“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.
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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.
Climate Change and the Injustice of Environmental Globalism
Beneath the veneer of empty platitudes about acknowledging Africa’s role in conserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change, the Africa Climate Summit was mere geopolitics at play, with the West attempting to reinstate the hegemony it used to exercise over the continent.
According to the Cambridge dictionary, globalism is “the idea that events in one country cannot be separated from those in another and that economic and foreign policy should be planned in an international way”. At first glance, this appears to be a rather benign concept that can even be seen as beneficial when applied to commerce, or in the context of universal human needs like water, human rights and health. However, when it is applied in the context of natural resource management and conservation, it is a delusion that takes on a malevolent quality, threatening sovereignty, resource rights, climate resilience and even the health of hundreds of millions of people around the world.
By and large, globalisation has been a positive human development, but it has spawned a cruel child that follows the same economic strata in the pursuit of power, fuelled by the climate crisis and perceptions thereof. It is instructive to note that the stratification occasioned by environmental globalism places the Global South firmly on the bottom rung. This is the core injustice, because nations of the Global South are custodians of over 75 per cent of the world’s biodiversity and produce less than 50 per cent of total global emissions.
The most powerful and destructive quality of environmental globalism is its capacity to confer acceptability, normality, or even invisibility to the most egregious violations of human rights and sovereignty. This delusion played out blatantly at the Africa Climate Summit 2023 held in Nairobi from 4 to 6 September 2023. The summit was touted as a meeting where “the world” (read: the Western capitalist world) would acknowledge (and somehow reward) Africa’s role in conserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change.
The situation on the ground, however, was very different, because the discussions centred around “carbon markets” and other amorphous financial instruments. These were accompanied by the usual platitudes and lip service to the injustices and suffering in Africa caused by climate change for which the continent only has five per cent responsibility, based on their proportion of global emissions. Like clockwork, the African leaders present came out, cup in hand, pleading for a share of this amorphous thing referred to as “climate financing”, forgetting that these wealthy nations have only made good on 12 per cent of the climate financing commitments made in Paris a decade earlier.
So what was the purpose of this meeting, given that there was so much repetition of what had already been promised earlier and remains unfulfilled? Everything was rehashed, including the typically shrill crisis speeches from the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Gutierrez. An examination of the background information on this meeting reveals that it was more of an “assignment” given to Kenya by the Swedish government, which also financed the meeting. The brief to the Kenyan government was simple: herd, or otherwise coerce, as many African governments into a common position in support of the West’s position in preparation for COP 28, the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference – or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC – to be held in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December 2023.
A key part of that “common position” has been the repeated absolution of the West from blame for the irreparable harm done to the global environment since the Industrial Revolution. It is a position that was repeated throughout the summit, in the media communiqués, television adverts, and in the final declaration. As an African society that aspires to justice, however, it is incumbent upon us (and the wider global community) to recognise that this is a position that has no moral, scientific, or logical standing. Even more perplexing is the fact that the countries seeking to absolve the West from responsibility for the environmental crisis are the same ones expecting various forms of reparations from them for the same environmental impacts; just one example of the cognitive dissonance that is typical of the conservation discourse.
All isn’t lost, though. If one looks past the propaganda being put out by the BBC and other Western media outlets about the climate summit, it is obvious that the loud references to “Africa” in the communiqués and headlines are greatly exaggerated. Kenya’s President William Ruto, the summit host, read out the “Nairobi Declaration” at the end of the summit, outlining several demands and proposals on behalf of “Africa”, despite the fact that, of the 54 countries that make up the continent, only 14 heads of state were in attendance. It was a sad day for Kenya when we bought into, and became purveyors, of the intellectual contempt that is so typical of Western attitudes towards Africa. It is the idea of “Africa the village” where countries, communities and individuals are assumed not to have individual needs, aspirations or ideas.
This continent is a land mass of over 30 million square kilometres, stretching from the temperate Mediterranean zone in the north, across the tropics to the temperate cape, south of the Tropic of Capricorn. A continent of 1.3 billion people. Why would African countries have a common position on environmental issues at COP28 (or on anything else, for that matter)? Surely, the environmental conservation priorities of Algeria in the Sahara Desert cannot be the same as the priorities of the Democratic Republic of Congo covered in tropical rain forest, and home to the world’s third-largest river by volume. Most of the countries that skipped the summit didn’t bother explaining why, but Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa made their positions known. According to a Kenyan diplomat, Nigeria didn’t want to come and be “a bystander at the summit while being lectured by the worst emitters” (of greenhouse gases). Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni refused to attend because of (US climate envoy) John Kerry’s involvement in addressing Africans yet he was a citizen of the “world’s biggest polluter”. South Africa didn’t come because they are currently facing an electricity power crisis and they are being pressured to give up coal, one of their most important energy sources. So what, pray, was the purpose of this strange function in Nairobi?
It was a sad day for Kenya when we bought into, and became purveyors, of the intellectual contempt that is so typical of Western attitudes towards Africa.
This meeting, the platitudes, the posturing, the electric vehicles and propaganda had very little to do with the environment. It was simply global geopolitics. Very few people would fail to notice the massive global power shift to the East over the last two-three years in terms of commerce, innovation, industry, and other fields. Western power in the 19th and 20th centuries was built and maintained on the back of the military industrial complex, but this primitive, blunt tool can no longer ensure dominance in a complex, informed world. “Concern for the environment” is the only remaining tool that the West has at its disposal to try and achieve anything approaching the hegemony it used to exercise over the Global South, particularly Africa.
The duplicity of creating and pushing “carbon markets” while continuing unabated with their industries and emissions has a two-fold benefit for the Global North, if it succeeds. Firstly, they can slow down development and maintain dependency in the South by curtailing the use of natural resources and using these countries as “carbon sinks” for Northern excesses. Secondly, they can conjure up a position of leadership based on non-existent environmental stewardship, in spite of their being the world’s top emitters and consumers. This “leadership” is exercised on global platforms, particularly the UN, which has fully adopted the crisis narrative.
This country has a less than stellar record of environmental leadership: failing to enforce our most basic laws, the wanton destruction of tree cover, the dumping of toxic waste, and cities choking in refuse and sewerage. The choice of Kenya certainly couldn’t have been based on our credentials as a nation, so why was the Africa Climate Summit held here? The choice was more likely based on Kenya’s characteristically blank policy slate onto which foreign interests can be stencilled as and when needed. Where the chosen tool is conservation, Kenya provides the best “entry point” into Africa because of our inability to separate conservation from foreign tourism, and our official obsession with the latter.
The duplicity of creating and pushing “carbon markets” while continuing unabated with their industries and emissions has a two-fold benefit for the Global North, if it succeeds.
As early as 1972, the Guyanese scholar and Pan-African thinker Walter Rodney said that international imperialism was turning Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania into “wildlife republics” where “every effort was made to attract tourists to look at the animals, and the animals assumed priorities higher than human beings…” He went on to refer to tourism as one of the new areas of “expansion of the imperialist economy” and a new way of confirming the dependence and subjugation of Third World economies. Tanzania and Uganda developed their own political and cultural identities over the decades, but Kenya excelled in the role of “client state”, making us the preferred choice for Western projects.
What, then, did we gain from the so-called African Climate Summit? Environmentally, nothing at all, but we learned that our continent is the custodian of the resources on which the world’s future depends. Hopefully, we also learned that Africa’s future belongs to the nations that are committed to their own people’s needs and aspirations.
Decoding India’s Move to Include Africa as Permanent G20 Member
India’s initiative for African Union was the most daring diplomatic act.
During India’s G20 presidency, the initiative to seek a permanent place for the African Union (AU) at the high table was perhaps the most daring of Indian diplomatic acts. With this, India manifested that incorporating concerns of the global south into the G20 process was not mere lip service.
In January, soon after India assumed the G20 presidency, India held the Voice of Global South virtual summit, which saw a large African participation. It was the first effort by a G20 president to obtain the opinion of so many countries outside the G20 membership. The priorities articulated there were amalgamated by India among its proposals while setting the agenda for G20.
The AU is often an invitee to G20 summits. It was established in 2002 as the successor to the Organisation of African Unity (1963). The New Partnership for Africa’s Development was a separate process emerging from the African Renaissance and was established shortly before the AU. When the G20 summit emerged, often the AU and NEPAD were separately invited. Subsequently, NEPAD became a part of the AU and is now the AU Development Agency, though it continues to be invited to G20 summits with regularity.
The AU and NEPAD represent 54 African members of the United Nations and therefore are the single largest group of countries within the global south and the world at large. India has consistently supported bringing African voices to the international table from the time of the Bandung (Afro-Asian) Conference (1955), the nonaligned movement’s Belgrade conference (1961) and beyond.
Africa remains in search of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the process for which is stalled. The G20, therefore, was the best place for Africa to find a permanent voice at this time. It is not coincidental that India, which has always championed Africa’s cause, has taken the initiative to include Africa as a G20 member on a permanent basis rather than as an invitee. This was a courageous act, because ever since the G20 was formed nobody tinkered with its membership for fear of competing claims.
India decided that diplomatic capital would have to be expended to achieve some change in the G20. Rather than expend it on an unlikely agreement on the Ukraine crisis, India thought it would perhaps be better to persuade members to include the AU and consequently give a larger voice to the global south in the G20. Along with South Africa―the only African country in the G20 so far―this would indeed bring diversity from Africa into the G20.
Some analysts ask why India did not announce this initiative during the Voice of Global South summit itself. Perhaps at that time, India was determining how its presidency would turn out. The previous Indonesian presidency had been shell-shocked by the Ukraine crisis and the big power divide. At the Bali summit though, these differences were overcome. A joint communiqué emerged. India was looking at continuing the Bali consensus, but it soon became evident at various ministerial meetings that the insistence of western countries on including references to the Ukraine crisis and criticising Russia would be opposed staunchly by Russia and China. The situation in Ukraine had altered from the time of the Bali summit, and Russia and China were unwilling to abide by the same consensus.
The choice now was whether India would expend time and effort to try and find a common language, which seems well-nigh impossible, unless something changes on the ground in Ukraine. India therefore decided that the agenda preferred by the global south should be pursued in all working groups and meetings across the board so that a focused G20 outcome could emerge, leaving the Ukraine crisis by the side. This is also preferred by Africa, which believes that its concerns are ignored as the Ukraine crisis dominates the discourse. Therefore, what was not feasible in January was feasible in June.
India is aware that trying to alter the membership of the G20 opens up many competing rivalries. Why only the AU? Why not other regional organisations like ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) or CARICOM (the Caribbean Community) and the like? What happens to the claims of Spain and the Netherlands, which want to expand the European cohort in the G20 but have been placed as permanent guests? India’s initiative clearly lays out that the AU representing 54 countries of the global south is much more akin to the European Union than the ASEAN or CARICOM are. There is no comparison between the numbers of these regional organisations.
Several AU partners like the US, China, EU, Russia and others advocate AU’s inclusion. It is unclear however whether all these supporters of Africa see this as a lever to pry open the membership issues for their own ends. India has set the diplomatic ball rolling and awaits a consensus on AU’s inclusion.
This article was first published by The Week.
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