The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the stark reality of Africa’s extreme dependence on imports to feed our populations. In West Africa, 40% of the rice consumed is imported; African countries do not produce enough processed agricultural products to sustain their populations, with the three highest agricultural imports being wheat, rice, and vegetable oil; and local agriculture across the continent is dependent on imported inputs for production and therefore dependent on foreign exchange.
For Africans to chart a course away from extreme dependence on food imports prevalent now, the policies and thinking of early post-independence Africa—countries like Ghana and Tanzania —and international peasant movements, like La Via Campesina—offer a wealth of lessons.
As key countries adopted restrictive measures in their attempts to manage the spread of COVID-19—including the closure of air, land, and sea borders, and agricultural export restrictions—Africa is seeing a significant disruption of the supply chain due to the resulting decrease in the volume of imports. If exporters of cereals and staple foods, also affected by the pandemic, were to suddenly cease production, the many African countries dependent on these imports would be unable to feed their populations.
The monoculture cash crop and export agriculture system that pervades in Africa is a colonial legacy that has, over time, been maintained by the global neoliberal trade regime, trapping countries in a vicious cycle of dependence. By primarily exporting low value, unprocessed agricultural products with volatile prices in the global market, countries often fall short on the foreign exchange necessary for purchasing essential food stuff, and they are forced to turn to predatory conditional World Bank/International Monetary Fund (WB/IMF) loans that further undermine agricultural diversification and modernization by pushing for reductions of agricultural subsidies and price support policies for small farmers.
As well as impacting government revenues and foreign currency resources, the fragility of Africa’s agricultural sector directly impacts farmers’ incomes. Curfews, quarantine, and the closures of markets, schools, restaurants, and businesses have completely disrupted local supply chains, and producers have found themselves stuck with perishable food with no market prospects. This has highlighted serious shortcomings in terms of logistics, transportation, and the isolation of some marginalized regions. The resulting drop in the income of producers, most of whom are small farmers, has also jeopardized future harvests due to the lack of inputs.
The COVID-19 crisis pushes us to reflect on the agricultural production in Africa, highlighting the urgent need to develop more sustainable food systems and more resilient family farming systems. But this is not a new debate. In the period immediately after independence in the 1960s and 1970s, different governments on the continent designed and implemented policies to achieve what was known at the time as food self-sufficiency.
Governments led by figures like Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere pursued policies to feed their populations sustainably from their own production and also develop a strong agricultural sector that could boost decent jobs. Self-sufficiency was seen as integral to sovereignty as they recognized economic dependence allowed their former colonizers to exert power over their domestic political space. Policies included setting up agricultural cooperatives and state farms; establishing storage and distribution facilities; expanding grants and facilities for agricultural research; and land reform including establishing communal rights.
The drive for self-sufficiency was supplanted through structural adjustment policies in the 1980s—which made WB/IMF loans conditional on the “reduction or removal of export taxes, quotas, and government controls, reduction of import tariffs and removal of import restrictions, removal of internal market regulations and private-sector restrictions; and reduction in public production and infrastructure services”—and later the notion of food security in the 1990s. Rather than emphasize the importance of agricultural production to meet the needs of a specific state, such as enough foodstuffs to feed its population, food security emphasizes access to affordable food, whether it’s imported or otherwise. For example, Singapore, classified as one of the most food secure countries, only produces 10% of its own consumer products. It is a neoliberal concept that encourages import substitution in lieu of strong domestic agricultural production, the weakness of which is evident today.
In contrast, the international peasant movement, La Via Campesina, call for food sovereignty—the right of the people to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced with sustainable methods, prioritizes local agricultural production to feed the population, ensure peasants’ access to land, natural resources, seeds, and loans, and protect the rights of small farmers to produce and consumers to decide what they want to consume. This notion encourages and depends on diversified family and peasant agriculture as opposed to industrial agriculture. Family agricultural systems are based on short cycles, and they have the capacity to both feed the family and also supply local markets, prioritize sustainable agricultural practices that use traditional knowledge, and build on recent ecological innovations. Family agriculture is the predominant agricultural system in African countries, but it is oriented towards monoculture production for export at the expense of production for domestic consumption and it is not effectively linked to other sectors in the economy.
In the aftermath of COVID-19, it is critical African countries diversify and improve productive capacities and create economic opportunities for small-scale producers. This includes adopting targeted policies that guarantee access to vital inputs for agriculture such as finance, land, and technology, and rethink resource management, including water, which is in competition between extractive industries and agriculture. It is also clear we need to revert to policies oriented towards bolstering the smallholder agricultural economy that seeks to improve their technical and material production conditions, like access to technology, finance, and land.
When we talk about technology, of course this includes all irrigation services, extension services, training, technical support services which have, under structural adjustment and other neoliberal policies, been drastically reduced. It is important to shift back to active investment and financing policies in the sector and focus on processing agricultural products in Africa so that the added value remains on the continent. This will also help us develop more productive sectors, create value-added jobs, and foster a vibrant local and regional economy while linking agriculture to other key sectors.
In recent years, Senegal and Mali have included food sovereignty in their national platforms, and various continental and regional initiatives have emerged, including from the Economic Community of West African States. Food sovereignty is also referenced in the Egyptian constitution. However, the continuing growth of food imports in Africa highlights the gaps in these models and the profound constraints posed by global capital and the free trade agreements and neoliberal economic institutions that leave it unchecked. Early post-independence governments in Africa had a clarity around the critical links between food self-sufficiency and national sovereignty that has been eroded by decades of neoliberal ideological onslaught. With COVID-19 and the climate crisis disrupting value chains and escalating price volatility, and concepts like food security simply repackaging food dependence, early post-independence policies offer an anchor for contemporary efforts.
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The West Must Return the Artifacts They Stole Back to Africa
There can no longer be false justifications for holding Benin Bronzes, and other pilfered materials, in museums outside of Africa.
In 1909, Sir Ralph Denham Rayment Moor, British Consul General of the British Southern Nigerian Protectorate, took his life by ingesting cyanide. Eleven years earlier, following Britain’s “punitive” attack on Benin City’s Royal Court, Moor helped transfer loot taken from Benin City into Queen Victoria’s private collection and to the British Foreign Office. Pilfered materials taken by Moor and many others include the now famous brass reliefs depicting the history of the Benin Kingdom—known collectively as the Benin Bronzes.
This is in addition to commemorative brass heads and tableaux; carved ivory tusks; decorative and bodily ornaments; healing, divining, and ceremonial objects; and helmets, altars, spoons, mirrors, and much else. Moor also kept things for himself, including the Queen Mother ivory hip-mask. After Moor’s suicide, British ethnologist Charles Seligman, famous for promoting the racist “Hamitic hypothesis” undergirding much early eugenicist thought, purchased this same mask, one of six known examples.
With his wife Brenda Seligman, an anthropologist in her own right, Charles amassed a giant collection of “ethnographic objects.” In 1958, Brenda sold the Queen Mother mask for £20,000 to Nelson Rockefeller, who featured it in his now-defunct Museum of Primitive Art before gifting it in 1972 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That’s where I visited it this week in New York City—and as Dan Hicks pointed out in a recent tweet, if you are reading this in the global North, there’s a good chance that an item taken from the Benin Court is in the collection of a regional, university, or national museum near you, too.
For Hicks, author of The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, this provenance history of the Queen Mother mask—and every single other history of the acquisition and transfer of objects from Benin City to museums across the “developed” world—is a history that begins and ends in violence. Indeed, the category of ethnographic museums emerged in the nineteenth century precisely out of the demonic alliance between anthropological inquiry and colonial pillage.
In 1919, a German ethnologist observed that “the spoils of war [Kriegsbeute] made during the conquest of Benin … were the biggest surprise that the field of ethnology had ever received.” These so-called spoils buttressed these museums’ raison d’être: to collect and display non-Western cultures as evidence of “European victory over ‘primitive’, archaeological African cultures.”
The formation of ethnographic museums, including the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, where Hicks currently works, “have compounded killings, cultural destructions and thefts with the propaganda of race science [and] with the normalisation of the display of human cultures in material form” (my italics). For Hicks, the continued display of these stolen objects in poorly lit basement rooms, sophisticated modern vitrines, and private collections is an “enduring brutality … refreshed every day that an anthropology museum … opens its doors.”
After this book, there can be no more false justifications for holding Benin Bronzes in museums outside of Africa, nor further claims that changing times mean new approaches are sufficient for recontextualizing art objects. This book inaugurates its own paradigm shift in museum practices, collection, and ethics. While there are preceding arguments for returning Western museums’ holdings in African art (most notably Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy’s Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, or Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain), the comprehensiveness of Hicks’s argument is extraordinary.
In chapter after chapter, shifting agilely between historical perspectives and conceptual frameworks, he revisits the siege on Benin and its afterlives in museums across the globe. From Hicks’s detailed appendix, we learn that these stolen objects can be found in approximately 161 different museums and galleries worldwide, from the British Museum to the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, with only 11 on the African continent.
For part of the book, Hicks engages in a kind of conventional historiography, tracing how the Benin Punitive Expedition was justified, planned, and funded by a range of individuals and institutions in chartered joint-stock companies, the military, the British government, and the press. The 1897 British “expedition” to Benin City in present-day Nigeria was defended by the British as a necessary “punitive” response to the killing of at least four white men.
These men had been murdered trying to make their way to the City of Benin, doing so despite the strict injunction given previously by the Oba that they not attempt entry or else they would face death. Hicks traces how the British regularly fabricated reasons for this kind of retributive violence (often even in the name of abolitionism) to mask what was actually a concatenation of overlapping “small wars” and punitive expeditions reaching back into the middle of the 19th century.
An accretion of details halfway into the book—the maneuvers and lines of attack, the catalogues of officers, Hausa soldiers and carriers, the weight and numbers and types of guns and other weaponry (“Dane guns (muzzle-loading smooth-bore flintlock muskets), pistols, machetes, cutlasses, spears, bows and arrows, knives”)—makes the book sag a little in the middle.
While this will grab the attention of those readers interested in plumbing colonialism’s ultraviolent depths and its flagrant disregard for the legal limits of what was permissible in war (we learn of bullets filed down “to convert them into expanding bullets [to] cause a more extensive wound when hitting a human target,” for instance), for those most interested in Hicks’s arguments about the ethnographic museum today, I recommend skipping ahead to the last chapters.
For after all, Hicks’s details recount a history that has been woefully told and retold in different incarnations: a narrative of extraction, ultraviolence, racism. The Brutish Museums’ most forceful contribution lies ultimately in Hicks’s assessment and condemnation of the present state of affairs of museum curatorship, especially within anthropological museums and associated institutions.
The complicity of museum curators and staff in efforts to justify the looting is not unique to the early collectors and anthropologists. Hicks deplores the rhetorical ruses of contemporary curators and museum officials who gloss over the problem at the heart of museums’ acquisitions by arguing instead that museums have become “international,” “borderless,” and “universal” spaces showcasing “world culture.” These claims that a kind of international inclusivity can be brought about under the banner of the “universal museum,” and that this is sufficient to remedy the violences inherent in the collections themselves, sidestep the fact that that such frameworks do nothing to dislodge the colonial geographic logic of metropole and periphery that brought the museums into existence in the first place.
Hicks also picks a fight with art history’s love affair with Object Studies, a field which treats an object’s meaning as determined mainly by its context and reception. As he points out, this often allows us to detach an object from the (often violent) human histories that brought those newer meanings into being. The misuse of Mary-Louise Pratt’s concept of the “contact zone” as a way to organize museum collections comes under similar attack, since curators have used it to emphasize colonial cultural encounters as exchanges and “entanglements” rather than as relations of subordination and pillage under duress.
Today, Hicks avows: “A time of taking is giving way to a time of returns.” As Greer Valley has pointed out, there have been endless debates; action is the only possible way forward. Some museums and galleries have heeded the call to repatriate stolen material culture, and museums such as Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar and the soon-to-be-built Edo Museum of Western African Art in Benin City (designed by architect David Adjaye) indicate that shifts are occurring at the level of action as well as idea.
In order for repatriation to be accelerated and standardized, museums particularly need to be more transparent about their holdings. Hicks notes that “it is … currently unclear how many skulls and other human remains taken from Benin survive in museums and private collections—although at least five human teeth found their way from Benin City in 1897 to London, and are now lying at the British Museum in a divination kit, strung on a necklace, and contained within a brass mask.” It’s not apparent to me why museums aren’t able to give an appropriate account of both what objects they have and how they have come to have them. In recent debates in the US about human remains held at the University of Pennsylvania’s Archeology and Anthropology Museum, the Smithsonian, Harvard University, and elsewhere, similar obstacles are regularly raised about these problems of counting collections. But catalogs need to be clear and made public, and museums must hold themselves accountable in both material and ethical senses. This, they all know now, means the first necessary step is to return what is not theirs. How they then reinvent themselves as spaces of accountability will be the next task of the curator.
Rights Violations in Isiolo International Airport Land Expropriation
The Land Value Act does not make provision for the valuation of communal land in a manner that reflects the social-economic practices of the drylands communities.
Legally recognised and secure land and resource rights are fundamental to advancing peace, prosperity, and sustainability. Security of tenure underpins a society’s fabric and its relationship to the natural environment, shaping its cultural development and the realisation of democracy. In Kenya, the land question remains politically sensitive and culturally complex, a function of historical injustice, land ownership disparities, and tenure insecurity.
Most land disputes in Kenya arise from how the land has been allocated. This is because access to land and land use in Kenya is a distributive game that creates winners and losers. From 1965 to the late 80s, land appropriation and allocation programmes were clearly biased in favour of the elites and the ruling class and as a result, vast swathes of land were concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few. This led to land inequality and exacerbated other forms of inequality, affecting the common man’s livelihood and prospects for prosperity.
With rising land inequality and with the citizens unable to question or control this imbalance, the likelihood of violent conflict over land increased. A push for people-centred land reforms culminated in the Land Policy of 2009 and the promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya (CoK) 2010. The land reforms foreseen in the CoK 2010 and other substantive laws rest on the principles of equitable access to land, security of land rights, sustainable and productive management of land resources, and the transparent and cost-effective administration of land. But despite the passing of laws governing land reform, the transparent and effective administration of land remains elusive.
Compulsory land acquisition
The government occasionally needs to acquire land for public projects like roads, power plants, water reservoirs and even schools or hospitals. In such cases, the rights of the government override individual rights of ownership; the government can take possession of privately or communally-owned land through compulsory acquisition.
Article 40 (3) of the constitution and the Land Act, 2012 allow for acquisition only where the land is required for a public purpose or in the public interest. Upon acquisition, the law provides for prompt payment of just compensation. However, compulsory land acquisition can lead to human rights violations and the Isiolo International Airport case is a classic example.
The expansion of the Isiolo airstrip into an international airport is part of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) development project. LAPSSET is a component of the Kenya Vision 2030 Programme whose aim is to transform Kenya into a newly industrialising, middle–income country providing a high quality life to all its citizens in a clean and secure environment by the year 2030. The Isiolo International Airport is one of the projects expected to spur economic growth in the region.
The expansion of the Isiolo airstrip was carried out on land that is in both Meru and Isiolo counties. Landowners living in Meru County who were expropriated received their compensation on time, while some landowners in Isiolo County were yet to be compensated by the time the airport opened in 2017. This is because land ownership in Meru is well documented whereas most of the land in Isiolo is owned by communities under customary law without formal title deeds. This has made the compensation process slow, unfair, and unjust.
This disparity in the tenure system has disadvantaged the people of Isiolo who find themselves in this situation due to historical marginalisation. In effect, land in Isiolo County has been considered to be of low potential since colonial times, a perception that has been perpetuated by successive governments which have continued to invest highly in the areas that were identified as having a “high potential” — with abundant natural resources, rainfall, and productive land among other factors — for the development of the economy. This systemic marginalisation, together with insurgency wars and banditry in the region, has meant that land in Isiolo County has remained invisible to investors. That is, until the LAPSSET Corridor project took off.
Land ownership in Meru is well documented whereas most of the land in Isiolo is owned by communities under customary law.
Coupled with the disparity in land tenure systems, the failure to establish communication channels with the affected communities was a major cause of the chaotic compensation process, and efforts to identify the legitimate landowners entitled to compensation were fraught with difficulties. In effect, undocumented landowners were not the only ones to rush to Ardhi House for allotment letters; as soon as the project was proposed, land grabbers conspired to obtain Part Development Plan (PDPs) which would enable them to claim compensation from the LAPSSET project.
This led to double or even triple issuance of letters of allotment for the same piece of land, undermining the security of tenure of the original owners of the land. Community elders in Isiolo County have brought this issue to the attention of the relevant authorities but the county government has been lethargic in moving to resolve this matter, mainly due to the poor land records and management system it inherited from the defunct Isiolo County Council.
Article 40(4) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides for compensation to be paid to occupants in good faith for expropriated land which has no title. This provision is supported by various other legislations. For example, Section 5 of the Land Act of 2012 recognises customary land rights, whether documented or not, as one of the forms of land tenure in Kenya.
Further, Section 5(3) of the Community Land Act of 2016 recognises customary land rights to be equal in law with freehold and leasehold interests in land while the Land Value Index Laws provide comprehensive guidelines for the calculation of the value of such land. However, critics of the land value index claim that sections of the Act can cause suffering to landowners as the Act gives the government up to a year to compensate landowners based on the value index and not on the prevailing market rates.
The Land Value (Amendment) Act 2019 provides for additional forms of compensation apart from monetary compensation, including allocation of alternative land of equivalent value and land use. In the case of the Isiolo Airport project, the displaced residents were allocated alternative land at Mwangaza, Kiwanjani, and Chechelesi but as it turned out this land was already occupied. Lack of public participation in the compensation scheme was the underlying cause of the confusion. Had the Ministry of Lands, the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) and the project contractor engaged the local leaders, elders and the host community at the outset, this problem could have been avoided. Instead, the compensation process has pitted the resettled community against the original occupants, leading to tension and suffering.
In the particular case of the drylands, there is no clear matrix that guides compensation as the parameters to be applied are not provided for in law. In effect, the Land Value (amendment) Act of 2019 does not cover communal land, the most common type of tenure in the dryland areaswhich make up more than 50 per cent of Kenya’s land mass. The national and county governments were to jointly develop a land value index map within six months of the adoption of the Act on 19 August 2019 but to date there is no evidence of any consolidated value index of all lands in Kenya, rendering the process of land compensation in drylands a difficult task.
The compensation process has pitted the resettled community against the original occupants, leading to tension and suffering.
The compensation value for a piece of land in the urban and high potential areas is determined by proximity or access to social infrastructure such as tarmacked and paved roads, access to electricity, schools, hospitals, serenity, and aesthetic beauty. This is not possible in the drylands, which have different characteristics but where the land is of equally great social-economic value to the community, yet the Land Value (Amendment) Act of 2019 does not make provision for the valuation of communal land in a manner that reflects the social-economic practices of the communities such as pastoralism.
A 2017 report by Hakijamii titled Tension Between Human Right and Development – The Case of LAPSSET in Isiolo County, finds that the project failed to “uphold human rights to information, housing, employment, education and provision of water”. A review by the Environmental Justice Atlas (EJATLAS) concludes that the Isiolo Airport project is not an “Environmental Justice Success” as by the time the expanded airport commenced operations, some of the affected residents had not yet been compensated. The Compulsory Land Acquisition Act, The Constitution of Kenya 2010, the Land Act, 2012 are among the many laws that have been passed to prevent such outcomes, yet the affected communities find themselves at a loss as they were not even informed about the impact that the expanded Isiolo Airport and the other large-scale projects would have on their lives.
Impact on pastoralism
Ideally, the population of a country must benefit equally from government policy regardless of age, class, ethnicity, population size and location. Yet, rather than gaining, the marginalised people of Isiolo are losing from these flagship projects because of lack of proper compensation since the land is perceived to be unoccupied or underutilised. Indeed, pundits argue that infrastructure projects such as LAPSSET and Isiolo resort city are being implemented in pastoral areas because there is not enough space in higher potential areas whereas the rangelands are perceived to be idle land.
The assumption that land in the arid and semi-arid areas (ASALs) is idle and of lesser value leads to the flouting of compensation guidelines when projects are undertaken in ASALs. It also explains why the communities that were affected by the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway have been compensated while those affected by the LAPSSET project — which will hive off approximately half a million acres of land in Lamu, Garissa, Isiolo, Marsabit, Samburu and Turkana — are yet to be compensated.
The assumption that land in the arid and semi-arid areas (ASALs) is idle and of lesser value leads to the flouting of compensation guidelines.
The airport is just one component of the LAPSSET Corridor project which also comprises the Lamu Port, a resort city, a Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), and an oil refinery and pipeline. While these infrastructure projects will undoubtedly attract investors and other populations to Isiolo, this will also lead to cultural shocks as people from different backgrounds with different beliefs, behaviours, languages and values come into a community largely made up of people who hold comparable values. Changes in social-economic activities will also lead to loss of local cultures as dominant cultures are introduced. Finally, as ancestral lands are lost and grazing land diminishes, cultural livelihoods such as nomadic pastoralism will be affected, undermining the resilience of pastoral communities.
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.
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