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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.

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Pertinent Issues on the War in Tigray
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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

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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.

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Changes in Suicide Reporting Welcome, but Slow

Without a deeper understanding of the harm insensitive reporting on suicide causes, attempts to change may be wrongly deemed as political correctness.

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Earlier this year, the Baraza Media Lab and the Centre on Suicide Research and Intervention published a report that looked at how broadcasting stations report on suicide on social media. Its contents were sobering. Many leading media houses were found to report suicide as a criminal act. Reports also contained harmful elements such as descriptions of suicide methods and imagery of suicide and did not provide helpful information for readers who may be thinking of suicide.

So how have journalists been reporting on suicide since the data was collected? A very cursory survey of news outlets on social media shows reasons for both optimism and worry. Over the course of 2023, media outlets have published more stories about mental health, indicating an increasing awareness of it. This year has also seen an increased number of responsibly written social media posts that take into account the need for sensitivity on suicide.

Now, the negatives. Knowledge on responsible reporting of suicide, while improved, remains inconsistent across news operations. Real progress will require further integrating social media into editorial processes, subjecting its copy to as much rigour as the stories themselves to ensure errors are not introduced once stories are completed. Also, many insensitive references to suicide on social media were accurately reproduced from news stories.

The term “committed suicide” continues to appear on news websites, even in stories where responsible reporting would be expected, such as those that explore the risk factors of suicide. Stories use the insensitive word “suicidal” in phrases like “treating suicidal people as criminals” and “people who are suicidal”. The same insensitivity is also observed in the phrase “mentally ill” – ironically in stories that call for acts of suicide to be decriminalised.

It’s not clear that all journalists understand why respectful reporting on suicide is necessary. It was interesting – and revealing – to see a media outlet’s official X account, formerly known as Twitter, include both the terms “died by suicide” and “committed suicide” in the same tweet.

News websites continue to narrate morbid details about the manner of death by suicide. You are still likely to find phrases like “the body was found hanging in his room”, a man “who set himself ablaze” and “doused himself in a flammable substance before setting himself ablaze while carrying the Kenyan flag”. The imagery of suicide, with the noose particularly prominent, continues to be used in stories, inadvertently advertising hanging as a suitable method.

It’s not clear that all journalists understand why respectful reporting on suicide is necessary.

Media outlets aired insensitive footage. One camera focused on a woman overcome with emotion, who understood she was being filmed. One story goes as far as to narrate that instead of dissuading the deceased from taking his own life, a bystander handed him a lighted match and taunted him over unsuccessful attempts to light himself on fire, displaying the contempt people have for people thinking of suicide and inviting viewers to agree with those ideas.

The approach to reporting suicide varies depending on whether the person who died by suicide had committed a violent crime just prior, usually another killing. Reports are more likely to use “died by suicide” where the only death reported is by suicide. On the other hand, when person who died by suicide had killed another person, the phrase “committed suicide” is used freely.

The approach to reporting suicide varies depending on whether the person who died by suicide had committed a violent crime just prior, usually another killing.

Yet the same responsibility to reduce the prominence of suicide applies even in the context of crime reporting, and steps that broadcasters take to make footage of murders acceptable, such as using trigger warnings and black and white for bloodstains, may still be unacceptable in the context of suicide prevention. According to a 2021 brief by the University College Cork, Ireland, no graphic footage should be used in reporting murder-suicides, and care should be taken to discourage copycats, or position murder-suicide as a solution to anything.

Without a deeper understanding of the harm insensitive reporting on suicide causes, attempts to change may be wrongly deemed as political correctness, resulting in disrespectful coverage that tries to “say it as it is” and neglects to include sources of help for people who may be thinking of suicide.

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Why President Kagame Should Not Run for a Fourth Term

The 2024 elections in Rwanda are an opportunity for the country to move away from strongman leadership to enable the emergence of strong institutions and a governance that is more tolerant of critics.

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Why President Kagame Should Not Run for a Fourth Term
Photo: Вени Марковски | Veni Markovski, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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The constitution of Rwanda was amended in 2015 to allow President Paul Kagame to stand for a third term of seven years. Kagame was re-elected in 2017 and his term ends in 2024. The change in the constitution also allows him to stand for a fourth and a fifth five-year term. In my view, President Kagame should not run for a fourth presidential term in the 2024 elections.

President Paul Kagame was appointed Vice President and Minister for Defence on 19 July 1994, immediately after the end of the war and the Rwanda genocide. When President Pasteur Bizimungu resigned in 2000, Kagame was elected by the Transitional National Assembly to replace him. Three years later, in 2003, Kagame was elected president and has been president of Rwanda for over two decades. He has, therefore, risen to higher levels of decision-making over three decades, a sufficient period of time during which to oversee the implementation of policies he thought would advance the betterment of Rwandans. Kagame should, therefore, consider letting another willing and capable Rwandan build upon his achievements and continue to advance Rwanda’s interests. Indeed, under Kagame’s leadership, Rwanda has made some achievements but there are also shortcomings.

First, from a war-torn country, Rwanda has emerged to become a state with well-defined and functioning structures and institutions supported by fairly clear legislations. In my opinion, this has been achieved thanks to Kagame’s administration’s commitment to bring about change in Rwanda manifested immediately after the end of the war and the genocide against the Tutsi.

Second, Rwanda has also made some economic gains even though these can be challenged in many aspects. In 2000, Kagame made a pledge to transform Rwanda from a low- to a middle-income country driven by a knowledge economy by 2020. Since then, the Rwandan economy has grown significantly and its GDP per capita has increased from USD304 in 1995 to USD940 in 2022. The country’s human development index has soared and Rwanda has been recognised by the World Health Organization as one of the countries that are performing well on the goal of achieving universal health coverage. The country’s life expectancy has increased significantly, from 47 years in 2000 to 67 years in 2020. Moreover, according to UNICEF, the government has made some improvements in expanding education for all across Rwanda.

 Lastly, through a meticulously executed campaign of communication, compelling narratives have been disseminated across the world that speak well of Rwanda. This along with the country’s commitment to deploy its soldiers to multinational peacekeeping missions across the world (Rwanda ranks fourth on the list of countries that contribute in peacekeeping in the world) has enabled Rwanda to strengthen its foreign relations with other countries and project its image as a development success story.

There are certainly more achievements that President Kagame has made during his 30 years in leadership that his replacement can learn from and retain to move Rwanda forward. However there are shortcomings. Kagame managed to put the country back on the world map but failed to create an environment for the country’s citizens to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Upon taking power following a military victory, his political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), pledged a consensual democracy to Rwandans. But over time this democracy has transformed into a political system that suppresses political dissent, restricts pluralism and curtails liberty in Rwanda. Most affected are those who dare or are perceived to challenge his government’s narrative in Rwanda and abroad. In many instances, Kagame’s government has abused its power, colluding with the judicial system to criminalise his critics. As a result, Rwanda has repeatedly been categorised as not a free country by Freedom House.

This has led to independent and inter-governmental human rights organisations and representatives of developed countries that financially support Rwanda to publicly criticise his leadership for lack of political inclusion, human rights violations and the overall democracy deficit in Rwanda. This situation continues to tarnish Rwanda’s reputation that Kagame’s leadership has been working hard to restore.

Furthermore, independent reports on the development of democracy and governance throughout the world – and in Africa in particular – all point out that citizen participation in Rwanda remains limited, as do local NGOs.

Political participation in Rwanda is limited only to those who adhere or are willing to be affiliated to his political party, the RPF. This has prevented the emergence of a genuine opposition that could have provided checks and balances across institutions in Rwanda. The repercussions are that lack of accountability within public institutions is rampant and Kagame has many times publicly criticised officials in his administration for not delivering as they should. In fact, the pledge he made in 2000 to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country driven by a knowledge economy has not materialised and Rwanda remains a low-income country to date.

Failure to effectively engage citizens in decision-making has also resulted in the implementation of development policies that do not meet the immediate needs of the population. Hence, the economic gains made by Kagame’s administration can be challenged in many aspects as previously pointed out. For instance, substantial public funds have been invested in the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions (MICE) sector while less has been allocated to education, agriculture, and rural infrastructure development. Thus, despite remarkable economic growth and a significant improvement in the human development index registered by Rwanda since 1994, these achievements are tarnished by high inequalities in income, health and education. Furthermore, they are characterised by economic injustices such as unfair land expropriation and the uprooting of farmers’ crops. Rwanda’s human capital development remains below the average for African countries due to a lack of quality education and high levels of malnutrition among children below five years. Only 41 per cent of households in Rwanda are considered to be substantially food secure. The private sector’s contribution to growth has remained small and growth is predominantly led by state-owned enterprises and those belonging to the ruling party. Overall, Rwandans have been consecutively ranked among the bottom five least happy populations on the global happiness index.

Failure to effectively engage citizens in decision-making has also resulted in the implementation of development policies that do not meet the immediate needs of the population.

Over the past three decades, curtailed civil liberties and mounting social inequalities have seen Rwandans seek refuge abroad and prevented from returning to their homeland those who had fled Rwanda after the RPF took power in 1994. This situation has exacerbated the issue of Rwandan refugees that has persisted since Rwanda’s independence.

In particular, under President Kagame, the unresolved issue of Rwandan refugees settled in Rwanda’s neighbouring countries has been a source of political tensions between Rwanda and its neighbours. The Rwandan government has maintained that there are negative forces resident in eastern DRC that are out to destabilise Rwanda, a reference to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR is an armed group formed by Rwandan refugees in DRC who, following their forcible eviction from Rwanda during the genocide, resorted to armed struggle as a means of retaking power in Rwanda. Despite Rwanda’s armed forces launching military operations against the FDLR on numerous occasions on Congolese soil in collaboration with the Congolese army, the Rwandan government continues to insist that the FDLR is a threat to Rwanda’s security.

The United Nations has twice – in 2012 and 2022 – accused Rwanda of supporting the M23, an armed group that is fighting in the eastern DRC. This conflict has displaced populations and led to the death of millions of African civilian lives. In 2016, the UN Security Council accused Rwanda of recruiting and training Burundian refugees with the aim of ousting the then Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza. Western countries have suspended or withheld aid to Rwanda over allegations that it supported the M23 in 2012 and some of Rwanda’s donors have recently publicly called on the Rwandan government to stop supporting the M23 and remove its troops from eastern DRC. The European Union and United States of America have sanctioned Rwandan military officials for backing the M23. The US has placed Rwanda on the Child Soldiers Prevention Act List and suspended its military aid to the country due to Rwanda’s support of the M23, which the US says recruits and uses child soldiers. Not only do these allegations of Rwanda’s involvement in the regional conflict further tarnish the country’s image that Kagame’s administration has worked hard to restore, but the tensions with neighbouring states have also prevented Rwanda from maximising the benefits of regional integration and trade for its development.

President Kagame should not run for a fourth term as the governance of Rwanda needs to be reformed so that it becomes more tolerant of critics, democratic and inclusive. To successfully implement such reforms in governance requires a new leadership with fresh perspectives and approaches that will be able to build on Kagame’s achievements in order to address unresolved historical grievances of Rwandans and at the same time enable Rwanda to maximise its potential in the region and experience genuine development.

President Kagame should not run for a fourth term as the governance  of Rwanda needs to be reformed so that it becomes more tolerant of critics, democratic and inclusive.

Considering Rwanda’s history of long-serving strongmen who have taken power, retained it and lost it through violence, the 2024 presidential election is an opportunity for Rwandans to experience the transfer of power in a peaceful and transparent manner as has been the case in neighbouring countries including Burundi, DRC and Tanzania. It is an opportunity for Rwanda to move away from strongman leadership to enable the emergence of strong institutions to take the lead instead. This can be achieved by building on the legislations that have been reviewed and implemented under Kagame’s leadership. Therefore, while recognising with gratitude the achievements that he has made over the past three decades, Kagame’s greatest achievement yet would be to step away from power at the end of his term in 2024. In so doing, Kagame will have paved the way for better leadership in Rwanda and opened the door to future generations of Rwandans aspiring to become leaders in Rwanda.

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Why Kenyans Demanded an Apology from King Charles

The traumatic legacy of British colonialism lingers in Kenya to this day, and this is why Kenyans were demanding an apology from King Charles.

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God Tax the King
Photo: Simon Dawson for No. 10 Downing Street via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Many British people are surprised that King Charles’s visit to Kenya was not welcomed by many Kenyans and human rights organisations. People whose families had suffered at the hands of British colonialists during his mother’s reign demanded an apology for crimes committed. Although the British monarch expressed “deepest regret” for the atrocities committed by the British in Kenya, he fell short of making a public apology.

However, many Brits believe that there is nothing the king needed to apologise for. One presenter on Sky News even wondered why Kenyans were calling for an apology from the king given that Britain had done much “good” in the country. After all, he said, without any hint of irony, the British Empire had brought democracy to Kenya (how he equated imperialism with democracy beats me) and given Kenyans “the gift of the English language”.

It was obvious that the presenter had been taught British imperial history that has whitewashed the atrocities that the British Empire committed in its colonies around the world. British children are to this day taught that British colonialism was a “civilising mission” that brought modern education and infrastructure, in addition to Christianity, to regions that were steeped in ignorance and backwardness. Apologists for the British Empire, such as the historian Niall Ferguson, author of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, argue that Britain should be congratulated for conquering the world because British civilisation brought science and technology to people who held superstitious beliefs, and injected a “work ethic” in populations that were lazy and lacking in imagination. This is sort of like saying that slave owners did slaves a favour by shipping them to the Americas and forcing them to work for free because these slaves are now US citizens and enjoy all that America has to offer (even though it took them four centuries to gain rights as equal citizens).

A few months ago, the editor of a German magazine contacted me to ask whether I could submit an article on the atrocities the British had committed in Kenya during colonialism. He told me that while his magazine had documented human rights violations by German and Belgian colonialists in places like Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it had largely ignored the violations committed by Britain in places like Kenya because the majority of Germans believe that British colonialism was not as brutal as that of other European powers, and that its net impact on its colonies in Africa had been positive. It dawned on me that perhaps Europeans are not being told the true story about colonialism and its horrific impact on Africans. So, here’s primer.

Erasure of memory

Kenya officially became a British colony in 1920, but prior to that, from 1895, it was deemed a “protectorate” – a term suggesting that the colonisers who grabbed the land were there to protect the interests of the “natives” who would benefit from being colonised. A widely held belief is that because Britain spearheaded the abolition of slavery, the British were “benevolent” colonisers, unlike the French and the Belgians who plundered and looted their African colonies. (In addition to extracting raw materials and exporting items such as ivory and rubber, the French and the Belgians also stole invaluable artefacts from their colonies in West and Central Africa, which today are displayed in museums across Europe, including in Britain, despite efforts by African governments to have these artefacts returned to where they were stolen from.)

Yet, those who care to join the dots between the anti-slavery movement and the colonisation of Africa are acutely aware of the fact that the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 (dubbed the “Scramble for Africa”) that carved up Africa among European nations, including Britain, took place just a few years after slavery ended. Because slavery was no longer legal and was costly to maintain, the only other way Europeans could extract cheap labour and highly profitable resources from Africa was by colonising the continent.

In order to justify colonisation in settler colonies like Kenya and Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia), it was necessary to erase evidence of atrocities committed by the Europeans. Many of these atrocities remained unacknowledged and unreported for decades because archival documents were either destroyed or deliberately concealed. British historian David M. Anderson, author of Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya, discovered that thousands of documents belonging to the British colonial administration were flown to London in 1963 on the eve of Kenya’s independence and remained hidden from the public for decades, despite attempts by successive post-independence Kenyan governments to have these “stolen papers” returned to Kenya.

The magnitude of these atrocities was finally revealed in 2005 when the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, was published. The book documents the many crimes that British colonial officers committed in Kenya in their relentless pursuit of wealth, land and power for themselves and in the name of the British Empire. Mau Mau fighters and their supporters were subjected to extreme forms of torture, including castration, whipping, waterboarding and electric shocks.

The areas where these Mau Mau revolutionaries were arrested, detained, tortured or killed in the 1950s were in and around the Aberdares mountain range in Central Kenya where Queen Elizabeth, during an official visit to Kenya, ascended to the throne after the death of her father, King George VI, in February 1952. Eight months after she became Queen of England and head of the British Empire, a state of emergency was declared in Kenya that allowed the British Colonial Office to detain people without trial. Many freedom fighters languished in camps or jails where they were subjected to torture.

Mau Mau fighters and their supporters were subjected to extreme forms of torture, including castration, whipping, waterboarding and electric shocks.

The Mau Mau rebellion was a reaction to the expropriation of some 7 million acres of the most fertile land in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley – dubbed the White Highlands – in the early part of the 20th century after the building of the Uganda Railway, which opened up the interior of East Africa for British colonisation and settlement. The indigenous population was pushed into so-called reserves while others became squatters on land that was once theirs, working for white farmers for very little wages.

Elkins estimates that between 160,000 and 320,000 detainees, mostly from the Kikuyu, Meru and Embu ethnic groups, were tortured or maimed by the British at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, although official figures state that the number of detainees was no more than 80,000. It is estimated that more than 20,000 Mau Mau militants were killed. Further, more than a million people, mainly in central Kenya, were detained in camps or confined in villages known as “reserves” (which have been described as “concentration camps”) surrounded by barbed wire. Tens of thousands of people held in these dense and unsanitary guarded camps and villages died from hunger or disease.

To justify these atrocities, British officials painted the Mau Mau as savage “terrorists” because of the violent and brutal methods they used to hunt down and kill white settlers and local informers. Official figures show that Mau Mau fighters killed 32 British settlers and 1,819 indigenous people whom they believed to be spies for the British.

Today what the British Empire did in Kenya might be perceived as a form of ethnic cleansing, but because colonisation was not unfashionable then, the atrocities were not condemned, nor was anyone tried. It was only in 2011, during a landmark court case brought against the British by a group of Mau Mau veterans, that the British government, under legal pressure, admitted that the documents were in a high-security facility that also contained files from 36 other former British colonies. (In 2013, 5,228 Mau Mau veterans were awarded £20 million in compensation by a UK court, which amounts to roughly £3,000 per victim, a paltry sum given the suffering they endured.) One of these documents contained details of eight colonial officers stationed in Kenya “roasting detainees alive”. All of the accused officers were granted amnesty.

Official amnesia 

Official amnesia and disinformation were not just part of a deliberate campaign by the British Empire to whitewash the crimes it committed in its colonies in Africa and elsewhere, but also a strategy employed by post-colonial governments in Kenya to cloak their own complicity in ensuring that British interests in the country were preserved.

Post-independence Kenyan elites benefitted from colonial policies that alienated Africans from their own land and became the biggest beneficiaries of post-independence land grabs disguised as land redistribution or adjudication. After independence, the so-called home guards or loyalists became the biggest beneficiaries of land and political power. According to Kenya’s 2013 Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report, “Rich businessmen and businesswomen, rich and powerful politicians who were loyal to the colonial administration, managed to acquire thousands of acres at the expense of the poor and the landless.” Hence, “instead of redressing land-related injustices perpetrated by the colonialists on Africans, the resettlement process created a privileged class of African elites, leaving those who had suffered land alienation either on tiny unproductive pieces of land or landless.” Even today in Kenya, members of freedom fighting movements like the Mau Mau remain landless and poverty-stricken while those who sided with the colonialists are among the richest people in the land.

After independence, the so-called home guards or loyalists became the biggest beneficiaries of land and political power.

The Mau Mau remained a proscribed organisation for four decades after independence. It was only in 2003, when Mwai Kibaki became president, that the Mau Mau were recognised for the role they had played in Kenya’s struggle for independence. Kenyatta Day on 20 October was renamed Mashujaa Day (Heroes Day) to commemorate all those who died while fighting for freedom. In 2007, a statue of Dedan Kimathi was erected in Nairobi’s central business district, and in 2015, following the 2013 UK court decision to compensate Mau Mau veterans, the British government put up a Mau Mau memorial sculpture in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park “as a symbol of reconciliation between the British government, the Mau Mau and all those who suffered”.

Despite these symbols of reconciliation and healing, the traumatic legacy of British colonialism lingers in Kenya to this day. This is why Kenyans were demanding an apology from the King – because the wounds have not yet healed. While a public apology might not have been enough to completely heal the wounds and traumas of the past, it would have been an important first step.

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