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Reflections

In the Shadow of a Liberation War: Ethiopia, Kenya and the Oromo Quest

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The Oromo Liberation Front leadership views Kenya as an important player and believes that peace will come sooner if Kenya steers the talks between the Oromo and Ethiopia.

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In the Shadow of a Liberation War: Ethiopia, Kenya and the Oromo Quest
Photo: Unsplash/Nemuel Sereti
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A Kenyan Journalist was arrested in Addis Ababa in the wake of the assassination of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a popular Oromo musician. Yassin Juma was arrested alongside prominent Oromo opposition political figures like Jawar Mohammed, the founder of the Oromo Media Network. Juma was later charged with “incitement and involvement in violence, plotting to create ethnic violence and plotting to kill senior Ethiopian officials”.

A court freed him but the police continued to hold him.

Yassin Juma is perhaps the only Kenyan journalist to show interest in the Oromo liberation movement. In Kenya, both the media and government functionaries view the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) as a security threat, with journalists rehashing half-baked arguments about what the OLF means in the region’s conflict.

It was Yassin Juma who introduced the Oromo cause to a larger Kenyan audience with his TV documentary, Inside Rebel Territory, 10 years ago. In it we follow Yassin as he goes in search of OLF fighters: “It was a journey that finally yielded [the] faces of one of Africa’s longest albeit low-key rebellions . . . the OLF was for decades a mystery”.

Inside Rebel Territory earned him the respect of the Oromo and the ire of Meles Zenawi’s regime. Five months ago he was invited to Finfinnee Radio’s 5nan Show where he spoke about the state of the media and reflected on his coverage of the Oromo movement.

My reason for being here is to make a follow-up documentary to [. . .] Inside Rebel Territory . . . I am doing a documentary about the rebels I met then, their life now, after Dr Abiy took over [as Ethiopia’s prime minister] . . . how they find life and so forth.

We can already guess what the new Ethiopia looks like. Guracho, who featured in Yassin’s documentary, is now in jail. Falimatu, a woman he had interviewed, may have been killed two or three years ago. He was in Addis Ababa when Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was killed and the country erupted into violence. Ethiopia prefers to hide its face from the roving cameras of the likes of Yassin Juma.

On Finfinne Radio Yassin reveals who he is, how the story he had done on the OLF was almost killed. How he was offered $150,000 by the Zenawi regime to kill it. How he had received threats. How the owners of Nation Media Group had not been happy with that coverage. How it had caused a diplomatic row between Kenya and Ethiopia. How it triggered a series of events that eventually led to his leaving NTV. How since then his life and that of his family has not been very secure: “In 2009 I was almost shot dead twice in front of my house . . . In 2016 I had to move to Uganda for three months for helping to organise Oromo protests in Kenya”. He was officially banned from entering Ethiopia.

Yassin Juma had covered the Oromo Liberation Front at a time when the movement badly needed the coverage. Ethiopia’s notorious media laws, stemming from the US-backed antiterrorism law, had forced its outspoken journalists into prison. That coverage was important on many counts; it came out at a time when the Oromo cause was transitioning from armed rebellion to an ideological youth- and artists-led movement at around the same time that Haacaaluu was breaking onto the music scene. A scroll through Yassin Juma’s Facebook page shows how important a player he had become in the Oromo cause; he is seen posing with Jawar and Haacaaluu and appears in most Oromo events held in post-revolution Ethiopia.

Kenya, Ethiopia and the Oromo question

For Kenya, Ethiopia is a landlocked market of 100 million people, a destination for goods from its ports and, more recently, a partner in the LAPSSET (Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport) corridor project. In this context, complex stories such as Yassin Juma sought to tell were to Kenya an unwelcome initiative, going against sixty years of close cooperation built around keeping Somalia’s aggression in check. For their part, both the OLF and successive Ethiopian regimes have recognised the strategic importance of Kenya.

As an immediate neighbour, Kenya was important for the Oromo cause—as a refuge for thousands of fleeing Oromos and as transit territory for Oromos escaping oppression at home. Kenya’s importance in the Horn’s geo-politics, it’s appeal as a regional “bastion of peace” and as the regional capital for all manner of international media outlets and posh western think tanks, as well as Kenya’s role in Somalia’s pacification efforts and its shuttle diplomacy in South Sudan’s independence, have fuelled the Oromos’ desire to secure Kenya as an important ally. But how Kenya perceived and portrayed the Oromo struggle spoke volumes about the liberation movement’s international image.

In Kenya, the roots of the OLF rebellion were whitewashed and a truncated history was often told, the Oromo liberation struggle being portrayed as a threat to regional peace. The Kenyan media has reduced the OLF in the Kenyan mindset to illegitimate militias out to destabilise the region. Ethiopian ambassadors have reinforced the local political and media narrative that the Oromo cause is a quest to establish an Oromo super-state stretching all the way to Tana River, a narrative intertwined with other stories about the skirmishes between the Gabra and Borana in Marsabit. The OLF thus became the regional insecurity scapegoat, blamed for the October 1998 Bagalla Massacre in which 140 people were killed in Wajir and the July 2005 Turbi Massacre in Marsabit in which almost 90 people perished, and for the proliferation of arms in the north, for banditry, and even for livestock rustling.

Yet, this conclusion glossed over the complexities at play; the Ethiopian army’s harassment of Kenyans at the border was either ignored or the frequent abductions, killings and harassment of Kenyans by the Ethiopian military were dismissed as being the work of locals.

Following the Turbi Massacre, the OLF’s Dr Fido Ebba said that the OLF’s image was wrongly tainted and that the problem in Marsabit is two-fold, some of the raids are purely tribal. They pit civilian communities against each other over scarce resources and cattle. The rest are diversionary tactics by militias engaged by authorities within Ethiopia’s ruling class. They aim at inciting communities on the Kenyan side and possibly the government into fighting the OLF back.

Ethiopia also issued a similar counter-argument, for example in April 2006, when the OLF was blamed for the killing of two herders in Dukana. Ethiopia’s then acting ambassador to Kenya, Mr Ajebe Ligaba Wolde, insisted that it is the OLF that provokes and incites people along the border with Kenya. “They [OLF] put on Ethiopian soldiers’ uniforms to defame Ethiopia . . . OLF is not only a threat to peace in Ethiopia, but also to Kenya and the whole region. They want to destabilise the region”, said Mr Wolde.

Oromo Liberation Front ideologues and leadership view Kenya as an important player to whom they look with hope, believing that peace will come sooner if Kenya steers the talks between the Oromo and Ethiopia. “If Kenyans mediated between the Ethiopian government and the Oromo they would understand the problems better, just like they did with Sudan and Somalia”, said Dr Fido Ebba.

Ethiopia, which contributed to the liberation of Kenya’s struggle for independence (and was gifted an embassy in appreciation), has enjoyed a long, peaceful diplomatic relationship with Kenya, having signed a defense pact and a treaty of friendship and cooperation in the 1980s. Dr Fido Ebba wishes that the OLF could have its administrative base in Kenya, and not in the US (Washington) as is currently the case. “Our push for liberation would then be coordinated from close proximity”, he says.

Incursions into Kenyan territory by the Ethiopian army in search of the OLF are very common. In 2015 the Ethiopian army crossed into Kenya six times, once even taking over a police station in Illeret, Marsabit. Cross-border massacres—like the March 1997 Kokai Massacre in which 80 people including 19 police officers were killed—have been raised with the Ethiopian regime.

The OLF pointed an accusing finger at the Kenyan government and army, claiming that the Kenyan army has supported the Ethiopian army to wage war against the OLF, that Kenya had broken with several international protocols to abduct and repatriate legitimate Oromo refugees and that Oromo activists have been assassinated by Ethiopian security agents on Kenyan soil.

The decades-long struggle and the fraught relationship between Kenya, the OLF and Ethiopia seemed for a brief moment to be water under the bridge when the Oromo Media Network (OMN) was launched in Nairobi in the wake of the Qeerroo revolution. During the launch, Jawar Mohammed said:

I have come to this place many times before. I had to change my name and look. I am happy that we now can reveal our names and faces to each other. We didn’t plead for this . . . We fought for it . . . We threw those who made us hide our faces in a hole and came out . . . It’s not play that brought us here . . . We lost people like Jatani Ali to arrive here . . . I would like to say thank you to the government of Kenya even though they were not open and fully supportive of our struggle . . . There cannot be liberation for Oromos or for Ethiopia without its neighbours.

Mohammed spoke of how the OMN would lead to the establishment of a bridge between the two countries by bringing the Oromos in Kenya together and by connecting the Oromos in Kenya with the Oromos in Ethiopia through listening to the OMN.

In the constructed narrative, this talk could easily be misconstrued as alluding to the establishment of an Oromia republic stretching into Kenya.

The Oromos of northern Kenya

When Dr Abiy Ahmed became the Ethiopian premier, there were celebrations in Nairobi and in the streets of Isiolo, and a commemoration for all the slain Oromo people was held in Marsabit.

The Marsabit County Woman Representative, Safia Sheikh Adan, organised a memorial day for slain Borana heros and waxed lyrical about the Oromo liberation—Bilisumna—weeping as she recited a poem and read the names of leaders slain through political machinations.

But one name was repeated again and again by Governor Mohammed Ali, by Jawar Mohammed and by the Woman Representative. Mebastion Jatani Ali Tandhu, the former Provincial Governor of Borana Province in Southern Oromia who was assassinated by Ethiopian security agents on 2 July 1992 at Tea Zone Hotel in Nairobi. Jatani Ali Tandhu had been in Kenya to seek political asylum from Zenawi’s Ethiopia. Over the past three decades, he has become an Oromo political liberation martyr and cultural icon, his words revisited in songs and Oromo protest poetry. In commemoration, a message was carried in Kenya’s Daily Nation on the 10th anniversary of his death: “Exactly 10 years since you were brutally murdered by the operatives of Tigre Peoples Revolutionary Front (TPLF)/Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary “Democratic” Front (EPRDF). The course for which you died is still alive”. With Abiy in power, his glory was resurrected and an equestrian statue was installed in the centre of his hometown of Yaballo. New songs were composed in his praise. Jatani Ali Tandhu had been buried in Marsabit and when Abiy came to power, his grave at the Marsabit cemetery was repainted.

It was Safia Sheikh Adan who financed the commemoration day. She spoke about Jattani Ali Tandhu’s contributions and mentioned other prisoners like Jatani Kunu who she said was still being held in an underground prison in Ethiopia. “We have lost many brave and strong people . . . Jatani Ali Tandhu, Galo Wolde, Qala Waqo, Sheikh Hassan, Hussein Sora Agole, Mohammed Halakhe Fayo and Hersi Jatani”.

In her overly sentimental tributes, Safia Sheikh Adan mentioned the names of slain former Kenyan parliamentarians like Guyo Halakhe, Philip Galma and Isacko Umuro. Their assassinations, like that of Daudi Dabasso Wabera (the first African Colonial District Commissioner who was assassinated by the Shifta in 1963), were unrelated to anything Oromo.

But the poem Safia Sheikh Adan recited, her tears and her actions were out of sync with the local politics and current feeling. A few understood her but most people watched her and wondered where her emotions were coming from and her efforts were finally without significance or consequence, dismissed as part of the initial euphoric joy that an Oromo was finally the Ethiopian premier.

Marsabit, music and protest poetry

When popular musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was killed on 29 June 2020, our hearts were broken and the sense of grief that engulfed us had a familiar weight. As Ethiopia descended into mourning and chaos, in Marsabit I listened to Haacaaluu’s albums anew. My friend and I paused and replayed certain songs to try to decipher what he meant and our sadness was deepened by the raw honesty of the injustice he described. That this was the soundtrack of a now stolen revolution added to the feeling that Ethiopia was a place of great injustice.

I remembered the image of Haacaaluu bursting onto the music scene about 10 years ago, a skinny boy in oversized shirt and trousers. We spoke about his music and his political education, his 5-year jail term when he was just 17 years old. We revisited the words of the Oromo liberation struggle as if we were reminiscing, as if it was about us. And we said aaaayyyiii, expressing the turmoil in our hearts. But at the end of the day, none of the political pathos and calls to action were about us, and nor were they happening on our doorstep. The deep articulation of the injustice that we listened to was in our own language but that struggle was not ours.

The aftermath of Haacaaluu’s death and the blowback in Oromia leads me to thoughts about what the Oromo struggle means to those of us who have come of age under its shadow.

To grow up in a liminal space like Marsabit is to be in an endless interregnum of something not quite yours. The earliest memory of the Oromo liberation struggle for me dates back to when I was six years old in mid-1990s Marsabit. Back then, a tape of a poet would be shared across the town, and we would listen alongside our parents, picking up words that sounded funny and made no sense to us.

It was hard, then, to link those words to concepts like oppression and injustice. But over the years, the OLF became the subject of whispers in Marsabit. OLF stories circulated in the manner of a secret; tales of disappearances were told, of men whose wives were taken in the night, of people whose lips had been cut off for snitching. The whisper was a mix of many fears, of the Kenyan Special Branch, of District Commissioners who had lists of OLF sympathisers, of the OLF itself, of Ethiopian spies. In Marsabit some of the murders in the town were linked to these fears.

In our home, the land of our grandparents’ past, Ethiopia, was the unspoken and unacknowledged thought. But its music was the future we aspired to; our heartbreak, our love, our longing for elusive dreams were in those lyrics.

Once, my dad came home with a small OLF flag, with the tree in the middle and the star above it. He stuck it up one side of our wall. It was the first symbol of the OLF as something good that was forbidden.

Many years later, I asked my Dad what that flag had meant to him and where he got it from. He had been in a car heading to Nairobi when he met a man who had engaged him in talk, telling him how liberation for the Oromo would benefit us all, how my dad in Kenya had to be conscious too, how the war being fought needed him.

My inquiry was short but in my father’s clipped answers I found an explanation I could relate to. I knew what his words meant and I knew what his silences meant. He had, like me, grown up on the poetry of Oromo oppression and on the songs of their hopeful salvation. Yet this long political induction had never called him to any action.

What did the Oromo of Kenya want for Oromia?

Calls for independence have a liberatory romance about them that is inviting to sympathisers. And nowhere is the Oromo call for liberation, and the reason for this call, and the status of this call, as articulated as it is in the music of the Oromo. The Oromo songs we listened to in Moyale, Marsabit, Isiolo and Nairobi arose from the liberation struggle. They were songs and poetry that articulated Oromo suffering and encouraged resistance. Through the songs, the turmoil and suffering of the Oromo was transmitted to us in Kenya. But in Kenya, we seemed to run away from it all, not learning how to speak of the injustice that followed us.

In Marsabit we carried other stories of Ethiopia in our hearts, stories of an unacknowledged past as we forged new Kenyan identities, stories of the Amharas and how the gabbar system had forced our grandparents out of Ethiopia. Stories of slavery and of Abyssinian expansionism into southern Ethiopia.

We followed the Qeerroo protests keenly and vouched for them. But stolen revolutions break the heart even more. Haacaaluu’s murder was testament to a stolen revolution, an encore to the 1974 Derg, when the army through Mengistu stole another revolution. How many of the men in Marsabit escaped conscription in Ethiopia’s many wars with Eritrea and on its own people? How many had had hopes that their suffering would come to an end before the revolution was stolen from them in 1974, in 1991 and again in 2018?

I sit with a local musician in Marsabit and try to understand the influence of Oromo music on the Borana music produced and consumed in Kenya. How devoid of politics the songs in Kenya seem. I ask, “how come Borana musicians from Kenya haven’t contributed to the Oromo protest tradition?”

He says, “birds from different places speak a different tongue”.

It is a common saying about how things that look similar can be unrelated. In his answer, I understood so much. It is the caged bird that sings better of freedom.

A social-cultural state that defied the Westphalia model did exist in a section of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. A cultural state called Oromia did exist but, more than political aspirations, it was language, music, traditional political institutions and contiguous populations that marked its boundaries.

Is the Oromo cause over? Is it legitimate? How has their struggle progressed? Which parties speak for the Oromo? Where are they? What’s happening in Ethiopia? Asking Kenyan Borana/Oromo these questions is asking them far too much. None of these questions have been considered before. Yet somehow, a version of the Oromo pain has been inscribed in the psyche of the Kenyan Oromo through the Oromo music and protest tradition. The revolutionary spirit is appealing but there is no substance beneath the thin veneer of solidarity.

It was thus easy to romanticise the struggle itself. To hung posters of Lemma Megersa in khat shops while not knowing which party speaks for who. Yassin Juma had tried to put a story to this romantic idea of a political rebellion.

The Kenyan government’s choice of silence as a strategy and its hush-hush attitude towards the Oromo or the Ethiopian army’s repeated aggression on the border is just a convenient excuse, as is the simplistic idea peddled by security analysts that Kenyan Oromo also desire an Oromia super-state. It is reading too much into a romantic idea.

I know now that sympathy for—or identification with—the Oromo cause became intertwined with local politics as early as the 1990s, and allegations that local politicians had begun enlisting the services of OLF fighters were rife in Marsabit and that that there was some truth to these allegations.

For the states of the East African region there is a need to understand the Oromo cause and what is happening in Ethiopia. The Oromo call and the Ethiopian regime’s response to it should not be considered inconsequential, for the response is an indicator of how oppression, inclusion and participation of the marginalised are viewed in those states.

The old pattern in the region’s attempts at reform has been to gain one kind of political progress and lose another. To allow for the judiciary to be pseudo-independent but to cut it back when it does its work. Extrajudicial killings, mass arrests, clamping down on the freedom of association and freedom of speech, the arbitrary arrest of journalists, torture and detentions without trial, draconian and controversial laws like the social media tax in Uganda, the controversial hate speech law in Ethiopia, Internet shutdowns in Uganda and Ethiopia, declaration of a state of emergency to suppress legal and peaceful protests, all these speak of identical regional infirmities. For activists, pseudo-revolutionaries and politicians there are lessons here on the pitfalls of revolutionary nationalism in mainstream politics.

For the people of northern Kenya, whether viewed as potential citizens of a future “Oromia” or as relatives of disenfranchised, broken OLF fighters, or as the inhabitants of places invoked in Oromo songs, the sooner Ethiopia addresses the Oromo plight the better for the region. But even as Ethiopia sorts out its politics, the region also needs to formulate the ways in which the armed fighters are going to fit back into the community and not become a security threat by being enlisted to serve Marsabit politics.

In August 2017, four days after Ethiopia lifted its 10-month state of emergency, and as Kenya was in the throes of post-electoral violence, I crossed the border into Ethiopia at Moyale. In southern Ethiopia, in towns like Mega, Yaballo and Soyama, I counted a few T-Shirts adorned with the portraits of gubernatorial contestants in Marsabit. My grand-aunt was very worried that Kenya would burn with her daughter in it. After 10 days of drinking copious amounts of Ethiopian bunna in many towns and even in a restaurant at Akaki Kaliti, a sub-city of Addis Ababa, I returned to Kenya. On the way to Yaballo, political campaign songs about Marsabit’s politics played on the matatu’s stereo.

Back to Yassin Juma

It is in this larger context that Yassin Juma found himself in a prison in Ethiopia. He has since been released and is back in Kenya and we are waiting for his documentary about what Ethiopia is doing to its youth.

Parallels can be drawn between the struggles in Ethiopia and the situation in Kenya, how a minority wields economic and political power, keeping out the majority of citizens by means of elaborate political machinations. Keeping Kenyan youth in check with guns is not any different from the Ethiopian government’s incarceration of its youth and its heavy-handed reaction to dissent.

But there is something markedly different in the civil response in Ethiopia; 10-year-olds are active in the streets of Ambo.

It was important to observe Kenya’s reaction to Yassin Juma’s arrest and his release as this could be a signal to northern Kenya of a change in the government’s attitude towards the killings and assassinations that have been perpetrated in the name of the OLF in Kenya, and that the border regions will finally be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

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The author is a writer based in Marsabit, Kenya.

Reflections

Living on the Edge: From the Favelas of Rio to Life in Mathare

Both Mathare and Alemão are full of human endeavour and misfortune in equal measure, and in both places young men, specifically, are at high risk of coming to a violent end.

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Living on the Edge: From the Favelas of Rio to Life in Mathare
Photo: Flickr/Rachel Strohm
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Lethal violence is fact in Mathare. On the day I first visit the community, tweets hashtagged #CopRashidCorruptDeals appear on my Twitter feed. I already knew of Rashid, having watched the BBC documentary about him and his team. I follow the hashtag and find this tweet from a local journalist:  “Rashid has wiped all thugs around Eastleigh, Mathare and Huruma. To us residents he is a nice guy.” The journalist in question has twenty-three thousand followers.

I’ve only been in Mathare a matter of minutes when an invisible hand runs gently over the dome of my head. It’s a familiar, yet strange, feeling. I quickly realise that this is because it is neither my own hand, nor that of Inés, my wife. The hand actually belongs to a man standing behind me. Feeling vulnerable, I move away quickly, saying “COVID” in justification for my abruptness. “19”, he responds, completing my words. It’s a funny moment and I relax.

My new acquaintance is one of the many addicts who share a rubbish dump with a large number of highly energetic and boisterous children. The children have transformed a corner of the tip into a gymnasium. The gym includes a climbing frame/assault course (improvised from an abandoned wooden structure) and a springboard — a large black tyre — from which the tiny gymnasts gracefully launch themselves. The kids are well organised. They stand in a nice queue. There are fast ones, skilful ones and learners. After a quick sprint they hit the tyre with both feet. It projects them and they spin defiantly, airborne above the garbage for a split second, before landing on the piece of carpet that serves as a crash mat. Fans gathered to watch the spectacle make approving sounds for the best leaps and twists. The contrast between the shiny-eyed bounce of the children and the glazed stagger of the addicts is stark and saddening.

I’m in Mathare to visit members of the Mathare Empire collective. The enterprising young members of this group have recently occupied and redecorated an abandoned building at one end of the trash pile. Their porch provides front-row seats from which to watch the young athletes practice their somersaults. It is fittingly decorated with a painting of a child with huge boxing gloves and a stop-corona mask. This is one of several large and handsome murals depicting faces that gaze patiently over the dump.

Despite the distracting vivacity of the young gymnasts, the garbage heap is treacherous.  It almost swallowed up a little girl recently. The piles and layers of trash hide pools of rainwater, transforming the junk into something akin to a deadly swamp. The girl, running to greet her father, sunk into one such concealed crevice and began to go under. Quick-witted bystanders saved the day, plucking her out before she disappeared.

The purpose of my visit is to present and discuss projects in Rio de Janeiro, where I lived until recently. In Rio I first worked for Amnesty International, documenting and campaigning against human rights violations in some of the city’s 1000+ world-famous and, sadly, ultra-violent favelas. I later became involved in grassroots cultural and youth initiatives aiming to empower and raise the self-esteem of Rio’s young people and communities. This work is documented in a book titled Culture is Our Weapon and included a project by JR — a TED prize-winning French artist — called Women are Heroes. Most recently, in 2019, I helped to organise the construction of a skatepark in Maré, a neighbourhood made up of sixteen favelas originally constructed on swampland.

We have lots to talk about. While sharing ideas and stories with the group, I discover they have recently taken part in a video call with Raull Santiago, a prominent human rights defender from the Alemão (German) complex, one of Rio’s most violence-hit communities. The issues faced by the residents of Mathare and Alemão are similar yet different. Both are very big, but Mathare is much more densely populated and much poorer. While both places suffer violence, Alemão is a war zone. Both are built in a valley and are full of human endeavour and misfortune in equal measure. In both places young men, specifically, are at high risk of coming to a violent end.

We go for a walkabout. My guides show me how and where they have staked out green spaces, planted trees and painted structures with bright murals, (part of their work for the Mathare Green Movement). These actions bring levity and freshness into the often airless and monochromatic environment. I’m struck by their colourful imaginings of other universes on the walls of public toilets. Just one of these strong-smelling units can cater for the needs of five thousand Mathare residents. I also learn that the toilets are centres of socialisation — children’s friendship networks in Mathare are built around who shares the facility nearest your house. Kids playing in front of several of the vibrantly decorated loos that we visit demonstrate this. The pictures on the walls imagine other possibilities — outer space or lush tropical forests — while others remind users of their current terrestrial responsibilities: don’t forget your mask!

I suffer from sensory overload walking around Mathare. As in Rio, there are myriad sights, sounds and smells to take in all at once. Because of COVID-19, school is out when I visit. Children are everywhere. The community is spread across a gentle valley, not the steep escarpments of many favelas in Rio. Corrugated iron shacks — so close together that visually they form a vast iron sheet of rusted red, grey and brown — cover the slopes. The poverty is grinding. Narrow paths zigzag between lean-tos and rank smelling drains. Most of the shacks are low and many look as if they might fall down should you push them.

In contrast, residents are mostly well dressed and clean. Commerce, licit and illicit, crowds the pathways and thoroughfares. Cheap, ripe fruit and vegetables abound. I taste sweet pineapple and see watermelon, avocados, tomatoes, garlic, peppers and onions. Vendors hawk pastries, eggs and sausages. Cooks stir delicious smelling dishes over wood fires. In Rio, obesity in low-income communities is a serious issue. Here I’m impressed — most people in Mathare look healthy and strong.

We pass a wealth of legal, illegal, social, spiritual and commercial activities — khat stalls, illicit hooch making stills, drug dealing areas, NGOs, schools, churches, mosques and markets. Public soap dispensers and water for handwashing remind us that COVID-19 is ever-present, even though social distancing is impossible. Besides the sale of food there is plentiful commerce—mobile phone businesses, hardware shops, beauty salons, charcoal vendors, boda boda riders and stalls selling new and second-hand clothes. Authentic second-hand garments are considered infinitely more stylish than bogus new ones, I am informed. Fake clothes in Mathare = a serious fashion crime! It’s the same in Rio, where favela residents take pride in their appearance. However, Brazil does not have such an abundance of second-hand imports. And so in Rio, the emphasis is more often on an item’s newness, not necessarily its authenticity.

Yet despite the trading, hustle and bustle and a resilient-looking population, the overwhelming sensation I have in Mathare is that of risky living. I can only try and imagine the heat inside the shanties in high summer or what happens during the rains, when sewers flood and the metal shanties become dangerous because of electric shocks from exposed wiring. But although Mathare is economically poorer and less developed than similar communities in Rio, I do not feel suffocated by the inescapable threat of violence. In Rio’s battle-scarred favelas, gun-toting teenagers patrol the alleyways. Bullet holes in the masonry all around inform you that the weapons are not just for show. Violence is real and present and you are constantly reminded of this.

When I ask my guides about the tweet concerning Rashid they tell a very different story from that of the journalist who described him as “hero”. For young men in Mathare, Rashid is the grim reaper in human form and something of a shape shifter, known for his ability to camouflage himself and merge with the surroundings. He carries pictures of targets on his phone. Businesses pay him to go after miscreants. However, innocents, friends, associates or just the unlucky often end up dead.

The guys I am with are mostly in their early twenties. Statistically, they are the group most at risk from police violence. The presence of killer cops does not make them safer or protect them from crime. Local thieves, they tell me, refer to after dark as “office hours” and can even rob someone they know because those are “the rules and young thieves will take everything you have—even your girlfriend. They take drugs that make them fearless and immune to pain.” These include pills called “cosmos”, sold by local dealers. Cosmos pills come in different colours according to strength and stain the user’s lips. The tablets are apparently prescription medicine for mental illness, stolen from the public health system.

Law-abiding young men in Mathare live between a rock and a very hard place. When they talk about problems, conversation revolves around work and danger. While dignified employment is scarce, even for the well-educated, the threat of violence is permanent. Rashid — seen as something of an executioner-in-chief — exercises the power of life and death through his actions and their multiplication in the public imagination.

The youth in the favelas of Rio favela suffer from precisely the same issue. Police killings (extrajudicial executions by any other name) in the city are among the highest  — if not the highest — in the world. The slaughter takes place in the context of a so-called drug war whereby society overlooks illegal police action in return for perceived security. Young men in favelas are also at risk from gangs inside their communities who also kill without pity. Fierce and chaotic gun battles between police and lawbreakers very often leave behind victims of stray bullets. By the end of 2019, Rio’s police force had shot and killed 1,810 alleged suspects in supposed confrontations, the highest annual number on record and almost twice the 1,003 victims of police violence for the entire US that year. In 2020 lethal police violence and operations in favelas in Rio continue at full steam; they did not abate even under COVID-19 lockdown.

As in Nairobi, where some locals describe Rashid as a hero, the Brazilian media and public have long tolerated and encouraged extrajudicial executions as purported crime fighting. Typical practice is to execute a victim in a fake shoot-out. In just a few hours in February 2019, during a single operation in a favela, Rio police shot and killed 13 suspects. These included nine young men in a house, who, according to witnesses, were trying to give themselves up. However, sometimes they don’t even try to pretend — as was the case in a Rio suburb in 2005, when off-duty police in cars shot and killed 29 civilians in a single evening.

Widespread public consent for criminal state violence in Brazil is encapsulated in the popular saying “a good thug is a dead thug”, first adopted by police death squads operating in the 1960s at the beginning of the country’s 20-year military dictatorship. In 2018, future president Bolsonaro took the dictum to extremes by pledging to unleash waves of violence across the country when elected, saying, “if a policeman kills 10, 15 or 20 with 30 bullets each he must be decorated, not charged”. Other politicians followed suit, campaigning on explicit platforms of lethal violence. Despite the extremely high numbers of police killings, individual cases of which are rarely scrutinised, Bolsonaro committed to the introduction of new legal mechanisms to further protect killer police from investigation.

In Brazil, killer cops, drug traffickers and death squads have long terrorised low-income communities across the nation. In rural areas, local police and hired gunmen provide such a service. In cities and their peripheries, the absence of the state and lack of regulation in poor neighbourhoods and favelas offer a wealth of illicit opportunity. Whoever provides security in these areas can step in to control the local economy, provision of services and crucially, access to the electorate. Paramilitary groups, known in Rio de Janeiro as militia, have lately appropriated this model — a fusion of traditional politics, organised crime and territorial control. Usually linked to police, prison and fire services, today the militia operate in more than half of the city’s neighbourhoods.

Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe has identified this process — the political management of vulnerable populations through their exposure to death — as “necropolitics”. Necropolitics clearly regulates life in Mathare as much as it governs Rio’s favelas. Police like Rashid are not there to fight crime. They defend a status quo.

When I am about to leave Mathare after my first visit, I have an indication of what the maintenance of this status quo entails. Two very burly policemen brandishing enormous sticks barge their way along the street and disappear behind some huts. People double their speed to get far away from them. Doors close and the street empties. Twilight falls. A palpable tension replaces the relaxed late Saturday afternoon coming and going. Onlookers inform me that the police are there to extort payment from vendors who sell glue and “jet fuel” — ultra-cheap ethanol for inhaling — to the crushed adults who converge on the garbage dump.

***

Thankfully, the next time I visit, there is a much more pleasant atmosphere in this corner of Mathare. The area outside the bungalow, as the Mathare Empire members call their HQ, is swept clean. Local and guest artists perform on a brightly coloured stage, made from pallets painted purple, red, yellow and green, to a hyped crowd who occupy the kids’ gymnasium at the edge of the dump. They talk, sing and rap about police violence and issues of the day, like COVID-19. But the event is not a political lecture and nor is it gloomy. The group had spontaneously decided that what was originally going to be a concert would instead be the first ever “Mathare Futurism Day” – a gathering of local painters, artists and musicians to celebrate community, address current issues and reimagine Mathare. “Moments like this”, Wyban Mwangi says, “remind people about the beauty of self-dignity and the constant need to struggle for a better, healthier and safer place to live”. In communities governed by necropolitics, such resistance provides vital hope, freedom and breathing space.

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Reflections

I’m Black, I’m Proud. Still

You can’t feed into the darkness. You can’t demand anyone to know what you know, to understand what you understand. People come to truth when they come to it and not a second before.

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I'm Black, I'm Proud. Still
Photo: Unsplash/Oladimeji Odunsi
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Growing up down south in the aftermath of the 1960s Negro Revolution in America was truly the best. During that period, three out of every four Black children in America were born in a two-parent home. By the 80s, that number would drop to one in every four.

Education and opportunity were becoming more accessible to black and brown communities everywhere. It would be the force that would get us out of the hole history had placed us in.

We were moving forward and everybody could feel it, but as much as I liked going to school and learning new things, my favourite memories are of when, after school, I got to spend time with my brothers and cousins. There was just something magical that happened when we were together.

We would meet over at grandma’s house in that part of the city we called the village. The village was a straight, two-block walk from school, down King Street, past the Piggly Wiggly store parking lot and then to the stoplight where you take a right turn onto Rommey Street, and another right on to what looks like a parking lot on the side of the church, and just at the bridge, before you crossed the old train track or you would have missed it, the entrance to the court. Thirty or so homes behind the old Methodist Church on a road invisible from the street laid out in the form of a horseshoe.

I cannot talk about the village without talking about the city and the state. Charleston, South Carolina is a peninsula city located on the South Carolina coastline. It was one of the thirteen original colonies and the very first state to break away from the Union, and one of the founding states of the Confederacy.

The village was a housing initiative following the 1964 Civil Rights Act aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty by moving Black families out of the old housing slums and projects and into new affordable homes.

The difference between the projects in the South and the projects up north is the space and design. In most cases, southern projects were designed to be communal properties, different from the stacked high-rises up north or in the Midwest.

The projects down south were simple properties where people learned to share. They shared the backyard when the sun got too high and the front when people just wanted to be outside and catch a breeze. Everybody knew one another and called each other by name. Family arguments, celebrations and losses spilled into neighbouring apartments causing people to act like one big extended family. And even though everybody was poor, they would have been hard-pressed to admit it. Poverty was a state of mind. The community spirit emphasised generosity and everything was shared. If you were hungry and didn’t have food, you could always ask next door.

Having lived in the projects for decades, my grandparents were one of the very first people to be offered a house in the village. I can remember the move like it was yesterday, everyone was so excited.

The year was 1973, I was eight years old. For the first time Black families in Charleston would have the chance of a normal life.

My grandparents, long into retirement, coupled with our large, extended family of cousins, uncles, aunts and three brothers – two older and one younger – were a great source of pride and joy until I learned that the American egalitarian beliefs which I thought were as perfect a foundation as there could be, were but an illusion, a well thought out scheme. We weren’t freed, we were just moving boxes.

Although everyone got their own private home, some did build fences around theirs but others opted against this, allowing for yards to overlap, creating a more open and vibrant community.

My grandparents had a high chain-linked fence, but there was still this sense of togetherness. When something went wrong in the village, the elders would be the first out to deal with it.

My exploration of the real workings of America would begin from within this village in 1976, the year that America celebrated its 200th anniversary of independence from British rule.

That year, I began to see that the ideals that gave birth to the idea of “We the People,” did not include people like me.

I remember a young militant uncle, oozing Black pride, spilling the beans and pointing out to me that neither he nor I, nor any of the millions of other Blacks had reason to celebrate America’s success.

As my White and Black classmates and a nation prepared for the grand July 4th spectacle that would include a  freedom train,  a scheduled stop in our city,  marching bands,  hotdogs, cotton candy and fireworks, I began my own re-education, reading keenly to understand the origins and the construct of the first Americans.

In the 200 years since the Protestant Christians invaded America they’ve enslaved millions, massacred the Indians, and everything we’ve suffered – the chains, the church bombings, our leaders assassinated, brothers lynched – all of it has been part of an elaborate scheme to keep Blacks subjugated.

In June 1740, the British Parliament passed the Naturalization Act of 1740 – the “Plantation Act” – into law.

In this decree, any White European Protestant alien who had been living in any of the thirteen colonies for seven years without being absent from that colony for more than two months, was deemed to be a natural-born citizen of the United Kingdom.

The Plantation Act of 1740 was a direct response to the September 1739 Stono River Slave Rebellion in South Carolina. The Stono Rebellion was the largest slave insurrection in British North America that culminated in the deaths of 25 colonists and about 50 Africans. It was led by an Angolan known as Jemmy and a band of about twenty slaves, who broke into a store, armed themselves and demanded their freedom. They marshalled a group of 60 slaves in an attempt to reach St Augustine in Florida, where the Spanish guaranteed freedom and land to any fugitive slave. The rebellion was crushed at Edisto River, 80 kms away from where the rebellion had started.

The 1740 law criminalised the Black experience itself, restricting the right of free movement, the right to free assembly, and the right to be educated or to earn money. These punitive and discriminatory laws created by men who claimed to be good Christians, legislated the right of plantations owners to even kill rebellious slaves.

Most colonialists considered themselves British until the year 1776 when resentment began to fester among the settlers. Frustrated by taxation and a lack of representation in the British Parliament, these new Americans declared war on their own government demanding independence.

That same year, the British-born political activist, pamphleteer and immigrant to the colonies, Thomas Paine, published a pamphlet titled Common Sense in which he argued the case for a new “America”.

“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.”

The American War of Independence was fought from 1776 to 1783.  Seven years later, the Naturalization Act of 1790, the first naturalization law of the new republic legislating who could be granted United States citizenship, was passed into law.

All Free White Persons of “good character” who had been residing in the United States for two years or longer could apply for US citizenship.  In effect, the law’s use of the phrase, “free white person” excluded blacks and immigrants of other races from being eligible for citizenship, and most importantly, for protection under the laws of the court.

As a child I had drank the Kool-Aid and believed that it was peaceful cooperation between the pilgrims and the native Indians that had established the widely practiced Thanksgiving holiday tradition.

I recall summers spent playing cowboys and Indians with my brothers. We took turns at who got to play the Indian. I felt no shame striking the Indians down with my rifle. They were always the bad guys, raiding the poor settlers’ forts, attacking their caravans. But I was baffled by the contradictions. Why would the Indians save the pilgrims who were dying from the cold and hunger only to try to escape from them later? It just didn’t make much sense.

Then it came to me: the Native Americans were fighting to protect their land. We weren’t playing a game; what we were doing was re-enacting a massacre. Over five million Native Americans were killed before the West was conquered.

Regardless the age at which one arrives at truth and understanding, it is always disorienting and disheartening. I’ve found that whether one accepts it or not, the only thing we can be certain of in this world of uncertainty is change.

I spoke with many people after the first 2020 Presidential Debate between President Trump and the Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden that took place in the midst of heightened racial tensions and the COVID-19 pandemic. I got many mixed views regarding the outcome of the debate; some were shocked by the childish display while others dug in, taking sides and displaying party loyalty like it was a football game. Of the many reactions I got, one zoom call from home with my older brother really got me thinking.

“Can you believe that man?”

My older brother is now 60.

I had noticed him wiping his eyes.

I asked, “What ‘s wrong?”

At first he didn’t (want to) speak, he just kept brushing the tears away, then he began,

“Little brother, we grew up together,” he said.

“We pretty much had the same childhood, but I’ll tell you, I have never had any white person call me a nigger or spit on me like these guys up here in Philadelphia tell me they have. I have had White teachers down south who were some of the nicest people you’d want to meet. But, looking at that debate last night and the President of the United States refusing to denounce white supremacy as racist, I just never, you know, thought White people hated us that much.”

I empathised with him because I knew the pain of sacrifice, service, abandonment, rejection and betrayal.

I joined the US Military at seventeen to prove my allegiance to the ideals that made America great in my mind, but war in a foreign land far away from the ones I loved taught me the truth about service and the value of my life.

My brother and I grew up five years apart in a changing post-civil rights America. We were kids of the Kool-Aid generation, the first of our kind. We had opportunities our parents could only have dreamt of. We were the hope of a brighter future, a brighter America. A post-civil rights America.

In the 1960s, the far right party was a party bent on preserving the privileges of natural-born Whites in America, Jim Crow’s America. However, during the 1960s a new consciousness emerged as young White Americans took to the streets to say that they had seen the attack dogs set on peaceful protesters and wanted a better America. In January 1961, a young President-elect  of Irish descent and a wealthy practicing Catholic would become the embodiment of the American dream and challenge the good American Christians to look into their hearts and minds and begin anew to create a better nation where the rights of every American, White and non-White, were protected under the laws of the land.

With a rousing inauguration day speech, JFK inspired Americans to think better of themselves, to think higher of themselves: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” He had spoken and the people spoke back. My parents gave me his middle name because they believed life for Blacks in America would be different.

But, in November of 1963, the 46-year-old president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was gunned down by a lone gunmen while out in Texas promoting his ideas of equality to the American people.

This is America

My brother was crying because it was hard for him to accept people could be so calculating and one so naive. He, like so many others, wanted badly to believe in a land blessed by God.

I was twelve years old when my big brother left home. He moved up north straight out of high school, where he built a career and retired as a professional chef.  He found love, family and set up a home up north. But in the Trump years, the scales fell from his eyes.

“I never had a racist moment down south, not like the kind of racist moments these guys tell me they’ve encountered here in Philly. I mean I just never believed White people hated us that much.”

I knew the anguish, the shock.  We Blacks down south don’t complain, we see but at the same time we’ve learnt not to see.

My grandma in the village used to say, “You can’t feed into the darkness. You can’t demand anyone to know what you know, to understand what you understand. People see what they want to see. People come to truth when they come to it and not a second before.”

But what you don’t do is stop living.

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Reflections

Gold and Gemstone Policy in Kenya: The Devil Is in the Detail

Small-scale artisanal gold and gemstone mining is decades-old but lack of knowledge and expertise, and limited support from the government have hampered the sector’s development.

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Gold and Gemstone Policy in KenyA: The Devil Is in the Detail
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The evergreen town of Kakamega is a picture of the hustle and bustle typical of any Kenyan town, with many hundreds of folks going about their daily business. But as you leave the town behind, the environment changes, a lush countryside of cultivated fields and densely planted trees giving no hint of the gold mining taking place in the nearby locality of Ikolomani.

Across the country, 432 miles to the southeast of Kakamega is the beautiful transit town of Voi, the largest town in Taita Taveta County which lies at the foothills of the Sagalla massif. But the much smaller town of Mwatate is the county capital, and the source of gemstones that Kenyans from other parts of the country know little about. Mwatate has rubies, red garnet, emeralds, moonstones, tsavorite, okenorite, and many more.

Small-scale artisanal gold and gemstone mining has been going on for decades in both Kakamega and Taita Taveta counties, undertaken mainly by local artisanal miners and by a few non-locals and foreign nationals.

The Mining Act 2016 recognises three levels of mining rights: artisanal mining permits, small-scale mining permits and large-scale mining licences. The small-scale permits and large-scale mining licences are issued at the national level through the Kenya Mineral Rights Board (MRB), while the artisanal mining permits are issued through the county artisanal mining committees. The Mineral Rights Board and the county Artisanal Mining Committees are administratively governed by the State Department of Mining under the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining. The Director of Mines and his representatives in the various counties are in charge of overseeing the implementation of the ministry’s policy frameworks. The Ministry of Petroleum and Mining has key mining regulations in place to govern this process.

But even though the Mineral Rights Board is in place, the process of setting up the county Artisanal Mining Committees (AMCs) has been long drawn out and there seems to be no hurry to implement the mining regulations that were commissioned in 2017. Kakamega County’s AMC was gazetted on 27 March 2020 and the team commissioned on 20 July 2020. However, the AMC has yet to begin its work as the key governmental mechanisms necessary to run the committee are still pending and so no mining permits have been issued to artisanal miners in Kakamega County since the gazettement.

Artisanal miners in Taita Taveta County are in a different situation altogether. The list of members of the county AMC constituted through their appointing authorities has been forwarded to the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining but the AMC has yet to be gazetted. When contacted on this issue, one of the reasons cited by the ministry officials was that factions within the mining fraternity have disputed the list of people proposed to be part of the AMC.

Applications for small-scale mining permits are submitted to the Mineral Rights Board through the Mining Cadastre Portal. The platform is meant to bring these services close to the miners but they complain of the slow response from the Ministry of Mining. They must travel to the ministry to submit the paperwork even after uploading it onto the portal. Access to a stable internet connection is also a challenge in the remote areas of Taita Taveta and Kakamega while some of the small-scale miners lack the capacity to use the online system. Most have to travel to the Ministry’s offices for assistance or else hire someone with the skills to undertake the work for them, rendering the application process both tedious and time-consuming.

The ministry has not undertaken any capacity building and shows a lack of commitment to make the system more efficient and user-friendly. The biggest hindrance, however, is the low budgetary allocation made to the Ministry of Mining, which leaves the staff with limited options in their efforts to serve small-scale miners.

The stated goal of the Mining Cadastre Portal is “to provide an electronic platform for all stakeholders in the mining sector in Kenya to engage directly with the Ministry of Mining.” Existing mineral rights holders (those with mining permits and licenses for mining) or those with pending applications can download, complete and upload the requisite documents. Prospective mineral rights holders can also submit their particulars and other supporting documents through the portal.

The portal is also a one-stop shop for information on mining activities in Kenya. It has a cadastre map of the key areas with mineral resources, as well as details of licence holders, and on-going applications; a click on any part of the map automatically displays the existing information about that specific geographical location.

For artisanal and small-scale miners (ASMs) in Kakamega and Taita Taveta, the portal has had a significant impact on access to public information on mining in Kenya. But the portal also has its limitations. Mining is a highly skilled sector that requires high levels of expert knowledge. Some of the requirements on the portal are beyond the scope of knowledge of most gold and gemstone miners in Kakamega and Taita Taveta. For instance, the portal requires a miner to take the coordinates of the area for which they are applying for a permit. This requires equipment that is typically used by geologists and land surveyors and that is expensive to hire or purchase. A sketch of the area or locality where the miner intends to undertake extraction is another requirement, a very sophisticated process that miners in general cannot undertake on their own.

Lack of knowledge and expertise coupled with lack of access to the internet, or even computers, therefore leaves the small-scale gold and gemstone miners unable to fully exploit the portal.

Aside from these limitations, however, the Kenya Mining Cadastre Portal has been a game changer when it comes to eliminating brokers from the mining sector and it has proven to be a more efficient system than the manual issuing of permits and licences

For instance, unlike the manual system that had no clear guidelines regarding payments, all fees due to the ministry are clearly indicated on the portal and paid directly to the ministry through a cashless system. Moreover, as the portal has centralised all the country’s mining information, cases of loss or manipulation of files or documents have reduced significantly.

The gold and gemstones that are mined in Kakamega and Taita Taveta are exported out of the country with or without any value addition under the provisions of the Mining Act of 2016 which require an export permit from the Cabinet Secretary the application for which is made on the Mining Cadastre Portal.

But while the law on the issuance of mineral export permits is sufficiently detailed, its implementation is the biggest challenge and I have no doubt at all that gold and gemstones are imported into and exported out of Kenya without any form of declaration. There are many routes along the porous Kenyan boarders through which the minerals can slip in or out of the country.

For instance, most of the gold that is mined in Kakamega is taken to Uganda by road undeclared. How can this be remedied, especially for gold and gemstone miners who want to run a clean business? Also, the process of implementing the gold refinery centre in Kakamega and the gemstone value addition centre in Voi remains pending. If the sector is streamlined, then the issue of traceability of gold and gemstones will be resolved and the mineral export licence will be of value to the artisanal and small-scale miners in the sector.

The article is done with support from Diakonia Kenya Country Office under the Madini Yetu Wajibu Wetu (Our Minerals, Our Responsibility) Project. Views expressed in the article are those of the author.

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