Connect with us

Op-Eds

A Scorecard on Uhuru’s Presidency

6 min read.

How might one rate a president who has undermined the Constitution, distorted the economy, and failed to address corruption in state institutions?

Published

on

A Scorecard on Uhuru’s Presidency
Download PDFPrint Article

Article 129 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 states: “Executive authority is derived from the people of Kenya and shall be exercised in accordance with this Constitution…in a manner compatible with the principle of service to the people of Kenya, and for their wellbeing and benefit.”

The Executive (the President) must protect the constitution, safeguard our national sovereignty, promote the unity of the nation (including recognising the diversity of the people and communities), and protect human rights. The Executive is bound by national values and principles of governance. Its duties include maintaining good governance, state finance, integrity, transparency, accountability and foreign affairs.

As the CEO of the government, she also has special responsibility for matters assigned to other ministers: a strong economy, peace between communities, foreign affairs and international relations, national security, and international relations. She must also demonstrate respect for the people, and bring honour to the nation, dignity to the office, and promote public confidence in the integrity of the office. Most importantly, she has the responsibility to serve the people, rather than the power to rule them.

The status of the Prime Minister is different. Normally she is the head of the party with the most members in the main legislature. She appoints government ministers from members of the House. At Kenya’s independence, the CEO was designated the Prime Minister (PM). Jomo Kenyatta was PM for a year and then he changed the system to a presidential one, with himself as president – a system that has remained, despite strong support for a parliamentary system at Bomas.

The PM’s support stems partly from the sense that a PM, coming from and accountable to Parliament, is usually far less of a dominant figure, and her power is less centralised in one person, which was one of the objectives of the search for a new constitutional order. Another reversal from a parliamentary to a presidential system – again motivated by individual self-interest – occurred in the closing stages of the Committee of Experts process.

A reason why at Bomas there was strong support for the parliamentary system was precisely to ensure that the government was under greater control and scrutiny of the public. The Prime Minister emerges from the collective will of the people in the elections, and can be removed by the legislature by a vote of no confidence. It is far harder to remove a President.

But a President is not – in theory – some unguided missile. Checks and balances are supposedly more developed in such a system.

So how has our President performed?

The President and the Judiciary

The Judiciary is the third major arm of the State. Our President has little power to make or remove judges. A number of key decisions are made by the Justice Service Commission, an independent body to which the President appoints two lay members. However, the President’s choice has been from those who can take orders from him, not those who can represent the people as the Constitution requires. In defiance of court orders, he has blocked the appointment of many candidates. He has also criticised judges in office, especially in recent years, and often when his own position is challenged (as in elections).

The President and the economy

African governments play a significant role in the nation’s economy. Over the decades, the state has helped to establish a modern economy, increasingly based on the private sector. Governments have established institutions of various kinds to regulate economies at regional and international levels. The Kenyan government has probably retained more of a direct engagement with the economy than many. The state has also affected the economy in financial, monetary and other areas.

A reason why at Bomas there was strong support for the parliamentary system was precisely to ensure that the government was under greater control and scrutiny of the public. The Prime Minister emerges from the collective will of the people in the elections, and can be removed by the legislature by a vote of no confidence. It is far harder to remove a President.

Uhuru Kenyatta is not known for his business skills, nor did he distinguish himself when he was Minister of Finance. Yet he took it upon himself to negotiate deals (largely in secret, as the Chinese prefer) with the Chinese government for skills, equipment, and money. The very costly standard gauge railway (SGR) deal with China is shrouded in secrecy. A court has decided that by-passing the law on public procurement on the excuse of a “government-to-government contract” was illegal. There has been corruption in the purchase of land for the line and stations, little control over the construction of the line, and very little attention given to the position of Mombasa as a county and the country’s major harbour.

The environment and industry

There have been concerns about the environmental impact of many big Chinese infrastructure projects, including high-speed trains and big dams. China is financing a coal-fired power project that is strongly resisted by the local community. Evidence suggests it is not needed in view of Kenya’s renewable energy sources. The SGR has also had a negative impact on Kenya’s wildlife as it passes through the Nairobi National Park despite vigorous opposition from civil society, including litigation. The decisions on the railway’s route were made by the Kenyan government. Local firms have suffered as a result of the government’s preference for Chinese firms for construction and other projects.

The State as entrepreneur

There are around 260 state-owned enterprises (commercial, like the Kenya Ports Authority; infrastructural, like the Rural Electrification Authority; regulatory, like the National Environment Management Authority; social, like the Kenyatta National Hospital, and teaching- and research-based, like universities). The general view of parastatals in Kenya is negative, including because of politicisation of the parastatals and poor corporate governance. Their boards and chief executives are appointed by the politically powerful, including the President himself. Thus, many operational decisions are made by the partisan and the non-expert. The role of the state corporations’ advisory committees is just advisory, with little impact on policy or practice. The structure of financing and financial management is weak – many state corporations are allocated funds through line ministries. They are chronically underfunded.

When the President chooses appointees, the whole basis for parastatals is undermined. Indeed, those appointments are usually illegal. By making appointments on an ethno-political basis, the President breaks another obligation of his office: promotion of respect for the diversity of people and communities. The Constitution requires executive authority to be exercised in a manner compatible with the principle of service to the people of Kenya, and for their well-being and benefit. It is heartening to now see that many citizens and organisations have raised their objections to presidential appointments on grounds of violation of the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Self-interest lies at the heart of what ought to be public service for the nation.

A genuinely open and competitive process would far more likely produce competent appointees who are respected by the public. But even if the appointees are the best available, the whole process is wrong – it depends far too much on patronage.

Promoting or fighting corruption?

One of the most critical challenges facing the Executive is, unfortunately, corruption. It started with Jomo, followed by Moi and Kibaki, and now has increased beyond imagination. The economy is largely based on partnerships between businesspeople and politicians or public servants.

Various attempts are made through the Constitution to eliminate corruption. Article 73 sets the high standard demanded of public officers, including bringing honour to the nation and dignity to the office. State officers are expected to promote “public confidence in the integrity of the office” and to make decisions that are “not influenced bv nepotism, favouritism, other improper motives or corrupt practices”. Their task is to serve the people, rather than to rule them. But the grip of the Executive on appointments is a major obstacle to dealing with corruption – indeed it is corrupt.

Rarely are business-related acts conducted without significant bribes (to the extent that more foreign businesses, including multinationals, have left Kenya than come in recently). Corruption within state institutions (taxes, customs, contracts, procurements, land appropriations, schools and universities, etc.) has never been so intensive.

When the President chooses appointees, the whole basis for parastatals is undermined. Indeed, those appointments are usually illegal. By making appointments on an ethno-political basis, the President breaks another obligation of his office: promotion of respect for the diversity of people and communities.

The police (which is often praised by Uhuru even when it commits brutal acts against innocent citizens), whose mandate is to serve the people, is perhaps the most corrupt institution we have. Of late the President has shown an apparent concern to fight corruption. But dealing more firmly with people within his administration who are suspected of corruption should have been a policy from the beginning. The Executive cannot maintain that “others” are corrupt.

Corruption may no doubt make some Kenyans rich. But it also makes an infinitely larger number of other Kenyans poor. On a broader basis, the President has shown little sympathy for the poor, whose numbers have increased, not decreased, not least because of the current coronavirus pandemic, which led to massive job losses and produced “corona millionaires” through dodgy procurement practices and corruption.

The President and the Constitution

Uhuru has little regard for the Constitution, though he pays lip service to it. If the law does not suit him, he ignores it. Indeed, it seems that the Executive takes the view that if it wants to do something, it will do it regardless of its constitutionality. And it will only decide, if a court objects, whether it will observe the court’s rulings. Think of the takeover of Nairobi County, the creation of the post of Cabinet Administrative Secretary, the importation of the military into the cabinet, the effort to muscle in on the appointment of the Chief Justice, and the tendency to order supposedly independent officers (like the Director of Public Prosecutions) to do things that it wants done.

With such a scorecard, it is hard to make a convincing case for Uhuru Kenyatta’s government.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Prof. Yash Pal Ghai is Kenya’s preeminent constitutional lawyer and former chair of the Constitutional of Kenya Reform Commission (CKRC).

Op-Eds

We Must Democratize the Economy

In the UK, prices for basic goods are soaring while corporations rake in ever-bigger profits. The solution, Jeremy Corbyn argues, is to bring basic resources like energy, water, railways, and the postal service into democratic public ownership.

Published

on

Jeremy Corbyn: We Must Democratize the Economy
Photo: Chatham House, London
Download PDFPrint Article

On Thursday, December 15, the Royal College of Nursing went on strike for the first time in their 106-year history. Understaffed, underpaid, and overworked, tens of thousands of National Health Service (NHS) nurses walked out after being denied decent, livable pay rises. Hailed as heroes one year, forced to use food banks the next, nurses’ wages have fallen more than £3,000 in real terms since 2010; three in four now say they work overtime to meet rising energy bills.

People will remember 2022 as the year that the Conservative Party plunged this country into political turmoil. However, behind the melodrama is a cost-of-living crisis that has pushed desperate people into destitution and the so-called middle classes to the brink. We should remember 2022 as the year in which relative child poverty reached its highest levels since 2007 and real wage growth reached its lowest levels in half a century. (Average earnings have shrunk by £80 a month and a staggering £180 a month for public sector workers.) These are the real scandals.

For some MPs, this was the year they kick-started their reality TV careers. For others, this was the year they told their children they couldn’t afford any Christmas presents. For energy companies, it was the year they laughed all the way to the bank; in the same amount of time it took for Rishi Sunak to both lose and then win a leadership contest, Shell returned £8.2 billion in profit. SSE, a multinational energy company headquartered in Scotland, saw their profits triple in just one year. Profits across the world’s seven biggest oil firms rose to almost £150 billion.

Tackling the cost-of-living crisis means offering an alternative to our existing economic model — a model that empowers unaccountable companies to profit off the misery of consumers and the destruction of our earth. And that means defending a value, a doctrine, and a tradition that unites us all: democracy.

Labour recently announced “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people.” I welcomed the renewal of many of the policies from the manifesto in 2019: abolishing the House of Lords and handing powers to devolved governments, local authorities, and mayors. These plans should work hand in hand, to ensure any second chamber reflects the geographical diversity of the country. If implemented, this would decentralize a Whitehall-centric model of governance that wastes so much of this country’s regional talent, energy, and creativity.

However, devolution, decentralization, and democracy are not just matters for the constitution. They should characterize our economy too. Regional governments are demanding greater powers for the same reason an unelected second chamber is patently arcane: we want a say over the things that affect our everyday lives. This, surely, includes the way in which our basic resources are produced and distributed.

From energy to water and from rail to mail, a small number of companies monopolize the production of basic resources to the detriment of the workers they exploit and the customers they fleece. We rely on these services, and workers keep them running, but it is remote chief executive officers and unaccountable shareholders who decide how they are run and profit off their provision. Would it not make more sense for workers and consumers to decide how to run the services they provide and consume?

As prices and profits soar, it’s time to put basic resources like energy, water, rail, and mail back where they belong: in public hands. Crucially, this mold of public ownership would not be a return to 1940s-style patronage-appointed boards but a restoration of civic accountability. Water, for example, should be a regional entity controlled by consumers, workers, and local authorities, and work closely with environmental agencies on water conservation, sewage discharges, the preservation of coastlines, and the protection of our natural world. This democratic body would be answerable to the public, and the public alone, rather than to the dividends of distant hedge funds.

Bringing energy, water, rail, and mail into democratic public ownership is about giving local people agency over the resources they use. It’s about making sure these resources are sustainably produced and universally distributed in the interests of workers, communities, and the planet.

Beyond key utilities, a whole host of services and resources require investment, investment that local communities should control. That’s why, in 2019, we pledged to establish regional investment banks across the country, run by local stakeholders who can decide — collectively — how best to direct public investment. Those seeking this investment would not make their case with reference to how much profit they could make in private but how much they could benefit the public as a whole.

To democratize our economy, we need to democratize workplaces too. We can end workplace hierarchies and wage inequalities by giving workers the right to decide, together, how their team operates and how their pay structures are organized. If we want to kick-start a mass transfer of power, we need to redistribute wealth from those who hoard it to those who create it.

Local people know the issues facing them, and they know how to meet them better than anyone else. If we want to practice what we preach, then the same principles of democracy, devolution, and decentralization must apply to our own parties as well. Local party members, not party leaders, should choose their candidates, create policy, and decide what their movement stands for.

Only a democratic party can provide the necessary space for creative and transformative solutions to the crises facing us all. In a world where the division between rich and poor is greater than ever before, our aim should be to unite the country around a more hopeful alternative — an alternative that recognizes how we all rely on each other to survive and thrive.

This alternative is not some abstract ideal to be imagined. It is an alternative that workers are fighting for on the picket line. Even before the nurses went on strike, 2022 was a record-breaking year for industrial action. Striking workers are not just fighting for pay, essential as these demands are. They are fighting for a society without poverty, hunger, and inequality. They are fighting for a future that puts the interests of the community ahead of the greed of energy companies. They are fighting for us all.

Their collective struggle teaches us that democracy exists — it thrives — outside of Westminster. The government is trying its best to turn dedicated postal workers and railway workers into enemies of the general public — a general public that apparently also excludes university staff, bus drivers, barristers, baggage handlers, civil servants, ambulance drivers, firefighters, and charity workers. As the enormous scale of industrial action shows, striking workers are the general public. The year 2022 will go down in history, not as the year the Tories took the public for fools, but as the year the public fought back. United in their thousands, they are sending a clear message: this is what democracy looks like.

This article was first published by Progressive International

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

Confidence in Public Institutions Is at an All-time Low

Kenya must raise the bar in service provision now so that we can gain enough ground for our children to enjoy affordable and quality services from public institutions.

Published

on

Confidence in Public Institutions Is at an All-time Low
Download PDFPrint Article

When discussing the state of government services, facilities and infrastructure, some Kenyans on social media propose that there should be a requirement for all public officers to use only government services. This would mean that our cabinet secretaries, our parliamentarians and even the president and deputy president (and their families) be restricted to seeking medical services at public hospitals, and to taking their children to public schools, and so on. The proponents of this policy expect that once high-ranking state officers experience the inconvenience other citizens endure in accessing services from public institutions, they would be more intentional about improving service delivery.

A step further would be for such a policy to also cover the counties. Perhaps if governors, senators, and county assembly members were restricted to only using the health facilities in their respective counties, they would commit more resources to ensuring that these facilities are well equipped, and that the human resource is compensated fairly and in a timely manner.

European nations which are often used as a benchmark for development and governance apply this to a good degree. Public services are efficient, and it is common for even the highest-ranking public servants to use public facilities. When former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson contracted COVID-19, he was treated at St Thomas’ Hospital, a National Health Service (NHS) teaching hospital in central London. The NHS is the publicly funded healthcare system of the United Kingdom. This is the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) equivalent, and St Thomas’ Hospital would be the Kenyatta Hospital equivalent.

The parallel I can draw for Kenya is that at least our president completed his PhD studies at a public university. And there are many more cabinet secretaries (CSs), principal secretaries (PSs), ambassadors and parastatal heads who went through public universities and are top performers in their respective dockets. But on the other hand, we also have several governors who sought to attain undergraduate qualification from beyond our borders.

In contrast, we have had a former health minister seek medical services in another country during his tenure at the health ministry (his contributions to improving the ministry and the sector notwithstanding). I highly doubt the children of cabinet secretaries and other politicians, past and present, have been through public schooling up to the university level. And in December 2022, we took it a step further when the National Police Service and the Kenya Prisons Service ended their comprehensive medical coverage with the NHIF, in favour of a private service provider. Confidence in public institutions appears to be at an all-time low, even among other public institutions.

Kenyans are known to have high standards and high expectations. And rightfully so. We are the regional leader (largest economy in the EAC and COMESA in terms of GDP), and we know our potential to become a continental leader by all metrics. However, as we begin a new year under a new administration that just completed its first 100 days in office, I would recommend that we manage our expectations and start at the bare minimum. The bare minimum for me is a request to the recently appointed cabinet secretaries and county executive committee members to ensure human dignity in service delivery. We are years away from that ideal future where the president, cabinet secretaries and all other high-ranking public officers are confident enough in the system to entrust it with their families’ health and with their children’s education. But if we start raising the bar now, we can gain enough ground for our children to enjoy affordable and quality services from public institutions.

I highly doubt the children of cabinet secretaries and other politicians, past and present, have been through public schooling up to the university level.

The bare minimum for healthcare is for all public health facilities to be well equipped and functioning. Kenyans should not have to travel across counties or to the capital for basic medical services, or prefer private medical insurance cover over NHIF. A bare minimum would be county executives being nominated based on qualification and experience, and county staff being appointed based on the needs of the county in the specific functions they oversee.

In road construction, a bare minimum would be to have all tarmacked roads appropriately marked, well paved (with sidewalks/footpaths where required) and well lit.

Kenyans had to complain on social media about the danger of driving on an unmarked Ngong Road (from Junction Mall to Lenana School) for Kenya National Highways Authority (KenHA) and Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) to act. And the action that resulted from the complaints was specific to that section. While driving to Karen on New Year’s Day, I was disappointed to see that the section of Ngong Road from the interchange after Lenana School to Karen roundabout remains unmarked. Even closer to the centre of the capital, sections of Ngong Road and Kenyatta Avenue around the NSSF building are in a similar state. Another problematic road section is the chaos that is Westlands roundabout including the matatu stages on Waiyaki Way on either side of the roundabout. If we are not meeting the bare minimum in the capital, we likely aren’t fairing any better in the counties.

I have no doubt that the transport CS, and the heads of KenHA and KURA all use these roads at least once a week. The least they could do, the bare minimum, is to ensure we can drive safely on these roads at any hour of the day. If the drivers or friends of these top officials are reading this article, please whisper to them (or share this article with them) and remind them that thousands of motorists and pedestrians are a few phone calls away from a significant positive change in road safety.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

As a Tigrayan, I Choose Peace over War, Accountability over Impunity

The outbreak of Ethiopia’s war on Tigray brought back deeply rooted childhood memories of the brutality of civil war in Tigray. But Mehari Taddele Maru is determined to use his horrendous childhood experiences for the greater good and contribute to pursuing justice to sustain peace.

Published

on

As a Tigrayan, I Choose Peace over War, Justice over Impunity
Download PDFPrint Article

It has been almost three months now since the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed the Permanent Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) to end Ethiopia’s Tigray war that has led to over 600,000 deaths. The Biden administration described the agreement as a momentous step, while the European Union extolled the courage of the parties in signing the deal.

The Tigrayan population has endured the worst possible atrocities during the two years of the war in Ethiopia. One would expect the people to be jubilant about this much-touted breakthrough to silence the guns. In Tigray, on the ground, the deal has been met with cautious optimism and hope for a return to normalcy. People like me who have extended family in Tigray, and have seen the war stretch out over more than 700 days, have also breathed a sigh of relief.

Since it began on 4 November 2020, the civil war in Ethiopia has reopened old wounds and created new ones. For over two years, the population in Tigray has come under siege and suffered weaponised starvation. Tigrayans in other parts of Ethiopia have been discriminated against and have been subjected to arbitrary and unlawful detention. By 2021, the detentions had reached what could be described as an industrial scale, and the discrimination continues to this day; Tigrayans have been living in dread every day of their lives.

I am Tigrayan. I come from a family that have been victims of war. This is the third war that has been fought in Tigray in my lifetime. It is genocidal in nature and in its level of ambition, and by far the most devastating of any that I have witnessed. The United Nations International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) reported “widespread acts of rape and sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls. In some instances, the attackers expressed an intent to render the victims infertile and used dehumanizing language that suggested an intent to destroy the Tigrayan ethnicity.” Like the overwhelming majority of Tigrayans, my entire family and I vehemently opposed this war on Tigray since the beginning.  

With the experience of the brutality of civil wars deeply rooted in my childhood memories of Tigray, my first response to the war was a call for the immediate cessation of hostilities, and the commencement of a negotiated end to the war. Peace was, and still is, what I, like many Tigrayans, crave.

The harrowing experiences Tigrayans have suffered at the hands of both the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies and Amhara forces for well over two years have brought back painful memories of my childhood. In the 1980s, Tigray was at the centre of a protracted civil war, with the situation worsened by the 1984 Great Ethiopian Famine. My family, like thousands of others, was brutalised by the Ethiopian military regime and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). I was barely seven years old when I experienced catastrophic violations of human rights first-hand. My father and my maternal grandparents were attacked both by the government and by rebel groups and became the victims of forced disappearance by the TPLF. They disappeared, and I never saw them again. They are presumed to have been killed by the TPLF.

On several occasions over the past three decades, my family, individually and collectively, have submitted written and oral demands for redress to high-ranking officials of the TPLF and the government of Tigray. These requests have received no response. Instead, the disappearances have been dismissed as an unfortunate mishap that occurred during a revolt.

So, I empathise with those who, like me, have suffered and continue to suffer due to the civil war waged in various parts of the country.

Double victimisation

The persecution of Tigrayans who like myself live outside Tigray is harrowing, and it is happening both on and offline.

As if that were not enough, the state has sponsored a slander campaign in the media, directed at the Tigray elite and other people deemed to be supporting the Tigrayans’ just cause. They have falsely accused me of being a member of the TPLF and of working in the security sector in the previous Ethiopian government. The army of anti-Tigrayan trolls continues with their coordinated character assassination. At one point, hundreds of tweets were posted within a few hours making false allegations that I am an “agent” of the TPLF. The allegations and the formulation of the tweeter character assassinations were the same, only posted from different, newly created Twitter accounts by media networks that are notorious for attacking Tigrayans. It has even been alleged that a think tank was established so that I could head it up and be an advisor to the former government.

The persecution of Tigrayans who like myself live outside Tigray is harrowing, and it has been happening both on and offline.

There have been previous attempts by some media outlets to incite public outrage against me and encourage attacks on my person. Extremist nationalists such as the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, Ethiopia Satellite Television (ESAT), and its splinter group, Ethio-Media 3600, both based in the US, have churned out fabricated reports to assassinate my character. These media outlets are the same ones that called for Ethiopians to “dry the sea and catch the fish” where the sea refers to the people of Tigray while the fish refers to TPLF and the Tigrayan elite, and later publicly called for the mass detention of Tigrayans in concentration camps. They do not care for the truth. They are hell-bent on attacking Tigrayans from all walks of life. No-one is spared, not even His Holiness Abune Mathias, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

It is important to set the record straight. I have never been, nor am I now, a member of any political party. I have never been a government official. The closest I came to being in government was when I served as director in the office of the president of Addis Ababa University. My career, spanning more than two decades, has been spent working in inter-governmental institutions, universities and think tanks.

In principle, though, it is my right to join any political party, including the TPLF. My decision not to join a party or serve in government is both personal and political. As a member of one of the families that have suffered double victimisation in the previous and current civil wars, I decided that my extended family’s quest for justice should not be misused to seek unjust revenge and unworthy political ends.

Unsurprisingly, Ethiopian politics is a pit of hatred and resentment. Political positions are defined and hardened by endless cycles of vendetta and reprisal. In a political campaign to delegitimise the previous government, all outspoken persons of Tigrayan origin and other critical voices have been the target of orchestrated character assassination, often based on fictitious stories.

Political positions are defined and hardened by an endless cycle of vendetta and reprisal.

These character assassination campaigns are in essence part of a bigger political picture in Ethiopia and its longstanding deep-rooted problems, part of what Francis Deng calls a “war of visions”; a struggle for the nature and future of the Ethiopian state.

The bigger picture

Ethiopia faces, on the one hand, the scenario of loose multi-national federalism, where power rests in the hands of the constituent units, not with the centre. This scenario demands not only greater devolution of power and more autonomy, but also confederal arrangements, self-determination, and even, where necessary, independence from the country. As seen with the Tigrayan forces and with Oromo resistance, this scenario is a tangle of a war of survival, a defence against a predatory state, and a quest for self-determination and self-rule. Historically, Ethiopia has mismanaged its response to wars of resistance, as seen in the 1961–1991 Eritrean war of independence, which caused the fragmentation of the Ethiopian state and led to the secession of Eritrea.

On the other hand is the scenario of centralisation, the basis of which is to reclaim the quasi-unitarist powers that have been – at least de jure – dismantled over decades. This scenario brings back memories of Ethiopia’s highly contested history of forcible assimilation, ethnic domination and neglect of the periphery. The same unitarist style of governance, albeit retaining some vestiges of decentralisation, is what is now in the making, feeding on the extreme nationalism, quasi-imperial ambitions and military adventurism that have led to wars with far-reaching consequences for human security and state integrity. Proponents of this scenario are determined to secure and monopolise power through whatever means available. When convenient, they employ constitutional norms such as elections with no real competitive platforms; when necessary, they use unconstitutional, brutal, oppressive means, including waging genocidal war on those who resist. This is a vision of the old Ethiopian state that is inherently undemocratic, antagonistic to multiculturalism, and even fascistic. With the help of Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki and his troops, these forces of centralisation and of power consolidation are the authors and owners of the current wars in Ethiopia.

Human security vs national sovereignty

The war of November 2020 is narrated as a war for the survival and the security of the population in Tigray on the one hand, and that of sovereignty and state integrity on the other. It morphed into a patriotic resistance that turned civilians into combatants. The sheer number of armies and forces engaged in the war on Tigray attests to the scorched-earth policies of the military operation. They came with massive force to wipe Tigrayans off the map. It was a clear campaign of ethnic cleansing and extermination of the Tigrayan people and their identity markers. Several international organisations, including the UN and Human Rights Watch, have established that ethnicity-based war crimes, crimes against humanity and elements of genocide have been committed in Tigray by the armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and by Amhara forces. Even the US government has confirmed that the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans is ongoing. Thousands of Tigrayan women have been raped. Millions of Tigrayans remain displaced and systematically starved; tens of thousands have been extrajudicially killed through indiscriminate shelling and bombing. The conflict in Tigray has taken an unimaginable human toll since it first erupted in November 2020, and Tigray has been under a brutal siege for more than three years. According to Ghent University, as many as 500,000 Tigrayans have been killed in the war or have died from starvation. From the outset, the war has been marked by brutality and a stark disregard for civilian life.

The Tigrayan population remains largely in a communication blackout, allowed only a trickle of the essential public services necessary to sustain life. Humanitarian aid had been systematically blocked off and diverted, and still remains little compared to the need. Industries, factories and infrastructure have been destroyed. UNESCO-registered and other heritage sites, such as religious and cultural buildings, have been pillaged and desecrated.

For the Ethiopian, Amhara and Eritrean forces, sovereignty is an absolute weapon, and a licence to wage genocidal war in the name of territorial integrity. However, under international law, sovereignty has long been construed to be a responsibility to protect. The sovereignty of the Ethiopian state has not only failed to protect civilians all over the country, but it has been used as a weapon to exterminate Tigrayans, particularly as the hostile Eritrean army and the Amhara forces  were invited to participate in the war and occupy parts of Tigray.

From the outset, the war has been marked by brutality and a stark disregard for civilian life.

Resistance wars for survival can only end when the security of the populace is guaranteed. Robust mechanisms to ensure the security of all people facing a perpetual threat from state and non-state actors are vital to prevent a relapse of war and sustain peace.

The civil wars in Tigray and in other parts of the country have created bad blood, not only between current generations, but also for generations to come. Peaceful coexistence should be possible, but only if there are independent investigations to establish the truth, and mechanisms to guarantee justice and that such a genocidal war does not break out again in the future. For the sake of sustainable peace, perpetrators should be held to account, and justice delivered to the victims.

In pursuit of national dialogue 

A war of scenarios can be resolved only through a comprehensive and all-inclusive dialogue and negotiations. The first step towards this would be recognition that there can be no military solution to wars such as the one in Tigray or the on-going ones in Oromia and other regions, and that sustaining peace requires justice for the victims. In this spirit, I am one of the many Ethiopians who have repeatedly called for truth, justice, dialogue and reconciliation in Ethiopia as the only way to a peaceful resolution to never-ending conflicts. Since 2011, I have written and presented several proposals for an all-inclusive national dialogue. Previous governments have been unwilling to heed these calls.

In 2020, without an inclusive national dialogue, the federal government postponed the elections and extended its term of office and those of the regional governments. I vehemently opposed the decision. I also supported Tigray’s decision to conduct its elections within the constitutional timeframe, despite the federal government’s decision. Furthermore, I strongly condemned the use of force by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments against regional states, including Oromia, Somali and Tigray.

Raising my voice against oppression has meant that my family is once again facing peril.

My life has come full cycle, but I remain unbowed. More than anything, my childhood experience has influenced my keen interest in protecting human rights, addressing displacement, and promoting human security measures in general. I refuse to be a prisoner of my family’s loss. I refuse to become accusatory and embittered. I avoid a life of self-pity. Crucially, the experience has fuelled my determination to try to help bring about a political governance that is protective of human rights in Ethiopia, and in Africa as a whole. This commitment was amply reinforced during my early years at Addis Ababa University as a Student Union president and subsequently at the universities of Harvard, Oxford and Giessen, and now leading a programme that trains young African leaders at the European University Institute. I struggled, until eventually I formulated a personal philosophy of life centred on a commitment to establishing human rights-protective governance systems and eradicating poverty. This philosophy is based on the maxim of Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye makes us all blind.”

I have concluded that those who have lived through catastrophic events have two paths to choose from: the unprincipled, vicious life of a “villain-victim”, or the worthy life of a “hero-victim”. I chose the latter: to use my horrendous childhood experiences for the greater good and contribute to a peaceful country and a more peaceful continent. I will do what I can to put an end to situations in which children are compelled to grow up parentless in an environment of conflict and violence.

I struggled, until eventually I formulated a personal philosophy of life centred on a commitment to establishing human rights-protective governance systems and eradicating poverty.

Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In the same way, no one should be allowed to remain neutral in choosing between war criminals and victims, war and peace, justice and impunity. I side with victims over war criminals, I choose peace over war, justice over impunity.

“And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation”, said Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo. He added, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the centre of the universe.”

Continue Reading

Trending