We all know Kenyans who, after a short stint in the United States, come back home with a mangled American accent – the kind you know is put on or forced and which makes you cringe because you know how much effort it has taken for the speaker to develop it.
It makes you wonder what it is about America that makes people quickly put on accents that are not theirs. Is it lack of self-esteem, or is it a fervent desire to fit into White America? Do people who adopt American accents believe they have a better chance of being assimilated into American society? Or do they believe that they can only move ahead in their careers if they are better understood by their American audiences? Is changing one’s accent a route to career advancement?
The Sri Lankan journalist Varindra Tarzie Vittachi wrote about this phenomenon in his book The Brown Sahib, in which he describes post-colonial Indian administrators and top-level civil servants who became mere caricatures of the British and Britishness when the colonialists left India. Eager to please their former masters, they went to great lengths to adopt British accents and mannerisms – not realising that: a) they could never pass off as British no matter how hard they tried, and b) by denigrating their own language and culture, they generated even more contempt for themselves among the British, who viewed them as mimicking buffoons who had no dignity or respect for their own culture and identity.
I lived in the United States for five years when I was a student there, but did not come home with an American accent. I think it’s partly because I am multilingual (I’ll explain why this matters later) and also because I don’t like the loud nasal screechy tone of American accents. I find the accent off-putting. It lacks the subtle sensuality of French, the lyricism of Urdu or the sophistication of coastal Kiswahili.
Later on, when I worked in the diverse multicultural environment of the United Nations, I realised that American accents were the minority, and had very little to do with career advancement, so there was no need to put them on. Though race and gender mattered when it came to getting the top management jobs, it was not rare to have a Senegalese with a heavy French-Senegalese accent heading a department or a Russian with very little knowledge of English running an IT section. Most UN staffers are valued not for their knowledge of English, but for their fluency in a variety of languages. So speaking English with an American accent is hardly a plus point.
Kenyans who develop American accents overnight remind me of something Sharmila Sen, an American writer of Indian origin, wrote. In her recently published book, Not Quite Not White, Sen talks about how she used to rehearse speaking with an American accent when her family migrated to America from their native India when she was a child. Her family had moved to Boston from Calcutta and she was afraid that her Indian Bengali accent would be mocked by her classmates. So she spent hours watching American television, learning to speak like the characters in Little House on the Prairie and Dallas (probably not realising that accents vary across America; Texans speak with a specific drawl that is quite distinct from the speech pattern of someone born and raised in New England).
When the twelve-year-old Sen arrived in America with her immigrant parents, she was fluent in three languages: Bengali, Hindi and English. But in her almost all-white school, she pretended that she did not know any Indian language and did not even watch Indian movies, even though she loved them. She was afraid that her classmates might find out that Bengalis eat with their hands and that she would be the laughing stock of the entire school, so she never invited friends home. Her parents, keen to assimilate in their new country, insisted on using forks and knives, even though they had little desire to use them. She says she and her family didn’t want to be associated with “fresh off the boat” people in America, who fail to assimilate into American society, and live cocooned lives in ghettoes. Most importantly, she didn’t want to appear “threatening, unnatural, or ungrateful”.
She also smiled a lot, which she says is common among brown and black people living in America. As an African American man, a fellow doctoral candidate, explained to her, “We smile because it is the only face we can show. If we stop smiling, they will see how angry we are. And no one likes an angry black man”.
Sen says that as she grew older and understood white privilege, she decided to “go native” and not smile too much because she was tired of being the entertainer, the storyteller, the explainer of all things Indian to white audiences. She also did not want her sons and daughter to be viewed as “people of colour” (a designation she resents).
Another writer who decided to go truly native is our very own Ngũgi wa Thiong’o. In Ngũgi’s case, not only did he not adopt an American accent when he went into self-imposed exile in the US, but he decided to abandon the English language altogether in favour of his mother tongue, Gĩkũyũ. Perhaps that is why his acceptance speech for an award he received recently was entirely in his native tongue.
Ngũgi believes that when you erase a people’s language, you erase their memories. And people without memories are rudderless, unconnected to their own histories and culture, mimics who have placed their memories in a “psychic tomb” in the mistaken belief that if they master their coloniser’s language, they will own it. Because erasure of memory and culture is a condition for successful assimilation, the burial of African languages by Africans themselves has ensured their total immersion into colonial culture. He calls this phenomenon a “death wish” that occurs in societies that have never fully acknowledged their loss – like trauma victims who resort to drugs to kill the pain.
Many people of my generation are multilingual because they were encouraged to speak their mother tongue at home. While I was taught in English in school, I learned to speak and understand Hindi and Punjabi at home and picked up Kiswahili on the streets. Later, I picked up a bit of French in high school, and Urdu as well, because my father loved Urdu poetry and ghazals.
All these languages have enriched my life in ways that would not have been possible had I not learned them. Without them, I would have never been able to understand the subtle meanings and nuances embedded in certain Punjabi words. I would not have been able to communicate with my grandmother or watch and enjoy Bollywood films. Nor would I have realised that President Moi’s speeches in English were very different in meaning and tone from his speeches in Kiswahili. I would not have developed an understanding of my own and other people’s cultures or developed empathy and tolerance for other races and ethnic groups had I not been multilingual. Language is the pathway to a culture’s soul.
Sadly, the generations that come after me have abandoned their native tongue in favour of English. Some parents even encourage their children not to speak their mother tongue at home because it might “contaminate” their English accent.
At a public lecture he gave at the University of Nairobi a few years ago, Ngũgi derided Kenyan parents for discouraging their children from speaking their mother tongues, a phenomenon that has led to what he called a “linguistic famine” in African households. This would never happen in countries such as Germany or France, where German and French children learn their own language before they learn English. Nor would it happen in China, India or Brazil, all of which are emerging economies. (I have yet to meet a Chinese person who feels ashamed about not knowing English.)
Even in neighbouring Tanzania and Somalia, people become fluent in Kiswahili and Somali, respectively, before they learn other languages. A few years ago, I participated in a two-day local government meeting in Dar es Salaam which was conducted in just in one language – Kiswahili. Like many Kenyans who visit Tanzania, I became painfully aware of the fact that my mastery of this beautiful language was woefully inadequate. My only (lame) excuse for this is that in my school days, Kiswahili was not a mandatory subject.
Knowledge of many languages promotes inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and is essential in a globalising world. If Kenyans are to be successful citizens of the world, they must learn their own and other people’s languages. And we should stop putting on accents just to impress others. Putting on an accent that is not natural is not just silly and painful to watch; it is also a sign that those who feel compelled to change their accents have a large amount of self-loathing going on, which is just plain sad.
The late Wangari Maathai said that “culture is coded wisdom”, and must be preserved. Language is one of the vehicles through which that culture is transmitted. We must preserve our languages for the sake of present and future generations.
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Wave of Coups in Françafrique: Is Africa’s Oldest Autocracy Next?
With widespread insecurity, escalating public discontent, an absence of the rule of law, pervasive poverty, and frail state institutions, Togo is ripe for a coup.
In the wake of a series of coups that have jolted Africa, speculation about which nation will follow is rife. The pioneer of coups in Africa, Togo frequently emerges as a prime candidate in these conjectures. The country’s 1963 coup was the first on the continent under the leadership of Gnassingbé Eyadéma. In 1967, Eyadéma orchestrated another coup and held on to power for the next 38 years. Following his demise in 2005, Eyadéma was succeeded by his son Faure Gnassingbé, who orchestrated his own coup before subsequently holding contested elections that resulted in at least 400 deaths, according to a UN report.
Togo’s vulnerability to military coups stems from its colonial past and its long history of autocratic rule. The country also faces the same socio-political turmoil that has precipitated regime change in other African nations. One of Africa’s poorest countries, with a struggling economy, Togo is also grappling with escalating terrorism, especially in the northern region bordering coup-prone Burkina Faso.
The current semblance of stability in Togo can be attributed to its robust militarisation. While a number of African nations have transitioned peacefully to democratic governance, Togo’s regime has craftily manipulated global perception by positioning Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s non-military son, Faure, at the helm, ensuring the perpetuation of his father’s authoritarian legacy. Faure Gnassingbé’s journey to the presidency defies the archetypal dictator narrative. Educated in military schools during his formative years, he pursued higher studies in economics at the University of Paris Dauphine and an MBA from George Washington University in the US. His ascent in Togo’s political landscape has been swift, becoming Minister of Communication in 1998 under his father’s rule, then parliamentarian, Minister of Public Works, and ultimately president.
Togo has suffered decades of oppression in the iron grip of the Eyadéma dynasty. Gnassingbé Eyadéma is particularly infamous, remembered as one of the continent’s most brutal dictators. Mysteriously disappearing opponents and egregious human rights abuses led to a ten-year suspension of European Union aid between 1993 and 2003. Nevertheless, Eyadéma sustained a puzzlingly close relationship with France, the nation’s former colonial overseer that had acquired two thirds of Togo after World War I.
Recent coups in Africa have predominantly taken place in ex-French colonies. While some observers point to Russian influence, many locals accuse France of endorsing their nations’ most tyrannical leaders. Once a foot soldier in the French colonial army, Eyadéma was instrumental in the 1963 assassination of Togo’s first president, Sylvanus Olympio. Ostensibly a result of military integration disputes, the coup was deeply rooted in Olympio’s efforts to distance Togo from lingering colonial ties, including an audacious move to replace the CFA franc, a French-instituted currency, with the Togolese Franc. The unanimous passing of a bill establishing the creation of the Togolese national currency on 12 December 1962 may have precipitated his assassination just a month later.
Following Olympio’s killing, Nicolas Grunitzky assumed power despite his questionable loyalties and overt pro-French inclinations. His reign was short-lived, however. On 14 January 1967, amidst escalating public unrest and calls for new elections, the same military operatives that had ousted Olympio intervened once again. Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s meteoric rise within this framework was evident when he transitioned from a sergeant to a colonel in three years. While Klébert Dadjo was the initial choice as leader post-coup Eyadéma soon took charge, becoming president in April 1967.
During his time in office, Eyadema maintained excellent relations with France under whose contentious neocolonial strategy, Françafrique, French companies flourished, and French politicians reportedly amassed fortunes through murky deals with African dictators that included financial kickbacks, generous campaign funds, and strategic support to secure France’s position in global politics. French manipulation and exploitation in nations like Togo, Gabon, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire have enriched their ruling families while the majority continue to languish in poverty.
The people of Togo have shown an indomitable spirit in the face of dictatorship and repression and the 1990s saw the historic, student-led Movement du 5 Octobre (M05) culminate in a national sovereign conference and the establishment of a short-lived transitional government from 1991 to 1993. A series of massacres committed in April 1991 continue to haunt the people of Togo today.
The 1991 National Sovereign Conference was a beacon of hope for Togo’s future. With Eyadéma’s authoritarian rule showing signs of weakening, a new constitution was passed that conferred more powers on the prime minister while reducing those of the president, introduced presidential term limits and multipartism. But the political atmosphere took a severe turn in 1992 when soldiers, including one of Eyadema’s brothers, attacked the transitional Prime Minister Joseph Kokou Koffigoh’s office, killing at least a dozen people and igniting months of civil unrest as civil servants and students went on a nine-month-long strike demanding democracy and an end to military rule. The repression was so severe that thousands of Togolese people fled the country, creating the first wave of refugees from the West African nation. Despite the challenge to his rule, Eyadéma removed the presidential term limit in 2002 but maintained his dominance, securing another term in 2003.
Following Eyadéma’s death in 2005, the Eyadéma dynasty’s stranglehold on Togo has continued under Faure Gnassingbé’s rule. Living standards remain poor, and human rights abuses mirror those committed under his father’s reign. Within Togo, the Gnassingbé family seems to view political power as their birthright; Faure Gnassingbé revealed in an interview with Jeune Afrique that his father had advised him never to relinquish power. The Togolese took this revelation to heart, particularly when he sought a third term in 2015. A massive wave of protests broke out in 2017, demanding the reinstatement of term limits, a move that was met with brutal repression. The widespread protests led ECOWAS to intervene, resulting in a superficial constitutional amendment in 2019. Term limits were reinstated but with conditions that ensured that the terms that Faure Gnassingbe had already served remained unaffected. He then successfully retained power in the 2020 elections, consistent with the Gnassingbé dynasty’s undefeated electoral history.
The repression was so severe that thousands of Togolese people fled the country, creating the first wave of refugees from the West African nation.
The Gnassingbés do not just run elections; they are the elections. The Togolese were engulfed in despair when Faure Gnassingbé secured his 4th term, realising that by the next elections in 2025, the Gnassingbé family would have ruled for 59 years; a staggering 97 per cent of the country’s citizens have lived under the shadow of a single ruling dynasty – only 3 per cent of the population are over the age of 50.
The discontent isn’t confined to the masses; there is a distinct sense of unease within the corridors of power. Several Togolese military and political figures have been ousted over the past year, including Felix Kadanga, the president’s brother-in-law and former head of the Togolese Armed Forces, known for his brutal treatment of dissidents. Appointed just a year earlier, the widow of the president’s elder brother, Ernest Gnassingbé, was also relieved of her position as Defense Minister. These changes, combined with the arrests and house arrests of other military personnel, underscore the turmoil.
The Togolese people’s longing for democracy is poignant. Their quest has stretched across four generations and six decades. Exhausted by the relentless military rule, many harbour a hope inspired by successful coups in other nations. They yearn for an end to the oppressive rule of the Eyadéma dynasty, even if this means enduring continued military governance. A cocktail of factors usually precipitate coups: widespread insecurity, escalating public discontent, an absence of the rule of law, pervasive poverty, and frail state institutions. In Togo’s case, each box is emphatically ticked.
In many parts of Africa, including Togo, the perception of coups is multidimensional. While globally they are seen as a threat to democracy, coups might represent a glimmer of hope for the masses living under enduring dictatorships. In Togo, where democratic ideals like free elections and freedom of speech have been stifled, coups are sometimes seen as potential catalysts for democratic change. The desire for this perspective arises from decades of enduring media censorship, a silenced opposition, and rigged elections. The masses see coups as a possible means of uprooting deeply entrenched autocratic regimes. The fundamental question for Togo and for the other former French colonies is whether such radical shifts can indeed pave the way for true democracy.
Are These the Dying Days of La Françafrique?
The widespread anti-France sentiment among the populations of Francophone Africa is the result of nearly 200 years of French meddling in the political and economic affairs of these countries.
France ruined Haiti, the first Black country to become independent in 1804. France is on course to ruin all its former African colonies. It is no coincidence that the recent spate of coups in Africa has manifested in former French colonies (so-called Francophone Africa), once again redirecting the global spotlight on France’s activities in the region. And that the commentaries, especially amongst Africans, have been most critical of France and its continued interference in the region.
This is coming against the backdrop of France’s continued meddling in the economic and political affairs of “independent” Francophone countries, an involvement which has seen it embroiled, both directly and indirectly, in a series of unrests, corruption controversies and assassinations that have bedevilled the region since independence. Unlike Britain and other European countries with colonial possessions in Africa, France never left – at least not in the sense of the traditional distance observed since independence by the other erstwhile colonial overlords. Instead, it has, under the cover of a policy of coopération (cooperation) within the framework of an extended “French Community”, continued to maintain a perceptible cultural, economic, political and military presence in Africa.
On the surface, the promise of coopération between France and its former colonies in Africa – which presupposes a relationship of mutual benefit between politically independent nations – where the former would, through the provision of technical and military assistance, lead the development/advancement of its erstwhile colonial “family”, is both commendable and perhaps even worthy of emulation. However, when this carefully scripted façade is juxtaposed with the reality that has unfolded over the decades, what is revealed is an extensive conspiracy involving individuals at the highest levels of the French government. Along with other influential business interests – also domiciled in France – they have worked with a select African elite to orchestrate the most extensive and heinous crimes against the people of today’s Francophone Africa. A people who, even today, continues to strain under the weight of France’s insatiable greed.
The greed and covetousness that drove the European nations to abandon trade for colonialisation in Africa is as alive today as it was in the 1950s and 1980s. The decision to give in to African demands for independence was not the outcome of any benevolence or civilised reason on the part of Europe but for economic and political expedience. Thus, when the then president of France, Charles de Gaulle – who nurtured an ambition to see France maintain its status as a world power – agreed to independence for its African colonies, it was only a pre-emptive measure to check the further loss of French influence on the continent. In other words, the political liberation offered “on a platter of gold” as a means to avoid the development of other costly wars of independence which, a France depleted by World War II was already fighting in Indochina and Algeria.
The greed and covetousness that drove the European nations to abandon trade for colonialisation in Africa is as alive today as it was in the 1950s and 1980s.
Independence was, thus, only the first step in ensuring the survival of French interests in Africa and, more importantly, its prioritisation. Pursuant to this objective, de Gaulle also proposed a “French Community” – delivered on the same “golden platter” – as a caveat to continued French patronage. As such, the over 98 per cent of its colonies that agreed to be part of this community were roped into signing coopération accords – covering economic, political, military and cultural sectors – by Jacques Foccart, a former intelligence member of the French Resistance during the Second World War who had been handpicked by de Gaulle. This signing of coopération accords between France and the colonies, which opted to be part of its post-independence French Community, marked the beginning of France’s neo-colonial regime in Africa, where Africans got teachers and despotic leaders in exchange for their natural resources and French military installations.
Commonly referred to as Françafrique—a pejorative derivation from Félix Houphouet Boigny’s “France-Afrique” describing the close ties between France and Africa – France’s neocolonial footprint in Africa has been characterised by allegations of corruption and other covert activities perpetrated through various Franco-African economic, political and military networks. An essential feature of Françafrique is the mafia-like relations between French leaders and their African counterparts, reinforced by a dense web of personal networks. On the French side, African ties, which had been French presidents’ domaine réservé (sole responsibility) since 1958, were managed by an “African cell” founded and run by Jacques Foccart. Comprising French presidents, powerful and influential members of the French business community and the French secret service, this cell operated outside the purview of the French parliament, its civil society organisations, and non-governmental organisations. This created a window for corruption, as politicians and state officials took part in business arrangements that amounted to state racketeering.
Whereas pro-French sentiments in Africa, and without, still argue for France’s continued presence and contributions, particularly in the area of military intervention and economic aid, which they say have been critical to security, political stability and economic survival in the region, such arguments intentionally play down the historical consequences of French interests in the region.
Enjoying free rein in the region – backed mainly by the United States and Britain since the Cold War – France used the opportunity to strengthen its hold on its former colonies. This translated into the development of a franc zone – a restrictive monetary policy tying the economies of Francophone countries to France – as well as the adoption of an active interventionist approach, which has produced over 120 military interventions across fourteen dependent states between 1960 and the 1990s. These interventions, which were either to rescue stranded French citizens, put down rebellions, prevent coups, restore order, or uphold French-favoured regimes, have rarely been about improving the fortunes of the general population of Francophone Africa. French interventions have maintained undemocratic regimes in Cameroun, Senegal, Chad, Gabon, and Niger. At the same time, its joint military action in Libya was responsible for unleashing the Islamic terrorism that threatens to engulf countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria.
In pursuit of its interests in Africa, France has made little secret of its contempt for all independent and populist reasons while upholding puppet regimes. In Guinea in 1958, de Gaulle embarked on a ruthless agenda to undermine the government of Ahmed Sékou Touré – destroying infrastructure and flooding the economy with fake currency – for voting to stay out of the French Community. This behaviour was again replicated in Togo, where that country’s first president, Sylvio Olympio, was overthrown and gruesomely murdered for daring to establish a central bank for the country outside the Franc CFA Zone. Subsequently, his killer, Gnassingbé Eyadema, assumed office and ruled from 1967 until his death in 2005 – after which he was succeeded by his son, who still rules.
In Gabon, you had the Bongo family, who ran a regime of corruption and oppression with the open support of France throughout 56 years of unproductive rule. As for Cameroun, its most promising, Pan-Africanist pro-independence leader, Félix Moumié, died under mysterious circumstances in Switzerland, paving the way for the likes of Paul Biya, who has been president since 1982. France also backs a Senegalese government that today holds over 1,500 political prisoners, and singlehandedly installed Alhassan Ouattara as president of Cote d’Ivoire.
French interventions have maintained undemocratic regimes in Cameroun, Senegal, Chad, Gabon, and Niger.
Therefore, the widespread anti-France sentiment among the populations of Francophone Africa and beyond is not unfounded, as it has become apparent to all and sundry that these countries have not fared well under the shadow of France. In Niger, where France carried out one of the bloodiest campaigns of colonial pacification in Africa – murdering and pillaging entire villages – and which is France’s most important source of uranium, the income per capita was 59 per cent lower in 2022 than it was in 1965. In Cote d’Ivoire, the largest producer of cocoa in the world, the income per capita was 25 per cent lower in 2022 than in 1975.
Outside the rampant unemployment, systematic disenfranchisement and infrastructural deficits that characterise these Francophone countries, there is also the frustration and anger of sitting back and watching helplessly while the wealth of your country is carted away to nations whose people feed fat on your birthright and then turn around to make judgements and other disparaging comments on your humanity and condition of existence. The people are tired of being poor, helpless and judged as third-world citizens! France is a dangerous country.
It is indeed overdue for France to cut its losses – whatever it envisages them to be – and step back from its permanent colonies to allow the people of Francophone Africa to decide on their preferred path to the future. After nearly 200 years of pillage, the people have good reasons to demand that France should leave. The restlessness and the coups that have become commonplace in the region are symptoms of deeper underlying social, economic and political problems, including weak institutions, systematic disenfranchisement, poverty, corruption and the misappropriation of national wealth. And as we call on France to do the honourable thing and withdraw, we should also rebuke Africa’s leaders who have not only put their interests above those of their people but have also turned the instruments of regional intervention and development (like the AU and ECOWAS) into tools for ensuring their political survival.
Tigray Atrocities: Extending ICHREE Mandate Crucial for Accountability
If the Human Rights Council and its members genuinely condemn the atrocities committed in the war waged by the Ethiopian government on Tigray, they must demonstrate their commitment to accountability by extending ICHREE’s mandate.
The Human Rights Council (HRC), the premier human rights body of the United Nations (UN), among many other human rights issues, will decide on the future of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE). This commission was established to investigate and establish the facts and the circumstances surrounding alleged violations and abuses of international human rights committed during Ethiopia’s war on Tigray, which began on November 4, 2020.
On September 14, 2023, ICHREE submitted its second report that details the atrocities committed in Ethiopia and called for further investigation. ICHREE also reiterated its call for unrestricted access to regions where grave atrocities persist. Ethiopia’s failure to credibly investigate violations of international human rights and humanitarian law leads ICHREE to recommend ongoing international scrutiny and investigations into past and ongoing violations. It has asserted the long-held view that Ethiopia’s journey toward a future of lasting peace hinges on the establishment of political and legal accountability. Without accountability, the recurrence of such heinous acts remains a tangible threat. For this, it is vital to establish the truth for the reason, and given the distrust and limitations of national institutions, only an impartial international entity, such as ICHREE, can provide an objective evaluation and help accomplish this.
Nonetheless, despite its essential work so far and the fact that atrocities continue to be committed and the Ethiopian government is unwilling to ensure genuine transitional justice process and accountability, ICHREE now faces an uncertain future as the HRC debates its renewal. The hopes and demands of millions of victims and their families for truth and justice hang in the balance. Extending ICHREE’s mandate is crucial. Any decision to the contrary will go against the core principles of the HRC upon which it is founded.
Based on their voting behavior of 2021 and 2022, except for Malawi, which has abstained, most of the 13 African members, 6 of the 8 Latin American and Caribbean members, majority of 13 Asia-Pacific States will probably vote against the renewal of the extension. Recent reports show that the US has indicated its readiness to support a bid by the Ethiopian government to end the ICHREE, and 7 Western and 6 Eastern European States may follow suit.
While national interest and geopolitical consideration might explain this change in US and EU policy to ending the ICHREE mandate, they also argue that the anticipated national transitional justice process set out in the Pretoria peace deal makes ICHREE redundant.
ICHREE has also confirmed a long-held view that the government of Ethiopia “has failed to effectively investigate violations and has initiated a flawed transitional justice consultation process. Ethiopia has sought to evade international scrutiny through the creation of domestic mechanisms ostensibly to fight impunity.” ICHREE reports that the complete lack of trust in Ethiopian state institutions to conduct a credible transitional justice process is a recurring theme among the population. The government’s consultation process has fallen short of African Union and international standards, inadequately reflecting victims’ voices and being constrained by arbitrary deadlines. Impunity remains the norm, exacerbating the risk of future atrocity crimes. This challenging situation is compounded by the weakness of state structures responsible for providing protection, including ineffective national laws and a lack of independence in key institutions such as the judiciary and law enforcement. Widespread mistrust in state institutions and domestic accountability mechanisms, exacerbated by the politicization of the transitional justice process, has further eroded public confidence.
The horrific toll of the Tigray war
According to the 2022 Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) of Uppsala University, the Tigray war marked 2022 as the deadliest year since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, contributing significantly to a 97% global surge in organized violence. This war was waged by the Ethiopian government, significantly assisted by external forces, primarily the Eritrean Defence Forces.
Waged by the Ethiopian government, with substantial assistance from external entities, chiefly the Eritrean Defence Forces, a comprehensive blockade and media blackout were imposed on the region for over two years. The Tigray conflict led to a staggering 600 000 deaths, the deliberate starvation of over 5.7 million people, the pervasive use of rape and sexual assaults on thousands as weapons of war, and the displacement of more than 2 million in an ethnic cleansing campaign.
ICHREE confirmed that between November 2020 and July 2023, over “10,000 survivors, primarily women and girls. By comparison, the Commission is aware of only 13 concluded and 16 pending Ethiopian military court cases addressing sexual violence committed during the conflict. Such cases cannot be said to render meaningful justice for survivors, particularly considering the historical and contemporaneous impunity in Ethiopia for such acts.”
Additionally, the report confirmed the siege on Tigray, destruction of livelihoods, and denial of humanitarian access to Tigray, emphasizing that these actions violate the prohibition on starvation as a method of warfare. ICHREE confirmed civilian deaths directly linked to the manufactured humanitarian crisis leading up to the CoHA.
Both ICHREE and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have confirmed that these forces were guilty of ethnic cleansing, as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes. Despite the US Secretary of State’s recent decision to exclude the designation of genocide, reports by Foreign Policy suggest that US government experts concluded that, in addition to other crimes, acts of genocide had, in fact, been perpetrated against the Tigray people: “The State Department drafted a declaration in 2021 that the Ethiopian government’s actions in Tigray constituted genocide, according to three US officials familiar with the matter, but never released the declaration.” ICHREE also revealed that the Ethiopian army and its allies frequently used sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls, at times with the intent to render them infertile and therefore annihilate the Tigrayan ethnicity. At a September meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, representatives of the commission concluded: “the horrific and dehumanising acts of violence committed during the conflict…seem to go beyond mere intent to kill and, instead, reflect a desire to destroy.”
The latest US position appears influenced more by geo-political considerations than by any change in the policies of the Eritrean, Amhara, and Ethiopian forces. Despite its deadly nature and the resulting war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide, the Tigray war remains underreported. Compared to the conflict in Ukraine, the Tigray war has received minimal attention and resources, presumably owing to its diminished significance in the geo-political considerations of powerful nations.
The decision of the ongoing HRC will act as a barometer in measuring the world’s commitment to human rights in the Global South. If the HRC and its members genuinely condemn these atrocities, they need to demonstrate their commitment to accountability by extending ICHREE’s mandate.
Transition on paper, war in reality
On 2 November 2022, in Pretoria, South Africa, the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front signed a Permanent Cessation of Hostilities agreement, hoping to conclude the two years of conflict. However, since then, calls for justice and accountability have largely gone unanswered. The peace agreement’s accountability clauses remain vague, and there seems to be an overwhelming lack of political motivation to address them.
Independent international investigations into these atrocities have encountered deliberate obstacles. ICHREE has faced continual resistance from the Ethiopian government and its allies in the HRC since its inception. In an alarming development for international human rights organizations, a parallel inquiry by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights was silenced and subsequently terminated by the African Union (AU). Both had been established to probe Ethiopia’s war on Tigray, aiming to unearth the causes of the conflict and hold offenders accountable. The AU’s decision undermines the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, setting a perilous precedent for future inquiries into human rights abuses. Moreover, reports of confidential negotiations between global powers and the Ethiopian government cloud the future of ICHREE. ICHREE continues to call for Ethiopia to cooperate “with ICHREE and other international and regional human rights mechanisms, including granting them unconditional access to all areas of Ethiopia.”
Arguments against these international investigative commissions often emphasize national sovereignty, the Pretoria peace accord, and Ethiopia’s commitment to transitional justice. Article 10 of the Pretoria agreement underlines the importance of a robust national transitional justice policy. While certain countries – China, Russia, and some other HRC members, including those from Africa — view such an investigative mechanism as an infringement on sovereignty, the US and EU support ending the ICHREE mandate based on the anticipated national transitional justice procedures set out in the Pretoria accord.
Recently, the Ethiopian government introduced its transitional justice policy, titled ‘Policy Options for Transitional Justice in Ethiopia’ (TJP). Nevertheless, this policy is mired in controversy, primarily since the Tigray region—one of the significant parties to the Pretoria Agreement—has rejected it. The central contention is the glaring absence of significant consultation with victims, directly affected communities, crucial stakeholders, and representatives of conflict hotspots, predominantly the Tigrayans, during the TJP’s formulation. This lack of inclusivity challenges the policy’s legitimacy, as it appears indifferent to the distinct needs, rights, and interests of these communities.
Furthermore, the TJP’s overarching approach to all Ethiopian conflicts, regardless of their causes, dynamics, and consequences on communities, fails to recognize the particularities of each conflict. Its handling of the Tigray war is a case in point, where long-standing political campaigns, antagonism towards Tigrayans, military collaborations, and egregious tactics like media blackouts, forced starvation, and mass rapes were commonplace.
Additionally, the TJP does not adequately address the broader geopolitical scenario under which these atrocities occured. Critics underscore the policy’s narrow scope, exclusion of victims, impediments to reconciliation, and a worrying trend of state-sanctioned impunity. The TJP’s inclination towards “national sovereignty” at the expense of its “responsibility to protect” its citizens raises significant concerns. It emphasizes reconciliation over holding wrongdoers accountable, potentially sidestepping international probes, especially from ICHREE.
Furthermore, the ICHREE considers Ethiopia’s support and full cooperation with an international investigation mechanism as one of the fundamental indicators of a government’s sincerity in pursuing a transitional justice process meeting international standards. This, as part of establishing the facts surrounding the war, is one of the primary and foundational actions for genuine transitional justice. Therefore, ICHREE recommends that, given Ethiopia’s failure to credibly investigate violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, the Human Rights Council should support ongoing international scrutiny and investigations into past and ongoing violations.
Ethiopia’s deepening poly-crisis
Ethiopia is trapped in a swiftly deteriorating, multi-dimensional predicament. ICHREE highlights a shift toward securitization in Ethiopia, with civilian administration being replaced by militarized “Command Posts.” State–society relationships continue to crumble, culminating in amplified armed conflicts, atrocities, and breakdown of governance. Due to multiple intertwined factors, the armed unrest in Ethiopia shows no signs of subsiding soon. The main reasons for this include widespread dissatisfaction with the Pretoria agreement, an escalating horizontal power struggle, and a collapsing economy. However, the persistent violence and political upheaval in Ethiopia suggest neither a peaceful transition nor a transitional political arrangement. Conflict and atrocities endure in the Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, Gambella, and Benishangul Gumuz regions. War and atrocities continue in various Ethiopian regions. The ICHREE report confirms the continuation of war and atrocities in various Ethiopian regions, including the Wollega zones, Guji, Borana, and parts of West Shewa. It also notes that certain Amhara groups, such as Fano, enjoy considerable local support, similar to that of TDF and OLA.
The prevailing conditions in Ethiopia are not conducive for an earnest transitional justice initiative. With conflicts continuing in numerous regions, the nation seems to be diverging further from peace. The Ethiopian justice framework is viewed as biased, deficient in its capacity, and lacking the determination to hold entities accountable, particularly for transgressions committed by the Eritrean government. It also neglects the vast magnitude of human rights breaches and the ongoing mass atrocities, even after the Pretoria accord’s signing.
ICHREE confirms the occurrence of grave and systematic violations of international law and crimes in Tigray, and the Amhara, Afar, and Oromia regions. These violations encompass mass killings, sexual violence, starvation, forced displacement, and arbitrary detention. This failure primarily stems from the Ethiopian Federal Government’s inability to fulfill commitments related to human rights, transitional justice, and territorial integrity. ICHREE emphasizes that the African Union and states supporting the CoHA (Ceasefire and Humanitarian Agreement) use their best efforts to ensure that the CoHA parties fulfill their obligations, particularly regarding accountability, the protection of civilians, humanitarian assistance, internally displaced persons, and transitional justice. The conflict in Tigray persists, with ongoing atrocities occurring, including those committed by the Ethiopian Defense Forces (EDF) and Amhara militia. Hostilities have escalated to a national scale, posing significant risks to the state, regional stability, and human rights in East Africa.
Furthermore, despite the Pretoria deal’s role in ending active combat, it has failed to deliver on its promises. This failure primarily stems from the Ethiopian Federal Government’s inability to fulfill commitments related to human rights, transitional justice, and territorial integrity. ICHREE pronounces that the African Union Monitoring, Verification, and Compliance Mission (AU-MVCM), and UN OCHA have been undermined by Eritrean government forces operating in Ethiopian territory. With regard to the AU and UN, ICHREE calls on the AU to make their best efforts to ensure that the Pretoria deal is implemented.
Considering Ethiopia’s current tumultuous state, characterized by continued hostilities and a lack of meaningful progress on the Pretoria Deal’s foundational pledges, one questions the nation’s readiness for a genuine transitional justice mechanism. This skepticism is exacerbated by recurring state-led offenses and unrest in areas like Amhara, Oromia, and Gambella. Fundamental questions that emerge in this context are:
- Is Ethiopia earnestly moving towards peace or an inclusive democratic system?
- Can Ethiopia’s current socio-political and economic environment support a genuine transitional justice initiative?
- Is there a discernible commitment towards transitional justice in Ethiopia?
- Does this commitment spring from a genuine intent, or is it merely a smokescreen to conceal impunity?
Transitional justice without transition to peace or transitional politics
Tigray, as represented by the Interim Administration established in accordance with the Pretoria Agreement, has rejected the transitional process and draft policy as is. In essence, in the face of Tigray’s rejection, Ethiopia does not have an active transitional justice policy. The power imbalances in Ethiopia’s transitional justice policy often benefit the stronger party – in this case, the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian government’s upper hand over Tigray imperils transitional justice, yet again underscoring the need for international oversight and support. However, the national initiatives seem to lack the necessary independence and capability, especially in terms of holding all perpetrators, including Eritrean forces, accountable. National endeavors to unearth this truth are frequently swayed by prevailing power dynamics, underscoring the critical need for an unbiased entity like ICHREE.
The Ethiopian stance on transitional justice shows a lack of resolute intent. The Ethiopian legal infrastructure does not explicitly categorize crimes against humanity, leading to challenges in prosecuting those accountable. The inclusion of foreign entities, chiefly the Eritrean forces, further muddies the legal waters. In this regard, the pressing worry is the TJP’s potential ineffectiveness in averting future atrocity crimes.
Ethiopia’s journey towards a future of lasting peace hinges on the post-war establishment of political and legal accountability. Without accountability, the recurrence of such heinous acts remains a tangible threat. For this, two key steps are essential: First, it is necessary to establish the truth. Ethiopians must agree that truth is the foundation for progress beyond the war and towards lasting peace. Otherwise, the truth remains contested and weaponized for power, resources, and identity politics. Facts surrounding the recent wars, severe and widespread human rights violations, and other significant events must be ascertained, or the “truth” will continue to be manipulated. Second, given the evident distrust and limitations of national institutions, only an impartial international entity, such as ICHREE, can provide an objective evaluation.
Truth and Truth as the bedrock
Truth is the linchpin for reconciliation, accountability, and sustainable peace. For transitional justice to gain a foothold in Ethiopia, establishing the truth about the wars is paramount. Without the truth, the transitional justice process, in its existing design, might perpetuate denial and grant impunity rather than champion justice, increasing the likelihood of its rejection by victims and the wider Ethiopian populace. The current TJP, which seems hasty, warrants a revisit based on independently ascertained facts.
ICHREE’s indispensable role
The conflict in various parts of the country should culminate in a comprehensive peace process addressing the root causes. With UN mandate, independence, capacity, and experience, the ICHREE is uniquely equipped to impartially establish the comprehensive truth, given local constraints and the distrust of national institutions and challenges in their independence. Its impartial inquiry, including investigations into Eritrean government actions, stands a better chance of laying the groundwork for a victim-centric transitional justice process. No alternatives have the same credibility, capability, and impartiality required to establish these facts authoritatively. Terminating ICHREE’s mandate not only contravenes the HRC’s cardinal mission of upholding human rights but also risks perpetuating a relentless cycle of violence and transgressions in Ethiopia.
Given the ongoing wars and atrocities in Ethiopia, and considering the findings in the ICHREE report, now is the moment to reinforce ICHREE, not terminate it.
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