Selected by the ruling party and later appointed by the Ethiopian parliament in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was expected to deliver the long hoped for post-EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) era. For some of his domestic and international backers, the post-EPRDF era meant the ushering in of political democratization, further economic liberalization, and “post-ethnic” Ethiopian politics. He has failed to deliver on all three counts.
More than ever, Ethiopian politics is bitterly polarized along ethnic lines. Ethnic divisions have split the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF). Now, Ethiopia has two armies: the Tigrayan Defence Force (TDF) and the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF). Nor is economic liberalization faring any better. In 2020, foreign direct investment (FDI) dropped significantly to US$2.4 billion from US$ 7.1 billion in 2016. Creditors are not more optimistic. The birr has become the worst performer among 20 African currencies following a slump of 11 per cent against the dollar.
After a decade of double-digit GDP growth, Ethiopia is now growing at only two per cent, an economic slowdown Kevin Daly describes as “the shine [having] come off the star in a big way”. Ethiopia’s democratization, which is the focus of this piece, has also stalled, as illustrated by the uncompetitive and non-participatory elections of 21 June 2021.
Ethiopia’s new leadership was widely expected to spearhead a democratic dispensation in which elections would be freely and fairly contested by all the major political forces in the country. The June 21 election was expected to be both participatory and competitive. It was neither and its outcome was predictable, if not preordained. As everyone expected, the ruling party won overwhelmingly, with some leftover seats going to other parties.
Against the hopes of many, Abiy Ahmed found ways to effectively exclude the real contenders with any chance of defeating the incumbent.
Liquidating the former ruling party and extending the term of office
The first step was to liquidate the former ruling party, the EPRDF, and place the new Prosperity Party in power. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, one of the core parties forming the EPRDF and currently ruling Tigray, vehemently opposed the formation of the new party, and decided not to join it.
The second step was to postpone the much-anticipated 2020 elections on the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic. The legality and legitimacy of this decision was fiercely contested, especially by opposition leaders from Oromia and Tigray. Inevitably, those opposition leaders from Oromia with a large following and constituency were jailed or placed under house arrest. By opting to postpone the election and arresting opposition leaders, Abiy extended his own tenure by using a controversial constitutional interpretation.
The third step was waging war on Tigray. The postponement of the election qualifies as one of the triggers of this war. The ruling party in Tigray rejected the postponement, asserting that regular elections are a necessary tool for the exercise of a people’s right to self-determination. Accordingly, Tigray conducted its regional election on 4 September 2020. The election was considered illegal by the incumbent and the federal government cut ties with the Tigray government and suspended the transfer of the regional budget, a move viewed by Tigray as a declaration of war. On 4 November 2020, Tigray was invaded by the combined Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces.
Subverting the will of the people
These early steps to subvert the will of the people call into question the incumbent’s commitment to a fair and democratic process. Providing a detailed contextual analysis on the state of Ethiopia before the polls, US Senator Bob Menendez and Representative Gregory Meeks said:
Against this grim backdrop, few believe Ethiopia’s upcoming national elections stand a real chance of being free or fair. . . . Prime Minister Abiy and his ruling Prosperity Party have made it clear they intend to continue working from the same authoritarian playbook as their predecessors, squandering Ethiopians’ hopes for the country’s first-ever genuinely democratic elections.
The EU withdrew its earlier decision to send election observers. Though it fell short of denouncing the election, the US government in its statement provided precise reasons why the election would not meet the requisite democratic standards:
The United States is gravely concerned about the environment under which these upcoming elections are to be held. The detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities by local and regional governments, and the many inter-ethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia are obstacles to a free and fair electoral process and whether Ethiopians would perceive them as credible. In addition, the exclusion of large segments of the electorate from this contest due to security issues and internal displacement is particularly troubling.
The US statement added, “these elections [are conducted] at a time when so many Ethiopians are suffering and dying from violence and acute food insecurity caused by conflict”.
Elections without credibility
The credibility of elections is assessed based on international standards such as those set by the United Nations. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s recent election does not meet the minimum international threshold of being free, fair, participatory and competitive.
First, this election was conducted during a period of violent conflict that effectively denied the citizens their fundamental democratic rights and the opportunity to participate on an equal basis. Over 100 constituencies in Tigray, Somali, Harari, Afar, and Benishangul-Gumuz, representing well over 18 per cent of parliamentary seats, did not vote. For close to 4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), this election was a luxury. In Tigray, constituencies in Oromia, Amhara (Oromo special zone and parts of north Shewa), and the border areas of the Amhara, Oromia, Somali and Afar regions face violent conflict. With 7 per cent and 1.7 per cent of the total constituency in Tigray and Benishangul-Gumuz respectively, wars for survival still rage. In parts of Oromia, the region with the largest population and 33 per cent of the total constituency, armed conflict continues. Furthermore, the election was conducted under conditions of pervasive discrimination and profiling based on ethnicity that targeted Tigrayans, Oromos and Gumuz.
The postponement of the election qualifies as one of the triggers of this war.
Second, at the subnational levels and in some urban areas such as Amhara regional state, a few “opposition” parties did manage to win seats. However, in terms of presenting alternative policy options for Ethiopia, these parties failed, as their electoral manifestos were just versions of that of the ruling party. In addition, such results at the subnational level are anomalies, not trends. The trend is the incumbent attempting to re-establish a durable authoritarian regime, this time with a centralizing vision at its core that is diametrically opposed to the federalist vision set out in the current constitution.
Third, this election – like the previous one – was marred by claims of killings, assault, detention, intimidation and harassment of opposition candidates and supporters. In addition, the cancellation of political parties’ registration, litigation, anomalies in voter and candidate registrations, and ballot printing problems have damaged the credibility of the electoral bodies. Moreover, the deferral in holding referenda on requests for state formation in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region has stoked discontent. And nor did the media environment allow competitive elections; local media was rigorously censured, and journalists were killed, arrested, and intimidated. International media outlets were not spared either, with the permits of many foreign correspondents cancelled.
It thus came as no surprise when five parties criticised the ruling Prosperity Party for allegedly influencing the electoral process to favour its candidates. The National Movement of Amhara, Ethiopian Social Democratic Party, Afar People’s Party, Balderas for Genuine Democracy and Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice complained of heavy security and cited a failure to meet minimum standards.
Legitimacy hanging on military victory
Abiy has clipped the wings of democracy. A day after the country went to the polls, and as Addis Ababa enjoyed the fanfare surrounding its “first democratic election”, the Ethiopian army continued its indiscriminate aerial bombardment of Tigray.
Abiy has plunged the country into a civil war that is now spreading from Tigray to other parts of Ethiopia. The war has been manipulated with a view to bolstering Abiy’s popularity and serves as the glue holding his internally fractured support base together. Military victory in Tigray has replaced an electoral win as the litmus test for the legitimacy of his rule.
Yet following the defeat and withdrawal of the Ethiopian army from Tigray, Abiy’s popular base is fast eroding. Now his legitimacy hangs on conjuring up an improbable military victory in the total war he has declared on the people of Tigray. The recent military advances made by the Tigray Defence Forces show that it is not just Abiy who is losing the unwinnable war in Tigray. Ethiopia is also losing its army.
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We Are So Much Better Than the Elites Make Us Out to Be
To resist the efforts of Cambridge Analytica and similar social saboteurs in the media and the academy, we must believe in our capacity to vote on a diversity of issues.
Theatre scholar Gĩchingiri Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ writes that in 1991, at the height of the clamour for multi-partyism, the government denied a license for the staging of Drumbeats of Kirinyaga, a play by Oby Obyerodhiambo.
The reason given was that the play portrayed an ethnically diverse and politically cohesive Kenya, which contradicted the president’s argument at the time that Kenya was too ethnically divided for multi-partyism.
While President Moi was claiming to care for Kenyans who are too tribal, his government was ironically also suppressing any public display of Kenyans transcending their tribal identities. The government needed to encourage tribalism among Kenyans in order to give itself something to cure.
We were shocked by the confirmation by a young man, Christopher Wylie, that Cambridge Analytica played a major role in polarizing Kenyans during the 2017 elections. Some were insulted that foreigners would deliberately diffuse messages that would polarize us ethnically. Others, however, argued that Kenyans are tribalist, with or without Cambridge Analytica. I think the reality is more complicated than that.
Cambridge Analytica’s role in polarising Kenyans is part of the larger efforts of global and local elites to keep convincing Kenyans that we vote on nothing else but tribe. The elites manipulate culture in order to coerce us to believe that tribalism comes naturally to us Africans. And yet, the reality is something closer to what the government censor did in 1991.
The role of politicians in keeping ethnic temperatures high has been repeatedly stated. But there are two other pillars that keep Kenyans convinced that they are naturally and inevitably tribalist: the use of culture and research by envoys, journalists, researchers, and now, by Cambridge Analytica.
For instance, while Kenyans called for electoral justice, the US ambassador kept framing Kenya’s problem as “long-standing issues” that should be addressed through reconciliation between NASA and Jubilee. The ambassador was savvy enough to know that using the word “tribal” would evoke memories of colonial anthropology. But even “long-standing” is just as insidious, because it appeals to the colonial narrative of Africans as stuck in the past.
Similarly, articles in the local and international media often used tribal data to predict a Jubilee win. The research they quoted almost always used tribe as the major factor in elections, yet there are other factors that influence the way Kenyans vote, such as income, gender, urban migration, economic inequality or voter frustration with politicians.
If a basic rule of good research is that it cannot always use the same variable, it means that the researchers are perpetuating tribalism through faulty research. Yet the variables exist. For instance, our media rarely mention economic inequality as a factor influencing election outcomes, and yet one article in Jacobin found a strong correlation between economic inequality and votes for Raila Odinga.
In the New York Review of Books, Helen Epstein queried the sampling methods of predictions of election results, pointing out that some researchers worked backwards from a known result to a sample, rather than the other way round. Some researchers went to Luo regions and predictably projected a high Raila vote, and to Kikuyu populations and predicted a high Uhuru vote, but did not go, for example, to Kakamega, Bungoma, Busia, Kisii Nyanza, Garissa and other regions where Jubilee claimed to have won a majority.
Other times, electoral predictions remain unquestioned because claims are made from people with perceived academic clout. For instance, Mutahi Ngunyi gave prestige to the concept of “tyranny of numbers”. Most media did not question the validity of his concept, even when a poorly circulated video done by AfriCOG showed that the premises of Ngunyi’s argument were rather weak.
If Kenyans were naturally tribalistic, the politicians, intellectuals and envoys would not need to keep reminding us of it. And there is a political interest in insisting on our tribalism: it prevents us from asking questions about social justice or worse, from organizing ourselves along other lines such us age, profession, economic status and gender.
If a basic rule of good research is that it cannot always use the same variable, it means that the researchers are perpetuating tribalism through faulty research.
The nightmare of the foreign and local elite is of Kenyans organizing as the poor, youth, women or workers, because then, the numbers would surely have an impact. And politicians would not get automatic godfather status like they do as tribes. They would have to pass through institutions like associations and unions, where success is not guaranteed. For instance, politicians’ efforts to divide the doctors along tribal lines backfired and instead produced a hash tag #IAmaTribelessDoctor.
It does not matter how many Kenyans Cambridge Analytica influenced. Even one Kenyan is one Kenyan too many. What matters is that it appealed to Kenyans’ worst fears, essentially hoping to whip up hysteria, just so that the president could win the vote. Our dignity was cheaper than Muigai’s desire to win. Six million dollars cheaper.
But the worst part of the tribal propaganda is that it is based on convincing Kenyans to believe so little of themselves. To resist the efforts of Cambridge Analytica and similar social saboteurs in the media and the academy, we must believe in our capacity to vote on a diversity of issues. For as Daisy Amdany put it, “We are so much better than what the elites make us out to be. It’s time to believe it, receive it, be it and live it!”
9/11 and the United States-Kenya Relationship
Would US-Kenya relations be significantly different today had the al-Qaeda attacks not taken place?
Looking at the sweep of twenty years, a generation, how have the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda airplane crash attacks on New York and Washington impacted the relationship between the United States and Kenya?
To start to answer that question, we might create a counterfactual and imagine how things might have proceeded without the shock and horror of the (partial) success of al-Qaeda’s terror attacks that day, especially the falling bodies and fiery collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I think the basics of the relationship would likely have been quite similar.
Osama bin Laden’s declared al-Qaeda war against the United States and its allies, including Kenya, was well along by 9-11 but it had not captured a lot of attention from the public in the United States and had little impact on American daily life and politics. For me, working in the defence industry as an attorney for a large aerospace company at their shipbuilding operation in Mississippi, terrorism had been brought home a year earlier when the damaged hull of the USS Cole, which had been bombed by al-Qaeda off Yemen, was brought to us for repair on the Gulf of Mexico on a giant heavy-lift ship. By coincidence, I was in Northern Virginia, at a seminar not far from the Pentagon on the infamous day of 9-11 itself. We were not so “on-line” in those days, and it was not until a break that we saw on a television set pulled into the hotel lobby that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon and gradually became aware of what was happening.
It was only then that most Americans really got a sense of what Kenyans and Tanzanians had seen and felt during the 1998 embassy bombings.
To understand what did and did not change in the American-Kenyan relationship, we probably need to go back further to Jomo Kenyatta seeking American military assistance from the Ford Administration in the 1970s, through Minister Mwai Kibaki and others, when Kenya faced threats from Uganda’s Idi Amin, and potential hostilities from Somalia’s Siad Barre in the context of a possible disruption of Kenya’s security relationship with Ethiopia following the overthrow of Haile Selassie by the Derg and Britain’s unwillingness to show support.
By 1977, during the Jimmy Carter administration, the US had started provided police training in Kenya. The Norfolk Hotel was bombed by Palestinian terrorists in 1980, in apparent retaliation for Kenya’s cooperation with the Israeli rescue operation at Entebbe in Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1976.
Therefore, Kenya’s recognition of its insecurity in a “rough neighbourhood”, the related exposure to terrorists, and the desire to rely partly on and cooperate with the United States on security matters, was a component of the relationship for years before al-Qaeda co-founder Osama bin Laden moved from Afghanistan to Sudan in early 1991, from where he was reportedly funding jihadist militants and insurgents in many countries. America’s Operation Hope which was providing famine relief in Somalia under President George H.W. Bush in December 1992, ended up with the US embroiled in clan warfare the following year as part of a UN peacekeeping mission, with al-Qaeda alleged to have contributed to the “Battle of Mogadishu” fiasco that influenced America’s decision to withdraw in early 1994. In the meantime, the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center had failed in 1993.
It was only then that most Americans really got a sense of what Kenyans and Tanzanians had seen and felt during the 1998 embassy bombings.
Although Sudan evicted Osama bin Laden who established himself in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 1996, al-Qaeda continued to operate in East Africa and a few months after bin Laden’s February 1998 fatwa against Americans and their allies—presumably including Kenyans—came the embassy bombings in Nairobi and in Dar es Salaam.
Sceptical about American “nation building”, George W. Bush took office in January 2001 on a platform of “compassionate conservatism” that was perhaps most positively expressed in expansive new aid programmes that shaped the US-Kenyan relationship. Of particular note is PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan For Aids Relief, enacted in 2003, and the President’s Malaria Initiative that began in 2005, together with the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The US became extensively involved in Southern Sudan, with diplomatic and assistance efforts “back-officed” out of Nairobi.
While the 9/11 attacks led immediately to the invasion of Afghanistan and created the climate in which the long-simmering confrontation with Saddam Hussein became a “regime change” invasion in March 2003 two months before the passage of PEPFAR, the basics of the US-Kenya relationship of health and humanitarian assistance and security cooperation might not have been that much different had the attacks on the US not succeeded.
According to Congressional Research Service reports, Kenya has over the years typically received security assistance of some US$40 million dollars annually as compared to about US$800 million in health, humanitarian, and economic assistance. Reporting has identified cooperation between Kenyan and US intelligence and paramilitary units in hunting terrorism suspects within Kenya itself but Kenya is not known to have participated in US efforts outside its borders.
A major instance of cooperation that might be imagined to have played out differently could be the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in late 2006 to displace the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) and restore the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu. While US officials have stated they did not encourage this decision, we did ultimately provide air support and cooperated with Kenya to “seal the border” to fleeing terror suspects. Controversy arose about “renditions”. It might be that in the absence of the 9-11 attacks and the long and expansive “war footing” that followed, the US would have dissuaded the Ethiopian operation or followed a different policy to address al-Qaeda elements in Somalia with the rise of the UIC.
The basics of the US-Kenya relationship of health and humanitarian assistance and security cooperation might not have been that much different had the attacks on the US not succeeded.
As it is, the AMISOM force under the African Union was formed in early 2007 and radical elements from the UIC coalesced as al-Shaabab and announced an affiliation with al-Qaeda, eventually provoking the incursion by Kenya in the fall of 2011 following kidnappings in the Lamu area. Although the US is said to have explicitly discouraged this action by the Kenya Defence Forces, within several months Kenyan forces were allowed to join AMISOM and thus begin receiving Western-funded reimbursements.
Since 2011, Somalia has made significant gains in many respects but a shifting stalemate of sorts exists where al-Shabaab controls much territory outside major towns and sustains financing, while federal governance and security remain a work-in-progress.
Meanwhile, al-Shabaab elements continue to recruit and carry out insurgency and terror attacks in Kenya. The attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall that was splashed across Western media, the Mpeketoni attack, the horrific slaughter targeting Christian students at Garissa University, bus attacks and small bombings and the DusitD2 attack in Westlands, show a very wide range of actors, methods, and targets.
How much of this would really be different if al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been thwarted by intelligence beforehand, or by some other intervention, such as by the passengers of Flight 93 which was brought down in Pennsylvania before it could reach its intended target in Washington? The United States might well be different, and much that has happened in the world might be different. But, leaving aside the necessary impact of the ensuing Iraq war on the election of Barack Obama, and then Trump, the relationship between Kenya and the United States might well be much the same today.
Every Worker Is Essential and Must Be Guaranteed Social Protection, No Matter What
The International Domestic Workers Federation and UNI Global Union demand that all workers of the formal and informal economy are guaranteed social protection.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented disruption to the global economy and a massive increase in unemployment — exacerbating the ongoing crises of inequality. Despite massive public investment in mostly wealthy countries, worldwide, too many workers are living in extremely fragile conditions and directly feeling the effects of decades of austerity programs aimed at cutting social protections to the bone — and limiting workers rights.
Right now we are at the crossroads. As the world begins spending trillions to lift us out of economic crisis, unions and organizations representing workers in both the formal and informal economy sectors are forming new alliances to ensure the legacy of the pandemic is one of improved working conditions throughout the world.
To illustrate this point, let’s consider caregivers. Caregiving is one of the most common and rapidly growing professions. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us repeatedly just how essential caregivers are. Caregiving might also be one of the most diverse yet in demand roles in the entire world. While nurses operate for the most part in the formal economy, often in a hospital or institution, care providers in a domestic setting may actually live with their employers and can be called upon 24 hours a day with few avenues for recourse.
For us, as long-time advocates of workers in the formal and informal economies, the time has come to work together to demand universal social protections like a living minimum wage for all and access to healthcare and paid sick leave. We must fight to change the global rules through mandatory human rights due diligence laws and other steps to enable workers to exercise their rights to bargain collectively.
The recent report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) only underscores the urgency. The ILO found that over half of the global population lacks any form of social protection. This is the case even after the unprecedented expansion of social protections that took place following the global outbreak of COVID-19.
In 2020, just 47% of the world population had effective access to at least one social protection benefit, the ILO found. The remaining 53% — up to 4.1 billion people — had no protection at all.
Take this in contrast with a global study from earlier this year from the ITUC and UNI Global Union that found 98% of the world’s workers are not getting the sick pay, wage replacement and social benefits they need to address the challenges of COVID-19.
Active government policies will make the difference. We cannot fully recover or rebuild a better world if we don’t urgently and effectively protect all people, including the 61% of the global workforce who labor in the informal economy. When these workers aren’t recognized for the work that they do, not only are their basic rights breached, but their access to collective bargaining mechanisms and unionising is withheld.
In South Africa, this year, domestic workers achieved an historic victory that deserves examination. Since 2000, the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union has been campaigning for a suite of laws that would extend protections to domestic workers. Eventually, after many years of campaigning, the laws passed, but one of them, which would provide compensation for work-related injury or illness known as COIDA, still excluded domestic workers. After the tragic death of a domestic worker in the employer’s swimming pool, organizers in Pretoria lodged a complaint. It took five years, but the high court declared the exclusion of domestic workers unconstitutional in 2020.
Domestic workers are now covered under South Africa’s COIDA because domestic workers organized and demanded change against all odds. We raise this example because active government policies are critical to protecting workers and raising standards. There are too many attempts at excluding entire groups of workers and while they are usually unconstitutional, it takes years for workers to win.
A strong recovery for domestic workers, street vendors, agricultural workers, and other informal economy workers will be the linchpin for a strong global economic recovery. At the Essential for Recovery Summit, we’ll join workers from around the world to make an urgent call to national governments and international organizations to address our demands for better income and social protections so we can weather this crisis and also build a better future for ourselves.
To allow the sector to expand without formalizing protections, and union representation, threatens to make harsh and often grim working conditions worse. For Myrtle who found her voice organizing during apartheid in South Africa, the goals have always been clear: essential protections for caregivers, the majority of whom are women and often immigrants or racial and ethnic minorities. And as Christy has said: “To put health and safety first — and put the virus to rest — we will need more collective bargaining and unions in the care sector.”
Caregivers and their communities have been particularly impacted, both economically and health-wise by the virus, making the need to uplift their working conditions and wages even more urgent. If we do not address these fundamental inequities, the lasting impacts of the pandemic will be a system worse than what we started with, which already was not supporting and protecting workers. Our key global demand is for all workers of the formal and informal economy to be guaranteed social protection.
This article was first published by Progressive international.
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