Editor’s note: Gen Tsadkan Gebretensae is a key member of the Tigrayan Defence Forces Command and widely regarded as one of Africa’s best military thinkers and strategists. He was a former top Ethiopian army general. He is widely-regarded as one of the masterminds of Operation Alula which in late June 2021 led to major reversals for the Ethiopian army in Tigray. In this interview, conducted in Tigray on 6 July by The Elephant, Gen Tsadkan spells out his views on peace and the way forward for Ethiopia.
The Elephant: What is the context of what is happening in Tigray?
Gen Tsadkan: I don’t need to go back to the horrendous atrocities that have been committed against the people of Tigray by invading forces of Isaias and Abiy, but after the offensive, after what has happened recently, the Ethiopian government is in my opinion living in an illusion. It is an illusion that has been created by themselves. They tried to deny the reality on the ground. They tried to cheat the world by saying they have declared a unilateral ceasefire while they have been defeated. We decimated two brigades of their forces which were running away from Mekelle, so this nonsense of unilateral ceasefire is a drama that has been created by themselves. Instead, they should recognize the realities on the ground and come with a realistic solution. You cannot have a ceasefire at a time when you have already blocked every movement of goods and services. Ethiopian Airlines is not flying to Mekelle, there is no telephone, there is no internet, there is no power, there is no road transport, humanitarian aid has been blocked. He cannot talk about any unilateral ceasefire while trying to strangle the whole people of Tigray.
So, I think I would like the international community to understand the situation we are in. We have been very much restrained because we don’t want to be seen as if we are not accepting a political solution. The whole problem is not only in Tigray but in the whole of Ethiopia. We know the Government forces are almost finished but at the same time we are restraining ourselves for a realistic political solution to the whole problem. I would like the international community to understand this situation, that is the message I have now.
The Elephant: You were a part of the group that mediated between the PM and the TPLF before war broke out, what led you to break off that role?
Gen Tsadkan: You are right, myself and a group of prominent political individuals in Ethiopia have been trying to mediate. The basis of the interaction we had was to accept the existing Constitution of Multinational Federalism and resolve any other issue apart from it. In my interaction with the PM, it was very clear that he was looking for; (A) dismantling the Multinational Federalism, which brought Ethiopia together and (B) he was looking for a solution that is not a political peaceful solution but preparing himself for war. That was very clear for me in our last meetings. So I had to make a choice. I knew that the political solution to Tigray would not come, in my interactions with him. I was interacting with the President of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael. On the part of Tigray, I saw willingness to resolve the issue, as long as the Multinational Federal Constitutional Arrangement is respected. That was not the case with Dr Abiy Ahmed, so I had to take a position. And at the same time, there was no other choice. The Ethiopian Government invited foreign forces to invade our country, so the choice was either to surrender to foreign forces or Abiy’s forces, or join the resistance. I chose the latter.
The Elephant: Those final meetings you had with the PM, when was that, 2019 or 2020?
Gen Tsadkan: I think it was 2020. It was not 2019. We had several, we had some meetings earlier, precisely around three major meetings, but the last one was in 2020.
The Elephant: When did you specifically join the armed resistance?
Gen Tsadkan :It was after November.
The Elephant: Could you explain the relationship btw the TPLF, the TDF, the Government of Tigray and your position now?
Gen Tsadkan: The TPLF is the ruling party, the TDF is a word that has been coined, not in a negative sense but in a positive sense, during the resistance. The whole resistance is led by the Government of Tigray, not the TPLF, as a ruling party it might have its say but the resistance is led by the Government, the duly elected Government of Tigray. The Government of Tigray has established a Central Command which decides on all issues related to war and peace, all issues: political, diplomatic, military, economic issues, this body is chaired by the President of Tigray, Dr. Debretsion, and the military effort is one aspect of the resistance. I serve as a member of the Central Command in the structure that I have described, so the TPLF is the ruling party, the Government of Tigray is the one leading the resistance, through a structure called the Central Command that decides on all issues related to peace and war. The TDF, the Tigrayan Defense Forces, is an element in the whole structure that is being commanded by the Central Command. Below the Central Command there is a structure called the Military Command, the Military Command specifically directs and commands operations in the army. This is the arrangement.
The Elephant: Were you expecting to win control of Tigray so soon or even at all, did it come as a surprise to you?
Gen Tsadkan: No, it didn’t come as a surprise to me. In fact, I am on public record even before the war started telling people, you know, of all regions, the Region of Tigray is a region which shall not head for war but at same time is not scared of war. I know the history, I know the potential, when this thing started it was very clear that the most senior, most highly experienced commanders are from Tigray, which has been the backbone of the Ethiopian armed forces for the last thirty years, highly experienced because most of them have gone through two major wars, I very much know the military tradition of Tigray, so when you combine those two elements, highly experienced and skillful commanders and a society with a very deep military tradition, it only takes a short period of time to reorganize and regain control. That’s exactly what happened.
At the same time, this has been facilitated by the atrocities committed by the enemies of Tigray, that created a widespread opposition and dedicated of the youngsters to finish all this within a short period of time. When all those things came together, given the experience we had, we had to organize the fighting units, train the fighting units, and it was clear for us that when we get some time, we will create a very formidable fighting machine, and that’s what has happened.
The Elephant: how many POWs do you currently have?
Gen Tsadkan: I might miss some of the information, the latest information I have before five days is around more than 8000, the prisoners of war kept increasing, they might have increased a little bit. But that is the figure I know.
The Elephant: Do you want to say about plans for treatment of these POWs?
Gen Tsadkan: No, I don’t think there is anything in particular, I know my colleagues are in touch with the ICRC, and will handle them according to international law.
The Elephant: What is the current humanitarian situation? What actions are you hoping the International Community will take?
Gen Tsadkan: As has been described by the international media several times and by UN Agencies, the humanitarian situation is extremely dire. The Ethiopian Government is trying to aggravate this by blocking any connection with Sudan and any other corridor. Even they have blocked air communications. So the Government of Tigray and the Central Command have decided, I think it has been communicated, we are ready to accept any humanitarian assistance, ready to facilitate anything that the U.N. or any humanitarian assistance agencies would like to have, security, we will provide security to the areas we control, more than 90 percent of Tigray, we will comply with their requirements, so my message is, there is a huge need for humanitarian assistance and we are ready to accept any assistance, if the international community means business, let them come and do what is required to save lives in Tigray.
The Elephant: what will happen if the PM continues to refuse humanitarian access to your region?
Gen Tsadkan: Not only resisting humanitarian assistance to our region, but if he continues to do the way they are acting, that is, strangling Tigray, blocking power, electricity, internet, air transport, land transport, not only humanitarian assistance but to civilians as well, I think the Government of Tigray and the resistance in Tigray will be required to break its restraint, restraint from military activities, we know we have the capacity, we have increased our capacity, we know we can do what it takes to pressurize the government so if they continue behaving like the way they are doing, playing games, and trying to deceive the world with their illusions, the first consequence will be continuation of operations. We will be left with no other alternative except to resolve it militarily. We would like it to be resolved peacefully but if there is no other choice, then the next choice will be, try to resolve it militarily, and we know we are capable of doing that.
The Elephant: What is your timeline for that option?
Gen Tsadkan: No, I’m afraid to comment on this. We are watching the situation seriously.
The Elephant: are you prepared to negotiate peace with Abiy and with the Eritrean leader Isaias?
Gen Tsadkan: I think that’s an issue that we have to deal with when it comes. We have made our points clear on the last declaration of what we mean by a negotiated ceasefire, we have clearly indicated that we are for a negotiated ceasefire. In a negotiated ceasefire, issues are raised and we discuss to resolve them, but the process has to start.
The Elephant: Do you have anything to add to the conditions for the negotiated ceasefire that TPLF released on Sunday?
Gen Tsadkan: No, I was part of the Central Command that drafted that list and I’m happy with it.
The Elephant: Do you have any message for Ethiopians as a whole?
Gen Tsadkan: I would like to say it’s very sad that our country Ethiopia is in such a situation. We were forced to act the way we did, because of the Central Government in Ethiopia, is in our opinion directed by Asmara, by Isaias, Isaias’ security forces, intelligence forces are operating in Ethiopia day and night. I hate this kind of situation to prevail in Ethiopia, but at the same time, it is sad to see that Ethiopians are just accepting the behavior of the Central Government, but I would like to say that even though so many atrocities have been committed, it’s not led to resolve our issue peacefully and politically. So, when Ethiopians come out of the illusion that the Prime Minister has created, the reality on the ground is completely different, let Eritreans get out, not only from Tigray, but from all of Ethiopia. Let Ethiopians set their own trajectory themselves.
Eritrea has a heavy hand, heavy presence not only in Tigray but in Addis Ababa and all over Ethiopia as well.
The Elephant: What are the battlefield developments, status of Western Tigray?
Gen Tsadkan: It’s very clear that Amhara forces are in Western Tigray, it’s obvious that they are preparing to face us. So, we’ll handle it the way they would like to handle it.
The Elephant: Does that mean you are waiting for them to act, you’re not going to push it?
Gen Tsadkan: No, I didn’t say anything, it is a military situation and we will see the situation and act according to what is warranted militarily for us
The Elephant: have the ENDF and Amhara forces retreated to other side of Tekezze River?
Gen Tsadkan: They have already blown up bridges, it is very clear that it’s a continuation of the policy of Abiy Ahmed to strangle Tigray and take away a Constitutionally recognized geographic region of Tigray to another area. So, they are preparing themselves across the river. That, we know.
The Elephant: Do you see the capture of Mekelle as a turning point that will lead to a speedy end to conflict or is it opening up a new front in the war, in the north and west?
Gen Tsadkan: It all depends upon the central government of Ethiopia and its partner Isaias, it could be, it’s very clear that they cannot win the war. The capture of Mekelle and the defeat of the Ethiopian army clearly shows if there was any doubt, that they cannot win this war. On the other hand, the people of Tigray have been under huge atrocities of all kinds, have stood and resisted. The war will continue growing. Even the military experience and the political nature of the just cause of the war, it will keep on growing. So the capture of Mekelle would signal a huge political message to Abiy, to come to his senses and then resolve the political situation not only in Tigray but in all of Ethiopia peacefully, sooner. It has signaled that he cannot get his way by force, that is what he wanted, he could not, he mobilized not only his forces but other forces as well, he mobilized all of the army of Eritrea, he mobilized the technological capacity of the UAE, that did not work. So, for us, we were not craving for war. We wanted a peaceful solution from the very beginning. And it is now after the defeat of Abiy’s forces we are saying, let’s have a negotiated ceasefire. But Abiy and the Amhara elites can resist this, can say no, we’ll have our way by military means, if that is their choice, we’ll see. So it all depends on how they will react. The sooner they come out of their illusion that they have created, that they are riding victory after victory, it will be better for all of Ethiopia and Tigray as well. As long as they live with that illusion, and trying to mobilize innocent peasants and bringing them as cannon fodder to the new fronts that have been created in southern and western Tigray, then the war will continue.
The Elephant: Are there any splits within TPLF, on any topics such as engaging the government, or are you pretty united?
Gen Tsadkan: Pretty united. Obviously, there are different opinions on how the political situation should be resolved, and resolved once and for a durable period of time. But that is for Tigrayans to discuss among themselves and resolve. That is the situation. On the issue of you know defeating the invaders, and coming to a lasting political situation, there is complete unity.
The Elephant: is there anything you would like to share about journey of your life, as someone who fought against Dergue and toppled it?
Gen Tsadkan: I would like to say that I am a product of the people of Tigray. The struggle and the pain that the people of Tigray have went through have created people like me, not only me, several like me. So, when all these things are done, I hope some people will have a lot of time, I will have time as well, to go through all this. But for the time being, as I said, I am the product of the struggle and the pain of the people of Tigray.
Thank you very much.
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Changes in Suicide Reporting Welcome, but Slow
Without a deeper understanding of the harm insensitive reporting on suicide causes, attempts to change may be wrongly deemed as political correctness.
Earlier this year, the Baraza Media Lab and the Centre on Suicide Research and Intervention published a report that looked at how broadcasting stations report on suicide on social media. Its contents were sobering. Many leading media houses were found to report suicide as a criminal act. Reports also contained harmful elements such as descriptions of suicide methods and imagery of suicide and did not provide helpful information for readers who may be thinking of suicide.
So how have journalists been reporting on suicide since the data was collected? A very cursory survey of news outlets on social media shows reasons for both optimism and worry. Over the course of 2023, media outlets have published more stories about mental health, indicating an increasing awareness of it. This year has also seen an increased number of responsibly written social media posts that take into account the need for sensitivity on suicide.
Now, the negatives. Knowledge on responsible reporting of suicide, while improved, remains inconsistent across news operations. Real progress will require further integrating social media into editorial processes, subjecting its copy to as much rigour as the stories themselves to ensure errors are not introduced once stories are completed. Also, many insensitive references to suicide on social media were accurately reproduced from news stories.
The term “committed suicide” continues to appear on news websites, even in stories where responsible reporting would be expected, such as those that explore the risk factors of suicide. Stories use the insensitive word “suicidal” in phrases like “treating suicidal people as criminals” and “people who are suicidal”. The same insensitivity is also observed in the phrase “mentally ill” – ironically in stories that call for acts of suicide to be decriminalised.
It’s not clear that all journalists understand why respectful reporting on suicide is necessary. It was interesting – and revealing – to see a media outlet’s official X account, formerly known as Twitter, include both the terms “died by suicide” and “committed suicide” in the same tweet.
News websites continue to narrate morbid details about the manner of death by suicide. You are still likely to find phrases like “the body was found hanging in his room”, a man “who set himself ablaze” and “doused himself in a flammable substance before setting himself ablaze while carrying the Kenyan flag”. The imagery of suicide, with the noose particularly prominent, continues to be used in stories, inadvertently advertising hanging as a suitable method.
It’s not clear that all journalists understand why respectful reporting on suicide is necessary.
Media outlets aired insensitive footage. One camera focused on a woman overcome with emotion, who understood she was being filmed. One story goes as far as to narrate that instead of dissuading the deceased from taking his own life, a bystander handed him a lighted match and taunted him over unsuccessful attempts to light himself on fire, displaying the contempt people have for people thinking of suicide and inviting viewers to agree with those ideas.
The approach to reporting suicide varies depending on whether the person who died by suicide had committed a violent crime just prior, usually another killing. Reports are more likely to use “died by suicide” where the only death reported is by suicide. On the other hand, when person who died by suicide had killed another person, the phrase “committed suicide” is used freely.
The approach to reporting suicide varies depending on whether the person who died by suicide had committed a violent crime just prior, usually another killing.
Yet the same responsibility to reduce the prominence of suicide applies even in the context of crime reporting, and steps that broadcasters take to make footage of murders acceptable, such as using trigger warnings and black and white for bloodstains, may still be unacceptable in the context of suicide prevention. According to a 2021 brief by the University College Cork, Ireland, no graphic footage should be used in reporting murder-suicides, and care should be taken to discourage copycats, or position murder-suicide as a solution to anything.
Without a deeper understanding of the harm insensitive reporting on suicide causes, attempts to change may be wrongly deemed as political correctness, resulting in disrespectful coverage that tries to “say it as it is” and neglects to include sources of help for people who may be thinking of suicide.
Why President Kagame Should Not Run for a Fourth Term
The 2024 elections in Rwanda are an opportunity for the country to move away from strongman leadership to enable the emergence of strong institutions and a governance that is more tolerant of critics.
The constitution of Rwanda was amended in 2015 to allow President Paul Kagame to stand for a third term of seven years. Kagame was re-elected in 2017 and his term ends in 2024. The change in the constitution also allows him to stand for a fourth and a fifth five-year term. In my view, President Kagame should not run for a fourth presidential term in the 2024 elections.
President Paul Kagame was appointed Vice President and Minister for Defence on 19 July 1994, immediately after the end of the war and the Rwanda genocide. When President Pasteur Bizimungu resigned in 2000, Kagame was elected by the Transitional National Assembly to replace him. Three years later, in 2003, Kagame was elected president and has been president of Rwanda for over two decades. He has, therefore, risen to higher levels of decision-making over three decades, a sufficient period of time during which to oversee the implementation of policies he thought would advance the betterment of Rwandans. Kagame should, therefore, consider letting another willing and capable Rwandan build upon his achievements and continue to advance Rwanda’s interests. Indeed, under Kagame’s leadership, Rwanda has made some achievements but there are also shortcomings.
First, from a war-torn country, Rwanda has emerged to become a state with well-defined and functioning structures and institutions supported by fairly clear legislations. In my opinion, this has been achieved thanks to Kagame’s administration’s commitment to bring about change in Rwanda manifested immediately after the end of the war and the genocide against the Tutsi.
Second, Rwanda has also made some economic gains even though these can be challenged in many aspects. In 2000, Kagame made a pledge to transform Rwanda from a low- to a middle-income country driven by a knowledge economy by 2020. Since then, the Rwandan economy has grown significantly and its GDP per capita has increased from USD304 in 1995 to USD940 in 2022. The country’s human development index has soared and Rwanda has been recognised by the World Health Organization as one of the countries that are performing well on the goal of achieving universal health coverage. The country’s life expectancy has increased significantly, from 47 years in 2000 to 67 years in 2020. Moreover, according to UNICEF, the government has made some improvements in expanding education for all across Rwanda.
Lastly, through a meticulously executed campaign of communication, compelling narratives have been disseminated across the world that speak well of Rwanda. This along with the country’s commitment to deploy its soldiers to multinational peacekeeping missions across the world (Rwanda ranks fourth on the list of countries that contribute in peacekeeping in the world) has enabled Rwanda to strengthen its foreign relations with other countries and project its image as a development success story.
There are certainly more achievements that President Kagame has made during his 30 years in leadership that his replacement can learn from and retain to move Rwanda forward. However there are shortcomings. Kagame managed to put the country back on the world map but failed to create an environment for the country’s citizens to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms.
Upon taking power following a military victory, his political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), pledged a consensual democracy to Rwandans. But over time this democracy has transformed into a political system that suppresses political dissent, restricts pluralism and curtails liberty in Rwanda. Most affected are those who dare or are perceived to challenge his government’s narrative in Rwanda and abroad. In many instances, Kagame’s government has abused its power, colluding with the judicial system to criminalise his critics. As a result, Rwanda has repeatedly been categorised as not a free country by Freedom House.
This has led to independent and inter-governmental human rights organisations and representatives of developed countries that financially support Rwanda to publicly criticise his leadership for lack of political inclusion, human rights violations and the overall democracy deficit in Rwanda. This situation continues to tarnish Rwanda’s reputation that Kagame’s leadership has been working hard to restore.
Furthermore, independent reports on the development of democracy and governance throughout the world – and in Africa in particular – all point out that citizen participation in Rwanda remains limited, as do local NGOs.
Political participation in Rwanda is limited only to those who adhere or are willing to be affiliated to his political party, the RPF. This has prevented the emergence of a genuine opposition that could have provided checks and balances across institutions in Rwanda. The repercussions are that lack of accountability within public institutions is rampant and Kagame has many times publicly criticised officials in his administration for not delivering as they should. In fact, the pledge he made in 2000 to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country driven by a knowledge economy has not materialised and Rwanda remains a low-income country to date.
Failure to effectively engage citizens in decision-making has also resulted in the implementation of development policies that do not meet the immediate needs of the population. Hence, the economic gains made by Kagame’s administration can be challenged in many aspects as previously pointed out. For instance, substantial public funds have been invested in the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions (MICE) sector while less has been allocated to education, agriculture, and rural infrastructure development. Thus, despite remarkable economic growth and a significant improvement in the human development index registered by Rwanda since 1994, these achievements are tarnished by high inequalities in income, health and education. Furthermore, they are characterised by economic injustices such as unfair land expropriation and the uprooting of farmers’ crops. Rwanda’s human capital development remains below the average for African countries due to a lack of quality education and high levels of malnutrition among children below five years. Only 41 per cent of households in Rwanda are considered to be substantially food secure. The private sector’s contribution to growth has remained small and growth is predominantly led by state-owned enterprises and those belonging to the ruling party. Overall, Rwandans have been consecutively ranked among the bottom five least happy populations on the global happiness index.
Failure to effectively engage citizens in decision-making has also resulted in the implementation of development policies that do not meet the immediate needs of the population.
Over the past three decades, curtailed civil liberties and mounting social inequalities have seen Rwandans seek refuge abroad and prevented from returning to their homeland those who had fled Rwanda after the RPF took power in 1994. This situation has exacerbated the issue of Rwandan refugees that has persisted since Rwanda’s independence.
In particular, under President Kagame, the unresolved issue of Rwandan refugees settled in Rwanda’s neighbouring countries has been a source of political tensions between Rwanda and its neighbours. The Rwandan government has maintained that there are negative forces resident in eastern DRC that are out to destabilise Rwanda, a reference to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR is an armed group formed by Rwandan refugees in DRC who, following their forcible eviction from Rwanda during the genocide, resorted to armed struggle as a means of retaking power in Rwanda. Despite Rwanda’s armed forces launching military operations against the FDLR on numerous occasions on Congolese soil in collaboration with the Congolese army, the Rwandan government continues to insist that the FDLR is a threat to Rwanda’s security.
The United Nations has twice – in 2012 and 2022 – accused Rwanda of supporting the M23, an armed group that is fighting in the eastern DRC. This conflict has displaced populations and led to the death of millions of African civilian lives. In 2016, the UN Security Council accused Rwanda of recruiting and training Burundian refugees with the aim of ousting the then Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza. Western countries have suspended or withheld aid to Rwanda over allegations that it supported the M23 in 2012 and some of Rwanda’s donors have recently publicly called on the Rwandan government to stop supporting the M23 and remove its troops from eastern DRC. The European Union and United States of America have sanctioned Rwandan military officials for backing the M23. The US has placed Rwanda on the Child Soldiers Prevention Act List and suspended its military aid to the country due to Rwanda’s support of the M23, which the US says recruits and uses child soldiers. Not only do these allegations of Rwanda’s involvement in the regional conflict further tarnish the country’s image that Kagame’s administration has worked hard to restore, but the tensions with neighbouring states have also prevented Rwanda from maximising the benefits of regional integration and trade for its development.
President Kagame should not run for a fourth term as the governance of Rwanda needs to be reformed so that it becomes more tolerant of critics, democratic and inclusive. To successfully implement such reforms in governance requires a new leadership with fresh perspectives and approaches that will be able to build on Kagame’s achievements in order to address unresolved historical grievances of Rwandans and at the same time enable Rwanda to maximise its potential in the region and experience genuine development.
President Kagame should not run for a fourth term as the governance of Rwanda needs to be reformed so that it becomes more tolerant of critics, democratic and inclusive.
Considering Rwanda’s history of long-serving strongmen who have taken power, retained it and lost it through violence, the 2024 presidential election is an opportunity for Rwandans to experience the transfer of power in a peaceful and transparent manner as has been the case in neighbouring countries including Burundi, DRC and Tanzania. It is an opportunity for Rwanda to move away from strongman leadership to enable the emergence of strong institutions to take the lead instead. This can be achieved by building on the legislations that have been reviewed and implemented under Kagame’s leadership. Therefore, while recognising with gratitude the achievements that he has made over the past three decades, Kagame’s greatest achievement yet would be to step away from power at the end of his term in 2024. In so doing, Kagame will have paved the way for better leadership in Rwanda and opened the door to future generations of Rwandans aspiring to become leaders in Rwanda.
Why Kenyans Demanded an Apology from King Charles
The traumatic legacy of British colonialism lingers in Kenya to this day, and this is why Kenyans were demanding an apology from King Charles.
Many British people are surprised that King Charles’s visit to Kenya was not welcomed by many Kenyans and human rights organisations. People whose families had suffered at the hands of British colonialists during his mother’s reign demanded an apology for crimes committed. Although the British monarch expressed “deepest regret” for the atrocities committed by the British in Kenya, he fell short of making a public apology.
However, many Brits believe that there is nothing the king needed to apologise for. One presenter on Sky News even wondered why Kenyans were calling for an apology from the king given that Britain had done much “good” in the country. After all, he said, without any hint of irony, the British Empire had brought democracy to Kenya (how he equated imperialism with democracy beats me) and given Kenyans “the gift of the English language”.
It was obvious that the presenter had been taught British imperial history that has whitewashed the atrocities that the British Empire committed in its colonies around the world. British children are to this day taught that British colonialism was a “civilising mission” that brought modern education and infrastructure, in addition to Christianity, to regions that were steeped in ignorance and backwardness. Apologists for the British Empire, such as the historian Niall Ferguson, author of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, argue that Britain should be congratulated for conquering the world because British civilisation brought science and technology to people who held superstitious beliefs, and injected a “work ethic” in populations that were lazy and lacking in imagination. This is sort of like saying that slave owners did slaves a favour by shipping them to the Americas and forcing them to work for free because these slaves are now US citizens and enjoy all that America has to offer (even though it took them four centuries to gain rights as equal citizens).
A few months ago, the editor of a German magazine contacted me to ask whether I could submit an article on the atrocities the British had committed in Kenya during colonialism. He told me that while his magazine had documented human rights violations by German and Belgian colonialists in places like Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it had largely ignored the violations committed by Britain in places like Kenya because the majority of Germans believe that British colonialism was not as brutal as that of other European powers, and that its net impact on its colonies in Africa had been positive. It dawned on me that perhaps Europeans are not being told the true story about colonialism and its horrific impact on Africans. So, here’s primer.
Erasure of memory
Kenya officially became a British colony in 1920, but prior to that, from 1895, it was deemed a “protectorate” – a term suggesting that the colonisers who grabbed the land were there to protect the interests of the “natives” who would benefit from being colonised. A widely held belief is that because Britain spearheaded the abolition of slavery, the British were “benevolent” colonisers, unlike the French and the Belgians who plundered and looted their African colonies. (In addition to extracting raw materials and exporting items such as ivory and rubber, the French and the Belgians also stole invaluable artefacts from their colonies in West and Central Africa, which today are displayed in museums across Europe, including in Britain, despite efforts by African governments to have these artefacts returned to where they were stolen from.)
Yet, those who care to join the dots between the anti-slavery movement and the colonisation of Africa are acutely aware of the fact that the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 (dubbed the “Scramble for Africa”) that carved up Africa among European nations, including Britain, took place just a few years after slavery ended. Because slavery was no longer legal and was costly to maintain, the only other way Europeans could extract cheap labour and highly profitable resources from Africa was by colonising the continent.
In order to justify colonisation in settler colonies like Kenya and Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia), it was necessary to erase evidence of atrocities committed by the Europeans. Many of these atrocities remained unacknowledged and unreported for decades because archival documents were either destroyed or deliberately concealed. British historian David M. Anderson, author of Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya, discovered that thousands of documents belonging to the British colonial administration were flown to London in 1963 on the eve of Kenya’s independence and remained hidden from the public for decades, despite attempts by successive post-independence Kenyan governments to have these “stolen papers” returned to Kenya.
The magnitude of these atrocities was finally revealed in 2005 when the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, was published. The book documents the many crimes that British colonial officers committed in Kenya in their relentless pursuit of wealth, land and power for themselves and in the name of the British Empire. Mau Mau fighters and their supporters were subjected to extreme forms of torture, including castration, whipping, waterboarding and electric shocks.
The areas where these Mau Mau revolutionaries were arrested, detained, tortured or killed in the 1950s were in and around the Aberdares mountain range in Central Kenya where Queen Elizabeth, during an official visit to Kenya, ascended to the throne after the death of her father, King George VI, in February 1952. Eight months after she became Queen of England and head of the British Empire, a state of emergency was declared in Kenya that allowed the British Colonial Office to detain people without trial. Many freedom fighters languished in camps or jails where they were subjected to torture.
Mau Mau fighters and their supporters were subjected to extreme forms of torture, including castration, whipping, waterboarding and electric shocks.
The Mau Mau rebellion was a reaction to the expropriation of some 7 million acres of the most fertile land in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley – dubbed the White Highlands – in the early part of the 20th century after the building of the Uganda Railway, which opened up the interior of East Africa for British colonisation and settlement. The indigenous population was pushed into so-called reserves while others became squatters on land that was once theirs, working for white farmers for very little wages.
Elkins estimates that between 160,000 and 320,000 detainees, mostly from the Kikuyu, Meru and Embu ethnic groups, were tortured or maimed by the British at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, although official figures state that the number of detainees was no more than 80,000. It is estimated that more than 20,000 Mau Mau militants were killed. Further, more than a million people, mainly in central Kenya, were detained in camps or confined in villages known as “reserves” (which have been described as “concentration camps”) surrounded by barbed wire. Tens of thousands of people held in these dense and unsanitary guarded camps and villages died from hunger or disease.
To justify these atrocities, British officials painted the Mau Mau as savage “terrorists” because of the violent and brutal methods they used to hunt down and kill white settlers and local informers. Official figures show that Mau Mau fighters killed 32 British settlers and 1,819 indigenous people whom they believed to be spies for the British.
Today what the British Empire did in Kenya might be perceived as a form of ethnic cleansing, but because colonisation was not unfashionable then, the atrocities were not condemned, nor was anyone tried. It was only in 2011, during a landmark court case brought against the British by a group of Mau Mau veterans, that the British government, under legal pressure, admitted that the documents were in a high-security facility that also contained files from 36 other former British colonies. (In 2013, 5,228 Mau Mau veterans were awarded £20 million in compensation by a UK court, which amounts to roughly £3,000 per victim, a paltry sum given the suffering they endured.) One of these documents contained details of eight colonial officers stationed in Kenya “roasting detainees alive”. All of the accused officers were granted amnesty.
Official amnesia and disinformation were not just part of a deliberate campaign by the British Empire to whitewash the crimes it committed in its colonies in Africa and elsewhere, but also a strategy employed by post-colonial governments in Kenya to cloak their own complicity in ensuring that British interests in the country were preserved.
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. After independence, the so-called home guards or loyalists became the biggest beneficiaries of land and political power. According to Kenya’s 2013 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 like the Mau Mau remain landless and poverty-stricken while those who sided with the colonialists are among the richest people in the land.
After independence, the so-called home guards or loyalists became the biggest beneficiaries of land and political power.
The Mau Mau remained a proscribed organisation for four decades after independence. It was only in 2003, when Mwai Kibaki became president, that the Mau Mau were recognised for the role they had played in Kenya’s struggle for independence. Kenyatta Day on 20 October was renamed Mashujaa Day (Heroes Day) to commemorate all those who died while fighting for freedom. In 2007, a statue of Dedan Kimathi was erected in Nairobi’s central business district, and in 2015, following the 2013 UK court decision to compensate Mau Mau veterans, the British government put up a Mau Mau memorial sculpture in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park “as a symbol of reconciliation between the British government, the Mau Mau and all those who suffered”.
Despite these symbols of reconciliation and healing, the traumatic legacy of British colonialism lingers in Kenya to this day. This is why Kenyans were demanding an apology from the King – because the wounds have not yet healed. While a public apology might not have been enough to completely heal the wounds and traumas of the past, it would have been an important first step.
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