottom. The skirt is worn long because of the Turkanas’ respect for the female body and local cultural etiquette. It is carefully cut down the side of the leg for the air to circulate in the hot desert climate and to accommodate movement while running after animals when herding or walking long distances to fetch water and firewood. I wanted to include the Turkana dress in the material culture curriculum for schools that I was writing at the time and as an example of Kenya’s indigenous dress that is suited to the environment and vernacular design in the book that I was working on. The president was ignorant of Kenya’s culture.

Back in Nairobi, I was shocked to see the picture of the president and the two girls on the front page of the newspaper. I don’t remember which one, probably the Daily Nation. It was as if in Nyayo’s onward march to maendeleo, the humiliation of a proud culture was being celebrated. I tried to talk about this incident in the staffroom at the University of Nairobi where I worked, but I met blank, if not surprised, looks. “The Asian is talking about primitive tribes again”, I read on their faces. I worked, put up exhibitions and often talked about the material culture of Kenya as a heritage to be cherished like the mother tongue; both were looked down upon as obstacles to development by a segment of the intellectual class. An academic at the University of Nairobi once told me to my face that I was taking Africans backwards. In the tone of his comment was an allusion to the racist Asian stereotype that I had become used to on campus. Then as now, the president had his followers within the intellectual community.

The teenage girl was wearing traditional Turkana dress and ethnic beads that proudly spoke of her identity and of who she was.

My second encounter with President Moi was in Orwa in the Pokot region. I came to the area soon after the president had been there on his “civilizing the natives” mission that reminded me of the infamous colonial Pacification Expeditions. I was stunned to see a pile of ashes and burned items of material culture at the Orwa airfield, a makeshift strip of cleared bush for small aircraft. The elders told me while spitting bitterness how Jeshi la Nyayo had forcefully stripped them of their valued skin garments and beads. I gathered Jeshi la Nyayo were the dreaded General Service Unit. I had seen them at work at the University of Nairobi and had fled from their batons. The Pokot material culture was thrown in a heap on the airstrip and made into a bonfire. My heart wept for I was collecting the precious material culture of the Pokot at the time, especially what they wore; how they celebrated their identity with their clothing and beads; their embodiment of utu, their humanity and, most important, how they made reconciliation through their art, how important material culture was in their lives. I was collecting material culture for preservation for posterity and here I find my president burning the nation’s cultural archive, the resources for the school curriculum on indigenous art and knowledge that would one day be taught if ever the authorities decolonized their minds sufficiently to look in the mirror and see who they are.

Among the items stripped from the bodies of the Pokot was the leketyo. The leketyo is a sacred symbol of peace for the community. In fact, the metaphor used for peace is leketyo, and for some like the Marakwet, Keiyo and Pokot, the word for greeting is “Leketyo!” — very much like Shalom and Salaam. What is leketyo? A leketyo is a leather belt decorated with lines of coloured beads and cowry shells. Expectant mothers wear it around the waist to avoid miscarrying the foetus. Women walk long distances for water and firewood; they herd goats and build houses. Their strenuous work in the harsh climate easily leads to miscarriages. The leketyo has become a sacred and a respected object for it saves life. I have seen how fighting, that is physical fighting, using weapons, comes to an abrupt halt when a mother removes her leketyo and throws it down between the belligerent warriors.

The leketyo may be laid down by any mother passing by and all the warriors will respect it for in communal societies, one mother represents everyone’s mother in her son’s age group and she calls them “my sons”. As any Kalenjin would know, the leketyo is revered in the community for it represents protection of the womb. Like the mutilina of the Akamba and the enkitati of the Maasai, it is a symbol of motherhood, love and nourishment that prevents violence and maintains peace in the community. It is also a symbol of the feminine God-given gift of procreation, and of family and community well-being. In other words, women’s waist belts are symbols of peace used as metaphors in speech and song.

When I heard the songs of Pokot mothers, concealed from the ears of the local special branch, bemoaning the loss of their leketyo, I felt their pain. The humiliated mothers sang about the beauty of their lost leketyo while cursing the president in the same verse. Yes, during the oppressive regimes of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, they had developed clandestine oral literature expressing outrage at those who stole their land and visited brutality and humiliation on them.

There was a parallel between the clandestine oral literature of rural Kenya and the underground papers like Pambana that I read in the city. The difference was that the pastoralists’ secret literature was oral, in poetry and songs, using idioms, metaphors and double meanings that those who did not know the culture and did not understand the language — like most of the local administration, the police and the GSU — could not understand. They were masked like the Mau revolutionary songs that sounded like hymns to the outsider. The underground literature in the city did not mask the message; it openly condemned the despotic presidents and called for change. Unfortunately, the two did not connect.

The Pokot also erected secret memorials invisible to the outside eye in memory of those who were killed by Nyayo. One such memorial that I visited near the Kenya-Uganda border in the West Pokot region was made of gigantic white marble-like slabs. One would need to persuade the local oral artist to hear the full narrative of the cultural oppression, the humiliation and the brutality of the punitive military expeditions of the Nyayo era. These are the monuments erected by the people that we need to celebrate and care for. They speak of a people’s resilience in the face of oppression.

An academic at the University of Nairobi once told me to my face that I was taking Africans backwards.

It baffled me why the president humiliated the Pokot women and Turkana girls who were closer to his cultural roots than, say, Wangari Maathai whom he also insulted and humiliated. The professor and environmentalist was protecting our trees, our natural heritage that the president was decimating for profit.

But then, in 1992, what happened at Uhuru Park was shocking. In my novel Home Between Crossings, I put together what I saw, read and heard to write about the assault on the mothers of the detainees. Putting it in print a way of releasing the emotions locked in my memory and telling the story so that it is not forgotten. Though based on real events, the writing came from my creativity and imagination.

The next day women gather in groups to talk about the incident at Uhuru Park. There is horror in their eyes. Anxiety in the air. We had all seen the Daily Nation photographs of the riot police hounding old women. Some had watched the news on the TV.  I tell them I was there and what I saw. They come closer me. Even those I don’t usually talk to come to listen to me. They listen in silence and shock. But what horrified them was how President Moi treated the mothers protesting in the park.

“Does he not have a mother?” asked one.

“Would he have treated his mother like that?” asked another.

“What if he were detained without trial, would his mother not have come to Uhuru Park to ask for his release?” asked the third…

Later in the evening, I look at the photographs on the front page of the Daily Nation. “MOTHERS OF DETAINED PRISONERS WITHOUT TRIAL FLEE.” Yesterday comes back in my eyes. I see them. They flee before the brutal charge of the riot squad and the paramilitary. Helmeted, armed and shielded in metal, the machine-like army of young men assail the old mothers in cotton dresses and head scarfs. Putting the newspaper pictures together with what I saw yesterday was like bringing two pieces of a torn photograph together. First, the women herded together like trapped animals, hugging each other in one tight embrace. A combined hug in unison out of fear. Of comfort. Of courage. Of unity. Of solidarity of mothers. I felt I was in that circle of human embrace. Some whimper for mercy, others sing hymns. Aged mothers thought the President would listen to them, for he had a mother too. Then one of them stepped forward before the contingent of young armed men and she began tearing clothes off her body.  In Africa, it is a taboo to see a woman, who is the age of your mother, so distressed that she unclothes herself surrendering her dignity to a young man the age of her son who, by custom, is her son, too. It’s a gesture of wounded motherhood that many do not understand. A gesture showing there is no more utu or humanity left in society. Of showing self-inflicted humiliation that says it’s not worth being your mother. It’s the humiliation of sacredhood of the womb, meaning the giver of life. Shame and sin would fill the eyes of the onlookers. In Africa, I repeat, to see your mother’s nudity is shame and a curse. Everyone knows that it pains the land when the mother forfeits her honour to her sons’ gaze. More mothers come forward, ripping clothes off their shrivelled frames, spitting curses and disgust, tearing away headscarves, casting away mother-love for rage and forfeiting the dignity bequeathed to them by nature when they gave birth. They were surrendering in defiance to the rape by their sons. They sing hymns in unison daring the armed men to come, touch them and dishonour their mothers until they feel satisfied. What more had they to lose when they have lost all, meaning their self-respect? Some policemen cover their eyes, others turn back and yet there are some who advance without shame. They would say they had orders. Or they are not of the same tribe so the curse would not harm them or that they are Christians now. That these are not their mothers. They don’t believe in superstitions and primitive customs. Never before, not even under the English, not even during the girls’ circumcision unrest at Mt Kenya, were the mothers of Africa reduced to such humiliation as under the black government of Nyayo.

Chapter: Humiliation of disowning motherhood in Home Between Crossings (2014)

I write about my encounters with Nyayoism in the hope that we can retain the memories of how one in whom the nation had placed its trust, shamed its girls and mothers. It is as though this has become an accepted part of the Kenyan culture as is graphically described by April Zhu writing in The Elephant about the defiance of Mama Victor and the Mathare Social Justice Centre co-founder Juliet Wanjiru Wanjira.

Misogyny is like a cancer that flows from the highest office in the land to the lower cadres of state institutions. Insulting women has become a global phenomenon as explained by Joane Nagel in Masculinity and Nationalism: Gender and sexuality in the making of nations. Daniel arap Moi had just come to power and he had to show he was a man. All the incidents I speak about were reported in the media albeit from angles different from how I viewed them as an ethnographer. The accounts and photographs can be found in newspapers archives.

What I came to know during my work on the cultural aspects of Peace and Conflict Resolution was that humiliation played a significant role in conflicts. Humiliation breeds chuki, the hard hate that festers in the community. And chuki breeds revenge. Cultural humiliation has more often than not been the undertone of political campaigning. It becomes a widespread epidemic during elections, making somebody unlike me, making them the Other of the nation and hence not quite worthy of the highest office in the land. Sometimes it turns into jeering and nasty behaviour; I once watched a shirtless young man running through the streets of Nairobi holding up his pants because his belt had been pulled out, looking helpless and terrified as  a jubilant mob shouted, “Circumcise him!” This was in late 2002 when campaigning between the circumcised and uncircumcised contenders was at its peak. It was a direct result of cultural humiliation instigated from the top to diminish the Other as not worthy to rule.

Humiliation breeds chuki, the hard hate that festers within the community.

More often than not, epidemics of cultural hate and humiliation are started by politicians and even by the president as I have seen during my forty years working in the field in Kenya. We know how cultural chuki was spread through the radio in Rwanda to galvanize the population to commit a genocide. I have sometimes wondered in frustration whether Moi’s humiliation of Wangarĩ Maathai and the market women of Nairobi was patriarchy embedded in nationalism or whether it was a personality trait that sought pleasure in humiliating whomever while singing “mindfulness” in public broadcasts.

To understand humiliation, it is best to think in an African language. Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” 

In Swahili, for example, humiliation has several shades. We say tia aibu meaning put shame. Or tia uchungu, put pain and vunja heshima meaning break self-respect, and also break the heart, vunja moyo. Humiliation is to make the other feel she/he is not human, si binadamu. Then the humiliated is filled with chuki (hatred) and looks for revenge to reclaim his/her or the community’s honour, kisasi cha aibu ya staha. This can lead to killings.

Humiliation is one face of governance by repression. In societies where identities are collective, one killing or one rape is considered humiliation of the entire community. Consequently, it calls the people to rise and avenge the spilled blood of a kinsman or the dishonour of a mother, wife or daughter of a fellow kinsman. Humiliation is communal, and like trauma, it is generational in that the responsibility of the unavenged wrong falls to the youth. Hence, ethnic conflicts become cyclic. Whenever the suppressed rage of humiliation comes to the fore, the outcome is horrendous. Evelin Lindner, who is among the foremost thinkers and writers on humiliation and violence, says:

Rage turned outward can express itself in violence, even in mass violence when leaders are available to forge narratives of group humiliation.

We know that power and wealth breed arrogance. This is neither new nor particular to Africa’s presidents and politicians. But how can we create awareness of what we do to each other and thus stop or at least lessen this especially with the looming elections?

One way could be to make the 25th of February Kenya’s National Day of Shame, the day in 1992 when Kenyan mothers, our mothers, were forced to undress in front of armed young men of the age of their detained sons. It will be a day to reflect on what shame our leaders have placed upon us, and the consequences that the ordinary person has had to bear, as we so often see during elections. Keeping and refreshing our memories would remind us to be watchful of politicians who divide Kenya along gender and cultural lines. Students will ask, “Why are we remembering this day?” The media will report and commentaries will expand on the history of humiliation from the colonial days to the present-day dictatorships led by brutal capitalism, nationalism and cronyism. One bright Kenyan may choose to write her PhD on the History of Humiliation in Kenya from Colonialism to the Present.

When we choose to be silent, we are erasing the lessons of history from our memory. We become complicit in the propagation of the propaganda of the state and politicians. As a result, violence is passed on from one generation to the next among cultural groups and becomes systemic in governmental and institutional hierarchies.

This article was first published by AwaaZ Magazine Issue 1 , 2021.

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Sultan Somjee is the author of One Who Dreams is Called a Prophet (2020). He was the Head of Ethnography, National Museums of Kenya (1994-2000) and is the founder of the Community Museums of Peace in Kenya.

Long Reads

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

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

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

Knowledge production directed by politics and economics

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

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

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

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

Colonial devastation of indigenous systems of knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unshackling contemporary scholarship in Africa from Western hegemony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Genocide: The Weapon Used to Keep Ethiopia Intact

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

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

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

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

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

Ethiopia’s history of genocide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No More Camp: Confident Despite Contradictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, where and how does this narrative fall short?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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