Every time a prominent Kenyan Christian is cremated instead of being buried, a debate ensues among Kenyan Christians on the best way of disposing of their dead. However, the real contestation is about whether Christianity sanctions cremation.
The attitudes of Christians have not shifted to favour cremation, despite the reforms the churches have made to their funeral policies. For instance, the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) adopted changes to accept cremations as a way of disposing of the dead in 1999. But when the ACK’s second Archbishop, Manasses Kuria, cremated the body of his wife Mrs Mary Nyambura Kuria in 2002, astonished Christians disapproved of his action.
It is noteworthy that Anglicans followed the lead of the Roman Catholic Church which relaxed its position on cremation following Vatican II. Prior to Vatican II, however, the Catholic Church had always justified the cremation of her dead in extraordinary circumstances, argues John F. McDonald. The Catholic Church allowed cremation in emergency cases where the quick disposal of bodies was a civil necessity, thus justifying the disposing of corpses by cremation for the public good in wartime, or during a serious epidemic.
To explore the debate, I have divided this paper in four parts. The first explains the historical development of burial as the Church’s core practice that Christians in Kenya have adopted. Further, it highlights various African customary norms on disposing of the dead. In the second part, the study mentions instances of cremation and explains why Christians are taking up the practice. The third part sets out a critical correlation of the findings with the normative traditions of Kenyan Christians. The fourth past applies the empirical data and theological discourse to offer a theory for action and, thus, revise the present praxis.
Burial remains the core method of disposing of the dead among Kenyan Christians, although more and more of them are adopting cremation as an alternative. Here we explore the historical development of burial in Christianity and the various African customary norms on disposing of the dead.
Upon death, people perform particular rituals on the body before disposing of the corpse, rituals that Vyonna Bondi identifies as the most “primitive sign of religious faith is the ritualized burial of the dead”. These rites shadow a people’s gained spiritual traditions, since they understand death as a transition to the afterlife. This is a common thread linking ancient civilizations with the modern, the belief in the afterlife, which forms a fundamental feature of religious faith. Disposal of the dead is, therefore, a fulcrum balancing the living and the afterlife.
Burial is not inherently Christian. The Church acquired the burial custom from Judaism and the pagan communities. Margaret R. Bunson dates the Egyptians’ burial rites around c 6000- c 3150 BCE in the Pre-Dynastic Period, long before Judaism and Christianity. The most popular Egyptian practice of disposing of the dead was mummification, which was practiced as early as 3500 BCE, a practice that preserved the corpse buried in the arid sand. In his writings, Joshua J. Mark refers to “Ginger”, the preserved body found in a tomb in Gebelein, Egypt, and dated to 3400 BCE. Egyptian tombs were graves dug into the earth, the eternal resting place of the body (Khat), which they protected from grave robbers and the elements. These tombs became important in Egyptian civilization, as they used mud brick to build more ornate graves, the rectangular mastabas. It was from the mastabas that they developed the “step pyramids” and later the “true pyramids”.
The Egyptian burial rites were dramatic. Egyptians hoped that in mourning them, their dead would find bliss in an eternal land beyond the grave. According to Herodotus,
As regards mourning and funerals, when a distinguished man dies, all the women of the household plaster their heads and faces with mud leaving the body indoors, perambulate the town with the dead man’s relatives, their dresses fastened with a girdle, and beat their bared breasts. The men, too, for their part, follow the same procedure, wearing a girdle and beating themselves like the women. The ceremony is over when they take the body to be mummified.
The physical body was of immense importance to the Egyptians, which Mark illustrates using the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony. This ceremony was conducted to reanimate the corpse for continued use by the soul. They performed it by placing the mummy in the tomb, where a priest recited spells and touched the mouth of the corpse, to eat and drink, and the arms and the legs to move about in the tomb. So, to release the corpse on its journey to the afterlife, the people invoked more spells and recited prayers, such as The Litany of Osiris. Proper burial rituals were therefore very important and strictly observed. Even if one had lived an exemplary life, one would not reach paradise if one’s burial did not adhere to all their funerary rites.
Other civilizations and religions of the ancient world gained this belief through cultural transmission through trade on the Silk Road. Evidence of burial rites and customs of the Church in the early centuries is scanty for there were no known distinct Christian burial forums during the first two Christian centuries. The early Christians observed local burial customs, which R.A. Peterson affirms; there were no Christian burial customs. According to L.M. White, only in the late second century did the first unique Christian concerns regarding burial emerge even though the burial of the Christian dead was clear. In Geoffrey Rowell’s view, the rites of burial in early Christianity were not controversial matters and so did not feature in apologetic or polemical works. Hence, references to them are only incidental, which explains the dearth of information detailing Christian burial practices. During the Church’s first three centuries, cemeteries exhibited Christian care of their dead. To this day, the secret burial places—not the public cemeteries but the Roman catacombs—bear witness to the practice of burying their dead.
Even if one had lived an exemplary life, one would not reach paradise if one’s burial did not adhere to all their funerary rites.
Initially, Christians and pagans buried their dead in the same cemeteries. After the fourth century, Christians distinguished their graves, marking them with decorative representations and inscriptions. Besides, the graves differed in burial motif as well. Christians did not remember their dead with sadness and resignation; their dead preceded them to the shepherd’s paradise, “to the place of refreshment, light and peace”.
The first Christians upheld the Jewish burial customs, which they modified to show both local practices and Christian hope. They not only adapted contemporary non-Christian funeral practices but modelled them to show monotheism. This, notes J.W. Childers, defined Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. Of all their influence in the Roman Empire, Julian ranks the care for their dead in burial as top in converting the empire. Christians expressed the characteristics of their new faith—their belief in the body’s resurrection—through reverence for the body in their funeral rites, thus giving us a long-established liturgy of Christian burial rites, comprising the funeral mass followed by the absolution over the body, and later burial in a consecrated or blessed grave. Thomas G. Long described this practice thus:
They invited once more the community of faith, and in dramatic fashion, to recognize that Christian life is shaped in the pattern of Christ’s own life and death. We have been, as Paul says in Romans, baptized into Jesus’ death and baptized into Jesus’ life: do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:3–5)
Kenya’s Anglican Church shares other Christian denominations’ understanding of burial as a pious tradition among Christians, a practice which John F. MacDonald notes, “The church has always tried to encourage by supporting it with an appropriate ritual designated to highlight the symbolism and religious significance of burial.”
However, every occurrence of death confronts African Christians with the heightened tension between the Christian tenets and their African worldview of disposing corpses. They express this in the belief that the dead have power over the living. In most African societies, life and death exist together on a continuum as they understand the concept of death in tandem with life, with death as a rite of passage through which one becomes an “ancestor” and continues to live in the community. Prof. A.B.C. Ocholla-Ayayo claims that “death amongst the Luo is expressed as a ‘crisis of life’ and an element in the life cycle of the individual”. Death and funeral rites amongst the Luo and the Luhya involve not only the bereaved immediate family but also include other relatives and the community at large. Thus, the exit at death only means entering the invisible world. Hence, proper death rites became a necessity as a guarantee of protection for the living.
The manner and location of the burial among the Luo is determined by the individual’s status in society, the nature of their death, their deeds, as well as the rituals performed to appease the ancestors. The arraying of the deceased’s body remains an important part of Luo custom. After observing burial rites, the body is buried in a rectangular grave about five feet or deeper. The Luo, like the Luhya and the Gusii, bury their dead within the deceased’s homestead. They also bury their dead infants (including the stillborn), although Luhya methods differ from those of the Luo in insignificant details. The differentiation in burial methods, asserts Ocholla-Ayayo, highlights the differing social distinctions amongst the members of the tribes, thus maintaining the societal order.
The rituals surrounding death amongst Africans are systematic. They keep ancestral links, guide succession and inheritance, and underscore the interdependence and the conjoint relations of living kin. The Luo observed these rites to prepare for the afterlife, which was part of the continuum that fulfils one’s social responsibilities. It evinced the intricate relationship between the dead and the living in Luo nomenclature, which incorporates the name of the spirits (nying juogi). For the Luhya on the other hand, funerals were intrinsically a custom aimed at pleasing the ancestral spirits, a notion that is strengthened by the observance of Lisaabo, the remembrance of dead ancestors. Hence, the ritualistic slaughter of animals and the serving of food and drinks to mourners during funerals.
Every occurrence of death confronts African Christians with the heightened tension between the Christian tenets and their African worldview of disposing corpses.
Nomadic communities, such as the Maasai, did not allow the sick or aged to die in the home. Instead, they took them into the forest, to a hillside, or abandoned them by a river. Once dead, they buried them under a tree in the sitting position with the deceased’s chin resting on their knees. The body was then covered with stones. However, these burial sites were not sturdy, allowing hyenas to sniff out the corpse and pull it from its tomb in a practice known as exposure of the corpse.
The Kikuyu, like the Maasai, practiced exposure, discarding their dead to the wild animals. In his biography, Francis Hall claimed to have buried victims of disease himself, since under Kikuyu customary law, corpses ought not to be touched. The Meru, like the Kikuyu, abhor contamination through contact with a corpse. Hence, those who disposed of corpses as well as the family members underwent ritual cleansing by shaving.
But not every Kikuyu threw their deceased to the hyenas; the rich were buried. According to Johnson N. Mbugua, a kĩbĩrĩra was the burial ground where the Kikuyu took their dead. Before burial, they performed rituals which involved a careful wrapping of the body in a sleeping position, with the kĩbĩrĩra facing the homestead. These were elaborate rites, costing sheep and goats beyond the means of many. Kikuyu funeral rites culminated in a full Gũkũra ceremony, which showed the deceased person’s spirit achieving ancestral status.
But not every Kikuyu threw their deceased to the hyenas; the rich were buried.
Today, with the prevalence of Christianity, burial ceremonies even amongst African Christians often involve prayers in a church and at the dead person’s home, alongside traditional rituals.
Four reasons for the growing practice of cremation
The reasons for the growing practice of cremation in Kenya vary. I identify them as individual preference, cultural changes, environmental reasons, and relaxation of religious opposition.
The main reason for cremation in Kenya is honouring the wishes of the departed. For example, in 2002, Archbishop Kuria honoured his wife’s wish to be cremated. According to Maurice Murimi, Kuria’s son-in-law, “It was not the family’s decision but the express choice of our mother.” Archbishop Kuria died three years later, in 2005, leaving a similar will to be cremated. ACK Primate David Gitari did not interfere with his predecessor’s wish. Justifying his stand, Gitari pointed out that the ACK has always respected the family’s decision on interment. Roman Catholics take a similar position, giving the right to choose the church where the funeral rites are to be observed and the choice of the cemetery where the burial will take place to the individual, unless the church forbids it.
Apart from Islam, which forbids cremation, more religions have taken into consideration cremation as a way of disposing of the dead. Although Christian denominations prefer burial, with the exception of the Greek Orthodox Church, all allow cremation. The Kenyan Church is part of other global Christian denominations and has shared these beliefs with them. Anglicans/Episcopalians, Baptists, Lutherans, and Methodists, favour cremation before or after the funeral rite. Presbyterians do not support cremation, but nor do they forbid it.
The ACK proposed changes in her funeral policies accommodating cremation at the 1999 Provincial Synod. Its adopted resolutions stated:
The African culture has not yet accommodated itself to the practice of cremation. But if a Christian in his or her will wishes his body to be cremated, the church will accept that wish.
The Roman Catholic Church prefers cremation to take place after the funeral mass, and demands that the cremains be buried in the ground or at sea or entombed in a columbarium. It forbids the scattering or the keeping of the ashes by the family. Although the Roman Catholic Church pronounced itself on cremation earlier, it was slower in actioning the decision. During Vatican II, the Catholic Church reformed its funeral and burial rites, adopting a more relaxed approach, allowing cremation with one very explicit proviso. The Catholic Church codified this modification in the latest Code of Canon Law:
The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless they chose this for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.
But only recently did the Roman Catholic Church issue instructions on cremation; on 25 October 2016, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed the objectionable ideas and practices of cremation.
Christian theologians advocate for cremation as an alternative way of disposing of the dead. Concluding his research on Kikuyu burial traditions, Mbugua urges Christians from the Kikuyu community to embrace cremation as a way of disposing of the dead, as this will reduce funeral costs. Cremation for an adult costs KSh50,000 at the Lang’ata crematorium in Nairobi. Kariokor is much cheaper, where the cost ranges between KSh13,000 for adults and KSh6,000 for children. Further, Mbugua cites lack of adequate space to bury the dead, as a reason for cremation. Cremation should be a workable choice for the people of Nairobi according to Hitan Majevdia of the Nairobi County Health ministry, who also cites scarcity of space, and shortage of cemeteries within Nairobi.
Changing cultural perspectives
Africans are living under the constant pressure of globalization. It is a tension between adopting the modern and jettisoning their traditional practices.
When Maria Louise Okondo, the European spouse of the former minister for labour, Hon. Peter Okondo, had him cremated in 1996, the family accused her of introducing Okondo to foreign customs. She went against Okondo’s extended family’s wish to bury him according to the Luhya-Abanyala customs. Among the Luhya, one’s burial positioning contracts or extends, which has to do with the “mythology or origin of the clan”. Moreover, the kin wished to rid themselves of bukhutsakhali (the breath of the dead), an Abaluhya funerary rite where the bereaved family members shave. Mrs Okondo refused to accede to the family’s wishes, arguing that her husband was no longer bound by Abaluhya customs.
Ruth Okuthe, wife of former Kenyan sports administrator Joshua Okuthe, cremated him in 2009 in accordance with Joshua’s will. His extended family went to court in a bid to stop the cremation but Ruth Okuthe outwitted them. His family buried his empty coffin in a mock funeral ceremony at his Muhoroni home. This was in line with the Luo burial tradition where an empty cenotaph represents the deceased whose body is buried in another location. In the case of a death by drowning or where a body has not been recovered, the Luo bury the yago fruit in the cenotaph or by the lakeshore.
The family of Kibera Member of Parliament Hon. Kenneth Okoth had to honour his wish to be cremated. The individual choice has a chiasma. While African customs often trumped individualism in preference to societal customs, they nevertheless held the will of a dying individual as sacrosanct. The Luo espoused belief in the afterlife, which was integral to the belief that a person’s social status in life and an individual’s last words at death in effect determine his or her relationship with those left behind. They believed the elderly had the power to bless or to curse, and hence their last spoken words could either bless or curse. Thus, the last words spoken at a funeral are binding to the relatives. This was prevalent among the societies that revered the dead.
The communities that previously practiced exposure adopted burial with the coming of Europeans to Kenya; they are bound to change again. Hon. Kenneth Matiba, founder of Ford Asili Party, a leading politician and an opinion leader among the Kikuyu people and Kenyans in general, chose cremation over burial. Matiba is reported to have said in 1994 that he did not want a state funeral or “dancing parties and harambees” upon his death. Another prominent Kikuyu who chose the crematorium over the grave is professional golfer Peter Njiru, who was cremated at Kariokor in 2015.
Land scarcity and hygiene and environmental concerns have also contributed to the increased acceptance of cremation as a method of disposing of the dead. Cremation makes better use of land. To reinforce cremation as a Christian practice, William E. Phipps posits: “As land becomes scarcer, cremation is more widely endorsed.” Environmentalists argue that ecologically, cremation is more environmentally responsible. This was the position of Prof. Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who died and was cremated in 2011 and her ashes buried at the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies.
The awareness of the benefits accruing from popular Eastern practices has caused them to become accepted worldwide. According to the Cremation Association of North America, the cremation rate within the United States was 48.6 per cent of deaths in 2015, up from 47 per cent in 2014. The association predicted that the rate would reach 54.3 per cent by 2020. The projected rate in Canada was 68.8 per cent in 2015 and 74.2 per cent by 2020. In 2015, 65 per cent of Americans, two-thirds of the people, chose cremation.
Here we shall explore the critical correlation of the findings on cremation with the normative traditions and interpret the discourse on the disposal of the dead to show its salient aspects and discuss whether cremation is un-Christian and un-African.
CITAM Bishop Dr David Oginde, the most articulate critic of cremation in Kenya, claimed that “Traditional Christian faith considers cremation as inconsistent with orthodox doctrine”. He echoes conservative theologians such as Rodney Decker who took an “active discouragement” position, considering cremation a sin if done as an act of defiance against God.
Opponents of cremation base their argument on the Scriptures which they say are full of examples of burials, although there exists no explicit text commanding Christians to bury their dead. Oginde argues that “one reads nowhere of a godly person cremating the body of one he or she loved [. . .] one does read repeatedly of burying human bodies and Scripture teaches that the burial of the body is an act of faith.” Cremation, according to Oginde, was not acceptable among the Hebrews, except as a punishment as recorded in Leviticus 20:14. The scriptures record the dead bodies of the unfaithful people, such as Achan and his family whom Joshua burned (Joshua 7:25). However, this was the exception rather than the rule (Deuteronomy 21:22, 23).
The communities that previously practiced exposure adopted burial with the coming of Europeans to Kenya; they are bound to change again.
Had Oginde attended to the account of charring Saul’s remains, he might have reached a different conclusion. To salvage the honour of King Saul and of his three sons against the defilement of their corpses by Philistines, the men of Jabesh-Gilead burned and buried their remains (I Sam. 31:8–13). Phipps notes the Bible’s approval of their action where David commended the men of Jabesh-Gilead for the honour they gave to Saul with their action (2 Sam. 2:4–6).
It is difficult to rule out cremation from the Scriptures. Biblical narratives lack uniformity and so gives a conflicting position on cremation. Decker observed that much of the Biblical material is descriptive narrative and not prescriptive. Hence, the Bible never commands, encourages, or condones cremation and it is possible to draw multiple principles from a variety of situations. Despite this, Decker insists inhumation is the most compatible with Christian theology and the most effective in terms of Christian witness in the West. (This essay has not attempted to discuss the question of Christian practice in Eastern cultures or in countries where cremation may be mandated. I have insufficient knowledge of such matters to attempt such a discussion.) However, Decker concedes, “I would not go so far as to declare flatly that cremation is sin. Sometimes it may be acceptable without embarrassment.”
Does cremation offend Christian dogma?
It will be difficult to associate cremation with the new age movement—as Oginde claims—that ushered in cults and philosophies, bringing in a human revolt against God. This claim comports with MacDonald’s assertion that those opposing burial hate Christian customs, ecclesiastical traditions, and have sectarian interest.
The Church refutes regeneration or reincarnation as a denial of individual uniqueness and the resurrection of the body. She affirms that human beings are both physical and spiritual, both of which apply to salvation, and thus challenges the notion of Gnosticism in the first century that viewed the body as evil (Col 2:9). God’s salvation and redemption include both the soul and the body (1 Cor. 7:34; 2 Cor. 4:16; 7:1; Rom. 8:10), which will occur at the resurrection (Rom. 8:23). The human is complete when he/she is both material and immaterial, making the future resurrection imperative.
Opponents of cremation base their argument on the Scriptures which they say are full of examples of burials, although there exists no explicit text commanding Christians to bury their dead.
The separation of soul and body at death implies that man is incomplete until reunited at the resurrection, which is understood as clothing of a naked soul (corpse). However, theologians differ on the state of the corpse. M. Harris holds a monistic anthropology, which expects an immediate resurrection at death. But Decker argues, at “death, the corpse in the grave is referred to as a person. The dead body of Jesus is referred to as ‘him’ not ‘it’” (Mark 15:44-47, see John 11:43). This position that a person—body and soul—is eternal, for which Jesus promised everlasting life, needs scrutiny.
The living believers at Christ’s second coming will get new bodies, while the dead bodies, since buried, will decompose (Eccles. 12:7). The present human bodies count for little for salvation, for God has designated new bodies for believers (1 Cor. 15:42-49; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Job 19:25-26). At death, the human body rots, just like seed being cast into the earth, dies and rots (1 Cor. 15:36). Given that the body is chemicals, it disintegrates at death as David Wasawo explains in his unpublished memoir We Understand but Darkly:
Are we not mostly made of oxygen, carbon and hydrogen, sixty percent of which are in the form of water? Are we not reminded that a man weighing 150 pounds contains 97.5 pounds of oxygen, 27 pounds of carbon, 15 of hydrogen, 4.5 of nitrogen, 3 of calcium and 1.5 pounds of phosphorus? Added to these are a few ounces each of potassium, sulphur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium, and iron; and traces of iodine, fluorine, and silicon.
Wasawo notes how these elements are combined “to form thousands of very complicated compounds forming parts of cells, tissues, and organs, each performing its allotted function in the sentient being”. But once life is taken out of the body, all these elements revert to the “soil” and to “dust” whence they came—to Mother Nature.
Dignity of the body
The dignity of the human body is a focus of the Church’s attention from birth to death. Unlike other creatures, God made man in His image, hence the respect for the human body. Although Anglican Bishop Peter Njenga defended Mrs Mary Kuria’s cremation, speaking at a thanksgiving service, he voiced a Christian’s objection thus: “I think the big problem with cremation is that people believe cremation subjects the body to torture”. Pope Pius XII affirmed this position while addressing those engaged in the treatment of the blind on 14 May 1956:
The human corpse has been a dwelling place of a spiritual and immortal soul, an essential part of the human person in whose dignity it had a share. Since it is a component part of man and formed in “the image and likenesses of God.”
Through burial, Christians showed reverence for the body in view of the future resurrection. As Normal Geisler argues, “Burial preserves the Christian belief in the body’s sanctity,” and the Church developed meticulous funeral rites where some churches use incense and holy water with prayers that the Lord receives this person into paradise. Burial became synonymous with the dignity of the individual’s body, as Oginde asserts, “For a corpse to be burnt by fire or left unburied to become food for beasts of prey, was the height of indignity or judgment.” However, Brigham refutes that proper burial was essential for an individual’s bliss in the afterlife; sometimes undignified disposal of the body provided lasting witness. As St. Augustine observed in The City of God:
And so there are indeed many bodies of Christians lying unburied; but no one has separated them from heaven, nor from that earth which is all filled with the presence of Him who knows whence He will raise again what He created… Wherefore all these last offices and ceremonies that concern the dead, the careful funeral arrangements, and the equipment of the tomb, and the pomp of obsequies, are rather the solace of the living than the comfort of the dead.
Christians regard the human body as a temple of the Holy Spirit but this role ceases at death. The body is valuable while one is alive. Decker concedes that the Holy Spirit does not dwell in our bodies after death but makes limping claim of the body being still united to Christ, “. . . if the body is a member of Christ due, in part to the resurrection.” A person’s existence does not end at death, as materialists believe. For, as White notes, a connection and continuity between the human soul and body exists; otherwise a future resurrection would be unnecessary.
Phipps contends, “The allegedly preserved body is a Promethean rejection of Isaiah’s judgment that ‘all flesh is grass’ and Paul’s claim that ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God’. Since death neither destroys the person nor reduces his or her uniqueness and individuality, cremation doesn’t constitute an objective denial of these dogmas.” MacArthur states, “So cremation isn’t a strange or wrong practice—it merely accelerates the natural process of oxidation.” Christians should accept cremation when it meets the demands of due respect and dignity for the body, and the ashes are treated with the same dignity. Further, Phipps suggests, “a memorial worship service after cremation sets the transitoriness of the physical in bold relief against the everlastingness of the spiritual. The ‘consuming fire’ has transformed but not destroyed the essential self of the person honored at the service.”
Burial was not inherently Christian; since Christians adopted and developed this tradition from pagan and Jewish practices, under different circumstances, they could have adopted cremation.
Resurrection of the dead
Given that Jesus himself was buried and raised bodily from the dead, a Christian’s burial was to be witness to the resurrection yet to come. Christians assume that burials confer the symbolism of resurrection, which gives them a deeper religious significance. Indeed, MacDonald argues for laying the body to rest in the grave to await the call to general judgment on the last day rather than submitting the human corpse to extermination by fire.
Accepting this view implies that resurrection is physical, a position Phipps disputes, stating:
Paul did not believe that the residual dust in a tomb would be the substance of a new heavenly organism. When the apostle writes about ‘the resurrection of the dead,’ he does not mean the reassembling and the reanimation of the corpse. The expression ‘spiritual body’ (1 Cor. 15:44) which he uses does not refer to the physical skeleton and the flesh that hangs on it. Rather, in modern terminology, it means the self or the personality. Paul’s view is compatible with body disposal by cremation. Contrariwise, those who adamantly advocate earth burial because it enhances resurrection have a weak New Testament foundation on which to stand.
What happens to the body after death is immaterial. The cremation of the body has no effect on the soul and nor does it hinder God’s power from raising a body to life again. Thus, the dead will change like the dead seed which is quickened and raised in stalk, blade, and ear. The dissolution and corruption of the body by death is not a hindrance to its resurrection. If God can quicken a rotten seed, turning it productive, why should we consider it incredible that God should quicken dead bodies?
So, it does not matter to God whether a person’s body was buried, cremated, lost at sea, or eaten by wild animals (Revelation 20:13). The Almighty can re-create a new body for the person (1 Cor. 15:35, 38). For cremation does not affect the soul, nor does it prevent God from raising up the deceased body to new life (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).
Is cremation un-African?
While some Christians accept cremation as a choice today, many more consider this practice too radical and foreign.
Communities such as the Meru, Kikuyu, Kamba, and Kalenjin, which practiced exposure of corpses, learnt to bury; they should find cremation better than customary practices. Justifying his choice of cremation, Matiba argued, “After all, the Kikuyu traditionally never buried their dead. They used to take the bodies into the forest to be devoured by hyenas. Was that not wisdom?”
Until now, Africans have held that the dead affect the living but westernization among Kenyans is eroding the belief that the spirits of the dead have an influence on the living, that they would be haunted were they to dispose of their dead differently, that the deceased may become a malevolent spirit. Upon one’s death, an “exact” burial bounded by abundant religious formalities allows them to become an ancestor. Hence, the weight given to “proper” death rites, which ‘guarantee protection’ for the living, more than they secure a safe transition for the dead.
Burial was not inherently Christian; since Christians adopted and developed this tradition from pagan and Jewish practices, under different circumstances, they could have adopted cremation.
Yet, here is a paradox: while the Luo rejected cremation because they held the belief that the dead influenced the living, and adhered strictly to their customary funeral rites to stop the dead from tormenting the living, Dr Ocholla-Ayayo explains that under exceptional circumstances the Luo permitted incineration; they exhumed and burned the remains of a departed one believed to be haunting their kin. This recognition of the impotent dead among Luo Christians has blunted the fear of ancestral wrath, and removed the traditional obstacle to cremation.
In the construction stage, the paper applies the empirical data and theological discourse to offer a theory for action and, thus, revises the present praxis. The theory is aware of the presuppositions of cremation.
As the Church expands, she confronts diverse human conditions, encounters new cultures not within the experience of the biblical traditions from which Christians can draw answers. Where we have no concrete biblical injunctions to guide us on how to dispose of our dead, its broad narratives should help us to frame firm conclusions, which ought to be theological considerations, cognizant of our various cultural issues.
The first significant decision by the Council in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, which declared that the new gentile Christians did not have to enter Jewish religious culture, opened Christianity to the adoption of the cultures it had entered. The lack of a Christian culture in the way we have an Islamic culture, points to the cultural diversity and flexibility built into the Christian faith from the beginning; Christians didn’t have to receive circumcision or keep the Jewish law, bringing to an end a tribal mode of faith. This stand opened Christianity to other things.
Christianity lacks a specific Christian lifestyle. So, Christians are to work out, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a way of being Christians in their context. Since disposing of the dead is a cultural construct, not a doctrinal edict, like in Islam, the decision to bury or cremate ought to be theological. Long before the Vatican II changes, McDonald observed, the Church allowed Japanese Catholics to be cremated. Cremation as an age-old national custom was compulsory in Japan. However, the bishops in Japan negotiated and were allowed to bury priests and members of religious orders and congregations.
The foregoing theological argument and the critical correlation of the findings on cremation with the normative traditions established above, provide the basis on which Christians today can explore cremation instead of burial. Although both the Anglicans and Roman Catholics settled the theological questions, they never went beyond their pronouncement. The ACK, for instance, did not develop cremation protocols or liturgies despite having undertaken funeral reforms. Beyond the resolution, they have put little effort into preparing Christians for cremation. Moreover, general Christian cremation infrastructure remains undeveloped.
“After all, the Kikuyu traditionally never buried their dead. They used to take the bodies into the forest to be devoured by hyenas. Was that not wisdom?”
The Church should set cremation protocols in tandem with Christian dogma. Through the Holy Office’s instruction, the Roman Catholic Church maintains that those who choose cremation must not deny the dogmas, such as the immortality of the human soul and the bodily resurrection of the dead. Therefore, cremation undertaken in adherence to Christian dogma would enhance, not mute, the expression of Christian faith.
Where Christians choose cremation over burial, their wish ought to be clarified to avoid conflict upon death. George Omwansa, a council member of the Lawyer Society of Kenya who has handled several cremation disputes, observed that in such cases not the entire family was aware of the cremation wishes of the departed, leading some relatives to oppose cremation in favour of burial, thus causing trouble.
The Church should provide families and individuals opting for cremation with guidelines to help them in their decisions, and to ensure that they bury the cremains in a dignified manner. A Christian cremated in the recommended manner may choose, for example, to be buried with his ancestors or at a cemetery or any other sacred place (e.g., a church, a columbarium, or a mausoleum). And while the memorial service should remain unchanged, there is a need to create a liturgy and order of service to assist the clergy when dealing with a cremation service and committal of the cremains.
Since disposing of the dead is a cultural construct, not a doctrinal edict, like in Islam, the decision to bury or cremate ought to be theological.
There is also a need to develop public and Christian crematoriums. The largest crematorium in Kenya is the Hindu crematorium in Kariokor, where most cremations occur. In effect, since Hindus run most crematoriums in the country, it is easy to associate cremation with Hinduism or modern-day agnostics.
I do not here propose a biblical response to cremation, but a presentation of the Christian core beliefs to clarify the faith challenge that disposing of the dead presents. I have established a theologically informed course of action that sets cremation as an alternative way of disposing of the dead, consistent with the existing traditions of the Christian faith and African customs. Besides discussing the occurrence of cremations in Kenya, I have discerned why people are choosing cremation over burial as an interpretive element of practical theology. In its discourse, the study has exposed the salient aspects surrounding cremation, establishing that it does not offend Christian dogma, and nor does it assault African customs.
In offering a plan of action to revise the present praxis, this study has proposed a way forward for Kenyan Christians, having established that cremation offers Christians a valid and acceptable alternative to traditional burial.
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The Politics and Economics of Knowledge Production: Crucial Aspects of the Struggle Against Western Imperialism
Long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage.
What is knowledge? Is knowledge as objective as mountains, valleys, oceans, lakes and rivers, or is what constitutes knowledge determined by culture? We usually presume that knowledge has to do with understanding the world as it is rather than as we might imagine it to be. Many of us assume that the more academic certificates one has, the more knowledge one possesses. Yet scholars now point out that knowledge can only be properly understood if we consider insights from a variety of disciplines, including history, sociology, psychology, economics, politics and philosophy, among others. In ancient Athens, “politics” was understood as the management of the affairs of the city-state (polis). However, in line with the thought of Niccolò Machiavelli, many now understand politics as the activities of acquiring and retaining coercive power, and it is in this latter sense that I speak here of the politics of knowledge production. “Economics” comes from the Greek words oikos (“household”) and nomos (“law”, “management” or “principle”), literally “the law, management or principle of the household”, but has come to refer to the management of a society’s resources.
Knowledge production directed by politics and economics
As I pointed out in “Concrete Data and Abstract Notions in the Philosophical Study of Indigenous African Thought”, knowledge production is an integral part of social processes, and therefore necessarily laden with social, moral, political, and, most importantly, economic considerations. As the late Nigerian social scientist Claude Ake observed in Social Science as Imperialism, science in any society is apt to be geared to the interests and impregnated with the values of the ruling class that ultimately controls the conditions under which it is produced and consumed by financing research, setting national priorities, controlling the education system and the mass media, and in other ways. Thus, the choices of subject matter and methodology are heavily influenced by priorities identified in specific economic, social and political contexts: this set of dynamic interactions with economics as its foundation is what the late Egyptian economist, Samir Amin, following Karl Marx, referred to as “political economy”.
Besides, the transmission of knowledge reflects a society’s economic structures. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire memorably highlights the distinction between “banking education”, in which the learner is a docile and passive recipient of knowledge from the teacher, and which therefore reflects the capitalist power hierarchy, and “problem-solving education” entailing a dialogical approach in which both “teacher-students” and “student-teachers” teach and learn. Tragically but not surprisingly, six decades after formal independence, most schools and universities in Africa continue to deploy banking education in line with the capitalist power relations characteristic of the societies in which they function.
To illustrate the point that the production and transmission of knowledge are greatly influenced by politics, Leonhard Praeg, in A Report on Ubuntu, presents a hypothetical conversation between a South African philosophy professor of European descent and a young African postgraduate law student who is considering registering for a second master’s degree in philosophy. At one point, she challenges the professor’s presentation of philosophy as an objective and universal enterprise by highlighting the fact that the choice of who to include in any philosophical discourse is itself a political one:
Well, it seems obvious to me . . . that the most fundamental starting point for any philosophical conversation should be questioning the mechanisms that decide who is included and who is excluded from that conversation and whose traditions of thought will or will not be invoked in that conversation. Perhaps the most fundamental questions, the questions that every conversation should start with are political, questions such as: How is the difference between the included and excluded legitimized and what kind of institutional arrangements exist to safeguard and perpetuate certain kinds of knowledge at the exclusion of others?
Colonial devastation of indigenous systems of knowledge
In The Invention of Africa, the Congolese philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe explains that colonialism and colonization basically mean “organization”, “arrangement”. The two words derive from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate or to design.” He goes on to point out that the Western colonisers organized and transformed non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs:
[I]t is possible to use three main keys to account for the modulations and methods representative of colonial organization: the procedures of acquiring, distributing, and exploiting lands in colonies; the policies of domesticating natives; and the manner of managing ancient organizations and implementing new modes of production. Thus, three complementary hypotheses and actions emerge: the domination of physical space, the reformation of natives’ minds, and the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective. These complementary projects constitute what might be called the colonizing structure, which completely embraces the physical, human, and spiritual aspects of the colonizing experience.
Indeed, the Western imperialists only left their colonies in Africa and elsewhere after putting in place numerous structures to ensure their ongoing, albeit covert, control of the economies of the said territories. For example, in the late 1930s France created the CFA Franc Zone, comprising 14 West and Central African countries as well as the Comoros, bound by a monetary cooperation policy ostensibly to ensure the financial stability of its members, all of who used one or other of the two versions of the CFA Franc as their currency. Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”. Similarly, in the 1950s, the Swynnerton Plan in Kenya sought to mitigate the unpopularity of the British colonial regime by creating an African land-owning petty middle class that would be driven by an imperative to protect its property, and thereby view itself as having shared interests with the European settlers after the country’s independence.
Furthermore, the Western imperialists “left” only after ensuring that their former colonies adopted liberal democratic constitutions based on individualist capitalist values rather than on the communalistic outlooks of the peoples of Africa. They also ensured that the colonial territories embraced Western legal systems. For example, on 12th August 1897, the British invaders declared what they called The Reception Date, referring to the decree that the English statutes of general application passed before 12th August 1897 are law in Kenya, unless a Kenyan statute, or a latter English statute made applicable in Kenya, has repealed any such statute. In short, the British invaders declared the legal systems of the peoples of present day Kenya null and void, or, at best, relegated them to the status of “customary law” presumed to be inferior to the British legal system. This situation still holds to date, as evident in the way in which advocates and judges in Kenya frequently refer to English law, but very rarely to the jurisprudence of Kenya’s various peoples. No wonder “customary law” remains a highly marginalised area of study in most universities in Africa decades after independence.
Both CFA Francs have a fixed exchange rate to the euro —real evidence of what I would refer to as “chains that bind”.
Similarly, the colonisers demeaned the diverse intellectual inventions and innovations of the peoples of Africa in areas such as medicine, environmental conservation, culinary arts, and creative works (such as songs, poems, fables and legends) among others. For example, they used the paradoxical and pejorative term “witch-doctor” to refer to indigenous healers, thereby deliberately conflating the restorative roles of healers with the destructive acts of wizards and witches. Indeed, due to that outrageous deliberate colonial conflation, most Kiswahili speakers in Kenya now do not appreciate the distinction between mganga (“healer”) and mchawi (“witch/wizard”), thereby failing to appreciate that even a medical doctor trained in a Western-type medical school is a mganga, and only refers to him or her as daktari from the English word “doctor”. No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19, or that any innovations they might develop to manage the scourge must be validated in Geneva, Washington DC or elsewhere outside the continent or under the direction of institutions based outside the continent.
No wonder it has been so easy to convince most people in Africa that their own indigenous systems of medical care are utterly hopeless in the face of COVID-19.
A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom. The colonial establishments therefore systematically downgraded indigenous languages, referring to them as “vernaculars”—a term used to denote languages spoken by “uncivilised” communities and contrasted with “literary” or “cultured” languages. Thus, the typical child in Africa undergoes instruction at school using English, French, Portuguese or German, thereby losing his or her cultural grounding through the lack of proficiency in his or her mother tongue; and it is much worse than that, for he or she begins to disparage indigenous languages. Many of us have heard the claim by our compatriots that the languages of the peoples of Africa are incapable of mediating scholarly discourses. This claim is oblivious to, or deliberately ignores, the fact that the Western languages with which many associate academic discourses have acquired their proficiency in scholarship only because of borrowing heavily from a variety of languages, and nothing, except a colonised mentality, prevents speakers of the indigenous languages of Africa from enriching them in similar fashion.
Unshackling contemporary scholarship in Africa from Western hegemony
In The Invention of Africa, V.Y. Mudimbe is particularly unhappy that, long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage:
The fact of the matter is that, until now, Western interpreters as well as African analysts have been using categories and conceptual systems which depend on a Western epistemological order. Even in the most explicitly “Afrocentric” descriptions, models of analysis explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, refer to the same order.
This sorry situation, Mudimbe tells us, is partly due to the fact that “[S]ince most African leaders and thinkers have received a Western education, their thought is at the crossroads of Western epistemological filiation and African ethnocentrism.” He also points out that the structures of the colonial establishment remained firmly in place after formal political independence:
In the early 1960s, the African scholar succeeded the anthropologist, the “native” theologian replaced the missionary, and the politician took the place of the colonial commissioner. All of them find reasons for their vocations in the dialectic of the Same and the other.
Mudimbe further observes that colonialism creates an imaginary African past in a bid to fabricate “the other”, perhaps best exemplified by tourist art. He notes that in this subjugating environment, any solid evidence of science or philosophy in Africa is dismissed by the colonisers, as illustrated by the case of Dogon astronomy which holds that the planets rotate around their axes and revolve around the Sun, but which Western authors such as Carl Sagan explain away as knowledge obtained from a Western visitor to the Dogon. Mudimbe is emphatic that anthropology was specifically designed as a tool of Western imperialist domination with which to paint the peoples of Africa as frozen in a stage of “development” long transcended by Western societies.
A crucial component of a people’s culture is their language; apart from being pivotal to their group identity, it is the storehouse of their accumulated knowledge and wisdom.
According to Samir Amin, current academic programmes in the social sciences in African Universities have been prescribed by the World Bank and allied authorities in order to destroy any capacity to develop critical thought. Unable to understand concrete existing systems that govern the contemporary world, the brainwashed cadres are reduced to the status of “executives” implementing programmes decided elsewhere, unable to contribute to changing that world rejected by their own people. Similarly, Claude Ake observes, “The West is able to dominate the Third World not simply because of its military and economic power, but also because it has foisted its idea of development on the Third World through the institutions and activities of knowledge production.”
The humanities (such as literature, music and philosophy) are not doing any better, as the Western canons continue to enjoy an exalted status in the various disciplines under this category: many philosophers from Africa still take great pride in their knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Mill, and so on, while thinking very little of philosophical works by scholars from their own continent, and much less of the intellectual creations of their compatriots with no Western-type formal education. In like manner, many literary critics from Africa enjoy a sense of great accomplishment from their mastery of European literary classics while tacitly believing that nothing of similar grandeur is to be found among their own peoples. Besides, many scholars in Africa take great pride in having their works published in Western Europe and North America by what they happily refer to as “international journals” and “international publishers”, while considering publications from university presses in places such as Kigali, Dar es Salaam or Harare as of inferior status, thereby continuing to lend credence to the almost hegemonic Western system of knowledge production decades after formal independence.
Yet another important aspect of the hierarchical process of knowledge production has to do with the way in which events are reported. Many think that reports in media such as books, print and electronic news outlets are objective sources of knowledge. However, scholars of critical discourse analysis have repeatedly illustrated that such reports promote the interests of the economically dominant classes. Thus in a capitalist context, the bulk of mass media promotes the interests of the owners of capital. For example, where the police violently stop a workers’ demonstration, the media are likely to report “Four Demonstrators Shot” rather than “Police Shoot Four Demonstrators”, thereby suppressing the fact of who shot them. Similarly, school textbooks covertly and overtly promote capitalist values and advance the view that any challenge to such values is a threat to “stability”.
Long after political independence, African studies continue to be conducted within the colonial framework that views African systems of thought and practice as primitive and savage.
In Fourth Industrial Revolution: Innovation or New Phase of Imperialism?, I pointed out that humanity is currently confronted by a world dominated by artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and blockchain, resulting in a fusion of technologies that is integrating the physical, digital and biological spheres. Think of how all manner of people can determine where you are if you forget your mobile phone “Location” function on, or listen to your conversations and view your actions if you unwittingly allow an app to access your microphone and camera. Already phone manufacturers are including contact tracing apps in their devices, and many phones now have the option of a fingerprint instead of a series of numbers for passwords. Through the enormous power of artificial intelligence (“AI”), all these data are quickly analysed to produce detailed profiles of phone users—where they go, what they like listening to and watching, what they buy, among others. In short, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (“4IR”), privacy is now an illusion. Yet the bulk of these new technologies are owned by large corporations domiciled in the West and East, reducing the peoples of Africa to mere consumers subject to the whims of the owners of the technologies. All this raises the real possibility of a global dictatorship headed by the owners of these technologies reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, and it boils down to who controls knowledge production.
In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker argues that there is a distinctively epistemic type of injustice, in which someone is wronged specifically in his or her capacity as a knower. This is precisely what Western imperialism has subjected the peoples of Africa to. Similarly, in the preface to his celebrated work, Epistemologies of the south: Justice against Epistemicide, Boaventura de Sousa Santos indicates that he seeks to defend three important postulates:
First, the understanding of the world by far exceeds the Western understanding of the world. Second, there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice. Third, the emancipatory transformations in the world may follow grammars and scripts other than those developed by Western-centric critical theory, and such diversity should be valorized.
Nevertheless, there are several encouraging initiatives to address the epistemic injustice in Africa. The valiant struggle of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has consistently pointed out that using African languages in creative writing is an act of decolonising the mind, Kwasi Wiredu, who advocates for the same approach in African philosophy, and the six African philosophers who wrote book chapters in their mother tongues for the edited volume Listening to ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy, are all efforts at challenging the hegemonic Western system of knowledge production. Besides, the research and teaching projects in African languages, African oral and written histories, African oral and written literatures, African music, African art, African philosophy, among others are evidence that a sizeable number of academics in Africa have perceived the problem, and are determined to contribute to the turning of the tide.
Yet several intellectuals who have raised their voices against global capitalism and the attendant hegemonic Western system of knowledge production have borne the brunt of state violence: Samir Amin was forced into exile from his native Egypt in 1960 for his Marxist but anti-Stalinist views; Paulo Freire’s success in teaching Brazilian peasants how to read landed him in prison and a subsequent long and painful exile; Walter Rodney’s exposition of the damage inflicted on Africa by European mercantilism that evolved into capitalism in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa resulted in his imprisonment in his native land of Guyana, and his death as a result of a car bomb blast in Georgetown, Guyana, remains a mystery, as does the plane crush that cut short Claude Ake’s life during the autocratic reign of Sani Abacha in Nigeria; Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Sani Abacha regime in Nigeria, and Wole Soyinka escaped Abacha’s murderous hand by a whisker; Ngugi wa Thiong’o spent time as a detainee without trial in a Kenyan maximum security prison for organising a peasants’ theatre group to perform his anti-capitalist plays, and later went into decades of exile, and the list is much longer than this. Nevertheless, the intellectuals of the exploited and oppressed peoples of Africa must continue to innovate in a bid to contribute towards the true liberation of their continent.
Genocide: The Weapon Used to Keep Ethiopia Intact
First-hand testimonies coming out of Tigray since November 2020 point to a genocide but for Ethiopia to recognise it as such would mean accepting that the unitary Ethiopian polity as envisioned by the Empire of old and its ideological descendants can only come to be through genocide.
Genocide is a heavy word. It not only tells us that crimes have been committed but it is a word specifically designated to describe crimes that are committed because one party has declared that another group of people are less human, and as a result, not only should they not be allowed to continue living, but their capacity for inter-generational existence should be entirely exterminated. Where there is genocide, there is the worst expression of humanity, a hatred that makes perpetrators of genocidal violence believe that they are doing themselves, their communities, and the world at large a service by actively working to kill off the people they have designated as less than human because of their skin colour, their way of life, their ethnicity or other identity.
It was in the wake of a genocide that the United Nations and the other international instruments of political and social accountability that we know today were born. It was not the first genocide that had ever occurred on earth, but a chapter of violence in human history, the Holocaust, that involved a systemic, calculated, and long-term effort to exterminate people from the earth because they were labelled as un-human.
Designers of genocidal campaigns often see themselves, as being, by some intrinsic quality, more worthy and more capable of operating within human faculties such as thinking, feeling, deciding, processing, planning, and dreaming. Although some have argued that the legal definition of genocide refers solely to the physical destruction of all, or part of a group, in the Ethiopian context the term has been used to include the act of destroying a community’s cultural, economic, social, and political power in order to subjugate it to another. This is the sense in which I will use the term in this article.
The word genocide has proliferated in popular Ethiopian political discourse since November 2020, namely because of the war in Tigray, where events in the region have been termed a genocide mostly by the Tegaru diaspora. This essay will attempt to unpack the complicated ways that acts or perceptions of genocide have been utilized by the Ethiopian state and its ideological allies to support its goal: the creation of a unitary state. I will explore Ethiopia’s history of genocide and the present institutionalization of this history; the events that occurred in Oromia in the wake of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa’s assassination; and the collective and institutional denial of the genocide in Tigray.
Ethiopia’s history of genocide
Contrary to the narrative that Ethiopia is the only country on the African continent that was never colonized, Ethiopia itself is a colonial state built on a colonial legacy that involved, like other imperial states, genocide. The process of forming the Ethiopian state involved a power-hungry monarch backed by several European powers expanding into the southern, eastern, and western independent territories and imposing a cultural, social, political, economic, and even spiritual hegemonic order over a vastly diverse people. This required an attempted eradication of already established ways of life—in other words a genocidal pursuit. Where there was resistance, people were simply wiped out. One example of this is the Calanqo massacre of 1887. On 6 January of that year, Menelik II’s army invaded eastern Oromia and indiscriminately killed thousands of Oromo and non-Oromo people. Another example is to be found in the events that took place in Aanolee in 1887.
In the case of the Ethiopian empire, there operates an ideology that purports that Ethiopianism, an Amhara-centred cultural, spiritual, and political worldview, is the superior existence and you can, as a non-Amhara, experience semblances of belonging and power in this paradigm if you do not oppose it with a counter-existence. The goal of the Empire was and still is the control of land and exploitation of resources, and despite the presence of a belief that those that are of a given identity are inherently entitled to manage the economy and rule, the Empire can integrate those willing to assimilate.
The idea of Ethiopia was resisted since its inception. For example, in his book Conquest and Resistance in the Ethiopian Empire, 1880 -1974: The Case of the Arsi Oromo Mohammed Abbas Ganamo describes various military resistances that emerged in response to Menelik II’s efforts to consolidate the lands of southern Oromia into the Ethiopian state. This kind of resistance will continue until there are fundamental changes in the way the state relates to the people, or until the state no longer exists. This is not lost on the architects and beneficiaries of Ethiopianism, and although seemingly unable to forfeit their unitary and ultra-capitalist ambitions, the institutionalization of inclusion and progress is an effective tool used in Ethiopia today to facilitate a real and ongoing genocide.
The most obvious example was the hyper-focus on Abiy Ahmed’s Oromo ethnic identity when he was appointed leader of the transitional government. His appointment was touted as a win for the Qeerroo movement and an antidote to the oppression of the Oromo mass at large. His existence as an Oromo became (and still is) a pacifier used when anyone dares to point out that extrajudicial killings, detention, and other war crimes are taking place with the intention of eradicating Oromos who resist assimilation, refuse silence, and embody a counter-existence.
Another example is the institutionalization of the Oromo thanksgiving festival, Irreechaa. A celebration rooted in the Waaqeefata religion, Irreechaa is celebrated by Oromos of all walks of life, representing the heart of Tokkummaa (unity) amongst the Oromo nation. Being such a strong display of culture, identity, and national unity, Irreechaa has been targeted with violence by previous Ethiopian governments, including, for example, the Irreechaa massacre of 2016. However, in 2021, Irreechaa was turned into an exclusive event that took place in Oromia’s capital Finfinnee. People bought expensive tickets and a special ceremony was held by some small body of water (the Irreechaa ritual requires the wetting of leaves in water). As this took place, the Oromo mass who were trying to participate in the day’s events outside of the bubble created by the state were arrested, beaten, and altogether obstructed from commemorating the event. For Ethiopia to continue as one polity without reckoning with its need to fundamentally change its posture towards the people who live within its borders, genocide will remain an existential need of the state.
The institutionalization of inclusion and progress is an effective tool used in Ethiopia today to facilitate a real and ongoing genocide.
In the early hours after the assassination of singer, songwriter, and civil rights activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa on 29 June 2020, a myriad of events began to unfold in a number of Oromo towns, including Shashamane and Dheera. What happened in the final hours of 29 June and into the morning of 30 June would form the bedrock of a narrative that associates all expressions of Oromummaa (Oromo nationalism) with hatred and violence towards the minority Amhara ethnic group. Eyewitness accounts suggest that the rampage that consumed the town of Dheera was not merely visceral rage ignited by the killing of a hero, but a coordinated and curated campaign involving largely, people who were not from the town itself.
According to an investigation conducted in the days following the incident, eyewitnesses recount that young people involved in the violence were not locals and had access to information that could only have come from local government officials. Who exactly was behind the attacks and what the intended consequences of the attacks were can only be speculated at, but there have been obvious and enduring impacts on the towns in question and on the position of the Oromo and Oromummaa within the state’s larger narrative.
Shashamane was a booming economic centre with investments flowing directly from the international market into the heart of the city, rivalling the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, which is an urban site that has been manufactured to serve a small economic elite. The destruction of Shashamane, a space that exists outside of Ethiopianist cultural and religious hegemony, severely impacted the town’s representation in the international community and successfully diverted investment. As for the social and political impacts, Oromummaa was henceforth marked as a precursor for genocidal violence, as the violence in Dheera and other places was labelled a massacre of a Christian-Amhara minority by a fanatically nationalist, even religious-nationalist, Oromo majority (Oromo being a majority Muslim nation).
Eyewitness accounts suggest that the rampage that consumed the town of Dheera was not merely visceral rage ignited by the killing of a hero.
Although these assertions completely ignore the fact that the violence also targeted Oromos themselves and the fact that Oromo and Amhara communities have been living together peacefully in these towns for decades, this assertion has manipulated the truth that there is dormant social and political unease between these communities that is rooted in unresolved historical trauma and if triggered, violence could erupt.
The creation of perceived genocide sounds like a conspiracy theory, and many were painted as conspiracy theorists whenever analysis suggesting that something strange was going on was offered. But the truth is that there is a pattern. Where Oromo nationalistic ambitions are represented, whether by armed struggle, peaceful resistance, or the act of counter-existence, evidence to suggest that the ambition of the Oromo is to exterminate Amhara people from Oromia emerges in the form of actual dead Amhara civilians. Although impossible to refute an eyewitness statement recounting Oromo people killing non-Oromo people because of their identity without sounding like a callous brute, the truth is that there have never been independent investigations into these killings, and where the accusations have fallen on the Oromo Liberation Army, the group has itself called for such investigations time and time again.
It is also true that this kind of genocidal violence taking place is not a far-fetched idea. The state is aware that what has created a fabric of relative peace and cooperation between Oromo and Amhara people in Oromia is a willingness, at a grassroots level, to live day-to-day life beyond historic trauma. This, though, does not mean that the trauma has been addressed or that it has no present-day impacts on the dynamics of equality and marginalization in the context of the wider Ethiopian state. Instead of taking steps to heal this trauma, the state is using the perception of genocide to create a vacuum that only its unitary, supposedly ethnically transcendent political ideology, can fill.
Conversely, it is difficult to hear the first-hand testimonies that have come out of Tigray and not refer to what has gone on in the region since November 2020 as a genocide. And yet the Ethiopian state and its supporters have pushed to frame the conflict as void of any actors that are targeting Tegaru people because of their identity. If it were to admit that such a thing has occurred, then the very logic that the Prosperity Party’s unitary politics rests on, the logic suggesting that Ethiopia does not care for ethnic identity, would come undone.
What has created a fabric of relative peace and cooperation between Oromo and Amhara people in Oromia is a willingness, at a grassroots level, to live day-to-day life beyond historic trauma.
In the conclusion of the first essay in this series, I noted that the obsession Ethiopia has with a falsified self-image, where it simply cannot do or be wrong, has made denial feel like the only way that it can survive. The other option would be to give up on the dream of a hegemonic nation, but that would require reckoning with deep-seated shame and guilt over what has been done thus far in pursuit of this dream. The collective denies that there is a genocide going on in Tigray because doing the opposite would mean accepting that the unitary Ethiopian polity as envisioned by the Empire of old and its ideological descendants can only come to be through genocide, an act that Ethiopian exceptionalism suggests that the Ethiopian human being is just not capable of.
Not only does the desire to avoid confronting generations of shame and guilt make the Ethiopianist collective unable to call out crimes for what they are, but it also plays a huge role in the cyclical nature of genocidal violence all across the country. I believe that state violence in Ethiopia is viciously perpetual because it is fighting to keep shame at bay. When we cannot release ourselves from the shame of any given past, we do more of the thing that we are ashamed of, with grandeur and excess, in order to normalize these acts to the parts within us that are reeling in shame and to tell the world that “there is no shame here”. What the empire has done to the Oromo over decades, what it is doing to the Tegaru today and the manner in which it is using the lives of innocent Amhara people as the political game is simply genocide weaponized to build economic and political power.
No More Camp: Confident Despite Contradictions
The “no more” narrative is an opportunistic way to hide the fact that Ethiopia is falling apart, and its leaders are spearheading that process.
A bizarre political rhetoric that has emerged in the civil and political spaces in Ethiopia and its diaspora since 2020 asserts that the break-up of the Ethiopian state is in the interests of the West, and more specifically the United States.
While the US and other Western powers and institutions have the means of orchestrating such an outcome while exerting their influence over the fate of less powerful nations, I argue here that, in this political moment, such an outcome cannot be in the interests of the US-centred global order as it relates to Ethiopia as such a move would negate all the efforts to build, via successive Ethiopian regimes, a reliable military and political proxy in the Horn of Africa region.
The narrative suggesting that the US is invested in dismembering Ethiopia into several smaller states has been backed by the Ethiopian government and heavily propagated both in Ethiopia and among sections of its diaspora. Based on conversations I have had with people engaged in other liberation struggles inspired by radical and far-left politics, I have come to realise that this narrative has been gaining traction.
During a conversation with a pro-Palestinian liberation group in Nairobi, they stated that they were not sure where to stand on Ethiopia because, according to them, the US was actively trying to affect the nation’s unity. The question that immediately came to mind was: “How can this narrative be true?” I argue here that a sequence of facts and realities, when arranged in a specific order and looked at from a particular angle, supports the emergence of a narrative that is convincing enough to create such a scenario. This narrative does not reflect the complexity of the socio-political crisis Ethiopia is facing, and nor does it provide any radical solution.
One of the most visible manifestations of this rhetoric is the #NoMore campaign. According to an article published on borkena on 21 November 2021, “The #NoMore campaign was created by a coalition of Ethiopian and Eritrean activists led by former Al Jazeera & CBS journalist Hermela Aregawi. Its central objective is to oppose an alleged Western media disinformation campaign, Western economic warfare, diplomatic propaganda, and active military interventions in Africa in general, and possible ones in the Horn of Africa.”
I do not intend to analyse that campaign here but will touch on it by simply referring to the narrative in this introduction as the “no more” camp narrative. The last bit of context that I wish to add is that I often reference the Ethiopian government of 1991-2018 as being TPLF-led (Tigray People’s Liberation Front). With regard to Ethiopia’s diplomatic, geopolitical and broad security operations at the time, I believe that this was mainly a TPLF project, but when it came to the human rights abuses that took place across Oromia, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) were co-conspirators and were actively involved in the state violence that characterized Oromia from 1991-2018.
After the fall of the DERG regime—an initially popular communist revolution that turned into a deadly dictatorship—the US made its way into the centre of the negotiations between the TPLF, Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) that took place in London in 1991. In these negotiations, I believe that several options existed regarding political arrangements: the formation of two or more confederate states, the formation of a unitary state, or—what became the adopted path—the formation of a multinational federation. The creation of independent states had been the explicit agenda of the OLF when it was formed some 30 years prior. However, it was the EPLF that achieved this goal during the negotiations.
Historical, cultural, linguistic, and political factors, as well as different nations having different experiences with the Ethiopian state and the process of its formation, were priorities that stakeholders at that table needed to address. A multinational federation, organized along ethnic lines, where governing powers were given to the regimes of these ethnic nation-states while the centre remained lean, peripheral, but present, sounded ideal on paper. But one essential component that would determine this structure’s success was missing in the case of Ethiopia as it embarked on its new chapter, and that was a political elite that was earnestly willing to see such devolution of power.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that was formed in the wake of the 1991 negotiations was dominated by the TPLF, and the following 27 years of governance would, in theory, be a multi-national federation, but in practice, an authoritarian, centralized state with regional proxies that enforced a draconian order punishing anyone that embodied nationalisms deviant from Ethiopianism. While the Tegaru people had been victims of the political and cultural centralism of Ethiopianism of previous regimes, the TPLF nonetheless, enforced it as a tool of control, rather than as a tool to facilitate the healthy integration and growth of this new state arrangement formed along the lines of these autonomies. In 1991, the TPLF was the second most powerful military power after the EPLF, and although it claims that altruistic motives drive its engagement in the Global South, in 1991 the US was interested in either further consolidating or expanding its position at the top of the geopolitical ladder—as it still is today.
The US wears well the guise of concern for human rights, this being part of the way in which it asserts its ideological superiority. It is not that US expressions of concern and actions to protect human rights are in and of themselves negative. The “no more” narrative argues that these humanitarian efforts and cries for human rights are often hypocritical because the US is itself an active participant in human rights abuses at home and abroad, and that either its expressions of care or its wilful ignorance of such abuses are always motivated by underlying geopolitical interests. While its backing of the TPLF-led regime in 1991 can be understood from the perspective of realism, sustaining this support for two decades despite consistent evidence of human rights abuses taking place across the country is exactly the kind of hypocrisy that gives the “no more” campaign legs to stand on.
There is a world in which Abiy Ahmed, the current prime minister of Ethiopia, juxtaposed against leaders of the EPRDF, looks very much like the anti-imperialist leader that the non-Western world needs. Abiy Ahmed makes an ideological stance when he remains opposed to human rights-related calls to action from the US, allowing them to fall on deaf ears because it can be reasoned that the US is just exhibiting its habit of lording over the internal affairs of other nations while having blood on its hands.
The US wears well the guise of concern for human rights, this being part of the way in which it asserts its ideological superiority.
Moreover, the US backed multinational federalism in 1991, a political arrangement that Abiy’s regime moved to do away with early on in the transitional period, claiming that it is an invention of ethnic nationalists committed to fostering disunity. This can lead one to another assertion that the “no more” camp makes: that the US’s previous ties with the TPLF are a factor in its current proactiveness within the crisis.
The US-Ethiopia relationship of 1991-2017 is a microcosm of the wider culture of political presence that the US has across the African continent and the rest of the Global South/Eastern world, and if we are talking about significantly less powerful nations (militarily/economically), it also reflects the way the US engages other Western nations. The US has pursued its post-Cold War agenda of consolidating global military and economic dominance by making sure that any regional power that grows, does so under its wing and/or whilst indebted to it.
Along with amassing military and economic power, expecting ideological assimilation is also part of the way the US retains its position as leader over the geopolitical order. To challenge this without sufficient military or economic strength can result in isolating, crippling, or even deadly effects such as in Cuba, Iran and Libya. While taking hit after hit from the US, Abiy has repeatedly asserted that he is resisting the tradition of political manipulation that the US is known for and to protect the right of a developing country to forge its political pathways without interference. He has refused to be swayed by sanctions, a punitive measure that, even if flustering the political and economic elite, usually has far greater impact on the working class of any targeted country. Abiy reinforces what much of Africa sees as Ethiopia’s legacy as a united anti-colonial force, a narrative that itself is full of fallacy. Even if the current Ethiopian context is different (as I will argue below), what lends him credence is that the US approach to Ethiopia has mirrored what it has done in many other parts of the world where, in pursuit of its interests, the US has facilitated the collapse of entire societies in the name of human rights and democracy.
Another narrative that the “no more” camp leans on to create its anti-imperialist façade is the current Ethiopian government’s relationship with Eritrea, while ignoring that Eritrea’s invasion of Tigray and Oromia is an imperial adventure of the Eritrean regime. The Ethio-Eritrean so-called peace deal is hailed as Abiy’s most successful political manoeuvre. The deal falsely propagates the narrative that Abiy’s leadership is the re-emergence of a revolutionary and anti-imperialist vision in Ethiopia because it is at odds with the EPRDF’s hostile military and political relationship with Eritrea. Being on better terms with the west, the EPRDF was widely recognized as the contriver of this hostility, whilst Eritrea was viewed as the victim of it. Although arguing that both regimes have been sanctioned by a geopolitical order that is structurally racist and fascist (which is true), this narrative ignores the fact that Eritrea is a de facto military concentration camp and that its regime is involved in conflicts across the Horn of Africa. Interestingly, among some leftist communities, Eritrea is still perceived as a beacon of revolution because it achieved independence while others opted for a political arrangement endorsed by the US. Abiy uses this narrative to assert his position as a liberationist politician and argues that in targeting his administration, the West is out to the destroy forces of revolution and self-determination in East Africa. It is important to note that the struggle for independence waged by the Eritrean people was truly valiant and revolutionary in nature, although this is not reflected in the country’s leadership today.
Abiy reinforces what much of Africa sees as Ethiopia’s legacy as a united anti-colonial force, a narrative that itself is full of fallacy.
To summarise the picture painted thus far, since the war in Tigray broke out, US calls for action have more or less been aligned with the TPLF’s rhetoric (even though TPLF leaders have also been subjected to US sanctions). A deafening silence on the part of the US regarding the TPLF’s 27-year regime that was toppled in 2018 by popular protests was the norm. The TPLF-dominated governing coalition had completely supported the US’s regional interventions and the relationship that the EPRDF/TPLF had with Eritrea also creates specific storylines.
These historical facts were and are still used by Abiy’s regime as part of the narrative to justify the current war. According to Abiy’s regime and its supporters, Tegaru aggression is part of an effort to dismantle Ethiopia by advocating for federalism, a system that the US backed in 1991, and that is in opposition to the unitary political vision that Abiy is championing that his supporters believe is the answer to complex questions of identity and nationalism in Ethiopia, and which the TPLF and the OLA/OLF are an enemy of. All of the above, arranged in this or similar sequence, strongly makes the case that the US is indeed interested in Ethiopia’s break up, or, at the very least, is backing the parties that have the intention to tear Ethiopia apart.
So, where and how does this narrative fall short?
US efforts since the beginning of the war in Tigray (because they weren’t interested when the war was waged solely and specifically in Oromia) have been geared towards keeping Ethiopia together as one polity. The reason is that this makes it easier to facilitate its interests in the region, and that, on the contrary, it is the consequences of the federal government and its adversaries warring in the north and south that could lead to Ethiopia’s break up. To be clear, I am not arguing for or against Ethiopia’s break-up here. I believe that, for the multitude of communities in Ethiopia to move forward, it is a decision that must be made by the people and that there is no reason to stubbornly insist on Ethiopia continuing as one polity if the people decide otherwise.
When the federal government launched its assault on Tigray in collaboration with Amhara Special Forces and the Eritrean Defence Forces in November 2020, their narrative was that the TPLF had attacked a government military base and a law and order operation would be launched targeting only the leaders of what they called the “criminal clique”. The TPLF, on the other hand, asserts that they were attacked first. Whatever the truth is, what ensued was an ethnically targeted killing spree by government forces, Eritrean troops, and Amhara militia and regional forces that has seen thousands of Tegaru women raped, thousands of people made refugees and thousands dead. Ninety per cent of Tigray’s population requires food aid while ongoing conflict in areas where land is contested between the Amhara and Tigray regions is exacerbating the crisis and the abuses listed above.
It is important to note that the struggle for independence waged by the Eritrean people was truly valiant and revolutionary in nature.
Moreover, just months into the transitional government process, which was supposed to guide the country towards elections after the fall of the EPRDF government in 2018, Abiy’s regime began its campaign against the OLA, a force that has radically increased in number and activity since the assassination of prominent Oromo singer and activist Haacaaluu Hundeesaa in June 2020. During this campaign, government forces have similarly targeted civilians across Oromia. This war intensified after the announcement of the federal and regional governments’ operation against the OLA in April 2022, with the war witnessing scores of civilian massacres across Oromia and an increase in extrajudicial killings by regional and federal forces.
Prior to the military activity that led to the declaration of war in Tigray by the federal government, the decision by the TPLF to proceed with regional elections—despite national elections having been postponed against the backdrop of a discourse suggesting that they would lack fairness and integrity—agitated an increasingly centralizing state. Even if the TPLF were not invested in nurturing genuine multinational federalism when in power, once they lost power following a four-year-long grassroots protest movement dubbed the “Oromo Protests”, that political arrangement became necessary if they were to retain autonomous power. Thus, Tigray’s regional elections could have had the potential to mature the political centre’s (that is, the power centred in Addis Ababa) relationship to relatively autonomous regions. However, instead, the central government opted to take measures to stamp out this “deviance”. In similar fashion, the mere existence of the OLA, and the simple fact of being an Oromo who represents a strong cultural or political will, reflects the same nationalism that the Abiy regime is unwilling to tolerate, and that we see embodied in the act of holding regional elections in Tigray.
The double-edged sword here is that they are at war because there is—and has been since the inception of Ethiopia as a state—institutional misunderstanding of control as unity, and thus a belief that the existence of divergent national, cultural, and linguistic identities will cause disunity. But it is the very war to stamp out this difference that is edging the Ethiopian state closer to collapse.
Interestingly, the US’s diplomatic silence and inaction when the federal government’s offensive was confined to Oromia, an expedition that was first declared during Abiy’s tenure in early 2020, with Ethiopian National Defence Force leaders stating that they would “send the army to crush remaining rebels within 15 days”, supports assertions made by the “no more camp”, while also nullifying the narrative entirely. Human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, massacres, disappearances, arbitrary detention, rape, and sexual violence as a weapon of war have been the norm in Oromia since Abiy took power but this has not been of interest to the US government because, until mid-late 2021, the OLA was not perceived as a military power strong enough to cause any long-term or meaningful destabilization to the state.
Still, even if this pattern of behaviour in the US’s approach supports the assertion that the US only cares about human rights when its interests intersect with blasting the human rights abusers, the OLA’s operations gaining visibility has not warranted a strong or streamlined response to the crisis in Oromia. In my opinion, this is because there is an assumption in Washington that the OLA (representing the largest region and population in Ethiopia) are less inclined to accept political arrangements outside of secession, compared to the TPLF elite—another assumption that rests on the experiences of 1991 and thereafter (although the Tegaru and TPLF contexts differ greatly today given the magnitude of the Tigray genocide). If the US wants to back cessation, it will. Focussing on the government or the military’s human rights abuses is a perfect way for the US administration to back secessionist movements, and when said secession is in the interests of the US for one reason or another, it will deploy all the mechanisms available to it to make it clear that human rights violations are occurring and it must step in like it did in Sudan and South Sudan. The US is not known for its humility when it can use the human rights narrative to pursue its interests; if it wanted Ethiopia to fragment, clear and open support of the OLA would be a textbook move. However, the carefulness and moderation that characterise its approach, when the human rights conditions are some of the worst in the world, strongly suggest that its objective is not Ethiopia’s break-up.
The double-edged sword here is that they are at war because there is—and has been since the inception of Ethiopia as a state—institutional misunderstanding of control as unity.
Imperialism is an issue, and in fact, Ethiopia has a localized manifestation of imperialism that it has yet to address. The anti-imperialist narrative as it relates to the current Ethiopian crisis is a scapegoat for the actual issues that are leading to an inevitable break-up. The war crimes committed daily by an array of actors against anybody that represents an identity that the Ethiopian state considers a threat to its self-image as a cultural, linguistic and religious monolith are paving the way towards the country’s disintegration. I believe that the US backed the formation of a multinational federation in 1991 because it understood that differences needed space to thrive if one polity was to be feasible, and it wanted and needed one large and strong polity in the region with which to collaborate militarily, politically and economically.
Understanding this desire for expansion and consolidation is central to understanding US engagement in 1991 and its subsequent silence as the EPRDF abused power over 27 years. The same reasoning is now informing the US’s current stand regarding the Ethiopian crisis. It does not want to deal with having to reinstate itself as the key neo-power in the region if the country were to break up into many new states—the variables outside of its control would be too many to reckon with—so it is doing what it can to mitigate the crisis. It refuses to admit that there is popular demand for independence within Oromia and Tigray.
One thing the US is doing that could propel the country towards violent disintegration, is watching out for its interests while ignoring the fact that Ethiopia needs to engage in a national dialogue that could result in holding multiple referendums that lead the country either into a chapter of healing as one polity or to peaceful disintegration. Either way, the people must choose, and this kind of consensual nation-building is not something the US backs unless it makes sense for its own interests.
The anti-imperialist narrative as it relates to the current Ethiopian crisis is a scapegoat for the actual issues that are leading to an inevitable break-up.
The Abiy regime and the “no more” camp have taken part of the truth and successfully centred it as the whole truth. If they (the Abiy regime and its supporters) believed that Africans have the agency and means to solve their problems internally, an idea I believe in, then why not do that by reckoning with the fact that the Ethiopian state itself requires a decolonial process that addresses century-long questions of power and identity? Instead, the “no more” camp generally applies the political violence of neo-colonialism to itself by diverting attention from the fact that the conflicts inside Ethiopia that we see today are a result of a colonial legacy.
This article should not be mistaken for an argument in support of US government intervention in Ethiopia, despite such an intervention endorsing approaches like multinational federalism, an arrangement I believe had the potential to offer Ethiopia some healing. Nor is it an argument in support of the US because I have suggested that the US could back secession, a position I have vehemently argued in favour of in the past. Neo-colonialism is real and the US is a leader in using it to expand its political and economic interests as well as its military might. The very fact that the US is a player in the fate of Ethiopia, in whatever direction, should be resisted.
And nor is this article an endorsement for the “no more” camp as radical resistance to war or unfair geopolitics. I believe that the “no more” narrative is an opportunistic way to hide the fact that Ethiopia is falling apart, and its leaders are spearheading that process.
This article is part of a series called Deception, Denial, Dialogue: Fall of an Empire
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