Connect with us

Op-Eds

Pertinent Issues on the War in Tigray

9 min read.

The Ethio-Eritrean war against the people of Tigray has entered a new phase, following the decision of the Government of the National Regional State of Tigray to redeploy its forces to the borders of Tigray, announced by the leadership on December 19. For the people of Tigray, it is fundamentally a war for survival.

Published

on

Pertinent Issues on the War in Tigray
Download PDFPrint Article

December 24, 2021

The aims of the leadership of Tigray in the war in Ethiopia are, first, to save the people of Tigray from a genocidal onslaught including forced starvation and, second, to establish an all-inclusive government for Ethiopia as a whole. There is no intention to install a government in Addis Ababa led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Instead, we want the people of Tigray to govern themselves within a multi-national federal system.

Eleven months ago after the first round of fighting in which, the people of Tigray were facing a coordinated campaign of destruction from the governments in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the leadership of Tigray, including the TPLF and others, met together to decide how to respond. The Central Command was established to serve as the highest decision making body with regard to the war effort. The Central Command under the regional government of Tigray is leading the whole war effort including the activities of the TDF (Tigray Defense Forces) up to now.  I am a member of the Central Command but the views I am expressing here are my personal views and should not be taken to reflect the views of the Tigray Government and Central Command.

In June, after our forces liberated most of Tigray, the Central Command issued an eight point proposal for talks with the Federal Government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which we hoped would lead to a ceasefire and a peaceful settlement. Abiy did not respond to those proposals and continually rejected the efforts of international interlocutors. He refused to meet our non-negotiable precondition which is ending the war crime of starvation by permitting humanitarian aid and restoring essential services.

Although the starvation of our people is not on your television screens, it is real. Every day, children and their mothers are perishing of hunger. Our people are dying needlessly from treatable diseases because our hospitals have no medicine. Abiy made it perfectly clear that he intended to crush the sprite of resistance to subjugation in Tigray through a starvation siege. In this context the Central Command took the decision to pursue the war, joining forces with other groups to establish a United Front. This includes organizations from Oromo, Somali, Afar, Agaw and others. The biggest of these groups is the Oromo Liberation Army. There was and still is a desire to include other political forces including Amhara political forces as well.

We are fighting to protect the principles of the Federal Constitution of Ethiopia, starting with the cherished affirmation that sovereign legitimacy resides in the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia. Abiy, on the other hand, is fighting to overturn the constitution. The Amhara elites continually talk about an Ethiopia that is greater than its people. They are ready to kill for this ideology and they are sending thousands of young people to die for it. These elites claim legitimacy for their group only, looking backwards to the era when Ethiopia was an Amhara-ruled empire. We have experienced this kind of ultra-nationalism in the past and it neither secured national territorial integrity nor protected the central government from collapse. Instead, the project of a centralized Ethiopian empire led to war and destruction in all corners of our country. This was why the 1995 Ethiopian constitution, which remains in place today, defines the country as the voluntary unity of its peoples within a federal system.

The Tigray Central Command pursued the war in order to compel the government to negotiate on equal terms and, failing that, to replace it with an all-inclusive Transitional Government. Foreign and domestic political forces were apprehensive of a “repeat of 1991”, referring to the military victory of the TPLF and its coalition partners in that year. We made it clear that the political landscape both in Tigray and Ethiopia have changed so much so that there is no option for such a scenario. Moreover, Tigray cannot shoulder the responsibility for reconstituting the Ethiopian state, especially so without any agreed domestic political arrangement and clear international support.

Our political discussions within the United Front and other political forces which were yet to be part of the coalition were proceeding more slowly than our military advance, which reached the outskirts of the city of Debre Birhan, just 145 km from Addis Ababa. The prospect that we would march into the capital city caused panic mainly among the internationals and to some extent Ethiopians as well. We understand that fear. We also want those who are dismayed about the   safety of the capital to understand the intolerable suffering and the threat of continuing genocide that the Tigrayan people are living under every day.

This was the reason for our decision to march towards Addis Ababa.  We hoped the political developments, both international and domestic, would catch up by then as well. This did not happen.

We appreciate that many around the world, including the U.S., the European Union, and the international media, have exposed the grievous violations against our people and demanded that they stop. We were hopeful that the matter would be raised at the UN Security Council which would act on its obligations to uphold fundamental norms about humanity and act energetically to promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But China and Russia consistently blocked any efforts. It appears to us that they did so because they saw the war in terms of the balance of geo-strategic power, and sacrificed principles for political point-scoring, abandoning people to die out of their narrow mindedness.

Regrettably, Western nations’ actions did not go beyond rhetoric. They appealed for a cessation of hostilities and for humanitarian access, but in practice these were empty gestures. They did not use the diplomatic and economic tools in their hands. Worse, the rhetoric of western governments and the silence of the African Union gave Abiy the pretext to adopt slogans of anti-imperialism and pan-Africanism which in turn allowed China and Russia, along with Iran, Turkey and the UAE, to sell arms. Tigray got words, Abiy got weapons.

The best that can be said for those supporting Abiy is that his backers believe they are protecting the Ethiopian state from collapse. They are misinformed. They are saving a government in name only. Our forces encounter this on the battlefield: the Ethiopian National Defense Force is kitted out in uniforms and has modern equipment, ranks and units, but it fights like a rag-tag horde of feudal levies, backed by an air force and drones supplied by foreigners. Administrative structures have collapsed across the country. Salaries are not paid, schoolchildren are sent to harvest the fields. The foreign ministry has been replaced by campaigns on Twitter and Facebook. The peace and security architecture for the Horn, which was painstakingly built by Ethiopia’s diplomats and peacekeepers in partnership with the African Union and United Nations, has been summarily demolished.

In fact, Abiy is implementing the blueprint of Isaias Afwerki, dictator of Eritrea. This is to build a trio of autocrats: Isaias, Abiy and the Somali president Mohamed Farmaajo. For Ethiopia this means a dictator in Addis Ababa ruling over a weak and fragmented state, all under the heel of Eritrea.

The Ethiopian state under Abiy Ahmed and his Amhara interlocutors is being used as a Trojan Horse for the unbridled and oversized ambition of Isaias Afewerki, who he himself is serving as an agent of the Middle Eastern countries. I would like to make one thing clear, if the resistance in Tigray is crushed by the combined forces of the Ethiopian federal government, Amhara forces, and their backers in the Middle East (Turkey, UAE, and Iran) the floodgates for Isaias to implement his blueprint will be open. The region of the Horn of Africa will be run as per the dictat of the Eritrean dictator. Is the international community, Africa and the region willing to live with the impending scenario? If the answer to the question posed is no, the time to act is now.

The Ethiopian government has begged and borrowed and sold its assets to get arms from foreign powers who have little knowledge about the country and less goodwill. No amount of jingoistic rhetoric can conceal that Abiy has made Ethiopia into a beggar. Those who are putting coins on his plate today will want him to sing for them tomorrow.

Where Middle Eastern powers have poured in their weapons and money, and the international community has recognized a government in name only, we do not see stability. In Libya, Syria and Yemen we see the reality of state collapse. The government becomes a client of its biggest paymasters and the country becomes locked in unending conflict. We need to save Ethiopia from this fate.

The U.S. government expressed its serious concern over the maintenance and continuity of the Ethiopian state. It stated its intention to bring a rapid resolution to the war through negotiation. Washington DC openly opposed the advance of the TDF to Addis Ababa, threatening the government of Tigray with sanctions if our forces approached the city. On the other hand, the U.S. expressed no strategy (at least to us) to end the war except appeasing Abiy Ahmed with flattery. The policy of appeasement has not brought any solution before and it will not bring fast resolution of the conflict and save the Ethiopian state either.

In my opinion the fastest way to end the conflict has now evaporated.

In this context, the TDF is fighting absolutely alone. It has no international allies and no military or other material assistance from abroad. Tigrayan people do not even receive humanitarian aid. The Tigrayan people are few, impoverished but gallant and with a strong sense of identity. We have a long and proud history of fighting against invaders of our land and we are repeating the heroic feats of our predecessors.

Our forces did not advance on Addis Ababa. In the last two weeks, the effects of swarms of drones on the TDF advanced positions and supply lines has been substantial. Personnel of Eritrean armored divisions are in daily combat within the ranks of the ENDF. Eritrean forces still occupy substantial parts of Tigray. In these circumstances, with long and vulnerable supply lines to our forces, and no effective international political process for a negotiated settlement, the Government of regional state of Tigray through the Central command decided to withdraw to defensive positions to consolidate our forces. A withdrawal under drone fire is a difficult military operation which we have accomplished successfully. We are undefeated.

Over the last few days, the Ethio-Eritrean coalition forces attempted to penetrate our lines, from south, west and east. They were repulsed with heavy losses. After these setbacks the regime in Addis Ababa announced that it had completed “phase one” of its operation and would not be continuing its attacks. This statement, coupled with the previously announced position of the National Regional Government of Tigray for a ceasefire, opens an opportunity for the international community, led by Kenya, to press for a cessation of hostilities and initiate peace talks.

If this does not happen, the war will continue not only in Tigray but in other places in Ethiopia as well. There will be more loss of lives; economic destruction and whatever political and social fabric that might have persisted up to now will be destroyed which means saving the Ethiopian multinational federal state as we know it becomes very difficult.

Now the regime of Abiy Ahmed could be preparing to initiate an “inclusive dialogue” controlled and monitored by itself. He is trying hard to make the world believe him he has “defeated the rebels” and would offer them to be part of this inclusive dialogue, as individuals not as the TPLF. Some in the international community might support his idea as well.

This process will not work. Any inclusive dialogue should be done by neutral bodies with the participation of the major political forces in Ethiopia sponsored and supported by the international community. The mechanism could be worked out with the assistance of experts on the field. We hope that African countries will rise to the challenge of hosting and facilitating the conference.

There must be a political solution to the war in Ethiopia. Whether this includes Abiy or not is secondary. What is important is that the human crisis facing the Tigrayan people is averted and that the settlement to this war should usher in stability, democracy and development.

My vision for this is as follows.

Tigray must stand on its feet and must have cast iron guarantees that the genocidal assaults of the last year will never, ever happen again. We shall rely on ourselves, as we have shown we can do, but we also rely on Africa and the international community to ensure that we are not alone if we ever again face enemies determined to destroy us.

Ethiopia is a nation of nations, and the only way forward for the country is to recognize this. There can be no return to empire-building or the domination of one group over another

Tigray is an ancient civilization, a place where Christianity has deep roots and where the peaceful coexistence and symbiosis between Muslims, Christians and Jews goes back fourteen centuries. Recognizing and preserving this is the foundation stone for stability for Ethiopia, our neighbors in the Horn of Africa, and the countries on the other shore of the Red Sea.

Tigray is an African nation. We have contributed to the birth of African civilization and we have contributed to the vision of an Africa that is stable, secure and independent from external powers, whether they be Europe, America, the Middle East or Asia. Tigrayans are proud of our contribution to Ethiopia’s diplomacy and peacekeeping which was a pillar of stability and development in the Horn of Africa region. We are proud of our contribution to regional economic integration including water, electricity and transport infrastructure joining neighboring countries.

The entire international community, including Russia, China, and all the countries in the Middle East, have a responsibility to humanity that should override whatever policy differences they may have with America and Europe. That same common responsibility extends to protecting a cultural heritage, by halting the war against a people who have been the custodian of this unique intersection of faiths and cultures.

The Horn of Africa is a region where the world’s great powers all have legitimate interests. The world needs maritime security, seeks to stamp out violent extremism, and wants to avert the specter of massive distress migration driven by conflict, famine and state collapse. We in Tigray recognize this. Given our proximity and history we want to be constructive player by securing our national interest and legitimate national interest of other player in the sub region. The world should not allow a repeat of Syria, Yemen or Libya in the Horn at the western flank of the Red Sea. This is not a zero-sum game. Ethiopia should be the place where these international and regional interests converge in a multilateral pact.

All Ethiopians need a ceasefire and political negotiations. Our political goals are clear and we have reiterated our proposal for a ceasefire. This may start with a freeze in combat—a cessation of hostilities. It must then develop into a full and permanent ceasefire, which is a complicated military operation requiring professionalism on both sides. An essential component of a ceasefire is third party monitoring and verification. Africa has extensive experience in this and we are confident that our African brothers will be able to provide the necessary expertise and capacity.

Ethiopia is unique but it is also an African country where Africa’s principles and wisdom are much needed. Over the last thirty years, beginning when I had the honor of serving as chief of staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Ethiopia has become an integral part of Africa’s peace and security architecture, extending our services in diplomacy and peacekeeping across the continent in a spirit of brotherhood and solidarity. We now call on our African brothers to reach out their hand in that same spirit.

Thank you

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Gen. (Ret) Tsadkan Gebretensae was the Chief of staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (1991-2001) and member of the Central Command of the National Regional State of Tigray.

Op-Eds

Kisumu County’s Fragile Food Security

Reliance on imports from as far away as Tanzania, Uganda and even China, leaves Kisumu County’s accessibility to food on a fragile footing.

Published

on

Kisumu County’s Fragile Food Security
Download PDFPrint Article

A ceasefire had to be called at the height of the 2007/8 post-election violence and a corridor created for the safe passage of foodstuffs from the Rift Valley to the lakeside city of Kisumu to avert a food crisis. The post-election violence had erupted barely 10 days earlier.

For a region that enjoys adequate rainfall and has good agricultural soils, the lack of access food supplies within days of a crisis breaking out is indicative of the problems generated by how food systems are structured in Kisumu County.

Kisumu County has a considerable shoreline along Lake Victoria that extends from Seme to the south to Nyakach Sub-County to the north. Apart from Kisumu city, the county also has a number of smaller towns such as Muhoroni, Ahero, Katito, Maseno and Kombewa.

Eighty per cent of the food consumed by the county’s 300,000 households—including maize, potatoes, onions, vegetables, milk, rice, eggs and bananas—is imported from as far as Uganda and Tanzania along with imports of fish from China.

Kisumu County continues to import food despite having regions that could potentially support expansive food production in areas such as Muhoroni, Nyamware and Nam Thowi, and the fertile crescents in Seme to the south. Over time, the rich alluvial soils that have been deposited in these areas by floods and rivers flowing downstream from Nandi Hills have created fertile grounds that support farming.

How did we get here?

The persistent issues that have impeded food production in Kisumu County are numerous. Traditionally, communities living in the county practiced fishing and livestock keeping, and subsistence agriculture as their economic mainstay. Commercial farming has only been embraced in recent years, due to interactions with neighbouring farming communities such as the Kisii, Luhya, Abasuba, and Kuria. The majority, however, continue to practice smallholder subsistence agriculture.

The uptake of commercial farming was also hindered by the economic policies of the 1990s that saw the collapse or the weakening of many of the structures that had been established to support food production in the country as a whole and provided extension services, grants, and subsidies to farmers. They include the Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC), the Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC), Agricultural Training Centres (ATCs), Agricultural Research Institutions (ARIs), and farmers’ co-operatives.

The system of land ownership in Kisumu County is also a hindrance to commercial food production. Most land in Kisumu County is not registered and titled and much of it is inherited property that has been passed down through the generations without legal title.

Recent surveys show that the cost of the farming inputs required to initiate meaningful agricultural production is out of reach for the majority of Kisumu County residents. This challenge is further compounded by the dearth of farming SACCOs (Savings and Credit Cooperatives); with the prohibitive interest rates charged by local banks, obtaining capital to start an agricultural enterprise has proved to be a challenge. These challenges are further exacerbated by the risks associated with farming such as crop losses and post-harvest losses.

The system of land ownership in Kisumu County is also a hindrance to commercial food production.

There is little agro-innovation among Kisumu farmers who still rely on traditional farming methods. There is little irrigation going on in the county. Lastly, there is a serious lack of the human resource required to support food production such as agricultural engineers, extension officers, veterinary doctors, agronomists, sociologists, planners, economists, among others.

Food shortage affects the mwananchi

At Jubilee Market, a major cog in the food supply chain in Kisumu City, traders lament daily about inadequate local food supplies and about middlemen from outside the county who take advantage of food shortages to import supplies and make big profits. The high demand for food and the low supply have an impact on food prices, reducing profit margins for the traders, even as consumers are faced with high food prices.

There is a serious lack of the human resource required to support food production.

The missing link in Kisumu’s economic growth is a buoyant agricultural sector. From observations made when the writer toured Victoria Eco-Farm, a leading food supplier situated at Dunga Beach in Kisumu City, the revival of agriculture in Kisumu is possible.  Victoria Eco-Farm deals in poultry, dairy, bee keeping, and the rearing of exotic dogs.  The farm has also diversified into agri-tourism, receiving visitors and training both students on attachment and local farmers on best farming practices. Nicholas Omondi, the Director, has become a role model for emerging food producers in the agriculture sector.

Modelling food sufficiency

Based on Walt Rostow’s model of economic growth, Kisumu County will not make a sudden and quick leap out of food insecurity. In Stages of Economic Growth, Rostow outlines the five stages that all countries must pass through to become developed: the traditional society; pre-conditions for take-off; take-off; drive to maturity; age of mass consumption. Regrettably, Kisumu County is still at the stage of a traditional society that is characterized by subsistence agriculture, limited funding and technological innovation, and low economic mobility.

The pre-conditions for take-off will only be fulfilled when the county government, acting in collaboration with the national government, provides adequate incentives for agricultural development. More food crops need to be introduced to farmers in Kisumu County. There is also an urgent need to revitalize existing sectors such as the sugar and fishing industries. The county’s potential to become a prime producer of rice also needs to be actualized.

Reform-oriented policies such as titling and surveying are needed in order to transform the existing models of landholding and land ownership. Farming communities in the county also require extensive sensitization and training on emerging technologies and innovations. Most importantly, existing lacklustre attitudes to farming as an economic activity among Kisumu County residents will need to be addressed.

However, the current tax regime is inimical to the drive to boost food security and needs urgent review. In effect, no serious gains can be made in the agriculture sector anywhere in the country as long as the national government continues to insist on enforcing policies that increase production costs and make it cheaper to import food from Tanzania and Uganda than to grow it at home.

The current tax regime is inimical to the drive to boost food security and needs urgent review.

Leaders must realize that whether they are in the opposition or in government, relations with state agencies, especially those in the agriculture sector, are key to developing farming in Kisumu County, that in the interest of economic development, they must always be in constant touch with the government for purposes of support, lobbying and relaying feedback in development processes. Existing attitudes and brands of politics that lead to self-marginalization must be removed at all costs.

It must be recognised, however, that the county government has taken initial steps to start addressing the challenge of food insecurity. In partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the county government has established a youth-focused Food Liaison Advisory Group (FLAG), leading to the promotion of urban agriculture, the strengthening of rural mechanisms for food production and initiating programmes for the training and deployment of agricultural extension officers.

It is to be hoped that such initiatives will contribute towards alleviating the food insecurity situation that the residents of Kisumu County continue to grapple with.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

How Twitter’s Negligence is Harming Kenya’s Democracy

Twitter’s trending algorithm has been abandoned to disinformation campaigns and attacks, failing Kenyans as political actors use it to control political narratives by harassing dissenting voices.

Published

on

How Twitter's Negligence is Harming Kenya's Democracy
Download PDFPrint Article

On the 24th of June 2021 at around 6 a.m., an insidious hashtag, #KatibaMbichi, appeared on Kenyan Twitter timelines. Its trend seemed to be driven by a number of faceless bots, and retweeted by a series of catfishes that sent it to the number one spot on the Kenyan Twitter trends. 

Our investigations have uncovered how such malicious, coordinated, inauthentic attacks that seek to silence members of civil society, muddy their reputations and stifle the reach of their messaging, is a growing problem in Kenya. Twitter, especially, has been central to these operations due to the influence it has on the country’s news cycle.

The proliferation of digital media platforms in Kenya carries the promise of a renewed definition of freedom of speech. Moreover, Twitter has been a vital tool of expression for many Kenyan citizens, many of whom use it to hold their leaders to account and to call out their failures. But civil society members and journalists have increasingly come under attack thanks to disinformation campaigns in the country.

Through a series of interviews with anonymous influencers involved in these campaigns, we accessed their inner workings and gained crucial insights into how they are organized.

An examination of the campaigns has provided our team with a window into the shadowy world of Twitter influencers for political hire in Kenya. Many of the accounts and individuals involved promote brands, causes and political ideologies without disclosing that they are part of paid campaigns.

Twitter features such as the trending algorithm are exploited to achieve the goals of these campaigns by amplifying them. Certain verified accounts on the platform are complicit in leading these attacks. The goal of these campaigns is to exhaust critical thinking and poison the information environment by muddying the truth.

Our investigations examined two months’ data between 1 May 2021 and 30 June 2021, with a particular focus on the Constitutional Amendment Bill—famously known as the Building Bridges Initiative—that was being promoted in Kenya at the time.

With the aid of Twint, Sprinklr and Trendinalia, we trailed the attacks by mapping and analysing specific hashtags that the influencers used on Twitter. This involved mapping certain accounts that posted malicious content targeting Kenya’s activists and judicial officers. The flagged hashtags often displayed synchronized publishing timestamps within the metadata, with a lack of content on most days, followed by one very sharp burst of activity and then fizzling out.

In total, using Sprinklr, which has access to Twitter’s full historical archive, we flagged 23,606 tweets and retweets released by 3,742 accounts under the 11 hashtags. We also obtained 15,350 of these tweets using the Twint package on Github to carry out further analysis of the content.

How disinformation is spread

The Twitter campaigns we looked at were those that were pro-BBI and directly attacked citizens and prominent civil society activists that were vocally opposed to the proposed reforms, and also sought to discredit civil society organisations and activists by portraying them as villains who were being funded by Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto—he opposes the BBI process.

The well-coordinated attacks are launched through WhatsApp groups to avoid detection. The WhatsApp group admins give direction about what to post, the hashtags to use, which tweets to engage with, and whom to target. They also synchronize the posting to enable the tweets to trend on twitter.

There is money to be made in attacking civil society. Our sources confirmed that they get paid between US$10 and US$15 to participate in three campaigns per day. Those higher up the ranks are on a monthly retainer that can go as high as US$500. Those who are on a retainer supervise the hashtags and ensure that they trend on the days they are posted.

Who the disinformation targets

From our analysis, the top three most frequent victims were Kenyan journalists, judges, and known activists. Prominent anti-BBI activists under the Linda Katiba movement who petitioned the courts against the BBI were the targets of some of the most vicious attacks.

The attacks peaked in early May with the specific goal of trying to discredit the anti-BBI campaign. Jerotich Seii, a key member of the Linda Katiba campaign who was targeted, said in interview that she had to spend a lot of time trying to prove that her activism efforts were genuine and that she was not a front for someone else. “The disinformation attacks against me focussed on painting me as someone with ulterior motives who isn’t interested in the welfare of Kenyans. I had to spend a good chunk of my time defending my position as someone who is actually a patriot who does what they do out of love for their country,” said Seii.

From our analysis, the top three most frequent victims were Kenyan journalists, judges, and known activists.

All this is leading to self-censorship by some of the activists on the platform as they feel that it is pointless to use a platform that cannot deliver any meaningful engagement. One activist we spoke to said that she had significantly scaled down her Twitter activity because of all the trolling she had experienced.

The Kenyan High court struck down the BBI on 14 May on the grounds that the initiative was unconstitutional and the Court of Appeal followed suit on August 20th. The ruling not only strained the already bad relationship between Kenya’s Judiciary and the Executive, it also led to wave after wave of disinformation attacks seeking to question the judges’ judicial independence and the accuracy of their decision.

A notable change in these attacks was how the visual aesthetics of the content within the campaigns evolved; newspaper editorial cartoon-style caricatures and memes were employed, a likely indication of a change of leadership or strategy at the top that sought to make the content more palatable and shareable.

What is the impact of the slander?

The data that we gathered from Trendinalia (which collects data on Twitter trends in Kenya) shows that sufficient amplification was achieved for 8 of the 11 hashtags we identified that became trending topics. This amplification was achieved partly through the use of verified accounts. One anonymous influencer we spoke to said that owners of certain verified accounts involved in these campaigns would often rent them out to improve the campaign’s chances of trending. “The owner of the account usually receives a cut of the campaign loot from the person that rented it from them once it’s over,” the influencer said.

The demand for this service by the political class in Kenya is markedly strong. During the months of May and June alone, we counted at least 31 artificial political hashtags, including the ones linked to the BBI process. This translates to at least one manipulated disinformation campaign that Kenyans have to deal with every two days.

Curiously, there is little evidence that these operations actually sway people’s opinions. However, they do have an effect on how Twitter users interact with their information environment. The goal of such operations is to overwhelm, to create an environment where nobody knows what is true or false anymore. The objective is to exhaust critical thinking and muddy the truth.

During the months of May and June alone, we counted at least 31 artificial political hashtags, including the ones linked to the BBI process.

Typically, a post by any of the prominent activists or judicial officers is bombarded with so much aggression, insults, and dismissive comments that the space for a good conversation is lost. The point is always to ensure that sober-minded people are disincentivized from amplifying the topic after encountering so much aggression in the replies and the quote tweets.

The role of Twitter Inc.

To many Kenyans, Twitter matters. The platform has become a very critical avenue of expression, networking, running ads, and a means of obtaining information. It is also an important avenue for active citizenship as #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) is one of Africa’s loudest and most lively internet communities.

On the darker side however, some of the features on Twitter are being exploited for nefarious purposes. The platform is failing Kenyans—and Africans more broadly. Political actors are using it to try to control political narratives by poisoning the platform and harassing dissenting voices.

Specifically, Twitter’s trending algorithm, which selects and highlights content without examining its potential for harm, often serves as an on-ramp for users who are trying to find information on the platform. Our sources said that Twitter trends is the primary key performance indicator by which most of their campaigns are judged. They admitted that without it their jobs would not exist. “The main goal is to go trending on Twitter. I’m not sure what our jobs would look like without that target,” said one source.

The evidence available points to the fact that, for the executives at Twitter, this is not a new phenomenon. The trending algorithm in particular, which is a big part of how Twitter works, has been abandoned to disinformation campaigns and attacks.

Twitter’s Moderation Team should pay close attention, keenly monitor and regulate its trending section. Activists, such as Sleeping Giants, have repeatedly called for Twitter to “untrend” itself. This could be done by either removing the feature completely or by disabling it during critical times such as during election periods.

The evidence available points to the fact that, for the executives at Twitter, this is not a new phenomenon.

Arguably, Twitter does not have an incentive to fix this. It sells ads for “promoted trends” and “promoted tweets” within the feeds of hashtags on its trending topics section to business clients. This puts Twitter squarely in the middle of the mess as it profits from this harmful activity.

Ad Dynamo, an agency that sells Twitter Ads in Kenya, currently offers promoted trends for US$3,500 per day within the country. The overall message this sends is that it is ok to sow hate on the platform so long as Ad Dynamo owners can place ads next to the trending content and make a profit from it.

As Kenya heads towards elections in 2022, the demand for these services will increase and many political parties will seek out malicious coordinated trending models and create the risk of a repeat of the 2007 political violence.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

WHO Neutrality in a Time of Crisis at Home: The Case of Dr Ghebreyesus

The UN and its highest officials must not choose inaction under the pretext of observing neutrality especially where genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, weaponised rape, and starvation are taking place.

Published

on

WHO Neutrality in a Time of Crisis at Home: The Case of Dr Ghebreyesus
Download PDFPrint Article

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was re-elected to serve a second five-year term as the Director-General of the World Health Organization at the 75th World Health Assembly on 24 May 2022. Dr Ghebreyesus is from Ethiopia’s Tigray region and he has been condemning the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, as well as non-state actors in Ethiopia such as the Amhara militia, for the comprehensive humanitarian blockade, total siege, systematic rape, mass killings, total destruction of health facilities, and killings of humanitarian and health workers, and other atrocious acts committed in Tigray and against its people. There are, however, critics, especially from the Ethiopian government, that claim that he is abusing his mandate as the head of a UN organization. This raises the question to what extent high-ranking UN officials should stay neutral when it comes to conflict and crises in their home countries.

Mandate and watchdog 

As the Director-General of the WHO, Dr Ghebreyesus’ statements on the catastrophic humanitarian and medical condition of the people of Tigray and his call on the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to lift the siege and humanitarian blockade are legitimate and within the purview of his mandate. It is important to understand the context of Dr Ghebreyesus’ statements. Dr Ghebreyesus has the responsibility of upholding WHO principles, which include the recognition that the “health of all peoples is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security and is dependent on the fullest cooperation of states and individuals” and that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”

The war on Tigray started at a time of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and disrupted the efforts of the people of Tigray to prevent and contain the spread of the disease and mitigate its significant health and socio-economic-political impacts. Citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the move, on 31 March 2020, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) postponed the scheduled 29 August 2020 legislative elections indefinitely. However, other voices, including the Government of Tigray,  have condemned the decision as a corona-clouded power grab.

The war on Tigray, referred to by the Ethiopian government as simply “law and order enforcement” against a few leaders in Tigray, turned out to be a well-planned total war against the people of Tigray that involved significant forces from foreign countries, including Eritrea and Somalia. Several reports by humanitarian organisations and investigations by human rights organisations and international media have repeatedly concluded that the gruesome mass atrocities committed against Tigrayans constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing that may amount to genocide. This is consistent with Ethiopian officials’ openly stated intent to erase Tigrayans. In February 2021, four months after the war started, they even shared their intentions with Pekko Havvisto, Finland’s Foreign Minister and EU Envoy to Ethiopia. “When I met the Ethiopian leadership in February, they really used this kind of language, that they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years, and so forth.

Despite the Ethiopian government declaring unilateral humanitarian ceasefires twice, first on 28 June 2021 and then on 24 March 2022, together with their Eritrean allies, Ethiopian forces have maintained the siege sealing off Tigray from the rest of the world and imposing “a de facto humanitarian aid blockade” as stated by the UN in July 2021. The siege involves a complete shutdown of telecommunications, transportation, electricity, and the banking system with the result that workers’ salaries cannot be paid, people with savings cannot access their money, and the Tigray diaspora cannot send remittances to help their families and friends in Tigray. Even aid agencies working in Tigray were denied cash and fuel and many were forced to halt their humanitarian operations.

By March 2022, 16 months since the start of the war, it was reported that an estimated half a million Tigrayans have been killed. Of those, close to 200,000 lost their lives by starvation, which is being deliberately used as a weapon of war, while another 100,000 civilian Tigrayans died from lack of access to basic medical care. The allied Ethiopian and Eritrean forces deliberately destroyed, damaged, and looted food production and supply chains and the entire health system. It is now close to 20 months since the war started and more Tigrayans have died from deliberate starvation, denial of medical care, torture, extrajudicial killings in the liberated part of Tigray, in western and other parts of Tigray still occupied by Ethiopian federal, Amhara, and Eritrean forces and in internment camps in many parts of Ethiopia.

The allied Ethiopian and Eritrean forces deliberately destroyed, damaged, and looted food production and supply chains and the entire health system.

The Ethiopian government and its allies are indeed working against the core UN charter and instruments including universal human rights such as the right to life, freedom of movement, right to food, right to health, and right to humanitarian aid. The people of Tigray are now denied the enjoyment of a standard of health services that they attained after decades of a hard, consistent and holistic effort to attain primary health care. The WHO sent critical medical supplies to all conflict-affected regions of Ethiopia but while the consignments to the Amhara and Afar regions arrived at destination without problems, those destined for Tigray have been deliberately blocked by Ethiopian authorities and their allies from reaching people who are being deliberately starved and denied access to basic medical supplies.

It is within this context that Dr Ghebreyesus is speaking out and calling for the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to stop weaponizing access to food and medical supplies. Speaking at the inauguration of his second term, Dr Ghebreyesus said:

“I am humbled by the opportunity provided by the Member States to serve a second term as WHO Director-General”. He added, “This honour, though, comes with great responsibility and I am committed to working with all countries, my colleagues around the world, and our valued partners, to ensure WHO delivers on its mission to promote health, and keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.”

Dr Ghebreyesus is therefore acting in line with his mandate to be a voice for the voiceless victims. Dr Ghebreyesus is impartial in that, under his leadership, the WHO has also been dispatching critical medical supplies to the Afar and Amhara regions; the UN system has a watchdog that oversees the impartiality of UN officials. Moreover, the UN also has an Office of Internal Oversight Services, which investigates misconduct and violations by UN officials and submits reports and recommendations to the UN Secretary-General.

The Ethiopian government did lodge a complaint to the WHO Office of Compliance, Risk Management and Ethics (CRE) and to the WHO’s Executive Board, alleging misconduct and calling for the removal of Dr Ghebreyesus from office claiming that he was using the office of the Director-General to further his personal political interests. This is part of the campaign that the Ethiopian government has been waging against all Tigrayans—attacks and witch-hunts against Tigrayans that lack any credibility. UN peacekeeping troops of Tigrayan origin deployed in Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan faced similar attacks which led the UN to treat them as prima facie refugees in need of protection.

Neutrality 

In his 2021 book titled Perilous Medicine, Professor Leonard Rubenstein describes the debate within the humanitarian and donor community about the role of neutrality in aid work, which can be extrapolated to the UN’s high-ranking officials.

Neutrality, one of the four principles of UN humanitarian practice (humanity, impartiality, and independence), is about not taking a position on one side or another in a conflict. When undertaking humanitarian and other UN operations in zones of armed conflict, UN officials are expected to remain neutral, avoiding taking sides or showing favouritism. In contrast, impartiality is maintaining non-discriminatory positions towards individuals and  groups of  people in a conflict  needing humanitarian assistance. However, neutrality should not mean that UN officials have to remain tight-lipped and passive when any of the warring parties are massacring and deliberately starving a civilian population and denying them access to life-saving assistance because of their ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political opinions, race or religion. As long as aid workers (or in this case UN officials) maintain impartiality, Professor Rubenstein questions if maintaining neutrality vis-à-vis a waring party or parties is even morally ethical, especially when they attack or deny civilians humanitarian assistance  because of their identity, as is the case with ethnic Tigrayans.

The WHO, led by Dr Ghebreyesus, has been impartial in its medical aid delivery to all ethnic groups affected by the civil war in northern Ethiopia.  While neutrality has been interpreted as not taking sides, it does not require Dr Ghebreyesus to be indifferent to the suffering of millions civilian Tigrayans when the Ethiopian government and its allies blatantly discriminate against them and deny them access to vital international medical assistance because of their ethnicity.

In her article Neutrality vs impartiality: What is the difference?, Carol Devine of Doctors Without Borders says, “Neutrality is not the same as staying silent. It’s nuanced and even controversial. MSF reserves the possibility to speak in public about massive human rights violations and crimes of humanity, including genocide.” A misguided interpretation of neutrality can lead, as it did in Rwanda, to catastrophic and regrettable tragedies. When civilians are facing crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide as is still happening in Tigray, taking no action using neutrality as excuse is against the fundamental values and mandates of the UN human rights and international humanitarian law.

A misguided interpretation of neutrality can lead, as it did in Rwanda, to catastrophic and regrettable tragedies.

It is important to be aware of the unfortunate conflation of neutrality with the duty of impartiality. Indeed, former UN Deputy Secretary-General Louis Frechette is cited saying, “The UN cannot be impartial between those who respect international, humanitarian, and human rights laws and those who grossly violate them.” In 1999, former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan said, “In the face of genocide, there can be no standing aside, no looking away, no neutrality – there are perpetrators and there are victims, there is evil and there is evil’s harvest.”

The UN and its highest officials must not choose inaction under the pretext of observing neutrality especially where genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, weaponised rape, and starvation are taking place. The heads of UN organizations including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres need to join Dr Ghebreyesus in speaking up and acting against the continuing ethnic cleansing, siege and humanitarian blockade of millions of civilian Tigrayans.

Continue Reading

Trending