Europe’s embrace of Ukrainian refugees marks an historic departure from its increasingly restrictive stance towards asylum seekers in recent years. With the exception of Angela Merkel’s bold but isolated welcome of displaced Syrians (which generated a considerable backlash), efforts to elicit empathy for people escaping conflict zones have been met with indifference —and at times outright hostility — since the so-called migration “crisis” in 2015. Escalating border patrols and illegal “pushbacks” intercepting would-be asylum claimants have defined an ever-hardening border regime that led numerous commentators to pronounce the “end of asylum” prior to Russia’s invasion.
Against this backdrop, solidarity with refugees in countries as diverse as Hungary and Denmark has been something of a revelation. After years of internal wrangling and inaction over how to share the “burden” of asylum applications, policy has been dramatically overhauled by the decisive implementation of the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), granting millions of Ukrainian refugees right of residency with access to work and education outside their homeland. A comparable shift in Britain has led liberal commentators to proclaim, “The spasm of xenophobia that was spread by the Brexiteers has lifted”.
How to explain this so-called U-turn? For charity workers and activists accustomed to combatting negative perceptions of asylum seekers in Europe, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ushered in a strangely disorienting scenario. On the one hand, the protection and dignity of displaced persons that they have long called for has arrived with bells on. After years of complaint about being “overwhelmed” by trickles of new arrivals, millions have been absorbed virtually overnight without a peep. On the other, the “solidarity” that underpins this dramatic turnaround would appear to exclude non-Europeans.
The very same border guards consigning asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Eritrea to detention or possible death by “push-back” into freezing cold forests are distributing soups and blankets to Ukrainians offered safe passage. Long after animals were evacuated from Ukrainian zoos, Asians and Africans are reported to be languishing in the EU’s Zhuravychi facility, close enough to the warzone to hear artillery and explosions. Such facts, together with scenes of non-white students being obstructed from reaching safety, raise the question of whether what we are witnessing is in fact a turning point at all, and not merely the latest chapter of an older story of European racism.
Migration researchers and policymakers have interpreted these differences technically, citing other factors: geographic proximity, legislative frameworks that give Ukrainians greater legal access to enter the EU, cultural, historical, ethnic and religious affinities that bind them to neighbouring Christian societies. Echoing the liberal centre of European politics, these voices insist the “opening of refugee corridors to Ukraine’s neighbours has little to do with race”.
Asians and Africans are reported to be languishing in the EU’s Zhuravychi facility, close enough to the warzone to hear artillery and explosions.
That the “legislative frameworks” privileging Ukrainians over migrants from the Global South might themselves be part of a racialized migration system is rarely considered by exponents of this technocratic analysis. Nor do they take into account the role of racial ideology in forging the so-called “ethnic, cultural and religious affinities” that bind white Europeans against groups deemed alien, summed up by Polish member of parliament Dominik Tarczynski before the current conflict: “We’ve taken over two million Ukrainians in Poland. We will not receive even one Muslim . . . This is why our government was elected; this is why Poland is so safe”. As for “geography”: how does proximity explain the greater willingness of Britain and Italy to receive Ukrainians rather than the Africans and Asians they seek to repel? Or, for that matter, the enthusiasm of the United States?
Statements professing solidarity with Ukrainians for their “blonde hair” and “blue eyes” did the rounds on social media during the early weeks of the conflict. Race is also at play, however, in subtler enunciations of difference — above all, the presumed contrast between the “economic” motivations of “illegal” entrants with the “political” drivers of Ukrainian flight. The propensity of Westerners to identify Ukrainian affluence as a basis of empathy underlines the class-based dimensions of race. The feeling that “they are just like us” because they travel with suitcases, own cars and live in cities like “our own” is intimately related to the perception of Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans as covetous imposters who could never have been middle-class, and therefore had nothing to lose from the wars that plague their wretched countries of origin.
It is of course true that many of those who seek asylum in Northwestern Europe are fleeing marginalization and encampment in “safe countries”, in addition to the dangers that uprooted them from their countries of origin. The entanglement of “economic”, “political”, and indeed other motivations in each individual’s decision to move is beyond doubt. But the EU’s own recognition rates underline just how many non-Europeans who apply for asylum are in fact “authentic” refugees: last year 81 per cent of Eritrean asylum applicants were accorded protection; 79 per cent of Yemenis, and in October-November, over 90 per cent of Afghans. Britain’s processes of adjudication confirm a majority (around two-thirds) of all those who apply for asylum in the UK are entitled. All of which suggests the lack of empathy with these groups is about more than objectively observable difference.
Viral footage of African students prevented from boarding trains at gunpoint makes a similar point. Even as they fled a warzone alongside millions of other “genuine” (white) political exiles, a tiny trickle of highly educated, middle-class non-white people were pulled aside by Europe’s asylum system for less-than-equal treatment. To explain such blatantly racialized filtration away via legalistic reasoning or talk of geography is disingenuous. It also requires a short memory. Broaden the picture to encompass what we’ve learned about “traveling while Black” in other recent emergencies, and the curtailment of these students’ movement reflects a pattern.
To explain such blatantly racialized filtration away via legalistic reasoning or talk of geography is disingenuous.
As recently as November 2021, blanket flight bans were imposed on African countries following the discovery of the Omicron coronavirus variant by South African scientists. Racist photographic imagery and grotesque cartoons depicting the virus as Black figures in boats appeared in the European press. Nigeria and South Africa, two of the most affluent and politically influential nations in the African continent were powerless to protect the right of their middle-classes to cross international borders. “Had the first Covid-19 virus . . . originated in Africa,” remarked Dr Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, an African Union vaccine expert, “it is clear the world would have locked us away and thrown away the key.”
Her words reflect an unspoken truth about Africa’s lowly position in the hierarchy that underpins international mobility. Yet, discriminatory policies and practices in Europe are just one pillar of this system. Another rests on mobility from and within the African continent itself, which is increasingly the site of exported European migration controls, a phenomenon known as “externalization”. Just how deeply the two are entwined was illustrated by the recent unveiling of Britain’s Rwanda deal, which envisages the deportation of “irregular migrants” without processing their asylum applications.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s framing of the plan to the British press began with a lengthy preamble on Britain’s proud history of refugee protection, including its recent acceptance of Ukrainians. He then presented the UK’s intention to export unwanted arrivals to Africa as a means of preserving its capacity for compassionate action. In spelling out the relationship between embracing some and removing others, he couldn’t have been clearer: Britain’s generous acceptance of Ukrainian and other “genuine” refugees is dependent on the successful removal of false pretenders via externalization.
This effective bifurcation of asylum seekers into (white) Europeans and non-whites from Asia and Africa is not a peculiarly British phenomenon. Denmark, which just passed an expedited law to ease Ukrainians’ access to labour markets and schools, is in the process of forging a similar arrangement of its own with Rwanda. The first European country to officially restrict migrants and refugees classified as “non-western” last year, it will not apply its “jewellery law” — passed in 2016 to allow confiscation of valuables from refugees claiming asylum — to Ukrainians. Syrians, in response to whose arrival the law was invented, witnessed their own rights of asylum revoked just months ago. Damascus was declared a safe country amidst Denmark’s drive to rid its territory of unwanted “ghettos”, but legal challenges have complicated the government’s attempts to force them to return. As for the EU, which has done so much to support the acceptance and integration of Ukrainians in recent months, it was reported on April 6th that the Commission is now proposing to levy punitive trade tariffs on countries that do not accept the return of citizens who have illegally entered Europe. A move that would tie trade to migration policy sounds less of a U-turn than a continuation of the hardening regime pursued by “fortress Europe” since the 1990s.
Denmark, which just passed an expedited law to ease Ukrainians’ access to labour markets and schools, is in the process of forging a similar arrangement of its own with Rwanda.
Could we be heading for a world in which Syrians, along with other Arab, Asian and African asylum seekers alike will be deported from Europe to the African continent to accommodate “genuine” refugees? If so, what does this mean, and how did we get here?
The EU-Africa ‘Partnership’
More than racism, geography, or indeed any of the other factors listed above, the revival of European asylum policy to address the plight of Ukrainians has been framed geopolitically. Putin’s misadventure, according to security experts and aficionados, presents a more flagrant, clear-cut breach of legal and political norms than other messier conflicts around the world. As a threat to the territorial integrity of a nation-state, the invasion undermines a sacred principle of the Westphalian international order: national sovereignty. Ukraine’s women and children, according to this view, embody the stakes of a universal struggle waged by their gallant menfolk.
Revealingly, Sir Tony Blair, whose punditry is otherwise ubiquitous these days, is nowhere to be seen making this point. The gist of those who do is that Ukraine and its human casualties matter for global order in a way other conflicts and theirs do not. Whatever one makes of the threat posed by Putin, this kind of rationale misses the whole point of refugee protection: to ensure fair treatment for those whose claims to asylum might be prejudiced by such distortive considerations, which, within a just legal order, cannot determine who receives protection, and who does not.
Sensing the need for a less Hobbesian, value-based argument to justify the elevation of Ukraine above other conflicts, Europe’s liberal centre has expanded on what this particular national liberation struggle means for people: “This is not only an attack on Ukraine”, tweeted Ursula von der Leyen on March 10th: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is “a defining moment for the European Union”, because “it is an attack on people’s freedom to choose their own destiny. The very principle our Union is based on.”
Just how committed Europe is to ideals of sovereignty and democratic freedom beyond the Global North is evident in the “externalization” of its borders. An approach to migration policy that relies upon the willingness and capacity of sending and transit states to prevent irregular migratory outflows to Europe whilst accepting the “return” of deportees and “voluntarily” repatriated migrants, externalization has been the preferred strategy of the EU and individual European countries seeking to rid their shores of undocumented arrivals from Africa for close to a decade. Advanced under the umbrella of “cooperation”, it was ramped up in 2015 via the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), launched to tackle the “root causes of irregular migration” holistically through development, job creation, and by creating legal pathways of mobility.
The single largest tranche of funding — around a quarter of the EUTF’s five billion Euros — has been spent on “migration management”, the meaning of which was analysed by a study that compared the rhetoric of cooperation agreements with policy implementation. It found that between 2005 and 2016, European discourse on “managing” the movement of people obscured a reality of restriction: when it came to action, the EU’s focus was on halting all migration from Africa to Europe — so much so that the number of first time visas for employment of African citizens was reduced by approximately 80 per cent between 2010 and 2016. Six years on, this remains the pattern. In a recent webinar, Professor Mehari Taddele Maru, a leading analyst of EU-Africa cooperation on migration, described the anticipation of African policymakers for regular migratory alternatives that seem never to materialize: waiting for the EU’s legal pathways is “like waiting for Godot”.
Externalization has been heavily criticized by civil society actors in both Africa and Europe, who view it as a form of domination through which a powerful economic block advances its agenda over “partners” on unequal footing, for the most part bilaterally. The inequality at its heart is reflected in disregard for the sovereignty of African nation-states. A fortnight before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson suggested sending EU border forces to Senegal, a country whose constitution upholds the right of its citizens to migrate and settle abroad. The proposal, which would see Frontex — the EU’s border and coastguard agency — operating on non-European territory for the first time, was promptly greenlighted by Dakar for technical discussions. Bilateral “cooperation” led by individual member states has raised similar protest given the power imbalance that underlies agreements with countries such as Niger, one of the poorest nations in the world, which was persuaded to host an Italian military mission to support increasingly militarized attempts to combat irregular migration in 2018.
Just how committed Europe is to ideals of sovereignty and democratic freedom beyond the Global North is evident in the “externalization” of its borders.
Aside from the symbolic connotations of European police making arrests on African soil, opposition to externalization stems from the lack of transparency and accountability that often accompanies this type of collaboration, which critics view as undemocratic. Predicated upon opaque, high-level deliberations between foreign powers and political elites that are seldom subject to meaningful public debate or participation by civil society, externalization is associated with the adoption of donor-oriented policies in exchange for funds spent without oversight. It is revealing that European overtures are least successful in contexts such as Gambia, where the government’s accountability to the electorate has prevented its acceptance of returnees from Europe, and Tunisia, where civil society raised concerns about EU attempts to create disembarkation zones.
In so far as externalization has succeeded in stemming the flow of emigration from Africa, it has done so by bolstering the coercive capacities and border controls of countries such as Libya, with grave consequences for human rights. From 2017, Italy and the EU’s empowerment of the quasi-military Libyan Coastguard through provision of funding and equipment contributed to the development of a sadistic, state-sponsored machinery of emigration control linked to industrial-scale trafficking by militias. Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, some of whose interception was enabled by European aerial surveillance, were systematically extorted in a network of black prisons where excessive force, violent abuse, murder and rape are known to have occurred. The UN is currently investigating reports of mass graves filled with the bodies of migrants in the desert city of Beni Walid.
A less extreme version of this story unfolded in Sudan, where EU finance for President Omar al-Bashir’s border police was linked with human rights abuses committed by the army’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a reincarnation of the Janjaweed paramilitary group, accused of war crimes during the Darfur conflict. In Niger, a clampdown on smuggling since 2015 led to the adoption of longer, riskier, more expensive routes through Chad and Sudan, increasing the scope for police forces to extract bribes for facilitation. Migrants now pay more, and experience greater danger to reach the same destinations. In each case, the effect of EU support for state-led crusades against smuggling has been to render migrants more vulnerable.
Proponents of externalization (who rarely refer to it as such), like to claim it is part of a collaborative project that improves migration governance in African states by strengthening their capacity for border-management. National-state sovereignty is in fact reinforced, they argue, by enabling African policymakers and officials to administer mobility with support from migration agencies such as the IOM and UNHCR, and by building border posts and installing new architectures of computerization to digitize the identities of citizens and migrants alike. Through technology transfer and training, Europe is professionalizing the management of mobile populations in Africa, all in the spirit of “cooperation”.
Others are more sceptical about the value of surveilling, assigning and binding African populations to national-state territories through what is, after all, an EU-driven project to concretize borders drawn up by Europeans in the previous century. In West Africa, externalization is imbricated within a gambit of multilateral counter-terrorism measures. Financial, military, and technological support have poured into securitizing hubs along Niger’s borders. With Frontex at the forefront of collating biometric information about African bodies in these laboratories of digital governance, it seems reasonable to assume data could be used to return and confine Africans on the move to their countries of origin.
Externalization is associated with the adoption of donor-oriented policies in exchange for funds spent without oversight.
More than just keeping Africans in Africa, however, externalization threatens to undermine intra-African mobility, which accounts for by far the largest proportion of international African migration. Consider: Nigeriens, Malians, Burkinabès, Ivorians, and others formerly employed in the trans-Sahelian transit economic hubs shut down by the EU’s anti-smuggling drive, are members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), whose Common Approach on Migration legitimates freedom of movement for citizens across the region. Collateral damage in the war against ‘trafficking’, these traders and transporters might wonder: what right does a union of states thousands of miles away have to shut down a busy crossroads of intra-African migration integral to their livelihoods? Similarly, nomadic and pastoral populations whose lives have depended on seasonal, cross-border migration for centuries, and transnational populations such as Somalis in northern Kenya being turned into “machine-readable” refugees might feel similarly ambivalent at Europe’s support for “better migration governance”. Intervention of this kind, whatever its intentions, has a tendency to add bureaucratic layers to “migration management”, formalizing previously porous or unregulated spaces, creating de facto restrictions and inhibiting traditional patterns of trade and transhumance.
Herein lies the troubling essence of externalization, a project that protects the integrity of migration and asylum systems in Europe by undermining prosperity, mobility and human rights in Africa. Bilateral cooperation led by the EU contains a special layer of hypocrisy given the block’s espousal of regional integration and human mobility between neighbouring states in Europe: in its own backyard, it celebrates cultural exchange through schemes such as ERASMUS and Schengen’s integrated trans-national labour market. In Africa, it dissuades young people from emigration through “information campaigns” and promotes nationally self-contained development projects that implore them to stay put, stigmatizing mobility and shrinking their horizons of travel in the name of tackling (irregular) migration’s “root causes”.
Britain’s Rwanda Deal
If the EU’s approach to externalization involves maintaining the appearance of value-based cooperation and includes broader consultation, for example with the African Union, no such parameters constrain individual Western countries engaged in secretive, bilateral talks to secure the reception of deportees. Pioneered by Israel, which quietly used Rwanda and Uganda to rid its territory of African “infiltrators” for several years from 2013, this type of externalization makes little pretence at submitting itself to public scrutiny. Neither African country publicly acknowledged their receipt of unknown numbers of Eritreans and Sudanese. The scheme came to light in 2018 when Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government attempted to ramp up repatriations through increasingly coercive measures, embarrassing both Rwanda and Uganda, which to this day, deny colluding in the removal and transfer of African asylum seekers from Israel under degrading and illegal conditions.
Given the covert nature of this type of sordid transactional migration diplomacy, the detail of what gets proposed for barter is mysterious, though leaks suggest offerings go well beyond the usual development aid. Israel reportedly extended assistance in Defence to Uganda and Rwanda. Earlier this year, Denmark was credibly reported to have tried to give Rwanda 250,000 COVID-19 vaccines to host asylum processing centres. Despite being rejected, this last “donation” underscores the depths to which this type of exchange can sink: exploiting an African country’s inferior access to life-saving medical technology during a pandemic as a basis of negotiation.
Bilateral cooperation led by the EU contains a special layer of hypocrisy given the block’s espousal of regional integration and human mobility between neighbouring states in Europe.
Against this background, Britain’s agreement with Rwanda feels more like a place we’ve been headed to than a diplomatic breakthrough. That’s not to deny elements of genuine innovation in Home Office Priti Patel’s proposition, which goes further than Australian-style “offshore processing” and Israel’s undocumented deportations. Crucially, the scheme does not envisage the re-entry of successful asylum applicants. The radical aspect, then, is Britain’s not-so-tacit admission that it doesn’t actually matter whether individuals are “genuine” refugees. (The possibility they might be is acknowledged by the plan’s offer of safe haven in Rwanda.) Instead, their fates hinge on whether they arrived by legal invitation. Here too, the plans break new ground, in that the government has been unusually candid about the typical profile of those they wish to see removed without UK asylum processing. “Only adult males would be sent to Rwanda,” Welsh Secretary Simon Hart briefed the press. A subsequent statement by the Home Office has cast some doubt over whether such a rule would in fact apply, but there’s little doubt whom the new order would target. Like talk of “economic motivations”, gender too now functions as a language of difference that signifies non-European identity without referring to it explicitly.
Despite the astronomical cost, bureaucratic and legal complexity of the scheme, which is unlikely to be implemented any time soon, its significance as a barometer of right-wing European attitudes to migration and asylum from Asia and Africa could not be clearer: A government that airlifted dogs from Kabul during the chaos of Western withdrawal last year, is this year rolling out a legal framework for Britons to (literally) open their homes to Ukrainian women and children. Simultaneously, it is planning large-scale expulsion of predominantly male, non-European asylum seekers to Africa.
Like talk of “economic motivations”, gender too now functions as a language of difference that signifies non-European identity without referring to it explicitly.
If any of this sounds like a U-turn, the direction of travel is toward the original Eurocentric scope of the Refugee Convention, which, at its inception in 1951, was designed to protect Europeans uprooted by the Second World War. Like the still largely colonial world of that era, today’s European system of migration and asylum governance offers sanctuary to Europeans whilst saying little about Europe’s responsibility to displaced populations elsewhere. With climate catastrophe looming, we can see where such a framework might lead. Perhaps, in years to come, the period between 1990 and 2022 will be retrospectively viewed as an historically exceptional interval during which Europe received significant numbers of asylum seekers from Asia and Africa. Its increasing reluctance to do so over these three decades, manifested in the rise of openly racist, xenophobic political parties and externalization policies, would appear to be culminating in the present bifurcation, catalysed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
What does this mean for Africa? Achille Mbembe has described European migration policy as wanting to turn Africa into a “Bantustan”. Yet the Rwanda plan envisages a curious and unprecedented multiracial role for Africa as a point of disembarkation, not just for Sudanese, Eritreans, Maghrebi and other cohorts of the continent’s own returnees, but Asians from just about anywhere else. Some of these exiles may have transited Africa en route to Europe; others are being offered one-way tickets to a country they’ve never visited, and whose credentials to safely host and integrate refugees have been questioned by leading asylum and human rights experts.
Denmark was credibly reported to have tried to give Rwanda 250,000 COVID-19 vaccines to host asylum processing centres.
The Tories are spinning this, as one might expect, in terms that flatter Rwanda as a safe and stable country with a powerful economy — evidence that Africa is held in high esteem. Their scorn for the unwanted human surplus they’re shipping from their shores suggests they feel otherwise. Notwithstanding Rwanda’s status as a dynamic economy (though not as strong as is being suggested), the plan brings to mind Lawrence Summers’ infamous 1991 World Bank memo about the “impeccable” economic logic behind “dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country”. Like European diplomats pushing externalization over the last decade or so, Summers too had Africa in his sights — not because he viewed it on equal terms, but because he saw it as the ideal cite of expulsion to absorb that which is unwanted or discarded by the rich world.
Needless to say, European policymakers preaching democracy and anti-imperialism against the tyranny of Putin would firmly dispute any such suggestion. Whatever their commitment to these values in Europe, the global direction of migration policy more broadly suggests the sovereignty and freedom they have in mind when calling for protection of Ukrainian refugees is rather different from that which is envisaged for non-Europeans they wish to keep in/send to Africa, where the post-colony is being fashioned, , into a receptor and container of bodies and aspirations.
None of this is to lessen the case against Russian territorial imperialism and its associated crimes, which are rightly being condemned in the strongest possible terms. Nor is it to question Ukrainians’ right to protection. They deserve all the political and material support they have received and more. Indeed, given the complex position of East Europeans within the Northwest European racial imaginary, and its well-known fickle tolerance for strangers in general, it would be misplaced to assume their position is secure, or to exaggerate their privilege within an international migration system that treats all displaced persons inadequately. Incidentally, the “welcome” of the hollowed-out British state, which is sourcing out a significant proportion of the burden of hosting Ukrainians onto society, actually risks placing individuals in situations of vulnerability within private homes. Without questioning the generosity of the vast majority of those extending support within communities, the motives behind the enthusiasm of a small minority of those who wish to shelter East European women could well be less than innocent, a possibility not lost on refugee charities that have expressed well-grounded concerns about the dangers of trafficking.
Progressive voices within Europe and the West have called for the generosity shown to Ukrainians to be extended to other groups. Optimistically, perhaps, they imagine the outpouring of support for refugees in Ukraine as the potential starting point for a genuine U-turn in asylum policy — one that would acknowledge the humanity, needs and entitlements of all displaced persons, irrespective of origin or geopolitical salience. If such a scenario seems unlikely in Poland and Hungary, it may well be that in other countries, the hostility of prominent actors and voices towards non-European asylum seekers is not quite as widely shared by all parts of society as policymakers seem to believe. An Ipsos survey conducted before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine found a majority of Brits backed giving refuge to those fleeing war, suggesting the bifurcation scenario being advanced by political elites, in which racism and externalization reconfigure asylum and migration in ways that threaten to introduce an apartheid in global mobility, is neither necessary nor inevitable.
The plan brings to mind Lawrence Summers’ infamous 1991 World Bank memo about the “impeccable” economic logic behind “dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country”.
As for progressive voices within Africa: policymakers, officials, intellectuals, experts and civil society will not be waiting for Europe to reach particular conclusions about international migration and asylum from Africa to Europe. Nor will they wait for Europe to extend the generosity it has shown to Ukrainians to the people of their respective regions, within which most African migration takes place. Even before the West was faced with the burden of absorbing the largest exodus since World War II, its externalization agenda in Africa was criticized for lack of attention to intra-African migration and displacement. Given its new strategic priorities, increased costs of living and the Western media’s uninterrupted focus on the war in Ukraine, it seems less likely than ever such attention will finally materialize. If anything, there are already signs that Europe’s disproportionate fixation with Russia’s invasion is resulting in the direction of funding away from humanitarian crises in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, for instance, where acute hunger linked with climate change is contributing to internal displacement.
In the longer term, the strength of political and diplomatic resistance to the troubling aspects of Europe’s externalization agenda will depend in some measure on the African Union. The latter has been critical of Europe’s evasion of its responsibilities to accept immigration from Africa whilst offering its own genuinely exciting vision (2063) for intra-African migration, which unapologetically advocates free movement as a pathway to peace and prosperity. Together with East and West Africa’s respective regional political communities, IGAD and ECOWAS, the AU could continue to be a vehicle for progressive change. Historically, in its incarnation as the OAU, it has led the world in refugee protection by broadening the original Eurocentric focus of the Refugee Convention in 1969, and again in 2012, when the Kampala Convention on internal migration was signed. Leading analysts of East Africa and the Horn of Africa point out that the region is exemplary in the extent of protections provided by states and institutions to displaced persons. This is not to suggest they don’t have their own problems. Shrinking space for asylum in Kenya and Tanzania, for instance, has led to threats of camp closures and repatriation. South Africa, where immigration and asylum have been politicized in toxic ways with violent consequences, is wracked with xenophobia. It is to point out, rather, that they have little to learn from Europe.
The motives behind the enthusiasm of a small minority of those who wish to shelter East European women could well be less than innocent.
The agency of African society will also be asserted through the policies of individual African states, particularly where democracy and civil society are most vibrant. It is no coincidence that EU overtures have been least successful in contexts where governments are accountable for their migration policies to civil society and electorates — that is, where greater degrees of popular sovereignty and democratic culture are in evidence.
Finally, the role of the African diaspora had a noticeable impact during the Ukraine crisis, not least the actions of social worker Tokunbo Koiki, Barrister Patricia Daley and medical student Korrine Sky studying in Ukraine, who together formed a humanitarian social organization, BL4BL (Black Women for Black Lives), that raised funds to support the evacuation of Black students caught up in the warzone. In drawing attention to the neglect and in many cases, discrimination that led to the abandonment of these individuals, BL4BL made a powerful connection that points to the ways in which the global Black Lives Matter movement could in years to come expand into opposition against policies that have led to the suffering of migrants from and within Africa. The deaths and disappearances of tens of thousands who attempted to cross the Mediterranean or the Niger desert during the peak years of externalization since 2015 have thus far figured surprisingly little in debates about migration policy, except where their tragedy is used to stigmatize irregular migration and vilify “traffickers”, justifying evermore draconian controls without addressing the single biggest “root cause” of irregular migration — the absence of legal pathways to migrate. Despite the transformative impact of BLM in so many other spheres of life within the West, a certain disconnect exists between its advances and the field of migration, where, as noted earlier, experts who stubbornly downplay the importance of racism tend to dominate the conversation.
This article is published in collaboration with the Heinrich Boll Foundation.
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Pan-Africanism in the Age of Globalization
This is the first of a two-part series that assesses the historical progress of the Pan-African movement and considers the global political economy, the relevance of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century and its potential to impact economic and political development within Africa and its diaspora.
In the last century many African states have experienced political decolonization and witnessed the spread of democracy. Considering developments in the current international economic order, many members of the African diaspora believe African descendants have prospered since Africa’s decolonization and the independence era. However, while some members of the African diaspora have experienced substantially less discrimination, the nature of the capitalist global economy hardly conceals the fact that it inherently devalues Africans and their descendants. Furthermore, internationally, members of the African diaspora suffer gross human rights violations daily due to the remnants of the colonial era, namely, slavery and racialism. Despite attempts by international organizations to address the issues created by the exploitation of Africans, their subjugation is widespread and not limited to the continent, as diaspora Africans experience discrimination in developed nations such as the United States, Britain, France, and many others.
This essay was developed to investigate the development of the Pan-African movement within Africa and offer suggestions for its application in the 21st century and beyond. The purpose of this study is to critically assess the history of the Pan-African movement, with respect to the global political economy, and analyse the potential of the movement to contribute to the political and economic development of Africa in the 21st century. Moreover, this study seeks to highlight some of the significant ways African-led development has been hindered by capitalism and offer suggestions for the Pan-African movement to experience revitalization beyond 2022, despite capitalist obstructions. This study examines the relationship between capitalism and the Pan-African movement, noting that the former created conditions necessary for the latter, as members of the African diaspora experience the negative aspects of the current international economic order such as dehumanization, degradation based on racialism and ethnicity, and poverty (economic underdevelopment).
The essay is a qualitative analysis and consists of two parts; the first assesses the historical progress of the Pan-African movement while the second considers the global political economy, the relevance of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century and its potential to impact economic and political development within Africa and its diaspora. The historical analysis of African development via capitalist models notes that the international system is fundamentally capitalist and limits any independent (African-led) development in Africa. This examination of world politics and economics is critical because it addresses externalities that ultimately affected Africa and the African diaspora, creating the conditions necessary for Pan-African attempts at development. This study examines Pan-Africanism in practice and historical attempts to create international African unity. The latter analysis attempts to investigate the relevance of the Pan-African movement in the 21st century and beyond, as the momentum of the movement has waned since Africa’s independence era. Finally, this essay attempts to analyse whether or not Pan-Africanism can catalyse development in Africa and the diaspora and offers an egalitarian and humanitarian application and treatment of Pan-Africanism (Black Equalism) to present a new perspective of how the movement can achieve its goals beyond 2022.
Pan-Africanism in practice: Historical attempts at international African unity
The 1900s-1920s: Pan-Africanism’s early period
During the 20th century, as advocates of Pan-Africanism made efforts to institutionalize their ideas and create formal organizations to complement the work of Pan-Africanist intellectuals, the first meeting took place in London (1900), and was organized by Henry Sylvester Williams of Trinidad. The meeting was designed to bring together peoples of African descent to discuss Pan-Africanist ideas, and was attended by several prominent Blacks from Africa, Great Britain, the West Indies, and the United States, with W.E.B. DuBois being perhaps the most prominent member of the US delegation. The first formal convening to bear the title “Pan-African Congress” took place in 1919 in Paris and was called by DuBois. Two years later, a second Pan-African Congress convened over three sessions in London, Brussels, and Paris, and produced a declaration that criticized European colonial domination in Africa and the unequal state of relations between white and Black races, and called for a reasonable distribution of the world’s resources. The declaration also challenged the rest of the world to either create conditions of equality in the places where people of African descent lived or to recognize the “rise of a great African state founded in Peace and Goodwill.” In 1923, the third Pan-African Congress took place in London, England and Lisbon, Portugal and called for development in Africa to benefit Africans rather than being an instrument of European profit. The third congress also called for home rule and an improved government in British West Africa and the British West Indies, the abolition of white minority rule in Kenya, Rhodesia, and South Africa, and the illegalization of lynching and mob law in the United States. The fourth Pan-African Congress took place in New York City in 1927 and was the first convening held in North America, and its resolutions were similar to those of the third Pan-African Congress.
The 1930s-1950s: Pan-Africanism’s developmental period
Migration is a key theme in Africa and its Diaspora Since 1935, as J.E. Harris and S. Zeghidour provide context about the efforts of diaspora Africans to develop institutions and international mechanisms that could be used to assist Africans on the continent and diaspora Africans alike. The colonial powers did not empower Africans or facilitate the development of adequate education, healthcare, transportation, or public service systems and administration, and as a result, foreign higher education opportunities were desirable for African students. The authors uphold that “The number of African students going into Europe and the United States increased greatly between 1935 and 1960 and quite a substantial number of them never returned home.”
In their subsections The Africans in the Diaspora since 1935, The Fifth Pan-African Congress, Expanding Horizons of African Consciousness, and The Challenge, the authors provide accounts of the international efforts of diaspora Africans and continental Africans to collaborate nationally and transnationally, organize themselves, acquire political sovereignty, and determine their political, economic, and social destiny. In the United States, William Leo Hansberry, Ralph Bunche, and William Steen collaborated with Hosea Nyabongo, a Ugandan, and Malaku Bayen, an Ethiopian, and organized Blacks from Africa and the diaspora to form the Ethiopian Research Council (ERC) in 1934 to spread information about Ethiopia and garner support for African causes. Through the collaborative efforts of individuals such as C.L.R. James, the International African Friends of Ethiopia (IAFE) was established in England in 1936, as well as the International African Service Bureau (IASB) in 1937. Later, Britain saw the development of the Pan-African Publishing Company, through the efforts of Guyanese businessman George Thomas Nathaniel Griffith (T. Ras Makonnen), Dr Peter Milliard, Jomo Kenyatta, and George Padmore.
“The number of African students going into Europe and the United States increased greatly between 1935 and 1960 and quite a substantial number of them never returned home.”
In 1937, emissary and Howard University Medical School graduate, Malaku Bayen and his African-American wife Dorothy Hadley formed the Organization of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) in the United States and later established the publication The Voice of Ethiopia, described as a paper for the “vast universal Black Commonwealth and friends of Ethiopia everywhere”. The EWF was instrumental and influential as branches were established throughout the United States and the Caribbean, and news from its newsletters spread to Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Panama, Jamaica, Honduras, Venezuela, Nigeria, and other places. The year 1937 also saw the establishment of the International Committee on Africa – which later became the Council on African Affairs in 1941 – by Max Yergan, Paul Robeson, and William Alphaeus Hunton. The Council was created to “promote the political liberation of Africans and the advancement of their social and economic status through the dissemination of relevant and current information, facilitation of training for Africans in Europe and America, and arrangement of mutual exchange of visits and cooperation among African people”, and engaged in a variety of activities before ultimately dissolving in 1955 due to its perspective, which was increasingly radical and critical of American political and economic decisions with regard to African issues.
The Pan-African movement faded from the international scene until 1945 when the fifth Pan-African Congress was held in Manchester, England. Kuryla notes that Pan-Africanist leadership had largely transferred from African Americans to Africans by the mid-1940s, and Nkrumah, Kenyatta, and Padmore played the most prominent roles at the fifth congress, with the only African American present being DuBois. As mentioned, the fifth Pan-African Congress called for the political decolonization of African states from European imperialism. The themes of the congress featured a combination of the intellectualism of W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey’s pragmatism, and inspired attendants to focus on the struggle for liberation in Africa. This congress was also significant because it was the first to be spearheaded by British-based organizations and organizers, as historian Hakim Adi notes; the four previous convenings were largely organized under the auspices of Dubois and the US-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The fifth congress was also unique because it involved continental Africans as well as more descendants from the African diaspora such as Afro-Caribbeans.
Pan-Africanist leadership had largely transferred from African Americans to Africans by the mid-1940s.
Moreover, as noted by historian Saheed Adejumobi in The Pan-African Congresses, 1900–1945, while previous congresses had been largely controlled by Black middle-class British and American intellectuals who emphasized the betterment of colonial conditions, the 1945 Manchester meeting was dominated by delegates from Africa and Africans working or studying in Britain, who also galvanized the support of workers, trade unionists, and the growing radical sector of the African student population.
The 1960s-1970s: Pan-Africanism’s active period
After the fifth Pan-African Congress of 1945, Pan-Africanism continued to develop and fragment into distinctive schools of thought with varying frameworks and methods for addressing the economic, political, and social conditions Africans experienced in Africa and throughout the diaspora. By the 1960s, influential leaders, intellectuals, writers and activists such as Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Alioune Diop, Dr Walter Rodney, Stokely Carmichael, John Henrik Clarke and others developed the consciousness of Black Americans and African descendants around the world, to the point where African and Black studies became mandatory and the Black studies movement developed. As academics, politicians, diplomats, activists, artists, and others approached the topic of African independence and economic and political equity for African descendants, the varying perspectives led to the creation of different cultural, political, and development organizations. Pan-Africanism continued to evolve and focus on aspects such as racial Pan-Africanism, or uniting African descendants based on racial classification and social hierarchy, and continental Pan-Africanism, which sought to unite around issues facing the continent of Africa and African descendants world-wide.
S.K.B. Asante and David Chanaiwa’s subsection Pan-Africanism and Regional Integration peruses historical attempts of African states to work towards economic, political, cultural, regional, and social development and alignment utilizing Pan-African ideals in diplomacy, state governance, and economic and political development. Due to the efforts of Kwame Nkrumah and other pivotal state and liberation movement leaders, African states saw a revival of thought leadership and social preference in collective political and economic activities which supported Africans amid their colonial experience, with liberation and sovereignty becoming political preferences. Colonial histories ultimately influenced African states and independence movements as former colonies aligned themselves into regional blocks which supported foreign affairs that were considered pro-East or pro-West. In turn, African leaders divided their nations based on geopolitical interests, and in 1961, Ghana, Guinea, Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Libya and the Algerian government-in-exile formed the Casablanca Group, while the remainder of the French colonies and Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone formed the Monrovia Group. The former supported Nkrumah’s proposal for a United States of Africa, and consisted of militant, socialist, and non-aligned leaders in Africa who supported centralized continental economic integration and cultural restoration, while the latter supported a flexible confederation of independent sovereign African states.
Edem Kodjo and David Chanaiwa also discuss the history of the Charter of African Unity in Pan-Africanism and Liberation. The Charter was signed on 25 May 1963, with the heads of states of the following nations present: Algeria, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville (the Republic of the Congo), Congo-Leopoldville (the Democratic Republic of Congo), Côte d’Ivoire, Dahomey (Benin), Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanganyika, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, the United Arab Republic, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), and Zanzibar. With the creation of the Organization of African Unity, Pan-Africanism began to manifest its ideals on the international stage in the political realm and eventually in geopolitics.
The authors also explore some of the early distinctions between Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism – the former being predicated on racial unification and liberation, while the latter focused on the religious unification and liberation of Islam and its supporters. The distinctions between Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism also manifested themselves in the form of Black Africans from Sub-Saharan Africa as opposed to fairer-skinned individuals who were descendants of African peoples from the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Anglophone African states developing tensions with Francophone African states due to colonial histories, wars of independence, and economic interests.
Overall, a central theme of Kodjo and Chanaiwa’s analysis of Pan-Africanism is that the ideology focuses on the liberation of Black people in general and Africans in particular. The primary bonds that united African nations and Pan-Africanists were the anti-colonial movement, the anti-racialism movement, and the non-alignment movement. Although there were many regional integration efforts toward Pan-African cooperation, this also created more division in response to colonialism as each African state had its own unique political and economic struggles based on its respective interests. The economic self-interest of African states usually resulted in or stemmed from Western intervention or involvement in African affairs.
The primary bonds that united African nations and Pan-Africanists were the anti-colonial movement, the anti-racialism movement, and the non-alignment movement.
Asante and Chanaiwa discuss Pan-Africanism, regionalism, and economic development, as well as the extra-regional efforts of international organizations and agencies with operations in Africa. The authors note that Africa is central to the world’s future politically, socially, and economically. However, considering regionalism, the interdependence of African states and need for internal sustenance, the current global political economy and economic arrangement is hierarchical and stands to deplete Africa more than benefit its states. Due to the existing structures and international systems of economics, and the political dependencies of African nations on their former colonizers, the authors note that African nations seeking Pan-African ideals should seek alignment with the interests of developing nations rather than with Western powers that seek to extract from Africa.
A third wave of migration developed in the 1960s, and the primary cause of African migration to Europe and America transformed yet again, although this time the focus was not on those who wanted to develop and gain skills and knowledge, but on the technocrats who already possessed highly specialized skills and qualifications. This phenomenon is considered a “brain drain”, as highly qualified professionals such as engineers, doctors, businessmen and women, scientists, artists, musicians, and lecturers migrated from Africa in alarming numbers and moved all around the world. The prospect of relocating was significant because it represented a new form of social status, which symbolized that an individual (as a representative of Africa) had “arrived” intellectually and politically. However, this did not change the social and political conditions of Africa, nor did it change the social conditions that diaspora Africans experienced abroad as “Blackness” was still equated with inferiority.
African nations also experienced what the authors consider “gender drain” as “semiliterate, qualified, and unqualified” African women sought fortune in the Americas and Europe via opportunities such as nursing, smuggling, or drug trafficking, and “semieducated, unskilled and untrained” African men sought fortune and affluence outside of Africa via manual labor, smuggling, or drug trafficking as well.
The prospect of relocating was significant because it represented a new form of social status, which symbolized that an individual had “arrived” intellectually and politically.
The sixth congress took place in 1974 in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, which served as a key location for bringing people together, as many of the organizers wanted to establish direct connections between African liberation movements and African Americans. The meeting was the first Pan-African Congress to take place in Africa, gave a stronger voice to liberation movements, and moved beyond the nationalist agenda of the Organization of African Unity in defining the principles of African liberation. In the late 1960s, Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere went to Harlem, New York and issued an invitation to African Americans to come to Tanzania to assist in building a socialist African state. As a result of these efforts, the number of African Americans in Tanzania increased and a number of members from the diaspora were instrumental in organizing the convening, including Sam Dove, a consultant to the Tanzanian government, and Bill Sutherland, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a founder of the American Committee on Africa (ACA), and a consultant to President Nkrumah. In the declaration of the Sixth Pan African Congress, the call was that henceforth “Pan Africanism was informed by the class struggle internationally”. According to Dr Sylvia Hill, professor of criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia, who served as one of the key organizers for “Six PAC”, despite the differences and disagreements among delegates from the US and the Caribbean, there were many positive developments. Hill mentions the significance of the sixth congress in raising the consciousness of African liberation movements within the diaspora, particularly in the case of Southern Africa as she highlights the Free South Africa Movement.
The 1980s-1990s: Pan-Africanism’s waning period
The seventh and final Pan-African Congress of the 20th century, was convened in Kampala, Uganda, in April 1994. The declaration of the 7th Pan-African Congress was that African peoples everywhere should resist recolonization, and the primary motivation behind the convening was to reverse the depoliticization and the demobilization of the African peoples post-20th century reorganization of the international system. Significant developments of the 7th Pan-African Congress included the historic recognition of the participants of the Pre-Congress Women’s Meeting who called for “Pan-Africanism to break out of its male-centered mold and to stop silencing women who were at the forefront of the Pan-African struggle on a daily basis, although previous Pan-African convenings were primarily organized by men”; the establishment of a permanent secretariat that would be hosted by an African state (the Ugandan government offered) and would be responsible for convening meetings of the designated regions of the Pan-African world in an effort to improve the effectiveness of the political work of the Pan-African movement and move beyond the individualism and periodic organizing of convenings that highlighted the ideas of eminent persons; regarding the special place of the youth in the reconstruction and renewal of the African peoples, the organization of special meetings within and outside the congress by youths from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda along with the youths from the Southern African delegation; and the recognition of the ideological differences among the male adherents of Pan-Africanism in North American territories which consisted of Afrocentric Pan-Africanists, grassroots organizers and activists, workers, urban youth and the homeless, and members of the Nation of Islam and other religion organizations.
The EPRDF Coalition Had One Job: Loosen the Hold of the Empire-State
The EPRDF coalition that ousted Colonel Mengistu’s Derg regime had one job: to loosen the suffocating bonds through which the empire-state had had been created. It failed.
Hopes for peace in Ethiopia have been revived with the signing of a peace treaty—as the signatories have called it—between the Ethiopian government and the leaders of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), at the very start of November.
This is the first concrete step any participants or mediators have taken in bringing the truly epic levels of killing and destruction to an end since the TPLF insisted on its right to go ahead with organizing (and winning) elections in the Tigray region in open defiance of the decision of the federal government (from which the TPLF had recently withdrawn) to suspend all scheduled elections ostensibly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Arguments over who had the right to organize or ban elections soon brought out the underlying grievances over what were the respective rights and powers between the regional governments and the central government ever since the TPLF’s loss of power over the country as a whole, due to the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed systematically dismantling the putative federal arrangements put in place by the TPLF-dominated armed coalition when it came to power in 1991.
Open warfare followed soon after, and, on top of drawing in Ethiopia’s northern neighbour Eritrea, which borders the Tigray region, it created all the usual results: destroyed livelihoods, death, bodily injuries, human displacement and a lot of mutual propaganda.
That was 2020, and nothing, not even the burning of churches and monasteries long held up as symbols of civilizational pride by all of official Ethiopia, seemed able stop the carnage. It is therefore of particular significance that this initiative has been implemented by African leadership under the auspices of the African Union.
Prior to that, even just bringing these two belligerents to the negotiating table had proven to be beyond everyone, including the United States which had recently made attempts.
Despite this, the leaders and guarantors may eventually have to face up to the perennial question of Ethiopian politics, namely that, if this agreement does not address the reason why wars keep breaking out in Ethiopia, will it actually be able to end them?
This question lies at the very heart of the problem. A fundamental outcome of the treaty is that it works to keep Ethiopia intact. This is written in the document. Yet, for many of its peoples, the two fundamental problems with Ethiopia are first, that it exists and second, how the country came to exist in the first place.
In general, the mainstream intellectual, political and diplomatic traditions of Africa still remain very wary of, and therefore uninformed and under-educated about, the perennial question of indigenous African ethnicity that has rumbled on beneath any conflict on the continent over the last five to seven decades. As a result, they offer remedies premised on the same negligence. What they do have in common with the Western European powers that birthed this crisis, is an overly reflexive hostility to indigenous identity which is seen as an existential threat to their dream of modern African state-building.
Modern Ethiopia is a perfect home for this mind-set to take root and get stuck, and the South African peace treaty is largely a loftily-worded example of that: a glorified ceasefire that seeks to mitigate the worst effects of that which it has not yet acknowledged as broken. Just as one would keep replacing an unevenly worn out front car tyre without addressing the underlying poor wheel alignment that is causing it.
This is masked in the venerable “never been colonized” mantra that frames much internal and external thinking about the place. But the fact is that modern Ethiopia (as opposed to ancient Abyssinia) is a product of imperial European political games in Africa and so suffers the same pathologies of that legacy as does the rest of Africa.
In this, both belligerent parties to the treaty are to blame, because deep down, they are both wedded to the deep-seated notion of an Ethiopian empire-state made in the image of Abyssinian cultures, found in what is now the northern areas of the vast country. Their historical point of conflict has simply been over which branch of Abyssinian culture—Tigrayan or Amhara—would control and define that state.
The fact is that modern Ethiopia is a product of imperial European political games in Africa.
The TPLF leadership is even more to blame because it had the opportunity to break this historical cycle when it was part of the armed Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that brought down the Mengistu regime in 1991 after decades of war. Instead, it turned on the other coalition partners and worked to consolidate the same empire-state at the behest of its Western imperialist new best friends, who remain ever concerned with both its resources, and the need to keep Islamic nationalism at bay through the Horn and up to the Gulf (as they did with founding emperor Menelik, Selassie his eventual successor, and failed with Mengistu, despite his initial friendliness towards them).
This TPLF gambit lasted nearly three whole decades, during which time the party elite worked to play the role previous Amhara elites had played in enriching, developing their own regions, and guaranteeing the global imperial grip on the Ethiopian economy.
This can be confirmed by an answer by Lt. Gen. Tsadkan Gebretensae, head of the Tigray military effort (who will go down in history as an absolute military genius in enabling Tigray to thwart what should have been a short and absolute rout by the much better placed Ethiopian state) in explaining some of the reasons for their battlefield success during an interview on July 6 2021:
“[W]hen this thing started it was very clear that the most senior, most highly experienced commanders are from Tigray, which has been the backbone of the Ethiopian armed forces for the last thirty years…”
This is my second time to make reference to it, and for two reasons.
First, there is this bald fact that the leaders of a region whose population makes up less than 10 per cent of the entire Ethiopian population organised to ethnically monopolize an institution as key as the armed forces for nearly three decades.
Second, that in the untroubled nature of his response, devoid of any sense of irony, the General saw absolutely nothing untoward about this level of exceptionalist self-regard. Despite his military genius, he seems not to have grasped the political reality that the very thing that he is appreciating about Tigray’s conduct in the war is the very thing that created support for the war against Tigray in the first place: a deep antipathy towards Tigray by the rest of the country due to a memory of the TPLF’s self-serving culture while in power.
It is this political culture, steeped in a very insular and almost complete lack of self-awareness, which drives the cyclical violence of Abyssinian-dominated Ethiopian politics.
Essentials of the treaty
The treaty rotates around principles already set out in Ethiopia’s constitution, and in the African Union and United Nations protocols and charters to which Ethiopia is already a signatory. Moreover, the TPLF was once the government of Ethiopia, so it would also be very familiar with them.
It is as if someone ripped open one of those wholesale sacks of mitumba and all the used clothes came tumbling out to be sorted, and re-sold for re-use. In this case, it is a bundle of used and tired Peace Studies phrases and platitudes that have come spilling out. It remains to be seen if anyone will be buying them this time.
Within that, there are some hard requirements. In essence, the TPLF is expected to disband the Tigray Defence Force, the only thing that stood (as I said, brilliantly, by any military measure) between the Tigrayan people and total annihilation.
There is a commitment to stopping the involvement of outside actors. This would essentially mean Eritrea, which stepped in on the side of the Ethiopian government, sending forces into Tigray’s north to devastating effect.
There is the requirement that the TPLF sever all ties to other armed groups it may have been working with. This basically means the reformed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) which is led by a faction that rejected earlier disarmament deals made between the original (and long-suffering) OLF, and the then incoming regime of current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during his honeymoon period.
This is curious, because it essentially means that neither the TPLF, nor the Abiy government see the Oromo war as a matter requiring consideration in its own right. What the TPLF in particular has done, is to elect to make its own peace with the government, and basically abandon another actor with whom it was in formal alliance.
The word “Oromo”, and much less the name “Oromo Liberation Front”, appears nowhere in the entire peace document. The native question in Ethiopia, as in the rest of the continent, is once again rendered invisible.
It is this political culture, steeped in a very insular and almost complete lack of self-awareness, which drives the cyclical violence of Abyssinian-dominated Ethiopian politics.
The Oromo people, who make up nearly 40 per cent of Ethiopia’s population and are therefore the single largest nationality, have had a permanently troubled relationship with Abyssinianism since it was expanded into their territories, thus creating “Ethiopia”, a century and a half ago. It forms the template for how all the other non-Abyssinian peoples of the new country were conquered.
Their armed resistance to it peaked with their being part of the 1991 post-Mengistu EPRDF coalition. As said, this did not last long as the TPLF used its dominance of the security apparatus to attend to Western bidding and see to it that the agreed full federation of the country was watered down to a few half-measures. This included the then seemingly clever ploy of cloning Oromo nationalism through the invention of alternative Oromo parties that were also placed into the coalition. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s journey to political power began there, as a more TPLF-compliant kind of Oromo. The subsequent terrorizing of the real Oromo nationalists drove them out of the coalition and into silence and exile in less than three years of the creation of the new government. This saga was to continue when Oromo nationalism resurrected itself 25 years later in the form of civil, youth-led protests against the TPLF regime, as Meles Zenawi lay dying from natural causes. Many atrocities were committed against them. But their persistence, and the joining in of other ethnic parties eventually saw the TPLF relinquish internal control of the coalition to new faces. This is how Abiy Ahmed eventually ascended to the premiership of the country.
But Oromo nationalism was still on its own journey. One of Prime Minister Ahmed’s acts during his honeymoon period was to organise the return of all the OLF fighting groups, and their families, that had had been exiled by the TPLF. But the old habits of the Ethiopian empire-state kicked in once again: some fighters suffered mass poisoning at assembly points; the OLF leadership’s agreement to disarm and become a civilian party ran into registration and other obstacles, and the new trust broke down. This is where the new armed rebellion by a faction now also calling itself OLF—which, amidst these developments, rejected the disarmament deal—began.
The treaty makes some sort of recognition of the fact that the crisis originates in Ethiopian politics. But it is tone-deaf, and therefore half-hearted. It calls for the need for a discussion of the “political differences”, but does not seem to make these either central to the document or conditional upon it. And there seems to be no absolute deadline for when such “discussions” should either begin or end, and what a failure to do so would mean for the rest of the process.
What is more, the matter is reduced to the two actors at the table. But on the one hand, we have the TPLF, a political organisation, once in federal power but now claiming to be the elected leadership of the Tigray region (through elections disputed by the other party), and on the other, the actual government of all of Ethiopia. This seems to be some kind of imbalance, since the root of this particular dispute was a political disagreement inside the EPRDF that resulted in the TPLF pulling out, and the remainder accepting to radically alter the EPRDF’s structure under the direction of Abiy Ahmed, and fully abandon the pretence to federation and return the country to its tradition of highly centralised government.
The question, therefore, is if this is indeed a dispute between the TPLF and the Ethiopian state per se, or simply a dispute between two former factions of a now dead coalition, one of which (the Abiy faction of the old EPRDF), happens to also retain control the Ethiopian state apparatus. The wrong conceptualisation will lead to wrong prescriptions.
The native question in Ethiopia, as in the rest of the continent, is once again rendered invisible.
Because, on the flip side, the Treaty calls for a recognition of “formal” forces, and the acceptance that there can be only one recognized military and security apparatus for the whole of Ethiopia. This amounts to a constitutional amendment, given that what little was implemented of the EPRDF-era federal-lite constitution allowed the different national regions to establish and maintain regional armed forces.
On top of that, the Amhara national region also has an additional ethnic militia called “Fano” that presents itself as the defender of the Amhara people, and is not formally answerable to either the Amhara regional government or the Addis federal one. It just exists as a politico-military fact. What is more, Fano has been very deeply involved in physically “assisting” the central government in the war in Tigray, and is blamed for many of the atrocities there.
When the treaty calls for “disarmament”, disbandment and disassociation, it remains unclear if and how this will be enforceable on those forces that have helped the government wrestle the TPLF to the negotiating table. The same doubt, conceptually, hovers over Eritrea. And in all cases, not least because both militant Amhara nationalism, and Eritrean foreign policy came pre-loaded with a deep animosity towards the TPLF in particular, and by extension, the Tigrayan people as a whole.
Eritrea still smarts from the bitter two-year war it fought with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 over the border town of Badme. The TPLF was, of course, the de facto Ethiopian government at the time. The death toll was upwards of one hundred thousand, and this is a matter that has never been forgotten.
Amhara nationalism has an earlier grievance, what with Meles Zenawi being the first non-Amhara ruler of the empire they believe they founded, and which draws it entire official, cultural and linguistic narrative from their culture. What is more, they held grievances against the Meles regime redrawing homeland boundaries in favour of Tigray, and “resettling” ethnic Tigrayans in lands Meles believed had originally been grabbed by Amhara. This consists of much of western Tigray. This area has now been re-seized, and Amhara nationalists, be they in the formal regional government, or the informal militias, will not be easily persuaded to hand them back. And the best way for them to guarantee that this does not happen, is of course to remain armed.
It is therefore not unkind to wonder if this treaty solves anything, or if it simply reinforces only bad lessons, and brings the war-prone country back to where it once was: on the brink of another war.
The only reason these talks—and the treaty they have produced—even exist in the first place is because it proved militarily impossible, despite the combined efforts of the formal Ethiopian government forces, the regional Amhara militias as well as the informal militias backed by the physical intervention of Eritrean armed forces to the north, and some hi-tech weaponry from some Gulf states, to completely rout the armed force the TPLF was able to muster in Tigray, despite some truly massive losses and setbacks.
But both sides have since discovered the reality that it is very difficult to maintain a large-scale and high intensity war when neither of side manufactures the weapons and weapons systems needed to do so (a reality similar to the one dawning only slowly on the armed forces of Ukraine).
Once again, the future of all the peoples of Ethiopia is reduced to an inter-Abyssinian duel. This is almost exactly what happened during the 1991 London peace talks.
The TPLF’s participation now in the South African peace talks is basically an echo of how the Meles-led TPLF went on to secure its own interests in that Peace Conference that anticipated the fall of the Mengistu regime, despite being part of a military alliance with both Oromo and Eritrea at the time. Once again, in a display of TPLF self-absorption that borders on the outright narcissism of their late leader Meles Zenawi, they made their own deal to their best ability, in pursuit of their own understanding of what was in their best interests.
As said, their military alliance with the new OLF this time round was not a factor; the TPLF did not make OLF inclusion a condition.
A key difference is that while then they presented from a position of strength, this time they have done so from a position of weakness. But the mind-set remains the same.
The TPLF seem to have lost all memory of how the original OLF was hounded out of the EPRDF back in 1991 due to its conduct. A real peace treaty in Ethiopia should perhaps more take on the form of a review of the political breakdown that began with TPLF one-sided domination of the post-Mengistu political landscape, which has brought us to this point.
Eritrea still smarts from the bitter two-year war it fought with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 over the border town of Badme.
If Tigray does not wish to have its internal affairs dominated by others (the very essence of the 1970s and 1980s national liberation struggles in Ethiopia and elsewhere), then it simply should have made more sincere efforts to neuter the highly centralized nature of the Ethiopian state during its thirty years in government, agreed to during the wars against Mengistu and Haile Selassie before him. Instead, it promoted ethnic nationalism for itself, and suppressed it among others. It used the resources of the whole state towards that promotion, instead of limiting its development to the resources generated from its region. The TPLF wants to have it both ways: when in power, they were the premiere custodians of the empire-state; in particular, they went on to crush and scatter the Oromo nationalist movement after they had agreed to disarm and reorganize in the 1990s. But once out of power, they now wish to be Ethiopia’s arch-separatists.
The idea of real federation was a sensible middle ground but the TPLF messed that up in exchange for American patronage at the end of the Mengistu regime. In that time Abiy Ahmed was a junior partner in the same regime. Once in power, he also went on to do the same thing to the Oromo movement after 2018, in a series of provocations that have led to the flare-up of fighting in the south.
It is all these realities that have led to all the avoidance, denial and silences reflected in the texture and narrowness of the peace treaty.
The TPLF and the Ethiopian regime may hate each other to the extent the destruction caused by their war has demonstrated. But however intense that hatred is, it is nothing in comparison to the hatred they jointly have for the “pagan” peoples of the south.
Perhaps the TPLF’s cunning is finally catching up with it. The EPRDF coalition that ousted Colonel Mengistu’s Derg regime had one job: to loosen the suffocating bonds through which the empire-state had had been created.
But instead of finally dismantling the toxic legacy of the Menelikan state, the TPLF (or more accurately, the Meles Zenawi faction thereof, that controlled the party in order to control the EPRDF coalition in order to control the government that controlled the state), acted as though it would be in power forever. Thus, the West used an inner clique of TPLF to subvert that entire struggle. Now the West has decided to finally fully abandon the TPLF and turn back to the other Abyssinian house to keep the project going.
It is also why the TPLF has no moral grounds to make complaints about the excesses the Abiy government has perpetrated against the Tigray region and its people since the start of the war; by inventing him as a counterweight to actual Oromo nationalists through viciously repressing the original OLF—and ultimately therefore thwarting actual federation—the TPLF is now the teacher being practiced on by his former student.
The peace deal could now give the state a freer hand to focus attention and resources on the south in an attempt to re-establish hegemony over the real asset.
For the native African as a whole, events since 1991 have therefore been an enormous waste of everyone’s time, going back to the optimistic days of the 1980s when, along with organizations like Nabudere’s Uganda National Liberation Front (A-D) and its army, the Azanian Peoples’ Organization (AZAPO), the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, and even Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF, there existed the seeds of wider African Maoist movements, of which the Horn formations were seen as the most successful examples.
Once again, the future of all the peoples of Ethiopia is reduced to an inter-Abyssinian duel.
Just as Mao Zedong developed a “socialism with Chinese characteristics” which began with his armed struggle against the plethora of Western (and later Japanese) empire corporations that had been plundering the China region for over a century, the hope was for a similar uprising in Africa, in which ethnic identity did not have to be cast aside for the sake of “progress”, but became its foundation.
This is why 1991 was so important, and what makes Meles Zenawi’s betrayal at the time so profound and so stupid: in life, there is the ordinary stupidity of straightforward mistakes, and then there is this kind of stupidity that is profound because it mistakes itself for extreme cleverness.
In the course of his long rule, Prime Minister Zenawi managed to make Eritrea an enemy country (despite the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s seed support to what eventually became the TPLF back in the day) through the Badme border war, consolidated the empire-state not least by upgrading its capacity for repression, and severely disrupted the Oromo struggle by oppressing and scattering its then representative organisation (the original OLF).
For the damage done in these past two years of fighting, with most of what Meles did for Tigray probably now laying in ruins, and a lot of what he found destroyed too, and with a scattered and traumatized people, they might as well have just left Mengistu in power.
We need to hear Tigrayan intellectuals give an honest and objective comprehensive review of the now evident disaster that was the empire-based regime of Meles Zenawi, which has simply now caught up with the people of Tigray, him having left other Ethiopians enveloped in it at the time of his 2012 passing.
But “We may be waiting a long time” for that to happen, says an Oromo activist.
What we see now is the end of that sweet Meles-American deal. This is a transition to a new custodian of the empire state, a cobbling together of an old Amhara elite (even some Mengistu-era officers have been wheeled out to offer advice and succour to the Abiy government) working with an expanded base of assimilated and assimilating elites from other parts of the country, especially Oromo petit bourgeois types of which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is emblematic, focused on becoming profitably absorbed into “Ethiopianism” with just a little of their own cultures to add some local flavour.
Many in the Tigray diaspora who were cheering on the fighting they were not directly part of are now very annoyed. Tigray political culture is normally very self-contained, so it is an annoyance that must be very high indeed, because some of the debates are now spilling out into the public, and even in English.
What they need to understand is that this method of working is exactly how Meles and his cronies were able to sign up to become a tool of US foreign policy, without the rest of the anti-Mengistu coalition knowing, in the run-up to the 1991 London Ethiopia Peace Conference. Now they might be about to have done to them what the TPLF did to the OLF in particular back then.
We need to hear Tigrayan intellectuals give an honest and objective comprehensive review of the now evident disaster that was the empire-based regime of Meles Zenawi.
The TPLF cannot now credibly repudiate the assertion of “one authority” for all Ethiopia (the key clause of the Treaty), because that is what they leaned heavily on, despite the “federation” label of the constitution, when they were in power. If they really believed in the rights of regions within a federal framework, then they should have implemented and guaranteed them for all of Ethiopia’s nations, during their time in government.
This treaty is now part of a process which is a repeat of 1899, 1991, and 2018; it is about keeping the empire state intact, which means it is about keeping Oromo and the wider south under the heel of Abyssinian western-backed power. It means continuing to destroy political voices from the south, both for the regime and the West. It is about putting this dispute between the past and present managers of the empire-state to bed, so that the real business of the empire-state may continue. Despite the depletion of blood and treasure, it is about shutting down a massively distracting side-show.
Peace agreements historically have often just been ways of buying time, but this document is bad in itself anyway, in as far as it is premised on the affirmation of the empire state.
The problem lies perhaps in the way humanities are taught in Africa: no specificity, no native history. All Africans are tribes eternally in need of a country. This creates a certain type of thinking: there is nothing in the political record of all the key actors in the crisis, and the peace treaty they have agreed to, that suggests any personal commitment to, or capacity for open democratic politics, a regard for human rights, and fair play. Even in this war alone, there has not been any agreement about humanitarian assistance that has been fully upheld by either side.
Given all of the above—combined with the risk that Amhara-ist triumphalism, which is insisting on framing this as nothing less than an absolute capitulation by TPLF—there is every chance that this treaty will fail. As another Ethiopian put it to me, “Abyssinians don’t believe in choosing peace or negotiation. The only thing that makes sense to them is destroy your enemy totally, or he does the same to you.”
Either the consequences of Meles’ games have completely caught up with them and they have run out of options, or they a planning something.
Nevertheless, with Tigray stilled (however temporarily), the greater attention of the empire-state can be devoted to attempting to crush the armed rebellion in Oromo and Sidama, the real breadbaskets of the country, and hopefully fully restore Pax Menelikana. The economic conditions in the west, with people reduced to begging in the streets, and the drought conditions in the east, have knocked the will to fight out of everybody.
The problem lies perhaps in the way humanities are taught in Africa: no specificity, no native history.
The TPLF have helped to utterly bastardize and discredit the essence and public perception of ethnic nationalism; this war will forever be held up as an example of its “folly”, and an object lesson in the justification for crushing it by any means necessary. This has allowed already sceptical people to now hold up the images from the war as the best evidence as to why “tribalism” is to be avoided at all costs.
What does it mean for the future of native politics? Simply put, it has set the arguments for native struggles back to the 1950s, and offers the arguments for the pseudo-African nationalism built on the former colonial states, a new lease of life.
For those Africans not seeing it, understand this: the AU and the West will now be able to more confidently brush aside objections to widespread slaughter and destruction in pursuit of keeping native politics in its box.
Another possible outcome may now be the end of the TPLF as a political force. Or some fundamental re-branding, at the very least. Certainly, they are headed for a day of reckoning with their own people. The road to this point has to be explained.
However, as long as the Ethiopian state continues to exist in its current form, and as again reiterated in this peace treaty, there is going to be conflict both inside the country, and with some of its neighbours.
The Lion, the Gazelle and the Mountain: Migration Tales of the Cattle People
In Ateker lands, explanations about the root causes of migration are often elided, not talked about. Centuries since the young walked away from Karamoja, the migration of uninitiated young men is still a sore point.
The draining emotional stress of the last three years breaks up memory, bringing in hallucinatory waves the past as a refracted landscape. The depth of time grows deceptive so that the last weeks of March 2020 cave into a distant darkness, whereas events that happened before that, like the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals, seem more recent.
The pandemic broke up what I had thought would be a finalising of the then ten-year quest to understand the cultural and identity texture of the region’s migratory patterns. While I bemoaned the breakage, unbeknownst to me, the pandemic lockdown had, rather than interfere with the hard-earned and long-running project (self-funded), offered a very rare glimpse into the heart of the matter itself.
Dodging cattle rustlers’ bullets
I had since 2008 followed the migratory routes and fortunes of the Nilotic peoples of East Africa, and at the time of the lockdown, I had returned from the pastoralist societies straddling Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya and was lining up a place for myself on a convoy to Kangaten, the capital of the Ethiopian Woreda of Nyangatom in the Omo region, on the northern shores of Lake Turkana.
The outbreak of the South Sudan civil war and the constant and armed cattle-rustling had stymied the travel. The civil war was not going to end any time soon, and cattle rustling was as ingrained into the culture of these pastoralist lands as a pancreas is to a stomach. You had then to ascertain where the civil war was and to study the seasonal rise and fall in the rustling calendar (there is such a thing) to know when and where to jump in and out.
Doing all of which seemed to have been for naught as the world’s lights went out in March 2020. You stood frozen to the spot, unable to go over that hill, driven early indoors to watch your mind fall to bits.
And yet that moment of global catastrophe was telling me, in reverse facsimile, the very story of what I had seen as a halted project. A global pandemic lockdown and migrations of the people are metanarratives on such a vast scale that like all metanarratives, are so big that even when they seem unrelated, leave no in-between spaces as small time factors do; they feed on and reflect on each other.
If the “migration of the peoples” is movement on a monumental scale, then a global lockdown is its polar opposite, immobility of a staggering momentousness. It goes without saying that the months of 2020-2021 had turned the globe into a laboratory to show us why human beings, like sand dunes and water, must be constantly on the move.
Stood still, human society, like decaying refuse left in one place too long, stagnates and begins to fester. The rapid depletion of food stores, collapse of economies, environmental meltdown, and the sudden and harsh tyrannical power structures enforcing the lockdown, would have been the chief factors behind the 15th and 16th century disintegration of the society some experts say had settled in roughly the present day location of Kotido in northeastern Uganda.
Christ over Lodwar
As if emphasising the faith of Christians, the last and enduring insight had come from climbing a big hill in Lodwar town to go have a look at the imitation Christ the Redeemer installed to look over Lodwar town, the capital of Turkana in northern Kenya. Under the outstretched arms of Christ, the breadth of Turkana (not its considerable length) can be seen from the haze over Lake Turkana to the East, to the wall of mountains to the West that separate Kenya from Uganda.
The aridity of the Turkana landscape is one that smites the senses, as a colonial-era explorer, the murderous, psychotic Hungarian Count Sámuel Teleki de Szék summed it up:
“I can’t imagine a landscape more barren, dried out and grim. At 1.22 pm (of March 17 1888) the Bassonarok appeared, an enormous lake of blue water dotted with some islands. The northern shores cannot be seen. At its southern end it must be about 20 kilometers wide. As far as the eye can see are barren and volcanic shores.”
The “Bassonarok” is what the Samburu—who pointed it out to Teleki so he could go and “discover” it—called the lake. Teleki promptly names it after his benefactor, the Austro-Hungarian crown prince, Rudolf, who had funded the expedition, as speculation had been that this was a possible source of the River Nile.
This “dried out and grim” landscape is where the migrating Turkana chose to make their home. Little visible in the land justifies this choice, for if migration is a search for the more conducive land as the common view will have it, then on first sight this does not appear to be the place.
If the “migration of the peoples” is movement on a monumental scale, then a global lockdown is its polar opposite, immobility of a staggering momentousness.
As the Turkana themselves will tell you, their ancestors came from across that wall of mountains, from present day Uganda. In contrast to Turkana, the Karamoja region is relatively better watered and drained, with the mix of sufficient pasture and absence of tsetse fly that favours animal husbandry. The often described route of this migration itself confounds the choice.
Whatever it was that was driving the Turkana away was not climate. When I started out on the quest, my aim had been a more general travel through the pastoralist lands of the region. A gargantuan and not well-advised choice given that up to 70 per cent of the Greater Horn of Africa is said to be pastoralist. You have to be a multi-state institution, rather than a self-funding peripatetic writer to undertake such a project.
The first foray out into Turkana lands in 2012 quickly forced me to draw a smaller plan, which still covered southeastern South Sudan, northeastern Uganda, northwestern Kenya and southwestern Ethiopia, a landmass bigger than many countries.
It took all of a decade to do, with some balance left uncleared.
Down the valley
In July 2012, I set off from Kitale on a recceing trip to size up the task, dropping down the escarpment and onto the floor of the Kenyan North Rift. At Kalem Ngorok, I happened to ask what the name of the place meant.
“Hornless cattle”, I was told.
From my formative years in boarding school in Teso in Uganda, I knew that Ngorok meant cattle. I had probably had an inkling of Kalem, but the connection that among the Luo-speaking Lango alem referred to hornless cattle, struck me like thunder out of a clear sky.
As I made my way back to Kitale, the premise upon which I had based the project started to fray and in the months that followed, grew confused, and what Kalem Ngorok had implanted in my mind would not go away.
As the Turkana themselves will tell you, their ancestors came from across that wall of mountains, from present day Uganda.
The pivot away from the original framing meant working out another. The ensuing search sent me scrounging through theology, culinary culture, language, naming systems, clan formation—all areas that yielded valuable knowledge but still did not adequately add up. Without a framework, information is just a pile of meaningless data. But frameworks are not useful just because they exist. The trick was finding one that went to the heart of the matter.
I did not find one; it found me. In the rain-soaked April of 2018, I was determined to make it to South Sudan. My target was Kapoeta, capital of the South Sudan state of Namorunyang. The route that I chose was via Turkana, seeing as it would also be my first time visiting Lodwar, hence bringing the insights that come from contiguity into the mix.
I had by then learnt that the collective terminology by which the pastoralist group I narrowed my quest down to was “Ateker”. But this grouping is too big to look at all at once, so I settled for those who the Ugandan politician, David Pulkol controversially refers to as “core Ateker”—the Karamojong of Uganda, the Turkana of Kenya, the Toposa of South Sudan and the Nyangatom of Ethiopia who oscillate problematically within their collective circle.
In Lodwar, in the shadow of the great gathering of the Ateker peoples in the Tobong Loree festival that brought many Ateker from the region together, conversations yielded a word, “Asapan”. It was to be the turning point.
I liked it for that clipped, exact phonetics of which the Ateker language overflows. I did not pay much attention to it nor think it was more important than the other words and constructions I was meeting. What I liked about it at the time was its cultural texture, describing as it did the male rite of passage from an uninitiated youth to a full man allowed to slaughter bulls. Among the cattle keepers, the bull is held in special, god-like status. There is a becoming complexity to this, for while in economic terms the cow is of greater value, exchanging for 13 goats where the bull will collect only 7 good grade goats, the bull is special for spiritual and cultural purposes. For insight, a young man will have a bull calf pointed out as his. Henceforth, the two grow up as what can only be described as spiritual twins. They will share a name. When a young warrior returns successfully from a battle or raid, he is expected during the celebration to decorate his bull. He is mentioned in reference to his bull. Should his bull have a red coat, he will be given the pet name Apaloreng, and if black, Apalokwang, etc. Stories are told of men going into terminal shock upon the death or abduction of their bulls, and in Kapoeta, I was told that a man whose bull had been rustled, and who followed its track, began to walk into the fire in which the bull was being roasted.
To loosen the tongue of an Ateker man, start a conversation about bulls. To not be thought man enough to slaughter a bull has profound spiritual and political implications. And in what will have a bearing in the central theme of this essay, a man who cannot slaughter a bull has no political influence, cannot talk in an assembly and is the last to eat and drink.
This aspect of Asapan—the rite of passage allowing a man to slaughter a bull—fascinated me all the way to Kapoeta. And yet, the velocity of the provisional framing I had created was still bearing me forth, hence, I was interested in finding words which, like Kalemngorok, would explain to me just how connected to my Lango these peoples of the arid cattle fields were.
The lion, ostrich and mountain sets
In Kapoeta I asked what Toposa meant. They said to me, “We were heading west during our migration”.
“West?” I asked and before they could respond, I said, that is what “To” means, right?
They nodded in agreement. So I said, in that case, “The Toposa word for East is Kide?”
They were struck silent that a man from Lango in northern Uganda, so far from home, would know this. There were others that left me disoriented. Those who will remember the news from yesteryears will recognise the name Fr. George King’a. He was a South Sudanese priest and politician who played important roles in both the united Sudan and in peeling the South off it. There is more to him. But by the time I got to Kapoeta, I had gotten into the habit of asking the meaning behind everything. And so in Kapoeta, sitting next to his grave and talking to his nephew, then Kapoeta MP, Hon. Emmanuel Epone Lolimo, told me that his uncle, Fr. King’a had been so named because he was born at the border point of Kapoeta and Riwoto.
Where I was myself born, the line separating one allotment from the other, is called “wang king’a”.
That was as far as the words and names were concerned. Sitting there, just listening to the people, the texture of their voices and mannerisms, I could have been in any place in Lango. I had never met such close relatives of Lango before.
It was another word, this time in English, that pushed me further to understand the connection between asapan and why the Turkana most likely left Karamoja and chose to live in the desert instead. One evening, in Kapoeta, at Lorika’s Hotel where I stayed, I was in a small group with the governor, Louis Lobong and three of his state’s ministers discussing Toposa society when I started to understand the significance of asapan.
When a young warrior returns successfully from a battle or raid, he is expected during the celebration to decorate his bull.
One of the ministers, Lorika himself, drew an organogram of age sets and explained to me what he called “promotion”. These age sets proceed by order of birth, by which men born in a certain period belong in a socio-political cluster with influence. These age sets, like the generation sets, are mostly named after animals or mountains, so there is the mountain set—Ngimoru, ostrich set—Nguwana, gazelle set—Ngigetei, lion set—Ngingatunyo, etc.
(The age sets go by different names among the numerous Ateker groups, and one incredible man I met in Lodwar, Boniface Korobe, has traced the lineages back to the 1730s or thereabouts, when the effective split with Jie began for Turkana.)
I then asked about the generation age-set.
The response to this simple question removed the scales from my eyes.
They explained that ever since the Toposa left Jie (who live in present day Kotido), they had lost the generation set system. In their explanation, the ancestors of the Toposa had left without the transfer of power that a retiring generation proffers to their sons. No longer standing in the darkness, a lot about the Ateker began to make sense. This “leaving”, as I was to understand it again and again, had not been made in good stead.
Becoming a full man at 70
Unravelling this would take me all of another year. How I undertook the project was to save enough money to last me a handful of weeks at a time. But before then, and when I returned to Moroto in Karamoja, the significance of asapan was no longer in doubt. I met an old man, John Napua who told me that he had received asapan at the age of 70, whereupon he felt like a full man. He was inducted into the Ngimoru generation set and wears the defining copper bracelet of his set. He did not have to tell me what that meant. A posse of young men, when I sat down with Napua in Naita Kwai, just outside Moroto town, circled him the same way that powerful politicians or bishops, are shadowed by aides.
There was a sad subtext to the story of Napua. During his childhood in the 1950s, his family had lost all their animals in one single raid. The further deaths of his sisters meant there would be no dowry to return animals to his family. They did not have boys in numbers and age enough to carry out compensatory, restocking raids. Napua and his family fell out of the structures of power. His father did not have the animals to fund his sons’ asapan when the time came. The one open option, albeit to an alternative, viable life, was to be sent to the colonial government schools. As a man who could read and write, and speak English, Napua found employment in the civil service. But it was not asapan and the distinction counted.
Lopiar, The Sweep
There was a further twist to this, and reconnects directly to the fate of the Ateker. The tragic 1980 famine that swept across much of Africa had a deleterious impact on the Ateker. In what is memorialised there as “Lopiar” —The Sweep, from the root verb Apiar, to sweep—it is estimated that the Ateker lands lost up to 21 per cent of their population. The sheer magnitude of this tragedy was in Uganda subsumed by the return of President Milton Obote to power, the elections of that year and the beginning of the Museveni rebellion.
What it meant was that the cholera outbreak and the death of cattle stock set Ateker societies back several generations. In Karamoja, there was no stock wealth to enable the expensive asapan ceremonies to be carried out. The impact was profound as Karamojong society was without effective government, albeit a traditional one. For the decades starting in 1980 till the 2010s, Karamoja nearly suffered the complete loss of generational age set linkages to ensure continuity of its political system.
A man who cannot slaughter a bull has no political influence, cannot talk in an assembly and is the last to eat and drink.
And yet that does not explain why Napua was initiated so late in life. That belongs to an age-old paradox and critique of gerontological systems generally, and may partly explain why so many branches of the Ateker family were forced to migrate and why some, like the Teso and Lango, were easy prey to absorption by other societies.
The age set system is simple to understand. Boys born within the range of say a five-year radius are considered members of the same age set. This means the rhythm of initiation is regular. But the generational set system is where the challenge lies. The generation set systems stump even scholars to unwind. The little I understood runs something like this: A generation refers to male issues of males of a similar generation, the entire progeny of an entire generation of fathers, by which the grandfathers are one generation, the fathers a second generation, sons a third and so on and so forth, each holding power in turns. That is about the simplest explanation. The complication lies in the peculiarity of pastoralist societies. Men can only marry when cattle are available, so Ateker men married comparatively late, often in their mid to late 20s and at times, in their early 30s. Then, they did not stop marrying, with the result that a first born son may be in his 50s when his own father sires a last born son, by which time he himself could well have sons in their late 20s. And those sons may well be fathers already. It is not uncommon that men will have uncles as young as their own grandsons. So the problems start.
As happened with Napua, the 50-year-old son belongs in the same generation as his 1-year-old step-brother. Assuming that the 50-year-old’s father had himself been the last born of his own father, the society is left with a generational range that can stretch up to 120 years. By this range, the 30-year old son is considered to be generationally junior to his 1-year old uncle. Political power is unlikely to come to the 30 year old. The oldest member of that generation could have died in the 1890s while in 2022, the youngest member is still alive. The 80-year old nephew would have died powerless in the 1980s.
It is a system that boggles the mind, or as Boniface Korobe, cultural researcher and official at the Turkana County Government office explained to me, it is a system that can only be explained to you; you may not necessarily understand it.
The result is political and psychological despair for men caught out in the middle generations. Picture Ateker men already in their 80s sitting waiting for their 10-year old uncles to age, assume political power and hand it over to them.
Migrating from political rigidities
In Ateker lands, explanations about the root causes of migration are often elided, not talked about directly because it is so personal and not without pain. Centuries since the young walked away from Karamoja, the migration of uninitiated young men is still a sore point. It is explained that it was these uninitiated young men—the Karachuna—who walked away with their old men’s grazing herds (lactating herds are kept closer to kraals to provide milk) and never returned. It is this sense of betrayal that the Karamojong still hold to this day, since the 1600s and 1700s, against the Lango, the Teso, the Turkana, the Toposa, the Nyangatom. What outsiders call cattle rustling boils down to calls for the migrants—seen as cow thieves, to bring those animals back, and the retaliation to regain them. But the order of who started it has since been lost in the back and forth grabbing of the herds.
Sitting there, just listening to the people, the texture of their voices and mannerisms, I could have been in any place in Lango.
As to why they left is a matter of analytical discourse and most explanations, including the one I am attempting here, are subject to strong challenges. But the gathering weight of pre-initiation men, who were coming of age, but were two to three generations waiting in line, and whose own elderly fathers were still taking young brides much to the chagrin of the very young men charged with maintaining them, would have rankled. To boot, it is this pre-initiation generation that are tasked with the equivalent of civil service duties, the generation set being political heads. With the imprimatur of asapan, and their hegemony in full force, the elders are that glittering circle of senatorial authority (senator deriving from the Latin word senilis, old—a senate literally meaning a council of elders), whose presence grants such magnificence at the Ateker Akiriket ceremonies. It is they that can slaughter bulls. They have first service rights. No crafted political decision is taken without their approval.
And yet, it is for the pre-initiation age set young men to carry these decisions out. Without formal power and uncertain about their place in the pecking order, the karachuna are often a troublesome lot; it is often they that you see in pictures or footage of Ateker men caught rustling livestock.
Away in the fields of 17th century Karamoja, and despairing at never gaining political power, why should they return to a life of tyrannical senators? It is a conjectural extrapolation. But it is one with very strong points to make. The glittering Akiriket ceremonies I described of Ateker hosts in full regalia of ostrich-plumed aworich headgear, with the authority of a generation in power, are sadly, meaningful mostly held in Karamoja.
When the young men migrated, the elders considered them lost—dead. In fact, it is believed that the word “Teso” may be translatable to “grave”, as the Karamojong considered their errant sons already dead to them. Such was the sense of betrayal felt back home. In a socio-political sense, the migrants were dead as the societies they founded were politically null and void. There was no one with respectable authority to call things to order. If they came upon a simpler political system such as the Lango when they encountered the Luo, kick-starting their politics meant adopting other people’s systems, in what amounted to a political reform. But at the price of losing language, gods, names and culture. To carry on without the generation with power at hand would be the equivalent of a ministry without a political head to approve decisions.
A further supporting factor to this argument of generation-system collapse is that those who left referred derisively to those they left behind as the elderly men in charge, hence the terminology, Karamojong—from the root noun emojong, the elderly. In Karamoja, the enlightened don’t want that name and prefer to be called Karatunga (the people).
In Turkana and Toposa, I was told that the generation system “ended so long ago” it is no longer possible to trace it. But even if it is traced back, the permission and blessing of the Jie, generally referred to as “our ancestors” by the Ateker diaspora, and who sit firmly in this knowledge in Kotido, would be needed for the generational age set to be reinstated, for as with church matters, only a consecrated bishop can consecrate a new bishop. Out of all proportions, the Turkana and Toposa still make entreaties for the Jie to do this.
The price for that, alas, is that the animals the young took be returned. Which is unacceptable.
Ateker in the post-independence state
Hence, in Turkana, as Boniface Korobe explained to me, there is asapan “lite”, no more than a marking of passage for boys and only marking the coming of age of age sets. There is little political force in it. It is the same in Toposa.
There is nothing untypical about this sad supply-end of migration. The European migration into “new worlds” was precipitated by dominative and frozen aristocratic systems, which after the collapse of the church in the Reformation, closed common lands and widened the wealth and power gaps between aristocrats and peasants. To boot, the collapse of what I am at times tempted to call the Ateker Empire corresponds to the period of general collapse of empires in Africa, whose roots trace back to antiquity. There is more to this story. As with new polities created by migrants fleeing ossified political systems, the Ateker in diaspora created what amounts to republics, to guard against age tyranny. Tragically, colonialists saw these societies as acephalous for not having the kinds of monarchies seen in the south. Tragic because the post-independence state carried on the cruel ignorance of colonialists in mistreating the Ateker.
The tragic 1980 famine that swept across much of Africa had a deleterious impact on the Ateker.
The price for this breakage has arisen in our own times to exact a terrible political price. In Karamoja, the 1989 famine stymied the rise to power of a new generation. This failure was marked by the lack of control of the 1990s and early 2000s when the karachuna, without powerful elders to command their obedience, and armed with the lately acquired AK47 (another story altogether), ran amok. The resulting raids and counter-raids destroyed Ateker society and were fought on the scale of civil wars. It was only in Karamoja, where the generation set system was salvaged from the ruins of the 1980 famine, that elders have managed to finally hold sway over the youth. The Museveni government takes credit for “pacifying” Karamoja, but it was the respected word of the elders—men like Napua—that convinced the youth to lay down their guns.
In comparison, there was no such voice in Turkana or Toposa to help Nairobi and Juba to disarm their pastoralists. Because these pose threats from Kenya and South Sudan, Karamoja began to re-arm.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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