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Burkina Faso: The Age of Revolution Is Back and a Student Movement Is Leading It

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Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. Now, a student movement could slowly transform society.

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Burkina Faso: The Age of Revolution Is Back and a Student Movement Is Leading It
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“Nan lara an sara! Nan lara an sara!”: A crowd of roughly 300 students throngs the “freedom square” and chants defiantly, clenched fists in the air. The scene is the campus of Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo, in Ouagadougou. The students are members of Deux Heures pour Nous, Deux Heures pour Kamita (Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita; referred to here as DHK). “Kamita” is an Afrocentric term, designating the continent. The group is a throwback: A radical student organization dedicated to ideology and analysis, that intends to break from the complacency that has taken hold on African campuses in recent years.

As the meeting builds, a young man roars in the middle of the circle, a megaphone in his right hand, his left hand following the rhythm of the crowd: “nan lara!” (if we lie down!). The crowd responds “an sara!” (we are dead!). After several minutes of call and response, the young man opens the meeting. “Comrades, welcome! Thank you for dedicating two hours today for our beloved Kamita. Today, we seek wisdom from one another in addressing the topic before us: the presence of French military on the free and independent land of Burkina Faso.” He proceeds to lay out the agenda of the day, and the modalities for taking the floor.

Meetings like this one, which I attended in August 2019, take place every day, from 1 to 3 pm, on the campus. They have continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic which compelled attendees to wear facemasks; I have kept in touch with members and interviewed leaders as well as occasional attendees. The meetings are arranged in an open space and amplified with loudspeakers. No position is invalid. No topic is taboo. The group emphasizes innovative radical thinking about democracy, social change, and liberation. But weak arguments are booed, while carefully crafted ones are applauded—especially when they are considered ideologically sound, in the tradition of Frantz Fanon or Thomas Sankara.

Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. As older student organizations become ossified and discredited, emerging ones seek credibility by leaning toward pan-African ideologies. The country and its politics offer a particularly fertile scene for the youth to develop ideological and political organizations that aim to transform society. Slogans such as “Plus rien se sera comme avant!” (Nothing will be as before!) and “Nan lara an sara!” signal such a desire for change and willingness to act. DHK represents a new militancy, with power and potential—but also contradictions and challenges.

DHK formed in 2013, a time when social discontent was growing in Burkina Faso. Workers’ strikes paralyzed many sectors, including higher education. Civil society groups and opposition parties were engaged in a power struggle against then-President Blaise Compaoré, who was attempting to pass a constitutional amendment to extend his rule. The academic community was caught in this malaise. It was in this context that students at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University chose to experiment with a new form of participatory democracy by creating a performative venue on campus.

Over the years, DHK has become prominent among the burgeoning youth movements in Burkina Faso. Beyond the boastful, intellectual verbiage and rhetorical skills that its members show, the organization has built a reputation as a leftist movement that focuses on social justice, political emancipation, and environmental stewardship—both at the national and international levels. In February 2019, for instance, the organization sent a delegate to Venezuela “to support the people of Venezuela in their struggle against imperialism,” a post on its Facebook page reads.

Developing and sustaining a pan-African ideology on a campus where student conferences and intellectual exchange outside the curriculum are almost non-existent is a challenging task. Yet DHK has managed to establish a respected forum where uncensored conversations take place every day, gathering up to several hundred attendees. Every week, a series of discussion topics is chosen and published on Facebook. Often, they respond to the news of the day. At other times, the reflection is oriented toward historical events. There are guest speakers, such as Kemi Seba, the Franco-Beninese activist, or Yacouba Sawadogo, a Burkinabe farmer known as “the man who stopped the desert” for successfully bringing to life a 40-hectare forest on a barren land.

The daily gatherings constitute moments of deliberation, healing, strategizing, and planning. On the day that I attended, social media abounded with polemical information about the alleged opening of a new French military base in Djibo, a small northern town 45 kilometers from the border with Mali. The meeting was an opportunity to condemn the base and discuss the role of France’s counterterrorism activities in the region. Participants equated France’s current presence with its 19th-century pacification doctrine that justified colonialism. “We are inviting France to the school of civilization. We invite her to finally learn to be a nation that respects the sovereignty of other nations,” one man said.

Sometimes, the organization brings speakers who do not have formal education, such as farmers and small craft traders, challenging the perception of what constitutes knowledge in a university setting. This initiative is “an uninhibited approach to learning by uninhibited students who have conscience that development is homemade,” Bayala Lianhoue Imhotep, secretary general of DHK, told me. “No one has the monopoly of imagination. Our farmers are an inexhaustible source of knowledge if we cared to listen to them.”

At first, campus authorities rejected DHK for its radical positions concerning the university and student life. They sought to shut it down and push it off campus. Now, civil society movements beyond campus including Balai Citoyen seek them out. They constitute a force that can mobilize adherents, an antidote to the general fatigue among youth following the 2014 popular revolution.

DHK represents in many ways a revival.

Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo has a tradition of being a center of social movements, with student strikes that often led to a general paralysis of the capital city. The roots of Burkinabè student militancy go back to student unions in the 1950s in Dakar and in France, where Burkinabè and other francophone Africans went to study. Those unions were an avant-garde in political mobilization, a breeding ground of activists in the late colonial period and after independence.

In the early post-independence era, student activism aligned ideologically with the emerging political tendencies in the country. In 1966 the Voltaic Student Union supported the popular insurrection that ousted President Maurice Yameogo. The successive military regimes did not favor the emergence of a strong student unionism. However, during the Sankara years (1984-1987), college students mobilized to support the revolution. In the following two decades, student activism became progressively belligerent toward the Compaore regime. In the 1990s when the Structural Adjustment Programs compelled the government to adopt a much more democratic attitude, granting civil liberties, student militancy reclaimed a momentum. While student militancy never ceased to exist, it suffered in its vivacity since internal divisions and state repression weakened toward the end of the 1990s.

Recent renewal of political consciousness among Burkinabè youth took form through events such as the assassination of the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998, long worker strikes in 2011 and 2015, student protests leading to violent confrontations with police, and the closing of the university for over three months in 2008 and 2011. Other contributing factors were changes in Franco-African political dynamics following French intervention in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-11 to topple President Laurent Gbagbo, along with a persistent perception that the international community is hypocritical. Along the way, the memory of Thomas Sankara and his political discourse have re-emerged in popular music and activist rallies.

What is the potential of this revival? On one hand, student militancy today has inherited unresolved structural problems and grievances from their predecessors: deficient infrastructures, mismanaged academic calendar, deteriorated social services, etc. On the other hand, however, the ideological foundation behind student militancy is much more profound. Student activists are not only seeking to resolve their immediate needs, but they question the root causes of their predicament. While their struggle is locally rooted, it is open to other currents from the South. They often extrapolate their perception of inequalities at home with the struggles of other peoples elsewhere such as in Palestine, Venezuela, and Taiwan. They adhere to an Afro-centric understanding of history in their attempt to take control of their destinies as young Burkinabè.

For groups such as DHK, the traditional student associations and unions have become irrelevant, not because they lack grievances to address, but because they do not propose any sound ideology to solve them. DHK positions itself as an anti-imperialist movement, but also one that is opened to the struggles of other contemporary Black liberation movements. At the August 2019 meeting where attendees discussed French counterterrorism in the Sahel, some participants pointed out that the French could easily rid the Sahel of its insurgent groups if France really wanted to—peddling some conspiracy theories that were already circulating in the social media.

DHK is a promising unconventional revival activist group that promotes intellectual and democratic debates. Since its creation seven years ago, it has grown in membership and its ability to mobilize for action. At times however, it can be provocative in its ideas and approach when it connects with controversial figures such as Kemi Seba or when it takes side in some global issues without expertise in their historical complexity such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, this revival is taking place under the radar of most scholars and media attention, who often gloss over it as “growing anti-French sentiment.”

In Ouagadougou, university student militancy is the last stronghold of students’ civil discourse. It is one that still grapples with its own issues, but nonetheless is ideologically promising. As foggy and muddy as some of their thoughts and ideas may be, the youth of DHK are informed by their quotidian reality. It is an ideology rooted in a Sankarist ideology that is daring and even risky at times. But this discourse still represents the clearer demarcation line between civil discourse and what is perceived as growing radical or fundamental discourse in Burkina Faso. Unlike the growing non-state armed movements that are terrorizing the country, student ideological militancy is disruptive, but it is still organized within the limits of free speech and freedom of association guaranteed by the constitution.

Today, the days of grand pan-African reveries espoused by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara seem far behind. The dominant neoliberal economic systems that African nations have adopted and the persistence of neocolonial meddling in the post-colony blunted Afrocentric idealism. Even in academic research, we talk about it in the past and we do not envision it in the present. Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita gives us a compelling case study to rethink that position.


This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Lassane Ouedraogo is an inaugural Africa Is A Country (AIAC) Fellow.

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Four Reasons Why Ruto’s Cabinet is Unconstitutional

By creating “cabinet-level” portfolios, President William Ruto commits a subterfuge in an attempt to circumvent the two-thirds gender rule. Ruto’s cabinet also fails to reach ethnic and regional balance while including nominees who fail the leadership and integrity test.

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There are at least four reasons why President William Ruto’s cabinet is unconstitutional. First, the cabinet fails the foundational composition rule of not more than two-thirds of the same gender. Two, the cabinet fails the Article 130(2) test that requires the national executive to reflect regional and ethnic balance. Three, some cabinet members fail the Chapter Six of the constitution test on leadership and integrity, tainting the entirety of the cabinet. Four, and finally, the creation of two cabinet-level portfolios is not only illegal but also indignifies women, contrary to Article 28 of the constitution.

I will not discuss chapter six issues in this piece as they require acres of space on their own. I discuss the other three.

Two-thirds gender rule

It is unfortunate that, in 2022, a cabinet formed by a president who without end hollers about his belief in the rule of law, does not meet the bare constitutional gender minimum of not more than two-thirds. It is both a maths issue and a constitutional subterfuge issue.

First, the math issue.

Article 152(a) clearly defines and caps the membership of cabinet. Cabinet comprises of the president, the deputy president, not more than 22 cabinet secretaries and the attorney general. Essentially, the ceiling is 25 members. No more. But this number could be less, because the president can appoint as few as 14 cabinet secretaries. Ruto used all his 22 cabinet cards and more. The more—two positions—he christened “cabinet-level portfolios” on gender and national security and assigned women to superintend them.

Now, here is the problem. Article 27(8) establishes a two-third gender ceiling rule on the composition of any state or public body. The courts have said that the cabinet is a body for the purpose of Article 27(8) gender-capping. Ruto and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua are men. Justin Muturi, AG-nominee, is also a man. Additionally, of the 22 cabinet secretary nominees, 15 are men. Hence, of the 25 cabinet slots, 18 are reserved for men and 7 for women. In the case of Marilyn Kamuru versus Attorney General decided by Justice Onguto in 2015, the Judge said that Article 27(8) math would require computing the number of the lesser gender against the entirety of the cabinet including the president, deputy president and the AG. For Ruto’s cabinet then, the 7 women would be the numerator against a denominator of the total and maximum 25 cabinet slots. This results in 72 per cent men in cabinet whereas the constitutional cap should, at the minimum, limit them to not more than 66 per cent.

Now, on to the subterfuge.

I know there are those who will ask what about the two cabinet-level portfolios and the secretary to the cabinet who are all women. Again, the comprehensive response is to be found in Articles 152(a) and 154 of the constitution. Article 152 caps the number at 25. In that capping it does not say that secretary to the cabinet is a cabinet member. Article 154 tells us who a secretary to the cabinet is. It is an office in public service but, unlike Article 152 which explicitly says that the AG is a member of the cabinet, Article 154 does not make a secretary to the cabinet a member of the cabinet.

And this is where Ruto commits a constitutional subterfuge. By explicitly naming the four positions—the two advisers, the secretary to the cabinet, and the AG—as cabinet-level portfolios, he was constitutionally mixing apples, oranges and tomatoes. But it seems the intention was to dangle a red-herring both regarding the two-third math and the legality of the two offices. In fact, his supporters misleadingly insist that in computing the two-third rule, the three portfolios—that is, the two cabinet-level advisers and the secretary to the cabinet—should be factored in.

This is how smart people try to circumvent the constitution. But the constitution is quite conscious that public officers will try such tricks so it says—and the court has confirmed—that its violation can be direct or through effect. Both levels of violations are present here.

Regional and ethnic balance

This is straightforward albeit controversial. Article 130(2) says that the composition of the national executive shall reflect the regional and ethnic diversity of the people of Kenya. Again, it is a little more than a bean counting exercise.

The two critical operative elements are ethnic and regional. Regional is obviously geographic although the constitution does not delineate what a region is. It leaves that to common sense, practice, rhetoric and legitimate expectation. In this regard, and in our political rhetoric, there is a region christened Mt Kenya. While defined to some extent by proximity to the mountain (Mount Kenya), it also imports into its defining characteristic some ethnic component. So, while Isiolo may be closer to Mt Kenya than Kiambu, the majority of communities resident in Isiolo are not legitimately and in political rhetoric terms considered to be part of Mt Kenya. On the other hand, Kiambu people are, even though they are much further away from Mt Kenya than Isiolo is. But this is where it gets even messier: I believe if you are a GEMA community member living in Isiolo, you are considered Mt Kenya. The opposite is not true. You may wish to argue this point, but it is one of those facts that make political but hardly any logical sense; still, the constitution would recognize the argument in the context of Article 130(2).

Article 130(2) says that the composition of the national executive shall reflect the regional and ethnic diversity of the people of Kenya.

In this sense, it is possible that some of the members from the GEMA group who have been nominated to the cabinet may identify as hailing from the Rift Valley or from elsewhere in the country. But when Article 130(2) is purposively read, a question arises whether the numbers of those included in the cabinet who are from Mt Kenya region, or are from one of the pre-dominant Mt Kenya regional ethnic groups (when one considers the demographics and diversity of the country), disproportionately constitute the cabinet. My answer is yes.

Illegal cabinet-level portfolios

This is not about the attorney general or the secretary to the cabinet. As I have explained above, the constitution explicitly says that the AG is a member of the cabinet. Article 154 also creates the position of secretary to the cabinet, although it does not make the holder a member of the cabinet. Whether the position of secretary to the cabinet is a cabinet-level portfolio is a discussion for another day. What I am interested in here is the legality of the other two cabinet-level portfolios Ruto has created on gender and national security.

The constitution and the law are explicit on how state office or offices in public service are to be created. The constitution is also implicitly inundated with the logic of circumscribing a strict criteria and processes of creating such offices, among them to curb wastage of public funds by creating unnecessary or duplicative offices.

The agency with the power to create a public office is the Public Service Commission (PSC). True, the president may request the PSC to create a position in public service—but when he does so, the PSC is required to conduct a thoroughgoing needs assessment to determine whether the position is necessary. The constitution anticipates this and the courts have said as much. If, in fact, the two positions are offices in public service, the strict requirements of Article 234 have not been complied with.

The constitution and the law are explicit on how state office or offices in public service are to be created.

There are only two other avenues through which Ruto could have created the two offices. The first is under Article 234(4) which allows the PSC to create a position of “personal staff” to the president. We shall settle this quickly because it would be oxymoronic to argue that a “cabinet-level portfolio” is a “personal staff” position for the president. In any event, did the PSC sanction it?

The second avenue is to be found under Article 260, which provides that parliament can create a state office but even then only through legislation. Question: under which law are the two offices created?

Dignity

Constituting a cabinet is perhaps one of the most intense of boardroom wheeler-dealer activities. It is, for instance, hard to find the logic why, for example, Ababu Namwamba was assigned the sports and youth docket while Alfred Mutua was assigned foreign affairs. However, at times, the constitution is able to find logic in some of these nocturnal deals and I think, in this case it would easily discover the logic behind why the two tentative and illegal positions of cabinet-level portfolios ended up with women as nominees.

Article 28 is about human dignity. If there are two positions to be assigned, one that is constitutionally recognized and secured and the other constitutionally suspect and tentative, it is no secret that being appointed to the constitutionally secure position is more dignifying. Historically, and as Ruto has demonstrated with his list of cabinet nominees, women are always an afterthought when allocating consequential positions of leadership. This is not conjecture. Instead, it is a compelling argument under Article 259 of our constitution, a provision that requires the constitution to be interpreted in a purposive way. It is a position also supported by many other relevant and endless re-enforcing provisions of the constitution. So, the two most tentative positions are ultimately assigned to women, because, after all, in the animal farm context (but not under the 2010 constitution), all animals are equal but some are more equal than others.

Plum as the positions may seem, in contextual terms they raise an Article 28 issue. An issue of human dignity.

What to do?

There are two ways to deal with these constitutional infirmities. One: Ruto can withdraw his list and amend it accordingly to comply with the constitution. If he is too married to this strange concept of “cabinet-level portfolios” he should at least push some of the Mt Kenya men there and move the women to the real cabinet portfolios. We can then deal with the illegalities of where the men end up later. But that may all be wishful thinking.

Historically, and as Ruto has demonstrated with his list of cabinet nominees, women are always an afterthought when allocating consequential positions of leadership.

Second: In the Marilyn Muthoni case, Justice Onguto chastised the national assembly for aiding and abetting Uhuru (gleefully, may I add) in violating the constitution by failing to conduct, during the vetting of cabinet secretary nominees, a “strict scrutiny” (the judge’s words) on the constitutional compliance of the composition of cabinet for gender, regional and other factors – but primarily gender because the pith of the case was the violation of the two-third gender rule.

Moses Wetangula and the national assembly will soon have a choice to make: whether their primary allegiance and loyalty is to William Ruto or to the constitution.

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TPLF Cannot Survive a Day Without Its Hypocrisy

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Lying pathologically is the perennial character of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. From the cradle to the grave peddling lies is the bread and butter of this terrorist clique. On 04 November 2020, after mercilessly slitting the throats of members of the Northern Command in their sleep, the TPLF cried wolf that the Federal Government (FG, henceforth) pre-emptively attacked it. In the wake of this gruesome massacre, Sekoutoure Getachew, declared that by “pre-emptively striking the TPLF has destroyed the Northern Command”, exposing the facade of the clique awash with deception, brutality and an insatiable appetite for war.

Similarly, on 13 October 2021, the TPLF cabal brazenly declared that it is “willing go to hell to destroy Ethiopia”. After pre-emptively attacking the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), once again, the TPLF shamelessly proclaimed that the ENDF attacked it from all fronts. With these heinous provocations, the TPLF showed to the world that it cannot live without shedding the blood of innocent civilians. The blatant, sadistic, self-contradictory proclamations of the TPLF distinctively deviate from the moral standards of a civilized society. There are no limits to its hypocrisy.

While wreaking havoc in the Amhara region unprovoked, the TPLF now alleges it was attacked by the ENDF from the Raya front. The spokesman of the TPLF claimed that the “truce has been broken”, which is true as it is the TPLF’s action, last straw that broke the camel’s back. Yet it is paradoxical to cry foul when it was meticulously self-inflicted. The TPLF is deafening us with its destructive, utterly irrational narratives emblematic of its siege mentality. The TPLF terrorist junta cannot survive without an ecosystem of betrayals, lies, siege mentality and chaos. Put simply, the TPLF cannot dwell in the sphere of the humane, the compassionate and the empathetic. Hence, the suffering of the people of our Tigrayan brothers and sisters under the TPLF’s captivity.

The words and deeds of the TPLF inarguably prove that it has no regard for the dignity of human life including the children it touts as soldiers. Its quotidian transgressions and its anarchic tendencies attest to this very fact. The forceful conscription of Tigrayan children as “soldiers” and the coercive mobilization of the general Tigrayan populace in the service of its suicide mission is a constant demonstration of its insatiable appetite to destabilize Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa by any means necessary, even if it means exterminating hapless civilians. Sadly, the international community doesn’t seem to care about the loss of countless lives. It is a deafening silence, at best. This must change here and now and the international community needs to pass an unambiguous verdict that the genocidal campaigns and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the TPLF in Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions must cease unconditionally in favour of a negotiated settlement.

While the FG has been undertaking confidence-building measures to peacefully resolve the conflict in Tigray, the TPLF is hell-bent on thwarting the peace process. On the one hand, the TPLF is paying lip service to the idea of negotiating with the Federal Government. On the other hand, it is incessantly engaged in an extensive military offensive and flagrantly violating the humanitarian truce. By doing so, it has been impeding government efforts to provide unfettered access to humanitarian assistance in Tigray. Many in the international community have corroborated these well-known facts, including UN agencies.

On 12 July 2022, the FG established a High-level Peace Committee (HLPC) led by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs to lead the government’s efforts to end the conflict in northern Ethiopia through negotiations. By instituting the HLPC the FG demonstrated its commitment to pursue a constructive engagement with the TPLF in good faith. On the contrary, the TPLF unequivocally refused to list a negotiating team. Even in the face of this awful conundrum, the government persistently appealed to partners to jointly work on restoring basic services to the Tigray region as well as the adjacent Amhara and Afar regions.

As we can all deduce from the history of the world, at a certain stage warring parties who have a genuine desire for peace go back to the negotiating table draw up short, medium and long-term solutions for sustainable peace. To this end, they also address the root socio-political and economic causes of the conflict and forge consensus to put in place a roadmap for peace. However, the TPLF lacks legitimate political demands that could be dealt with through negotiations. It still lacks a valid reason for its insolence and contempt for the people and government of Ethiopia. Every time the FG extends the TPLF an olive branch, it resorts to carnage for fear of becoming utterly irrelevant.

What is even more unnerving is its vexing assertion that without its brutal rule “Ethiopia will fall apart”!. With these diabolical ideals founded on the personality cult of its founding fathers, the TPLF is a specter of violence both in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region, while adding fuel to global conflagrations, threatening world peace. Whilst relegating all efforts of peace by the Government of Ethiopia to the museum of intellectual curiosity for fear of becoming extinct for lack of relevance, the TPLF dispatched an ominous letter to foreign dignitaries threatening another bloody war if its fantasy demands are not met.

On the morning of Wednesday, 24 August 2022, the TPLF launched an extensive military offensive with the made-up pretext of “being attacked on the Raya front”, reigniting an unsolicited conflict and flagrantly violating the humanitarian truce the Government of Ethiopia had worked so hard for. Ironically, the TPLF alleges that the FG commenced another “full-fledged war” at 5 a.m. local time via multiple fronts. The TPLF’s propaganda machine is a double-edged sword spreading this falsehood and betraying efforts for peace and reconciliation. Its latest actions accelerated its death wish while galvanizing the Ethiopian people to come to the rescue of their Tigrayan sisters and brothers, who are being held hostage by the TPLF. Through its various social and digital media outlets, the TPLF’s propaganda machinery has also been intensively engaged in undermining the peace efforts, denigrating and attacking the African Union, the leadership of the Commission, and the High Representative for the Horn of Africa, H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo. This is a regrettable reality that is giving Ethiopians, people of Ethiopian origin and friends of Ethiopia around the world sleepless nights. This needs to stop unconditionally.

It is the firm conviction of the Government of Ethiopia that the peace efforts under the auspices of the African Union must be conducted without preconditions, and the international community should condemn the TPLF’s intimidation of the AU Officials and frustration of the peace efforts in unison. The international community must also support the African Union in leading the facilitation process to bring about sanity and security to one of the most troubled regions in the world. Despite repeated unsubstantiated allegations, the government will continue with its efforts to find a lasting solution for the country’s various social and political challenges through the National Dialogue mechanism. There is every reason to believe that the worsening situation in Tigray could ameliorated through this indispensable means. Parallel to this, it is high time that the TPLF menace is buried, once and for all, through the concerted efforts of Ethiopians, the Ethiopian diaspora and friends of Ethiopia around the globe, near and far, by advocating for peace while singularly condemning the reckless terrorist activities in Tigray, Amhara and Afar. The boundless cruelty of the TPLF continues to result in a massive physical, spiritual and psychological trauma that will take years if not decades to come to terms with, let alone overcome. Lastly, the international community needs to unanimously condemn this reckless violence by sending out a clarion call to the TPLF to lay down arms and come to the negotiating table pronto, as the road to peace begins with the silencing of the guns.

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Why Kenyans Are Not Mourning the Queen

Those who know the psychological, social and economic damage that colonisation caused in their countries have been vocal about Queen Elizabeth’s failure to acknowledge the harm her empire inflicted on colonised subjects, or even to issue an apology.

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The non-stop coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s death on international media for more than a week was met with various levels of disbelief in countries that were once colonised by Britain. The BBC, naturally, covered the Queen’s death and funeral as if it was a global tragedy, while CNN and Al Jazeera devoted hours to the ceremonies preceding the funeral, including interviewing the thousands of people who stood in long lines to pay their respects to the late monarch. The coverage reeked of British exceptionalism, as if what happens to Britain and its royal family is of immense significance to the entire world.

There seems to be a general sense of amnesia surrounding the Queen Elizabeth and her rule, especially the horrors her empire was unleashing in many parts of the world when she ascended to the throne in 1952.  A friend based in Oxford told me that the police are even arresting people in Britain who are publicly protesting the Queen’s legacy. This kind of censorship seems bizarre in a land that describes itself as a champion of democracy and freedom of expression. It has become almost blasphemous to criticise the Queen and the monarchy.

Worse, British colonialism under her rule has been whitewashed and sanitised as if it never happened, or was a good thing. Most British people have also conveniently forgotten that the wealth their country enjoys today was built on the backs of African slaves who worked on the British Empire’s plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean, and through the exploitation of its colonies around the world, including in Africa.

For those who see the British Empire as a sinister force that destroyed communities and plundered people and territories, the extensive coverage of the Queen’s funeral appears like a slap in the face. An outfit called Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa even issued a statement describing Queen Elizabeth as “the head of an institution built up, sustained, and living off a brutal legacy of dehumanisation of millions of people around the world”.

Kenya stood out as one country where the Queen’s death did not generate mass grief, even though the newly elected president William Ruto made an obligatory trip to London to attend her funeral and the outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta declared four days of mourning. Kenyans on Twitter and other social media spaces did not send out messages of condolence to the Queen’s family, nor were there special state-led commemorations for the late monarch. This is not because Kenyans disliked the Queen; frankly, most of us view her as a nice – albeit extremely privileged – person who was trapped by her royal duties and did the best she could under the circumstances. But that is not the point. It is not the Queen that we resented but the institution she represented – and her failure to acknowledge the harm that the institution inflicted. As Kenyan journalist Rose Lukalo commented, “The Queen’s death and burial has resurfaced the uneasy truth of Kenya’s unfinished business with colonialism.”

Kenya stood out as one country where the Queen’s death did not generate mass grief, even though the newly elected president William Ruto made an obligatory trip to London to attend her funeral.

Many British people actually believe that the net impact of British colonialism around the world was positive because it established schools and railways and introduced Christianity to people who purportedly had no religion. They are not told that British colonialism in Kenya and other places was brutal and exploitative. It robbed indigenous people of their land, and created a class of landless people and squatters – terms that were virtually unknown in traditional African societies because all land was communally owned.

The history of slavery and Britain’s role in it is similarly whitewashed. Britain is often lauded for abolishing slavery in 1883, but what is not widely known is that when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, there were more than 40,000 slave owners in Britain. What is also not talked about often enough is that one year after slavery was abolished, Britain and other European powers embarked on colonising Africa at the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, thereby unleashing another form of slavery on Africans.

The British Empire’s establishment of a “settler colony” in Kenya was particularly pernicious. In 1923, Britain forcibly possessed the most fertile parts of the Rift Valley – the so-called “White Highlands”, an area comprising 5.2 million acres.  The locals were moved to “reserves” where they were expected to pay taxes to a government that basically stole their land from them.

When the locals rebelled, the Empire’s lackeys tortured them and put them in concentration camps. Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag, documents these atrocities in detail, including the rape of women deemed sympathetic to Mau Mau freedom fighters that had taken hold in Central Kenya, and whose members were jailed and tortured by the colonial regime. It is worth noting that the places where these Mau Mau revolutionaries were arrested, detained and tortured in the 1950s was not far from the Kenyan Aberdares mountain range where the young Elizabeth and her husband found out that her father, King George VI, had died and she was the new British queen.  It is also worth noting that it took some 5,000 former Mau Mau members more than 60 years to receive compensation from the British government, a legal battle that has been lauded for its tenacity and boldness.

Colonialism’s lingering impact

Societies that have experienced the trauma of colonisation often become dysfunctional. Forced to abandon their traditional values and social security systems, uprooted from their ancestral lands and natural resources, and brainwashed to believe that they are inferior beings, these societies begin to manifest all the symptoms of a sick society. Colonisation separated families and introduced an economy based on exploitation, which changed the nature of African societies and economies.

Post-colonial governments did not reverse this sad state of affairs. On the contrary, post-independence Kenyan elites benefitted from colonial policies that alienated Africans from their own land and became the biggest beneficiaries of post-independence land grabs disguised as land redistribution or adjudication. It is believed that one of the main reasons Jomo Kenyatta was selected to lead the country’s transition to independence was because he had made a secret pact with the British colonial government not to hurt British and white settler interests in the country.

It took some 5,000 former Mau Mau members more than 60 years to receive compensation from the British government, a legal battle that has been lauded for its tenacity and boldness.

According to Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report, “rich businessmen and businesswomen, rich and powerful politicians who were loyal to the colonial administration, managed to acquire thousands of acres at the expense of the poor and the landless.” Hence, “instead of redressing land-related injustices perpetrated by the colonialists on Africans, the resettlement process created a privileged class of African elites, leaving those who had suffered land alienation either on tiny unproductive pieces of land or landless.” Even today in Kenya, members of freedom fighting movements remain landless and poverty-stricken while those who sided with the colonialists are among the richest people in the land.

No royal apology 

People who know the psychological, social and economic damage that colonisation caused in their countries have been vocal about Queen Elizabeth’s failure to acknowledge the harm her empire inflicted on colonised subjects, or even to issue an apology. Many royalists have insinuated that perhaps the Queen was not aware or had not been informed of the atrocities committed by British colonial officers in places like Kenya. But as Elkins stated in a recent article published in TIME magazine, this argument is highly implausible. She wrote: “Beginning with her first prime minister Winston Churchill, the queen’s ministers not only knew of systematic British-directed violence in the empire, they also participated in its crafting, diffusion and cover-up, which was as routinised as the violence itself. They repeatedly lied to Parliament and the media and, when decolonization was imminent, ordered the widespread removal and burning of incriminating evidence.”

Shashi Tharoor, the Indian author and politician, has a similar view. He believes that even if the Queen was not in charge when the Empire committed the most violent atrocities, she had a duty to at least acknowledge that these atrocities took place. “We do know that much of colonialism’s horrors over the centuries were perpetrated in the name of the Royal Family but when she and her consort visited Jallianwallah Bagh, she could only bring herself to leave her name in the visitors’ book, without even an expression of regret, let alone of contrition or apology, for that vile British act of deliberate mass murder,” he said. (Jallianwallah Bagh was a site in the city of Amritsar where hundreds of pro-independence activists were killed or injured in April 1919. Although Elizabeth was not queen then, the scale of the massacre was so shocking that it has been viewed as one of the worst atrocities that the British Empire committed against civilians.)

Now that the Queen is dead, will her son King Charles take the responsibility of confessing to the sins of his mother and the Empire she presided over? Not likely, given that the idea that the British monarchy is above reproach has become even more entrenched since her death.

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