In the space of two months, Kenya has lost two of the better-known pioneering newspapermen in post-independent Kenya: Philip Ochieng and Hilary Ng’weno. They were contemporaries who died within weeks of each other aged 83. Both were archetypal print journalists – with a distinctive editorial style and intelligent and passionate about how they presented the news.
Both had a flair for the English language, both were pro-establishment journalists and both largely made their imprimatur during the one-party state of Daniel arap Moi. Both were stylish in their attires: one favoured Saville Row-type suits, the other preferred free-style dressing, almost informal, and spotted a scraggly beard that grew white with the years.
As talented print journalists, both were naturally inclined to the literary word – one even penned fiction, the other wrote a journalistic treatise, examining and locating the pitfalls of the Kenyan media scene in a specified time-span. Both cherished their private spaces and both could have been described as loners.
Hilary Ng’weno came back to Kenya from studies in the US at an exciting time in Africa. More than 15 countries attained their independence in 1960 alone. In East Africa, Tanzania and Uganda became independent in 1961 and 1962 respectively, to be followed by Kenya in 1963. Pan-Africanism. A little utopia. Five-year development plans were ambitiously written. With the newly independent African states bubbling with enthusiasm, nationalism and optimism the 1960s were an interesting time to be in Africa
In Kenya, Paa ya Paa (The Antelope Rising), the oldest Pan-Africanist Arts Centre, was established just after independence in 1965. In the many years that were to follow, it became a place of pilgrimage for art lovers stopping in Nairobi for whatever reason. The Pan-Africanist Art Gallery was the Mecca of cultural re-connection for performing artists, painters, writers, journalists, publishers and Africanists from Africa and the Diaspora.
The Paa ya Paa gallery was founded by a group of young, ambitious, artistic and creative men and women. On Fridays, Hilary Ng’weno and his wife Fleur, Mr and Mrs Pheroze Nowrojee, Terry Hirst, Jonathan Kariara, James Kangwana, Dr Josephat Karanja, and Elimu and Rebecca Njau, would meet at Rebecca’s house to discuss the one thing that was common to them all: media and artistic expression.
It is Kangwana (the unsung poet) who came up with the name Paa ya Paa at one of those Friday meetings. The young men and women were already established in life: Rebecca, who would later become an acclaimed author, was the first African headmistress of (Moi) Nairobi Girls.
Paa ya Paa gallery at Sadler House on Koinange Street was officially opened by Prof Bethwell Ogot.
Elimu, the Tanzanian-born Pan-Africanist painter and sculptor from Moshi had already shot to fame in 1959, when he became the first African artist to paint the mural of a Black Jesus that today adorns the Anglican Cathedral in Murang’a (then Fort Hall).
Kangwana was the first African Director of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and the Harvard-educated Hilary had just become the youngest ever editor-in-chief of the Daily Nation, the Aga Khan’s flagship daily in East Africa that styled itself as a nationalist newspaper that had championed Kenya’s independence from British rule in its editorials and news gathering.
Kariara, one of the finest poets to come from this part of the world, was just emerging as a poet of note. With a PhD in History Dr Karanja was soon to serve as the first Kenyan High Commissioner in London. He was later to become the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nairobi.
Pheroze was a radical young Pan-Africanist lawyer scaling the legal heights as a human rights lawyer and political activist.
Terry Hirst, the illustrator-intellectual, had just landed from England to find Kenya savouring its new status as a newly independent state.
Before moving on to Rebecca’s, the group’s Friday meetings had been taking place at Elimu’s House at Maua Close in Parklands when he served as the Director of the (Captain Marlin) Sorsbie Art gallery.
Elimu put up a temporary studio at the back of the house in Parklands where he remembers inviting Ng’weno and Karanja to discuss art and even paint. “Hilary would do landscape painting and occasionally strum the guitar,” said Elimu nostalgically, recalling those heady and exciting days.
When the Sorsbie gallery closed in 1965, the Friday group finally found a permanent home in September of the same year: Paa ya Paa gallery at Sadler House on Koinange Street was officially opened by Prof Bethwell Ogot who was then Director of the East African Institute of Socio-Cultural Affairs based at Uniafric House. Paa ya Paa was domiciled in the city centre until the late 1970s when it moved to a five-acre piece of land in the Ridgeways residential area off Kiambu Road.
It was at this time that Ng’weno started his flagship weekly political magazine, the Weekly Review. By sheer coincidence, the launch of the weekly coincided with the announcement of the murder of JM Kariuki on 5 March 1975. The mutilated remains of the populist Nyandarua North MP had been “discovered” in Ngong Forest.
From then on, The Weekly Review became the standard-bearer for political news reporting in Kenya and the region. If you didn’t read the Weekly Review every Friday, you didn’t know what was happening in the country politically. So much so that a retired Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) official — now a mzee in his 80s who started working for the bank in 1966 when Duncan Ndegwa was appointed the first African governor — told me that senior staff were provided with the magazine so that they could keep abreast of political developments in the country. So important was the Weekly Review that it was considered the country’s political barometer.
So when Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a contemporary of Ng’weno and Ochieng, accused Ng’weno and The Weekly Review of “malicious” and “speculative” reporting on his detention in 1977, it provided Kenyans who read the weekly with a viewpoint that had not revealed itself before.
“I might here also as well mention the press hostility led by the Hilary Ng’weno group of newspapers and especially The Weekly Review,” wrote Ngugi in his prison memoir: Detained A Writer’s Prison Diary. “I was hardly out of prison when Hilary Ng’weno sent one of his reporters to interview me. But he had given her suspiciously leading questions and also instructions on how to go about it.”
If you didn’t read The Weekly Review every Friday, you didn’t know what was happening in the country politically.
Apparently, Ng’weno had written questions for the female reporter to raise with the author. “I looked at the questions and asked the reporter why her employers were interviewing me by proxy. I refused to be interviewed by proxy. She there and then conducted her own interview.” But Ng’weno was not yet done with Ngugi: “And when at long last, the whole interview was published, it was accompanied by the astonishing accusation that I was the only detainee who had not said thank you to the President for releasing me.”
Ngugi said, he “could not understand the source of this post-detention hostility, especially coming from a group of newspapers I had always supported because, despite their pro-imperialist line, I saw them as a hopeful assertion of a national initiative.”
In the diary, Ngugi accused Ng’weno of pursuing a speculative agenda on him: “What’s surprising is that The Weekly Review saw it fit to repeat the speculation even after my release!” The speculation being referred to here is that Ngugi had been detained because “of the Chinese and other literature found in his possession at that time of the police search in his study.”
“The aim of such speculative journalism as in Newsweek and Time magazines,” wrote Ngugi, “is to shift the debate from the issue of suppression of democratic rights and the freedom of expression, to a bold discussion and literary posturing about problems of other countries.” Ngugi said Ng’weno described him as an “ideologue” rather than a “writer”.
The Weekly Review of 9 January 1978 published that:
During the past year or so, Ngugi has acted the part of an ideologue rather than a writer. And has done so with increasing inability to relate in the limits of the sphere of an author’s operation which is possible in a developing country in areas where ideas, however noble, can be translated into actions which have far-reaching implications to the general pattern of law and order.
In the years that Ng’weno practiced newspaper journalism he styled himself as an apostle of press freedom and even though he was pro-establishment, he still got into trouble with Moi’s government.
In a memo he wrote to his staff on 19 October 1979, Ng’weno stated:
As we all know, we are having problems with the government at the moment. Most parastatal organisations have been instructed not to advertise with us anymore. As a result, a lot of advertising has been cancelled. We have not been told why this is being done and all efforts by me to get an explanation have failed so far. I do not know what the intentions of the government actually are, whether they want to kill our newspapers, or simply punishing us for something we have published.
The memo went on to say, “What I do know is that we cannot continue operating as we are now without advertising. Advertising is what makes it possible for a newspaper to survive or grow, without money from advertising, we cannot make ends meet.”
In the years that Ng’weno practiced newspaper journalism he styled himself as an apostle of press freedom.
Although The Weekly Review was supposed to be Kenya’s Newsweek, Ng’weno nonetheless styled the political magazine on the quintessential British magazine – the Economist. Just like at the Economist, writers at the Weekly Review did not have by-lines. To the great credit of Ng’weno and his team, it was impossible to tell who wrote what story from the names of the writers on the magazine’s masthead. Again, just like in the Economist, the writing styles were synchronised to present a uniform, distinctive style.
The Weekly Review had another distinctive feature: the editorial, which was written by Ng’weno until he ceded the space, was a short, pointed and punchy 500-word opinion written with candour and panache. Ng’weno used the same style that in his one-page Newsweek columns, in which he broached global topics as diverse as the Cold War, bilateralism and internationalism, neo-colonialism and patrimonialism. Ng’weno was possibly Newsweek’s only African columnist south of the Sahara.
The urbane, cosmopolitan Ng’weno walked with a swagger that told all and sundry that he was an Eastlando guy through and through. Kenyans who have interacted with Nairobians who grew up in the south-east of Nairobi where life, in Hobbesian maxim, is poor, nasty, brutish and short, know that they are street smart, witty, great seductors, agile, multilingual and multitalented, traits that the cool Ng’weno exhibited throughout his life.
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Wave of Coups in Françafrique: Is Africa’s Oldest Autocracy Next?
With widespread insecurity, escalating public discontent, an absence of the rule of law, pervasive poverty, and frail state institutions, Togo is ripe for a coup.
In the wake of a series of coups that have jolted Africa, speculation about which nation will follow is rife. The pioneer of coups in Africa, Togo frequently emerges as a prime candidate in these conjectures. The country’s 1963 coup was the first on the continent under the leadership of Gnassingbé Eyadéma. In 1967, Eyadéma orchestrated another coup and held on to power for the next 38 years. Following his demise in 2005, Eyadéma was succeeded by his son Faure Gnassingbé, who orchestrated his own coup before subsequently holding contested elections that resulted in at least 400 deaths, according to a UN report.
Togo’s vulnerability to military coups stems from its colonial past and its long history of autocratic rule. The country also faces the same socio-political turmoil that has precipitated regime change in other African nations. One of Africa’s poorest countries, with a struggling economy, Togo is also grappling with escalating terrorism, especially in the northern region bordering coup-prone Burkina Faso.
The current semblance of stability in Togo can be attributed to its robust militarisation. While a number of African nations have transitioned peacefully to democratic governance, Togo’s regime has craftily manipulated global perception by positioning Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s non-military son, Faure, at the helm, ensuring the perpetuation of his father’s authoritarian legacy. Faure Gnassingbé’s journey to the presidency defies the archetypal dictator narrative. Educated in military schools during his formative years, he pursued higher studies in economics at the University of Paris Dauphine and an MBA from George Washington University in the US. His ascent in Togo’s political landscape has been swift, becoming Minister of Communication in 1998 under his father’s rule, then parliamentarian, Minister of Public Works, and ultimately president.
Togo has suffered decades of oppression in the iron grip of the Eyadéma dynasty. Gnassingbé Eyadéma is particularly infamous, remembered as one of the continent’s most brutal dictators. Mysteriously disappearing opponents and egregious human rights abuses led to a ten-year suspension of European Union aid between 1993 and 2003. Nevertheless, Eyadéma sustained a puzzlingly close relationship with France, the nation’s former colonial overseer that had acquired two thirds of Togo after World War I.
Recent coups in Africa have predominantly taken place in ex-French colonies. While some observers point to Russian influence, many locals accuse France of endorsing their nations’ most tyrannical leaders. Once a foot soldier in the French colonial army, Eyadéma was instrumental in the 1963 assassination of Togo’s first president, Sylvanus Olympio. Ostensibly a result of military integration disputes, the coup was deeply rooted in Olympio’s efforts to distance Togo from lingering colonial ties, including an audacious move to replace the CFA franc, a French-instituted currency, with the Togolese Franc. The unanimous passing of a bill establishing the creation of the Togolese national currency on 12 December 1962 may have precipitated his assassination just a month later.
Following Olympio’s killing, Nicolas Grunitzky assumed power despite his questionable loyalties and overt pro-French inclinations. His reign was short-lived, however. On 14 January 1967, amidst escalating public unrest and calls for new elections, the same military operatives that had ousted Olympio intervened once again. Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s meteoric rise within this framework was evident when he transitioned from a sergeant to a colonel in three years. While Klébert Dadjo was the initial choice as leader post-coup Eyadéma soon took charge, becoming president in April 1967.
During his time in office, Eyadema maintained excellent relations with France under whose contentious neocolonial strategy, Françafrique, French companies flourished, and French politicians reportedly amassed fortunes through murky deals with African dictators that included financial kickbacks, generous campaign funds, and strategic support to secure France’s position in global politics. French manipulation and exploitation in nations like Togo, Gabon, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire have enriched their ruling families while the majority continue to languish in poverty.
The people of Togo have shown an indomitable spirit in the face of dictatorship and repression and the 1990s saw the historic, student-led Movement du 5 Octobre (M05) culminate in a national sovereign conference and the establishment of a short-lived transitional government from 1991 to 1993. A series of massacres committed in April 1991 continue to haunt the people of Togo today.
The 1991 National Sovereign Conference was a beacon of hope for Togo’s future. With Eyadéma’s authoritarian rule showing signs of weakening, a new constitution was passed that conferred more powers on the prime minister while reducing those of the president, introduced presidential term limits and multipartism. But the political atmosphere took a severe turn in 1992 when soldiers, including one of Eyadema’s brothers, attacked the transitional Prime Minister Joseph Kokou Koffigoh’s office, killing at least a dozen people and igniting months of civil unrest as civil servants and students went on a nine-month-long strike demanding democracy and an end to military rule. The repression was so severe that thousands of Togolese people fled the country, creating the first wave of refugees from the West African nation. Despite the challenge to his rule, Eyadéma removed the presidential term limit in 2002 but maintained his dominance, securing another term in 2003.
Following Eyadéma’s death in 2005, the Eyadéma dynasty’s stranglehold on Togo has continued under Faure Gnassingbé’s rule. Living standards remain poor, and human rights abuses mirror those committed under his father’s reign. Within Togo, the Gnassingbé family seems to view political power as their birthright; Faure Gnassingbé revealed in an interview with Jeune Afrique that his father had advised him never to relinquish power. The Togolese took this revelation to heart, particularly when he sought a third term in 2015. A massive wave of protests broke out in 2017, demanding the reinstatement of term limits, a move that was met with brutal repression. The widespread protests led ECOWAS to intervene, resulting in a superficial constitutional amendment in 2019. Term limits were reinstated but with conditions that ensured that the terms that Faure Gnassingbe had already served remained unaffected. He then successfully retained power in the 2020 elections, consistent with the Gnassingbé dynasty’s undefeated electoral history.
The repression was so severe that thousands of Togolese people fled the country, creating the first wave of refugees from the West African nation.
The Gnassingbés do not just run elections; they are the elections. The Togolese were engulfed in despair when Faure Gnassingbé secured his 4th term, realising that by the next elections in 2025, the Gnassingbé family would have ruled for 59 years; a staggering 97 per cent of the country’s citizens have lived under the shadow of a single ruling dynasty – only 3 per cent of the population are over the age of 50.
The discontent isn’t confined to the masses; there is a distinct sense of unease within the corridors of power. Several Togolese military and political figures have been ousted over the past year, including Felix Kadanga, the president’s brother-in-law and former head of the Togolese Armed Forces, known for his brutal treatment of dissidents. Appointed just a year earlier, the widow of the president’s elder brother, Ernest Gnassingbé, was also relieved of her position as Defense Minister. These changes, combined with the arrests and house arrests of other military personnel, underscore the turmoil.
The Togolese people’s longing for democracy is poignant. Their quest has stretched across four generations and six decades. Exhausted by the relentless military rule, many harbour a hope inspired by successful coups in other nations. They yearn for an end to the oppressive rule of the Eyadéma dynasty, even if this means enduring continued military governance. A cocktail of factors usually precipitate coups: widespread insecurity, escalating public discontent, an absence of the rule of law, pervasive poverty, and frail state institutions. In Togo’s case, each box is emphatically ticked.
In many parts of Africa, including Togo, the perception of coups is multidimensional. While globally they are seen as a threat to democracy, coups might represent a glimmer of hope for the masses living under enduring dictatorships. In Togo, where democratic ideals like free elections and freedom of speech have been stifled, coups are sometimes seen as potential catalysts for democratic change. The desire for this perspective arises from decades of enduring media censorship, a silenced opposition, and rigged elections. The masses see coups as a possible means of uprooting deeply entrenched autocratic regimes. The fundamental question for Togo and for the other former French colonies is whether such radical shifts can indeed pave the way for true democracy.
Are These the Dying Days of La Françafrique?
The widespread anti-France sentiment among the populations of Francophone Africa is the result of nearly 200 years of French meddling in the political and economic affairs of these countries.
France ruined Haiti, the first Black country to become independent in 1804. France is on course to ruin all its former African colonies. It is no coincidence that the recent spate of coups in Africa has manifested in former French colonies (so-called Francophone Africa), once again redirecting the global spotlight on France’s activities in the region. And that the commentaries, especially amongst Africans, have been most critical of France and its continued interference in the region.
This is coming against the backdrop of France’s continued meddling in the economic and political affairs of “independent” Francophone countries, an involvement which has seen it embroiled, both directly and indirectly, in a series of unrests, corruption controversies and assassinations that have bedevilled the region since independence. Unlike Britain and other European countries with colonial possessions in Africa, France never left – at least not in the sense of the traditional distance observed since independence by the other erstwhile colonial overlords. Instead, it has, under the cover of a policy of coopération (cooperation) within the framework of an extended “French Community”, continued to maintain a perceptible cultural, economic, political and military presence in Africa.
On the surface, the promise of coopération between France and its former colonies in Africa – which presupposes a relationship of mutual benefit between politically independent nations – where the former would, through the provision of technical and military assistance, lead the development/advancement of its erstwhile colonial “family”, is both commendable and perhaps even worthy of emulation. However, when this carefully scripted façade is juxtaposed with the reality that has unfolded over the decades, what is revealed is an extensive conspiracy involving individuals at the highest levels of the French government. Along with other influential business interests – also domiciled in France – they have worked with a select African elite to orchestrate the most extensive and heinous crimes against the people of today’s Francophone Africa. A people who, even today, continues to strain under the weight of France’s insatiable greed.
The greed and covetousness that drove the European nations to abandon trade for colonialisation in Africa is as alive today as it was in the 1950s and 1980s. The decision to give in to African demands for independence was not the outcome of any benevolence or civilised reason on the part of Europe but for economic and political expedience. Thus, when the then president of France, Charles de Gaulle – who nurtured an ambition to see France maintain its status as a world power – agreed to independence for its African colonies, it was only a pre-emptive measure to check the further loss of French influence on the continent. In other words, the political liberation offered “on a platter of gold” as a means to avoid the development of other costly wars of independence which, a France depleted by World War II was already fighting in Indochina and Algeria.
The greed and covetousness that drove the European nations to abandon trade for colonialisation in Africa is as alive today as it was in the 1950s and 1980s.
Independence was, thus, only the first step in ensuring the survival of French interests in Africa and, more importantly, its prioritisation. Pursuant to this objective, de Gaulle also proposed a “French Community” – delivered on the same “golden platter” – as a caveat to continued French patronage. As such, the over 98 per cent of its colonies that agreed to be part of this community were roped into signing coopération accords – covering economic, political, military and cultural sectors – by Jacques Foccart, a former intelligence member of the French Resistance during the Second World War who had been handpicked by de Gaulle. This signing of coopération accords between France and the colonies, which opted to be part of its post-independence French Community, marked the beginning of France’s neo-colonial regime in Africa, where Africans got teachers and despotic leaders in exchange for their natural resources and French military installations.
Commonly referred to as Françafrique—a pejorative derivation from Félix Houphouet Boigny’s “France-Afrique” describing the close ties between France and Africa – France’s neocolonial footprint in Africa has been characterised by allegations of corruption and other covert activities perpetrated through various Franco-African economic, political and military networks. An essential feature of Françafrique is the mafia-like relations between French leaders and their African counterparts, reinforced by a dense web of personal networks. On the French side, African ties, which had been French presidents’ domaine réservé (sole responsibility) since 1958, were managed by an “African cell” founded and run by Jacques Foccart. Comprising French presidents, powerful and influential members of the French business community and the French secret service, this cell operated outside the purview of the French parliament, its civil society organisations, and non-governmental organisations. This created a window for corruption, as politicians and state officials took part in business arrangements that amounted to state racketeering.
Whereas pro-French sentiments in Africa, and without, still argue for France’s continued presence and contributions, particularly in the area of military intervention and economic aid, which they say have been critical to security, political stability and economic survival in the region, such arguments intentionally play down the historical consequences of French interests in the region.
Enjoying free rein in the region – backed mainly by the United States and Britain since the Cold War – France used the opportunity to strengthen its hold on its former colonies. This translated into the development of a franc zone – a restrictive monetary policy tying the economies of Francophone countries to France – as well as the adoption of an active interventionist approach, which has produced over 120 military interventions across fourteen dependent states between 1960 and the 1990s. These interventions, which were either to rescue stranded French citizens, put down rebellions, prevent coups, restore order, or uphold French-favoured regimes, have rarely been about improving the fortunes of the general population of Francophone Africa. French interventions have maintained undemocratic regimes in Cameroun, Senegal, Chad, Gabon, and Niger. At the same time, its joint military action in Libya was responsible for unleashing the Islamic terrorism that threatens to engulf countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria.
In pursuit of its interests in Africa, France has made little secret of its contempt for all independent and populist reasons while upholding puppet regimes. In Guinea in 1958, de Gaulle embarked on a ruthless agenda to undermine the government of Ahmed Sékou Touré – destroying infrastructure and flooding the economy with fake currency – for voting to stay out of the French Community. This behaviour was again replicated in Togo, where that country’s first president, Sylvio Olympio, was overthrown and gruesomely murdered for daring to establish a central bank for the country outside the Franc CFA Zone. Subsequently, his killer, Gnassingbé Eyadema, assumed office and ruled from 1967 until his death in 2005 – after which he was succeeded by his son, who still rules.
In Gabon, you had the Bongo family, who ran a regime of corruption and oppression with the open support of France throughout 56 years of unproductive rule. As for Cameroun, its most promising, Pan-Africanist pro-independence leader, Félix Moumié, died under mysterious circumstances in Switzerland, paving the way for the likes of Paul Biya, who has been president since 1982. France also backs a Senegalese government that today holds over 1,500 political prisoners, and singlehandedly installed Alhassan Ouattara as president of Cote d’Ivoire.
French interventions have maintained undemocratic regimes in Cameroun, Senegal, Chad, Gabon, and Niger.
Therefore, the widespread anti-France sentiment among the populations of Francophone Africa and beyond is not unfounded, as it has become apparent to all and sundry that these countries have not fared well under the shadow of France. In Niger, where France carried out one of the bloodiest campaigns of colonial pacification in Africa – murdering and pillaging entire villages – and which is France’s most important source of uranium, the income per capita was 59 per cent lower in 2022 than it was in 1965. In Cote d’Ivoire, the largest producer of cocoa in the world, the income per capita was 25 per cent lower in 2022 than in 1975.
Outside the rampant unemployment, systematic disenfranchisement and infrastructural deficits that characterise these Francophone countries, there is also the frustration and anger of sitting back and watching helplessly while the wealth of your country is carted away to nations whose people feed fat on your birthright and then turn around to make judgements and other disparaging comments on your humanity and condition of existence. The people are tired of being poor, helpless and judged as third-world citizens! France is a dangerous country.
It is indeed overdue for France to cut its losses – whatever it envisages them to be – and step back from its permanent colonies to allow the people of Francophone Africa to decide on their preferred path to the future. After nearly 200 years of pillage, the people have good reasons to demand that France should leave. The restlessness and the coups that have become commonplace in the region are symptoms of deeper underlying social, economic and political problems, including weak institutions, systematic disenfranchisement, poverty, corruption and the misappropriation of national wealth. And as we call on France to do the honourable thing and withdraw, we should also rebuke Africa’s leaders who have not only put their interests above those of their people but have also turned the instruments of regional intervention and development (like the AU and ECOWAS) into tools for ensuring their political survival.
Tigray Atrocities: Extending ICHREE Mandate Crucial for Accountability
If the Human Rights Council and its members genuinely condemn the atrocities committed in the war waged by the Ethiopian government on Tigray, they must demonstrate their commitment to accountability by extending ICHREE’s mandate.
The Human Rights Council (HRC), the premier human rights body of the United Nations (UN), among many other human rights issues, will decide on the future of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE). This commission was established to investigate and establish the facts and the circumstances surrounding alleged violations and abuses of international human rights committed during Ethiopia’s war on Tigray, which began on November 4, 2020.
On September 14, 2023, ICHREE submitted its second report that details the atrocities committed in Ethiopia and called for further investigation. ICHREE also reiterated its call for unrestricted access to regions where grave atrocities persist. Ethiopia’s failure to credibly investigate violations of international human rights and humanitarian law leads ICHREE to recommend ongoing international scrutiny and investigations into past and ongoing violations. It has asserted the long-held view that Ethiopia’s journey toward a future of lasting peace hinges on the establishment of political and legal accountability. Without accountability, the recurrence of such heinous acts remains a tangible threat. For this, it is vital to establish the truth for the reason, and given the distrust and limitations of national institutions, only an impartial international entity, such as ICHREE, can provide an objective evaluation and help accomplish this.
Nonetheless, despite its essential work so far and the fact that atrocities continue to be committed and the Ethiopian government is unwilling to ensure genuine transitional justice process and accountability, ICHREE now faces an uncertain future as the HRC debates its renewal. The hopes and demands of millions of victims and their families for truth and justice hang in the balance. Extending ICHREE’s mandate is crucial. Any decision to the contrary will go against the core principles of the HRC upon which it is founded.
Based on their voting behavior of 2021 and 2022, except for Malawi, which has abstained, most of the 13 African members, 6 of the 8 Latin American and Caribbean members, majority of 13 Asia-Pacific States will probably vote against the renewal of the extension. Recent reports show that the US has indicated its readiness to support a bid by the Ethiopian government to end the ICHREE, and 7 Western and 6 Eastern European States may follow suit.
While national interest and geopolitical consideration might explain this change in US and EU policy to ending the ICHREE mandate, they also argue that the anticipated national transitional justice process set out in the Pretoria peace deal makes ICHREE redundant.
ICHREE has also confirmed a long-held view that the government of Ethiopia “has failed to effectively investigate violations and has initiated a flawed transitional justice consultation process. Ethiopia has sought to evade international scrutiny through the creation of domestic mechanisms ostensibly to fight impunity.” ICHREE reports that the complete lack of trust in Ethiopian state institutions to conduct a credible transitional justice process is a recurring theme among the population. The government’s consultation process has fallen short of African Union and international standards, inadequately reflecting victims’ voices and being constrained by arbitrary deadlines. Impunity remains the norm, exacerbating the risk of future atrocity crimes. This challenging situation is compounded by the weakness of state structures responsible for providing protection, including ineffective national laws and a lack of independence in key institutions such as the judiciary and law enforcement. Widespread mistrust in state institutions and domestic accountability mechanisms, exacerbated by the politicization of the transitional justice process, has further eroded public confidence.
The horrific toll of the Tigray war
According to the 2022 Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) of Uppsala University, the Tigray war marked 2022 as the deadliest year since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, contributing significantly to a 97% global surge in organized violence. This war was waged by the Ethiopian government, significantly assisted by external forces, primarily the Eritrean Defence Forces.
Waged by the Ethiopian government, with substantial assistance from external entities, chiefly the Eritrean Defence Forces, a comprehensive blockade and media blackout were imposed on the region for over two years. The Tigray conflict led to a staggering 600 000 deaths, the deliberate starvation of over 5.7 million people, the pervasive use of rape and sexual assaults on thousands as weapons of war, and the displacement of more than 2 million in an ethnic cleansing campaign.
ICHREE confirmed that between November 2020 and July 2023, over “10,000 survivors, primarily women and girls. By comparison, the Commission is aware of only 13 concluded and 16 pending Ethiopian military court cases addressing sexual violence committed during the conflict. Such cases cannot be said to render meaningful justice for survivors, particularly considering the historical and contemporaneous impunity in Ethiopia for such acts.”
Additionally, the report confirmed the siege on Tigray, destruction of livelihoods, and denial of humanitarian access to Tigray, emphasizing that these actions violate the prohibition on starvation as a method of warfare. ICHREE confirmed civilian deaths directly linked to the manufactured humanitarian crisis leading up to the CoHA.
Both ICHREE and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have confirmed that these forces were guilty of ethnic cleansing, as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes. Despite the US Secretary of State’s recent decision to exclude the designation of genocide, reports by Foreign Policy suggest that US government experts concluded that, in addition to other crimes, acts of genocide had, in fact, been perpetrated against the Tigray people: “The State Department drafted a declaration in 2021 that the Ethiopian government’s actions in Tigray constituted genocide, according to three US officials familiar with the matter, but never released the declaration.” ICHREE also revealed that the Ethiopian army and its allies frequently used sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls, at times with the intent to render them infertile and therefore annihilate the Tigrayan ethnicity. At a September meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, representatives of the commission concluded: “the horrific and dehumanising acts of violence committed during the conflict…seem to go beyond mere intent to kill and, instead, reflect a desire to destroy.”
The latest US position appears influenced more by geo-political considerations than by any change in the policies of the Eritrean, Amhara, and Ethiopian forces. Despite its deadly nature and the resulting war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide, the Tigray war remains underreported. Compared to the conflict in Ukraine, the Tigray war has received minimal attention and resources, presumably owing to its diminished significance in the geo-political considerations of powerful nations.
The decision of the ongoing HRC will act as a barometer in measuring the world’s commitment to human rights in the Global South. If the HRC and its members genuinely condemn these atrocities, they need to demonstrate their commitment to accountability by extending ICHREE’s mandate.
Transition on paper, war in reality
On 2 November 2022, in Pretoria, South Africa, the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front signed a Permanent Cessation of Hostilities agreement, hoping to conclude the two years of conflict. However, since then, calls for justice and accountability have largely gone unanswered. The peace agreement’s accountability clauses remain vague, and there seems to be an overwhelming lack of political motivation to address them.
Independent international investigations into these atrocities have encountered deliberate obstacles. ICHREE has faced continual resistance from the Ethiopian government and its allies in the HRC since its inception. In an alarming development for international human rights organizations, a parallel inquiry by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights was silenced and subsequently terminated by the African Union (AU). Both had been established to probe Ethiopia’s war on Tigray, aiming to unearth the causes of the conflict and hold offenders accountable. The AU’s decision undermines the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, setting a perilous precedent for future inquiries into human rights abuses. Moreover, reports of confidential negotiations between global powers and the Ethiopian government cloud the future of ICHREE. ICHREE continues to call for Ethiopia to cooperate “with ICHREE and other international and regional human rights mechanisms, including granting them unconditional access to all areas of Ethiopia.”
Arguments against these international investigative commissions often emphasize national sovereignty, the Pretoria peace accord, and Ethiopia’s commitment to transitional justice. Article 10 of the Pretoria agreement underlines the importance of a robust national transitional justice policy. While certain countries – China, Russia, and some other HRC members, including those from Africa — view such an investigative mechanism as an infringement on sovereignty, the US and EU support ending the ICHREE mandate based on the anticipated national transitional justice procedures set out in the Pretoria accord.
Recently, the Ethiopian government introduced its transitional justice policy, titled ‘Policy Options for Transitional Justice in Ethiopia’ (TJP). Nevertheless, this policy is mired in controversy, primarily since the Tigray region—one of the significant parties to the Pretoria Agreement—has rejected it. The central contention is the glaring absence of significant consultation with victims, directly affected communities, crucial stakeholders, and representatives of conflict hotspots, predominantly the Tigrayans, during the TJP’s formulation. This lack of inclusivity challenges the policy’s legitimacy, as it appears indifferent to the distinct needs, rights, and interests of these communities.
Furthermore, the TJP’s overarching approach to all Ethiopian conflicts, regardless of their causes, dynamics, and consequences on communities, fails to recognize the particularities of each conflict. Its handling of the Tigray war is a case in point, where long-standing political campaigns, antagonism towards Tigrayans, military collaborations, and egregious tactics like media blackouts, forced starvation, and mass rapes were commonplace.
Additionally, the TJP does not adequately address the broader geopolitical scenario under which these atrocities occured. Critics underscore the policy’s narrow scope, exclusion of victims, impediments to reconciliation, and a worrying trend of state-sanctioned impunity. The TJP’s inclination towards “national sovereignty” at the expense of its “responsibility to protect” its citizens raises significant concerns. It emphasizes reconciliation over holding wrongdoers accountable, potentially sidestepping international probes, especially from ICHREE.
Furthermore, the ICHREE considers Ethiopia’s support and full cooperation with an international investigation mechanism as one of the fundamental indicators of a government’s sincerity in pursuing a transitional justice process meeting international standards. This, as part of establishing the facts surrounding the war, is one of the primary and foundational actions for genuine transitional justice. Therefore, ICHREE recommends that, given Ethiopia’s failure to credibly investigate violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, the Human Rights Council should support ongoing international scrutiny and investigations into past and ongoing violations.
Ethiopia’s deepening poly-crisis
Ethiopia is trapped in a swiftly deteriorating, multi-dimensional predicament. ICHREE highlights a shift toward securitization in Ethiopia, with civilian administration being replaced by militarized “Command Posts.” State–society relationships continue to crumble, culminating in amplified armed conflicts, atrocities, and breakdown of governance. Due to multiple intertwined factors, the armed unrest in Ethiopia shows no signs of subsiding soon. The main reasons for this include widespread dissatisfaction with the Pretoria agreement, an escalating horizontal power struggle, and a collapsing economy. However, the persistent violence and political upheaval in Ethiopia suggest neither a peaceful transition nor a transitional political arrangement. Conflict and atrocities endure in the Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, Gambella, and Benishangul Gumuz regions. War and atrocities continue in various Ethiopian regions. The ICHREE report confirms the continuation of war and atrocities in various Ethiopian regions, including the Wollega zones, Guji, Borana, and parts of West Shewa. It also notes that certain Amhara groups, such as Fano, enjoy considerable local support, similar to that of TDF and OLA.
The prevailing conditions in Ethiopia are not conducive for an earnest transitional justice initiative. With conflicts continuing in numerous regions, the nation seems to be diverging further from peace. The Ethiopian justice framework is viewed as biased, deficient in its capacity, and lacking the determination to hold entities accountable, particularly for transgressions committed by the Eritrean government. It also neglects the vast magnitude of human rights breaches and the ongoing mass atrocities, even after the Pretoria accord’s signing.
ICHREE confirms the occurrence of grave and systematic violations of international law and crimes in Tigray, and the Amhara, Afar, and Oromia regions. These violations encompass mass killings, sexual violence, starvation, forced displacement, and arbitrary detention. This failure primarily stems from the Ethiopian Federal Government’s inability to fulfill commitments related to human rights, transitional justice, and territorial integrity. ICHREE emphasizes that the African Union and states supporting the CoHA (Ceasefire and Humanitarian Agreement) use their best efforts to ensure that the CoHA parties fulfill their obligations, particularly regarding accountability, the protection of civilians, humanitarian assistance, internally displaced persons, and transitional justice. The conflict in Tigray persists, with ongoing atrocities occurring, including those committed by the Ethiopian Defense Forces (EDF) and Amhara militia. Hostilities have escalated to a national scale, posing significant risks to the state, regional stability, and human rights in East Africa.
Furthermore, despite the Pretoria deal’s role in ending active combat, it has failed to deliver on its promises. This failure primarily stems from the Ethiopian Federal Government’s inability to fulfill commitments related to human rights, transitional justice, and territorial integrity. ICHREE pronounces that the African Union Monitoring, Verification, and Compliance Mission (AU-MVCM), and UN OCHA have been undermined by Eritrean government forces operating in Ethiopian territory. With regard to the AU and UN, ICHREE calls on the AU to make their best efforts to ensure that the Pretoria deal is implemented.
Considering Ethiopia’s current tumultuous state, characterized by continued hostilities and a lack of meaningful progress on the Pretoria Deal’s foundational pledges, one questions the nation’s readiness for a genuine transitional justice mechanism. This skepticism is exacerbated by recurring state-led offenses and unrest in areas like Amhara, Oromia, and Gambella. Fundamental questions that emerge in this context are:
- Is Ethiopia earnestly moving towards peace or an inclusive democratic system?
- Can Ethiopia’s current socio-political and economic environment support a genuine transitional justice initiative?
- Is there a discernible commitment towards transitional justice in Ethiopia?
- Does this commitment spring from a genuine intent, or is it merely a smokescreen to conceal impunity?
Transitional justice without transition to peace or transitional politics
Tigray, as represented by the Interim Administration established in accordance with the Pretoria Agreement, has rejected the transitional process and draft policy as is. In essence, in the face of Tigray’s rejection, Ethiopia does not have an active transitional justice policy. The power imbalances in Ethiopia’s transitional justice policy often benefit the stronger party – in this case, the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian government’s upper hand over Tigray imperils transitional justice, yet again underscoring the need for international oversight and support. However, the national initiatives seem to lack the necessary independence and capability, especially in terms of holding all perpetrators, including Eritrean forces, accountable. National endeavors to unearth this truth are frequently swayed by prevailing power dynamics, underscoring the critical need for an unbiased entity like ICHREE.
The Ethiopian stance on transitional justice shows a lack of resolute intent. The Ethiopian legal infrastructure does not explicitly categorize crimes against humanity, leading to challenges in prosecuting those accountable. The inclusion of foreign entities, chiefly the Eritrean forces, further muddies the legal waters. In this regard, the pressing worry is the TJP’s potential ineffectiveness in averting future atrocity crimes.
Ethiopia’s journey towards a future of lasting peace hinges on the post-war establishment of political and legal accountability. Without accountability, the recurrence of such heinous acts remains a tangible threat. For this, two key steps are essential: First, it is necessary to establish the truth. Ethiopians must agree that truth is the foundation for progress beyond the war and towards lasting peace. Otherwise, the truth remains contested and weaponized for power, resources, and identity politics. Facts surrounding the recent wars, severe and widespread human rights violations, and other significant events must be ascertained, or the “truth” will continue to be manipulated. Second, given the evident distrust and limitations of national institutions, only an impartial international entity, such as ICHREE, can provide an objective evaluation.
Truth and Truth as the bedrock
Truth is the linchpin for reconciliation, accountability, and sustainable peace. For transitional justice to gain a foothold in Ethiopia, establishing the truth about the wars is paramount. Without the truth, the transitional justice process, in its existing design, might perpetuate denial and grant impunity rather than champion justice, increasing the likelihood of its rejection by victims and the wider Ethiopian populace. The current TJP, which seems hasty, warrants a revisit based on independently ascertained facts.
ICHREE’s indispensable role
The conflict in various parts of the country should culminate in a comprehensive peace process addressing the root causes. With UN mandate, independence, capacity, and experience, the ICHREE is uniquely equipped to impartially establish the comprehensive truth, given local constraints and the distrust of national institutions and challenges in their independence. Its impartial inquiry, including investigations into Eritrean government actions, stands a better chance of laying the groundwork for a victim-centric transitional justice process. No alternatives have the same credibility, capability, and impartiality required to establish these facts authoritatively. Terminating ICHREE’s mandate not only contravenes the HRC’s cardinal mission of upholding human rights but also risks perpetuating a relentless cycle of violence and transgressions in Ethiopia.
Given the ongoing wars and atrocities in Ethiopia, and considering the findings in the ICHREE report, now is the moment to reinforce ICHREE, not terminate it.
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