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Are Indians Racist or Merely Caste-Conscious?

9 min read.

Do Indian celebrities have the moral authority to condemn racism when they themselves promote the idea that white skin is more desirable than black or brown skin? And does the Black Lives Matter movement offer India an opportunity to critically examine its own increasingly intolerant society, including the oppressive caste system?

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Are Indians Racist or Merely Caste-Conscious?
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Priyanka Chopra, a leading Bollywood actress who has also acted in Hollywood films, came under fire recently for endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement while at the same time being a brand ambassador for skin-lightening creams in India. Critics say that this movie star cannot claim to support a movement against racism when she herself has promoted products that suggest that light/white skin is more beautiful than dark/black skin.

Indian movie directors have also been accused of promoting the idea that light skin is better by insisting that their leading ladies be fair-skinned. The few dark-skinned actresses who have made it in Bollywood have had to jump many hurdles to be taken seriously; often the only acting roles they get are in “alternative cinema” where they play poor or marginalised women. Dark-skinned actresses often have to invest in a fair amount (no pun intended) of make-up to pass screen tests that are partial to light skin and European facial features.

“If you watch Bollywood films, you’d imagine India was a country of white folks”, quipped the Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy in a recent interview. (The billion-plus Indians’ skin colour ranges from rosy pink to tan, chocolate-brown and a kind of ash-grey that could pass for black.)

The desire for fair skin is not limited to Bollywood; it extends to Indian society as a whole. Matrimonial columns in Indian newspapers are full of ads seeking “fair” brides.

British colonialism undoubtedly instilled feelings of inferiority among the dark-skinned Indian people. Since “whiteness” was associated with power, wealth and technological advancement (not to mention beauty), light skin became an aspiration among Indians. (Though it must be said that not even a century of colonisation managed to erase Indian culture and India’s major religions, which remained largely intact despite the British presence; in fact, some say that the British colonialists were both baffled and in awe of the resilience of Indian culture despite their attempts to denigrate and erase it.)

The furore against Chopra comes against a backdrop of statues of Mahatma Gandhi being removed from a university in Ghana and debates around whether India’s most revered freedom fighter and non-violence resistance advocate was in fact a racist, given that he did little to fight for the rights of black South Africans during his 21-year stint in South Africa before he returned to his home country in 1914 to contribute to India’s freedom struggle.

In recent years, there have also been complaints by African students studying in India that they face harassment on the streets and discrimination when it comes to housing. Africans living in India find the country to be a hostile environment that is difficult to negotiate because the racism is coming not from white people, as is usually the case, but non-white people. As Roy commented in her interview, “Indian racism towards black people is almost worse than white people’s racism”.

Horror stories of female African students being stripped in public or being called derogatory names have been emerging in recent years, yet there has been no diplomatic crisis, as the one that erupted recently when some African countries made official complaints against the Chinese government for allowing the mistreatment of Africans living in China, ostensibly because they were perceived to be infected with COVID-19.

The discussion on “brown-on-black” racism has been further fuelled by a much-needed conversation in India on whether Indians have any right to condemn White America for racism when Hindu India has for decades been discriminating against Muslims and low-caste Hindus (known as Dalits). Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has a distinct Hindu nationalist agenda, India has become more intolerant of religious minorities and marginalised groups, with reports of Muslims and Dalits being lynched and even murdered by Hindu mobs.

Perhaps now that Priyanka Chopra has moved to America (she recently married the American singer and songwriter Nick Jonas), she is more aware of racism. Indian immigrants in Europe and America find that even the most light-skinned among them eventually face some form of discrimination. This has led some to join hands with black-led movements. In the UK, for instance, there was a strong push for Asians to define themselves as “black” during the conservative Thatcher years to emphasise the power imbalance between white and non-white people in Britain and to give the black movement political clout. Asians in the UK who called themselves “black” were making a political statement.

The Indian diaspora in the United States and other Western nations may feel slighted by the white racism they experience, but many have no problems supporting divisive politics at home. Ms. Chopra, for instance, is an ardent supporter of Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharataya Janata Party (BJP). As Ashok Swain wrote in the December 2017 edition of Outlook, “[The] Hindu diaspora has been a major powerbase and source of funding for the Hindutva politics in India . . . While Hindu NRIs [non-resident Indians] are so sensitive and even aggressive to protect their perceived minority rights in the country of their residence, at the same time they refuse to accept minorities in India”.

The blurred line between race and caste

So are Indians inherently racist? This is a complicated question because in India the line between caste and colour often gets blurred. The Hindu caste system is such that skin colour is often associated with caste background. Lighter-skinned Indians of Aryan descent are often associated with high caste background, even though there are many high-caste Hindus in India who have dark skin, and many low-caste Hindus who are light-skinned.

Caste prejudice, therefore, easily translates into colour prejudice in the Indian context. Black Africans are perceived as low caste – people who can be looked down upon and mistreated without the perpetrator suffering any sanction. It’s as simple – and as ridiculous – as that.

Historians maintain that the caste system was brought to India by the Aryans, a pastoralist tribe from Central Asia that invaded northern India around the second millennium BC and subjugated the indigenous population. As explained by historian Romila Thapar in her book, Early India: From Origins to AD 1300, the dominant view is that the Aryans introduced Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language that is used in the sacred Hindu texts, the Vedas.

The Aryans were viewed as representing a superior civilisation that later became the foundation of what might be loosely referred to as Hindu culture. Hinduism sprouted a pantheon of gods and goddesses (some adopted from the faith of the indigenous animists) and introduced a system that divided people into occupational groups and relegated others to servitude.

However, Thapar is of the view that ascribing a superior race to the Aryans is not accurate because there is little archaeological evidence of a large-scale Aryan “invasion” of India that displaced the existing indigenous culture. However, there is evidence of an Indo-Aryan language belonging to the Indo-European family “having been brought to northern India from beyond the Indian-Iranian borderlands and evolving through a series of probably small-scale migrations and settlements”.

Thapar says that by the middle of the 20th century, the concept that the Aryans had a superior language and race began to fall apart. It is more likely that there were “Indo-Aryan speaking peoples”, not an Aryan race. “It is important to emphasise that it [Aryan] refers to a language group, not a race, and language groups can incorporate a variety of people”.

To muddy the waters even further, the ruling BJP has been denying that there was ever an Aryan invasion in order to support the theory that Hinduism (the dominant religion in India) was not imported to India, but is indigenous to the subcontinent. This theory also demolishes the idea that Indian culture is a product of “alien” forces. The “aliens” in Modi’s India are Muslims and Christians, who are being portrayed as being the by-products of invading Muslim armies and conquerors or European missionaries (conveniently forgetting that Islam and Christianity existed in India before the advent of the Muslim Mughal Empire in the 16th century and before Britain colonised India in the mid-19th century).

Regardless of their origin, it is widely accepted that the Aryans established the Hindu caste system in India. It is believed that the new rulers needed a system to entrench their rule, and to enforce obedience among the people whose lands they occupied. “Since a mechanism for maintaining racial segregation was required, this took the form of dividing society into socially self-contained and separate castes . . . Race was seen as scientific explanation for caste and the four main castes or varnas were said to represent the major racial groups. Their racial identity was preserved by the strict prevention of intermarriage between them”, writes Thapar.

At the top of the caste system were, naturally, the creators of the system, the Brahmins, who monopolised priesthood and learning. Then came the Kshatriyas (warriors), followed by Vaishyas (traders) and finally Sudras (workers). Outside these castes or varnas were what are known as the “Untouchables” (who Gandhi, in an attempt to destigmatise them, referred to as Harijans or Children of God). The Untouchables, who were assigned degrading menial jobs like cleaning latrines, were not allowed to come near upper caste Hindus, and were not even allowed to enter temples. They were denied access to common wells and other public areas because they were viewed as “impure” or “polluted”. (Nowadays, Untouchables are referred to as Dalits, a less stigmatising and more politically correct word that in the Marathi language means “broken people”.) In other words, the caste system legitimised inequality and discrimination.

B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit who rose to be India’s first Law Minister, called the caste system a “degrading system of social organisation”. He said that, especially for Untouchables, “Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors” that denies them even the most basic of rights.

Added to the grief of the lower castes is the notion of karma – the belief that individual suffering is the result of bad deeds committed by an individual in a past life, a sort of divine retribution that must be endured by those who experience suffering. Poverty and other debilitating conditions are considered an inevitable outcome of bad karma. With such a belief system entrenched in the psyche of the average Indian, it is no wonder that Dalits have not risen against their oppressors in large numbers, though in recent years they have formed their own political parties, and a few have also been elected into Parliament.

Apologists for the caste system say that by defining areas of occupation for various groups, the caste system helps Indian society to function without much conflict or stress because each caste knows its place and role in society, and obtains some kind of solidarity within its own caste group and legitimacy within the wider society. On the other hand, critics like Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism before his death in 1956, say that it is a system that hinders social and economic mobility, and ensures that certain groups remain in a permanent state of “backwardness”, with little chance of rising to positions of power or influence.

Although casteism is less prevalent in India than it was when India gained independence, it is not unusual to still hear stories of low-caste people being lynched, raped and generally exploited by upper caste Hindus – a reality that has become more common under Modi’s leadership. In fact, as Roy and women’s groups have consistently highlighted, Dalit women are more likely to be raped by upper-caste Hindus than women from higher caste backgrounds.

BLM: An opportunity to dismantle caste prejudice

So if one wants to understand Indian racism, one must also unpack casteism, which is in some ways more insidious than racism because it is accepted as normal and God-ordained.

Casteism is a particularly difficult concept for non-Indians to grasp because, unlike racism, it is socially and widely accepted as an integral part of Hinduism, and is therefore considered sacrosanct. As Roy states, “Casteism and racism, though they have different histories, are not different except that casteism claims some kind of divine mandate”. In other words, you could say that casteism is not unlike the revisionist Christianity advocated by white South Africans that sanctioned the separation of the races.

Hindus must divorce themselves from the caste system which, in any case, does not benefit the majority of Hindus. They must dismantle the rigidity of the system, which relegates people to superior or inferior status by pigeonholing them into occupational groups that in India are also associated with skin colour. They must make the connection between their own caste prejudices and the racial prejudices endured by people in other countries. This work needs to be done in tandem with anti-racism and human rights movements everywhere, and would require a massive shift in consciousness that would require redefining what it means to be a Hindu.

As Arundhati Roy points out in the introduction to the book Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar, though caste is not the same as race, casteism and racism are comparable. She writes:

Other contemporary abominations like apartheid, racism, sexism, economic imperialism and religious fundamentalism have been politically and intellectually challenged at international forums. How is it that the practice of caste in India – one of the most brutal modes of hierarchical social organisatoin that human society has known – has managed to escape similar scrutiny and censure? Perhaps because it has come to be so fused with Hinduism, and by extension with so much that is seen to be kind and good – mysticism, spiritualism, non-violence, tolerance, vegetarians, Gandhi, yoga, backpackers, the Beatles – that, at least to outsiders, it seems impossible to pry it loose and try to understand it.

Although various Indian governments and India’s constitution have tried to dampen the negative impact of the caste system by instituting various affirmative action programmes and laws that protect Dalits (or what are known as “scheduled castes”) and other minorities, caste prejudice is still rampant in India. Upper caste Hindus still dominate top jobs in government and in business, and colour prejudice is apparent everywhere, including in advertising billboards and movies.

We must understand that casteism, like racism, is an exploitative economic strategy, crafted by those in power to ensure their dominance. The question is always about who gets to control the resources. Slavery and colonialism were institutionalised racism that allowed white people to exploit non-white people and their lands. Racial superiority is nothing but a myth perpetuated by supremacists who would like people to believe that skin colour is a privilege, not just an accident of geography, climate, migratory patterns or other factors.

The global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has offered all of us an opportunity to examine whether our societies have institutionalised discrimination, not just along the lines of race, but also along the lines of caste, religion, ethnicity, tribe, clan, gender and sexuality. This opportunity must not be lost; Indians should seize it with both hands.

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

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Kisumu County’s Fragile Food Security

Reliance on imports from as far away as Tanzania, Uganda and even China, leaves Kisumu County’s accessibility to food on a fragile footing.

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A ceasefire had to be called at the height of the 2007/8 post-election violence and a corridor created for the safe passage of foodstuffs from the Rift Valley to the lakeside city of Kisumu to avert a food crisis. The post-election violence had erupted barely 10 days earlier.

For a region that enjoys adequate rainfall and has good agricultural soils, the lack of access food supplies within days of a crisis breaking out is indicative of the problems generated by how food systems are structured in Kisumu County.

Kisumu County has a considerable shoreline along Lake Victoria that extends from Seme to the south to Nyakach Sub-County to the north. Apart from Kisumu city, the county also has a number of smaller towns such as Muhoroni, Ahero, Katito, Maseno and Kombewa.

Eighty per cent of the food consumed by the county’s 300,000 households—including maize, potatoes, onions, vegetables, milk, rice, eggs and bananas—is imported from as far as Uganda and Tanzania along with imports of fish from China.

Kisumu County continues to import food despite having regions that could potentially support expansive food production in areas such as Muhoroni, Nyamware and Nam Thowi, and the fertile crescents in Seme to the south. Over time, the rich alluvial soils that have been deposited in these areas by floods and rivers flowing downstream from Nandi Hills have created fertile grounds that support farming.

How did we get here?

The persistent issues that have impeded food production in Kisumu County are numerous. Traditionally, communities living in the county practiced fishing and livestock keeping, and subsistence agriculture as their economic mainstay. Commercial farming has only been embraced in recent years, due to interactions with neighbouring farming communities such as the Kisii, Luhya, Abasuba, and Kuria. The majority, however, continue to practice smallholder subsistence agriculture.

The uptake of commercial farming was also hindered by the economic policies of the 1990s that saw the collapse or the weakening of many of the structures that had been established to support food production in the country as a whole and provided extension services, grants, and subsidies to farmers. They include the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC), the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC), Agricultural Training Centres (ATCs), Agricultural Research Institutions (ARIs), and farmers’ co-operatives.

The system of land ownership in Kisumu County is also a hindrance to commercial food production. Most land in Kisumu County is not registered and titled and much of it is inherited property that has been passed down through the generations without legal title.

Recent surveys show that the cost of the farming inputs required to initiate meaningful agricultural production is out of reach for the majority of Kisumu County residents. This challenge is further compounded by the dearth of farming SACCOs (Savings and Credit Cooperatives); with the prohibitive interest rates charged by local banks, obtaining capital to start an agricultural enterprise has proved to be a challenge. These challenges are further exacerbated by the risks associated with farming such as crop losses and post-harvest losses.

The system of land ownership in Kisumu County is also a hindrance to commercial food production.

There is little agro-innovation among Kisumu farmers who still rely on traditional farming methods. There is little irrigation going on in the county. Lastly, there is a serious lack of the human resource required to support food production such as agricultural engineers, extension officers, veterinary doctors, agronomists, sociologists, planners, economists, among others.

Food shortage affects the mwananchi

At Jubilee Market, a major cog in the food supply chain in Kisumu City, traders lament daily about inadequate local food supplies and about middlemen from outside the county who take advantage of food shortages to import supplies and make big profits. The high demand for food and the low supply have an impact on food prices, reducing profit margins for the traders, even as consumers are faced with high food prices.

There is a serious lack of the human resource required to support food production.

The missing link in Kisumu’s economic growth is a buoyant agricultural sector. From observations made when the writer toured Victoria Eco-Farm, a leading food supplier situated at Dunga Beach in Kisumu City, the revival of agriculture in Kisumu is possible.  Victoria Eco-Farm deals in poultry, dairy, bee keeping, and the rearing of exotic dogs.  The farm has also diversified into agri-tourism, receiving visitors and training both students on attachment and local farmers on best farming practices. Nicholas Omondi, the Director, has become a role model for emerging food producers in the agriculture sector.

Modelling food sufficiency

Based on Walt Rostow’s model of economic growth, Kisumu County will not make a sudden and quick leap out of food insecurity. In Stages of Economic Growth, Rostow outlines the five stages that all countries must pass through to become developed: the traditional society; pre-conditions for take-off; take-off; drive to maturity; age of mass consumption. Regrettably, Kisumu County is still at the stage of a traditional society that is characterized by subsistence agriculture, limited funding and technological innovation, and low economic mobility.

The pre-conditions for take-off will only be fulfilled when the county government, acting in collaboration with the national government, provides adequate incentives for agricultural development. More food crops need to be introduced to farmers in Kisumu County. There is also an urgent need to revitalize existing sectors such as the sugar and fishing industries. The county’s potential to become a prime producer of rice also needs to be actualized.

Reform-oriented policies such as titling and surveying are needed in order to transform the existing models of landholding and land ownership. Farming communities in the county also require extensive sensitization and training on emerging technologies and innovations. Most importantly, existing lacklustre attitudes to farming as an economic activity among Kisumu County residents will need to be addressed.

However, the current tax regime is inimical to the drive to boost food security and needs urgent review. In effect, no serious gains can be made in the agriculture sector anywhere in the country as long as the national government continues to insist on enforcing policies that increase production costs and make it cheaper to import food from Tanzania and Uganda than to grow it at home.

The current tax regime is inimical to the drive to boost food security and needs urgent review.

Leaders must realize that whether they are in the opposition or in government, relations with state agencies, especially those in the agriculture sector, are key to developing farming in Kisumu County, that in the interest of economic development, they must always be in constant touch with the government for purposes of support, lobbying and relaying feedback in development processes. Existing attitudes and brands of politics that lead to self-marginalization must be removed at all costs.

It must be recognised, however, that the county government has taken initial steps to start addressing the challenge of food insecurity. In partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the county government has established a youth-focused Food Liaison Advisory Group (FLAG), leading to the promotion of urban agriculture, the strengthening of rural mechanisms for food production and initiating programmes for the training and deployment of agricultural extension officers.

It is to be hoped that such initiatives will contribute towards alleviating the food insecurity situation that the residents of Kisumu County continue to grapple with.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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How Twitter’s Negligence is Harming Kenya’s Democracy

Twitter’s trending algorithm has been abandoned to disinformation campaigns and attacks, failing Kenyans as political actors use it to control political narratives by harassing dissenting voices.

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On the 24th of June 2021 at around 6 a.m., an insidious hashtag, #KatibaMbichi, appeared on Kenyan Twitter timelines. Its trend seemed to be driven by a number of faceless bots, and retweeted by a series of catfishes that sent it to the number one spot on the Kenyan Twitter trends. 

Our investigations have uncovered how such malicious, coordinated, inauthentic attacks that seek to silence members of civil society, muddy their reputations and stifle the reach of their messaging, is a growing problem in Kenya. Twitter, especially, has been central to these operations due to the influence it has on the country’s news cycle.

The proliferation of digital media platforms in Kenya carries the promise of a renewed definition of freedom of speech. Moreover, Twitter has been a vital tool of expression for many Kenyan citizens, many of whom use it to hold their leaders to account and to call out their failures. But civil society members and journalists have increasingly come under attack thanks to disinformation campaigns in the country.

Through a series of interviews with anonymous influencers involved in these campaigns, we accessed their inner workings and gained crucial insights into how they are organized.

An examination of the campaigns has provided our team with a window into the shadowy world of Twitter influencers for political hire in Kenya. Many of the accounts and individuals involved promote brands, causes and political ideologies without disclosing that they are part of paid campaigns.

Twitter features such as the trending algorithm are exploited to achieve the goals of these campaigns by amplifying them. Certain verified accounts on the platform are complicit in leading these attacks. The goal of these campaigns is to exhaust critical thinking and poison the information environment by muddying the truth.

Our investigations examined two months’ data between 1 May 2021 and 30 June 2021, with a particular focus on the Constitutional Amendment Bill—famously known as the Building Bridges Initiative—that was being promoted in Kenya at the time.

With the aid of Twint, Sprinklr and Trendinalia, we trailed the attacks by mapping and analysing specific hashtags that the influencers used on Twitter. This involved mapping certain accounts that posted malicious content targeting Kenya’s activists and judicial officers. The flagged hashtags often displayed synchronized publishing timestamps within the metadata, with a lack of content on most days, followed by one very sharp burst of activity and then fizzling out.

In total, using Sprinklr, which has access to Twitter’s full historical archive, we flagged 23,606 tweets and retweets released by 3,742 accounts under the 11 hashtags. We also obtained 15,350 of these tweets using the Twint package on Github to carry out further analysis of the content.

How disinformation is spread

The Twitter campaigns we looked at were those that were pro-BBI and directly attacked citizens and prominent civil society activists that were vocally opposed to the proposed reforms, and also sought to discredit civil society organisations and activists by portraying them as villains who were being funded by Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto—he opposes the BBI process.

The well-coordinated attacks are launched through WhatsApp groups to avoid detection. The WhatsApp group admins give direction about what to post, the hashtags to use, which tweets to engage with, and whom to target. They also synchronize the posting to enable the tweets to trend on twitter.

There is money to be made in attacking civil society. Our sources confirmed that they get paid between US$10 and US$15 to participate in three campaigns per day. Those higher up the ranks are on a monthly retainer that can go as high as US$500. Those who are on a retainer supervise the hashtags and ensure that they trend on the days they are posted.

Who the disinformation targets

From our analysis, the top three most frequent victims were Kenyan journalists, judges, and known activists. Prominent anti-BBI activists under the Linda Katiba movement who petitioned the courts against the BBI were the targets of some of the most vicious attacks.

The attacks peaked in early May with the specific goal of trying to discredit the anti-BBI campaign. Jerotich Seii, a key member of the Linda Katiba campaign who was targeted, said in interview that she had to spend a lot of time trying to prove that her activism efforts were genuine and that she was not a front for someone else. “The disinformation attacks against me focussed on painting me as someone with ulterior motives who isn’t interested in the welfare of Kenyans. I had to spend a good chunk of my time defending my position as someone who is actually a patriot who does what they do out of love for their country,” said Seii.

From our analysis, the top three most frequent victims were Kenyan journalists, judges, and known activists.

All this is leading to self-censorship by some of the activists on the platform as they feel that it is pointless to use a platform that cannot deliver any meaningful engagement. One activist we spoke to said that she had significantly scaled down her Twitter activity because of all the trolling she had experienced.

The Kenyan High court struck down the BBI on 14 May on the grounds that the initiative was unconstitutional and the Court of Appeal followed suit on August 20th. The ruling not only strained the already bad relationship between Kenya’s Judiciary and the Executive, it also led to wave after wave of disinformation attacks seeking to question the judges’ judicial independence and the accuracy of their decision.

A notable change in these attacks was how the visual aesthetics of the content within the campaigns evolved; newspaper editorial cartoon-style caricatures and memes were employed, a likely indication of a change of leadership or strategy at the top that sought to make the content more palatable and shareable.

What is the impact of the slander?

The data that we gathered from Trendinalia (which collects data on Twitter trends in Kenya) shows that sufficient amplification was achieved for 8 of the 11 hashtags we identified that became trending topics. This amplification was achieved partly through the use of verified accounts. One anonymous influencer we spoke to said that owners of certain verified accounts involved in these campaigns would often rent them out to improve the campaign’s chances of trending. “The owner of the account usually receives a cut of the campaign loot from the person that rented it from them once it’s over,” the influencer said.

The demand for this service by the political class in Kenya is markedly strong. During the months of May and June alone, we counted at least 31 artificial political hashtags, including the ones linked to the BBI process. This translates to at least one manipulated disinformation campaign that Kenyans have to deal with every two days.

Curiously, there is little evidence that these operations actually sway people’s opinions. However, they do have an effect on how Twitter users interact with their information environment. The goal of such operations is to overwhelm, to create an environment where nobody knows what is true or false anymore. The objective is to exhaust critical thinking and muddy the truth.

During the months of May and June alone, we counted at least 31 artificial political hashtags, including the ones linked to the BBI process.

Typically, a post by any of the prominent activists or judicial officers is bombarded with so much aggression, insults, and dismissive comments that the space for a good conversation is lost. The point is always to ensure that sober-minded people are disincentivized from amplifying the topic after encountering so much aggression in the replies and the quote tweets.

The role of Twitter Inc.

To many Kenyans, Twitter matters. The platform has become a very critical avenue of expression, networking, running ads, and a means of obtaining information. It is also an important avenue for active citizenship as #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) is one of Africa’s loudest and most lively internet communities.

On the darker side however, some of the features on Twitter are being exploited for nefarious purposes. The platform is failing Kenyans—and Africans more broadly. Political actors are using it to try to control political narratives by poisoning the platform and harassing dissenting voices.

Specifically, Twitter’s trending algorithm, which selects and highlights content without examining its potential for harm, often serves as an on-ramp for users who are trying to find information on the platform. Our sources said that Twitter trends is the primary key performance indicator by which most of their campaigns are judged. They admitted that without it their jobs would not exist. “The main goal is to go trending on Twitter. I’m not sure what our jobs would look like without that target,” said one source.

The evidence available points to the fact that, for the executives at Twitter, this is not a new phenomenon. The trending algorithm in particular, which is a big part of how Twitter works, has been abandoned to disinformation campaigns and attacks.

Twitter’s Moderation Team should pay close attention, keenly monitor and regulate its trending section. Activists, such as Sleeping Giants, have repeatedly called for Twitter to “untrend” itself. This could be done by either removing the feature completely or by disabling it during critical times such as during election periods.

The evidence available points to the fact that, for the executives at Twitter, this is not a new phenomenon.

Arguably, Twitter does not have an incentive to fix this. It sells ads for “promoted trends” and “promoted tweets” within the feeds of hashtags on its trending topics section to business clients. This puts Twitter squarely in the middle of the mess as it profits from this harmful activity.

Ad Dynamo, an agency that sells Twitter Ads in Kenya, currently offers promoted trends for US$3,500 per day within the country. The overall message this sends is that it is ok to sow hate on the platform so long as Ad Dynamo owners can place ads next to the trending content and make a profit from it.

As Kenya heads towards elections in 2022, the demand for these services will increase and many political parties will seek out malicious coordinated trending models and create the risk of a repeat of the 2007 political violence.

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WHO Neutrality in a Time of Crisis at Home: The Case of Dr Ghebreyesus

The UN and its highest officials must not choose inaction under the pretext of observing neutrality especially where genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, weaponised rape, and starvation are taking place.

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Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was re-elected to serve a second five-year term as the Director-General of the World Health Organization at the 75th World Health Assembly on 24 May 2022. Dr Ghebreyesus is from Ethiopia’s Tigray region and he has been condemning the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, as well as non-state actors in Ethiopia such as the Amhara militia, for the comprehensive humanitarian blockade, total siege, systematic rape, mass killings, total destruction of health facilities, and killings of humanitarian and health workers, and other atrocious acts committed in Tigray and against its people. There are, however, critics, especially from the Ethiopian government, that claim that he is abusing his mandate as the head of a UN organization. This raises the question to what extent high-ranking UN officials should stay neutral when it comes to conflict and crises in their home countries.

Mandate and watchdog 

As the Director-General of the WHO, Dr Ghebreyesus’ statements on the catastrophic humanitarian and medical condition of the people of Tigray and his call on the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to lift the siege and humanitarian blockade are legitimate and within the purview of his mandate. It is important to understand the context of Dr Ghebreyesus’ statements. Dr Ghebreyesus has the responsibility of upholding WHO principles, which include the recognition that the “health of all peoples is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security and is dependent on the fullest cooperation of states and individuals” and that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”

The war on Tigray started at a time of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and disrupted the efforts of the people of Tigray to prevent and contain the spread of the disease and mitigate its significant health and socio-economic-political impacts. Citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the move, on 31 March 2020, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) postponed the scheduled 29 August 2020 legislative elections indefinitely. However, other voices, including the Government of Tigray,  have condemned the decision as a corona-clouded power grab.

The war on Tigray, referred to by the Ethiopian government as simply “law and order enforcement” against a few leaders in Tigray, turned out to be a well-planned total war against the people of Tigray that involved significant forces from foreign countries, including Eritrea and Somalia. Several reports by humanitarian organisations and investigations by human rights organisations and international media have repeatedly concluded that the gruesome mass atrocities committed against Tigrayans constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing that may amount to genocide. This is consistent with Ethiopian officials’ openly stated intent to erase Tigrayans. In February 2021, four months after the war started, they even shared their intentions with Pekko Havvisto, Finland’s Foreign Minister and EU Envoy to Ethiopia. “When I met the Ethiopian leadership in February, they really used this kind of language, that they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years, and so forth.

Despite the Ethiopian government declaring unilateral humanitarian ceasefires twice, first on 28 June 2021 and then on 24 March 2022, together with their Eritrean allies, Ethiopian forces have maintained the siege sealing off Tigray from the rest of the world and imposing “a de facto humanitarian aid blockade” as stated by the UN in July 2021. The siege involves a complete shutdown of telecommunications, transportation, electricity, and the banking system with the result that workers’ salaries cannot be paid, people with savings cannot access their money, and the Tigray diaspora cannot send remittances to help their families and friends in Tigray. Even aid agencies working in Tigray were denied cash and fuel and many were forced to halt their humanitarian operations.

By March 2022, 16 months since the start of the war, it was reported that an estimated half a million Tigrayans have been killed. Of those, close to 200,000 lost their lives by starvation, which is being deliberately used as a weapon of war, while another 100,000 civilian Tigrayans died from lack of access to basic medical care. The allied Ethiopian and Eritrean forces deliberately destroyed, damaged, and looted food production and supply chains and the entire health system. It is now close to 20 months since the war started and more Tigrayans have died from deliberate starvation, denial of medical care, torture, extrajudicial killings in the liberated part of Tigray, in western and other parts of Tigray still occupied by Ethiopian federal, Amhara, and Eritrean forces and in internment camps in many parts of Ethiopia.

The allied Ethiopian and Eritrean forces deliberately destroyed, damaged, and looted food production and supply chains and the entire health system.

The Ethiopian government and its allies are indeed working against the core UN charter and instruments including universal human rights such as the right to life, freedom of movement, right to food, right to health, and right to humanitarian aid. The people of Tigray are now denied the enjoyment of a standard of health services that they attained after decades of a hard, consistent and holistic effort to attain primary health care. The WHO sent critical medical supplies to all conflict-affected regions of Ethiopia but while the consignments to the Amhara and Afar regions arrived at destination without problems, those destined for Tigray have been deliberately blocked by Ethiopian authorities and their allies from reaching people who are being deliberately starved and denied access to basic medical supplies.

It is within this context that Dr Ghebreyesus is speaking out and calling for the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to stop weaponizing access to food and medical supplies. Speaking at the inauguration of his second term, Dr Ghebreyesus said:

“I am humbled by the opportunity provided by the Member States to serve a second term as WHO Director-General”. He added, “This honour, though, comes with great responsibility and I am committed to working with all countries, my colleagues around the world, and our valued partners, to ensure WHO delivers on its mission to promote health, and keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.”

Dr Ghebreyesus is therefore acting in line with his mandate to be a voice for the voiceless victims. Dr Ghebreyesus is impartial in that, under his leadership, the WHO has also been dispatching critical medical supplies to the Afar and Amhara regions; the UN system has a watchdog that oversees the impartiality of UN officials. Moreover, the UN also has an Office of Internal Oversight Services, which investigates misconduct and violations by UN officials and submits reports and recommendations to the UN Secretary-General.

The Ethiopian government did lodge a complaint to the WHO Office of Compliance, Risk Management and Ethics (CRE) and to the WHO’s Executive Board, alleging misconduct and calling for the removal of Dr Ghebreyesus from office claiming that he was using the office of the Director-General to further his personal political interests. This is part of the campaign that the Ethiopian government has been waging against all Tigrayans—attacks and witch-hunts against Tigrayans that lack any credibility. UN peacekeeping troops of Tigrayan origin deployed in Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan faced similar attacks which led the UN to treat them as prima facie refugees in need of protection.

Neutrality 

In his 2021 book titled Perilous Medicine, Professor Leonard Rubenstein describes the debate within the humanitarian and donor community about the role of neutrality in aid work, which can be extrapolated to the UN’s high-ranking officials.

Neutrality, one of the four principles of UN humanitarian practice (humanity, impartiality, and independence), is about not taking a position on one side or another in a conflict. When undertaking humanitarian and other UN operations in zones of armed conflict, UN officials are expected to remain neutral, avoiding taking sides or showing favouritism. In contrast, impartiality is maintaining non-discriminatory positions towards individuals and  groups of  people in a conflict  needing humanitarian assistance. However, neutrality should not mean that UN officials have to remain tight-lipped and passive when any of the warring parties are massacring and deliberately starving a civilian population and denying them access to life-saving assistance because of their ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political opinions, race or religion. As long as aid workers (or in this case UN officials) maintain impartiality, Professor Rubenstein questions if maintaining neutrality vis-à-vis a waring party or parties is even morally ethical, especially when they attack or deny civilians humanitarian assistance  because of their identity, as is the case with ethnic Tigrayans.

The WHO, led by Dr Ghebreyesus, has been impartial in its medical aid delivery to all ethnic groups affected by the civil war in northern Ethiopia.  While neutrality has been interpreted as not taking sides, it does not require Dr Ghebreyesus to be indifferent to the suffering of millions civilian Tigrayans when the Ethiopian government and its allies blatantly discriminate against them and deny them access to vital international medical assistance because of their ethnicity.

In her article Neutrality vs impartiality: What is the difference?, Carol Devine of Doctors Without Borders says, “Neutrality is not the same as staying silent. It’s nuanced and even controversial. MSF reserves the possibility to speak in public about massive human rights violations and crimes of humanity, including genocide.” A misguided interpretation of neutrality can lead, as it did in Rwanda, to catastrophic and regrettable tragedies. When civilians are facing crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide as is still happening in Tigray, taking no action using neutrality as excuse is against the fundamental values and mandates of the UN human rights and international humanitarian law.

A misguided interpretation of neutrality can lead, as it did in Rwanda, to catastrophic and regrettable tragedies.

It is important to be aware of the unfortunate conflation of neutrality with the duty of impartiality. Indeed, former UN Deputy Secretary-General Louis Frechette is cited saying, “The UN cannot be impartial between those who respect international, humanitarian, and human rights laws and those who grossly violate them.” In 1999, former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan said, “In the face of genocide, there can be no standing aside, no looking away, no neutrality – there are perpetrators and there are victims, there is evil and there is evil’s harvest.”

The UN and its highest officials must not choose inaction under the pretext of observing neutrality especially where genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, weaponised rape, and starvation are taking place. The heads of UN organizations including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres need to join Dr Ghebreyesus in speaking up and acting against the continuing ethnic cleansing, siege and humanitarian blockade of millions of civilian Tigrayans.

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