Every time there is a crisis in Kenya, the country’s fault lines begin to show, whether it is inefficient or corrupt institutions or a leadership that is only interested in its own survival.
During the deeply polarised 2013 and 2017 elections, for example, Kenya’s electoral body showed itself to be either unable or unwilling to conduct fair and transparent elections. Corruption scandals involving past and current electoral commissioners failed to get the commissioners removed, and questions about the validity of the tallying process have not yet been fully answered.
During the Moi regime, as the country’s economy stagnated under the weight of corruption and economic mismanagement, the judiciary proved to be an enemy of the people, always siding with the corrupt. Kamlesh Pattni, one of the masterminds of the Goldenberg Scandal, which almost brought the country to its knees, remains a free man to this day.
After the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in September 2013, Kenyans were horrified to learn that instead of subduing the terrorists and helping hostages within the mall to escape, security officers, including the Kenya Defence Force, had gone on a looting spree in the mall, whose shops were emptied of nearly everything during the four-day siege.
Kamlesh Pattni, one of the masterminds of the Goldenberg Scandal, which almost brought the country to its knees, remains a free man to this day
Under the debt-ridden Jubilee administration, Kenyans have watched their standard of living deteriorate considerably as the promised economic growth fails to reach the majority of the country’s population and as mega scandals, including importation of contaminated food and daylight robbery in government institutions, continue unabated. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s promise to bring corrupt individuals—including the “big fish”—to book has yet to result in convictions or to gain the trust of a cynical citizenry for whom corruption has become a way of life, thanks to the myriad bribes demanded every time they want a government service. With rising Chinese debt and now the coronavirus pandemic, Kenya’s economic future looks even bleaker.
But no matter what the crisis, the Kenya Police is the one institution that consistently fails to live up to its promise and motto (Utumishi kwa Wote – Service to All), as was demonstrated on 27th March when a nationwide indefinite curfew was imposed from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. Images of Kenyans being badly beaten and humiliated by police officers minutes after 7 p.m. began surfacing on social media. “The curfew has worsened the security in the country. The police are part of the insecurity. Chaos ahead”, posted a Kenyan on Twitter.
As with all types of police brutality in the country, the victims were mostly the poor. Informal settlements in Nairobi and other cities bore the brunt of police brutality during the curfew. (The clueless officers who beat up people with batons seemed completely unaware that they were putting their own lives at risk by violating the “social distancing” directive.)
“The curfew has worsened the security in the country. The police are part of the insecurity. Chaos ahead”
The level of the violence against civilians has once again underscored how poorly trained Kenya’s police “service” is and why it is the most dreaded institution in the country. While in other countries people run to the police for help, in Kenya, at least since the Daniel arap Moi “police state” days, most Kenyans, upon seeing a police officer, run the other way to avoid having to pay a bribe or being arrested on flimsy grounds. Stories of police officers actually assisting people in times of distress or during a crisis are few and far between. We hear of police reforms and “people-friendly” police uniforms, but we have yet to see their results. Police recruitment exercises are so riddled with corruption and rigging, it is not surprising that those who end up as police officers hardly qualify for the job.
Over the years, Kenyans have also become accustomed to riot police turning cities, and in particular low-income neighbourhoods, into battle zones. Officers who kill using live bullets are hardly ever prosecuted. Kenya is notorious for extrajudicial killings (mostly of young men in informal settlements) by the police, a fact that has also been highlighted by international human rights organisations. The Independent Police Oversight Authority—a body created by Kenya’s new constitution to keep police excesses in check—appears to be impotent in the face of all these human rights violations, partly because it has no authority to prosecute.
Police stations in Kenya are known for bribe-taking, and there have been reports of victims of crime being jailed instead of their statements being taken. As always, the poor, those without legal representation and the most vulnerable, such as street children and women vegetable hawkers, end up in police cells.
Meanwhile, the response of the police to the public outcry against the brutality inflicted on Kenyans during the curfew has been contemptuous and insensitive. The police spokesperson and other government officials have essentially blamed Kenyans for bringing the violence upon themselves by disobeying the curfew. Charles Owino, the police spokesperson, derided a news anchor for daring to ask him what instructions the police had been given to enforce the curfew, even suggesting that Kenyans are like “children” who need to be “disciplined”—an attitude reminiscent of the British colonial administration.
The worst part is that the people who were attacked by the police were not deliberately defying the curfew; many were just caught up in the transport chaos and delays precipitated by the curfew and “social distancing” directives. Some using the Likoni ferry in Mombasa found themselves in an unusual situation where the ferries (which have proved to be a dangerous mode of transport in Kenya due to their age and state of dilapidation—another consequence of corruption) had been overwhelmed. A man using the ferry who was badly beaten by the police died from the injuries inflicted on him.
It again feels as if the country is in the midst of a civil war. In 2007-08, as the country was hurtling towards what appeared like a civil war, the police unleashed violence on innocent civilians simply because they could. Traumatised Kenyans who hoped that the presence of police officers and other security agents would protect them from the post-election violence that had engulfed many parts of the country were in for a shock: the police turned against them, shooting innocent people whose only fault was that they happened to be in the “wrong” neighbourhood. Who can forget the image of the young man who was shot and killed in January 2008 by anti-riot police in Kisumu? Or those of people in Kibera and Mathare being shot at and teargassed for no reason other than that they were protesting?
The Waki Commission and human rights reports found that a large number of the casualties during that period were the result of police or security officers’ bullets. When the nation is in a crisis, the police turns against civilians. During the last election, civilians, including children, were shot at randomly. One baby lost her life.
The reality on the ground
The government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has so far been swift. The health ministry has kept citizens informed of the spread of the virus in the country and the steps taken to quarantine people arriving from abroad, though I am not sure about the value of a night-time curfew if people can mingle during the day. The closure of bars and restaurants, in my view, was sufficient to impose a curfew on those who are likely to spend their evenings outside the home socialising.
President Kenyatta also announced a raft of tax breaks for the poorest percentile, and reduced VAT on items. These are praiseworthy efforts, but like India, which imposed a nationwide lockdown, and has seen the mass exodus of informal workers from cities such as Mumbai and New Delhi (some of whom were sprayed with bleach by the authorities when they returned to their villages), the government has failed to factor in the reality of the majority of citizens’ lives. What does a tax exemption mean to a hawker or a construction worker whose earnings have dwindled to next to nothing as a result of the curfew and social distancing directive? What does working from home look like to someone whose house is a cramped shack in a slum? How does someone who does not own a fridge stock up for a week or more? What do the majority of people in the informal sector do to earn a living when their work is dependent on people not social distancing? How will small businesses where each customer counts survive?
This is not to say that Kenya is exceptional and should not learn from other countries facing the same crisis. The United States and Italy were slow to respond to the pandemic, and as a result, are likely to see many casualties that could have been avoided. (In the interest of humanity, President Donald Trump should lift sanctions against Iran, which is facing a growing coronavirus crisis.) But any directive to handle the crisis must be made bearing in mind the reality on the ground. It would be a shame if more people in Kenya died, not because of the virus, but because they starved to death or because of a preventable illness. Already in India analysts are predicting that malnutrition and starvation levels are set to rise in the country, where more than 80 per cent of the workforce is informal. We must also not forget that there are other diseases in Africa that are likely to kill more people than COVID-19. About 400,000 people in Africa die from malaria each year.
There are things the government can do to take into account the reality of Kenyans’ lives. For instance, instead of relying on an unreliable, corrupt and brutal police service, citizens should be encouraged to monitor their own communities and neighbourhoods. Kenyans willingly abided by the social distancing directive, so it is likely they will voluntarily obey a curfew. If the police is called in to enforce the curfew, it should be instructed not to use violence; those disobeying the instruction should be disciplined.
Secondly, if containment is a strategy to stop the spread of the virus, then people could easily be tested in situ. Mass testing has proved to be extremely effective in countries such as South Korea and Germany. Mobile clinics could go around cities and villages providing this service. Those found with the virus could be quarantined, while those free of it could be allowed to continue with their daily lives—but within certain limits.
Instead of relying on an unreliable, corrupt and brutal police service, citizens should be encouraged to monitor their own communities and neighbourhoods
The United Nations and other international organisations are already mobilising funds for poor countries to help them deal with the crisis. Could these funds be used for mass testing in countries like Kenya? (On the other hand, in times of disaster UN and other donor funds have been known to be diverted to non-target groups, so this is something we should bear in mind. It would be a shame if funds sent to Kenya end up in the wrong hands, as they did when some funds meant for HIV/AIDS patients ended up being stolen by the funds’ managers.)
There is no doubt that the crisis we are now facing is unprecedented. But it would be a double tragedy if the pandemic were to end up killing not just those who have the virus, but also those who cannot afford to eat because they have no source of income. President Kenyatta has said that he has set aside a kitty for poor and vulnerable groups. The question that is on everyone’s mind is: How can we trust a government that has been notorious for stealing from the mouths of babes to implement any kind of cash transfer programme when those in charge might be tempted to steal some or all of it? And how will these vulnerable people be identified given that the country, including government departments, has virtually come to a halt?
At a time like this we should not be questioning our government, or the police. But because we live in Kenya, these questions appear normal in these abnormal times. Will Kenya rise to the occasion and finally fix all that is broken, starting with the police? Will the coronavirus pandemic offer us an opportunity to save us from ourselves?
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We Must Democratize the Economy
In the UK, prices for basic goods are soaring while corporations rake in ever-bigger profits. The solution, Jeremy Corbyn argues, is to bring basic resources like energy, water, railways, and the postal service into democratic public ownership.
On Thursday, December 15, the Royal College of Nursing went on strike for the first time in their 106-year history. Understaffed, underpaid, and overworked, tens of thousands of National Health Service (NHS) nurses walked out after being denied decent, livable pay rises. Hailed as heroes one year, forced to use food banks the next, nurses’ wages have fallen more than £3,000 in real terms since 2010; three in four now say they work overtime to meet rising energy bills.
People will remember 2022 as the year that the Conservative Party plunged this country into political turmoil. However, behind the melodrama is a cost-of-living crisis that has pushed desperate people into destitution and the so-called middle classes to the brink. We should remember 2022 as the year in which relative child poverty reached its highest levels since 2007 and real wage growth reached its lowest levels in half a century. (Average earnings have shrunk by £80 a month and a staggering £180 a month for public sector workers.) These are the real scandals.
For some MPs, this was the year they kick-started their reality TV careers. For others, this was the year they told their children they couldn’t afford any Christmas presents. For energy companies, it was the year they laughed all the way to the bank; in the same amount of time it took for Rishi Sunak to both lose and then win a leadership contest, Shell returned £8.2 billion in profit. SSE, a multinational energy company headquartered in Scotland, saw their profits triple in just one year. Profits across the world’s seven biggest oil firms rose to almost £150 billion.
Tackling the cost-of-living crisis means offering an alternative to our existing economic model — a model that empowers unaccountable companies to profit off the misery of consumers and the destruction of our earth. And that means defending a value, a doctrine, and a tradition that unites us all: democracy.
Labour recently announced “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people.” I welcomed the renewal of many of the policies from the manifesto in 2019: abolishing the House of Lords and handing powers to devolved governments, local authorities, and mayors. These plans should work hand in hand, to ensure any second chamber reflects the geographical diversity of the country. If implemented, this would decentralize a Whitehall-centric model of governance that wastes so much of this country’s regional talent, energy, and creativity.
However, devolution, decentralization, and democracy are not just matters for the constitution. They should characterize our economy too. Regional governments are demanding greater powers for the same reason an unelected second chamber is patently arcane: we want a say over the things that affect our everyday lives. This, surely, includes the way in which our basic resources are produced and distributed.
From energy to water and from rail to mail, a small number of companies monopolize the production of basic resources to the detriment of the workers they exploit and the customers they fleece. We rely on these services, and workers keep them running, but it is remote chief executive officers and unaccountable shareholders who decide how they are run and profit off their provision. Would it not make more sense for workers and consumers to decide how to run the services they provide and consume?
As prices and profits soar, it’s time to put basic resources like energy, water, rail, and mail back where they belong: in public hands. Crucially, this mold of public ownership would not be a return to 1940s-style patronage-appointed boards but a restoration of civic accountability. Water, for example, should be a regional entity controlled by consumers, workers, and local authorities, and work closely with environmental agencies on water conservation, sewage discharges, the preservation of coastlines, and the protection of our natural world. This democratic body would be answerable to the public, and the public alone, rather than to the dividends of distant hedge funds.
Bringing energy, water, rail, and mail into democratic public ownership is about giving local people agency over the resources they use. It’s about making sure these resources are sustainably produced and universally distributed in the interests of workers, communities, and the planet.
Beyond key utilities, a whole host of services and resources require investment, investment that local communities should control. That’s why, in 2019, we pledged to establish regional investment banks across the country, run by local stakeholders who can decide — collectively — how best to direct public investment. Those seeking this investment would not make their case with reference to how much profit they could make in private but how much they could benefit the public as a whole.
To democratize our economy, we need to democratize workplaces too. We can end workplace hierarchies and wage inequalities by giving workers the right to decide, together, how their team operates and how their pay structures are organized. If we want to kick-start a mass transfer of power, we need to redistribute wealth from those who hoard it to those who create it.
Local people know the issues facing them, and they know how to meet them better than anyone else. If we want to practice what we preach, then the same principles of democracy, devolution, and decentralization must apply to our own parties as well. Local party members, not party leaders, should choose their candidates, create policy, and decide what their movement stands for.
Only a democratic party can provide the necessary space for creative and transformative solutions to the crises facing us all. In a world where the division between rich and poor is greater than ever before, our aim should be to unite the country around a more hopeful alternative — an alternative that recognizes how we all rely on each other to survive and thrive.
This alternative is not some abstract ideal to be imagined. It is an alternative that workers are fighting for on the picket line. Even before the nurses went on strike, 2022 was a record-breaking year for industrial action. Striking workers are not just fighting for pay, essential as these demands are. They are fighting for a society without poverty, hunger, and inequality. They are fighting for a future that puts the interests of the community ahead of the greed of energy companies. They are fighting for us all.
Their collective struggle teaches us that democracy exists — it thrives — outside of Westminster. The government is trying its best to turn dedicated postal workers and railway workers into enemies of the general public — a general public that apparently also excludes university staff, bus drivers, barristers, baggage handlers, civil servants, ambulance drivers, firefighters, and charity workers. As the enormous scale of industrial action shows, striking workers are the general public. The year 2022 will go down in history, not as the year the Tories took the public for fools, but as the year the public fought back. United in their thousands, they are sending a clear message: this is what democracy looks like.
This article was first published by Progressive International
Confidence in Public Institutions Is at an All-time Low
Kenya must raise the bar in service provision now so that we can gain enough ground for our children to enjoy affordable and quality services from public institutions.
When discussing the state of government services, facilities and infrastructure, some Kenyans on social media propose that there should be a requirement for all public officers to use only government services. This would mean that our cabinet secretaries, our parliamentarians and even the president and deputy president (and their families) be restricted to seeking medical services at public hospitals, and to taking their children to public schools, and so on. The proponents of this policy expect that once high-ranking state officers experience the inconvenience other citizens endure in accessing services from public institutions, they would be more intentional about improving service delivery.
A step further would be for such a policy to also cover the counties. Perhaps if governors, senators, and county assembly members were restricted to only using the health facilities in their respective counties, they would commit more resources to ensuring that these facilities are well equipped, and that the human resource is compensated fairly and in a timely manner.
European nations which are often used as a benchmark for development and governance apply this to a good degree. Public services are efficient, and it is common for even the highest-ranking public servants to use public facilities. When former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson contracted COVID-19, he was treated at St Thomas’ Hospital, a National Health Service (NHS) teaching hospital in central London. The NHS is the publicly funded healthcare system of the United Kingdom. This is the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) equivalent, and St Thomas’ Hospital would be the Kenyatta Hospital equivalent.
The parallel I can draw for Kenya is that at least our president completed his PhD studies at a public university. And there are many more cabinet secretaries (CSs), principal secretaries (PSs), ambassadors and parastatal heads who went through public universities and are top performers in their respective dockets. But on the other hand, we also have several governors who sought to attain undergraduate qualification from beyond our borders.
In contrast, we have had a former health minister seek medical services in another country during his tenure at the health ministry (his contributions to improving the ministry and the sector notwithstanding). I highly doubt the children of cabinet secretaries and other politicians, past and present, have been through public schooling up to the university level. And in December 2022, we took it a step further when the National Police Service and the Kenya Prisons Service ended their comprehensive medical coverage with the NHIF, in favour of a private service provider. Confidence in public institutions appears to be at an all-time low, even among other public institutions.
Kenyans are known to have high standards and high expectations. And rightfully so. We are the regional leader (largest economy in the EAC and COMESA in terms of GDP), and we know our potential to become a continental leader by all metrics. However, as we begin a new year under a new administration that just completed its first 100 days in office, I would recommend that we manage our expectations and start at the bare minimum. The bare minimum for me is a request to the recently appointed cabinet secretaries and county executive committee members to ensure human dignity in service delivery. We are years away from that ideal future where the president, cabinet secretaries and all other high-ranking public officers are confident enough in the system to entrust it with their families’ health and with their children’s education. But if we start raising the bar now, we can gain enough ground for our children to enjoy affordable and quality services from public institutions.
I highly doubt the children of cabinet secretaries and other politicians, past and present, have been through public schooling up to the university level.
The bare minimum for healthcare is for all public health facilities to be well equipped and functioning. Kenyans should not have to travel across counties or to the capital for basic medical services, or prefer private medical insurance cover over NHIF. A bare minimum would be county executives being nominated based on qualification and experience, and county staff being appointed based on the needs of the county in the specific functions they oversee.
In road construction, a bare minimum would be to have all tarmacked roads appropriately marked, well paved (with sidewalks/footpaths where required) and well lit.
Kenyans had to complain on social media about the danger of driving on an unmarked Ngong Road (from Junction Mall to Lenana School) for Kenya National Highways Authority (KenHA) and Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) to act. And the action that resulted from the complaints was specific to that section. While driving to Karen on New Year’s Day, I was disappointed to see that the section of Ngong Road from the interchange after Lenana School to Karen roundabout remains unmarked. Even closer to the centre of the capital, sections of Ngong Road and Kenyatta Avenue around the NSSF building are in a similar state. Another problematic road section is the chaos that is Westlands roundabout including the matatu stages on Waiyaki Way on either side of the roundabout. If we are not meeting the bare minimum in the capital, we likely aren’t fairing any better in the counties.
I have no doubt that the transport CS, and the heads of KenHA and KURA all use these roads at least once a week. The least they could do, the bare minimum, is to ensure we can drive safely on these roads at any hour of the day. If the drivers or friends of these top officials are reading this article, please whisper to them (or share this article with them) and remind them that thousands of motorists and pedestrians are a few phone calls away from a significant positive change in road safety.
As a Tigrayan, I Choose Peace over War, Accountability over Impunity
The outbreak of Ethiopia’s war on Tigray brought back deeply rooted childhood memories of the brutality of civil war in Tigray. But Mehari Taddele Maru is determined to use his horrendous childhood experiences for the greater good and contribute to pursuing justice to sustain peace.
It has been almost three months now since the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed the Permanent Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) to end Ethiopia’s Tigray war that has led to over 600,000 deaths. The Biden administration described the agreement as a momentous step, while the European Union extolled the courage of the parties in signing the deal.
The Tigrayan population has endured the worst possible atrocities during the two years of the war in Ethiopia. One would expect the people to be jubilant about this much-touted breakthrough to silence the guns. In Tigray, on the ground, the deal has been met with cautious optimism and hope for a return to normalcy. People like me who have extended family in Tigray, and have seen the war stretch out over more than 700 days, have also breathed a sigh of relief.
Since it began on 4 November 2020, the civil war in Ethiopia has reopened old wounds and created new ones. For over two years, the population in Tigray has come under siege and suffered weaponised starvation. Tigrayans in other parts of Ethiopia have been discriminated against and have been subjected to arbitrary and unlawful detention. By 2021, the detentions had reached what could be described as an industrial scale, and the discrimination continues to this day; Tigrayans have been living in dread every day of their lives.
I am Tigrayan. I come from a family that have been victims of war. This is the third war that has been fought in Tigray in my lifetime. It is genocidal in nature and in its level of ambition, and by far the most devastating of any that I have witnessed. The United Nations International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) reported “widespread acts of rape and sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls. In some instances, the attackers expressed an intent to render the victims infertile and used dehumanizing language that suggested an intent to destroy the Tigrayan ethnicity.” Like the overwhelming majority of Tigrayans, my entire family and I vehemently opposed this war on Tigray since the beginning.
With the experience of the brutality of civil wars deeply rooted in my childhood memories of Tigray, my first response to the war was a call for the immediate cessation of hostilities, and the commencement of a negotiated end to the war. Peace was, and still is, what I, like many Tigrayans, crave.
The harrowing experiences Tigrayans have suffered at the hands of both the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies and Amhara forces for well over two years have brought back painful memories of my childhood. In the 1980s, Tigray was at the centre of a protracted civil war, with the situation worsened by the 1984 Great Ethiopian Famine. My family, like thousands of others, was brutalised by the Ethiopian military regime and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). I was barely seven years old when I experienced catastrophic violations of human rights first-hand. My father and my maternal grandparents were attacked both by the government and by rebel groups and became the victims of forced disappearance by the TPLF. They disappeared, and I never saw them again. They are presumed to have been killed by the TPLF.
On several occasions over the past three decades, my family, individually and collectively, have submitted written and oral demands for redress to high-ranking officials of the TPLF and the government of Tigray. These requests have received no response. Instead, the disappearances have been dismissed as an unfortunate mishap that occurred during a revolt.
So, I empathise with those who, like me, have suffered and continue to suffer due to the civil war waged in various parts of the country.
The persecution of Tigrayans who like myself live outside Tigray is harrowing, and it is happening both on and offline.
As if that were not enough, the state has sponsored a slander campaign in the media, directed at the Tigray elite and other people deemed to be supporting the Tigrayans’ just cause. They have falsely accused me of being a member of the TPLF and of working in the security sector in the previous Ethiopian government. The army of anti-Tigrayan trolls continues with their coordinated character assassination. At one point, hundreds of tweets were posted within a few hours making false allegations that I am an “agent” of the TPLF. The allegations and the formulation of the tweeter character assassinations were the same, only posted from different, newly created Twitter accounts by media networks that are notorious for attacking Tigrayans. It has even been alleged that a think tank was established so that I could head it up and be an advisor to the former government.
The persecution of Tigrayans who like myself live outside Tigray is harrowing, and it has been happening both on and offline.
There have been previous attempts by some media outlets to incite public outrage against me and encourage attacks on my person. Extremist nationalists such as the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, Ethiopia Satellite Television (ESAT), and its splinter group, Ethio-Media 3600, both based in the US, have churned out fabricated reports to assassinate my character. These media outlets are the same ones that called for Ethiopians to “dry the sea and catch the fish” where the sea refers to the people of Tigray while the fish refers to TPLF and the Tigrayan elite, and later publicly called for the mass detention of Tigrayans in concentration camps. They do not care for the truth. They are hell-bent on attacking Tigrayans from all walks of life. No-one is spared, not even His Holiness Abune Mathias, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
It is important to set the record straight. I have never been, nor am I now, a member of any political party. I have never been a government official. The closest I came to being in government was when I served as director in the office of the president of Addis Ababa University. My career, spanning more than two decades, has been spent working in inter-governmental institutions, universities and think tanks.
In principle, though, it is my right to join any political party, including the TPLF. My decision not to join a party or serve in government is both personal and political. As a member of one of the families that have suffered double victimisation in the previous and current civil wars, I decided that my extended family’s quest for justice should not be misused to seek unjust revenge and unworthy political ends.
Unsurprisingly, Ethiopian politics is a pit of hatred and resentment. Political positions are defined and hardened by endless cycles of vendetta and reprisal. In a political campaign to delegitimise the previous government, all outspoken persons of Tigrayan origin and other critical voices have been the target of orchestrated character assassination, often based on fictitious stories.
Political positions are defined and hardened by an endless cycle of vendetta and reprisal.
These character assassination campaigns are in essence part of a bigger political picture in Ethiopia and its longstanding deep-rooted problems, part of what Francis Deng calls a “war of visions”; a struggle for the nature and future of the Ethiopian state.
The bigger picture
Ethiopia faces, on the one hand, the scenario of loose multi-national federalism, where power rests in the hands of the constituent units, not with the centre. This scenario demands not only greater devolution of power and more autonomy, but also confederal arrangements, self-determination, and even, where necessary, independence from the country. As seen with the Tigrayan forces and with Oromo resistance, this scenario is a tangle of a war of survival, a defence against a predatory state, and a quest for self-determination and self-rule. Historically, Ethiopia has mismanaged its response to wars of resistance, as seen in the 1961–1991 Eritrean war of independence, which caused the fragmentation of the Ethiopian state and led to the secession of Eritrea.
On the other hand is the scenario of centralisation, the basis of which is to reclaim the quasi-unitarist powers that have been – at least de jure – dismantled over decades. This scenario brings back memories of Ethiopia’s highly contested history of forcible assimilation, ethnic domination and neglect of the periphery. The same unitarist style of governance, albeit retaining some vestiges of decentralisation, is what is now in the making, feeding on the extreme nationalism, quasi-imperial ambitions and military adventurism that have led to wars with far-reaching consequences for human security and state integrity. Proponents of this scenario are determined to secure and monopolise power through whatever means available. When convenient, they employ constitutional norms such as elections with no real competitive platforms; when necessary, they use unconstitutional, brutal, oppressive means, including waging genocidal war on those who resist. This is a vision of the old Ethiopian state that is inherently undemocratic, antagonistic to multiculturalism, and even fascistic. With the help of Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki and his troops, these forces of centralisation and of power consolidation are the authors and owners of the current wars in Ethiopia.
Human security vs national sovereignty
The war of November 2020 is narrated as a war for the survival and the security of the population in Tigray on the one hand, and that of sovereignty and state integrity on the other. It morphed into a patriotic resistance that turned civilians into combatants. The sheer number of armies and forces engaged in the war on Tigray attests to the scorched-earth policies of the military operation. They came with massive force to wipe Tigrayans off the map. It was a clear campaign of ethnic cleansing and extermination of the Tigrayan people and their identity markers. Several international organisations, including the UN and Human Rights Watch, have established that ethnicity-based war crimes, crimes against humanity and elements of genocide have been committed in Tigray by the armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and by Amhara forces. Even the US government has confirmed that the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans is ongoing. Thousands of Tigrayan women have been raped. Millions of Tigrayans remain displaced and systematically starved; tens of thousands have been extrajudicially killed through indiscriminate shelling and bombing. The conflict in Tigray has taken an unimaginable human toll since it first erupted in November 2020, and Tigray has been under a brutal siege for more than three years. According to Ghent University, as many as 500,000 Tigrayans have been killed in the war or have died from starvation. From the outset, the war has been marked by brutality and a stark disregard for civilian life.
The Tigrayan population remains largely in a communication blackout, allowed only a trickle of the essential public services necessary to sustain life. Humanitarian aid had been systematically blocked off and diverted, and still remains little compared to the need. Industries, factories and infrastructure have been destroyed. UNESCO-registered and other heritage sites, such as religious and cultural buildings, have been pillaged and desecrated.
For the Ethiopian, Amhara and Eritrean forces, sovereignty is an absolute weapon, and a licence to wage genocidal war in the name of territorial integrity. However, under international law, sovereignty has long been construed to be a responsibility to protect. The sovereignty of the Ethiopian state has not only failed to protect civilians all over the country, but it has been used as a weapon to exterminate Tigrayans, particularly as the hostile Eritrean army and the Amhara forces were invited to participate in the war and occupy parts of Tigray.
From the outset, the war has been marked by brutality and a stark disregard for civilian life.
Resistance wars for survival can only end when the security of the populace is guaranteed. Robust mechanisms to ensure the security of all people facing a perpetual threat from state and non-state actors are vital to prevent a relapse of war and sustain peace.
The civil wars in Tigray and in other parts of the country have created bad blood, not only between current generations, but also for generations to come. Peaceful coexistence should be possible, but only if there are independent investigations to establish the truth, and mechanisms to guarantee justice and that such a genocidal war does not break out again in the future. For the sake of sustainable peace, perpetrators should be held to account, and justice delivered to the victims.
In pursuit of national dialogue
A war of scenarios can be resolved only through a comprehensive and all-inclusive dialogue and negotiations. The first step towards this would be recognition that there can be no military solution to wars such as the one in Tigray or the on-going ones in Oromia and other regions, and that sustaining peace requires justice for the victims. In this spirit, I am one of the many Ethiopians who have repeatedly called for truth, justice, dialogue and reconciliation in Ethiopia as the only way to a peaceful resolution to never-ending conflicts. Since 2011, I have written and presented several proposals for an all-inclusive national dialogue. Previous governments have been unwilling to heed these calls.
In 2020, without an inclusive national dialogue, the federal government postponed the elections and extended its term of office and those of the regional governments. I vehemently opposed the decision. I also supported Tigray’s decision to conduct its elections within the constitutional timeframe, despite the federal government’s decision. Furthermore, I strongly condemned the use of force by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments against regional states, including Oromia, Somali and Tigray.
Raising my voice against oppression has meant that my family is once again facing peril.
My life has come full cycle, but I remain unbowed. More than anything, my childhood experience has influenced my keen interest in protecting human rights, addressing displacement, and promoting human security measures in general. I refuse to be a prisoner of my family’s loss. I refuse to become accusatory and embittered. I avoid a life of self-pity. Crucially, the experience has fuelled my determination to try to help bring about a political governance that is protective of human rights in Ethiopia, and in Africa as a whole. This commitment was amply reinforced during my early years at Addis Ababa University as a Student Union president and subsequently at the universities of Harvard, Oxford and Giessen, and now leading a programme that trains young African leaders at the European University Institute. I struggled, until eventually I formulated a personal philosophy of life centred on a commitment to establishing human rights-protective governance systems and eradicating poverty. This philosophy is based on the maxim of Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye makes us all blind.”
I have concluded that those who have lived through catastrophic events have two paths to choose from: the unprincipled, vicious life of a “villain-victim”, or the worthy life of a “hero-victim”. I chose the latter: to use my horrendous childhood experiences for the greater good and contribute to a peaceful country and a more peaceful continent. I will do what I can to put an end to situations in which children are compelled to grow up parentless in an environment of conflict and violence.
I struggled, until eventually I formulated a personal philosophy of life centred on a commitment to establishing human rights-protective governance systems and eradicating poverty.
Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In the same way, no one should be allowed to remain neutral in choosing between war criminals and victims, war and peace, justice and impunity. I side with victims over war criminals, I choose peace over war, justice over impunity.
“And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation”, said Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo. He added, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the centre of the universe.”
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