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Sudan Dared to Be Free, Then the Military Arrived

6 min read.

A statement by organizations and individuals standing in solidarity with the people of Sudan, deeply concerned about, and strongly condemning the 25 October 2021 military coup in Sudan and the subsequent suspension of several provisions of the Constitutional Declaration.

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Sudan Dared to Be Free, Then the Military Arrived
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We stand in solidarity with the people of Sudan and we demand more resolute action from the African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the United Nations (UN)

We, the undersigned organizations and individuals, are deeply concerned about, and strongly condemn, the military coup in Sudan and the subsequent purported suspension of several provisions of the Constitutional Declaration; dissolution of the Sovereign Council, the Cabinet and of the Transitional Government of Sudan. We further condemn the arrest and detention of the Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, his wife, five ministers and other government officials and leaders as well as civil society actors. These actions violatethe AU Shared Values and specific provisions of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance regarding unconstitutional changes of government. We note that the military takeover has negative consequences for Sudan’s transition into a democracy, a journey that had a major turning point in 2019 when civilians got rid of dictator Omar Hassan Al-Bashir through a peoples’ revolution.

We also note with concern the switching off of the Internet and other communications channels, which has made it difficult for the Sudanese people to receive and send information within and outside of Sudan. We are also greatly troubled by the closure of the Sudanese airspace and land borders, and suspension of all flights. This has meant that no one can travel into or out of Sudan. These limitations on the rights and freedoms of the Sudanese people as well as other nationalities present in Sudan is in stark violation of both the Sudanese Constitution as well as African and International Human rights norms.

We are aware that many Sudanese, committed to democratic ideals that they relentlessly fought for, have taken to the streets to peacefully protest the military takeover. We are, however, alarmed by reports appearing in a section of the media of the killings, torture and injuries of some of the protesting civilians by sections of the military.

As African citizens and institutions from across the continent and its diaspora, we demand that:

  1. General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan and the parts of the military leadership under his control immediately and unconditionally release Prime Minister Hamdok, his wife, the ministers, other government officials and members of civil society;
  2. This impugned military leadership transfers the leadership of Sudan back to the transitional government to operate as per the terms of the Political Agreement and the Constitutional Declaration of 17 July 2019 and 4 August 2019 respectively, and further that the entire provisions of Constitutional Declaration be respected and implemented;
  3. Patriotic soldiers, battalions and garrisons desist from participating in or supporting the illegal martial government in any way, and certainly refrain from interfering with or harming peaceful protestors.
  4. We call for the protection of civilians and the upholding of their right to protest and further call on the security forces to act with restraint in managing the public order situation in the Sudan. Specifically, we call on security forces to desist from use of force on civilians, as this is contrary to international law and also the various legal instruments created by the African Union;
  5. We demand that this military leadership also lifts the restrictions on Internet access and use to enable people to communicate freely and access information;
  6. We further demand that this military leadership also immediately opens up the airspace to enable travel into and out of the country without restrictions.

We note that the unconstitutional change of government that was perpetrated in Sudan has had a long build up, whose signs include the failed coup of 21 September 2021. The position of the African Union on Unconstitutional Change of Government is very clear, and requires an uncompromising rejection of such unconstitutional changes, the immediate suspension of the Member State in question, and immediate engagements, based firmly on AU law to reinstate democratic and legitimate government. We note with concern that, in the face of clear danger, the AU has dithered to implement this hard letter of the law on a few occasions in the last few years, a fact that might have encouraged the current situation in Sudan. While we are grateful that both the AU and IGAD provided initial public statements on the situation in Sudan, their statements were not strong enough. We also acknowledge that the Peace and Security Council of the African Union (AU-PSC) held a Session on Sudan and has suspended its Government in line with the applicable AU law. This is a positive first step. We reiterate that speaking clearly and strongly against the unconstitutional change of government is the only way in which large-scale violence and related human suffering can be averted.

As African citizens and institutions from across the continent and its diaspora, we therefore demand that AU and IGAD:

  1. Follow up on their initial Statements with more robust Statements that demonstrate the actions they have taken in the first 48 hours after the coup and that clearly lay out the obtaining law and the processes that they propose to take in the next few days;
  2. Confirm unequivocally to the people of Africa and the international community that Sudan currently stands suspended from the AU, pending these processes;
  3. Urgently convene the AU Peace and Security Council (AU-PSC) and take the necessary follow-up measures.

We note that the Horn of Africa is already very volatile and that should Sudan be allowed to succumb to military-instigated conflict against a resistant citzenry, not only will there be unnecessary bloodshed and human suffering, but this would also have profound regional peace and security repercussions, affecting neighbours like the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the rest of the East African region. We note the strong Statements already issued by the United Nations Secretary General and several members of the international community. We also acknowledge that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has convened a Session on Sudan. We call upon the United Nations (UN) to: –

  1. Prioritise discussion and action on Sudan, respecting the aspirations and demands of the Sudanese people, and bearing in mind the potential ramification for the Horn and East Africa region.

As African citizens and institutions from across the continent and its diaspora, we will continue to be actively seized of this matter and will be making additional interventions and actions in the coming days. More importantly, we call upon all people around the world to unite and stand together with the brave Sudanese people to save and preserve their democratic transition and protect their human and peoples’ rights. We urge for peaceful demonstrations and protests outside Sudanese Embassies across the continent and worldwide.

Signatories

A – Institutions 

  1. Advocacy Network for Africa, Washington DC, USA
  2. AfricanDefenders (Pan African Human Rights Defenders Network)
  3. African Union Watch, Banjul, The Gambia
  4. African Women and Youth Initiative
  5. African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET)/ Réseau de Développement et de Communication des Femmes Africaines
  6. African Women Leaders Forum (AWLF), Zimbabwe
  7. Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA), Kampala, Uganda
  8. Chapter One Foundation, Lusaka, Zambia
  9. Coalition for an effective African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACC), Arusha, Tanzania
  10. Coalition Togolaise des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (CTDDH), Lomé, Togo
  11. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
  12. Disability Amalgamation Community Trust (DACT), Zimbabwe
  13. DITSHWANELO – The Botswana Centre for Human Rights, Gaborone, Botswana
  14. Eastern Africa Youth Empowerment on Peace and Security
  15. Echoes of Women in Africa Initiatives, Nigeria
  16. HUDO Centre, Kampala, Uganda
  17. Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA)
  18. Institut des Médias pour la Démocratie et les Droits de l’Homme (IM2DH), Lomé, Togo
  19. Institute for Young Women Development (IYWD), Zimbabwe
  20. International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Kampala, Uganda
  21. Inuka Kenya Ni Sisi!, Nairobi, Kenya
  22. Kamma Organization for Development Initiatives (KODI), Sudan
  23. Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), Nairobi, Kenya
  24. Nawi – Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective, Nairobi, Kenya
  25. Network of Independent Commissions for Human Rights in North Africa
  26. Nubsud Human Rights Monitors Organization (NHRMO), Sudan
  27. OnetoAll Foundation, Meru, Kenya
  28. Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), Johannesburg, South Africa
  29. Oromo Legacy Leadership and Advocacy Association
  30. Oromo Professionals Group (OPG), Washington DC
  31. Rape Hurts Foundation, Uganda
  32. Pan African Citizens Network (PACIN)
  33. Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), Arusha, Tanzania
  34. Pan African Law and Justice Initiative, Kenya
  35. Panos Institute Southern Africa
  36. Plateforme de la Diaspora Tchadienne en Amerique
  37. Southern Defenders (Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network)
  38. Wakiso District Human Rights Committee , Uganda
  39. Yearning Voices Foundation (YVF)
  40. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, Harare, Zimbabwe

B – Individuals 

  1. Abel K. Walendom, Co-Facilitator, Plateforme de la Diaspora Tchadienne en Amerique
  2. Abdalla Komi Kodi, Executive Director, Kamma Organization for Development Initiatives (KODI), Sudan
  3. Achieng’ Akena, PanAfricanist, Uganda
  4. Adaobi Egboka, Human Rights Lawyer, Nigeria
  5. Arnold Tsunga, Human Rights Lawyer, Zimbabwe
  6. Brian Tamuka Kagoro, Uhai Africa Ltd, Harare, Zimbabwe
  7. Bridget Musungu, Panafrican, Nairobi Kenya
  8. Bushra Gamar Hussein, Executive Director, HUDO Centre, Kampala, Uganda
  9. Bonaventure N’Coué MAWUVI, Journaliste et Défenseurs des Droits Humains, Lomé,Togo
  10. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
  11. Chris Kwaja
  12. Danford M. Chirwa, Dean, UCT Law
  13. Donald Deya, Pan Africanist, Nairobi, Kenya
  14. Dzimbabwe Chimbga, Human Rights Lawyer, Zimbabwe
  15. Edigah Kavuravu, Human Rights Lawyer, Kenya
  16. Femi Falana SAN, Human Rights Lawyer, Nigeria
  17. Feyi Ogunade, Human Rights Lawyer
  18. George Kegoro, Lawyer, Nairobi, Kenya
  19. Gitahi Githuku, Human Rights Defender, Nairobi, Kenya
  20. Golda Keng, Advocacy and Campaigns Consultant, Yaoundé, Cameroon
  21. Hakima Haithar, International Development Consultant, Johannesburg, South Africa
  22. Ibrahima Kane: Ibrahima Kane, lawyer Senegal
  23. Irene Mwendwa, Lawyer, Pollicy Uganda
  24. Jok Madut Jok, Professor of Anthropology, Syracuse University and Director of The Sudd Institute
  25. Khabele Matlosa
  26. Martin Masiga, Africa Judges and Jurists Forum (AJJF)
  27. Martin Mavenjina, Constitutional and Human Rights Lawyer, Nairobi, Kenya
  28. Musa Mwenye, SC, Former Attorney General of the Republic of Zambia
  29. Nikiwe Kaunda, Mzuzu, Malawi
  30. Otto Saki, Zimbabwe
  31. Roland Ebole, Human Rights Lawyer, Nairobi, Kenya
  32. Roselyn Hanzi, Human Rights Lawyer, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights
  33. Sarah Mukasa
  34. Sharon Nakandha, Lawyer, Uganda
  35. Siphosami Malunga, Executive Director, Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa
  36. Tiseke Kasambala, Chief of Party, Freedom House, Johannesburg, South Africa
  37. Vusumuzi Sifile, Lusaka, Zambia
  38. Washington Katema

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Joint UN, Ethiopia Atrocities Report: Poison Fruit of Poisonous Tree

By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation.

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Joint UN, Ethiopia Atrocities Report: Poison Fruit of Poisonous Tree
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The joint United Nations (UN) and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation is like a ham omelette: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. In this investigation, the UN only reluctantly became involved in demonstrating its efforts in investigating atrocity crimes, while the EHRC was committed to defending the government of Ethiopia – the architect of the war on Tigray.

Various reports on the investigation into atrocity crimes committed in Tigray are expected to be released in the coming weeks.

The report of the joint UN and EHRC investigation was released on 3 November 2021. The much-anticipated report by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the determination by the United States government on whether genocide against Tigrayans has been committed, are also expected to be released in the near future. These reports will be markedly different from the discredited report of the joint investigation.

The joint investigation’s report failed to establish facts because the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) had no access to the location it purported to cover and where most of the crimes are presumed to have been committed. Due to what the report calls “challenges and constraints”, the joint investigation was unable to access atrocity zones. It also underreported on, and failed to include, infamous atrocity zones in Tigray, including Axum, Abi Addi, Hagere Selam, Togoga, Irob, Adwa, Adrigrat, Hawzen, Gijet, and Maryam Dengelat as well as the Tigrayan bodies that washed up in Sudan on the Nile River. As in most cases, the worst atrocity zones in Tigray were located in active battlefields. Yet, the investigators were able to visit and interview witnesses in parts of Tigray that had been ethnically cleansed.

Victims side-lined 

Moreover, the report downplayed the concerns of victims. The UN Basic Principles on Right to Remedy and Reparations, under Principle 8, define victims as:

[P]ersons who individually or collectively suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that constitute gross violations of international human rights law, or serious violations of international humanitarian law. Where appropriate, and in accordance with domestic law, the term “victim” also includes the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim and persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress or to prevent victimisation.

The final report did not include the findings of extensive interviews that the UN conducted with Tigrayan refugees from the second week of November 2020 through to the end of December 2020. These interviews were held in refugee camps in Sudan, with victims and witnesses of human rights violations of various kinds and to different degrees. According to some informants, the report was submitted to Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in January 2021. However, for unclear reasons, the findings of this investigation have not yet been made public, and there is no mention of it in the joint report. Informants say that few staff members of the Office of The High Commissioner for Human Rights in Addis Ababa raised questions regarding the integrity of the investigation carried out by their colleagues in Sudan.

The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded. Instead, the UN issued the report authored jointly with the EHRC while concealing the report its office in Sudan had produced earlier. This amounts to subversion of investigations and victims’ right to truth and remedy – a violation of international law.  Reports indicate that the government of Ethiopia curtailed the UN’s role in the investigation including by expelling one of the UN investigators.

Witnesses were reluctant to participate in an inquiry involving the EHRC. As one of the challenges, the report mentions the “perceptions of bias against the EHRC in some parts of Tigray where some potential interviewees declined to be interviewed by the JIT because of the presence of EHRC personnel”. This is a deliberate understatement.

Tigrayan victims and Tigray authorities rejected the joint investigation from the outset and declared their non-cooperation. In a recent report the Guardian asserts, “Especially damaging has been the growing perception among Tigrayans, about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, that the commission is partial towards the federal government and hostile to the TPLF.”

The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded.

Victims are right to fear reprisals by Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces, and this fear silenced many and reinforced victims’ non-cooperation since the EHRC was involved. Conversely, perpetrators believe they can get away with their crimes when the EHRC is leading the investigation.

A principal at the core of the concept of justice is redressing the wrongs done to victims. The interests of victims should thus remain central to any investigation. In Tigray, women are the principal victims of the war, and a deliberate campaign of rape and sexual violence has been as typical as murder.

By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation. Justice entails that victims have the right to the truth and that those responsible for victimising people are held to account for their actions in a transparent fact-finding process and held liable for remedying the harm caused. The truth of what occurred should be established through the verification of facts and full public disclosure.

Bad start

The joint investigation started on the wrong footing. The basis on which the decision to constitute a joint investigation was made, the terms of reference, the selection of the investigators, and the agreement between the UN and the EHRC have never been made public, despite many requests. They remain shrouded in secrecy.

Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia. Others argue that such a joint venture would help build local and national capacity for investigation. It is heartless to think of building local capacity at the expense of victims of mass atrocity crimes (rape, killings, displacement and destruction of livelihoods). In effect, in this investigation, though committed to addressing atrocity crimes, the UN has been allowed to play second fiddle to personalities of a national system. The UN offered a façade of independence and impartiality to the investigation. The decision to conduct this joint investigation politicized a process that could and should have been de-politicized.

Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia.

Given that a general situation of war, chaos and a breakdown in law and order has been deliberately created in Tigray to systematically and systemically commit atrocities, destroy infrastructure and loot property, fears of reprisal are real. Consequently, the victims had little confidence in the joint investigation’s impartiality, capability and mandate to establish the truth, let alone identify perpetrators – particularly those holding the highest offices of command, control and communication.

Pleas unheeded 

For these reasons, many Tigrayans denounced the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for involving the EHRC. The investigation was, from the start, designed to fail the Tigrayan victims. Tigrayans consistently called for the UN to establish an international commission of inquiry equipped to investigate crimes of such magnitude and gravity.

What is more, the report subverted the core aim of a standard investigation. Investigations and findings should be based on verifiable evidence collected from the ground without any involvement from the parties to the conflict and institutions accused of bias. The UN also failed to follow its guidelines and precedence of establishing independent and international commissions of inquiry or international fact-finding missions, as it did in Burundi, South Sudan, Gaza, Syria, Libya, Sudan (Darfur), Côte d’Ivoire, and Lebanon. These exemplary investigations were comprehensive and served as historical records of grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, offered the victims truth, and ensured the legal and political accountability of those responsible. In addition to holding criminals accountable, such investigations are supposed to help in restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and above all, guarantees of non-repetition of violations.

One asks why the UN thinks the atrocities committed in Tigray are less deserving.

False equivalence

All investigations need to include all alleged violations by any party. The prosecution also needs to include all responsible parties to ensure that no justice is victor’s justice. This is not only the right thing to do but also the most effective method of legitimizing the process, ensuring accountability, providing remedies, and fighting impunity. However, such a process should not apply bothsidesism as a method of investigation and attribution of culpability.

Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators. There are more paragraphs about calls for the cessation of hostilities, reconciliation, and capacity building than accountability, attribution of culpability, and ending impunity. The report is crafted in a manner that covers up the ringleaders of the crimes, softens accountability, advances recommendations that permit impunity in the name of reconciliation, and establishes false equivalence among warring parties. One paragraph in the report, for example, states, “International mechanisms are complementary to and do not replace national mechanisms. In this regard, the JIT was told that national institutions such as the Office of the Federal Attorney General and military justice organs have initiated processes to hold perpetrators accountable, with some perpetrators already having been convicted and sentenced.” The report advances proposals on non-legal issues including political causes of the war, humanitarian consequences and capacity building of EHRC.

Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators.

It is bizarre that the UN believes that the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Attorney General of the Government of Ethiopia can ensure accountability. The Ethiopian National Defence Force is a principal party in the war, and the Attorney General remains the chief architect of massive profiling of Tigrayans living outside Tigray, rounding up Tigrayans and leading the campaign for their internment. Like the EHRC, the Attorney General has no prosecutorial independence to hold officials of the Ethiopian government accountable.

Furthermore, many Ethiopians see only the victimization of their own group and not what their side has done to others. Dialogue, reconciliation and peace cannot be achieved while every fact is disputed. This report adds to the fierce dispute around the facts. For this very reason, many will continue to reject the report – as they did the investigation.

Victims’ demand

Overwhelming segments of the Tigrayan society reject the joint report. In particular, Tigrayans demand that the UN conduct its investigations, revealing Tigrayans’ high expectations of the UN’s ability to establish the truth based on which justice can be served.

Given the recent leaked audio recording that reveals the conspiracy against Tigrayans by some of the leaders in the UN Ethiopia office, one is forced to ask why Tigrayans have such high hopes in the UN. Many are left with no option but to reject outright the poison fruit of the so-called joint investigation, much as the victims, their families, the survivors and the Tigrayan community at large have done. By disregarding repeated calls for an international commission of inquiry, the UN has missed an opportunity for an empathetic and purposeful connection with the actual victims of the war.

Many atrocity situations such as in Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, and Burundi have been visited by the highest level officials of the international community. The highest-level officials of the UN, AU, IGAD and the US and EU leadership should travel to Tigray and other war-torn areas of Ethiopia. Even if permission from the government of Ethiopia for such high-level visits would have been difficult to secure, such attempts by high-level officials to visit the region would have demonstrated at least personal compassion and solidarity with victims. Such visits would have been viewed as both a symbolic and tangible commitment of leaders to end the war and the siege, and address impunity.

In the interests of the victims – and to place them at the centre of UN’s human rights work – the UN should authorize a UN-mandated commission of inquiry to investigate the atrocity crimes committed in Tigray and in other parts of the country.

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No Country for Our Real Heroes: A Monument for the Mau Mau at Last, but No Land

Kenyans choose to forget that the Kenya Land and Freedom army (also known as Mau Mau) did not fight for a monument. They fought for land.

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No Country for Our Real Heroes: A Monument for the Mau Mau at Last, but No Land
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Mau Mau heroes now have a monument, but no land. Earlier this month, they were invited to the unveiling of this monument in Nairobi; a “memorial to the victims of torture and ill treatment during the colonial period 1952-1960.” They turned up in large numbers, the majority wearing bright red t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Shujaa wa Mau Mau” – Mau Mau hero.

In their hundreds, they were a sea of red and black amidst the green of Uhuru Park, watching avidly for when their monument would be unveiled in the section of this commons called “Freedom Corner.”

And while the British and Kenyan government and collaborating NGO representatives, all younger than the actual heroes, were sitting within an expansive white tent, these aging freedom fighters were sat under the hot sun, waiting for the official ceremony to begin. Some were said to have arrived as early as 6 am.

Finally, we could say, at least some recognition for our people who were classified as terrorists until 2003. Finally something to honour the bravery of all freedom fighters and the significance of that period in our history.

But, as social movement activist Gacheke Gachihi asked, what can we gain from a narrative that continues to posit them as “victim” instead of victor over the British? And even while recognizing the inhuman excesses meted out against them, what are the motivations for a rewriting of history that perpetuates a narrative of their victimhood and, as is appearing to be more and more the case, erases the full extent of their struggle?

Spoken interminably at the monument unveiling was the word “reconciliation,” followed closely by “ending” and “closure.” It seems that this monument is also meant to make us reconcile our past with all features of British imperialism; the £90,000 monument (an incessantly repeated figure) is where all further questions about the ravages of empire stop.

Inevitably, it seems also to be the national burial site for the land question.

Not one mention of it anywhere at this launch.

It was the elephant in the room, the solid yet invisible presence that no one spoke about. It was clumsily replaced by other buzzwords: reconciliation, closure, victimhood.

And while they turned up in their numbers, the show could definitely have gone on without the Kenya Land and Freedom army for in many ways these heroes were the appropriate props for the speeches and photo opportunities of innumerable people who were not Mau Mau, yet who will revel in the after glories of the praise that will come from being “important” at this event.

It is reported that these important characters then later went off to drink at the Norfolk, the oldest and, undoubtedly, most colonial of Nairobi’s hotels (even President Roosevelt stayed here in 1909 when he came to shoot half our wildlife to “collect specimens for the Smithsonian institute”) and whose terrace is “rumoured” to be the site where Africans were often shot for sport.

Meanwhile the actual shujaas then walked home, 80-year-old grandmothers bent over with no shoes walking through busy Nairobi to go back to their rural homes.

And in the the Nairobi headquarters of the Mau Mau, Mathare constituency, life continued as normal for Monica Wambui, a 101-year-old Mau Mau woman who has been living in her mabati tin house for the last 50 + years, and with no water, permanent shelter and still having to find her own firewood to cook.

And for this shujaa wa Mau Mau from Mathare, tells it all.

In this same place the descendants of these two heroes are caught in the spate of police killings that Mathare Social Justice Centre is working to document. And there will never be monuments for these young people who, in many ways, are also fighting for land.

A week later we are still being told about the £90,000 monument to “victims,” and being assailed constantly by the supposed generosity of the British government who solicited this monument at their “own” expense  (one twitter commentator remarked that this money is likely to have been easily raised from all the exorbitant visa fees Kenyans are charged to visit the UK) .

And in all the hyper-buzz about this memorial we choose to forget that the Kenya Land and Freedom army did not fight for a monument.

They fought for land.

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

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I Am Samuel

The government should support our creative industries, and allow every Kenyan’s voice to be heard, and everyone’s point of view to be listened to.

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I Am Samuel
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“I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

We first got introduced to independent documentary filmmaking in 2013, at a gathering of Kenyan filmmakers in a small office of the nascent DocuBox film fund. Pete Murimi, director of I am Samuel, and I, producer, had no idea that it was possible to tell stories independent of a broadcaster or funder. As a service producer, I was used to receiving agency or broadcaster briefs and working according to spec. Pete, as a filmmaker at the UN, was familiar with that style of telling stories.

This intimate gathering of filmmakers (which included directors of The Letter, Kenya’s submission to the Oscars in 2020, and the director of New Moon, winner of Oscar-qualifying 2018 DIFF Best Documentary award) did not know that it was about to embark on an arduous multiple-year journey to tell their stories, and self-release at global festivals. But we all somehow made it through the strength of community and the determination to have complete agency over the stories we felt were important to tell. Pete and I were committed to telling stories of outsiders, people who did not accept the way things were, just because.

Voltaire’s quote above is our fallback when asked about freedom of expression, the freedom we committed to when we decided we wanted to tell these stories. We are a diverse country, with complicated, layered realities. Allowing storytellers to tell these stories, no matter whether you agree with them or not, is a move towards greater inclusivity, democracy, and tolerance.

Shot over five years, I Am Samuel tells the story of a queer man navigating the tension between his life in Nairobi and his rural childhood home. He and his partner Alex want to build a life together, but his father and mother want him to get married, have kids, and live the exact kind of life they have.

Allowing storytellers to tell these stories, no matter whether you agree with them or not, is a move towards greater inclusivity, democracy, and tolerance.

This was not an easy documentary to make. Samuel had to give up a lot of his privacy, and trust Pete and I, who were first-time independent filmmakers, balancing making this film with our day jobs. But Samuel allowed us into his life, without restriction. And that was a privilege that we could not afford to take lightly. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “In fiction films, the director is God; in documentary, God is the director.” We believe this to be true; life as it happens, with all its messiness and unpredictability, is what makes character-driven verité styles so difficult to do, but ultimately so rewarding.

I am Samuel was released at Hot Docs 2020, an international film festival that showcases stories from across the globe. It then toured the Human Rights Watch Film Festivals the world over and showed in South America, the Netherlands, and the UK. But our eventual goal was always to bring it back home. Because we felt this was a Kenyan story, we knew it would connect with audiences back home; mostly because Samuel’s lived reality as a queer, religious, traditional man is not unique. We applied for classification in Kenya to be able to screen it locally, and waited weeks for a response. We were asked to attend a meeting at the KFCB offices on Thursday 23rd September, but we were unable to make it in person. We then heard about the press conference, the ban, and the press release later that Thursday.

We are yet to receive a letter in writing or a certificate that shows our Kenyan rating.

We were deeply disturbed by the discriminatory language used in explaining the ban: they described it as “blasphemous” and “unacceptable, and an affront to our culture and identity.” The restricted classification of the film contained a number of inaccuracies. It referenced a “marriage” that never happened and said we were “promoting a homosexual lifestyle”. The board noted a “clear and deliberate attempt by the producer to promote same-sex marriage as an acceptable way of life. This attempt is evident through the repeated confessions of the gay couple that what they feel for each other is normal and should be embraced as a way of life, as well as the characters’ body language, including scenes of kissing of two male lovers.”

We were simply filming people’s lived experiences.

By banning the film, KFCB is silencing a real Kenyan community and trampling on our rights as filmmakers to tell Samuel’s story. Every story is important. And we are all equal in the eyes of the law and before God, in line with the religion the film board is invoking in this ruling. The arts – from filmmakers and novelists to painters and comedians – hold a mirror up to society and show us some of the difficult realities from which we often try to shy away.

The Kenya Film Classification Board is trying to censor a part of Kenya that has always existed, is a lived reality for millions and will always be a part of us. Several high-profile Kenyans are queer, including government politicians and public figures, but the intolerant atmosphere created by discriminatory statements like those of the KFCB make it impossible for them to live openly – and allow other Kenyans to continue to discriminate, wrongfully so, against LGBTQ+ Kenyans. As I Am Samuel shows, prejudice forces LGBTQ+ Kenyans to live in the shadows, fearful of being beaten up, fired from their jobs, or evicted from their homes. Stigma puts pressure on their families, who fear that if their neighbours find out they have a gay child, they will be ostracised.

The arts – from filmmakers and novelists to painters and comedians – hold a mirror up to society and show us some of the difficult realities from which we often try to shy away.

In their press statement, the KFCB appealed for content that “promotes Kenya’s moral values and national aspirations”. What are these values? The KFCB is assuming that the values of all Kenyans are the same – conservative and Christian. But Kenya is a diverse country and it is the responsibility of our government to represent and serve everybody. Our differences should be acknowledged as a strength, and shown through our filmmaking. Kenya is Africa’s third biggest film producer, after Nigeria and Ghana, making 500 films a year. African filmmakers are attracting international acclaim. Softie won an award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival last year. The United Nations recently said that the African film and audio-visual industry generates US$5 billion a year and has the potential to create 20 million jobs. I Am Samuel is the third LGBTQ+ film to be banned by the KFCB, following Stories of Our Lives (2014) and Rafiki (2018). Among other movies that have been banned by KFCB are The Wolf of Wall Street (2014) and Fifty Shades of Grey (2015).

Our film is a true record of Samuel’s lived experience Samuel. Gay African men, gay African people, should be recognised and have their rights respected. This includes the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom from discrimination. Samuel himself is a strong Christian, and Kenya has several LGBTQ+-friendly churches that provide a place for queer Kenyans to worship together. Banning of films is a blow to Kenyan filmmakers as our audience is inherently local, and we need to have a wide distribution to reach audiences, to go regional, to go global, for so many reasons: telling our own narratives, correcting the misguided ones, creating jobs, and widening our own imaginations, exponentially, of what is possible for us as Kenyans. The Lupita Nyong’os and Edi Gathegis of this world should not only exist in a rare and unexplored vacuum.

It is time for the government to accept and support our creative industries, and allow every Kenyan’s voice to be heard – because the banning also leaves us with questions about whether everyone’s point of view truly is listened to. The documentary has been released across Africa on the AfriDocs website, and we hope that African audiences will still get a chance to watch a film that is not accepted in its home country. . . yet.

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