South Africa: Social Distancing and Social Solidarity
By Heike Becker
The good news first: On Monday, 6 April, the South African government began to roll out an ambitious programme of countrywide screening of the coronavirus infection. Mobile units and a corps of 10,000 health workers began screening and testing in the communities, with an intermediate aim of reaching at least 50,000 people within a week.
On 6 April, South Africa was also halfway through the scheduled 21-day lockdown that came into force on midnight of 26 March. Except for a few locations where residents flaunted the lockdown protocols, most people have been complying with the severe regulations.
South Africa’s 60 million people are only allowed to leave the house to do essential shopping for groceries or medicine, visit the doctor, or collect social grants. No allowance is made for outdoor exercise – an activity that even people in the European countries that are hardest hit by the pandemic still enjoy.
There have been reports of violent abuse that residents of poor neighbourhoods have suffered at the hands of the enforcement services, especially the police. From Day 1 of the lockdown reports, photographs and videos have been circulating of officers beating people. There is even one of officers shooting rubber bullets at people queuing at the entrance of a supermarket.
A group of people whose lives have been particularly affected by the lockdown protocols are the homeless, the approximately 70,000 people who live on the streets of cities across South Africa. They have been collected, more or less voluntarily, and accommodated in temporary facilities, some of them decently run, others dangerous mass encampments, such as the tented camp that the city of Cape Town has set up some 27 km outside the metropole for 4,000 street people. This is happening just as autumn temperatures have dropped over the past weekend to a wet and chilly 15 degrees Celsius.
The severe and cold South African winter is at our doorstep, and speculations are rife that with the peak of the pandemic in South Africa expected in early May, the lockdown may be extended, possibly until the end of June, or even longer. People in the poorest communities have been bravely patient thus far, although many have lost their income, especially those who make a living day-by-day – the domestic workers, the waste-pickers, the informal traders who sell much of the fresh produce in the townships, and many others. There is hunger and the longer the lockdown will last the hungrier the marginalised majority of the world’s most unequal society will get.
The tremendous efforts of South African civil society have continued. There are a remarkable multitude of community initiatives that provide practical support, from soup kitchens and food baskets to hygiene and face mask-making.
Beyond that, an impressive C19 People’s Coalition of over 190 organisations has been built over the past couple of weeks that is running campaigns for social solidarity under the banner “Stay Home. Stay Safe. Demand a Just Response to COVID-19!” The C19 Coalition has put together a wide-ranging programme of action that includes income security for all, specifically the extension of social grants, general easy access to water and sanitation, and food security. The Coalition calls for the appropriation of essential private facilities for public use during the crisis, for free and open communication, and for proper training and resources for community health workers. It also asks that the inequalities within the country’s educational system be considered in the move to remote learning.
With all this, the focus is on grassroots organisation and mobilisation, including the identification of strategies to divert violence, especially domestic violence, in the country’s communities and homes. The C19 programme programmatically articulates: “How each of us responds to the COVID-19 pandemic will determine who we are as a society. The better we respond now, the better we will be after the pandemic…Our response must be just, equitable, and redistributive if we are to meet the needs of all our people. In times of physical distancing, social solidarity is key.”
Heike Becker is an activist and teacher of social and cultural anthropology at UWC in South Africa. Her work and activism explores culture and politics and focuses particularly on popular culture, digital media and social movements in southern Africa. Heike is a regular contributor to roape.net.
Nigeria: The Hunger Virus
By Femi Aborisade
One basic point I must make is that the COVID-19-induced lockdown measures and effects in Nigeria are not uniform. For example, in Oyo State, South West, Nigeria where I live, only night life is curtailed by the imposition of the curfew between 7pm and 6am. So people are allowed to carry on their activities normally outside these hours. However, because of the total lockdown announced by the Federal Government and imposed on Abuja, Lagos and Ogun State, activities in all other states are affected to one degree or another as interstate movements are prohibited.
On a general note, the lockdown has meant unprecedented hardship, hunger and anger. In some cases, ordinary people have been compelled to defy the lockdown as they are compelled to go out in search of work. Some states share raw food and bread but on a limited scale, but frequently to such a limited extent that young people and women have been seen protesting in the streets against these “food rations”. One group of protesters complained that only one loaf of bread worth two hundred Naira (about 45 pence) was given to 650 people living in about 240 houses on a particular street. Young people angrily turned the bread into footballs. In another location in Lagos, the food rations, similarly pathetic in quantity, were distributed, to widows and old women. Community-based health and rights organisations have been unanimous in making demands for government provision of water, food and drugs to ensure a successful lockdown.
The Federal Government says it has set aside huge sums of money to fight COVID-19. But, in reality, it would appear that little is being used for this purpose. Recently, it was announced that the Federal Government would take US$150 million from the sovereign wealth fund and share it among the different levels of government to fight the virus It did not provide any information about what the money would be used for.
While public offices are shut, workers at Dangote are exempt from the lockdown. The workers are angry that adequate protection is not being made available to them. Aliko Dangote is West Africa’s wealthiest businessman, who runs the Dangote Group that employs thousands across Nigeria who work, principally, in his cement business.
In response to the defiance of the lockdown by hungry and angry poor people, some state governments, such as Ekiti State in the Southwest and Kaduna state in the Northwest, are relaxing the lockdown, and are allowing movement on some days of the week to allow people go to the market to buy foodstuff.
But in situations where people do not earn salaries, there is hardship. Even market women are complaining of little activity. In Nigeria, there are no social security schemes to take care of the unemployed and the elderly. People are saying that in the absence of public support, the hunger virus is no different from COVID-19.
Femi Aborisade is a socialist, writer and lawyer based in Lagos.
Tanzania: Chickens of Capitalist Modernity Coming Home to Roost
By Issa Shivji
The fight against COVID-19 is as much a class struggle as any, perhaps even fiercer. The pandemic is knocking on the doors of the continent. The ravages of five centuries of capitalist barbarity and its sycophant accomplices has left us most vulnerable. In Tanzania, we have been made doubly vulnerable as floods are devastating some regions and rendering people shelter-less. I shudder to think what the consequences will be. But we must continue to hope and struggle as long as we live.
We are going through trying times. Humanity is on trial. This is the time when the worst and the best in us comes out in ways that we could not have imagined in normal times. We are used to saying “the personal is political”. Now with the “social is personal”, the personal takes precedence, the social disappears. “Me first”, “my (family) first” overwhelms the “us”.
These are the times when “keep sane”, “stay sane” become words of affection. Yet what is at stake is our humanity itself. We don’t say “be human”, “stay human” for human is social and social is a distant second. Social is moral. Sanity is rational. And we are all children of Enlightenment rationality.
The chickens of capitalist modernity are coming home to roost.
But all is not bleak; it never is for we are humans and do not have the hide of a buffalo to be unaffected by human suffering. So, health workers are in the front line fighting the pandemic. Cuban doctors travel over the seas to save lives of fellow human beings while putting their own lives in danger. The Chinese send shiploads of medical kits to Italy and Iran in the people’s war (truly a peoples’ war) against COVID-19 (while Trump tightens the screws of sanctions against Iran and the European Union mulls over financial instruments that would secure its loans to a fellow EU member). Humanity is not so bereft of humanness. No, it is not.
Julius Nyerere rhetorically asked in his article “Usawa wa Binadamu” (Human Equality) what it is that makes us all equal when we are so unequal in every respect. His answer: it is our humanness. Nyerere’s equality is human equality (moral). Enlightenment’s equality is legal equality (rational).
Why am I saying all this? I’m saying it because in such times of crisis our Enlightenment values – which inform the age of (capitalist) modernity – starkly reveal themselves in all their nakedness. And they are barbaric to the core!
Will this pandemic teach us that humanity is crying out for a new civilisation, a civilisation whose centre is the human being, a social being with innate humanity, not an individual subject of the capitalist state who oozes out barbarity, greed and selfishness from every pore? People before property maybe sums it all up, though perhaps not sufficiently to drive our souls – nonetheless it is a good approximation to lead us on.
As I read the messages of love and warmth, of hope and solidarity from the continent, I cannot stop reflecting on how capitalist barbarity has destroyed our humanity, yet how our underlying humanness is kicking in and that is what makes life.
In the name of struggle and solidarity, let us shout and scream:
- Cancel all African debts
- Send air loads of testing kits and medical supplies
- And you African rulers, divert funds from your grandiose projects and your filthy salaries and perks to feed our people in quarantine
- Without humongous feeding schemes, lockdown is not possible and without lockdown it will be impossible to control transmission
The Revenge of Nature
By Issa Shivji
For over five centuries
Capital has devastated nature and human nurture.
Now nature is taking its revenge.
Once again capital will shield behind stimulus packages
While the working poor will die out packed like sardines in their slums.
Hope we should not lose, to despair we shall not surrender,
The struggle must continue.
We, the People of the World, will build a New Civilisation
Out of the ruins and rubbles of corona
We shall never again allow capital to ruin our homes and hearth
To build their domes and malls
Never again shall we subdue to its law and order
We shall stand up
Against their might
To fight back
And claim back our right to rebel
Never again revolution will be an episode
We will make it permanent
It will be the daily ablution
Five times a day
To wash away the sins of barbaric capitalism.
Keep safe my friend
Issa Shivji taught for years at the University of Dar es Salaam’s Public Law Department, and has written more than twenty books on Pan-Africanism, political economy, socialism and radical change in Africa. He is a longstanding member of ROAPE.
The Fate of the Human Experiment Depends on the Outcome of This Struggle
Noam Chomsky’s keynote speech at the Progressive International’s inaugural summit.
Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, all are international, and two internationals are forming to confront them. One is opening today: the Progressive International. The other has been taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a Reactionary International comprising the world’s most reactionary states.
We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future. The Progressive International has a crucial role to play in determining which course history will follow.
We are meeting at a moment of confluence of crises of extraordinary severity, with the fate of the human experiment quite literally at stake. The issues are coming to a head in the next few weeks in the two great imperial powers of the modern era.
Fading Britain, having publicly declared that it rejects international law, is on the verge of a sharp break from Europe, on the path to becoming even more of a US satellite that it already is. But of course what is of the greatest significance for the future is what happens in the global hegemon, diminished by Trump’s wrecking ball, but still with overwhelming power and incomparable advantages. Its fate, and with it the fate of the world, may well be determined in November.
We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the world is concerned, if not appalled. It would be difficult to find a more sober and respected commentator than Martin Wolf of the London Financial Times. He writes that the West is facing a serious crisis, and if Trump is re-elected, “this will be terminal.” Strong words, and he is not even referring to the major crises humanity faces.
Wolf is referring to the global order, a critical matter though not on the scale of the crises that threaten vastly more serious consequences, the crises that are driving the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock towards midnight – towards termination.
Wolf’s concept “terminal” is not a new entry into public discourse. We have been living under its shadow for 75 years, ever since we learned, on an unforgettable August day, that human intelligence had devised the means that would soon yield the capacity for terminal destruction. That was shattering enough, but there was more. It was not then understood that humanity was entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are despoiling the environment in a manner that is now also approaching terminal destruction.
The hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The hands have oscillated since, as global circumstances have evolved. Every year that Trump has been in office, the hands have been moved closer to midnight. Two years ago they reached the closest they had ever been. Last January, the analysts abandoned minutes, turning to seconds: 100 seconds to midnight. They cited the same crises as before: the growing threats of nuclear war and of environmental catastrophe, and the deterioration of democracy.
The last might at first seem out of place, but it is not. Declining democracy is a fitting member of the grim trio. The only hope of escaping the two threats of termination is vibrant democracy in which concerned and informed citizens are fully engaged in deliberation, policy formation, and direct action.
That was last January. Since then, President Trump has amplified all three threats, not a mean accomplishment. He has continued his demolition of the arms control regime that has offered some protection against the threat of nuclear war, while also pursuing development of new and even more dangerous weapons, much to the delight of military industry. In his dedicated commitment to destroy the environment that sustains life, Trump has opened up vast new areas for drilling, including the last great nature reserve. Meanwhile, his minions are systematically dismantling the regulatory system that somewhat mitigates the destructive impact of fossil fuel use, and that protects the population from toxic chemicals and from pollution, a curse that is now doubly murderous in the course of a severe respiratory epidemic.
Trump has also carried forward his campaign to undermine democracy. By law, presidential appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. Trump avoids this inconvenience by leaving the positions open and filling the offices with “temporary appointments” who answer to his will – and if they do not do so with sufficient fealty to the lord, are fired. He has purged the executive of any independent voice. Only sycophants remain. Congress had long ago established Inspectors General to monitor the performance of the executive branch. They began to look into the swamp of corruption that Trump has created in Washington. He took care of that quickly by firing them. There was scarcely a peep from the Republican Senate, firmly in Trump’s pocket, with hardly a flicker of integrity remaining, terrified by the popular base Trump has mobilized.
This onslaught against democracy is only the bare beginning. Trump’s latest step is to warn that he may not leave office if he is not satisfied with the outcome of the November election. The threat is taken very seriously in high places. To mention just a few examples, two highly respected retired senior military commanders released an open letter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, reviewing his constitutional responsibility to send the army to remove by force a “lawless president” who refuses to leave office after electoral defeat, summoning in his defense the kinds of paramilitary units he dispatched to Portland Oregon to terrorize the population over the strong objection of elected officials.
Many establishment figures regard the warning as realistic, among them the high-level Transition Integrity Project, which has just reported the results of the “war gaming” it has been conducting on possible outcomes of the November election. The project members are “some of the most accomplished Republicans, Democrats, civil servants, media experts, pollsters and strategists around,” the Project co-director explains, including prominent figures in both Parties. Under any plausible scenario apart from a clear Trump victory, the games led to something like civil war, with Trump choosing to end “the American experiment.”
Again, strong words, never before heard from sober mainstream voices. The very fact that such thoughts arise is ominous enough. They are not alone. And given incomparable US power, far more than the “American experiment” is at risk.
Nothing like this has happened in the often troubled history of parliamentary democracy. Keeping to recent years, Richard Nixon – not the most delightful person in presidential history – had good reason to believe that he had lost the 1960 election only because of criminal manipulation by Democratic operatives. He did not contest the results, putting the welfare of the country ahead of personal ambition. Albert Gore did the same in 2000. Not today.
Forging new paths in contempt for the welfare of the country does not suffice for the megalomaniac who dominates the world. Trump has also announced once again that he may disregard the Constitution and “negotiate” for a third term if he decides he is entitled to it.
Some choose to laugh all this off as the playfulness of a buffoon. To their peril, as history shows.
The survival of liberty is not guaranteed by “parchment barriers,” James Madison warned. Words on paper are not enough. It is founded on the expectation of good faith and common decency. That has been torn to shreds by Trump along with his co-conspirator Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has turned the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” as it calls itself, into a pathetic joke. McConnell’s Senate refuses even to consider legislative proposals. Its concern is largesse to the rich and stacking the judiciary, top to bottom with far right young lawyers who should be able to safeguard the reactionary Trump-McConnell agenda for a generation, whatever the public wants, whatever the world needs for survival.
The hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter. The hands have oscillated since, as global circumstances have evolved
The abject service to the rich of the Trump-McConnell Republican party is quite remarkable, even by the neoliberal standards of exaltation of greed. One illustration is provided by the leading specialists on tax policy, economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. They show that in 2018, following the tax scam that was the one legislative Trump-McConnell achievement, “for the first time in the last hundred years, billionaires have paid less [in taxes] than steel workers, school teachers, and retirees,” erasing “a century of fiscal history.” “In 2018, for the first time in the modern history of the United States, capital has been taxed less than labor” – a truly impressive victory of class war, called “liberty” in hegemonic doctrine.
The Doomsday Clock was set last January before the scale of the pandemic was understood. Humanity will sooner or later recover from the pandemic, at terrible cost. It is needless cost. We see that clearly from the experience of countries that took decisive action when China provided the world with the relevant information about the virus on January 10. Primary among them were East-Southeast Asia and Oceania, with others trailing along, and bringing up the rear a few utter disasters, notably the US, followed by Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Modi’s India.
Despite the malfeasance or indifference of some political leaders, there will ultimately be some kind of recovery from the pandemic. We will not, however, recover from the melting of the polar icecaps, or the exploding rate of arctic fires that are releasing enormous amounts of greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere, or other steps on our march to catastrophe.
When the most prominent climate scientists warn us to “Panic Now,” they are not being alarmist. There is no time to waste. Few are doing enough, and even worse, the world is cursed by leaders who are not only refusing to take sufficient action but are deliberately accelerating the race to disaster. The malignancy in the White House is far in the lead in this monstrous criminality.
It is not only governments. The same is true of fossil fuel industries, the big banks that finance them, and other industries that profit from actions that put the “survival of humanity” at serious risk, in the words of a leaked internal memo of America’s largest bank.
Humanity will not long survive this institutional malignancy. The means to manage the crisis are available. But not for long. One primary task of the Progressive International is to ensure that we all panic now – and act accordingly.
The crises we face in this unique moment of human history are of course international. Environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, and the pandemic have no borders. And in a less transparent way, the same is true of the third of the demons that stalk the earth and drive the second hand of the Doomsday clock towards midnight: the deterioration of democracy. The international character of this plague becomes evident when we examine its origins.
Circumstances vary, but there are some common roots. Much of the malignancy traces back to the neoliberal assault on the world’s population launched in force 40 years ago.
The basic character of the assault was captured in the opening pronouncements of its most prominent figures. Ronald Reagan declared in his inaugural address that government is the problem, not the solution – meaning that decisions should be removed from governments, which are at least partially under public control, to private power, which is completely unaccountable to the public, and whose sole responsibility is self-enrichment, as chief economist Milton Friedman proclaimed. The other was Margaret Thatcher, who instructed us that there is no society, only a market in which people are cast to survive as best they can, with no organizations that enable them to defend themselves against its ravages.
Unwittingly no doubt, Thatcher was paraphrasing Marx, who condemned the autocratic rulers of his day for turning the population into a “sack of potatoes,” defenseless against concentrated power.
With admirable consistency, the Reagan and Thatcher administrations moved at once to destroy the labour movement, the primary impediment to harsh class rule by the masters of the economy. In doing so, they were adopting the leading principles of neoliberalism from its early days in interwar Vienna, where the founder and patron saint of the movement, Ludwig von Mises, could scarcely control his joy when the proto-fascist government violently destroyed Austria’s vibrant social democracy and the despicable trade unions that were interfering with sound economics by defending the rights of working people. As von Mises explained in his 1927 neoliberal classic Liberalism, five years after Mussolini initiated his brutal rule, “It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aimed at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has for the moment saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history” – though it will be only temporary, he assured us. The Blackshirts will go home after having accomplished their good work.
The same principles inspired enthusiastic neoliberal support for the hideous Pinochet dictatorship. A few years later, they were put into operation in a different form in the global arena under the leadership of the US and UK.
The consequences were predictable. One was sharp concentration of wealth alongside of stagnation for much of the population, reflected in the political realm by undermining of democracy. The impact in the United States brings out very clearly what one would expect when business rule is virtually uncontested. After 40 years, 0.1% of the population have 20% of the wealth, twice what they had when Reagan was elected. CEO remuneration has skyrocketed, drawing general management wealth along with it. Real wages for non-supervisory male workers have declined. A majority of the population survives from paycheck to paycheck, with almost no reserves. Financial institutions, largely predatory, have exploded in scale. There have been repeated crashes, increasing in severity, the perpetrators bailed out by the friendly taxpayer, though that is the least of the implicit state subsidy they receive. “Free markets” led to monopolization, with reduced competition and innovation, as the strong swallowed the weak. Neoliberal globalization has deindustrialized the country within the framework of the investor rights agreements mislabeled as “free trade pacts. ”Adopting the neoliberal doctrine that “taxation is robbery,” Reagan opened the door to tax havens and shell companies – previously banned and barred by effective enforcement. That led at once to a huge tax evasion industry to expedite massive robbery of the general population by the very rich and the corporate sector. No small change. The scale is estimated in tens of trillions of dollars.
And so it continues as neoliberal doctrine took hold.
As the assault was just beginning to take shape, in 1978, the president of the United Auto Workers, Doug Fraser, resigned from a labor-management committee that was set up by the Carter Administration, expressing his shock that business leaders had “chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country – a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and had “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress” – during the period of class collaboration under regimented capitalism.
His recognition of how the world works was somewhat belated, in fact too late to fend off the bitter class war launched by business leaders who were soon granted free rein by compliant governments. The consequences over much of the world come as little surprise: widespread anger, resentment, contempt for political institutions while the primary economic ones are hidden from view by effective propaganda. All of this provides fertile territory for demagogues who can pretend to be your savior while stabbing you in the back, meanwhile deflecting the blame for your conditions to scapegoats: immigrants, blacks, China, whoever fits long-standing prejudices.
Returning to the major crises we face at this historic moment, all are international, and two internationals are forming to confront them. One is opening today: the Progressive International. The other has been taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a Reactionary International comprising the world’s most reactionary states.
In the Western Hemisphere, the International includes Bolsonaro’s Brazil and a few others. In the Middle East, prime members are the family dictatorships of the Gulf; al-Sisi’s Egyptian dictatorship, perhaps the harshest in Egypt’s bitter history; and Israel, which long ago discarded its social democratic origins and shifted far to the right, the predicted effect of the prolonged and brutal occupation. The current agreements between Israel and Arab dictatorships, formalising long-standing tacit relations, are a significant step towards solidifying the Middle East base of the Reactionary International. The Palestinians are kicked in the face, the proper fate of those who lack power and do not grovel properly at the feet of the natural masters.
To the East, a natural candidate is India, where Prime Minister Modi is destroying India’s secular democracy and turning the country into a racist Hindu nationalist state, while crushing Kashmir. The European contingent includes Orban’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary and similar elements elsewhere. The International also has powerful backing in the dominant global economic institutions.
The two internationals comprise a good part of the world, one at the level of states, the other popular movements. Each is a prominent representative of much broader social forces, which have sharply contending images of the world that should emerge from the current pandemic. One force is working relentlessly to construct a harsher version of the neoliberal global system from which they have greatly benefited, with more intensive surveillance and control. The other looks forward to a world of justice and peace, with energies and resources directed to serving human needs rather than the demands of a tiny minority. It is a kind of class struggle on a global scale, with many complex facets and interactions.
It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the human experiment depends on the outcome of this struggle.
The Violence in Ethiopia
The imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.
The deadly violence that rocked Ethiopia this summer following the death of artist Hachalu Hundessa has been a subject of much speculation and contention. The facts as we know them are that immediately following the assassination close to 250 people died and thousands were jailed, mostly in the regional state of Oromia and Addis Ababa.
What is contested, and less clear, is the nature of the violence, its perpetrators, and victims. Two prominent narratives have emerged following the crisis to explain what unfolded. One holds that the violence was a brutal government crackdown on Oromo protesters grieving Hundessa’s death. The other describes the events as targeted attacks by armed Oromo youth against ethnic and religious minorities. While both narratives contain elements of truth, ignoring one or the other is either ignorant or intentionally misleading.
A recent Africa Is a Country article highlighting the poor coverage by Western media of the situation in Ethiopia, for example, makes no mention of ethnic and religious violence, aside from denouncing media outlets that reported it. Rather, the author’s objective is to “set the record straight” by showing that the underlying cause of violence and instability in Ethiopia is the consequence of a political struggle between an oppressive government and Oromos who have been and continue to be marginalised.
Such a viewpoint is erroneous and polarising in the current political climate. To advance a narrow agenda, it glosses over human rights violations and the brutal killing of innocent bystanders by non-state actors.
To provide more context, the agenda I speak of is tied to the Oromo struggle for greater autonomy and recognition. That struggle, which paved the way for Abiy Ahmed to assume power as the first Oromo Prime Minister two years earlier, now seeks his departure. At the heart of this reversal is the Prime Minister’s consolidation (rather than actual dismantling) of the ruling ethnic-based EPRDF coalition into the Prosperity Party, which has, nonetheless, left intact Ethiopia’s unique system of federalism based on ethnic majoritarianism.
The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause.
Leaving that aside, the EPRDF had always been a highly centralized institution in practice, and the mere symbolism of this move, in addition to the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about unity, have left some Oromos feeling betrayed. Furthermore, fractionalisation among Oromo elites, including within the former Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) faction of the EPRDF (now Prosperity Party), which recently ousted key leader and Defense Minister, Lemma Megersa, has divided and weakened the movement.
Within this broad movement, one vocal part led by diaspora-based Oromo elites and recent returnees has galvanised the energy and anger of many Oromo youth behind a perspective of anti-Ethiopiawinet (anti-Ethiopian-ness). The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”). Though prominent Oromo activists stand behind their use of these terms, those who are familiar with the context know that these labels are loaded with ethnic connotations.
The night of Hachalu Hundessa’s murder, the Ethiopian government quickly shut down the internet, while a social media whirlwind erupted abroad as Oromo activists insinuated that Hundessa was killed because of his support for the Oromo cause. Accusations that “they killed him” were recklessly thrown around and left open for interpretation. Within hours of the assassination, allegedly at the behest of Oromo leaders like Bekele Gerba, targeted attacks against non-Oromos unfolded.
In towns like Shashamene and Dera in the Oromia region, several accounts of killings and looting targeting Amharas and other minorities by Oromo youth have been independently verified, in addition to accounts of police and federal forces injuring and killing civilians. Witnesses describe how perpetrators relied on lists detailing the residences and properties of non-Oromos and circulated flyers warning bystanders to not help those being targeted (or risk reprisal), indicating a significant level of organization.
Minority Rights Group International, accordingly, sounded the alarm, warning that these actions bear the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. Despite this and concerns from Ethiopians throughout the world, Oromo activists and other prominent human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have remained largely silent about these attacks while condemning the government’s violent response to Oromo protestors.
Government figures provide an ethnic breakdown of the July causalities with the majority of those killed being Oromos within the Oromia region, followed by Amharas and other smaller ethnic groups. Yet, rather than disproving, as some claim, that targeted attacks by Oromo mobs occurred, this highlights what scholar Terje Ostebo describes as the complexity and inherent interconnectedness between ethnicity and religion within Ethiopia.
According to Ostebo, “the term Amhara, which is inherently elastic, has over the last few years gradually moved from being a designation for Ethiopianess to gaining a more explicit ethnic connotation. It has, however, always had a distinct religious dimension, representing a Christian.” Hence, in parts of Oromia some Orthodox Oromos were referred to and referred to themselves as Amhara. For example, one Oromo farmer interviewed by local journalists reportedly said, “we thought Hachalu was Oromo” after watching the singer’s televised funeral rites that followed the traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church.
The “us versus them” mentality pits Oromo nationalists against an enemy that has been described manifestly and repeatedly by the terms Abyssinian and Neftegna (“rifle bearer”).
According to investigations undertaken by the church, a large number of its parishioners (at least 67 confirmed cases) were among the July causalities—a troubling trend, which also includes a spate of church burnings and attacks on Christians that brought large numbers of Orthodox followers out into the streets in protests last year.
To be clear, the violence that occurred was not only ethnic and religious violence. Growing state violence in Oromia and SNNPR has been and continues to be of great concern. As Oromo activists have made clear, it is necessary to end the abuse of force and ensure accountability for these crimes. Yet, when concerns and demands for accountability for non-state violence are raised, these same advocates deny, ignore or dismiss them as part of a propaganda campaign to discredit the Oromo movement. In effect, this dishonesty, itself, has discredited the movement and lost it support by many Ethiopians—both non-Oromo and Oromo.
The recent political turmoil lays bare that the future of an Ethiopian state is hanging by a delicate thread. The polarization that exists today goes beyond disagreements on institutions and policies to the very question of whether we can continue to co-exist as a multi-ethnic nation. Regional elections in Tigray, slated for this week despite the disapproval of the national House of Federation (HoF), and its aftermath may bring these tensions to a boil, again.
As unrest, violence and grievances continue to mount, it is clear that Ethiopia is far from consolidating its transition to a stable democracy. The government continues to curb freedom of speech, jail political opponents and is responsible for violence against civilians. But, if history teaches us anything, it is this: the imminent and existential danger to Ethiopia is not Abiy Ahmed and an oppressive government. It is violent ethno-nationalism.
Let It Never Be Said That Kenyans Went to War Over Mammary Glands
The Kenyan government’s aggressive response to Oscar Sudi’s comments, and the open defiance of Sudi’s supporters, suggest that we might be on the brink of a civil war. As one Kenyan on Twitter wryly commented, BBI has turned into a “Burning Bridges Initiative”.
The furore over Kapsaret MP Oscar Sudi’s recent comments regarding the first family has left many Kenyan women baffled, not least because Kenyan men are not known to be great defenders of women or their body parts. It has been alleged – and the media has erroneously reported – that, in alluding to her breasts, Mr Sudi insulted Mama Ngina, the former first lady and mother of the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta.
When I first heard about this on social media, I thought it was yet another typically crude example of Kenyan misogyny. There are countless examples of Kenyan men, particularly politicians, insulting and deriding women. Female politicians and activists are a favourite target. Women who dare to defy patriarchal norms do not find a comfortable home here. In fact, they have to fight tooth and nail to be recognised.
The late President Daniel arap Moi, for instance, once referred to Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai as a woman who had “dudus in her head” when she was protesting the building of a tall office block in Uhuru Park. Recently, Mutahi Ngunyi, a State House operative, referred to Martha Karua, a former Minister of Justice and a presidential candidate in the 2013 election, as “a grandmother with average intelligence and a bloated ego” after she gave a TV interview that challenged the president and Raila Odinga to come clean on the motives behind their rapprochement. (Note: Ngunyi’s use of the word “grandmother” was to suggest that Karua had reached her sell-by date and that she should focus on family matters, not politics. In this case, the insulting of grandmothers was not viewed as hate speech by the authorities.)
Those of us who have cared to listen to the speech that caused so much uproar in the country will agree that Sudi did not insult Mama Ngina’s breasts. He merely stated that Uhuru Kenyatta should not believe that the breasts that he suckled are better than the breasts that Sudi suckled.
What Sudi was simply trying to say (and which got lost in the state’s accusations of “hate speech” and “incitement”) was that all Kenyans are equal and that Uhuru and his family should not believe that they are more important than the rest of Kenyans or that the country belongs to them.
In any other period in our political history, these comments might even be considered heroic – an act of rebellion against hegemonic forces. I would go further to say that Sudi has the right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by our constitution, so he can say what he wants as long as his utterances are not inflammatory or based on lies. After all, did the young Jomo not say similar things against the British in London’s famous Hyde Park? Is this not what the Mau Mau were saying to the British colonialists when they took up arms against them? Is this not what was conveyed to President Moi during the “Second Liberation” protests? Did Raila Odinga (who was once the leader of the opposition) not challenge election results several times because he wanted Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta to know that Kenya does not belong to just one tribe or to one political party? Fighting for your rights is guaranteed by the 2010 constitution.
But then you have to remember that it was during Jomo Kenyatta’s time that insulting the first family became a criminal offence. Jomo’s Machiavellian Attorney General Charles Njonjo deemed that even imagining the death of the president was punishable. Are we returning to those days of the imperial presidency?
Before I return to the issue of breasts and their significance in the Kenyan imagination, let us recall how we got to this place.
You may remember that prior to the 2013 elections, Uhuru Kenyatta made a Faustian pact (some call it a marriage of convenience) with William Ruto – his fellow indictee at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The deal – amplified by the likes of Cambridge Analytica, which manipulated a highly gullible electorate – was that the election should be viewed as “a referendum against the ICC”. Part of the pact was that if the duo won the presidency, Uhuru would rule the country for ten years and then hand over to Ruto for the next ten years. In other words, Jubilee – their coalition party – would rule Kenya for the next two decades.
But maybe promising to honour a deal was not part of that deal. That Faustian pact has been broken. Ruto has now been relegated to the sidelines following another Faustian pact called the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) that has brought Raila into the Uhuru fold, and which has resulted in an orchestrated assault against Ruto. Some might say that it is Kikuyu privilege and hegemony reasserting itself by coopting dissent. Others says it is a way of healing past wounds and uniting a country fractured by political divisions and disillusionment. Only time will tell which scenario will unfold.
Unfortunately, this pact might lead to more, not less violence. The government’s unreasonably aggressive response to Sudi’s comments, complete with police raids on Sudi’s home, and the open defiance of Sudi’s Kalenjin supporters, who threaten to go to war to defend their leader, suggest that we might be on the brink of a civil war. As one Kenyan on Twitter wryly commented, BBI has turned into a “Burning Bridges Initiative”.
The “handshake” between Uhuru and Raila, instead of easing tensions, has created different forms of polarisation. Ruto’s Kalenjin supporters feel betrayed. Opposition and civil society activists who would have come to Sudi’s defence are now taking sides; those who might have defended his right to free speech are now silent because speaking up might be construed as siding with Ruto. These fractures are most evident on social media.
Let us be very clear on one fact, which somehow gets conveniently brushed under the carpet. The 2013 election was premised on fear. Fear that if the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu do not unite, there will be a constant threat of violence and mass displacement of Kikuyus in the Rift Valley. Fear that historical injustices will resurface as a rallying cry during elections – a scenario that neither the Kikuyu nor the Kalenjin elite want because both have blood on their hands.
Although many analysts insist that the UhuRuto victory was simply a mathematical probability, in that it united two of Kenya’s largest ethnic groups into one formidable voting bloc, thereby outnumbering the opposition, some believe that the alliance between the two politicians was based more on primal instincts that had to do with self-preservation vis-à-vis the ICC, and the general fear in the country that the 2013 election would be as bloody, if not more, than the 2007one, as the issues that turned Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic group against Ruto’s Kalenjin in 2007/8, and vice versa, had still not been resolved.
“Though tribe was the watchword in this  election, their alliance, and their victory, was nationalistic, not tribal,” wrote James Verini, a Foreign Policy contributor based in Nairobi. “Their unspoken but resounding message was this: Yes, we killed. We killed for you, for Kenya. And we’ll kill again. It’s the most seductive platform in politics.”
At that time, anti-corruption crusader John Githongo said that the wounds of the violence in the Rift Valley – the site of most of the ethnic conflicts that have taken place during every election cycle since the first multiparty elections in 1992 – had still not healed, despite the public hand-holding and hugging among the Jubilee Alliance’s leaders. “Those who doubt his [Ruto’s] grip and the extent of his leverage need only consider the fact that despite the alliance of ‘peace’ and ‘reconciliation’ between the Gikuyu and the Kalenjin that now prevails, Rift Valley IDPs are not racing back to farms from which they were evicted in 2008. All of us know, quietly and without too much fuss, that we aren’t even close. It is such inconveniences that interrupt the ‘move on’ narrative for now,” he wrote in African Arguments on 22 May 2013.
Breasts in the Kenyan imagination
The Faustian pact between Uhuru and Ruto, and now between Uhuru and Raila, has lessons for Kenyans. In the classic German legend from which this pact gets its name, Faust is a highly successful but dissatisfied man who makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. By selling his soul to the devil, Faust is condemned to “The Eternal Empty”. However, female spirits of the earth intervene on his behalf and forgive him for his foolish mistake. Faust suffers some tragedies because of his folly, but in the end he is granted redemption and his soul ascends to heaven in the presence of God and the Virgin Mother. (One moral of the story: female energy is more powerful than the devil.)
We might be tempted to believe that the attacks on Sudi and his ilk are invoking female power. The fact that so many Kenyans (including elderly Kikuyu women who have threatened to strip in front of Sudi) have come out in defence of Mama Ngina’s breasts might suggest that we have reached a Faustian moment. Or perhaps we have evolved into country that actually cares about women and their dignity.
But let us not fool ourselves. For one thing, Mama Ngina, arguably the richest woman in Kenya, is hardly “Wanjiku”. I do not recall her ever defending the rights of poor Kenyan women, or women in general. Two, we are not invoking female energy here to seek redemption. If Kenyan politicians, including Sudi, really cared about women, the two-thirds gender rule would have been enforced in parliament by now.
What we are doing is weaponising the former first lady’s breasts. And sexualizing them, which is very un-African. As Sylvia Tamale writes in African Sexualities, African women’s sexualities were the antithesis of European mores of sex and beauty. Traditional African women had no problems displaying their breasts because breasts in African culture were not objects of sexual desire or titillation; they had one primary purpose – feeding an infant. So talking about breasts was no different from talking about a nose or a leg. If Sudi had “insulted” Mama Ngina’s ear, would we be so upset? The African breast became the object of forbidden fantasy and fetishisation during colonialism when Christian missionaries began their “civilizing mission” in Africa.
In fact, in certain African societies, nakedness was associated with defiance. The Kenyan mothers of political prisoners who “cursed” the Moi government in the early 1990s by stripping at Uhuru Park – because seeing your mother naked is considered a curse in certain Kenyan communities – were not displaying their sexuality; they were displaying their anger. They were defying Moi. Kenyans with a political conscience saw them as heroines. In fact, these mothers will forever remain as symbols of defiance in the annals of Kenyan history.
Maybe now is the Faustian moment when positive female energy can be invoked, not to redeem those who have made selfish pacts, but to take Kenyans down a more enlightened path.
Videos2 weeks ago
Kenya: The ‘Deep State’ and the Kenyatta Succession
Op-Eds1 week ago
Revealed: The CIA and MI6’s Secret War in Kenya
Videos2 weeks ago
Kenya, the CIA, MI6 and Counterterrorism
Videos5 days ago
Corruption in Kenya Driven by a Cabal Around the President
Politics1 week ago
Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons
Videos1 week ago
Constitutions Don’t Make Revolutions, Revolutions Make Constitutions
Op-Eds1 week ago
Black Sahibs: Decolonising Language
Culture5 days ago
The Rising Lakes of the Rift Valley: How Extreme Weather Changes Are Threatening Lives in Kenya