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“We Have Nothing to Eat”: Further Reflections on the Famine in Turkana and the Government’s Food Security Policies

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Famine in Turkana and other Kenyan counties may not have yet caught the attention of the international media, but domestic dissatisfaction with the famine response may force the government to alter its food security policies. The more likely scenario, however, is that this government will, like most Kenyans, pray for the rains, and hope that the food crisis will go away all on its own.

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“We Have Nothing to Eat”: Further Reflections on the Famine in Turkana and the Government’s Food Security Policies
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Images in the Kenyan media of starving people in Turkana County have left many rich and middle class urban Kenyans as shocked as they were in 2011 when a declaration of famine prompted individuals and corporates such as Safaricom and the Kenya Commercial Bank to raise a whopping Sh700 million ($7 million) towards the famine relief effort in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid northern territories. Led by media and corporate celebrities, the Kenyans for Kenya campaign was touted as a sterling example of Kenyans’ self-help (harambee) spirit that did not rely on foreign aid to fix internal problems. (How the funds raised were used, and whether they were successful in averting future famines is debateable, and perhaps the subject of further investigation.)

Images in the Kenyan media of starving people in Turkana County have left many rich and middle class urban Kenyans as shocked as they were in 2011 when a declaration of famine prompted individuals and corporates such as Safaricom and the Kenya Commercial Bank to raise a whopping Sh700 million ($7 million) towards the famine relief effort in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid northern territories.

However, unlike in 2011, there has been no outpouring of largesse from ordinary Kenyans towards the relief effort. Moreover, government officials have been reluctant to declare a disaster, with politicians citing various reasons for the deaths reported in Turkana, ranging from sickness to climate change. When deaths were reported in Baringo County, the deputy president said they were “fake news”. Meanwhile, the head of state has not said a word about the looming catastrophe.

The recognition by some government officials that hundreds of thousands of people in the country might not have enough food has laid bare the gross inequalities that have defined the Kenyan state since independence – devolution notwithstanding – and has brought to the fore the fact that Kenya is still a deeply divided country economically and socially, a fact that Jubilee mandarins are reluctant to acknowledge

The current famine in Turkana and in several other Kenyan counties is perplexing at various levels. Firstly, it is happening at a time when the Jubilee government is congratulating itself for taking Kenya into the digital 21st century and for carrying out a very expensive Sh400 billion ($4 billion) Big Four agenda that includes improving food security.

Secondly, the recognition by some government officials that hundreds of thousands of people in the country might not have enough food has laid bare the gross inequalities that have defined the Kenyan state since independence – devolution notwithstanding – and has brought to the fore the fact that Kenya is still a deeply divided country economically and socially, a fact that Jubilee mandarins are reluctant to acknowledge. It is not lost on many people that while granaries in some parts of the country are overflowing with maize, other parts have no food to eat.

The famine has underscored the fact that there are many parts of this country where people are eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in regions where lack of infrastructure and basic services have exiled communities that are difficult to reach during a crisis

Thirdly, the famine has become evidence of yet another embarrassing scorecard of failed national and county government projects, including non-performing irrigation schemes, non-existent dams and gross neglect of the agriculture sector – all the result of theft or mismanagement of project funds.

Fourthly, the famine has underscored the fact that there are many parts of this country where people are eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in regions where lack of infrastructure and basic services have exiled communities that are difficult to reach during a crisis. After all, droughts do not automatically lead to famine; the recent droughts in the west coast of the United States, for example, did not result in people dying due to hunger. Famine usually means that people cannot afford to buy food, that the food they rely on for sustenance is not available or that the food cannot adequately reach the starving.

The government’s ambivalence towards the food insecurity situation is understandable. Declaring a famine is no easy choice for a government. It is deeply embarrassing for any government to announce a famine because it is an acknowledgement that the government has failed to make the country food secure. Essentially it says that the government not only failed to prevent the famine, but also did not prepare for it, suggesting a lack of leadership in disaster preparedness. Secondly, a declaration of famine in a poor country usually unleashes an international famine relief effort – and no self-respecting government would like to admit that foreign donors and NGOs should do what it should be doing, i.e. making sure that all its citizens have enough food to eat.

Misguided policies and poor governance

I do not know much about Turkana, having never visited the area. To me, it has always seemed like a remote part of the country that is difficult to access. Stories of three-day trips on very bad roads and scary rides to Lodwar on very tiny planes put me off visiting a place that has attracted more humanitarian workers and NGOs than government officials, thanks to the Kakuma refugee camp bordering strife-torn southern Sudan and the Lokichoggio Airport (popularly known as “Loki” among the international NGO and foreign correspondent set) that served as a logistics hub for organisations that used to support rebel movements in Sudan.

The fact that Turkana County attracted the second largest share of devolved funds (after Nairobi) in 2015/2016 has not increased its fortunes. The discovery of oil in the region and images of a stunningly beautiful Lake Turkana have also not made the region more attractive to the vast majority of Kenyans. For people like me, Turkana will for a long time remain the Great Unknown – like north-eastern Kenya and other parts of the country that have remained so marginalised that most Kenyans see the pastoralist people and communities living there as aliens. Our outpouring of sympathy during famines in Turkana is akin to the compassion a Londoner might feel for the emaciated African child he sees in TV commercials by organisations such as Save the Children – shock followed by a small donation. It is embarrassing to think that others might be starving while we gorge ourselves on Kentucky Fried Chicken and pizzas. Forget the fact that most famines are man-made and the result of bad politics and poor governance, not food scarcity.

Alex de Waal, author of Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, shows that in every known case of famine across the world, a breakdown of democratic institutions and lack of freedoms – particularly the right to criticise, publish and vote – have been key reasons for large-scale deaths during a famine.

Deliberate government neglect of a region, censorship of the press and misguided policies have also exacerbated food crises. The 1958 famine in China, for instance, was the direct result of Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” that resulted in the collectivisation of agriculture. The large death toll during the 1943 famine in Bengal, India, was the direct result of the British colonial government’s reluctance to take responsibility for famine relief in its most prized colony. The recurrent famines in Somalia can also be attributed to the breakdown of governance structures and the collapse of farming communities, many of which were massacred or forcibly removed by militias during the country’s civil war.

Countries that successfully deal with a potential famine or food security crises often do so to avert a political crisis. The rising cost of food and other commodities has been the reason for protests in many countries (including in Sudan recently) and many governments respond quickly to the mounting crises in case they lead to full-blown rebellion. Keeping the cost of food low to keep citizens happy is also the reason why European countries and the United States heavily subsidise their farmers.

De Waal shows how in 1985, when the Kenyan government was facing a huge national food deficit, President Daniel arap Moi made a decision to import food commercially, reversing a 1983 policy, and thereby averting a food crisis. Although foreign donors were contributing to the relief effort, Moi took no chances; he knew that a food crisis could provoke dissent against his repressive regime, and he was not willing to risk that happening. Food insecurity is often an indicator of poor governance and can often lead to riots and political unrest. Keeping citizens fed is, after all, a primary responsibility of governments; those that fail to do so risk being overthrown, a fact that Moi was acutely aware of.

Moi then turned the crisis into an opportunity by installing a network of political patronage linked to food supply and distribution. The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPD) became highly politicised and was used to break the power of farmers’ associations and cooperatives, especially in opposition strongholds.

“Senior government officials benefitted both politically and commercially from the monopolistic position of the NCPD,” says de Waal. Cartels in the NCPD and lack of adequate distribution networks made food distribution and supply more politicised. When people died in a famine, the government attributed it to the “backwardness” of local communities, not to the fact that food distribution had become a goody that depended on the whims of Moi’s lackeys on the board.

Moi also used the food shortage crisis as an excuse to postpone critical reforms in the agriculture sector. In his paper, “Markets, Civil Society and Democracy in Kenya”, published in 1992 by the Nordic Africa Institute, Peter Gibbon explains how Moi’s system of ethnicised politics and political patronage worked (and, sadly, continues to work to this day):

“The grain crises…were used as an excuse for appointing a large number of inefficient cooperatives in Luyha areas as agents for the NCPD to the benefit of certain Luhya populist politicians. It was also used to break the power of the Kenyan Farmers’ Association, the main base of the politicians in the Rift Valley independent of Moi. It was thirdly used to consolidate the bases of Moi’s ‘home area’ allies in Nandi by tripling the number of NCPD employees there and increasing farmgate prices to uneconomic levels. Finally, the cost of this predation was transferred to the coffee and dairy farmers in Kikuyu areas, who were forced to transfer the savings accounts of their cooperatives to the Cooperative Bank, which had run up large losses in covering the NCPD’s grain purchases.”

The Mwai Kibaki government that succeeded Moi’s did try to reverse the damage Moi had inflicted on the agriculture sector, but the sector has still not fully recovered from short-sighted policies that sacrificed productivity at the altar of loyalty to the government in power.

To their credit, all Kenyan governments have tried to avoid going the international food aid route to address food insecurity.

The internationalisation of famine relief

To their credit, all Kenyan governments have tried to avoid going the international food aid route to address food insecurity. Though foreign aid is welcomed, the country has generally been reluctant to be part of massive international campaigns that have accompanied famine in places like Ethiopia and Somalia – perhaps because Kenya likes to view itself as the economic powerhouse of the region, not a basket case dependent on foreign aid.

This is a good policy because when international humanitarian agencies come in to provide food to starving people, bad governments are let off the hook, and are allowed to continue with their bad policies that can lead to more famines in the future. “Internationalising” the responsibility of food security to UN institutions, international NGOs and foreign governments makes practically everyone across the globe a stakeholder in famine relief.

“The process of internationalisation is the key to the appropriation of power by international institutions and the retreat from domestic accountability in famine-vulnerable countries,” says de Waal. He says that reliance on international humanitarian organisations has led to the “internationalisation” of famine relief. Governments of poor countries are thus no longer solely responsible for the food security of their citizens; this task has been appropriated by what he calls the “disaster industry” or “humanitarianism international”.

The appropriation of what should ideally be a government’s key responsibility makes governments of aid-receiving countries less accountable to their own citizens. Moreover, when a famine strikes and large numbers of people die, governments can easily blame the lack of foreign aid for the deaths, not poor governance on their part or their failure to put in place systems and programmes that could have prevented the famine in the first place.

Officials of international and local NGOs and UN agencies, like their government counterparts, are also not immune to corruption. “Somebody always gets rich off a famine,” Michael Maren, a former food aid monitor in Somalia, told Might Magazine in 1997. When he was in charge of monitoring food aid donated by the US government to refugees fleeing the Ogaden war of 1977/78, he found that about two-thirds of the food went missing. Trucks would arrive at the Mogadishu port, collect the food and disappear, never to be found again. Even when food arrived at the refugee camps, much of it would be stolen. (Given the track record of Jubilee government officials, it is likely that some of the food donated by the government to Turkana’s starving will also disappear.)

Food aid thus becomes a profitable source of income for criminal elements. Maren believes that international aid not only sustained Siad Barre’s dictatorial regime but also facilitated the dismantling of Somali society. In his book, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity, he quotes a former civil servant working for Somalia’s National Refugee Commission who told him that traditionally Somalis never relied on food aid, even during droughts. There was a credit system: the nomads would come to urban areas and take loans that they would pay back when times were good. Nomads and agriculturalists also shared natural resources. Aid essentially destroyed a centuries-old system that built resilience and sustained communities during periods of hardship. The former civil servant blamed foreign aid for the distortions in Somali society, not the Somalis who responded to the distortions.

Moreover, the international response to famine is more often than not technical, rather than political, with a whole range of experts, from nutritionists to statisticians, brought in to assess the scale of the famine and to offer solutions. Yet, recurrent famines often require a long-term political solution, which is much harder to achieve.

As de Waal emphasises, famine is both a technical and political challenge. Effective prevention and relief measures require a long-term vision, sound planning (based on sound data and research) and good management devoid of corruption, all of which are key elements of good economic policies, which are sorely lacking in the current Kenyan government.

Famine in Turkana and other Kenyan counties may not have yet caught the attention of the international media, but domestic dissatisfaction with the famine response may force the government to alter its food security policies. The more likely scenario, however, is that this government will, like most Kenyans, pray for the rains, and hope that the food crisis will go away all on its own.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Abiy Has Lost His War but Ethiopia Could Reinvent Itself

The conflict has left a weakened nation and it has confronted all Ethiopians with one inescapable truth: they must acknowledge their diversity or risk disintegration.

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Abiy Has Lost His War but Ethiopia Could Reinvent Itself
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A coalition of Ethiopian opposition forces is approaching the gates of the capital, Addis Ababa, following a long, arduous offensive against forbidding odds. The Ethiopian army has effectively disintegrated, partly from major battlefield losses and partly from self-inflicted attrition as the high command weeded out and disarmed troops with ethnic ties to the Tigrayan and Oromo rebels. Addis is expected to fall in a matter of weeks, if not days.

The recent capture of Debre Sina – a town some 200 kilometres north of Addis – by the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) triggered alarms in Addis and beyond. The Ethiopian capital is one of Africa’s vastest metropolises and has a population estimated at over 5 million. Western governments issued a flurry of advisories urging their citizens to leave Ethiopia, while numerous embassies, the African Union and United Nations ordered non-essential staff and dependents to quit the country. The US deployed special forces to nearby Djibouti as a contingency. The Ethiopian government, bizarrely, denounced such measures as malicious neo-colonial propaganda, an affront to national sovereignty, and called for pan-African solidarity in quashing the manifestly domestic insurgency.

Late last week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced he was heading to the front lines to lead combat operations and transferred executive powers to Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen. Two celebrity athletes, Feyissa Lelissa and Haile Gebreselassie, declared they would join the fight to defend the city. The Prime Minister’s apparent willingness to seek martyrdom in battle has inspired tens of thousands of volunteers, drawn from his hard-line “One Ethiopia” support base, to undergo hasty military training and dig trenches around the capital in anticipation of a ferocious – but familiar – grand finale. The war-unto-death martial paradigm has a long pedigree in Ethiopia’s blood-drenched political history. Emperors waged war without quarter and died in battle. It was either conquest or death. PM Abiy’s politics, rhetoric, posture, and self-belief seem almost eerily designed to reprise the country’s dark history.

The conflict in Ethiopia, undoubtedly, is entering its most dangerous phase. But fears of pitched battles in the capital between rival ethnic militias, accelerating the country’s violent slide towards chaos – or even collapse –  may yet prove to be overblown. Abiy’s boastful appetite for battlefield glory was taken down a notch when he appeared in staged videos on state television, supposedly leading troops in Ethiopia’s desolate Afar region, far from the fiercest fighting. Ill-trained and lightly armed volunteers, even in the thousands, are no match for disciplined, battle-hardened TDF troops equipped with heavy weapons and armoured vehicles. OLA units stationed around the capital, though less well-trained or equipped, could diminish any numerical advantage Abiy’s last minute recruiting drive might have achieved. A brief, orderly take-over of Addis Ababa is still possible.

The war-unto-death martial paradigm has a long pedigree in Ethiopia’s blood-drenched political history.

If so, then the battle for Ethiopia’s future will begin in earnest. Abiy and his supporters claim to be fighting to prevent the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from ever ruling Ethiopia again. Ironically, seizing power is the last thing the Tigrayans want. On the contrary many – if not most – have been so horrified by Abiy’s genocidal military campaign, and the enthusiastic support that it received from so many of their compatriots, that they seek even greater autonomy for Tigray, or possibly even secession from Ethiopia altogether. For the TPLF, the seizure of Addis Ababa is a limited strategic objective: a necessary evil to unseat Abiy, lift the devastating siege on Tigray, and secure their population against future threats. With Abiy gone, that will mean the TDF returning to Tigray to confront the Amhara militias occupying Western Tigray and the very real prospect of renewed conflict with Eritrea. The gravest danger to post-Abiy Ethiopia is not that the TPLF will reclaim the reins of government, but rather that they might abandon the capital, leaving the ill-equipped OLA alone to manage a perilous political and security vacuum. Likewise, Abiy loyalists in each of the regional states are also likely to be ousted, cascading uncertainty, instability and, tragically, violence down to the provincial level.

Post-Abiy Ethiopia will be a diabolically difficult country to govern. Abiy’s imperial conceit has unleashed even greater centrifugal forces. Having witnessed the hazards of federal overreach, regional states – with Tigray in the vanguard – are likely to demand even greater autonomy and devolution of powers – including security – to permanently weaken the centre. In some regional states, minority communities like the Qemant and Agaw may in turn demand some form of recognition or special status to protect them from domination and assimilation by ethnic majorities. The political, legal, and constitutional challenges involved in negotiating such radical decentralisation are almost impossibly complex and intensely emotive.

Abiy loyalists in each of the regional states are also likely to be ousted, cascading uncertainty, instability and, tragically, violence down to the provincial level.

International partners not only have a moral obligation, but also a pragmatic political stake in preventing Ethiopia’s descent into chaos. Rather than seeking to freeze the conflict with a ceasefire between implacable adversaries, the international community should concentrate on making the TDF/OLA takeover as orderly as possible, enabling the TDF to withdraw from the capital at the earliest opportunity, and helping to formulate a framework for national dialogue. International assistance will also be required in developing a credible mechanism for transitional justice for victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

A robust transitional justice intervention may be the only way to prevent another full-scale war with Eritrea, holding Isaias Afwerki, his commanders and party officials to account for atrocities committed by their forces in Tigray. But given the sluggishness with which international justice is delivered, and the lack of adequate enforcement mechanisms, this is a problem that the TDF may decide to resolve on their own terms.

Abiy’s war is lost, but Ethiopia is not. This conflict has indisputably left the nation weak, traumatised, and polarised, but it has produced no victor nor left any spoils. And it has confronted all Ethiopians with one inescapable truth: they must acknowledge their diversity or risk disintegration.

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African Citizens’ Letter to the United Nations Secretary General On the risk of genocide in Ethiopia

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An Open Call by African Intellectuals for Urgent Action on Ethiopia
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We, the undersigned, write on behalf of ourselves, our members across the regions of the African continent and the Diaspora and on behalf of concerned Africans and humanity everywhere, to request you to provide leadership in taking urgent measures to prevent imminent genocide in Ethiopia. Absent such action, we believe that genocide is likely to happen under your watch as the Secretary-General which will be a blot not merely on your record in that capacity but also of our collective humanity at this time. To avert this, we urge you to initiate or take the following steps urgently: –

  1. Work with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to make inventories of all internment centres in Ethiopia and ensure access, monitoring and oversight of conditions therein by the ICRC;
  2. Deploy, without further delay, your Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG), Ms. Alice Nderitu, on an urgent assessment mission into Ethiopia;
  3. Take steps in liaison with Member States to convene a special session of the Human Rights Council on Ethiopia;
  4. Secure a clear Security Council Statement of commitment to the prevention of genocide in Ethiopia and authorization of measures to follow up on that commitment; and
  5. Provide a clear commitment by the Secretary-General to ensuring the prevention of genocide in Ethiopia.

Mr. Secretary-General,

As you may recall, on 21 May 2000, the International Panel of Eminent Personalities (IPEP) on the Rwandan genocide, chaired by Botswana’s former president, Ketumile Masire, submitted its Report to the United Nations through the Secretariat of the Organisation of African Unity. The title of the Report was “Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide”. The Panel transmitted the Report under cover of a letter part of which contained the following words: –

“Indisputably, the most important truth that emerges from our investigation is that the Rwandan genocide could have been prevented by those in the international community who had the position and means to do so. But though they had the means, they lacked the will. The world failed Rwanda.”

Specifically, the Report found that the United Nations “simply did not care enough about Rwanda to intervene appropriately.”

We write because 21 years later, under your leadership, the United Nations does not appear to have taken any of these lessons to heart and the world could be auditioning for yet another preventable genocide in Ethiopia. The evidence is all too glaring: –

  1. A rebel army defined mostly by ethnic identity is marching relentlessly towards the capital city (Addis Ababa).
  2. An incumbent regime, enabled by trappings of international recognition, precariously clings to power through appeals to narrow identity and is programming its populations for a campaign of extermination against populations almost exclusively defined by ethnicity.
  3. Around Addis Ababa, the Federal Government and the Amhara Regional Government are distributing crude arms to neighbourhood and popular militias and programming them for the extermination in the name of self-defence.
  4. At the beginning of November 2021, the Federal Government in Addis Ababa promulgated a state of emergency empowering themselves to intern almost exclusively people of Tigrayan identity. Around Addis Ababa, tens of thousands of Tigrayans have been rounded up and interned in makeshift detention centres – malls, shops, police units, construction sites – just for the crime of who they are or where they come from. The numbers are ambulatory but best reliable estimates indicate the numbers now interned or disappeared could be close to 40,000 and rising rapidly. This is happening also in other major cities around the country controlled by the Federal Government and its allies. These internees are denied basic dignity and are not afforded access to visitation. The internment centres and conditions are equally not under the oversight or monitoring of any independent institutions.
  5. While all these happen, the United Nations and the African Union as a regional arrangement under Article 52(1) of the UN Charter, have failed to take any concrete steps to prevent the real likelihood of imminent mass extermination, beginning with all the internees.

Mr. Secretary General,

  • On 5 February 2021, your own Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG), Ms. Alice Nderitu expressed “alarm” at “the continued escalation of ethnic violence in Ethiopia and allegations of serious violations of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in the Tigray region”, including “attacks against civilians based on their religion and ethnicity as well as serious allegations of human rights violations and abuses including arbitrary arrests, killings, rape, displacement of populations and destruction of property in various parts of the country.”
  • On 30 July 2021, your own SAPG, Ms. Alice Nderitu, “condemned inflammatory statements used by top political leaders and associated armed groups. The use of pejorative and dehumanizing language like ‘cancer’, ‘devil’, ‘weed’ and ‘bud’ to refer to the Tigray conflict, warning that “hate speech, together with its propagation through social media is part of a worrisome trend that contributes to further fuel ethnic tensions in the country.”
  • In their Joint Investigation Report issued on 3 November, 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission found that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that a number of (…) violations may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
  • On 8 November 2021, your own SAPG, Ms. Alice Nderitu, communicated that she is “gravely concerned at the deterioration of the situation of Ethiopia, where escalation of violence, increased incidence of ethnically and religiously motivated hate speech, displacement of populations and destruction of property display serious indicators of risk of commission of atrocity crimes.”

It is quite clear that if Addis Ababa should come under threat of falling to the rebel army, the internees – wherever they are held – would, under current conditions, be liable to be exterminated. This is easily foreseeable. It can also be prevented.

We further note the alarming evidence of the likelihood of (continued) perpetration of other serious crimes under international law on populations including extermination, torture, rape and persecution.

The United Nations under your leadership can surely stop history from repeating itself. You have the means to do so but time is running out and posterity will be brutal in its judgement of your tenure if, despite the clear notice with a calendar, this genocide is not prevented.

Yours Sincerely,

Signed by the following institutions and individuals as at 5.00 p.m. (East African Time) on Friday 26th November 2021

A – Institutions

  1. Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG)
  2. African Initiative for Peacebuilding, Advocacy and Advancement (AfriPeace), Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria
  3. African Union Watch, Banjul, The Gambia
  4. Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA), Kampala, Uganda
  5. Cameroon Women’s Peace Movement (CAWOPEM)
  6. Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Nigeria
  7. Coalition burundaise des defenseurs des droits de l,home (CBDDH), Burundi
  8. Coalition des Defenseurs des Droits Humains du Benin, Benin
  9. Coalition Malienne des Défenseurs des droits de l’homme, Mali
  10. Coalition Togolaise des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (CTDDH), Togo
  11. Coalition Burkinabè des Défenseurs des droits humains (CBDDH), Burkina Faso
  12. Coalition Ivoirienne des Défenseurs des Droits de l’Homme, Côte d’Ivoire
  13. Coalition for an effective African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACC), Arusha, Tanzania
  14. Le Forum pour le Renforcement de la société civile (FORSC), Burundi
  15. Gender Centre for Empowering Development (GenCED)
  16. Hope Advocates Africa (HADA)
  17. Human Rights Defenders Network Sierra Leone
  18. Institut des Médias pour la Démocratie et les Droits de l’Homme (IM2DH)
  19. International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Kampala, Uganda
  20. Mouvement des Femmes et Filles pour la Paix et la Sécurité au Burundi, Burundi
  21. Mozambique Human Rights Defenders Network
  22. Nawi – Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective, Nairobi, Kenya
  23. Network of Independent Commissions for Human Rights in North Africa
  24. Nigerian Human Rights Defenders Focal Point, Nigeria
  25. Pan African Citizens Network (PACIN), Nairobi, Kenya
  26. Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), Arusha, Tanzania
  27. Réseau des Citoyens Probes (RCP), Burundi
  28. Réseau des Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale
  29. Réseau Nigérien des Défenseurs des droits de l’homme
  30. Réseau Ouest Africain des Défenseurs des Droits Humains
  31. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (Southern Defenders)
  32. Tax Justice Network Africa (TJNA), Nairobi, Kenya
  33. Victim Advocates International (VAI), Nairobi, Kenya
  34. Youth Forum for Social Justice

B – Individuals 

  1. Achieng AKENA, Executive Director, International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Kampala, Uganda
  2. Ida BADJO, Togo
  3. Joseph BIKANDA, Cameroon
  4. Professor Danwood CHIRWA, Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town, South Africa
  5. Maître Francis DAKO, Lawyer Benin
  6. Caryn DASAH, Cameroon
  7. Donald DEYA, Chief Executive Officer, Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), Arusha, Tanzania
  8. Adaobi EGBOKA, Human Rights Lawyer, Nigeria
  9. Chibuzo EKWEKUO, Lawyer, Abuja, Nigeria
  10. Hannah FORSTER, Chairperson, CSO Coalition on Elections, Banjul, The Gambia
  11. Immaculée HUNJA, Mouvement des Femmes et Filles pour la Paix et la Sécurité au Burundi, Burundi
  12. James GONDI, Human Rights Lawyer, Nairobi, Kenya
  13. Ibrahima KANE, Lawyer, Senegal
  14. Naji Moulay LAHSEN, Morocco
  15. Bonaventure N’Coué MAWUVI, Togo
  16. Alvin MOSIOMA, Executive Director, Tax Justice Network Africa (TJNA), Nairobi, Kenya
  17. Vera MSHANA, New York, United States of America (USA)
  18. Salima NAMUSOBYA, Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), Kampala, Uganda
  19. Stella W. NDIRANGU, Human Rights Lawyer, Nairobi, Kenya
  20. Dismas NKUNDA, Executive Director, Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA), Kampala, Uganda
  21. Bahame Tom NYANDUGA, Chairman ad interim, African Union Watch, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
  22. Professor Chidi Anselm ODINKALU, former Chairperson, National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria, Abuja, Nigeria
  23. Gladwell W. OTIENO, Nairobi, Kenya
  24. Charles Donaldson OGIRA
  25. Dr. Feyi OGUNADE, Executive Director, African Union Watch
  26. Silas Joseph ONU, Convener, Open Bar Initiative, Nigeria
  27. Caylen SANTOS, The Shalom Foundation, Franklin, TN
  28. Crystal SIMEONE, Nairobi, Kenya
  29. Mélanie SONHAYE KOMBATE, Togo
  30. Arnold TSUNGA, Lawyer, Zimbabwe
  31. Rosalie Wakesho WAFULA, Lawyer, Kenya

With copies to:

Ms. Michelle Bachelet Jeria
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
Geneva, Switzerland

Mr. Peter Maurer
President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Geneva, Switzerland

Ms. Alice Wairimu Nderitu
United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG)
United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect
New York, United States of America (USA)

Ms. Karen Smith
United Nations Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect
United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect
New York, United States of America (USA)

Mr. Parfait Onanga-Anyanga
United Nations Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa
Office of the Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa

Ms. Hanna Serwaa Tetteh
Special Representative of the United Nations to the African Union and Head of the United Nations Office to the African Union
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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Joint UN, Ethiopia Atrocities Report: Poison Fruit of Poisonous Tree

By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation.

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Joint UN, Ethiopia Atrocities Report: Poison Fruit of Poisonous Tree
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The joint United Nations (UN) and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation is like a ham omelette: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. In this investigation, the UN only reluctantly became involved in demonstrating its efforts in investigating atrocity crimes, while the EHRC was committed to defending the government of Ethiopia – the architect of the war on Tigray.

Various reports on the investigation into atrocity crimes committed in Tigray are expected to be released in the coming weeks.

The report of the joint UN and EHRC investigation was released on 3 November 2021. The much-anticipated report by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the determination by the United States government on whether genocide against Tigrayans has been committed, are also expected to be released in the near future. These reports will be markedly different from the discredited report of the joint investigation.

The joint investigation’s report failed to establish facts because the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) had no access to the location it purported to cover and where most of the crimes are presumed to have been committed. Due to what the report calls “challenges and constraints”, the joint investigation was unable to access atrocity zones. It also underreported on, and failed to include, infamous atrocity zones in Tigray, including Axum, Abi Addi, Hagere Selam, Togoga, Irob, Adwa, Adrigrat, Hawzen, Gijet, and Maryam Dengelat as well as the Tigrayan bodies that washed up in Sudan on the Nile River. As in most cases, the worst atrocity zones in Tigray were located in active battlefields. Yet, the investigators were able to visit and interview witnesses in parts of Tigray that had been ethnically cleansed.

Victims side-lined 

Moreover, the report downplayed the concerns of victims. The UN Basic Principles on Right to Remedy and Reparations, under Principle 8, define victims as:

[P]ersons who individually or collectively suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that constitute gross violations of international human rights law, or serious violations of international humanitarian law. Where appropriate, and in accordance with domestic law, the term “victim” also includes the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim and persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress or to prevent victimisation.

The final report did not include the findings of extensive interviews that the UN conducted with Tigrayan refugees from the second week of November 2020 through to the end of December 2020. These interviews were held in refugee camps in Sudan, with victims and witnesses of human rights violations of various kinds and to different degrees. According to some informants, the report was submitted to Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in January 2021. However, for unclear reasons, the findings of this investigation have not yet been made public, and there is no mention of it in the joint report. Informants say that few staff members of the Office of The High Commissioner for Human Rights in Addis Ababa raised questions regarding the integrity of the investigation carried out by their colleagues in Sudan.

The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded. Instead, the UN issued the report authored jointly with the EHRC while concealing the report its office in Sudan had produced earlier. This amounts to subversion of investigations and victims’ right to truth and remedy – a violation of international law.  Reports indicate that the government of Ethiopia curtailed the UN’s role in the investigation including by expelling one of the UN investigators.

Witnesses were reluctant to participate in an inquiry involving the EHRC. As one of the challenges, the report mentions the “perceptions of bias against the EHRC in some parts of Tigray where some potential interviewees declined to be interviewed by the JIT because of the presence of EHRC personnel”. This is a deliberate understatement.

Tigrayan victims and Tigray authorities rejected the joint investigation from the outset and declared their non-cooperation. In a recent report the Guardian asserts, “Especially damaging has been the growing perception among Tigrayans, about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, that the commission is partial towards the federal government and hostile to the TPLF.”

The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded.

Victims are right to fear reprisals by Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces, and this fear silenced many and reinforced victims’ non-cooperation since the EHRC was involved. Conversely, perpetrators believe they can get away with their crimes when the EHRC is leading the investigation.

A principal at the core of the concept of justice is redressing the wrongs done to victims. The interests of victims should thus remain central to any investigation. In Tigray, women are the principal victims of the war, and a deliberate campaign of rape and sexual violence has been as typical as murder.

By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation. Justice entails that victims have the right to the truth and that those responsible for victimising people are held to account for their actions in a transparent fact-finding process and held liable for remedying the harm caused. The truth of what occurred should be established through the verification of facts and full public disclosure.

Bad start

The joint investigation started on the wrong footing. The basis on which the decision to constitute a joint investigation was made, the terms of reference, the selection of the investigators, and the agreement between the UN and the EHRC have never been made public, despite many requests. They remain shrouded in secrecy.

Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia. Others argue that such a joint venture would help build local and national capacity for investigation. It is heartless to think of building local capacity at the expense of victims of mass atrocity crimes (rape, killings, displacement and destruction of livelihoods). In effect, in this investigation, though committed to addressing atrocity crimes, the UN has been allowed to play second fiddle to personalities of a national system. The UN offered a façade of independence and impartiality to the investigation. The decision to conduct this joint investigation politicized a process that could and should have been de-politicized.

Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia.

Given that a general situation of war, chaos and a breakdown in law and order has been deliberately created in Tigray to systematically and systemically commit atrocities, destroy infrastructure and loot property, fears of reprisal are real. Consequently, the victims had little confidence in the joint investigation’s impartiality, capability and mandate to establish the truth, let alone identify perpetrators – particularly those holding the highest offices of command, control and communication.

Pleas unheeded 

For these reasons, many Tigrayans denounced the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for involving the EHRC. The investigation was, from the start, designed to fail the Tigrayan victims. Tigrayans consistently called for the UN to establish an international commission of inquiry equipped to investigate crimes of such magnitude and gravity.

What is more, the report subverted the core aim of a standard investigation. Investigations and findings should be based on verifiable evidence collected from the ground without any involvement from the parties to the conflict and institutions accused of bias. The UN also failed to follow its guidelines and precedence of establishing independent and international commissions of inquiry or international fact-finding missions, as it did in Burundi, South Sudan, Gaza, Syria, Libya, Sudan (Darfur), Côte d’Ivoire, and Lebanon. These exemplary investigations were comprehensive and served as historical records of grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, offered the victims truth, and ensured the legal and political accountability of those responsible. In addition to holding criminals accountable, such investigations are supposed to help in restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and above all, guarantees of non-repetition of violations.

One asks why the UN thinks the atrocities committed in Tigray are less deserving.

False equivalence

All investigations need to include all alleged violations by any party. The prosecution also needs to include all responsible parties to ensure that no justice is victor’s justice. This is not only the right thing to do but also the most effective method of legitimizing the process, ensuring accountability, providing remedies, and fighting impunity. However, such a process should not apply bothsidesism as a method of investigation and attribution of culpability.

Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators. There are more paragraphs about calls for the cessation of hostilities, reconciliation, and capacity building than accountability, attribution of culpability, and ending impunity. The report is crafted in a manner that covers up the ringleaders of the crimes, softens accountability, advances recommendations that permit impunity in the name of reconciliation, and establishes false equivalence among warring parties. One paragraph in the report, for example, states, “International mechanisms are complementary to and do not replace national mechanisms. In this regard, the JIT was told that national institutions such as the Office of the Federal Attorney General and military justice organs have initiated processes to hold perpetrators accountable, with some perpetrators already having been convicted and sentenced.” The report advances proposals on non-legal issues including political causes of the war, humanitarian consequences and capacity building of EHRC.

Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators.

It is bizarre that the UN believes that the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Attorney General of the Government of Ethiopia can ensure accountability. The Ethiopian National Defence Force is a principal party in the war, and the Attorney General remains the chief architect of massive profiling of Tigrayans living outside Tigray, rounding up Tigrayans and leading the campaign for their internment. Like the EHRC, the Attorney General has no prosecutorial independence to hold officials of the Ethiopian government accountable.

Furthermore, many Ethiopians see only the victimization of their own group and not what their side has done to others. Dialogue, reconciliation and peace cannot be achieved while every fact is disputed. This report adds to the fierce dispute around the facts. For this very reason, many will continue to reject the report – as they did the investigation.

Victims’ demand

Overwhelming segments of the Tigrayan society reject the joint report. In particular, Tigrayans demand that the UN conduct its investigations, revealing Tigrayans’ high expectations of the UN’s ability to establish the truth based on which justice can be served.

Given the recent leaked audio recording that reveals the conspiracy against Tigrayans by some of the leaders in the UN Ethiopia office, one is forced to ask why Tigrayans have such high hopes in the UN. Many are left with no option but to reject outright the poison fruit of the so-called joint investigation, much as the victims, their families, the survivors and the Tigrayan community at large have done. By disregarding repeated calls for an international commission of inquiry, the UN has missed an opportunity for an empathetic and purposeful connection with the actual victims of the war.

Many atrocity situations such as in Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, and Burundi have been visited by the highest level officials of the international community. The highest-level officials of the UN, AU, IGAD and the US and EU leadership should travel to Tigray and other war-torn areas of Ethiopia. Even if permission from the government of Ethiopia for such high-level visits would have been difficult to secure, such attempts by high-level officials to visit the region would have demonstrated at least personal compassion and solidarity with victims. Such visits would have been viewed as both a symbolic and tangible commitment of leaders to end the war and the siege, and address impunity.

In the interests of the victims – and to place them at the centre of UN’s human rights work – the UN should authorize a UN-mandated commission of inquiry to investigate the atrocity crimes committed in Tigray and in other parts of the country.

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