Elections: Empire’s Sponge for Absorbing and Neutralizing People’s Struggles8 min read.
No matter who wins, however, we must resist the absorption of our struggles by the imperial sponge and pick up where we left off before the campaigns heated up. We must fight for the right to memory and to interpret our politics over the long term history, not over 5-year electoral cycles.
Yesterday, Kenyans went to the polls to choose the next cohort of regional and national leaders. Naturally, the focus has been on the presidency, where the mockery of what we are calling a choice is most evident. Kenyans have been cornered into choosing between an outgoing deputy president who was rejected by his presidential boss, and an opposition leader whose family was vilified since the 1960s by the president’s family, up until the previous election. The relationship between the two front runners is one man – Uhuru Kenyatta, for whom the presidency has been his only achievement and who seems unable to let go of the presidency. The other two options are a barely known evangelical preacher and a weed-smoking professor with roots in the torture machine of the Moi regime.
The options which Kenyans are going to pick from are so absurd, that the mainstream media’s attempt to professionalize politics through American-style debates degenerated into a spectacular farce. The most telling moment was when the leading policy thinkers of the Azimio and Kenya Kwanza, Oduor Ong’wen and David Ndii, were debating on Citizen TV. The two men occasionally took jabs at one another for their respective candidates’ association with the Uhuru presidency, yet ironically, both candidates were equally associated with Uhuru. One candidate is Uhuru’s past, the other is Uhuru’s future. What the media called a debate was more like a spat between a jilted lover and his replacement.
How did a country so proud of her history of struggle get to be choosing between these non-options dominated by what is arguably Kenya’s most mediocre president? Are there no leaders in Kenya that these are the options we have to choose from?
The real story is in the selections that were done before the elections. This election is not even who wins the ballot, but who got to it and on what platform.
The way to begin this story is with the attempts by Kenyans to build an additional flank in politics where politics covers actual ideas and lives of Kenyans, rather than their personality and profile. In 2017, a party called Ukweli Party, which was the promise of a new way of doing politics. The founders of the party were leading lights of Kenya’s new generation of political thinkers: Boniface Mwangi, Schaeffer Okore and Ory Okollo Mwangi.
The party was as professional as they come: a clear way of picking out candidates, and candidates who were committed to engaging with voters. The most prominent political campaign was, of course, that of Boniface Mwangi. Boni ran a secretariat, had volunteers campaigning on the ground with him, and a number of us changed our voting constituency and contributed regularly to his campaign fund. An award winning movie, Softie, told Boni’s story. In fact, the photos of candidates going from door to door, market to market, talking with voters may not to new, but it gained prominence thanks to Ukweli party. After Boni lost the election, he followed up his campaign with doing a clean up of his campaign material. As a regular financial contributor to his campaign, I even received a call from his secretariat thanking me for my support. That call was very touching.
Boni did not just lose the election. He lost to a colorless musician who was struggling with criminal suspicion following his involvement in the car accident that led to the loss of life. For a man who had suffered abuse and violence for speaking for the downtrodden, Boni’s loss made no sense, especially because the same downtrodden who rejected him at the ballot would call for his intervention after the elections. But voters had not been weaned off the tribal ideology of voting not on political issues but on identitarian solidarity. The loss was brutal.
Five years later, where is Ukweli party? First, their party colors of green and yellow became those of the UDA party. By the time parties were handing in their list of candidates, none of the founding members were in office, with Boni dramatically announcing his exit. As of now, the party has only 10 candidates seeking election. It should have had more this year.
What happened? From an outsider’s perspective, given what we have seen happening in the tech sector where venture capitalists absorb and evacuate nascent ideas from the Kenyan population, one can spot a similar trend. Between 2017 and today, some of the leaders have received international fellowships, to the extent of being flown on private jets to give speeches to billionaires pretending to listen, but silently relieved that we don’t hate them.
But this is not a new story. As I’ve already mentioned in reference to the tech sector, Kenya is a country where global capital swoops in like vultures to absorb and neutralize nascent movements among the youth, before they become full blown ideas and political movements. From the literary movement Kwani?, to tech hubs, to Ukweli party, to even the academy, the story is the same. New movements of thinking are quickly absorbed by foreign political interests through NGO appointments, fellowships, invitations to international forums and buy outs, all of which deny the new initiatives their life source in Kenyan realities.
Basically, empire roams around Kenya like a sponge of death, soaking up the energy, vitality and ideas budding in Kenya, to go squeeze out those elements in the west or simply throw away the sponge altogether. Their work is facilitated by the mediocrity of the Kenyan political class, civil service and colonial institutions which punish thinking and initiative, leaving Kenyans with no choice but to accept these foreign based offers if they are to pay their bills and put children through school.
The same dynamics happened in the 2022 elections. Since 2010, the question of political classes being made up of political families chosen by colonialism, in the classic logic of the British monarchy and its paramount chief policy, has been in Kenyan conversation. There was already an awareness that working hard in Kenya attracts little else but punishment from the government and colonial institutions. Consciousness grew that the Kenya economy was engineered to suit the Kenyatta family empire and crush or buy out any Kenyan innovation.
In other words, Kenya was ripe for a political conversation about the structure of the economy which favors a few at the expense of the rest of Kenyans. Kenya’s first Chief Justice, Willy Mutunga, picked the mantel of promoting this line of conversation by convening parties outside of the big machinery together, under the banner of the United Political Front. The UPF included the Communist Party of Kenya, Ukweli Party and the United Green Movement, all parties which do not follow the typical route of being anchored in a prominent politician and a tribal lord.
By this election, the alliance had all but crumbled under internal contradictions which, following the history of alternative political spaces, is all too familiar. The prominent candidate of CPK, Booker Ngesa Omole, who is the party vice-chair and was running for Member of Parliament for Gem constituency, was denied access to the ballot by party officials who decided to join the Kenya Kwanza coalition. A court order compelled CPK officials to submit his name to the IEBC, but the party officials let the order lapse and Omole was time barred.
Another time-barred suppression of the national conversation came through the plight of Reuben Kigame. Going by the logic of suppressing political alternatives in Kenya, it was clear that Kigame was a threat to the two-horse system for two major reasons. His career in gospel music and apologetics means he is well known in Christian circles, and unfortunately, Christianity is a major rallying political element in Kenya. Second, Kigame is intelligent and articulate, a trained historian and a political philosopher. On an anti-corruption platform, Kigame would have been the most credible given that he had no history of government office. From the tribal mindset of empire, Kigame would also have thrown a spanner in the works for the scramble for the vote in Western Kenya.
To the extent that the presidential candidates were able to articulate the political issues, Kigame would have outshone the other candidates hands down and muddied the waters. He too was blocked from the ballot on bureaucratic grounds, and by the time the court ordered that his application be considered, IEBC released a statement arguing that it was too late to change the ballot.
In addition to the crushing of alternative platforms for political discussion, another insidious element of Kenyan elections was the absorption and rebranding of Kenyan conversations. For the last five years, the budding feminist movement made its voice known by stamping its position against the battery and murder of women. Another agenda that was quite strong was the pressure to implement the two thirds gender clause of the constitution. As such, by the time Kenyatta and Raila were proposing to make feudalist changes to the 2010 constitution, the most prominent faces of opposition were women, namely Jerotich Seii, Daisy Amdani and Martha Karua.
That energy and momentum was subsequently defused by the appointment of Martha Karua as Raila’s running mate, and it was effective in silencing any voice – especially of women – who persisted that the struggle for women’s genuine participation in elections, on their own merit, had not been resolved. We, the few women who persist, are constantly thrown at the sexist stereotypes of women being their own worst enemy and the classic “surely, what do you women want?” Worse, women are subtly being pressured to ignore the complexity of politics for a single conversation about patriarchy. This election system, I have ignored many invitations to local and international media interviews because of restricting me to a conversation about women in politics. It’s an insult to me as a woman yet I’m expected to participate in it as a sign of empowerment.
While Azimio deflated the women’s struggle, Kenya Kwanza diffused the class conversation. The Ruto campaign profited from the years of work Kenyans had spent articulating the problems with the suppression of work by the Kenyan bourgeoisie, the unemployment and the toxic tax regimes that are designed to crush innovation. The Kenya Kwanza manifesto does a splendid job of diagnosing the political problem that makes the cost of living sky rocket in Kenya, but it has only one solution: to throw money and more policy at the problem. A promise to redress the colonial logic of the Kenya civil service, which was in the 2017 NASA manifesto which also involved Ndii’s brilliant work, was conspicuously absent from the 2022 Kenya Kwanza one. Now it has become convenient for Ruto’s detractors to scuttle the class conversation by accusing us of supporting corruption.
The net effect of this political environment is that after the elections, we will have to put more effort in gaining the ground we have lost in the struggles of women and the Kenyan underclass which comprises the overwhelming majority of Kenyans. Essentially, elections have proved to be the reset button, where empire and the Kenyan comprador class collaborate to absorb and disempower fundamental political conversations in Kenya.
This suffocation of democratic thinking would explain the apathy and disinterest of Kenyan youth in voting. Apart from being blocked from major party tickets, the public political conversations over the last five years have become so bureaucratized, hollow and toxic, thanks to the Kenya civil service and the insipidly sterile mainstream media. With Uhuru capturing public history and fashioning it in his own image, young Kenyans have no historical anchor with which to launch themselves into public political conversation. This decadence of our political life is evident in the grotesque public infliction of gender based violence, the rise in suicide and in mental health problems. And unfortunately, Frantz Fanon is virtually unknown in Kenya, so even that conversation is now being effortlessly absorbed by the pharma discourse of disorders and access to medical treatment.
As John Githongo wrote a few months ago, this is essentially an election about nothing. But this decadence is to be expected after ten years of rule under a family whose only qualification for power was tribe and bloodlines, and whose only political tool was to pollute conversation and control stories, while the economy and social fabric crumbled. The only good thing about the Uhuru presidency is that it has exposed the decay of the political dynasties appointed during colonial rule, which has left many Kenyans and western ambassadors, who were previously addicted to the tribal narrative of Kikuyu supremacy, going through agonizing withdrawal symptoms.
No matter who wins, however, we must resist the absorption of our struggles by the imperial sponge and pick up where we left off before the campaigns heated up. We must fight for the right to memory and to interpret our politics over the long term history, not over 5-year electoral cycles. For the politicians and their imperial backers, they are in a fight for Eurocentric power and money. For the many of us, nothing has changed with this election. We still have to fight for our sanity, our soul, our future and our humanity.
First published on Wandia Njoya’s blog.
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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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