It has been almost three months now since the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed the Permanent Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) to end Ethiopia’s Tigray war that has led to over 600,000 deaths. The Biden administration described the agreement as a momentous step, while the European Union extolled the courage of the parties in signing the deal.
The Tigrayan population has endured the worst possible atrocities during the two years of the war in Ethiopia. One would expect the people to be jubilant about this much-touted breakthrough to silence the guns. In Tigray, on the ground, the deal has been met with cautious optimism and hope for a return to normalcy. People like me who have extended family in Tigray, and have seen the war stretch out over more than 700 days, have also breathed a sigh of relief.
Since it began on 4 November 2020, the civil war in Ethiopia has reopened old wounds and created new ones. For over two years, the population in Tigray has come under siege and suffered weaponised starvation. Tigrayans in other parts of Ethiopia have been discriminated against and have been subjected to arbitrary and unlawful detention. By 2021, the detentions had reached what could be described as an industrial scale, and the discrimination continues to this day; Tigrayans have been living in dread every day of their lives.
I am Tigrayan. I come from a family that have been victims of war. This is the third war that has been fought in Tigray in my lifetime. It is genocidal in nature and in its level of ambition, and by far the most devastating of any that I have witnessed. The United Nations International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) reported “widespread acts of rape and sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls. In some instances, the attackers expressed an intent to render the victims infertile and used dehumanizing language that suggested an intent to destroy the Tigrayan ethnicity.” Like the overwhelming majority of Tigrayans, my entire family and I vehemently opposed this war on Tigray since the beginning.
With the experience of the brutality of civil wars deeply rooted in my childhood memories of Tigray, my first response to the war was a call for the immediate cessation of hostilities, and the commencement of a negotiated end to the war. Peace was, and still is, what I, like many Tigrayans, crave.
The harrowing experiences Tigrayans have suffered at the hands of both the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies and Amhara forces for well over two years have brought back painful memories of my childhood. In the 1980s, Tigray was at the centre of a protracted civil war, with the situation worsened by the 1984 Great Ethiopian Famine. My family, like thousands of others, was brutalised by the Ethiopian military regime and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). I was barely seven years old when I experienced catastrophic violations of human rights first-hand. My father and my maternal grandparents were attacked both by the government and by rebel groups and became the victims of forced disappearance by the TPLF. They disappeared, and I never saw them again. They are presumed to have been killed by the TPLF.
On several occasions over the past three decades, my family, individually and collectively, have submitted written and oral demands for redress to high-ranking officials of the TPLF and the government of Tigray. These requests have received no response. Instead, the disappearances have been dismissed as an unfortunate mishap that occurred during a revolt.
So, I empathise with those who, like me, have suffered and continue to suffer due to the civil war waged in various parts of the country.
The persecution of Tigrayans who like myself live outside Tigray is harrowing, and it is happening both on and offline.
As if that were not enough, the state has sponsored a slander campaign in the media, directed at the Tigray elite and other people deemed to be supporting the Tigrayans’ just cause. They have falsely accused me of being a member of the TPLF and of working in the security sector in the previous Ethiopian government. The army of anti-Tigrayan trolls continues with their coordinated character assassination. At one point, hundreds of tweets were posted within a few hours making false allegations that I am an “agent” of the TPLF. The allegations and the formulation of the tweeter character assassinations were the same, only posted from different, newly created Twitter accounts by media networks that are notorious for attacking Tigrayans. It has even been alleged that a think tank was established so that I could head it up and be an advisor to the former government.
The persecution of Tigrayans who like myself live outside Tigray is harrowing, and it has been happening both on and offline.
There have been previous attempts by some media outlets to incite public outrage against me and encourage attacks on my person. Extremist nationalists such as the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, Ethiopia Satellite Television (ESAT), and its splinter group, Ethio-Media 3600, both based in the US, have churned out fabricated reports to assassinate my character. These media outlets are the same ones that called for Ethiopians to “dry the sea and catch the fish” where the sea refers to the people of Tigray while the fish refers to TPLF and the Tigrayan elite, and later publicly called for the mass detention of Tigrayans in concentration camps. They do not care for the truth. They are hell-bent on attacking Tigrayans from all walks of life. No-one is spared, not even His Holiness Abune Mathias, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
It is important to set the record straight. I have never been, nor am I now, a member of any political party. I have never been a government official. The closest I came to being in government was when I served as director in the office of the president of Addis Ababa University. My career, spanning more than two decades, has been spent working in inter-governmental institutions, universities and think tanks.
In principle, though, it is my right to join any political party, including the TPLF. My decision not to join a party or serve in government is both personal and political. As a member of one of the families that have suffered double victimisation in the previous and current civil wars, I decided that my extended family’s quest for justice should not be misused to seek unjust revenge and unworthy political ends.
Unsurprisingly, Ethiopian politics is a pit of hatred and resentment. Political positions are defined and hardened by endless cycles of vendetta and reprisal. In a political campaign to delegitimise the previous government, all outspoken persons of Tigrayan origin and other critical voices have been the target of orchestrated character assassination, often based on fictitious stories.
Political positions are defined and hardened by an endless cycle of vendetta and reprisal.
These character assassination campaigns are in essence part of a bigger political picture in Ethiopia and its longstanding deep-rooted problems, part of what Francis Deng calls a “war of visions”; a struggle for the nature and future of the Ethiopian state.
The bigger picture
Ethiopia faces, on the one hand, the scenario of loose multi-national federalism, where power rests in the hands of the constituent units, not with the centre. This scenario demands not only greater devolution of power and more autonomy, but also confederal arrangements, self-determination, and even, where necessary, independence from the country. As seen with the Tigrayan forces and with Oromo resistance, this scenario is a tangle of a war of survival, a defence against a predatory state, and a quest for self-determination and self-rule. Historically, Ethiopia has mismanaged its response to wars of resistance, as seen in the 1961–1991 Eritrean war of independence, which caused the fragmentation of the Ethiopian state and led to the secession of Eritrea.
On the other hand is the scenario of centralisation, the basis of which is to reclaim the quasi-unitarist powers that have been – at least de jure – dismantled over decades. This scenario brings back memories of Ethiopia’s highly contested history of forcible assimilation, ethnic domination and neglect of the periphery. The same unitarist style of governance, albeit retaining some vestiges of decentralisation, is what is now in the making, feeding on the extreme nationalism, quasi-imperial ambitions and military adventurism that have led to wars with far-reaching consequences for human security and state integrity. Proponents of this scenario are determined to secure and monopolise power through whatever means available. When convenient, they employ constitutional norms such as elections with no real competitive platforms; when necessary, they use unconstitutional, brutal, oppressive means, including waging genocidal war on those who resist. This is a vision of the old Ethiopian state that is inherently undemocratic, antagonistic to multiculturalism, and even fascistic. With the help of Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki and his troops, these forces of centralisation and of power consolidation are the authors and owners of the current wars in Ethiopia.
Human security vs national sovereignty
The war of November 2020 is narrated as a war for the survival and the security of the population in Tigray on the one hand, and that of sovereignty and state integrity on the other. It morphed into a patriotic resistance that turned civilians into combatants. The sheer number of armies and forces engaged in the war on Tigray attests to the scorched-earth policies of the military operation. They came with massive force to wipe Tigrayans off the map. It was a clear campaign of ethnic cleansing and extermination of the Tigrayan people and their identity markers. Several international organisations, including the UN and Human Rights Watch, have established that ethnicity-based war crimes, crimes against humanity and elements of genocide have been committed in Tigray by the armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and by Amhara forces. Even the US government has confirmed that the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans is ongoing. Thousands of Tigrayan women have been raped. Millions of Tigrayans remain displaced and systematically starved; tens of thousands have been extrajudicially killed through indiscriminate shelling and bombing. The conflict in Tigray has taken an unimaginable human toll since it first erupted in November 2020, and Tigray has been under a brutal siege for more than three years. According to Ghent University, as many as 500,000 Tigrayans have been killed in the war or have died from starvation. From the outset, the war has been marked by brutality and a stark disregard for civilian life.
The Tigrayan population remains largely in a communication blackout, allowed only a trickle of the essential public services necessary to sustain life. Humanitarian aid had been systematically blocked off and diverted, and still remains little compared to the need. Industries, factories and infrastructure have been destroyed. UNESCO-registered and other heritage sites, such as religious and cultural buildings, have been pillaged and desecrated.
For the Ethiopian, Amhara and Eritrean forces, sovereignty is an absolute weapon, and a licence to wage genocidal war in the name of territorial integrity. However, under international law, sovereignty has long been construed to be a responsibility to protect. The sovereignty of the Ethiopian state has not only failed to protect civilians all over the country, but it has been used as a weapon to exterminate Tigrayans, particularly as the hostile Eritrean army and the Amhara forces were invited to participate in the war and occupy parts of Tigray.
From the outset, the war has been marked by brutality and a stark disregard for civilian life.
Resistance wars for survival can only end when the security of the populace is guaranteed. Robust mechanisms to ensure the security of all people facing a perpetual threat from state and non-state actors are vital to prevent a relapse of war and sustain peace.
The civil wars in Tigray and in other parts of the country have created bad blood, not only between current generations, but also for generations to come. Peaceful coexistence should be possible, but only if there are independent investigations to establish the truth, and mechanisms to guarantee justice and that such a genocidal war does not break out again in the future. For the sake of sustainable peace, perpetrators should be held to account, and justice delivered to the victims.
In pursuit of national dialogue
A war of scenarios can be resolved only through a comprehensive and all-inclusive dialogue and negotiations. The first step towards this would be recognition that there can be no military solution to wars such as the one in Tigray or the on-going ones in Oromia and other regions, and that sustaining peace requires justice for the victims. In this spirit, I am one of the many Ethiopians who have repeatedly called for truth, justice, dialogue and reconciliation in Ethiopia as the only way to a peaceful resolution to never-ending conflicts. Since 2011, I have written and presented several proposals for an all-inclusive national dialogue. Previous governments have been unwilling to heed these calls.
In 2020, without an inclusive national dialogue, the federal government postponed the elections and extended its term of office and those of the regional governments. I vehemently opposed the decision. I also supported Tigray’s decision to conduct its elections within the constitutional timeframe, despite the federal government’s decision. Furthermore, I strongly condemned the use of force by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments against regional states, including Oromia, Somali and Tigray.
Raising my voice against oppression has meant that my family is once again facing peril.
My life has come full cycle, but I remain unbowed. More than anything, my childhood experience has influenced my keen interest in protecting human rights, addressing displacement, and promoting human security measures in general. I refuse to be a prisoner of my family’s loss. I refuse to become accusatory and embittered. I avoid a life of self-pity. Crucially, the experience has fuelled my determination to try to help bring about a political governance that is protective of human rights in Ethiopia, and in Africa as a whole. This commitment was amply reinforced during my early years at Addis Ababa University as a Student Union president and subsequently at the universities of Harvard, Oxford and Giessen, and now leading a programme that trains young African leaders at the European University Institute. I struggled, until eventually I formulated a personal philosophy of life centred on a commitment to establishing human rights-protective governance systems and eradicating poverty. This philosophy is based on the maxim of Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye makes us all blind.”
I have concluded that those who have lived through catastrophic events have two paths to choose from: the unprincipled, vicious life of a “villain-victim”, or the worthy life of a “hero-victim”. I chose the latter: to use my horrendous childhood experiences for the greater good and contribute to a peaceful country and a more peaceful continent. I will do what I can to put an end to situations in which children are compelled to grow up parentless in an environment of conflict and violence.
I struggled, until eventually I formulated a personal philosophy of life centred on a commitment to establishing human rights-protective governance systems and eradicating poverty.
Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In the same way, no one should be allowed to remain neutral in choosing between war criminals and victims, war and peace, justice and impunity. I side with victims over war criminals, I choose peace over war, justice over impunity.
“And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation”, said Elie Wiesel in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo. He added, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the centre of the universe.”
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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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