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We Are Not the Wretched of the Pandemic

18 min read.

Casting Africans as the wretched of the pandemic seems to make sense, given the obvious inequalities. But it deprives us of agency and urgency.

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We Are Not the Wretched of the Pandemic
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“Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” ~ Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust (2014)

I want to explore something I have been wrestling with over the last three weeks. About silences, and also about anger.

~~~

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 was first identified by scientific teams in southern Africa, and reported to the WHO on 24 November 2021. Since then, there has been a chaotic outpouring of news, speculation and reactions. We have also been furious about travel bans, about scientists being punished, about COVID being labelled as African, and about global vaccine inequality/apartheid.

Some of the dust is only now settling. Omicron has spread incredibly quickly worldwide, and has displaced older variants. European and North American healthcare systems are in danger of being overwhelmed. There is political fallout from the unpopular introduction of tighter controls.

The first cases from Omicron in Kenya have now been identified, but the variant has probably been here for some time. Daily case numbers began doubling just before Christmas 2021. We have entered our fifth wave.

This new variant seems extremely transmissible, but key aspects of its longer-term severity, and its ability to resist existing vaccines, remain unclear. Results from South Africa, Europe and North America about its “mildness” were eagerly projected onto a quite different population here, one with much lower vaccination levels – even as all those health systems went into crisis. New unpredictable variants are still likely to appear over the coming year.

We are still in a situation of uncertainty, but we are desperate to believe the pandemic is over.

~~~

I want to explore the psychological impact of the pandemic. There are things we need to understand, acknowledge, and address now. If we fail to do this, we may remain distracted or paralysed at a time when we really need to gather and refocus our energies.

The pandemic may be viral, but it has also created a mental health epidemic. Most of us are completely exhausted from the past two years. Our emotional and financial reserves are drained. Some of us are suffering from the longer-term effects of COVID, from isolation, or just from the stress of unpredictability.

~~~

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor wrote, “Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.”

After the Omicron variant was announced, and the West responded with travel bans, I felt we should add a fourth language — and perhaps for Africa more broadly. Anger.

~~~

Fight, Flight or Freeze.

Many of you will recognise these as our classic responses to threats. We usually become angry in response to a source of fear — a threat. We want to fight, to protect ourselves from whatever threatens us. An ancient reactive part of our brain, the amygdala, takes over.

It has to act quickly.  It can’t do nuance.  It. Doesn’t. Have. Time.

Our amygdala has to flatten the world around us, divide it neatly into friends and foes.

~~~

Anger in itself is not a bad emotion. It evolved to protect us. Sometimes it is life-saving. Channelled well, outrage can change society in really positive ways.

However, in our modern, artificial, overcrowded, confusing, stressful and technological lifestyles, we have to be careful. Anger can be misplaced, destructive, and exhausting, especially if we become trapped within cycles of anger and trauma.

At this stage of the pandemic, we are frightened and exhausted. Some of us are on the verge of collapse and paralysis. We want this to be over.

We are also angry.

But the real cause of this anger — an invisible virus — is hard to attack.

~~~

Since COVID-19 emerged in 2019, the world has been a confusing and frightening place. COVID-19 fuelled a global crisis in an extremely unequal and unfair world.

The pandemic, and the accompanying lockdowns, created huge fears, personal losses, sickness, deep economic and psychological challenges. Many people struggled and some genuinely found it hard to understand why.

COVID-19 fuelled a global crisis in an extremely unequal and unfair world.

Lockdowns succeeded in reducing the initial spread, but this paradoxically undermined their justification. Without people visibly dying everywhere, some questioned whether news of the pandemic had a hidden motive. The reluctance of western media to show the suffering of white bodies also created a cognitive disconnect, especially in the US.

We were at war with an invisible virus — not with one another — but still tensions rose.

Our amygdala is not good at this new kind of war. It needs a recognisable enemy.

This medical crisis is not a fairy tale, with cartoon heroes and villains. However, when we are angry, frustrated and scared, the protective instinctive part of our brain activates.  It desperately wants to flatten complicated reality into a reassuringly simple cartoon version.

Who is attacking us?  Who are our enemies?

We needed someone to blame.

~~~

There has been a lot of coverage of far-right COVID conspiracy theories. Trump labelled COVID-19 the “China virus”, while allowing it to kill far more people in the US. An election year in the US cemented a crazy partisan divide, with right-wing politicians taking their stance against masks and vaccines. Public health was placed in opposition to personal freedoms. This soon spread to other countries online.

At a deeper level, the Christian far-right in the US doesn’t believe in evolution. A rapidly mutating virus is impossible to understand. A deliberately weaponized pathogen, developed in a lab, by godless people unlike them, made far more sense. There was someone (imaginary) to blame. They found their “real” enemy.

(This wasn’t a solely Christian problem. Religious “leaders” with political access in India also derailed the COVID response in their country, with disastrous global consequences.)

~~~

Conspiracy theories may be convoluted and nonsensical — but they are emotionally satisfying. In a confusing world, they give us someone clear to blame, to scapegoat.

The idea of the scapegoat comes from the Jewish tradition where, as described in Leviticus 16:21, the sins of a community were placed on a live goat, which was then chased off into the wilderness. I am not sure the scapegoat fully understood what was happening, and the goats I have consulted think this was probably not a huge punishment. However, the point was never really about the goat, but about the removal of sins from within the community.

Lockdowns succeeded in reducing the initial spread, but this paradoxically undermined their justification.

In the modern world, we still find scapegoats — people to blame.  They are not the real cause of our problems and chasing them into the wilderness does not resolve anything.  While the original Jewish ceremony may have served a genuinely useful social purpose, our modern versions do not.  Scapegoats are now useful distractions, used to stoke up and misdirect fear and hatred.

~~~

While there has been a lot of emphasis on far-right conspiracy theories, I think there is also a different but related phenomenon on the left.  After all, people who are scared and angry need to find someone to blame. We all need a scapegoat on whom to pile our complex, perhaps intractable problems — and then noisily chase them out of town.

This does not solve our problems — but it is something tangible we can do. It provides some temporary relief.

In the narratives of these conspiracy theories, pharmaceutical companies and Western governments have conspired to create global vaccine apartheid.  Greed, control or naked racism are the clear explanation in the wilder discussions online. There are wicked people to blame, and we must attack them.

Like any good conspiracy theory, there is a kernel of truth in these narratives. We live in a world that has been substantially shaped by capitalism, and that is still scarred by deep historical inequalities stemming from slavery and Western colonialism. Africa has been last on the list to receive vaccines. (Omicron may have emerged in Africa because of low vaccine coverage, allowing new variants to appear.)

We all need a scapegoat on whom to pile our complex, perhaps intractable problems — and then noisily chase them out of town.

A global public health emergency needed a global public health response. While there was immense public funding and coordination, it has been galling to see large pharmaceutical companies make massive profits from this catastrophe; the techniques and “recipes” for the vaccines must become public goods — not controlled for private profit.

There are very unpleasant echoes of past crises. As Zeynep Tupfecki has observed, most of the people who died in the HIV/AIDS epidemic did so after ARV medicines had been developed. Intellectual property rights and corporate profits took precedence over global health, and Africans bore the brunt of that approach.

~~~

We clearly need better global health systems.  However, this narrative that vaccine inequality was deliberate and racist — and our angry response — simplifies and obscures key issues.

There actually was a plan to make sure all countries received vaccines. This plan recognised that we were facing an interlinked global health crisis, and that we needed to address structural inequalities. COVAX was explicitly set up as “a global risk-sharing mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.”

Several things went wrong with this plan, but an angry backlash against vaccine inequality is now obscuring that history. This anger may prevent us from learning difficult lessons, or taking the time-critical action we need to focus on right now.

Our house is on fire. People are inside, still at risk, but some of us are standing outside —  feeling safe because we have been vaccinated — and yelling about who started the fire. Trying to find the people to blame, instead of figuring out how we can help right now.

~~~

Contracting most of the shared vaccines to one provider — the Serum Institute of India (SSI) — was a disastrous decision for COVAX. This decision may have been based on cost, but it was a strategic mistake to put so many eggs in one basket during an unpredictable global disaster.

Under Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing government did not take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. A whole government department was set up to push herbal remedies, and other unproven treatments like steaming. Politicians were preoccupied with elections and religious rallies, which turned into super-spreader events. When the Delta variant began to ravage India in February 2021, the government retreated into full-scale denial.

It has been galling to see large pharmaceutical companies make massive profits from this catastrophe.

The situation in India was devastating. I was already helping to coordinate Indian volunteer group efforts, and I remember the horror of seeing the wave of infections grow rapidly, and then overwhelm the country. People struggled to find oxygen, medicines and ICU beds for their loved ones — or even for themselves.

Then things went quiet — which was even more ominous. The COVID wave was starting to ravage communities, and they had no one to ask for help.

However, the crisis in India was also an indication that a global crisis was brewing. SSI was meant to produce 700 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine for poorer countries in 2021. It had already encountered some production issues, and the Indian government, in its complacency, had not ordered doses for its own citizens until it was too late. At one point, facing threats from desperate Indian politicians, the CEO fled to London for his own safety.

Exports of the doses produced for other countries, including for Kenya, were blocked. Much of the vaccine famine we experienced early in 2021 was caused by this crisis.

Mistakes were made, and people were definitely culpable as well. However, this key event does not fit neatly into the angry narrative of vaccine apartheid. If the rich white West are the obvious villains, and black Africans are the clear victims — adding a complex disaster in India to the mix just messes up the neat fairy tale.

China developed its own vaccine. It has administered nearly three billion doses to its own people, and exported millions as well.  Cuba did even better, despite facing economic sanctions. After a delayed start, Latin America is doing far better with vaccinations, with larger countries nearing Western levels of protection.

The problem is not simply racism, but relative poverty. However, it is a better fairy tale if we just edit out the inconvenient parts.

~~~

In political theory, a surprising convergence between right- and left-wing extremes has often been noted. Starting from different initial points, positions seem to become more similar as they become more radicalised and angry. This is known as the “horseshoe theory”.

This links to how we flatten the world, and look for simple friends, foes, and scapegoats, as that part of our brain that responds instinctively takes over to protect us from threats. Traditionally, political theory has focussed on dry policy issues and class allegiances.  But with the rise of Trump and other populists mainstreaming conspiracy theories worldwide, a lot more research has been undertaken to explore deeper psychological issues around fear, uncertainty, and anger.

Politicians were preoccupied with elections and religious rallies, which turned into super-spreader events.

In a world dominated by powerful and often impersonal, confusing and opaque structures, our amygdala has to find someone to blame — like a classic Bond villain. Common examples are both right- and left-wing antisemitism, and attacks on globalisation.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, pro- and anti-vaccine groups both see conspiracies organised by greedy pharmaceutical companies. The more you think about this, the more bizarre it seems — but here we are. Anger at international structures in general has also grown, leading to strange bedfellows. At one point, I saw Elon Musk attacking the World Food Programme, and left-wing people rallying to his side. I had to switch off my devices and lie down for a while.

~~~

The SARS-CoV-2 genome only contains about 29,903 bases of single-stranded RNA — 30kB of data, less than half the length of this article. This tiny virus is outwitting human civilization.

Our amygdala, and the adrenalin it activates, can save lives — but only in the right context. We need to act instinctively rapidly when we are running out of a house that is on fire — as did our distant ancestors when escaping predators.

However, in a slow-burning and confusing pandemic, our amygdala should not be allowed to take charge.

COVID-19 is being helped right now by our own fearful responses.

Right now, our house is on fire — and many of us are still trapped inside.  We instinctively want to save ourselves, get our boosters, and get away from the problem as quickly as possible.

However, as a country we are less than 10% fully vaccinated.  Our fire is far from out.

~~~

The last few years have been an “I can’t breathe” crisis on several levels.

Franz Fanon was a physician, psychiatrist and philosopher. His work on colonial violence, and the lasting psychological and cultural damage it caused, remains important to this day. After all, these past years have been a crisis of COVID, but also of George Floyd, and of Black Lives Matter.

I was very influenced by Fanon’s work, via Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who built on Fanon’s work.  I first encountered these ideas around lasting cultural trauma when I was a peace worker for British Quakers, based in South Africa.  About a decade after that experience, I took part in the first large Rhodes Must Fall march in Oxford, which was extraordinarily moving and powerful.

Fanon talks of the colonial world as “a Manichaean World”, divided into light and dark.  White colonizers are seen as the light, and black colonized individuals are viewed as darkness, and the epitome of evil.

In a world dominated by powerful and often impersonal, confusing and opaque structures, our amygdala has to find someone to blame.

At this point, this should sound familiar. Surely the antidote to this colonial polarisation, a world where black is bad — is it’s opposite — white neo-colonial pharma as the epitome of evil?

However, this is simplistic — as I have demonstrated with the catastrophe in India.  I am reminded of a jingle for Lotus FM in Durban: “Not everything’s black and white. . .”

I would also argue that it is literally dangerous.

Painting Africa as the wretched of the pandemic, a whole continent victimised yet again by the West, deprives us of agency and urgency. It glosses over complex but really important details.

Most importantly, while the image gives us something to focus our anger on, a scapegoat to chase out of town, it also provides us with an excuse not to actually do anything difficult but useful ourselves.

We can safely exhaust ourselves shouting at foreigners in the West, and this venting is cathartic. We are now absolved from doing anything closer to home. Powerful and evil external actors are in charge — at least until some utopian revolution dawns.

~~~

Meanwhile, the reality which this narrative obscures is that vaccines have been arriving in Africa. Kenya now has millions of vaccines available, and the immediate but very real challenges are local logistics, and persuading people with mild vaccine reluctance to get vaccinated.

Unfortunately, anger at global pharma is being manipulated to make people on the ground more hesitant at a time when we need to reassure them that vaccines are safe and effective. It is still not quick and easy to get a vaccine in Kenya. Vague rumours about side effects and large wicked corporations are enough to put scared people off doing something that seems novel, risky and time-consuming.

But while overall Africa has lagged behind other countries on vaccine uptake, we have also seen much fewer deaths.  It is not entirely clear why this is — although it will probably be due to a complex mix of factors, including our younger demographics, and fewer comorbidities from diseases of affluence like obesity and diabetes.

Painting Africa as the wretched of the pandemic, a whole continent victimised yet again by the West, deprives us of agency and urgency.

As more vaccines became available during 2021, more of them went to countries where they were more desperately needed, rather than to Africa, which had lower case rates. The overall picture includes Latin America and South East Asia, which did get vaccines when they needed them more. The now high vaccination rates in these regions are being ignored by those arguing that there is a global vaccine apartheid.

We are also likely to experience a global oversupply of vaccines in 2022. Part of the reason pharmaceutical companies seem greedy is that they know vaccines are going to commodify. Increased supply will drive price reductions, so companies want to take profits while they still can. Free markets are not morally perfect, but when they scale up, they are incredibly powerful.

(I still believe we need a more global public control of vaccines that are essential to public health. Since the Delta variant overwhelmed India in May, and torpedoed collective efforts via COVAX, I have argued that we need a “Liberty Ships” approach to this pandemic — a wartime level of effort and resources. This did not happen fast enough, and we have lost lives as a result.)

~~~

Mirroring global vaccine inequality is local vaccine inequality.

I have been concerned for some time that the relatively privileged but tiny urban elites in Kenya would get themselves vaccinated then lose interest as their own lives returned to normal. Once vaccination rates in Nairobi reached about 20 per cent, and the lockdowns and curfews were eased, this did seem to happen; although most of Kenya’s counties still had very low levels of vaccination, the national conversation moved on, unconcerned.

Once Omicron was announced, there was a vast amount of anger at travel restrictions imposed on southern African countries. There were lots of legitimate reasons for the frustration, especially as Omicron was probably already in many countries, as has proved to be the case, but African scientists were effectively being punished for being the first to identify it.

Blanket travel bans are in any case not very effective at stemming the spread of variants and those travel bans have now been largely removed.  (Ironically, France is now restricting travellers from Britain, where Omicron case numbers are rising alarmingly.)

Part of the reason pharmaceutical companies seem greedy is that they know vaccines are going to commodify.

However, the anger I sensed seemed really unfocused and confused. Kenyans were also outraged, but there was little concern or interest in the actual variant, or in the rising cases in southern Africa — the countries with which we were apparently showing solidarity. Christmas concerts and parties continued. Some people seemed more worried about having their own travel plans, and their newly regained privileged lifestyles, threatened.  I felt like a lone voice, trying to remind Kenyans just how few of our own citizens were protected by vaccines.

I am not sure what Frantz Fanon would make of our bourgeoisie.  Che Guevara would actually have shot most of the people who wear those trendy t-shirts bearing his image. I doubt Fanon would have been impressed.

We have now got our reward, with exponentially rising case numbers in Kenya as well.

My feeling is that the outrage was actually based on the deeper fear that we would return to lockdowns, and that the pandemic was not actually over. Instead of focussing on the actual problem — a new variant — we found foreign scapegoats to yell at, allowing the thing which frightened us to take root.

~~~

For Fanon, the colonized were kept constantly on edge by an “atmospheric violence”, tensed in anticipation of violence. The pandemic has done something similar to our limbic systems. While not comparable to the traumas of slavery, we are constantly stressed, and on edge.

I am strangely reminded of Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity as a “slave morality”. Good Christians, by turning the other cheek, did not push back against power. Returning to the Fight/Fright/Freeze stress response that I learnt about in school, it has been updated to include a fourth response sometimes called ‘Submit’, ‘Fawn’ or ‘Feign’.

The Slave Bible, published in 1807 in London, then circulated in Caribbean and North American plantations, was a disturbing later embodiment of Nietzsche’s criticism. Sections such as the exodus story, which might inspire hope for liberation, were removed. Instead, portions that justified and fortified the system of British Imperial slavery were emphasized.

The Slave Bible encouraged silence, subservience and passivity, in the face of injustice.  It was used to pacify people subjected to the worst forms of oppression and constant violence.

We found foreign scapegoats to yell at, allowing the thing that frightened us to take root.

The reality is more complex. Jesus himself was not passive. Theologians like Walter Wink have shown that turning the other cheek was actually a powerful act of resistance, given wider Roman culture. To turn the other cheek forced the aggressor to use their left hand, which would be seen as humiliating for the aggressor to other Romans. This would reclaim some power and agency for the Christian in a situation of powerlessness.

In the “atmospheric violence” of the pandemic, I sense we all feel disempowered. Some of us have become passive and withdrawn, while others have become angry and frustrated. However, instead of channelling the energy of anger into practical action to take care of one another, we are simply venting our frustrations publicly and fruitlessly – and sometimes counterproductively.

Some of us channel our frustrations against the pandemic restrictions of our own governments, or vaccination programmes – while others rail against international injustices.

Venting may feel helpful, but it is not reclaiming power or agency.  It may briefly feel good, but it is not really helping us.

~~~

Casting Africans as the wretched of the pandemic seems to make sense, given the obvious inequalities.  It is proving an incredibly powerful global rallying cry.

It makes people righteously, blindly, angry.  It directs all our fear and rage outwards.

It is also, however, a good way of absolving us from tackling the harder questions, much closer to home, or requiring more difficult practical action. The actors who matter are powerful and elsewhere, which limits our own direct responsibility to do more than yell from a safe distance.

We all have limited energy at the best of times, and right now most of us are depleted. Directing our energy at global injustice, while ignoring more local problems, feels wrong to me. We actually have vaccines and knowledge and hard work to do right now. Nobody else can or will do that work for us.

Perhaps this is why such anger is so attractive though.  If the problems are all global, we don’t have to look at our own broken health systems, venal politicians diverting COVID-19 relief funds, or the real challenge of addressing rumours that have spread over the past year about vaccine side effects. We can ignore the failings of our own leaders, who hold rallies and threaten our citizens, if our true enemies are global ones.

Anger directed at outside factors also prevents us from taking a hard look at how fragmented we ourselves are. While life-threatening famine was raging in large parts of Kenya, Nairobi was worried about cancelling Christmas parties and flight bans.

If you are reading this, you probably inhabit a tiny, relatively privileged bubble, just as I do.  Even those of us who want to improve vaccine access have little idea what is happening in other parts of the country. It is harder still to know how to help.

Fanon never wanted colonialism — or the struggle against colonialism — to define us, taking on a simplistic crusading missionary zeal ourselves.

~~~

I’ve been organising civil society work around COVID-19 for much of the year, but I’m struck by how few people are able to volunteer their time and energy. We are all exhausted, but it feels deeper than that.

In India, one genuine problem was that so many people wanted to get involved, which created lots of duplication and confusion, as so many people reinvented the same wheels, and made the same mistakes.

South Africa also has a much stronger civil society response than I have seen here. Kenya is one of the few places I know where activists are treated with suspicion. This feels like the shadow of both colonialism, and Jomo Kenyatta’s and Moi’s authoritarian rule. Repression and fear were normalised. Kenya suffered from atmospheric violence. The few brave activists became lightning rods — but with little support from those for whom they organised.

No country in the world had massive health service capacity in reserve, ready for a pandemic. A massive civil society effort has been needed everywhere but I simply have not seen one in Kenya. We are rightly frustrated at the incompetence and the colonial threats of our own Ministry of Health, but we are not yet willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved where we see obvious gaps. We complain loudly — but that is all we do.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor talks of silence as one of Kenya’s official languages.

I feel that that silence has been breaking over the past decade. Kenyans are more forthright, more outspoken and more critical. The internet has helped many to speak up, and to find kindred spirits. There is also a lot of buried historical baggage to process, and economic frustration and inequality, and injustice as well.

We are rightly frustrated at the incompetence and the colonial threats of our own Ministry of Health, but we are not yet willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved.

This is an important part of becoming a healthier society — one not cowed by power. We are growing up, from literally being treated as the children of the nation, which suited our rulers just fine. We have suffered the consequences of arrogant power for far too long.

We have difficult baggage to process, and the pandemic has added layers of fear and frustration. There is a lot we need to face, and mourn, but being angry is a distraction from that. I also see a hollow and defensive kind of pride, used as a shield against any kind of criticism.

These are ways of covering up our pain.

Anger is becoming our fourth official language.

This is dangerous — especially since 2022 will be an election year.

~~~

What is the alternative?

Well, vaccines are here, and will keep coming.

Kenya has more vaccines in fridges than we’ve used in total so far.

We have a national mobilisation project — to ensure all of our people are safe.

The narrative that we are wretched victims also ignores all the inconvenient good news. How did Morocco or Botswana manage to vaccinate so many of their populations?

Within Kenya itself, some counties are doing much better than others.

What could we learn from them?

Who are our local heroes?

Who needs our help?

~~~

We stand at the beginning of a New Year.

I actually think it will be a hopeful one, as far as the pandemic is concerned.

Even with new variants like Omicron, science is incredibly powerful. In particular, the mRNA platform is able to rapidly create new targeted vaccines.

There is also unprecedented global solidarity. Unlike during other previous crises, such as conflicts or famines, rich countries were the first to suffer the devastating consequences of the pandemic, so there is huge empathy. We can tell our stories online in compelling ways, and these stories resonate.

Even more than science and compassion, economically speaking, the world will put resources into ending the pandemic. Highly infectious diseases simply cannot be contained by travel restrictions. Our world is simply too interconnected and interwoven.

It is also an election year in Kenya. We can look at how politicians and governors have performed, and the state of their health programmes. This is the one time we have some leverage.

Anger is a call to action that we can channel into things that are more useful than empty, exhausting rage and the accompanying disempowering sense of victimhood. Action will be truly healing, as we find ways to take back control, after the helplessness of the past two years.

For some reason, we have also been lucky. The level of COVID deaths and serious illness in Kenya have been undercounted – but they still aren’t as high as in some other countries. This isn’t because of our excellent scientists (that’s southern Africa) or our experience with Ebola (west and central Africa). It may be demographics, geography, and exposure to other pathogens. The answer will probably be a mix of different factors.

So far, strangely enough, we’ve actually escaped the worst of it; we have simply not been the wretched of this pandemic. The worst of what I saw in India, and in many other countries, did not befall us. Our biggest challenge now is to get our own population vaccinated, with the now fairly available vaccines, so that we are better protected against new variants.

It may be demographics, geography, and exposure to other pathogens. The answer will probably be a mix of different factors.

We need to take a deep breath and take stock of where we actually are right now. Instead of fighting battles from last year, and knowing all that we now, what should be our focus?

~~~

Our next challenge is climate change, and that will be much harder. Especially for Africa.

We need to end this crisis, and in doing so, learn how to deal with our own fears and anger, our need for simple scapegoats, if we are to stand a chance of addressing the climate crisis.

COVID-19 was relatively minor, but it still shook our civilisations. Climate change is a truly existential threat.

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Anand Madhvani is the founder of the COVID Kenya network.

Long Reads

Pan-Africanism in the Age of Globalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essentials of the treaty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dodging cattle rustlers’ bullets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ over Lodwar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down the valley

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

“Hornless cattle”, I was told.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bull worship

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

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

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

The lion, ostrich and mountain sets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I then asked about the generation age-set.

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

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

Becoming a full man at 70

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

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

Lopiar, The Sweep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Migrating from political rigidities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ateker in the post-independence state

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

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

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

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

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

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

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