The world’s attention has turned again to deadly scenes of Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip and the launching of rockets by the militant group Hamas into Israel. It follows two weeks of protests in East Jerusalem against attempts to forcibly displace Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and Israeli police raids on worshippers in the al-Aqsa mosque compound.
But in towns across Israel, another important – and underreported – development is taking place. And it could change how we talk about Palestinians and Israelis.
Since May 9, 2021, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel, numbering some 1.9 million people and often referred to as “Arab Israelis,” have taken to the streets to express support for their fellow Palestinians in Gaza and Jerusalem. Protests are taking place in both mixed Arab-Jewish cities like Haifa, Jaffa and Lod, known as Lydda to Palestinians, as well as in predominantly Palestinian cities and towns like Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm.
The size and scope of the demonstrations have surprised many political analysts who usually discuss these Palestinians as part of the Israeli social and political fabric, separate from Palestinians elsewhere.
But as a historian of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, I’m not surprised by this recent turn of events. Palestinian citizens of Israel have a long history of identifying with their fellow Palestinians, though rarely on this scale.
Policy of isolation, integration
As I argue in my book “Brothers Apart,” following the establishment of Israel in 1948, state officials tried to cultivate a sense of loyalty among the minority of Palestinians who remained in their homeland. It was part of a larger Israeli effort to isolate them from the vast majority of Palestinians who either fled or were expelled from the newly established state.
These “Arab Israelis” were placed under military rule until 1966 and were unable to directly contact family members living in refugees camps. Most were granted Israeli citizenship in 1952, but they faced a host of discriminatory laws that denied them access to their land, limited their economic opportunities and restricted their movements. While they could vote, form political parties and hold public office, extensive government surveillance – and punishment of those who criticized the state – created a pervasive climate of fear among these Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Discrimination and economic disadvantage continue today. Palestinian towns and villages in Israel face housing shortages and economic underdevelopment. Hiring practices that require job applicants to live in certain areas or to have served in the military – something very few Palestinian citizens do – end up pushing Palestinians into precarious low-wage jobs.
While direct housing discrimination was banned by the courts, Jewish communities often set up admissions committees that effectively limit the number of Palestinian citizens living in majority Jewish towns.
In addition, Palestinian citizens are subjected to “stop-and-frisk” police policies. And professionals face everyday forms of racism from some Jewish Israeli colleagues who are surprised by their level of education.
Palestinian citizens of Israel have been protesting these conditions since the founding of the state, but within limits. In 1964, the Arab nationalist Ard group called for “a just solution for the Palestinian question … in accordance with the wishes of the Palestinian Arab people.” In response, the Israeli government banned the group and arrested its leaders on charges of endangering state security.
Centering Palestinian identity
Despite these restrictions, their expressions of Palestinian national identity have grown louder.
Following Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in 1967, Palestinian citizens of Israel and those under occupation met one another regularly, leading them to develop a sense of joint struggle.
That joint struggle was on display in October 2000 when thousands of Palestinian citizens rallied in Palestinian towns and mixed cities across Israel in support of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising. Israeli security forces killed 12 unarmed protesting Palestinian citizens of Israel and arrested over 600, undermining the idea that Palestinian citizens could achieve full equality in Israel.
Since then, Israel has launched several economic development and civil service initiatives aimed at integrating Palestinian citizens into the state. But these initiatives have not done much to alleviate the discrimination that Palestinian citizens still face. Moreover, the right-wing shift in Israeli politics has led to even more explicitly racist rhetoric from some quarters, including growing support for expelling Palestinian citizens from Israel altogether.
In response, more Palestinian citizens identify themselves as belonging to one people who are collectively resisting settler colonial rule. A younger generation of grassroots organizers has taken the lead, as seen in the annual commemorations of the Nakba – the loss of Palestine in 1948 – every May 15.
This centering of Palestinian identity was on display in March 2021 in the Palestinian town of Umm al-Fahm. Protests against seemingly local problems – crime and gun violence – turned into an expression of Palestinian national identity as protesters waved Palestinian flags and sang Palestinian songs.
The latest protests around Sheikh Jarrah and incursions in the al-Aqsa compound likewise promote a common Palestinian cause. At a rally in the mixed city of Lydd, a few miles south of Tel Aviv, one Palestinian citizen protester scaled a lamppost and replaced the Israeli flag with a Palestinian one.
Meanwhile, the funeral of Lydd protester Moussa Hassoun on May 11 drew 8,000 mourners as he was laid to rest wrapped in a Palestinian flag. Since then, protests have swelled even further, leading Israeli security officials to impose a curfew on the town and call in reinforcements.
Fragmented no more?
The current protests suggest that Israeli government attempts to isolate Palestinian citizens of Israel from Palestinians in the occupied territories and in exile and to integrate them into the Israeli state have failed. And any heavy-handed reaction to demonstrators could only serve to further alienate Palestinian citizens from the state of Israel.
Scenes of police violently breaking up peaceful protests, Israeli security forces being deployed into Palestinian neighborhoods inside the country, and armed Israeli Jewish vigilantes attacking Palestinians in mixed cities could also, I believe, further reinforce the image of Israel as a colonial power in the minds of not only its marginalized Palestinian minority, but also their international supporters as well.
What could result is a new type of Palestinian mobilization, one that belies the idea of a fragmented people and unites all Palestinian people in a joint struggle.
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Tigray: Call It Genocide, Prosecute Its Leaders and End It
The Tigrayan people should not, must not, wait for one century, one year or even one more day for the world to acknowledge their plight and rescue them from obliteration.
On 26 May 2021, US President Joe Biden issued a bold statement on the raging crisis in Ethiopia, warning of escalating violence and the hardening of regional and ethnic divisions, including the “large-scale human rights abuses” and “widespread sexual violence” taking place in Tigray. But he stopped short of calling the appalling atrocities in Tigray by their true name: genocide.
Just one month earlier, Biden had righted an historic wrong by pronouncing the attempted extermination of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 to have been a “genocide.” The Armenians had waited 106 years for this rhetorical symbol of justice. The Nazis’ attempt to eradicate the Jewish people was not recognised until it was too late to do anything about it. Rwandans had to wait four full years to hear President Bill Clinton express “deep regret” that he had not declared the massacre in 1994 of a million of their compatriots a genocide. Biden’s condemnation sends a message of solidarity to Ethiopians everywhere and to the people of Tigray in particular. But it also risks igniting false hopes that the international community will now take decisive action to prevent the erasure of an entire nation.
For almost seven months now, the armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea, aided and abetted by extremist militias from the neighbouring Amhara ethnic group, have been engaged in a well-planned, deliberate and systematic genocide of the Tigrayan people. The government in Addis Ababa claims that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) started the fighting with a surprise attack on a military garrison and that they must be brought to justice. The TPLF claims that a pre-emptive strike was necessary to disrupt the government’s pre-meditated war plans. But it no longer matters who fired the first shot or whether the ossified TPLF leadership should have anticipated that armed conflict could be used to justify their people’s extermination. Between November 2020 and March 2021, the University of Ghent, in Belgium, documented more than 150 massacres across Tigray, including victims as young as two years old and as old as 93; the killing has continued unabated.
Despite systematic government attempts to restrict humanitarian access and impose a media blackout, some courageous journalists, aid workers and activists have succeeded in reporting these atrocities. But most of Tigray remains inaccessible to outsiders and communications are severely restricted, so the vast majority of these crimes remain unknown and undocumented. As a medical doctor from Tigray who served in the regional capital of Mekelle during the first four months of the genocide before fleeing my country one month ago, I have watched this violence unfolding with my own eyes and I bear both personal and professional witness.
Mass murder is not enough for the masterminds of the atrocities in Tigray, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Their armed forces and allied militias seek to exterminate the Tigrayan people by inducing mass starvation; they are burning crops and seeds, cutting trees, destroying agricultural implements, killing animals, and destroying small dams and irrigation canals, to cripple the agricultural sector. The troops grind any remaining foodstuff they find into the dirt or manure with their boots to make it inedible. In late May, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock estimated that “over 90% of the harvest was lost due to looting, burning, or other destruction, and that 80% of the livestock in the region were looted or slaughtered.”
I have watched this violence unfolding with my own eyes and I bear both personal and professional witness.
Reports by UN agencies and Tigray’s interim administration assert that more than 2.3 million people in the region are internally displaced, and 5.2 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. According to UNICEF, the number of severely malnourished children in Tigray has gone up nearly 90 per cent in the past week. Uncounted numbers of people have already died of hunger. But the Ethiopian government, the Eritrean Army, and Amhara forces are determined to block humanitarian efforts, impeding and obstructing access by aid agencies. At least eight aid workers have been killed in the last six months.
The coordinated ethnic cleansing by Ethiopia and Eritrean troops in collaboration with Amhara militias also involves erasing all traces of Tigrayan identity, a heritage that dates back to the Axumite kingdom of the 2nd Century CE. To this end, they have decreed the unrestricted use of mass rape, sexual slavery, and the traumatic sterilisation of Tigrayan women as instruments of war. As a doctor I have seen the unspeakable suffering of the victims of such sexual violence, including gratuitous mutilation and torture.
But these war crimes have a much broader and equally sinister strategic purpose: the total annihilation of Tigrayans as a people. According to the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, some 1.2 million inhabitants of Western Tigray have been driven from their homes, many of them killed or incarcerated in concentration camps. The occupying authorities have officially annexed these territories and encouraged ethnic Amharas from Gojjam and Gonder regions to claim the lands, properties and assets abandoned by their rightful Tigrayan owners. While men are killed or interned, Tigrayan women and children under seven are forced to take Amhara identity if they wish to remain in their homes. Women are also forced to serve as concubines for Amhara militia so that they no longer bear children of Tigrayan descent. National census exercises in 1978 and 1994 indicated that the inhabitants of these zones were overwhelmingly Tigrigna speakers. If ethnic cleansing continues at this rate, Tigrayans could become a minority in their homeland before the end of this year.
The coordinated ethnic cleansing by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops in collaboration with Amhara militias also involves erasing all traces of Tigrayan identity.
Tigray’s unique contribution to Ethiopia’s national heritage is also being methodically obliterated. The ancient monasteries of Debredamo, Dengolat St Mary, and the Al Nejashi Mosque – possibly the oldest in Africa – have all been vandalised. Aksum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been razed and pillaged by Eritrean and Ethiopian troops.
The progress of this genocidal campaign beyond Tigray is hard to assess, but – as the Associated Press reported on 29 April – there is no question that Tigrayans throughout Ethiopia, and even beyond its borders, have been subjected to profiling, arbitrary arrest and detention, travel restrictions, dismissal from government posts and transfer to concentration camps. Tens of thousands of Tigrayan members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force have also been disarmed and detained on the grounds that they might pose some undefined security threat. Some have refused orders to return to Ethiopia from peacekeeping missions abroad for fear of persecution.
In addition to President Biden’s statement, the United States government and the European Union have both called for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces from Tigray, and have announced plans to impose travel restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials responsible for these atrocities, with the possibility of further sanctions to follow.
These are welcome measures, but they are in no way commensurate with the scale of the crimes being committed against the people of Tigray, the depth of human suffering or the depravity of men who seek to exterminate a nation of more than 6 million people.
If ethnic cleansing continues at this rate, Tigrayans could become a minority in their homeland before the end of this year.
Genocides, like other core international crimes, do not simply “happen” or “unfold”: they are premeditated, prepared, and perpetrated by individual leaders and their followers. The killers seek to dehumanise and displace the blame onto their victims, not only to make it easier for their forces to kill, but also to confound the international community, create confusion and buy time for the long, laborious work of mass murder.
As a medical professional, as a witness, and as a husband, father, brother, and son, I cannot accept that the dead, the maimed and the destitute survivors in Tigray be stripped of their humanity. I have tended to their horrifying wounds, shared their suffering, and buried their dead. Some sympathetic observers have encouraged me to publicly describe their injuries in detail so as to elicit global revulsion, but I believe that to do so would be a second desecration of these victims. No people, whatever the alleged sins of their erstwhile political masters, should ever have to face extermination like vermin or pests at the hands of their own government.
The Tigrayan people should not, must not, wait for one century, one year or even one more day for the world to acknowledge their plight and rescue them from obliteration. President Biden and other world leaders have a moral and legal duty to call this evil in Tigray by its true name, genocide, and to identify and prosecute those ultimately responsible for this most heinous of crimes – Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki. And then to act with ruthless efficiency and determination to end the genocide.
Somaliland Electoral Law Imperils Inclusive Representation
The absence of legal commitments to promote representation of women, minorities, and clans from contested regions in the upcoming elections will reinforce an exclusionary voting system.
30 years after declaring independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland can take pride in an impressive but not flawless democratisation record. Since 2002, the people of Somaliland have participated in six multi-party elections: three presidential elections (2003, 2010 and 2017) and two district council elections (2002 and 2012), but only one parliamentary (2005), and none for the House of Elders (Guurti). At last, combined local council and parliamentary elections will take place on 31 May 2021, respectively four years and eleven years after they were due.
The repeated postponements of elections have at times caused political tensions and uncertainty. This has undermined Somaliland’s democratisation process, weakened public confidence in democracy, stalled institution-building and reforms, and damaged the country’s relationship with the international community.
The main obstacle to holding parliamentary elections has been the difficulty in reaching a political compromise on the allocation of the 82 seats in the House of Representatives to Somaliland’s regions – and by extension, their clans – without a reliable national census. The 2005 parliamentary election could only take place because the National Electoral Commission (NEC) brokered a compromise on seat distribution just weeks before the polls.
However, the five-year mandate of the House of Representatives came to an end in 2010 without a reliable national census having been carried out, or a political solution put in place to resolve the issue of seat distribution. Disagreement on this issue delayed the holding of parliamentary elections for the next 10 years. Whenever the issue was raised, the only solution proposed was to return to the 2005 compromise formula. However, this has elicited strong opposition from people in Awdal region (western Somaliland), particularly from the Samaroon clan, who felt that the 2005 arrangement did not allocate them enough seats. Leaders from the clan threatened to boycott any future polls if a revised seat allocation formula was not agreed.
The national clan arithmetic and balance were at the centre of this stand-off. Expectations in Awdal region were anchored in a demand to allocate half of the seats of the House of Representatives to non-Isaaq clans (including Samaroon, Isse, Harti). The argument was based on the need to protect minority rights against majority rule and promote equitable clan representation rather than representation based on population. Among the leaders of the populous Isaaq clans in particular, the proposal was perceived as unreasonable and provocative. It was also seen as an attempt to win the other non-Isaaq clans, such as the Harti, over to the Samaroon cause.
Given the overwhelming public support in Awdal for stronger representation, and the fear of alienating other non-Isaaq constituencies, Somaliland’s political leaders refrained from addressing this divisive issue, contributing to the continued postponement of Somaliland’s parliamentary elections. But growing internal and external pressure forced President Musa Bihi to act. In September 2020, he endorsed a new electoral law, which stipulated that parliamentary seats would again be distributed according to the 2005 arrangement. The law was passed in early October, despite strong opposition from MPs and elders in Awdal region, paving the way for the NEC to prepare parliamentary elections.
Women’s candidacy and representation
The change in 2002 from the clan-based system of representation to electoral democracy with universal suffrage gave women in Somaliland the right to stand for election and to vote. There was hope among women that recognition of their political rights would improve women’s participation and representation in Somaliland’s politics unlike in the clan-based system of nominations, which discriminated against women.
However, the first test of the new system — the local council elections held in 2002 — demonstrated that formal recognition of the political rights of women was rarely respected in practice and was not enough to significantly improve their political participation. Clan influence remained extremely strong and most Somalilanders voted along clan lines, which tends to exclude women. The patriarchal clan system meant that very few women were put forward for election. In 2002, this resulted in only two women being elected among a total of 379 local councillors.
Even when the law allows it, few women run for office in Somaliland. And women too generally vote along clan lines, often under the direction of the men in their family. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections of 2005, women’s groups and other civic organisations campaigned hard to have provisions included in the electoral law that would establish a quota for women candidates. However, the initiative was rejected by parliament. Once more, female candidates were largely excluded from the electoral process due to the strong clan influence in the nomination process and voting patterns. As a result, out of the 246 candidates in the parliamentary elections, only seven were women and of the 82 MPs elected, only two were women.
Efforts to amend the electoral law to set a quota for women continued and in 2007, constant pressure and lobbying from women’s groups and other civic organisations eventually persuaded the government and parliament to include provisions in the electoral law that would grant a quota for female candidates. But although the proposal was endorsed by the House of Representatives, it was rejected by the House of Elders due to opposition from religious groups. The proposal was put to a vote again in 2020, but both Houses rejected the amendments under external pressure.
In the absence of a quota or a framework for promoting women’s representation, female candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections on 31 May 2021 have sought support and endorsement from their respective clans. Seven women reportedly pursued the backing of their clans. Only one of them won the full support of her clansmen, setting a precedent as this was the first time in Somaliland’s history that clan elders, intellectuals, the diaspora, youth, opinion makers, and businessmen publicly endorsed a woman’s candidacy. Securing her clan backing furthered her candidacy. Resources were mobilised and a database was established to support her and to ensure high turnout in her clan constituency during the voter registration exercise. In contrast, a female candidate who failed to secure the support of her clansmen has faced strong and consistent resistance and opposition from her clan leadership and politicians.
The most marginalised groups in Somaliland are the Gabooye, who constitute the traditional occupational castes (“low caste”) known as Tumaal, Midgaan and Yibir. (In casual speech, these groups are often referred to as Beelaha Gabooye, although members of the various sub-groups do not necessarily accept this appellation. For the purposes of brevity, the term Beelaha Gabooye is used to refer to the Gabooye, Tumaal, and Yibir together.) For the Gabooye, the challenge of representation is more a question of their social status rather than their numbers; they have a significant number of voters to pick up seats in Hargeisa and other urban centres. But their internal divisions and especially their lack of political, social, and economic clout as a result of years of marginalisation hinder the nomination and electoral success of Gabooye candidates. To rectify this, Gabooye representation had also been discussed as part of the failed attempts to establish quotas.
Female candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections have sought support and endorsement from their respective clans.
In the absence of quotas, the Gabooye now compete with candidates from the “noble” sub-clans of Somaliland, both to get nominated by the parties and to win seats in the parliamentary and local elections. Local observers believe that at least one Gabooye candidate in Hargeisa has a good chance of winning a parliamentary seat because he is a prominent and outspoken member of a political party and enjoys public support.
Harti candidacy and representation
In the eastern regions of Sool, Sanaag and Togdheer that are the object of contest between Somaliland and Puntland, the Dhulbahante and Warsangeli clans — which are sub-clans of the Harti clan federation which includes the Majerteen of Puntland — have long been divided in their attitudes towards Somaliland. In the run-up to the 2005 parliamentary elections, there were security concerns about holding elections in some of these contested areas. Exclusion of these territories from the poll would have reduced Harti representation in the new parliament. A provision was therefore made in the electoral law for eight reserved, uncontested seats for these Harti sub-clans – six for the Dulbahante and two for the Warsangeli.
In spite of this, Harti representation decreased from 14 to 10 following the 2005 parliamentary election. Of these seats, 8 were from the uncontested list, while 2 were elected. In contrast, the number of Samaroon seats from Awdal region increased from 10 to 13. Candidates from the Isaaq clans won 57 seats, gaining 10 seats at the expense of the Harti and minority representation. Members from Isaaq clans now controlled 70 per cent of the House, up from 63 per cent before the polls.
Ensuring the active participation of the Harti clans in the upcoming parliamentary election remains a challenge. There was an understanding between some Harti MPs and the president that the provision granting uncontested seats for the non-voting Sool, Sanaag, and Togdheer regions would remain. However, the plan met with strong opposition from some Isaaq MPs in these three regions who hope to win these seats in an electoral contest. They pressured the government to back off and passionately lobbied other Isaaq MPs to vote against reserved seats for the Harti. All Samaroon parliamentarians and most of the Harti MPs boycotted the parliamentary debate on the electoral law in protest against the proposed seat allocation. In the end, the law was narrowly approved by Isaaq MPs in parliament, and no seats were reserved for Harti constituencies.
For the Gabooye, the challenge of representation is more a question of their social status rather than their numbers.
Those opposed to the special arrangement argued that the Harti communities could organise themselves as a political group to register enough voters to compete successfully in the elections. This sentiment is shared by some members of the Harti, particularly those from the areas controlled by Somaliland, such as Sool region. Efforts by the competing candidates from the Dulbahante clan in Sool, government officials from these areas and the political parties have all considerably improved participation in voter registration. The Dulbahante districts now account for more than 57 per cent of the registered voters in the region, which would enable Dulbahante candidates to win 6 or 7 of the 12 electoral seats if there is high voter turnout. By contrast, the Warsangeli candidates (mostly in Sanaag) were far less successful because large sections of the area are not sufficiently under the control of the Somaliland government. The two predominantly Warsangeli districts have registered only about 10,000 voters. Together with about 16,500 other voters in the capital district of Eiragabo, Warsangeli candidates stand a chance to win only 2 out of 12 electoral seats in Sanaag. The refusal by parliament to allocate uncontested seats could inflict substantial damage on political representation in Somaliland if the Harti constituencies fail to gain sufficient numbers in the House.
The absence of legal commitments and special arrangements to promote the representation of women, minorities, and clans from Somaliland’s contested regions in the upcoming parliamentary election will reinforce an exclusionary majoritarian voting system. This will clearly produce segments of winners and losers and will ultimately lead to less inclusive representation.
The most obvious losers will be women. Already, few women are running for parliament due to the prevailing social barriers. At best, women are likely to have only one representative in parliament. This will mean that women continue to be denied equal legislative rights, which will also have a negative impact on public policy.
Harti representation in parliament could reduce further after the upcoming election, thereby increasing their sense of marginalisation within Somaliland. It is also foreseeable that Isaaq clans will increase their share of seats at the expense of the Harti, while Samaroon representation will probably remain unchanged, thereby increasing Isaaq dominance in the parliament and further cementing their majoritarian rule.
This article relies heavily on interviews and informal discussions with candidates and MPs from Awdal, Hargeisa, Sool, East Sanaag and West Sanaag conducted between 6 and 22 December 2020.
How Technology Can Help Nations Navigate the Difficult Path to Food Sovereignty
Using digital platforms to enhance food sovereignty is only plausible if international trade is not disruptive.
As the movement of people across the world creates more multicultural societies, can trade help communities maintain their identity? This is the question at the heart of a concept known as “food sovereignty”.
Food sovereignty has been defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods” and, critically, the ability of people to own their food systems.
Culturally appropriate food refers to the cuisine eaten by a certain group, which reflects their own values, norms, religion and preferences. It is usually dynamic and may change over time.
In my journey across different food landscapes, I have discovered that people consume food not just to satisfy hunger but for cultural, religious, and social reasons. And I have learnt that there are ways that international trade can help facilitate this.
How trade affects cuisine
The Chinese have a huge palate for bok choy, chinese eggplant, and gailan (also known as Chinese broccoli). South Asians love okra, bitter melon and eggplant. People of African descents tend to love okra and amaranth (a leafy green vegetable), at times substituting the latter with spinach because of scarcity.
The interesting thing about these groups is that they share a lot of food in common, though the preparation may differ.
This makes sense: one of my main findings has been that everyone’s cuisine has been affected by migration and trade. This pattern is ever more pronounced in the contemporary world, as people explore and learn from other cultures by including other food traditions in their own cuisine.
Enriching food culture
The integration of cultures does not negate culturally appropriate food, it enriches it. London’s curries are a result of migration, and in Nairobi the inclusion of channa (chickpea) and chapati (flatbread) in the diet is a result of the Indians trading and settling in the region.
Cultural groups have different definitions of good or appropriate food. The elite (who can afford it) and people who are environmentally conscious, for instance, believe in organic or local produce; Jews eat kosher food; and Muslims eat halal.
The challenge lies with making sure food is appropriately labelled – as organic, local, kosher or halal – and the key here is the authenticity of the certification process.
It can be quite difficult to trace the origin of certain foods, whether they’re produced locally or internationally. This educates consumers, allowing them to make the right choice. But it may be an additional cost for farmers, so there is little incentive to label.
The case for transparency and authentication
To ensure that trade allows people to have access to authentic and culturally appropriate food, I recommend a new, digitised process called “crypto-labelling”. Crypto-labelling would use secure communication technology to create a record which traces the history of a particular food from the farm to grocery stores. It would mean consistent records, no duplication, a certification registry, and easy traceability.
Crypto-labelling would ensure transparency in the certification process for niche markets, such as halal, kosher and organic. It allows people who don’t know or trust each other to develop a dependable relationship based on a particular commodity.
If somebody produces organic amaranth in Cotonou, Benin, for instance, and labels it with a digital code that anyone can easily understand, then a family in another country can have access to the desired food throughout the year.
This initiative, which should be based on the blockchain technology behind Bitcoin, can be managed by consumer or producer cooperatives. On the consumer end, all that’s required is a smartphone to scan and read the crypto-labels.
The adoption of blockchain technology in the agricultural sector can help African countries “leapfrog” to the fourth industrial revolution.
Leapfrogging happens when developing countries skip an already outmoded technology that’s widely used in the developed world and embrace a newer one instead. In the early 2000s, for instance, households with no landline became households with more than two mobile phones. This enabled the advent of a new platform for mobile banking in Kenya and Somalia.
Similarly, crypto-labelling will lead to a form of “electronic agriculture” which will make it cheaper in the long run to label and enhance traceability. With access to mobile technology increasing globally, it’s a feasible system for the developing world.
The right kind of trade
But using digital platforms to enhance food sovereignty is only plausible if international trade is not disruptive.
This is not the case now. A whole roasted turkey and condensed milk are cheaper in Hillacondji (Benin Republic) and SanveeCondji (Togo) than they are in Europe because of what economists call “dumping” – when a product is cheaper in a foreign market than in the domestic market.
Because of the low cost of imported products, local farmers in these francophone West African countries simply cannot compete. There’s no incentive to produce locally if you won’t recoup the cost of production.
In theory, it’s desirable for these to import such products because they are so inexpensive. But in practice, food sovereignty is compromised once a country needs to import staple foods that could easily be produced domestically.
Local production guarantees food safety if consumers purchase directly from farmers or through community shared agriculture. It promotes healthy eating, especially for perishable foods, that lose quality as a result of long-distance travel. It also strengthens the local economy through creation of employment and value-added products.
La Via Campesina, the international peasant’s movement interested in the welfare of farmers, wants the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to stop interfering with agriculture. But it is possible for the WTO to develop processes and procedures that will facilitate trade in Africa, based on its Trade Facilitation Agreement.
The WTO should also support developing countries in protecting their farmers, reusing seeds, and developing indigenous knowledge. Trade should not tamper with farmers’ right to plant what they want, when they want.
Africa has been trading with different parts of the world for centuries, as reflected in the continent’s diverse diet. The national cuisine of the Somalis, for instance, is influenced by India, (because of the Indian Ocean trade); the Arabian Peninsula (Arab immigrants kept coming in different waves and in the process exchanges of ideas, culture and commodities took place); Ethiopia (because of trade caravan networks); and Italy (because it colonised Somalia for half a century, from 1889 to 1936).
The same thing is seen among the Swahili people of the Kenyan and Tanzanian coastal areas. There, trade has flourished for centuries, enriching the food sovereignty of several countries in Africa – that is, until multilateral organisations started performing experiments with uncertain outcomes.
I have enjoyed palm wine and pounded yam with egusi soup with a farmer called Adedeji in Ile-Ife; asked for more ugali and hot nyama choma in Nairobi while hanging out with two researchers of food and agricultural development, Makau and Magomere.
And as empirical evidence for showing food travels across borders, I have eaten kisra and okra in Edmonton with the Abibakris, a Sudanese family.
During this journey, I realised that food sovereignty is intertwined and we have a lot more in common than we tend to acknowledge. Of course food sovereignty and international trade can coexist – as long as the private sector is socially responsible and governments develop appropriate policies.
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