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The Silent Undertones of Unending Conflict in Marsabit

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Historically, drivers of conflict in Marsabit County have been competition for land and water resources but the violence increasingly appears to be politically instigated.

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The Silent Undertones of Unending Conflict in Marsabit
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Northern Kenya has long been associated with marginalization, inter-communal conflict and underdevelopment. The region shares a vast porous border with Ethiopia and Somalia, making it a suitable corridor for the unimpeded flow of illegal immigrants, illicit arms and drugs originating from neighbouring conflict zones.

Marsabit County, which borders Ethiopia to the north, is home to some 14 ethnic communities: Borana, Gabbra, Rendille, Garreh, Burji, Daasanach, Somali, Sakuye, Turkana, Ameru, Samburu, Konso, Watta and Elmolo. The Rendille, Gabbra and Borana are the dominant communities in terms of population and areas settled. These three communities together influence and drive the social, political and economic agendas. The contemporary political importance of the ethnic group is primarily a function of its size. However, the Burji – a relatively wealthy community concentrated around Mount Marsabit – arguably punch above their weight and have joined the powerful Borana, Gabbra and Rendille to become the fourth most influential force in the county’s ethnic politics.

Marsabit County continues to feature in the news constantly for the wrong reasons: insecurity and killings. It is a matter of grave concern that security in the county is going from bad to worse. Political leaders, faith-based groups and non-state actors have repeatedly sought protection from the government and the security agencies without success.

In January 2014, war broke out between the Borana and Gabbra communities in Moyale, leading to Deputy President William Ruto threatening to suspend the county government unless then Governor Ukur Yatani took responsibility for the insecurity in his area. But Raila Odinga accused Ruto and the Jubilee party of targeting Yatani, now National Treasury Cabinet Secretary, for being an Orange Democratic Movement governor.

The November 23 2018 issue of the Indian Ocean newsletter reported that Governor Mohamud Mohamed Ali had appealed to Nairobi over Yatani’s role in the escalating conflict between the Borana and Gabbra and communities. The paper claimed that Yatani had influenced the government to stop issuing national identity cards to members of the Borana community.

Borana and Gabbra rivalry

The rivalry between the Borana and the Gabbra dates back to the late 1990s and escalated in July 2005 with the Turbi Massacre in which more than 60 people, the majority of them schoolchildren, were killed. Ever since then, peace in Marsabit has remained elusive. On 10 April 2006, a plane carrying four area representatives and security officials from Nairobi to Marsabit on a peace and security mission crashed, killing everyone on board. For a short period, the deaths brought a hiatus to the fighting as the warring communities retreated into introspection; that incident left many wondering if the Borana-Gabbra conflict is stoked by competition for water and pasture or is fuelled by politics.

Traditional drivers of conflict

The historical stress factors leading to conflict have been studied and documented. They include climate change and environmental degradation; drought, famine and other natural catastrophes; resource and land-related conflicts (some relating to administrative and electoral boundaries); the proliferation of small arms and light weapons; and human-wildlife conflicts aggravated by the competing use of land for wildlife conservation in private conservancies.

Traditional security measures — disarmament and emergency deployments of security forces — only serve as a temporary measure. This is because the communities feel that the national government has been ambiguous in its response to the conflict, with some believing that the national authorities have failed to act decisively and impartially to negotiate a lasting solution to the crisis. Communities in remote areas have suffered the worst consequences of the insecurity because of the inhibiting context — a permissive environment and ungovernable spaces where these vulnerable communities live.

For years now, the planned killings of livestock herders, the calculated raids on rural settlements, the brutal murders of innocent women and poor quarry workers and the indiscriminate massacre of Boda Boda riders and commuters, including children on their way to school, have continued unabated, especially in Saku and Moyale constituencies. Attacks and killings in settlements and at water points occur two to three times a week. In the last two months, there have been clashes and killings in Funan Qumbi, Funan Idha, Elle-Borr and Elle-Dimtu. With the historical injustices not addressed and the “our man” syndrome taking root, the mistrust between the two communities is growing by the day.

Political supremacy

The violence involving the Borana and Gabbra has steadily moved away from traditional resource-based conflicts to more sinister criminal acts fuelled by efforts to sustain economic and political gains.

Ukur Yatani’s efforts to rebrand the Watta community were seen as politically motivated to reduce the numerical strength of the Borana to which his political nemesis Governor Ali belongs. The Watta had decided to shed off their name — which they said was disparaging and meant to portray them as wanderers or beggars — to become the Wayyu. It is reported that Yatani had stood with them in their efforts to seek their own identity as a distinct ethnic group while he was governor. Critics accuse Yatani of using state resources to build his support base and engage in sowing discord.

Historically, the conflict between the two pastoralist communities has been over water and pasture but more than a decade and a half of countless peace meetings have borne no fruit. However, the dynamics have now shifted to the control of a KSh7 billion annual fund which points to a fight for political supremacy.

With the historical injustices not addressed, and the “our man” syndrome taking root, the mistrust between the two communities is growing by the day.

Security pundits have repeatedly claimed that the clashes and conflicts in Marsabit are also schemed by political forces who are determined to keep the county destabilised and to derail the development agenda of the elected leaders. Even though the responsibility of the attackers cannot be ignored, it is also becoming increasingly clear that there are conflict entrepreneurs and activists in the county who are involved in fomenting inter-ethnic conflicts and planning violent attacks. Communities that have co-existed peacefully for years and have a history of voting together are being turned against each other in order to cause political disunity.

Ethnic conflicts and killings cannot be planned or sanctioned by the entire community. It is often groups of individuals — working for themselves and advancing interests that are against the wellbeing of the community — who plan and cause bloodshed in the name of their community. No community should be branded as criminal. Appeals have been made to the security organs to cease placing the blame on all the elected leaders and elders of the warring communities because that approach has been counterproductive in the past; they should instead focus on apprehending the real planners and perpetrators of the violence.

The County Action Plan for integrating the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and the National Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism (NSCVE) has not been implemented for more than two years now. The project partners include CIFA (Community Initiative Facilitation and Assistance), MWADO (Marsabit Women and Development Organisation), and SND (Strategies for Northern Development). The Saku Accountability Forum (SAF) is also involved in the project with funding from UN Women (Kenya).

The dawn of devolution 

Historically, drivers of conflict in Marsabit County were competition for grazing lands and watering points. But not anymore. Today’s conflict is a result of scheming by groups intent on exploiting ethnic vulnerabilities and fears for political and economic gain.

Devolved politics is one factor exacerbating the conflict as it defines the economic and social realities of communities in unforeseen ways. The question of who makes executive decisions regarding the allocation of resources for development programmes that have the potential to change the lives of these previously marginalised people is the elephant in the room.

Devolution is the contextual background behind a ruthless competition for power and economic dominance that has spawned a new “tenderpreneur” class that is wreaking havoc in the region.  Devolution has brought with it erosion of trust and intolerance amongst these groups. Visionless politics of ethnic supremacy, the politics around land and development projects, coupled with weak land tenure rights and the chronic failures of policing and justice, form the bedrock of militia activities under the guise of inter-communal violence.

There are conflict entrepreneurs and activists in the county who are involved in fomenting inter-ethnic conflicts and planning violent attacks.

The link between the conflict and elections was clear during the last two polls held in 2013 and 2017 under the devolved system of government. During these elections, the Gabbra community was pitted against the dominant Borana, and both formed alliances with minority ethnic groups. Simultaneously, the sophisticated weapons used by community members rendered local security forces helpless, and the Kenya Defence Forces had to use air power to stop the fighting.

Every electioneering period is followed by a cycle of ethnic violence in Marsabit. Yet many, including the media, continue to attribute the reason for the conflicts to fighting over resources.

Violent conflicts have also occurred between the Gabbra and Daasanach in the lower part of Marsabit County. Knee-jerk decisions by the national government such as disarming local police reservists have done little to calm the situation. Now the violence threatens to spiral out of control in an environment marred by mutual mistrust and suspicion.

Politicians and those who finance the conflicts use ethnicity and identity to mobilise and engage young illiterate people in violence to achieve their ego-fuelled personal political and economic goals. Every human life is sacred and special, but losing the young to this kind of evil violence is particularly heart-rending, and such cases are becoming far too frequent and almost normal. The injured are hospitalised, the dead are buried, politicians issue the same hollow, platitudinous statements and the police promise investigations, and that is where it all ends.

Laxity of security agencies

No arrests are made and when they are, no successful prosecutions follow. Too many grieving families are left traumatised and permanently scarred, with no real closure. And the cycle continues.

But while the incidents of violence could be politically motivated, no high-level national government official has visited the area; it would appear that the warring communities have been left to their own devices to make war or broker peace. There had been hope that the government’s June 26 statement would quell the violence but it has continued unabated.

Devolution is the contextual background behind a ruthless competition for power and economic dominance that has spawned a new “tenderpreneur” class that is wreaking havoc in the region.

Although local politicians have been arrested for political incitement, and meetings have been held between local leaders, interfaith groups and Kenyan and Ethiopian government officials, peace remains elusive. However, a cross-border peace initiative launched on 1 July 2019 with financial support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) does signal hope and the decision to set up a community-based peace committee is encouraging although it will need full government support to work.

Peace and security are two sides of the same coin – they always walk together. It is the responsibility of the national government to guarantee the safety and security of all citizens, as enshrined in the constitution. However, all the available anecdotal evidence points to severe gaps in the capacity and willingness of the government’s various security and administrative branches to play this role effectively and fairly. The bottom line is that any government that consistently fails to safeguard the security of its citizens and their property has no legitimacy to govern.

The unspoken reality

The conflict appears increasingly driven by politically instigated ethnic territorial expansion (illegal settlements) and competition to increase voter numbers for the 2022 elections. The county’s last two polls stand out for the enmity and ethnic hatred that were manifested and which have grown to untenable levels.

This is the unspoken reality but when peace meetings are called, all speakers use code words, phrases and innuendos to spin and sidestep the truth, declare a fake ceasefire, pray for rain and peace, and disperse. This charade of duplicitous interactions followed by inaction must stop. First, we need to frame the challenge and articulate it clearly and truthfully. If our moral compass is pointing in the right direction, we must speak up; we cannot and should no longer remain silent.

Any government that consistently fails to safeguard the security of its citizens and their property has no legitimacy to govern.

A practical solution to the Marsabit conflict is to find the strategies needed to eliminate the reasons that fuel divisive politics among the resident communities. A long-term solution for sustainable peace in Marsabit requires a means of reconstitution and a process of empowerment, of an inclusive and equitable political system; the kind of peace that will make life in that the  county worth living, the type that enables parents, families and communities to hope and build a better life for their children.

If Marsabit voters do not collectively reject those politicians who do not seem to value human life, who lie to them repeatedly and disastrously, who waste or misuse their resources with impunity, then they deserve their fate.

The fact of the matter is that conflict in Marsabit is local and manufactured. Therefore, the solution can only come from the communities themselves, and it is not beyond them. Accepting death, suffering, and pain is not an option anymore.

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Salad Malicha is a communication policy expert based in Isiolo.

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Abiy Has Lost His War but Ethiopia Could Reinvent Itself

The conflict has left a weakened nation and it has confronted all Ethiopians with one inescapable truth: they must acknowledge their diversity or risk disintegration.

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Abiy Has Lost His War but Ethiopia Could Reinvent Itself
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A coalition of Ethiopian opposition forces is approaching the gates of the capital, Addis Ababa, following a long, arduous offensive against forbidding odds. The Ethiopian army has effectively disintegrated, partly from major battlefield losses and partly from self-inflicted attrition as the high command weeded out and disarmed troops with ethnic ties to the Tigrayan and Oromo rebels. Addis is expected to fall in a matter of weeks, if not days.

The recent capture of Debre Sina – a town some 200 kilometres north of Addis – by the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) triggered alarms in Addis and beyond. The Ethiopian capital is one of Africa’s vastest metropolises and has a population estimated at over 5 million. Western governments issued a flurry of advisories urging their citizens to leave Ethiopia, while numerous embassies, the African Union and United Nations ordered non-essential staff and dependents to quit the country. The US deployed special forces to nearby Djibouti as a contingency. The Ethiopian government, bizarrely, denounced such measures as malicious neo-colonial propaganda, an affront to national sovereignty, and called for pan-African solidarity in quashing the manifestly domestic insurgency.

Late last week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced he was heading to the front lines to lead combat operations and transferred executive powers to Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen. Two celebrity athletes, Feyissa Lelissa and Haile Gebreselassie, declared they would join the fight to defend the city. The Prime Minister’s apparent willingness to seek martyrdom in battle has inspired tens of thousands of volunteers, drawn from his hard-line “One Ethiopia” support base, to undergo hasty military training and dig trenches around the capital in anticipation of a ferocious – but familiar – grand finale. The war-unto-death martial paradigm has a long pedigree in Ethiopia’s blood-drenched political history. Emperors waged war without quarter and died in battle. It was either conquest or death. PM Abiy’s politics, rhetoric, posture, and self-belief seem almost eerily designed to reprise the country’s dark history.

The conflict in Ethiopia, undoubtedly, is entering its most dangerous phase. But fears of pitched battles in the capital between rival ethnic militias, accelerating the country’s violent slide towards chaos – or even collapse –  may yet prove to be overblown. Abiy’s boastful appetite for battlefield glory was taken down a notch when he appeared in staged videos on state television, supposedly leading troops in Ethiopia’s desolate Afar region, far from the fiercest fighting. Ill-trained and lightly armed volunteers, even in the thousands, are no match for disciplined, battle-hardened TDF troops equipped with heavy weapons and armoured vehicles. OLA units stationed around the capital, though less well-trained or equipped, could diminish any numerical advantage Abiy’s last minute recruiting drive might have achieved. A brief, orderly take-over of Addis Ababa is still possible.

The war-unto-death martial paradigm has a long pedigree in Ethiopia’s blood-drenched political history.

If so, then the battle for Ethiopia’s future will begin in earnest. Abiy and his supporters claim to be fighting to prevent the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from ever ruling Ethiopia again. Ironically, seizing power is the last thing the Tigrayans want. On the contrary many – if not most – have been so horrified by Abiy’s genocidal military campaign, and the enthusiastic support that it received from so many of their compatriots, that they seek even greater autonomy for Tigray, or possibly even secession from Ethiopia altogether. For the TPLF, the seizure of Addis Ababa is a limited strategic objective: a necessary evil to unseat Abiy, lift the devastating siege on Tigray, and secure their population against future threats. With Abiy gone, that will mean the TDF returning to Tigray to confront the Amhara militias occupying Western Tigray and the very real prospect of renewed conflict with Eritrea. The gravest danger to post-Abiy Ethiopia is not that the TPLF will reclaim the reins of government, but rather that they might abandon the capital, leaving the ill-equipped OLA alone to manage a perilous political and security vacuum. Likewise, Abiy loyalists in each of the regional states are also likely to be ousted, cascading uncertainty, instability and, tragically, violence down to the provincial level.

Post-Abiy Ethiopia will be a diabolically difficult country to govern. Abiy’s imperial conceit has unleashed even greater centrifugal forces. Having witnessed the hazards of federal overreach, regional states – with Tigray in the vanguard – are likely to demand even greater autonomy and devolution of powers – including security – to permanently weaken the centre. In some regional states, minority communities like the Qemant and Agaw may in turn demand some form of recognition or special status to protect them from domination and assimilation by ethnic majorities. The political, legal, and constitutional challenges involved in negotiating such radical decentralisation are almost impossibly complex and intensely emotive.

Abiy loyalists in each of the regional states are also likely to be ousted, cascading uncertainty, instability and, tragically, violence down to the provincial level.

International partners not only have a moral obligation, but also a pragmatic political stake in preventing Ethiopia’s descent into chaos. Rather than seeking to freeze the conflict with a ceasefire between implacable adversaries, the international community should concentrate on making the TDF/OLA takeover as orderly as possible, enabling the TDF to withdraw from the capital at the earliest opportunity, and helping to formulate a framework for national dialogue. International assistance will also be required in developing a credible mechanism for transitional justice for victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

A robust transitional justice intervention may be the only way to prevent another full-scale war with Eritrea, holding Isaias Afwerki, his commanders and party officials to account for atrocities committed by their forces in Tigray. But given the sluggishness with which international justice is delivered, and the lack of adequate enforcement mechanisms, this is a problem that the TDF may decide to resolve on their own terms.

Abiy’s war is lost, but Ethiopia is not. This conflict has indisputably left the nation weak, traumatised, and polarised, but it has produced no victor nor left any spoils. And it has confronted all Ethiopians with one inescapable truth: they must acknowledge their diversity or risk disintegration.

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African Citizens’ Letter to the United Nations Secretary General On the risk of genocide in Ethiopia

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An Open Call by African Intellectuals for Urgent Action on Ethiopia
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We, the undersigned, write on behalf of ourselves, our members across the regions of the African continent and the Diaspora and on behalf of concerned Africans and humanity everywhere, to request you to provide leadership in taking urgent measures to prevent imminent genocide in Ethiopia. Absent such action, we believe that genocide is likely to happen under your watch as the Secretary-General which will be a blot not merely on your record in that capacity but also of our collective humanity at this time. To avert this, we urge you to initiate or take the following steps urgently: –

  1. Work with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to make inventories of all internment centres in Ethiopia and ensure access, monitoring and oversight of conditions therein by the ICRC;
  2. Deploy, without further delay, your Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG), Ms. Alice Nderitu, on an urgent assessment mission into Ethiopia;
  3. Take steps in liaison with Member States to convene a special session of the Human Rights Council on Ethiopia;
  4. Secure a clear Security Council Statement of commitment to the prevention of genocide in Ethiopia and authorization of measures to follow up on that commitment; and
  5. Provide a clear commitment by the Secretary-General to ensuring the prevention of genocide in Ethiopia.

Mr. Secretary-General,

As you may recall, on 21 May 2000, the International Panel of Eminent Personalities (IPEP) on the Rwandan genocide, chaired by Botswana’s former president, Ketumile Masire, submitted its Report to the United Nations through the Secretariat of the Organisation of African Unity. The title of the Report was “Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide”. The Panel transmitted the Report under cover of a letter part of which contained the following words: –

“Indisputably, the most important truth that emerges from our investigation is that the Rwandan genocide could have been prevented by those in the international community who had the position and means to do so. But though they had the means, they lacked the will. The world failed Rwanda.”

Specifically, the Report found that the United Nations “simply did not care enough about Rwanda to intervene appropriately.”

We write because 21 years later, under your leadership, the United Nations does not appear to have taken any of these lessons to heart and the world could be auditioning for yet another preventable genocide in Ethiopia. The evidence is all too glaring: –

  1. A rebel army defined mostly by ethnic identity is marching relentlessly towards the capital city (Addis Ababa).
  2. An incumbent regime, enabled by trappings of international recognition, precariously clings to power through appeals to narrow identity and is programming its populations for a campaign of extermination against populations almost exclusively defined by ethnicity.
  3. Around Addis Ababa, the Federal Government and the Amhara Regional Government are distributing crude arms to neighbourhood and popular militias and programming them for the extermination in the name of self-defence.
  4. At the beginning of November 2021, the Federal Government in Addis Ababa promulgated a state of emergency empowering themselves to intern almost exclusively people of Tigrayan identity. Around Addis Ababa, tens of thousands of Tigrayans have been rounded up and interned in makeshift detention centres – malls, shops, police units, construction sites – just for the crime of who they are or where they come from. The numbers are ambulatory but best reliable estimates indicate the numbers now interned or disappeared could be close to 40,000 and rising rapidly. This is happening also in other major cities around the country controlled by the Federal Government and its allies. These internees are denied basic dignity and are not afforded access to visitation. The internment centres and conditions are equally not under the oversight or monitoring of any independent institutions.
  5. While all these happen, the United Nations and the African Union as a regional arrangement under Article 52(1) of the UN Charter, have failed to take any concrete steps to prevent the real likelihood of imminent mass extermination, beginning with all the internees.

Mr. Secretary General,

  • On 5 February 2021, your own Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG), Ms. Alice Nderitu expressed “alarm” at “the continued escalation of ethnic violence in Ethiopia and allegations of serious violations of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in the Tigray region”, including “attacks against civilians based on their religion and ethnicity as well as serious allegations of human rights violations and abuses including arbitrary arrests, killings, rape, displacement of populations and destruction of property in various parts of the country.”
  • On 30 July 2021, your own SAPG, Ms. Alice Nderitu, “condemned inflammatory statements used by top political leaders and associated armed groups. The use of pejorative and dehumanizing language like ‘cancer’, ‘devil’, ‘weed’ and ‘bud’ to refer to the Tigray conflict, warning that “hate speech, together with its propagation through social media is part of a worrisome trend that contributes to further fuel ethnic tensions in the country.”
  • In their Joint Investigation Report issued on 3 November, 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission found that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that a number of (…) violations may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
  • On 8 November 2021, your own SAPG, Ms. Alice Nderitu, communicated that she is “gravely concerned at the deterioration of the situation of Ethiopia, where escalation of violence, increased incidence of ethnically and religiously motivated hate speech, displacement of populations and destruction of property display serious indicators of risk of commission of atrocity crimes.”

It is quite clear that if Addis Ababa should come under threat of falling to the rebel army, the internees – wherever they are held – would, under current conditions, be liable to be exterminated. This is easily foreseeable. It can also be prevented.

We further note the alarming evidence of the likelihood of (continued) perpetration of other serious crimes under international law on populations including extermination, torture, rape and persecution.

The United Nations under your leadership can surely stop history from repeating itself. You have the means to do so but time is running out and posterity will be brutal in its judgement of your tenure if, despite the clear notice with a calendar, this genocide is not prevented.

Yours Sincerely,

Signed by the following institutions and individuals as at 5.00 p.m. (East African Time) on Friday 26th November 2021

A – Institutions

  1. Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG)
  2. African Initiative for Peacebuilding, Advocacy and Advancement (AfriPeace), Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria
  3. African Union Watch, Banjul, The Gambia
  4. Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA), Kampala, Uganda
  5. Cameroon Women’s Peace Movement (CAWOPEM)
  6. Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Nigeria
  7. Coalition burundaise des defenseurs des droits de l,home (CBDDH), Burundi
  8. Coalition des Defenseurs des Droits Humains du Benin, Benin
  9. Coalition Malienne des Défenseurs des droits de l’homme, Mali
  10. Coalition Togolaise des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (CTDDH), Togo
  11. Coalition Burkinabè des Défenseurs des droits humains (CBDDH), Burkina Faso
  12. Coalition Ivoirienne des Défenseurs des Droits de l’Homme, Côte d’Ivoire
  13. Coalition for an effective African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACC), Arusha, Tanzania
  14. Le Forum pour le Renforcement de la société civile (FORSC), Burundi
  15. Gender Centre for Empowering Development (GenCED)
  16. Hope Advocates Africa (HADA)
  17. Human Rights Defenders Network Sierra Leone
  18. Institut des Médias pour la Démocratie et les Droits de l’Homme (IM2DH)
  19. International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Kampala, Uganda
  20. Mouvement des Femmes et Filles pour la Paix et la Sécurité au Burundi, Burundi
  21. Mozambique Human Rights Defenders Network
  22. Nawi – Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective, Nairobi, Kenya
  23. Network of Independent Commissions for Human Rights in North Africa
  24. Nigerian Human Rights Defenders Focal Point, Nigeria
  25. Pan African Citizens Network (PACIN), Nairobi, Kenya
  26. Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), Arusha, Tanzania
  27. Réseau des Citoyens Probes (RCP), Burundi
  28. Réseau des Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale
  29. Réseau Nigérien des Défenseurs des droits de l’homme
  30. Réseau Ouest Africain des Défenseurs des Droits Humains
  31. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (Southern Defenders)
  32. Tax Justice Network Africa (TJNA), Nairobi, Kenya
  33. Victim Advocates International (VAI), Nairobi, Kenya
  34. Youth Forum for Social Justice

B – Individuals 

  1. Achieng AKENA, Executive Director, International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Kampala, Uganda
  2. Ida BADJO, Togo
  3. Joseph BIKANDA, Cameroon
  4. Professor Danwood CHIRWA, Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town, South Africa
  5. Maître Francis DAKO, Lawyer Benin
  6. Caryn DASAH, Cameroon
  7. Donald DEYA, Chief Executive Officer, Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), Arusha, Tanzania
  8. Adaobi EGBOKA, Human Rights Lawyer, Nigeria
  9. Chibuzo EKWEKUO, Lawyer, Abuja, Nigeria
  10. Hannah FORSTER, Chairperson, CSO Coalition on Elections, Banjul, The Gambia
  11. Immaculée HUNJA, Mouvement des Femmes et Filles pour la Paix et la Sécurité au Burundi, Burundi
  12. James GONDI, Human Rights Lawyer, Nairobi, Kenya
  13. Ibrahima KANE, Lawyer, Senegal
  14. Naji Moulay LAHSEN, Morocco
  15. Bonaventure N’Coué MAWUVI, Togo
  16. Alvin MOSIOMA, Executive Director, Tax Justice Network Africa (TJNA), Nairobi, Kenya
  17. Vera MSHANA, New York, United States of America (USA)
  18. Salima NAMUSOBYA, Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), Kampala, Uganda
  19. Stella W. NDIRANGU, Human Rights Lawyer, Nairobi, Kenya
  20. Dismas NKUNDA, Executive Director, Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA), Kampala, Uganda
  21. Bahame Tom NYANDUGA, Chairman ad interim, African Union Watch, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
  22. Professor Chidi Anselm ODINKALU, former Chairperson, National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria, Abuja, Nigeria
  23. Gladwell W. OTIENO, Nairobi, Kenya
  24. Charles Donaldson OGIRA
  25. Dr. Feyi OGUNADE, Executive Director, African Union Watch
  26. Silas Joseph ONU, Convener, Open Bar Initiative, Nigeria
  27. Caylen SANTOS, The Shalom Foundation, Franklin, TN
  28. Crystal SIMEONE, Nairobi, Kenya
  29. Mélanie SONHAYE KOMBATE, Togo
  30. Arnold TSUNGA, Lawyer, Zimbabwe
  31. Rosalie Wakesho WAFULA, Lawyer, Kenya

With copies to:

Ms. Michelle Bachelet Jeria
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
Geneva, Switzerland

Mr. Peter Maurer
President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Geneva, Switzerland

Ms. Alice Wairimu Nderitu
United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG)
United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect
New York, United States of America (USA)

Ms. Karen Smith
United Nations Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect
United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect
New York, United States of America (USA)

Mr. Parfait Onanga-Anyanga
United Nations Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa
Office of the Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa

Ms. Hanna Serwaa Tetteh
Special Representative of the United Nations to the African Union and Head of the United Nations Office to the African Union
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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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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