How Twitter’s Negligence is Harming Kenya’s Democracy6 min read.
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.
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.
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The Blind Spot: A Graphic Novel on Food Security and Farmers’ Rights
Chief Nyamweya shines a light on the central issues of food security and the welfare of smallholder farmers in Kenya.
Some time back in May 2020, an incident occurred in Mombasa that stunned the nation. The Daily Nation reported a story of a Kisauni widow who was forced to boil stones to give her children false hope that she had some food for them. The story sent shockwaves across the country and ignited a conversation about the magnitude of the hunger plaguing Kenyan households.
The story of Peninah Kitsao is not an isolated incident. All over the country, ordinary Kenyans are struggling to put food on the table due to biting inflation that has seen commodity prices soar to nearly unaffordable levels. Failed rains and a drought of a severity never witnessed before in the history of the country, especially in northern Kenya, have worsened a dire situation.
Interventions by state and non-state actors have arguably not been enough as there have been reports from certain parts, such as Samburu, of people drinking dirty water and eating dog meat to survive. The country is essentially in a deep hole. Coupled with the drying up of the rivers and lakes that used to serve vulnerable communities, it is safe to say that the government and other agencies have had blind spots in dealing with the situation.
Route to Food Initiative’s graphic novel The Blind Spot, which is written and illustrated by Chief Nyamweya, should be read against the backdrop of some of these startling developments. The work of committed art is to expose the ills in society, not just by dropping popular catchphrases and revolutionary slogans, but by disturbing the conscience of the nation. Such works of art are expected to put us on track for what needs to be done to set things right.
That’s exactly what Nyamweya’s comic offering is all about.
Worrying policy gaps
The central issues of food security and the welfare of smallholder farmers shine throughout the slim graphic novel, bringing into sharp focus policy gaps and a lack of commitment from leaders to correct the mistakes of the past.
The visual narrative opens with a protest by Kajibora residents and farmers at the Kajibora County Hall. Chanting outside the county governor’s residence, the agitated crowd demands justice for one of their own, Karisa, who has committed suicide after auctioneers sell his land to recover an unpaid debt.
The protest also provides the space and opportunity for the residents and farmers to demand “lower prices on food, better quality food and enhanced protection of Kenya’s ecosystems [and] land reforms.” Demonstrations are not new in the country; with livelihoods threatened by forces beyond their control even as the national and county governments drag their feet to alleviate the suffering, it is inevitable that ordinary people would take such drastic measures.
The Mzee Maona-led Jembe Revolution calls on Governor Nyoni to deal with food insecurity as a human rights issue and to protect smallholder farmers from predatory multinationals. The corporations are often accused of exploitation through the introduction of harmful production methods and industrial processes that threaten biodiversity.
The fictionalised revolution echoes the vigorous pushback by various stakeholders, including farmers, politicians and ordinary Kenyans, who have questioned the government’s proposal to introduce genetically modified foods.
While those in support of the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the country have a valid argument that Kenya and the continent at large are dealing with a serious food crisis that needs never-before-tested solutions, those against them argue that farmers and consumers are likely to suffer. This is because there are growing fears that the multinationals that distribute GM seeds will have the monopoly to dictate to farmers which seeds to use, and the scenario is likely to deny them the agency to produce food on their own terms and according to their preferences.
Putting Western interests first
In other words, the prioritisation of Western interests, as it often emerges in Nyamweya’s narrative, where the governor is accused of focusing on “the large scale production of a few food crops and protecting the interests of big agribusiness”, is a reality that policymakers will have to contend with to effectively address the issue of food security in the country.
A DW documentary titled Africa, GMOs and Western Interests, which aired two months ago, revealed the hidden hand of philanthropists such as Bill Gates, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in pushing for the introduction of GMOs in select African countries to benefit private businesses in the West. Therefore, when Kajibora farmers and residents, through their Chama cha Wakulima (CCW) party, wave a placard reading SAVE OUR SEEDS, they are not expressing a grievance coming from without but a genuine fear born out of the reality that, on the one hand, the forces of globalisation are unavoidable (food production systems and the overall supply chain can never only be local) and on the other, the reality of the weak political system that hardly prioritises the interests of its citizens, least of all smallholder farmers.
To give credit where it is due, President William Ruto’s introduction of the fertiliser subsidy is likely to be a game changer for a majority of farmers who are unable to afford the essential commodity. The subsidised fertiliser is retailing at KSh3,500 for a 50kg bag, down from KSh6,000. The use of technology for registration (farmers use their phones) will also help eliminate red tape and corruption and thus improve efficiency in distribution, which is key to the timely use of the fertiliser to boost yields.
The cries and anxieties of the Kajibora farmers take a dramatic twist following the death of Mzee Maona when CCW is wracked by fissures as various members pull in different directions. As is characteristic of Kenyan political parties not founded on a solid vision and ideology, the core issues—such as sustainable agriculture for the farmers—that define the party’s agenda become a footnote. Instead, the so-called ideological differences (a euphemism for selfish interests) erupt during the requiem mass for Maona when party members engage in a vicious fistfight before the bereaved mourners.
Enter the scions of Mzee Maona, Sifa and Yona—highly educated, exposed and polished but with contrastingly opposing views on how to reimagine the patriarch’s vision of putting the farmers’ agenda first—and the narrative is set for a fascinating climax.
What emerges from the troubled relationship between Sifa, a professor, and Yona, now an aspiring Kajibora governor, are the intra-generational tensions of how to approach the pressures and complicated issues that have become synonymous with modern living. This is especially true when it comes to championing the rights of ordinary people such as farmers.
As is characteristic of Kenyan political parties not founded on a solid vision and ideology, the core issues that defined the party’s agenda become a footnote.
Sifa is distrustful of the political process for fixing societal issues. She is an advocate of fighting for human rights from outside the political process since, in politics, you “promise the people paradise while only delivering paperwork”. While her worldview is sometimes abstract and detached and elitist, she deserves credit for not losing focus on the immediate priorities that should be urgently addressed to make life better for small-scale farmers.
Yona, on the other hand, styles himself as a pragmatist and realist who is in touch with what is happening on the ground but comes across as vain, selfish and arrogant. He is a perfect representative of Kenya’s political class for whom governance is about foreign investment, rather than the people. He says that “a key part [of his] job as governor will be to attract investment to Kajibora”. This includes doing the bidding of multinationals like Green Shots Corporation, which is accused of controlling the food prices and the supply chains that are vital to farmers and consumers.
The role of the youth
However, what is poignant in the clash between Mzee Maona’s two grandchildren is the involvement of the youth—whether for good or bad—in debating the issues of food security and fair agricultural policies. While their approaches are often different, there is a genuine concern and passion that, in real life, should be encouraged and even rewarded.
Statistics indicate that the average age of the Kenyan farmer is 61 years. A revival of the 4K Clubs that were the craze in the 1990s under the 8-4-4 education system has been mooted as a way to entice young people to return to the soil. These are noble interventions that are likely to boost agricultural output since the youthful population is not just energetic enough to take up the challenge but also because modern farming involves access to the right information which a tech-savvy generation can exploit in this digital age.
When Dalili, a member of the CCW and a former close ally of Mzee Maona, encourages Sifa to join them on the anniversary of Jembe Day commemorating the revolt of Kajibora farmers and residents, she is essentially signalling a new way of addressing food insecurity. She tells Sifa that “our youth need to see where it all started”. The statement is profound because it acknowledges both the complexity and enormity of the task of streamlining food systems and the urgent need to bring diverse groups of people on board.
More importantly, sustainable agriculture has the potential to create jobs for thousands of jobless youth unable to secure the increasingly elusive white-collar jobs. According to the November 2022 Agriculture Sector Survey, the industry “employs over 40 percent of the total population and more than 70 percent of the rural populace”. This is a significant figure that is likely to increase even more if the youth are given the incentive to join forces in the overall agricultural production process.
Nyamweya’s only shortcoming is the exclusion of the voices of ordinary farmers from the entire narrative. As is characteristic of top-down policies, and unlike the bottom-up approach, there is a tendency to speak on behalf of the masses, to pretend to know what is best for them. A majority of the characters in the text speak of the “right” agricultural policies and approaches that need to be adopted to boost yields and food security. However, ironically, they behave like the multinationals that often impose their decisions on farmers without taking their views.
The approach is fraught with its own blind spots, not just because it is condescending to the farmers—those who are directly affected—but also because it poses the risk of aggravating an already bad situation. Talking about revolutions and uprisings is not enough to effectively transform the agricultural sector, even if the calls are to rid it of the cartels and the brokers present along the production chain.
Also, an erudite knowledge of the politics of food and the manipulation by multinationals cannot replace the basic principle that the farmer has to, first and foremost, speak for himself or herself. Does the farmer want to experiment with other seeds? Is the farmer only interested in the large-scale cultivation of staple foods? Is the farmer comfortable with the multinationals? What exactly is in the farmer’s mind? It is not always necessary that all foreign players that intervene in formulating agricultural policies have ulterior motives. One Acre Fund, an organisation founded by a non-Kenyan, has significantly helped smallholder farmers in western Kenya boost their farm output through the use of the right seeds and agricultural techniques and methods. I have seen this first-hand.
The statement is profound because it acknowledges both the complexity and enormity of the task of streamlining food systems and the urgent need to bring diverse groups of people on board.
However, despite the aforementioned shortcomings, Nyamweya’s artistic intervention cannot be downplayed. The issue of food security cannot be left to politicians and policymakers alone. This is not just because food is a basic need, but because a healthy and productive nation has the potential to improve the life expectancy and of children afflicted by malnutrition.
More importantly, a visual narrative approach is a welcome addition to a radical way of acknowledging the enormous capacity of art to surprise and reimagine how to deal with the existential anxieties of our time, such as food insecurity, climate change-induced drought and destruction of biodiversity. It is also a wake-up call to leaders, policymakers and other stakeholders that the conventional way of dealing with the challenges affecting farmers might have to change. Nyamweya’s book is a must-read for everyone who cares deeply about the future of our country and the coming generations.
Queer Lawfare in Africa – Legal Strategies in Contexts of LGBTIQ+ Criminalisation and Politicisation
The concept of lawfare, describes long-term battles over heated social and political issues, where actors on different sides employ strategies using rights, law and courts as tools and arenas.
The Supreme Court of India is anticipated to conduct hearings and deliver judgments in some important issues concerning the LGBTQIA+ community- ranging from the constitutionality of the blood donation guidelines that discriminate persons based on sexual orientation and gender identity to petitions on marriage equality (under both the Special Marriage Act and the Hindu Marriage Act). In this context, the book Queer Lawfare in Africa, edited by Adrian Jjuuko, Siri Gloppen, Alan Msosa and Frans Viljoen makes for a relevant and compelling read.
Queer Lawfare, according to the authors, is a strategy where rights and/ or laws are tactically employed to advance politically contested goals with regards to the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. In the words of Siri Gloppen, Adrian Jjuuko, Frans Viljoen, Alan Msosa, the term “lawfare” used in the book describes the following:
The concept of lawfare, as used in this book, describes long-term battles over heated social and political issues, where actors on different sides employ strategies using rights, law and courts as tools and arenas. While sometimes associated with the misuse of law for political ends, ‘lawfare’ is here used as a descriptive, analytical term, de-linked from (the perceived) worthy-ness of the goal. The association with warfare is intentional and important: these are ongoing ‘wars’, with hard ideological cleavages and iterative battles. They are typically fought on several fronts and the contestants on each side have long term goals that they seek to advance by way of incremental tactics, often responding to, or anticipating their opponents’ moves, as well as other aspects of their (always potentially shifting) opportunity structure.
The book looks into queer lawfare in thirteen African nations- South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Botswana, Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia, Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Ethiopia and Sudan. Much like India, a lot of the nations discussed in the book had a criminal provision very similar to section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (before it was read down by the Supreme Court in Navtej Johar v. Union of India). Thereby, in many of these nations decriminalisation of sexual intercourse between consenting adults- irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity became (and in some countries still is) one of the first major goals of queer lawfare.
In some of the countries discussed in the book (particularly in those where queer lawfare has led to realisation of substantial legal gains for the LGBTQIA+ community), the movement started with seemingly neutral rights battles which intersected with discrimination law for instance, the right to association. The right to association cases in queer lawfare majorly consist of organisations or coalitions- established with the aim of further LGBTQIA+ rights- challenging the decision of the government to disallow their registration (set in a legal context where homosexuality is criminalised). In Botswana, such a challenge was decided in favour of the LGBT organisation, Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) by the Court of Appeal (see also, the recent judgment of the Supreme Court of Kenya). In Mozambique on the other hand, the Mozambican Association for the Defence of Sexual Minorities (LAMBDA) operates under a feminist umbrella organisation since it is not legally registered and as a natural corollary, the queer lawfare is influenced much by the strategies used by the feminist movement.
The book also refreshingly looks into the social contexts of each nation and discusses how despite LGBTQ+ movements sharing the same vision of emancipation, the means employed to achieve the end varies depending on social and political contexts in different countries. It also subtly gets across the point that there is ‘no one size fits all’ solution when it comes to queer lawfare. It discusses the different stages at which queer lawfare is in and how it varies from country to country- from South Africa where giant strides have been made in the judicial sphere to Ethiopia where ‘online lawfare’ is more prevalent due to which there is an absence of a significant progressive legal change.
As the marriage equality petition is listed for hearing before the Supreme Court of India is being heard by the Supreme Court of India, the chapter on queer lawfare in South Africa becomes particularly relevant. The landmark judgment of the Constitutional Court of South Africa in Minister of Home Affairs v. Fourie that recognised marriage equality notably held that the constitutional rights of persons cannot be undermined or be determined by the religious beliefs of some persons. In this judgment, Justice Albie Sachs read the words “or spouse” after the words “husband” and “wife”, into certain provisions of the Marriage Equality Act, 1961. As has been articulated by Jayna Kothari in this piece, the adoption of a similar strategy in the marriage equality proceedings before the Supreme Court of India is central to making the provisions of the Special Marriage Act (“SMA”) more inclusive. Reading in the words “of spouse” after the words “wife” and “husband” used in various provisions of the Special Marriage Act in India would allow persons irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity to get the reliefs conferred by the SMA ranging from solemnization of marriage to provision of alimony.
The chapter also confronts the challenge of limited judicial imagination while dealing with marriage equality and states that the judgment delivered by the Constitutional Court of South Africa (which was hailed as progressive) still caters to the gender binary vision- one where the institution of marriage is valourised and idea of a ‘permanent same-sex life partnership’ essentially contains the characteristics of a typical heterosexual marriage. The chapter also highlights how the ‘good homosexual’ visualised by the Constitutional Court is generally ‘a partnered middle class, if not upper middle class, man or woman who, in a country like South Africa where class continues to follow race, is almost invariably white’ thereby bringing to light the class and racial undertones underlying the legal recognition of such unions. In India, given that the institution of marriage is intrinsically tied into caste, property and patriarchy, it will remain to be seen how the Supreme Court will navigate through complex questions of intersectionality while adjudicating this case.
The book also makes a passing reference to the transnational impact of judgments on queer rights delivered by the Indian Supreme Court. For example, where submissions made before the Kenyan High Court in EG v. Attorney General and the high court decision in Botswana in Letsweletse Motshidiemang v Attorney General were influenced by the judgment of the Supreme Court of India in Navtej Johar v. Union of India. This also points out to the butterfly effect in progressive queer jurisprudence and the important role the constitutional courts in India have to fulfill in the days ahead.
Another important feature is that none of the chapters miss an opportunity to inform the readers about the perseverance and resilience of LGBTQIA+ organizations, coalitions and activists. It does the important work of documenting their role in shaping the legal destiny despite facing legal setbacks and risks of coercive action by the state. It is a fitting tribute to the indomitable spirit of the queer rights movement across the said nations in Africa to challenge the legal and political system, despite it being designed to fail them.
Oromo Orthodox Split: A Collision Between Politics and Faith
The formation of the Oromo Orthodox Synod signals greater shifts that have been on the political horizon in Ethiopia for the last four years.
Ethiopia has taken centre stage over the last four years, with a Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister propelled to power by a four-year civil protest movement quickly leading the country into multiple internal war fronts. The last two years, in particular, have seen many begin to wonder if the Ethiopian state itself will survive the compounding conflicts, given that they are rooted in a tumultuous, contested, and violent past. The most recent and significant development in the tectonic shifts that have been breaking social and political ground in the country occurred on the 22nd of January 2023.
Three Oromo archbishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church announced the formation of an Oromo Orthodox Church Synod, with 26 patriarchs appointed to lead the synod across Oromia. In stark opposition to the new synod, a large number of Ethiopian Orthodox Church members, particularly those of an Amhara ethnic background, have been coming out in protest at the breaking up of the church, citing it as a violation beyond politics, and a breach of holy religious law.
The government, which has been supportive of the Oromo Synod has – in the manner in which it regularly responds to any expression of civil dissent – responded with state violence, shooting at protesters and, for a short while, shutting down the Internet and telecommunication services.
On the 13th of February, the Oromia Media Network reported that the new Synod is in the process of supporting the formation of synods of other national and ethnic identities, naming the Gambela, Gumuz, Sidama, Gurage, and Gamo as amongst those that will be forming their own Orthodox Church Synods in the near future.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has existed since the 4th century and belongs to the broader body of Orthodox churches that include the Coptic, Syrian, and Armenian Orthodox churches, and the Syrian Orthodox Church of India. The liturgical language of the church is Ge’ez, a Semitic language originating from northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, with Amharic also being used in the church today. Orthodox believers make up approximately 30 per cent of Ethiopia’s population and Amharic, the language of the Amhara ethnic group who make up approximately 22 per cent of Ethiopia’s overall population, is the official working language of Ethiopia.
Language, and the social and political power that it comes with, is one of the reasons that supporters of the Oromo Orthodox Synod believe that this recent shift is necessary. Cultural marginalization has been the experience of the Oromo and other national and cultural groups in the country since the formation of the Ethiopian state in the 1800s, a formation that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was instrumental in spearheading.
When Menelik II began his expeditions into the Oromia heartland with the intent of consolidating the new state of Ethiopia, the proponents of this project came across a people who lived, worked, and worshipped predominately in Afaan Oromo. In particular, they practiced Waaqeefatta, the monotheistic religion of the Oromo.
Cultural marginalization has been the experience of the Oromo and other national and cultural groups in the country since the formation of the Ethiopian state in the 1800s.
Even though the popular narrative is that Ethiopia was never colonized, one of the impacts that Menelik achieved with the support of the Showan Amhara conquerors who were armed by the West was the upheaval of Oromo religious, cultural and political practice. This was replaced by the church’s own religious beliefs, as they were considered the only way to effectively commune with God.
In Ethiopia, as in much of the world, religion has always had political undertones. Historical narratives recounting both Protestant Christianity and Islam being used by Oromos to counter the effects of cultural and political domination experienced through the combined efforts of the Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian state speak to these political undertones.
Is the split really unprecedented?
Politics pervades every aspect of life everywhere, and although we would like to think that spiritual matters are beyond politics, there is perhaps nothing as politically charged as the relationships religions have with people, with states, and with the desire for social change.
Schisms and splits that occur for political reasons are not a new phenomenon in the world of Orthodox Christianity. In the 17th century, a movement to establish religious uniformity between Greek and Russian Orthodox practice was met with resistance that eventually saw a split into “Old Believers” and the official Russian Orthodox Church.
The reason for the split was disagreement over the introduction into the Russian Orthodox Church of specific religious rituals that belong to the Greek Orthodox tradition. Although it began as a disagreement about religious protocol, it developed into a movement where different parts of Russian society began to voice dissent against the feudal order led by leaders in the church.
There are obvious and significant differences between the 17th-century Russian split and what Ethiopia is facing today, but in order to avoid viewing the split within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as entirely unprecedented, we should see the formation of the Oromo Orthodox Synod in the larger context of movements that have taken place in the history of the church, whereby politics and faith have collided to create new institutions and communities.
Is this just about religion?
The formation of the Oromo Orthodox Synod has an impact on much more than just how people practice their faith. This event signals greater shifts that have been on the political horizon in Ethiopia for the last four years.
Opposition to the formation of the Oromo Orthodox Synod has been defined by language describing it as an affront to the church’s values of “oneness”; the full name of the church is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, with the word “Tewahedo” meaning “to be made one” in the Amharic language.
The ideal of “oneness” or “unity” versus the reality has been at the heart of Ethiopia’s most critical political issues. The Ethiopian state has, in concert with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, had a history of violently assimilating a deeply diverse people and, in the same breath, defining itself as a beacon of unity. What we must understand is that what might be a breach of oneness and unity for one people, is for another people an act of revolution and decolonization.
The solution to this crisis, in my opinion, is not for the formation of the Oromo or other prospective synods to be stopped. Instead, as I think is the solution to many of Ethiopia’s issues, people must be willing to hear stories from the other side of the political divide in order to better engage the social and political changes of the now, and of the future.
I think that this is just the beginning and that although separation, like all change, can cause confusion, grief, and uncertainty, it can sometimes be the boldest step we can take towards building a new social contract for togetherness, cohesion, and harmony.
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